The Night Before Jesus Died

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday, also called Holy- or Covenant Thursday. It is celebrated every Thursday before Easter to commemorate the “maundy” Jesus gave His disciples on that night many centuries ago — the night before Jesus died.

What is a “maundy”?

The word comes from the Latin term, used in the Vulgate — a 4th century translation of Scripture that was very popular all the way into the middle ages — to translate the Greek word ἐντολή, which in English we translate, “command” or “commandment.” The term is lifted from the first word in the Vulgate (Latin) translation of John 13:34, “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.” In the ESV, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” But more popularly, the term has come to mean “the washing of the feet,” because it was just before this passage in John 13 that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:3-15). He then instructs them to follow His example and serve one another. Then, “I am going away and you can’t come with me right now…” — I’m paraphrasing — “… but a new command (maundy) I give you, that you love one another, as I have just demonstrated by washing your feet.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up to John 13:1.

A few hours earlier…

Jesus knew He was going to die. It was for this reason that He came to this world and became a man (John 12:27). He was well aware that these were His last few hours of freedom, and that in less than a day, He would be hanging on a cross, becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13) so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). Therefore,  Jesus decides to gather His disciples together for a final, very intentional meal.

I’d like to use John 13-17 (with some support from Luke) to get a sense of what was on Jesus’ mind as He gathered His disciples for the final time. What was important to Him as He prepared to go to the cross for you and me?

What Jesus was thinking about the night before He died?

1) He wanted to glorify His Father by completing the mission

Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God [the Father] is glorified in Him. If God [the Father] is glorified in [the Son], [the Father] will also glorify [the Son] in Himself, and glorify Him at once. (John 13:31-32)

Jesus, the Eternal Son and Second Person of the Divine Trinity, being in His very nature God of gods, did not consider that reality something to be protected or exploited or clung to. Instead, He humbled Himself, stepping down off His eternal throne, to become a man, and walk among His creatures. He got hungry. He got tired. He got dirty. He was abused and despised by other people (those He Himself had created, and for whom He came to die). He humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross — a Roman instrument of torture, reserved for slaves and anarchists. Jesus came to earth on a mission. Not just to be one of us, but to die in place of us — to become the very curse that God justly placed upon humanity for our disobedience (Phil 2:5-8, paraphrased and amplified).

And all that would be amazing enough, but Jesus did not only come to that first Maundy Thursday to complete the work God had set before Him, but He did so knowing that it would bring great glory to His Father, and to Himself as well. Exactly because He is God, He lovingly stepped down into our cesspool of a world, in order to rescue us from ourselves, draw us to Himself, take us with Him into death, and then rise again (with us still along for the ride) to eternal victory and glory. There was an exaltation awaiting Jesus that night which was beyond even being the Eternal Son, who is King over a world of those who rebel against Him, break His law and desecrate His cosmos. Jesus’ ultimate glory lay in becoming the exalted King over a renewed world full of redeemed worshippers … a King uncontested and with a name above any other conceivable name. (Phil 2:9-11, paraphrased and amplified)

This is the great glory of divine love: redemption and rescue … the transfer of helpless slaves to sin in the kingdom of darkness into a new reality in which they become adopted and beloved children in the Kingdom of God’s one and only Son. (Col 1:13)

Jesus at table

2) He wanted to be with His friends and teach them one last time

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. (John 13:1)

This is only one of the many Passover meals. In fact, Passover wouldn’t really start in earnest until Saturday, but Jesus was still very much looking forward to it (Luke 22:15). If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, wouldn’t you too want to spend tonight with friends and family eating a dinner that carried special significance? That’s what Jesus did too. He gathered His disciples, His dearest friends and companions, around a table, and shared a meal that had deep, highly-significant roots in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

But then, He did the unexpected… He radically updates its meaning.

The Maundy: Washing the Feet

Jesus washes feetIt was traditional in their day to wash your feet before eating, and Jesus took the opportunity to teach His first lesson for the evening. Even though He is God and their Rabbi, He disrobed and washed their feet — serving them in a profoundly-culturally-upside-down way. And then He exhorted them NOT that they should now reciprocate by washing His feet, but rather that they should wash one another’s feet (John 13:1-20). This was completely revolutionary. Notice that nowhere in this picture does the Master’s feet get washed. That’s just crazy!

And in an instant, Jesus totally redefines leadership. He completely overturns all socially-accepted power structures, and commands His followers simply to demonstrably love one another. If you want to be like Jesus, who left heaven for the cross, then love and serve one another. It’s not about getting your own way. It’s about getting a towel, getting on your knees, and washing muddy camel crap off the other person’s smelly feet. That’s the way life works in the Kingdom of heaven.

As an aside, Jesus can’t get through this lesson without Peter sticking His newly-washed foot in his mouth. But that’s a whole different matter, which I wrote about in another setting, if you’re interested.

The Lord’s Supper

Lords SupperThe next thing Jesus does is to institute the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (see Luke 22:19-23). In a very profound move, Jesus redefines the elements of the Passover meal. The bread and wine have always commemorated God’s loving, gracious work on behalf of His people, but the reality, Jesus says, is that every person who has partaken of that meal in its hundreds of years of history has actually been anticipating Jesus. Yes, God rescued His people from Egypt and from the avenging angel of death because of the blood of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12). Yes, he fed them in the wilderness with manna from heaven (Exodus 16). But all this was just foreshadowing. The Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) is the One dipping bread in the wine around this table with twelve broken Jewish men who are about to learn just how scary it is to cross the Roman empire … and then learn just how glorious it is to be indwelled and empowered by the Spirit of the Living God.

Jesus doesn’t really change the meal or somehow discard it or its meaning. Quite the opposite, in fact. He reveals its ultimate meaning. He shows how it is fulfilled in Himself. (Kinda like the Law, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.) Everything about this meal … every time the disciples eat it, ever again, it will remind them of Jesus, who the very next day would die in the act of redeeming them from their sin. Jesus calls His followers for all time in all placers to this meal of remembrance. And we celebrate it even to this day.

3) He wanted to assure the disciples that He wasn’t leaving them behind

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, “I am going ahead of you, so that I can bring you to myself.” (John 14:1-14, paraphrased)

Jesus knows that it is going to be very difficult for the disciples for their mentor and friend of three years — the One they know to be God’s Messiah who will restore Israel — to be viciously mocked and brutally executed the next day. They are, no doubt, going to wonder how they could have been so deceived. How could God’s Messiah be slaughtered on a Roman cross? How does that make any sense of the Scriptures they’ve trusted for so long and which this Man, Jesus, taught with such great authority? Heck, by morning, Peter (2nd in command!) will be calling down curses and swearing he’s never seen Jesus before in his life. Things, to say the least, are not going to go well tomorrow (see John 18).

Adoption

So, part of Jesus’ motivation for this dinner is to reassure them, “It’s not going to be what it looks like.” Yes, I’m leaving, but I will not leave you forever. I will not leave you as orphans, I will come for you. And the next time I leave, I’m taking you with me (John 14:18-19). Later, the Apostle Paul would talk about God’s adopting us as children (Rom 8:14–17; Gal 4:4-7), but in a sense he’s just providing commentary on Jesus’ words on this night.

Marriage

BetrothalIn truth, the primary metaphor Jesus uses here is marriage imagery, the language of betrothal. He’s going away like a groom goes away having betrothed to his bride-to-be, to prepare for their future life together.

Why does he leave? To go to his father’s house and build a room — to prepare a place — where he and his bride can live forever together. Having prepared that room, he will return with his entourage, claim his bride, whisk her away with him, and then she will always be with her lord.

This is exactly what Jesus is preparing to do with His disciples (and us). Having made the promise of everlasting life together to His “bride” — the Church, His people — Jesus is preparing to go away for a brief time to prepare a room in His Father’s great mansion. But He will return, and when He does, they (and we) will never be separated from our Beloved ever again (John 14:1-3). More than that, the disciples can be absolutely certain that this is true for two reasons. First, they know Jesus, who is Himself the way (and the truth and the life) to that place. He Himself is their access to God’s house and to life eternal, as He explains to them (John 14:4-7). And second, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as the downpayment, guaranteeing this eternal life He’s promising (Eph 1:14).

And the Sending of the Holy Spirit

The other reason Jesus is leaving, is to re-ascend the throne (now as both God and man; when He left it, He was God only; this is part of the glory of God’s plan) and be seated at the right hand of the Father to rule (Heb 10:12; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22). From that position, He will send to us another Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who will always be with us (John 14:16). In fact, He will dwell in you (John 14:17). It is certainly clear that the disciples struggled to understand Jesus’ teaching, but the Holy Spirit, from within this time, will testify about me and teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I (Jesus) have ever said to you (John 14:26, 15:26-27). He will always comfort and counsel us, always empower us to live the life of freedom from sin that Jesus died and rose again to provide, and He will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).

A serious (and seriously needed) upgrade!

4) He wanted to strengthen His followers’ faith

I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. (John 16:1)

No way there’s room enough in one post to unpack all of these, so I’ll just send them at you rapid fire. I recommend studying them yourselves…

  • John 15:1-17 – I (Jesus) am the Vine, you are the branches. You must abide in me to have life. I will prune you, but don’t be afraid of that; it’s for your good. To become more like me is more greatly to be valued than anything this world could possibly offer you, including a false sense of temporary comfort.
  • John 13:34-35; 15:12-17 – A new command I give you, that you love one another. Wash each other’s feet. Lay down your lives for one another. To be first in the Kingdom of Heaven, you must be the servant of all. (Matt 20:26; Mark 9:35)
  • John 15:18-25; 16:2-4 – Just as the world hated me, it will hate you. More about this in a second, but suffice it to say that if your life is easy and you fit right in in this world, there is probably something terribly wrong. The mantra of the Christ-follower is sanctification over safety, calling over comfort. It’s not about easy street, it’s about golden streets … forever. Don’t get distracted.
  • John 16:25ff – As we said, things will get difficult after Jesus ascends. But the disciples must stand firm in the face of persecution Jesus knows is coming (John 16:16ff). Yes, they’re going to hate you and hurt you, but don’t be afraid, don’t give up. I’ll send you the Counselor, and He will give you all the resources you need to get through. Plus, the real battle will be fought tomorrow on the cross. It’s going to hurt, but all the battles after that are just cleanup skirmishes. “In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Trust the King. Every knee will bow.

(A related post you might find interesting.)

5) He wanted to talk to His Father

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:1b-3)

The whole of John 17 is devoted to one of the most amazing chapters in all of Scripture. Here is the longest, most detailed prayer we ever hear Jesus pray. He lets us listen in, for our benefit, but this is really a moment between Him and His Father — a rare glimpse into the shared heart and mind of the Eternal Trinity.

Jesus said,

  • Father, I have glorified you by completing the mission; now I’m coming home.
  • I have succeeded in our plan, leaving no aspect of it incomplete.
  • They carry a precious treasure the world does not understand; they no longer belong to the world, but to us, so set them apart and protect them until they come home to us
  • I desire your fame and glory to multiply throughout the cosmos!
  • I’m so excited that I have your love and you have mine and they have ours, and we can all be together.
  • It has been my privilege, Dad, to make you known.

Father Son TalkSo, as God sent Jesus into the world to love it and serve it and redeem it … to make His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). So also, Jesus, that first Maundy Thursday, was sending the first apostles … and through them, He is sending us. For our sakes, Jesus set Himself apart, choosing to become a man and die as a criminal and be raised as the King — the King greater than whose glory none can be conceived. He did that so that we too may be set apart in truth … to be made like Him … little Messiahs … Christ-ians. (John 17:18, paraphrased and amplified)

Don’t let Maundy Thursday be just another day. Remember the Lord. Remember the mission He’s given us. Remember the bread and the wine. And remember the command: Love one another.

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The Giver Himself is the True Gift

To the Christian, specifically my fellow seminary students…
A sermon manuscript on Deuteronomy 8:1-20, prepared for one of my homiletics classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Sitting with Jesus

Introduction

Have you ever interacted with really spoiled children? I feel like I’m starting to see kids everywhere who just demand things from their parents and who seem to exhibit no gratitude or respect for them. They want something, and they scream or whine until they get it. Then once they have what they want, they radiate an “it’s about time you got around to that” attitude. They have so much, but they haven’t developed the character to handle all the blessing in their lives. It’s tough to watch.

Our passage today has a lot to say about situations like that, actually – about receiving gifts well and about kids responding appropriately to their parents, especially their heavenly Father. In our text, Moses is warning the nation of Israel to be careful how they receive gifts from God.

Although we may never have been (at least I hope not) one of those screaming, demanding kids in a mall, we are all in need of such a warning. Because God has been extremely generous with us. By any global or historic metric, every person in this room is overflowing with earthly wealth and possessions, not to mention the unbelievable spiritual blessings we have in Christ. So, alongside Israel, we need to hear Moses’ warning about how to live well in the context of God’s generosity and the potential consequences of failing to do so.

Primary Claim Statement

If I were to boil this message down to a single sentence, it would be this…

Don’t forget the Giver amidst all the gifts!

That may sound a bit easy or obvious, but it wasn’t for Israel, and I contend it’s not that cut and dried for us either. So, let’s pray together, and let the Scriptures teach us on this important topic.

Prayer for Illumination

Father, as we turn our eyes and ears and hearts toward your word today, would you open them wide, so that we may receive fully what you desire to teach us today. Change our perspectives, and grow our gratitude, and humble our hearts. Teach us, Lord, for we are eager to learn. And make us doers of your word, not hearers only.

We ask these things in the gracious and glorious and strong name of Jesus. Amen.

Context

Promised LandOpen your bibles with me, please, to Deuteronomy 8:1-20. That’s Deuteronomy 8. While you’re turning there, let me orient us a bit to where this story lies in redemption history.

This scene takes place after the Exodus, after God has led the people in the wilderness for 40 years until an entire generation has died off. As the book of Deuteronomy opens, we encounter the next generation of Israelites, whom God has brought back to the border of the promised land, preparing at last to enter the land and occupy it. Our passage is in the middle of the speech Moses makes to the people on that momentous day, admonishing them to be faithful to God once they’ve taken possession of the land. And although these words were written thousands of years ago, they speak to us today as well.

Reading of Scripture

So, get your bibles in front of you, and follow along with me as I read from the HCSB…

You must carefully follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase, and may enter and take possession of the land the Lord swore to your fathers. Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these forty years in the wilderness, so that He might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands.

He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out, and your feet did not swell these forty years. Keep in mind that the Lord your God has been disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son.

So, keep the commands of the Lord your God, by walking in His ways and fearing Him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams of water, springs, and deep water sources, flowing in both valleys and hills; a land of wheat, barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without shortage, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you will mine copper. When you eat and are full, you will praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.

Be careful that you don’t forget the Lord your God by failing to keep His command—the ordinances and statutes—I am giving you today. When you eat and are full, and build beautiful houses to live in, and your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold multiply, and everything else you have increases, be careful that your heart doesn’t become proud and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. He led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, a thirsty land where there was no water. He brought water out of the flint-like rock for you. He fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers had not known, in order to humble and test you, so that in the end He might cause you to prosper. You may say to yourself, “My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me,” but remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth, in order to confirm His covenant, which He swore to your fathers, as it is today.

If you ever forget the Lord your God and go after other gods to worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will perish. Like the nations the Lord is about to destroy before you, you will perish if you do not obey the Lord your God.

God’s command and His promised response to obedience (v1)

Our passage begins with a summary statement of God’s commands and His promises to those who are faithful to obey them. When Moses says, “You must carefully follow every command I am giving you today” in v1, he’s talking about the whole law of God. It’s effectively a general admonition, “Obey Yahweh in all that He commands!”

And what does God promise will result from Israel’s obedience? Abundant life in the land of promise! They will live and increase and enter and take possession of the land. So, we immediately see that Yahweh desires true and abundant life for His people, rest in the land, which is the fulfillment of His promises. This forms a kind of introduction to the rest of our text.

Organizational Sentence

And as we work through the rest of the passage, I’d like to draw our attention to three specific actions we must take, as God’s children, to honor and obey Him as a good and generous Father, who desires to provide abundantly for His children.

1. Remember

Lord's SupperFirst, our Father calls us to remember. As God’s children, we must remember that Yahweh has been a good and faithful Father to us (vv2-5).

God is not a God of promises only, but of action. He has a proven track record of keeping His promises, of providing for His kids. Everyone in this room could testify to the goodness and generosity of God – not as an abstract, theoretical exercise, but in concrete terms, remembering real life experiences. In fact, if we were to make a list of the gifts God has given us and the way that He has blessed us, it would take a really long time.

The same was true for Israel here. God expects them to remember all that He has done for them, and He expects the same for us. In this passage, Moses reminds Israel of two specific things to remember: God’s purpose and God’s provision.

a. Our Father has disciplined us for our good

Father DisciplineLook at v2: God’s purpose in the way He led Israel in the wilderness is to humble and test them. Why? To know what was in their hearts, whether or not they would keep His commands.

I think if we’re honest, we have to admit that this doesn’t sound all that fantastic. What’s so wonderful about being humbled and tested in a desert wasteland? Notice that the only specific detail God gives is that He let them go hungry. That doesn’t sound like much fun. I doubt it would be the first thing on our “Reasons to be Thankful” list.

But that’s exactly why the human race is in such deep trouble. The reason we don’t consider these gifts from God to be absolutely glorious is because we dramatically overvalue ourselves and our stuff, and dramatically undervalue our heavenly Father and the beauty of right relationship with Him. Our hearts are so proud and deceitful! The truth is that we need to be humbled. We need to be tested. We need to have our deceitfulness exposed and dealt with, so that the Spirit of God can make us more like Jesus. We are all lumps of rock that have the potential to be bars of pure gold, but not without refining fire. And there’s no greater gift a father can give his children than to refine and develop their character. All the short-term gratification in the world can’t compare to that in the long run.

And God is the perfect Father. He knows how to give to His children the gifts they desperately need, whether they want or understand them or not. And foremost among them is a refining hand, one that humbles and tests until we have learned to receive His gifts well.

As God’s children, we must remember His good and loving discipline.

b. He has provided for our needs

Father Reads to SonBut God isn’t all discipline. He is a lavish provider as well. See in v3; when the Israelites were hungry, it was God who provided food – miraculously … with manna from heaven … something no one had ever even imagined. When they were thirsty, He gave them water … out of a rock. Their clothes didn’t wear out. He sustained them physically. Essentially, he provided everything they needed – personally and miraculously – for 40 years. And not just provision, but provision with a purpose … that the people would learn that real life does not consist of bread and water and clothes and unswollen feet. Real life comes from listening to every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh and obeying it.

In other words, life doesn’t consist in the gifts, but in knowing the One who gives them.

Have you ever played the game in which you have to decide which single object to take with you to the desert island? Moses always won that game, because he always gave the same answer… Take Yahweh with you to the island. He is what you really need. He made sure Israel’s needs were met in the wilderness, and He will make sure your needs are met too, if you remember and obey Him. Centuries later, Jesus would say essentially the same thing, “I am the bread of God who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. Anyone who eats this bread will have eternal life” (John 6:38, 49-51 paraphrased). Real life doesn’t come from the bread; it comes from God Himself.

As God’s children, we must remember not only His discipline, but His provision.

So in v5, Moses makes the summary statement, “Keep in mind (remember) that Yahweh your God has been disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son.” Scripture couldn’t be more clear: it is the duty of every father to discipline and provide for his children, and Yahweh is our role model. So, as we survey the landscape of our lives and behold the countless blessings we see there, we need to let them remind us – cause us to remember – that our heavenly Father has been extremely good to us.

2. Recognize

Framing Hands Seeing the FutureOur second action is described in vv6-10. Here, God calls us to recognize. As God’s children, we must recognize God’s plan to continue to bless us.

As with the prior section, Moses begins with the command to keep Yahweh’s law. How? By walking in His ways and fearing Him. Why? Because Yahweh wants to bless His children, but He can only do so if they are obedient to Him.

I remember the first time I looked at my son John and realized how hard it was going to be to truly love him well. He was 5, and we were at Disney World getting ready to go on a super fun ride together. But he had done something that required me to drop the hammer instead. He was oblivious, but I knew that discipline was required. I remember standing there looking at him with thinking… I have a choice. I can either ignore what just happened and John will go on smiling and we can be pals and I can shower him with blessings he would clearly recognize… and he would take a significant step down the path toward developing a serious character flaw. Or, we can tangle, and I can withhold the good things I had planned, replacing them with what he would no doubt perceive as oppressive punishment. It would ruin his afternoon and he’d be hurt and angry… BUT we would take a step toward godliness together. I remember how clear it was that the choice was between love and laziness. If I love him, I’ll do the hard thing right now. If I don’t, if I just let it go and pour on the fun instead, then it means that I’m selfish and lazy, and I don’t really care what happens to John’s character. That would be the opposite of fatherly love. Because I can’t just give him good things to make him feel happy and fun and gooey. I want to give him good things … more than he knows … but I can’t. Because his character can’t handle it.

And in a small way, I imagine that this experience has helped me to understand the tension in the air between Yahweh and Israel in this passage. God exhorts them to keep His commands, to walk in His ways, to fear Him. Why? Because He wants to shower them with blessings and abundance. But He can only do that, if He knows His son can handle it. So, he humbled them and tested so that now He can really pour on the blessing.

We’ve already read through God’s description of this pending blessing in vv7-10. We don’t have to go through it again in detail. God is bringing the people to a place where they will have food and water and resources in abundance. It’s a description of outlandish provision. The land is pretty much a paradise, reminiscent of the garden of Eden in some ways. And the people will enjoy it forever … if they will just recognize that these good gifts come from Yahweh and obey Him … if they don’t forget the Giver amidst all the gifts! The way Moses puts it in v10 is that they must remember to worship Him.

And that brings us to our third action…

3. Respond

Thirdly, we must respond. As God’s children, we must respond appropriately to God’s fatherly goodness (vv11-18). This call to response is the clear application of the passage. God has already been so good to His people, and plans to lavish them with even greater gifts. And here in the second half of the passage, I want to consider how Israel – and therefore we – should respond to His generosity.

Look back at the text with me. In vv11-16, Moses is recapitulating themes we’ve already discussed. As with the prior two sections, v11 begins the section with a command – two, actually. First, don’t forget that it is Yahweh who gives you all these good things. And second, obey His commands. Then, vv12-13 reiterate that Yahweh desires to bless His children with even greater gifts than they have known, if they will only obey Him. And vv14-16 expand on the prior list of ways in which Yahweh has already demonstrated His faithful and abundant provision. So, this is more of what we’ve already seen: language of past faithful provision, future abundant life and generally extravagant gift giving on God’s part. What I want us to see are a few responses which are required of God’s children.

a. We must respond in obedience

Parent Helping KidsFirst, clearly God expects us to obey Him. We must respond in obedience. Five times in the passage – vv1, 2b, 6, 11, 20 – Moses exhorts the people to obey God’s commands, and another six times – vv2a, 5, 11, 14, 18, 19 – he insists that they “remember” or “not forget” the Lord. Remembering Yahweh means, among other things, to obey Him. So really this passage is absolutely riddled with exhortation to obey God’s commands.

So, the question is, what about us? Do we obey God? In our studies, in our work, among our family and friends, when you’re alone and only God can see you… Do you remember the Lord? Do you submit to His word? Like obedient children, are we quick to obey His commands? Or do we argue with Him and question His wisdom? We, who know His word so well, do we obey it? That is the question!

Moses isn’t just warning Israel, he’s warning us. Pick up at v12, and read yourself into this text…

  • When we eat and are full, which we are every single day…
  • When we live in beautiful houses, which we all do…
  • When our shelves of theology texts and drawers full of gadgets and walls full of degrees… When they all grow large, and when our silver and gold multiplies, and when everything else we have increases…

Then we must be careful that our hearts do not become proud and we forget the Lord our God who has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:13) … out of our very own land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.

God didn’t just do that for Israel, He did it for us. And we need to respond in obedience.

b. We must respond in gratitude

Grateful ChildSecondly, we must respond in gratitude. This too is critically important to the Christian life, and, I fear, somewhat underrated. It is the idolatrous life which fails to acknowledge that it is God who gives you everything you have. And that is not acceptable for the one who worships Yahweh. We are to be a grateful people.

In thinking about applying this, I wrote down a few ways we can exhibit true gratitude in our lives, ways we can respond well to God’s generosity. These aren’t in the text, but I think they will help make this command real and applicable in our lives.

  • Grateful people hold what they have loosely, willing to let God take back what He’s given or direct us to share it with others.
  • Grateful people are content with what they have, rather than grumbling about what they don’t have or continually clawing and scraping to acquire more.
  • Grateful people acknowledge that God is the origin of the all that is in their lives.
  • Grateful people don’t let the many gifts distract them from remembering the goodness of the Giver.

Does this describe you? Are you responding to God’s goodness in gratitude?

c. We must respond in worship

Worshipping ChildAnd thirdly, obedience and gratitude are closely related to worship. We must respond to God in worship. This means that we acknowledge His rightful place on the throne of our hearts. We understand that we are dependent on and subservient to Him. I’m not the god in my life, He is. You’re not the star of your movie, He is. God is our Father, and we are His toddler children, wholly dependent on Him. There is no room for pride or boasting. The people of God are a people of humility and worship. Moses lays this out in vv17-18…

You may say to yourself, ‘My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me,’ but remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth…

For Israel in the wilderness, that’s about their capacity to live well in a new homeland. But for you and me, maybe its money. Maybe it’s a keen mind. Maybe it’s your muscle memory or your athletic prowess or good looks or nice clothes or high GPA, etc. But, whatever it is, you may say to yourself, “My power and my own ability and the strength of my right arm have gained all these things for me,” but you must remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you these good gifts.

Why? So that we will have all the toys and be happy all our days? For the sake of a better next Tusday? No. It is…

… in order to confirm His covenant, which He swore to your fathers, just as it is today.

God blesses us like this because that’s just the kind of God He is … and because it’s what He promised Abraham He would do. And God keeps His promises. Psalm 145 says,

The Lord is trustworthy in all He promises,
and righteous in all His ways,
and faithful in all He does. (Ps 145:13, 17)

God is faithful, and in return, He demands our worship. And rightly so.

The proper response of the children of God to His unfailing goodness is obedience, gratitude and worship.

Conclusion

I wish I could end this message on a high note like that – remembering God’s faithfulness, recognizing God’s desire to bless us, and responding in obedience, gratitude and worship. But we are the servants of the text, and the text doesn’t stop at v18. We have two more verses to go, and they form a sort of inclusio with v1.

God’s command and His promised response to disobedience (vv19-20)

Storm Rolling InSo, where our passage opens with God’s command to His people and His promises to them if they obey, it closes with a solemn warning about what will happen if the people disobey the Lord. Look back at the text with me. In v19, Moses concludes…

But, if you ever forget the Lord your God, and go after other gods to worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will perish. Like the nations the Lord is about to destroy before you, you will perish if you do not obey the Lord your God.

So, if remembering God means to respond to Him in obedience, gratitude and worship, then forgetting means to respond in rebellion and idolatry. But how can that happen? Why would Israel turn from their gracious Heavenly Father to idols and to other gods? I think it’s because they have fixed their eyes on the gifts instead of the Giver.

Israel grumbled when they were in Egypt. And when God rescued them, they grumbled in the wilderness. They had manna, but they wanted meat. God gave Israel so many good things, but as soon as they had them, they forgot the God who gave them the gifts. They just wanted the stuff, because that was what filled their hearts. Not Yahweh. Not the Giver of all those good things. And God is warning them not to let that trend continue. As Moses spoke this warning, God knew that the blessings that were coming were even bigger than the ones they’d already received. God humbled them and tried to prepare them, but still He knew that they would turn away. And so, He makes a final promise … sobering words that apply to us as much as they did to Israel… If you forget God and do not obey Him, then you will perish. Like any pagan nation, you will be destroyed.

Because God’s patience is not unlimited. Today is the day of salvation. If our hearts are full of earthly things and unable to receive the Giver of those gifts because His place in our hearts is already taken by trinkets, then we too will perish. But it’s not too late. Repent, turn to God, and satisfy yourself with Him whom to know is life eternal.

Don’t be distracted by the things of this world.

Don’t confuse the gifts of God with the true Gift, who is God Himself.

Don’t forget the Giver amidst all the gifts!

Remember the Lord. Recognize His fatherly love for you. And respond to Him in obedience, gratitude, and worship.

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray…

Father, we remember you and all the amazing ways you have provided for us and been a father to us, even – or perhaps, especially – in your loving discipline. We recognize that all that we have comes from you. And we want to respond well.

But we are a weak and selfish and idolatrous people. It’s so easy for our eyes to wander and our hearts to be set on other things – on the gifts, rather than on the Giver. So, Lord, would you change us, by the power of your Spirit? Would you grow us up into Christ? Make us a people who remembers and recognizes and responds in such a way that you, and you alone, would be glorified in our lives.

We ask these things, and we trust you to do them, in the name of your Son Jesus. Amen.


Image credit:
1) Sitting with Jesus – The Mormon Channel
2) Promised Land – Medium.com
3) Communion – Ligonier Ministries
4) Father disciplines his son – My Two Cents On
5) Father reading to son – The Cutting Edge
6) Framing hands – LinkedIn
7) Parent helping kids – Entrepreneur.com
8) Child holding flowers – The Military Wife and Mom
9) Child in worship – Pintrest
10) Storm rolling in – Survival Life
Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

[Not] Owning Time: A Lesson in Turning Aside

Antique Watch

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:1-2, 15-16)

I recently wrote on an important concept in kingdom living that I call “turning aside.” This means to live with an awareness of the people around us and an availability to the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to direct our steps toward loving others and living and proclaiming the good news of Jesus in their midst. Since that writing, I have been making a concerted effort to maintain the kind of space (margin) in my life necessary live that kind of Kingdom life.

Interestingly, this attempt has overlapped with some of the busiest months I’ve experienced since God called me out of the marketplace and into seminary back in 2014. As a result, I’ve really struggled, feeling tons of pressure balancing my responsibilities to my family, school, church and work. (Yes, I still work; my friends all tell me I’m a terrible quitter, and that I really need to work harder at developing those skills.) And I’m still not getting the writing or fitness time in that I both want and need. Ugh. Still growing; what can I say?!

Anyway, it’s been tough, but I’ve been making some progress and have tried to be really intentional about creating and maintaining margin, especially for my family and my church. Neighbors, friends and gym … I still have work to do there. And yes, I do think it’s finally time to cut the work cord the rest of the way.

Then last night happened…

McDonald’s, and the search for quiet

New McDonald's Building Design

Yesterday was rough on my study time. Work needed a lot from me. I had a coffee planned with a friend who needed counsel, which took more time than I budgeted. Kyshirra needed a ride to class. John needed help studying for a test. Faith was working, so I got John ready and talked through his Scripture reading with him in the morning. Family devotions at dinner ran long. And the house was, in general, not a quiet place in the evening. All good stuff. Most of it was investment in family and discipleship. The best stuff really. But the net result was that 9pm rolled around and I’d only gotten about a couple hours of school work done, and nothing in the way of ministry tasks. And I was feeling behind. I was glad to make so much investment in important people and activities all day long, but I also needed to get some work done.

So, I decided to cruise over to the newly remodeled McDonald’s here in town, where I often meet a buddy of mine (we’ll call him “Joe”) to work. Since the redesign, the place is spacious, well lit, with big tables and plenty of outlets. And of course, coffee, Diet Coke and snack food all flow freely! And it’s only 10 min from my house, door-to-door. Translation: the ideal study environment.

So, I pull up, and Joe’s car is the only one in the main parking area. Score!

I walk in, and the place is empty. Crickets. Score again! I am SO getting some work done.

$1 any size soft drink … in hand. Now I’m getting excited.

I walk around the first corner, wave to my work buddy, who is alone in our customary corner in the back. I fill my 158-oz Diet Coke to the brim, and head over to “my table,” ready to get to work. I don’t see so much as one other person in the whole place. Even the music is good. So, I’m thrilled…

Until…

I round the second corner, and there, sitting right by Joe is a newly-discovered 3rd person… a rough-hewn, dirty guy in worn clothes who appeared to be homeless. He and his backpack give me the impression that he’s been camped out in here for hours. And the second I start to talk to Joe, he begins to interrupt us and ends up never stopping. His words are slurred (I think, drug-induced), his comments are rarely coherent, and he clearly has no sense of social awareness. Ultimately, no matter what we did — engage him, or not; talking or studying; at one point, we even asked him to let us work —, he continued to inject himself. Eventually, we resorted to putting in earbuds and flagrantly ignoring him, until he finally appeared to fall asleep.

An unnecessary war between false choices

Marvel Avengers Civil WarSo there I am, studying theology and church history, specifically about the way the Apostle Paul lived the spiritual life. And all the while, I’m ignoring a half-stoned, homeless person who clearly, desperately wanted to talk to somebody … anybody. Granted, I got some much-needed reading done … finally … but I felt so guilty that I wasn’t engaging this guy for Christ, sharing the gospel, and just taking more of an interest in his obviously difficult life … just loving on him.

On the one hand, I had been turning aside all day long. Devotions. Rides to school. Help with homework. Discipleship meeting over coffee. Etc. I had devoted much of my day to being pastor-dad. Surely it wasn’t out of line to ask for just a couple hours to work! Plus, Joe and I had ministry tasks to accomplish on top of an already-compressed study time. And because of constant interruption, that clearly wasn’t happening. 90% of my day had been for God. I just couldn’t afford to spend the next several hours wandering through the labyrinth of this man’s drug-soaked mind. How could that possibly be good stewardship of my time?

But on the other hand, this guy was sad and alone and poor and wretched. Just like me. God rescued me. And I didn’t deserve it one whit more than this guy. What if, all those years ago, Jonathan Kua or Erin Miller (the two human beings most responsible for showing me Jesus when I was 20) had been too busy to take time for me? Granted, I wasn’t in a drug haze and had at least possessed a moniker of social awareness, but I had more than my share of problems and annoying character flaws. Even then, that’s not really the point, is it? And didn’t Jesus explicitly say that what we do for the least of these, we do for Him? (Matthew 25:31ff)

Was I being selfish? Was I being responsible? How much “turning aside” is too much for one day? How do I balance all the pressures of this multi-faceted life I’m in the midst of? When is enough enough? Surely, there have to be boundaries!

My head hurts.

And so, I faced a choice…

Option 1: Let him consume the rest of the night while I chased him down rabbit holes and tried to create openings for spiritual conversation.

Option 2: Ignore him, get some work done, and hope he goes away.

What would Jesus do?

I couldn’t figure it out, so I defaulted to the latter. I got out the earbuds, the guy fell asleep, and I got another 2 hours or so of work done. Shortly after midnight, having completing several critical tasks, I snuck out, came home, and went to bed worried that I had made the wrong choice. And I don’t even remember the guy’s name.

It looks different in the morning when you pray

Girl Praying by a LakeThis morning, during prayer, I mulled this over with God. “I’m afraid I chose poorly, Father. Should I have chosen the other path?” And, as He so often does, God gently explained that I have no idea what I’m talking about. My entire two-choice framework was a straw man.

What follows is what I feel were God’s instructions to me this morning. They are what I wanted to share with you. Because deciding to live a life of turning aside isn’t enough. As soon as you do, you have to wrestle with questions like this one and situations like last night’s.

Here’s what I learned…

God owns my time

First of all, that time at McDonald’s wasn’t my time. I had no right to simply decide how to use it. Every second of yesterday’s 24 hours belonged to God, and it was up to Him how to invest it. I steward His time; I don’t own it myself. So if God wants to disrupt my plans every single second of the day, that’s His right, and it’s my responsibility to receive His wise choices with joyful obedience.

That guy wasn’t there by accident

It’s not like any of us randomly showed up at McDonald’s. That man, my friend Joe, and I were all there by divine appointment. God intended — as He always intends — for Joe and I to act as His ambassadors. And we are, whether it’s intentional or not. It’s not a question of whether or not we proclaim Christ; it’s a question of what kind of proclamation we’re making. We always speak for Jesus, because we belong to Jesus and are united with Him. The question is, “What message are you sending? And does it represent Him well?” I fear we communicated to the guy at McDonald’s that he was annoying and unimportant … certainly not as important as Joe and I … being church staff-pastor-seminary types, and all.

My reaction to him was a failure of leadership

It should never have been on the table for this barely-coherent man to drive the conversation. Jesus would have taken one look at him, maybe waited for the guy’s first question, and then taken total control of the conversation. I doubt Jesus would have lectured him. He would certainly have asked him probing questions. But in no sense would the man have led the discussion while Jesus “chased him down rabbit trails, hoping for an opening to share the gospel.” I think Jesus would have prayed, gotten direction from the Holy Spirit, and then pinned this guy to the wall with an insightful question right out of the gate.

I should have led him toward toward Jesus, not debated with myself whether or not to respond to his attempts to dominate the conversation.

There was a choice, just not the one I thought

Two PathsOnce leading the discussion, the question would have become: Is this conversation going somewhere? That was the choice I really faced. If we had been heading toward Jesus, then I should have engaged this man as long as it took to get there. My time is the Lord’s. But if the conversation had persistently wandered aimlessly through a fog of non-engagement on his part (as I suspected it might have) or if he had otherwise indicated that he wasn’t interested / done talking, then the Christ-like thing to do would have been to stop it … to politely explain that we needed to break off the conversation and get to work. Then, we should have packed up our stuff, moved over to the other side of the restaurant, and conducted our business.

But the worst thing I could have done — as I look back on it now, and as I felt the weight of conviction praying through the situation this morning — is what I actually did… I ignored him, treating him like he was beneath my attention, and hoped he would go away. That’s just not okay; there’s no way that’s what Jesus would have done.

It’s crazy, but I was afraid

I think the truth is that I was afraid of what he (and Joe) would think of me if I spoke more pointedly to him, commanding the leadership position in the conversation, or judging that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere and then moving across the room. I didn’t want to be that direct, to act with that much authority, because I lacked the confidence to do so. And as a result, I stayed where I was, ignored “the problem” and hoped it would go away. And that did not honor the Lord.

Now what?

I write all this in the hopes that it will serve as a cautionary tail. I’m not proud of last night, but I’m glad for the learning experience. And very thankful that God graciously set me straight this morning. Here are the takeaways, as I see them…

You don’t own your time. God does. Steward it the way He wants you to, even if it costs you something that seems really important.

Don’t succumb to fear. You are Christ’s ambassador. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Jesus (Matt 28:18-20), and just as His Father sent Him, so He has sent us (John 17:18-19). There is nothing to fear, so let us act boldly and confidently for the sake of the gospel.

Lead people to Jesus. Don’t chase them down; have the courage to use the authority God has given you. Discipleship is a form of confident leadership, not chasing.

As long as it’s going somewhere, turn aside as much as it takes. I really think that Jesus’ principle on forgiveness applies here and would be helpful. As long as we are being directed by the Spirit… As long as we’re seeking His counsel in the moment… As long as we’re not getting the “time to stop” signal from a the person we’re engaging… Then we shouldn’t turn aside 7 times, but 70 times 7 (Matt 18:21ff). This doesn’t mean we have no boundaries; it means we have no limits on our willingness to listen to the Spirit’s prompting and love lost people, even when some other important thing is left undone as a result.

May it begin with me.


Image credit:
1) McDonalds – Robert Ross Contractors
2) Captain America Civil War – CBR
3) Girl praying by the lake – Ashburnham
4) Two paths – Riveted
Posted in Real Life, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Spirit’s Carol

A sermon manuscript for Romans 8:1-19, prepared for Life Bridge Community Church
(recorded audio | sermon notes)

The Spirit's Carol: Chose Life in the Spirit

Introduction

Well, Merry Christmas, Life Bridge! … and a happy new year. I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas.

One of our family traditions is watching Christmas movies. We watch certain classics every year, and others occasionally fill in the gaps between them. I know Pastor Boerman has been asking people what their favorite Christmas movies are, so I thought I’d do a little informal post-Christmas survey. I’m going to show a few well-loved movie stills on the screen. If you know the name of the movie (and love it), shout it out.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story (1983)

The Nativity Story

The Nativity Story (2006)

This one’s my favorite! Note that every other movie on this list is A story about something. But this is THE nativity story.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol (1999)

What about this one? Do you know it? This is one of the many renditions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, specifically the 1999 release, starring Patrick Stewart. By my count, this movie has been remade over 40 times, dating as far back as 1938 and as adorably rendered as this classic…

The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

In any event, clearly there is something about this story captures the imagination and is well-loved by millions.

Charles DickensCharles Dickens completed his famous book, A Christmas Carol, in England in December of 1843, printing and distributing the first copies just a few days before Christmas that year. He called his story “A Christmas Carol,” because he expected the story to be often shared, to spread joy and to bring people together, just as singing Christmas carols do. To Dickens, his “carol” was a song of praise for the Christmas season and for the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, his story’s protagonist.

Dickens even called the five chapters of his book “staves” (or “stanzas“). A musical stave is a section of a piece of music with a consistent theme and mood. Each stave has its own focus and can stand alone, but each also contributes to the overall theme of the song. And so it is in Dickens’ story.

I bring all this up, because I see many of the same qualities in our passage today. Both Dickens’ story and our passage are beautiful stories of redemption. Both are meant to be repeated often, to bring people together, and to be a tremendous source of joy. The passage we’re looking at today is Romans 8:1-19. It’s situated at the heart of the book of Romans – the climactic chapter of one of the greatest theological works ever written. And like Dickens’ inveterate tail about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, this passage about our redemption can, I believe, be analyzed in five staves.

So, let’s pray and ask God to teach us in this time, and then dive in together.

Prayer for Illumination

Heavenly Father, you alone are glorious and sovereign over this world. In you we find all truth, all goodness and all beauty. Everywhere we look, we see your grace, your provision, and your covenantal faithfulness to your people. But nowhere is your brilliant glory better seen than in your work of redemption … your reckless love for us and your active work to reconcile and restore us, who are so unworthy of that love. For those of us who have experienced your mercy first hand, we are lost in wonder and praise. But there may be those listening to me right now who have never tasted and have not seen how marvelous you are, who do not know you, who may not be able to relate to even my feeble description of your beauty.

Pour out your Spirit on this place today, Lord. Open our eyes that we might see you. And our ears, that we might hear. Open our hearts, that we might rightly understand and truly receive your word. Open our hands, that we might release anything that would stand in the way of radical obedience and total submission to you, whom to know is life itself. And open our mouths, Lord, that our lips would pour forth your praise.

Now, Father, I ask that your word would go forth in power today and would not return void, but would accomplish the purpose for which you have sent it out. In these next few minutes, we would see Jesus and Him only. And it’s in His name that we pray.

Amen.

Stave 1: Introductory Matters

Introductory Matters

Okay, I’m calling stave 1 of this message “Introductory matters.” Because I’m kindof a huge nerd, before we dive into the Scriptures, I’d like to take a few minutes to define a couple terms and do a little table setting together.

Two Important Words

I know this is going to shock most of you, but I’d like to teach you two Greek words: πνεῦμα [phonetically: “neuma”] and σάρξ [“sarx”]. As you can see by the stats on the screen PowerPoint Logo, these concepts were clearly dominating Paul’s thoughts as he wrote this chapter of his letter. And that means it’s important for us to understand these words before we proceed.

The first, πνεῦμα, you probably already know. It is a word that can mean a natural wind or the breath of a living being, but it is most often translated “spirit.” It can represent the spirit of a person or of God Himself, or it can mean an angel or demon (good or evil spirits). I’ve listed on the screen PowerPoint Logo the most common definitions of the word from BDAG, the leading academic Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament.

The second word, σάρξ, may be less familiar. It too can mean several things, and I’ve put common definitions on the screen PowerPoint Logo. Most prominently, it can mean “flesh,” as in, the meat on the bones of a person or other animal. But it can also refer to our nature as human beings.

So, in what sense is Paul using these terms in our passage?

When we look at the text, it will become clear that Paul sees these two terms as contrasting with one another, and he clearly sees “the spirit” as more desirable than “the flesh.” But when he makes this contrast, both here and elsewhere, he is often misunderstood to be contrasting the physical body, which is bad, and a non-physical spirit (somehow contained within the body), which is good.

But I don’t think that’s his point. I don’t believe the Scriptures teach that our physical bodies are categorically sinful and evil while the spiritual, non-physical part of us is life and peace. Paul is NOT looking forward to a day when we will escape our wicked meat prisons and float among the clouds free from sin because we are free of “the flesh.”

Neither is σάρξ inherently evil, nor is πνεῦμα inherently good. Instead, I would like to propose that we think of Paul’s use of σάρξ and πνεῦμα as a euphemism for two contrasting natures. In this passage, σάρξ might best be translated, at least for most usages, as “human nature” or “the natural, unregenerate life of a human being,” and πνεῦμα refers to a fundamentally different kind of nature which is offered to us in Jesus. Paul invests a ton of energy in Romans to describe this new life to us.

So, I want to quickly construct a word picture related to these contrasting natures, which will serve as a framework for us as we work through our passage today.

Two Contrasting Natures

Human NatureWhen God created humankind, He gave us a particular nature. We are created as finite, physical beings, made in the image of God. As a race, we share the same nature. We are all the same kind of being. Think of this as a particular type of vine planted in a particular type of soil. All of us, as individual human beings, are members of this shared human nature. We are branches on the vine, sharing its fundamental nature and a particular kind of life.

But “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Therefore, our fundamental nature has become corrupt. So, the soil in which our vine is planted has been irrevocably poisoned, and the vine of our nature is dying. Each of us branches is now sharing a corrupted, perishing, temporary life … life that is decaying and fading away.

This vine is our σάρξ. It’s the human nature that we all share. There was nothing wrong with our natures, nothing wrong with this vine, when God created it. In fact, it was “very good.” But we have poisoned the soil, so any branch remaining in this withering vine now marches inexorably toward death.

But, unwilling to let us die, God Himself – the Eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity – stepped into human history and became a man. In this mysterious union of Jesus’ full divinity and full humanity, a new nature was created – new soil and a new vine. And this soil cannot be poisoned and this vine cannot be corrupted. It will never perish, never fade, never die. The divine life of the Spirit of God pulses through it, fully able to bring life to all its branches for all eternity.

To live as a branch on the old vine is sin and death. This is what Paul means by “life in the flesh.” And in contrast, to live as a branch on the new vine is life and peace. This is what Paul means by “life in the Spirit.”

Two Contrasting Natures

And so, we have a problem, because all of us by nature are members of a corrupted, withered, perishing vine. And we have in ourselves no power to move over to the vine where eternal life can be found. To quote the last verses of Romans 7, immediately preceding our passage, “Wretched people that we are, who will deliver us from this body of death?” If we could only somehow find life in this new vine!

What we really need is a savior … someone to rescue us from this dying vine, and grant us access to the life of this new vine. And that is the work of the Son of God and the “carol” of the Spirit of God … which brings us to our passage today.

God Made a Way

So, with this picture fresh in our heads, let’s dig into the text. Again, a little different today – I’d like to read the text all the way through slowly and carefully together. Then we’ll walk back through it in four additional “staves.”

Read the Scriptures

Open your bibles to Romans 8:1-19. Please follow along in your own copy of God’s word, as I read from the ESV…

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of Life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

So then, brothers [and sisters], we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons [and daughters] of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as [children], by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him, in order that we may also be glorified with Him.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the [children] of God.

Amen, and amen!

Now, let’s see if we can unpack this a little.

Stave 2: The Spirit of Christ, Past - FreedomThe Spirit of Christ, Past
Freedom

First, I see a clear proclamation of what the Spirit of God has done: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of Life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

Since Adam and Eve fell in the garden, every person born into this world has been born into slavery. Each one of us begins life trapped, having the power only to act within the confines of our sinful human nature – to gratify the desires of the flesh. Like a broken clock, which is right twice a day, we would occasionally get something right, but in any sustainable sense, we were incapable of pleasing God.

And this makes sense, given that we are branches growing on a corrupted vine. All branches are “slaves” to the vine on which they grow. The kind of life the vine provides – good or bad, corruptible or incorruptible – is all the branches have access to. So, if our nature is corrupted and sinful, then our actions will also be corrupted and sinful. It’s not a question of whether or not we want to do good; we can’t do good, because sinfulness is our natural corrupted state and the limit of our nature’s imagination.

The unregenerate human being is a slave to sin, and slavery to sin doesn’t end well. Just a few pages before our passage, Paul makes the bold statement that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). This means that when we sin, we are earning death in exactly the same way you earn your salary at your job. When you perform a day’s labor, your employer is morally obligated to pay you the appropriate wage for that work. Similarly, when we live our lives apart from Christ, we cannot help but to sin, and God, therefore, is morally obligated to pay us the wage for that sin – namely, death.

This is the law of sin and death, which Paul references in v2 of our passage.

Two Contrasting Laws

But what exactly is this law? Is Paul talking about the Mosaic law here? And if this law brings death, then is Paul saying that God’s law is somehow wrong or bad or to blame for the death that results from my sin?

Yes, Paul is, in part, talking about the Mosaic law, and no, the law of God is absolutely not wrong or bad. In fact, God’s law is perfect and glorious. Paul spends considerable time working through these kinds of questions in the preceding chapters of Romans. I find his argument to be fairly complicated at points, and we don’t have time to go through it in detail, but let me try to summarize it quickly with a couple slides that might help. Essentially, it’s not God’s law that’s bad, it’s sin that’s bad.

God’s law originates in God’s nature. He communicated that nature – God’s character and will – to His creation in His law, so that we can know how to live with a perfectly holy God. If we were to live in perfect conformity with God’s law – combining God’s law with perfect righteousness – then the result would be life and peace. But if we break God’s law – living against the grain of God’s character and will, and combining God’s law with unrighteousness (i.e. sin) – then the result is death.

Two Contrasting Laws 1Think of it as a kind of mathematical or chemical equation…

God’s law + righteousness = life and peace.
God’s law + sin = death.

And so, we have Paul’s two opposing laws from verse 2… For Paul, “the law” refers to God’s law, perfect and beautiful, codified on Mount Sinai and expressed in His covenants. But “the law of sin and death” in our passage isn’t exactly the Mosaic law. It’s the result of mixing God’s law with our unrighteousness. Conversely, the “law of the Spirit of life” is the same law of God when it is perfectly fulfilled by a flawlessly righteous life … a life which we, manifestly, are incapable of living.

Two Contrasting Laws 2

So, now what? This slide is simply expressing again that we are helplessly victimized by sin, inexorably careening toward death. But…

If Jesus’ perfect righteousness were to go before us and fulfill God’s law in our place … and if the Spirit of God were to join us to Jesus’ new perfectly-righteous nature… then the law of the Spirit of Life could apply to us.

And this is exactly what God did. He sent us Jesus, who did what we couldn’t do.

Two Contrasting Laws 3

Paul then lists two specific results. Look back at the passage…

“God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin…” (8:3a)

So, our flesh was weak; we were unable to rise above our fallen human nature. But Jesus, became a man to create a new nature for us, as we’ve discussed, and died on the cross to atone for our sin.

Jesus Condemns Sin in the Flesh

As a result…

“… He condemned sin in the flesh …” (8:3b)

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross establishes our innocence before God – “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” –, but it does more than that. It condemns sin in the flesh. Sin is an enemy that God is in the process of destroying forever. All those who are transplanted into the new vine will live forever, and once the old vine has finished dying, sin will be no more. Conquered. Vanquished forever. In other words, God has made for us a new way and is leaving the old way to die.

Jesus Fulfills the Law in Us

Secondly…

“… in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (8:4)

The righteous requirement of God’s law is that we be perfect just as God is perfect (c.f. Matt 5:48). And we are wholly incapable of fulfilling it on our own. Our only hope is that God would give us this righteousness as a gift of gracious love. And that’s exactly what He’s done in Jesus. We gain access to the perfect life that Jesus lived in our place, on our behalf, when the Holy Spirit transplants us into the vine where the law of the Spirit of Life reigns.

This is what God has done for us in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit.

Stave 3: The Spirit of Christ, Present - RighteousnessThe Spirit of Christ, Present
Righteousness

This leads us to what the Spirit of God is doing now. Having established the possibility for new life, God the Son has sent to us His Spirit to transfer us into this new life, to literally dwell within us, and to cultivate is us a new life of righteousness.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

The Transferring Spirit

The Transferring Spirit

The Spirit of God is the One who actually transfers us from the old vine and grafts us onto the new one. Theologians refer to this as our “union with Christ.” By the power and work of the Spirit of God, we leave our old nature behind and are joined with Christ’s new nature.

Forgive me for taking us out of verse-by-verse order, but look down at vv14-16…

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons [and daughters] of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons [and daughters], by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (8:14-16)

Another metaphor Paul uses to describe this transfer, this fundamental change in our nature, is “adoption.” We are literally – in a spiritual sense that we can’t possibly fully understand – adopted into God’s family and become God’s children. This has all kinds of implications, a few of which we’ll talk about in a second, but perhaps the most important one is that the Spirit takes up residence in our hearts.

So, the Spirit of God is not just “a transferring Spirit,” but “an indwelling Spirit.”

The Indwelling Spirit

The Indwelling SpiritOnce we are grafted into Christ, the Spirit actively provides the life that flows from that vine, regenerating us and giving us new life. So, in a non-quantifiable-but-very-real way, anyone who accepts Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior receives an entirely new kind of life. The Holy Spirit, the 3rd Person of the eternal Trinity, literally takes up residence inside that person and actively provides new life – life that is, in fact, eternal. But this isn’t just the promise of new life someday or what will happen after we die. It means a new life and a new nature right now! It’s a whole new way of living and thinking.

Look at the contrasts Paul shows us between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. First, those who are dying on the old vine…

  • Their minds are fixed on earthly things (:5b); their destiny is death (:6a)
  • They are hostile to (enemies of) God (:7a); they do not belong to Him (:9b)
  • They do not, indeed cannot, submit to God’s law (:7b)
  • They cannot please God (:8)
  • “Debtors” to the flesh (:12)

This whole list is neatly summed up back in v2 by the idea that those who are dying on the old vine are “slaves to sin.”

But, then, note the contrast with those who have been grafted onto the new vine…

  • Our minds are fixed on the things of the Spirit (:5a), and as a result we have life and peace (:6b)
  • We are adopted by God as His very own children (:14-16)
  • Jesus submitted to God’s law perfectly, so we are free obey God’s law as well (contra :7b, c.f. :2)
  • Jesus perfectly pleased God, so rather than being debtors to the flesh, we are … what? (:12)

So, the law of the Spirit of Life has set us free, and now we can obey God’s law. But, Paul says in v12 that we are no longer debtors to the flesh, but we are still debtors.

And then he leaves us hanging! To what or whom are we debtors?

Debtors?

Well, actually, I tried and I couldn’t put it any better than Paul himself does in Romans 6. So, I thought I’d just read you his response to that question…

If you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient … and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness… For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness… But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Rom 6:16-22)

So, we have been set free, but it is not absolute freedom. No finite creature is free in that sense. Only God has no limits. As finite, created beings, we will always have a master – either God Himself or an idol we put in God’s rightful place. So, it’s not a question of whether or not to serve a master, but of which master we will serve. If we are rooted in a corrupted human nature, we are slaves to sin. But if the Spirit of Life has set us free and transplanted us into a new nature, then the ability to choose righteousness becomes available to us. This is the freedom, the great opportunity, to serve that righteousness, which leads to eternal life, rather than of our sin, which leads to death.

But that’s not all. Once growing on the new vine, the Spirit begins to actively change us to make us more like Jesus. As the graft takes hold, we should be getting stronger and stronger every day. Sin should be less attractive and more repulsive. Righteousness should be getting more and more natural to us. And someday, when we stand in glory in the very presence of God, we will finally and perfectly live lives of only righteousness, fully in accord with our incorruptible nature.

And that brings us to our fourth stave…

Stave 4: The Spirit of Christ, Future - GloryThe Spirit of Christ, Future
Glory

Where is this all going? What is the Spirit of God going to do? Having adopted us into His family and made us sons and daughters, God will, by His Spirit, raise us bodily from the dead and ensure our inheritance. Look at vv10-11…

Our Glorious Resurrection

If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom 8:10-11)

This is why it was important to establish the contrast Paul is making in this chapter between flesh and spirit, to understand that he is not anticipating some kind of escape from our physical bodies. To the contrary, Paul is eagerly awaiting our physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. And so should we! When Jesus rose from the dead, He became the first of an entirely new humanity … not just in our nature, but physically in our individual bodies. It is our future to be raised bodily from the dead as Jesus was and to share in that new humanity, dwelling in the presence of God for eternity. And as you can see in the text, it is the Spirit’s indwelling power which makes this new life possible.

I love the way John puts it in his 1st epistle…

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. (1 John 3:2)

That is an amazing statement … that when He appears, we will be like Him. Note that this is exactly what Paul says at the end of our passage, in v19 … that “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” What we will be has not yet been revealed, but how glorious it will be when that revelation occurs. The very fabric of the universe groans in anticipation of that day … the day of our glorious resurrection, and also our glorious inheritance.

Our Glorious Inheritance

In fact, look at vv14-17. I put a summary of that paragraph on the screen…

All who are led by the Spirit of God are … children of God … and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Rom 8:14, 17a)

So, we will have life because we have been adopted, and therefore we are sons and daughters rather than slaves to sin (8:2) and enemies of God (8:7). And if children, then heirs, but heirs of what?

Heirs of glory! Heirs of the life available in the new vine. Heirs of the very presence of God. Heirs of being made like Christ, joined with Christ, dwelling with Christ for eternity. But Paul doesn’t stop there. We are not just heirs of God, but fellow heirs with Christ. Amazingly, we will inherit what He inherits. We are not and will we not in any sense be gods, but we will be kings, ruling under King Jesus in the eternal kingdom.

I love CS Lewis’ imagery of the kings and queens of Narnia, who ruled the nation under Aslan, the Great King.

Kings and Queens of Narnia

This is a phenomenal expression of the Kingdom of God. God promises that we will reign with Christ as underkings and creation will finally be what God intended it to be – no more sin, no more sorrow, no more death. Just the King and the King’s children, tending the garden, but this time in glory.

This is the great Christian hope!

But there are two verses in the text which we haven’t yet addressed, and they bring us to our final stave.

Stave 5: Choose Life in the Spirit!Choose Life in the Spirit!

Our new lives in Christ are earned entirely by Jesus and given to us by God entirely according to His grace. But, in addition to everything we’ve discussed here, the text makes it clear that this new life requires something very significant from us as well.

Look back at vv13-18. Again, I’ve truncated this a bit in the middle for the sake of brevity.

If you live according to the flesh, then you will die. But if, by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, then you will live.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons [and daughters] of God … and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:13-18)

What these verses boil down to is that you have to make a choice. Yes, God loves you and sent His Son to die for you. Yes, God then sent His Spirit to transfer you from death to life, adopt you, unite you with Christ, slowly transform you to be more like Jesus, and ultimately to resurrect you and glorify you in eternity. God did all that in His Son through the power of His Spirit. This is the Spirit’s carol.

We have to choose

But God grants you this new life if and only if, by the Spirit, you “put to death the deeds of the body” and “suffer with [Jesus].”

Here’s how Paul puts it in Galatians…

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

It might be easy to overthink passages like these and try to get into the mechanics of how “dying to self” or “being crucified with Christ” works. But that’s a rabbit trail. I think the best way to summarize what Paul is saying here is this that God is calling you to give up everything about your old sinful nature and choose to be transplanted. The Spirit does all the work of transplanting and indwelling and resurrecting and ensuring your inheritance. The work you have to do is willingly to be cut from the old vine. You must choose to die to one vine in order to live to another.

We must make a choice

God is calling you to make an all-encompassing, irrevocable, eternal-life-securing choice.

He isn’t calling you to try harder to be good or tackle some particular circumstance in your life differently. He wants you to trade all that you are – a dying branch on a withering vine planted in poisoned soil – for all that He is – abundant and eternal life. You can have one or the other, but you can’t have both.

Let’s Pray!

So that this time, if you already belong to the Lord Jesus, then I would ask you to pray for those who do not.

And if you’re listening to me and you cannot remember a specific time in your life that you gave your heart and life to Jesus Christ, then I challenge you to choose life! Do not leave here today uncertain about this. In a second, I’m going to lead us in a prayer of surrender and commitment to God, inviting the Spirit to do what only He can do – to transfer you from death to life. And if that’s truly the desire of your heart, then pray with me, ask God, and He will do it.

But I warn you, God knows your heart. This is no Disney sorcerer’s incantation to inoculate you from hell. It’s a commitment to a lifetime of surrendering your will and choosing Christ. But if you sincerely desire Him, then you can have Him right now, and tomorrow, and every day thereafter … for all eternity.

So, let’s all bow are heads and close our eyes, and if it is your desire to belong to God, then pray with me…

Father God. I am unworthy to be called your child. I’m selfish and sinful and I have lived my life for myself. But I see now that my sin leads only to death, and I want to live. I want you more than I want anything that this world has to offer. I acknowledge that there is nothing I could do in myself to earn your love or fulfill your law, because you are a righteous and holy God. But I also know that your Son Jesus died on the cross in my place to take the penalty for my sin, and that He rose again in power to make a way for me to be born again into a new life with you. And so, on that basis alone, Lord, I am asking you to rescue me from my wicked and selfish ways, and to make me your child. Send your Spirit into my life, Father, and make me a new creation. Transplant me from death in the flesh to life by your Spirit. I surrender my life; it is no longer mine, but yours. I am crucifying with Christ all that I am, because You have promised to give me all that you are in its place. And that is better by far. Make it so, Lord, for I put my whole trust in you and in your promise of eternal life. And I know, you are faithful to do it. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer with me today, then I declare to you – in the name of the Father who is for you, and of the Son who is with you, and of the Holy Spirit is in you – that you have been born again. You are no longer dead in sin, but alive in Christ! And all of heaven is rejoicing right now, because you, a lost sinner, have come home. The Spirit has come upon you, and will live in you forever, changing you from the inside out, until someday you stand before God in glory in His Kingdom.

Tree of Life

And we in this church are a part of that journey. So, if you gave your life to Jesus today, please come see me after the service. I’ll be in the back by the gathering place, along with some of our elders. We’d love to meet you, and we have a gift for you to help you take the first few steps in your journey with Jesus. Also, as was mentioned in the announcements, there is a four week essentials class beginning next week during the middle hour between services. We would love to have you join us for that, where you can learn more about Jesus, ask questions, get answers, investigate the Scriptures, and develop relationships with others in the church. I hope you will avail yourself of that opportunity.

And with that, I would ask the worship team to come back up. We’re going to pray, sing one more song, and then close our time together.

Father, I thank you for your word, which proclaims truth and life to us. I thank you for your Spirit, who moves in us and changes us! I thank you for your love … more precious and more profound and more present than we could possibly understand. Even now there may be those in this room who are wrestling with you, struggling with the idea of laying down their lives (which are perishing) to pick up life that can never perish. Even during this song and these last few moments, Lord, would you conquer fears and idols, and declare yourself to be King over every heart within the hearing of my voice.

We trust you. We submit to you. And we look to you for life itself, in the Spirit. We pray all these things in the powerful name of your Son Jesus, who lives and reigns, now and forever.

Amen.


Image credit:
1) All slide graphics cortesy of 300dpi.
2) All movie stills courtesy of IMDB.
3) Charles Dickens’ London – Summerland Singers
4) Charles Dickens – Wikipedia
5) Kings and Queens of Narnia – WikiNarnia
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A Kingdom Life of Turning Aside

Just Sitting Together

I’m sitting this morning in a busy Starbucks — one of the places I frequent in the mornings before classes. At the big table, a group of teenagers does more talking about love interests than working on homework. Two middle-aged couples sit outside, talking and laughing in the gorgeous fall morning. Three professionals drinking lattes are clearly hammering out the details of a business deal at another outside table. And a few earbud-laden individuals are scattered throughout the coffee shop. Starbucks Order OnlineBut the vast majority of the people flowing in and out are picking up orders they placed online. They walk in briskly, talking or texting, most sporting earbuds. They grab their coffee from a “Get your mobile orders here” area, some along with a paper bag full of breakfast they clearly plan to eat in the car on the way to … something. Maybe they notice those who are behind them as they race in the door, and prevent it from slamming in their faces. Maybe they call out a quick “Thank you” for their order … to nobody in particular. And occasionally the barista even responds. But I’d estimate that a solid 90% of these transactions occur without one person uttering a single, solitary word to another human being. Even when they have to wait — GASP! — for their online order to appear, they stand alone waiting for their name to be called, buds in ears, face in phone. Alone. Waiting. In some cases, visibly (or even audibly) impatient.

Time Delay ExpresswayMy grandfather on my mom’s side has been dead for many years now, but I have many wonderful memories of him. One time when I was a boy, maybe 13 or so years old. I was standing with him on his back porch. From our vantage point, we could just see through the trees the hundreds of cars racing by on the nearby expressway — built near his house decades after the house itself was constructed. My grandfather (in his 80’s at the time) stared in silence for a while at the cars racing by, and then said softly to nobody in particular, “Where is everyone going in such a hurry?” I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

He had a point … and that was 30 years ago. It seems to me that Chicago’s terrifyingly-high-speed expressways, crowded drive-thrus, online ordering and microwaved breakfasts hastily gobbled out of little paper bags while navigating the afore-mentioned terrifying expressways all beg the same question my grandfather asked, “Where is everyone going in such a hurry?”

Jesus didn’t live like that.

Man Racing Through LifeI know, I know; life was different in those days. There weren’t any drive-thrus or smartphones back then, but the tendencies of the human heart haven’t changed. Online ordering is just the latest phenomenon with the power to impact our lives for good or ill. And I contend that it’s the latest factor in the ongoing trend to disconnect us from one another and dehumanize us. It seems to me that people love to confidently declare technology to be neutral, and I suppose I can’t argue the point philosophically. But I also can’t help but feel a deep sense of loss watching all these people race in and out of here, carefully avoiding all human interaction.

What’s wrong with ordering my coffee online and racing in while on a call to pick it up? Well, nothing in and of itself, I guess. But if this is representative of a life packed with activity … always moving … always racing to something … with blinders firmly affixed … focused on making the next light or getting around the car in front of me which is only going 10 mph over the speed limit … with no time to turn aside when the Holy Spirit whispers something in my ear … assuming I’d be able to hear Him anyway through the noise in my earbuds … etc …

Then that life is in danger.Caution Danger Ahead

Not of failing to get it all done.
Not of being late to the office.
But of missing out on the Kingdom of God.

Jesus proclaimed that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). God’s Kingdom brings with it a new kind of citizenship … a new kind of life … a life of worship, obedience, and walking with God as His child … a life of what I call “turning aside.” Jesus modeled this kind of life for His followers and He calls us to it still today. And I’m quite sure He expects that kind of life to characterize His followers despite the development of Starbucks, expressways, mobile ordering, and the rest.

What does it mean to turn aside?

At it’s heart, the life of turning aside is a life of love and margin. It means we care enough about God and our neighbors, and have built space enough into our lives, to be able to see what’s happening around us and respond to it. In the early stages of its development, this life reacts to what it observes in the other lives around it … even when that reaction isn’t on today’s agenda. Then, as we become more like Jesus, the lives around us increasingly become today’s agenda.

In other words, the one who knows and loves Jesus isn’t going anywhere important enough to prevent her from diverting a little time from the day’s agenda to love her neighbor. And as she becomes more like Jesus, loving her neighbor increasingly becomes her day’s agenda.

What did this look like for Jesus?

A prostitute washes Jesus' feetIf there was ever a person important enough, and doing work important enough, to walk by the needs of others to “stay on task,” it was Jesus. Particularly in the Gospel of Mark, we see Jesus portrayed as a man of action … always on the move. But we never see Jesus too busy to turn aside. And if we watch Him long enough, we clearly see that the people around Him are the mission.

Jesus enjoyed a very full and active career as an itinerate preacher (Mark 1:39). His days were so full and the demands others placed on Him were so great that He had to get up “very early in the morning, while it was still dark” and “withdraw to a desolate place” in order to pray (1:35) — which, by the way, is the most important and profound form of “turning aside” in the Christian life.

Jesus traveled all over Palestine. He always had somewhere to be. But He was never too busy teaching people about the Kingdom of God (Mark 4:26-32, 12:1-12; c.f. Matthew 13, and many more) to pray over children (Mark 10:13-16) or heal a lifelong cripple (2:1-12), to cast out demons (5:1-17) or rebuke hypocritical religious leaders who were oppressing the sheep they were called to Shepherd (12:37-40).

Let’s zoom in on a couple specific examples…

Lepers and Prostitutes

Jesus heals a leperIn Jesus’ day, lepers “unclean.” They weren’t even allowed near “normal” folk. So, when we see Jesus healing lepers (Mark 1:40-42), we know that Jesus sought out, or at least actively condoned, the encounter. The same is true for prostitutes (14:3-9), for gentiles (7:14ff), and for women (7:24-30). Good Jewish boys like Jesus were expected not to associate with any of these people. Nonetheless, Jesus clearly spent a lot of time on the wrong side of the tracks. Successful, influential rabbis don’t accidentally end up hanging out in leper colonies, ghettos and red-light districts. That requires a hefty portion of intentionally turning aside.

Little Girls and Sick Women

In another instance, a man named Jairus, one of the rulers of the synagogue, asks Jesus to heal his daughter, who is deathly ill (Mark 5:21ff). Jesus walks away from a day of teaching in the synagogue, and follows the man home to heal his sick little girl. But on the way, He gets interrupted again — this time by an woman with a bleeding disorder. The woman touches the hem of Jesus’ robe, and is healed. But Jesus isn’t satisfied with just healing her. Rather than continuing on his way down the crowded street like a man on a mission, Jesus stops His whole entourage to love on and speak into the life of this woman. Then he continues on to Jairus’ house, and raises his daughter from the dead.

Jesus Raises Jairus' DaughterJesus didn’t start His day with any of this on the agenda. The Spirit brought interruptions which Jesus welcomed into His life.

First, Jairus interrupts Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue, and Jesus leaves with him. He could have been too busy “doing church.” He could have said, “I’m sorry; I’ll pray for you.” He could even have phoned in healing from a distance (c.f. Mark 7:24-30; Luke 7:1-10), but He didn’t. He deviated from His agenda, and went to the man’s house to help him and his family.

Second, He interrupted His journey to talk to a sick woman. And although she is the bottom of the cultural food chain (an unclean woman), He takes time for her and makes all the men, including Jairus (an important religious leader), wait for that. Again, it’s not a speed healing (or one ordered online), it’s one that involves relationship … Jesus takes the time to speak with her about her faith.

So, Jesus was willing to interrupt His plans — undoubtedly good plans — to turn aside and care for others who came into His life needing help. He built space enough into His life (margin) to notice people around Him and act on what He saw (love). Is that because He wasn’t busy? No. It was because He perceived Himself to be a servant and His life to be available to the Spirit of God. He gave the Spirit the authority to interrupt His plans and perspective, then He listened and obeyed.

As an aside, both the woman (who was bleeding) and the girl (who was dead) Jesus cared for were ceremonially unclean. It’s hard for us, in our culture, to understand the significance of that, but interacting with them would have been as shocking as letting a prostitute wash His feet. Jesus, a well-renown Jewish Rabbi, is actually touching (GASP!) lepers, bleeding women, and dead little girls. Talk about flagrantly disregarding cultural expectations! If “turning aside” is adopting a “love God, love your neighbor” agenda instead of a “get ahead in this world” agenda, then this too is a great example.

As Well as All the Rest of Us

Because I can’t help myself, I also have to mention that the incarnation itself — leading to the cross — is the ultimate act of turning aside…

Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
(Philippians 2:6-8)

In every conceivable way, Jesus’ life is the ultimate model for us of humility and service.

What does “turning aside” look like for us?

None of us is busier or more important that Jesus was. And the bottom line is that God has called us to a life of turning aside (see Matthew 25:31ff).

Accident Modern Good Samaritan

See Luke 10:25-37

I get that we have meetings to get to at work, but that doesn’t make it okay to race past the homeless guy while on the phone every single day for years. Consider moving tomorrow’s meeting by 30 minutes, buying the guy a Big Mac (2 for $5 these days), and listening to his story for a few min while he eats it.

I get that we’ve got a lot going on at home and with homework and kids’ sports schedule (etc), but that doesn’t make it okay to not know our neighbors’ names (let alone a few details about their lives). Consider going for a walk before dinner tonight and stopping to talk to someone for just one minute — something more than a “hi” and a wave. This weekend, make cookies and take them to the neighbors on either side you, and apologize that it’s taken you 8 years (or whatever) to welcome yourself to the neighborhood. See where it goes!

Visiting the Sick

See Matthew 8:1-17

Throw a block party. Get coffee with someone. Invite a coworker to lunch. Really listen to your child’s day. Schedule one less meeting/day next week, so you can make extra trips to the water cooler. Learn names. Ask about their kids. Visit a person from church you know is sick. Take someone a meal.

Or here’s a crazy idea… Ask someone who they think Jesus is or what they’ve done with God in their lives. Maybe you could start with the barista at Starbucks (whether or not you ordered your latte online).

The sky’s the limit. But to do any of it, we need margin and love — the space and willingness to notice and act. God would give us both, but only if we put down some of the things already in our hands. This will cost you something, but it will be worth it.

Make it a point tomorrow to notice the people you’re racing by. Ask God to give you a sense of the value of their immortal souls. Then ask Him for the grace and strength to begin to make different choices — to buy love for these people at the cost of other things in your life which are less important. This is the life of turning aside … the life that values others over our agendas … the life in which the Kingdom of God has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven …

The life that it a lot like Jesus.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  -Jesus (Mark 8:34-35)


Image Credit:
1) Just sitting together – Cornerstones for Parents
2) Starbucks mobile ordering – Starbucks Newsroom
3) Time-delayed expressway – Techcrunch.com
4) Business man running – LinkedIn article “Is it worthwhile to be in a hurry?” by Viktoria Palffy
5) Danger ahead – Day Trading Academy
6) A prostitute weeps on Jesus’ feet (see Mark 14:3-9) – 1517 The Legacy Project
7) Modern Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37) – Scary Mommy blog
8) Visiting the sick (see Matthew 8:1-17) – LDS Media Library
9) Jesus cleanses a leper – Tell the Lord Thank You blog
10) Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter – Principles of Jesus Christ blog
Posted in Bible Stories, Real Life, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Only the Empty will be Full

A sermon manuscript on Luke 18:9-30, prepared for Life Bridge Community Church
(recorded audio | sermon notes)

Only the Empty will be Full

Introduction

A few years back, I wanted to put together a special dinner for my wife Faith for her birthday. I had dinner planned, but I wanted something really great for desert. So, on one of my many birthday-preparation errands, I’m standing in CostCo holding a big, beautiful strawberry cheesecake in my hands thinking, “CostCo cheesecake … that’s special, right?! And only $10 (or whatever it was back then). Score!”

Costco Strawberry CheesecakeFortunately, the guardian angel of happy marriages reminded me that Faith might feel a little more loved and special if I chose a dessert she likes … something like tiramisu, which is her favorite dessert, not cheesecake, which is one of my favorite desserts. So, I put the cheesecake down, and started looking for tiramisu.

Tiramisu

And here’s where I got in trouble. I thought, “If buying Faith tiramisu is good, then making her tiramisu will be amazing.” So, I did some quick homework on my phone looking up tiramisu recipes, and headed off to a smaller-than-CostCo-sized grocery store to buy the ingredients. A couple hours and $60 of ingredients later, I’m standing in our kitchen intensely focused on creating my very first tiramisu masterpiece. But this thing was fancy! It required ingredients I had never heard of. It involved dozens of non-trivial steps. I’m whipping and separating and doing other things to ingredients that I don’t understand and had never heard. The recipe even called for baking utensils we didn’t own. But no worries, I’m a smart guy and I’m determined. So, I improvised and worked hard and eventually … and we’re talking another couple of hours later … the oven timer chimed to indicate my baby was ready! I dropped my book, raced excitedly to the oven, and pulled out … a Pyrex vat of sweet soup with lady finger floaters.

It was totally inedible, and we literally ended up throwing it away.

Sad Panda

As it turns out, I didn’t have the right ingredients, I didn’t have the right utensils, and I didn’t have the skill to interact with them properly anyway. Then I tried to substitute improvisation and hard work for the right skills and tools, and that made things worse. I had bitten off more than I could chew, and disaster had resulted.

So now, on Faith’s birthday, I have a standing date with one of our favorite Italian restaurants, where I purchase take-out tiramisu, baked by a professional, and it’s absolutely perfect every time.

And as silly as that story is, I think it begins to illustrate what God is teaching us in the passage today. So, keep my failed tiramisu experiment in mind, let’s pray, and then we’ll dig into God’s word together.

Prayer for Illumination

Father in heaven, thank you for calling us together today under the priceless instruction of your word. None of us in this room needs my knowledge or skill or ability this morning. What we need is you. Speak to us. Open our hearts to see you and comprehend your truth and to obey your word. Many of us have heard the stories we’ll be discussing many times. Protect us, Lord, from carelessness and over-familiarity and distraction in these next moments. Cause us to attend carefully to your word and to take it seriously!

Holy Spirit, fall afresh on us. Do in us what we cannot do for ourselves, that we me might take your word to heart and put it into practice. We submit ourselves to you today that you might be glorified in us. Have your way in this message and in this service and in our lives, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Invitation to turn to the passage

If you don’t have your bibles open to Luke 18, please get God’s word in front of you now. Again, our Scripture for today is Luke 18:9-30. Please follow along for yourself as we work through this passage.

Primary Claim Statement

If I were to boil today’s message down into a single sentence, it would be this:

Those who fill themselves, God will truly empty; those who empty themselves, God will truly fill.

Organizational Sentence

I believe Luke is showing us three scenes from the life of Jesus which teach this principle in different ways. So, we’ll walk through each scene, consider the audience, the characters, and what Jesus is teaching in each, and then pull it all together and apply it to our lives.

Ready? Let’s dive in.

Scene 1: Only the Humble will be Exalted

Parable: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector – You can’t make yourself righteous

He (Jesus) told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the other (the Pharisee). For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

The Audience

Here, Luke explicitly tell us (in v9) that Jesus is speaking to “some who trusted in their own righteousness, and treated others with contempt.” We get the picture of a group of people who spend their days secure in the confident assurance that a) they’re the right kind of people, and b) others are the wrong kind of people.

The Characters

The Pharisee

In case we’re having trouble visualizing the kind of person for whom Jesus intended this story, the Pharisee in the story provides us with a clear example. In Jesus’ day, a Pharisee was a leader in both the local synagogue and the community at large. The modern equivalent might be someone who is both an elder in the church and who serves on the city council. He might even be a prominent leader in the business community. In any event, this is the kind of person of whom people take note when he walks down Main Street. Everyone expects great things from him. Young people about town want to be like him when they grow up. Etc.

He’s also done good things with his life, and avoided many of the sinful choices that have tripped up others.

The problem is that he knows it.

In fact, he feels good enough about his life that he is totally justified in his own mind to be standing in judgment over the other person who happens to be at temple with him this afternoon.

The Tax Collector

This guy is a tax collector. Frankly, people in Jesus’ day viewed tax collectors pretty much as the scum of the earth. In that time, if you were an unscrupulous person who wanted an easy way to amass wealth and power could petition Rome and bid on the position of local tax collector: “If you make me the tax collector in Galilee, I’ll get you 100 talents from this town every year.” If you’re the highest bidder (and/or bribe or blackmail the right people), then you get the job. So, with Rome’s blessing and the support of the military, you now have a blank check to squeeze as much as you can out of your local town – as long as Rome gets their 100 talents a year. Maybe you can pillage your friends and neighbors for 300 talents, and if you do, you get to keep the rest. Now that is a lucrative business! And there’s nothing that says you have to charge everyone the same amount, so you are free to adopt special friends-and-family discounts for one person while arbitrarily gouging the next.

And the icing on the cake is that this guy is betraying his fellow Jews to the Gentile Roman oppressors who invaded his homeland, and getting rich in the process.

To put it mildly, the people originally listening to this story absolutely hated tax collectors.

The Scene

So, what happens in Jesus’ parable? The Pharisee a pious Jew, is the good guy here. He draws up to his fully height, squares his shoulders, and basks before the Lord in his own personal righteousness.

“I’m such a great guy. I’m so well-respected in this community. And I’ve done such great things for God. In fact, how convenient that God has brought along this tax collector to highlight the contrast between my good choices and his bad ones.”

Great idea! Let’s contrast this with the tax collector. In contrast with the Pharisee, he’s on his knees off at a distance. He won’t come all the way up to the altar or even look up to heaven. He’s literally beating himself up. He’s ashamed and sad. Maybe he feels trapped or regrets his life, but doesn’t see a way out. Maybe he knows he’s weak and corruptible and just not strong enough to “be good” … like that Pharisee over there. Maybe it was just last night that God used someone or something to finally get through to him after all these years, and now he’s kneeling at the door of the temple in true repentance at long last. We don’t know. But what we do know is that right now, at this moment, he is acutely aware of his sin and asking God to have mercy on him.

Jesus, watching this drama unfold, turns to us to explain it. We would expect Him to set the Pharisee up as a good example and condemn the sinful choices of the tax collector. But Jesus doesn’t say what we’d expect Him to. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. He declares that the tax collector “went down to his house justified” (note the perfect passive form), and implies by contrast that the Pharisee will not.

The Lesson

Doesn’t that seem completely backwards? I mean for someone who doesn’t know Jesus very well, this sounds utterly ridiculous. And even those of us who have walked with Jesus for a long time – if we’re really honest – might be tempted to see this as unjust somehow.

From a bunch of different angles, the Pharisee has done everything right and the tax collector has done everything wrong. Is Jesus seriously telling us that God discounts all the good works this Pharisee has done just because he got a little cocky about it? … and that all this betraying, thieving tax collector has to do is show up at God’s house and beg him for mercy, and somehow all is forgiven?

Yes. That’s pretty much exactly what Jesus is saying. Look at the way He ends the story. He flatly tells us its moral,

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

But how does this work? Why is it true?

1. No one can earn God’s approval, except Jesus

First, because no one can earn God’s approval, except Jesus. One of the reasons we’re so taken aback by this story is that we think God should be grading on a curve. Because we judge the Pharisee to be “better than” the tax collector, we think God should too. But He doesn’t. In God’s economy, there’s “perfect” and there’s “not perfect.” That’s it! Every grade is pass-fail. There are no curves or scales or shades of gray. Whatever it looks like on the surface, everyone fails the perfection “test,” so there is no one who is good enough for God. Period.

Put another way, the anyone who tries to build a life of righteousness and worthiness before God, does not in fact have the ability or the ingredients or the utensils to do so. You might think you do, but you don’t. Even if we’re smart, improvise and work hard – just like I did trying to make Tiramisu for Faith – in the end, we just don’t have what it takes to build a heaven-bound, godly life. If we want that life, we must receive it from Jesus. He is the only one qualified to create that life in us. Just like I learned my lesson, gave up trying to make Tiramisu, and now get it from a professional, so we must learn our lesson, give up trying to build a life worthy of God, and receive that life from Him.

2. We don’t take the cross seriously enough

Secondly, I think we find Jesus’ assessment of this scenario to be shocking and disconcerting, because we don’t take the cross seriously enough. The reality is that Jesus’ sacrifice is the only way to God.

Like the Pharisee, it’s possible to walk around expressing to God in our hearts that we’re amazing and that He owes us for all our great deeds and hard work. But this attitude communicates that the cross of Christ is unnecessary. It tells God that we’ve got this life handled on our own. We are exalting ourselves. And if we do, then God will pour out all our righteous deeds and consider them worthless compared to His brilliant holiness and the profound value of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Meanwhile, the Tax Collector is a much better role model for us. He knows he has nothing to offer God. He is humbled. He acknowledges his emptiness before God, and calls out to God for mercy. And therefore (assuming it is genuine), Jesus says He will receive it. He is empty, so God will fill him up. This is the life of the Christ-follower … to acknowledge that we don’t have what it takes to be what God wants us to be. Only God can create in us the life we were meant to have.

We don’t look to our good works to please God and empower us to live the Christian life; we look to God’s Spirit to empower us because Christ gave His life for us.

Why bother?

One other question before we move on to the next section of the text…

Does all this mean that the Pharisee’s good deeds are somehow invalidated? Does it mean that he shouldn’t have bothered to make good choices? Should he have chosen a life of laziness or even sin, because it’s all up to God anyway?

Absolutely not! In fact, Scripture teaches us that God saves us explicitly so that we will do good works … so much so that He planned them for us before the creation of the world (Ephesians 2:10).

[Animation: Because the way we love God … and because it’s about the heart]
The point is that Jesus is focused on the heart. The Pharisee’s problem isn’t in doing righteous deeds, but in trusting in his righteous deeds, in assuming that he has made himself great by his righteous deeds, and in his readiness to condemn others as unworthy and beneath him because they lack his righteous deeds. His focus is in entirely the wrong place. It’s not wrong to do right, it’s wrong to believe that doing right earns God’s love or makes you better than others or gives you the right to condemn them.

The real danger the Pharisee is flirting with here is dismissing Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as unnecessary, and considering the tax collector to be outside the reach of that same sacrifice. In contrast, the true redeeming quality of the tax collector is that he has thrown himself, as bad as he is, on God’s mercy.

The question for us is the same as it is for them: Do we really believe that the sacrifice Jesus made is our only hope to go down to our homes today justified? Can we truly say that we’re trusting Jesus, not ourselves, for the everyday conduct of our lives?

If we chase after righteousness on our own, we will not catch it. If we trust our own righteousness to hold us up, it will not do to. But if we chase Jesus and put our full weight on Him, then no matter what else it costs us, God will fill us until we are unimaginably full … adopted, enjoying heavenly citizenship, and reclining with God at His table forever.

Working hard to be righteous isn’t our goal.
The Christian life is about Jesus’ righteousness, not mine.

Scene 2: Only the Simple will be Made Wise

Parable: Jesus Blesses the Children

Let the Children Come – You can’t make yourself wise

Look back at the passage, vv15-17…

Now they were bringing even infants to him (Jesus) that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
(Luke 18:15-17 ESV)

The Audience

Jesus’ disciples are the audience of this second scene. It’s not just the 12 disciples closest to Jesus, but probably a much larger crowd around him.

The Characters

The Parents and the “Clever” Disciples”

This crowd breaks down into two groups. Some are bringing their small children to Jesus that He might bless them and pray for them. Others are trying to screen Jesus’ calls, and stop group 1 from “bothering” Jesus.

Jesus

Then there’s Jesus, who rebukes this second group of disciples and encourages the first. Jesus is neither too busy nor too important for the children or for their anxious parents.

The Children

And that brings us to the children themselves. They aren’t portrayed here as taking much initiative; rather, they’re kind of dragged along by their parents to see Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t say that the Kingdom of God belongs to the parents of little children who bring their kids to receive a blessing. He says that the only way to enter His Kingdom is to be like the children themselves.

The Scene

So, what does that mean? What’s really going on here?

First, we see a group of disciples – parents – coming to a local Rabbi in search of a blessing for their children. This was commonplace in Jesus’ day.

Second, we see a group of disciples who feel they are in a position to manage Jesus’ schedule and control who comes to Him. They see themselves as having the inside track compared to the others in the crowd, and on their own initiative, they just start turning people away. Jesus is too important. He’s too busy. He’s got time for me, but not for you. He’s let me into His circle, but now that I’m on the inside, the circle is full.

Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that they get themselves in trouble speaking for God here. And that’s exactly what happens. Jesus makes it clear that His time is for everyone. His Kingdom doesn’t have self-appointed insiders or membership qualifications that exclude certain groups of people. And the result is that the kids and their parents are blessed, and the other disciples learn a valuable lesson.

The Lesson

But here again, and I love this about Jesus, the lesson they learn isn’t what you might expect it to be. Jesus doesn’t stop at rebuking the disciples or at making sure the kids feel welcome. Instead, as usual, He uses this opportunity to make a profound (and profoundly unexpected) statement about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Not just, “don’t turn the children away” or “don’t presume to speak for me,” but “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Why not? What does this mean? I think this is an intentional contrast between the children and the disciples who were turning their parents away. These folks thought they were smart enough to manage the Kingdom and its purposes. But the children aren’t trying to be clever or manage anything. They’re simple. I can picture their eyes sparkling as they sit on Jesus’ lap and He engages them in conversation and laughs with them and makes funny faces and prays for them. They don’t know what it means that He’s a prophet. They’re not trying to control everything going on. They just love being with Jesus.

Little children just want to be with their fathers

Little children have a whole different way of looking at the world. They don’t try to figure out what mom and dad do at work all day or how they’re going to make mortgage payments. Little children just want to sit on your lap or listen to a story or snuggle in bed or play a game. Little children just want to be with their fathers.

And that’s God’s vision for us as well. God isn’t looking for quasi-equal partners or department managers or a competent ministerial staff. He wants to adopt rebellious street kids and make them children of the King. The problem is that we don’t see ourselves as simple and dependent children, but as mature adults who have moved out, are independent, and have everything under control in our own right.

Think about how close that comes to saying that we will ascend the mountain and make ourselves like the Most-High (Isaiah 14:13-14). Beware! God delights in using the simple things in this world to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). God might very well pour out all our self-inflated “knowledge,” so that He can teach us who He really is on His terms. And if we’re too sure of our maturity, we might even find that we have no share in the Kingdom we think we know so much about.

Instead, let’s learn from these children, and simply come to Jesus. Because if our joy comes from just being with Jesus rather than trying to figure everything out all the time… If we make a point of letting Him figure out the hard stuff and simply trust Him to get it right… Then, Jesus says, the Kingdom of Heaven is for us.

Working hard to be wise isn’t our goal.
The Christian life is about Jesus’ wisdom, not mine.

Scene 3: Only the Poor will be Made Rich

Parable: The Rich Young Ruler walks away from Jesus

The Rich Young Ruler walks away from Jesus – You can’t make yourself rich

Moving on to the last story in our passage. Look at vv18-25…

A ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And [the ruler] said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when [the other man] heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:18-25 ESV)

The Audience

Again, the audience here is Jesus’ disciples. There are probably also at least some “disciples” gathered around the ruler as well, waiting to see what answer Jesus gives to his questions.

The Characters

The Ruler

So, who is the “ruler” Luke mentions? First, he seems to respect Jesus and be His follower at some level. I don’t get the impression that he’s been sent by the Jewish Elders to trap Jesus with trick questions. In fact, in Mark’s version of this story (c.f. Mark 10:17-30), the man “ran up and knelt before Jesus” to ask this question. So I think his question is genuine; he’s one disciple among many. But he’s no commoner. He’s a “ruler” of some kind, a secular leader, and the text clearly says that he is “extremely rich” (v23). Matthew (c.f. 19:16-29) adds that he is also young. So, he’s rich, young and enjoys significant earthly authority.

Jesus

The other person in the scene is Jesus Himself, who, from an earthly perspective, has very little of the wealth and power the other man enjoys. Of course, we know that Jesus enjoys supreme authority, and the “rich, young ruler” must have at least some inkling of that authority, because he has come to get an answer from Jesus to a burning question.

The Setup

I suspect this young man, whom the world would say has it all, has come to Jesus to ask this question because he is haunted by the fear that “having it all” isn’t enough. It’s conjecture, but I think in his mind, he sees Jesus as the one holding the keys to unlock his next conquest. I can imagine his listening to Jesus teach, thinking, “Surely as gifted as I am, Jesus can teach me how to get in on this Kingdom of God thing.” I think the man fundamentally believes that his earthly wealth (and prestige and power) are the tools he will use to amass for himself heavenly wealth (and prestige and power), and wants Jesus to tell him how to do that.

But it doesn’t work that way.

The Scene

As He so often does, Jesus cuts straight through the man’s faulty reasoning, and gets directly to the heart of the matter. When Jesus explains that only God is good and references the ten commandments, what I hear Him saying is that a) the Kingdom of God requires perfection, b) perfection requires obedience to the Law, and c) obedience to the Law is unattainable by human effort. In other words, the man asks Jesus how to secure eternal life, and Jesus is telling him, “Nobody can secure for themselves eternal life. You can only receive it if God gives it to you.”

But the guy doesn’t get it. He hears Jesus listing the ten commandments, and I imagine he’s thinking to himself, “Check. Check. Me. That’s me. Oh, I’m really close on this one. Etc.” He’s perfectly happy with his own achievements in all these areas, and he assumes God is too. I’m sure for a brief moment he’s thinking, “Maybe attaining this eternal life thing won’t be that hard. Sounds like I’ve already got a big piece of this sown up (having never murdered anyone, etc.)!”

The Lesson

But then Jesus drops the bomb. And whatever elation this man is feeling evaporates instantly. Rather than showing him how to take his success to the next level, Jesus explains that the secret to going forward in the Kingdom of Heaven is going backwards on earth. The man thinks that his current wealth and power are the platform on which he will build a tower to heaven. (That sounds familiar; see Genesis 11:1-9). But Jesus tells him that no tower he could build on earth can reach heaven or will remain in eternity. Instead, what would really benefit him is to dismantle what he’s already built, give it all away, and then follow Jesus. THEN, God will make eternal life accessible to the man completely and totally out of Jesus’ resources, not his.

So, as He watches the other man walk away dejected, Jesus clearly spells out what we should be taking away from this exchange. He says, “how difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

The difficult truth is that earthly wealth is not helpful in attaining heavenly wealth; in fact, it’s likely to be a hindrance. In this world, it’s easy to fill ourselves with earthly riches that cannot last because we don’t understand what true wealth really is. Jesus corrects our thinking. He explains that to take care of the poor and follow Jesus … that is the real treasure. But the rich, young ruler can’t accept that. He’s too enamored with what he already holds in his hands, so when Jesus offers to hand him something of far greater value … eternal value, he is unable to receive it. His assumption is that he can have it all, but he’s wrong. And our culture says the same thing; it’s wrong too. We assume that we can add eternal life onto the pile of all the material possessions and experiences that we “have to have” in this life.

But the truth is that you can’t have it all. Jesus would encourage us to reconsider what we “have to have.”

Now, I’ve heard it said that “it’s not a problem to own things; rather, it’s a problem when your things own you.” This sounds good, and I would say it’s probably true. But the problem with this line of thinking is the deceptiveness of the human heart (c.f. Jeremiah 17:9-10). We fail to appreciate just how weak and sinful we really are. The reality is that it’s much easier for your things to own you than you think it is.

Put another way, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for you to accumulate earthly treasure and escape its owning you and interfering with your accumulation of heavenly treasure.

Working hard to be rich isn’t our goal.
The Christian life is about Jesus’ riches, not mine.

Conclusion

I’d like to take the remaining time we have together this morning to consider three questions which I hope will help us apply all this to our lives.

1.   Does this square with the broader teaching of Scripture?

First, I consider this to be a challenging passage. I find it convicting, and spent a lot of time wrestling with it as I prepared this message. Particularly in circumstances like that, when the message is hard and it’s tempting to want to get out from under the glare of the light Scripture shines on our hearts, this is an important question to ask. How should I understand this passage in context of the broader teaching of Scripture? Does it square?

Obviously, I think it does, or I wouldn’t be up here talking about it. In fact, this “humble yourself so that God can exalt you” concept pervades Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, and shows up throughout the rest of Scripture as well. Obviously, we don’t have time to track down and study each of these threads, but I encourage you to do so. Especially if you’re skeptical. I know what we’ve talked about today is downright offensive to our American cultural sensibilities, so it wouldn’t surprise me if some of you weren’t feeling a little uncertain or uncomfortable. That’s great! I hope it leads you to dig into God’s word and study these things for yourself. I would encourage you always to test what you hear me or anyone else by the Word of God, the People of God and the Spirit of God, in that order. To that end, you have in your bulletin a starting point for a study in the Gospel of Matthew to get the ball rolling.*

2.   Where am I in these stories?

Secondly, a vital step in applying these concepts is to see ourselves in these stories.

Especially if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, I think it’s easy to assume this message is for someone else. I think it’s also possible to be so deeply ensconced in a particular worldview or to be confident that you’ve got your life under control. Maybe we’re tempted to read these stories as moral lessons or metaphors, not as something demanding our immediate attention and sober response. In other words, it’s possible to brush a message like this aside as not applicable, not practical, or not realistic.

But here’s the rub…

This mindset is exactly the danger Jesus is warning us against in these parables.

The bad news is that we’re all in these stories. These three stories show us the everyday challenge of every person’s life. And if you reject that statement… If you can’t see yourself in these scenes, then that’s really bad news. Because it’s the person who doesn’t think this message applies to him is the person who most urgently needs to hear it.

But the good news is that God’s divine power has granted to us everything we need pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). We are radically dependent on God for everything that matters. And God will come through for us, if we cast our cares on Him. So, once you do see yourself in these scenes, and you come to Jesus, you’ll find that He’s enough for you.

3.   What do I do now?

That leads us to my final question. A former pastor of mine used to ask the question, “What will now be the manner of your life with regard to these things?” I love that question, and it too is essential for application.

To answer it, let’s look at the last few verses of today’s passage, starting in v26…

Those who heard [all this] said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Then Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come … eternal life.”
(Luke 18:26-30 ESV)

The disciples are asking Jesus the same question we’re asking, “What do we do now?” They have just heard the same message we have … and they’re concerned. But Jesus sums up this entire message with a single statement. He declares, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

This may sound like a non-answer, but I think it’s an amazing answer. Think about all the religious activities Jesus could have prescribed. But what task could he have given Peter in response to that question that Peter would have been able to achieve? None! This is exactly what we’ve been talking about all morning. Peter’s righteousness, his wisdom, and his wealth … they won’t help Peter check any box you could name to be saved. Peter’s salvation … eternal life … all the things that really matter … they don’t depend on Peter and his ability to execute some instruction Jesus might have given him. They depend on Jesus. He’s saying, “What is impossible with you, Peter, is possible with me.”

And so is it with us.

Give up trying to be enough

Jesus is inviting us here to fundamentally reevaluate what truly matters in life. If you’re working hard at some imagined answer to Peter’s question… If you’re pouring yourself into being good enough or smart enough or rich enough for God (or anything or anyone else), it’s time to let that go. It’s so easy to make our lives all about what we can build. But Jesus is exactly saying that this approach won’t work. Life isn’t about being strong and in control.

The Christian life isn’t about building our lives, it’s about submitting to God, so that He can build His life in us. It’s about being with God – walking with Him in the garden in the cool of the day. Therefore, Jesus invites us to set down all the things we have in your hands, and just run to Him. We will stand amazed at what He builds in and through us.

Choose to trust God

But, notice that Peter isn’t really satisfied with Jesus’ answer. He just can’t help himself; he has to remind Jesus that he has worked hard and given up a lot to follow Him. And so he blurts out (I love Peter!),

See, we have left our homes and followed you.

I think he’s thinking, “What if I surrender all these things and find out that somehow it wasn’t worth it or it wasn’t good enough?” You may be thinking the same thing. That’s a very human thought. But again, a fixation on being enough is exactly the wrong approach. Jesus is enough so that we don’t have to be. The question is whether or not we will choose to trust God. Because Jesus would say the same thing to us that He said to Peter,

Truly, I say to you, there is not one person in this room who will leave anything behind, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in return, in this age, and in the age to come … eternal life. (Luke 18:29-30, paraphrased)

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Father, there’s something in us that desperately wants control. We want to build our own lives, and realize our own dreams, and figure out the world on our own terms, and be sufficient out of our own resources. We want to see ourselves as strong, when we’re weak. And we confess that we too often fail to submit our lives to you and simply trust that you are in control of every facet of our lives and our world.

Instead of achievement, Lord, you have given us the task of relationship … to worship you and walk with you and listen to your voice and follow where you lead us. Everything else will flow out of that. As we go forth today, help us to remember that. Do in us what only you can do, Lord. And we’ll trust you to do it, in Jesus’ name.

And all God’s people said, “Amen.”


* — Study resources (just a starting point):

Some passages in Matthew’s gospel to consider: Matt 5:1-11, 43-48; 6:1-4, 16-34; 7:15-23; 10:1-33; 13:44-46; 16:21ff; 18:1-6, 21-35; 19:13ff; 20:20-28; 23:1-36; 25:14-30

Other passages to consider as well (just to list a few): Ps 37:16-17; Prov 25:6-7, 27, 27:2; Joh 5:44; Eccl 5:10; Acts 4:12, 8:1-40; Rom 3:1-31, 12:9ff; Eph 2:1-10; Phil 2:1-13; 1 Tim 1:15-16, 6:10-19; Titus 3:4-7; Heb 13:5; 1 Pet 5:6-11


Image credit:
1) Only the empty will be full – Dan Pongetti
2) Strawberry Cheesecake – WeHeartIt.com – Posted by @CandyBead
3) Tiramisu – RecipeTinEats.com
4) Sad Panda – KnowYourMeems.com
5) The Pharisee and the Tax Collector – Watch Tower Online Library
6) Jesus and the Children – YouTube
7) The Rich, Young Ruler walks away – Yeshua His Name blog
Posted in Bible Stories, Sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ugandan Shillings For Sale

Currency Exchange

Just when you thought you’d read the last update about Uganda… But this has become such a comedy of errors that I couldn’t resist sharing.

Uganda’s currency is the Ugandan Shilling (UGX). When I visited, the conversion rate was approximately 3,500 UGX to 1 USD. I traded in a couple hundred bucks to have plenty of spending and giving money, and returned home with 232,000 UGX (approximately $65). I assumed that would be easy to exchange back into dollars, but…

The first full day we were in the country, we stopped at a local hotel in Kampala and exchanged our money there. I think our team leader had a relationship with the people who owned that particular currency exchange. She is originally from Uganda and has brought teams over several times. In any event, I had no trouble exchanging cash into shillings, and I even got a pretty reasonable rate.

We then traveled all over and were in country for 15 days (read more), but at no point was there an opportunity to convert this money back into dollars. For the duration of the trip, I had assumed that we would go back to the currency exchange before leaving and buy back dollars on our way back to the States. That, or we’d exchange at O’Hare when we arrived. But we did neither. There was no time scheduled into the trip for either activity. But as I sat on the shuttle back to TIU from O’Hare (after returning home), No big deal, though. After all, O’Hare will charge you the highest possible fees on what is likely an already-bad exchange rate, so I figured I’d find a bank (mine or otherwise), and get’er’done. In any event, I wasn’t worried.

Ugandan Shillings

A month or so after getting back, I set aside an hour to visit a local Chase bank (my bank, but a different branch; I was running errands in another suburb). I figured I’d get this simple task knocked off my todo list. I walked in, asked to exchange money, and was asked to wait for a personal banker. So far, so good.

Restricted currency?

Chase BankWhile still in line, the “concierge” — what else do you call the guy standing around in the lobby asking you how you are and directing you to the right place to do whatever it is you came to do? — struck up what I’m sure he thought would be small talk.

Well-educated, professional banker guy: What currency do you want to purchase? (I guess he assumed I was going to somewhere, not returning from somewhere.)

Jeff: I’m recently returned from Uganda, so I need to exchange Ugandan Shillings for dollars.

IMF LogoBanker guy: Ug-a-where’s-that?

Jeff: Uganda. In E. Africa.

Banker guy: Oh yeah! What’s their currency?

Jeff: Ugandan Shillings.

Banker guy: I’ll check to see if we exchange that.

Jeff (getting nervous): Okaaaaay.

Banker guy (returning a few minutes later after conferring with the powers that be): I’m sorry, we don’t exchange that currency. Uganda is on some crazy list of countries which aren’t economically stable enough for any bank in the US to trade their currency.

Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the list. Some acronym. Not IMF Article 14 countries, but sounded like something similar. At any rate, he insisted that Uganda’s currency was restricted, which sounded funny to me, because UGX is probably one of the most stable currencies in the whole of Africa. So if they are restricted, everyone in that whole region would be restricted. And I bought them, so why can’t I sell them?

At any rate, Chase was a bust.

Not on the Bank of America list, anyway

I jumped back in the car, and proceeded with more errands. But the longer I thought about it, the more I thought that was ridiculous. So, the next Chase Bank I saw (still not the one by my house, but…), I pulled in there too. This person at least knew that the problem wasn’t some restrictions list. Rather, he said, Chase uses Bank of America’s service, and BoA does not trade UGX.

Jeff: Why not?

Second Chase banker guy: That’s a great question, but I have no idea. In fact, we even looked up the Bank of America Foreign Currency FAQ, but that was of no help. Amazingly, BoA evidently supports 138 currencies (there are a total of 180 world currencies), but not Ugandan shillings.

Jeff: Any suggestions?

Banker guy: Try 5/3 Bank. They do weird things.

Jeff: Okaaaaaaay.

I know! A competing bank!

Google maps got me to 53 in the next town over. I went in there, and the personal banker I talked to was more like the first Chase guy.

Third banker guy: We don’t do it, and I have no idea why.

Jeff: What service do you use? BoA’s?

Banker guy: Remind me what a bank is again.

Jeff: Sighs explosively on his way out the door

Maybe a Currency Exchange?

Now I’m sitting in my car thinking, “It’s probably not worth it, and I’ve already spent too much time on this. But I can’t give up now!”

So, I start searching the web. First really obvious search: exchange uganda shillings for dollars. I’m brilliant, right? Here are the results:

UGX Search

These look good at first glance, but if you dig in, what you’ll find is that every site listed tells you what the exchange rate would be, but no site listed will actually do the exchange. I guess, in the eyes of the Western world, converting UGX to USD is a purely theoretical exercise. Well, I’m sure if Warren Buffet wanted to, he’d be good. But not me.

Finally, I looked up the nearest Currency Exchange. I had resisted doing so until this point, because I figured these would have the worst possible exchange rate. But if nobody else will even do it…

Jeff: Works through the phone tree at site #1

Grumpy currency exchange lady: What do you want?!

Jeff: Do you exchange Ugandan shillings for dollars?

Grumpy currency exchange lady: We don’t. Call our headquarters branch downtown. They’re the only ones that even remotely might be able to help you.

Jeff: Okaaaaaaay.

No problem. I called the mother ship in Chicago, and worked through an even bigger phone tree…

Jeff: Finally, a human being.

Expertly-grumpy currency exchange lady: What do you want?!

Jeff: Please tell me you exchange Ugandan shillings!

Currency exchange lady: Get out a here, kid. You’ve got no future!

Jeff (sobbing): You don’t have to be so grumpy about it.

Currency exchange lady: You want friendly, talk to my cousin at the DMV.

*click*

Net-net… No luck at the currency exchange.

Help me O’Hare Int’l Airport, you’re my only hope

Okay, what I should have done in the first place… Knock it out at O’Hare and take the hit on the exchange rate.

As it turns out, I had to pick up my wife at the airport as she returned home from an international trip a couple weeks later. Surely, this will get the job done, even if it’s at a terrible exchange rate. So, the day finally came… I’m on my way to pick her up at the international terminal, and she called saying she’s ready to go.

Jeff: Can you walk over to the currency exchange and ask if they exchange shillings? I’ve got them right here, and I’ll run in to exchange them when I pick you up.

My amazing wife: Of course, my dear! (walking over to the nearest currency exchange lady) Do you exchange Ugandan shillings? It would make my husband SO happy if you do.

Grumpy airport currency exchange lady: Ug-a-what’s-that?

Jeff (listening over the phone while driving): double face palm

Guy next to me in traffic: honks angrily

My amazing wife (to me): Let’s never speak of Ugandan shillings again.

Yeah. Totally on board with that.

The moral of the story

Moral? There ain’t no… Wait. I guess there is a moral… DO NOT leave a third world country with their currency still in your pocket. Convert it back there or give it away. But don’t come home with it.

There is, in fact, a happy ending to this story. I thought I was just going to have to eat the $65. But as it turns out, our team lead from my trip to Uganda — who is a native Ugandan and returns home at least once a year — was willing to buy back my shillings. So, the plan is to make the exchange when I get back to school in a few weeks. Woohoo! God bless you, Amanda!

That was easy.


Image credit:
1) Main image ???
2) Ugandan shillings — Buzz Kenya
3) IMF logo — IMF site
Posted in Business and Finance, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment