Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why Did Jesus Come? Ephesians 4:7-16

As we reflect on the Incarnation of Christ, the Word becoming flesh, we need to ask, “Why did Jesus come?” There are many answers to that question and one of them is found in these verses today. Hear now God’s word.   

 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.     Ephesians 4:7-16  

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus in calling us to serve one another, reminds us of what he came to do: to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus came to ransom us, to set us free from slavery to sin that we might serve. This is hinted at throughout this passage. In verse 7: to each one of us grace has been given. Then in verses 11-12, he gave gifts to prepare us for works of service. Jesus served us. We are to serve others. This of course does not mean that we are to literally die on the cross for others, but that, yes, symbolically we are to in humility count others as better than ourselves. We have been set free to serve. This morning we will consider: the source, the responsibility and the end of our service.

We must go the source of our service. Who is the source of our service? Clearly it is Christ, verse 7. To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is not something we do on our own initiative or in our own strength. Thus there is no room for boasting in self, “Look at how great I am. Look at the wonderful acts of service.” The source of our service is Christ. It is he who gives the gifts. It is he who empowers; it is he who sends; it is he who brings fruit.

How has Christ, as the source, given his gifts? According to his will. Verse 7 teaches us that Christ has apportioned or given according to his measure. Not everyone is gifted the same way. This is evident in verse 11; he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers. Just an aside, the apostles and prophets were uniquely gifted by God to speak His word, to say “thus saith the Lord.” I do not believe that there are such people today, so beware of those who proclaim themselves to be modern-day apostles and prophets. Note too that this is not an exhaustive list; the apostle discusses spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. From these passages it is clear that God has gifted each one of us differently. While this is really comes as no surprise to us, this can be rather threatening to us. We might think that one gift is more important than another so we might complain, “Why are they gifted that way and I am not. No fair.” They are gifted that way and you are not because that is the way Christ wanted it. Sometimes in a our insecurities we will try to tear down others who are gifted differently in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about who we are, as if all we have received is a lump of coal in our stocking for Christmas. We must see how grievous a sin this is because when we despise our gifts we are in essence despising the giver, we are despising the Lord. We need to repent of that, for your gifts have been given to by God himself. We must give thanks to God for the diversity of the gifts and how we benefit one from the other. I am very grateful for those gifted to serve with their hands—those who placed the tile in the bathroom; those who constructed that wall in the Sunday school room; those who landscaped the front of the church; I am personally grateful for Maureen who is gifted in administration. I shudder to think how many important details would have fallen through the cracks were it not for her. These are but a few examples: all kinds of service all kinds of gifts each one precious gift for it is given by Christ, the source of our service.

Therefore, we must fulfill the responsibility of service. Who is responsible for serving? Each one of us. Each one of us is equipped for service, verse 12. The church is functioning properly only as each part does its work, verse 16. I realize that this can be taken the wrong way coming from one who is paid to minister, but the idea that ministry is limited to the “paid professionals” is not Biblical. If you have placed your faith in Christ, you have a responsibility to serve. It is too easy, too tempting to sit on the sidelines and criticize as if service was a spectator sport. Here, I tell you what; I will watch you as I sit in the stands and critique your performance. There are many things that I would like to go back and change in my life. My attitude during my years at AT&T is among them. How easy it was to almost become a bystander and sit back and criticize those in management or those who were trying to work for positive change. It is almost the American way. It must not be so in the church. Each one of us is gifted to serve and you must be fulfilling your responsibility. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Today one of the biggest challenges that we face as Christians is that we live in a culture that is so consumer oriented, that it can influence our view of the church, the view of service. Rather than thinking of how you can serve your neighbor, someone at work or in the church, you think of yourself, “What is in it for me.” Charles Spurgeon said, “If you would just roll up your sleeves for work, for would find your spiritual health mightily restored...” It is not a question of whether we serve, but what form that service will take. What is it you want to do?

As we serve whatever the specifics might be, we are all required to speak the truth in love, verse 15. Here is a key scriptural balance: we speak the truth in love. Make no mistake, whether it is in the workplace, preaching in the prison, tutoring in the city, reaching out to the neighbor, cleaning the church, lifting someone up in prayer, we stand for truth, for the gospel of Jesus Christ who is the source of our service. But sometimes we convince ourselves that if you have a problem or an issue with somebody, don’t speak up, and don’t rock the boat all in the name of love. But two things: if someone is entangled in some sin, whatever it might be, is it really loving to turn our heads the other way? Second, let us be honest, often in such cases, it is not love that is driving us, but rather that we are too timid, too fearful of man to speak the truth. Don’t call people to repent if their sin, they may get mad at you. We need to confess that to our God, for we are not fulfilling our responsibility. Yet you might be one who speaks truthfully but you do so with a sledgehammer of arrogance, not love. Think about this, when you have concerns or issues that need to be addressed, how do you bring them up? Do you attack; does your blood pressure increase? If so, you need to confess this to God, for you too are not fulfilling your responsibility. Speaking the truth in love impacts everything we do. The story is told of a woman working at Crisis Pregnancy Center who daily counseled women to choose against abortion—since the center was located near a major university, pro-abortion demonstrators would often picket the center. One cold, snowy Michigan day, she personally brought hot coffee out to the demonstrators, “I know we disagree on this issue, but I thought you might like some coffee.” They stood speechless. They mumbled thanks and stared at the coffee though most refused to drink it (perhaps they thought that she had laced it with poison). Speak the truth in love. Your service may be restraining a brother or sister from engaging in some horrible sin, or lifting them up out of depression and giving them hope; your service may cause someone to consider the truth of the gospel for the very first time.
As we do this, we will move to the end, that is the goal of our service. What are these goals? First: we will be building each other up in love, verse 16. This leads to unity and deep roots. Unity is established in the contrast found between verses 13 and 14. Notice that in verse 13 we are exhorted to reach maturity or mature manhood, this is singular indicating unity that we would grow together into maturity. Contrast that with infants in verse 14 which is plural. I believe the difference in person is deliberate, that the stability that arises out of serving one another makes us one, but when we are immature, focused on ourselves and our own interests we are infants. When infants do not get what they want they have a temper tantrum or they whine. Sometimes we are no different, just a gathering of isolated individuals who want attention now. As we serve, though, we build each other up in unity, we are in this together.

Second, as we build each other up, we will develop deep roots. Verse 14, those who are infants are easily tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching. As we serve one another and build one another up, as we speak the truth in love, we will be deeply rooted in the truth. Too many though are like a big tall tree that has shallow roots, a big strong wind comes and knocks them over, easily swayed, easily influenced by the smooth talking of others. There are all kinds of teaching out there that will seek to lead people away from the truth of the gospel. Here let us focus on how God wants you to be rich; or how God wants you healthy or God wants you to have some sort of ecstatic experience - or here is the latest solution for dealing with this or that problem and so we go here, then we go there - we try this and we try that rather than rooting ourselves in the truth of the gospel that Jesus Christ came to save sinners like you and like me. Of course, the implications of the gospel affect all areas of life, but we must never be diverted from this, this is where we must begin every single day: Jesus came to save sinners; he came to set me free that I might serve.
As we grow in our understanding of this we not only build each other up, we move towards the ultimate end, the goal of our service: Christ himself. Verse 13, “until we all reach unity in the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Verse 15, we will grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ. It has been observed that a newborn baby has a head that is out of proportion with the rest of her or his body. Growing up brings the infant body into right proportion with size with the head. So it is with the church, we grow into the head who is Christ. We become Christ-like. He is the end, the goal of our service. If we do not keep our eyes on the end, the goal, we will drift. The goal is not that we become rich or healthy or more affluent, the goal, the end of our service is Christ-likeness.               

As we grow in our Christ-likeness, the world will notice. A concert was held at Wembley Stadium in London. For 12 hours groups like Guns and Roses perform for the crowd of 70,000. For some reason, the organizers scheduled an opera singer as the closing act. She strolled on stage, no backup band, no musical instruments, the crowd grew restless, some yelled for Guns and Roses, others joined the chorus, the scene began to grow ugly when alone, she began to sing: Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found. Was blind but now I see. An amazing thing happened. The raucous crowd fell silent. What happened? One author suggested: the world thirsts for grace and when grace descends, the world falls silent before it. Christ descended to set us free, free to serve—he is the source and the end of our service and the world will notice—this is why Christ came. Let us pray.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What is God Doing?

Genesis 37, Preached Nov 20, 2000

Do you believe that God is sovereign over all?  Do you believe he is sovereign even when you do not understand what is going on? Do you believe he is sovereign even though you can't even imagine how God is using the events of today to bring about his purposes for tomorrow?

I recently heard the following story. Captain Johnson was a military chaplain serving on an island in the South Pacific during World War II. He went on a bombing raid over enemy-occupied islands several hundred miles away. The mission was a complete success, but on the homeward journey, the plane began to lose altitude, the engines faded out, they had run out of fuel. Though they were able to make a safe landing on a strange island, they discovered that the enemy was just one-half mile away. The staff sergeant came to the chaplain and said, "Chaplain, you have been telling us for months of the need to pray and believe that God answers prayer in times of trouble. Well, we are out of gas, our base is several hundred miles away and the enemy is just a half mile away and is bound to discover our presence very soon. I would say that this is a time of trouble." In other words, where is God's answer?

Johnson began to cry out to God for mercy.  Night came and the chaplain continued in prayer.  About 2am, the sergeant woke up from a restless sleep and took a walk to the water's edge. He saw something; at least he thought he saw something. He rubbed his eyes and discovered, much to his shock and amazement, that Christmas had arrived early for a metal float had drifted up on the beach, full of fuel.  In a few hours, the crew reached their home base safely.

An investigation later revealed that a skipper of a U.S. tanker, finding his ship in submarine infested waters, had his fuel cargo removed so as to minimize the danger in case they were hit by a torpedo. Barrels were placed on barges and were put adrift over 600 miles from where Johnson and the crew were forced down. What were the chances that one of these barges would drift 600 miles through the wind and the waves to the precise location where the staff sergeant was taking his walk at 2:00 in the morning? Was it merely chance or could it be said that God was sovereign over the path of that barrel as it drifted? Still further, consider how long would it have taken this barge to drift that far? While I don't know exactly, it would have taken days, thus God had that barrel with fuel adrift and headed for that island long before Johnson and the rest of the crew set off on their mission. Long before the need existed, long before they were ever aware of their need, God was setting in motion the events that would meet their need. Perhaps the captain of that tanker was wondering, "Why are all these subs around me? Why do I have to set adrift all of this fuel?" Maybe God could have said, "Because in a few days there is going to be a crew on a small isolated island 600 miles a way that is going to need a barrel of this precious fuel."

Remember the story of Joseph? In Genesis 37:2, we know that he was 17 years old when his brothers, his own brothers threw him into a cistern and later sold him into slavery. Can you imagine the depth of his sorrow? Sold into slavery by my own brothers? What was God doing? Eventually he was sold to Potiphar where he rose to a position of prominence. While this was not home, it wasn't so bad. In chapter 39 we are told that Joseph was well built and handsome, so much so that Potiphar's wife threw herself at him, "Come to bed with me." Joseph, as you know, resisted this temptation and was rewarded for his faithfulness by being falsely accused of rape. He was put in prison. Perhaps he thought, "This is great. Just great. I seek to honor God by resisting temptation and this is where I end up? Back in prison? What is God doing?"

Even in prison, though, Joseph rose to a position of prominence. He met the cupbearer and the baker to the king and correctly interpreted their dreams. Unfortunately, for the baker it meant that he was executed, but that the cupbearer was restored to his position. Though Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him when he was returned to Pharaoh's court, the cupbearer quickly forgot. What was God doing? It was not until 2 years later when Pharaoh had a dream that no one could interpret that the cupbearer remembered how Joseph helped him. Joseph was brought forth to proclaim that these dreams foreshadowed 7 coming years of prosperity followed by 7 years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he made him second in command over all of Egypt. Do you know how long it took for him to rise to this position? If you look at your Bibles, you see that in chapter 37 he was sold into slavery. In chapter 40, he finally rose to his position of power. Why that is a grand total of 4 chapters, just a few pages. How easy it is to read 4 chapters rather quickly and fail to notice that in 41:46, Joseph was 30 years old. This means from the time he was sold into slavery in Egypt to the time he rose to his position of prominence, a total of 13 years passed. 13 years—can you imagine? In our day, we do not want to wait 13 minutes, let alone 13 years.

During those 13 years, though the scripture does not say explicitly, it does give hints regarding the mind of Joseph. Look at 40:15, "I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon." All those years, Joseph probably had all kinds of question, "What did I do to deserve this? Why am I here? God, what are you doing? I do not understand any of this." Sometimes you might ask those same questions. A job is lost. A child is born with a disability. A financial setback is suffered. The sin of another devastates your life. You wonder, “What is God doing? I do not understand!”

What was God doing in the life of Joseph? He was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused, thrown into prison, and forgotten by those he helped. What was God doing? God was preparing the world for a devastating famine that was to come 7 years after Joseph rose to his position of power. Thus, the famine came 20 years after Joseph was sold into slavery. God set events in motion 20 years before the need was to arise. Think about it. 20 years. Where were you and what were you doing 20 years ago? November 1980. Ronald Reagan had just been elected as President of the United States and there was no need for recounts. I was in my freshman year of college. A lot happens in 20 years. God is sovereign over all these events and he works through all of these events, the events of yesterday and today, even over lengthy periods of time to bring about his plans for tomorrow.

This is why at the end of Genesis, Joseph was able to say to his brothers, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." It is only with hindsight that he was able to save that; he certainly did not say that when he was at the bottom of that cistern. Imagine Joseph crying out to God, "What are you doing?"  "I'm in the process of saving the lives of millions of people, what do you think?" Joseph would have no frame of reference from which to understand that answer, yet that, among other things, is precisely what God was doing. “Joseph, you are at the bottom of that cistern because I am in the process of saving millions of lives.” God was sovereign over that cistern, over Potiphar's house, over that jail, and over that cupbearer.

When you look at life, you may not always understand why events are happening the way they are or how they fit together; you may never know the answer to that question, but know this, God is at work: He is sovereign over all, He will bring about his purposes, and He is at work long before you ever knew what is going on. For this, we give thanks. Let us pray.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

We are One, Ephesians 4:4-6

Some of you have had the opportunity to travel to a country. It doesn’t really matter what country it is, each one is different enough to make you realize that, if you were born in America or have lived here long enough, you really are a child of this culture, much more so than you ever imagined. In the ancient world, as Jews and Gentiles, people from all over the world were coming to Christ; there were many cultural differences that had to be sorted through, lest they become a hindrance to the application of the gospel.  The same is no less true today as we turn to God’s word.

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:4-6

When I order my meal, I don’t have to interact with a person; I can speak into a box, drive up to the window and pick up my food. When I do my banking I can drive up to the ATM and conduct my business with a machine.  When you call an institution you can find out all kinds of information without ever actually speaking to a real live person. If you want to avoid the hassle of shopping at the mall this holiday season, you can do all your shopping on the Internet. While these activities are not wrong, I, for example, am not going to get rid of my ATM card, they certainly are a sign of the times. A sense of community is eroding; individualism taken to an extreme creates a population that is increasingly isolated one from another. I do not have to interact with people, I am an American. We are children of our culture. In these verses as well as throughout Ephesians we encounter a central Biblical truth that is very difficult for those influenced by the American culture to grasp. In these three verses the word, “one,” is repeated seven times. Those who believe in Jesus Christ are not merely individuals scattered around the world in different cultures, we are one in the body of Christ. We are one people.

What is the basis of this unity? It is the unity of the triune God. We are told that there is one Spirit, verse 4; one Lord, verse 5; one God and Father of us all, verse 6. God the Spirit.  God the Son.  God the Father. We believe in the Triune God.  One God in three persons. Here is a great mystery: how can there be three persons in the God head?  I don’t know, but I do know that this is what the scriptures teach. “Ah,” you might say, “but so what who cares?”  We know that God has relationship, fellowship within himself. The Father has fellowship with the Son who has fellowship with the Spirit who has fellowship with the Father. That fellowship, that unity is the basis of the unity of the church, even as Jesus said, “I pray that they may be one even as you and I are one.” The unity of the church is to reflect the character of God.

Thus we have references to the one body, one church verse 4. This is what is asserted in the apostle’s creed, I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, that is, that the one God has one Church. You might quite understandably so, question this assertion. “What are you talking about?  Up and down Telegraph Road there are at least 8 churches along a 4 mile stretch of road.” While it is true that the visible unity is obscured by the multiple denominations and by church divisions and splits, yet the scripture asserts that all those who believe in Jesus Christ are members of his body, his one church whatever particular church to which they belong. 

There is but one hope, verse 4. No matter how old or young, no matter the economic situation, no matter the country or situation, people have but one hope and that in Jesus Christ.  There is one faith, verse 5.  Not many faiths, not many paths to God, there is but one found in Jesus Christ. There is but one baptism, verse 5, which reminds us of the cleansing work of Christ, a work which brings us into his one body. We are one because God is one.

What are the implications of this union? I want you to think of those who are different from you. The difference might be in level of education or type of job; it might be their views on the type of education for their children or politics, the place where they live, the clothes they wear, the color of their skin. These are all things that cause separation one from another. Thus they can become sources of ungodly pride, that I am somehow better than you because I went to school here or I live there - thus let me help you, you poor, unfortunate creature. If you were just like me, then your life would be so much better. Yet their hope is not in becoming like us, but it is in Christ. Likewise, our hope is not that we are, in our minds, better than others, but it too is in Christ.  In this we are all the same, in this all those who believe in Christ are one. We all desperately need Christ. You and I need to repent of our prejudices and our tendency to judge and view ourselves as better because I am an American, because I am a suburban American. We are one in Christ. God reaches beyond the barriers of culture and brings us together as one people into his body.

As this truth grabs a hold of our hearts, this union, this identification with one another is to be such that when another member of the body is hurting, we all hurt together. As we read earlier, we are called to weep with those who weep. Today there is cause for weeping in the body of Christ.  There are members of the body who are hurting, who are suffering because of their faith. I know that is extremely difficult for us to understand, for we are so blessed with religious freedom. We are blessed materially beyond anything the world has ever seen. It too frequently happens that in our relative comfort and extreme individualism, we forget or don’t even think about the rest of the world, we may not even know that our brothers and sisters around the world are suffering. Yet those who study such matters state that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than in the past 19 combined.  

Ever since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, I have noticed a consistent and infuriating error in the press. We read of the “demise of communism” as if it has disappeared from the face of the earth. Yet over 1 billion people live under communism in China. Karl Marx said that the idea of “God is a key note of a perverted civilization and it must be destroyed.” As a natural outgrowth of this fundamental principle, the Chinese government regularly harasses churches and her leaders.  Just two months ago, 30 Christian leaders were arrested for conducting an “unauthorized religious activity” such as a worship service. Some of these leaders are imprisoned for years. One pastor, who spent 21 years in a labor camp because he steadfastly refused to register his church with the communist authorities, said, “We are evangelicals, so we do as the Bible teaches.” In the face of prison he says, “We do as the Bible teaches.” We are one with this Pastor and his suffering and stand for the gospel. While such persecution is talking place in China, it seems that the leaders of the free world, be it President Clinton or Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress seem to be more interested in potential profit from business ventures in China than in taking a hard stand against such gross violations against the rights of oppressed people. Thus the church must to stand up in her prophetical role and say to political leaders, “No! It is wrong to turn a blind eye to such atrocities for the sake of personal financial gain.”

Perhaps the most horrifying atrocities occur in Sudan. In southern Sudan Christian men are maimed and tortured, some crucified for their faith. Women are raped. Little children are taken from their parents and sold into slavery. I shared this story with you just a few weeks ago, but we need to hear it again because we are prone to forget and the scripture exhorts us to remember those in prison. A group of 13 boys, including one as young as 5, were taken from their village and tortured, “Deny your faith, deny Christ and the torture will stop” and the 5 year old, the 5 year old refused. Some of those children did not make it out of that camp, but some did to tell the story of these martyrs. We must not forget. Their suffering is our suffering.   Today an estimated 300,000 churches are joining worldwide to pray for the persecuted church. We must pour out our hearts on behalf of our brothers and sisters who are being tortured for their faith.

As we do, we must remember that we pray to the God who is over all, verse 6. God is over these governments who seek to destroy the church.  He is over those who carry out these acts of brutality. He is over all. In Saudi Arabia it is the law that everyone must be Muslim. Anyone found converting someone to Christianity is subject to the death penalty. How can the gospel spread in that context? The rich, the powerful, the royals in Saudi Arabia hire nannies to care for their children. Many of these domestic workers come from the Philippines where they have been reared in Christianity. One Pilipino pastor has said, “These nannies are rearing on their knees the future royals, executives and national leaders and they are whispering into the ears of these little children the things of Christ.” Yes, the government has tried to crack down on this, but God is over all and such attempts to destroy the church will not succeed. Take off the blinders and see what is going on the world around you.  Remember your brothers and sisters in prison.  Pray for them.  Their suffering is our suffering. For in Christ, we are one people. Let us pray.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What is the reason for life? Jesus is alive! (Luke 24: 13-32)

If someone you knew was really depressed—I mean really depressed—maybe a spouse has filed for divorce or someone has lost a job and there just doesn't seem to be any future—what would you say? What reason would you give to keep pressing on? For that matter, what reason would you give yourself? What reasons did the disciples have after the death of their master?  Hear now God's word.

“Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him. 17 He asked them, "What are you discussing together as you walk along?" They stood still, their faces downcast. 18One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?" 19"What things?" he asked. "About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see." 25 He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. 28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. 29But they urged him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:13-32)

Churches around the world are a bit fuller today. Why? Well, it is Easter Sunday. I realize that, but why do we have the idea that going to church on Easter Sunday is a good thing to do? Which it is by the way, but why? What is the reason?

The famous mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once told his friends, "If I believe in God and life after death and you do not and if there is no God, we both lose and we die. However, if there is a God, you still lose and I gain everything." What do you think of such an argument? Similar arguments can be heard today: "Believe. What have you got to lose?" I heard a prominent preacher on the radio say, "Even if Christianity is not true at least I have led a better life." While such statements are spoken with the best of intentions, the Bible takes an entirely different approach. It is one that may cause offense because it draws a line in the sand; the scriptures pound this stake deep into the ground and boldly proclaim, believe  in Christianity because it is true. Jesus Christ has risen. In 1 Corinthians 15, the scriptures state that if Jesus has not risen from the dead, Christians are to be pitied more than all people. Paul could be looking back on his own life and say, "If Jesus Christ has not risen, I have been beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned and persecuted for nothing. Indeed if Jesus Christ did not rise, ‘Let us eat drink for tomorrow we die.’" If Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead there is no reason for life, not really, so just go out there and grab all the gusto you can, party hardy because pretty soon you are going to be dead. By all means forget about church because you are just wasting your time. This may sound offensive yet it is precisely what 1 Corinthians 15 states. Do not come to Easter services because it is merely a good thing to do, though it is. Do not believe in the gospel of Christ because it will make you a better person, though it will, believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is true. We know it is true because Christ is risen! Jesus is alive! This is the line in the sand. This is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. We do not come to practice religion or go through some empty ritual nor do we follow the teachings of one whose body is in the grave and has long ago turned to dust; we come to worship the living savior. Here is the reason for life, the reason to press on. Jesus is alive!

This is truth that is grounded in the scriptures. In verse 27 we read that Jesus, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, explained to the two along the road  what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself. What a Bible class that must have been as the Lord opened up the Scriptures! What verses did Jesus mention? He might have referred to some of the verses printed on your sheet. Genesis 3:15, speaking to the serpent: “The Devil, God says that the seed of the woman, who is Jesus, will crush Satan's head, and you will strike his heel.” This is what occurred as Satan figuratively struck Jesus' heel through the pain of the cross, but through that very same cross Jesus defeated Satan. The suffering of Christ is foretold elsewhere in places like Psalm 22:1 where we read, "my God, my God why have you forsaken me," words which Jesus spoke on the cross; Isaiah 53:5, "he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities." In Zechariah 11:12 we read that the value placed on the Good Shepherds life was 30 pieces of silver, the amount for which Judas betrayed Jesus. Concerning Jesus' resurrection we read in Psalm 16:10 "you will not abandon me to the grave nor will you let your Holy One see decay." a passage Peter referred to in his sermon at Pentecost. Isaiah 53:10, "After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied." Isaiah 25:8, "He will swallow up death forever." Prior to his death Jesus himself told the disciples, "The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him and turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.  On the third day he will be raised to life!" The Scriptures pointed to these events. The Scriptures point us to Jesus. You might wonder why is all this necessary? It feels like we are in a class room!

Did you ever wonder why Jesus kept these two men, whom we know very little about except that one was named Cleopas, from recognizing who he was right away? Why didn't he go up to them and say, "Hey guys, it’s me!" I suppose there could be a myriad of explanations but it seems to me that it was very important for the disciples to be grounded in the truth of the God's word before they got carried away with excitement at the appearance of Jesus, which would certainly be understandable.  When the women came to the tomb they didn't see Jesus first; they saw an angel who told them, Jesus is risen just as he said. These vents are rooted and grounded in the scriptures. Again, why is all of this necessary?

Remember the men on the road to Emmaus were downcast, gloomy and sad, verse 17. They had thought that Jesus was to be the Redeemer but now he was dead, their hopes and dreams were smashed. Do you realize that apparently not one single follower of Jesus retained any sense of optimism after the crucifixion? Only gloom and emptiness prevailed. Have you known people mired in such depression?  Have you ever been there? What do you say? 

I once worked for a company that was concerned about the growing cynicism and deteriorating morale among the work force. The company decided to periodically bring in motivational speakers who would sing, tell jokes and stories and remind us of how special and important we were. One time the company sent us away for a week in the woods where we participated in a ropes course that was very high off the ground. All of these things I suppose were designed to fill us with excitement and enthusiasm for the job and the company, to bring unity among us. To some degree they worked....for a few days. Then the reality of the struggles of the job set in and all the enthusiasm and excitement and renewed dedication went out the window and we were back to where we were before all that money on the seminars was spent. In fact, if anything the cynicism deepened, so much so that when we hear yet another speaker say, "You can do it. You can do it." We might want to say, "Oh will you just be quiet!" Enthusiasm and excitement are good, but you know that we don't live there all the time, even most of the time. Bad reports from the doctor, the death of a loved one, the rebellion of a child, the breakdown of a marriage, the difficulties on the job all have a way of destroying enthusiasm and excitement for life. It seems that the message from so many motivational speakers is the same, "If you think good thoughts and apply yourself, you can do it, you can do it. So don't worry put on a happy face. Think positive."  Have you ever said that to someone who was just been diagnosed with cancer or whose mother just died? Such words ring so hollow. Just go away and leave me alone.         

Though the excitement at his appearing would be legitimate and appropriate, Jesus, it seems, wanted these two men to realize that the events that had unfolded in Jerusalem were all in accordance with the plan of God from the very beginning. Is not Jesus referred to as the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world? His suffering, his death and his resurrection were all foretold by God. This is the anchor for our lives.  Enthusiasm in our faith comes and goes, but when you or others you know are in despair this anchor remains to hold you fast. The scriptures teach us, yes this is true, Jesus is alive.

This truth was then affirmed by their experience. In verse 30 we read that Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it. Does this sound familiar? Indeed, these are the same words we find in Luke 22:19 at the Last Supper. Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and said, "This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” thus saying at the moment I am giving myself for you. Here, when he breaks the bread, he is saying, I have given myself for you and I am risen and their eyes are opened and they know that Jesus had been with them. 1 Corinthians teaches us that the women, the apostles and 500 hundred other witnesses saw the risen Christ. We know that Thomas put his finger in Jesus hand and side. They saw with their eyes the risen Lord and have given testimony to that truth. While we do not have the opportunity to see Jesus in this life, we do have their eye witness account. They saw, not one or two people, but hundreds saw the risen Christ. It is true that Jesus is alive.

What difference does it make? It makes all the difference in the world. When these two men realized that it was Jesus who had been with him all of that time, what did they do? Did they say, it's late, I'm tired, let us get a good night sleep and then talk about it in the morning. No! They got up immediately and went back to Jerusalem. I would have loved to have a stop watch and time those two; perhaps in their excitement they would have set the world record for 7 miles. Perhaps Roger Bannister was not the first one to break a four minute mile, maybe it was one of these two on the way back to Jerusalem. I don't know. They went back at night. Jesus is alive! What about the other disciples?  When Jesus was arrested, what did they do? They all fled. They ran away in fear. Peter himself denied knowing the Lord.  Yet we know that these men all suffered for their faith. Most died a martyr’s death. What accounts for this radical transformation from cowards to martyrs? Jesus is alive. It is true! I don't know what is going to happen tomorrow or next week or next year. But I do know that Jesus is alive. This is the one and only reason for life. Are things going well for you?  Great, but even greater is the truth that Jesus is alive! Are you discouraged over the state of affairs in our nation or world? Christ is risen. Are you drowning in your struggle with habits that are hard to break? Jesus is alive! Overwhelmed with grief from the death of a loved one?  Christ is risen. Are you searching for meaning in life? Are you in the midst of a mid-life or late-in-life or early-in-life crisis? Jesus is alive. This is not some mushy gushy feel good positive thinking that is not based in reality and thus quickly fades away or crashes under the weight of life—it is the truth.  Jesus is alive. Hope is found in nowhere or no one else for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. I realize that in this day in age people would object: how can you be so exclusive in your proclamation? Because it is true? Christ is risen. Jesus is alive. We have the scriptures. We have the eyewitness testimony. It is true. In him we find our reason for life, for he is, he alone is the reason for life. Not just for this life, but the one that is come, for it is written: "I will ransom them from the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where O death are your plagues?  Where O grace, is your destruction?" Hallelujah? Let us pray.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Christian Marriage, the Man's Role. The Road Less Traveled, Part II: Ephesians 5:22-33

Today we continue our study of marriage. As we study these verses in Ephesians on marriage, some who are not married may ask, “How does this apply to me?” This is an excellent and very important question. Whether you are single or married it is important, critically important for us to understand God’s design for marriage. We live in the age of “Who wants to marry a multi-millionaire?” A show, a concept that makes a mockery of marriage, and yet it was a show that drew large ratings. I don’t know exactly what that says about us as a people, but whatever it is, is not good. We must have a high view of marriage.  Hear now God’s word.

Ephesians 5:22-33
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

The image of a husband as a gigantic dictator who rampages through his house enforcing his will on his puny servants is dispelled by verse 25. Husbands must love their wives as Christ loves the church. What does that mean? As has often been pointed out that means that husbands must be willing to die for their wives. This does mean though that husbands can say, “OK, OK if ever an assassins bullet comes her way, I will step in front of her; if we are on the Titanic and it is going down I will place her on the life boat and I will go down with the ship—fine—can I go back to watching my Rams Super Bowl video now?” You probably will never have to face a situation in which you will have to literally lay down your life for your wife. The question then is not so much whether you are willing to die for your wife, but whether you are willing to live for your wife in accordance with the will of Christ. Our love is modeled after the love of Christ who yes, did die for the church, but while he lived on earth he lived for his people; he loved them. He healed the sick, he raised the dead, he forgave people’s sins, and he washed their feet. He served them. Husbands are called to live Christ-like lives in their homes and to love their wives.

Husbands love by leading, verse 23. The husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church. The husband loves his wife as he functions in the role God has given him, as leader. Too often the problem is that husbands are inactive or passive in leadership, thus placing the decisions and resulting stress upon their wives who then grow in their frustration and resentment at the inactivity of their husbands. Husbands must actively lead. Our leadership must be expressed in protection and commitment.

Protection, verse 25.  Christ gave himself up for us. This one statement has many facets as we shall see but it definitely refers to Jesus’ protection of us for he died for our sins, our failures. Elsewhere we read that Jesus is our Passover Lamb, the one who shed his blood so that God’s judgment upon our sin would pass over us. Thus he is our shield and our protector. There is much that brings pressure to bear on any family; it is the husband’s responsibility to bear much of that load and to shield and to protect his wife and family. Sadly, rather than asserting, “Yes, the buck stops here,” we often seek to evade responsibility for it is far easier to criticize and point the finger of blame.

I hated long trips when I was growing up. Inevitably it would mean that my father rather than looking at the map ahead of time would as we were driving, seemingly at the last possible second would place the map in my mother’s lap and say, “Figure out where we need to go!” Pressure would be on her to get her bearings on the map, look at all the major roads and make the right split-second decision, and if she made the wrong decision, Dad would always blame her and yell and scream. I told myself I would never do that to my wife.  God has a way of bursting the bubble of my self-righteousness. Two years ago Ginger and I were in search of new health coverage. There were so many details and options it was quite nerve wracking. Instead of taking leadership, I allowed her to do the research and bear the stress. Rather than “protecting,” I found myself in the role of critic and one day said something incredibly stupid and demeaning to my wife and she took off down the hallway in tears. I realized I had failed to take leadership; I had failed to protect her. I was not loving her as Christ loves me. Please understand this does not mean that you refuse to discuss issues, listen to what your wife has to say and at times leave decisions to her because in particular circumstances she knows more than you, of course you do these things, you would be foolish not to; rather it is an attitude that says when you can see the pressure is great upon your wife, “I will take this burden, you do not have to bear it alone anymore.” Raising children can be a particularly stressful area, many times women feel all alone in bearing this responsibility.  I know a father who though he loves his children dearly has zero tolerance for his children talking back to their mother, his wife. “You will not talk to your mother that way and if I ever hear such things come out of your mouth you know the consequences.” Such a statement is necessary for the children to learn to treat their mother with respect, but it is also a powerful statement of protection to the wife: “I am in this with you and I am not going to tolerate them or anyone else for that matter talking to you, my wife, that way.” Men, are you loving your wives this way?

Leadership expresses itself in commitment, verse 23. The church is Christ’s body and He is our Savior. In verses 26 and 27 we read of his commitment to the body, to be with us through to the end as we become the people he would have us be. Christ does not leave us. He is never going to say, “Yes, I died to save you, but I have changed my mind—I am out of here!” No and likewise, the husband must communicate to his wife that he has sunk the anchor down deep and in the storms of life he is not going to abandon ship; he is going to stay put. The wife needs to know the security of her husband’s commitment, that no matter what comes, he is going to be there, til death do us part.

Imagine the U.S.S. Enterprise under severe attack by the Klingons and the entire crew looks to Captain Kirk to save the day. Imagine the Captain saying, “Gee guys, this looks tough—I quit—I am going to take my escape pod to safety—good luck.” Of course not, he is committed to the last to save the ship and her crew. When things get difficult, a job is lost, finances are tight, a child rebels, an illness arises, tension builds, do you run away? Do you look for a place to hide? God calls us to love by our commitment—to be there—no matter what life may bring.

Second love must serve. Loves serves through nurturing, verses 26-27. It was the Jewish custom for the bride, just prior to her wedding to take a cleansing bath and then get dressed for her groom. Here, Christ washes us who were dirty in our sin; he cleanses and dresses us that we would be without wrinkle or any other blemish, that we would be radiant like a bride on her wedding day, that we would become all that God intends us to be. Because of his deep love for us, Christ nurtures us. So must we love our wives, that we would be instruments of grace, encouraging our wives to become all that God intends them to be. We do not seek to suppress the talents and gifts of our wives, but instead consider how we can provide an environment in which these are allowed to flourish, grow and prosper. As I alluded to last week there is much pressure on women to conform to society’s evaluation of what a woman ought to be and sometimes, just like men there is the nagging question, “Am I good enough? Do I measure up?” You look at TV, perhaps watch the Grammy’s and you see the images of women and you look at yourself in the mirror and maybe, just maybe, you feel like such a failure. It was not too long ago that we were sitting at the table and Ginger shared that at times she did not feel like she was contributing to the family, primarily because she was not working full-time. Knowing all that she does, so much of which revolves around the children, I knew that the very idea was preposterous, but I realized how easy it is for me to fail to nurture my wife with words of encouragement and appreciation.  In small ways and big ways that she would hear from my lips, “I am so glad I am married to you.” Men, don’t just think these things, say these things. Further, talk to your wife about what is going in your life, your struggles, problems, questions and doubts and listen to what she has to say; involving her in your life nurtures her and in the process you grow together and she increasingly becomes the women God would have her be.

Giving sacrificially, verse 25. Christ gave himself up for us. So we must give ourselves up for our wives. This is not easy. We are selfish, are we not? This past week the Sports illustrated swimsuit issue came out which fuels this selfishness. How can women meet my needs. How can women make me feel good or at least the fantasy of such women. When Christ went to the cross was he thinking first and foremost of himself? No, neither must we.  How can I give of myself to my wife? How can I serve her? How can I meet her needs? Dr. Bryan Chapell tells the story of an elderly couple who lived in a rural community where Wal-Mart was the social hub. Mary loved going to Wal-Mart, not just to shop but to socialize with her friends and meet new ones. She would go and do her thing and Joe would go off and fish. They would come back at the end of the day and share their stories. There came a time when Mary’s health was such that she was no longer able to drive to Wal-Mart. Though Joe did not understand her love for going there, he knew that she missed it. So he decided to give sacrificially, rather than going fishing, he would with increasing regularity drive his wife to Wal-Mart and knowing that it would not be a short visit, he actually brought a lawn chair into the store. When his wife would strike up a conversation, he would sit in his chair in the aisle until his wife was finished and silently delight in the joy of his wife. He sacrificed his pleasure for hers. What is in view is not a list of things to do, but rather an attitude of service: how can I give sacrificially to my wife and how can I nurture her?

How is all this possible? As we only scratch the surface of what it means to love our wives, it can be overwhelming. We are self-centered people and to love this way does not come naturally. As you strive to pursue these qualities of love by leading and serving you will see that this is true of you more than you ever knew, you will see the selfishness in your own heart, that you want things to go your way, and you will see your inability to love as Christ has loved us. That is why we must always, daily go back to Christ’s love for us. Though I have failed as a husband and I know I will fail again, Christ loves me; he will never give up on me, he leads me, he has served and is serving me and he will do this to the end. Though I am not the husband I ought to be, by God’s grace in Christ he will continue to change me, that I would learn to love my wife as he has loved me and thus be God’s instrument of grace to her and walk upon the road less traveled.

A movie entitled A Vow To Cherish depicts a successful business man whose wife is stricken with Alzheimer's disease. As the disease progresses she recognizes her family less and less. Caring for her is interfering with his business and is becoming increasingly difficult and frustrating. He feels alone and trapped. Part of him desperately wants out. There are those who would say, “Nobody would blame you  if you went on with your life and met somebody else.” Today perhaps that is the path most traveled, but as he reflected on his relationship to God and his love, the husband made a decision. He came home one evening, sat on the bed next to his wife though she did not recognize him, took her hand and said, “I take you to be wife, to love, honor and cherish from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health ‘til death do us part.” This is the road less traveled; let us walk upon it, following Him who loves us so. Let us pray.