DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Filtering by Category: Matthew

The Big Story: Rescue (Matthew 1:18-25)

Big Idea: God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.

In his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, author Donald Miller describes the ingredients of a great story. He defines the essence of a story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” Every story has these ingredients:

  • a character
  • who wants something
  • who overcomes conflict
  • and who gets it

This month, as we lead up to Christmas, we’re looking at story. It’s a huge goal: we’re looking at not just a story but the story, the story of the whole world. It’s a story that involves every one of us, but it’s bigger than us. And that’s the reason why we’re looking at the story. In order to play our role in the story, we need to understand two things. First, we need to understand that the story is bigger than us. It’s not about you. This isn't discouraging; it means that your life is part of something much bigger. But it also means that we need to understand the bigger story if we are to play our part in that story well.

So for the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the story that the Bible tells us. We’ve seen:

  • a character — God, a good and all-powerful God who is at the centre of the story of this world, and who is intimately involved with the story even today;
  • who wants something — We see a God who made this world to be good, and who made us in his image so that we could live in relationship with him and act as his representatives in this world;
  • who overcomes conflict — We’ve seen that humanity rebelled against God, and as a result sin entered the world and has brought death, shame, and alienation

And today we’re at the point in the story in which we ask: What is God going to do about it? How in the world is God going to respond to a world that is no longer good, and to a people who are in deep rebellion against him?

I want to show you a picture that captures a bit of this tension. Almost every year we go camping in Restoule, just south of North Bay. On the way to the campground we pass this broken-down house. Every year it gets a bit worse. Every year I wonder if it will even be there. It was once a new house. People lived there. You can still see the fridge. I often wonder what happened to the house, and when the people moved out, and who will eventually take action to deal with the mess.

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And this is the story of this world as well. We have seen that this world is broken. Paul David Tripp compares our world to a broken-down house:

Every single room has been dirtied and damaged by sin. Not one part of it shines with anything like the pure glory that was so evident when it was first made. Sin has left this world in a sorry condition. You see it everywhere you look. (Broken Down House)

This is the world we live in. Last week, Nathan explained how this world got to this story state. For thousands of years, this has been our story. From Genesis 3 to the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, we’ve seen God’s commitment to rescue his people. But we’ve also seen disappointment after disappointment. The people that God chooses mess up on a continual basis. Even the greatest of them are, at best, very flawed individuals. The nation that God chooses through which he will bless this world has the odd high note among story after story of rebellion, idolatry, and dysfunction. It gets downright depressing. By the time we come to the passage we read this evening, it’s been thousands of years, and the world is still a mess, and the people God has chosen are in captivity with little hope of things getting better.

What is God going to do with this mess? What’s what we’re going to see today. In the passage that was read for us a few minutes ago, we’re going to see three things:

  1. God has acted.
  2. God has acted by coming among us in person.
  3. God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.

1. God has acted.

Matthew 1:18-20 says:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

This is the setting for the greatest birth to take place in history. It’s stated as plainly as possible, and the details are easy to understand. In that day, betrothal was a firm commitment, usually taken a year before marriage, in which the girl remained with her family. It was considered at the point of betrothal that the first step of marriage had already been taken. It would take a divorce to break off a betrothal.

Matthew takes us to this very young couple who live in northern Israel. The young woman, Mary, is found to be four months pregnant. Her betrothed husband, Joseph, could take drastic action. Under the laws of that day, her pregnancy would be considered adultery, punishable by death by stoning. But instead of punishing her, he decides to show discretion and compassion. But then he has a dream that shows him that Mary isn’t guilty of adultery; that this is a supernatural birth. Are you following this? In a few verses we have:

  • a virgin getting pregnant
  • an angel appearing to a man
  • and a claim that God the Holy Spirit has brought about the conception

This led one famous clergyman to say, “I very much doubt if God would arrange a virgin birth.” And you can understand why. It’s a preposterous story — unless it’s true, and the gospels say it is true. And the fact that it’s true means something very significant for us today.

Let me tell you why it’s true. Before we moved to Liberty Village, our dog had never been in an elevator before. The first time I took him in, he was a little confused. You go into this little box. The door closes. A few minutes later, the door opens, and you’re in a different place It’s bizarre. If dogs were smart enough to reason, they may have a real problem with this. The dog may say that it goes against all the laws of nature. But you may get a dog who suggests that there is such a thing as engineers who have understood how to build a device that operates using ropes and pulleys and technology. The other dog may respond that he has never met such an engineer and has no reason to believe that such a thing exists. The elevator is there a result of evolutionary processes, the skeptical dog might say.

What I’m getting at is this: a woman giving birth supernaturally is preposterous as long as you have a worldview that excludes God. But if the story we’ve described is true, and there is a God who is the all-powerful creator, then the supernatural birth of Jesus is not only possible, but it’s the best possible news we could imagine. I love how Owen Strachan puts it:

The virgin birth, you see, is not incidental to our faith. It shows that God must initiate the salvation of humanity. We could not undo our sin; God alone could rescue us. The virgin birth is not an odd blip in the history of the person and work of Jesus; it is a thunder-clap from heaven, God initiating his rescue plan. Salvation, the Lord is saying, is his work. He alone can carry it out; he alone will carry it out. We have no part in getting ourselves saved; we cannot undo the curse, not even one percent.

That’s the good news of what God has done. God created the world, and it was good. We sinned, and this world became a broken place that we could not fix. But now, in the birth of Jesus, God has taken decisive and dramatic action.

Most weeks we recite the words of the historic creed, which includes these lines:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary…

There’s lots that you could say about these words. One of my theology books spends almost 20 pages explaining why it's important and what it means. The important thing for us to understand tonight is this: God has acted. Something had to be done about this mess that we’re in, and God has taken supernatural action to deal with what is wrong with this world.

So God has acted. The second thing we see in this passage is:

2. God has acted by coming among us in person.

There are at least two references in this passage to the Hebrew Scriptures. One of them is found in verses 22-23:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us).

This is amazing. One of the names given to Jesus is Immanuel, which means that God is with us. What the Bible is saying is stunning: that when Jesus was born, it was nothing less than God coming right where we are. We asked the question earlier: What is God going to do with the mess the world has become? If you look at the picture of the broken-down house again, let the truth of what happened at Christmas sink in: God moved in. He moved into the mess. He didn’t condemn it and start over. He didn’t write it off. He entered it.

C.S. Lewis put it well. One view of God is that he is impersonal. That’s not hopeful for us. Another view of God is that he is a subjective God of beauty, truth, and goodness inside our own heads. That’s a little better. But then there is a view that God is “Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter.” He says: “Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still supposing he had found us? So it is a sort of Rubicon. One goes across; or not. But if one does, there is no manner of security against miracles. One may be in for anything.” If God is real, and he is active and in pursuit of us, then the miracle of the virgin birth is not only plausible, but it is good news. He is active and in pursuit of us.

That's what we mean by the Incarnation: God moves in. “He comes in our flesh. He comes into our humanity, into our vulnerability, into our history, into our reality” (Tim Keller).

Theologian James R. Edwards tells a story about two Italians and two Germans who were climbing the 6,000 foot near-vertical North Face in the Swiss Alps. The two German climbers disappeared and were never heard from again. The two Italian climbers, exhausted and dying, were stuck on two narrow ledges a thousand feet below the summit.

The Swiss Alpine Club forbade rescue attempts in this area (it was just too dangerous), but a small group of Swiss climbers decided to launch a private rescue effort to save the Italians. So they carefully lowered a climber named Alfred Hellepart down the 6,000 foot North Face. They suspended Hellepart on a cable a fraction of an inch thick as they lowered him into the abyss.

Here's how Hellepart described the rescue in his own words:

As I was lowered down the summit … my comrades on top grew further and further distant, until they disappeared from sight. At this moment I felt an indescribable aloneness. Then for the first time I peered down the abyss of the North Face of the Eiger. The terror of the sight robbed me of breath. …The brooding blackness of the Face, falling away in almost endless expanse beneath me, made me look with awful longing to the thin cable disappearing about me in the mist. I was a tiny human being dangling in space between heaven and hell. The sole relief from terror was …my mission to save the climber below.

That is the heart of the Gospel story. We were trapped, but in the person and presence of Jesus, God lowered himself into the abyss of our sin and suffering. In Jesus God became "a tiny human being dangling between heaven and hell." He did it to save the people trapped below—you and me. Thus, the gospel is much more radical than just another religion telling us how to be good in our own power. It tells us the story of God's risky, costly, sacrificial rescue effort on our behalf.

I love how Tim Keller puts it:

The doctrine of the incarnation is, through the womb of Mary, that world we all know about came in. Through the pitiless slab, the pitiless walls of the world, God punched a hole, and he punched the hole…and he came in.

The ideal became real. The impossible became possible. The supernatural became natural. The metaphysical became physical. More than that, the powerful became powerless. The invulnerable became vulnerable. The unapproachable became huggable. The immense became a single cell. The unassailably remote became God with us. That’s the incarnation. There is nothing like that. Nobody has ever made a claim like that.

This is the incredible great news of Christmas: that God has responded to the sin and brokenness of this world by coming among us in person. The greatest privilege, the thing we were made for, is God’s presence. Our sin made that impossible, but God has taken action to fix that, and he has come in the flesh. He is Immanuel, God with us.

What is God going to do with a broken world? We’ve seen that he has acted; we’ve seen how he’s acted — by coming among us as a person. There’s only one more thing we need to see today, before we respond in worship. We need to see why he did this.

3. God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.

What was the reason that Jesus came to earth? We read the answer in verses 20-21:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

That’s the important phrase: “he will save his people from their sins.” We’ve seen that there is a lot wrong with this world. The problems are endless: sickness, war, poverty, environmental devastation, crime, relational breakdown, death. Underneath all of these problems is our deepest problem, and that problem is sin.

Next week, Nathan is going to tell us how the story ends. We began tonight by talking about the ingredients of a good story: that there is a character, God, who overcomes conflict — our sin and rebellion, in order to get something — the restoration of this world, including the restoration of our relationship with God. And the way to get there was for God to send his Son to become one of us.

Our biggest problem is the gap between us and God, a gap that is a result of sin. Humans cannot by our own moral effort counter our sins in order to elevate ourselves to God’s level. The gap is far too wide; the damage is far too severe. If the gap is going to be bridged, it has to be bridged in some other way.

The only way for the gap to be bridged was for God to come down to us. And that's exactly what happened at Christmas: God bridged the gap by sending Jesus to become one of us. We needed someone who was human so that he could represent us; we needed someone who was God because only God could lift us out of our mess. Jesus Christ became fully human, and at the same time was fully God, and was perfectly qualified to rescue us from our sins. That’s what he did at the cross; all of our sins were given to him, and he bore them all. All of his righteousness was offered to us, so that we could be made whole.

Because God became human, we can become his children.
Because God left his palace, we can be lifted out of our poverty.
Because he was torn, we can be mended.
Because he was broken, we can made whole.
Because Jesus died, we can truly live.

I have to apply this in two ways this evening.

First, when we see what Jesus has done for us in launching a rescue mission, and becoming one of us, how could we not join his rescue mission? We believe that Jesus is still in the business of moving into messes and bringing his life and healing and salvation. At the end of the book of Matthew, the one who is called Immanuel, God with us, says to us that he is with us as we go into the world and make disciples. The whole reason that we are here as a church is because we are his representatives on his mission to bring healing and life to this world. There is no better way for you to spend your life than in participating in Jesus’ ongoing rescue mission in this world.

Secondly, you’re invited. The angel said, “He will save his people from their sins.” I wonder if you would put your name in there: Jesus will save you from your sins. In great love, Jesus came down for your sake. He entered your mess so that he could rescue you and bring you new life. Come to him this evening and hear the good news that Jesus came to rescue you.

Blessed Are the Persecuted (Matthew 5:10-12)

This morning we’re coming to the last of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are part of the sermon that Jesus preached in his famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began by pronouncing blessing on surprising categories of people, people we normally don’t think of as blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the spiritually hungry, and so on. Many of these Beatitudes jar us, but we’ve come to see their beauty and even welcome the upside-down nature of the kingdom of heaven that is breaking into this world through the ministry of Jesus Christ.

But today we come to the least favorite Beatitude of all. It’s a Beatitude that, if we’re honest, we don’t like to think about very long. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus said:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This past week I read that Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani faces imminent execution for charges of abandoning Islam and refusing to recant his Christian faith. The 34-year-old husband and father of two may now be executed at any moment without warning, according to a new and apparently final trial court verdict. Nadarkhani is now approaching 900 days separated from his wife, his two sons, and his church. And Jesus is saying that he is blessed?

Charlene and I once attended a meeting at our son’s school. The room was packed with parents. The topic was a contentious issue in which Christians are out of step with society. I wasn’t threatened with prison or overtly persecuted, but you could feel the tension in the room against anyone who would hold a view on the matter that was out of step with the prevailing view. I went home that night rattled, and I wouldn’t even call that persecution. Are we really blessed when this happens?

So I have some questions about this Beatitude, and you may too. My two main questions are this: What does Jesus mean? And how does this work? So let’s follow these questions and try to see if we can come up with some answers that make sense, before we consider how this can show up in our lives today.

So the first question is this: What does Jesus mean?

What does Jesus mean when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”?

We should first look at what Jesus doesn’t mean.

Does anyone here have a bucket list? A bucket list is a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. People have created lists with all kinds of goals: to own a Ferrari, to visit exotic locations, to parachute, and more. I read one person’s bucket list which included this unusual goal: “To fight off a bear,” followed by this comment, “That might end my bucket list for sure right there.”

So here’s what Jesus isn’t saying. He isn’t saying that we should add “experience persecution” to our bucket list. This is not a command from Jesus to go out and look for persecution. So rest easy: I will not be telling you to go out tomorrow and try to look for ways to be persecuted at work and at school. I won’t be telling you that unless your neighbors hate you, you’re obviously doing something wrong. That’s what he’s not saying.

But don’t get too comfortable, because this Beatitude hints at something that Jesus says repeatedly elsewhere: We may not aim to experience persecution, but those who are part of his kingdom will experience it. So don’t look for it, don’t aim to experience it, but know that it’s coming. Jesus said, for instance:

You will be hated by all for my name's sake… (Matthew 10:22)

Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:20)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The Apostle Paul later wrote:

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake… (Philippians 1:29)

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted… (2 Timothy 3:12)

Jesus’ kingdom has arrived and is breaking into history here and now. As his kingdom breaks into this world, there is a clash of two kingdoms. And as those two kingdoms clash, members of Christ’s kingdom will inevitably get caught up in the clash.

We just finished watching The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy again. If you’ve ever watched the movies or read the books, you’ll remember that there is a clash of kingdoms between the dark lord Sauron and the hobbits and everyone else. There are some pretty spectacular battles as these rival kingdoms clash. At one point, Sam asks, “I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” For Frodo and Sam to understand what’s happening to them, they have to understand the bigger picture, and that picture includes a clash of kingdoms.

The same thing applies to us. If you have come under the kingship of Jesus, you’ve fallen into a larger story. And that story is the story of a clash of kingdoms. So Jesus isn’t saying that we should go looking for persecution, but he says that we will experience it as citizens of his inbreaking kingdom.

In fact, Jesus gives us the reasons we’ll be persecuted. It will be for righteousness’ sake. But he also says that people will say false things about us. When persecuted, they probably won’t say, “I’m persecuting you because you are such a good, righteous person.” Early Christians were charged with being immoral, atheists, and enemies of the state. They were charged with being immoral because they kept talking about loving their brothers and sisters. They were charged with being atheists because they refused to worship the Roman gods. They were charged with being enemies of the state because they said that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. None of the charges were true. When persecuted, the charge will always be something else. You won’t be charged with being righteous, but you may be accused of being intolerant or disloyal or not a team player.

This is actually an important part of what it means to be on mission. If you’re not on mission, you probably won’t be persecuted. You’re not persecuted for retreating from the world; you’re only persecuted as you engage it. Sri Lankan missionary Ajith Fernando said this a couple of years ago:

The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering lead the Western church to become ineffective in evangelism?…Christians in both the East and the West need to have a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and bear fruit.

This message is especially relevant for us as we think about God’s call to join him on mission. That mission entails suffering. The suffering may not be as severe as it is in other parts of the world, but it will happen. We may face rejection and hatred as we tell others about Jesus. We may be fired because we refuse to follow dishonest practices that are routine at work. We may face hostility because people think we’re intolerant. The more we are on mission, the more likely it is that we’ll experience persecution.

Jesus isn’t saying that we should go looking for persecution, but he is saying that we will experience it. And when we do, he’s saying that we can consider ourselves blessed. I love how N.T. Wright puts it: it’s a “summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future, because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus is saying we can live in line with his kingdom even when it leads to a clash with rival kingdoms, and we can consider ourselves blessed even when persecuted. That’s what he is saying: we can be blessed even when persecuted. That’s what it means.

This leads to my second question: How does this work?

I get the idea of what Jesus is saying. My real question is how this works. How is it possible to face suffering and persecution and to know that I’m blessed even as I’m persecuted? How is it possible to rejoice when people are persecuting me on his account?

Jesus tells us how. He says that we’re to think about two things.

First, think about what we have coming to us. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a marathon. One thing strikes me as I look at runners who are in the middle of a marathon: they don’t look happy. I’ve never seen a runner at the 20-mile mark of a marathon smiling. They just don’t look very happy. If you ask me, I probably look a lot happier on the sidelines sipping my Starbucks and eating a brownie. If you ask them why they are putting up with the obvious pain and the strenuous effort they’ll tell you: it’s because of what’s coming at the end. They’re going to experience something at the finish line that I never will. They will receive a medal. They’ll have their picture taken as they cross the finish line. And they’ll hear the applause that I’ll never hear as I don’t run.

That’s kind of the image that Jesus gives us. Why would anyone choose a life that could lead to being persecuted? Why would we put up with that when we could be kicking back now? It’s not because it looks fun. It’s because of payoff that’s coming at the finish line. You see, a runners aren’t smiling at the 20-mile mark, but they are at the finish line. The hope of what’s coming is what keeps them going.

The only way to find blessing even under persecution is to remember there’s something even more valuable than a persecution-free life. When we’re captivated by what we gain, we’ll know that we’re blessed even when we’re persecuted.

Let’s put it another way. A few years ago the first iPad came out. I thought I’d wait until it came to Canada but I gave up and drove to Buffalo to buy one. Three, actually, but that’s a longer story. I got my iPad home and absolutely loved it. If somebody said, “Would you give up your iPad?” I’d answer, “Absolutely not!” But then something happened. The second generation iPad came out. Suddenly I was willing to give up my iPad because something better than the iPad generation one came out. On March 7 this will be repeated again, because the rumor is that a third-generation iPad is coming out. I’m only willing to trade what I value when something of even greater value comes along.

That’s what Jesus is saying. There isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t value comfort. If I came and asked you, “Are you willing to give up a persecution-free life?” not many of us would say, “Sure!” The only way to be willing to suffer is if we value something even more than we value our comfort. But when we give something up for the kingdom, we give nothing up at all.

It’s like if you had a million dollars in the bank, but you needed a 61¢ stamp, but you were too cheap to buy the stamp. That would be ridiculous. In this passage, it’s as if Jesus is comparing the persecution and suffering to the 61¢, but the payoff as enormous. You can’t compare the million dollars to the price of a stamp.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a leading physician in England who became a pastor. When we became a pastor he took a 90% cut in pay and took a big step down. Someone once asked him about the sacrifice he made to become a pastor. Lloyd-Jones said, “I gave up nothing; I received everything.”

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” Jesus tells us that we can rejoice when we’re suffering as we think about what we have coming to us.

Elisabeth Elliott, whose husband was martyred, said:

We have proved beyond any doubt that He means what He says--His grace is sufficient, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. We pray that if any, anywhere, are fearing that the cost of discipleship is too great, that they may be given to glimpse that treasure in heaven promised to all who forsake.

So think about what you have coming to you. But there’s more. Jesus says to think of one more thing when we suffer:

Second, think of the company you’re keeping. Jesus says in verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

At first glance, this sounds ridiculous. Jesus is saying that when we suffer, we should rejoice because we’re joining a long line of people who have suffered for the kingdom too. You too can be like them. Take the prophet Jeremiah. He was called the weeping prophet. He was shunned, rejected, imprisoned, beaten, and persecuted for fifty years. When he complained to God one time, God told him it would get worse. Tradition says that he was eventually stoned to death in Egypt. Jeremiah once said:

Why did I come out from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?
(Jeremiah 20:18)

Jesus says that when you’re persecuted, you can rejoice, because you’re joining a long line-up that includes people like Jeremiah. Jesus says we should rejoice because of this. How does this possibly work?

But I saw a picture recently that helped me understand it. Here it is:

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Deck Hands Needed
Live Aboard
Low Pay
Long Hours
Good Food
Permanent Crew Space Available
Opportunity of a Lifetime

Who would sign up for this? I think I would. It reminded me of the quote from Sir Ernest Shackleton, from the advertisement he used when recruiting men for his expedition to Antarctica in 1914:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

When you suffer, you are joining a long and growing list of people who have risked everything for Jesus. It’s a privilege for us to be counted in their number. We can join some of those that the writer to the Hebrews talks about:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:32-38)

We get to join the company of all those who have suffered for his name, including the 150,000 Christians who are martyred for their faith every year. We get to join people like the Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, and be counted in that number.

Listen to how this has worked itself out in practice. Listen to how people through history have been able to rejoice when experiencing persecution because they remembered the rewards and the company they were keeping.

Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:41)

And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:22-24)

Listen to some examples from history.

When a woman was taken out into the arena to be killed by the beasts, she said, "This is my day of coronation."

In December 1666, Hugh MacHale was given four days to live and then marched back to the prison. On the way back to the prison he saw a friend and said, "Good news; wonderful good news! I am within four days of enjoying the sight of Jesus, my Savior!"

James Guthrie woke up in the condemned cell on the morning of his execution. His servant was weeping, and he said, "Stop that at once. This is the day that the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."

Listen to two example from recent history. Before he died a missionary named Jim Elliott said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Missionary Karen Watson went to Iraq and knew she might die. That's why she left a letter with her pastor before going to Iraq. She went to provide humanitarian relief in the name of Jesus—but she was gunned down in the country she came to serve. The letter began, "You're only reading this if I died." It included gracious words to family and friends, and this simple summary of following Christ: “To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward.”

Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor, wrote to his congregation and said, “[The true believer] does not need to wonder for the fiery trial that has been set on him as though it were something unusual, but it pleases him to participate in Christ's suffering because the believer knows he will rejoice in [Christ's] glory.”

All of these rejoiced as they suffered because they remembered their reward and the company they keep.

But I’ve left the best example for last this morning. That example is the one who spoke these words: Jesus. In fact, Jesus is the embodiment of all the Beatitudes. Jesus chose to leave his place of safety. He chose the path of suffering. He “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). When we see what Jesus did for us, we will know that it’s more than worth it to suffer for his sake.

I don’t wish suffering on anyone. I certainly don’t wish it for myself. But it is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, especially as we live on mission. It’s worth it because of what we’re going to receive, and because of the company we’re keeping when we suffer. And it’s worth it because Jesus was willing to suffer for us so that we could be part of his kingdom, a kingdom that will never end.

The With-Us God (Matthew 1:18-25)

Most Christmases, when it’s time to read the Christmas story, I end up reading the story from Luke. It’s familiar to us, and it has a real beauty to it. I’m not used to reading Matthew’s version, but it’s really too bad. Matthew is written from Joseph’s perspective. It’s short and it’s full of meaning.

Today what I want to do is to look at the Christmas story. Here’s what I want us to see from this passage: Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins.

First: Jesus is unexpected.

Can you see the surprise in this passage? Back then, you wouldn’t date and get engaged and get married like we do today. Your parents would find a spouse for you. How would you like that? And then you would enter into a binding agreement before witnesses that you would marry this person. This would be called betrothal, and once you were betrothed you were in between. You weren’t married yet, but the only way you could end the betrothal would be through divorce. And then a year later you would actually get married.

In this passage we read that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. His parents had arranged the marriage. They had already committed to get married, probably a year down the road. And now all of a sudden before they’re married, Joseph discovers that Mary is four months pregnant. He’s surprised, to say the least. He has a choice. He can marry her as planned and ignore the fact that she’s pregnant and that he’s not the father. He can make this a public matter, and Mary will be disgraced and maybe even stoned to death. Or he can deal with the matter quietly and divorce her. He chooses to do the last when an angel appears to him and stops him in his tracks.

Do you see here: Jesus is unexpected. Jesus is not the result of any human initiative. Nobody thought Jesus up. God took the initiative completely to bring about the birth of Jesus Christ to save his people from their sins.

Jesus has been surprising people ever since. He was unexpected, and he continues to show up unexpectedly in people’s lives even today. I love when Jesus shows up unexpectedly, as he has in many of our lives. We weren’t looking for him. He hadn’t even crossed our minds. But then, through the strangest of circumstances, God takes the initiative and shows up in the middle of our lives. It may be that Jesus is unexpectedly showing up in your life even this morning.

So Jesus is unexpected.

Second: Jesus is miraculous.

Read verse 20 with me:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:20)

This is incredible. This would have been a surprise to anyone back then, just like it is to us today. God the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, not as the biological father, but as the all-powerful God who was able to do the miraculous. Jesus is not like the rest of us who were born in the normal way. Jesus was born miraculously. Jesus is not just unexpected; he is also miraculous.

In his work The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes:

The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

Why is it important? David Mathis gives us four reasons:

  • It highlights the supernatural nature of Jesus’ birth.
  • It shows us that we need a salvation that we can’t bring about ourselves.
  • It shows us that God takes the initiative.
  • It hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’ one person.

Wayne Grudem writes:

God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ birth was completely unexpected. It was also miraculous. God took the initiative and did the impossible, just like he takes the initiative and brings about a salvation that we can’t achieve ourselves.

Jesus is unexpected; Jesus is miraculous.

Third: Jesus is God-with-us.

Read verses 22-23:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

This is absolutely shocking. The angel says that Jesus’ name is Immanuel, which means God-with-us, or the with-us-God. Matt Woodley writes:

It means that Jesus is God with us as he swims in Mary’s amniotic fluid, wiggles in the manger’s straw, feeds the hungry and heals the sick. Jesus is God with us as he takes the bread in his hands and says, “This is my body broken for you.” Jesus is God with us as he hangs from a cross, gasping for breath and shouting, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He descends into our messy world, standing in solidarity with human sufferers, plunging ever deeper into our pain and apparent abandonment.

Back then, Greeks could never have thought about God taking on a body. One Greek philosopher sarcastically asked, “How can one admit (God) should become an embryo, that after his birth he is put in swaddling clothes, that he is soiled with blood and bile and worse things yet?”

Even today, people struggle with this. A Muslim professor says that he can’t comprehend that God would become small, tiny, and weak. Kenneth Cragg, a scholar on Islam, says that although Muslims have a “great tenderness for Jesus” and they find the nativity story “miraculous,” they still see the incarnation as simply an impossible concept.

But we see here that Jesus is God-with-us. Jesus is God coming to us first as a fetus, then as an unplanned pregnancy, then as a baby, and later a twelve-year-old boy, and then later as a teacher, and then as a condemned criminal stripped naked on the cross, and then as the risen and ascended Lord. The writer to the Hebrews says:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)

Matt Proctor puts it this way:

Here's the point … God himself has felt what we feel. In the Incarnation, he chose not to stay "completely Other." He got down at eye-level, and in the Incarnation, God experienced what it's like to be tired and discouraged …. He knows what it's like to hurt and bleed. On the cross, Jesus himself prayed a psalm of lament: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1).

In your pain, you may be tempted to say, "God, you have no idea what I'm going through. You have no idea how bad I'm hurting." But God can respond, "Yes, I do." He can point to your wounds and then to his own and say, "Look: same, same. Me too. I have entered your world, and I know how you feel. I have been there, I am with you now, I care, and I can help." That is what Christmas is all about.

Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God.

Finally: Jesus saves us from our sins.

We learn in verse 21 exactly what Jesus came to do: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” In Jesus we have the solution for our sin problem. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we couldn’t live. And then we went to the cross and bore our sins. And he rose from the dead to give us new life. Jesus is the solution for our sin problem Jesus came to save us from our sins.

You know what it’s like to have someone visit you when you’re not ready. Mike Silva describes when this happened to him:

Most people would be a little embarrassed to have unexpected company when their house was a mess. My family was staying at a hotel in Nigeria, West Africa, one time when I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and found a smiling Nigerian gentleman ready to clean our room.

I was so embarrassed! My family had travel bags, curling irons, and crumpled clothing sprawled across our unmade beds. Wet towels were all over the bathroom floor. I apologized profusely, but the young man replied graciously, "No problem, sir. For this reason I have come, to put your things in order."

The Bible says this is exactly what Jesus Christ came to do for us. To put our lives in order! He doesn't demand that we first straighten up our mess. Instead, He offers to clean up for us.

Jesus came into our world to save us from our sins, to clean up the mess we couldn’t clean ourselves. This is the reason that Jesus came.

Friends, this is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins.

After returning home from a long tour, Bono, the lead singer for U2, returned to Dublin and attended a Christmas Eve service. At some point in that service, Bono grasped the truth at the heart of the Christmas story: in Jesus, God became a human being. With tears streaming down his face, Bono realized,

The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty … and straw, a child, I just thought, "Wow!" Just the poetry … I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this … Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered … Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.

In Jesus Christ, love found a form. In Jesus Christ, love became something concrete. At Christmas, love was made flesh. Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins. It’s the reason we celebrate Christmas today.

The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17)

Of all the ways to start a book, this isn’t one of them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” I mean, come on. At the start of a book, you have to grab the reader.

Here’s how you start a book. Here’s the first line from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” See? Only ten words, and you’re hooked. Another famous book begins with the author’s daring escape from the brutal prison Devil’s Island. Right away you’re in the middle of the action. You can’t wait to see what happens next.

So why does Matthew begin the Christmas story with a genealogy? I bet that many of you are tempted to skip verses 1 to 17 and go right to verses 18, which says, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” But that would be a mistake. The beginning of the Christmas story in Matthew has an important lesson for us. Three of them, actually. Here they are, and then I’ll take you through each one.

  • The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.
  • The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
  • The birth of Jesus includes all of us.

I got all of that from a genealogy? I did. And I hope you’ll see how I did soon as well. So here it goes.

First: The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.

Matthew is a skilled author, and he knows exactly what he’s doing in verse 1 when he begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” We’re supposed to read that and think, “This sounds familiar somehow.” In the Greek, the first two words are biblos geneseos which we translate “the book of the genealogy” - but they are also the Greek title for Genesis. Genesis is the Old Testament book that refers to the creation and beginning of all things. So Matthew plants these words here because he wants us to do a double-take.

What does this mean? Matthew wants us to begin reading his book with a sense of déjà vu. He wants to take us all the way back to the beginning and see his book, beginning with the birth of Jesus Christ, as a fresh start and a new beginning.

I went to the mall the other day. Part way through my trip I realized that I had dropped something. What I’d dropped is worth about $100. I began to retrace my steps. I went to mall security and all the stores I’d been in to see if I could find it. But it was gone. I went home feeling good about what I’d bought, but also wishing that I could rewind back to the beginning and be more careful and not lose something that was pretty valuable to me.

Have you ever wished that you could hit the pause button on your life and rewind and go back to the beginning? Have you ever wished you could have a do-over?

Matthew is saying in this verse that this world has two beginnings. The first one took place a long time ago in Genesis 1 when God created the heavens and the earth, and everything was good. But we know how that story ended up. In Genesis 1 and 2, everything is really good. But in Genesis 3, sin enters the world, and then there’s nothing but trouble from Genesis 4 to 11 and beyond.

Do you ever wish that we could pause history and rewind back to Genesis 3 and undo all the damage that sin has brought in the world? There’s good news, Matthew says. That is exactly what the birth of Jesus does. It’s a new beginning. In Matthew 1 the world begins anew. We get to start all over again. We had creation; now in Jesus, we have re-creation. The original creation, which is damaged, flawed, and broken, is now being restored and transformed in the person of Jesus Christ.

That’s the really great news Matthew is telling us. The birth of Jesus is a new beginning. It means that the slate is wiped clean.

And so for all of us who are longing to start again, who are longing for a fresh start, and who are longing for everything in this world to be put right, the birth of Jesus is what makes this possible. I don’t know what has happened in your past, but the birth of Jesus marks a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The birth of Jesus is a new beginning for all of us, and for the whole world.

Second: The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.

So picture this. You get an envelope in the mail. You open up that envelope, and you find a single piece of paper printed on really nice paper. It has someone’s name and contact information, followed by headings that say “Employment History,” “Education,” and “References.” What do you have? You’d recognize it as a résumé. It’s what we write when we’re trying to give a potential employer some basic information about ourselves.

Picture someone two thousand years ago getting that same piece of paper. They would probably look at it strangely as they tried to figure out what in the world it’s all about.

That’s really what’s happening as we read the genealogy. Matthew’s readers would have been very familiar with this form, and they would have understood its purpose. They would have been captivated by what Matthew wrote. In the ancient world, genealogies did a couple of things.

First, they grounded you in history. I was in England one time when I came across a monument for where the missionary Augustine of Canterbury met King Ethelbert of Kent in 597. It’s one thing to read about it in the history books; it’s another thing to realize that it happened right here. That’s what Matthew is doing as he gives us the genealogy. He’s saying that the story of Jesus is grounded in history. He’s descended from particular people who really lived. It’s not a made-up story. It really happened in time and space.

But the genealogy also served another purpose. Back then it functioned as a kind of résumé. It would tell you who a person is and where they came from. It established your heritage, your inheritance, your legitimacy, and rights. It would establish your legal claim to certain rights and properties that had been passed down through the generations to you. The closest thing I’ve experienced is when I sat with someone at a seminary breakfast in Boston. I asked the person how long they’d lived in Boston; he replied that King George had granted them the land back in the eighteenth century. It was important for him to be able to trace things back. It established who he was and what he was entitled to.

In this genealogy, Matthew traces Jesus’ bloodline to two specific people. What’s interesting is that promises were made to both of them. What Matthew is doing here is showing that Jesus is the legitimate heir and fulfillment of the promises made to these two particular people, promises that looked like they had been lost forever. Not only does Matthew include them in the genealogy, but he underlines them in verse 1 so that we don’t miss them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

What does it mean that Jesus was the son of David? David was the greatest king in Israel’s history. God had promised David, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). God had told David that his descendants would reign forever. That seemed like madness. Israel had no king. Herod was king when Matthew wrote this, and he sure didn’t like the thought of anyone else claiming to be king. You sure didn’t go around bragging about being part of a royal family. But that’s what Matthew does here. He says that Jesus is a son of David. That’s a claim to royalty. Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the king promised to David, the king whose throne is established forever.

But there’s more. He’s also the son of Abraham. God had promised Abraham:

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Here, Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham. Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise to be a blessing to the whole world. Matthew is making sure that Jesus’ résumé states clearly who he is qualified to be: the promised king, the one who will bless the whole earth.

Matthew is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of two thousand years of God’s promises. All the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

You thought that this was a boring genealogy? It’s nothing of the sort. It’s already told us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning, and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. But there’s more.

Third, the birth of Jesus includes all of us.

My grandfather used to talk about being descended from pirates. I have no way to know whether this is true or not, but I kind of hope so. The truth is that all of our family trees have some shady characters. But Matthew goes out of his way to include shady characters in this list.

On one hand, you have kings on this list. That’s pretty cool. Matthew is saying that the story of Jesus includes those who have power and prestige and position.

But Matthew gives us the other side as well. It’s clear in reading this list that Matthew has been selective in terms of the people he includes. He leaves some in, and he leaves some out as well. So it’s striking that he included some people that most would have left out. Most ancient genealogies didn’t include women, unless they were famous great women. But Matthew lists four women who are prominent and anything but great:

  • Tamar in verse 3 - In Genesis 38 we read that Tamar acted as a prostitute and tricked her father-in-law into making her pregnant so that she could continue the line of her husband.
  • Rahab in verse 5 - She was a prostitute and a foreigner who courageously rescued the Hebrew spies.
  • Ruth in verse 5 - She was another foreigner, a Moabite under the Old Testament curse against Moabites found in Deuteronomy 23: “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever” (Deuteronomy 23:3). She was a descendent of the incestuous Lot.
  • Uriah’s wife in verse 6 - She was the woman involved in David’s scandalous affair and cover-up.

So in this list you have great people, but you also have people with a past. You have men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes, and Gentiles. Jesus is Savior of them all. Right from the start, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is immersed in the gritty and seamy side of fallen humanity. No matter who you are, people like you are already part of Jesus’ story. Right from the start, God chooses the most sinful, broken, and unlikely people - people like you and me.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther preached a sermon and said:

Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree! Now if the Lord does that here, so ought we to despise no one … but put ourselves right in the middle of the fight for sinners and help them.

That’s great news. Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners.

The genealogy tell us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. It also tells us that Jesus is not ashamed of sinners.

Friends, don’t let this genealogy fool you. Don’t think it’s the boring prelude to the exciting stuff that’s going to come later. This is story-telling at its best. Right from the beginning, Matthew wants us to understand that the birth of Jesus marks a new beginning. The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. The birth of Jesus is good news for all kinds of people, people like you and people like me.

Two responses this morning. First, be amazed. It’s amazing to think that God would give us a fresh start, that he would begin to undo all that’s wrong in the world. It’s amazing that he would choose to do this by sending his Son as a baby to be born in Bethlehem. It’s amazing that he would choose to fulfill all the promises he’s made through Jesus. And it’s amazing that he would choose to include messed-up people in all of this. Yet that’s what he’s chosen to do. Worship him this morning. Marvel again that God would choose to do something this amazing.

Second, join the story. I hope you’ve put your faith in Christ. I pray that you’ve had that fresh start through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I really pray that you’ve seen all of God’s promises reach their fulfillment in Christ. And I pray that you’ll realize that this story includes you, no matter how unlikely a person you may be.

In his commentary on this passage, Matt Woodley writes:

One day in a hole in the Milky Way called planet Earth, among an odd group of people, Jesus the Messiah came to his people. It’s a true story that reads like fiction. What adventures, dangers and delights will Jesus encounter? And if we follow him, what adventures shall befall us? Where will this Gospel of mercy lead us? Hold on, we’re in for the tale — and the adventure — of our life.

The Harvest is Plentiful (Matthew 9:35-38)

Before we go any further, welcome back! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen many of you. It’s good to see you again, and I’m ready to get going this Fall. It begins with a message that I’ve been waiting to give for some time now.

In November 2010, a wedding party in Australia, was unexpectedly called into action right after the wedding ceremony. While they were posing for pictures on a scenic ledge, a woman unrelated to the wedding fell into the water and started drowning. Dressed in his tuxedo, the best man jumped in and brought the woman back toward shore. Then the bride, a trained nurse, waded into the water and started administering CPR. By the time the Surf Life Saving volunteers had arrived, the woman had regained consciousness. But according to one safety official, "[The victim] was very lucky that the bridal party was there and they acted quickly and got her to the shallows." After the daring rescue operation, the drenched but heroic best man and the bride happily rejoined the wedding reception and continued with the festivities.

That’s the picture I want you to keep in mind this morning. We're dressed up for a party (celebrating worship), but at the same time we're also prepared to dive into mission, even when it's inconvenient and dangerous. This morning I want to look at a passage of Scripture in which Jesus challenges us to look out and to take a specific action.

Today I’d like to talk to you about something very specific. It’s a dangerous thing to talk to you this morning, because a response is going to be required. In just a few minutes, you are going to be confronted with a choice, a response you’re going to be asked to make. There’s a lot riding on this response, not only for you but for this world as well. So this is a scary time. There’s a lot riding on the next few minutes.

A Pivotal Passage

The passage we’re going to look at this morning is a hinge passage, a pivotal passage. What’s a hinge passage? A hinge is the swing point between two objects. A hinge holds together two objects. And the passage we’re looking at today holds Jesus’ ministry together with our ministry. That’s why the Scripture we’re going to look at today is so important, because it’s all about us having a similar ministry to Jesus.

So let me read the passage for you, and then let me lead you to the response that Jesus requires from us.

We read in Matthew 9:35-38:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

As I said, this is a pivotal point in the book of Matthew. Up until now, it has been all about Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been traveling all throughout Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. Not only that, he’s been healing diseases and casting out demons. Epileptics, paralytics, and even a mother-in-law have been healed! Jesus has calmed a storm. The blind have received sight. A young girl has been raised from the dead. The mute are speaking again. As the crowds watch this, they rightly say, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33). That’s what you call an understatement. Can you imagine what it would have been like to see this? It would have been extraordinary. That’s all of what has been happening up until the passage that we just read.

But something happens right afterwards. Up until now it’s all been about Jesus ministering in power. But a strange thing happens after the passage that we just read. In Matthew chapter 10:1 we read, “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” So what’s happening here?

We’re right at the moment when Jesus makes the switch from preaching and teaching and healing himself, to commissioning his disciples to go out to preach and teach and heal. What’s going on here is that Jesus is about to commission his followers to do what he’s doing. He preached; he’s about to get them to preach. He’s taught with authority; he’s about to send them out to teach with authority. He’s driven out evil spirits and healed all kinds of diseases and sicknesses; he’s about to get them to drive out evil spirits and heal all kinds of sicknesses and diseases.

So you have a before and after picture, and in between you have this section. So what does this tell us? It tells us that whatever happens here is critical for us to have the same type of ministry that Jesus had. If we are to be doing the same type of thing that Jesus did, then what takes place in this pivotal passage is extremely important. So let’s look at what takes place in this passage that is so important to having the same type of ministry that Jesus did.

A Window into Jesus’ Heart

The first thing that this passage does is that it gives us a bit of a window into the heart of Jesus. If we’re to have the type of ministry that Jesus had, it’s going to be because our heart is becoming like the heart of Jesus.

We read in verse 36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them.” The compassion of Jesus is a theme that keeps coming up in the book of Matthew. Matthew 14:14 says, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” In chapter 15:32, Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.” In chapter 20:34 we read, “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.” What we discover is that compassion is at the heart of Jesus.

Compassion is a pretty strong word here. You would think that the reason for Jesus’ compassion would be because of the sicknesses that he’s encountered. Everywhere he turns, there are people blind, epileptic, paralyzed or even dead. That is certainly worth our compassion. There are a few days every year that I can barely listen to the radio. It’s the days that they have a telethon to raise money for The Hospital for Sick Children. I’m filled with compassion and I can barely take it when I hear the stories of the sicknesses of these children. It makes sense to be moved with compassion when we encounter the sick.

But what moves Jesus here isn’t the physical illnesses that he’s encountered. Verse 36 says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” What moved Jesus - and what doesn’t move me as much as it should - was the great spiritual need of the people. Their lives had no center, their existence seems aimless, and their whole experience was one of futility.

You see, the prophet Micah had written:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
(Micah 5:2, quoted in Matthew 2:6)

God had said through Ezekiel: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23). But the situation, as Jesus saw it, was close to what the prophet Ezekiel had prophesied earlier in the same chapter: “My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (Ezekiel 34:6).

As a result, Jesus saw the people as harassed, confused, bothered, and unable to help themselves. And this, even more than the illnesses that he saw, moved him with compassion.

I said earlier that if we are to serve like Jesus served, we must have a heart that is becoming like the heart of Jesus. This means that we begin to feel compassion for those we encounter who have not been placed under the great Shepherd Jesus Christ. It means that we look around us and see people the way Jesus does, and feel compassion for them the way that he does.

Two Responses

But that’s not really the heart of the challenge that is ours this morning. I said that this would be a dangerous talk, and it is. This is a pivotal passage, and it’s all about bridging the gap between Jesus’ ministry and ours, so that we have the same kind of ministry that he had. I’d love to have the compassion that Jesus had, but that’s not what Jesus talks about. Jesus speaks to the disciples at this pivotal moment and gives them something to believe and something to do. And as we read this passage today, we are likewise given something to believe and then something to do.

First, we’re given something to believe. Jesus says in verse 37, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” What does he tell us to believe? Jesus switches metaphors here from shepherding to farming. And what he tells us is that the harvest is ready. In other words, people are ready to receive the good news of the kingdom. The problem isn’t that people are unready to receive the good news; the problem is that we aren’t ready to tell them. “The workers are few.” Imagine a farmer with fields ready to be harvested, but workers who are AWOL or non-existent. Jesus looks around him and he sees people who are helpless and harassed and ready to hear the good news of the gospel. The problem is that there’s nobody to tell them.

So let me ask you: do you believe that the harvest is plentiful? The harvest is plentiful all around us. Do you believe that? Jesus gives it to us as something for us to believe. One of the greatest lies of the devil is to convince us that people aren’t interested, that it’s a waste of time to tell them. The harvest is plentiful. God has prepared them. There are many yet to be reached with the gospel of the kingdom, and there’s an urgency. They’re ready to hear. This is what he tells us to believe. Do you believe it?

A recent book captures the urgency of evangelism very well, and calls us to respond. It’s:

  • theologically urgent because of what God has revealed, including the truth that there is a heaven and hell
  • spiritually urgent because people are utterly spiritually lost apart from Christ
  • physically urgent because death is coming for all, and with it the opportunity to respond to the gospel will be past
  • statistically urgent because the vast majority of people in our community have not yet heard the gospel or been invited to respond to it
  • strategically urgent because God has chosen to use the church as his strategy of reaching the lost
  • personally urgent because each of us must respond

He’s given us something to believe - that people are ready. Now he gives us something to do about it. Wouldn’t you expect that Jesus would say, “So get out there and tell them!” But that’s not what he said. Surprisingly, he said, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Why would Jesus tell us to pray instead of doing something? It’s not like Jesus is against action. In the very next chapter, remember, he’s going to instruct his twelve disciples, and then send them out to preach and teach and do the things that he’s done. But he knows that before we have the ministry that he has, we must have the same prayerful reliance on the Father that he does. Before we have the compassion of Jesus, we must have the connection with the Father that Jesus has.

Warren Wiersbe says, “When we pray as He commanded, we will see what He saw, feel what He felt, and do what He did. God will multiply our lives as we share in the great harvest that is already ripe.”

It’s one thing for us to go and do. It’s another thing altogether to plead with God that he would raise up people - either through conversion or growth - who are ready to go; to pray that God would give them a spirit for the work, call them to it, and give them wisdom and success. Matthew Henry said, “It is a good sign God is about to bestow some special mercy upon a people, when he stirs up those that have an interest at the throne of grace, to pray for it.” God is up to something when we begin to pray like Jesus commands in this passage.

It’s when I consider that I was one of these lost sheep, and that I came to know the Great Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, that I begin to be motivated to pray. It’s as I look at the cross and see the Shepherd willingly lay down his life for me so that I could become his sheep that I begin to think that the least I can do is pray for others.

And when we start to believe that the harvest is plentiful and pray that he would send out workers, you never know if we may become the answers to our own prayers - that we would be the workers commissioned by the Lord of the harvest himself.

So two questions, and the stakes are high for both you and for the world. Will you believe Jesus when he says that the harvest is plentiful? And will you pray, beginning today, that God would raise up people - maybe even you - to do his work?

This morning I’d like you to respond. First, I invite you to respond to the free offer of salvation given to you in Christ. It may be that you’re here this morning, and you’ve never done so. Today is your day to come, to respond to the One who gave his life as a sacrifice for your sins.

But I’d also like you to respond on behalf of those who don’t yet know Christ. Today the invitation is to first believe that the harvest is plentiful. And then the invitation is to pray. We can begin that God would raise up new evangelists within his church, but be careful. The answer to that prayer may be you. We can pray in particular for people we know who are part of the harvest, that they may come to know Christ.

Let’s do what Jesus asks us to do right now.

Extravagant Forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35)

We're coming to the end of a series on healthy relationships. We're just a few weeks away from finishing. We can't go through a series on relationships without talking about a subject that is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others. And that subject is forgiveness.

Forgiveness is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others. I love what Ruth Graham said: "A good marriage is made of two good forgivers." That's not just true of marriage. For a relationship to be healthy, it has to be characterized by forgiveness.

But forgiveness is hard. This past summer we sat around a dinner table with some friends. The food had been good. We were starting to feel at home with the others around the table.

Near the end of dinner the subject turned to forgiveness. The question that was posed was something like this: "How do you forgive others for all the ways they've hurt you?" We had talked enough with those around the table to know that there had been some pretty serious hurts that had taken place. I remember the heavy silence that hung over the table as we began to wrestle with what it means to forgive those who have sinned against us.

That's why I love what Darrin Patrick said: "If you think forgiveness is not painful, you have never forgiven someone who hurt you deeply."

Extravagant Forgiveness

But I don't want to simply talk about forgiveness this morning. I want to talk about extravagant forgiveness. It's one thing to forgive someone when they forget to show up at a meeting, or open their car door so that it dings yours. It's another thing to forgive someone for a serious offense, or to forgive someone who's hurt you repeatedly.

Pastor Fred Winters was shot and killed during a Sunday service on March 8, 2009, by a troubled young man. A week after the tragic event, his wife, Cindy Winters, said this about the alleged killer:

I do not have any hatred, or even hard feelings towards him. We have been praying for him. One of the first things that my daughter said to me after this happened was, "You know, I hope that he comes to learn to love Jesus through all of this." We are not angry at all, and we really firmly believe that he can find hope and forgiveness and peace through this, by coming to know Jesus. And we hope that that happens for him.

You hear stories like this and wonder: how in the world is forgiveness possible? A gunman opens fire in an Amish schoolhouse and kills five girls. Afterwards one of the members of the community says, "I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts." Or, as Roy Comrie shared a few weeks ago, missionaries are lined up and killed. Before they die, they get on their knees and pray for the salvation of the killers, many of whom later come to know Christ. That's what you call extravagant forgiveness.

How is this kind of extravagant forgiveness even possible?

That's the question we have before us as we look at this passage. Notice what happened. Jesus has just been talking about real community among his followers, in which we go after and restore those who sin. Peter asks a legitimate question:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" (Matthew 18:21)

You can see why Peter would ask this question. Centuries ago someone said, "For Who deceives me once, God forgive him; if twice, God forgive him; but if thrice, God forgive him, but not me, because I could not beware." You have to admit that sounds a little reasonable. There comes a time when you want to say, "Enough is enough!" There are limits to how much most of us are willing to forgive.

The thing with Peter is that he's being extraordinarily generous. Rabbinic tradition said: "If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven." Peter more than doubled this quota of forgivenesses. He's clearly learned something from Jesus. He understands now that retaliation is not the right path; forgiveness is to be pursued. You can picture the type of patience needed to forgive someone seven times.

But notice how Jesus answered in verse 22. "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." I can just picture somebody writing an iPhone app to keep track of the number of times you've forgiven someone. But that's not what Jesus meant. He wasn't saying we should keep track at all. Stop counting. For Jesus' followers, forgiveness is to be unlimited. It's to be a way of life, freely offered to all who sin against us.

This means, by the way, that if you're keeping track of how many times you've forgiven someone, you need to stop. Jesus' point was that we need to forgive an unlimited number of times.

You can see that this is a radical kind of forgiveness that goes far beyond what you'd expect. The question occurs to me: where am I going to get that kind of ability to forgive? Where am I going to find the resources to forgive someone to that level of extravagance? Jesus answers this question, and the answer comes in the form of a story.

The Unforgiving Servant

The story we have in verses 23-35 is a simple one. We need to enter into it if we're going to understand the point that Jesus is making. The story has three characters.

First: it has a king. A king in that day would have had many officials who handled money on his behalf in affairs of the state. You can picture what happened. It's audit time, and the accountant comes and points out that there's some irregularities in a particular department. The more they look, the worse it gets. This sounds very familiar, doesn't it?

This leads us to the second character. He's the official who has overseen this particular area. He owes the first character, the king, a vast amount of money. The amount of money is so vast that we have a hard time even understanding how much it is. A talent represented about twenty years worth of work for the average laborer. This man owes ten thousand talents, which works out to about 193,000 years' wages. We're talking in the neighborhood of billions of dollars here. Not millions, billions. Using today's wages, maybe 7 billion dollars or so. So look at what happens:

As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

"At this the servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. (Matthew 18:24-27)

That's it? A guy owes 7 billion dollars, and the king has pity on him and lets him go? I think you'll agree that's staggering. Unbelievable. Nobody could ever expect that level of compassion and grace. He could never hope to pay that amount back. If the king wasn't merciful, he wouldn't have stood a chance, and all would have been lost. It's an amazing story of extravagant forgiveness.

But what's really staggering is what happens next. Having been forgiven 7 billion dollars, he's on his way home and comes across someone who owes him a hundred days' worth of wages. Remember he's just been forgiven 7 billion dollars; he now goes after someone who owes him, say, a little less than 10 thousand dollars.

Now, it's a big deal if someone owes you 10 thousand dollars - unless you've just been forgiven 7 billion dollars. Then it's just a rounding error. Of course you're going to forgive someone such a small amount after you've been forgiven billions! But look what happens:

"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.'

"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt." (Matthew 18:28-30)

Then, we read, the king hears about it. He can't believe his ears.

"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (Matthew 18:32-34)

You see, you can't be forgiven billions and then be unwilling to forgive peanuts. The problem was that this man didn't understand how extravagantly he had been forgiven, and as a result he wasn't wasn't able to forgive others. And then Jesus concludes with these haunting words:

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart." (Matthew 18:35)

How will he treat us? Jesus is saying that if we withhold forgiveness from others for what they do to us, then God will withhold forgiveness from us. This is staggering. Jesus is essentially saying that every time we refuse to forgive someone for what they've done for us, we're like the guy who's been forgiven 7 billion dollars who refuses to forgive a few thousand dollars.

The Key to Extravagant Forgiveness

Let's try to summarize here. Remember how this all began? Jesus is teaching about how to deal with people who sin against us. Peter asks the very good question about how many times we need to forgive others. And then Jesus says we're to forgive others freely without counting no matter how many times they sin against us.

How could we ever forgive like this? Jesus says: it'll only happen when you understand how much you've been forgiven. Whatever someone has done to offend you, it pales in comparison to what you've done to offend God. This isn't to minimize what people have done against you. Some of it, quite frankly, is awful. But it pales in comparison to what you and I have done to offend a holy God.

When Yahaya Wahab's father passed away in Malaysia in January of 2006, Yahaya cancelled his father's phone line and paid the final bill of $23. Consequently, he was mildly surprised to receive another letter from Telekom Malaysia in April of 2006. He was completely and utterly shocked, however, after opening that letter. In fact, he said later that he almost fainted.

Inside was a bill for $218 trillion. Also inside was a threatening letter, informing Yahaya that he must pay the bill within 10 days or face prosecution. It wasn't initially clear whether the monstrous charge was a mistake, or if Yahaya's father's phone line had been used illegally after his death. What was immediately clear, however, was that the bill represented a debt that Yahaya would never be able to pay.

It's like that with God. The debt of our sin is so great that we could never repay it. But instead of prosecuting us, God sent his Son Jesus to pay that debt on our behalf. Because we've been forgiven so much, we'll be able to forgive others the relatively small amounts that they owe us.

We can never forgive more extravagantly than God. When we realize how much we've been forgiven, when we consider what Jesus did at the cross for us, we'll know what it means to forgive, and we'll then be ready to forgive others - even for the 78th time.

I love how Chris Brauns puts it:

If you are someone who says that you cannot or will not forgive, then you should fear for your soul. Saying, "I cannot or will not forgive," is essentially another way of saying, "I am thinking of going to hell."...Quacking doesn't make you a duck, but ducks do quack. Forgiving doesn't make you a Christian, but Christians do forgive.

It's only when a man understands how much he's been forgiven that he can go and visit his sister's murderer in prison, and offer forgiveness - both his and God's. Extravagant forgiveness is possible because of God has extravagantly forgiven us.

So I invite you to experience and revel in God's forgiveness of you this morning, made possible because of what Christ has done at the cross.

He does not treat us as our sins deserve

or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,

so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:10-12)

And then I invite you, on the basis of that extravagant forgiveness, to extend forgiveness to others.

Genuine Community (Matthew 18:1-22)

The other day I pulled out the ice cream and chocolate syrup. At least I thought it was chocolate syrup until I read the label carefully. In big letters it sad, "Genuine." In smaller letters it said "Chocolate Taste." Do you get that? Not "Genuine Chocolate." That would be nice. "Genuine Chocolate Taste." I went online and dug around a bit and found this question:

What is a genuine chocolate FLAVORED syrup? How does it differ from a genuine chocolate syrup? Can something be genuine if it it does taste like something but not the real thing?

Webster definition on Genuine: "actually produced by or proceeding from the alleged source"

What I poured on my ice cream that night was not real chocolate. It was syrup that genuinely tastes like chocolate, but it's not the real thing. The real thing would be far too costly. We live in a world of fakes: artificial vanilla extract; genuine leather material; "pure" orange juice that has additives; genuine chocolate taste, not chocolate. Might I also add "genuine relationship taste" which is very different from "genuine relationship."

That's exactly what this passage before us is about: genuine community. We have a choice before us as a church. We can settle for genuine Christian community taste. The thing is, it almost tastes like the real thing. If you've never tasted the real thing, you may not even know the difference. But it's not the genuine thing at all.

So in this morning's passage, Jesus is going to show us the difference between genuine community taste, which falls far short of what we're supposed to enjoy, and the real thing.

So let's look first at what often passes for Christian community.

You could call this "genuine Christian community taste." But it's far from the real thing.

Let me give you a bit of context. The disciples were becoming increasingly aware that Jesus is the Messiah, which meant that the Messianic kingdom was right around the corner. They expected that Jesus was going to show himself in power and set up his kingdom - which also meant that the top jobs were up for grabs. If Jesus is King, and he's about to set up his Kingdom, then it's pretty nice to be a close friend of Jesus. You've got connections. You begin to wonder what job you're going to hold in the new administration.

So we read in verse 1, "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'"

This is one of those moments when we want to wag our fingers at the disciples. How dare they ask such a brazen and shameless question? The disciples understood that they were part of the community that Jesus was creating. It's easy to see how this happened. We have a new mayor in Toronto. He starts in just a couple of weeks. If you're a good friend of the new mayor, you may ask, "I'm just wondering. Who's going to be your chief of staff? Do you have an office manager yet?" It's a mindset that comes naturally to most of us. We want to leverage our connections and push ourselves forward based on our expertise, maturity, and qualifications so that we're recognized for who we think we really are.

I know a lot of relationships that function this very way. I remember sitting around a table the first time I met with a new group of people. We went around the table and began introducing ourselves. I have to confess that I didn't hear a word that anyone said who went before me. Why? I was thinking about what I was going to say. I also didn't hear the two or three people who went after me, because I was too busy thinking about how well I did. I was kicking myself for not saying the right thing. I was trying to see where I ranked in that group of people. I sure didn't want to end up at the bottom of the list. We were trying to build community in the group, but I was too busy trying to gain leverage and to get people to think well of me.

False community asks the questions, "What's in it for me?" and "How can I gain standing in this community?" I'm going to suggest that this is our default way of approaching relationships, including in the church. If you don't know any better, if you've never tasted the real thing, then you think that this is what relationships are supposed to be like.

One of the frustrations I've had as a pastor is that so many of us are disconnected. We come out Sundays. We maybe have some friends we talk to. We may even be part of some ministries, attend small groups. But nobody really knows us. We aren't really deep into each other's lives. I've wondered this week if the question the disciples ask is behind this. We're approaching the idea of relationships in the church by trying to figure out how the relationships can benefit us. As a result we're never able to enjoy genuine Christian community.

You see, when the disciples asked the question - and when we do too - it indicates that there's a big problem. William Barclay says, "The very fact that they asked this question shows that they had no idea what the Kingdom of Heaven was." Not only that, but Jesus said that we won't even enter his kingdom if we approach things this way:

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18:2-5)

Picture the scene. One one hand: important friends and associates of Jesus who are wondering where they're going to fit in. On the other hand, a small and insignificant child with an empty resume, no connections, no accomplishments, nothing by which to impress.

If you're entering Christian community with a focus on yourself, wondering what's in it for you, and how you can advance and get others to think well of you, then you haven't experienced genuine Christian community. In fact, Jesus says, you may not have entered the kingdom of heaven at all.

Let's ask the question, then: what is genuine Christian community?

Let's look at what genuine Christian community looks like.

Do you remember why my syrup was artificial? Because the real thing would cost too much. Do you want to know why artificial Christian community is so attractive? Not because it tastes good. The taste is awful. If you've tasted the real thing, there's no question which is better. No, it's because what we just talked about doesn't cost very much. In contrast, genuine Christian community is costly. It consists of three things.

First, it means a radical commitment to value others in our community, even at great cost to ourselves. This is pretty heavy duty. I want you to think of someone who is part of the church, somebody you don't particularly appreciate. It shouldn't take long. Now, don't look at them. Did you know that there's even a name for them? You can call them EGRs. I got this term from Gordon MacDonald. EGR stands for "extra grace required." It could be people who drain us, people who aren't very impressive to us, people we'd prefer weren't part of our lives.

Jesus says in verse 5 that we need to receive people like this. This is so important that he repeats it again in verse 10. Not only do we need to become like little children - no resume, nothing to impress - but we need to welcome people like this. It means we value people who aren't valuable to us, because they're immensely valuable to God. Not only that, but we need to ensure that our actions do not harm them negatively. In verses 7-9 Jesus calls us to take radical action so that we don't lead others into sin by our own actions. If we lead others into sin by our own actions, Jesus says, we're storing up a world of trouble for ourselves.

You can see how this is costly. It means valuing others we wouldn't otherwise value, because they're valuable to Jesus. It's a radical commitment to value others at great cost to ourselves.

Secondly, it means that we pursue others when they stray. In my library I have a book that was given to me for my birthday by a group of friends 25 years ago. It's signed by my friends. Many of those friends are still walking with God. Two of them are pastors. But there's one that bothers me. Let me read what she wrote and then I'll tell you why it bothers me.

Continue in your walk with our precious Savior, Darryl. May he lead you all the days of your life. God bless. Thanks for your fellowship in Christ. All my love, a daughter in Christ...

You know why that bothers me? Because she is no longer walking with Christ. Our normal way of handling something like this is to say, "Well, I guess it's their business. The last thing I want to do is to meddle in someone else's life." But that's not genuine Christian community. Jesus says, in verses 10 to 14 that this is not what we'll do when we're in genuine community with each other. If 1 goes off, we won't say, "Well, look at the bright side. We've still got 99." We'll go after that one with the goal of restoring them to God and to the community again.

How does this work? Jesus describes a process in verses 15 to 17, a process that imitates the love of a shepherd who is doing everything possible to rescue a beloved lamb who has strayed from the fold.

Step 1: Correct privately

Jesus says, "If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over" (Matthew 18:15).

Please note that this passage is for all of us. It's not reserved for church leaders or special people. We're all supposed to look out for each other. It's also not an excuse for busybodies. There's a time to cover over offenses (Proverbs 19:11). But if an offense is too serious to overlook, love will compel us to go and seek to show a brother or sister where he or she may be straying from the safety of God's path.

Be prepared for the fact that the world will constantly try to convince you that offering correction is inevitably unloving and judgmental. It will help to remember that in God's eyes it is often the most loving thing we can do for each other. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, "Nothing is so cruel as the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin." Discipline is God's gift and blessing to the church!

Step 2: Take one or two others along

But what if the other person doesn't listen to you? What if he or she keeps on doing something you believe is wrong?

The world says, "Tell anyone and everyone about it!" Jesus says, "But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses" (Matthew 18:16). They don't have to be witnesses to the sin; they're there to witness the response.

It's not easy to go to someone who is caught in sin, even if you take others along. Nor will you always see immediate repentance. But if you are obedient, you are certainly more likely to see a brother or sister return to the Lord than if you do nothing but sit in silence or spread gossip about them.

Step 3: Tell it to the church

But what if one or two people get involved, and the person still won't change his ways? The world, and even many people in the church, will say, "We've done all we can and this is taking much too much time, so let's just drop it." But what should we do? "If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew 18:17).

In most situations, the matter should first be brought only to the church leaders, who might still be able to resolve the problem by bringing their God-given ecclesiastical authority to bear on the situation. If that does not settle the matter, then the leaders may selectively inform others in the church who might be able to influence the person who is caught in sin. If even that does not work, then the leaders may need to inform anyone in the church who might be harmed by the person's ongoing sin.

Step 4: Treat him as a pagan or a tax collector

But what if the person still won't repent, even after others in the church do all they can to persuade him to repent?

The world would say, "Judge not lest ye be judged," misquoting Scripture to mean that the church has no right to judge and respond to a person's wrong conduct.

What does God say we should do when a brother or sister hardens his or her heart against the loving discipline of his church? "If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew18:17).

You can see why people like "genuine Christian community taste" rather than "genuine Christian community." This is costly. I think Mark Dever gets it right when he states:

Biblical church discipline is simple obedience to God and simple confession that we need help. We cannot live the Christian life alone. Our purpose in church discipline is positive for the individual disciplined, for other Christians as they see the real danger of sin, for the health of the church as a whole, and for the corporate witness of the church to those outside. Most of all, our holiness is to reflect the holiness of God. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride's sake but for God's name's sake. Biblical church discipline is a mark of a healthy church.

Genuine community means we value others, even those who aren't valuable to us. It also means we go after those who stray. We don't just wash our hands and shrug. We pursue them out of love and do our best to restore them.

Finally, it also means that we pursue reconciliation and forgiveness. Peter, probably reacting to what Jesus had just taught, asked Jesus how many times we need to forgive others. The Jewish tradition said that three times was plenty. Peter more than doubled that number and asked Jesus if that was enough. Jesus replied, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:22). Jesus is not saying to stop forgiving the 78th time. He's telling us that, for Jesus' followers, forgiveness should be unlimited and extravagant. Why? If you read the rest of the passage, it's because Jesus' forgiveness of us has been extravagant.

In fact, if you look at this whole passage, you see that the love we have for each other is a reflection of the love that Jesus has shown to us. He has valued us in our lowliness, when we were unlovable, at infinite cost to himself. He pursues us when we stray, and restores us. And he forgives us not just 78 times, thank God. He extends extravagant grace and forgiveness to us as sinners.

We dare not settle for fake stuff. Let's pursue the costly and genuine type of community that Jesus describes in this passage.

I grew up on day-old donuts. It was all we could afford, and I didn't know the difference. I'll never forget the day that someone bought me a fresh donut. There was no going back. I pray it's going to be the same in our community. Genuine community involves selfless care for and reconciliation with other Christians. It costs - but you'll never go back once you've tasted the real thing.

A Clash of Kingdoms (Matthew 2:1-18)

If you've been with us recently on Sundays, you know that we've been looking at an important but rather depressing book of the Bible. Last week we looked at one of the most disturbing stories in all of Scripture. You have this sense that you're glad it's over.

After the service somebody came up to me and asked, "What are you preaching on next week? I hope it's going to be a bit lighter than this." I thought for a minute and realized that we're talking about Herod's slaughter of the children two and younger in Jerusalem. I promise you it will get lighter, just not this week.

N.T. Wright, a prominent bishop in the church of England and one of the top theologians in the world, was preaching at a big Christmas service, and a well-known historian attended. This historian was well-known for his skepticism towards Christianity, but his family had persuaded him to attend the service.

Afterwards, this historian approached N.T. Wright with a big smile. "I've finally worked out why people like Christmas," he said.

"Really?" said Bishop Wright. "Do tell me."

"A baby threatens no one," the historian said, "so the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all."

That historian may not have read the Christmas story of the Bible. At the heart of the Christmas story is a baby who poses such a threat to the most powerful man around that he kills a whole village of young children to try to get rid of him. He is most definitely a threat to the kingdoms of this world, kingdoms that are in direct competition with his reign.

The passage we read today presents us with a conflict that becomes a major theme in the life of Jesus. It's a theme that continues today.

On one hand you have the empire that is threatened by Jesus. What is possibly threatening about a baby? What is threatening is that even a baby is a threat when that baby is a king who will possibly dethrone the reigning powers. When a baby is born who is a rightful heir to the throne, and the person on the throne is a poser, then it makes sense for the illegitimate monarch to be threatened.

King Herod was such a ruler. Herod, otherwise known as Herod the Great, had overcome all kinds of competition and obstacles to become king of Judea. He was famous for his building projects including the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was absolutely stunning, as well as theaters, amphitheaters, monuments, pagan altars, and fortresses. If you go to Israel today, you can still see remnants of what he built.

Some people think that he was one of the richest men to ever have lived. Although he had faced many threats to his power, we was able to overcome them all because he was both ruthless and powerful.

Why would a man who accomplished so much be threatened by a baby? There was a problem with Herod - actually a number of problems. Although Herod considered himself to be Jewish, he was not a descendant of Jacob; he was a descendant of Esau, or an Edomite. God had told Jacob in Genesis 35:10, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob: your name will be Israel." But Isaac, Esau's father, predicted that Esau's descendants would serve Jacob's (Genesis 27:40). The Israelites in Herod's day did not believe that Herod had any right to the throne in Israel because they did not consider him to be Jewish. In 40 BC, someone took the throne away from Herod, and Herod asked Rome to help him. So he was elected "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate, took back the throne, and consolidated his reign for another 34 years.

So when ancient astrologers show up from the east - the east, by the way, was where Herod was most exposed to foreign threats, and these astrologers were connected to power - when these astrologers show up and announce that a king of the Jews has been born, Herod has every reason to be threatened.

There are lots of theories about what exactly the astrologers saw. Barth mentioned to me last week the work of one astrologer. Evidently they can go back using computers now and recreate the arrangements of the planets on any given date. Supposedly in astrology that day Aries was a symbol of Judea, and Jupiter was and is connected with royalty. Ancient astrologers believed that a new king would be born when the moon passed in front of Jupiter. This would signal the birth of a great new king in Judea. On April 17, 6 BC, Jupiter was eclipsed in the east. A Roman astrologer described the conditions of that day as befitting the birth of a "divine and immortal" person.

This seems to make a lot of sense. No matter if you and I buy into this theory, something like this happened. Well-connected astrologers saw something that made them believe that an important king had been born in Judea. We read the results in verse 3: "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him."

You don't want a man like Herod disturbed! He had no problem killing anyone - friend, family, or foe - to keep his grip on power. He had executed dozens of people who had been threats, including his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, and uncle.

We read that all Jerusalem was troubled with Herod. Why were they troubled? For sure they knew what happened when Herod got disturbed. When Herod was unhappy, everyone was unhappy. But I think it was probably more than that. You're talking about people in positions of power in Jerusalem, religious leaders who had aligned themselves with Herod. If his power base was threatened, so was theirs. They knew they were all in trouble if a rightful king had been born, the true king of the Jews.

You see, Christmas is about an extraordinary king who poses a threat to the kingdoms of this world. The baby Jesus is a threat.

And this is a theme that continues all throughout the gospels, including this one. You have the blind and the lame and the powerless people coming to Jesus, but the powerful elite indignant. You have the most powerful religious leaders of his day condemning Jesus of blasphemy. In Luke we read that Herod's son, who took over part of his father's territory, ridiculed and mocked Jesus before his death. Jesus has always been a king who is a threat to the ruling kingdoms of this world.

That's true even today. About a year ago, a group of pastors got together. They actually began talking about how much they hate being pastors at Christmas.

You would think that a season that's all about one of the greatest theological truths - that God became flesh in what is called the incarnation - means that Christmas would be a great time to pastor. But the pastors had a sense of competing with stress, thoughts about the mall, what people hadn't bought yet, and how much debt they're going into for this great truth called the incarnation.

There's a stream of passion, consumerism and chaos that is contradictory to the message of the Gospels. Rick McKinley, one of the pastors in the group, observes, "There is a point where you want to just throw up your hands and say, 'Let's quit talking about Christmas from the Bible. Let's just talk about spend more. Let's cancel church for the Christmas season.' That probably would be easier for people. Then you realize that's stupid."

The pastors began to conspire together to enter the story of Christmas: not just teach about it and sing about it, but enter it. They thought: When Christ came to earth, he came as king. It threatened the king at the time and his empire. Although Christ comes in weakness, there is a true threat in this baby. He is subversive. He is a threat to the kingdoms and the powers that be in this world.

They began to ask if Jesus was still a threat to the powers of this world, and they began to realize that there is a rival kingdom to Jesus, but it's a kingdom that we often get sucked into.

When we worship at Christmas, we often bless the kingdom, and buy into consumerism and chaos. This seems contradictory to the Christmas story. While we are not living under Herod's reign, there is another empire of consumerism and materialism that threatens our faithfulness to Jesus. Jesus brought with him such an extraordinary kingdom that is counter-culture to the kingdoms of this world.

Part of saying "yes" to Jesus means that we say "no" to over-consumption. We say "no" to these things so we can create space to say "yes" to Jesus and His reign in our lives. We want to live as subjects of the extraordinary king who is a threat, because there is a baby who is a king and who is a threat to the powers that claim to hold power in our lives. There is still a clash of kingdoms going on today.

So on one hand you have the empire that is threatened by Jesus, and the empire striking back. Sorry, couldn't resist. But on the other hand you have those who recognize this king's reign and accept Jesus as king. In verse 11 we read that these eastern astronomers came to the house, bowed down, and worshiped Jesus. They paid him homage, and presented him with the most valuable, transportable, and marketable items of the day, items that were ideal for sustaining Mary and Joseph in another country as refuges as would happen after these events.

Who would expect astrologers to be the ones to pay homage to Jesus? The most unlikely people became subjects in this rival kingdom - something that is still true today. It's always the most unlikely people.

I know what you are thinking. You may be thinking, "Are you going to tell me that if I buy gifts at Christmas that I'm just like Herod?" No, that's not what I'm going to tell you. If I did that I would be guilty of a new type of legalism. There are lots of people who don't give gifts at Christmas who are under Herod's rule, and I'm sure there are lots of people who give gifts who properly worship Christ at Christmas.

What I am going to tell you is this: a king has come, and that king is a threat not just to Herod thousands of years ago. Actually, what Herod faced is what every person who encounters Jesus Christ eventually faces. He is a threat. Our kingdoms may not be as big or as impressive as Herod's, but every person here - me included - has stuff they are trying to protect. They're good things, like family, accomplishments, relationships, position. These are good things, but we have this tendency to make them ultimate things. And when we make them ultimate things, they then clash with the kingdom of God, the kingdom that was proclaimed when the baby king was born in Bethlehem.

We are all Herod, trying to desperately hold on to good things. But here's the thing. Historians tell us that as these events took place, Herod was dying a painful death. The historian Josephus wrote that Herod's final illness was excruciating. Within three years of Jesus' birth, Herod was dead. The crazy thing is that Herod was desperately trying to hold on to a kingdom that wasn't his to keep anyways.

The question that we face this Christmas is that as we understand that a king has been born, and that this king, because of who he is, can ask anything of us - what is threatening about that? Where do you go, "I'll follow Jesus, but I need to protect that." In other words, what good things have you made ultimate things?

The real question this Christmas is whether you will lay aside your idols, your kingdom that won't last anyway, and worship the child who was born whose kingdom will last forever.

And by the way, could it be that the way that we answer this question will also change our buying and spending habits and the way that we celebrate the arrival of that king? How do we live every area of our lives in light one of the greatest events in history - the arrival of God in human form as king? That's the question that this story leaves us to wrestle with.

By the way, there is no way to give up our kingdoms unless we're captivated by a better kingdom. In the 1800s a Scottish preacher wrote a paper called "The Expulsive Power of a New Affection." He made the point that the only way to get rid of something that your heart loves, that you must have, is to have that affection expelled by an even greater affection. Have you ever wanted something until an even better model comes along? All of a sudden you can't be bothered with what, a day ago, you used to have. This also works spiritually. The only way you can be free of the love of your own little kingdom is to become captivated by the love of an even greater kingdom. The love of God's kingdom has expulsive power. Only when you give yourself to a better king will you be free from becoming a Herod, desperately holding on to what we can't keep anyway.

The only way we'll be able to give up our kingdoms and worship the true king is if we are captivated by the beauty of that king - the One announced by angels and stars, worshiped by shepherds and astrologers, loved by the powerless but hated by the powerful, crucified and rejected, and yet bearing our sins, risen again and reigning at God's right hand. When we really see him, that will change everything about how we live and who we worship.

Let's pray.

Father, our prayer is that you would let us see Jesus. We confess that we are like Herod naturally. We don't have kingdoms like his, but we naturally see Jesus as a threat and we want to hold on out of fear of what we will have to give up.

But this Christmas let us see Jesus. And let us worship him. May we truly experience the power of Jesus coming to this world, and may that free us from all competing kingships. May that change the way we celebrate even Christmas.

Let us survey the king lying in the manger. Let us survey the wondrous cross. And may it change how we worship this Christmas. In Jesus' name, Amen.