The Cross and Criticism (Proverbs)

We're in the middle of this series on relationships, and today we come to a very delicate question. It's a little awkward. Let me explain the dilemma to you by telling you a true story as told by a pastor in Florida:

As I sat with my family at a local breakfast establishment, I noticed a finely dressed man at an adjacent table. His Armani suit and stiffly pressed shirt coordinated perfectly with a "power" tie. His wing-tipped shoes sparkled from a recent shine. Every hair was in place, including his perfectly groomed mustache.

The man sat alone, eating a bagel, as he prepared for a meeting. As he reviewed the papers before him, he appeared nervous, glancing frequently at his Rolex watch. It was obvious he had an important meeting ahead.

The man stood up, and I watched as he straightened his tie and prepared to leave. Immediately, I noticed a blob of cream cheese attached to his finely groomed mustache. He was about to go into the world, dressed in his finest, with cream cheese on his face. I thought of the business meeting he was about to attend. Who would tell him? Should I? What if no one did?

Let me stop there for a minute. What would you do? Would you go running off after the stranger and tell him about the cream cheese? Or would you find it too awkward, and hope that somebody else would get to him first? What if you were the man? Would you want someone to tell you? Or would you rather discover it yourself when it was too late? What do you do when you need to say or hear something that's both hard and that has to be said?

Listen to how the story played out in Florida:

I pushed my chair back and stood to warn him, but the tables were too close and the noise of the crowd too loud. He was at the door and on his way before I could stop him. Hopefully, the man looked in the mirror when he got into his car and saved himself from embarrassment.

Commenting on this story, pastor and author C.J. Mahaney writes:

The harsh reality is that we all have cream cheese on our faces; in fact, whether you're aware of it or not, there's cream cheese on your face right now. Others clearly see it. And you need their help to identify its presence.

If we are going to be in relationship, we need to face the issue of cream cheese moments and how we handle criticism. This morning I'd like us to look at God's Word to discover how we can do this.

I want to keep this sermon as simple as possible and simply look at three realities related to criticism. First: we need criticism. Second: we're afraid to receive it. Finally: how the cross gives us exactly what we need to receive criticism.

First: we need criticism.

This morning we read a number of proverbs that talk about this. The proverbs were given so that we would learn how to live skillfully. They're written so that we would know how to live well in this world that God has created. And one of the major themes running through the book of Proverbs is that we need to be open to receiving advice; that we need to be receptive to correction.

The way of fools seems right to them.
but the wise listen to advice.
(Proverbs 12:15)

Where there is strife, there is pride,
but wisdom is found in those who take advice.
(Proverbs 13:10)

A rebuke impresses a discerning person
more than a hundred lashes a fool.
(Proverbs 17:10)

According to these passages, being teachable and willing to receive correction is the mark of a mature person. The ability to take advice, correction, and rebuke is not only considered a mark of the wise, but it is also thought to determine the path of the wise. In fact, Scripture tells us that both the wise and the foolish reap consequences according to their ability to take criticism:

Whoever scorns instruction will pay for it,

but whoever respects a command is rewarded.
(Proverbs 13:13)

Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,

but those who heed correction gain understanding.
(Proverbs 15:32)

I think my favorite proverb in all of Scripture is the one found in chapter 27, verses 5-6:

Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

In this passage we see that there is such a thing as "friendly wounds" and, in a sense, there is such a thing as wounding kisses. If you have a trustworthy friend, and they bruise you, it's because that wound is inflicted for the good purpose of correcting you. The bruises represent "painful and plain words that must be spoken in true friendship in order to heal the beloved and/or to restore a broken relationship" (Bruce Waltke). Those bruises are redemptive. They love you enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Love and correction go hand in hand.

But on the other hand, an enemy may sweet-talk you and say nothing but good to you, but fail to tell you that you have a blob of cream cheese on your face. They don't love you enough to tell you the truth.

The Scripture is clear: we need criticism! Every single one of us needs loving correction and rebuke. It's a mark of true friendship.

I love how Paul David Tripp puts it:

We must remember that sin is deceitful. Sin blinds - and guess who gets blinded first? Me! I have no trouble seeing the sins of my family, but I can be astonished when mine are pointed out!...My self-perception is as accurate as a carnival mirror. (Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands)

This is a universal need. If you don't have people in your life who are telling you the truth, and if you aren't humble enough to receive it, then you are missing out on something that is critical for your wellbeing. Not only that, but if you are not doing the same for your friends, then you aren't really a true friend. Correction is absolutely necessary for wise living, and it's the mark of true friendship.

So encourage others to speak truth into your life. Invite them. Say, "I need your caring eyes on my soul. I need your help. Where do you see cream cheese?" Spurgeon said:

Get a friend to tell you your faults, or better still, welcome an enemy who will watch you keenly and sting you savagely. What a blessing such an irritating critic will be to a wise man...

We need criticism. But then we need to see:

We're afraid to receive it.

You'll notice that the proverbs all assume a reality: we are hesitant to receive advice. We all suffer from a fatal condition called pride.

There are all kinds of proverbs that get to the heart of this, like this one:

Whoever heeds life-giving correction

will be at home among the wise.
Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,

but those who heed correction gain understanding.
Wisdom's instruction is to fear the LORD,
and humility comes before honor.
(Proverbs 15:31-33)

This passage says that if we welcome life-giving correction, we will be at home among the wise. If that's the case, why in the world wouldn't we all be looking for correction? This passage tells us why: because we haven't cultivated humility. The problem is that we are often unwilling to admit mistakes. We're prone to reject criticism. The problem, when you get right down to it, is pride. And pride is deadly. As Proverbs 26:12 says:

Do you see people who are wise in their own eyes?

There is more hope for fools than for them.

The best definition of humility that I've read is this one by C.J. Mahaney: "Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God's holiness and our sinfulness." To be humble we really need to understand God in his holiness, and us in our sinfulness. The opposite of this is pride, in which we have an exalted sense of ourselves, and we're interested in our own self-satisfaction, self-justification, self-protection, and self-exaltation.

We've already seen that we all need criticism. The problem is that good criticism dethrones us and puts us in our rightful place. Every part of you will fight against this. When you get right down to it, we're talking about the idol of self. Do you recognize the idol of self here--the deep-rooted desire to place ourselves, our reputation, and our honor above all else? Do you see the controlling desire for self-justification--to be proven right (or righteous) in the eyes of others? Unfortunately, our idols have consequences. If we persist in idolatry, it'll lead to our ruin.

This is where even unfair criticism can be tremendously helpful. Criticism - even unfair criticism - will reveal whether we're on the throne, or whether God is. We resist criticism because criticism threatens to dethrone us. Critics are our friends, because they reveal if we've been thinking too highly of ourselves or not.

Ultimately, it's the cross that gives us everything that we need to receive criticism.

We read Romans 8 this morning:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then can condemn? No one. Christ Jesus who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:31-34)

What Paul is telling us is that the gospel gives us everything we need to accept criticism. What Paul is saying is this.

First: because of the cross, we can affirm God's judgment of us. There is no escaping the truth, as God's Word says: "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:9-18). As a result of my sin, the Cross has criticized and judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and truly than any person ever could. In other words, no one else's criticism of me could match the thoroughness of God's criticism of me. Knowing this, we can respond to all other criticism by saying, "That's just a fraction of it!" We are more sinful than we ever believed. Spurgeon once said, "Our best performances are so stained with sin, that it is hard to know whether they are good works or bad works."

In other words, we can fully agree with any criticism made of us because Scripture has already condemned us for failing to keep the entire law, and for breaking the whole law. In light of these massive charges against us, any accusations launched at us by humans are mere understatements about who we are and what we've done!

But then we can look at the cross and affirm God's justification of all who trust in Jesus. We can look at the cross and understand that on the basis of Christ's sacrificial death, God justifies ungodly people. We can understand that Christ has paid the penalty of our sin and that God has reckoned Christ's righteousness as our own.

And then, as Paul says, we can have confidence. If you truly take this to heart, the whole world can stand against you, denounce you, or criticize you, and you can reply, "If God has justified me, who can condemn me? If God declares me righteous, accepts me, and will never forsake me, then why should I feel insecure and fear criticism? Christ bore my sins, and I received his righteousness. Christ takes my condemnation, and I receive God's great approval--'JUSTIFIED!'"

And you can begin to live out the implications of these great truths in your life. We can face any criticism with confidence, knowing that no criticism of me could be greater than the cross's criticism of me - a criticism with which I've already agreed. We can know that we're accepted and that we have nothing to prove. "You don't have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there" (C. John Miller). We won't have to fear man's criticism, because we've already agreed with God's criticism. And we won't have to seek man's approval, because we already have something much better - God's approval.

The salvation of Jesus humbles us profoundly - we are so lost that he had to die for us. But it exalts and assures us mightily -- we are so valued that he was glad to die for us. Only the gospel can humble us and exalt us at the same time.

I invite you to apply this in your life. Ask God to give you this solid bedrock confidence that you are sinful and yet accepted by him. Walk daily in light of the cross and get your security there. And then open your life to speak truth and allow others to speak truth to you, so that you will be able to say with the psalmist David in Psalm 141:5: "Let a righteous man strike me--that is a kindness; let him rebuke me--that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it..."

some parts adapted from a sermon by Alfred J. Poirier

A Community That Confesses (Psalm 32)

We’re looking at the topic of relationships this month and next. Relationships are rewarding, but they’re also incredibly challenging. It seems that everywhere we look, other people’s issues are in our face. We deal with other people’s anger and gossip. We deal sometimes with well-meaning people with the best of intentions, but who let us down. If you live in relationship with others for any amount of time you begin to understand that you’re dealing with other people’s junk, and all of this can make it hard to have any type of relationship.

But this morning I want to consider another possibility: what if the problem is you? What do you do when you are confronted with your own failure? We’re very well equipped to spot the issues in other people. But sometimes admitting that we have a problem, that we have sinned, is very difficult - even when we’re admitting this to only ourselves.

A man decided to attend a treatment group for alcoholics. Early on in the treatment program they had to sit in a circle with a leader and tell the truth to themselves, and to the other people in the group, about the extent of their drinking.

So they went around the circle and they all told the truth, except for one business guy named Max. When it came time for him to reveal the extent of his drinking, he said, “I never really drank that much.”

They said, “Max, you're in an alcoholic treatment center for a month. You weren't sipping cokes. Tell the truth to yourself. Admit it.” He said, “I'm being honest with you. I've never really had all that much to drink.”

The leader of the group had information on Max. He phoned the bartender close to Max’s office, who confirmed that Max drank like a fish. He called Max’s wife. Listen to what happened:

The wife describes this to the group, and Max falls off his chair and starts convulsing on the ground. He just couldn't bear telling himself the truth about what he had done. He couldn't face it. He was going to live the rest of his life in some fantasy world of denial about what he had done.

You may not have an alcohol problem, but every one of us is going to reach the point at which we’re confronted with our sins and failures. What do we do when the problem is us? What do we do when we’re caught red-handed, when it’s clear to us that we’ve sinned?

This morning, the psalm that we read is going to help us answer this question. And we’re going to see that the psalmist David describes the normal way that we handle our sins and failures, before he describes for us the wise way to handle them. And then, finally, he’s going to tell us what difference this can make not just individually, but in our community as well.

So first, what is the normal way that we handle our sins and failures?

In Psalm 32:1-2, David introduces us to the subject of this psalm:

Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed are those

whose sin the LORD does not count against them

and in whose spirit is no deceit.

So the subject is sin, in particular how we handle our own sins. What’s interesting is that David uses three words to describe sin: transgression, which is rebellion against God; sin, which is a more general term; and iniquity, which is about distortion, criminality, or the absence of respect for the divine will. David is not intending to give us a study of the different types of sin, but just by what he writes he’s showing us the fullness of the many different types of sin. Sin is multifaceted, and David is dealing with with the question of how we handle sin of any type. How can we be happy - which we all want - when we have to deal with the reality of sin in our lives?

David begins by describing the normal way that we handle our sins and failures in verses 3-4:

When I kept silent,

my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long.
For day and night

your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped

as in the heat of summer.

Notice what David says here: “When I kept silent...” David knows that the default way that we deal with our own sins of any kind is to minimize and deny and keep silent about what happened. It’s like the cartoon I saw this week:

Pearls Before Swine

“I’m going to start apologizing to all the people I’ve insulted by telling them, ‘I’m sorry you were offended.’”

“Is that a real apology?”

“No. That’s what’s so great. It allows me to retain the impact of the original insult while tacking on the implied bonus insult of, ‘You are an overwhelming ninny.’”

“But that’s kinda rude cause it’s sorta saying the guy is too dumb to realize that.”

“I’m sorry that you were offended.”

“Apology accepted.”

The problem is that many of us react to our sin by minimizing what we’ve done and keeping silent about what’s happened, or passing on the blame to others. We don’t just do this with others; we do this with God. And look at the results: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.”

We don’t know what particular sin David is talking about here. It could have been his adultery with Bathsheba, and the resulting coverup which led to murder. We simply don’t know. We do know that hidden sin leads to agony. If you look at what David describes you see:

  • A physical destruction. “My bones wasted away. . .”
  • A conscience that plagues us daily. “Through my groaning all day long. . .”
  • A sense of God’s fatherly displeasure. “Your hand was heavy upon me. . .”
  • Depression of the spirit. “My strength was sapped as in the heat of summer . . .”

One commentator writes:

Those who have experienced bouts of depression probably recognize the symptoms here. An interior darkness opens up that threatens to swallow the sufferer. A normally energetic person can be reduced to inactivity - feeling almost drugged and unable to lift a finger to move...

It is interesting that the suffering appears less as the result of a divine assault than the outworking of the psalmists’ own repressed guilt. This is perhaps too modern an interpretation, but one with which many moderns are thoroughly familiar. The destructive effects of repressed and unexpressed emotions and anxieties can be powerfully experienced in physical pain and psychological disintegration. (Gerald Wilson)

There have been a number of movies about this lately. Get Low is about a mysterious hermit who hires a funeral director to carry out a “funeral party” for him. He wants the memorial service is to be held before he’s actually dead, in order that he would be there to hear all the stories folks would tell about him. It turns out that there’s a reason that this man is a hermit. Something happened many years ago, a secret, an unconfessed sin, and it’s caused him to punish himself and live as a hermit for forty years. He doesn’t know what to do with the guilt. As one theologian said after watching the movie:

I was jarred by the guilt that throbbed through the whole of it....The film portrays something the Christian Scriptures insist to be true. Guilt isn’t something society foists upon us. There’s something primal, something real, in the guilty conscience.

The apostolic preaching confirms what human experience already affirms, a moral law is embedded in the human conscience. The conscience is not simply a kind of internal prompt for good behavior. It is instead a foretaste of judgment, of the Day when every secret is unearthed...Get Low portrays where we all are, apart from Christ.

This is how we normally respond to our sin: with silence. And it’s deadly. Unconfessed sin makes us fugitives. We become fugitives from God, from the person we’ve sinned against, from ourselves. No wonder that it leads to such physical and spiritual torment!

Well, what’s the alternative?

What is the right way to respond when it’s clear we need forgiveness? Look at what David says in verse 5:

Then I acknowledged my sin to you

and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, “I will confess

my transgressions to the LORD.”

And you forgave

the guilt of my sin.

What are we going to do when we sin? David says that the right thing to do, the wise thing to do, is to confess the sin. David says he acknowledged it. He didn’t cover up or minimize it. He confessed his transgressions to the Lord, and the Lord forgave the guilt of his sin. The word “forgave” in verse 5 can literally be translated “lifted away.” It’s the beautiful image of removing the terrible crushing weight of guilt like a boulder. It’s immediate, and it’s freeing, and it’s full.

As Ken Sande writes:

As God opens your eyes to see how you have sinned against others, he simultaneously offers you a way to find freedom from your past wrongs. It is called confession. Many people have never experienced this freedom because they have never learned how to confess their wrongs honestly and unconditionally. Instead, they use words like these: “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” “Let’s just forget the past.” “I suppose I could have done a better job.” “I guess it’s not all your fault.” These token statements rarely trigger genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. If you really want to make peace, ask God to help you breathe grace by humbly and thoroughly admitting your wrongs. One way to do this is to use the Seven A’s.

  1. Address everyone involved (All those whom you affected)
  2. Avoid if, but, and maybe (Do not try to excuse your wrongs)
  3. Admit specifically (Both attitudes and actions)
  4. Acknowledge the hurt (Express sorrow for hurting someone)
  5. Accept the consequences (Such as making restitution)
  6. Alter your behavior (Change your attitudes and actions)
  7. Ask for forgiveness

When we confess our sins, we can know that God takes away the weight of sin. At the cross, Jesus himself bore our sins. He took responsibility for our sin, lifting up the crushing stone of guilt that pinned us down, giving us joy and the “glories freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

That’s why you notice that this psalm is a joyful one. People think that repentance has to be sad. The only sad part in this psalm is when David didn’t repent. Once he repents, he’s full of joy. That’s why we can talk about joyful repentance. “Repentance increases joy. It’s not traumatic; it’s joyful and it’s healing” (Tim Keller). When you sin, choose joyful confession over deadly silence.

Notice one more thing with me this morning.

This isn’t just a lesson for us as individuals; this is a lesson for us as a community.

Do you notice what David says in verse 6?

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you

while you may be found;

surely the rising of the mighty waters

will not reach them.

Do you see what David is doing here? He’s turning to God’s people and saying, “Let’s all become repenters together.” David isn’t just happy repenting by himself. He envisions a community that never covers over sin, that quickly and joyfully turns to God in repentance.

He goes even further in verse 9:

Do not be like the horse or the mule,

which have no understanding

but must be controlled by bit and bridle

or they will not come to you.

David is essentially saying, “Okay, ignore me if you’d like. Keep silent and minimize your sins. It’s your choice, if you enjoy being like a stubborn mule.” Or, David is saying, we can be a community that regularly and joyfully engages in confession, not cover-up. We can be a community that, when we sin, chooses joyful confession over deadly silence and cover-up.

Can you imagine what could happen in our relationships and in our church if we did this? In 1935, Blasio Kugosi, a schoolteacher in Rwanda, Central Africa, was deeply discouraged by the lack of life in the church and the powerlessness of his own experience. He followed the example of the first Christians and closed himself in for a week of prayer and fasting in his little cottage. He emerged a changed man. He confessed his sins to those he had wronged, including his wife and children. He proclaimed the gospel in the school where he taught, and revival broke out there, resulting in students and teachers being saved. They were called abaka, meaning “people on fire.”

Shortly after that, Blasio was invited to Uganda to share with the Anglican Church there. As he called the leaders to repentance, the fire of the Spirit descended again on the place, with similar results as in Rwanda. Several days later, Blasio died of fever. His ministry lasted only a few weeks, but the revival fires sparked through his ministry swept throughout East Africa and continue to the present. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been transformed over the decades through this mighty East African revival. It all began with a discouraged Christian choosing joyful confession over deadly silence and cover-up.

When You Find Fault with Others (Luke 12:13-15)

A while ago I traveled to England with my two brothers. We were almost at our destination when we went through an intersection. Seconds later a car came through the other way. A few seconds later, it would have t-boned us. We shook our heads. Clearly there should have been a stop sign at that intersection. The next day we drove past the same intersection and realized that there was a sign there all along.

The problem wasn't with the intersection; the problem was with us. And yet, if you had caught us the first time we went through, we would have been pretty self-righteous about it. It was a problem that could have caused an accident. We could have been seriously hurt; we could have hurt someone else.

We're in the middle of this series on relationships, and today we're going to see that the very same thing we just talked about can happen in relationships. The Bible gives us a warning, and if we ignore this warning in our relationships we could cause damage to both ourselves and to others. And yet many of us miss the signs and end up in relational accidents as a result.

So this morning I want to look at the passage that we just read. And as we examine it we're going to see that it's going to help us understand the danger that we face. We're going to see four things:

  • when we're in danger
  • why we probably won't realize it
  • what we'll miss
  • and what to do about it

First: let's look at when we're in danger.

Verse 13 says: Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."

Let's try to fill in some of the background. It seems that the father had died. Under Jewish law, the eldest son received a double portion of the inheritance and was responsible for dividing up the rest after his father's death. It looks like the eldest son had possession of the entire estate, and so far had refused to give the younger brother his fair share. You would have to conclude the younger actually has valid complaint. He has not received what is rightfully his.

But why would he come to Jesus with this problem? Why not take it to court? In those days, there were no courts. Disputes like this were normally settled by rabbis on the basis of existing law. So it makes sense for this man to come to Jesus with this case.

It wasn't even a very complicated case. Sometimes cases are very complicated. I have a friend who's involved in a dispute right now that's before a tribunal. I've heard both sides, and frankly I can't decide who has the better case. I can't wait to see the ruling. The judge is going to have to be a lot smarter than I am, or else he's going to have to flip a coin.

This wasn't at true here. The man already knows the ruling; there's no question about which way this case is going to go. All he needs is for Jesus to say, "You're right. Tell your brother to pay up."

So what's the problem? This man is exactly right, and he's come to the right place. But he's just as blinded as my brothers and I were when we went through the intersection.

Here's the issue: when you are in conflict, you're in great danger. Jesus is about to address the problem, but first we need to see when we're most vulnerable. If you are in conflict with someone, you are vulnerable to this right here and right now.

This leads us, of course, to the second thing we need to see in this passage:

Second, let's look at why we probably won't realize we're in danger.

Read verse 13 again. Notice what he says: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Ask yourself: where is this man's focus? It's on his brother.

Our sinful nature gives us an inclination to judge others critically rather than charitably. As a result, whenever we experience conflict, our natural reaction is to blame others and focus on their wrongs.

This tendency is as old as the world. When God confronts Adam in Genesis 3, Adam is quick to shift the focus to Eve's conduct. Eve is equally swift to blame Satan for the sin that has brought cascading conflict into the world.

This pervasive tendency to blame others for conflict is so natural that we do not need to teach it to our children. As soon as they can mouth the simplest words, they begin to use their tongues to shift the focus from their own wrongs to the actions of others: "He took my toy!" "She hit me first!" "He does it, too!"

As we get older, we try not to be quite so obvious when we blame others for our problems, but the natural tendency is still there. If we are in a conflict, we ignore or pass quickly over our own deficiencies while developing detailed lists of what others have done wrong.

A concerned husband goes to see the family doctor: "I think my wife is deaf. She never hears me the first time I say something. In fact, I often have to repeat things over and over again."

"Well," the doctor replies, "go home tonight, stand about 15 feet from her, and say something. If she doesn't reply, move about five feet closer and say it again. Keep doing this so we can get an idea of the severity of her deafness."

The husband goes home, and he does exactly as instructed. He stands about 15 feet from his wife, who is standing in the kitchen, chopping some vegetables. "Honey, what's for dinner?" He gets no response, so he moves about five feet closer and asks again. "Honey, what's for dinner?" No reply. He moves five feet closer, and still no reply. He gets fed up and moves right behind her--about an inch away--and asks one final time, "Honey, what's for dinner?" She replies, "For the fourth time, vegetable stew!"

You see, sometimes we are so focused on the other person being the problem that we fail to see that the problem is with ourselves.

So we've seen that we're in danger in conflict. We've also seen that the danger is that we'll focus on the faults of others rather than on ourselves. But that's not all this passage shows us.

Third, let's look at what we'll miss.

It's important to see what we'll miss if we focus on others and don't see the fault in ourselves.

You can tell that things aren't going well for this man when you read Jesus' response in verse 14. "Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?'"

Why would Jesus say this? Jesus seems to be rejecting the role of rabbi to decide cases like this. It's strange since Jesus elsewhere has no problem interpreting and applying the law.

It seems, though, that Jesus is moving below the surface and spotting that something is off with this man's request. If he really believed that Jesus has authority over this case, then Jesus' authority would extend over all of his life. But his request indicates that he isn't ready to accept Jesus' authority over his life. In other words, he likes Jesus' authority when it comes to thumping his brother, but not when it comes to caring about the things that Jesus cares about. But Jesus challenges this. He challenges this man even before he gets to the problem.

But then he gets to the real problem - the problem underneath the problem, if you will. Verse 15 says, "Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.'"

Notice, by the way, that Jesus is speaking now to the entire audience. At this point Jesus thinks it's worthwhile for everyone to learn about this topic. I heard someone speak this summer and say that when Jesus warns about something, we should never think, "That doesn't apply to me." We should automatically accept that when Jesus turns to a crowd and warns about something, then that warning applies to us as well.

So what does Jesus say? What Jesus says is this: Our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries if we pay attention. This man was so focused on his brother's faults that he missed that his heart had fallen into huge danger. This man was in danger of being possessed by greed. Yet he was so focused on the problem in his brother that it never occurred to him that he had a problem himself. But the problem in this man's own heart was potentially fatal to his own spiritual life, and damaging in his relationships with others.

What do I mean when I say that our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries? An idol is anything we that is "more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give" (Tim Keller). Conflict reveals our idols, because in conflict we're often acting to preserve something that is important to us. And yet we're so focused on the faults of others that we don't even see the idol that's taken hold of our hearts.

At one point years ago I used to pick Charlene up from work. She'd phone and say she was ready to come home. I'd get in the car and drive the 10 or 15 minutes to pick her up. And I'd wait. I'd driven 10 or 15 minutes. She just head to get in an elevator and come down. I'd sit in my car steaming, and then when she got in the car I'd let her have it.

Do you know what was happening? I was in danger because I was in a conflict. And in the conflict Charlene's fault - being late - was so clear to me that I missed a greater fault in my own heart. My heart was full of selfishness and self-righteousness, which was a far greater threat to our marriage than Charlene keeping me waiting for a few minutes after work. The conflict revealed my hidden idolatries - if only I had paid attention.

In Matthew 7:3-5 Jesus said:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person's eye.

In his great love for us, Jesus is showing us the way we can turn conflicts around. Instead of indulging our habit of putting the emphasis on others' wrongs, and sticking them in the eye with our sharp accusations, he teaches us that the shortest route to peace and reconciliation is to take a careful look in the mirror so we can identify and confess the planks in our own eyes. We'll be able to see our own idols. Only then will we be in a position to graciously and effectively help others to see how they too have contributed to the conflict, and can help to restore it.

And this will make all the difference in the world. As Gandhi, of all people, said:

I can truthfully say that I am slow to see the blemishes of fellow beings, being myself full of them. And, therefore, being in need of their charity, I have learnt not to judge anyone harshly and to make allowances for defects that I may detect.

When we see the idols in our own heart, we won't be as quick to judge the faults we see in others.

We've seen we're in danger in conflict. We're in danger of focusing on the faults of others, and not recognizing the idols in our own hearts. There's only one thing left to consider.

We need to look at what we're going to do about this.

At one level, this is easy. Jesus said in verse 15, "Watch out! Be on your guard..." At the surface level this is a good place to start. Look at the conflicts that you're experiencing in your life, and examine your own heart for idols. Our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries if we pay attention.

It could be that this will lead to a breakthrough in some of your relationships. You've been so focused on the faults of others. When you look at your own heart, you will see that, like the man in this passage, you've been right on the issue but wrong in your motives, wrong because of idols. Confessing this and dealing with the idols may lead to you seeing the entire situation differently.

So this is a good place to start, but it doesn't go far enough. The issue is really our hearts. The issue here in this passage wasn't this man's brother. The issue was this man's heart. As Jesus said elsewhere:

But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these defile you. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)

Or, as James said:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)

Through these passages, God is teaching us that the key to experiencing genuine peace and reconciliation is to recognize, confess, and get rid of the sinful desires that rule our hearts. We cannot do this on our own. No matter how much we hate our pride, self-righteousness, envy, jealousy, and unforgiveness, we cannot sweep these things from our hearts through our own efforts.

But God can. He sent his own precious Son to the cross to pay the full penalty for the many sins that we have committed against him and one another. Through faith in Christ, we can experience complete forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

When God forgives and redeems us, he also gives us a new heart. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, he makes this promise:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

The transformation of our hearts is both an event and a process. When God saves us, he gives us a new heart that enables us to repent from our sins and trust in Jesus as our Savior. That event triggers a life-long process in which the Holy Spirit slowly and steadily transforms our hearts and minds so that we progressively put off our old desires and behaviors, and replace them with desires and behaviors that are pleasing to God.

God often uses conflict to move us along in this transformation process. Every time we are in a conflict, we have the opportunity to identify worldly desires that have taken control of our hearts, turned our eyes away from God, and caused us to do and say things that offend other people. As these sinful desires are exposed, we can confess them to God, seek his forgiveness, and ask him to help us find contentment and security in him alone.

As God purifies and liberates our hearts, we can also confess our sinful desires to one another. Instead of staying on the surface and talking only about our behavior, we can demonstrate the reality of God's transforming work in our hearts by admitting to the desires that have been ruling our hearts, such as greed, control, envy, and selfishness.

These humble and transparent confessions are far more likely to touch the heart of someone we've offended and move them to forgive us and also take a deeper look at themselves. When both sides in a conflict dig deep into their own hearts and confess both the attitudes and the actions that have offended others, peace and reconciliation are just around the corner.

So what conflicts are you facing? Can you see that you're in danger of focusing on the other person, that you're in danger of missing the hidden idols that the conflict reveals? By his grace, we can make a humble u-turn by facing up to the sinful desires in our hearts and confessing the logs in our eyes. This radically different approach to conflict will bring honor to our Lord, set us free from the blame game, and place our feet on the path to peace, reconciliation, and lasting change.

The Importance of Unity (Ephesians 4:1-3)

All this weekend Canadians are going to be gathering around tables to celebrate Thanksgiving. We're giving thanks to God for all of the blessings that we enjoy. For many, that's going to mean time with family and friends, which is something for which we should be thankful. But some of us also understand what Johnny Carson once said: "Thanksgiving is an emotional time of year. People travel thousands of miles to see people they only see once a year. And then they discover that once a year is way too often."

That's very cynical, isn't it? I want to go on the record that this is not at all how I feel about any member of my family. I've never felt that way. But I understand what's behind this statement. Relationships are hard. And sometimes the hardest relationships are the ones for which we have the highest hopes. And so we're going to be looking at what the Bible says about relationships. We began last week, and we're going to continue this morning and for another six weeks.

But before we go any further, let's pause and ask: Why is this so important? Why spend all this time talking about relationships? Of course, there are all kinds of answers. We could discuss the results of a Harvard University study that tracked a group of students over 72 years, and all of the factors that contributed to their health and happiness. At the end of the study the director of the research concluded, "The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people." We could talk about the importance of relationships to our happiness, and we'd be right.

But this morning I want to give a biblical answer to the question of why relationships are so important. The answer is found in verse 1 of the passage that we read this morning: "As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worth of the calling you have received" (Ephesians 4:1). What we need to understand this morning are three things. First: our calling. Second: what this calling means when it comes to our relationships. Finally: some practical implications of what this means.

First: let's understand our calling.

If you'll notice, we're in chapter 4 this morning. I'm being a little unfair with you. We're jumping right in the middle of a letter that Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus. Paul has been unpacking God's eternal purposes throughout all of history. It's like he's pulled back the curtains of heaven and has let us see what God is doing. The first three chapters are some of the richest teachings in all the Bible in understanding what God is up to, and how his purposes are being carried out, and all that it means for us.

And then we jump into chapter 4 and realize that Paul is drawing conclusions from everything that he's said up until that point. Paul has been giving us some of the deepest teaching on what God is up to, and here it's like he turns his attention from God and his eternal purposes to the difference it should make in our lives. In light of what God is up to, he says, this is how we should live.

And then he goes even further. "As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worth of the calling you have received." Paul's going further and saying that all that he's taught in chapters 1-3 amounts to a calling that every believer in Jesus Christ has received. What does that mean?

When Paul uses the word "calling" he is usually referring to God's action in drawing men and women into fellowship with his Son through the preaching of the gospel. Let me give you a couple of examples. In 1 Corinthians 1:9, Paul said, "God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." In 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 he says:

For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

So what does Paul mean when he talks about "the calling we have received." What he means is this: if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have already experienced all the blessings of salvation. You have been united with Christ in his resurrection and exultation. You have been reconciled to God. You've been chosen by God (1:4). You've been predestined to be his child and the heir of all that he owns (1:5). God sent Christ to atone for your trespasses (1:7). Together, we've been called to display God's wisdom to the heavenly places (3:10). Your calling is to receive all that God has done for you in Jesus Christ to the praise of his glory.

This is a very helpful. It gives us an idea of our calling. The offer is made to everyone: through Jesus Christ, those who are spiritually dead can live again. Paul reminds us again of what Jesus Christ has done, and he says that we have a calling as those who have enjoyed the blessings that come out of what Christ has accomplished.

This leads us to ask the question:

What does this have to do with our relationships?

Paul says, "As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worth of the calling you have received." In other words, because of what God has done, we have been called to live a certain way. Paul is calling us to bring our lives into conformity to God's saving work in Christ. In other words, what God has done ought to make a practical difference in your life.

When I pastored another church years ago, I joined a community board with all kinds of people on it. I was the only pastor. You could tell that people were nervous about me at first before they realized that I was just a guy.

Charlene became friends with some of the people on that board. And when we got together we would sometimes joke around. And this one particular friend would sometimes stop us and say, "Don't forget that you have a position in this community!" I think what she was saying was this: Don't forget that you're a pastor, and pastors aren't supposed to have too much fun! She knew that being a pastor matched up with a certain type of behavior that you could expect from a pastor. I have a friend who pastors a church, and someone said of him, "Did you know our pastor wears jeans?" "What, to the office? On Sundays?" "No, but he wears jeans!" Once we know who someone is, we have expectations of how they will act.

So that's what Paul is saying here. You expect certain people to act in a certain way. And if they don't, there's a problem. So a politician who acts unethically will be seen by some as unworthy of serving as your representative. A former colonel who pleads guilty to first-degree murder is unworthy of wearing the uniform. A judge who accepts bribes is unworthy to sit on the bench. There is so much honor attached to certain positions that you expect a certain standard of behavior. Anything less brings that position into disrepute.

So Paul says, "Live a life worthy of the calling you have received." It means that we have given a position in Christ that requires a certain pattern of life. Our calling should line up with a certain way of living. Now, ask yourself what you would expect Paul to say here. Paul has just pulled back the curtains of heaven and described God's eternal purposes. He's included us in what God is doing. What type of lifestyle is consistent with someone who has experienced God's saving call and all of its blessings?

Read verses 2 and 3: "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."

Relationships are the first issue that Paul addresses as an essential element of our living consistently with our calling as Christians. To live a life consistent with the gospel, Paul says, pursue relational unity.

Let's go back to the question I asked at the start of the sermon. Why are we talking about relationships? There are all kinds of reasons. Relationships are important. Relationships are key to our wellbeing. There are all kinds of reasons. But here's a key biblical one: we're talking about relationships because relationships are key to living consistently with the calling we've received.

Read verse 3 again: "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." Notice that we don't have to create unity. We already have it. In chapter 2 Paul wrote:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

Christ has made us one. We don't create unity; God does. It's a unity that is centered on Jesus Christ, and it's a unity that can't be destroyed. But, Paul says, we have to maintain the unity. It takes effort. But it's essential to what it means to walk in a manner that's worthy of the calling we've received. The way we relate to each other is an outgrowth of the gospel.

Well, let me get to the final question we need to ask:

What difference does all of this make?

Charles Colson's book The Body contains a chapter called "Extending the Right Fist of Fellowship." Listen to what he writes:

It was the right hook that got him. Pastor Waite might have stood in front of the Communion table trading punches with head deacon Ray Bryson all morning, had not Ray's fist caught him on the chin two minutes and fifteen seconds into the fight.

Waite went down for the count at the altar where most members of Emmanuel Baptist had first declared their commitment to Christ ... Within an instant the majority of the congregation converged on the Communion table, punching or shoving. . . .The melee soon spilled over to an open space beside the organ. ... Mary Dahl, the director of the Dorcas Society, threw a hymnal. ... The missile sailed high and wide and splashed down in the baptistry behind the choir... When Ray's right hook finally took the pastor down, someone grabbed the spring flower arrangement from the altar and threw it high in the air in Ray's direction. Water sprinkled everyone in the first two rows on the right side, and a visiting Presbyterian experienced complete immersion when the vase shattered against the wall next to his seat. ... The fight ended when the police arrived on the scene.

We're probably not quite that dramatic. But it's pretty easy to slip into unhealthy patterns of relating to each other. Paul gives us a list later in the chapter of really bad ways of relating to each other that are actually pretty common in verses 31 to 32. Whether it's fistfights at the communion table or just gossip and grumbling, we're often tempted to engage in behavior that is inconsistent with the gospel we proclaim.

Paul tells us in very specific terms how to live consistently with the gospel in our relationships in verse 2. "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love."

this is what it will take, according to Paul:

  • Humility - The Greeks in Paul's day saw humility as a quality for servants and wimps. If someone back then called you humble, it wouldn't have been a compliment. But Paul urges us here to pursue humility, literally lowliness of mind. It means that we see the inherent worth and value of others, refuse to insist on our own rights, and put their interests before our own.
  • Gentleness - Gentleness refers to a disposition towards others. Some used it to refer to domesticated animals. It means controlling one's strength to be courteous and considerate of others, being more concerned about the common good than getting our own way.
  • Patience - A different way of putting it is to be long-suffering towards aggravating people. It's closely related to the next and final quality:
  • Bearing with one another in love - There will be tensions and conflicts, and sometimes we'll have to just put up with each other. But Paul says not just to do this, but to do it with love.

This is what it will take if we are to apply our theology of relationships. Don't you love how real this is? There will be real tensions and real aggravations, and Paul says we're to maintain the unity that we have in the gospel through huge doses of humility, gentleness, patience, and just plain old putting up with each other in love.

Martin Luther, the Reformer of the 16th century, had a really bad temper. He once called fellow Reformer John Calvin "a pig" and "a devil." Mark my words, that and worse will happen sometimes even in the church! But John Calvin replied, "Luther may call me what he will, but I will always call him a dear servant of Christ."

So that's why relationships are so important. To live consistently with the gospel means to pursue relational harmony. And this doesn't just apply to some ideal church somewhere else. It applies to real people who can be really challenging. It's in this context that we're called to live consistently with the gospel we talk about every week.

And this can only happen through Jesus. "For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. 'He is our peace.' Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

Let's pray.

Father, may we think the right things, biblical things, about relationships. And may we bring our actions in line with what is true and right, not through our own power but through Jesus Christ.

We come now to the table because we need him. May we live lives worth of the calling we've received, and may we do so in the way we love one other. In Jesus' name, Amen.

The Key to Peace (Colossians 1:15-20)

Today we're beginning an eight-week series on healthy relationships. No matter who you are, and no matter what your personality type, relationships are both rewarding and challenging. They're rewarding, because there's nothing like a close relationship. But they are challenging because relationships are complicated. The ways that they go wrong are legion. And so we have misunderstandings, hurt feelings, unresolved tensions, estranged relationships, and all kinds of other problems in all kinds of relationships.

As I said, we're going to spend eight weeks talking about this. The easiest thing in the world would be to begin with something very practical, because we all love practical how-to suggestions that we can take and implement. I visited the Psychology Today website this week and found just this type of advice:

  • Keeping the love alive
  • Starting the conversation
  • How to win friends
  • The most important thing about conflict
  • Five steps to a great marriage

Make no mistake: you can learn lots of good things from articles like this. We're going to get very practical in the coming weeks as we talk about some very important principles from God's Word about relationships.

But the place to start isn't with the how-to practical takeaways. I live in an old house. We have an old garage out back that has seen better days. It sags in the middle. The problem with that garage is that the foundation is shot. Now, I could install a new garage door. We can paint the garage all that we want. But until we deal with the foundation, that garage is going to sag. It's the same way with our relationships. Until we have a healthy foundation for our relationships, all the practical tips will be like paint on a sagging garage.

If we are to understand relationships, we need to begin with a solid foundation. We need something more than human efforts to resolve conflict and to get along well with others. We need something that is going to provide genuine and lasting results. The danger for us is that we won't really get to the root of the issue, and we'll end up offering a superficial cure. It reminds me of what the prophet Jeremiah once wrote:

They dress the wound of my people

as though it were not serious.

'Peace, peace,' they say,

when there is no peace.
(Jeremiah 6:14)

Now, let me pause before we look at the foundation for peace that the Bible gives us. The passage we're looking at this morning has been called one of the richest and most important passages in all the Bible about Jesus Christ. You may be thinking this morning, "I thought we were going to talk about relationships. Why are we here talking about Jesus? I don't need theology. I need something practical."

I think Paul would say, "Exactly. You need something practical. The most practical thing that I can give you is to understand who Jesus Christ is." Our greatest need is not to have more practical tips or even more knowledge, as important as those are. Our greatest need is to know Jesus Christ and how that relates to all of life, including our relationships.

To Understand This World, Look to Jesus

You may asking what Jesus has to do with peace. The problem is that we look everywhere but Jesus for solutions. But Jesus is exactly where we need to look if we are going to understand this world in general, and our relationships in particular.

Let me give you some background to the passage that we read this morning. It was written by the apostle Paul to the church in Colossae. In some ways, Colossae had a similar spiritual climate to what we have. They had a number of very different religious belief systems. Many people blended religious beliefs from different systems.

We're like that today. The Pew Forum conducted a survey last year and found that 65% of us hold contradictory religious beliefs. Alan Cooperman, a member of the Pew Forum research team, concluded: "Mixing and matching practices and beliefs is much more the norm than the exception." Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, said, "Today, the individual rarely finds all their spiritual needs in one congregation or one religion." People who lived in Colossae would have loved what singer Sheryl Crow has said: "I believe in God. I believe in Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed and all those that were enlightened. I wouldn't say necessarily that I'm a strict Christian. I'm not sure I believe in heaven."

The problem is that when surrounded by this type of belief system, it's very easy for Christians to begin to blend different beliefs. Pretty soon we're looking everywhere for answers, but we're not looking to Jesus. When we do this, we begin to develop a wrong view of the world that affects how we live. An inaccurate way of seeing the world leads to an inaccurate way of living in the world.

It's in this context that Paul writes in verses 15 to 17:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

What's going on here? Paul is speaking to people who believe in Christ. But they also live in an environment that fears astral powers, territorial spirits, and underworld powers. They believe in Jesus, but maybe for some of them Jesus is functionally no more powerful than the angels they trust for protection. It's like today when we believe Jesus, read horoscopes, practice feng shui, and talk about karma.

Paul says: Listen. Jesus is not one among many other gods. He is the exalted Lord. He holds supreme priority and first rank over all creation. He is actually the key to creation, because he is the one through whom everything was created. If you wonder what the stars and spirits are doing to your life, know this: he is the one who created the stars and all powers. And he is the one who is holding everything together. Creation took place through Jesus, and all of creation exists to bring him glory.

In other words, to truly live well in this world we need to understand that Jesus is the key to everything. To understand this world, look to Jesus. He is the key to all of creation. He's not in charge of the religious part of life; he's Lord of everything. He's not a small part of this world; this world is just a small part of his reign over all things. Jesus is the key to all of creation.

To Understand Jesus, Look at the Cross

But then Paul goes on. Jesus is not just the key to all of creation. Paul tells us specifically what it is about Jesus that we need to understand if we are to live in this world. Take a look at verses 18 and 19 with me:

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him...

In this passage, it's like Paul is tripping over superlatives trying to describe how great Jesus is. Well, how do you beat Jesus being the key to all creation, the one for whom all things exist?

Easy, Paul says. Would you believe that he's actually present and active today? "He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead." Jesus didn't just create this world, Paul is saying. Jesus became a man. God in all of his fullness took on human flesh. The essence, power, and glory of God inhabited human flesh.

And as both God and man, Jesus died. But he also rose from the dead, conquering sin and death. Death is the one appointment that none of us can miss. Woody Allen put it this way:

The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. Death is absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone's accomplishment meaningless.

But death doesn't have the final word. Jesus has triumphed over death, and has established his power over a fallen and rebellious world.

And he's head of a new community of people called the church. The church, Paul says, is vitalized by his presence and power. It's the instrument through which Christ is present and carries on his work in the church.

What Paul is saying is that Jesus did not just create everything we see. Jesus actually entered creation. He conquered death and sin, and he's established his continuing presence on earth through the church. The creator of the world and the one who holds everything together has entered human history, and he continues his presence in churches just like this one. He's the key to all of creation, and he's also the key to the new creation, including the church.

To understand this world, Paul is saying, look to Jesus. And if you are going to understand Jesus, look to the cross.

To Understand the Cross, Look to its Purpose: To Bring Genuine Peace

Read verses 19-20 with me:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)

Here's why we're beginning here. You can read and think about peace all day and night, but you will never get to genuine peace until you get to the cross. The cross brings peace between God and sinners, as we see in the next couple of verses:

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. (Colossians 1:21-23)

But it also brings cosmic reconciliation. The cross is where God sets in motion the process of putting things back together all that is wrong with this world. The cross is the basis of genuine peace - peace between sinners and God, peace in our relationships, and ultimately cosmic peace.

Who is the key to true and lasting peace? Jesus. Peace was such a priority to God that he sent his Son to restore peace in a broken and conflicted world. He did not send an angel, mighty as they are. He did not raise up a mighty army to suppress conflict, enforce justice, and impose unity on the nations. Nor did he did send a delegation of gifted men to teach us how to find peace.

Peace is such a high priority to God that he did not send any secondary lieutenants to bring us this treasure. Instead, he sent his only Son, the most exalted and powerful ambassador who has ever walked the face of the earth.

And consider the cost. The Son of God had to leave the glory of heaven, descend into a fallen and corrupt world, take on the form of a helpless baby, walk countless miles over deserts and dusty roads, submit to mocking, beating and torture, and shed his own life's blood on the cross.

Consider the uniqueness of this peace. The world offers many formulas for peace. Americans spend millions of hours and billions of dollars every year in bookstores, at seminars, in counselors' offices, or in courtrooms, searching for ways to resolve conflict and regain some measure of peace. Most of this effort is utterly wasted, because real peace is found only at the cross. Verse 20 teaches that it was at the cross that Jesus shed his blood to pay for our sins, purchase our peace, and reconcile us to God. This gift can be found nowhere else in the world.

It is wise and helpful to learn and practice the peacemaking principles and skills that we're going to be studying. But those principles and skills will produce only superficial results if they are not inspired and guided by what Jesus did for us at Calvary. Genuine, lasting peace is found only at the cross!

As one commentator says:

The vision is vast. The claim is mind-blowing. It says much for the faith of these first Christians that they should see in Christ's death and resurrection quite literally the key to resolving the disharmonies of nature and the inhumanities of humankind, that the character of God's creation and God's concern for the universe in its fullest expression could be so caught and encapsulated for them in the cross of Christ. In some ways still more striking is the implied vision of the church as the focus and means toward this cosmic reconciliation -- the community in which that reconciliation has already taken place (or begun to take place) and whose responsibility it is to live out as well as to proclaim its secret. (James Dunn)

We're going to spend a lot of time looking at this in the coming weeks. But we need to start here. To understand the world, look to Jesus. And to understand Jesus, look to the cross. To understand the cross, look to its purpose: to bring genuine peace.

Thank you for drawing our attention to Jesus. I pray that every person here would understand that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation; creator and sustainer of all things; the head of the body, the church; the firstborn from among the dead; and the one through whom God is reconciling to himself all things.

So help us to know who Jesus is. And may it make all the difference in all of our lives. In Jesus' name, Amen.