Jesus Plus Nothing (Galatians 2:1-10)

I was telling somebody this week that this is an example of a passage that I never would have chosen to preach unless it was part of a series. When I began to look at it this week, I honestly wondered what I was going to say about it. Tim Keller says that he’s never heard this passage read at a wedding, and he’s never seen anybody cross-stitch their favorite verse from this passage. But as I’ve looked at it this week, I’ve realized that this passage has a very important message for us. I’m glad that we’re being challenged to wrestle through it.

So here’s the problem. Some people were arguing that in order to be accepted by God, you needed Jesus plus something else. In order to be accepted by God, you need to put your faith in Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. But you also need to [fill in the blank]. In this case, they said that you needed to be circumcised according to the Old Testament Jewish laws. In Acts we read a description of the issue:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)

Notice the common ground. At first glance this doesn’t look too serious. They absolutely believed that it was essential to respond in faith and repentance to Jesus Christ. They would agree with Paul and others that the gospel is of great importance. They would probably agree with a lot of the formulations of the gospel that we talk about. So it would be easy to look at this and to say that it’s not really a big deal. No need to create a fuss; there’s a lot of common ground.

On top of that, the church was growing. Churches were springing up all over the Roman empire. The last thing that you need when you’ve got momentum is to interrupt things with a great big theological debate.

But notice in this passage that this is a big deal to Paul. Paul says that the idea that you need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God is actually a very serious issue that threatens the very freedom of the church. He uses very strong language here. For instance, look at verse 2:

I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. (Galatians 2:2)

Paul had been ministering for fourteen years at this point, and he says that what’s at stake threatens to invalidate everything that he’s worked for. It’s not like Paul thinks that he could have been wrong about the gospel. He already told us that he got the gospel directly from Jesus, so he’s not really worried that he’s got it wrong. But he knows that if the church splinters into groups, and if the Jerusalem apostles send out an edict saying that Paul’s gospel was untrue, then it would invalidate a lot of his ministry. It would do a great deal of damage to the church, not because the Jerusalem leaders disagreed with him, but because it was possible that they could have caved into the pressure and made the wrong call.

Paul also says that adding something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God is something that takes away our freedom, and actually robs us of the truth of the gospel. Read verses 4 and 5:

Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.(Galatians 2:4-5)

What’s at stake here is freedom and truth. You don’t get any more basic than that. Paul is saying that if you get this issue wrong, three things happen:

  1. A great deal of ministry to real people is going to be undone
  2. We are going to lose our freedom and become slaves
  3. We are going to exchange the truth for a lie

So this is kind of a big deal. There’s a lot at stake here. This is why this is such an important deal for us as well, even though most of us wouldn’t have recognized it as such before we started looking at this. If we add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God, ministry is undone, we become slaves, and we lose the truth for a lie.

We're tempted to believe we need Jesus plus something else to be accepted by God. This damages ministry and makes us slaves who believe lies. We can’t go there.

Two Examples

This can sound very academic, but it’s not. Paul gives us two examples of how this plays out. The first and most obvious example is Titus. Read verses 1 to 3:

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. (Galatians 2:1-3)

Paul shows a lot of wisdom here. It’s one thing to discuss abstract theological issues; it’s another thing to see how they apply to real people. Paul brings Titus so that everyone knows they’re talking about people. When you’re debating whether you need Jesus plus something else, that is not a debate that only matters to armchair theologians. We’re talking about something that’s going to affect Titus. In fact, it’s an issue that affects everyone here as well.

Titus was one of Paul’s coworkers. He played a major role in churches like Corinth. Paul later writes to him and calls him “my true child in a common faith” (Titus 1:4). Paul brings Titus with him as a case study, a test case. Titus has trusted in Christ. He’s resting in God’s work. Is Jesus enough, or does Titus need something else in order to be accepted by God? Is Jesus enough? Everything was riding on the answer.

And here’s what happened. They didn’t force Titus to be circumcised. They agreed with Paul that Jesus is enough. They agreed with Paul and endorsed his ministry. That’s the first case study here.

The other example is actually a little more subtle, but you see it if you look carefully at this passage. In Jerusalem you have Peter, the disciple of Jesus Christ who spent three years with the Lord. Jesus called him a rock and appointed him to feed his sheep. Peter preached a sermon in which three thousand people responded and were added to the church. Then you have James and John, key leaders in the church. They had spent all kinds of time with Jesus. On the other hand, you have Paul who’s met Jesus only once, who had almost no contact with the Jerusalem church, and who in fact had opposed the church.

Here’s the question: Is there any ranking before God? There’s no doubt that Peter, James, and John had prestige and status. But look at what Paul says in verse 6:

And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. (Galatians 2:6)

Paul is reminding us again that when we stand before God, nothing apart from Jesus matters. Our rank, our status, our reputation, and our accomplishments don’t do anything for us. The only thing that we have that impresses God is that we are in Christ. We can’t add anything to what Jesus has done, even if you are close personal friends with Jesus. With God there is no partiality. The gospel is the grounds of our acceptance with God; nothing else matters. Hear that again: The gospel is the grounds of our acceptance with God. Nothing else matters.

Paul was able to raise the issue with the leaders in Jerusalem, and the result was that they were unified around the gospel that they hold in common. And now Paul is writing this letter to make sure that the Galatians know that you don’t need anything other than Jesus to be accepted by God. It’s a message that is vitally important for us here today as well.

Why This is Important to Us

Would it surprise you if I told you that this is a very important message for us today as well? When I began this sermon, I admitted that this is probably nobody’s favorite passage. As I said, I doubt that anyone has ever cross-stitched, “But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised.” But this is a problem that we continue to face all the time. We’re continually tempted to believe that we need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God.

I came across a really good book last year with a really great title: Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do. The author talks about the anxiety many of us feel:

Sometimes the Christian life can get to be like that: trying to live like Christians just seems to add one more layer of anxiety to our lives. We have our work, our families, our friends to worry about, and then on top of that we worry about getting our Christian lives right. And if being a good Christian is at the center of our lives, then this worry can settle into the depths of our hearts and turn everything we do into something to be anxious about.

I know what he’s talking about. I am continually hearing from people who feel like they’re doing the Christian life wrong. They have this ongoing sense that they’re a disappointment to God and that they’re not measuring up. They have this sense that you come to Jesus Christ and he gives them eternal life, and then says, “Go, make something of yourself now!” And ever since then God has been watching and shaking his head in disappointment. They may even have the idea that one day God will accept them in heaven, but only because he has to. He won’t be happy about it, because he’s pretty disappointed by what they’ve done with their lives ever since they became Christians.

Phillip Cary, the author of the book I just mentioned, tells us what the problem is. It’s not that we’re not trying hard enough. It’s not that we have to do better. The problem is theological. He says:

It’s about bad theology, the kind of theology that, when it’s preached and taught and made part of our lives, makes us worried and miserable. The good news is…it’s not in the Bible and you don’t have to believe it…What the gospel of Christ does is give us Christ, and that is enough. We can let everything else be what it is - hard work, worthwhile work, works of love, and heartaches that come with all of that. And we can let our feelings be what they are, whatever that may be. What matters is Jesus Christ, and the gospel tells us that all is well on that score: that we are our Beloved’s and he is ours.

You know our problem? Many of us are trying to add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God. We do this all the time, and it kills us. It makes us anxious. It robs us of our freedom and turns us into slaves. Whenever we look to anything other than Jesus for our acceptance before God, we’ve lost our grip on the gospel and we’re believing a lie. This is not some obscure problem that Paul faced hundreds of years ago; this is the problem that we all face everyday.

I think I’ve told you before about Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who pastored in London in the last century. People would often come to him with problems. He was very good at trying to get to the heart of their problems. Sometimes he would ask them, “How do you know that you’re a Christian?” Do you know what they would answer many times? “I’m trying!” That would set off alarm bells in his head. What they were saying is, “I think I’m a Christian because of Jesus plus my efforts.” They were trusting in something else other than the finished work of Jesus Christ for their salvation. They were making the very same mistake we read about in this passage.

John Gerstner said, “There is nothing that separates us from God more than our damnable good works.” When we put our faith in our good works, it separates us from God. The famous preacher George Whitefield said:

Before you can speak peace in your heart, you must not only be made sick of your original and actual sin, but you must be made sick of your righteousness, of all your duties and performances. There must be a deep conviction before you can be brought out of your self-righteousness; it is the last idol taken out of our heart. The pride of our heart will not let us submit to the righteousness of Jesus Christ. But if you never felt that you had no righteousness of your own, if you never felt the deficiency of your own righteousness, you cannot come to Jesus Christ. There are a great many now who may say, Well, we believe all this; but there is a great difference between talking and feeling. Did you ever feel the want of a dear Redeemer? Did you ever feel the want of Jesus Christ, upon the account of the deficiency of your own righteousness? And can you now say from your heart, Lord, thou mayst justly damn me for the best duties that ever I did perform? If you are not thus brought out of self, you may speak peace to yourselves, but yet there is no peace.

One story, and then one challenge for you this morning. It’s a goofy story, but it makes a very good point.

A man was standing at the gates of heaven waiting to be admitted. To the man’s utter shock, Peter said, “You have to earn a thousands points to be admitted to heaven. What have you done to earn your points?”

The man replied, “I’ve never heard that before: but I think I’ll do alright. I was raised in a Christian home and have always been a part of the church. I have Sunday school attendance pins that go down the floor. I went to a Christian college and graduate school and have probably led hundreds of people to Christ. I’m now an elder in my church and am quite supportive of what the people of God do. I have three children, two boys and a girl. My oldest boy is a pastor and the younger is a staff person with a ministry to the poor. My daughter and her husband are missionaries. I have always tithed and am now giving well over 30% of my income to God’s work. I’m a bank executive and work with the poor in our city trying to get low income mortgages.”

“How am I doing so far?” he asked Peter.

“That’s one point,” Peter said. “What else have you done?”

“Good Lord…have mercy!” the man said in frustration.

“That’s it!” Peter said. “Welcome home.”

Do you get it? We will never be able to achieve God’s approval by trusting anything else but what Jesus Christ has done for us. All that’s needed is Jesus, and that is enough. At the cross Jesus did everything that was needed in order for us to be made right with God. Jesus is enough. Depending on Jesus plus something else is a lie that kills and that robs us from the truth of the gospel.

Two questions for you today.

When you look at others, how do you see them? The problem is that some in the church were looking at Gentiles who believed in Jesus but hadn’t been circumcised, and saw them as deficient. It’s the same problem that we face today when we look at someone who’s trusted in Jesus Christ but looks or acts differently than us. We have a tendency to judge them based on external factors, when in reality Jesus is enough. There’s no favoritism with God. Do you get that? The newest Christian with tattoos and nicotine stains and all the wrong stuff stands beside the most mature believer who’s a pillar of the church. Before God there’s no difference. The grounds of their acceptance is Christ. Depending on anything else is deadly.

One other question: Are you sick of your damnable good deeds? Have you gotten rid of the last idol to be taken out of the heart, which is the idol of self-righteousness? Have you realized that God does not accept you based on how well you’re doing, but that he accepts you purely on the basis of what Christ has done?

Jesus plus nothing equals everything. Jesus plus anything else is slavery, and it will kill you.

Says Who? (Galatians 1:10-24)

It’s not always safe to admit it in a place like this, but some of us have occasionally wondered if this Christianity thing is all true or whether it’s just a human invention. I thought about this as I read the story of Frederica Mathewes-Greene. She had a very strong faith at an early age. She wanted to go into the ministry when she grew older. But when she turned 12 or 13, she had a crisis of faith.

When I was 12 or 13, I began to doubt the entire Christian story. I felt almost as if I'd had somebody try to cheat me. They had fed me this long, complex story about virgin birth, born in a manger, died on a cross, came back to life. It just sounded preposterous to me. I thought that it was something that no normal, sane person could be expected to believe, and I'd been made a fool.

She began to consider atheism, agnosticism, and various other religions. She was really sure that she wanted to reject Christianity, but she really didn’t know what to believe. She eventually chose Hinduism because it seemed to be the most intriguing and colorful of all the different world religions.

I can relate to this because I too had a strong faith as a child. But I remember reaching a point where I began to ask, “Is this for real? Do I just believe this because it’s my mother’s religion?” You discover that there are lots of people who are willing to help you doubt Christianity. As comedian Ricky Gervais put it:

I used to believe in God. The Christian one that is. I loved Jesus. He was my hero.

[But later on] I was sitting at the kitchen table when my brother came home...I was happily drawing my hero [Jesus] when my big brother Bob asked, "Why do you believe in God?" Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. "Bob," she said in a tone that I knew meant, "Shut up." Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong, it didn't matter what people said.

Oh ... hang on. There is no God. [My brother] knows it, and [my mom] knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

Is this whole thing a human invention? That’s the question we have to wrestle with, because if it is we’re wasting our time. If it isn’t, then everything changes.

In fact, that is the very question that this morning’s passage deals with. The question of the passage this morning is quite simple: Where did Christianity come from? Is it a human invention?

Let me tell you a little bit about what’s behind this passage. The apostle Paul is writing to churches that he’s planted. He had visited their area - south-central Turkey - and had told them about Jesus Christ. In particular, he had told them about Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who had died in the place of sinners so that all could become part of God’s people. This was a radical message. You didn’t have to be one of Abraham’s descendants to be included; Jesus opened the way for everyone.

But Paul is no longer on the scene. And some other teachers had come in, and they were saying something like this: “We’re well connected with the church, and we need to tell you that Paul did not give you the whole story. He’s given you the gospel on the cheap. Gentiles can become part of God’s people through faith in Christ, but you still have to obey the law of Moses.”

All of a sudden you have two competing versions of the gospel. The problem with two competing versions of the gospel is that you’re now in the realm of human opinion. We’re then left with something that’s very subjective. “Is Paul right? I don’t know, what do you think?” If Christianity is something subjective, then pretty soon we’re left wondering whose version of Christianity is really right.

Look, here’s the deal. You’re in a Fellowship Baptist church this morning. There’s a whole other Baptist denomination in our city that’s different from us. That’s not to mention all the other Baptists. And Baptists are only part of the picture. You have independent churches, and all kinds of other denominations as well: Anglicans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, AGC, Alliance. And those are only the Protestant denominations. You also have the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church. And those are only the Christians. You also have other religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. And you also have atheism and agnosticism, not to mention the custom-made, do-it-yourself belief systems. Who’s to say we’re right?

Don’t feel guilty asking these questions! These are the very questions that you should be asking. The good news is that Paul is going to help us sort this out. He’s going to tell us three things about the Christianity this morning. First, it’s not a matter of human opinion. Second, it didn’t originate from any human source. Finally, he’ll help us understand why there are so many churches despite the fact that there is only one gospel.

Here’s the first thing we need to know:

One: The gospel is not a matter of human opinion.

This is so important. If we don’t understand what Paul says here, we won’t have any confidence in the gospel, because who’s to say which gospel is right? Who knows whether Paul is right, or his opponents? Who’s to say that the gospel we preach is right? Paul helps us get past this problem, because the first thing he tells us here is that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion. It’s not a debate between different scholars and denominations.

Look at verse 10 with me:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

There’s a very important lesson in this verse. When it comes to the gospel, how much does human approval matter? Paul tells us here: it counts for nothing. Remember: Paul is countering the charge that he is preaching a gospel that’s catered to a particular audience. Paul defends himself by saying that you can’t cater the gospel to a particular audience without losing it altogether. You face a choice: please God by sticking with the gospel, or displease God by tweaking the gospel? You can’t do both. Paul is saying that human opinion doesn’t even factor into the gospel he’s preaching, because his concern is fidelity to what God has revealed. Human opinion about whether or not people like the gospel doesn’t even enter into it.

Read what Paul says in verse 11:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel.

Paul says that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion. The gospel did not come from anyone’s opinion, including his own. You could translate last part of verse 11, “The gospel I preached is not of human origin.” Literally, it’s not from flesh and blood. Jesus once said to Peter, his disciple, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

Paul is saying that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion, because it doesn’t come from any human. What’s more, human opinion doesn’t even factor into it, because you can’t please God if you’re concerned about tweaking the gospel to please others. C.S. Lewis said it well: “Christianity must be from God, for who else could have thought it up!”

Here’s what it means: we don’t get a vote on what the gospel is, because the gospel doesn’t originate from any human being. The gospel is not something that changes according to the poll numbers. The gospel is not a matter of human opinion.

Two: The gospel comes from God himself, not from any human source.

We’ve seen Paul hint at this already. If Paul says that he didn’t get the gospel from any human source, where in the world did he get it from? If it didn’t come from church councils or secret meetings of key leaders in the church, how does Paul even know what the gospel is? Look at verse 12:

For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

This is shocking. Paul was not somebody who was going along trying to figure out what the gospel is. On the contrary, verses 13 and 14 detail his life before he encountered Jesus Christ. He was determined to wipe out the church. He hated the gospel and he wanted to eradicate the church. He was a young and rising star in Judaism and had absolutely no interest in the gospel at all.

But something happened, according to verses 15 and 16. It’s not something that happened as a result of some fluke or coincidence, according to Paul. It happened because God intended for it to happen before Paul was born. It wasn’t a matter of Paul’s doing; it is completely because God took the initiative. By the way, that’s exactly how God works in our lives too. If you’ve responded to the gospel and put your faith in Christ, it’s not the result of some fluke or coincidence. God set you apart from before you were even born, and he took the initiative.

But then Paul tells us where he got his understanding of the gospel. Read verses 12 and 15 16 together:

For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ...But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me...

Acts 9 tells the story. Paul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus Christ appeared to him. It wasn’t a vision; Jesus himself appeared. Paul saw the risen Jesus Christ on the Damascus road, and “the gospel in all its glory and beauty was disclosed to him” (Thomas Schreiner). Paul didn’t get the gospel second-hand or third-hand; he got the gospel right from Jesus Christ himself.

I was sitting with some friends a while ago discussing a fairly famous incident that had taken place among some prominent people years ago. I began to wonder out loud what some of the famous people involved in the incident would say now. I had some guesses because I’ve read books about the incident. One of my friends said, “It’s interesting you should ask that. I asked that person the very same question when he was at my house a few months ago, and here’s what he said.” It really ended the conversation. We could guess what someone said; my friend could tell you because he had heard directly from that person.

We can sit around and wonder, “What do you think the gospel really is?” Paul could say, “Well, when Jesus stopped me in my tracks and changed the direction of my life and ministry, this is how he explained it to me.” It really does kill the debate. Paul’s opponents were questioning whether or not Paul had the gospel right; Paul could say that he got it directly from Jesus himself. The gospel really isn’t a matter of what we think. Why? Because Paul got the gospel directly from God, directly from Jesus Christ himself, not from any human source. Not only that, but God appointed Paul to preach this gospel, so that Paul is acting as a messenger on behalf of the originator of the gospel, so that when we hear the gospel from Paul, we’re hearing it from someone appointed by God to proclaim that very message. We can have confidence that what Paul says about the gospel is a message from God himself.

Think of the confidence that this gives us. We come not to hear what I think about the gospel. Paul’s got it right. Who cares about what I think the gospel is about? We come to open the Word of God together, to read the words of someone who got the message directly from Jesus Christ himself. That is why we’re here. It’s not a subjective judgment of what you or I think; it’s about “our common salvation...the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). It’s a gospel that comes directly from God himself.

You may be thinking, “Well, that’s great, but how do you account for all the different denominations that are out there? If there’s one gospel, then why are there so many different churches?” Great question, and one that leads us to the last thing that Paul tells us in this passage.

Three: The church doesn’t create the gospel; it’s created by the gospel.

I need to unpack this a little as we come to the end of this passage. What Paul says is that the church doesn’t create the gospel; it’s created by the gospel.

Remember that Paul’s opponents were saying that Paul got the gospel wrong. Part of their argument seems to have been that they were well-connected to the Jerusalem church and so they had the official version, like the authorized version of the gospel. Paul actually makes a strange counterargument in this section. You’d think he’d argue that his version of the gospel is especially sanctioned by the most important people in Jerusalem, by the apostles who knew Jesus Christ personally. Instead he makes a completely different argument. He says that he’s only had limited contact with the apostles and those in Judea. It’s not like his gospel contradicts theirs; they know him and they’ve compared notes. It’s just that Paul didn’t get the gospel from them. He got the gospel directly from Jesus, and it lines up with their gospel very well.

So in verses 18 to 20 he says that he’s relatively unknown to the apostles. He’s spent very little time with them. And in verses 21 to 24 he says that he’s relatively unknown by the church in Judea. They know only of him by report. In other words, Paul’s credentials don’t come because he’s been approved by some official body. His credentials come from God himself. The church didn’t create the message that Paul is preaching; in fact, the church doesn’t create the gospel; the gospel creates the church. The church is the product of the gospel, not the originator of the gospel.

That means that some in the church will get it wrong, like Paul’s opponents. That’s why there are so many denominations. It’s not because the gospel is in confusion and the church can’t agree. We’re going to see in the next chapter that some of the pillars of the church themselves can get confused about the gospel. Over the past two thousand years the church has had lots of opportunities to get confused about the gospel. But there is this thing called the gospel. It’s the plumb-line that the church can use to bring us back into alignment with the gospel. That’s why we keep coming back to the Word. I guarantee that we as a church will get all wonky and drift from time to time. That’s what my car does too, by the way. Do you know what I do with my car? I take it in for a wheel alignment. Do you know what we have to do as a church? We need to continue to bring ourselves into alignment with the gospel. That’s our job: to bring our lives and ministries back into alignment with the gospel that never changes.

Two implications for us this morning.

First: It gives me a lot of confidence to know that the reason we’re here isn’t because of some cleverly invented stories created by the church years ago. I remember wondering years ago if I could believe the gospel, or whether it was some fairy tale I needed to reject. It’s very unsettling to wrestle wit this question. I’m sure many of you have wrestled with it as well. It does me good to consider what Paul says in this passage. The gospel, the news that Jesus Christ died for sinners so that we could be saved, is not a human invention. Nobody could make this up. I love the hymn: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!” Cling to this message. It’s a message from God. Realize the duty we have to guard the good deposit of the gospel that’s been entrusted to us.

Second: This morning I urge you to respond to this message. You may have been wondering if this is something for you. I hope that you will wrestle with what we’ve talked about and see that the message of Jesus Christ is not an invention. It’s good news that comes directly from God, and that demands a response from us.

I began this sermon talking about Frederica Mathewes-Greene, who wanted to go into the ministry but who one day decided that the whole thing is preposterous at the age of 12 or 13, and who eventually chose Hinduism. Let me give you the rest of the story:

[What ultimately led me out of Hinduism] was a strange experience. I was with my husband on our honeymoon, hitchhiking around Europe. He was an atheist who had been assigned in one of his classes to read a gospel. And he kept saying, "There's something about Jesus. I've never encountered anyone like this before. I know that he's speaking the truth. I'm an atheist. But if Jesus says there's a God, there must be a God."

It was a very scary experience for me, because I didn't want him to be a Christian. He was not ready to make a full commitment to Christ at that point, but he was curious and wanted to study more...

She began to feel her heart drawn toward Christ. She began reading the Bible. Gradually she came closer to the point of placing her faith in the gospel she had chosen to reject so many years earlier.

Gradually we were able to come into faith. It was several months later that a friend of ours said, "Well, have you ever given your hearts to Jesus? Have you ever asked Jesus to be your Lord?" You have to picture that both of us grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, him Episcopalian, me Catholic, and our response was, "We're not Southern Baptists." Our association with that kind of talk is that you have to be Southern Baptist for Jesus to be your Lord.

He said, "Actually, it's for everybody."

We said, "Well, you know, we're in graduate school."

"No, even for you."

So the three of us knelt down together and prayed and asked Jesus to be our Lord, having no idea what that would mean but wanting so much to find out.

I’d love nothing more than for you to do the same thing: to come to faith in Jesus Christ who died for you. Let’s pray.

Don’t Lose the Gospel (Galatians 1:1-9)

A few years ago I was sitting in a cabin at a camp on one of the bunks. I was playing with my wedding ring, which is something you do when you’re fidgety. Suddenly the ring went flying off of my finger and across the cabin. I was on the top bunk and couldn’t see exactly where it landed. Remember, it’s a cabin. There are holes in the floorboards and little cracks where the sheets of plywood meet. I jumped down and began a frantic search for that ring. I’m happy to say that I found it, and it’s on my ring finger this morning.

What’s the worst thing that you’ve ever lost? A ring? A passport? Your wallet or purse? Do you remember the feeling of panic as you realize that something valuable has gone missing? Sometimes what you lose is replaceable. Other times it’s not − a family heirloom, like your grandmother’s wedding ring passed down to you. There are some things that you just don’t want to lose.

This morning I’d like to talk about not just the things that are hard to lose, but some of the things that are fatal to lose. This morning, right now, you’re breathing at a rate of somewhere around 12 to 18 breaths a minute. If you lose your ability to breathe, you have only minutes left. Right now, your heart is beating every second. Some of you are really fit so your heart is taking the odd second off. Some of you are sitting beside somebody you really like, so your heart is beating a bit faster. But if you lose your heartbeat, you only have seconds to live.

You see, there are some things that you hate to lose, like a wedding ring. And there are some things that are fatal to lose, like your breath or heartbeat. But this morning we’re going to see that there are some things that are fatal to lose, and one of them, according to the passage we’re about to read, is the Gospel.

But let’s back up a second. Let me introduce the book that we’re about to look at together. This morning we’re beginning to look at Galatians, a book written to a group of churches planted by the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey. They’re in what we would call today south central Turkey. Paul had come to this area a few years earlier, an area full of the worship of local gods and goddesses with a smattering of monotheistic Jews. This quirky guy, the apostle Paul, came to town, and began to teach that there is one God, and that this one God had unveiled his plan for the world through a Jewish man named Jesus. He was executed by the Romans, but Paul argued that God had raised Jesus from the dead. And now God is building a new family with no divisions between different racial groups. Paul has taught this, and people have believed. And by the time Paul moves on, churches have started all over the area filled with people who have accepted the good news of this Jesus Christ.

But now a few years have passed. Others have come in who claim to know a little more about Jesus. They have said something like this: Paul is a good man, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Paul, they say, has some funny ideas. He’s muddled. We’ve talked to the real authorities, and here’s the real scoop. You need a little bit more if you’re going to be a good Christian. Yes, you need to believe the gospel, but there’s more. It’s Jesus plus something else.

Paul gets wind of this, and that’s where we find ourselves as we start this letter. I want you to notice two things before I tell you why this is important to us this morning.

First: Paul is ticked. Have you ever received an angry letter in the mail? You have to use oven mitts or tongs to hold the letter? This is one of those letters. Now, don’t misunderstand. Paul hasn’t blown his lid. This isn’t a letter that he’s going to regret having written later. No, this is a reasoned and well-thought out letter. But make no mistake: Paul is ticked here. Letters like this usually begin with a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients. Paul skips that and gets right down to business, and he doesn’t mince any words. He’s very honest about the problems with a Jesus plus something else approach.

Second: Paul goes to great lengths in verses 1 and 2 to establish is authority. Here’s why this is important. I’m a pastor, and I sometimes get love letters from people. Actually, some of them aren’t full of a lot of love. One of the first things I do is to look at who wrote the letter. If it’s anonymous, I honestly don’t pay too much attention to it. I still read it, but it doesn’t come with a lot of authority. But if it’s written by the chair of our elders, I pay a lot more attention. Paul writes, and he’s not just any schmo. He is “an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” He is an apostle hand-selected by God and by Christ. He is writing with divine authority here. What’s more, he writes with “all the brothers who are with me.” Paul isn’t some lone ranger who’s off by himself. Paul’s coworkers are united with him and what he teaches. He has credibility among the leaders of the church. Paul is someone that they need to pay attention to.

Here’s why this is important. We need to receive this letter as one that comes with divine authority. This is not somebody’s opinion; this is the apostolic message handed down to us, and we had better pay attention. Here’s another reason why we need to pay attention to this message: because we face the same danger that the Galatians faced, which is a lack of clarity on the gospel. And if we lose the gospel, it’s not like losing a ring or a passport. It’s a fatal loss. If we lose the gospel, we lose everything.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “What is this gospel that you’re talking about? If it’s so important, then define it.” And, “Come on, get real. How can you say we’re in danger of losing the gospel?” Both are good questions, and both are actually the questions that Paul answers in this passage.

Here’s what he does in this passage. He says two things: the gospel has content, and don’t lose it by adding to it. By looking at what Paul says I’m hoping we’ll grasp the gospel, and then we’ll grasp the very real danger we face of losing the gospel by adding to it.

So let’s look at the first thing that Paul says:

First: the gospel has content.

Read verses 1 to 5 with me:

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Haddon Robinson, a renowned Christian leader and professor of preaching, says something very sobering:

We don't preach the gospel! As I listen to some preachers, if I were an outsider, I honestly wouldn't know what I was to respond to…We want to reach people, but the clear terms of the gospel are seldom enunciated. It's probably an exaggeration, but I don't think in my lifetime I've heard twenty messages that I would say were clear gospel messages. If you didn't know any jargon, didn't have any religious background—if you came to church and wanted to know how to have a relationship with a holy God—the sermon would not tell you.

Think about that. That scares me as a preacher. It’s very easy to be unclear about the gospel, and to do a bad job of communicating it. So Paul’s going to do us a very big favor in this passage. He’s going to define it for us. He’s going to give us a gospel nutshell. What do I mean? Martyn Lloyd Jones, a great preacher from the last century, observed that there are “thirty or forty gospel nutshells” in the Bible, and this is one of them. Verses 3 to 5 give us a snapshot of the gospel, or the gospel in a nutshell:

Here it is. Three parts to what Paul says:

What Jesus did - He “gave himself for our sins” in verse 4. The word “for” here means “on behalf of” or “in place of.” The heart of the gospel is right here: what Jesus Christ did at the cross. He gave his life in our place. He was our substitute. At the cross, Jesus suffered and died in the place of sinners so that they could be forgiven of their sins. This is the heart of the gospel. The gospel takes us right to the cross.

What the Father did - Verses 1 says that God the Father “raised him from the dead.” Verse 3 says that we have “grace” and “peace” from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is also the good news that God the Father accepted what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross. When God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, it was evidence that he accepted Jesus work and that a new age has dawned. As a result, we have grace (God’s unmerited favor) and peace (God’s blessing of well-being) in our lives.

Finally, why he did it - Verses 4 and 5 say, “to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” God’s intention was to rescue us, to deliver his people from this present age in which there is evil and opposition to God. And he did all of this ultimately for his glory. “God’s glory and honor and praise are displayed supremely in Christ and the cross…Indeed, God will be praised forever because of his saving work in Christ” (Thomas R. Schreiner).

I hope this is clear. I’ve heard interviews with pastors in which they’ve been asked to define the gospel. Many of them fumbled around and really didn’t have a clear answer. Some of them actually had a wrong answer, like the golden rule (to love others as yourself) or the Great Commandment (to love God and your neighbor as yourself). That’s not the gospel; that’s law. It’s good; it’s just not the gospel.

The gospel is the news that Jesus gave himself for our sins; God has accepted his work so that we could be saved, and that we have grace and peace to his glory. The gospel is the good news of what Jesus Christ did for us at the cross. The worst person can be completely forgiven and made right with God through the substitutionary death of Christ at the cross; we must respond by trusting in what Christ has done for us. The gospel has content, and this content takes us right to the cross.

But then Paul tells us something that we need to know:

Don’t ever add to the gospel, because if you do you’ll lose it completely.

Don’t ever add to the gospel, because the gospel plus is no gospel at all. You can add to your house and you won’t lose it. You may actually improve it. You can add to your education, and you’ll just have more education and more degrees. But don’t ever add to the gospel, Paul says, because if you do, you’ll lose it completely, and losing the gospel is fatal to churches and to individuals.

Read verses 6 to 9:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

What’s the problem? There were some people in this church saying that Paul’s gospel was incomplete. It was good as far as it goes, but you have to add something to it. In their case, they were adding obedience to the Mosaic Law and covenant. They wanted people to become Jewish and to obey Jewish laws like circumcision. But Paul says they’re not simply adding to the gospel; they’re deserting it. Look at the words Paul uses: deserting, distorting. He says that they’re turning to not just a slightly wrong version of the gospel but to a different gospel, one that’s contrary to the correct one, one that is no gospel at all. Paul goes so far to say that if anyone - even an apostle, even an angel - comes preaching a different gospel, let them be accursed. What’s shocking is that accursed is the harshest possible term you could ever imagine. It mean to be finally condemned and destroyed. If anyone preaches a different gospel, Paul says, let them be irrevocably punished by God and completely wiped out.

What Paul is saying here is very important for us to hear. He’s given us the gospel very clearly. Now he says that if we ever add to that gospel, then we completely lose it. Any gospel that makes anything else other than the what Jesus did at the cross the basis of our relationship with God is deadly. If anyone tells you it’s the gospel plus your behavior or the gospel plus doing something else, then they’re telling you a false gospel. We’ve got to be clear on the gospel, or else we’ll lose it completely.

Two applications for us this morning.

Do you know how easy it is to drift? I’ve told you before about swimming in the ocean when there are strong currents. I look and see our beach umbrella and think, “Okay, I’m good here.” I look up a few minutes later and I’ve drifted hundreds of feet down the beach. I’ve drifted with the current. The same thing can happen so easily in our churches and in our lives. Thomas Schreiner writes:

The clarity and the truth of the gospel could easily be lost. So many other things may clutter our minds, hearts, and lives that we may forget about the gospel, thinking all the while that we have not strayed from it. In our churches we may begin to concentrate on what it means to be good parents, to have a good marriage, to form meaningful relationships, and to make an impact on the world (all good things of course!), so that we slowly and inadvertently drift from the gospel of free grace.

It’s so easy. The gospel is accepted —> The gospel is assumed —> The gospel is confused —> The gospel is lost. I hope you realize this morning how easy it is to drift from the gospel. Remember the beach umbrella? I knew I’d drifted when it was no longer in front of me. I’m suggesting that we use the cross of Christ as our marker. Any time that it’s not right in front of us, any time it’s not front and center, let’s just assume that we’ve drifted and that we’d better get back urgently, because to drift from the gospel is to lose it altogether.

Second, I want to ask you if you are clear on the gospel yourself. Do you understand that the heart of the good news is not that you must be a good person, or that you must try harder, or that your good deeds must outweigh your bad deeds? Do you understand that coming to church and being a good person or even being a Sunday school teacher or deacon or pastor does not make you a Christian? The gospel is the good news that Jesus has taken our place, that he has given himself for us, so that we could be delivered and have grace and peace to the glory of God. This morning you can look to the cross for the first time and put your trust in the one you took your place. That is the gospel. That is our hope.

The gospel has content, and that content is the cross. Don’t lose it by adding to it.

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.

A Psalm of Praise (Psalm 8)

Well, given that it’s Labour Day weekend, and that school starts in a couple of days, I thought it might be fun to start with a quiz this morning. So here it is. It’s a multiple choice question with only two options.

The question: What is worship?

A. Songs that we sing (sometimes badly) in church before the pastor gets up to preach
B. Something so powerful that, even when done by infants, is used by God to slay his foes

Which one is it? If I was honest, I’d have to say that I normally think of worship in terms of A. Worship, we think, is something we do on Sunday mornings after the announcements and before the sermon. We have worship teams and a worship budget. We’ve had worship pastors. Some weeks it goes well, other weeks we sit too close to someone who doesn’t know how to sing, and we make a note to ourselves to sit somewhere different the next week. For a lot of us, worship is this sometimes enjoyable, sometimes okay time of singing songs to praise God before the pastor gets up to speak.

Until I put up the choices, none of us would have said B. If I asked you coming in what worship is, I bet none of you would have said that worship is so powerful that even when done by the person who has the least competent worshiper packs a punch that’s big enough for God to use against his enemies. But that’s what this psalm says. Read verse 2:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

What does that mean? “Out of the mouth of babies and infants…” Here the psalmist is talking about the age of children when they’re helpless and completely dependent on adults. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to sing with kids that age. It sounds fun until you do it. It reminds me of what one author said about primary school concerts, thinking of his music teacher:

The audience exploded into applause as our conductor and teacher, Mr. Martin, walked in. Parents regard band teachers with a combination of awe and respect, the way you might a war hero. How could any human being spend eight hours per day enduring the acoustic violence created by fifty children playing their instrument all at once?..In the hands of the untalented, a clarinet is a lethal weapon. There are states that allow the sale of automatic weapons but ban the use of clarinets at school concerts. (Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir...of Sorts)

That’s kind of what it’s like to worship with kids. You don’t do it for the quality. If someone tells you that you sound like a baby when you worship, it’s probably not a compliment.

“Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes to still the enemy and the avenger.” This means that God chooses to use the weak and pathetic worship of his people as the means of triumphing his most powerful enemies. The praise of the weakest Christian, this psalm is saying, is stronger than all the strength of God’s most powerful enemies. If we could invite the most strident atheists and line them up here, and then invite our preschoolers to come in and sing a song over here, this psalm says that the atheists wouldn’t stand a chance. The worship of God’s people, even when done poorly, is stronger than all of God’s enemies. God “brings onto the field of battle the poor and spirit against the arrogant hordes of wickedness in order to slay their intolerable pride in the dust.”

I don’t know what that does to you, but that makes me want to worship more than I do. It makes me want to worship poorly even, because it’s not the worship of the eloquent that God needs It’s worship period, even done by people like me.

And so having shown us what our worship does, the psalmist gives us big reasons why we should worship. So this morning it’s pretty simple. Worship is about the most important thing we could ever do: point one. When you worship and you’re weak, you’re still stronger than when you’re doing anything else at full strength. That’s point one. Point two: so worship. David doesn’t waste a lot of time developing theories of worship. He just says that it’s important, and then leads us in worship, giving us two really big reasons why we should worship.

So this morning: I give you permission to worship as I preach. This isn’t a lecture on worship. This is going to be a practice session. We’re going to begin and end as David does: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” That’s how David begins and ends this psalm. The LORD, our Lord, has a majestic name, not just in where he is worshiped, but in all the earth. He alone is worthy of our worship. Our ultimate purpose is to bring him praise because he is supremely worthy.

Then David gives us two reasons why we should praise God in this psalm. The first is for the staggering enormity of his creation. The second is for his surprising care for humanity. Let’s look at both.

First, praise him this morning for the staggering enormity of creation.

David may have been inspired by looking up one night into the sky and marveling at what God had created. We went camping a couple of years in a remote spot. One night in particular we went out and lay down on the beach. I’ve seen stars before, but never before like this. We lay there for over an hour and we weren’t bored for a minute. It was far better than any entertainment I can think of. When you get a glimpse of what God has created, and the beauty of what he’s done, you can’t do anything but praise him. So David writes in verses 1-4:

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Most pastors don’t have to preach a passage like this with an astrophysicist in the room, so Barth, forgive me if I make any mistakes here. David didn’t know what I’m about to tell you. He simply looked and saw the glory of God reflected in the skies. I hope you get a chance to look into the sky and do the same thing. It’s hard to do in the city, but I hope you get to do it sometime and somewhere. It’s staggering.

...If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup…This vast neighborhood of our sun - in truth the size of a coffee cup - fits along with several billion other stars and their minions in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years. (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?)

What’s more, none of this was hard for God. As somebody’s said, “All this vast, enduring monument to the creative power and art of God is but child’s play to the divine creator - spun off the tips of his finger without even breaking a sweat.”

110904

It is truly staggering. So often I lose perspective. My life and my concerns seem so huge. Then I realize that I am one of 6.8 billion people on this earth. And this earth is just a relatively tiny planet in a vast solar system. And this solar system is just a small part of our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. How could you not praise the God who created all of this, and who holds it together, and is Lord over all? So praise him! Say with David, “How majestic is your name in all the earth!”

The enormity and the beauty of God’s creation is one of the ways that he displays his glory. Francis Collins is a scientist. He headed up the Human Genome project and has all kinds of credentials. He’s a world famous scientist, but he was also an atheist. After a long period of searching, which included grilling a pastor and reading C.S. Lewis, Collins finally came to Christ after watching the beauty of creation. This is Collin's description of that life-changing encounter:

I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ. (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief)

David would like this, I think. Take a walk outside in a remote place, look up, and worship the God who created all of this. Look at the beauty of what he’s created all around us, and then bow down and surrender your life to him. And realize as you do this that the praise of the weakest person is stronger than the most powerful of God’s enemies. Praise him for the staggering enormity of creation. And then:

Second, praise him for his surprising care for humanity.

The explorer William Beebe wrote about what happened when he used to visit Theodore Roosevelt at his home:

... At Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelt and I used to play a little game together. After an evening of talk, we would go out on the lawn and search the skies until we found the faint spot of light-mist beyond the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then one or the other of us would recite: "That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one billion suns, each larger than our sun."

Then Roosevelt would grin and say: "Now I think we are small enough! Let's go to bed."

That’s the thought process that you go through as you grasp the enormity of what God has created. Who are we? We’re nothing. We’re small. David reflects this as he considers what God has created. Look what he writes in verses 3 and 4:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Great question. If God is to be praised for the vastness of what he has created, where does that leave us? Why would God pay any attention to what’s going on in a tiny corner of the universe? But he does. David goes on, and what he says next is basically commentary on Genesis 1:26-28, which is an account of when God created humanity. Look at what he says in verses 5 to 8:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Despite our size in the universe, David says, there is something utterly unique about us. If you created a continuum of every creature that’s ever been created, from bacteria all the way up to angels, we would be right next to angels. We’re not even far below, the psalmist says. Out of all that God has created, it is men and women alone who have been made in his image and crowned with glory and honor. We have a unique role within the universe. We’ve been given dominion over all that he’s made.

This summer we visited Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General of Canada. Canada has a monarchy. We have a Queen. But the Queen does not live in Canada, so she has appointed a Governor General who represents her in Canada and acts on her behalf. When the Governor General is appointed, he or she has an audience with the Sovereign before being sworn in before being seated on a throne. That’s a pretty good picture of what the psalmist is talking about. This world is part of God’s kingdom, but God has chosen humanity to have dominion over his kingdom here on earth. We have been given his image and have been charged with the responsibility of acting on his behalf. It is an amazing thing.

Here’s the thing that amazes David. Out of all that God has created, God is mindful of us. He does care for us. It causes David to worship, and it causes me to worship too. What an amazing God. We live on a speck of dust in all that God has created, and yet he’s chosen to crown us with glory and honor. He’s given us his image. He’s mindful of us, and he cares.

When you put this all together, it leads you to worship. When you realize that the praise of the weakest Christian is more powerful than the strength of God's most powerful enemies, it leads us to worship. When you see the vastness of what God has created - the beauty of the milky way, the knowledge of the vastness of the universe - it makes you want to worship. When you think that out of all that God has made, that he’s zeroed in on us, it makes you want to worship.

But there’s more. Hundreds of years after David wrote this psalm, God himself became a man and lived on this speck of dust. Not only was he mindful of us, not only did he care for us, but he became one of us. And out of infinite love he offered up his life for us so that we could be made right with God.

Did you know in the New Testament that this psalm is quoted many times in reference to Jesus? Here’s the reason. Verse 6 says that God has put all things under our feet. We know that because of sin, not everything is under our feet. We’re not in control of this world. We had a tornado in Goderich and then a thunderstorm a couple of couple of nights later that reminded us of that. But when Jesus became one of us, he became our forerunner, and everything is already at his feet. He’s already been crowned with glory and honor. Hebrews 2 quotes this psalm and then says:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)

We have not fulfilled God’s plan to put everything under our feet, but there is one who is singlehandedly fulfilling God’s plan on our behalf, and that is Jesus. I love how Dale Ralph Davis puts it:

That is the point of Hebrews 2. It says: Psalm 8 is not a pipe dream. We don’t yet see it full-blown. But we see Jesus — one man is already reigning! And that is the assurance that redeemed man, his brothers and sisters, will one day rule as well. “He has made them a kingdom, priests, to our God, and they shall reign on earth” (Rev. 5:10). How can you doubt your royal future when the Man Jesus has already begun enjoying it? The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life: Psalms 1-12

So two things: First, surrender your life to this great God. Put your trust in Jesus who has done this for you. Second, say with David:

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

A Prayer When Slandered (Psalm 7)

I would like this sermon this morning to be a practical one. I want to address a problem that all of us are going to face eventually. You may be facing it right now. The problem is slander.

Three preachers were on a fishing trip when they began to discuss various topics to pass the time. One preacher said he thought it would be nice if they confessed their biggest sins to each other and then prayed for each other. They all agreed, and the first preacher said that his biggest sin was that he liked to sit at the beach now and then and watch pretty women stroll by. The second preacher confessed that his biggest sin was that he went to the horse racing track every so often and put a small bet on a horse. Turning to the third preacher, they asked, "Brother, what is your biggest sin?" With a grin, he said, "My biggest sin is gossiping."

That’s not what I’m talking about. Gossip is a serious problem, but it’s different from slander. Sometimes people will say negative things about us. When they do, we have to admit that they’re right. In fact, sometimes they don’t know the half of it. Dealing with accurate criticism or the problem of people who repeat unsavory details of your life is a problem, but it’s not the problem I want to talk about this morning.

No, the problem I want to talk about is the problem of slander. Slander is when someone makes an untrue and unjust accusation against you. It’s a false and malicious statement that damages your reputation. The problem with slander is that you can’t address the issue they’ve raised against you. If someone says that I stole their car and I did, I can return the keys and apologize. But if someone says that I stole their car and I didn’t, then I can’t return the keys. You can’t repent for what you haven’t done. But the damage of the accusation can stick and do all kinds of damage.

Quite a while ago, two people I know well were victims of slander. Serious accusations were raised against them. These accusations were so serious that they tainted their names. Their protestations of innocence only made them look like they were unwilling to take responsibility. The accusations were investigated and found to be untrue, but not before they did tremendous damage. That is the nature of slander. It’s deadly, and it’s very difficult to know how to respond when it happens.

The psalm we’re looking at this morning deals with this very topic. We read at the top of the psalm, “A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.” We don’t know the particular situation it’s talking about, but we discover pretty quickly that David had been slandered. David even describes how damaging this is. He says in verses 1-2:

O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
lest like a lion they tear my soul apart,
rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

Slander is not some benign non-issue that you should just shrug off. David says here that it’s serious. Look at the image he gives us. He doesn’t say that the slanderers are like annoying flies buzzing around his ears. No, he compares them to lions that could tear his soul apart. David is a hunted man here. He is in serious trouble.

So what should we do when we’re slandered? Buckle your seatbelts, because David shows us how to do four things.

First, lay yourself before God.

Read verses 1-5:

O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
lest like a lion they tear my soul apart,
rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.
O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my friend with evil
or plundered my enemy without cause,
let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it,
and let him trample my life to the ground
and lay my glory in the dust. Selah

David begins by laying himself out before God. He begins with full disclosure. There’s something to be said sometimes for playing your cards close to your chest. You don’t want to disclose everything to everyone. But when David is the victim of slander, he goes running to God, and he doesn’t hold anything back. He lays down his cards before God.

Look at how David begins: he says that he’s found refuge or shelter in God. Men go to ridiculous lengths to assert their independence. The ideal man, according to some, never goes to the doctor, never takes medicine, never asks directions, and never has an emotion (only allergies). When they suffer, they suffer alone and barely admit it. They certainly don’t need a refuge. David isn’t that kind of ideal man. David shows us that the ideal man is someone who recognizes that he needs a shelter, a refuge. Don’t miss that David doesn’t say, “I’m now going to take refuge in you now that I’m in trouble.” He actually says that he’s taken refuge in God before the trouble hit. We can learn from that. Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of trouble to find your refuge in God. Admit your need for God, and take refuge in him now.

Then David lays two things before God in verses 1-2. Full disclosure. First, he lays out the danger that he’s in. We’ve already seen this. David is helpless. Even having found refuge in God, he feels that he’s in real danger. He doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. He doesn’t put the best spin on it. He simply lays out the facts and his vulnerability before God.

But then David lays out a second thing before God: he lays open his heart for examination. This is one of the hardest things to do. David lays out his conscience before God. He’s examined it as best he can and, as best as he can tell, it’s clear. But he lays it before God as well and says that if the slanders are true, and if the accusations are accurate, and if he’s done wrong, then let God take the side of his accusers, and let David suffer the consequences. “He realizes that he stands under God’s gaze and knows that God will know him truly” (Dale Ralph Davis).

I was recently on the receiving end of some pretty severe criticism. It’s always difficult when this happens, because you want to learn from the criticism. As I thought about it over a few days, I realized that there were some things I could learn. But my immediate impulse was to be defensive, to withdraw into myself. David doesn’t do that. He turns to God who is his refuge. He lays out his danger before God, and then invites God to examine his heart. He shows us that when we’re slandered we can lay ourselves out before God in complete honesty, inviting him to examine the situation including our hearts.

So David begins by showing us that when slandered we can lay ourselves out before God.

Second, ask God to act.

Read verses 6-9:

Arise, O LORD, in your anger;
lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
awake for me; you have appointed a judgment.
Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about you;
over it return on high.
The LORD judges the peoples;
judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!

We’re going to run into this type of prayer a few times in the psalms. Does this bother anyone? David asks God to unleash his fury upon David’s enemies. Some people say, “Well, that doesn’t sound very Christian. Why can’t David be more forgiving?” It seems unfair to ask God to rise up in anger and judge people who have wronged us.

But let’s think about this. People say, “How could a good and loving God be filled with wrath?” But at the same time we recognize that there are all kinds of good reasons to be filled with wrath. This past week you’ve read about the rioting in England. Prime Minister David Cameron came on TV and said, “Well, let’s not get angry here. Hooligans aren’t bad people.” No, he got angry. He promised to ensure that every looter was caught, brought to court, and sentenced, and that "phony human rights" concerns would not get in the way. “The whole country has been shocked by the most appalling scenes of people looting, violence, vandalizing and thieving," Cameron said at the beginning of his statement to what appeared to be a full house of parliamentarians sitting on long rows of green benches. "It is criminality pure and simple. And there is absolutely no excuse for it." That’s entirely appropriate. If he had stayed on vacation and hadn’t come back and done something about the crisis, then he wouldn’t have been doing his job. People expect him to act and respond to injustice.

That is exactly the same with God. When injustice is taking place, it would be a travesty to think that God was sitting by and doing nothing. It is entirely appropriate for God to take notice of wrong and to act, and that’s exactly what David is asking God to do. David is asking God to take note and to respond appropriately. Becky Pippert makes the point that the more that you love somebody, the more you care, the more you get angry when they’re the victim of injustice. She then says, “If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.” It’s like C.S. Lewis put it: “The absence of anger, especially the sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom.”

In other words, we can actually find hope in God’s anger. When you’re being battered and pursued, when it looks like people are out to get you, and you can’t do anything about it, you can find hope in the fact that God sees and that God will set things straight. N.T. Wright puts it this way:

The word judgment carries negative overtones for a good many people in our liberal and post-liberal world. We need to remind ourselves that throughout the Bible God's coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over. It causes people to shout for joy and the trees of the field to clap their hands. In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment.

So it’s entirely appropriate for us to ask God to act and to set things straight. So lay yourself out before God. Don’t play your cards close to your chest. Lay the situation out before God clearly. And then ask God to act. Say, in effect, “Are you seeing this? Do something!” Ask God to act justly to set the situation right.

Third, remind yourself of who God is.

Notice the change in verse 8. Up until now David has been speaking to God. In verses 8 to 11 he switches and talks about God as well as to God. What’s happening here? Somebody’s said it’s as if he’s seen God in his mind rise up and take action. It’s as if as David is praying that he senses God has heard, and has risen up in answer to his prayer. It just could be that David shifts his focus. He begins to focus on God.

We travelled to New York back in July. New York has to be one of my most favorite cities. You have this sense as you’re walking around what’s happening on the ground. You go through different parts of the city. In some places it’s so packed you can barely move. In other places it’s quieter and more businesslike. Wherever you are, you get the sense of what the city is like in that place, knowing that it could be very different a block over.

But then one day I went to the Top of the Rock, the top of the Rockefeller Plaza. From the 70th floor things look very different. You can see the city in a way that you can’t see from the ground.

That’s what happens in this psalm. David has been at street-level dealing with slander. Then in verses 8 to 11 he gets a very different perspective as he’s elevated, as he gets a larger picture of who God is. He says:

The LORD judges the peoples;
judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!
My shield is with God,
who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day.

See David’s focus here? His focus is on a God who judges the peoples. The picture David has is that God is sovereign over all the earth, and that nothing happens without his knowledge our outside of his control. What’s more, David sees God as one who brings an end to evil, and who establishes the righteous. He is not without emotion. He is a good, David says, who feels indignation every day.

What we really need, David shows us, is a vision of God. We need to get off the street level to where we can see the bigger picture, when we can remind ourselves of who God is and how it relates to what we’re going through. A few years ago Timothy Stoner wrote a book with a funny title: The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditations on Faith. I was so put off by the title that I almost never read it. But title, The God Who Smokes, is actually a reference to God as a consuming fire, God as one who has a holy and passionate love and anger. He writes:

God really believes that he is the most worthy, most majestic, magnificent, glorious, stunningly beautiful being in the universe. And he is fixated on the certainty that only he deserves worship – that to him alone belong honor, glory, and praise forever and forever. With red-rimmed, stinging eyes and burning hair, all we can say is – he is right. He is astonishingly beautiful, utterly majestic and perfect in the symmetries of justice and righteousness, knowledge, and wisdom. He is as hypnotically compelling as a surging forest fire and ten times as dangerous. He is out of control – ours, not his.

That’s what we need. We need to see God for who he is: the most majestic, magnificent, glorious, stunningly beautiful being in the universe. He alone is worthy of honor, glory, and praise. He is astonishingly beautiful and utterly majestic. He is right. As we get this picture of God, things will start to look very different at street level.

This plays out as David looks back at those who are slandering him. David turns from gazing upon God to the slanderers, and he says:

If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and readied his bow;
he has prepared for him his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out,
and falls into the hole that he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head,
and on his own skull his violence descends.

As David’s perspective changes, he sees the slanderers differently too. Before they looked like lions that were about to devour him. Now they look very differently. They look like victims of God’s imminent justice. They actually look kind of pathetic: like someone who falls into the whole that he dug for someone else. He lays a booby-trap but sets it off himself. It may take some time, but their evil will destroy themselves.

Years ago Paul Allen - a former youth pastor here - told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Sin always overplays its hand.” Here’s what he meant: sometimes it looks like sin has the winning hand. But sin always gets too cocky and takes things too far. That’s exactly what David sees here. The slanderers won’t ultimately be victorious. In fact, they’ll suffer God’s judgment. Even if they don’t, they’ll do themselves in.

The thing that makes all the difference is that David gets a view of God. He lays himself before God, asks him to act, but then sees God for who he is, and it changes everything.

Finally, praise Him.

That’s the thing. Once you’ve seen God for who he is, you have to praise him. David starts this psalm in crisis, but he ends this psalm in praise. Verse 17 says:

I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High.

David doesn’t just theorize about God. He gazes on him and worships him. I know a Bible scholar who attended a meeting of academics who study the Bible. They can talk about Scripture endlessly, but only as a theory. Many of the them study Scripture, but don’t believe in God. One troubled person heard about this meeting. She was going through a hard time and wanted to speak to someone about God. If she talked to most of the people at the conference, they wouldn’t have been able to help her. But she found the Bible scholar I knew, and he was able to help. Why? Because he knew about God, but he also knew God. There's a big difference between knowing about God and actually knowing him.

That’s what David shows us here. David doesn’t just rehearse facts about God. That won’t do anything. David thinks about God, and can’t help but bow before him and worship him. He starts this psalm as a wounded man. He gets a glimpse of God. And that leads him to bow down before God. He starts this psalm with a whimper but he ends this psalm singing.

What should we do when slandered? Lay yourself before him, ask him to act, remind yourself who he is, and then praise him.

Two things this as we close.

First, I don’t know what you’re going through. But I invite you to leave street level and to glimpse God. See who he is. Don’t just look at him; worship him. Take in his beauty. Let him move you. I guarantee you that things will look different at street level once you’ve done this. Take the steps that David’s showed us in this psalm. Lay out your situation before him; ask him to act; remind yourself who God is, and then praise him.

Second, remind yourself of God’s justice. Remind yourself that God is a consuming fire. Remind yourself that God’s justice. Then look in amazement at the cross, where Jesus took the justice that we deserved. Remind yourself that God is just - but that God has satisfied his justice in Jesus for all who trust him. Throw yourself at his feet and worship him.

A Prayer for Dealing With Sin and Guilt (Psalm 6)

We all struggle with sin. There’s an old term that I can relate to: besetting sin. To beset means to harass, to constantly trouble or attack. So a besetting sin is one a sin that continually trips us up and troubles us and leaves us feeling defeated. As somebody has written:

In the life of every individual, there is a "besetting" sin that can tower like a mountain between the individual and God. This is "the sin which doth so easily beset us", and it differs according to the person. What is a besetting sin to one person may not trouble another at all. Sometimes this sin, or persistently assailing evil, is quite obvious to others, while in other cases it is hidden in the heart and known only to the individual and God. In either case, it is perplexing and harassing, and, if allowed to linger and grow, it may end in tragic moral failure. Practically every believer wrestles with an habitually assaulting sin, even those whose service to Christ is of outstanding quality.

I don’t know what your besetting sin is. But I know how it feels to feel defeated and guilty and full of shame as a result of sin. I came across this description of what it feels like. It’s written by people who struggle with pornography, although I think the same words could be written by those who struggle with other sins. In his book Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn Free, Tim Chester shares the following quotes from men who have struggled with the guilt and condemnation that comes from viewing pornography:

"It's made me want to hide from God .... It makes me doubt my salvation, and then the depression comes and with the depression comes temptation to sin again."

"I feel crap about myself. I don't feel worthy to serve God. And I don't believe I can break the habit."

"I feel dirty and unable to approach God after looking at porn .... So often I feel unable to come to him in repentance, even though I know my sin is already dealt with."

"I couldn't talk with God about my problems. My picture of him was that he would accept me if and when I had 'scrubbed up' enough."

So here’s the question. What do you do when you’re at this point of having failed God again? What do you do when you want to hide from God in shame, doubt your salvation? When you feel like crap and that you can’t approach him because of your guilt?

In this psalm, David shows us what we can do. When you’ve sinned, he says, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

First, David teaches us, get honest with God.

David writes in verses 1-3:

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?

This psalm has traditionally been classified as one of seven penitential psalms found in the Psalter. A penitential psalm is one in which the psalmist confesses sin, expresses sorrow for that sin, describes the effects of guilt, and requests and celebrates God’s forgiveness. Don’t forget that the psalms are not just private correspondence between the psalmist and God. They’re placed here to teach us how to pray when we are in the same situation as the psalmist. So the implication is that we need to be taught what to do when we sin. The assumption is that we’re going to need this. There are times that we’re going to be caught in sin.

Ed Stetzer, a pastor and researcher in the States, writes of the time that his family moved from New York City to Florida. They lived in a house that grandfather owned. Because the house was in a rural area, it wasn’t serviced by the city sewer system. That meant it had a septic tank. The septic tank system worked fine most of the time, but occasionally there were problems. On such an occasion, Stetzer’s grandfather would do what any old and wise man would do. He asked Stetzer to meet him in the yard. He’d bring a metal bar to pry open the lid, and he’d bring a shovel to pry out whatever was stuck in there. One day his grandpa thought it would be funny to act like he was going to push him into the septic tank. And it was funny, at least until he lost his balance. Before he knew it, he was standing knee deep in sewage. That’s a pretty good picture of the situation that David’s in as he writes this psalm. So how do you pray to God from the middle of the septic tank?

Well, David does three things. First, he’s honest about his situation. He asks God not to rebuke him in anger or discipline him in wrath. Notice that David doesn’t deny that he deserves a rebuke and discipline. Clearly he does. David tacitly admits that he’s sinned against God and that he’s the septic tank, so to speak, because he put himself there. He shows us that we don’t have to clean ourselves up before we approach God. We can pray to him even when we’re in the middle of the septic tank of our sin.

Second, David is also honest about what he’s feeling. He talks about being frail and weak. He says that his bones are shaking. He’s terrified and wants to know how long his suffering will continue. His soul is troubled. David is not doing well here. He’s dealing with the effects and consequences of sin. Some people think that he’s literally sick here. I think he’s describing the anguish of his guilt in very dramatic terms. Psychologists talk about the negative effects of guilt. We know this. David is experiencing God’s displeasure and the shame and guilt that come from sin, and he’s honest with God about what it feels like. It’s like what one person’s said about sin: “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you're willing to pay” (Steve Farrar).

But then notice that David asks God for mercy. He asks God not to rebuke him in anger; not to discipline him in wrath. Notice what David doesn’t say. He doesn’t ask God not to rebuke or discipline him. Spurgeon writes:

The Psalmist is very conscious that he deserves to be rebuked, and he feels, moreover, that the rebuke in some form or other must come upon him, if not for condemnation, yet for conviction and sanctification...He does not ask that the rebuke may be totally withheld, for he might thus lose a blessing in disguise; but, “Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger.”...So may we pray that the chastisements of our gracious God, if they may not be entirely removed, may at least be sweetened by the consciousness that they are “not in anger, but in his dear covenant love.”

Now listen. Some of us are struggling with guilt. We are in the middle of the septic tank. David shows us that we can approach God even when we’re dealing with the crushing effects of sin. We can cry out to God even when we’re experiencing all the guilt and shame of our failure. This is so important because when we’re in this state, the last thing we want to do is to come to God. We want to hide from him, like Adam and Eve did, because we’re ashamed. When you’ve sinned, David teaches us, the first thing to do is to get honest with God. But that’s not all.

Second, plead with God.

Some of you have kids who do this all the time. Sometimes I think that kids show signs of becoming great case lawyers in the future. You know that if a child wants something, they will come up with arguments and then present those arguments with great force before his or her parents. Did you know that this is what we are to do with God? David is caught in the middle of sin. But he doesn’t hide from God. He’s honest with God. But then he pleads with God. Again, let me quote Spurgeon:

The ancient saints were given...to ordering their cause before God. As a petitioner coming into court does not come there without thought to state his case on the spur of the moment, but enters into the audience chamber with his suit well prepared, having also learned how he ought to behave himself in the presence of the great one to whom he is appealing, so it is well to approach the seat of the King of Kings as much as possible with premeditation and preparation, knowing what we are about, where we are standing, and what it is which we desire to obtain...The best prayers I have ever heard in our prayer meetings have been those which have been fullest of argument. Sometimes my soul has been fairly melted down where I have listened to the brethren who have come before God feeling the mercy to be really needed, and that they must have it, for they first pleaded with God to give it for this reason, and then for a second, and then for a third and then for a fourth and a fifth until they have awakened the fervency of the entire assembly.

We need to learn how to do this, especially when we are dealing with sin and guilt. David pleads with God using three arguments here.

First, he pleads on the basis of God’s character. In verse 4 he says, “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love.” The word for “steadfast love” is one of my favorite words in the entire Bible. It means God’s unchanging covenant love. It’s a devoted love that promises to never let go no matter what happens. David doesn’t build an argument on his own character; he builds an argument based on God’s unchanging character and his covenant promise of love. God delights when we do this, when we plead with him based on who he is and what he has promised to do.

Second, he pleads with God on the basis of the praise that he wants to bring God. This is interesting. In verse 5 he says, “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” David is not giving a full-blown theology of the afterlife here. What he’s saying is that while he is alive, he lives to praise God. But when he’s dead he will no longer be able to do this. Graveyards are quiet places. David wants the opportunity to praise God’s name. By the way, this gives us a hint as to one of the main reasons we live: to bring praise to God. God delights in being exalted. David pleads on the basis that his restoration would allow him to continue to live and to praise his great God.

Finally, he pleads on the basis of his suffering. David says in verses 6-7:

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.

What is this? Is this just complaining and whining? Somebody journaled through the psalms and wrote, “What is it with these psalmists anyway? They’re such a bunch of whiners!” Well, it can seem that way, but David is doing more than whining here. He’s again making an assumption about God’s character. The assumption is that God cares about what David is experiencing, even if it is a result of his sin. He’s presuming on God’s compassion and care for his people.

He is making an assumption about the mercy of God. He is assuming that all of this really matters to God and that Yahweh will be touched with pity over his condition. He assumes that our misery arouses God’s mercy, touches God’s heart. A prayer like this assumes that the Father is like Jesus - always going around being moved with compassion.

So David teaches us that when you’ve sinned, get honest with God, and then plead with God. Argue with him. Lay hold of God’s character and reputation and his care for you, and then build on that. Use arguments in prayer. Make a case to God based on who he is and what he’s promised. Because we know what Christ has done for us, plead based on Christ having paid the penalty in full for your sin at the cross. Trust that he is interceding for you as well.

When you’ve sinned, get honest, and then plead your case. But there’s one more thing.

Third, having done all of this, rest in his forgiveness.

I love how David ends this. Listen to what he says in verses 8-10:

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my plea;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

Some churches regularly hold a time of confession as part of their worship services. Together the congregation confesses sin to God. For instance:

Dear friends in Christ, here in the presence of Almighty God, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, so that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

There has never been a time when I’ve lacked things to confess at that moment. After a time of confession, the officiant then stands up and says something like this:

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through the Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

I need that. I need not just the confession but the assurance that God has heard my confession and forgiven my sins, and that I’m cleansed and ready to go.

That’s what happens in this psalm. Having come to God, acknowledged his sin, and pleaded his case, David know shows us the assurance that we can have. Prayer lays hold of God and his forgiveness so that we receive the mercy that we need. David says, “The LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.”

Today you can come to God and get real about your situation. You don’t have to hide from him. You can tell him exactly what you’ve done and how it’s made you feel. You can then plead with him based on his character and his promises. And then you can leave this morning knowing that God has heard your prayer and has pardoned your sin.

But then you can also deal with your enemies. David has some enemies in mind here who aren’t letting him forget his sins. But we can also deal with Satan, the accuser, who tries to unsettle us and rob us of our assurance and peace in the gospel. In his book By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me, Sinclair Ferguson identifies four major "fiery darts" Satan uses to unsettle believers:

Fiery Dart 1: "God is against you," Satan says. "He is not really for you. How can you believe he is for you when you see the things that are happening in your life?"

Fiery Dart 2: "I have accusations I will bring against you because of your sins," Satan argues. "What can you say in defense? Nothing."

Fiery Dart 3: "You can say you are forgiven, but there is a payback day coming—a condemnation day," Satan insinuates. "How will you defend yourself then?"

Fiery Dart 4: "Given your track record, what hope is there that you will persevere to the end?" Satan asks.

But we can respond, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.”

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, writes of an encounter he had with Satan.

Satan, either in reality or in a dream, appeared in the depth of the night, and addressed him in the following terms: "Luther, how dare you to pretend to be a reformer of the Church? Luther, let your memory do its duty - let your conscience do its duty: you have committed this sin - you have been guilty of that sin; you have omitted this duty, and you have neglected that duty: let your reform begin in your own bosom. How dare you attempt to be a reformer of the Church?

Luther, with the self-possession and magnanimity by which he was characterized, (whether it was a dream or reality, he himself professes not to decide,) said to Satan - "Take up the slate that lies on the table, and write down all the sins with which you have now charged me; and if there be any additional, append them, too." Satan, rejoiced to have the opportunity of accusing, just as our blessed Lord is rejoiced to have the opportunity of advocating, took up a pencil, and wrote a long and painful roll of the real or imputed sins of Luther.

Luther said, "Have you written the whole?" Satan answered, "Yes, and a black and dark catalogue it is, and sufficient to deter you from making any attempt to reform others, till you have first purified and reformed yourself." Luther said, "Take up the slate and write as I shall dictate to you. My sins are many; my transgressions in the sight of an infinitely holy God, are countless as the hairs of my head: in me there dwelleth no good thing; but, Satan, after the last sin you have recorded, write the announcement which I shall repeat from 1 John 1:7,"The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin." Luther in that text had peace; and Satan, knowing the source of his peace, had no more advantage against him. (Rev. John Cumming, 1854)

A hymn puts it this way: “Well may the accuser roar, of sins that I have done; I know them all and thousands more, Jehovah knoweth none!” When you’ve sinned, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

We started out this morning talking about the shame and weight of sin, of how people feel when they’re caught in besetting sin. I gave the example of people who said:

"It's made me want to hide from God .... It makes me doubt my salvation, and then the depression comes and with the depression comes temptation to sin again."

"I feel crap about myself. I don't feel worthy to serve God. And I don't believe I can break the habit."

"I feel dirty and unable to approach God after looking at porn .... So often I feel unable to come to him in repentance, even though I know my sin is already dealt with."

"I couldn't talk with God about my problems. My picture of him was that he would accept me if and when I had 'scrubbed up' enough."

Without condoning the sin of viewing porn, Tim Chester offers the following words of hope to people who are struggling with pornography, and for all of us who are struggling with any sin:

Jesus lived God's welcome to sinners. He embodied God's mercy. He was known as the friend of sinners. The religious people didn't like it, because it turned their proud systems of self-righteousness upside down. But Jesus sat down to eat with prostitutes, adulterers, and porn addicts .... On the cross, God treated Christ as a porn user .... [Paraphrasing 2 Corinthians 5:21], "God made Jesus, who never looked with lust, to be a porn addict for us, so that in him we might become sexually pure."

Or, to put it differently, using the words of the guy who fell in the septic tank and who was standing neck-deep in sewage:

I am forever thankful the waste wasn’t any deeper that day. I could easily have been submerged rather than knee deep. But consider Christ, who was not knee deep and not even submerged, but who actually ingested the sin of mankind. (Ed Stetzer)

Because of Christ and what he’s done, we can stand before God and know that he’s heard our prayer. When you’ve sinned, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

A Prayer for Tight Spots (Psalm 4)

We’re spending some time this summer going through some of the early psalms. Today we come to Psalm 4, and I’m going to call this one a psalm for tight spots. The reason why is because of what David says in the first verse of this psalm: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” The middle phrase in this verse, “You have given me relief when I was in distress,” could literally be translated, “In a tight corner, you have made room for me.” We don’t know what situation David was facing when he wrote this psalm, but we do know that he was in a tight spot. In fact, it’s almost better that we don’t know what situation David was facing. In a way it doesn’t matter. This is a psalm for any of us who are finding ourselves in a tight spot of some kind.

You know what a tight spot is. I’ve driven through some tight spots recently. Have you ever driven through a narrow space, watching your side-view mirrors so that you don’t lose them? You know what it’s like to be in a tight spot. Maybe you’ve been stuck at some point in your life. You thought you could wedge your body through a space that turned out to be a little too small. Well, then, you’ve also been in a tight spot. I picture someone walking through a narrow rock formation that’s hardly big enough to squeeze through. There’s no room to maneuver or turn. There’s nowhere to go. I hate the feeling of being constricted and squeezed. But that’s exactly the situation that David faces as he writes this psalm.

Some of you know exactly what David is talking about. It could be that right now you’re in a tight spot in your life. I don’t know what that tight spot is, but you feel hemmed in and trapped. You don’t have a lot of options for getting out. You feel constricted, restricted, closed in, with nowhere to turn. You love the picture of being given room to move, as David says in this psalm.

So the question is: what do we do when we find ourselves in a tight spot? What do we do when we’re hemmed in with nowhere to turn and nowhere to go? David teaches us how to respond in this psalm. How do we respond when we’re in a tight spot? With confidence, honesty, and peace, he says. Let’s look at each one.

First, when you’re in a tight spot, respond with confidence to God.

Confidence is almost too tame a word to describe verse 1. You could call it gutsy confidence. You can call it audaciousness or boldness. Whatever you call it, David is incredibly bold in addressing God as he faces his tight spot. Read what he says:

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
(Psalm 4:1)

What I find amazing about this verse is how David approaches God. He comes with a bold confidence in God. He’s bold in approaching God. He basically says, “Listen up! Hear me!” He demands an active response from God. He does not come as someone who is unsure of God. He comes with a bold expectation that God will hear and respond.

There are two concepts here. One is the expectation that God is willing to hear David’s prayers. David has no doubt that even when he’s in this tight spot that God can and should turn his ear and listen. Bill Hybels, a pastor near Chicago, talks about his father who was a very busy man. He traveled all over the world. To get through to him, you had to go through his staff first. But he had a private number that rang the phone right on his desk without having to go through any intermediary. Only a few select people, including his children, had that number. He still remembers the number to this day: 345-5366. No matter how busy he was, they could call him any time on that direct line.

Hybels says, “No one's voice sounds sweeter to God than your voice. ‘Hello, Father.’ There's nothing going on in the cosmos that would keep him from directing his full attention to your conversation or your request.” David got that. David had an bold expectation that God would hear him. He had the audacity to say, “Listen up, God!” and to expect that God would actually listen.

But there’s more. There’s also a confidence that God would not only listen but answer. He approaches the God who has made space for him in tight spots before and prays, “Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” You know that there’s a type of listening that seems sympathetic but is anything but. If you tell me your problems this morning, I can nod and say “uh huh” as you speak. You might walk away thinking that I’m a great listener. That’s important, but I really haven’t helped you. David is approaching God. He definitely expects God to be a good listener, but he’s looking for more. He expects God to answer his prayer, to come through again and help him out of this tight spot. David has a bold confidence in God, that God would listen and that God would answer his prayer.

Tim Keller tells the story of Alexander the Great, who supposedly had a leading general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander the Great said that he'd be happy to contribute to the wedding. He said that he knew it would be expensive, so just ask for something. The general wrote out out a request for an enormous sum, a ridiculous sum. When Alexander's treasurer saw it, he brought it to Alexander and said, "I'm sure you're going to be cutting this man's head off now for what he's done. The audacity of asking for something like this! Who does he think you are?" Alexander said, "Give it to him. By such an outlandish request, he shows that he believes that I am both rich and generous." He was flattered by it.

God desires prayer that is bold, even shameless, in coming to him. When you read the prayers of the Bible, they're bold. They argue with God. Jesus talked about it as asking, seeking, and knocking. N.T. Wright says:

[Jesus] is encouraging a kind of holy boldness, a sharp knocking on the door, an insistent asking, a search that refuses to give up. That's what our prayer should be like. This isn't just a routine or formal praying, going through the motions as a daily or weekly task. There is a battle going on, a fight with the powers of darkness, and those who have glimpsed the light are called to struggle in prayer...

That’s the first thing we see in this psalm. Are you in a tight spot? The way to respond is first to come to God with a bold confidence and expectation that he will hear you and answer your prayer. Don’t come passively. Come boldly and expect God to hear you.

But that’s not all:

Second, respond with honesty to those who are in error.

So here’s the thing that I’ve discovered: most tight spots have to do with people. David begins by talking to God, but in this psalm he also turns his attention to the people who seem to be causing him grief. So he says in verses 2-5:

O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.

This is kind of unusual. Many of us are used to psalms in which the psalmist speaks to God. You may not have realized that sometimes the psalmist speaks to others besides God in the psalms as well. By the way, the songs we sing in our corporate worship should do the same. It’s entirely appropriate to sing to God, but there’s also a time in which we should sing to each other. Paul called this “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:19). There’s a place for singing to God; there’s also a big place for addressing each other in the songs we sing, and in the psalms.

So what people does David address? In verse 2 he says “O men.” The word that David used seems to refer to those of elevated social rank. So whatever situation David is facing, he’s not just talking to ordinary Joe. He’s talking to people who are in positions of influence and power.

And what does he say? Three things. First, he tells them off in verse 2. “O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” “How long?” implies that David is running out of patience. They’re dragging his name and reputation through the mud, and David has had enough. But then he indicts them. He doesn’t just focus on the damage they’re doing to his name and reputation. He charges them with loving vain words and seeking after lies. They’re delusional. They love what is empty and worthless. They don’t just engage in worthless activity; they actually hate it. There is a time to look at someone and to tell them that what they’re doing is harmful and empty. David has no problem doing this in this psalm.

Second, he reminds them that God responds to the faithful. Remember that David’s name is being dragged through the mud. His honor has been turned to shame. It probably looks like everyone has abandoned him. But David reminds his enemies that God has not turned his back. He says, “But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.” You may have heard about a couple driving down the street in Vancouver. They look to the side of the road and see a couple of hitchhikers. The guy is dressed like Bono of U2. They pull over, and sure enough it is Bono and his assistant. Turns out, he and his assistant had gone out for a walk when it started to rain, just before they happened upon them. Bono and his assistant sat in the back with the couple’s dog. Bono isn’t accustomed to sticking out his thumb at the side of the road, but no matter where he is he’s still Bono. Nothing’s changed even if he’s stuck on the side of the road.

Contrast this with a story from a couple of hundred years ago. Thomas Jefferson went to a Baltimore hotel to ask for accommodation. He was in working clothes and splattered with mud. The proprietor looked him over and said, “We have no room for you, sir.” Jefferson left. A friend soon came in and told the proprietor that he had just turned away Thomas Jefferson, the Vice President of the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He thought he was dealing with a dirty farmer. But just because someone thought he was a dirty farmer didn’t change who he really was. “The weapon against slander is to remember how God regards you, to hold on to what he has said about you...Those who despise us may regard us as a step above scum but that does not alter the fact that we are covenant ones whom Yahweh has set apart for himself” (Dale Ralph Davis).

So David says to them, in essence, that he might not look like much to them. He may look like a hitchhiker on the side of the road, or like a dirty farmer. But God knows who he is. He is God’s. God has set him apart for himself. God hears his prayer.

But finally, David calls for repentance from his enemies. Verse 4 says, “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” It’s actually hard to translate the first part of verse 4. “Be angry” is actually “Tremble with fear.” I know this is hard to believe, but one time I got in trouble in school and was sent down to the principle’s office. I don’t remember trembling with fear in the school playground, but as I got closer to the principle’s office I became a little more concerned. Here David hauls them into God’s office and says that they should tremble with fear and stop sinning. They’re in an untenable position rebelling against God. He tells them to ponder their situation on their bed, to get right with God, and to offer right sacrifices to God, and to trust him.

So David does three things here as he speaks to his enemies. He indicts them. He reminds them (and himself) that God hasn’t abandoned him; God knows him no matter what they think. And he calls them to realize they’re in deep weeds, and to get right with God.

Canadian humor writer Phil Callaway recently accepted the challenge to live for a year without telling a lie or fudging the truth. He chronicles his journey in his new book called To Be Perfectly Honest: One Man's Year of Almost Living Truthfully Could Change Your Life. No Lie.. He says:

I've always avoided confrontation. I golfed with a man for years whose marriage was falling apart and I didn't once summon the nerve to say, "Hey, what's happening?" Some of us are terrified of offending others, but I don't know one single leader who can't point to someone who offended them with the truth about themselves. It can be transforming.

In his Focus on the Family magazine article entitled "The Problem with Nice Guys," Paul Coughlin insists Christians must avoid passive and aggressive extremes, opting instead for assertiveness. He offers the following example from pop culture to illustrate what Christian assertiveness looks like: “Three major personality types are found among the judges of the popular reality TV show American Idol. Passive Paula Abdul is gracious but not always truthful. Aggressive Simon Cowell is truthful but rarely gracious. Assertive Randy Jackson is often truthful and gracious. Be like Randy.”

When you’re in a tight spot, there may come a time for you to be honest with the people in your life who are problems. One of the best things we can do sometimes is to go to others and call them on their behavior; remind them of who we are in God; and call them to repentance. That’s what David does in this psalm. He’s in a tight spot, so he responds in confidence to a God who hears him, but then he also responds in honesty to the people around him.

Finally, when you’re in a tight spot, having spoken to God and others, find your peace in God.

David’s already reminded us of who he is in God. He finishes this psalm by contrasting two ways of relating to God. Read verses 6 to 8 with me:

There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”
You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.

There are two ways of relating to God. The first way is dependent on circumstances. People say, “Who will show us some good?” There’s maybe a bit of crass pragmatism here. “What’s in it for me?” This way of relating to God is highly circumstantial. When things are good, then God is good. When things are bad, then things aren’t so good with God. This type of relationship depends on good times, when “grain and wine abound.” We’ve all been here, haven’t we?

But there’s a different way of relating to God. This way of relating to God doesn’t depend on circumstances. David says “You have put more joy in my heart than when they have their grain and wine abound.” He then says he’s able to go to bed at night and sleep well despite all the problems. Why? The end of verse 8 explains why: “for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” David ultimately finds his safety in God. This is enough for him. He has a deep peace despite the circumstances. Ravi Zacharias said, “Faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in his power, so that even when his power does not serve my end, my confidence in him remains because of who he is.”

One of the most moving examples of this for me is the story of Nicholas Ridley. He was a British clergyman caught in controversy in England in the 1550s. The was scheduled to be burned at the stake in Oxford for his faith. The night before his execution his brother offered to stay with him in his last hours. But Ridley refused. He said he was going to bed, and that he was going to sleep as soundly that night as he ever did in his life. That’s exactly what David says in verse 8: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.”

Three applications for us this morning.

One: please realize who you are in Jesus Christ. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then you can have the same confidence that David enjoyed no matter what circumstances you face. You can know that God has set you apart for himself; that God hears you when you call him. This will enable you to know for sure who God is even in the middle of horrible circumstances. You may want to even post some of this psalm where you can see it this week to remind you of who you are in Christ; to know that you’ve been purchased by his blood; that he has set you apart and that he cares about you. If you don’t know God through Jesus Christ, then I encourage you to pursue this. Make this a priority in your life. God invites you to come into a relationship with him. He’s sent his Son to provide the way for this to be possible. Pursue God as he pursues you. I’d love to talk to you about this if you’re interested.

Second: God may be calling some of you to a new level of honesty. It may be that you need to speak to some people in your life as David did in this psalm. Tell them the truth about what they’re doing and how this relates to God. You need to work through how to do this. I’m not saying to get all preachy. You can figure it out. But some of us are too scared to really speak honestly to others. David shows us that we can, and sometimes we should.

Finally, this morning, come to God boldly with whatever you’re facing. He wants to hear from you. And take confidence from the fact that he does, and then sleep well tonight knowing that God makes you dwell in safety no matter what’s going on around you.

How do we respond when we’re in a tight spot? With confidence in God, honesty to others, and then peace.

A Prayer When Facing Enemies (Psalm 3)

This morning I want you to take a moment and to think of the darkest moment you’ve ever experienced in your life. This isn’t something that I ask you to do lightly. For some of us it’s very painful to even think about. Some examples:

  • a period of depression
  • the end of a relationship with someone - a spouse, a parent, a close friend
  • the loss of a job
  • a financial crisis
  • the death of someone close to you
  • a betrayal
  • the news that someone close to you is going through a crisis of their own - a divorce, a depression, or a significant health crisis

Now let me ask you: how many songs did you have to sing during this period of crisis? I’ve noticed that there are some songs that you can sing in some periods of crisis. I actually have some songs in my iTunes library that are perfect for almost any kind of mood. There are good breakup songs, good angry songs, good sad songs. There are hymns that bring us comfort. Sometimes there is a song that we can sing that can be a big help to us when we’re going through a crisis.

But sometimes there aren’t songs that can do justice to the depth and severity of a crisis. This is especially true in church. If you flip through our hymnbook, or go online to read the lyrics to many of the songs we sing, you will find songs on almost any topic, but you won’t find many that give voice to hearts that are in severe pain. This is a problem, because we need songs that we can sing when we’re in crisis. We need songs and words that give voice to our pain, especially in the darkest moments of our lives.

That’s where the Psalms come in. We have all kinds of psalms in the Bible. We have psalms of praise and thanksgiving that point to who God is and the wonderful things that he’s done. But that isn’t all of life. “Life is not all cool breezes and beautiful birds” (George Guthrie). So there are other kinds of psalms, including the psalm we’re looking at this morning. It’s a psalm of lament. David Howard, a professor of Old Testament, says:

Laments are the psalms where David or the other psalmists are pouring out their hearts to God, being honest about the fact that life, at time, stinks! The psalmist has just experienced some trouble, sickness, or the persecution of enemies. He may have some people who hate him. I think the church is greatly impoverished because we don’t mine the lament psalms for truths that are there and the way they can open up new avenues of approaching God in times of great stress and sadness in our lives.

So let’s look at this psalm of lament, because you’re going to need it. You may not need it today, but you’re going to need it soon enough. I want to set up this psalm for you before we look at exactly what David says in this psalm as he goes through a very difficult period in his life.

So here’s a little bit about this psalm. I’ve mentioned that Psalm 1 and 2 are kind of gateway psalms. They set up the rest of the collection of psalms for us. Psalm 1 asks us to examine our lives to make sure that we’re part of the congregation of the righteous. Psalm 2 gives us a macro view of what’s going on in the world, and what God is doing about it. Now we get past the gateway and right into the psalms, and notice what happens. I love what Dale Ralph Davis has written:

You first go through the double doors of the Psalter - Psalms 1 tells you to settle your commitment and Psalm 2 to get a clear view of the kingdom. Then what? You walk into trouble (Psalm 3).

That tells you something, doesn’t it? It doesn’t take very long in the psalms or in life before we find ourselves neck-deep in trouble. That’s the nature of the world, and the psalms are very honest about it.

If you look at the top of the psalm, you find that this is one of 14 psalms that are directly linked to an event in David’s life. It says: “A psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” A little bit of background: 2 Samuel 15 and 16 tells of the time when David’s own son rose up against him and stole his father’s throne. Absalom became immensely more popular than David, and David had to flee for his life. David’s trusted counselor turned against him. He was brutally mocked and everything was taken away from him. It’s hard to picture a worse moment in David’s life. Not only did he lose everything, but his own son betrayed him. 2 Samuel 15:12 says, “And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.”

This is why this is important to us. This psalm gives us a model for how we can pray to God when we are going through the darkest moments of our lives. In this psalm, David is going to give voice to his desperate situation. Then he’s going to show us two things that we can turn to to help us in our darkest moments.

David shows us how to give voice to our suffering.

In verses 1 to 2, David describes his situation honestly to God. He doesn’t pretend that things are okay. There’s no need to pretend with God, by the way. God isn’t dishonored by our honest admission that things aren’t okay. Sometimes Christians have the crazy idea that we have to pretend with God. The psalms teach us the importance of being brutally honest with God about the situation we’re facing. They teach us that it’s okay to come before God and to be honest about our struggles.

Listen to what David writes:

O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God. Selah

So here’s the brutal situation David faces: an abundance of enemies who are rising up against him. Not only does he have a bunch of enemies, but they say that God has no interest in saving him. Remember that this is God’s anointed king. They are saying that God has turned his back on David. You can see why they said this. It sure looked like it. God had anointed David as king, but now it looked as if God had turned his back on David, and the enemies against him were accumulating. They’re moving in for the kill, and they believe that God has abandoned him.

We need to see what David does here. For all intents it looks like God has abandoned David. But David turns directly to the God who supposedly has abandoned him. He doesn’t gloss over his troubles. He pours out his heart to God. “Prayer is the way we slog our way through troubles” (Dale Ralph Davis).

Here is one of the most important lessons from the Psalms. Philip Yancey writes of a Catholic sister who counsels troubled women. They’re displaced homemakers, abused wives, women returning from college after years away. They’re going through anger and hurt. Some spiritual counselors tell them, “Bear it up; keep smiling; suffering makes you strong.” But not the psalms. The Psalms teach them how to express the rage that some try to repress.

They do not rationalize anger away or give abstract advice about pain; rather, they express emotions vividly and loudly, directing their feelings primarily about God. The 150 psalms present a mosaic of spiritual therapy in the process. Doubt, paranoia, giddiness, meanness, delight, hatred, joy, praise, vengefulness, betrayal - you find it all in the Psalms. Such stewing of emotions, which I once saw as hopeless disarray, I now see as a sign of health. From Psalms I have learned that I can rightfully bring to God whatever I feel about him. I need not paper over my own failures and try to clean up my own rottenness; far better to bring those weaknesses to God, who alone has the power to heal. (The Bible Jesus Read)

David shows us in this psalm, as he does in many others, how to give voice to our suffering. He honestly describes in verses 1 to 2 that he has a growing number of enemies, and that it looks to almost everyone that God has turned his back. David teaches us that we can be honest with God about the troubles that we’re facing.

But then David shows us that there are two things about God that we can rely on even in the middle of our suffering.

The first thing about God we need to know in the middle of suffering is that God has not abandoned us.

Do you remember the way that David’s enemies saw things? “There is no salvation for him in God,” they said in verse 2. Well, David knows otherwise. David knew better than to think that God had abandoned him. He says in verses 3-6:

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Here David demonstrates something that we need to do if we’re going to survive our problems. The person who put it best is Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure:

Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you…The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself…You must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world..That is the essence of the treatment in a nutshell.

That’s exactly what David does. We have emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. We don’t have direct control over our emotions, but we do have control over our thoughts and behaviors. What David does here is to honestly acknowledge his emotions, but then to begin to work on what he knows to be true. He reminds himself of God. Specifically, he reminds himself about four things about God and his character.

God protects. David says, “But you, O LORD, are a shield about me.” A shield is a defensive weapon. If you have a shield, you’re able to deflect the attacks of the enemy. Soldiers would hold a small round shield, big enough to provide protection but small enough to allow movement. But David goes even further. He says that the LORD is a shield about him, not just in front of him, but all around him. David says that God is his complete protection. When we’re under attack, we can remind ourselves that God is our protection. He is our shield.

God is enough. David says that God is his “glory”. What does it mean that God is his glory? David was king. Kings had a glory that nobody else had. They had public dignity, recognition, honor. But now David was on the run, and he had lost his glory. Actually, David says, he hadn’t. He had temporarily lost almost everything, but he never lost his glory, because God, David says, is his glory. We all get meaning from something in life. You can lose your career. You can lose popularity and acclaim. If you get glory from anything other than God, you can and will lose your glory. David says that God is his glory. He’s lost the glory of his kingdom to Absalom, but he has all the glory that he needs in God himself.

God restores. David says that God is the “lifter of his head”. You don’t need this one explained. You know what it means to hang your head. In war, those who were conquered would lay on the ground while the conquerers put a foot on their necks. David says that God has lifted his head again. God has a way of restoring his people even in the middle of impossible situations.

Finally, God is accessible. God answers from his holy hill. David had fled Jerusalem. He’d left the site of the tabernacle. He couldn’t go there to pray and to ask God for help. But David says that his prayers get to God’s holy hill just fine even though he can’t be there. God hears prayers even when we’re nowhere near church. God is accessible no matter where we are.

This is a picture of God that can help us in the middle of life’s difficulties. God protects. God is enough even when we lose everything. God restores. And God is accessible. He’s present to help no matter where we are or what we’re going through.

What’s significant is what happened to David as he remembered all of this. Read verses 5 and 6 again.

I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Nothing had changed in this situation. Absalom was still out to get him. He was still surrounded by enemies. They still thought they had him beat. David was still in the middle of a huge mess. But in the middle of that mess David said, “I know my God.” We can experience the same thing. We can continue in the middle of our mess and still look at thousands of our enemies and sleep well at night because we know who God is, and that he is in control. David reminds us that God has not abandoned us in the middle of the mess, and that makes all the difference.

There’s one more thing:

The second thing about God we need to know in the middle of suffering is that God will set things right.

Do you know the problem when enemies rise up against us? It often looks like they’re getting away with it. As David wrote this psalm, Absalom was still increasing in popularity. It still looked bad for David. If you asked David for his plan for how we was going to get his kingdom back, he didn’t have a plan. It often looks like this. Someone steals from us; we don’t have a hope of getting that money back. Someone slanders us; they will probably never apologize. Someone betrays us; they often seem to get away with it.

But David sees past the immediate. Look at what he says in verses 7 and 8:

Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the LORD;
your blessing be on your people! Selah

This sounds harsh at first. But it’s so important that we need to pay careful attention to this. Do you know what happens when there’s no justice, when nobody puts a stop to evil? People take things into their own hands. Vigilante justice. The only way that this is prevented is if we know that there is justice, and that evil will be stopped, and those perpetrating the evil will be held accountable.

Here David says that he knows he doesn’t have to take things into his own hand. Why? Because he knows that God will look after it. David knows that God will take care of all of David’s enemies. Because of this, David is free from having to take matters into his own hands. He leaves the vengeance to God.

One website says this about those who wrong you:

1. Get mad....then get even. It's justice, plain and simple.

2. Revenge is healthy. Don't listen to those mealymouths who tell you otherwise. You're teaching people to behave better. At the same time you're getting icky poisonous feelings out of your system once and for all. What could be healthier?

4. Revenge is excellent self-therapy. It's far cheaper than a therapist and much healthier than pigging out on a box of donuts.

6. Always aim your revenge where it hurts the most. Go right for the jugular.

7. Let your creativity blossom. Don't go for cliches like slashing tires. Yawn. Be original. Enjoy yourself. Give your mark an experience they'll never ever forget.

9. If you have to do something you're not proud of, be sure to cover your tracks well.

David wouldn’t approve of this list, and the Bible doesn’t either. Paul writes in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Do you see that? The reason we don’t have to get revenge is because God will repay. As someone’s said it, “A soft view on hell makes hard people.” When Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis, and shortly before he was hung, someone asked him how it was possible to feel love for such evil people. Bonhoeffer replied, “It is only when God’s wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts.”

Let’s review. We need songs that give voice to our troubles. The psalms help us learn that we can be honest with God even in the middle of our difficulties. This is so important. We need to learn the lessons of these psalms.

This morning you’re invited to come to God just as you are, and to lay out what you’re going through before him. God can handle your honesty. But also gave the courage to preach to yourself. Remind yourself of who God is. Most of all, remind yourself of who you are in Christ. You have a Savior who died to save you, to make you right with God. Remind you that if you have trusted in Christ, you’ve been adopted. You are now God’s own child. You never have to worry about God abandoning you. He has said that he will never leave you and forsake you.

Then see that God is a God who judges. You don’t have to judge your enemies, because God will do a better job of judging evil then we ever could. But look to the cross and see that this is where perfect justice and mercy meet, where God repays evil, but where forgiveness is extended to all those who want it.

When facing crisis, turn to God who has your back and who saves you from your enemies. Let’s pray.

The World That’s Been Promised to the King (Psalm 2)

I don’t know how you got to church today. Some of you drove. Some of you took transit. Some of you walked. I bet nobody arrived here today the way that Ian Morgan Cron arrived to church one day when he was a child. A friend had given his family an old rusty car that could comfortably hold two people. One day they piled seven people into the car on the way to church. As they were driving up a steep hill, hoping they could make it all the way to the top, tragedy struck.

...The seven of us were a nanosecond away from cheering when there was a loud thump, followed by my father yelling...My father’s seat had fallen through the rusted bottom of the car. It was dragging along the pavement, shooting sparks up into the wells of the backseat, threatening to light our socks on fire. My father’s rear end was inches from the ground. The collapse of the seat had shot his legs upward, so that his kneecaps now nearly touched his face, and he was holding down his black bowler lest it be damaged. He looked like a fat kid shoved butt first into a wastepaper basket.

“Pull over, Anne! Pull over!” he demanded...

“Jack, hold on,” she said to my father...

At the bottom of the hill, my mother careened right. An eighth of a mile later, we lurched up in front of the church, more or less in one piece...The seven of us, sweaty and shaken, slowly began peeling ourselves out of the smoking vehicle. It took my brothers several attempts to pull my father out of the car as bemused parishioners gawked and snickered. (Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me)

Nobody arrived to church quite that way, but it sometimes feels like it. Sometimes it feels like we barely make it here, and when we do, our dignity is more or less gone. That’s one of the reasons we’re looking at the Psalms this summer. Psalms teach us how we can have faith in the middle of the mess of life.

Today we come to Psalm 2, the second gateway psalm. If you were here a couple of weeks ago you’ll remember that I said that Psalm 1 is a gateway psalm. There are two checkpoints, so to speak, at the beginning of the psalms.

Psalm 1 deals with the most urgent personal matter: you must know that you’re part of the congregation of the righteous. You need to know where you’re going and what you’re doing. Before you go any further, you need to get this settled. It’s the only way that you’re going to flourish and live well, Psalm 1 says. Psalm 1 takes the camera lens and zooms into your life and asks you to take a close look.

Now we get to Psalm 2. Psalm 2 says that you need to get a big view of things. If you’re to have faith in this messy world, then you need to know where history is going. You must see the whole show; you must understand what God is doing. Psalm 2 zooms back out and gives us a wide-angle view of what’s going on in the world.

We need both psalms. To live well and faithfully, we need to settle the matter of our relationship with God. We need to come to faith in Jesus Christ. But then we also need to see the big picture of what God is doing. I love how Alasdair MacIntyre put it: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Psalm 2 helps us see the big story so we can make sense of our places in that bigger story. It’s an important psalm; it’s the psalm that’s quoted most often in the New Testament.

So here’s what this psalm is going to do. It’s going to give us a macro view of the world, and it’s going to answer four questions:

  • What’s wrong with the world?
  • How does God respond?
  • Whom does he send?
  • What should we do?

First question: What’s wrong with this world?

Psalm 2:1-3 says:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

As we speak, rebels are advancing their front lines as they get closer to Tripoli, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's stronghold. A multinational force is assisting with airstrikes and a naval blockade. They’ve created a no-fly zone so that Gaddafi can’t attack the rebel forces. Gaddafi has vowed to "die a martyr" if necessary in his fight against rebels and external forces. You could say that the whole world has risen up against Gaddafi. A State Department official has said, “The guy is getting increasingly lonely, increasingly isolated. His days are numbered. We are confident that his days are numbered.” It’s a war zone, with the whole world rebelling against the reign of this despot.

Psalm 2 presents us with this kind of picture. The whole world is united in rebellion, except not against a despot like Gaddafi, but against God. The psalmist knew that God had promised to bless the world through Israel. Their God, Yahweh, was not some tribal god, but God of all the earth, and God’s purposes for Israel and Israel’s king were global. There’s only one problem. Not everyone was excited about this plan. Psalm 2 pictures a gathering of the world’s most powerful leaders. They’ve decided they’ve had enough. They’re taking their stand (v.2) which is a phrase that means they’re preparing for battle. They want nothing to do with Yahweh or the nation of Israel. They are in open rebellion against God and his people. To rebel against God’s king is to rebel against God himself.

So this presents a very real problem. This psalm pulls back the curtain and shows us a world that’s in open rebellion against God. You just have to look around to see that this is a very accurate description of what’s going on today, thousands of years after this psalm was written. Things haven’t changed. It’s true at a micro level, and it’s also true at a macro level. Ever since Genesis 3 we’ve been chafing at God’s rule over this world and doing everything we can to live as if we’re in charge.

In fact, some contemporary philosophers have admitted that this is at least part of the reason why they’re not so excited about God. Thomas Nagel, an atheist who authored a popular introduction to philosophy titled What Does It All Mean? wrote: "I want atheism to be true ... It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." The 20th-century ethics philosopher Mortimer Adler (who was baptized quietly at age 81) confessed to rejecting religious commitment for most of his life because it "would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of my day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for.” You could repeat this over and over. This world is set in opposition to God’s rule. We want nothing to do with God. We would much rather be in charge ourselves.

By the way, this is one reason why sin is so serious. We sometimes think, “What’s the big deal about one little sin?” The reason sin is so serious is because it’s not just a sin - a lie or a thought. Every sin is an act of treason against God. It’s shaking our fist at God and saying, “I choose to rebel against you and your rule. I will do it my way, thanks.” John MacArthur puts it this way: Every sin is “an act of treason against the Sovereign lawgiver and judge of the universe.”

This helps us understand what’s wrong with us and with the world. What’s wrong with us? We have treasonous hearts. We are natural-born rebels against God and his rule, every one of us. What’s wrong with this world? We live in a world in which the nations rage and the people plot against God. We live in the middle of a war zone.

That’s what’s wrong with the world. The world is in open rebellion against God and his rule. It’s also what’s wrong with us. We are rebels ourselves. So here’s the second question.

Second question: How does God respond?

In verses 4-5 we see God’s response to this open rebellion against him:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury...

So how does God respond to this situation? What is God doing about this problem of the world rebelling against him? If you want to get personal, what is he doing about us? We’re rebels too, so what’s God doing?

Verse 4 gives us God’s response: God laughs.

You get the picture? God is not fazed! The mighty politicians, the dictators in their military fatigues, the terrorists with their bomb loads strapped to their backs - God is unimpressed. If you have imbibed a western sentimental view of God as the great soupy softie in the sky, then you will not understand this picture of verse 4. In fact, it will likely ‘offend’ you. But the psalm implies that nations may strut out their nuclear bombs - it only convulses the Almighty in laughter! To think that a few swaggering sovereigns could destroy God’s kingdom with such trifles! After you hear the kings in verse 3, you need to see this picture of the laughing God in verse 4, in order to get re-focused on the truth. (David Ralph Davis)

By the way, this gives me tremendous comfort. God is not wringing his hands in heaven trying to figure out what to do. He’s not sweating it out on the other side of the cosmic chessboard trying to avoid a checkmate. He’s firmly in control. He laughs at our attempts to rebel against him. He is not fazed by this world’s rebellion against him. He is very much in control.

But then there is a second response, in verses 5 and 6. God speaks against them in wrath; he terrifies them in his fury. This is a far scarier picture. I read an interview this past week with pastor and author Francis Chan. He just came out with a book called Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up. He’s studied Scripture to really see what it says about God’s judgment. He said this about what Jesus taught about judgment:

As I reread the Gospel passages, Jesus' words are much harsher than I remember. There's a tone in some of the things that he said that are really difficult to stomach, and he says things in a way that I would not have.

Because we in America read certain passages over and over to the neglect of others, we start to believe that Jesus had a friendly tone all the time. And that there isn't any wrath or anger or judgment. When you read it all like you are reading it for the first time, you walk away going, "Wow, he was pretty hardcore."

Here's what I had to repent of: I had felt the need to soften a lot of Jesus' statements, because in my arrogance I think, "Okay Jesus, I'm not going to say that like that. Trust me, people will like you more and be more willing to accept you if I say it like this." Obviously I've never said that to God. But that's the attitude I've taken, and it made me sick. Who in the heck do I think I am? To think that I can make God more palatable or attractive if I try and change the tone in which he says some things. I know people say, "Well it's just cultural this or that." That's garbage. People back then had a much deeper reverence for God than we do. Especially the religious community. Yet it's to those people whom he speaks so harshly.

What in the world would he say to us today? I don't think it'd be a softer message. I had to come before God and say, "Lord I feel sick." And I confessed to Mark [Beuving, who edited the book] and Preston [Sprinkle, the coauthor] as we were working on the book, "I confess to you guys, I confess to the church, I know I have backed away from certain things because of my arrogance. I thought I could attract more people to Jesus by hiding certain things about him." I had to confess my arrogance.

Let’s avoid this mistake - one that I’ve made as well. Let’s let God speak for himself. Psalm 2:5 says, “Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury...” We do not want to be on the receiving end of God’s wrath and fury. The Bible has plenty to say about this topic right from the beginning. To rebel against God is to incite his wrath and fury.

This creates a big problem for us as well, by the way. When Paul wrote to the Romans, he spent the first three chapters establishing one point: every single person, regardless of religious background (Jew or Gentile), is under the judgement of God. We are all rebels. Both Jews and Greeks, he writes, are under sin, and therefore under judgment. This is a serious problem because God will “he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury.”

But there’s more. We’ve seen what’s wrong with the world: it’s in rebellion against God. We’ve seen God’s response: God laughs, and he is angry.

Third question: Whom does he send?

Look at verses 6-9. Verse 6 is God speaking:

“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

Verses 7 to 9 the King speaks at his coronation:

I will tell of the decree:

The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.”

Now, you need to understand that this psalm could have ended in verse 5 with God’s wrath and fury. That would be a pretty depressing way to end the psalm. In fact, that’s the way that things ended up with the angels who rebelled against God. God laughed at their rebellion and judged them. End of story. That’s how it could have ended with us as well.

But God responds to the world’s rebellion against him by installing a King. Verse 6 speaks of the Davidic kingdom, one that will rule from Zion. Verses 7 to 9 describe this King’s reign in three ways:

  • It’s legitimate - The King is God’s own Son. In 2 Samuel 7:14, God promised to raise up David’s offspring, and he told David, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” A king has legitimacy because of the bloodlines. Here this psalm says that the promised King will have every right to rule because he is God’s own Son.
  • It’s worldwide - Verse 8 says, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” Zion then was a puny 11 acres of real estate on the southern edge of Jerusalem. 11 acres isn’t very big. Zion was a “tiny, banana-shaped hill in a provincial backwater called Judah” (Dale Ralph Davis). But God says that the King who reigns in Zion will rule over the whole world. It will be an international, worldwide kingdom.
  • It’s forceful - Verse 9 says, “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.” This rule, God says, will be a forceful one. Because this Kingdom is present in a world that’s in open rebellion against God, this rule must be a powerful one.

God responds to this rebellion with laughter and wrath. But he also responds by appointing a King with worldwide sway and overwhelming force. That is what is happening in this world. It is what God is doing in this world.

Who is this King? On one level, it’s those descendants of David who sat on the royal throne in Jerusalem. But their kingdom ended long ago. The nations of Israel and Judah were conquered and exiled. If you go to Jerusalem today, you will not find a descendent of David sitting on the throne.

I mentioned earlier on that Psalm 2 is the psalm that is quoted most often in the New Testament. There’s a reason. This psalm points to a greater King. In Mark 1:11, God said to Jesus at the start of his ministry, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In Hebrews 1:5 we read that this psalm ultimately applies to Jesus. In Acts 4, as the early Christians faced persecution, they quoted this psalm as a description of the rebellion against God in the context of a King with worldwide sway and overwhelming force.

Jesus is the King to whom this psalm ultimately points. This is the big picture of the world: it is in open rebellion against God. God is responding with laughter and anger. But he also responds by sending his Son Jesus as King of the world, one who rules the entire world with overwhelming force. His is a Kingdom that will never end. The world -this rebellious world - has been promised to a King.

One last question: What should we do?

Verses 10 to 12 say:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

It’s so important to see the ending to this psalm. God has given us a bird’s-eye view of history this morning. This is the history of the world in 12 verses. But it’s not meant to be just a history lesson. This psalm ends with an invitation. The psalmist ends by speaking to the kings and rulers described in verse 2. They’re given an opportunity for mercy. He calls on them to recognize reality and to be wise, to come to their senses. They’re invited to kiss the Son. Kissing is a sign of homage. They’re invited to become servants and to submit to the reign of this king, to totally and completely submit to him.

The choice is clear for rebels. Verse 12 couldn’t make it any clearer. Submit to him. Pay homage to him. If you do, it says at the end of verse 12, you’ll be blessed as you take refuge in him. I love how verses 11 puts it: rejoice with trembling. There’s a sense of joy in submitting to the King, but it’s a joy tempered with a holy fear of God. That’s the first choice. Or: refuse to submit. Continue as a rebel. If you do, his wrath will be kindled. You will face the wrath and fury we read about in verse 5. We’ll be broken with the rod of iron and be dashed in pieces, as verse 9 says. Those are the only two options.

That’s the message of this psalm. The totality of this world can be summed up in a sentence: The whole world has been promised to the Messiah. Live accordingly.

How do we live accordingly?

Two things.

One: You need to take the invitation of this psalm very seriously. The message is one of warning: you are a rebel, and Jesus, the King, will deal with rebels. But there’s an invitation to submit to Jesus. The invitation is one that stands. Jesus in mercy offers forgiveness and mercy to all who want to find refuge in him. There’s a warning and an invitation in this psalm. Take the invitation while the King still offers his mercy. Jesus is the King who dies to extend mercy to rebels; receive mercy while he still offers it freely.

Two: We live in the middle of rebel activity. When you live in the middle of rebels, you begin to think that things are looking pretty bad for the other side. We need to see from this psalm that God is very much in control. I think this psalm was written, at least in part, to let God’s people know that God is in control. All is well with this world. We can go to sleep at night knowing that this world has been promised to the King, and he is in control.

I told you how Ian Morgan Cron arrived at church with his father. Sometimes it seems we arrive here in pretty much the same condition: crammed in way too tight, falling, so to speak, through the bottom of the car. That’s life. But we come this morning to Psalm 2 this morning, and it tells us that this rebel world has been promised to the King, so live accordingly. Submit to the King, and rest well knowing that his reign is sure. Let’s pray.

The Congregation of the Righteous (Psalm 1)

This morning we’re beginning a fairly brief look at a small portion of Scripture that’s widely appreciated, but I’ve never done much preaching on it. Over the summer, I’m going to be looking at some of the psalms. In particular, I’ll be looking with you at the first few psalms. We’ll probably only have time to look at the first seven or eight if all goes well.

One of the reasons I want to look at the psalms with you is because they’re so important. Abraham Lincoln said of the Psalms: “They are the best. I find something in them for every day of the year.” Martin Luther called it “the Bible in miniature.” It’s the Bible’s longest book. It’s more quoted in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. It’s probably the most popular book in the Old Testament, if not the whole Bible.

But that’s not the only reason I want to look at them with you. Most of the Bible contains teaching about God, or words of God to us. The Psalms are primarily human words to God or about God, rather than God’s words for us. However, they are also God’s word to us. Psalms provide a model for us. They teach us how to praise God, how to relate honestly to him, and how to reflect on what he has done for us. They invite us to enter into the experience of the psalmist. They address the mind through the heart. They cover every sort of experience and emotion we could have: praise, thanksgiving, but also doubt, depression and despair. It’s an incredibly valuable part of the Bible that helps us understand how we can encounter God in the middle of the mess of life. We need to know how to relate to God not just in the good times, but in every type of circumstance. The Psalms are going to help us with this.

Today, in particular, I want to look at Psalm 1. It’s hard to know where to begin with the Psalms because there are 150 of them. You could even break the Psalms down into sections. For instance, there are five books within the book of Psalms. Book one is considered to be Psalms 1 to 41. They’re all on different kinds of topics and themes. You could begin anywhere.

It’s important, though, for us to look at Psalm 1 first, because Psalm 1 is kind of a gateway to the rest of the Psalms. It’s not just randomly selected as Psalm 1; it’s put first because it’s a great introduction to everything that follows. In fact, if you were to open a handwritten medieval manuscript of the Psalms, chances are that you would discover this psalm - the first - written in ink without any number. It’s meant to be an introduction to the whole Psalter rather than just another psalm.

If you go to the airport, you can hang out anywhere you’d like in the concourses. But eventually you will reach a checkpoint. To go any further, you need to have pass through. They check your documentation and make sure that you belong on the other side of that gate. You either have to be traveling, or you need to be an employee of the airport. That’s what the psalmist is doing here. You are invited to join the psalmist on the other side of Psalm 1. But before you get there, you need to pass through the checkpoint here. The psalmist raises a matter of supreme importance. He wants to be as clear as possible before we go any further.

Here’s the message that he’s going to give us in this first psalm: Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. Before you can talk about the Lord as your shepherd (Psalm 23), or about forgiveness (Psalm 51), worship (Psalm 100), or the mercies of God (Psalm 103), you need to start here. You need to make sure that you belong to the congregation of the righteous.

And to make his point, the psalmist is going to answer three implied questions in this psalm. So remember his point: Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. Here are the implied questions he’s going to answer. One: what does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous? Two: what are the results of living this way? Three: what is the final destiny of those who live in the congregation of the righteous?

First question: What does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous?

Psalm 1:1-2 says:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

So here we begin with a description of what it looks like to belong to the congregation of the righteous. I want you to notice three things about this description.

The first is the very first word of the psalm: blessed. It’s one of those words you hear mainly in church or when someone sneezes. Part of the problem when you hear a word like blessed is that you don’t really know if it’s something that you want for yourself. We have a church near our house, and sometimes you see men and women wearing black robes walking around the neighborhood. Is that what it means to be blessed - to live in a church and wear black robes all day? It reminds me of the cartoon. Someone asks a man, “Are you a pastor?” and he replies, “No, I just look this way because I’m not feeling well today.” That’s the very thing that most of us would like to avoid. We’re really not sure that we want to be blessed, so right away we’re kind of wondering whether this is a good thing or not.

But we need to understand that this isn’t what the word blessed means here. The word really could be translated, “Oh, the happiness…” It’s about the joy that comes from God-given security and prosperity. It’s happiness that comes from well-being and rightness. He is the man or woman who enjoys God’s blessing. The Psalmist is saying that there is a path to happiness that is unique and that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s found in belonging to the congregation of the righteous, of knowing God’s smile upon your life. When you have this blessedness, you don’t need to go looking anywhere else. You have God’s smile; that is enough. So that’s the first thing you notice here. Joining the congregation of the righteous isn’t sentencing yourself to misery; it’s actually the path to true happiness.

Nobody’s captured this better, by the way, than John Piper. He’s coined a term: “Christian hedonist.” A hedonist is someone who pursues pleasure. You may be surprised by this, but Piper argues that we all should be pleasure-seekers. The only thing is, we need to realize that the true path to pleasure-seeking is to join the congregation of the righteous and to seek the blessing that comes from God. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal put it:

There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these all are inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself.

So the psalmist is going to describe to us the path to true happiness, to true satisfaction and joy. Someone’s said, “The psalmist saith more to the point about true happiness in this short Psalm than any one of the philosophers, or all of them put together; they did but beat the bush, God hath here put the bird into our hand” (John Trapp).

Then notice the negative picture of what those in the congregation of the righteous do not do. They don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked; they don’t stand in the way of sinners; they don’t sit in the seat of scoffers. In other words, the righteous person is different. Many of us, I’m sure, watched the Stanley Cup finals a couple of weeks ago. You noticed the same thing that I did: the teams generally played better on their own ice than they did in the other team’s rink. A 2011 Sports Illustrated article found:

Home field advantage is no myth. Indisputably, it exists …. Across all sports and at all levels, from Japanese baseball to Brazilian soccer to the NFL, the team hosting a game wins more often than not.

You may be surprised why this is true. It’s not just the impact on team performance. The article says it’s the influence of the crowd on the referees:

Officials' bias is the most significant contribution to home field advantage. In short, the refs don't like to get booed. So when the game gets close, they call fewer fouls or penalties against the home team; or they call more strikes against visiting batters. Larger and louder fans really do influence the calls from the officials. The refs naturally (and often unconsciously) respond to the pressure from the crowd. Then they try to please the angry fans and make the calls that will lessen the pain of crowd disapproval. In the end, the refs' people-pleasing response can have an impact on the final result of the game.

Do you notice that? It’s not the cheers of the home crowd that makes a team do better. It’s the boos of the crowd that make a refs afraid to make a bad call. The psalmist notices the same thing. He says that the more we play on the other team’s ice, the worse it’s going to go for us. It’s usually a subtle thing. The more we’re taking our cues from people who don’t know and love God, the more we’ll be playing so that we don’t here their boos. It’s not usually an obvious thing. As Dale Ralph Davis says:

It may come in a rather bump-a-long fashion from teachers or friends or family - our spouses; it simply suggests that if you don’t think this way, you will not be thought sharp; if you don’t act this way, you will not be ‘cool’; if you don’t laugh at what we mock, we don’t want any part of you. Verse 1 is not merely description but warning, a sort of Old Testament Romans 12:2: ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’ (Phillips).

It reminds me of the 106-year-old who was asked what she likes about her age. She replied: no peer pressure. The psalmist acknowledges that we’re all taking our cues from somewhere; he says that if you’re part of the congregation of the righteous, you’re not taking your cues from people who aren’t living for God.

So where are you taking your cues if you belong to the congregation of the righteous? The cue is actually from delight, in verse 3. This is important. It’s not a grin-and-bear-it type of approach. It’s again a delight. You know what it’s like to choose something not out of willpower but delight. I was out the other night with a friend. I hadn’t seen Charlene all day. As I dropped him off, he invited me to come into his house for a while. I had two alternatives: to visit with my friend, which would have been an ok thing to do; or to go home and see my wife and kids, which would have been an awesome thing to do. I made the choice that gave me the most joy: I said thanks, but I’d better get going. I didn’t do it out of obligation; I did it out of joy. That’s what the psalmist is saying here.

What leads him to renounce all the ‘appeals’ of verse 1? To turn and walk away from it all? The pursuit of pleasure! He does it because he cares more for his pleasure than for his pressures! ‘But his delight…’ Note that last word. You are going to take your signals from somewhere, and he takes his from the torah of Yahweh rather than from the counsel of the wicked. (Dale Ralph Davis)

That’s what it means. To belong to the congregation of the righteous involves finding delight and joy in God’s Word. It’s not an obligation; it’s a continual source of delight. It’s a regular and consistent part of our life: we meditate on it day and night. J.I. Packer defines meditation:

Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, thinking over, dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things one knows about the works and ways and purpose and promises of God.

It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communication with God.

Its purpose is to clear one's mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let his truth make its full and proper impact on one's mind and heart.

It is a matter of talking to oneself about God and oneself.

It is, indeed, often a matter of arguing with oneself, reasoning oneself out of moods of doubt and unbelief into a clear apprehension of God's power and grace.

That’s what we do when we belong to the congregation of the righteous. We find our happiness in God; we take our cues from him and from his Word rather than from the wicked; we continually apply his Word to all of our lives.

Second question: What are the results?

What does it look like when we do this? Verses 3-4 say:

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

You know that the best way to communicate something is often through a picture. You can describe something, but it helps to see it. Here the psalmist gives us two pictures. The first picture is of those who belong to the congregation of the righteous. The second picture is of those who belong to the congregation of the wicked.

First: what does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous? When the psalmist wrote this, people knew how hard it was to grow a tree. The climate in Israel was dry. The only way that something like a tree could thrive is if it had a constant supply of water. Vegetation flourished around natural streams or canals. So he gives us a picture here of a tree that’s planted close to the banks of a river. The roots reach down and draw nourishment from the water. That is a great picture, the psalmist says, of the person who belongs to the congregation of the righteous. He or she is like that tree, drawing nourishment from God himself. You could capture the picture here in two words: stability and vitality. Stability, because the tree is planted securely. It’s healthy and it’s not going anywhere. We live in an old neighborhood. Some of the trees were there before any houses were around, and some of those trees are probably going to be there after the houses are torn down. That’s stability. But there’s also vitality: fruitfulness, leaves that don’t wither; prosperity. The psalmist says that those in the congregation of the righteous have a stability and a vitality that you can’t find anywhere else.

It’s a contrast, by the way, to what the life of the wicked looks like. The picture there is of chaff. If you had some grain back then, you’d want to separate the lightweight and useless chaff - the husk of grain. You’d put the what on the floor. Horses would tread on it and separate the grain from the husks. You’d then take a fork or shovel and throw the grain into the air. The grain is heavier, so it would fall to the ground. The useless chaff would be blown away with the wind. The psalmist says that this is what it’s like to belong to the congregation of the wicked. If you are part of the wicked, then you’re not characterized by stability and vitality. You’re characterized instead by dry, dusty, windblown impermanence. You could use the words rootlessness and ruin.

You don’t always see this. Sometimes it doesn’t look this way. This, of course, doesn’t mean that those in the congregation of the righteous never have problems. They do. But it means that there’s a stability and vitality in the lives of those who have found their joy in God that you can’t find anywhere else. It reminds me of the book of Ecclesiastes, which we studied earlier this year. Apart from God, there’s impermanence. I can take you to believers who are in their 70s and 80s - some of them are here - and who have been through very trying times, but they are stable and vital because their roots have stayed connected to the source of nourishment that has sustained them their entire lives.

That’s what it looks like to belong to the congregation of the righteous: to take our cues from God rather than the wicked, and to delight in his Word. And that’s what the results are: stability and vitality. There’s one more question.

Third question: What is their destiny?

You may have heard that they came out with a study this week. Harvard University researchers found that the type of foods we choose to eat may have a bigger impact on weight control than portion sizes. They found that if you eat certain types of foods, even in small quantities, you will gain weight over time. For instance, for every additional daily serving of potatoes people ate, they gained more than 1 1/4 pounds over a four-year period. There is a trajectory to these things. Over time, you will see that present decisions lead to long-term results.

Here’s what we see in this passage. There are long-term implications to whether you are part of the congregation of the righteous, or whether you join the wicked. Verses 5 and 6 say:

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

This is why this psalm is so serious. This is not some game we are playing. The psalm asks us to consider what we will do when the end comes.

As you know, William and Kate are in Canada this week. There are all kinds of preparations to get ready for them. You can bet that a host of people right now are working hard to get everything ready so that when the moment comes, every event will be ready.

The psalmist says that some will not be ready for the time when the judgment comes. It’s a scary picture for the wicked. They will have no justification (they won’t stand); they won’t have any communion with those who are righteous; nor will they remain (they will perish). In contrast, God knows the way of the righteous. This is ongoing. It doesn’t mean that God just has some knowledge of the righteous. He continues to know them; he sees every step they take, every twist and turn. It means that God is intimately and personally concerned with the steps that they take.

That is why the psalmist begins here. There is nothing more important than understanding that before you can enter into the rest of the psalter, you know where you stand. There are really only two ways to live. There’s no middle ground. You can choose to be blessed by taking your cues from God and delighting in him; if so you’ll have stability and vitality, and God will know you. Or you can choose the path of the wicked, which is choosing rootlessness and death and judgment. It’s that stark. That’s where the psalms begin.

So let’s close here by asking you to examine your life. There’s nothing more important. Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. But then I want to remind you that in all of history there has only ever been one person who has met the ideal of the godly person represented in the psalm. This is good news for us. The reality is that the best among us falls short. The good news is that we have a Savior who can transform us into the type of people we read about in this psalm. He is able to take us regardless of our past and forgive us of our sins, and transform us so that we can be people who delight in God’s Word and who are planted like these trees. I invite you this morning to join the congregation of the righteous - to discover the joy that comes as we enter into the psalter. Nothing, the psalmist says, is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous.

The Training and Instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4)

In September of 2006 George Barna released a sobering study. Following interviews with more than 22,000 adults and 2,000 teenagers from across America, he revealed that the majority of twentysomethings who are raised as Christians subsequently abandon the faith. He found that:

...most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years—and often beyond that. In total, six out of ten twentysomethings were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.

Another survey by LifeWay found that “Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23.” Still another study (from Church Communication Networks) said that up to 94 percent of Christian teens leave the church within a few years of leaving high school.

This is alarming! Writing on these studies, local pastor and blogger Tim Challies says, “Each of these studies appears to show that Christians are doing a very poor job of reaching the children in their midst.” The most important thing we can do for our kids is to introduce them to Jesus Christ, and to his transforming power. It’s vastly more important than anything else we can do as parents. But the statistics say we’re doing a bad job of this.

So this morning I want to look at a familiar passage of Scripture. My intent this morning is not to tell you anything you don’t already know. I want to remind you of some things. More important than that, I want to encourage you who are parents to make this a priority in our lives.

So let’s read the passage, and then let me make some applications. The passage is Ephesians 6:1-4. Paul has been applying the amazing truths of what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ to families. The gospel, he says, changes our marriages and our families. And in chapter 6 he turns our attention to parenting. He says:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Three things this morning. First, an assumption. Second, a transformation. Third, an obligation.

An Assumption

It’s important to begin with an understanding of what Paul is assuming in this passage. Paul does not begin with practical parenting advice. We’re jumping in at the end of the book. Paul is now applying what he has said earlier about the gospel. He’s spent most of the book explaining what God is up to in this world. He’s explained God’s eternal plan to choose and adopt us, to exalt Jesus Christ, to take spiritually dead people and make them alive, to reconcile Jews and Greeks to become one people. You cannot apply chapters 4-6 of Ephesians until you understand chapters 1-3 of Ephesians. All that Paul is doing in this passage is unpacking what he’s said earlier about the gospel.

So here’s the assumption: before you can apply what he’s about to say about parenting, the assumption is that you have been changed by the gospel. In other words, you can’t pass on what you don’t have. Tim Challies, again, touches on this in his comments about the sobering statistics I just read to you:

Looking at the evangelical landscape in the United States (where these studies were performed) and in Canada, I see that the majority of children, and probably the vast majority of children, are raised in churches where what they hear is a false gospel or a gospel that has been emptied of all that makes it the power of God for salvation. We should not be at all surprised that children abandon this kind of a counterfeit gospel as soon as they are able to. I would do the same.

Shortly after my son was born a friend gave me this little bit of wisdom: “Kids are amazing bull–- detectors.” A bit crude, but the point was well-taken. Through 11 years and 3 children I’ve seen that this is exactly the case, though I do not express it in quite the same way. Children are amazing at unmasking hypocrisy; they are not easily fooled. You may fool them for a moment, but not for a lifetime. They will believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy and Jesus when they are young. Sooner or later, though, they need evidence that these characters truly exist.

This is so true. One of the reasons, humanly speaking I became convinced of the truth of the gospel is because I saw it clearly displayed in my family. Our kids have a powerful ability to know whether we’re dragging them to church because it’s something we think we should do, or whether it’s real in our lives. They know how our faith is real even by how we talk. Think of this example. C. John Miller writes in his book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church:

I once overheard a visitor to one of our services tell this story to a young father. He said, “This morning you brought your child to be given over to the Lord. I did that once too. But let me urge you from the bottom of my heart, don’t do to your child what I did to mine. As he grew up, he listened to me criticize the pastor year after year. As a consequence, I turned off my boy to the church and to ministers, and today he is far from God.”

It goes both ways too. The kids of pastors can tell by the way their parents talk if this is real or not.

So let me begin by saying that Paul is making an assumption here. The assumption is that parents must be transformed by the gospel themselves so that it’s real in their lives before they can pass it on to their children. I don’t want to make this assumption this morning. So let me ask you: is it real? Are you truly a Christian? Is your heart this morning warm towards God? Do you marvel that Jesus Christ has died for your sins? This is where it starts. Your kids will be able to tell whether it’s real in your life or not. The assumption is that you can only pass on to your kids what you yourself possess.

A Transformation

Secondly, in this passage we also see a transformation. In that day, the rights of fathers were staggering. Men in general had a lot of rights, but children could change all of that. They tied you down. They were considered a nuisance. They were expensive, inhibited sexual promiscuity, and made easy divorce a lot harder. As a result, many in that day did not want children. But even if you did have children, the father’s rights would be almost unlimited. A father could sell his children as slaves. He could make them work in the field, even in chains. He could punish them how he liked, and could even inflict the death penalty on them. And this power extended over the life of his children no matter how long they lived. A Roman son never came of age. His father had rights over him as long as the father lived.

When a child was born, the child would be placed before the father. If the father stooped and raised the child, the child was accepted and raised as his. But if he turned away, the child was rejected and literally discarded. Sometimes the baby would be picked up by those who trafficked in infants; and raised to be slaved or to work in brothels. Other times they were left to die. One Roman father wrote to his wife, “If - good luck to you! - you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out.”

And then Paul comes along and, like Jesus, elevates the value of children in an extraordinary way, so that fathers have a sacred responsibility to their children. Paul says in this passage that fathers have responsibilities to their children. This is so important today because fathers do still sometimes go AWOL on their children. Fathers can tend to be passive. But Paul lays on us dads here the obligations we have to our kids. He refuses just to talk about rights; he reminds us that there’s a transformation in our relationship that leaves us with very clear obligations.

But he also transforms things from the children’s perspective. Why should a child obey the father? Not because of the father’s rights, but because it is pleasing to the Lord. Paul brings God into the relationship.

This means that our parenting is no longer a private issue between us and our kids. Paul teaches us there that parenting is a spiritual obligation. We are responsible before God as fathers. We don’t have a whole bunch of rights; we have a spiritual obligation before God to do our part.

There’s an assumption that the faith we’re trying to pass on is real in ourselves. And there is also a transformation in our relationship so that we see ourselves as fathers before God. We’re no longer passive or able to parent as we please. Our kids are on loan, as it were.

So my second question is this: Do you see parenting - particularly fathering - as a sacred duty before God? The way that you father is an issue with which God is concerned. There’s a transformation in our parenting relationship because God is very concerned.

Remember the stats I quoted at the start of this sermon. If these are true, and if we aren’t doing our job as parents, we need to step up. We need to be doing our job. We are failing our kids and failing God if we don’t.

An Obligation

Finally, there’s an obligation here. Verse 4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Parents usually go wrong in one or two ways. Some parents are too strict. Paul addresses this in the first phrase: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” It’s significant, but the way, that he mentions fathers here. Don’t let anyone tell you that parenting is a mother’s job! But then Paul corrects a mistake that is common in parenting: that parenting can be so strict that children are exasperated and crushed by the demands. Paul doesn’t want this. He wants an atmosphere of grace in which our kids are allowed to flourish.

The distinguished painter Benjamin West tells the story of one day when his mother went out, leaving him in charge of his younger sister. While she was out, he discovered some ink and decided to paint his sister’s portrait. When his mother came back there was an awful mess. She walked in, said nothing about the ink stains all over. She picked up the paper on which he had drawn the portrait and said, “Why, it’s Sally!” and then she stooped and kissed him. Benjamin West said, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.”

Paul says, in essence, “Don’t err by being too strict and exasperating your children.” Once again, this comes back to the gospel. If you get that you are loved by God because of his sheer grace, that grace will begin to affect your parenting. There’s a great new book out called Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus. The author says that we sometimes give our kids the wrong impression that God is only pleased with us when we’re good. She writes:

Grace, or the free favor that has been lavished on us through Christ, ought to make our parenting radically different from what unbelievers do. That’s because the good news of God’s grace is meant to permeate and transform every relationship we have, including our relationship with our children. All the typical ways we construct to get things done and get others to do our bidding are simply obliterated by a gospel message that tells us that we are all (parents and children) both radically sinful and radically loved. At the deepest level of what we do as parents, we should hear the heartbeat of a loving, grace-giving Father who freely adopts rebels and transforms then into loving sons and daughters. If this is not the message that your children hear from you, if the message you send them on a daily basis is about begin good so that you won’t be disappointed, then the gospel needs to transforming your parenting too.

But then he confronts the other way that parents go wrong: by being too lenient. “Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

Training is a word that refers to discipline. Some parents err by not being disciplined appropriately. Paul has already said not to be too harsh, but here he says not to go to the other extreme and let your children do whatever they want either.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He also mentions the instruction of the Lord. What does this mean? A lot of us want our kids to learn about the Lord. That’s why we bring our kids to church and to Sunday school. But Paul here says that the primary responsibility for this belongs in the home. It is ultimately the parent’s job - ultimately, according to Paul, the father’s job - to instruct children in the way of the Lord.

A pastor - formerly a youth pastor - complained that parents would often call him in frustration, wanting him to do something to fix their teenagers. He grew increasingly frustrated, because for years these parents had been teaching them that church and the Lord come somewhere on the list after sports and school and everything else. For years, these parents had been teaching their kids that God is not a high priority. These parents had been instructing their children, but not in the way of the Lord.

Paul says that it’s our job to instruct them in the Lord. This means making the Lord a priority in our schedules, and also in our home lives. This means that your kids will know whether your faith is genuine or not. They’re more likely to be excited about the Lord if you are excited about the Lord.

It also means that we will learn family worship. Most parents today don’t take the time to read the Bible, pray, and worship with their children. In 1647, Christians were so concerned about this that they raised the alarm and said, “If we don’t start worshiping at home, we’re going to lose our kids!” And they were right. So they instructed pastors and elders to begin inquiring about family devotions. If they found out that a father was not leading his children in family worship, they would talk to him privately. If he didn’t respond, they would actually begin church discipline against him.

Were they fanatics? Maybe - or maybe they were just on to something. Maybe they knew that parents are responsible for disciplining children, and instructing them in the Lord, and that failure to do so is catastrophic. We should care about our children’s relationship with the Lord just as much as we care about any other area of their life. It’s more important than almost anything. It’s got to be a priority.

Listen: I can’t tell you how important this is. And the statistics say we’re not doing a good job of it. The most important thing we can do is to be transformed by the gospel, and then to introduce our kids to the gospel that has changed us so radically.

Three questions:

  • have you been transformed? is the gospel real in your life?
  • will you see your fathering and parenting as something that is a sacred responsibility, something with which God is very concerned?
  • what will you do to fulfill your obligation to parent in a way that is both dripping with grace, and that is taking deliberate action to train and instruct your kids in the ways of the Lord?

Let's pray.

Father, may the gospel become real in our lives. I pray that we would be so transformed by your amazing grace that our kids can’t help but know that the gospel is real. I pray that we would take our responsibility seriously, as a sacred trust from you. I pray that our relationships would drip with grace because we’ve experienced your grace. And I pray that every parent here would take specific action to train and instruct our kids in the ways of the Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

How to Fight (Jude 1:17-25)

Some of you, like me, can remember when the seatbelt law came into effect. Some people had a hard time accepting the law that you have to wear seatbelts. One man, a New Zealander named Ivan Segedin took it to an extreme. The police ticketed him 32 times over five years for failing to use his seat belt. Even though this was costing him big money, he refused to buckle up.

Finally, instead of obeying the law, the man decided to rely on deception. He made a fake seat belt that would hang over his shoulder and make it appear that he was wearing a seat belt when he wasn’t. His trick worked. He didn’t get anymore tickets. But then he had a head-on collision. He was thrown forward onto the steering wheel and killed. His fake seat belt couldn’t save him.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s this: When tested, what’s fake won’t save you.

We’ve been looking at the book of Jude. Jude wanted to write a letter to the church about our common salvation. He wanted to major on what’s real about our faith: the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became man, and who died for our sins and rose to give us new life. But Jude knew there was a problem. He’s writing to a church that has fake seatbelts in use. He’s writing to a church that’s left this common salvation, this faith once for all delivered to the saints, and has instead substituted fake teaching. If you haven’t been here, I hope you’ll take a chance to read the entire book. Jude’s explained why this is a problem we need to be concerned about.

By the way, this is not just a problem for them. Charles Colson, president of Prison Fellowship, says, “Most Christians do not understand what they believe, why they believe it, and why it matters.” For two years, Colson asked mature believers to name the fundamentals of the faith. Most of them, he says, looked surprised and perplexed. They came up with a short list. Colson has stopped in the middle of some of his speeches, and asked the audience, “What is Christianity anyway?” At one church in the Bible belt, there was silence for what seemed to be a full minute before three or four painful answers. Colson concludes, “Our ignorance is crippling us.”

Remember: when tested, what’s fake won’t save you. So today we come to the end of Jude. Jude has been explaining why it’s so important that we don’t accept false teachings. But Jude doesn’t spend all of his time condemning false teachers. Today he’s explaining to us how we can respond to false teachings. He says we need to take three steps to hold on to what’s real. Here’s the first:

1. Don’t be surprised by false teachers.

Throughout this letter, you get the impression that Jude is not conveying new information. He’s reminding us of something. For instance, in verse 5 we read: “I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it…” (Jude 1:5). Then we read in verses 17-19:

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” (Jude 1:17-19)

What he’s saying is that we need to remember that this is to be expected. Don’t be surprised. We have been adequately warned. For instance:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons… (1 Timothy 4:1)

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. (2 Timothy 3:1)

I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. (2 Peter 3:3)

All throughout the New Testament, we’re warned that in the last days - the days between Jesus’ death and resurrection and his coming again - false teachers and scoffers will periodically appear. It is expected. Not only that, but they won’t come from out there. They will arise from within the church. Scripture consistently warns us to expect this and to guard against it, because it’s going to happen. Jude says: don’t let it surprise you.

The other day I was at home when I heard someone at the door. I had just made myself very comfortable, which is usually when I hear someone knock at the door. So I got up and grumbled and opened the door to see who was there. I didn’t recognize him at first, which made me squirm when he kind of grunted at me and pushed past me to enter the house before I invited him in. He was already in my house when I remembered who he is, and that Charlene had told me he was coming at that very time. If I was smart I would have called to remembrance that he was expected, and that he was going to come into my house whether I invited him in or not.

Jude is saying something similar. False teaching is coming whether you’re prepared for it or not. You can get comfortable and be unprepared when it comes. But if you’re smart, you’ll remember that you’ve been told to expect it, and you’ll be prepared to deal with it when it comes. Don’t be surprised, he says, by false teaching.

2. Keep yourselves in God’s love.

This is fascinating. How should we respond when the false teachers come? We know they’re coming. Do we go on the defensive, building moats and walls so that the false teachers can’t get in? Do you go on the offensive, attacking at the first sign of false teaching? There is room for this, but the first thing he says is this: keep yourselves in the love of God. Secure your own spiritual position. Before you can address the false teachers or the false teaching, make sure that you are secure. He writes:

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 1:20-21 ESV)

I want you to notice a few things here.

First, there’s only one command here: “keep yourselves in the love of God.” He then describes some steps we can take in order to keep ourselves in the love of God: building ourselves up in our most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; waiting for Christ’s return. We’re to do these things in order to keep ourselves in God’s love. By the way, it’s a good description of some of the things that we need to build into our lives if we’re going to keep ourselves in God’s love. We do well to devote ourselves to growth in the faith, to prayer, and to live in light of Christ’s return.

Second, this is not a command to individuals; it’s a command to a church. He doesn’t say to keep yourself in the love of God; he says to keep yourselves. I need this reminder. We don’t do this alone. We are responsible to do this together. One of our main purposes as a church is to keep ourselves in the love of Christ.

There’s one more thing I want you to notice. Jude addresses his letter in verse 1 to “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” If you are a Christian, you are somebody who’s called, and who’s kept for Jesus Christ. You’re being guarded and kept by and for Jesus Christ. But here in verse 21 he says, “keep yourselves in the love of God.” Which is it? Are we kept, or do we keep ourselves? Yes. God has done everything we need in the Christian life; we need to respond. God keeps us; we keep ourselves in what God has done for us in Christ. It’s a beautiful picture of the Christian life. God has done it all: we need to keep ourselves firmly planted in what God has done.

What he’s saying, essentially, is to keep yourself anchored to how God has loved you in Jesus Christ. “Moving ahead in the Christian life often involves looking to the past…The foundation must be secure before the building can go up. We can never grow away from our roots; we can only grow through them” (Douglas Moo). The best thing we can do in a world of fakes is to make sure that we have what is real. The best antidote to false teaching is for us to continually be keeping ourselves in God’s love, to continually be growing into the truth. So don’t be surprised; secondly, keep yourselves in God’s love.

3. Reach out to those who are going astray.

Finally, Jude gets to how to respond to the false teachers and those who are being led astray by them. He’s spoken honestly and directly about the danger. Having been reminded to expect that false teachers will come, and having been encouraged to keep ourselves in God’s love, Jude now tells us what we are to do with the false teachers. He divides them into three groups and says:

And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 1:22-23)

There are three groups we need to be concerned with:

First, he addresses those who doubt. He’s probably talking about some in the church who have started to be swayed by the false teaching. They’re wavering in their commitment to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. They have doubts about the Bible, about the Christian faith. They have questions. They want to know if the Bible is true, if we can trust what we’ve received. Jude says: have mercy on these people. Be helpful to them. Build relationships with them. Your relationship with them should be characterized by mercy. I’m sure you can think of people who fit into this category. You have the opportunity to invest in their lives if you have mercy on those who doubt.

Second, he addresses a second group. He says, “save others by snatching them out of the fire.” These people, it would seem, have gone further down the road with the false teachers. They’re in danger of judgment, characterized by fire. Some have been so influenced by false teaching, Jude is saying, that they are teetering on the edge of hell. We need to snatch them and save them before it’s too late.

When we encounter someone who has departed the faith, we can’t just give up on them. God does restore people. One pastor had a friend who walked away from the Christian faith and began living a very immoral lifestyle. He went and visited his friend. Afterwards he was so drained that afterwards he pulled out this verse and with tears in his eyes reminded himself that God still does save wayward sinners, and that his counsel still might bear fruit in his friend’s life. Jude calls us to do this. When people walk away from the faith, they’re in danger of judgment. Contend for them. Save them by snatching them out of the fire.

Then there’s one final group. He says, “to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” By the strength of the language it seems like Jude is talking about the false teachers themselves. They’ve abandoned themselves to false teaching, but they’re not beyond redemption. Jude says to show mercy to them. Pray for them. Treat them kindly. But also be cautious. Be on guard. He talks about the garment stained by flesh. He’s talking about the clothing worn closest to the body. This is pretty graphic. He’s talking, in essence, about clothing that’s been stained with human waste. Show mercy to them, he says, but be cautious. As one person put it:

One is working on the edge of the fire, so to speak. Not only are those being rescued at risk, but the rescuers are endangering themselves. Sin is deceitful enough that those trying to help others could themselves get trapped. That is no reason not to “show mercy,” but every reason to have fear. (Peter H. Davids)

When responding to false teaching, you need to do some triage. Your response will differ depending on which type of person you’re dealing with. Reach out to those who are going astray, but be wise in how you do so. Pay attention to the danger that you could be in as you reach out to those who are going astray.

We really need this book. We need this because he’s addressing an ongoing problem. We will face the same issue that Jude addresses. We need to be able to recognize false teaching, and to know how to respond. Today he’s reminded us how we are to respond to false teaching. Don’t be surprised. Secure your own position by keeping yourselves in God’s love. And then reach out to those who are going astray. This, Jude says, is how we’re to respond when we encounter false teaching.

Let me remind you why this is so important. We can’t afford the luxury of fake seatbelts. Remember: when tested, what’s fake won’t save you. We need what’s real. We need the real gospel, but we also need to know what to do when we encounter what’s false.

What I love about Jude is that he finishes by tethering us to God. At the end of the book he reminds us that, although we have a role to play, our hope is not in our ability to hold on to God, but in God’s ability to hold on to us. At the end Jude reminds us that although we have every reason to doubt ourselves, we have no reason to doubt the one in whose love we are kept. So Jude closes with a benediction that tells us that God accomplishes for us, and what we offer him in response.

First, what God accomplishes for us: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy…” Then, what we offer to God in response: “…be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Here we have, in the middle of the danger that we too could stumble, the assurance that God is able to keep us from stumbling. We have assurance that God is guarding us. As Paul said: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

We face a danger, and the danger is real. When tested, what’s fake won’t save you. But there is someone who’s real, and when he grabs on to you you’re safe forever.

What’s the Big Deal? (Jude 5-16)

I woke up a couple of weeks ago with tingling in my left arm. I was thinking that it was probably nothing. I slept on it funny or something. But I’ve heard of people who ignore signs like this. I quickly checked Google, that source of reliable medical knowledge. It said:

Is your left arm tingling? Do not neglect the sign! Tingling in left arm may be a warning sign of something serious, therefore, is not worth neglecting…

Following are some possible causes for tingling in left arm and hand.

When the left arm or hand tingles, and at the same time if you experience pain in your jaw as well as chest, it is a major indication of an oncoming heart attack. You are advised to immediately rush to the doctor.

Left arm tingling can also be a stroke symptom. Stroke is a medical condition in which the brain activity ceases due to insufficient supply of blood to the brain.

Just to be safe, I called my doctor. My doctor told me to get to the hospital emergency room immediately. So, I spent the rest of the day waiting to find out that the tingling in my arm was not caused by anything serious. But I was told that it’s very good that I took the warning signs seriously.

It is very easy to ignore warning signs like a tingling arm, and not realize that the tingling could be a sign that something very dangerous is happening. Tingling may only be tingling, but it could also be a sign of something much worse.

This morning we’re looking at a book in the Bible called Jude. It’s the second-last book in the Bible, located right before the book of Revelation. And Jude has told us that there’s something tingling, something that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Jude says:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3-4)

Here’s the problem. Just like I’m tempted to say, “What’s wrong with a little tingling?” the church was tempted to say “What’s wrong with a little false teaching?” Picture that somebody you know and like starts teaching something that you think is wrong. It would be easy to ignore. You could say:

  • She’s really nice. I mean, how can you criticize someone who does so much and who has such a good heart?
  • Who am I to judge? I’m sure that my theology is off at some points. It would be arrogant to suggest that their position is wrong.
  • Why waste time arguing over theology? There are much more important things we should be worried about, like the poor and the victims of tornados.

But Jude writes to say: Don’t ignore the tingling! The implied question he’s answering in this passage is, “What’s wrong with a little false teaching?” I mean, who really cares about fighting over what we believe? And Jude answers with three reasons why we can’t ignore false teaching. He’s not talking about minor differences, by the way. He’s talking about major departures from “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” And he says that there are three reasons that we should care about this.

He’s writing this because we are tempted to say it doesn’t matter. We’re tempted to turn a blind eye to this issue and pretend that nothing is wrong. Jude gives us three reasons why it matters.

Here’s the first reason:

False teachers are rebels against God.

Why should we care about false teaching? We should care about false teachers because of who they are. And who are the false teachers? The answer is surprising. I want to answer that the false teachers are really nice people who are just a little bit wrong. But Jude answers by showing us that the false teachers are the latest in a string of rebels against God.

Let me give you some examples. In verses 5 to 7 he gives three examples from the Old Testament of evildoers:

  • The Israelites God rescued out of Egypt. God saved them out of Egypt, but they never got to enjoy the delights of the Promised Land because they refused to believe God.
  • The angels - probably a reference to a puzzling passage from Genesis 6 - who rebelled against God and were condemned by him.
  • The rebels in Sodom and Gomorrah, who were guilty of sinning against God, and who were completely destroyed by God.

You don’t get any better examples of God’s judgment than these three. This is serious! But notice what Jude does. He’s not giving a history lesson. He’s attaching these three events to the false teaching taking place in Jude’s day. In verse 8 he says, “Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.” Do you see what he’s saying? In verse 10 he again identifies these people with the rebels against God, except he gives three more examples and pronounces a woe to them:

He says they’re like Cain, who thought he could get away with it (verse 11). Cain was the son of Adam and Eve, the one who committed the first murder when he killed his brother Abel. It’s not a compliment to be compared to Cain. In what way are false teachers like Cain? One Jewish commentary says that Cain believed he could get away with whatever he liked because:

There is no judgment, no judge, no reward to come; no reward will be given to the righteous, and no destruction for the wicked.

In other words, these false teachers think they can teach whatever they’d like and get away with it.

Then he says they’re like Balaam the self-indulgent. Balaam was an Old Testament prophet for hire. He’d say anything you’d like if you paid the right money. He was guilty of laying aside God’s Word and teaching something else for his own personal benefit.

And then he says they’re like Korah the rebel. Korah was a leader of a mutiny against Moses. He was a teacher who rejected what God had said about authority. God judged him by swallowing him alive. We read in Numbers 16:

And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. (Numbers 16:32-33)

Has anyone ever told you, “You remind me of…?” You are waiting to hear how they finish the sentence. You want them to say the name of someone wonderful, someone handsome or beautiful, someone accomplished and appreciated. You don’t want to hear that you remind them of their cousin who’s in jail, or some rogue character who never amounted to much.

That’s what Jude is saying in this passage. These false teachers remind him a lot of some of the worst rebels in Old Testament history. David Helm writes:

So in the body of this letter we find Jude stepping through layers of time, grabbing hold of historical events and examples in groups of three, and pulling them into the present day and applying them in the first person - and all of this under divine authority…These guys are those guys! Ancient archetypes are walking in our world. They have come to life again - only they go by different names.

We need to think about this for a minute. Jude is telling us that these guys that he’s pointed to are still probably around today. This is sobering. “What’s the big deal about false teachers?” we ask. Jude takes us through a rogue’s gallery of false teachers and says that this line of rebels lives on, and it’s a big deal to God.

But then he gives us a second reason why false teaching is a big deal:

False teachers will be judged.

I remember being in a park at the end of my street as a kid. There were some older kids there. I should have been afraid of them, but I wasn’t, because my older brother was a lifeguard at the pool. I provoked them thinking I could get away with it because my big brother would come to my defense. I still remember when he didn’t step in. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted and that there would be no consequences.

You get the impression that the false teachers Jude writes about were doing the same thing. Let me give you one example. It’s a puzzling one. Verses 9 and 10 say:

But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively.

It’s not clear to most of us what he’s talking about. He’s quoting here from a story that would have been well-known to his readers, but that isn’t from the Bible. We do this all the time; we quote from a story that’s well-known in order to make a point. In this story, Michael, the archangel, tried to bury Moses’ body. The devil opposed the burial on the grounds that Moses was a murderer. Even Michael, an archangel, did not dare go toe to toe against the devil on his own authority. There’s a word for you if you take on the devil on your own strength: stupid. Even Michael the archangel, who is way more powerful than us, would not dare to do anything except by God’s authority. Michael knew his place. He knew that if he attempted anything but by God’s power he was sunk. Yet these false teachers didn’t know their place. They somehow thought that they had authority and power apart from Jesus Christ. The minute we think that we have a leg to stand on apart from Jesus, we are in very serious trouble.

So Jude is being very clear. These false teachers are rebels just like the ones we read about in the Old Testament. And God will judge, just as he did the desert generation, the angels who sinned, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

If we believe in judgment, it changes everything. Charlie Peace, a notorious thief and murderer in England in the 1800s, listened to a sermon on the day that he was going to be executed. The preacher was talking about heaven and hell. He said, "Sir, if I believed what you and the church of God say, and even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that." You may not believe what Jude is saying about judgment, but if you do, it changes everything.

I want to be honest. I don’t want to believe in hell. But as Mike Wittmer writes, “Jettisoning hell also demands that we reassess the sinfulness of humanity.” In order to believe that we don’t face judgment, we have to believe that we’re not so bad or that God isn’t so holy. And once we believe that we’re not so bad or that God isn’t that holy, then we start to think that maybe Jesus didn’t have to pay the penalty for our sins at the cross. Pretty soon we’re just like the false teachers Jude talks about. Pretty soon we think we can handle Satan on our own strength. The minute we think we can stand on our own without Jesus, we’ve joined these people that Jude is warning against.

Jude is answering the question, “What’s so bad about false teaching?” And he’s saying that false teachers are rebels, and that false teachers will be judged. There’s one more thing.

False teachers are a danger.

Jude writes in verses 12 and 13:

These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

Jude is saying two things here. First, he’s saying that these people aren’t helping the church at all. They’re waterless clouds. They’re fruitless trees. They’re like stars that keep changing their course so that you can’t navigate according to them. These people promise a lot, but they don’t deliver.

But it gets worse. These false teachers actually do harm. “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts.” We’re having a potluck after our service today. Back then the church held the communion service in the middle of a potluck-type meal. Jude says that these false teachers are dangers to the community. Hidden reefs under water sink ships; you don’t want to go anywhere near them. These teachers are dangerous to have around.

This is hard. I’m sure that the people who got this letter were surprised. These false teachers were probably very nice guys. What’s so bad about a little false teaching? Jude says it’s a serious problem. These false teachers are rebels; they’re going to be judged; they’re dangerous. False teaching is a very big deal.

This past week one of the most wanted war criminals in the world was arrested. He was living in plain sight in a tiny Serbian village. I’m betting that few people would have guessed that the person living next door is accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

Jude is telling us that false teachers don’t look evil. They’re probably really nice. We’re going to be tempted to think, “What’s the big deal?” But Jude says that false teachers are the rebels we read about in Scripture. They’re going to be judged. And they’re dangerous to us as well.

One of our greatest needs as a church is to see that what we believe matters. It is a dangerous thing to lose our grip on the gospel.

That’s why Jude writes:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

So see the dangers of false teaching. Don’t say it’s not a big deal. It is a clear and present danger. But also: See what Jesus has done. Grasp the good news of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Delight in it. Even today remind yourself of what Jesus Christ has done in offering his life for sinners, and being raised again so that we can live. Contend for the gospel.

Worth Fighting For (Jude 1:1-4)

A few years ago we went on vacation. We crammed everything into our little car and traveled to a cabin in upstate New York. We had a great time until one particularly bad day. First, someone stole our dog. Second, we visited a gorge, and I looked over and saw my son walking on the wall that’s supposed to separate us from the gorge. He didn’t fall, but it was too close for comfort. That was not a pleasant day.

We went on vacation with four people and a dog. We came home with four people and no dog. I was sad to lose a dog - we did get him back in the end. But there’s no question that we came home with what mattered most. You could give me a million dogs and it wouldn’t make up for my son. There are some things that simply matter more than others. Some things are really worth fighting for.

This morning we’re beginning a brief look at a book in the Bible. It’s one of the shortest and most overlooked books in all of the New Testament. It’s actually an important book, because it tells us two things. First, it tells us what matters most. You can lose some things, it’s going to say, but you had better not lose the central thing. You can lose a dog, so to speak, but you’d better not lose a son. Second, it tells us what we have to do to keep what matters most.

Today what I want to do is to introduce this book to you, and then I want to look at the first four verses. The first four verses are going to tell us to delight in, and contend for, the gospel. Then I want to think for a few minutes about how this applies to us today.

About Jude

So first, let me tell you about Jude. It’s one of the shortest books in the Bible. It’s tucked away right between the epistles of John and the book of Revelation. Somebody’s said that it’s a book that’s been treated with “benign neglect.” “Rarely the text for a sermon, even in the university or seminary classroom it is often given only brief treatment at the end of a course on the General Epistles, perhaps as part of the last lecture on the final day of the course” (P.H. Davids). But it’s a very important book for us to consider, not the least because it tells us what matters most and what’s worth fighting for.

So look at the first two verses with me to get an idea of the book:

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
(Jude 1:1-2)

At first glance, this looks like any of the hundreds of letters that would have been passed around back in that day. Except you’ll notice a couple of things that are significant. First: the author is Jude, a servant of Christ and the brother of James. He identifies himself with someone who must have been well known to the recipients of this letter, probably James, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. James was not only a leader in the church, but the apostle Paul refers to him as “James the Lord's brother” (Galatians 1:19). We read in Mark 6:3 that Jesus had brothers named James and Jude. So it’s possible - some would say probable - that this book was written by Jude, the younger brother of Jesus Christ. If so, he doesn’t begin by bragging about his blood relation to Jesus. He begins by identifying himself as everyone else - as a servant of Jesus Christ.

He’s writing to a particular audience: “to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” In other words, he’s writing to a group of people who have experienced the saving power of Jesus Christ, who have been called by God into a relationship with him, and who are being preserved for Jesus. They’re being kept spiritually intact for Christ.

So this is an important book. It’s important because it’s written by a leader in the early church, the blood brother of Jesus. It’s important because it’s written to the church, to those who have experienced salvation in Jesus Christ. It’s been recognized throughout history as the authoritative Word of God to his people. And it’s also important for what it doesn’t say. Letters usually identify the author and the recipients, and then move into a thanksgiving and prayer. But Jude skips this. It’s like he’s in a rush to get to the heart of the matter.

Specifically, in verses 3 and 4, he’s going to tell us two things: what matters most, and why it’s worth fighting for.

Delight in the Gospel

Jude writes in verse 3:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

Do you ever hang around people who always talk about the same things? You know before you start talking to them that it’s only a matter of time before the conversation gets to the same topic. Why? Because you know that the topic has gripped their heart. Because it’s gripped their heart it comes out in their speech. You can’t have a conversation with them without talking about their favorite topic.

In verse 3 you get a sense of what Jude would love to talk about if he could. “I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation.” As someone’s said, this is the letter that Jude wanted to write, rather than the letter he actually wrote, which we have before us. In verse 3 he also refers to this as “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” So what we see here are three things:

He delights in the gospel. He is eager to talk about it. Jude has got a favorite topic, and it’s what Jesus Christ has done to save us. If Jude could talk about anything, then this is what he would choose to discuss. It’s like Jude has a one-track mind, and if you let him talk for any length of time he would quickly come to his favorite topic, which is what Jesus Christ has done for us.

He delights in the gospel that is once and for all delivered. It’s not this nebulous thing that nobody can pin down. It’s not a message that’s evolving and that could mean anything. There is a completeness and finality to the gospel. It is the good news of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, the announcement that God has reconciled sinners to himself through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

He delights in the gospel that has once and for all been entrusted to us. He says that it’s been delivered to the saints. A few years ago we stopped at Webers on Highway 11 in Orillia. We got our food and ate at a picnic table. Josiah needed to go to the bathroom near the end of the meal, so he entrusted his french fries to our care. We got a little distracted, and when Josiah got back he discovered that some seagulls had taken an interest in his french fries. To this day he reminds us that he entrusted something to us, and that we failed to guard it carefully for him.

Jude says that the gospel has been entrusted to us. It’s much more valuable than anything else that’s been entrusted to us. We’d better guard it. Paul writes to Timothy, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14). It’s something that has been given to us for protection, for cherishing, and we are called to hold it and guard it and treasure it. Jude delights in the gospel. It’s what matters most. He shows us what it means to delight in the gospel.

Contend for the Gospel

Delight in the gospel; but he also calls us to contend for the gospel. He says:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:3-4)

Jude is saying that he would love nothing better than to share his delight in the gospel with us. But there’s a problem. He instead needs to write to appeal to his readers to contend for the gospel. The word contend was used back then of athletes who, in an effort to win, put all of their effort, struggling and fighting for the desired result toward the desired end. It’s a strong word. We don’t just delight in the gospel. We don’t even delight in the gospel and sort of put up with it getting a little muddled and confused here and there. We are called to put all of our energies into fighting for, struggling for, contending for the gospel.

I was in a hospital the other day. You know that in a hospital they always have announcements running through the loudspeaker. I heard doctors being paged and patients being called. After a while you’re only half listening to what’s being said. All of a sudden I heard a “white alert” and then a location for the incident. I don’t know what a white alert is, and that’s the whole point. I don’t think they want me to know. But I could tell by the way that it was said that it was something important.

Here, in Jude, we’re asked to contend.

...Our mind is forced to go on red alert. We are being asked to read standing in readiness. Jude is finished with pleasantries; some required action is at hand. Urgency and immediacy move him. He wants contenders, and he wants them now. And with this letter he means to raise them up. (David Helm)

I’ll put it this way. When we lost our dog, we didn’t really content. We looked around. I came home and sent a bunch of flyers to vets all over the area. We put in a reasonable effort to get him back. But we never really contended. We drove back and thought that we had probably seen the last of Buddy.

If we had lost one of our children instead of our dog, we would have contended. We would have not come home until we returned with that child. We would have stopped at nothing. We would have struggled, put in all of our effort, and fought until we had the desired result we were looking for. That’s what Jude is telling us. Don’t treat the loss of the gospel like you would a lost dog. Don’t sort of try to get it back. Put all your energy into it. Delight in the gospel, but also contend for the gospel.

The reason we need to do this is because there’s a danger. The reason for the danger is found in the end of verse 3: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” We’re going to look more at who these people were next week, and what they were teaching. But I want you to notice the danger. These people were within the church. They weren’t out there teaching false doctrines. There were people within the church who were perverting the grace of God, and somehow denying Christ through what they were teaching. It reminds me of what Paul said to the Ephesian elders in the book of Acts:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. (Acts 20:29-31)

All throughout the New Testament we’re told that there will be people who distort the gospel. So the need is serious. We need to contend for the gospel because it is what we delight in. We need to contend for the gospel because it is the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. And we need to contend for the gospel because we continually face the danger of losing the gospel. The gospel, Jude says, is worth fighting for.

John Piper summarizes the message that Jude is communicating:

  1. There is a faith once for all delivered to the saints.
  2. This faith is worth contending for.
  3. This faith is repeatedly threatened from within the church.
  4. Every genuine believer should contend for the faith.

Jude tells us to delight in the gospel, but he also tells us to contend for the gospel. If we lose the gospel, we’ve lost everything.

So What?

So let me close here this morning by applying this sermon in three ways.

First: do you know the gospel? I realize this morning that we’ve been talking about the gospel as if it’s clear that everyone knows what we’re talking about. We can never assume this. Actually, I think that pastors have to take some responsibility here. My preaching professor, Haddon Robinson, says that a lot of pastors talk about the gospel, but they’re never very clear what they’re talking about. So let me be clear what I’m saying. 1 Corinthians 15 gives us the core of the gospel:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures... (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

From this passage we see three things about the gospel:

  • It’s what saves us. The gospel is what we’ve received; it’s the thing by which we’re being saved. The gospel saves.
  • The gospel is about Jesus: his death, burial, and resurrection. The gospel centers on the cross and the empty tomb.
  • Christ died for our sins. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” (1 Peter 3:18)

That’s it. “The gospel has been described as a pool in which a toddler can wade and yet an elephant can swim. It is both simple enough to tell to a child and profound enough for the greatest minds to explore. Indeed, even angels never tire of looking into it” (Tim Keller). That’s not all there is to the gospel, but it’s the essence. We need the gospel.

Second: do you delight in the gospel? I had a conversation with someone on Thursday who reminded me that our actions communicate what we’re excited about. It’s possible to believe the gospel but not to delight in it. I’ll never forget what I heard Don Carson say:

If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.

If the gospel—even when you are orthodox—becomes something which you primarily assume, but what you are excited about is what you are doing in some sort of social reconstruction, you will be teaching the people that you influence that the gospel really isn’t all that important. You won’t be saying that—you won’t even mean that—but that’s what you will be teaching. And then you are only half a generation away from losing the gospel.

Make sure that in your own practice and excitement, what you talk about, what you think about, what you pray over, what you exude confidence over, joy over, what you are enthusiastic about is Jesus, the gospel, the cross. And out of that framework, by all means, let the transformed life flow.

I want people to know that I’m excited about the gospel. As the hymn says, “Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.”

Finally: are you ready to contend for the gospel? Here’s how easy it is to lose the gospel: “The first generation has the gospel, the second generation assumes the gospel, and the third generation loses the Gospel” (Carson). We need to contend for the gospel. This means that we delight in the gospel, but it also means that we ‘re clear what we’re not about. A pastor (Justin Buzzard) talked about his struggle in this area:

While I think it is important to be known more for what you are for than what you are against, just a cursory reading of the Bible shows that it also calls us to deal with false teaching. Why? Because false teaching is dangerous and destructive; it hurts people.

About ten years ago I heard Ben Patterson say something that I will never forget. Ben told the story of a retired pastor who began noticing that his former congregation was sliding away from orthodoxy. The pastor saw this as his fault, noting the one thing he thought he did most poorly as a pastor. The pastor stated, in two sentences, his great failure as a pastor: "I always told people what to believe. My great mistake is that I never clearly taught my people what NOT to believe."

We need to be positive about the gospel. We also need to contend for the gospel when the gospel is being lost.

That’s what Jude is about. Delight in the gospel and contend for the gospel. If you have this, you have everything. If you lose this, you lose everything.

The End of the Matter (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)

For months now we’ve been looking at one of the most interesting books ever written. I mentioned last week what Bono of U2 thinks of this book:

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. It’s about a character who wants to find out why he’s alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything.

He is not alone in his admiration for this book. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, called Ecclesiastes “the truest of all books.” Thomas Wolfe described it as “the highest flower of poetry, eloquence and truth” and “the greatest single piece of writing I have known.” If you’ve been here these past few months, I hope you’ve had glimpses of why this is such an important book.

But we need to be honest. It’s not an easy book. It seems depressing at times. Other times it’s peppy. There’s lots of controversy about how to interpret the book and how it’s written. One of the reasons I wanted to tackle Ecclesiastes is because it has a lot to say to us. But one of the reasons I wanted to tackle this book is because I’ve preached through it before, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do better. I wanted to really understand the message of this book and what it means for us today.

So this morning we come to the end. And as we get to the end, a couple of things are going to happen. First: we’re going to see why we need to listen to Ecclesiastes; why we shouldn’t skip over this book. Second: we’re going to see the core message of this book, and how our lives should change as a result.

First: why should we pay attention to this book?

As we get to the end of chapter 12, the tone shifts. It looks like verses 9 to the end are written by an editor, or by the Teacher himself as he steps out of his role and reflects on what he’s doing. At first glance it looks a little self-congratulatory, but it really isn’t. Verses 9 to 12 give us insight into what the author has been doing in this book and how we should interpret it.

Verses 9 to 12 say:

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Here’s why we need to pay attention to this book. The comments here put the entire book into perspective and help us understand what the Teacher has been trying to do. We’re told that this book has five qualities that make it important for us to consider.

It’s written with logical clarity. The Teacher, we read, considered all the wise sayings that he had heard with great care. He weighed them and considered which ones were useful and important. Not only that, but he then arranged them in this book logically. This book hasn’t been thrown together at random, but carefully constructed as a piece of literature. This is a book that is clear, logical, and carefully arranged.

It’s also written with literary artistry. It’s not just logical; its put together with artistry. As someone’s put it, whether you agree with the Teacher’s message or not, nobody criticizes his writing style. This guy knows how to write. It’s a work of literary beauty. It’s designed to “please the ear, inspire the imagination, fascinate the mind, and delight the soul” (Phil Ryken).

So it’s written with logical clarity and literary artistry; it’s also written in alignment with reality. Verse 10 says “he wrote words of truth.” You’ll have noticed that the Teacher doesn’t sugarcoat things. Some of us like to be a little careful in how we say things. I heard of a Christian leader who fired someone. He did it so nicely that the guy showed up for work the next day. He fired the guy so gently that the guy didn’t even know that he had been fired. The Teacher doesn’t do this. He tells it like it is. We can always count on the Teacher to tell us the truth.

It’s also written with a practical purpose. Verse 11 says they’re like goads, like firmly fixed nails. Goads are one of the tools that shepherds use to drive oxen down a road. A goad is a long, pointed stick used to prod and poke oxen so that they go in the right direction. I think we can all agree that Ecclesiastes has somewhat of a poky feel to it. It certainly feels like a long pointed stick poking us in places we’d rather not be poked, but we need it. If we pay attention to this book, it will save us from going down some roads we may take if there wasn’t somebody standing there with a sharp stick telling us not to go that way.

Ultimately one of the most important reasons we need to pay attention to this book is because it’s given to us by one Shepherd, according to verse 11. It’s the first time that the word shepherd has been used in this book. It could be a reference to the Teacher who wrote this book. But it’s not usually used this way. It’s most often used of God in Scripture. The only other times the term “one shepherd” is used in the Old Testament, it refers to the promised descendent of David who will come one day. It seems likely that the “shepherd” mentioned here is none other than God himself, which is why it’s capitalized in most versions. This means that Ecclesiastes are not just the musings of some skeptical philosopher; they’re part of God’s revelation to us. As our Shepherd, God uses this book to prod us in the right direction with our lives.

This is why verse 12 says:

My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of books come out. You can’t keep up. You can’t even try. I’m an avid reader, but even the really committed readers I know only read about 100 books a year. That means they’re reading only a fraction of a percent of what comes out. You can’t even keep up with the book reviews!

So how do you keep up? Verse 12 tells us we don’t have to. There’s room for other books, but Ecclesiastes warns us to be careful. Beware of going beyond the “collected sayings” that God has provided. What God has revealed in his Word is enough. There is no need to go beyond what he’s provided. By far the most important book we have is the Bible, including the book of Ecclesiastes. We need to pay attention to this book more than all the others.

That’s why this book is so important. This book has logical clarity. It has literary artistry. It’s aligned with reality. It’s practical and it can prod us in the right direction. It’s God-breathed Scripture. We need to pay attention to this book. That’s the first thing that this passage tells us.

Secondly, we discover the core message of the book.

In case you’re confused about what the Teacher’s been saying - and then a summary of the conclusions of the book.

Let me briefly summarize what the book has said. His basic message has been about meaninglessness. He keeps saying things like:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2)

The word vain or vanity or meaningless, depending on your transition, appears some 35 times in this book. It doesn’t mean that everything is worthless. It means that everything is like a breath or a vapor: it’s temporary and passing. Throughout the book he’s examined our lives and concluded that everything in this life is vanity. The surprising thing is that he doesn’t just say that bad things are meaningless. He says that good things like pleasure, popularity, youth, work, wealth, and achievement are all meaningless. Everything is fleeting, and it will soon be forgotten. Ultimately, death makes everything meaningless if it wasn’t meaningless already.

It reminds me of the news story:

JACKSONVILLE, FL-- “Aladdin,” a greyhound that races at the Jacksonville Dogtrack in Jacksonville, Florida, was bitterly disappointed when he finally caught the rabbit he’s been chasing all these years and discovered it was mechanical. 

“Boy do I feel stupid,” said the greyhound. “I feel like such a fool. I’ve completely wasted my life chasing around this... mechanical rabbit.”

Aladdin had been running at the Jacksonville track for many years and chasing various mechanical animals along the way. The notion that they all may have been fake was a huge blow to him and the other dogs. Many of them paused to ponder the meanings of their lives, and wondered what the future would be like with no animals to chase.

“All my life I’ve been chasing this rabbit around thinking someday I’d be able to catch it and have a...good meal,” Alladin said. “I became obsessed with it. I admit it. It was unhealthy, but that rabbit represented something to me. And now, to find out it wasn’t even a real rabbit after all, well that’s just devastating.”

That’s the main message of Ecclesiastes, and it’s an important one for us to hear. Thousands of years later we’re still tempted to try to find meaning in all the things that the Teacher says are meaningless. It won’t work. One Christmas all the children in a family gathered around in great anticipation of opening the gifts. The gifts had been voluptuously wrapped with ribbons, and the kids were excited. Paper began to fly everywhere as they hurriedly unwrapped all of their gifts. The gifts had cost a lot and they had been well packaged. With great vim and vitality, the children began the process of unwrapping them. However, when all the gifts had been unwrapped, one of the children ask, “Is this all there is?” Evidently, some of you have experienced that. Many of us have unwrapped life and we want to know if this is all there is. The Teacher wants us to know that you can unwrap all that you can find in life, and that indeed is all that there is.

But he doesn’t leave us hopeless. He says in verses 13-14:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

When you consider everything that the Teacher has written, you get down to the essence of living. That’s actually what “the whole duty of man” means - it’s the essence of life. It’s taking away everything that’s extraneous and boiling it down to what’s at the core. Two things.

First: Fear God. It’s something that he’s said all throughout the book. To fear God isn’t to cower. Fearing God means that we know who he is and where we stand in relation to him. It means taking him seriously, acknowledging him in our lives as the highest good. It means revering him, honoring him, and worshiping him. Tony Evans puts it best:

The old belief, centuries ago, was that the sun revolved around the earth. As we now know, this belief was wrong. The earth revolves around the sun. Many of us have got it wrong in our spiritual lives. God doesn’t revolve around us. We revolve around Him. We know that we fear God when we have made Him the centerpiece of our lives.

Second: Keep his commandments. This is what life is about. The most important thing for anyone to do is to worship God and obey his commandments. According to Charles Bridges it is “his whole happiness and business - the total sum of all that concerns him - all that God requires of him - all that the Savior enjoins - all that the Holy Spirit teaches and works in him.” We were made to worship and obey.

Verse 14 gives us a reason, but it also gives us meaning. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” If what Ecclesiastes says is true, and there is no God, then life really is mad, and nothing does matter. If everything is meaningless and this life is all that there is, then life would be completely absurd. But at the end of this book we’re reminded that this is not all that there is, and that life does matter. Because we will stand before God our judge, everything matters. This isn’t all there is. As someone’s said, “The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters but that everything does” (Phil Ryken).

So here’s the point of the whole book. Life is a series of dead ends apart from God. So, fear God, and show it by keeping his commandments.

So let me ask you three questions.

One: are you taking any of the dead ends that the Teacher talks about? Do you need to be poked with any of his prods so that you don’t go down the wrong road in your search for meaning? There’s nothing wrong with work or pleasure or money or accomplishment, but they make terrible idols. Don’t take the dead ends. Learn from what the Teacher has taught us.

Two: have you experienced the Copernican revolution and oriented your life around God? That’s what it means to fear God. God does not revolve around our puny lives. The best discovery you can make is that we exist for God’s glory, and that we need to orient our lives around him and make his glory our priority. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Finally: are you demonstrating your love for him by obeying his commandments? Better yet, have you discovered the one who loved God perfectly and obeyed his commandments on your behalf? Jesus is the only one who has obeyed verses 13 and 14 perfectly. He came and offered his life for us. Graeme Goldsworthy says:

The gospel is saying that, what man cannot do in order to be accepted with God, this God himself has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ. To be acceptable to God we must present to God a life of perfect and unceasing obedience to his will. The gospel declares that Jesus has done this for us. For God to be righteous he must deal with our sin. This also he has done for us in Jesus. The holy law of God was lived out perfectly for us by Christ, and its penalty was paid perfectly for us by Christ. The living and dying of Christ for us, and this alone is the basis of our acceptance with God.

Our obedience is then a response to what he’s done for us rather than an attempt to get something from him.

Life is a series of dead ends apart from God. So, fear God, and show it by keeping his commandments. Put your trust in Christ, worship, and obey.

Enjoy Life, Fear God (Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8)

For 11 years, Mary Leonard of Louisville, Kentucky, has dealt with polymyositis, a rare inflammatory tissue disease that invades the muscles. There is no known cause or cure.

Mary's case turned deadly when the disease invaded her heart. In fact, in March of 2010, Mary was told by doctors that she had 24-48 hours to live. But after 20 days in a hospice center, another 51 days in rehab, and a number of days at home, Mary is still alive. She's now reflecting on the changes that take place when you learn your time is short.

"I call myself an average Christian," Mary says. "I don't know exactly why God has done this for me, but I do know that life looks different now." She says she’s learned five life lessons as she’s grasped the brevity of life:

  • Know that prayer is powerful.
  • Mend fences now.
  • Release the reins of life to God.
  • Know that God is able—more than able.
  • Put your focus on what really matters.

We’re coming to the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, a wonderful Old Testament book. As we get to the end, we’re also getting to the climax. In the passage we have before us, the Teacher is laying his cards on the table. You’ll remember that the Teacher has been exploring life and trying to find its meaning.

In the passage we have before us, the Teacher is saying to us what the doctors said to Mary: You only have a short time to live. He makes the case for this in this passage, because he knows he’s speaking to some of us who are young and who don’t believe it. Then he tells us how we should live in light of this reality.

Here’s the message of this passage: Life is short. Enjoy life while you can, and remember God. So let’s look at how he explains this. One: Life is short. Two: Enjoy life while you can. Three: remember God.

One: Life is short.

On Wednesday, June 29, elementary school kids are going to get out of school for the summer. They are going to enjoy 68 glorious days of no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers giving them the well-deserved dirty looks they’ve come to expect. You know that many of our kids live in dog years. For them the 68 days is the equivalent of years!

Many of us suffer from the reverse problem. At some point you reach the age in which you are living in reverse dog years. The summer for you is going to be the equivalent of about a week.

The issue that the Teacher is addressing in this passage is that many of us have not grasped that life is very short. We only have a very limited time. When you’re young, you don’t realize this. So he says in verses 7 and 8:

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

You may be surprised by verse 7. Most people think the Teacher is a pessimist. In verse 7 he uses light as an image for life and says that life is good. It’s sweet! You want to enjoy life the way that you enjoy the sweetness of honey. You want to enjoy life as much as you can.

In verse 8 he continues: “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all.” Sometimes we begin to take life for granted. We can go through entire years in which we’re not really living. We’re waiting. We’re in a holding pattern. The Teacher tells us not to do this. Really live. Really engage in life.

But then he says: “let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.” This is the sobering part. He’s writing to young people who have all of life in front of them and who may be tempted to waste some years of their life because they have so many. He’s telling them that life is sweet, but is it ever short. It’s going to be over before you know it. We are mortal. Our days are few. Soon this life that we have will be over, and all of our works will fade away. Life is very short; death is long, according to verse 8. We must remember this if we are to live life wisely now.

Just in case we don’t get his point, the Teacher includes a poignant and moving description of what it’s like to get older in 12:1-8. Remember that he’s writing to young people. He even says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Here’s the reason why. The Teacher says that there’s going to come a time when we’re not young anymore. “Die early or grow old; there is no other alternative. And yet, as Goethe said, ‘Age takes hold of us by surprise’” (Simone de Beauvoir). Here’s the problem: I want to live 90 years and die as a 30-year-old. The Teacher tells us that it isn’t going to happen. He says that one day:

  • we’ll stop taking pleasure in life (12:2)
  • our eyesight will diminish and we’ll long for the days when we only needed bifocals (12:3)
  • Our bodies will be like a decaying old house that trembles and is weak (12:3)
  • Our teeth will decay (12:3)
  • Our hearing will diminish (12:4)
  • We’ll be much more fearful of falling or of dangers (12:5)
  • Our hair will change color if we have any (12:5)
  • Our sexual desire will diminish (12:5)
  • We’ll become less agile, and eventually we’ll die (12:5-7)

You try telling someone who’s young that all of this is true. The Teacher says: it is true. And when you’re young, it’s very important to understand that life is sweet, but it is also very short.

A woman went to a new doctor. She realized she had gone to school with this doctor. He was the cute guy in class that he had a crush on. She said, “I think I remember you from this school.” He looked at her and said, “You were at that school? What did you teach?” Like this doctor, the Teacher is reminding us that time is going much quicker than we think. When we are young we had better realize that life is sweet, but our time is short, much shorter than we could ever think when we’re young.

So what should we do?

Life is short. So enjoy life while you can.

How do we respond to the brevity of life? The Teacher says:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

This is confusing at first. On one hand, you can look at death and allow yourself to be depressed. Or, on the other hand, you can deny death and be happy. These are the two options that we normally hold out before people. Pretend you’re ageless and really live, or acknowledge the reality of death and hate everything about it. Our culture is all about this. We spend $88 billion a year trying to look younger and trying to prevent aging so that we don’t have to look at the fact that our lives are short, and that we’re farther alone than many of us would like.

But here the Teacher gives us another alternative: Look at the brevity of life and allow it to drive you to make the most of every moment. He refuses to embrace denial or cynicism and calls us to realistic joy, knowing that we have limited time and so we’d better make it count.

He commands us to rejoice; to let our hearts be glad. He calls us to “let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.” If you are young, you have a unique opportunity to put this into practice. You aren’t yet facing the problems of aging that he describes in the next chapter. Your body is strong. The future is full of possibilities. You have the freedom to take risks and to chose your direction in life. You can dream about the difference you’ll make with your life.

So he advises you to take advantage of your youth, because your youth will not last. Chase after your hopes. He even says in verse 10 that you should eliminate the things in your life that trouble your body and soul. When you’re young, again, you have the opportunity to deal with things at their early stages. We planted a little willow twig in our backyard when we moved in 20 years ago. The first little while I could have just walked up to that twig and yanked it out of the ground. Today it’s a huge tree, and it’s not going anywhere. When you’re young, deal with things and take advantage of the unique opportunities you have in life, because youth is fleeting. You won’t have a chance to do this forever.

He’s not telling us to be self-indulgent and to live as we please. But he is telling us to live joyfully in the world that God has created, knowing that we don’t have unlimited time to do so. When we’re young, it looks like we have countless days ahead of us. So the Teacher tells us to realize the opportunities aren’t unlimited. Don’t postpone the opportunities God has given you. Don’t postpone enjoyment to a future time when you, say, have your own car, finish university, are married, or have a great job. Enjoy the present!

This is a theme that comes up a lot in Scripture. Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Paul says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).

What we don’t want is to look back at life one day and wish we lived differently when we had the chance. In his book Don't Waste Your Life, John Piper recounts a story his father often told in his days as a fiery Baptist evangelist. It is the story of a man who came to saving faith in Jesus Christ near the end of his earthly existence. Piper writes:

The church had prayed for this man for decades. He was hard and resistant. But this time, for some reason, he showed up when my father was preaching. At the end of the service, during a hymn, to everyone's amazement he came and took my father's hand. They sat down together on the front pew of the church as the people were dismissed. God opened his heart to the Gospel of Christ, and he was saved from his sins and given eternal life. But that did not stop him from sobbing and saying, as the tears ran down his wrinkled face, "I've wasted it! I've wasted it!"

Don’t be that man! But even if you are, another pastor comments on this story:

By the grace of God, even a life that is almost totally wasted can still be redeemed. As the Scottish theologian Thomas Boston once said, our present existence is only "a short preface to a long eternity." If that is true, then the man's life was not wasted after all; he was only just beginning an eternal life of endless praise. But why wait even a moment longer before starting to serve Jesus? You have only one life to live. Don't waste it by living for yourself when you can use it instead for the glory of God. (Phil Ryken)

Life is short. So enjoy life while you can. But there’s one more thing the Teacher tells us.

Life is short. Enjoy life while you can, and remember God.

11:9 says, “But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” This doesn’t put a damper on our pursuit of joy. This isn’t a downer. Seize every moment and enjoy the gifts God has given you, but remember God in your joy. Don’t give in to irresponsible self-indulgence. See enjoyment as a gift from God. Remember God so that you can enjoy your life.

Again, 12:1 says: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.” The Teacher reminds us that God is our Creator. He is the one who has given us everything that we have. He gave us life. He is the one who’s given us our family and friends. He’s created everything we have that we get to enjoy.

The problem is that it is so easy to forget the one who made us, especially when we’re young. It’s so easy to simply live for ourselves. It’s easy to forget. One of the reasons we celebrate communion so regularly is because we need to be reminded on a regular basis what Christ has done for us. We are far too quick to forget.

Life is short, so enjoy it while you can. But while you’re enjoying it, don’t forget the one who created you. The one who created you is not only your Maker but your Judge. The only way to live in light of someone who is both your Creator and Judge and who’s given you everything is to live your life in orbit around him. Center your life on him. Give your life to God now, while you still have enough passion to make a difference in the world. How much more is this true when we realize that God is not just our Maker and our Judge but also our Savior. We come to remember this morning that the one who made us and the one who will judge us is also revealed as the Triune God. God sent his Son to die for our sins, and the Son willingly came. The one who made us became the one who died for us. He’s given us this brief life in which we can enjoy the strength he’s given us to really live, knowing that our Creator and Judge is also our Savior.

Bono from U2 has written:

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. It’s about a character who wants to find out why he’s alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything. You hurry to the end of the book to find out why, and it says, “Remember your Creator.” In a way, it’s such a letdown. Yet it isn’t.

Bono’s right. It’s not a letdown. Getting to know your Creator, Judge, and Savior before we grow old and die is one of the most important things we can ever do. No matter how old you are, you have the opportunity to use the rest of your life beginning now, resolving to waste no more time, but to live every moment for the glory of the one who is your Creator, Judge, and Savior.

Let’s pray.

Years ago, Jonathan Edwards made these resolutions.

  • Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  • Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
  • Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
  • Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
  • Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God's glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure.

Father, may we resolve today to know that life is short. And may we resolve to make the most of every moment you’ve given us. Most of all, may we resolve to live every day in light of the one who not only created us, and who will not only judge us, but who has also saved us. In the name of Jesus our Savior we pray. Amen.

Be Bold and Wise (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6)

If you travel to Cairo, Egypt, you can visit an abandoned graveyard at the end of a garbage-lined alley. And if you look carefully at that graveyard, you’ll come across one tombstone in particular. The tombstone is for William Borden (1887-1913). You wouldn’t expect this grave to belong to anyone important, but you’d be wrong. William Borden was educated at Yale and Princeton. He became a Christian under the ministry of the great evangelist D.L. Moody. He was heir to the Borden dairy estate, which was a fortune. But William Borden gave it all away out of a desire to share the gospel with those who had never heard it.

So Borden decided to become a missionary to the Muslims of China. He was a millionaire by the time he was 21, but he gave it all away to missions. His father told him he would never work in the company again. Borden traveled to Egypt for his missionary training, but while he was there he contracted spinal meningitis and died at the age of 25, before he had even reached his mission field. And really all that’s left of his life is this gravestone in an abandoned cemetery at the end of a garbage-lined alley. Borden risked everything, and he lost everything as a result.

We’re looking today at the book of Ecclesiastes, and the story I just told really seems to belong with this book. It’s depressing! The story that I just told could be used as an incentive to play it safe. See what happens when you take a risk? Look at what happened to William Borden! That’s what happens if you go into missions! I could tell you all kinds of stories that would make you retreat from life and play things completely safe and never take any risks at all.

When our kids were young, Charlene told them a story about a lady who was eating chicken. I’m not quite sure about all the details of the story, but I think the story involved choking on a chicken bone and almost dying. To this day our kids are cautious when eating chicken that contains any bones. Who knew that eating at Swiss Chalet could be so dangerous? It’s easy to conclude that we should just retreat to safety and never take any risks at all.

In 1927, a small fire took place at a theatre in Montreal. 800 children were watching a movie. When smoke began to fill the theatre, the kids panicked. 78 children died. The next year they passed a law that children under 16 would be forbidden from attending theaters screenings. The law stayed on the books for 33 years.

Life is uncertain. Missionaries die. People choke on bones. Kids die in theaters. Maybe we should agree right here and now that nobody should ever be a missionary, we should never eat chicken, and no more movies for our kids!

That’s what we’re looking at in the passage we have before us. Multiple times in this passage, the Teacher tells us that we don’t know what’s going to happen in life. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen, how then should we live? Should we play it safe, or take risks?

That’s the question the Teacher answers. And he says two things.

First, he says, take wise risks.

In the light of the risks of life, should we take risks or play it safe? The Teacher answers in verse 1:

Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

What does this mean? It obviously doesn’t mean getting soggy pieces of bread back that you’ve thrown into the waves. The new edition of the NIV puts it this way:

Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.

You see what the Teacher is saying here? Life is risky. The world is uncertain. There are all kinds of ways that we can take risks and end up losing everything. When Ecclesiastes was written, Israel had been transformed from a small agricultural nation to one that was right on the trading route between Egypt and Asia/Europe. Some Israelites had already lost fortunes. In chapter 5, the Teacher had already talked about someone who had lost everything in a bad venture. So what should we do? In verse 1, the Teacher tells us to take a risk. Engage in international trade, and wait for the goods to sell, and the ships to return with fine goods from foreign lands. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. To “find it after many days” is to receive the reward that comes after risking a wise investment. Get out there and make something happen, the Teacher says.

Verse 2 continues the thought, but adds a condition:

Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

Here again you have the element of risk. You probably follow what he’s teaching here: don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Diversify your investments. Don’t withdraw from investing, because then you’ll lose out on any potential gain. Don’t just invest in one or two ventures, because they could fail, and if they fail you lose everything. Invest in seven or eight ventures. Some of them are bound to fail, but some of them may do well, and may be more than enough to make up for what you could lose. Take risks, but take them wisely.

He’s emphasizing how risky all of this is, but he gives us some perspective in the next verse:

If clouds are full of water,
they pour rain on the earth.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where it falls, there it will lie.

Here’s what he’s saying. We know some things. If the clouds are full of water, it’s going to rain at some point. If a tree falls, you may not know which way it’s going to fall, but once it’s fallen it’s not getting back up. There are some things we can know for sure. This makes it even more important for us to make wise investments, because if we carefully study how things should work, then we should know that some things work better than others.

We’re going to apply this in a minute, but let’s look first at the second thing that he tells us. He’s told us to invest boldly and wisely. Now he tells us what not to do.

Second, don’t wait for perfect conditions.

This is what he tells us in verse 4:

Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

Some people don’t struggle with taking too many risks. Some people are so risk-averse that they wait for conditions to be perfect before they try anything.

The picture the Teacher gives us is of a farmer waiting for perfect conditions in which to plant. It’s important to pay attention to conditions. Even today farmers will study clouds or watch the weather channel. Back when this was written, the ideal conditions for sowing would be when there was minimal wind. That way you could scatter the seeds evenly over the field. But you could get carried away and never scatter the seed because the conditions were never good enough. At some point, you have to take the risk. At some point, you just have to scatter the seed.

Do you see the picture that the Teacher is developing here? Take risks, but take them wisely. Don’t wait for perfect conditions. If you wait for perfect conditions then you’ll never do anything, because the perfect conditions may never materialize. Take a chance, not just in business but in life. If you don’t take a risk, you won’t ever do anything with what God has given you.

Here’s the conclusion, in verses 5 and 6:

As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of all things.
Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well.

We don’t know a lot, the Teacher says. We don’t know what God will prosper, or what will fail. So don’t let that stop you from doing something. Let that be the very reason that you get out there and make things happen. Sow your seed in the morning. Get to work in the evening. Take a risk. God is sovereign, and it just may be that he uses something that you do.

This is so important that Jesus said a similar thing. In Matthew 25, Jesus told a story about servants who were given money to invest on behalf of their master. Some invested very well and were commended by the master. But one servant played it safe because he didn’t want to take any risks. The master was incredibly harsh. He squandered the opportunity he had to do something with what his master had given him.

So What?

This may be one of the easiest passages in Ecclesiastes to explain, but one of the hardest to apply.

Life and ministry are risky. There are risks everyday. There are risks in using the gifts that God has given us. There’s a risk to sharing our faith. There’s a risk in having children. There’s a risk in giving financially to support ministries. There’s risk in going to the mission field. There’s risk in almost everything that we do.

We are prone to play it safe. Whenever we look at Scripture, it’s good to ask what part of our fallen natures this particular passage addresses. In this case, I think this passage is confronting our fears. We are prone to fear. I don’t think of myself as a fearful person. Last year, through a series of events, God revealed to me that I am much more fearful than I had ever imagined myself to be. It was a revelation that I didn’t welcome at first, but I’m glad that God revealed some of my fears to me. We can spend our entire lives running scared, more fearful of events and people than we are of God.

God calls us to live lives of holy boldness. If you look at Matthew 25, Jesus is calling us to wisely risk what God has given us to profit our master - God. God is calling us to wisely invest our lives to his glory. One day we will give account to God for what we’ve done with what he’s given us. Jesus makes it clear that we won’t be able to say that we just played it safe. So let me ask you: what has God called you to do that you haven’t done because of fear?

Finally, we need to see that the results are in his hands. We are not in charge of results. We are in charge of being faithful with what God has given us. The rest is up to God.

I began with the story of William Borden. He risked, and it looked like he lost. After his death, Borden's Bible was found and given to his parents. In it they found in one place the words "No Reserve" and a date placing the note shortly after he renounced his fortune in favor of missions. At a later point, he had written "No Retreat", dated shortly after his father told he would never let him work in the company ever again. Shortly before he died in Egypt, he added the phrase "No Regrets." Borden risked, but he risked appropriately.

I could speak of other missionaries. Missionary Karen Watson was killed in Iraq. She wrote this letter in 2003, almost a year to the day before she was killed.

Dear Pastor Phil and Pastor Roger:

You should only be opening this letter in the event of my death.

When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations. I wasn't called to a place. I was called to him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward, his glory my reward.

One of the most important things to remember right now is to preserve the work….I am writing this as if I am still working with my people group.

I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. Surely your reward in heaven will be great. Thank you for investing in my life and spiritual well-being. Keep sending missionaries out. Keep raising up fine young pastors.

In regards to any service, keep it small and simple. Yes, simply, just preach the gospel….Be bold and preach the life-saving, life-changing, forever-eternal gospel. Give glory and honor to our Father.

The Missionary Heart:
Care more than some think is wise.
Risk more than some think is safe.
Dream more than some think is practical.
Expect more than some think is possible.

I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience….There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him. I love you two and my church family.

In his care,
Salaam,
Karen

I could even remind you that nobody really knows the impact of the actions they’ve taken. Luke Short was 103 when he thought of a sermon that he once heard. Sitting in Virginia, he asked God to forgive his sins through Jesus Christ. He died three years later at 106. His tombstone read, “Here lies a babe in grace, aged three years, who died according to nature, aged 106.” But here’s the remarkable part: the sermon that he remembered that caused him to become a Christian that day was one that he had heard 85 years earlier across the ocean in England. Nearly a century had passed between the preaching of his sermon and the conversion; between the sowing and the reaping. You never know what God might do.

Because we don’t know what God will prosper, use every opportunity to live wisely and boldly. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, because you never know what God may prosper.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

How Easter Changes People (John 20:1-10)

This semester I’ve had the privilege of teaching some preaching students. The past couple of weeks they’ve preached. After they are done preaching, I get up and ask the other students, “What was the main idea, the one thing that the preacher was trying to say?” Sometimes they get it word for word. Other times they shrug their shoulders and look at each other. Sometimes I ask the preachers and they don’t know their big idea. Then you know we’re in real trouble.Easter Sunday is too important to waste, so let me give you my big idea for the sake of clarity. As we look at this text, I want to take the next few minutes to say one thing. If you walk away this morning forgetting everything else I’ve said, I want you to get this: Unlikely and quirky people who don’t get it encounter Easter and are changed forever. Again: Unlikely and quirky people who don’t get it encounter Easter and are changed forever.Let me explain.

Unlikely and Quirky People

In the passage we have before us, we have three main characters. What I love about these characters is that they are so unlikely and so quirky. These are not heroic figures. These people are about as real as they get.First, you have Mary Magdalene. She is the first person to see the empty tomb. This makes her the first witness of what happened on that Easter morning. She’s the most unlikely person for a couple of reasons. For one thing, she’s female at a time when people didn’t accept the testimony of women. In Israel no woman could be a witness in a court of law. A woman's testimony was inadmissible and worthless. And yet in John 20 it is a woman who is entrusted with the most crucial testimony the world can ever hear.But there’s something else that makes Mary Magdalene the most unlikely person to be a witness to what happens. In Luke 8 and Mark 16 we learn a little bit more about who she is. Luke 8:2 identifies her as “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.” We don’t know much more about her, but this is enough to tell you that she had a past. Philip Yancey comments on the sharp contrast between how Jesus treated moral failures and how we his followers often do:Jesus appointed the Samaritan woman as his first missionary. He defended the woman who anointed him with expensive perfume: "Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." And Mary Magdalene, she of the seven demons, he honored as the very first witness of the Resurrection—a testimony at first discounted by his more prestigious followers. Where we shame, he elevates.So Mary’s the unlikely one, but then we have two quirky characters. In verses 4 to 10 you have the somewhat comical picture of two of the disciples who hear the report of the empty tomb and go to investigate. One is Peter. If you read the gospels, you understand a little about Peter’s character. He’s impetuous. He’s the first to open his mouth, even when he shouldn’t. In this passage you have him rushing to the tomb. He’s not as fast a runner as the other disciple, but when he catches up he doesn’t hesitate to go in and investigate. Then there’s the other disciple - probably John, who wrote this book - who gets there first but hesitates to go in, as you would probably do before you came to an open grave.Here’s the picture you get. These are people who are completely unexpected, and somewhat quirky. The good news of Easter is that it’s for ordinary people in all of our ordinariness and in all of our quirkiness. It’s not for airbrushed and heroic people. It’s for people like Mary Magdalene, people like John and Peter, people like you and me. Easter is about unlikely and quirky people. 1 Corinthians 1:27 says, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”But that’s not all. They’re not just unlikely and quirky.

Who Don't Get It

They're not just unlikely and quirky. They also don't get it. This is great news for those of us who also don’t get it. All through his ministry, Jesus had predicted that he would die. He also predicted what would take place afterwards. He predicted that he would rise again from the dead. We read, for instance, in John 2:Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19-22)If the disciples had understood, they would have been there waiting. But they didn’t understand. They didn’t get it. I think John is making this point even in how he introduces this chapter: “Now on the first day of the week…” Not “on the third day…” That would assume that we were keeping track, that we were counting down in anticipation of his resurrection. No, it’s the first day of the week. They show up not expecting anything but a dead body. They simply don’t get it.You see this by the confusion that takes place. They seem at first to think that maybe a grave robber has been there. This wouldn’t have been completely surprising. Grave robbery was so common that the Emperor Claudius eventually ordered capital punishment for those convicted of destroying tombs, removing bodies, or even displacing the sealing stones. If you want proof that they didn’t get it, though, then you just have to look at verse 9: “for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”This is comforting for me. Have you ever been to a movie that’s so confusing that you can’t figure it out? You have to ask others all kinds of questions or go online when you get home to figure out what happened. I’ve seen a bunch of movies that seemed brilliant, and that I didn’t understand at all. It was like that in school as well. There were some subjects that I just got. There were other subjects that I just couldn’t get no matter how hard I tried.It turns out that Easter is for those of us who just don’t get it. In Luke 24, Jesus said this to a couple of people who should have understood Easter but just didn’t get it: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25). Easter is not for those who are spiritually advanced. The Gospel of John is telling us that it’s for people who don’t get it, people like you and me.Remember that I only want you to remember one thing this morning. Let’s review so far and then add the next building block.

Encounter Easter and are changed forever.

We’ve already covered the first two parts of this: that this passage is about unlikely and quirky people who don’t get it. But this is the next part: they encounter Easter and are changed forever.It’s here that we see something that you have to face as you look at the biblical accounts of Easter. One biblical scholar notes that there is a pattern that takes place in all the resurrection narratives:
  1. The beneficiaries of the appearance are engulfed in a human emotion (Mary, grief; the disciples, fear; and Thomas, doubt).
  2. The risen Christ appears to them in the midst of their condition.
  3. As a result, their condition is transformed
We won’t look at the whole of chapter 20 this morning, but that’s exactly what happens here. These witnesses encounter an empty tomb. They’re befuddled. They don’t know how to account for what they discover. In particular, they account something that they can’t explain. Look at verses 6 and 7:
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.
It’s easy to explain an empty tomb: grave robbers. If that is all that happened, then we would not be celebrating Easter. But Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John did not just discover an empty tomb. They discovered the linen cloths that had been used to wrap Jesus’ body as they buried him. In John 11, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, we read, “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” That’s not what happened with Jesus. Nobody had to unbind his burial clothes. It appears that he was able to pass through them with his resurrected body, just as he was able to later appear in a locked room in verse 19. Not only that, but the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, was folded up by itself. Jesus had taken it off and folded it neatly, as if to say, “I won’t be needing this anymore.”You can account for an empty tomb. It’s very hard to account for graveclothes that have been left behind as if they’re not needed anymore. It’s even harder to account for Jesus’ appearing to the other disciples in the rest of this chapter.But even here in verse 8 you begin to sense the beginning of the change that’s taking place. “Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” What they encountered on Easter morning changed them, and changed them forever.There are three facts about the resurrection that even critical scholars accept.
  1. The tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty by a group of women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ disciples had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ.
  3. As a result of the preaching of these disciples, which had the resurrection at its center, the Christian church was established and grew.
In other words, even critical scholars accept that the disciples encountered something at Easter that changed them. These three things - the empty tomb, the encounters with the risen Christ, and the new boldness of the disciples, form a threefold strand of evidence. Matt Perman writes:
Virtually all scholars who deal with the resurrection, whatever their school of thought, assent to these three truths. We will see that the resurrection of Christ is the best explanation for each of them individually. But then we will see, even more significantly, that when these facts are taken together we have an even more powerful case for the resurrection--because the skeptic will not have to explain away just one historical fact, but three. These three truths create a strongly woven, three chord rope that cannot be broken.
It’s hard to describe how profoundly Easter changed these people. It changed everything about them. The rest of the New Testament is evidence of the effects of what happened on Easter morning.Sometimes something happens that is so profound that it changes everything. Easter is that. The Big Bang theory in science says that something happened 13.7 billion years ago that has continuing, profound effects today. This is as big a bang as anything scientists could imagine. The continuing effects of Easter still continue today. Ralph Stockman writes:Something happened on Easter Day which made Christ more alive on the streets of Jerusalem forty days after his crucifixion than on the day of His Triumphal Entry. A false report might last forty days but the church which was founded on a Risen Christ has lasted for nineteen centuries, producing generations of the race's finest characters.So let’s put all of this together. Unlikely and quirky people who don’t get it encounter Easter and are changed forever. That’s the one thing I want you to take away today. We see this in the passage before us. But we also see it continuing today.Three things before we’re done:First, if you’re an unlikely or quirky person, you may be here for a reason. Jesus seems to be drawn to those who aren’t what you’d expect. The good news of Easter is that Easter is for people like you. You don’t have to be heroic or spiritual. God chooses the most unlikely people, the people you would never expect.Second, if you don’t get it, then you’re welcome as well. I love that there was no one waiting at the tomb expecting Jesus to rise. Even the women, who were last at the cross and first at the tomb, weren’t expecting Jesus to be raised. It reminds me of art class when I was in school. I did pretty well in school, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to draw. The only thing that I could eventually do is to give up. Easter is for people like this. You need to realize that Easter is not for those who are naturally at the top of the spiritual class. There’s nobody, actually, who is. Easter is for those of us who don’t get it, who are spiritual failures. Easter is for people like you and me.Finally, Easter can change you. It’s been changing people throughout the centuries.Once upon a time I had a young friend named Philip. Philip was born with Downs Syndrome. He wasn’t easily accepted by other children, but he went to Sunday school and attended the third-grade class.The teacher idea for his class the Sunday after Easter. You know those things that pantyhose come in—the containers that look like great big eggs—my friend had collected ten of them. The children loved it when he brought them into the room. Each child was to get one. It was a beautiful spring day, and the assignment was for each child to go outside, find a symbol for new life, put it into the egg, and bring it back to the classroom. They would then open and share their new life symbols and surprises one by one.The kids ran all around the church grounds, gathered their symbols, and returned to the classroom. They put all the eggs on a table, and then the teacher began to open them. All the children stood around the table. There was a flower. Then there was a butterfly. Then some kid - a joker - put in a rock just to be different. Eventually they opened one of the eggs and there was nothing. They were all confused. One of the kids said, “That's not fair—that's stupid!—somebody didn't do right."The teacher felt a tug on his shirt, and he looked down. Philip was standing beside him. "It's mine," Philip said. "It's mine." And the children said, "You don't ever do things right, Philip. There's nothing there!" "I did so do it," Philip said. "I did do it. It's empty. The tomb is empty!"There was silence, a very full silence. Philip got something that the rest of the kids didn’t. And when Phillip died, the kids remembered this empty egg and the empty tomb. At the funeral, nine eight-year-old children marched up to the altar, not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death. Nine eight-year-olds, with their Sunday school teacher, marched right up to that altar, and laid on it an empty egg—an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg.Unlikely and quirky people who don’t get it encounter Easter and are changed forever - people like Philip, and people just like you and me.

It Is Finished (John 19:28-30)

Most deaths, when they occur, come as a surprise. This past week, Tim Hetherington, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and photographer, was killed in Misrata, Libya. His last tweet is chilling: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.” He was killed the very next day, a victim of a rocket-propelled grenade in that war-torn country.

It would be easy to see the death of Jesus as a surprise. It was Passover. Tensions in Jerusalem were running high. We’ve seen recently what happens when massive crowds gather, especially when there’s political unrest and suspicion. It’s a tinderbox. I’m sure that many back then thought that Jesus was caught up, arrested and killed, by events that were swirling out of control.

But the text we have in front of us says something very important. John 19:30 says, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” This morning, I’m preaching a sermon on one word, the last word that Jesus spoke before dying. In our English versions it’s three words: “It is finished.” It’s Jesus’ last teaching before he dies, the last thing that he has to say. In Greek, it’s one word: tetelestai. It means that all has now been completed. It’s not the cry of a victim who’s caught up in events that are out of control. It’s the triumphant announcement of someone who is fulfilling his mission, who sees that all the necessary steps have been taken and fulfilled.

Here’s what we need to see: Jesus was not a victim. At the cross, he fulfilled his obligations and did what he set out to do. Earlier, Jesus had said:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:18)

Still later he said this as he looked forward to the cross:

I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. (John 17:4)

And here, even as he’s being killed, you see him in complete control of what’s happening. This is so much so that when he dies, John says that he “gave up his spirit.”

Here’s the one thing I want you to hear this morning as we look at the final teaching from Jesus as he hung on the cross: At the cross, Jesus completed his work. At the cross, Jesus finished what he set out to do.

And specifically (and briefly) I want to look at two things that Jesus finished at the cross: he fulfilled Old Testament prophecies; and he completed the plan of redemption.

First: Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies.

Verses 28 and 29 say:

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.

At first glance the Bible looks like a huge book of many different types of stories. If you’ve attended church for a while, you’ve heard many of them. But then there are huge parts of Scripture that you don’t hear a lot about, that are sometimes more difficult to understand. When you pick up this book, it’s easy to think that it’s a mishmash of loosely related stories and themes that go in every direction.

But when Jesus lived, he kept picking up threads from the stories that we thought were unrelated. Genesis 28 tells the story of angels ascending and descending on a ladder. In John 1, Jesus says that this story is about him. Numbers 21 tells the story of Moses placing a bronze serpent on a pole. In John 3, Jesus says that this story is all about him. In John 8, Jesus claims to be the God who revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush. When one of the disciples turns against him, Jesus points to this as a fulfillment of Scripture. Over and over again, both John and Jesus take the Old Testament Scriptures and say that it’s not an unrelated series of stories. It’s all about him.

Here John alludes to what seems at first to be an obscure verse from Psalm 69:21. The psalmist is writing as a faithful person who is suffering. In the middle of the psalm, the psalmist says, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” We would probably never read that and think that this is a prophesy about Jesus. But on the cross, Jesus says that this too is about him. Crucifixion used thirst as part of the process of torture. As Jesus hung on the cross, though, his primary concern was not for his own thirst. His mind was on the relevance of what David wrote and how it applied to Jesus. And so Jesus said, “I thirst,” so that we could compete, and fulfill, all that was written in the Old Testament about him.

David Greenglass was a World War II traitor. He gave atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and then fled to Mexico after the war. His conspirators arranged to help him by planning a meeting with the secretary of the Soviet ambassador in Mexico City. Proper identification for both parties became vital. Greenglass was to identify himself with six prearranged signs. These instructions had been given to both the secretary and Greenglass so there would be no possibility of making a mistake. The signs were:

  1. once in Mexico City, Greenglass was to write a note to the secretary, signing his name as ‘‘I. Jackson'';
  2. after three days he was to go to the Plaza de Colon in Mexico City, and
  3. stand before the statue of Columbus,
  4. with his middle finger placed in a guide book. In addition,
  5. when he was approached, he was to say it was a magnificent statue and that he was from Oklahoma.
  6. The secretary was to then give him a passport.

The six prearranged signs worked. Why? With six identifying characteristics, it was impossible for the secretary not to identify Greenglass as the proper contact. How true, then, it must be that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah if he had 456 identifying characteristics well in advance and fulfilled them all. When Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished,” he was stating that all of Scripture is about him, and that he has fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies and signs that point to him. It’s what Paul meant when he wrote, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” As Spurgeon put it, “He meant, first of all, that all the types, promises, and prophecies were now fully accomplished in him.”

Secondly: Jesus completed the plan of redemption.

Not only did Jesus fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies; he also completed the plan of redemption. Think again about what Jesus prayed the night before he said these words. In John 17:4 he prayed, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” You may want to ask, what is the work that God gave him to do? It’s a good question. Jesus had hinted a few times throughout John that he was sent by his Father to do something. In John 4:34 he said, “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’” In John 9:4 he said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”

So we get a sense that Jesus was up to something. Jesus knew that he was sent for a purpose. Surprisingly, Jesus announces that he has finished his work at a surprising moment. His work involves his death. On the cross, he can say that he has completed the assignment that God has given him.

We need to ask what it is that Jesus finished or completed on the cross. And the answer is this: he completed the plan of redemption. We have a problem: we have sinned against God. All throughout Scripture, God gives us hints as to how he will deal with this problem. In the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve sin, God covers their nakedness with the skins of animals. Death had to take place in order for shame to be covered. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he commanded them to celebrate Passover. At Passover they would sacrifice the Passover lamb. They would mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb. God said that when he saw the blood, he would pass over them. He would spare their lives. Blood had to be shed so that they could live. Then God instituted a sacrificial system. At the temple, priests would sacrifice the blood of goats and calves. You had this sense that our sin demands justice, and that justice must be paid. The killing of animals pointed to what was necessary. But you’d also have the sense that it wasn’t enough. The blood of animals is not enough to meet the demands of justice. Besides, the sacrifices were ongoing. Tomorrow there would be more sin, and more sacrifices would have to be shed. If you’ve ever seen what a sacrifice is like - they have a video on YouTube - you would realize that it’s a messy thing, and one that you wish could end.

Then Jesus comes along. In John 1, John the Baptist looks at Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Do you know what John is saying? Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice that all the other sacrifices pointed to. At this death, he pays the ultimate price for sin. On the cross Jesus sheds his blood to deal once and for all with sin. He bears the judgment as the sacrifice for our sins. On the cross, Jesus could say, “It is finished,” and say that the plan of redemption has finally and fully been completed. The word that Jesus uses for “It is finished” is one that people would write on a bill once it had been paid. Jesus is saying here that the bill has been finally paid. His work is now complete. Hebrews says, “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).

I love how Spurgeon puts it:

The debt was now, to the last farthing, all discharged. The atonement and propitiation were made once for all, and for ever, by the one offering made in Jesu’s body on the tree. There was the cup, hell was in it, the Savior drank it — not a sip and then a pause; not a draught and then a ceasing, but he drained it till there is not a dreg left for any of his people. The great ten-thonged whip of the law was worn out upon his back, there is no lash left with which to smite one for whom Jesus died. The great cannonade of God’s justice has exhausted all its ammunition, there is nothing left to be hurled against a child of God. Sheathed is thy sword, O Justice! Silenced is thy thunder, O Law! There remains nothing now of all the griefs, and pains, and agonies which chosen sinners ought to have suffered for their sins, for Christ has endured all for his own beloved, and “it is finished.”

When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he meant that he had fulfilled the Old Testament prophesies that pointed to him. He also meant that he had completed the work that God had sent him to do, of offering his life as a sacrifice for our sins.

So let’s think for a minute of what this means for us.

I don’t know that there could be any better news than this one word that Jesus proclaimed from the cross: It is finished. It means that the work is finally and fully complete. There is nothing left to do other than to receive the benefits of this work, to put our faith in the one who offered his life as a sacrifice for sin. Christ came to secure for us what we could never secure for ourselves. He finished the work that God sent him to do.

Author James Herriot tells of an unforgettable wedding anniversary he and his wife celebrated early in their marriage. His boss had encouraged him to take his wife to a fancy restaurant, but Herriot balked. He was a young veterinarian and couldn't really afford it. "Oh, do it!" the boss insisted. "It's a special day!" Herriot reluctantly agreed and surprised his wife with the news.

En route to the restaurant, Herriot and his wife stopped at a farm to examine a farmer's horse. Having finished the routine exam, he returned to his car and drove to the restaurant, unaware that his checkbook had fallen in the mud. After a wonderful meal, Herriot reached for his checkbook and discovered it was gone. Quite embarrassed, he tried to offer a way of making it up. He had no way to pay the bill that he had incurred.

"Not to worry," the waiter replied. "Your dinner has been taken care of!" As it was, Herriot's employer had paid for the dinner in advance.

God has done the same for us. Jesus' utterance on the cross, "It is finished," is a Greek term meaning "paid in full."

One more story. A girl signed up for a class on English literature. She found it far more difficult than she had expected, and she desperately wanted to drop it. She went in to see the teacher to see if she could drop out and switch to a regular English class as well. The head of the department said to her, “I know how you feel. What if I promised you and A no matter what you did in the class? If I gave you an A before you even started, would you be willing to take the class?”

The girl said, “Well, I think I could do that.” The teacher said, “I’m going to give you and A in the class. You already have an A, so you can go to class.” The teacher took the threat of a bad grade away so that she could be freed to do her best without fear of punishment.

That is what God has done for us. At the cross, Jesus dealt with our sins. He finished the work. The course is complete. We’ve been given an A, not because we earned it, but because Jesus did. The threat of failure, judgment, and condemnation has been removed. It is finished; everything has been done. We only have to receive what Christ has done for us at the cross in offering his life for us.

At the cross, Jesus completed his work. You can stake your life on it.