Sunday, December 25, 2011

Because of Jesus, I am Saved


When I was in seminary, our neighborhood was a regular target for Mormon missionaries. We lived across the street from a Mormon family, so whenever we would have block parties, they would invite the Mormon Elders over. One thing I realized in talking to these young men was that we could talk for hours without really understanding what the other one was saying. The problem was that we talked right past one another. We used the same words, but they had different meanings.

There are words we sometimes find in church that are unclear or just don’t carry the same meanings in our culture as they did when they were written. For example, I remember being rather confused that my church would sing “How Great Thou Aren’t” and that we would pray, “Our Father, who aren’t in heaven…” Or how about the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm which declare that “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.”

There are other words we tend to overuse to the extent that the word loses its meaning. This is true of a lot of church words. “Save” and “salvation” are such words. As Christians, we often talk about salvation without being really clear what salvation means.

When we look at the term “salvation” through the Old Testament, we find a context that seems completely different than ours. Salvation terminology often has to do with national identity and security. When the Lord saved Moses and the Israelites from the Egyptians, Moses sang a song to the Lord including this lyric: The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:2)

When the Lord delivered David from Saul, he said, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior – from violent men you save me.” (2 Samuel 22:2-3)

Salvation in Old Testament times was something real, and everyone knew what it meant. It meant being delivered from one’s enemies, being brought out of slavery, returning home from exile. In the face of life-threatening circumstances or in the midst of the bondage of slavery, salvation was the hope and dream of every Israelite. It meant freedom.

The Israelites recognized the domination of their enemies as God’s direct punishment. They were exiled as punishment. So salvation also meant restoration of their relationship with God. Before John the Baptist came, preaching, “Prepare the way for the Lord” and “All people will see God’s salvation,” his father, Zechariah, prophesied (Luke 1:68-75):

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

On Christmas morning, we focus on the baby in the manger, which is right – Christ is the reason for the season. But there is a reason for the reason for the season, and salvation is that reason. Let’s look at salvation through Zechariah’s prophesy. He begins by praising God. Why is God worthy of praise? Because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

Jesus birth is the beginning of redemption, which can be defined as the act of recovering ownership by paying a specified sum. The covenant God made with Abraham was a covenant in blood, and Abraham and his descendants became God’s covenant people, set aside for God. There were specific rules, lots of them, defining God’s people, and for each specific sin there was a payment required. Every time there was a sin, there was a payment required, again and again. But in sending His Son, Jesus Christ, God has redeemed us. No longer are we required to pay sacrifices again and again, because our debt has been paid in advance.

The Apostle Paul writes to Titus, saying: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14) Jesus came to redeem us, to pay the required payment for our sin, and to purify us so we can be eager to do what is good.

God’s salvation is always two-fold. It means rescue from our enemies, but it also means empowerment. Remember what salvation is for Zechariah? To rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:74-75)

Because of Jesus, we are saved. But what does salvation mean to us who live in a free country, a land of plenty, a land of opportunity? Often we live in bondage, even in a free country. A couple of weeks ago, I preached a message called “Because of Jesus… I am Free” – it is important for everyone to understand that we can be easily enslaved by almost anything. But freedom in Christ is not just freedom from… it is also freedom for.

Because of Jesus, we are enabled to serve God without fear. Fear is paralyzing. Once Tara and I went hiking in Zion National Park, and there’s a rugged hike called Angel’s Landing, and at one point you have to climb along a sheer drop-off. I got to the drop-off and my intellect told me I would make it but my legs and my stomach told me was going to fall to my death. I started to get vertigo and the path started to move. I just couldn’t continue. Unfortunately I see Christians who are afraid. Afraid to share their faith. Afraid to invite someone to church. Afraid to confront sin. Afraid to trust God fully.

This is not the kind of life God has called us to. Because of Jesus, I am saved from fear to live a fearless life. If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31b)

It can be daunting to face our fears, but God never does the miraculous when we complacently sit on our hands. It is always when we fearlessly follow Him that God honors us with amazing results.

Because of Jesus, we are enabled to serve God in holiness. Holiness means being set apart by God for God. We have no claim to holiness on our own; we can’t set ourselves apart for anything greater than ourselves. We do not get there on our own; it is only because of what Jesus did for us that we are saved from our sinful existence and made holy. God isn’t fooled; he doesn’t just say, “boys will be boys” or “humans will be sinful” and pretend we’re set apart. That would be like me putting on a Buckeyes jersey, thinking that would allow me to suit up for the Gator Bowl. No, God actually makes us holy, and that only happens through the action of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, I am saved from unholiness to serve God in holiness.

Because of Jesus, we are enabled to serve God in righteousness. Righteousness is another church-word that has often lost its impact. It simply means “in right relationship with God.” In our sin, our relationship with God was non-existent, and there was no way for us to restore it.

Titus 3:4-7 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Because of Jesus, we are saved from unrighteousness so we can serve God in righteousness! We are saved from sin so we can have the hope of eternal life!

This is the joy of Christmas – not simply the joy of a baby born, as babies are born every day. But the joy is that the baby who was born is Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

These past couple of weeks have been difficult in the life of the church. Though we’ve been doing a lot of celebrating, truth is there has been a lot of loss. We’ve had three funerals in two weeks, and I’ve been at the hospital more these past couple of weeks than I had in months. Even in the Christmas season, when we celebrate the birth of Christ, we are reminded of the brevity of life. We are not promised tomorrow. But the great thing is that if you haven’t yet surrendered to God through Jesus Christ, you don’t have to wait.

As we read in 2 Corinthians 6:2b, I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

Many, if not most, of us have accepted Jesus’ free gift of salvation, but some of us stopped there. If that’s you, Peter tells the church to grow up. In 1 Peter 2:2-3, he writes: Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

We celebrate today that Jesus was born. But Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and he calls us to do the same, to bring the most glory to God.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Because of Jesus, I am Loved


Gym class could be a cruel place. There were some kids who were really fast runners, and they got picked first. Then the most popular kids got picked and then the captains’ friends. Finally all who were left were the chubby kid, the clumsy kid, and the unpopular kid, and the teams argued over who had to take them. At least at recess they were allowed to do their own thing and weren’t forced to play sports. For those few short minutes they could ignore the fact that they didn’t belong. But when the bell rang, they were dragged back to reality, a reality that hurt.

And maybe home wasn’t any better. Absent or uninvolved parents. An older sibling who seemed to “get” everything on the first try. Maybe tonight would be the night when someone would call and invite you out… or maybe not.

Alone. Not good enough. Not pretty enough. Not athletic enough. Not rich enough. Not popular.

The Christmas story is full of these characters. When Gabriel meets Mary, she is an unmarried woman. In these times, a woman was always given her worth based on the man she was associated with, and the Bible does not record who Mary’s father was. Thus she is recorded as a woman without a man, a person of low status.

Joseph, a carpenter, had some status, but what does it say about his status that there was “no room” for him in the inn? The concept of “the inn” has caused some confusion in our culture; this wasn’t a hotel with some grumpy innkeeper who turned a pregnant woman out. No, it was worse than that; the word translated “inn” here carries the meaning of guest house or guest room. When we read “there was no room in the inn” the literal meaning is that their family didn’t have room for them.

I remember a trip we took about a month before Jonathan was born. We drove to visit our seminary friends in Texas. They lived in a rather small parsonage with their two small children, but when we came, they gave up their bedroom for us. That’s hospitality. But Mary and Joseph were not afforded that kind of hospitality, even by their family. The Bible doesn’t tell us why not, but I imagine the fact of Mary’s pregnancy has something to do with it.

There were shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
Shepherds in Jesus day were dirty and smelly, and they were considered untrustworthy. They were usually nomadic, traveling from place to place reflecting the changing seasons, so they were not tied into the society around them. So they were nobodies. They were invisible. They didn’t show up in polite company. They weren’t invited to parties.

Everything about the culture pointed to the wealthy and the connected. Yet God sent his angel Gabriel to Mary, to Joseph, and to the shepherds. Why would God do this? Why would God choose the lowly? Wouldn’t God have done this all a little more efficiently if he had sent Jesus as a conquering king? After all, this is what prophecy led the Jews to expect, a Messiah in the line of David, a powerful king and strong deliverer.

Had God chosen to come to the mighty, strong, and wealthy, who could stand against him? But, on the other hand, had God chosen the mighty, what would that mean for the lowly and the humble? It would be just like the elementary school gym class all over again. “I choose the rich! I choose the strong! I choose the popular! I choose the connected! Oh, the weak? The poor? I guess I’ll take them. But I don’t want them.”

Furthermore, had God chosen to do things this way, there would be some people who would come to the conclusion that they had something to do with God’s choice. Because I did this, God chose me. Because of me, God…

This isn’t the way God works. Why not? Because God actually loves the last one chosen. There is enough bad theology out there that says that God’s love is demonstrated in how wealthy and healthy you are. So many times I’ve seen health and wealth equated with God’s favor, but this just doesn’t match with God’s character. God loves those who culture bypasses. God loves Mary and Joseph. God loves smelly shepherds. God loves the single mother. God loves the illegal alien. God loves the AIDS patient. God loves the hungry. God loves the smelly. God loves the least and the lost. God loves.

Deuteronomy 7:7-9 tells us that The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.

God chose us, and God loves us. Love isn’t just what God does, but it is who God is. Listen to Psalm 86:15 But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Or, if you want to be a little more succinct, how about the description in 1 John 4:8, 16: God is love.

So how does a God we cannot see demonstrate his love? 1 John 4:9 This is how God showed his love among us; he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. Jesus is the personification of God’s love. The old hymn declares “Love Came Down at Christmas” and that is the case. Jesus himself is proof of God’s love.

Let’s look at maybe the most well-known Bible verse of all: John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Will you stop for a moment and let it sink in that “the world” that God loved is you? God knows you inside and out, and he loves you. He knows everything you ever did, and he loves you. You are his first pick.

Ephesians 2:4-5 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.

I’ve known people who (in bad times) continuously ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” Well, we didn’t do anything to deserve this treatment from God; on our own, we deserve Hell. On our own, we are dead in transgressions, but God loves us so much that he pours his mercy on us, saving us by grace, his unmerited favor.

We who have been in the church for a long time know this truth pretty well. We know that it’s by his grace that God saves, but then we often want to pack all kinds of extra requirements on top of that for us to continue in God’s love. But Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Can my bad behavior and sin separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus? We sometimes act like it can, but think of it from a parental standpoint: when your child misbehaves, do you just cut off your love for that child? No! Of course not! You would just as soon cut off your arm. It doesn’t mean that we’re always happy with our misbehaving children, but we don’t stop loving them. And even if we did, God doesn’t.

God’s love for us is never based on our behavior. God’s love for us is based on His Character. And so, in the midst of our sin and rebellion, God chooses the only way to reach us with his love; by sending his Son. And because of Jesus, I can know that love.

1 John 3:1 How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

Christmas is all about God’s love for us, how we doesn’t just call us his children, but how through Jesus Christ he actually makes us his children. This is what Christmas means. It doesn’t mean presents and lights and parties and food. Christmas is God’s love letter to us. So many of us, even understanding the true meaning of Christmas, “get it” in a theoretical way, forget what it means for us. It means the Almighty God, the creator of the universe loves you, gives himself so you can have life.

I’m one who gets a little annoyed seeing Christmas decorations starting to go up in October, but think of it this way: every decoration should stand as a reminder of how precious you are to God. So every time you see brightly colored lights, candy canes, Santas, think of God’s love for you. It doesn’t matter if you were the last one picked – God picked you. It doesn’t matter if your past is full of mistakes, while you were a sinner, God showed his love for you by sending his Son, Jesus, for you.

Let’s close this evening with a reminder from 1 John 4:11 – Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. I have seen this church loving one another in some great ways during Christmas – can we do so all year long?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Because of Jesus... I am Able


I grew up in the midst of a generation who was told at every opportunity: you can grow up to be whatever you want to be. As long as we put our minds to it and as long as we put in the work, we whatever we aspired to be could come true. As I got a little older, I figured out that this wasn’t always true. Even though I was the center on my sixth grade intramural basketball team, I’m not holding my breath waiting for the NBA to call. The point is, there are things that are just not reasonable for us to expect to be able to do.

There are things that we can do and things we can’t. Unfortunately, I have too often seen people giving up because of things they can’t do or often because they have been told continuously that they cannot do something. So often I see young people or new Christians who idealistically believe they can change the world, but as they get older, the crab mentality sets in. Crab mentality refers to crabs in a bucket – individually every one of them could escape from the bucket, but instead they grab at each other and pull the others down. Thus none of them escape and all of them perish.

We are told, “Don’t upset the status quo.”
We are told, “Some things never change.”
We are told, “You can’t really change the world.”

I know I’m not the first one to say something like this – people have been saying this for years – but doesn’t it seem like society just keeps getting worse? Maybe it’s how fast bad news travels and all the varieties of news sources where we can get the bad news, but there are times when it seems like everything is just getting worse and worse, and it can be easy to want to give up. Am I the only one who has ever felt helpless in the face of an increasingly secular society?

Were we a culture without Jesus, this would be true. But we are not that society. Listen to the way John starts his Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Because of Jesus, there is light in the world. Because of Jesus, we have hope. Because of Jesus, we are found. Because of Jesus, we have freedom. Because of Jesus, we are able!

One Bible story I have always found fascinating happens immediately after the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus is up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and they see Moses and Elijah, and Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. It’s an amazing scene where Jesus is again affirmed by God. But when they come down from the mountain, they find a commotion.

Let’s pick up the action in Matthew 17:14-20:  When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.

Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jesus found his disciples unable to heal a boy, and, instead of telling them, “it’s OK, you just haven’t been adequately trained” he called them an unbelieving and perverse generation and blamed their inability on their lack of faith. In other words, he actually expected them to be able to bring God’s healing and wholeness to the boy.

Francis Chan was speaking at the Right Now Conference and he cracked me up with his take on this scripture. He recalled being a young believer reading this scripture and believing he could move a mountain… and trying it at home. Maybe he didn’t have enough faith to move a mountain, but he certainly could will that pencil across his desk…

We are a culture that is generally skeptical of the supernatural. We want scientific proof. We want medical reasons. But Jesus never limits the supernatural to himself. He says that we can do the supernatural.

In fact, listen to his words in John 14: I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:12-14)

Do you have the boldness to approach God’s throne in Jesus’ name to ask for God to do these things through you? Or do you even believe it’s possible?

Please take note that Jesus didn’t say we could approach God boldly and ask whatever we want. He made it conditional: he will do whatever we ask in his name. Because of Jesus, we are able. But we must be acting in Jesus’ will to ask in his name.

Sometimes we ask according to our own will and in our own name. This is kind of like when you were a kid and you went to your mom to ask her for some privilege. She’d make “that” face and tell you to go ask your father. Now, you knew full well that “that” face meant she wasn’t too keen on the idea, but you really wanted to do it, so you went to your dad and said, “Mom said it’s OK if I… as long as you said yes.” Technically that might be kind of true, but it was misleading at best. God is not fooled.

Another reason we do not get what we ask for is that often our goal isn’t for God to be glorified. Our goal is often selfish; we want to avoid pain or difficulty. In junior high, I used to make God all sorts of promises if he’d just help me to win a race. Maybe that’s why he called me into the pulpit – he was just cashing in all the promises I’d made! But I didn’t ask to win in order to bring God glory; I wanted to win for my own glory. It was all about me.  

In Luke 10:19-20, Jesus is telling the disciples he has sent out: “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.  However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” It’s clear that God has given them supernatural powers. But Jesus’ reason is not for them to glory in the power; that pales in comparison to the supernatural gift that He gives: that their names are written in heaven.

And it’s because of Jesus that we are able to rejoice in this. Jesus explained in Matthew 19 that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”(Matthew 19:25-26)

With God all things are possible, including the impossible: salvation. Because of Jesus, we are able! The baby whose birth we celebrate on Christmas… he makes the impossible possible!

Because of this, we can say along with Paul: I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13) Jesus Himself is the one who gives me strength. There are things you think you can’t do, but because of Jesus, you are able!

What would it look like if we actually believed that God, through Jesus Christ, would give us this kind of power? In our modern, American churches, we live as if we are powerless. Think of it this way: I’m not all that great of a basketball player, but imagine that I told you that this year I have something that is going to make me an amazing basketball player. So you challenge me to a game, but I just sit on the bleachers or I come out and I don’t have any more skills than before. I’d lose any credibility I had; you wouldn’t believe that there was anything to my claim that I had some new special skill.

Unfortunately this is what we often do. We say we have the Holy Spirit living within us, but we find ourselves living the same old hum-drum lives. Or we sit around, learning about God and learning about Jesus and learning about the Holy Spirit, but we’re sitting on the sidelines, never living in the power of the Spirit. When I was a teenager, we had a word for someone who said they had certain abilities but didn’t do anything: we called them posers.

In contrast, here’s what the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7) God’s Spirit makes us powerful, loving, and self-disciplined. Because of Jesus, we are able!

For some of you this might come as a somewhat new revelation, that we aren’t powerless little wimps, but that instead we are mighty and powerful. But maybe you already knew this but you need a reminder. Things have been difficult for you, more difficult than you ever imagined they would be. Maybe someone gave you the idea that the Christian life would be easy and you’ve found it harder than you guessed it would be. In John 16:33, Jesus told his followers,  “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” He doesn’t sugarcoat things. His head wasn’t in the sand. He recognizes and acknowledges that in this world his followers will have trouble. There are preachers who teach that once you become a Christian, everything will be fine and as long as you have faith, nothing bad will ever happen to you. Things are tough – to ignore that is to ignore Jesus’ words. But take heart, because Jesus has overcome the world. In him, we have peace. In him we are able!

We have the power of God, living in us. Listen to what Romans 8:37 says: No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. We are not push-overs. We are more than conquerors!

Jesus even makes the bold statement that the very gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. His disciple, Simon Peter, has answered the question about who Jesus is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”(Matthew 16:16) And Jesus affirms Peter’s identity as the Rock upon whom He would build His church.

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) No matter what Satan throws at us, the Church of Jesus Christ will prevail over it. This is why Christmas is so important, because on Jesus’ birthday, Satan cowers. Jesus is born and nothing will ever be the same.

Some of you need to remind yourselves of this. You might just need to preach yourself a sermon – some of you are preachers, you just haven’t realized it yet. Take these scriptures, write down the references, look them up, copy them down, and repeat them to yourself daily.

John 14:12-14
Matthew 19:26
Philippians 4:13
2 Timothy 1:7
Romans 8:37
Matthew 16:18

Remember that Because of Jesus, you are Able!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Because of Jesus... I am Free


When I was in Kindergarten, our class took a field trip to the police station. I only remember one aspect of that trip; our class, teacher and all, went into a large cell and the officer closed that door. It was terrifying. As a pastor, I have had occasions where I’ve visited people in jail – it seems like the process is different everywhere you go. In Wapakoneta, I had to go up to a two-way mirror and show ID and who I was coming to see. Then I would go through a metal detector and the first door would open. I would go into a short hallway with two-way mirrors surrounding me, and the door would close behind me with an ominously loud clang. There is something very scary and permanent when the jail doors close behind you.

It is easy to recognize that someone in jail is imprisoned. There are physical bars, locked doors, and sometimes razor wire and guard towers. But what can be harder to recognize is the fact that imprisonment is our basic human condition.

Last week when I talked about being lost, I don’t want you to take it the wrong way and think, “Well, if I’m lost, I can find my way back.” This is works-righteousness, because the lostness we experience is more like a prison. The walls were built by our sinfulness –the Original Sin that we inherited as well as the sinful acts we have committed and our sinfulness in not acting when we were supposed to. And no matter what we do inside the prison walls, we cannot escape on our own.

If you look through the Bible, you’ll find the phrase “out of Egypt” over 140 times. Did you ever stop to think why this concept was so important to the Jews? The Jews were literally enslaved in Egypt for generations, and this was a turning point in their history. They celebrate Passover to commemorate God’s deliverance from slavery. In fact, this is one of the chief defining moments of God’s people discovering God’s character. When God gives the Ten Commandments, he starts with a brief introduction. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 5:6) It was no accident that Jesus was arrested during Passover. God did that on purpose.

God’s purpose was clear: God is once again bringing His people out of slavery. Though Israel being freed from slavery was a defining moment in Jewish history, it also became part of a repeated pattern. Here’s how it went: God’s people were in proper relationship with God and everything was good. Then something happened – they got a new leader, they got overconfident in their own abilities, they got threatened by enemies – and they turned from God. Then they were overrun by their enemies and terrible things happened. They were soundly defeated and forced to pay tribute to other nations. Their treasures and wealth were carted off. They were exiled. And they cried out to the Lord, and he delivered them. And the whole cycle started again.

Freedom was always short-lived. Until Jesus, that is. In the hymn, Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, we sing the lyrics: Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Jesus was born to set his people free. Not simply freedom from physical prisons, but freedom from the bondage of guilt and sin.

Early in Jesus’ ministry, he went to Nazareth, full of the Holy Spirit, and, as was his custom, he went into the synagogue and stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17-21)

Jesus was anointed to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, because he himself is that freedom. Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote about Jesus in 2 Corinthians 3:17: Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

In this life, there are often all kinds of ways to get to the same goal. You can do this or you can do that, and if you work really hard, you can get what you want. I have seen many well-meaning Christians working under the same premise: as long as I work really hard and do lots of church stuff, then I’ll finally be free from that guilt that has nagged me for so many years. I can just trade one addiction for another, hopefully a less-destructive one or even a so-called healthy addiction, and I’ll be fine. The truth is you’ve exchanged one prison cell for another, and neither one is “fine.” The prison cells most of us experience are not the penitentiary or the county lock-up; we experience other cells.

A prison of addiction. A prison created by abuse or neglect. A prison of guilt. A prison of inability. A prison of low self-esteem. A prison of self-righteousness. A prison of achievement. A prison built around image. A prison of money. A prison of tradition.

I can understand when someone who doesn’t know Jesus is living as a slave to all of these things, but because of Jesus, we are free! But the sad thing is that there are many people who have been in church for years who are imprisoned by all these things and more. The prison door is wide open, but many will not walk out that door. You are too used to the prison routine and the prison food and you’ve grown accustomed to prison life. You have forgotten that life in Christ is freedom!

In fact, you don’t even believe you are imprisoned. There are things that get in the way of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. If we are unwilling to give them up for the sake of Christ, those things become idols in our lives. I’m not talking about terrible things like drugs and alcohol at this point; I’m talking about good things like our hard earned money, our homes, our families, even our traditions. Once it becomes an idol in our lives, we have a choice: we can cast it down (often figuratively!) or we can allow it to imprison us.

Let’s bring this closer to home. To me, Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas Eve if a few things don’t happen. First of all, we have to read the Christmas story from Luke 2, and we have to sing Silent Night while lighting candles. I firmly believe that these are good, solid ways to celebrate Christ’s birth, but what would happen if the Holy Spirit spoke to us and said, “I want you to do something else for Christmas Eve.”? What would happen if God wanted us to do something completely different? If we didn’t listen, we would be guilty of making our Christmas Eve services into idols.

So, in everything we do, we need to constantly ask, “Is this glorifying God, or is it an idol?” Do our church services just make me comfortable, or does it point me to Christ? There are good things in our lives, things that were created for our good that have become enslaving idols. In Galatia, Jewish tradition was such a prison, especially circumcision. The Jewish Christians were requiring circumcision, saying, “You can’t follow God if you aren’t circumcised,” and Paul opposes it strongly. He asks the leaders: But now that you know God – or rather are known by God –how is it that you are turning back to these weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Galatians 4:9)

There are things that have always been sinful and as we grow in Christ, we despise those sins more and more and realize that we were worse than we once thought we were. For example, maybe before you were a Christian, you used to watch all kinds of movies and listen to all kinds of music, but the more you surrender to the Holy Spirit, the more some of these things bother you. I’ve never really been much of a movie-watcher, but I listen to a lot of music, and I’m sure I used the old “I’m not listening to the lyrics” line, but the truth is, the more I surrender to the Spirit, the more the godless lyrics of popular music bother me. And it’s not just the cussing and swearing; it’s the total immoral disdain for God that underlies most of it. And that can be an imprisoning idol. But what I am talking about this morning is things that were meant for good, but we have been ensnared by them.

Let’s look at an example from the Old Testament. In Numbers 21, Moses is leading the Israelites in the wilderness. They are going along, and the people begin to get impatient and they complained against God and against Moses. So God sent venomous snakes among them, and many people died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. (Numbers 21:7) It sounds like they have repented, turned from their sin and turned back to God. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numbers 21:8-9)

Did you get the picture of what happened? The Israelites sinned against God, and God punished them, but when they repented and turned back to God, He showed grace to the Israelites and gave them a way to escape death. But years later, when Israel is a well-established (but divided) kingdom, Hezekiah has become king of Judah, and the first thing he does is reform some of their customs. Listen to how 2 Kings 18 describes what he does. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time, the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (2 Kings 18:4)

Something God had given Moses and the Israelites had been corrupted; instead of something to help them look to God, the bronze snake had become the object of worship. Too often this happens in our churches. The place or building becomes the object of worship. The worship style becomes the object of worship. The elements of worship become the object of worship. The clothes that the preacher wears, the instruments used in worship, the means of baptism, the means of Communion, the order of worship… none of these were meant to be bad, but they are too often idolized, and when they become idols, we are ensnared.

God did not create us for enslavement, but without Jesus, we are slaves. Listen to Jesus’ own words: “I tell you the truth, anyone who sins is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34). We all serve someone, and in our sins, we are slaves to sin. But that’s not the final word, because, as Jesus goes on to say, “So if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.” (John 8:36)

Because of Jesus, we have true freedom.

So how do we live out this freedom? Galatians 5:1 tells us that It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  God calls us to recognize that Jesus set us free – it wasn’t anything we did, but it was all by God’s grace. So stand firm in your freedom; do not let anything in your life become a yoke of slavery. Daily offer it all to God.

This is why Jesus called the rich young man to sell all he had and give the money to the poor in Luke 18; his money had become a yoke of slavery.

In fact, the Bible calls us even to offer ourselves. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Jesus never said it would be easy; we’ve often lived in prison so long that it is a difficult transition to life of freedom. But God calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This renewal only happens by immersing ourselves in God’s Word and by listening intently to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

And because of Jesus, we can have that freedom. Romans 8:1-4 tells us: Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did  by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

Live by the Spirit. Live in freedom. God didn’t send Jesus to earth to be born in a humble manger just to make us comfortable in our prisons. He came to earth to set us free.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Because of Jesus... I am Found


When I was growing up, one of the highlights of my summer was church camp. I loved being in that Christian environment for a week, memorizing scripture, doing silly skits, making new friends, swimming in the pool, and all the games and challenges they had for us. One year we had a giant game of hide and seek where all the campers went and hid and the staff got the job of “seeking.”

Our camp had a nice wooded area in the back, not a deep forest by any stretch of the imagination, but generally wooded, and I found this awesome hiding place in the bushes beneath a large tree. Any serious hide and seek player knows that absolute stillness is a must if you don’t want to get caught, so after I slithered down under the bushes, I made myself comfortable and didn’t move. Now remember that it was dark out, and deep into a week of church camp – lots of activities and less than optimal amounts of sleep… so down in the bushes, I fell asleep. When I woke up, at first I didn’t know where I was, and when I realized that I was in the bushes under a tree, I didn’t know how long I had been there. I certainly didn’t want to stick my head up and look around, because I didn’t want to get caught. When I finally did look out, there was nobody around, but I could hear some noise, so I followed the noise to the chapel, where everyone had gathered after the game. Maybe I’d won the game with that great hiding place, but it didn’t feel like winning. It felt like being lost and not being found.

Being lost is awful. And worse than that, it is our human condition. And much worse than my situation in the woods, our human condition is such that we are unable to just stand up and walk to where everyone is.

We are lost, hopelessly lost. God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place. Whoever found them devoured them; their enemies said, ‘We are not guilty, for they sinned against the Lord, their true pasture, the Lord, the hope of their fathers.’ (Jeremiah 50:6-7)

I find God’s word choice fascinating here. God is describing his own people as lost sheep. It can be easy to get into an “us and them” mindset, that we are the found and “they” are lost, but remember that God is describing his own people as lost, led astray by their own shepherds. This is just an aside here, not really part of this sermon, but please take care and make sure that the people you are listening to and people who you are leading you are speaking words of biblical truth, because any of us can be led astray. This goes for my words, as well; check the scriptures to make sure anything you are hearing matches with the Bible. If it doesn’t, the Bible isn’t the one going astray.

If anyone has ever gotten lost in the woods, you’ll know that every tree starts to look the same. And when you’re lost, we tend to roam. We think we know the way out, but we just manage to get ourselves more lost. I remember when my high school friend went to Chicago – the one thing he wanted to see was Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. When he returned, I asked him if he’d made it to Wrigley. He hadn’t. He thought that he would be able to see it from the highway, that the stadium would be big enough to dwarf everything around it.

For a small-town teenager, it was almost inconceivable that he wouldn’t be able to see the stadium while driving through the city. As Christians, we sometimes take for granted that the lost should be able to see God at work and should know to call out to him. After all, Romans 1 tells us that For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

But those who have been led astray have forgotten their resting place.

And, again, that is the human condition. Every one of us, no matter who we are, started out lost. In Psalm 51:5, King David acknowledges: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Every one of us shares this state. From the time when Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world, we were each born sinful. This is why nobody has to teach a child to be selfish. It comes naturally.

And not only are we sinful from birth, but we continue to sin. Romans 3:23 reminds us that All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. I don’t think I have to explain this much. Anyone want to dispute this? Even those we would see as the most righteous would define themselves as being sinners. Even the Apostle Paul refers to himself as the “worst of sinners” in 1 Timothy 15-16.

When Jeremiah was describing what happened to God’s lost sheep, he said whoever found them devoured them. This is what happens to the lost. Because sin came into the world, so did death. Romans 6:23 reminds us that The wages of sin is death. Death is what happens to lost people, but not only physical death, but spiritual death as well. We were dead in our sins as Ephesians 2:1 reminds us. (As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins). Furthermore, to continue in lostness is to risk eternal death as well. Revelation 20:14-15 describes the lake of fire, the second death. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. This is bad news.

But there is good news. In Ezekiel 34:1, God declares: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”

In one way, this thought makes me laugh. Can you imagine playing hide-and-seek with God? He stops counting and immediately says, “I see you; you’re hiding behind the sound booth.” In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve sinned and now they’re ashamed and hiding from God, and God called to the man, “Where are you?” It’s not as if God couldn’t find them; they hadn’t fooled him. God wasn’t startled when Adam came out from the bushes. But God claims he will search for the lost. Meaning he will find us.

This is God’s character. In Matthew 18:12-14, Jesus tells a parable. “If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”

So God goes out searching for us. But remember, our sin that separates us from God. It creates a barrier through that God cannot ignore. So no matter how much seeking happens, we are lost.

Except for one thing. Jesus. When God finds us, he leads us to Jesus. Jesus, who is called Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” If God is with us, we are found. In the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, the final word is from Jesus: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

This is who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Because of Jesus, I am Found. Without him, there is no hope whatsoever. And without him, we are hopelessly lost.

Christmas is not just about a baby in a manger. Yes, we celebrate Jesus’ birthday, but we celebrate his birthday in a way that we don’t celebrate any other birthdays, because his birth means that we are found. If you read the Christmas story closely, you will find that it’s a story of being found. At first glance, it seems like people are finding Jesus, but that’s not exactly what happens. The shepherds certainly seem to find Jesus, don’t they? But in reality, it’s Jesus who finds them. They didn’t go searching for Him; an angel went searching for them! And the Magi came from the east, searching for Jesus, didn’t they? But indeed, it was Jesus, whose star sought out the Magi. So in these scriptures, it is the shepherds and the Magi who are found.

Last week I read to you Jeremiah 29:11:“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

But listen to the rest of this passage: Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” Jeremiah 29:12-14

God calls us to seek Him, but the truth is, it is He who is seeking us.

But did you ever think of it this way: just being found is not the end goal of the world. Can you imagine a hide-and-seek game where you go around finding people who then stay in their hiding places? No, the goal is to allow God to bring us to Himself. This is how the camper hunt game I described at the beginning of this message was supposed to work (you know, the one where I stayed hidden): when a staff member found a camper, that camper would go with the staffer and together they would look for the next camper. Before long, there would be a large group of kids all gathered around each staff member, and they walked around, you’d have kids finding other kids.

This is how the Christian life works as well. Found people find people. This is not just a slogan; it’s actually the way God ordained it to happen. God told Abram, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3b) and this is exactly what happened. Through the line of Abraham, Jesus was born, a blessing to the whole world. The Bible tells us that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Romans 10:13-15.

Friends, we are those with beautiful feet. Turn to the person next to you and tell them, “You have beautiful feet!” – they are beautiful because you bring good news. The Good News is that Jesus is beckoning to those who are lost to step out of those hiding places. He is sufficient for each of us.