On a purely personal level, the 46th Psalm is one of my favorites. But this psalm, and this sermon, speak to the day to day struggles as well as the major traumas that we all experience in one way or another, and it is eerie in particular how much the last section of this week’s sermon reminds me of the fears so many of us have about our current political climate: unrest, violence, wars and rumors of wars, uncertainty. But for most people these kind of fears are almost theoretical until they produce real, present fruit.
I know people who are facing down the possibility of losing their jobs, fearing what will happen if they suddenly are unable to continue providing for their families. I know some who are facing down illness, in themselves and in family, that threatens livelihood and life itself. And I know people who have suddenly, with no control at all, found themselves thrust deep into personal turmoil, feeling like the world is pulling them deeper down into drowning depression and dread. No matter the cause, there is a whole world of strife, fear, and frustration that stands in the way of our joy.
This is why it is crucial for the believer to understand that the nature of his relationship with Jesus extends beyond the simple matter of salvation and going to heaven. So many of us hear about Jesus Christ as though the transaction that occurs here is “I intellectually assent to the idea that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, therefore I will go to heaven when I die.” But that is such a shallow understanding of who Christ is, and who we His church are in relationship to Him, that it’s no wonder so many believers struggle to find hope even as they hold the greatest hope there could ever be.
We stand upon the Rock of Ages. Think about the parable Jesus told about the houses, one built on rock and one on sand:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”-Matthew 7:24-27
The storm will come. The earth will give way. The mountains will someday be thrown into a wild and tempestuous sea. But those who have lives that stand rooted on Jesus Christ can and will endure all of this–not by their own strength, not by their own wisdom, but because they have real hope in the eternal God who has made us. Even our greatest sufferings, even our final sufferings, will ultimately serve for our good and for His glory.
I want to thank everyone for their patience as I got back online, and especially everyone who has reached out to encourage me in the last month or so. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, damage to my computer kept me “off the air” and I was forced to put everything for the podcast on hold.
I want to start off looking at the larger context of the passage for today. Everyone has heard John 3:16, even a large number of my non-Christian friends probably have at least a rough idea what it says if they don’t have it involuntarily memorized. But I want to take a few minutes to dive deep into the passage from what I would say is probably my favorite book of the Bible:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”-John 3:1-21
Jesus unveils the truth to Nicodemus: life is not gained from God by adhering to the law. Entering the kingdom of God, being adopted as a child of God and following after Christ, is something that happens through renewed life. Our life is not renewed by our own doing, but it is renewed by the grace and gift of God. The Spirit moves as God wills and brings life to spiritually dead rebels by God’s grace, not man’s will. Moreover, that life is gained by looking upon the Savior, Jesus Christ, made a curse for us. Jesus refers to Numbers 21 when God punished the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness by sending serpents to bite them. The only way to survive was to look upon an image of a serpent, made of bronze, which Moses held up before them on a staff. Those who looked at the serpent would live, those who would not look died.
This was not to call them to worship snakes, but rather it was a shadow of the work of the Messiah: Jesus took on the curse of death, willingly choosing the most humiliating and painful death one could imagine. And those who look upon His curse, find covering for their sins in His death, and hope in His resurrection.
So now the verse itself: I love Spurgeon’s preaching here, but I would have to disagree with him on his emphasis on the word “so.” The phrase “God so loved the world” is not an expression of degree or amount, but rather an expression of method: “God loved the world in this way: by sending His Son.” Yet it does not detract from the degree of God’s love by pointing this out. This is something I want to really focus on. This time of year, as so many gear up to celebrate Christmas, we in the US get a lot of people arguing about “keeping Christ in Christmas” and such things. But even with that, we tend to really miss the point in such debates. The point is not simply about “baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, and gee aren’t babies cute,” although for a lot of people that’s about as far as it goes.
The Son, the perfect second Person of the Trinity, to not come down as simply a glowing unstoppable Judge who could rightfully have set all things to right, cast the entire human race into hell and restored creation to perfection. As Paul puts it in the passage from Philippians 2 called the carmen Christi,
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.-Philippians 2:5-11
In John 3, and most especially in that well-known 16th verse, Jesus talks about what it is we are truly celebrating when we commemorate Christmas: it isn’t about presents, it isn’t about how sad it was that Mary and Joseph were in a stable, or any of the other distractions that are ever present during the holidays. He is talking about the miracle of the incarnation, and its great purpose: salvation for those who believe. “Whoever believes,” the original phrase is πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, “all those believing.” That is the way one identifies the people of God: belief in Christ, in His person and work. And Jesus specifies further, those who do not believe are already under condemnation, but belief is rescue from condemnation.
The book of John goes on to discuss all of this much further, and I hope over the course of time that I’m given to do this podcast that I can walk through all of it. But for now I will simply have to say: this passage produces worship in me, because it is a powerful testimony to the truth that God will save His people and has paid for our sins completely through the work of Jesus. When we think of the coming Christmas celebration and we hear people tell the Christmas story, don’t think “Oh, it’s so magical, a little baby being born and it’s such a pretty night and hey, that star is nice.” Think, “This is the coming of God to be with His people, to demonstrate love in a way we could never have shown or understood apart from Christ, and to save us!” Hear this truth, my friends. Believers, draw strength from this and know that God is moving to complete the work begun here. Unbelievers, hear these words and repent, turn to know and love the One who made you and calls you by name. In Christ is peace, rest, and love; apart from Him is only condemnation and death. Embrace the peace of Christ, and celebrate this advent season the most powerful and loving deed we could ever know: the coming of the Son of God.
I want to start by reading the fuller context of our verse this week, from Romans 8:31-39:
What then shall we say? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake, we are being killed all the day long;
We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This passage is about hope. Where do we place our hope? I actually decided to read this sermon several weeks ago, but between my life being extremely busy right now and the ongoing production of the Morning and Evening podcast, I have had less time lately to produce regular sermon episodes. But it is oddly fortunate that I should end up reading a sermon on this passage the week that we spend time recalling the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. I do remember where I was, and what I was doing, and more than that I remember how I felt afterwards. I wanted to put my hope in American might, and American goodness, and certainly now I realize that was foolish in many ways.
I recommend listening to John Piper’s sermon from that week, which is, not coincidentally, also on this same passage from Romans. He reminds his listeners who are still reeling from the shock of the attack, that they cannot put their hope in anything that is here on earth, because it will ultimately fail them. The words painted on the side of his church—“Hope in God”—have never rung more true, and the reason why is etched plainly in the lives of so many saints before us who have endured suffering for the sake of Christ: His love is unstoppable, irresistible, and perfectly sufficient for all things.
My fellow American Christians, I think it is safe to say that many of us feel very frustrated as we see a culture that has, for centuries, endured and enjoyed great bounty courtesy of a society informed and structured largely according to the Christian worldview if not according to submission to Christ, surrender that worldview en masse and replace it with evil, selfishness, and insanity. There is a tendency to fear, both losing one’s place, as well as losing “the culture war.” My brothers and sisters, the only war that really matters is already won. The Victor stands at the right hand of God now, waiting for the time when His enemies will be made a footstool for His feet. Meanwhile, we here continue, no matter who is elected president and no matter who is allowed into your public bathroom, to have the duty and joy of serving our fellow man as ambassadors from the living God, as ministers of reconciliation come to bring the call to repent and turn to Christ, to find that true and neverending, never-damaged love. Brethren, let us embrace that, though the world should hate us, though our flesh should fail us, though the devil should assault us, let us know that God is truly God and move forward in obedience and love.
In the last episode we looked at Luke 13:1-5, where Jesus warns that death comes to all and that we must prepare our hearts, lest we be found unprepared before God. This last week, sadly, I feel that we have found such preaching even more appropriate. Yet even in that hope lingers. And it is on that word, hope, which this sermon is founded. Jesus is light for those who sit in darkness—He is hope for the hopeless. Hope, real hope, in He that will never fail, is the foundation of our faith, and it is the reason we love. It is the force that calls us to obedience of commands like “Love your enemy, do good to those who persecute you.” If I have no hope, I have no reason to care about my enemy; I have no compelling reason to do good to those that persecute me if, at the end of life, there is no hope beyond—or worse yet, there is much worse beyond.
But there is hope, and that hope is Jesus Christ. And I want to spend some time here holding him up before the people in this world that are angry, that are hurting, that are crying out for justice.
Injustice, abuse, and hatred: these are real things, real sins committed by people daily. It is foolish to deny their existence or their effect. It is further foolish to try to equivocate one evil against another. Injustice begetting injustice, as we saw just a day or so ago: a man, angered by what he saw as injustice being perpetrated against his brethren, took violence into his hands and murdered people who had nothing to do with the act, and now is finding himself the subject of perfect justice.
But that’s the thing I want to point to in Christ: for the hurting, for the angry, for the confused, those wanting to understand how it is we can live in the world when people can be helplessly killed whether civilian or police officer, I want to point to Christ and say: let your desire for justice rest in him. It is normal to feel angry about this; it is absolutely normal to desire to see wrongs righted. Even our entertainment reflects this: how many millions upon millions of dollars are being spent now to put to film images of individuals given great power in one way or another to avenge wrong, and protect the innocent?
But perfect justice, that rights all wrongs and does good to the innocent, is not going to be done by any of us. We will not establish that world on our own, for our desire for justice is tinged with selfishness, pride, and arrogance, with the sin that dwells in our very essence as humans. No, that perfect justice will be done by God, and for those who believe in Jesus, it has been done on their behalf, fully, and perfectly. If you are a person who is angry and wants to see justice, work for it here, but I call you to look to the cross and rest first in Jesus; then, you can work for justice while recognizing the fact that your hope does not lie in trying to perfect the world by yourself. That is a fool’s errand. No, your work to see justice done will be perfectly completed in Christ, and you can trust that not a single wrong will be unavenged by God.
Yet I also call you to look at yourself. If your desire for justice is done without reflection of your own sin, and of the fact that you too will find yourself the subject of divine justice for the infinite number of evils you have committed against other men and against God, then you will find nothing but further frustration in your efforts. Stop, turn, and look to the cross, the greatest injustice of all time, yet simultaneously the most perfect fulfillment of the most righteous justice that exists. When you have looked long enough, and seen your sin that has nailed Him there, when you have felt the weight of that guilt you hold before a holy God, and the lightness of freedom in knowing that you can stand before God not as a guilty sinner, but as a righteous and adopted son of God clothed in Jesus’ work, cleansed by His blood, then turn and look back to the work you have before you to see justice done in this world. Let the perspective of the Gospel inform your words, and your hands, and let good be done to those around you. Love well, rest well, work hard, and trust in Him to do all things perfectly.
If you are someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one in this time, or you are just hurting and you want to find a way to deal with it, to engage the emotions you are working through in a constructive way and just find peace in the midst of turmoil, then I recommend very strongly the book Grieving: Our Path Back to Peace by Dr. James White. You have probably heard me mention Dr. White here before and may know him from his more theological works like The God Who Justifies and The Forgotten Trinity. But this is an excellent book that even a person in the midst of deep sadness can find hope in. It is immensely practical, yet theologically solid as well, and it does not shy away from answering questions like “Why did God allow this to happen?” that often plague us during these times. If you are feeling the weight of sadness, whether it is because of the turmoil going on right now or because of your own personal loss, you should get this book and read it, and follow the passages he quotes into the Scriptures to find the peace of God that passes understanding.
I suspect that some may consider it inappropriate or insensitive to read this sermon, in light of the recent tragedies that have been in the news, both the senseless shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and the little boy who was tragically killed on what should have been a dream vacation, to visit Disney World, by an alligator. Even now as I write this, the news has just broken that Anton Yelchin, the young actor who played Pavel Chekov in the newest Star Trek movies, was killed as the result of what appears to be some kind of auto accident. Wait, you might say, for healing to happen before reading this sermon.
I disagree. I cannot think of a more appropriate time for this to be brought to the forefront. After all, as I hope was made clear in the course of reading the sermon, Charles Spurgeon did not wait until all was calm and death could be viewed dispassionately to preach this topic. In the weeks prior to his preaching it, not one but two terrible railway accidents had claimed many lives very suddenly. And of course, as this was in 1861, across the ocean a terrible war was just starting to begin, one that would claim countless lives and spill much blood. Yet we can’t look at this and just point directly from Sin A to Punishment B so simply. Death is judgment for sin—but it is a judgment upon us all, because sin is an infection in this world and death is the only method by which it is expunged.
But as Christians, we cannot let ourselves be so haughty as to look at the suffering and pain and loss occurring in a place like Orlando and say “Well, they were engaged in sin, so we can call it judgment and move on.” No, we are not able to because we must walk and speak in such a manner that is consistent with the message of the Gospel of Christ. The truth is that just as easily as that man brought his weapons to a gay nightclub, he just as easily could have brought them to a mall, or to a city street, or to a church. In fact, I suspect very much that I would not have to search very long before finding a story of churchgoers elsewhere slain in a similarly senseless manner.
I think there is a danger in reading the passage being preached on and thinking that Jesus is being callous about the deaths of the people being mentioned, whether those killed by Pilate’s men or those killed by the tower. No, I think it is very clear that Jesus saw death very seriously, not as some sort of fake thing that didn’t matter, but as a horrible effect of sin upon the world. He stood at the tomb of Lazarus, His friend and disciple, and wept with the mourners—and this was even knowing that He was about to bring Lazarus back to life! No, Jesus was very direct in His response to the questioners because He did not want them to start thinking that they had any kind of superiority to them, or to make them turn aside from seeing their own sin compared to the righteousness of God, to instead compare it to the sin of others. Jesus has great compassion on suffering, and yet He does not stop at healing it or at sympathizing. He calls the sufferers to come to Him, to follow Him, and…to pursue more suffering in this world. Not like some kind of monastic self-flagellation, but rather to follow after Him, to give ourselves up for the sake of others, to love others as ourselves and God above all, and to remember that this world is one that will eventually end, to give way to one that never will.
This is getting a bit long but I will encourage you, if you have the patience, to take a look at the series of blog posts I have put up over the last week, as I have attempted to address the particular questions and objections that have come up in the aftermath of the Orlando shootings. Most importantly, I want to use even this horrible incident to point everyone to what matters most of all, to the cross and to the empty tomb. If you are a Christian and you are in a position to minister to a suffering person, let that knowledge that Jesus calls us to empathize with the hurting drive you to dig deep in obedience. If you are a Christian who is suffering, let the fact that Christ has passed through this road before us and now sits in glory encourage you even in your darkest hours. And if you are one who hurts and cries out but do not know Jesus, I encourage you, do not waste a moment. Stop holding on to things that will not last, stop clinging to the weight that drags you down in the deep farther, and look to Jesus and love Him.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus Look full in His wonderful face And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of His glory and grace
The danger in this modern age of preaching sermons on making war on sin, is that to so many who listen, it becomes interpreted as a call to a legalistic view of salvation. But I think listening to Spurgeon’s words it is clear: seeking after holiness is not what is required in order to be saved, it is a result of being saved. Jesus’ own words, after all, were “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” The Gospel is our redemption from sin—and now that we are redeemed? We are free! To steal a Matt Chandler line: we do not have to say yes to our sin. Moreover, we must actively and constantly be seeking to say no to it, and to murder the desire to perform it as it sneaks up on us as we sit passively, unaware and off guard.
So the warning to Christians is one of constantly testing yourself against the holiness of Christ, and of running to the cross constantly, over and over again, to bring that dead old self, those wicked desires that governed us before, to the place where Jesus died to pay the price they bring on the heads of all mankind.
The great theologian John Owen famously wrote in his book The Mortification of Sin, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” It is dangerous to take the words of a man as deeply written and thought-out as Owen and try to pry out one phrase apart from its context, but I believe there are two ways we might take such an idea. The first is in the sense that if a believer is not making active war on his own sin, then he will find that sin instead slowly poisons his spiritual life, until it is all gone but for a flicker that may serve as a nagging ache, a spark that God will hopefully, in His abundant mercy, one day blow into a raging fire in the heart of this wayward believer, and through which all things, even the believer’s backsliding, will indeed work for the good of this one who loves God and has been called according to His purpose, even though he ran.
The second way, may be taken as a marker between the life of a believer who is in Christ, and an unbeliever, maybe who even with his mouth claims to know Jesus, but in his heart pays Christ no service. If we see someone who claims to know Jesus and believe in Him, but who makes no effort whatsoever to kill the sin that fills his life, who rejects calls to seek holiness and instead believes that he’s had his ticket punched so he doesn’t have to worry about all that, we should be bringing the truth of the Gospel all the more to bear on this person because the truth is, they are showing signs that they do not know Jesus. If you love your sin, if you believe that you can both love Jesus and still serve that which His Word clearly calls wicked, then you are deceived. You could take Jesus’ words from Luke 16 and His declaration that a servant who tries to serve two masters will only end up seeing one as wicked and the other as lovely, and extend it from money to all forms of sinfulness.
Does this mean that a Christian white-knuckles his way through life, trying not to do anything wrong? Of course not—this is why we have the Gospel! The truth is that Jesus has paid for our sins and therefore, we can feel that urge to do whatever it is that leads us into selfish, fleshly actions, whatever those may be, and instead do exactly what we talked about in the last episode: Look! We can look to the cross, and know that on that cross the real work that sets us free has been done, and we can walk away from sin. We can endure all other consequences knowing that we are covered by the blood of Jesus. And we can make war on sin, even the most besetting ones, the ones that society believes are just normal and natural and you shouldn’t even try to get rid of them—those most of all, we can drag to the cross and let them be nailed there to die, and we can love Jesus with all of our beings. We can let that love grow, and rest fully in His goodness, grace and mercy.
This week’s song: All Creatures of our God and King by Dust Company
Listen and download at iTunes – Amazon
It is no secret that Christians believe that God created all things, whether seen as in the world we exist in, or unseen as the spiritual realm beyond our senses. Even more, it is no secret—I hope—that Christians believe that we, that humans, are not simply another animal, a monkey that has figured out how to use power saws and wear pants, but that we are made in God’s image, bearing in our beings unique marks that display God’s nature and so setting us apart from and above the rest of creation, and yet still below God, beholden to Him as His creatures.
One of those markers within us, that reminds us constantly that we are not our own, but rather that we are of another Who has set the standards for our lives, is our conscience. It cries out against the wrong things we do, convicts us of the ways we are thinking and acting badly, and prompts us to change our attitudes and deeds. Yet one of the most popular pastimes for humanity is the searing of our consciences, letting impulses that we know, in our deepest core serve only for our ultimate destruction, become the ruling force in our hearts and minds. Throughout history it has been common practice for people to resist the conviction of their conscience by attacking those who would bring the force of God’s truth to bear against them, and without doubt that continues today, as humanity industrializes death and seeks after new and more inventive ways to please itself into the grave.
Such things do not exist in a vacuum, and most assuredly what they bring upon us is God’s judgment. I am reminded of a scene from the movie 12 Years a Slave, which I wanted to include for a little context. Full and fair warning: this scene does involve some harsh language, however it is in a historical context rather than a gratuitous one.
This stuck out to me both for the truth being spoken, as well as for the striking irony that so many would hear a statement such as this about slavery and have no qualms about nodding in agreement, and saying “Yes! This is so true!” Yet apply that same standard to an area where they act sinfully, or where they hold a position that mirrors that of Epps on a different subject, and the reaction will be very different. Take Bass and put him outside an abortion clinic, telling a mother walking in to to have her child killed, or a worker preparing for a day of participating in such atrocities, that there is a universal truth that condemns their actions, and that they are participating in wickedness that will bring a time of accounting for them before a holy and just God, and you wouldn’t get cheers and nods from our hearer. You would get the same derisive responses he gets in this scene: “Easy for you to say, you can’t have a baby. You must be some Bible-thumper trying to control women’s bodies. The law says this is legal, how dare you try to stop it!”
That’s a single example, and I daresay that I could probably spend a long time here thinking up examples until I found one that pricked the hearts of every listener here. That’s what the law does in conjunction with that God-given conscience: it tells us the truth, it drives us to see reality. And that reality is that every one of us is in need of a change in our relationship with God. But that is where things change. That is where, as Spurgeon preaches in this sermon, the real good news comes in: that relationship change is here, it is available, and it comes to us by God’s will and goodness, not by our ability to clean ourselves up. It comes to us by the cross of Christ, by His love that runs deeper than we could ever conceive, and through His righteousness that is our only hope of bringing our sinful, tattered selves with our seared consciences before the Maker of the universe, the perfect holy Judge of all things, and finding something other than death. On the contrary: we find life. We find renewal, we find refreshment, we find that Christ has made all things new. And when the time comes for all God’s children to stand at His throne for the judgment, He will finally and truly make all things new, in renewing creation. The work accomplished bit by bit, day by day by the Holy Spirit will be completely done.
I love it when I find something in a work of fiction that inspires me to worship God. Obviously, I included something above, so this is not news, even though that work was based upon a true story. But I think about that day to come when Jesus shall return and all creation will end its groaning and find, instead, that complete remaking that is promised, when I have occasion to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe again, especially when Mr. Beaver explains who Aslan is to the children by use of an old prophetic rhyme:
Wrong will be right,
when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar,
sorrows will be no more,
When he bears his teeth,
winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane,
we shall have spring again.
My friends, my listeners, when I hear that I am reminded of the great hope of Christ. The Lion of Judah has declared that He will set all things to right, that He will wipe the tears from our eyes and that He will end sorrow, hunger and despair; no longer will injustice rule the land but rather the justice and righteousness of God will be the byword and rule over all, to the good of all. The prophet Isaiah wrote of those coming days:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. –Isaiah 65:17-19
Let those who know Jesus and love Him rejoice at this. And let those who don’t, who hear his name and roll their eyes, or who think to any reason possible to resist him, let them this time hear conviction and respond to it, and turn to Christ to find restoration, and peace, and real, true life from the great Life-giver.
Music for this episode: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” by Dust Company
Listen and download at iTunes – Amazon
Psalm 51 is one which is often on my mind and in my prayers. As Spurgeon says in this sermon, being in the grace of God drives me to pray and remember what Jesus accomplished for me, and in the face of the fact that I still sin–in fact, still coming against the same sins that have plagued me since as far back as I can remember, brings me great frustration. Yet also as he says in this sermon, it is an opportunity to return to the beginning, to the cross, to worshipping the Son broken for me, the Father whose wrath for me was poured out in full, the Spirit who renewed me and woke me up from my sinful stupor.
I thought this might be an appropriate context to give a more personal statement, to talk about my own testimony a little. I’ve written about it in blog form elsewhere, but I haven’t really talked a lot about why I am here, doing this. I grew up in church, with loving parents who did everything they could to raise me right, to pour out the truth and love of God into me and who prayed for me constantly. I think it is safe to say that in the terms of most people who knew me, I was certainly not a “bad kid” by any means. In general I did what I was supposed to do, I did reasonably well in school and was successful in my particular field of study and interest, which was, as I mentioned last week, music.
I performed a lot. Playing music was the center of my efforts, and I ended up playing in virtually every situation and venue I could get into as a part of school. I had a dream of playing music professionally, of my tuba being the foundation of a professional orchestra or a brass quintet touring internationally. I went to college to earn a performance degree, and spent countless hours there playing, practicing, performing, all in the service of this desire. And it was a good desire, one that unfortunately hasn’t come to fruition–but we’ll get to that.
In the background of all this, though, was a little seed of something that was planted deep, started to grow, and ultimately became a major part of my undoing–and, of my remaking, for my own good and God’s glory. In high school some time we got a computer and got on the Internet, which was in the days of the late 90s–think the height of animated GIF backgrounds and embedded MIDI files on personal websites. I even had my own site, although it is long since lost to the mists of time and Google. And in this new opportunity there was a danger, which I fell right into. So many men in my generation talk of being introduced to pornography online, and I am no exception. I had a self-image that was rather poor, which was a big reason I was so motivated to pursue becoming very good at something (not that being a professional tuba player is particularly known as being a method for picking up girls). Because of the way I saw myself, I justified in my mind the desire to pursue understanding of sexuality, something that I thought was eternally beyond my reach, through other methods.
Such thinking, of course, betrays a complete distrust of God to provide, let alone the absolute foolishness of the human mind that can justify any sin. Bottom line, I was walking into very dangerous territory and over time, I became better and better at hiding my growing addiction and at feeding it. Over time it began to take tolls on every aspect of my life. By the time I was well into college my spiritual life was at an absolute zero. Practicing began to decrease, as did studying, and free time was devoted entirely to me, myself and I–feeding my hungers, and driving me deeper into searching for satisfaction. Moving into grad school my addiction was a major culprit in my essentially failing out, as I was not devoting the time to practicing or studying that such an endeavor required. I was left standing with my big plans for the future broken in front of me.
Of course, a caveat: this was not the only reason or the only thing going on. I had a tendency to run after my most immediate desire in many areas, which of course was a product of simple laziness as well as a fear of taking any kind of real chance. But the fact of the matter was, it was a huge symptom of my selfishness, and of the fact that the life in Christ which I claimed to hold by belief in His death and resurrection, was at this point merely an intellectual assent. It did not make a major impact on the way I lived my life.
It was November of 2007. By this point I was no longer going to school, I was working a couple of part-time jobs to make ends meet with the prospect of student loans looming, living in an efficiency in Denton and the band I had been playing with for a while and thought, “This is going to become something great!” hitting a major rock and leaving me frustrated, angry, and not sure what to do next. One of my friends from the band invited me to church at the Village, which had just opened its Denton campus (which is now its own church, still called The Village Church – Denton). It was part 7 of Matt Chandler’s long series preaching through the book of Luke. The particular topic that week was the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42. Martha works around the house while Mary, her sister, listens to Jesus teaching, and eventually Martha expresses her exasperation that Jesus does not seem annoyed by this situation. Jesus rejoins her gently, however, and tells her that “Mary has chosen the one necessary thing.”
I don’t know if I can fully articulate exactly what the Holy Spirit did in me that day through those simple words, except that, through Matt’s gentle but focused preaching unpacking the Word, He showed me the path of my life, the pursuit of success in my chosen career field, my foolish running after fantasies and the ways such desires had hurt real women in my life, both directly and indirectly. He showed me that what I had was an absolutely deadly mass of wickedness. And He showed me that Jesus came and died, on the cross, so that I could put such things down, and rest in Him wholly and completely.
I was broken, down to my core. There was that sweet bitterness that Charles Spurgeon preached on a century before, there was repentance bearing its fruits in my life. Not by my own will, not by my own goodness, but by God’s good grace. I wept, and I rejoiced, and I tasted of the fact that God is good and that His goodness endures forever and through all things for His people.
A lot of times you’ll hear testimonies given by people who came out of addiction. They’ll say things like “I got saved, and I never drank again!” Well the fact of the matter is, that most people who come to know Christ in the midst of any kind of addiction do not just give it up. Humans do not release their idols so easily. It was several years of discipleship, of frustrated nights and confessing sins and walking through recovery with loving brothers, before I could even begin to claim victory in my life. And even then, that victory belongs to Christ alone, and not to me. I simply benefit from His work. Even now I have good men who know they are liable to receive a call from me should a time of weakness come, and they lovingly stand together with me in such times. But I wanted to tell this story to encourage you. I wanted to talk about what I’ve done to let everyone reading or listening to know that whatever it is that stands between you and God, whether it is some kind of major addiction, or pride, or fear, or all that and then some, that there is mercy available. The most high God made you, He knows you, and He has sent His Son to pay for your wicked deeds and thoughts so that you, too, can stop running after foolish things, and rest, rest in Him. Rest with me, brethren. As has been said, all that has been required to let us find right standing before God is finished, and therefore, we can begin living in light of that great grace and leave all our idols abandoned to rot. We can truly live in light of the truth of Psalm 46:10, which I am wanting to use as the basis for the closing line of this podcast:
I actually forgot that this was Valentine’s weekend when I chose this sermon. However, I think that simply makes this all the more appropriate to talk about. The love of God, and its outworking in Jesus’ incarnation and atoning work on the cross, is an oft-misunderstood and twisted concept. Love in general is a rather abused concept in modern Western culture. But I don’t really want to spend a lot of time talking about that specifically. Nor do I intend to rehash many of the things you commonly hear in sermons on the subject, including the (actually incorrect) discussion of Greek words like αγάπη and φιλέω.*
No, instead I want to remind you, my listeners, of the importance of reflecting this great love to those around us. I especially want to make this imperative in the face of the changing dynamics of the world right now. As I record this, the news has just broken that Justice Antonin Scalia, who had long been a voice for truth on the US Supreme Court, has passed away suddenly. This has naturally sparked a lot of commentary as well as worry. Add this on top of everything happening in both parties with the upcoming presidential election, growing fears of more economic instability, wars and rumors of wars, and so forth.
There is a tendency, when hearing the news and the state of the world, to feel a sense of dread. There is a thought that we should worry, that something could go wrong and things could turn bad very quickly…and then, who knows what might happen next? But I want to remind you all, those of you listening who are in Christ and believe that He is indeed on the throne, that we have no cause for fear. Our anxiety will not change anything, nor does it serve well to remind us of the truth: that God does love us, that He did send His Son to atone for our sins, and that His will is being accomplished perfectly in all things.
Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.–Psalm 115:2-3
This is the God we worship, and we should demonstrate our love for God by obeying His Word, by loving each other well and giving as we can to those who are hurting. Do not mistake me: the opposite of anxiety is not apathy. It is action, driven by the truth of the Gospel: those who are in Christ have been saved from the wrath of God for their sins by the work of Jesus, and therefore we are free to live knowing that He provides perfectly for us! Not in some kind of “name it and claim it,” prosperity gospel nonsense–that is not Christianity. That is idolatry of the worst kind, dishonoring to God and destructive to the body of Christ.
No, I am talking about knowing that I can obey God faithfully, knowing that He provides what I need to do so, even when things seem bleak. I can live in a country and participate in a political process that seems to be heading to a darker and darker place, knowing that no matter who wins an election, God is the one who appoints and casts down kings, all for His purposes and the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
So let us take this time when love is the word of the day and do exactly what believers should do in all times and all seasons:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.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.”To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.–Romans 12:9-21
*For a full discussion of these terms and the reality of claims that “this word means unconditional love” and “this word means brotherly love!” as well as a thorough but highly readable discussion of God’s love, I highly recommend D.A. Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.