A Hope and a Future

Thriving Amid the Exile

Several weeks ago, our church read an excerpt from Jeremiah’s letter from God to the exiled Israelites in Babylon. It struck me as I was hearing Jeremiah’s words read out loud that they were just as prescient for our day as they were then.

A People Deaf to Warnings

In 597 BC the Babylonian armies invaded Israel and Judah and eventually conquered the capital city of the Jewish people in 586 BC. The Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon is one of the great tragedies of the Bible. The walls and buildings of the city of Jerusalem were literally disassembled and the Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed to its foundations.  Many people were deported into exile, including the entire royal court.

All of the destruction and deportation was anticipated and foretold through the writings and preaching of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was not a particularly popular person in his day with the ruling class. Truth tellers are often difficult to hear.

False prophets rose up. Prior to the exile, they preached a message of denial. After the exile, they preached a “quick fix” approach, promising the exile would be a short few years, and that God would restore things back to the “good ole’ days” quickly. The truth was more severe.

The problems with the nation were deep and they went all the way to the top. Corruption existed at the highest levels—with the kings themselves, Ahab and Zedekiah. These men would ultimately be judged by God unto death for their spiritual adultery with foreign powers and gods, for their rebellion against God’s commands and for their lies.

Hope, But Not False Hope

One of the most cherished parts of Jeremiah’s writings are his promises of hope to the people of God amid their exile. As severe and devastating as the Babylonian exile was, it was not the end of the story. All hope was not lost. However, such hope should not be falsely understood; restoration would not come quickly. There would be no quick fix. The exiled Jews in Babylon needed to take a long, multi-generational view. It would take 70 long years to turn things around and for Israel to be ready to return to Jerusalem. Here is a portion of God’s letter to the exiles. It said:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear 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 I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (Jeremiah 29:4-14).

The letter encourages the people that they need to take a long view. It is critically important that they live and even thrive during the exile. In other words, it was incumbent upon them to thrive even though the culture around them was foreign to them—not their home. They should even seek the welfare of the city in which they live so that they can thrive for the long term with the city’s good favor.

Restoration would come eventually. God promised to give them “a hope and a future”, to prosper them with good plans. But, it would take a good long while to see such blessing. By adopting a long view mindset, the Israelites would stay strong for the long haul and stay faithful to God for generations.

Our Day…

The writers of the New Testament considered the secular Roman Empire in which they lived a type of Babylon. The church is the exiled people of God. Peter called the church in the world “scattered exiles” (1 Peter 1:1). This world is not our home. Even though we are citizens of the United States from an earthly perspective, our true and lasting citizenship is in heaven, in a city whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10).  We are destined for the New Jerusalem and the heavenly city prepared for the new earth after the consummation of all things. In the meantime, what are the faithful people of God to do?

Some false voices suggest that the problems are not that severe. That one day soon, we can get things turned around. Beloved, if the election of 2016 has taught us anything, I hope that we have learned that there is not a sinless messianic presidential figure in the offing who will lead the United States of America back to the promised land that it once was.

The faithful need to be disillusioned with the pundits and the politicians who preach a message of false hope and quick fix. The problems that this nation has are deep and intractable. The truth is that it will take generations for this nation to be restored. They will not be solved in the short run with government solutions. On the contrary, national restoration of the United States will come from many generations of faithful consistent witness and discipleship by the church.

If the Foundations be Destroyed…

In Psalm 11, David asks: “If the foundations be destroyed, what shall the righteous do?” There are times when it seems as if the very ground underneath our feet is coming out from under us. This political season may have shaken our confidence in the very institutions which we rely on for stability. However, David knows that if your trust is not in earthly foundations but in the Lord’s sovereign rule, all is secure. Here is David’s answer to his own question:

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face (Psalm 11).

God remains firmly in control of all events happening in the United States of America. He is sovereign over all. So, what will the righteous do?

Go on Being Righteous.

No matter how bleak the circumstances are in this land of exile, our hopeful confidence is ultimately not in the government of the United States of America or its elected leaders. As beautiful and wonderful as our nation is (God has truly shed his grace on thee) our hope and help is in the promised restoration that will only come by the sovereign hand of God and in his sovereign timing.

In the meantime, we take the long view. We go on being righteous, in season or out of season. We proclaim the good news. We plant and build churches, we do good deeds that build up the kingdom of God. We build houses and raise families. We study the scriptures together in community, and we seek the things of first importance, Jesus Christ, and him crucified and raised.

The Lord is in his Holy Temple and he calls us to live and thrive in the midst of exile. We should always seek the welfare of the nation and cities in which we live. By getting involved in the affairs of our community and being the salt and light of Jesus Christ, we manifest the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Elections do matter, and we are called to engage in the affairs of our communities and our nation so that the place where we live will be strong and good.

But for God’s sake take the long view, do not be discouraged or lose hope by the affairs of this world. We will remain in exile a good long while. As the Lord promised the people of God of old, his words continue to ring true:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11-12).

What Are Christians to Do?

Like many of you, I am deeply grieved by the continuing tension in our nation—shootings involving police and race in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, protests around the country, and more violence targeting the police in Dallas and other areas. All of this follows the recent mass shooting in my own city of Orlando. What is happening to our nation, and what are we as Christians to do?

veiled police badge

A Christian citizen of the United States can’t help but feel discouraged.

The Scriptures describe how, in the last days, there will be an unholy trinity that takes the form of a seductive harlot, a politically appealing anti-Christ, and a violent beast. Throughout the history of the church, people have believed these three entities to be manifest in various people and movements. What is important is, until Jesus returns, there will be an ever-present manifestation of evil in various worldly forms. Behind all of it is the evil one himself, Satan. I believe our country is being stirred up by this evil one.

We know from Scripture that these sinister powers and principalities cause tremendous distress for the people of God and the people of the world. We also know that they are defeated foes! The promise of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that the days of evil are numbered. They will come to an end.

In the meantime, what are the people of God to do?

The answer is simple: Go on being faithful—endure. Do not allow intimidation, discouragement, despair, or weariness to keep you from maintaining a vigilant zeal in the Lord. The Gospel of Jesus remains this world’s only hope. We are the stewards of that message of eternal life and peace.

Now, more than ever, the people of our nation are open to solutions other than the ones the world has to offer. Let us be diligent and sober-minded in prayer. Be quick to give a reason for the hope that you have in Jesus. Enlist in the fight with the weapons of the Spirit. Pray for our nation. Repent of your own sin and anger.

The founders of the United States knew that for freedom to flourish in this government they devised for us, two other pillars also were necessary: virtue and faith. These three “goods” are interrelated and interdependent. All three are under assault today from every side. We need to rekindle them.

We rekindle faith and virtue by standing firm in the Gospel. The only thing that will reconcile the divisions in our nation is the Gospel of peace. There is no black or white, male or female, nor any other political or human division at the foot of the Cross. Jesus died for sinners, all of us. Faith in that radical grace has the power to dissolve anger, heal hurts, forgive wrongs, purify sin, and reconcile enemies. When faith and virtue are rekindled, real freedom for all can thrive.

We need spiritual renewal, revival, and reform in the United States of America. Pray for it. Work for it. Yearn for it. The work that we are doing as the body of Christ is mission critical. Commit yourself to standing strong as a representative of Christ’s freedom, virtue, and faith, no matter what the enemy does in this world.

Over the years people have visited the United States and come to the same conclusion. The secret to America’s vitality and freedom is the self-control afforded to the people of this nation by virtue of their relationship with God. The Harvard professor featured in this video, Dr. Clay Christensen, is asking the right question: “Where are the institutions that are going to teach the next generations that they too need to voluntarily choose to obey the laws? Because if you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”

How to Deal with Sin in the Church

Whenever two or more sinners are gathered together, conflict is in the midst of them. Jesus called people from all manner of life into the Kingdom of God. He was criticized for welcoming tax collectors, prostitutes, the demon possessed, lepers, gentiles, gluttons and drunkards into the kingdom of God! With such a motley band of brothers and sisters, it does not take much imagination to envision that the full range of bad behaviors and habits would manifest within the community of the early church in short order. One of the critical challenges for Jesus’ “little flock” was to sort out how to maintain a holy, growing, united community made up of broken hurting sinners. Jesus provided direction to his church.

Related Sermons:

Matthew 18:15-20 If your brother or sister sins against you 9/4/2011 (sermón en español)

Matthew 18:21-35 Debts Forgiven 9/14/2014 (sermón en español)

A hospital for sinners, not a refuge for saints

Are the relationship dynamics in the church any different in our day than they were in Jesus’ day? The church is not a refuge for saints but a hospital for sinners. As sinners, we inevitably will hurt one another. When (not if) that happens, what are we to do? How are we to respond? Often I see that when a person is hurt by a brother or sister in Christ, they quietly withdraw from the relationship. Jesus would not have us separate because of sin, rather to pursue restoration and be sanctified.

In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches us that conflict and the occasion of transgression is an opportunity to grow in relationships and in holiness of life. We are accountable to one another. The occasion of sin within the body of Christ becomes a moment where we manifest to one another the grace that God has abundantly given us.

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” –Matthew 18:15

Jesus gives us several values in Matthew 18:15-35:

Value 1: Respect the dignity of the sinner

Do not tell church first; that would be gossip and slander. Rather, Jesus would have us first deal with sin as a private matter. This allows the unity of the body to be protected. A private conversation allows the sinner to recover quickly without having a “big deal” made of their transgression. The vast majority of sins within the body can be dealt with privately in a one-on-one communication.

Notice Jesus says, “go to your brother”… Email and text messages are not the appropriate medium to have these types of discussions. They are best held face to face, person to person—just between the two of you.

Value 2: The aim is always to regain your brother or sister

Often people avoid tough conversations because they are afraid of what will happen to the relationship. Sometimes we may have to be willing to lose a relationship to a loved one, in order to regain our brother or sister in a healthier relationship. While it is to a person’s credit to overlook and offence (Proverbs 19:11), at other times to not confront is to not care. Sin is destructive of people, relationships and the church. Our goal in any confrontation is to “win our brother or sister.” Notice he does not say, “you have won the argument!” The highest value is winning the person.

Value 3: begin with gentleness and gradually work toward a more severe mercy

Doctor’s don’t choose the most invasive surgery first when treating a patient. And we should be gentle in our approach to dealing with sin in another’s life. Jesus teaches the steps; first confronting one-on-one. Then, if that doesn’t work, take along one or two witnesses. If that doesn’t work, involve the authorities of the church.

Some people attempt the one-on-one and find the confrontation ineffective. That doesn’t mean it is time to give up. Jesus gives us a range of assisted approaches to help restore the sinner and the broken relationship. When individual attempts at reconciliation fail, enlist the help of others in the church or your pastor. Some sins are as deep as a person’s childhood, some are due to severely hardened hearts, and a more severe mercy is needed to see heart change.

Value 4: Don’t write off a brother or sister in Christ as a “lost cause”

Again, the goal is always to win our brother or sister back to a reconciled relationship. Our heart toward the sinner should be like that of the good shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one.

Even in the extreme, when we read about an excommunication of a brother in 1 Corinthians 5, the goal is salvation. While Paul encourages the congregation that the man should be “put out of their fellowship” for his immorality, the church discipline was done to hand the man over to Satan to experience the consequences of sin, “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:5)

No one is a lost cause. We never know how God will work in a person’s life and heart. Do not be surprised if God calls us to forgive another as a testimony to the power of the gospel.

Value 5: The sweetest moments of Christian fellowship come after sin and reconciliation

Jesus promises that he is present in the midst of “two or more” who gather in accountability. While these conversations are difficult, they are also holy, sacred ground. Jesus desires to see the people who he has called together become healed and restored by his grace. We have been entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation as the church.

Value 6: We are to demonstrate God’s grace with one another

As the disciples contemplate Jesus teaching about speaking the truth in love to the sinner, they wonder how many times must they be willing to go through this process of restoration? Is there a statute of limitations or a seven strikes and you’re out rule? That would seem reasonable! But Jesus does not accept such a small display of grace. Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22)

Jesus goes on to tell the story of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven a debt he could never repay. Incongruantly, the servant was then unmerciful to a fellow servant who owed him a not insignificant amount of money, though nothing in comparison to the debt he had been forgiven. God expects us to be ambassadors of his grace to one another, in light of his abundant forgiveness to us.

The Dangerous Prayer

As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That is a dangerous prayer! That line in the Lord’s Prayer is a contingency prayer. We are asking God to treat us the same way we are treating others. If we are in a posture of grace, we are asking for grace. However, if we have a judgmental heart toward another, we are petitioning God to judge us! Yikes! The continuous pattern of weekly (even daily) reciting of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us to breath grace in and out of our lives on everyone. We are to be the most forgiving people in the world, because we are the most forgiven people in the world.

How sweet it is!

Is there someone in your life with whom you have a problematic relationship? How would Jesus encourage you to respond to the challenge? Sadly, in this sinful and fallen world not every relationship is salvaged and restored after sin. But one of the sweetest promises in the Bible is the promise of Jesus’ presence when two or more come together in unity and restoration. “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20) In the most difficult relational moments of life, Jesus will do his greatest redemptive work. Invite him into the mess! Ask his help with the challenge you are facing right now!

Prayer: Search me, Lord. See if there is any ounce of malice or deception in my heart toward another person. Show me where I am holding another person’s sin against them. Reveal to me where I have a need to repent and ask for forgiveness. Give me the grace to leave my hurt and need for retribution at the foot of the cross. Help me to have the difficult conversation-help me to forgive. Guide me in the path of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Use me to be an instrument of redemption and salvation in others lives. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen!

Futility of Selfish Ambition

The Futility of Selfish Ambition

A Reflection on Ecclesiastes 4:1-6:12

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes turns to a reflection on the futility of human beings pursuit of selfish ambition. This pursuit has led to bitter tyranny and oppression. (4:1-6) Man’s envy is self consuming: “The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (4:5) Selfish ambition leads to a lonely alienation and foolish self-centered existence:

Chasing after the Wind

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. -Eccl. 4:7,8

Selfish ambition is the sin of presumption upon the grace of God. The words of our mouth are arrogant in what we purpose and vow to do. Our dreams and plans for ourselves are often not God’s ways and plans. Selfish ambition is futility–the equivalent of chasing after the wind. Not smart.

Ultimately, the selfish pursuit of more and more wealth will prove to be unsatisfying and stressful. The more you have, the more worries, because there is more to lose. And at the end of the day–it will all be lost.

“As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.” (5:15)

So hold earthly wealth loosely; enjoy it while you have it–and count your blessings as a gift from God! (5:18-20) The vain pursuit of earthly and temporal gain alone ultimately leads to despairing because the future is so unpredictable:

For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? -Eccl. 6:12

Like Jesus, the Preacher calls us to turn away from ourselves and surrender to the way and will of God. The re-orientation of our lives away from self and toward the Lord, not only brings significance back to the prosperity and adversity of life, but secures an eternal reward for all who trust in Him.