The First Witness

Sermon on John the Baptist

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

John 1:6-7

John the Baptist was the first believer and receiver of the Gospel. He was sent by God to be the first one, the first to believe in Jesus and the first to bear witness about him. The word “witness” is a legal term, someone who gives testimony in court. Those who came to John expected him to give true witness of who he was and what he believed, and he did so with no hesitation.

In that day, there were a lot of prophecies flying around about people who had gone before and those who were to come. The Jewish people thought about these frequently, longing for a deliverer to come and rescue them from their oppression under the Romans. However, John gave no illusions – he was not the Messiah, but rather the one sent before him to prepare the way (John 1:19-23).

A witness is someone who speaks not about themselves, but rather someone else. Many classic depictions of John the Baptist are like the one below – he is pointing away from himself. John knew very well that ultimately, “It’s not about me.” He knew that he came to draw attention to someone other than himself.

St. John the Baptist (oil on canvas), Titian (1540) / Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

Everything about John’s witness was true. He was a man of integrity. He was not afraid to say tough things to those who needed to hear them. He did a faithful job bearing witness and preparing those in the region to receive the coming Christ. Like the friend of the bridegroom – the best man, John says to the wedding party, “Here comes the groom!” (See John 3.)

John said that he pointed to the light. This is a powerful thing to ponder, even in our times today. We are discouraged and oppressed by all the darkness around us. We are full of sickness, grief, political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, and relational conflicts. Many people think that they have to leave this world to escape the darkness, that they won’t see the true light of God until they get to heaven. However, that is not the testimony of John. John said that the true light of God was coming into the world (1:9), coming to us rather than us having to go to him.

He encouraged those of us surrounded by darkness to focus not on the darkness, but rather to look to the light. The light of God can be found in this world, and he will show us the way.

He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

John 1:7

The word “might” in the verse above is significant, because some are not going to believe in the light, believe the testimony of John. Many approached him with skepticism, asking questions about his motives and authority. Those who are captivated by darkness do not want to receive the light or even believe in it.

However, the Greek word that is translated as “witness” in verse 7 is martyria, where we also get the word “martyr.” This kind of witness is someone who is so devoted to the truth that they will die for it, just like John did. In the same way, those of us who bear witness to Jesus Christ can also expect persecution. Although there are some who will reject and persecute our witness, there are also some who “might believe.”

John called people to repentance in order to prepare their hearts to receive the coming light. He said in effect, the one who is coming is awesome, and we must turn away from the darkness in order to be ready to receive him.

There is a mysterious nature about receiving and believing. A preacher and evangelist can do their best to spread the truth and bear witness about Jesus Christ, but there is something that has to happen within the individual that allows them to receive the Gospel. Fundamentally, people have a hard time receiving the grace of God. We either think we aren’t worthy or that we don’t need it. It literally takes a miraculous work of God to convert the hearts of people to receive him.

This miraculous gift is something that the Holy Spirit gives, and then we have to receive it. When we do, the life of Jesus fills us from the inside out and gives us the gift of faith. Jesus himself spoke of it as a mystery like wind, which you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:5-8).

May we open our hearts to receive the awesome gift of the true light of God, allowing him to fill us with all of his fullness.

Your God Is Too Small

Sermon from Mark 1:1-8

Whenever I read the Gospel of Mark, I like to think about how this Gospel came about. The Book of Acts, chapter 10, tells of how the Apostle Peter was in the city of Joppa and had a vision. Through this vision, Peter was told by God that he was to go to the home of a leading Gentile, Cornelius, and preach the Gospel to him and his household. Upon sharing the truth of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Cornelius and his entire household were saved and received the Holy Spirit.

Mark was a traveling companion of Peter on his missionary journeys, and he heard Peter tell the story over and over again in just this way and to just this effect. So when people asked for a written account so they could continue to think about it when Peter wasn’t present, Mark was commissioned to write Peter’s account of the Gospel, the story of Jesus. It’s a powerful message that announces a marvelous thing.

The Gospel of Mark opens with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesies about the coming of another prophet, John, who will prophesy that we need to prepare the way for the coming of God himself. Then we come to find that the prophesied coming of the Lord is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, God in the flesh.

It’s hard for us to understand the concept of God as a man. We try to fit God into some other design that fits our understanding. We imagine him to be like one of our parents, usually not a flattering comparison. Or we imagine him to be like an old man, which implies that he is old fashioned and doesn’t understand our modern world. In J.B. Phillips’ book, Your God Is Too Small, he lists several examples of the boxes we try to fit God into, but all of them are too small.

Obviously, unless the conception of God is something higher than a Magnification of our own Good Qualities, our service and worship will be no more and no less than the service and worship of ourselves. Such a god may be a prop to our self-esteem but is, naturally, incapable of assisting us to win a moral victory and will be found in time of serious need to fade disconcertingly away.

J.B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small, 1955

Both the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist were trying to lift our sights off ourselves and our own small, idolatrous fixations. They wanted the blow the doors off our horizons and let us know that GOD is coming! They saw that people had no idea what was coming to their very doorsteps, and no one was prepared. It’s time to wake up and see God for who he truly is!

A lax and easy-going society will probably produce a god with about as much moral authority as Father Christmas.

J.B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small, 1955

Isaiah was writing during a time of tremendous need for the nation of Israel. They had been exiled by the Babylonians, their beautiful cities turned to rubble, and their best and brightest leaders were enslaved by the Babylonian rulers. In the middle of all this, Isaiah tells them that God is about to show up!

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”

Isaiah 40:1-5

Isaiah goes on to elaborate how no one and nothing can compare to God. He sits enthroned over the heavens, and everything else is tiny in comparison to him. He is much bigger than we imagine.

Once again in the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, we see revealed over and over again in Scripture that God’s people had once again fallen into the idolatrous image of a too-small god. The religious leaders were concerned only with political power and public image. So John came on the scene trying to shake things up!

“After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:7-8

He’s saying, God is so much bigger than you realize, and he’s coming! Get your eyes off of yourself, and get ready to see the Lord! Just like in the time of Isaiah and in the time of John the Baptist, we must also prepare ourselves for God to come and turn our lives inside out. He will revolutionize us, make us new. The people of this world have been too long harassed and mistreated, and he is coming to make all things right. Get ready for the coming of the Lord!

The Return of the King

Sermon from Matthew 25:31-46

This Gospel passage at the end of Matthew 25 is the conclusion to a very dramatic sermon of Jesus that is commonly known as the Olivet Discourse, because he spoke it on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. In this sermon, Jesus foretells the end times and describes how the end will come. He also explains that no one will know when the end will come, and so everyone must be ready for that day, and he uses the Parables of the Ten Virgins and the Talents to illustrate that fact.

Then, Jesus closes his discourse with an illustration of the final judgment. He outlines the criteria that will determine whether a person will go to judgment or to eternal life on that day. The bottom line that will decide this is how you related to Jesus, what you have thought about the King.

The Olivet Discourse ties in neatly with this Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Ezekiel 34. Ezekiel was living in one of the darkest times of Israel’s history, when the leaders – who were intended to lead God’s people to love and honor God – were instead captivated with idols and money and their own selves. They were corrupt political leaders.

God said to Ezekiel that the leaders of Israel were worthless shepherds, and so he would come lead his people himself. And ultimately, Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophesy. God sent his own Son to lead and care for his people. He showed us God’s love and tender care. He poured out God’s blessing upon his people. Jesus was the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.

So bringing it back to the Olivet Discourse, Jesus said that the sheep, who loved and followed the Shepherd, are the ones who will find eternal blessing with him.

But then he brings in another element that might surprise us. He said we need to not only love the Shepherd, but to love that which the Shepherd loves. Since Jesus loves his people, those who love Jesus must also love his people. You can’t love Jesus but despise his people. So at that final judgment, those who loved Jesus will be those who displayed that by loving his people.

Charles Spurgeon spoke eloquently about the purpose of God’s people, the church:

These places of worship are not built that you may sit comfortably and hear something that shall make you pass away your Sundays with pleasure. A church which does not exist to do good in the slums, and dens, and kennels of the city, is a church that has no reason to justify its longer existing. A church that does not exist to reclaim heathenism, to fight with evil, to destroy error, to put down falsehood, a church that does not exist to take the side of the poor, to denounce injustice and to hold up righteousness, is a church that has no right to be. Not for yourself, O church, do you exist, any more than Christ existed for Himself. His glory was that He laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside he respectability and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts, and her highest honor to seek amid the foulest mire the priceless jewels for which Jesus shed His blood. To rescue souls from hell and lead to God, to hope, to heaven, this is her heavenly occupation. 

Spurgeon, Christ’s Words from the Cross, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986, p. 24-25

One way to stay fixed on this purpose is to step back and remember that Christ the King is on his throne. We can get mired down by the hardships, corrupt politics, sin, and fallenness we see around us. Rather than looking around, though, look up. Christ remains on his throne, nothing that happens in this world takes him by surprise, and he will keep his promise to return.

We are at this moment between the first and second advents of Christ, and what matters for the Christian is how we live during this time of waiting. Jesus is the one we will have to give an account to, and the criteria upon which we will be judged is how we related to Christ and how we related to his people. If we love him and care about what he cared about, then our reward awaits.

Christmastime every year provides ample opportunity for us to be faithful to the call of the Lord in living out the Gospel. Allow Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse to create a sense of urgency in your soul to look around and see how you can love what he loves. The Day of the Lord is coming, and we should live our lives in preparation for that awesome day.

Kingdom Economics

Sermon on the Parable of the Talents

This is the time of year when churches encourage their congregations to think about making pledges for next year, and churches often use this Scripture passage in the context of tithing and using our gifts and talents in the service of the church. However, I think it’s more about what we do outside of the church.

When we consider stewardship, one of the most important things to remember is that all we have what given to us by the Lord in the first place. So when we give to him, we are giving him back what is already his.

All things come of Thee, O Lord,
And of thine own we have given Thee.

1 Chronicles 29:14, KJV

The Lord asks us for a tithe (one tenth of our money) and a Sabbath (one seventh of our time). When we return to him a portion of what he has given us, we are recognizing his gifts and acknowledging his sovereignty over all. Stewardship is less about the portion we give back to God than it is about how we use all of what God has given us.

The word stewardship is translated from the Greek word oikonomos. When you say the word out loud, you might hear its similarity to the English word “economics.” The literal translation of oikonomos is “house/household law.” It fundamentally is about the management and rule of our households.

This parable in Matthew 25 begins with the rightful owner of the property going away and entrusting its management to his servants (v. 14). This already has significant application to us, because our modern culture is less about “entrusting” than it is about “entitlement.” We think that what we have is owed to us somehow, rather than something that has been entrusted to us by God. (See Deuteronomy 8:11-17.) Do not believe this lie. God is the owner of all things, and we are simply “economists” in his household.

Some readers get confused by the use of the word “talents” in this parable. Although God does indeed want you to use your abilities and spiritual gifts in his service, this particular “talent” is a weight measurement that was used in that time. One talent is the equivalent of about 66 pounds, so when you imagine 5 talents (5 x 66 = 330 pounds) of gold, that is a LOT of gold.

When you are entrusted with something, you are not only responsible for it, but you are also accountable for it. The servants in this parable must come before their master when he returns and give an account of how they managed his possessions. The way he responds to their management tells us a lot about the nature of God. We can see that he delights to entrust his wealth to his servants, and he takes great pleasure in seeing them learn to use it well. Those who prove faithful will receive the master’s delight and be entrusted with more.

Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.

Matthew 25:21

There is nothing that delights the heart of God more than to see his people using all he has given them – wealth, talents, and skills – to flourish on this earth.

Then we see the third servant, though, who had a skewed view of the master and therefore did not obey the master’s directions. He did not see the master’s delight to see his servants flourish. He mistakenly believed the master to be a hard man who only cared about profit in the end. Many of us can fall into the false belief that God only cares about the bottom line. This is a surefire way to kill our joy in serving God and his joy in us. Like the third servant, we become obsessed with failure and refuse to take any risks in serving God.

We must not fall into this false view of God and instead stay fixed on God’s delight in the way his servants use their abilities to manage the resources he gives in order to see his kingdom flourish. This not only delights the heart of God, but it delights his faithful servants as well. When the Lord sees you delighting in your vocation, your stewardship, and your economics, then it brings him great joy as well.

If you find yourself stuck, fixated on failure, unsure how to move forward in this difficult season, I encourage you to look around and find even just one small step you can take to get out of your rut. The master in this parable said that the third servant could have done well even if he only invested the one talent in the bank instead of burying it (v. 27). So look around and see if you can find even one small place to begin to invest what God has given you in a way that will bring both him and you joy.

The Great Multitude

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17

As we celebrate All Saints Day, I consider our current struggles in the modern world, and I am reminded that this world is not our home. There is something much greater in store for the people of God. There is hope for the saints militant – those who are still alive and seeking after God in this world – and also for the saints triumphant – those who have already gone to be with the Lord.

Look at the incredible vision given to the apostle John in Revelation 7, where he is taken up into the heavenly realms and shown a great multitude there worshiping the Lord. I want to look at three “greats” from this passage.

1. Great Multitude

Many denominations mistakenly think that their way of doing things is the only good way of doing things, and we miss the beautiful diversity that God has given to his Church. Yet, the vision that John is given shows such a vast multitude that the people couldn’t even be counted. Not only are they diverse in denomination, but they are diverse among nations, people, and languages.

I love to imagine the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us (Heb. 12:1), and as we are gathering together and sharing in koinonia fellowship with each other, our fellowship extends among all the believers around the world and even to those who have gone before. I am filled with comfort and joy imagining that those beloved believers who have gone before me are still praising, worshiping, and delighting in God right along with me.

Our worship and delight are enhanced and expanded when we share it with others. So as the Body of Christ grows and expands around the world, the joy and worship builds upon itself and continues to multiply in each of us individually and also in the Body as a whole.

2. Great Tribulation

In John’s vision, there is a multitude of saints dressed in white, and the elder explains that those in white are those who came through the tribulation and were washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. The white robe is a symbol of the spiritual cleansing that the blood of Jesus gives to his people; it’s why we wear white robes at church even today.

We live in a sinful and fallen world, and the sad truth is that the nature of humankind is to fight and war with each other. In the Western world, we have political systems that provide for us to resolve differences without the shedding of blood, but that’s not the way it is in other places around the world, and that’s certainly not the way it was in biblical times. In times of difficulty and crisis, we see sinful human nature displayed very clearly. We need to remember, however, that our true battle is not against each other. Our battle is spiritual against the enemies of God. We fight a spiritual battle with spiritual weapons (Ephesians 6:10-18).

3. Great Salvation

As we are surrounded by strife and struggle and fighting this spiritual battle, we can remain confident that our victory is assured.

“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Revelation 7:10-12

As we press on and fight the good fight, we move forward with confidence that our great salvation awaits. Yes, we have difficulties; yes, we have grief. Yet our grief is not without hope (1 Thess. 4:13). We know that all those we have lost, those who have gone before us, will worship with us around the throne of God. All of our sin, sorrows, and struggles will be wiped away by the God in whom we place our hope.

The Currency of God

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

In this Gospel passage, we find a political debate going on between two parties in Jesus’ day. Wow, is that applicable to our day! Humans have always tended to divide themselves into parties and factions, and to have their decisions affected by partisanship. I have had some parishioners encouraging me to get involved in politics, while at the same time having others encouraging me to stay out of them. It is difficult to separate religion and politics; they are so wrapped up in one another. It is important for us to engage in civic debate without losing sight of our true allegiance.

We can’t make a direct comparison between Republicans vs. Democrats and Herodians vs. Pharisees, but political debates are always about the same kinds of things: taxes, money, what the government should do, and how citizens should relate to it.

In this Gospel passage, people came to Jesus with political debates and factions. They tried to flatter him with false words, but Jesus could see that they were in reality approaching him with poor intentions, with malice in their hearts. This brings me to my first point: When we start to define our lives by our partisanship, this causes our hearts to begin to fill with malice. When we prioritize political issues over issues of God’s kingdom, we allow the enemy to get a foothold with bitterness, anger, contempt, and resentment. We begin to believe that those with differing political opinions from ours are our enemies rather than remembering that our true enemy is the enemy of God.

One of the main political issues of Jesus’ day was how Jewish citizens should relate to Rome. The Pharisees took the Jewish purist angle, saying they should remain completely separate from Rome, not paying taxes to Caesar and not accepting the authority of Roman-appointed rulers. On the other side, the Herodians gave their allegiance to Herod, the Rome-appointed king, and said that the Jews should obey him.

These two factions came to Jesus and asked him to choose sides on the issue of whether they should pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus saw right through their plans, though, and provided an answer that none of them expected. He instructed them to look at the coin and see whose image was on it – Caesar’s. So he said, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

The Apostle Paul would take this concept further by encouraging Christians to accept, submit to, and respect our governing authorities. We should pay any taxes we owe to any governing body that God has put over us, and we should fulfill our civic duty by engaging in the process in whatever way we are able. (See Romans 13:1-7.)

Jesus then added another layer of understanding to this idea, though, by saying that not only should we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but we should give to God what is God’s. This should convict ANY hearer, no matter their political beliefs. It is a subtle way of saying something very profound. He said to give the coin to Caesar because it bore Caesar’s image. So what in this world bears God’s image that we should give it to him? It is humankind.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Sure, we may owe the government our taxes and our civil responsibilities, but we owe God our very selves. We are to love him with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:34-40). How can Democrats and Republicans love each other? Not because of their political positions, but because they are both made in the image of God. When we get caught up in political factions, we have lost sight of what is truly valuable. Money may be worth a little, but humans are priceless because of the worth we have been given by God.

In Exodus 33, Moses asked God to give them a sign that Moses and the people of Israel had found favor in his sight. So God hid Moses in a cave and showed him a portion of his glory, declaring his goodness, mercy, forgiveness, and love for his people. God showed Moses that his glory is filled with beautiful attributes.

Our lives are meant to reflect that beautiful brightness of his glory and to display to others those wonderful attributes that God has for all those who are made in his image. Allow the brightness of his glory to manifest in your life and for his glorious image to be displayed upon your life. Jesus encourages us not to be distracted by the things of this earth, but rather to turn our faces to the Son and let his light shine on and through us. If we would do this, our political challenges would melt away. We would be so reflective of God’s character that unity, peace, love, kindness, and holiness would reign supreme among his people. We are called to carry this light to the world.

Your Reply, If You Please

Sermon on the Parable of the Wedding Feast

I looked up the meaning of the acronym RSVP, and I discovered that it stands for the French phrase, “Répondez, s’il vous plaît.” That translates to, “Would you reply, please?” I’ve been involved in a fair share of weddings throughout my life and ministry, and I have seen how important each RSVP is for the purposes of planning. However, in my experience, Americans aren’t very good about returning an RSVP.

I looked up what etiquette says to do if someone doesn’t return their RSVP, and modern practice says that when planning who to invite to your wedding, you should create an A list and a B list. You invite the A list first, and then if they don’t respond, you write them off and send out invitations to the B list. Isn’t that interesting? It’s exactly what happened in this Gospel parable… This has been going on for over 2,000 years!

It’s interesting to think about the attitude of the king of heaven toward those who don’t RSVP and still show up anyway. Unlike a modern day wedding, in which every seat must be carefully planned, there is always room in the kingdom of heaven, and you are always welcome to come, no matter how late your response. Thinking of some of the other parables from the Gospel of Matthew, we’ve seen that the vineyard keeper will give the workers their full pay even if they only worked for an hour (Matt. 20:1-16). Or the father will appreciate the work of the son even if he at first refused to do it (Matt. 21:28-32). The king is very generous to all comers.

However, in this parable, we examine the way some responded that were not acceptable. When the people who were invited to the wedding did not reply, the king in this parable did what Emily Post Institute tells us is the proper approach to those who fail to return their RSVP – a follow-up call. Rather than writing them off, first reach out politely and ask them if they are coming. The king did this by sending servants to ask them in person if they are coming. However, the rude invitees dismissed and ignored the servants and the invitation.

Andy Stanley wrote a small book called “Choose to Cheat,” in which he says you have to choose what part of your life is going to be cheated in favor of something else. You have to choose to sacrifice work in favor of family or family in favor of work. Choosing priorities has to be intentional. We can say that one thing is our priority, but when we step back and examine what we are giving our time and money to, we find out that something else is actually our first priority. All of us struggle with upside-down priorities – when things that we want to be less important tend to dominate our lives. This is what happened with these rude invitees – their priorities were placed in work, in family, in anything but accepting the call of their king.

C.S. Lewis said it this way:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

We see this same thing from the Israelites in the book of Exodus. God’s people have seen astonishing demonstrations of God’s power on their behalf, but when Moses spends just a little too long up on the mountain, the people ask Aaron to make them an idol, and they turn away from worshiping the one true God (Exodus 32).

The human heart is so fickle. We do it all the time. We take the work of our hands and make it our gods. And we have an amazing capacity to self-deceive. We make up stories that convince us we are not at fault, but those are lies. We are responsible for creating our own idols.

This was the problem that kept the first group of people from accepting the king’s invitation – they were busy devoting themselves to work, family… All idols. Then we have a second group of people who refused to attend the wedding of the king’s son out of contempt for the king and his son. When we think of it in the framework of the kingdom of God, the son in the story is Jesus. And those who refuse to attend his wedding are those who reject him as the Messiah, the Son of God.

In the wedding parable, the rebellious invitees refused the king’s servants and treated them shamefully. In the kingdom of God, the people refused, rejected, abused, and killed God’s servants when they invited them to enter the kingdom of heaven. In return, the king in the parable reacted with anger and judgment to this rejection, and so did God when his people rejected him.

And so, when the original invitees refused and rejected the king’s invitation, he moved to the B list. “Go out to the roadsides and bring in anyone who will come!” In the kingdom of heaven, this is when the invitation opens to the Gentiles, to all the nations… And this is how we fit into the story! When the original people of God refused the invitation, then the invitation was opened to the whole world. That is the Gospel!

Then at the end of this parable, we have one guy who showed up in the wrong clothes, unprepared for the party. What is the deal with this one guy? His coming dressed inappropriately shows that he wasn’t sincere in wanting to celebrate with the king. He simply showed up, possibly wanting to cause trouble or just to see what he could selfishly get out of the party.

What we’re talking about here is not when someone doesn’t wear a suit to church. What we’re talking about in the kingdom of heaven is that sincere seekers of Christ are to bear his image. We take off our sinful actions and attitudes and put on the righteousness of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit. We put on Christ and fully devote ourselves to his worship and work. The king delights in genuine seekers! This is in sharp contrast to those who show up to church looking to see what they can get from God, with no intention of genuinely repenting.

May we never forget that when we come to worship the Lord, we are accepting his invitation to celebrate the wedding feast of his Son! We must come fully dressed, preparing our hearts to enter into genuine worship. And we must also go out to the roadsides, the ends of the earth, and extend the invitation to all those who have sincere hearts to receive God’s invitation to this glorious banquet.

On Divine Authority

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

In this Gospel passage, the Jewish leaders are challenging the authority of Jesus, and so I want to take a step back and see what motivated this challenge. Earlier in the chapter of Matthew, we see Jesus doing two audacious things that really caught the attention of the religious leaders: Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem riding a donkey’s colt, and then Jesus cleansed the temple of the moneychangers. Both of these dramatic actions would definitely have caught the attention of the chief priests and elders.

By entering the city of Jerusalem triumphantly on the colt of a donkey, Jesus was declaring himself to be the prophesied Messiah. This action spoke volumes to the Jewish leaders.

But then by overturning the tables of the moneychangers and declaring that he was cleansing his Father’s house, he was condemning the leadership of the chief priests.

They of course took offense at this and challenged by what authority he was doing such audacious things. When confronted by these people, Jesus knew their hearts. He knew they were not interested in getting to know who he really was, but rather they were hostile and trying to trap and disprove him.

Jesus’ previous actions already clearly displayed his answer to their challenge… By entering the city in the prophesied manner, he was openly claiming to have Messianic authority. Then, by his words “my Father’s house” at the cleansing of the temple, he was openly claiming to have the authority of the Son of God.

However, rather than answering their question with words, Jesus instead had a challenging question to return to the Jewish leaders. He asked them about the baptism of John the Baptist, and they instantly recognized this as the same kind of trap they had been trying to set for him. They knew there was no right answer to the question – no matter what they said, they would lose. So in the typical fashion of politicians, they refused to answer the question.

When it came to the matter of authority, the chief priests and elders did have positional authority in the temple, the same way that I do as a priest of the church. And who gave them that authority? Firstly, they gained access to the authority by genetics, simply as descendants of Levi. Secondly, the elders and the high priest would have been chosen into those offices by the people. This made them political, acknowledging that they must give account to the people who elected them into their offices.

This is not so with Jesus. He was not elected as Messiah by the people, but rather he was ordained by God. So whether any person chooses to submit to him or listen to him, his authority stands.

When both Jesus and the Jewish leaders came to a stand-off, both refusing to answer each other’s questions, Jesus proceeded to tell a parable to make his point. He told the story of two sons. The father tells both his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son immediately refuses, but later, he changes his mind, repents of his disrespect, and goes to do what his father asked him to do. On the other hand, the second son lies to his father’s face. He says, “Sure, Dad, I’ll go do it,” but then doesn’t do it. Which is worse? As a father myself, I can vouch that I’d rather have the first kind of child who at least deals honestly with me than the second who just lies to me and I never see their true heart.

By telling this story, Jesus put his finger on exactly what these religious leaders were all about. They were all talk, but their heart wasn’t in it. He could see that they were full of false words, but they were never going to truly obey and love God.

And in the same way that Jesus could see directly into the hearts of these religious leaders, we must also recognize that Jesus sees our hearts, too. We can’t fool him with false words of devotion, when we are truly living only for ourselves. We must give him our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies as living sacrifices. God knows that the default position of all humankind is rebellion, stubbornness, and hard-heartedness. Bring all of that honestly to the Lord, and lay it before him. He would much rather deal with your rebellion than your hypocrisy.

Grace Is Not Fair

Sermon on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

It is human nature to grumble and complain. We see this as a consistent problem among the people of God throughout redemptive history. When a person has been liberated from sin and called by God into the process of sanctification, there is a range of the sins of the flesh that Christians generally don’t struggle with as much as secular people do – Prodigal son-type sins. These are the ones to first work their way out of our lifestyles after we have been saved by Jesus. The sins that Christians tend to struggle with more are the sins of disposition, of attitude, of the heart. This is why Paul says in Romans 12 that we need to make a break from the pattern of the world and renew our minds.

This is what happens for the Israelites after they have left Egypt. They need to shift from a slave mindset, subservient to both the people and gods of Egypt, to a God-only mindset.

In Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20, this is the very mindset he is addressing. One of the most pesky sins that plagues the faithful is that we struggle with grace. We gravitate more toward self-righteousness and dependence on the law – the legalism of the Pharisees that requires fairness according to our own understanding.

In this parable, the landowner hires more workers all throughout the day, and a problem comes at the end of the day when he is paying his workers. What we do in our modern culture is keep secret how much each person is being paid to avoid jealousy or a sense of unfairness among workers who are being paid different amounts. But Jesus isn’t giving business advice here; he’s teaching a lesson about grace and generosity.

“That’s not fair!” It’s a common phrase heard among parents of siblings, who are striving to make sure they are being given equal treatment from their parents. It’s the charge that’s being leveled against the landowner in this parable, and it is very frequently a charge that we level against God. We accuse him of not being fair in the way he distributes his beneficence.

We say, “God is being better to them than he is to me.” “Why are they so happy when I struggle with this?” This is a very dangerous game to play against our brothers and sisters in Christ. We claim that others don’t have to bear the burdens we bear, and we resent God for not being kind to us.

We see the same principle in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I believe this parable is misnamed, because it’s really about the older brother, who resented the kindness of his father and grumbled against what he perceived to be unfairness. How very often we see this attitude in the church. We need to be careful with this, because it implies that we believe working for the kingdom of God to be drudgery, that being faithful to the Lord feels like slavery.

We also see this among the Israelites in Exodus. God displays his incredible, mighty acts in setting them free from slavery in Egypt, and then when they get out into the wilderness, they grumble and complain because of food. They accuse God of being cruel and uncaring. They claim that slavery in Egypt is in any way better than following God through the wilderness. Their nostalgia for the old, familiar ways had them believing that somehow those who are faithful to the Lord receive less blessing than those who are not. This is a common deception that the enemy uses against God’s people. We see it all through Scripture and even today.

A common misperception in our culture is, as my wife says, that we compare other people’s outsides with our insides. We assume that what we see on the outside is what is actually true on the inside, and that is very rarely true. In the parable, it’s interesting to see the attitude of the first vineyard workers toward the ones who were hired last. They did not show compassion for the workers hired last or an awareness for the need they might be experiencing.

And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

Matthew 20:6-7

In verses 6-7, we see the motivation of those hired last – they wanted to work! They would have been glad to have worked all day, but no one hired them. In the same way, we have no idea the motivations and circumstances of the people around us who don’t yet follow the Lord. One of the things about grace is that it is a great equalizer – we all stand in the same need of it, regardless of how or when we come to receive it.

The last attitude that Jesus challenges in this parable is our bad attitude toward the generosity of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t work according to our plans, our timetables, or our methods. The landowner makes the point to the workers: It’s my prerogative to pay my workers what I want to. If I want to show them generosity, that is up to me.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?

Matthew 20:15

The landowner made an effort to go out all through the day and seek out all those who needed work, and to make sure they had what they needed. The first workers failed to see this because they were focused only on themselves. So they begrudged his generosity. In the same way, God intentionally seeks out the lost to save them on his own timeline, and it is up to him to give mercy as he sees fit.

All of us need his mercy in the same way. Especially recently, the season of coronavirus and quarantine has been a challenging one, but some have struggled worse than others. We may be tempted to get angry and resentful at God over this, but the Lord’s desire is to redeem and sanctify us into mature believers. It is a privilege to fellowship in the sufferings of Christ, and that is a hard thing for us to grasp, but this is the maturity that God wishes to grow in us. May our mindsets change so that we accept that we get to bear the burden of each day in working for the kingdom of God as a reflection of the burden that Jesus bore for our salvation.

The Community of the Redeemed

Sermon on Christian Community

The tendency of the church today is to focus on the positive and ignore the negative. We focus only on the joyful and happy, but that’s not true to reality. We all have areas in our lives where sin has captivated our hearts and minds and manifested itself in our character. However, what God envisions for his people is to bring us out in a New Exodus, delivering us from sin and its negative effects in our lives.

We read in Exodus 12 where the deliverance of Israel required a costly blood sacrifice, and then in the Gospels, Jesus redefines the Passover by saying, “I am the Passover Lamb, whose blood is shed for you.”

God is enacting a New Exodus by gathering his people – Jew and Gentile – out of this world and bringing this redeemed group of sinners into a collective community called the Church. All of those redeemed sinners have brought in their issues and defects – anger, selfishness, habitual sins – into this community of the redeemed. The people of God are a motley crew.

Not only do we come with our own personal flaws, but we also carry with us our own backgrounds of nationality, race, social class, and economic status, which lead us to misunderstand and sin against each other.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which literally means “to miss the mark,” like when you shoot an arrow and don’t hit the target. When we sin against each other, we miss the mark of how we should treat each other.

It’s interesting to be thinking about community when we have all been quarantined away from each other for so long. As we begin to start gathering back together, it is very likely that after 6 months apart, many of us are out of practice and have lost our social cues. We have become so used to isolation that we will have to re-learn how to be gracious to each other.

We can miss the mark by being critical of each other, backbiting, being angry or frustrated toward each other, ignoring each other’s needs, failing to communicate well, being judgmental, being verbally abusive (I’m looking at you, social media.), being sexist, being cliquish, telling jokes at each other’s expense, being irresponsible, being arrogant, snobbish, rude, and boastful. We hurt each other all the time.

It is actually remarkable that God would bring together this group of sinners in the first place, but he does it as a way to model what the heavenly community could look like. This is why the Church is called to be salt and light, a vision for how God intends for us to treat each other.

Sometimes the church is called the “beloved community,” and that reminds me of wedding vows. A bride and groom vow to love each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until they are parted by death. This is the same love that each member of the Church is called to have for their fellow believers. Note that at the beginning of the wedding service, the officiant opens with “Dearly beloved…” He’s talking to the congregation there, as people who are called to be in covenant community with both God and each other.

The problem with trying to be happy all the time is that it’s mostly fake. Like Disney World, the “happiest place on earth,” the entire environment has to be artificially manufactured and tightly controlled in order to maintain that image. That is not real life. When the Church tries to apply this model, that is hypocrisy.

It’s actually in the sick times, the hard times, the unhappy times that we prove our genuine faith and manifest the Passover community of people who have been saved by grace. Jesus tells us to intentionally address the hard things:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 

Matthew 18:15

We are pressing through the hard times in order to win each other. This is the model of brotherly love. Notice that in Matthew 18, Jesus instructs us to address an issue with our brother directly rather than talking to everyone else about it. Isn’t that the opposite of what we normally do? In today’s world, the first thing a person does when they are offended is write a nasty post on Facebook, telling the whole world about how they were wronged. This is the way of the world, not the way of faith. The result of that kind of behavior is destruction.

A popular phrase right now is “cancel culture” – withdrawing support from a company or individual that is no longer deemed worthy after a public mistake or failure. However, this is completely antithetical to the Christian faith and life. No one is “cancelled” or beyond redemption. We are to respect the dignity of every human being, even the worst of sinners.

The Bible warns us about making up our minds without knowing the whole story:

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

Proverbs 18:17

The problem with “cancel culture” is that it doesn’t allow both sides of the story to come out, and it doesn’t allow due process to run its course. Jesus outlined a due process for reconciliation between parties, which maintains respect and dignity while working through a grievance. Yes, sometimes people are stubborn and hard-hearted, and it is necessary to bring in other parties to mediate. But the goal is reconciliation, not destruction.

Bringing a grievance to the attention of the entire community should be a last resort, not a first course. The aim of even the most severe interventions is to win them, not “cancel” them. No person is a lost cause in Christ.

We should never underestimate the power of grace, the power of the blood of the Passover Lamb to save. We should never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit of the living God.

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). This doesn’t just apply to a worship service or Bible study; it applies to a private meeting to try to resolve conflict, too! The Holy Spirit manifests in a powerful way to transform people’s hearts and bring resolution and renewed relationship where there was conflict.

The sweetest moments in Christian fellowship are when we actually deal with the difficult challenges and problems in our communities, and we do the unnatural thing of avoiding gossip and instead seeking to work it out. Jesus shows up and glorifies his name in our midst as we contend for one another in our Christian communities. The presence of the living God binds on earth with the keys of heaven the community he has redeemed.