Sermon: Changing Lives for God in Christ

Jesus calls his disciples to a transformational mission.

The challenge for them was to capture the vision, scope, and heart of his plan. They often missed it. Let us not miss the life-changing mission that God has for us right under our noses if we will only have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

Changing Lives for God in Christ: Sermon on Mark 9:33-37

Mark 9:33-37 (ESV Version)

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Is Jesus challenging you today? What question are you too afraid to answer, and what answer are you too afraid to give? And what is the mission to which God is calling you to engage that is right under your nose?

The Fellowship of Light

Sermon from 1 John 1:1-2:6

We have now entered into the period of the church calendar between Easter and Pentecost, known as “The Great 50 Days.” In the year of the Lord’s resurrection, this period was one of great intimacy with the Lord for the early Church, because the resurrected Savior was physically present with them on the earth. They could see him, touch him, and eat with him. This intimacy with the resurrected Lord became the foundation of the apostles’ enduring faith, and the basis upon which the apostle John wrote his first epistle.

The early apostles had the privilege of being tangibly present with God in the flesh, something which none of the rest of us since then have been able to experience. John knew that not many were able to experience that, and so he proclaimed plainly that he himself had seen and touched the Lord:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.

1 John 1:1-2

It’s the same concept as the way John opened his Gospel, with an expression of the physical presence of God among his people:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

John 1:14

Following Jesus was not just a theory or a philosophy. It was a tangible experience with a living person. After the ascension of Jesus in his physical resurrected body, the mission of the disciples was to transition the Church from following the physical person of Jesus to BEING the physical manifestation of Jesus in this world through the fellowship of believers, also known as the body of Christ. That’s a challenging transition!

John wanted to emphasize that believers can still have a physical, tangible encounter with Jesus through his people, the Church.

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

1 John 1:3-4

John goes on to clarify that if we want to walk in fellowship with the Lord, we have to walk as children of the light. He explains that the fundamental of problem of why we are estranged from God is that we love the darkness; we love to hide from God, to lie, and to stay in our sin. This is why Jesus came – to deal with the sin that kept us separated from God.

I can testify to this in my own life. When I was younger, I enjoyed living a self-focused, hedonistic lifestyle. But when I was a junior in college, I began attending a Bible study, and suddenly through my encounters with the Word of Life and the people of God, I began to feel all sorts of conviction about the things that were wrong in my life. However, the more obvious my own sins became, the more I wanted to distance myself from the people of God. Not knowing how to deal with my sin, I wanted to just avoid the conflict I felt when my attention was drawn to the things that separated me from God and from his people. This is exactly what John was talking about.

Do you ever notice that in a church, it’s usually the back row that fills up first? People want to get just inside the door, but not risk getting too close for fear of exposure. Darkness is exposed by the light, and that becomes really uncomfortable. Sinners would prefer to stay in darkness.

The apostle John, however, calls us to press in to the fellowship of the light. This is what Jesus came to do for us.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

1 John 1:7-8

If we will embrace fellowship with God and with God’s people, he will reveal our sin and provide the way to cleanse us from them.

God longs to bring us back into a restored relationship with him. He knows and understands our weaknesses and failures. But he has made the way for us to be brought back into fellowship through his Son.

John speaks tenderly to the recipients of his letter:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2

Jesus has made the way for us to be restored to the Father, for us to be safe with him rather than wanting to hide from him. When we live in his fellowship, we are filled with his light, with his power, with his fullness. Move past the discomfort to receive his forgiveness and salvation, and walk as a child of the light today.

Looking to the Pierced One

Good Friday Sermon from John 19

One argument that skeptics have used against the death and resurrection of Jesus is called “swoon theory,” meaning that they think Jesus wasn’t actually dead when they took him from the cross, but rather he had fainted or was in a coma. Or in the words of Miracle Max from the movie The Princess Bride, he was only “mostly dead,” meaning he was partly alive and not beyond saving. However, a close look at John 19 disproves this theory.

But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.

John 19:33-34

Modern science now understands that when a person dies and their body remains still, their blood separates into the heavier clot and the lighter serum. When Jesus’ body was pierced, John saw the gush of these separated liquids: first the red blood and then the light serum, what John described as water. This is proof that this body was dead – a living person’s blood does not separate.

John used the two facts that they did not break Jesus’ legs and that they pierced him with a spear not only to prove that Jesus was actually dead on the cross, but that he was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. In verse 35, John testifies that he saw these two things with his own eyes. Then in verses 36 and 37, he quotes the prophetic Scriptures that he is now applying to Jesus:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.

Psalm 34:19-20

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.

Zechariah 12:10

During Holy Week, we frequently meditate on prophecies of the Messiah. We focus on passages like Isaiah 52-53 about God’s Suffering Servant or Psalm 22, which Christ himself spoke from the cross. However, Zechariah has a lot to say to us during this time as well. The book of Zechariah is filled with prophecies about the events of Holy Week. Zechariah was a prophet and leader in Israel in the time when the Israelites were returning from exile and beginning to rebuild their nation in Jerusalem.

On one hand, this was a time of great hope for Israel because it seemed like things were turning around for them. They were able to leave Babylon and return to their homeland. The people wondered if now was when God was going to usher in his Messianic Kingdom. On the other hand, they saw Jerusalem and the temple lying in ruins, and there was also a great sense of discouragement at the huge task that was before them.

I think we can relate to this feeling right now. The world is just beginning to come out of the exile we have been in because of coronavirus. Life was changed for us drastically, and now we are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel that it may be coming to an end. However, there are so many things that have to be rebuilt. We have been through so much grief and loss, and our lives have been so utterly changed. Will we be able to go back?

As a pastor, I believe a time of hopeful transition is actually a time to take very close care of my congregation. Strange things can happen to people’s hearts, minds, and lives during times of great change, even change for the better. There is a chance that now may be a time of great revival and reformation for our nation and world, but maybe not. It depends on whether the people of God will be faithful in this moment. Just because things are looking up, we can’t become careless with our faith and trust in God. It’s actually more dangerous at this moment that we may slip back into business as usual and forget God.

Zechariah’s book contains first a series of prophetic visions, then a series of poetic sermons. In these, we find many images foreshadowing Jesus, such as the priest who bears the guilt of his people (3:1-5), the priest who is then crowned king to rule (6:9-15), and the humble king who rides on a donkey’s colt (9:9). The parallel gets even stronger in chapters 10-13, where God condemns the false shepherds of Israel and comes down to be their shepherd himself, but is then rejected, betrayed (for thirty pieces of silver! See 11:12-13.), and killed by those false shepherds. However, through the death of the good shepherd, the people are cleansed from sin and idolatry.

From this side of history, there is no question that Zechariah’s entire book of prophecy was pointing to Jesus. Zechariah challenged his readers then, and his words still challenge us now, to recognize the righteous one sent from God and look to him, the one who was pierced. From his broken body flowed not only blood and water, but also streams of living water for the cleansing, healing, and salvation of the world.

In John 19:35, John explains clearly why he outlines these things in his Gospel: “that you also may believe.” Place your trust in the one who was pierced for your transgressions. Look upon him, and through his suffering, find salvation for your soul and cleansing for your heart, mind, and spirit. Allow the flow of God’s Spirit to bring you life in him.

The Greeks Bring the Party

Sermon from John 12:20-36

This passage opens with the arrival of a group of Greeks to the Jewish feast, saying “We wish to see Jesus.” I’m reminded of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My step-mother is from a Greek family, and so I am familiar with what a Greek party looks like, and that movie does not miss the mark. When Greeks show up, they bring the party! So although commentators debate at whether John meant actual Greeks or just generic Gentiles, I smile imagining a group of Greeks busting into this Jewish feast ready to party. So whether it was Greeks or Gentiles, the disciples of Jesus did not know what to do with them when they arrived.

However, when Philip and Andrew asked Jesus what to do about this group of Greeks, it seemed as if he didn’t even hear their question, for he started talking about what seemed like something completely different! Jesus replied to them with, “The hour has come…” (v. 23). This is actually a recurring theme in the Gospel of John – references to “the hour,” or the divine appointed timing of God. It was first mentioned at the Wedding at Cana when Jesus told his mother, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). There are several other moments in the Gospels when Jesus says things like, “The hour is coming…” and now we come to the end of his life and ministry, and “the hour has come.” It is time for the climax, the denouement, the moment that changes everything.

So what is the hour that has come? “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” At first this might sound awesome to Jesus’ listeners, but he goes on to explain what he means by using two illustrations. First, he compares himself to a grain of wheat. A grain of wheat has to fall to the earth and die in order to bear much fruit. A seed has to be broken apart and destroyed in order to bring forth more life. When Jesus says that this is the hour, he is talking about the cross. Only when he dies can he bring eternal resurrection life from the grave.

Jesus goes on to reflect on the meaning of laying down one’s life. He not only laid down his own life, but he calls his followers to lay down our lives as well. We lay down our fears, our material desires, our concerns of what people think of us, and yes, our physical safety. And in return, we gain eternal resurrected life. What an exchange!

Although this is a wonderful exchange, Jesus knows that it is difficult for us. It was difficult for him! After speaking of laying down his life like the grain of wheat, he directly tells us, “Now is my soul troubled” (v. 27). But he provided for us the example of what to do when our souls are troubled by fear and hardship. We pray for the Father to glorify his name. God hears and he responds, and he will indeed bring about glory through our suffering.

Jesus then switches illustrations and brings up the concept of being lifted up, which is another paradox. When we think of being lifted up, we think of encouragement, light, brightness, and adoration. But Jesus was speaking of the way he was about to die. Just like the death of the seed led to life, the death of Jesus brought about glory. Jesus references being lifted up three times in the Gospel of John. The first is in John 3:14, when he compares his own death to the way Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to save the Israelites from the curse of poisonous serpents (See Numbers 21:4-9). In the same way, looking to our Savior lifted on the cross will save from eternal death those of us who bear the curse of sin.

Isaiah 52-53 gives us a picture of this. Isaiah 52:13 says that God’s servant is wise and high and lifted up, but then verse 14 says that as he is lifted up, we can see that he is marred and disfigured. Isaiah 53 goes on to beautifully express how God’s Suffering Servant bore the weight of our sins in his own body. This is how Jesus was lifted up.

But what breaks forth from his suffering is a new covenant. He brings new life to a dead and dying world. With the cross, Satan is now a defeated foe. The power of our enemy has been stripped from him. The cross has broken the bondage of sin and death. As the Son of Man is lifted up, those who look to him find life.

Going back to the Greeks, these Greeks were a little early for the party that was coming with the resurrection of Christ. May they be representative of the people of God receiving and celebrating the glorious light that broke forth after the suffering and death of the Savior, the glorious salvation and freedom of the children of God, and the eternal resurrected life provided to those who look to him.

The Pigeons Must Go!

Sermon from John 2:13-25

Upon reading this story of Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2, my first thought was, “What did Jesus have against those pigeons?” Sure, pigeons make a mess, but did he have to get so upset? There is clearly more going on here. It is worth noting that although the other three Gospel writers placed this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry (In fact, that is what the Pharisees used as a pretext for Jesus’ arrest leading to his execution.), John places it right at the beginning of his Gospel account. So one theory is that John tells the events of Jesus’ life out of order to make points about theology rather than to tell a story from beginning to end. However, I also think it’s entirely possible that Jesus did this twice.

We know that Jesus was raised as a Jewish boy who often went to Jerusalem for the Passover, and so his last Passover was not the first time he had seen this commerce going on inside the temple. I suspect that every single time Jesus saw it, it bothered him. And it is not beyond imagining to think that the Jews of Jerusalem would go right back to doing things the old way even after having Jesus cleanse the temple once earlier in his ministry. So then we can imagine him coming back at the end of his ministry and being frustrated at finding them in their same old ways.

So what bothered him so much about this? First, let’s understand the practice. God-fearing people would make pilgrimages from all over to make sacrifices at the time of Passover. They might travel from far-flung places by ship or on foot, and it would be a challenge to bring your sacrificial animal with you on that pilgrimage. It made a lot of sense to wait to buy your sacrifice until you got there, and Jerusalem had a whole economy around raising flocks of animals to be temple sacrifices. In addition, since people were coming from many different places, they were bringing foreign currency with them, and they had to exchange their currency to the Jewish shekel in order to pay their temple tax while they were there. Therefore, having an animal market and money changers near the temple was very practical and convenient.

The problem came when these practical conveniences crept into the temple itself. The temple was meant to be a place of worship and prayer, and bringing these things inside the temple brought distraction. Imagine it being the same as when someone is talking behind you or knocks over their cup of coffee in church. It’s difficult to focus on worship when other things are going on around you, and the noise and smell of an animal market would certainly distract a person’s mind and heart from worship!

In addition, the Scripture indicates that there was also corruption going on. The animal vendors and money changers could make a ton of money by inflating their prices, which was selfish and irreverent to focus on personal gain rather than worship. And there could have been even more about this circumstance that was offensive to Jesus, but we do know that he was upset that they were not engaging in worship rightly. They were not giving God his due reverence.

So he overturned the tables of the vendors and drove the animals out with a whip, demanding that they remove their commerce from his Father’s house. It’s interesting that as Jesus’ disciples were watching him do this, a psalm of David came to their mind:

For zeal for your house has consumed me,
    and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting,
    it became my reproach.
When I made sackcloth my clothing,
    I became a byword to them.
I am the talk of those who sit in the gate,
    and the drunkards make songs about me.
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
    At an acceptable time, O God,
    in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.

Psalm 69:9-13

King David was kind of a mess with lots of sin and failures on his record, but one thing he had in his favor – he deeply loved the Lord. This psalm of David reflects that passion for the Lord’s reputation over his own. Repeatedly we saw in David’s story his willingness to risk the judgment and scorn of others, including his own wife (See 2 Samuel 6:1-23), to wholeheartedly worship the Lord. Unlike most of us, he was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and let all that he had in his heart – both good and bad – be seen by all. The rest of us tend to keep our internal struggles and failures hidden, trying to wear masks and pretend we don’t struggle. As my wife says, we judge ourselves by comparing our insides to others’ outsides. That never ends well.

This wholehearted abandon to the worship of the Lord is what made the disciples think of this psalm when Jesus was cleansing the temple. He wasn’t afraid of what any other person would think of him – he only cared about the glory of the Lord. Unlike David and unlike us, though, Jesus had nothing to hide on the inside. His motives were completely pure. He had nothing but absolute faithfulness to God.

This is one indicator of the heart of a faithful worshiper – they don’t care what others think of them. People who judge the worshipers of God are people who don’t understand God, and true worshipers just won’t let that bother them. A person coming to offer wholehearted worship to the Lord won’t care what anyone else thinks but only what God thinks. A wholehearted worshiper won’t want to please anyone else besides God.

The animal sellers and money changers were not true worshipers of God. They missed the heart of God. God is so jealous for the hearts of his people. He wants us to be wholly devoted only to him, much like a marriage vow. He faithfully keeps his covenant with his people, and he desires that same faithfulness from us. He will not share worship; he will not share our hearts.

Jesus was reacting to this unfaithfulness with passion and emotion, the same jealousy that God feels for the hearts of his people, and the temple leaders were put off by this. They challenged him, saying, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (v. 18). They didn’t think he had the right or the authority to act on behalf of God. However, Jesus’ answer was that he would destroy the temple and raise it again in three days. His listeners at the time completely misunderstood his meaning, but later they would realize that he was speaking of the temple of his body, which he did raise again three days after it was destroyed.

Jesus came to give us a new temple, where the abiding living presence of God dwells within his people, not in a building of stone. The indwelling Spirit of God empowers our hearts to be wholly devoted to him.

The Unfolding Plan of God

Sermon from Luke 1:26-38

Upon being told by the angel Gabriel that she was going to bear the Son of God, Mary’s response was profound. She said:

Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.

Luke 1:38

The more we study the Scripture, the more we see that it is a unified story. The plan of God begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation, but it is one story with one master plan of God that unfolds throughout. At our place in history, we are able to see that a lot of it has already unfolded, but many of the people we read about in the Bible understood much less about God’s plan than we do today.

Consider how limited King David’s understanding of his own life would have been. In 2 Samuel 7, David was told that he was not the one intended to build the Lord’s temple, and he understood that to mean that it was his son, Solomon, who would be the one to build the temple. However, in the larger scheme of redemptive history, we understand now that it is Jesus, God’s Son, who was the ultimate temple builder. In his flesh, he became the temple of the Lord in order that God’s children could themselves become a spiritual house to be the dwelling place of the Spirit of God. So David’s understanding did have merit, but it was only a very small sliver of the larger unfolding of the plan of God. We have indications from David’s writings in the Psalms that he understood small glimpses of what was to come, but he could not have grasped the full plan of God.

In the same way, what Mary manifested in her person was the willingness to say yes to God even though she could not possibly understand the depth of what was unfolding. We can contrast Mary’s humble acceptance to Zechariah’s doubt just a few verses earlier in Luke 1:18: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” This proves that even priests don’t always have superior understanding of God’s plan!

It is wonderful how God chooses the humble, lowly, and ordinary to accomplish his wonderful plan. Mary was just a normal, ordinary teenage girl from a small town. But it was her attitude, humility, and faith that made her able to be used so marvelously by God. “Let it be with me.” She completely committed to God’s will over her own. Looking back now, we consider her to be a highly favored one, blessed, exalted above other women. However, at the time, she was just a young lady like all the other young ladies. But she submitted herself to God’s plan, and she was used for an exceptional task.

May we submit ourselves to the unfolding plan of God the same way that she did, and may we be used for extraordinary things the way she was. She was the only one to physically give birth to God’s Son, but all of us are God-bearers (Greek: Theotokos), bearers of God’s image in this world. Just as she did, may we also say, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be to me according to your word.” This is what it means to be a Christian, a “little Christ.”

Paul illustrated this in his letter to the Romans:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2, NIV

Just like God had a good, pleasing, and perfect will for Mary, he has a good, pleasing, and perfect will for each of us. We only need to respond, “Let it be to me according to your word.” How can we know what God’s plan is for our lives? It’s simple. First, we must be willing to do whatever he wants. Second, we must listen for his voice and search the Scriptures for his word. He will marvelously use those who are completely submitted to him.

Not all of us can be a Blessed Virgin Mary. Not all of us can be Dr. Billy Graham. But we can all be used by God to marvelously impact those around us and work his unfolding plan of salvation in this world.

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.