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Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Revelation 21:1-7 Heaven and Earth Together Again

Jesus' return is the second part of our advent focus. Over the past four Sundays, we’ve mostly looked back to Jesus’ first coming, today we’re looking at the second part of what advent is all about and look at what it’s going to be like when Jesus comes back. It's about new hope and renewal, about victory over sin and death, and about heaven and earth coming together again; a reversal of what happened in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden. History begins with chaos before creation. Genesis 1 and 2 is all about God entering into the chaos and creating life and order and beauty and wonder through his creating power. But chaos reappears with Adam and Eve’s fall into sin and the rest of Scripture is all about God working with his chosen people to bring order once again out of the chaos that sin creates.

Christmas can be one of the loneliest times of the year for so many people and many of us didn’t notice because we got caught up in celebrating Christmas with our families and friends. It’s easy to forget to see those around us who are lonely and alone. Christmas can also be a really painful time for many people as the hurts of the year seem to get emphasized during this time of peace on earth and good will among men, especially when we’re living in broken relationships.

Jesus’ healing begins right here with us being aware with each other of those who are alone, who are less well off and reaching out to them and enfolding them into our own lives and celebrations. Christmas dinner at the LMC on Christmas Day was a wonderful way of seeing and reaching out to those who struggle at this time of year or may simply be lonely. The challenge is to not forget them as we go back to our own families and friends and to continue to see them and enfold them into our lives and our church family, inviting them to accept Jesus who is Immanuel, God with us. Faith in Jesus shapes us, changing our lives in every aspect, giving us eyes that see the world through God’s eyes, and hearts that interact with the world through God’s heart.

This passage is rooted in the promise that God will live with us again and we will be his people. There’s this wonderful promise that there will be no more tears, death, mourning or pain. Within our churches, there are still tears, mourning, death and pain, yet we’re still able to offer hope and healing, compassion and love because we know that whatever we’re going through is not the end of the story, that Jesus brings new life and overturns the effects of sin that brings brokenness and hurt into our lives. Most importantly, we offer our presence and our friendships as a sign of what God’s kingdom is like, what it is going to look like when Jesus returns with the new Jerusalem. Our faith equips us to change the world around us, often one person at a time as we reach out in love and caring towards them, looking to enfold them and walk with them. We accomplish this by keeping our eyes on Jesus; allowing Jesus to shape us, fill us, and use us in his name to be his presence of hope and healing in each other’s lives. In the craziness of this time, slow down and allow Jesus’ presence to be his gift to you and our gift to those around us.

Jesus enters into our world as a human being to bring order and peace into our chaotic lives and hearts, chaos that Satan loves to create. Jesus goes to the cross to wash away our sin and make us clean as part of bringing order again out of the chaos of our lives due to sin. This is the context of our passage this morning. Jesus’ return fills us with hope, knowing that everything that’s broken will be renewed, that our hurts will be healed, that life can start new again. John’s given this vision to offer hope to all the believers who are being persecuted, who are experiencing death and torture, to people who see little to hope for in this world.

Now, in spite of all the chaos that John’s living in, peace and order enters. John sees something remarkable coming down from heaven, a “new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there’s no longer any sea.” John uses some specific words here, words that point to renewing, to fresh life arising out of the decay and wreck of the old world. This isn’t about new geography, this is about a new kind of a world arising out of the ashes of the old, of a new people, a new way of living coming. This is about order coming out of chaos, about peace coming out of war, of hope and joy coming out of the persecution and poverty.

The sea’s a place to fear for the Israelites; a place of chaos where monsters rule, the place where the beast that fights Jesus comes from. The Jews were a desert people, firmly anchored to the earth. John himself is on a prison island called Patmos, an island battered by the sea during storms, a place far from family, home and friends. A world without a sea for a Jew is a picture of safety and order. What John sees here is an image of peace and safety.

John sees the Holy City come down, a city deeply different from the city of Babylon which has been defeated and destroyed. Babylon’s all about personal power, lust and greed, and becoming a god rather than following God. Here the new Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, is coming down from heaven, sent to earth by God to take its place in his new world order. It’s a gorgeous city built with precious jewels and gold and shines with the glory of God. Inside the city is a river filled with the water of life lined with trees of life whose leaves are filled with healing. The curse that came into the world with Adam and Eve’s sin has been wiped away, the effects of sin washed away; the city and the people are pure again, free of sin and the affects of sin, free of death, mourning, crying or pain. The only tears found in the city are tears of joy and love.

There’s a lot going on in this vision; echoes of creation, the prophets, acts of salvation in the past all pointing ahead to Jesus’ return. It’s gives hope to all people, especially those going to carry the words of this vision to the churches in the Roman Empire going through persecution. Through John, God’s talking to all his people through time, telling us that there’s hope, that the time is coming when Jesus is coming back to claim his people and his kingdom. It’s a picture of us being made new again, of all our hurt and brokenness being left behind as we move forward into an eternal future with Jesus healed and forgiven. Jesus' name Immanuel, God with us, will now be completely fulfilled and lived out in Jesus' return. 

Until Jesus returns, there is much for us to do to prepare for his return. We are called to make disciples, to invite others to join us in following Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we work towards establishing the values of heaven here in our communities, values of justice and righteousness where we care for those who need a little extra help, we build on the good already here, we protect those who are oppressed, we create places of safety for those needing hope and someone to love them as Jesus loves them.

When Jesus returns, there’s still going to be work to do. We get to continue the task of discovering and releasing the potential that God has placed in creation, a task that got sidetracked by the fall into sin, but will be renewed again, but now with the entire creation open to us. Looking at how Jesus’ body was changed after the resurrection, how he’s able to go through walls and travel great distances quickly, what is that going to mean for us and the huge universe that stretches out across light years all filled with potential? Can you imagine the entire universe that’s waiting for us to continue that first call on our lives to fill the universe and subdue it by discovering and developing the potential that God has placed into it at creation, to work alongside God in this amazing task? As Jesus says, It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”

Friday, 27 December 2019

Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:19-25; Luke 2:8-20 Good News

It’s Christmas Eve and this evening we’ve been journeying through the Bible, reflecting on and singing our way through God’s faithfulness and commitment to his people. Right from the beginning, God has walked with his people, calling us back time and time again to be his people. Even when we fell into sin, God doesn’t give up on us; right after our fall into sin, God promises a redeemer, one who will come to defeat Satan once and for all and redeem us from sin and death so that we can walk together again with God as it was in the beginning. Yet, even with the promise of a Messiah, humanity has often walked in fear and uncertainty.
Reverend Thomas Butts writes, Jesus was born into a world riddled with fear. So much of the lives of people was controlled by factors over which they had no control. Anything not explained rationally, which was almost everything, was thought to be caused by demons and evil spirits. Disease and weather were controlled by unseen evil spirits over which they had no control. Israel was occupied by the Roman army. The destiny of the country was in the hands of people who did not have their best interests at heart. Every change seemed to worsen their situation, which was already bad. Most news was bad news. Fear so consumed first-century people of Israel that when they did not know how to feel they were instinctively afraid.”
But now God is on the move and angels have come to let the world know. We hear the reassuring words of the angel: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord." This is the fourth time angels have come in the last few months with good news for the people. First Zechariah is met by an angel who tells him that he and his wife Elizabeth, both too old to have kids anymore, will have a child who will help the people get ready for the Lord. They become the parents of John the Baptist.
Then Mary is met by an angel. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” We hear the unexpected good news as the angel calls Mary, “You who are highly favored.The angel then tells her that she’s going to be the mother of God and he will be called the Son of the Most-High whose kingdom will never end. At Christmas we’re reminded that we too are highly favoured as Jesus has come to live among us and learn life as we live it, “The Lord is with us in Jesus.” Leonard Vander Zee writes about Jesus’ birth, "[Mary] uncovered her baby as much as she could in that chilly, dank space. She examined him from head to toe, caressed his tiny body, touched his perfect fingers and toes. Perhaps it wasn't so amazing to her or to Joseph, but to me the most amazing sight she laid her eyes on was the stub that protruded from his belly, the freshly-cut, already-withering cord that had sustained his life in her womb — the cord through which he received her nourishment, her very life. When you really think about it, this is the amazing thing: This child, the long-promised Son of God, has a belly button. The incarnation means that God now has a belly button. He is bound forever to the human race, and that remnant of an umbilicus proves it." God with us as a baby in a cradle, God in skin, as one theologian says, God who joins us in all our joy and sorrow and washes us clean, not only of our sin, but also of our fears and worries.
Then her husband-to-be Joseph receives an angel visit to reassure him that the child his fiancĂ©e is carrying was from God and that he’s to marry her and help raise this boy who will be called Jesus and who will save his people from their sins. Jesus grows up in a family, with all the wonder and stress that comes from family, all the comfort and hurt that families can bring; Jesus gets it, he understands and is there as our big brother to hold us when we need holding, to challenge us when we need a challenge and encourage us when we need encouragement.
Now a choir of angels has come to proclaim that the promised child has come; the saviour of the world, the one who will save his people from their sins; Immanuel, God with us, is here. God’s greatest expression of love has just been born in the babe of Bethlehem. The good news is that because of the babe of Bethlehem we’re all included in the love of God. You may not have yet accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, but God loves you and has led you here this evening to hear how great his love is for you and to invite you to come bow before Jesus, who so loved you, that he took the hard journey all the way to the cross for us, to wipe away all your sin. Jesus has made us right with our heavenly Father so that we can be called children of God, beloved of the Father.
Pastor Pam Barnhardt was teaching the children's sermon for an unusually large crowd of children at the 11 o'clock service in the First United Methodist Church in Alabama. Children were packed into every corner of the pulpit area. She ended the brief message by saying, "And God loves you and you and you," pointing as she spoke in three different directions. She paused to let this profound message sink in. During the silence, a child down at the far end of the pulpit area behind the baptismal font toward where she had not pointed, said in a wee, tiny voice, "What about me?" This child represents all those who feel left out, the poor, the oppressed, and the unnoticed, those who live below the radar screen of normal attention, who wonder if they’re too small or too bad or too insignificant to be included. Good news! Jesus came to tell us that we are all included in the grace-filled love of God. No one is left out.
Still today, in a world so often filled with bad news, we hear the angel’s words ring out again with words of hope that still today speak into our fears and distress, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” God has come to live among his people and point the way to salvation, hope and freedom for all those who are willing to come to the Babe of Bethlehem and accept him as their Lord and King. As the writer to Hebrews reminds us, Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets.  And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven.” This Son is Jesus who was born on this night so many years ago. So, we join the angel song in saying,Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 

Monday, 23 December 2019

Revelation 5 Who is Worthy

Have there been times when you felt you didn’t measure up to your own expectations or someone else’s? It’s hard because you often feel as if you’ve let them down, or you’ve let yourself down.
In Revelation 5, we’re in heaven’s throne room and everyone is worshiping, but then, in the middle of the worship, John notices that there’s a scroll in the right hand of him who is sitting on the throne. Now John realizes that there’s something special about this scroll because it has writing on both sides, meaning there’s a lot going on with the scroll, but also that it’s sealed with 7 seals, meaning it’s really important and not just anyone has the authority to open it.
From the Old Testament, we get some clues as to what’s on the scroll. Psalm 139:16, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Later on, the prophet Ezekiel is given a message for Israel, “He said to me, “Son of man… I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn… You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people; open your mouth and eat what I give you.” Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.” It’s about our future, about God’s plans for creation and humanity.
A mighty angel comes forward and cries out, Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” It’s going to take someone with power, authority and wisdom to open this scroll. There are so many powerful beings in the throne room worshiping right now. There are the elders with kingly authority, there are the four powerful wise creatures, there are the angels who are God’s messengers and even power angels like Michael and Gabriel, but none of them step forward to open the scroll. John’s watching carefully to see who will take the scroll, who has the authority, power and wisdom to open and carry out God’s plans for creation. I wondered this week about how they must have been feeling, how they must have been thinking that, even though I’m a powerful angel or king or creature, there’s no way I’m worthy, no way I’m good enough. It helped me understand John’s tears better.
As John watches for someone to step forward, he writes, “I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.” In the middle of the most amazing worship, John weeps for the future of humanity. The church is under siege by different Roman Caesars and the culture of the time. Men and women are being tortured for following Jesus as their only Lord and Saviour and the times are dark, it feels as if evil and Satan are winning. John weeps. As John weeps, an elder comes to John and tells him, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” John recognizes the titles from the Old Testament, from Jacob’s blessing of Judah, many times great grandfather of Jesus, and from the prophet Isaiah who speaks of a new king and Messiah who will come out of the family tree of Jesse and King David, pointing to when God’s kingdom will be completely established here in earth. These are titles of hope and salvation.
John looks and unexpectedly sees a Lamb looking like it had been slain standing in the center of the throne room of heaven, in the center of the throne itself, surrounded by the four living creatures and elders. This is a lamb whose life was given as a sacrifice for sin, a lamb that also has seven horns and seven eyes, showing that this is no normal lamb, but a lamb of power and wisdom, echoing back to John’s own words in his gospel where he calls Jesus, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
This Lamb is Jesus, Son of God, fully human and fully God, and he’s worthy to take the scroll and to open it. We’re reminded here that Christmas is not just about a baby in a manger’ This baby grows up, teaches us about God our Father, calls us to choose God over all other gods, and goes to the cross, where as God and man he takes the sin of the world on himself to pay punishment for our sin. Because Jesus has gone to the cross, because he’s fully God and fully man, he’s worthy to take the scroll and open it. Jesus directs and leads history to its grand climax where heaven and earth come together again and sin and Satan are completely defeated forever. Jesus is the promised Messiah, the one Israel has been waiting for, for thousands of years, and he’s worthy and he makes us worthy to be children of God through his blood.
The worship continues with a new song, You are worthy to take the scroll and to open the seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” This is redemption, the church word that teaches us what Jesus has accomplished on the cross: that he’s paid the price for our sin, once and for all; freeing us from the punishment for our sin. We still face the consequences of our sin, but we live now in God’s grace and forgiveness. Jesus’ blood is for all those whom God has chosen, the persons from every tribe and language and nation who are part of God’s people. So many promises here are being fulfilled from the Old Testament, all the hope God’s people have been hanging onto for thousands of years has come true. This is why Jesus is worthy to open the scroll.
We are saved for a purpose, to be a kingdom and priests to serve God. We’re called to be a people whose loyalty is completely on Jesus, a people whose identity is in Jesus and shaped by Jesus so all other nations in the world are blessed through us and they can see who Jesus is through us. We’re called to be priests. As Kelly Kapic writes, “First, in our priestly role, all Christians are to live sacrificially for others. We are people of the cross. Jesus laid down His life for sinners in desperate need of grace and love. As imitators of the crucified Lord, we now offer ourselves to Christ through sacrificial acts of love done in behalf of our neighbors, even the neighbors who consider us their enemies. We can be truly “honorable” through our works of grace and mercy, hoping that these very people may one day “glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). We do not make atonement for others, but through our lives, we point them to the Lamb of God who alone can bring reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humanity (v. 21). Second, we are faithful in our priestly role as we offer intercession on behalf of others. Paul makes a similar point when he urges Timothy to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for” all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1–2a). Part of living as the chosen people and a holy nation is that we are set apart to be instruments of God’s grace and reconciliation in this world. And this begins with prayers. We pray not just for those we love, nor even just for God’s people, but for the world, including dangerous emperors (1 Peter 2:16–17).”
This brings us back to heaven’s throne room, a place and time of worship. Hear the angels’ praise, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise! To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, forever and ever!” Remember, this vision is given during a time of persecution, during hard times. The next 15 chapters or so of Revelation are about the great battle for history that we’re living in right now and are a part of, the battle the Lamb is leading against Satan and his allies. Worship gives us strength and hope so that we can be a kingdom and priests working towards the return of Jesus because Jesus is worthy to lead creation to its grand climax in his return.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Revelation 4 Falling Down in Worship

Is there one worship time that stands out in your life? This vision of John reminds me of those times when, as a child, our family would go into town to see the Christmas windows at Eaton’s department store. They would transform their windows into magical wonderlands and we would crowd up to the windows with our noses pressed into the glass and be transported into the winter wonderlands. I believe this is why I enjoy live theatre so much still today as it allows me to be transported into other worlds and times I can only dream about.
John’s on the barren island Patmos, where he’s been exiled because he follows Jesus as his saviour and Lord. Here John is given this vision and told to write it down for the churches. The veil between heaven and earth is thin and John sees into the throne room of heaven. There’s a huge contrast between the island of Patmos and heaven’s throne room, which is a place of wonder and awe. John can’t see God himself; he describes God as shining like jasper and ruby, colourful and precious gems. The throne’s surrounded by a rainbow, reminding us of how God saved Noah and his family. From the throne comes flashes of lightening and rumblings and peals of thunder, reminding us of God meeting Israel at Mount Sinai after saving them from Egypt.
God saves his people and desires a relationship with us, this is why he makes so many covenants and promises with us. This relationship reaches its height in the coming of Jesus when he comes as a child born of Mary and is called Immanuel, God with us. Jesus comes to save us from our sin, going from the cradle to the cross where he defeats Satan and frees us from our slavery to sin and death. In becoming human, Jesus experiences life completely, from birth to death, from joy to sorrow, from having deep close friends to having someone close to him betray him, growing up in a family and living a single life, Jesus experiences life in its beauty and horror. This experience makes it possible for us to have a closer relationship with Jesus because he understands life here because he’s lived it with us. It also leads us to worship him with all our hearts.
Around the great throne of God are 24 other thrones where 24 elders dressed in white and wearing crowns of gold are seated. John sees 7 lamps blazing away on the shores of a sea of glass. Having been on the ocean on a clear calm evening and seeing the beauty of the night sky and northern lights reflected off the ocean, I can only imagine how all the colours and light in heaven are shining throughout the throne room, creating an enchanted mystical effect of beauty and wonder. This is a special place that has no equal here on earth. There’s no darkness in heaven, no sin, only purity and holiness and righteousness. It’s a completely safe place where evil can’t touch anyone.
This is being written to churches where many are facing persecution and even death. As they hear John describe the worship happening in heaven, they see a place of safety where they can just worship God and Jesus without fear or threat. For many of us today, it’s hard to imagine that worshiping God could cost us our life, but for John and the churches who are receiving this letter, there’s no greater desire in their hearts. In Montreal, there are a number of Pakistani families who have fled their country because it wasn’t safe for them as Christian leaders to remain. The father of the family, James, often mentioned how amazing it is that he can share Jesus with his Muslim neighbours in safety and even invite them to worship Jesus with him. For James, worship is at the heart of what following Jesus is all about.
This is such a picture of hope. We may be living trapped by certain sins we can’t seem to defeat, it may be a time of darkness and pain for you and it may feel like help or strength is far away, but in John’s vision of heaven’s throne room, we see how close heaven is, how close Jesus is. Even when we’re alone and feel helpless, God’s with us and his power and grace are never limited by the circumstances of our lives. This is why Jesus is called Immanuel, God with us, to remind us that God understands our struggles and is with us through it all.
I’m fascinated by the four living creatures around the throne, covered with eyes, in front and in back. At first glance, it’s like they come out of a science fiction movie, but the Jewish members of the churches hear echoes back to the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel and the creatures they describe. Ezekiel 1:4–10I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. 10 Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.”
Then there’s Daniel’s creatures, Daniel 7:4–7The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle… “And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear… “After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left.”
Whenever we encounter these kinds of beasts and creatures in the Bible, they’re about power, knowledge and control, and here in the throne room, they’re all worshiping and giving God all the glory. The elders get off their thrones and lay their crowns before God’s throne and acknowledge, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” We worship God, we bow before Jesus as King of kings because everything that exists has been created by God through Jesus. There’s nothing that equals God, nothing as powerful or more powerful than God, which is why God sends Jesus to become human, to save all creation from our sin. Our God’s not only great, he’s merciful and grace-filled as well, worthy of all our praise!
In Revelation 4, our hearts are moved to worship; we’re invited to join all creation in praising God. Because we’re created in God’s image, worshiping God is part of who we are. Romans 12:1, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Reverend Frederick Boyd Williams writes, Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Capetown, is fond of saying, "Christians are a eucharistic people; we must always be giving thanks."… Christian worship is about giving thanks to the Holy God; for calling us to be God's Holy People; in all the Holy places; where we engage in Holy Play.” Worship can be something that is happening all the time, wherever we are, when we remember that worship is really about meeting God right where we are, in whatever we’re doing at the time, able to see how God is right here right now. Worship looks like thanksgiving, praise and gratitude.
As one blog post says, “our worship on Sunday inspires our worship each day. We honour God by the way we act among our families, friends, and colleagues. We worship him through offering each and every action to him. So, for example, we worship God by being people who speak the truth from sincere hearts.” Worship moves from the sanctuary on Sunday mornings with us into the rest of the week where we live out our worship as service, in the act of serving Jesus obediently in all of life. We do this best together.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Revelation 3:14-22 Lukewarm Christians

This passage this morning is one of the more well-known letters here in Revelation. We loved this one growing up because it talks about vomiting people up, images that most young boys, and some girls, find fascinating. Last week we looked at the letters written to Sardis and Philadelphia calling us to repent and wake-up and now this morning, we’re at the last of the 7 letters, a letter to the church in Laodicea. The angel of the church in Laodicea is told to smarten up otherwise Jesus is going to vomit them out because they’re lukewarm. Uggh!
How does a church get to a place where Jesus talks about vomiting them out because they taste horrible since they’re lukewarm? It’s easy when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time to take the other person for granted. It’s not that you love them less, but you stop showing it, you allow other things to take your attention away from them, and you slowly drift apart, allowing your love to grow less hot. This creates lukewarm relationships, even with God. Laodicea was wealthy, but was destroyed in 62 AD by a powerful earthquake. The people of Laodicea completely rebuilt the city without a single drachma from the government. Their wealth came from the excellent wool that their black sheep produced, wool deeply coveted by the wealthiest Romans. This led to a sense of self-satisfaction and pride in themselves that resulted in a lukewarm spirituality.
Jesus tells the angel, I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” This is about their deeds, the things they do, that has gotten Jesus’ attention in a bad way. Their deeds are neither hot nor cold, they don’t help anyone or make any difference. As the letter is being read in the church, the people could see the city of Hierapolis in the distance where there were famous hot springs used to soothe sore bodies, ease the aches and pains of growing older, relaxing the body. Down the road the other way is the city of Colossae, known for its clear cold fresh water. This water was refreshing and energizing. Laodicea received its water from Hierapolis through an aqueduct and by the time the water reached the city, it was lukewarm and the minerals clouded the water, giving it a foul taste. It had to be run through purifiers before it was fit to drink. This is what Jesus is saying they’re like.
The problem when you can take care of yourself and don’t need help from anyone else is it becomes easy to think that we don’t need God. Hosea faced that attitude hundreds of years earlier. Hosea 12:8,Ephraim boasts, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.” It’s not unusual to begin to believe that because you’re a good person, you don’t really have any need to be forgiven, after-all, what have you done wrong? You keep the law, so you’re fine. Life is good, so let’s enjoy what we have, after-all, it’s been given to us by God. If I do something wrong, I’ll just give a little more at church and it’ll be fine again. You do just enough to figure you’re still good with Jesus.
Jesus has a sarcastic streak in him that he uses to grab their attention. “You say, I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Jesus then calls us to “buy gold refined in the fire, so we can be rich; and white clothes to wear, so we can cover our shameful nakedness; and salve to put on our eyes so we can see.” Jesus is poking at their pride, the call to wear white robes that symbolize righteousness in contrast to their black wool, the eye salve that the medical school in Laodicea was famous for refers to their spiritual blindness, the gold is spiritual wealth that has passed through the refiner’s fire and been found to be trustworthy, referring to the eastern philosophies popular at the time. 
Jesus is saying that just because the outside looks good, that doesn’t mean the inside’s in great shape. That’s so true of so many parts of our lives. I think of all the relationships we have: spouses, parents and children, bosses and employees, friendships, and more. So often there is a difference between what others see and what actually is happening. So many people live with disappointment, with lost dreams and hopes, living with relationships that could hold so much more. For many different reasons, we’ve learned to live with less, we’ve accepted was is and no longer strive to live for more. Life hasn’t turned out the way we had hoped or planned and we live with regrets and disappointments. When someone asks us how we’re doing, we say we’re doing fine. We do lukewarm because it’s safe.
We’ve learned to hide our struggles and hurts really well from each other. A good friend who’s an actor once told me, “The church is filled with hypocrites,” and while I have to confess this can be true, I leapt to the church’s defense, but he stopped me and said, “All I meant was that most people come to church wearing masks, in Greek theatre, an actor wearing a mask is called a hypocrite because he’s not who he appears to be.” Part of the reason we wear masks is because we’re afraid people won’t accept us for who we really are; that they might look at us differently and judge us because we’re not doing as well as we could be.
This is the church in Laodicea. On the outside they look good. They easily meet their budget, they help out when asked, they show up for worship on Sundays, but inside it isn’t coming from a place of following Jesus, but it comes from a place of self-sufficiency where they believe they don’t really need Jesus. They don’t recognize their own need for Jesus, their own need for healing in themselves and their relationships with others. They believe they can handle everything themselves just fine. They don’t want to do the hard work of examining their hearts and souls, of taking the chance for more: for deeper together, for inner health and wholeness, instead settling for simple wealth and getting by.
Ephesians 2:10 says,For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Did you hear that? We’re created to do good works. These are the deeds that Jesus is talking about, the deeds that they do in a lukewarm way. The Greek actually reads, "which God prepared in advance, so that we might walk in them." The image of walking was used to describe living or engaging in a certain lifestyle. The good works are not religious activities that we sprinkle through our life. Rather, the good works involve everything we are as a follower of Jesus, doing everything for Jesus’ purposes. Ephesians 2:10 sees all of life as lived through and for God. Romans 12:1 says, "I urge you ... to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God." This offering takes place in our everyday ordinary life. In the same way, Colossians 3:17 says, "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus."
How do you change lukewarm? Jesus tells us, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” These letters are a call to respond to Jesus again and repent of our self-centeredness. When Jesus calls us to be earnest, he’s calling us to be enthusiastic, to regain our excitement in Jesus, to do his good works. When you get lukewarm in your relationship with someone else, doing good for them is the start of changing your heart back to them. The more good you do for them, the softer your heart gets.
Jesus calls us to remember that what we have been given is a gift to be used to grow the influence of Jesus into our community, to care for those needing a hand up and helping them to use their gifts and talents to grow the community. These are the good works prepared in advance for us to do. A community of Jesus followers investing in others and inviting them to join us in following Jesus changes hearts, changes lukewarm into hot and cold, which brings healing, hope, refreshment and energy; giving us a glimpse of the coming kingdom of heaven and renews our passion for Jesus again.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Revelation 3:1-13 Wake Up

As young people, we would go out Friday and Saturday nights, play hockey and hang out until the wee hours of the morning, but we always made it to church Sunday morning. Then, as soon as the pastor opened the Bible for the sermon, we promptly fell sleep and woke up when we heard him say, “Amen.” We believed in Jesus, but Jesus didn’t have much of an impact in how we lived. We were more influenced by our parents who wanted us to get a good education and a good job, we were influenced by teachers who wanted us to be successful, we were influenced by friends who loved sports and having fun more than anything else, we were influenced by a culture that said we could become anything we wanted. Jesus kind of got tacked onto life.
I hate to admit it, but we were like the church in Sardis. We didn’t take our faith and relationship with Jesus too seriously. We did the right things mostly, we went to church even when we didn’t get much sleep, we did what we thought we needed to do as a Christian, but no more. Like Sardis seems to have done, we did basic obedience, but I can’t say that our lives were shaped by worshiping and adoring Jesus, we loved the same things our non-Christian friends loved. We were asleep in our faith, Jesus was good for Sunday morning, but real life happened during the rest of the week. Advent is the church’s way of waking us up and helping us remember why Jesus came to earth.
This letter to Sardis, like all the other 6 letters, were written for the entire church, not just for one specific church. Sardis is not the only church that needs a wake-up call, most churches need a wake-up call from time to time. The problem in Sardis is they had fallen so deeply asleep that they were like the dead. The call to wake-up is like a poke in the ribs for the church there since the city was home to the temple of Cybele. Cybele was a mother goddess, a goddess of fertility with the power to bring the dead back to life, yet unable to do anything with this church. The fertility part of Cybele worship may be part of why the church is described as dead. This is why the church is being called to repent; they want to be like everyone else instead of just following Jesus.
But there’s another poke in the call to wake-up. Sardis was conquered twice in the past because of a lack of vigilance. Enemy spies were able to sneak into the city to let in attacking armies because the sentries weren’t paying attention. It’s like they fell asleep as the enemy surrounded them. Now the church is asleep, sleeping like the dead, careless in their lives, eyes closed to the danger of taking Jesus so lightly. While all this is happening, Jesus is holding the 7 stars, which are the angels of the churches, in his hands as he walks among the churches, which are the lamp-stands John mentions at the beginning of the letters to the churches. Jesus sees what’s going on.
Jesus calls us to wake-up otherwise he’s going to come like a thief in the night, showing up when we least expect and we won’t see him coming, much like those sentries in Sardis who didn’t see their enemies sneaking into the city. Even though the church is close to death, there’s still hope for life to be restored into the church. Jesus tells them to strengthen what remains and to remember what they’ve received and heard; to hang onto it with all their strength and repent.
There are some who have not soiled their clothes, who have not gone back to the ways of the city and culture, but remained focused on Jesus and his call on their lives. They remember what Jesus has given them. Sometimes we get so used to what Jesus has done for us and what we’ve been given, that we forget just how life changing and earth shattering it is. As the band Rend Collective sings, Jesus is our rescuer, rescuing us from sin, redeeming us, making us new people. Jesus left heaven to come to earth to become just like us. He was born in a stable instead of the world’s greatest palace, surrounded by shepherds instead of the kings and queens. Jesus grew up, learning obedience, going to school and learning a trade. Before Jesus began his ministry, Jesus likely worked alongside his father Joseph as a carpenter and builder.
Jesus left his earthly family to wander the area of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, calling the people to repent and believe, teaching the people who God is. This all culminates with Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion on the cross where he takes our sin to the grave for us. In Jesus’ death we receive freedom from sin and earth, freedom from fear and worry, filled with joy and peace as we are forgiven our sin and receive God’s grace in the gift of the Holy Spirit. We’re given new hearts that are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
As children of God, we’re called to a way of living that reveals to the world who our God is, what kind of a God he is. As God forgives us, we’re called to forgive, as God is generous, we’re called to be generous. We’re called to be light and salt, helping to transform our communities through how we live as followers of Jesus. We live by a different moral standard, called to holiness and purity in thought and action, people of integrity, a people who love rather than hate, a people who walk through life trusting that we’re provided for as we look to help and bless others; building our lives and church on the teachings of Jesus. A living awake church looks like people whose lives are shaped by worshiping and adoring Jesus. Following Jesus, loving others, serving our community and sharing our faith keeps us awake and alive. Worship keeps us aware of God among us. Repentance keeps our focus on Jesus, reminding us that Jesus is our saviour and messiah.
It’s not always going to be easy: this is why we gather together as a church on Sundays to encourage each other, build each other up, hear the words of forgiveness and grace and the challenge to continue living as Jesus calls us to live, receiving the strength found in worshiping God. The church in Philadelphia is held up as a church going through persecution and yet stays strong in following Jesus, Philadelphia is the example against Sardis. They’ve stayed awake, even in times of persecution. In spite of their smallness, their weakness, their lack of influence or power in the city, the church in Philadelphia stays true, stays awake in the faith. Because of their faithfulness, Jesus promises to protect them from the hour of trial, the persecution that’s coming. This protection rests in the cross where Jesus defeated Satan and all God's enemies, even though they still have power and influence for right now. At some point, these enemies are going to end up on their faces before these followers of Jesus, confessing that they are loved by Jesus.
This is an encouragement for us today. When we stay strong in following Jesus, even those who are against us will end up acknowledging that we are loved by God. Peter echoes the same message in his first letter, where he encourages the people to Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Ann Voskamp wrote this week, Advent is a whole lot more than passively waiting for the King — it’s about participating in the work of the Kingdom of God.” The church in Sardis does wake -up. In mid-2nd century, Melito, bishop of the church in Sardis became well-known for his piety and learning, even writing a commentary on this book.
Jesus came to earth to take the punishment for our sin, to call us back to God through repentance and belief, and to bring God glory, as the angels did that first Christmas evening, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” May the peace of God be with you as we journey towards Christmas.

Friday, 29 November 2019

John 17 Protected and Kept Safe

This morning we’re reflecting on the final point of doctrine in the Canons of Dordt: the ‘P’ in TULIP, perseverance of the saints. Perseverance of the saints is all about God’s faithfulness to those he’s chosen as his own. Jesus has washed us clean from our sin, but we still sin; we’re tempted and even give in to the power of temptation. The writers of the Canons know this, “Because of these remnants of sin dwelling in them and also because of the temptations of the world and Satan, those who have been converted could not remain standing in this grace if left to their own resources. But God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them in it to the end.”
We can even sin deeply. We only have to look at the Bible for examples of people who followed God and still did terrible things; David raped Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Solomon built temples for other gods and worshiped with some of his wives there, Peter betrayed Jesus. These are just some of the people who did great sin and God refuses to let go of them. The Canons know that we still sin, but offers hope, “For God, who is rich in mercy, according to the unchangeable purpose of election does not take the Holy Spirit from his own completely, even when they fall grievously. Neither does God let them fall down so far that they forfeit the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin which leads to death (the sin against the Holy Spirit), and plunge themselves, entirely forsaken by God, into eternal ruin.”
Jacob Arminius taught that we could be saved and then lose our salvation. According to Arminius, our salvation depends on the choice of man’s will whether or not he or she perseveres in the faith, “those who truly believe and have been born again not only can forfeit justifying faith as well as grace and salvation totally and to the end, but also in actual fact do often forfeit them and are lost forever.” This is why the Synod of Dordt came out so strong against the Arminians, because if we can lose our salvation, what hope do we have in life? This would mean God’s grace is not irresistible or strong enough to keep us safe from Satan.
John 17 is Jesus’ powerful prayer for his disciples and followers and those who will believe in him. Jesus is getting ready to go to the cross for our sins, to wash our sins away through his sacrifice for us; and as he normally does, Jesus goes to his Father first in prayer for strength and guidance. It sometimes puzzles me that Jesus tells God what he’s done since God knows it already, but it’s part of having a close relationship together, that you share the things going on and what you’ve done with those who are really close to you, even if they know already what’s going on.
Jesus tells his Father he’s done everything God asked of him, bringing God glory on earth by finishing the work God gave him to do. Jesus has given eternal life to all those God has given him; he has revealed himself to them and they believe that God has sent Jesus. Now, as Jesus is preparing for his death, resurrection and return to God, he turns to God to ask for protection for all those who are following him, for all those that Jesus has been protecting and keeping safe. This is the image of God that the Bible gives us time after time, a God who protects his people, a God who saves his people, a God who remains in relationship with his people through good times and bad.
But following Jesus isn’t safe, this is why Jesus tells us to count the cost when we decide to follow him. We’re chosen to be sent into the world to tell the world about Jesus; a world that rejects Jesus, a world that hates Jesus and his followers. As followers of Jesus, we’re not hidden in some secret fortress somewhere, instead we’re given the good news of Jesus to bring it into the world, to invite others to join us in following Jesus and accepting him as their own Lord and Saviour. This is why Jesus prays for our protection.
This isn’t about physical safety; it’s about God protecting our souls. When we face hard times or persecution, the one thing we don’t have to fear is that somehow, we might lose our salvation when doubt might come up. God protects us, Psalm 91, “Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” God’s protection means there are going to be hard times when we’re going need him. 2 Corinthians 4, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
David Platt, pastor of a church in Washington, DC writes of meeting a young teacher, named Alisha, in a remote village in the Himalayas who shared her family’s journey of coming to faith in Jesus. As a child, because she was born on a bad day, her grandfather declared that she was born to worship the devil. So, from the time she was 3 years old, she had to go every evening into a small room outside their house to make an offering to the devil. Then one day a blind man came through their village talking about Jesus, whom they had never heard of before. This blind man came into her family’s home and told them about Jesus and how Jesus has authority over the devil and sin, that Jesus is the one true God who came to conquer sin and the devil and death so we can be forgiven of our sin and restored to a right relationship with the one true God. Her dad soon believed in Jesus and everything changed in their lives. Alisha no longer had to serve the devil. But the village was angry because they all believed that Alisha’s dad had introduced a new god to the village and bad things would happen. They were shunned in the village.
One day Alisha’s parents went to get water and supplies from another village, but they didn’t come back. The village leaders came to the house and told Alisha her parents had died in a rock slide because they followed Jesus, but in reality, the village leaders had stoned them and pushed the bodies down the mountain. Alisha didn’t give up on Jesus and ended up in the city where she found a church to be part of. When she was baptized, her family and the village broke off all relationships with her. She went to school to become a teacher, and now is teaching and sharing the Gospel of Jesus in the very mountains where her parents were martyred for believing in Jesus. God kept her safe, leading her to a church that supported her in her faith and encourages her in the dangerous work of going back to her village and sharing the gospel of Jesus as she teaches their children.
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary writes, “The ‘P’ (perseverance of the saints) is an important spiritual component of the Calvinist scheme. If you acknowledge your own total inability to save yourself and if you throw yourself on the mercy of a sovereign God, you need the ‘P’ if you are to avoid the fears of divine arbitrariness.” Paul reminds us in Romans 8:32–35He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”
Jesus prays for more than our physical protection; he prays to protect our hearts and minds. Jesus prays for God to sanctify us by the truth, to protect us from the evil one. To sanctify is to set us apart for God’s work, to purify us, and cover us with his presence because we are his. Jesus prays for unity because in unity we find strength, we’re encouraged and built up, as Paul tells the church in Thessalonica. God created us in his image, created us to be in community. Just as God is three in one, so we find our identity and protection together in the family of the church, the body of believers with Jesus as our head, who protects us from the evil one.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Ezekiel 36:22-38 Giving Us a Heart of Flesh

This morning we are reflecting on the fourth letter in TULIP. The “I” stands for Irresistible Grace, which is the beautiful doctrine that points to God’s deep commitment to us and how he reaches out to us. We sing the song, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” and irresistible grace is all about God making his grace so sweet to us that, while we may fight against it for a time, in the end our hearts are so drawn to Jesus that we find we have no choice but to accept his love for us and commit ourselves to become his followers and children of our heavenly Father.
The heart of the Canons of Dordt lies in the teaching that our faith is a gift from God, as Paul teaches us in his letter to the church in Ephesus, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” The Canons of Dordt puts it like this in the third and fourth point of doctrine, “faith is a gift of God, not in the sense that it is offered by God for man to choose, but that it is in actual fact bestowed on man, breathed and infused into him.” This image of how God gives us faith brings me back to creation where God gives humanity life by bending over us, making us with his hands and then breathing his life-giving Spirit into us. This is the same image that the Canons give us of how we are given the gift of faith, it’s breathed into us as a gift of life.
Ezekiel 36 is all about heart change, changing hearts from stone to flesh. This heart change leads to relationship change. God’s people kept walking away from him, going after other gods that were more interesting and seemed to promise a lot more. Now God gets ticked off at them and allows them to be taken into exile, showing them that their new gods are weak nothings. But God doesn’t give up on them, he keeps coming after them. The Jews are far from home, living with loss and grief, not fitting in here in the land of their conquerors. Now God shows up, It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.  “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.” God’s going to bring them home again!
Then there’s that beautiful picture of renewal and hope, I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” God acts on us and in us first, making it possible for us to come back to him. He pours his Spirit into us to move us to follow his decrees and keep his laws. God does this in a spirit of generosity and grace, with promises of abundance and flourishing when they return home. Their land will become like the garden of Eden, their cities rebuilt strong and fortified, the people becoming as numerous again as sheep, echoes back to God’s promises to Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky or the sand on the beach.
Irresistible grace is more about experience than about head knowledge. It’s God pursuing you like a lover until the reality of his love overwhelms you and you find that you can’t say ‘No’ to him. This is the story of the prophet Hosea in the Old Testament, a prophet who is told to marry a prostitute and to love her and never give up on her. Hosea and his wife Gomer are a picture of what our relationship with God is like; we keep running away, God keeps overwhelming us with his love and desire for us and captivating our hearts. How has God overwhelmed you with his love and desire for you, how have you experienced God’s irresistible grace in your life?
The Arminians taught that “the Spirit calls inwardly all those who are called outwardly by the gospel invitation; He does all that He can to bring every sinner to salvation. But inasmuch as man is free, he can successfully resist the Spirit's call… man's free will limits the Spirit in the application of Christ's saving work. The Holy Spirit can only draw to Christ those who allow Him to have His way with them. Until the sinner responds, the Spirit cannot give life. God's grace, therefore, is not invincible; it can be, and often is, resisted and thwarted by man.” Arminius believed that even though God may want us to be his children, we can tell God “No.” God’s not able to persuade us to become part of his family, even though that’s what he wants. Our salvation depends on us accepting God first.
The Reformers taught that “the Holy Spirit extends to the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation. The external call (which is made to all without distinction) can be, and often is, rejected; whereas the internal call (which is made only to the elect) cannot be rejected; it always results in conversion. By means of this special call the Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ. He is not limited in His work of applying salvation by man's will, nor is He dependent upon man's cooperation for success. The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ. God's grace, therefore, is invincible; it never fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended.” For me, this is a huge comfort, knowing that God doesn’t give up on me, that he’s going to persist until his grace moves me to accept him. God’s also working to transform me. He loves me so much he accepts me for who I am, and he loves me too much to let me stay the same, but gives us the Holy Spirit to make me more and more who he has created me to be. This goes for you too.
Irresistible grace leads to what in church language, we call regeneration. The Canons describe it this way, “This divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—bends it back. As a result, a ready and sincere obedience of the Spirit now begins to prevail where before the rebellion and resistance of the flesh were completely dominant.” The Holy Spirit helps our hearts make a U-turn back to Jesus. The Holy Spirit works in our hearts to attract us to Jesus by reminding us of how much Jesus loves us, how he went to the cross to die for you so that you can have peace, hope and love shape your life and help us obey and become more like Jesus. It’s like we got sick and the Holy Spirit works to make us better again. This is a huge comfort to me because it fills me with hope that whenever I am talking to others about Jesus, whenever I’m praying for my neighbours and friends, and others to accept Jesus, I can trust that Jesus is going to love on them so much that they’ll finally submit to him.
There was an older man in Thunder Bay who kept showing up at the Christian Community Center guys’ group. He was such a miserable guy that at times we would even ask him why he was even there. He would never give us a straight answer. Then one evening, as we were talking about what it means to be a man after God’s own heart, the other leader there with me looked straight at this miserable guy and said, “It’s time you admit that God wants you.” I was shocked when the guy’s response was to start crying. He said, “I didn’t want to come, but I couldn’t help myself, I had to keep coming to hear that someone loved me too much to give up on me, but I could never really believe that until right now. Thank you.” That’s irresistible grace in action.

Friday, 15 November 2019

John 3:1-21 Whoever Believes

Last week we talked about picking teams and how if we weren’t very good, we just got put on a team even though they didn’t want us. Today we’re going to talk about something even harder, like when teams are picked and we’re completely left off them. Right away we feel it’s unfair, that everyone should be chosen. This is what many people feel about our point of doctrine this morning called Limited Atonement.
Limited Atonement is the most controversial of the 5 points in the Canons of Dordt. The question has to do, first of all, with the value of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Early Church Father Augustine taught that the atonement of Jesus Christ is big enough for all people. There’s enough power in Jesus’ sacrifice to cover the sins of every human being who has ever lived. What Jesus did on the cross is more than powerful enough to cover the sins of every person in the world.
 Does the atonement mean everybody is automatically saved?” Does Christ’s death on the cross save the whole world? There are people who believe that Jesus died for the whole world and everyone will go to heaven. They’re called Universalists. Arminians don’t believe in limited atonement, but they also aren’t Universalists. We both agree that not everybody is saved through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. There is a limit to the effectiveness of the cross. As the theologian R.C Sproul writes, “The real issue is the question of the intent and of the design. Arminianism teaches that God, when he planned the way of salvation, intended the atonement for all men, and designed it as such. Calvinism says that God designed the atonement of Jesus Christ to be for the elect only. Every single person for whom Christ died is saved.” You don’t have to worry about whether or not Jesus’ sacrifice is good enough to cover you, as a follower of Jesus and part of God’s family, you are saved.
Jacob Arminius was teaching that we choose to believe in Jesus first. This gets us back to last week, where we were reminded that the Bible teaches us that our faith begins as a gift from God and that we believe through faith, so it all begins with God instead of our choice to believe. There’s this tension that we find in the Bible between God choosing us, but also the call for us to choose God over the gods of the world. Some people refuse to choose God and Jesus. Much of this tension lies in the reality that we’re not able to understand God and need to accept these tensions in faith, realizing that we do have a responsibility for our faith that fits in with God choosing us. This helps us to understand why there are some people who are not saved.
Most of us know the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, the story of one of the religious leaders in Jerusalem who wants to know more about Jesus and his message, but who’s afraid of the other leaders. Jesus and Nicodemus have this fascinating and confusing conversation about being born again, about entering into the kingdom of God and how we need to be born of water and the Spirit. Then Jesus compares the Spirit to the wind that blows around you but you can’t see it, only feel its presence. Nicodemus is left scratching his head, asking, “How can this be?”
Jesus then talks about Moses and the bronze snake. The story goes like this in Numbers 21, “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” Jesus is pointing to his own death on a pole, a death that’s going to save people from their sins and give us new life after tasting the death that sin holds. But in Moses’ story, not everyone was saved, only those who looked to the snake on the pole were healed.
Now comes John’s famous words, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” These verses are deeply loved for a reason. They’re filled with hope and grace, love and mercy and forgiveness. But there’s a warning here as well, not everyone’s going to be saved, only those who believe in Jesus. This is limited atonement. Later in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus talking to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Jesus looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.  For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.Jesus goes on to tell his Father. “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.” Jesus doesn’t come to condemn the world, because Jesus cares deeply even for those who don’t accept him because everyone’s created in God’s image.
Comfort is found in the peace we receive when we realize that as a follower of Jesus you don’t have to worry whether or not Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has washed away your sins and made you right with God: it has. But there are people who do great evil and deliberately refuse to accept Jesus. They’re not made right with God because of their own choices. Not everyone’s going to be saved; God is also a God of justice. An older lady who had lived with her abusive husband for way too many years, in order to find peace with God and comfort for her soul, needed to know that her husband, who was unrepentant and unashamed of his actions and the terrible hurt he has caused her and their family, is going to be held accountable by God for the evil he has done. Limited atonement does not mean that God is a small God, or doesn’t love people as much as the Bible says he does. Limited Atonement means that God hears the cries of the oppressed, sees the victims of evil and holds those who have deliberately done evil accountable. There are evil people in the world who don’t repent; Jesus’ sacrifice will not make their evil right.
God holds us accountable for our sin, yet when we seek truly his forgiveness, Jesus’ sacrifice washes us clean again. Jesus tells us we need to be born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” When we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, transforming us to be more like Jesus, born again, which is represented by the water of baptism as a sign that our sins are washed away, we don’t have to be afraid of not being part of the family of God. This is why we need to know all of Scripture, to hear that God doesn’t give up on us even after Adam and Eve turned away from God, hearing that Abraham was called to be a blessing to all the nations of the world, that God loves the world so much that he sends his own son Jesus to die on the cross to wash us clean from our sin, that there are going to be people in heaven from all over the world and from every culture and ethnic background.
Limited Atonement doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a small number of people that are saved, only that Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t save everyone, it’s limited to those who believe in Jesus. There’s this wonderful picture in Revelation 7 that shows us how big God’s love and acceptance is,After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!