February 4, 1990
Salt and Light
When we speak of the Sermon on the Mount, many folks think specifically of the Beatitudes. In those tremendous verses, Jesus provides a charter for the Kingdom lifestyle. Yet those verses are only the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which actually runs through chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel.
Beginning with the verses of our text today, Jesus is spelling out the implications of that Kingdom lifestyle. What kind of life will be lived by the man or woman who follows Jesus as Lord, and what will it mean to the rest of the world?
In today’s text, Jesus is spelling out the kind of presence His followers are to have in the world. What kind of influence are we to have?
I. We are to be salt
In our day — when you can pick up a package of table salt (or even “Lite” salt) at any grocery store — salt doesn’t seem all that critical. Many of our doctors even tell us to stay away from the stuff!
Yet in the ancient world, salt was an absolutely essential commodity. Why was it so important?
Salt is a preservative. Without refrigeration, there was no way to preserve and protect many kinds of food except for salt.
The church is a preservative in our world. As we bring Christ’s word and the Kingdom’s influence into our society, we help protect society from the full sway of evil that would otherwise be present.
Imagine our land with no churches … no Christian colleges or schools … no church-supported hospitals … no Christian organizations working to minister to those in need — no Salvation Army or World Vision or other such groups. What a tragic difference it would be. Through His church, Christ brings a preserving, protecting quality to society that would otherwise be absent.
Salt is also a flavoring. Many people won’t bite into a meal until they’ve added salt, because they want the additional flavor salt provides.
As Christians, we also can add a distinctive flavor to society. We can introduce an atmosphere of love, joy, service that will be sorely lacking without the presence of Christ.
II. We are to be light
There’s a favorite chorus many of us sang as children: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine.” That’s pretty good theology, for Jesus tells us that we are to be “the light of the world.”
What does that mean to us? Light does a number of things.
Light reveals. Have you ever walked into a darkened room and not known what was there? Then, suddenly, the light is switched on and the contents of the room are revealed.
As Christ’s presence in our world, we become His instruments to reveal His truth to a world in darkness. Through us, He sheds light on His grace, His mercy, His provision. We are lights revealing God’s love to a lost world.
Light warms. What a pleasure it is to walk from a too-chilled room out into the warmth of the midday sun. The sun’s warmth brings comfort to us — indeed, we could not live without it.
Likewise, as Christ’s followers we are to be a warming presence in a cold world. As we carry His presence into school, business, the shop or the marketplace, we are to serve as a reminder that there is more to life than grasping greed and rampant materialism.
Light awakens. Even though my bedroom faces the north, every morning the sunlight brightens the room and brings me to life for a new day — and if that doesn’t work, my wife will shine the lamp in my face and finish the job! Light awakens us.
We are to be the light of the world, awakening men and women to the truth of the Kingdom’s arrival; awakening society to the presence of God. (JMD)
February 11, 1990
The Letter and the Spirit
As teenagers growing up in the church, many of us learned the fine art of rationalization.
You know what I mean. Our parents gave us some rule or restriction, and we went to any lengths to undo the purpose of the rule without technically violating the literal letter of the law. Of course, what we did as teenagers may not even compare to some of the rationalizations we may attempt as adults!
The Pharisees were scrupulous about obeying the literal letter of the law. In fact, they created a host of new rules and regulations to surround God’s law — all kinds of rules: for example, about what one could or could not do on the Sabbath.
Yet Jesus recognized that while they were obeying the letter of the law many Pharisees completely ignored the spirit of the law: that purpose for which God gave the law in the first place.
Jesus wants us to understand that in Him the law finds its truest and most complete fulfillment. He is our guide to recognizing God’s law for life in the Kingdom.
Notice the truths that are shown here:
I. Attitudes are as significant as actions
In verses 21-22, Jesus points out that having murder in your heart can be just as damaging as committing murder. Does that mean you should go ahead and kill? Of course not — the action produces further consequences and punishment. The idea is that for your own spiritual life, attitudes may be just as destructive as overt actions.
Suppose you have a neighbor who has an annoying habit that really gets on your nerves. You know better than to grab a gun and shoot him, but you may still allow a bitter attitude to develop that eats away at you internally, just like a cancer in your soul.
How do we deal with those destructive attitudes? By allowing the Holy Spirit to change our hearts — through time spent with God in prayer (including prayer for the object of our anger), time with God in His word, through yielding control to Him. Love and hate don’t coexist in the same heart; by allowing God to create in us a loving spirit, the hatred evaporates.
II. Relationships are as significant as rules
Several years ago there was a book entitled How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious. It’s not all that uncommon, of course, for just the reverse to take place — to be religious without being a Christian.
In verses 23-26, Jesus cites the importance of placing relationships ahead of religious activities — even good ones. What use is it, He points out, to offer a sacrifice to God when you still cling to disrupted relationships with other persons? Reconciliation should come before religious ceremony.
Why are relationships so vital? Because they go to the spirit of the law — God loves people, not ritual. If we are His followers we must be agents of reconciliation.
Jesus did not come to abolish God’s law, but to become its ultimate fulfillment. The truth is, none of us is able to perfectly obey the law. That’s the meaning of verse 20; without surpassing the righteousness of the Pharisees (a seemingly impossible task, since they were fulltime, professional law keepers), we can never satisfy the law’s requirements.
That is the wonderful story of the gospel — that God has extended His grace toward us, so that while we were still sinners, Christ gave His life for us. What we can never earn through perfectly obeying the law has instead been offered as a gift.
Will you accept this amazing gift? (JMD)
February 18, 1990
The Problem of Relationships
Jesus discusses three difficult problems in personal relationships that often cause separation and distance between people. Jesus approached people throughout His ministry who had been separated from others and did what He could to restore them to fellowship with God and with the rest of their world. His purpose was to establish a New Covenant, a new testament of God’s love. These three problems can separate people and they can best be interpreted with the principle of restoration in mind.
The first problem in this section is adultery. Jesus was dealing with two of the Ten Commandments in this discussion. For the people of His day, women were considered property. Two commandments were applicable — not only the one concerning adultery, but also the one concerning coveting another’s property!
He first takes His hearers and includes them in the problem at hand. He repeats the commandment on adultery, then expands the arena by claiming any who had looked on a woman with lust were just as guilty as the adulterer.
Do you recall the incident in John 8 where the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery was brought to Jesus? The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus into condemning her as the law demanded. Instead He responded by writing in the sand for a while; then, turning to the crowd, He asked for the one without sin to cast the first stone. It is reported that the crowd left, starting with the eldest. It is entirely appropriate to say that those who had lived the longest were first to recognize that they were as guilty as the woman. Jesus was in the business of restoration of the woman, and her accusers disappeared as they joined her in recognition of their own sin.
There was a rabbinical saying that claimed, “the eye and the heart are the two brokers of sin.” Jesus approaches the problem of adultery from the beginning. The eye and the heart’s interpretation of what the eye sees is the problem. This immediately moves the problem from a discussion of women as property to a discussion of the motives for good relationships with all persons.
Surely every person who hears the words of Jesus realizes the question is not concerning how to end a relationship but rather how to move to the solution of the real problem. The essential issue is to determine when sin is present and then move toward eliminating it.
Certainly no one would suggest that Jesus was suggesting a literal solution of self mutilation but rather an awareness of the seriousness of the problem and the importance of self-control. The solution is to move toward controlling the eye and the heart in order to maintain good relationships. The goal that Jesus maintains is that self-control will lead to freedom from lust.
The second part of this problem is the problem of divorce. In this section the right of the man to treat his wife as property was brought up by mention of the certificate of divorce. The reply of Jesus indicates that divorce is a very serious problem.
1. Jesus insists that adultery is wrong and is destructive of relationships. He then moved the discussion on relationships to the motives of the persons concerned. He quickly made the point that sin is inclusive in its scope and that everyone has difficulty in maintaining the proper motives and attitudes in relationships.
2. Jesus was against divorce. Taking the text in total one can easily see that Jesus was running against the current practice of His day — the easy dismissal of the female by the male in the marriage relationship.
Jesus then carries the discussion on to a third problem in relationships — the matter of oaths. It cannot be said that the text teaches against testifying that something is true and swearing to that fact. Later on Jesus swore an oath to Caiaphas. What is of primary importance in the text is that the word of a person be readily understood and be certain. This is not a matter of profanity but a matter of believability. Jesus aimed at the word of a person being reliable and certain.
What Jesus says in this section is crucial to good relationships. Internal motivations are extremely important and must be considered along with external words and actions. He taught His hearers in judging others to look internally and to consider their own lives before they pass judgment.
As a result of hearing Him we are to measure ourselves in terms of what we think as well as what we do. We are to make our lives a testimony of extenal relationships which reflect an internal guidance by God’s Spirit. (SNW)
February 25, 1990
Living in the “In-Between”
Have you ever been in a crowd when someone recognizes a famous personality? Usually the first reaction is one of disbelief. “Do you see who that is?” “It can’t be!” “I think it is!” “Quick, let’s go over there and get his/her autograph!”
Soon the news travels faster than an Elvis-sighting rumor and a crowd gathers around the famous person — people who want to just sit and admire.
Jesus experienced one of the greatest moments of His life in the text. The transformation was a crowning point in His ministry. The word transformation is used four times in the New Testament. It is used against a pagan background that also had transformation as a part of the Hellenistic experience. For that reason, in the recording of this event Luke avoids using the term so that it not be confused as part of the culture rather than an experience granted by God.
Matthew uses the term and it carries great significance. There have been some in history who have said that this was only an outward expression of Jesus’ inner deity. Others — who have interpreted this as a gift from God, an external bestowing of glory and power — are quick to point out that even the garments He wore became “as white as light.”
The event was seen by the three disciples. It was culminated by the affirmation of God in words that rang so familiar in the disciples’ ears. They would have heard from the Father the words of the royal son (Psalm 2), the only begotten son (Genesis 22), and the suffering servant (Isaiah 42). The combination of the Messianic references would have certainly confirmed in their mind that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
Peter had just proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God. His reaction to God’s powerful confirmation of what he had said was interesting. He proposed — as many of us do — that the proper edifice be built and the ground declared holy. It would be a place to stay, not one to leave. Yet, like Peter, we don’t have that choice. The calendar moves on.
There is an institution of higher learning in the eastern U.S. where the days between Christmas and Easter are called “The Dark Ages.” Football is over with, along with the holiday trips and visits from friends and family. There are very few holidays to break the routine of academic pursuits. The weather is drab and cold. The grass is brown and the flowers just do not exist. It is a dark time.
So can be the time in the church year between Christmas and Easter. These two mountain peaks in our ecclesiastical landscape can leave us down in the valley the rest of the time.
Jesus gives a command to His disciples: Arise, do not be afraid. Do not tell anyone until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. So many of us are susceptible to the anxieties of life. The end of existence, the end of meaning, the emptiness of life’s accomplishments can all be overwhelming in the day-to-day struggle of life. Jesus gives the directives to His followers to continue on with life and wait until His mission is accomplished. Then and only then are they to interpret to the world the real significance of this moment, this confirmation by God. His point is that there is still work to be done and it must continue even though the time isn’t as glorious as it was or the way as bright as it was.
This passage is sandwiched between two events in the disciples’ journey of faith, one truly great and one truly terrible.
First, Jesus forces them to answer for themselves who He is. Peter comes through with flying colors and proclaims Him to be the Messiah, the Son of God. Our passage confirms this great statement of faith.
But then a boy who is ill is brought to Jesus for healing because the disciples could not bring about healing. Jesus explodes with anger at this great disparity from what they had just proclaimed. They are left in the bittersweet position of knowing and experiencing the Son of God in all His glory and their own ineptitude at putting that experience to work in the world.
The young athlete had been toiling away at practice. He had kept up his grades, he had obeyed the team rules, he had worked hard to earn a spot on the roster. He finally was rewarded with the special place of eating with the first team instead of the scrubs. After a short while of this he came to the coach with a puzzled look on his face.
“Coach, I’ve worked hard trying to make it to the first team. I didn’t think I would ever get to this place but I have. I’m really glad to be here. But one thing bothers me: it is still the same old struggle to get out there and work hard, to hustle, to beat the other guys. Why isn’t it easier now that I’m where I wanted to be?”
The wise coach smiled at the young man and said, “Son, it isn’t where you are as much as where you’ve been and where you’re going.”
We glory in the moments of spiritual excitement, but our Lord reminds us that we have not yet arrived. We are still “on the way” to becoming all He wants us to be. The greatest victories are won in the valleys — they allow us to enjoy the view from the mountain top. (SNW)
March 4, 1990
Charter of Kingdom Living
There are more two income families in our nation than ever before. The competition for jobs is becoming more and more intense. No one is immune from the desire to do more than survive, to really achieve, to get ahead. This is a necessary trait, yet there may lurk behind our desire the very serious threat of uncontrolled ambition. We all know what that can do to our priorities.
One point that is often missed in this passage on the temptation of Jesus is that He was led into the wilderness by God! The text reads “led up by the Spirit.”
I. God knows what we experience in our trials.
Jesus was in a very difficult situation. It certainly was not the easy or desirable thing to do, but He followed the leading of God to face the trials that were His. We proclaim that the God who became man endured what we have to endure — and it was by choice!
What better encouragement can we have than to know God understands and cares for us in times of difficulty? When we are reminded that He is a God who chose to become one of us and suffer what we have to suffer, we are reminded again of this powerful message of personal redemption. He knows who we are and what we are experiencing.
II. We can offer His comfort to others when we experience trials.
When we experience suffering, we develop the capability of understanding many more people in this world because there are countless numbers of folks in our world who are suffering and need an authentic word of encouragement from one who can say “I understand.”
III. Jesus made the right choice, and so can we.
The temptations to have food, recognition and power the easy way certainly had to be difficult. There He was at the temple, where tradition had it that the Messiah would appear — 450 feet or more in the air (which would provide a spectacular show for dramatic effect) — but Jesus chose to gain His purpose and power the patient way, the difficult way, the way of the cross.
Jesus had the opportunity to let His ambition drive Him to make a decision to take the easy way. You are provided the same kind of choices every day. The overriding factor for Jesus was His choice of allegiance. He had the opportunity to choose to be related to God or to Satan.
As you follow Him, do not fear the trials and tribulations that are yours. Remember: you are not alone; the God we serve has been where you are. Remember as well, you are becoming better equipped to serve a hurting world. You have walked the way of the Savior and can offer them His strength. (SNW)
March 11, 1990
Do I Really Have To Be Born Again?
During the past fifteen years there has been a lot of talk about being “born again.” National news magazines, which twenty-five years ago were heralding the “God is Dead” movement, have given cover-story treatment to the “born-again” experience. We have had a number of politicians who have claimed to be born-again Christians, including at least one recent president of the United States. Political pundits use this phrase frequently.
Persons attending particular churches use that phrase to distinguish themselves from others as a particular kind of Christian. Within a few days, I had two conversations in which the phrase came up. The first was in a negative context as someone referred to someone else as “one of those born-again Christians.” In another conversation the question was raised as to whether a member of our church was “really born again.” The one using it on this occasion viewed it as a very favorable term.
It’s within this contemporary context that I am more and more confronted by persons asking the question, “Do I really have to be born again?”
The term has some problems associated with it.
One problem is that it is becoming hackneyed. It’s describing what it was never intended to describe. Sportswriters are referring to “born-again” football and basketball teams. Any loser who becomes a winner can find that label quickly attached.
There was a Washington hostess who was a Democrat. She was conspicuous during the Kennedy and Johnson years. She went into eclipse during the Nixon and Ford years. When Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected to office, she reemerged as a “born-again hostess.”
There’s another problem with this recent emphasis. It provides a phony escape from problems. Recently a friend challenged me. He said, “I am convinced that these people who talk about being born again have found a clever way to get themselves out of a jam. Do something wrong. Claim to be born again. And you get a new start which gets you off the hook for what you’ve done wrong.”
I’d have to partially agree with this person. The born-again experience can be exploited. There are some religious phonies. However, there is nothing wrong with a genuine escape from trouble if God is the creator of that escape. There will be some who will exploit the movement.
Fortunately, they cannot do it too long. Their day of reckoning will come — if not in this life, in the next. The Bible alerts us to the fact that we can detect a person’s insincerity by the spiritual fruits which mark one’s life.
But there is a much more subtle problem when we use this term. As I see it, it divides itself into four different types of religious experience.
First, there are those who love the Lord. They trust His Word. But they have never had a big, emotional experience. Often they are the ones who come to me and ask the question, “Do I really have to be born again?”
They read Chuck Colson’s book. They have watched a newly-converted celebrity tell about his or her experience. For years they’ve loved Jesus Christ. They have been exposed to Christian nurture in the church and home. Now they see persons whose lives have been radically changed, who by their enthusiastic testimonies seem to make their experiences normative for everybody else. The long-term, faithful disciple can get the feeling that he or she is looking on from the sidelines.
Second, there are those life-long church members who assume that faithful attendance and good works are really all that matter. They go to church because their parents went to church. They observe religious traditions because they were brought up to observe religious traditions. They don’t know any better. They don’t have the assurance of salvation. If they were to die and step into the presence of Christ, they would proudly wave their good-works banner in His face as their qualification for entrance into heaven. It would be out of ignorance, not out of intent.
There is a third category. These are persons who are resistant to spiritual matters. They just don’t want to have their lives changed. They are not interested in discipleship. They want to live their own way, independent of God. For this person, the born-again emphasis is threatening. They despise talk about it. They are determined to stand aloof from the things of God.
And fourth, there are those who are experientially, emotively, dynamically reborn in their mature years and universalize this experience for everyone else. Their lives have been radically changed by Jesus Christ. We need not question the authenticity of what they are experiencing. But their tendency to make normative their experience can confuse and discourage many others.
In spite of the problems, the question remains, “Do I really have to be born again?” The answer is a straightforward YES!
You remember that occasion when Jesus was confronted by a Jewish leader named Nicodemus. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not within him” (John 3:2). And you are familiar with our Lord’s response. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).
Scholars debate the exact translation. You will note that the Revised Standard Version uses the phrase “born anew.” Other versions translate this “born from above.” Nicodemus obviously thought Jesus meant “again” for he questioned how he could be born a second time when he was now a mature adult.
Jesus responded to this question by incorporating this concept of second birth into a much broader and more significant principle, that there is spiritual birth which is of God, which must be subsequent to your physical birth. So you will find these terms used interchangeably throughout the New Testament. Take your pick. The principle is eternal. Your first birth is physical. There needs to be a second birth in which you come alive spiritually. This birth is from above. It is from heaven. It is of the Holy Spirit. It is a birth from God.
What the Scriptures are truly talking about is a process of regeneration, the event of new birth. It can be a gradual process which takes place over a lengthy period of time. It can be a sudden spiritual awakening.
It involves a radical change in your status before God. It implies a movement positionally from spiritual death to spiritual life. The price of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God is spiritual death. The Bible teaches that all have sinned. All of us have come short of His glory.
All of us are spiritually dead until we come alive in Jesus Christ. Jesus, through His death and resurrection, has broken the bonds of death. He has potentially set you free from sin’s bondage called death through His salvation called life.
This process of spiritual birth involves the initiative of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we call it spiritual birth. You cannot save yourself. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin. The Holy Spirit enables you to believe in Jesus Christ. It is literally a re-creation which is initiated by God. It is a regeneration. It is God’s answer to the psalmist’s cry, “Create in me a clean heart.” God does create in you a new life impossible by any other means.
Not only does this process involve the initiative of the Holy Spirit, it also involves an act of the will on your part. You are called to make a decision. You are called to believe, to trust Jesus Christ.
I believe that you can harden your heart to the things of God. Some would disagree with me. I am a Calvinist. I believe in the sovereignty of God and His capacity to accomplish anything He chooses to accomplish. However, I disassociate myself from an extreme view of predestination that exempts a human being from any responsibility.
I was reading the theological newsletter titled Context to which I subscribe. Its author is University of Chicago historian Martin E. Marty. He quotes a book by Conrad Hyers titled When God Created Laughter: The Bible Is Divine Comedy (John Knox Press). From it he quotes this anecdote. “Where else would you find deliciously theological humor like the story of the elderly Scottish Presbyterian woman who believed firmly in divine predestination and who, after falling down the stairs, got up, brushed herself off, and exclaimed, ‘Well, thank God that’s over with!” Now as I see it, that’s carrying predestination a bit too far. Wouldn’t you agree?
God has not made you and me robots. He could have. He chose not to. Although we cannot come to faith in Christ without the initiative of the Holy Spirit being operative, I believe that you and I can resist the Holy Spirit. You can become impenitent. You can say no as His Holy Spirit convicts you of your sin and your need of the Savior.
There are varieties of spiritual experience. Some are blessed with that gradual Christian nurture in the home and church. You have come to the assurance of salvation without any traumatic, cataclysmic, emotional experience. You cannot remember a day or place. However, if I ask you now if you have placed your trust in Jesus Christ, your answer is yes. If I ask you what right you have to eternity with Him, your response would be on the basis of His free gift of salvation as purchased by His blood on the cross.
For some of you, this new birth has been a traumatic experience. You can name the place and the time. You can describe the graphic details. For you there is a highly visible difference between what was before and what is now.
Even among those who have had dramatic experiences, there is a variety to those experiences. They are not all identical. If you are a cerebral person, you probably remember the cognitive aspects of your decision. If you are primarily an affective person, you’ll remember the emotive quality. Or perhaps you are some blend in between. What is more important is that you have acknowledged your sin, repented of it, and placed your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and your Lord. If you have, you are born again.
Someone went to Donn Moomaw, pastor of the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and asked, “Is Governor Reagan really a born-again Christian?” Donn’s answer was, “Is there any other kind?”
Donn was not commenting on Mr. Reagan’s experience. That is for Mr. Reagan to address. We cannot give another person’s testimony for them. Donn was speaking to the theological content of the very question itself. The word Christian can mean just about anything depending on how one uses it. It can go all the way from being a reasonably ethical person to not being Hindu, Muslim, or Jew, to being a church member all the way to the definition I believe is the only authentic definition of being someone who is born again by the Spirit of God.
There are reasons why some people are not born again.
Some succumb to the secular intellectualism of our day.
You will note that I have qualified this with the term “secular.” Christianity is not anti-intellectual. There are brilliant believers just as there are very intelligent nonbelievers. The secular person is one who lives in the one dimension of this world and observable phenomena subject to the senses. The natural order becomes this person’s god. He refuses to expose himself to the possibility of the supernatural — that additional dimension out of which this very natural order emerged.
Great intellects have both denied and affirmed the faith. I am convinced that a responsible intellectual is one who at least experiments with the possibility of new birth in Jesus Christ. Expose yourself to the Scriptures. Experiment with prayer. Be willing to believe. Don’t use your intellect as a smokescreen protecting you from direct encounter with God.
Some succumb to the immorality of our day. They refuse to be born again because they don’t want to be born again. The Bible tells us that there are some persons who prefer darkness to light. They want to live wicked lives.
A person whose own immoral conduct keeps him or her from coming to Jesus Christ is quick to point out the hypocrisy and phoniness in the lives of some of us who claim to be believers. This person knows that if he comes to Christ there will have to be changes. He doesn’t want changes. He wants to control his thought life, his sex life, and his business life. She wants to do what she wants to do. He wants to enjoy the pleasures of this world. She is not willing to live obedient to God’s will as expressed in the Scriptures. They are unwilling to pay the moral price.
Some succumb to procrastination. There is always a tomorrow. Things are going well enough today. There is no particular urgency. They are content with life the way it is. They’d make the change if things got real bad. For the time being, though, any drastic alteration can wait. They just don’t want to be born again now.
They have avoided dealing with the reality that death can strike at any point in life. After death there is the judgment. There is the wonderful possibility of eternity spent in heaven with God. There is the tragic alternative of that same eternity spent in hell, separated from God.
My responsibility as a preacher of the Good News is to urge you to make your decision now, not putting it off for a better day. That better day may never come.
Some refuse to come to Christ because of the poor examples set by their Christian friends. What an indictment this is to us. They take a look at us and say, “If he is a Christian and lives like that, I don’t want to be one.” They detect our hypocrisy. They are quick to see our inconsistencies. God will hold us responsible for that self-styled pride which keeps others from knowing Christ.
Then there are those who are not born again because they have never heard the Word of God. This can never be your excuse. Those of us who know the Lord will try to do the best we can to share the Good News throughout the world. We leave the eternal destiny of those whom we have failed to reach in His righteous, merciful hands. No one will ever stand before God in the day of judgment and be able to accuse God of being unfair. His very nature declares His righteousness and His justice.
There is one thing for certain. Any use on your part of the question about what happens to those who have never heard is simply a smokescreen. It is not a valid reason for you. You have heard the Word. You know the plan of salvation. You are aware that God created you in His own image and that something has gone wrong. You know that you are a sinner whom Christ loved so much that He gave His life for you.
You stand before the Risen Christ right now. He looks into your eyes. He either identifies you as His own and you acknowledge that fact and are willing to stand up and be counted as a believer — one who is born again by His Spirit — or you become shifty-eyed as those loving, penetrating eyes meet yours. He reminds you of His love, your sin, and His will for you. What is your response? (JAH)
March 18, 1990
Breaking Down the Barriers
Fences have a lot of uses. They can keep things in — small children, pets — and they can keep things out — burglars, stray animals, pesky neighbor kids.
People can build walls in their lives, too — walls they use to protect themselves from intruders, to keep out other people, God, maybe even ourselves.
Jesus was in the business of breaking down walls. He still is today. Perhaps there are some walls in your life that need to come down; He stands ready to bring them down.
I. Jesus Breaks Down Barriers Between People.
Jesus reached out to break down a barrier of hatred that had existed for centuries between Jew and Samaritan. The average Jew would not travel through Samaria, but would detour many miles to avoid these despised people.
Jesus, however, did not avoid Samaria. Artificial barriers like race meant little to Him, so He sits by the well and strikes up a conversation with the woman. She must have been surprised at His warmth.
It’s easy to absorb that kind of hatred — we get it from parents, friends, tradition, our culture. Many Jewish children probably didn’t even know why they hated Samaritans as they were uttering their first degrading slurs; they just knew they were supposed to hate.
When Jesus becomes real in our lives, such artificial barriers must fall. Prejudice and hatred can’t coexist in the same heart with Christ’s love.
Jesus broke through another barrier that day: the one which said women were inferior, property. A Jewish rabbi was not supposed to talk to a woman in public — not even his wife! Yet Jesus was less concerned for His reputation than for the value of human beings. No wonder Paul could exclaim, “In Christ there is no male or female … for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus broke through that barrier of sexual inferiority.
Jesus breaks down barriers between people, and so should His followers. Hatred and bigotry close us in; Jesus breaks down the walls to allow us freedom to love.
II. Jesus Breaks Down Barriers Within People.
This is a woman who is hurting. The fact she is coming to the well at noon — when other women came at early morning or evening — implies she seeks to avoid contact with them. Perhaps this is because of her lifestyle; with a series of husbands, and now living with a man not her husband, she was a social outcast.
While others were busy judging her, Jesus was busy loving her. Notice that He never explicitly condemns her sin; He forces her to confront her life where she was, and allows her to judge her own life. As she stands there in the light of His life, she sees the inadequacy of her own life. She becomes aware of her need.
The story is told that playwright Noel Coward once sent an identical note to twenty of the most prominent men in London. Each note said: “All is discovered. Escape while you can.” All twenty promptly left town!
We all know something is wrong within. Given the chance and the convicting power of God’s Spirit, people can see the need within them. Yet they don’t see it as well from our words alone as from our lives and our love.
Jesus allowed the woman to recognize the inadequacy of her own life, and then reached out to meet her needs.
III. Jesus Breaks Down Barriers With God.
As Jesus begins opening her life with His questions, she shifts the subject to theology! She’d have been a good church-goer — if the subject of obedience or ethics comes up, we all know it’s best to shift the subject to doctrine!
Yet in doing so, she reveals a barrier that was in place between herself and God: religion. Religion had erected a barrier — only a certain place was acceptable for worship. Jesus told her that worship is not validated by a traditional place, but by a transcendent power.
He will not let religion stand in the way of faith. God is Spirit, not confined to things or places. And if God is Spirit, then our relationship to Him must be of a spiritual nature — love, obedience, devotion.
Jesus met the woman at a well — an everyday place. Our greatest tests of faith rarely come in a church, but in everyday situations. It is out there that we must live our faith. We come here to worship, to learn, to be equipped, so that we can go back into the world and be the church!
God comes to us in the most ordinary places. To a Samaritan woman, he came and asked for a drink of water. How will He come to you this week: as a child … a person needing help … someone who looks differently or talks differently?
The religious folks said, “God is here” or “God is there.” Jesus, on the other hand, broke down the barriers of religion so that we could encounter God through faith.
What are the barriers in your life today? There is good news: Jesus is in the business of breaking down barriers — even yours. (JMD)
March 25, 1990
Every parent has experienced the question of this text. My children will spend endless hours watching the process of life and discover their God-given curiosity concerning the makeup of the world in which they live.
They will then pick out one of the more complex issues of life, such as the tides of the ocean, the cycle of the moon, or daylight savings time, and then they will turn to dad and ask, “Why?”
Invariably, after struggling to make an understandable but scientifically correct answer I have often discovered the look in their eyes that still says, “Why?” John 9 deals with an eternal question of humanity: “Why do people suffer?”
The focus was a man born blind. The disciples — in asking “why was this man born blind, was it his sin or his parents?” — approached the problem as we would. It seems there has to be a cause and effect relationship that we must discover if we are to be able to justify the incredible burdens this man and others must bear. The reality of the suffering needs an explanation that provides a logical reason. We find it incredibly hard to live with unexplained suffering. So we ask “why?”
I. Jesus’ answers to our problems speak more about God than about man.
Jesus immediately moves the subject from the man to God. He proclaims that the purpose of the suffering is for the glory of God. We don’t want to hear this answer. Our logical minds call for logical, orderly answers. God moves in seemingly illogical but healing ways.
When the man was told to go to the pool of Siloam and wash off the mud that Jesus had put on his eyes there must have been more than one disbelieving look from the crowd. Yet the end result was the man could see! Jesus demonstrated the power of God. He said that the purpose of the man’s blindness was that God would be glorified. After the healing, much debate took place as to the nature of Jesus’ ministry and whether He was from God.
The man offered the only truth he knew for sure: “Whereas I was blind, now I see.” His claim for healing was a claim of fact. His concern was not with doubters; his concern was with his future and the wonderful possibilities that were apparent. His tribute to God was that his vision had been restored!
There came a division in the crowd from those who discounted the fact of the healing as being of primary importance and concentrated upon the superficial issue of the timing of the event. To them the matter of when became more important than why or how. If their laws had been broken then the healing was not acceptable! The preconceived conditions were not being met. God had moved outside of their boundaries and they would not believe.
II. Jesus separates believers from the unbelievers.
In all of life we discover Jesus’ demand that we believe. When events take place we are forced to interpret the why and how of things. Jesus calls for all of us to become faithful interpreters of life, claiming by faith that God is at work in the world, healing, helping, restoring and giving life. It may be difficult at times and there will be those who disagree with us, but we are called to believe.
As you interpret life, look for the ways in which God may be given glory when the rest of the world is just looking and wondering “Why?” (SNW)
Outlines in this issue are provided by John A. Huffman, Jr., Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA: Sam N. Wilson, Associate Editor; and Michael Duduit, Editor.
Sermon briefs include Lenten texts
February 4, 1990