Proper 27 (A)
November 7, 1999
There is a lot of talk today about the value of faith and “spirituality.” Curiously, however, many of those who approve of spirituality in general are quick to reject the notion that there are specific behaviors and beliefs God does not approve. They have reshaped God into something safe and soft and pliable, a feel-good God who can be ignored until they want something from Him.
Modern America has much in common that way with the Israel of Amos’ day (8th century B.C.). In this passage the prophet forthrightly rejects such sentimentalizing of religion. He warns about two things: false hope and false worship.
False Hope (vv. 18-20)
There is such a thing as false hope which, though it may calm one’s fears in the near-term, will disappoint ultimately and eternally. Amos’ contemporaries were clinging to such a vain hope. They were longing for the day of the Lord. That is the Bible’s term for history’s end-point, when God will step in to bring an end to the human story. The people expected that the day of the Lord would be for them a time of deliverance and vindication and peace.
Amos reminds them that there is another side to the truth. Not only will the day of the Lord be a time of salvation, but for some it will be a day of judgment and woe (v. 18) which will come with the kind of horrifying and deadly shock a man experiences when he runs into a bear while trying to escape a lion, then, barely outrunning both predators, enters his home, slams the door, leans against the wall to catch his breath … and is bitten by a poisonous snake that had been hiding in the rafters (v. 19). A day of “darkness, not light — pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness” (v. 20) — that’s what the day of the Lord will be to those who do not possess genuine faith. Anything else is merely an escapist fantasy.
False Religion (vv. 21-23)
The Israelites must have been offended by the suggestion that the day of the Lord would be for them anything other than a time of great blessing. They were confident that their religion would stand them in good stead on that day. Amos blasts their false confidence again, expressing God’s disdain for their worship: “I hate, I despise your religious feasts… [and] assemblies … I will not accept [your offerings and sacrifices]… I will not listen to the music [with which you pretend to praise Me].”
Their problem was they were focusing on the external forms of religion, the aesthetics of worship, the things that made them feel good but had missed the true nature of genuine piety.
True religion, Amos indicates, is transformative. God is not pleased with those who merely follow the forms of religion; He expects His people to be changed by its power, so that they reflect in their lives and relationships something of His character. He is a God of justice and of righteousness; thus, His followers must “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (v. 24). Where there is no such reflection, profession of faith is empty. While salvation always has been through faith alone, the faith that saves is never alone. To Amos, “bare” faith likely was no faith at all. And so it was to the New Testament writers, too, like James who wrote, “I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18). (William L. Hogan)
Proper 28 (A)
November 14, 1999
Comfort for the Afflicted
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
The preacher’s task, so it has been said, is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Affliction was the aim of the prophet Amos, as we saw last week. He addressed people who were comfortably complacent in the false hope that the day of the Lord would be for them a time of great blessing, but whose religious superficiality revealed them to be devoid of genuine faith. For them, he warned, it would be a day of darkness, with no glimmer of light.
The Apostle Paul now takes the comforter’s role as he writes to disheartened believers in Thessalonica. The twin admonitions to “encourage one another” which bracket the passage (4:18 and 5:11), indicate its central thrust. Six reasons give ample support for the sagging spirits of any Christian.
1. We have nothing to fear in the day of the Lord.
Like Amos he speaks of the coming of that day, emphasizing the unexpectedness of its arrival (“like a thief in the night,” v. 2), and the fact that for those who are not prepared it will be a time of inescapable destruction (v. 3). But it will not be so for you, he is quick to reassure his readers: “But you [the pronoun is emphatic], brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief” (v. 4).
2. God has wrought a great change in us.
Those who have not trusted in Christ (the “others” of verse 6), are unconscious of spiritual realities (“asleep”), and are controlled by dark forces. We were like them once, but are now “alert” to spiritual reality, and, by the Spirit’s enablement, “self-controlled,” rather than dominated by dark powers. That change is no reason for pride; we have been made day people by God’s transforming grace.
3. God protects our soul.
The “others” are unaware of the moral and spiritual dangers that lurk in the shadows of unbelief, and thus are vulnerable to them. We, however, are protected against those dangers, for God has issued us armor: “faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (v. 8).
4. A wonderful destiny awaits us.
This is in stark contrast with the prospect before the “others.” “Destruction will come on them suddenly” (v. 3), so that they are “shut out from the presence of the Lord” forever (2 Thess. 1:9). We, however, “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:17), for “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9).
5. The benefits of our salvation were purchased at the Cross.
Verse 10 says, “He died for us so that, whether we are awake [i.e. physically alive when He returns] or asleep [i.e. dead], we will live together with him.” Our salvation is not the result of attempting to live for him. From beginning to end it is His doing. He died to pay the penalty our sins deserved, and has joined us inseparably to Himself so that we share His life always.
6. These things are true of every believer.
Significantly, Paul addresses his words to them “all” — “you are all sons of the light and … of the day” (v. 5). Among believers there are no exceptions. All who believe are justified, and all who are justified will be glorified (Rom. 8:30). Not one person who has truly trusted in Jesus Christ will be overlooked or omitted when He returns to take His own to Himself! “All that the Father gives me will come to me,” the Savior promised, “and whoever comes to me I will never drive away…. I shall lose none of all that he has given me” (John 6:37, 39).
In response to these things, let us pray with the Psalmist, “I will run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free” (Psalm 119:32). (William L. Hogan)
Christ the King Sunday
November 21, 1999
The Power of the King
Paul is thankful to God for the Ephesian Christians. Ephesus is a city ruled by the pagan goddess Artemis. No doubt when Paul penned this letter he remembered his riotous experience in that city. Acts 19-20:6 provides the background of Paul’s preaching in Ephesus — how he preached the Lord Jesus and challenged the thinking of the Ephesians as to who really is God. Even though the followers of Artemis shouted for two hours “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” the followers of Christ then and now know that “Jesus is Lord.”
What does Paul ask God to do for the Ephesian Christians? Paul prays that they might know God better, and the hope of relying on the riches and power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead and by which He rules.
The power of God in Christ gives us the power to live and to know God better.
1. A Christian can have a deepened knowledge of God (1:15-17)
Paul’s hope for them is a deeper, more meaningful knowledge of God. That’s the kind of intimacy with God that only comes through a daily, close walk with Christ. Because of their faith in Jesus and their love for their fellow believers, Paul knows that they can continue to grow deeper and deeper in their relationship to God.
Relationships are one of the most discussed topics in our own culture, yet few people realize it is possible to have this kind of intimate relationship with the Creator God of the universe. As those who are in Christ, we can experience that closeness with God through Christ.
2. A Christian can have a hope in God’s inheritance (1:18)
What is “the hope of His calling”? It is all that is ours through Christ. We have become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. What a remarkable inheritance is ours!
We look at the wealth of people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and are amazed, but those who are in Christ will some day inherit far more than Gates or Buffett can even imagine! We shall one day know “the riches of the glory” that God intends for His children.
3. A Christian can have confidence to live with power (1:19-21)
Lots of people are concerned about Y2K, and fearful there will be power outages as a result of computer malfunctions. Thousands of Americans have even purchased generators because they don’t trust the source of their household power to be available on January 1, 2000.
Paul wants us to understand that, in Christ, we have a source of power that is immeasurable, incredible, beyond imagination. The “surpassing greatness” of God’s power is available to us as we live and walk in Christ day by day. We have available to us the power of the King who is above all kings.
The power that raised Christ from the dead and that sustains His rule is the same power that helps believers live today. To know God is to know that power. (Scott M. Gibson)
First Sunday of Advent (B)
November 28, 1999
Waiting for His Return
One of the most amazing events in publishing in recent years is the success of the “Left Behind” series of novels, based around a fictionalized treatment of the second coming of Christ. These books (now six in all) have sold in the millions of copies. They have given ample evidence that there is a hunger to know more about the return of Christ, even if it comes in a fictional setting. As we come nearer to the turn of the century and the beginning of a new millennium, we will probably see even more interest on this topic.
The very first Christians in the years immediately after Christ’s death and resurrection were even more intensely interested in the Lord’s return. Paul’s letters tell us that many expected His return to take place any day.
As we read Jesus’ own words about His second coming, one major theme emerges: as Christians, we are to be always ready for His return. In verse 33, Jesus provides three tools which will help us to be ready.
1. We are to take heed of His return
To “take heed” of something is to consider it, to be aware of it, to pay attention. Jesus wants us to be aware of the reality of His second advent.
We are to know He is coming back. As Christians, this is not an unimportant doctrine. It is a truth on which much of our hope for the future rests. Jesus thought it was important, and so should we.
We are to know He is coming back in glory (v. 26). When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He came as a suffering servant, who would give His life as a payment for our sins. When He returns, it will be as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. There is a power and glory in His second advent that brings joy and fulfillment to His church.
We are to know He is coming back for us (v. 27). When He comes, Jesus will gather unto Himself those believers who are still alive, and unite them with those who have already died in Christ. Whether we have gone ahead or remain until that day, we can have confidence that we will be with Him.
2. We are to watch for His return.
It is not enough simply to be aware of the second advent of Christ; He tells us here to “watch” for His return. To watch is to take a positive, proactive step. To watch is to prepare for His return.
Jesus offers a brief parable of the master who goes away and leaves his servants in charge (vv. 34-36). They are to be faithful in their work while he is gone, and to be caught up lest he should return at any time and find them unprepared.
What happens as we watch for His return? (1) We keep at our work — whatever it is God may have called us to do. (2) We remain faithful, even in His absence. (3) We keep a sense of urgency, knowing that He might return at any time.
3. We are to pray for His return
The first two steps — to “take heed” and to “watch” — emphasize our responsibility in preparing for Christ’s return. This third step, to “pray,” is a reminder that we are dependent on God’s help and God’s resources if we are to be ready. Just as He is our only real hope for the future, so He provides our only real opportunity to live in faithful expectancy of Christ’s coming. (Michael Duduit)
2nd Sunday of Advent (B)
December 5, 1999
A Comforting Word
“Comfort my people!” says God. Those timeless words usher into our consciousness the seemingly endless need for people of all ages, times and places to be comforted. Little wonder that Isaiah’s words have been understood as words best fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed one of God, the Savior.
An alarming statistic has recently been circulated over the internet to Christian prayer chains. It is now estimated that one Christian is martyred every four minutes for their faith. “Comfort my people!” says God, for the need to be comforted is so great. Isaiah’s great hymn of comfort not only spoke to his time, a time in which his nation was facing captivity by another nation, but it speaks to all time. In a very real sense, people of God have always been in captivity and in need of comfort. We are in a world today in which there is a greet need of “comfort” — not just any comfort but the comfort of God, the strengthening aid of God.
The world offers so many false comforts: alcohol, drugs, media saturation, governmental legislation. But these are false comforts, because they offer only temporary relief from an unchanged environment and condition. They do not provide the strengthening aid of which Isaiah is speaking. God’s comfort can only be received when we let go of the false comforts to which we so tenaciously cling and prepare the way of God’s true comfort, His true strengthening aid: Himself.
The glory of the Lord, the atmosphere of His presence, is always accompanied by radical transformation. In the midst of deserts, highways are made straight; valleys are exalted; mountains are brought low. The reality of the frailty of life did not escape Isaiah as evidenced in his comparison of the life of the people to grass. But he also proclaims that our frailty does not alter the promises of God. We can be comforted because the word of God stands forever and the promises of God are always accompanied by the presence of God.
In the presence of God there is not only relief from grief and pain, there is life restored. As Isaiah’s imagery reaches its pinnacle in the description of the good shepherd, so the believers’ hope is manifested in the care of the Shepherd Messiah, Jesus. The reward of one’s relationship with the Shepherd is the presence of the Shepherd Himself. The gathering of lambs in His arms, the feeding of His flock, carrying them in His bosom, and leading those with young are all images which convey the greatest rewards of salvation, being with the Great Shepherd Himself.
We began with the statement of the great need for comfort and illustrated it with the statement that it is estimated that a Christian is martyred every four minutes. Statistics are helpful but when numbers have a face, then the need for true comfort — God’s strengthening aid — becomes even more real.
In January of 1999 two sons of an Australian missionary, one aged ten and one aged eight, were burned alive. They had accompanied their father in his work in taking the gospel message to India. All three were forced to stay in their jeep while they were set afire by radical Hindus in the Orissa Province of India. The grieving widow and mother boldly proclaimed her faith in God and prayers of salvation for those who had killed her family. One national newspaper carried an editorial that stated the editor was born a Hindu but because of the witness of this grieving widow and mother he would always be a Christian in his heart.
Isaiah’s commands are the same today as they were when first proclaimed. “Lift up your voice with strength. Lift it up, be not afraid. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!.'” (Carolyn Volentine)
Advent 3 (B)
Sunday, December 12, 1999
John the Witness
John gives us the most abstractly theological analysis of Jesus’ birth. Matthew tells the story of Joseph’s perspective and Luke tells it from Mary’s, but John attempts to give a philosophical and theological interpretation. Matthew tells of Joseph’s misgivings about taking this woman as his wife and serving as the earthly father of the Son of God. Luke tells how Mary was moved with praise at the thought of God’s activity. None of the gospels tell us very much at all about Jesus’ life between the time of His birth and the inauguration of His public ministry.
One item that is featured in all of the gospels, even John’s, is the unique ministry of John the Baptizer, or for our purposes this morning, John the Witness. When both miracle babies were in the time of their public ministries, John sent a contingent to ask Jesus if He were the One to come or if he should keep looking for someone else. Jesus used that occasion to say, “Of all the men who have ever been born to women, there is none greater than John the Baptist.” Because of the relationship between John and Jesus, it seemed only natural that when John started baptizing, Jesus would go to him in order to submit Himself to John’s baptism. But I get ahead of myself.
John uses similar language to that which is found in the book of Genesis. Instead of saying “In the beginning,” John says, in effect, “When the beginning began … Jesus already was.” Jesus is described as the logos of God. Logos means “word in action.” Jesus is the Incarnation of the divine Logos who was present at the creation of the world, who was the agent of creation. He is the Author of life and gives abundant life to all who turn to Him in repentance and faith.
In the middle of this great philosophical discourse, which helps us understand the incarnation more fully, John the gospel writer inserts a word about John the Baptist. John the Baptizer was not the light. He only came as a witness to the light. That raises a question. What was so significant about John’s life that he is spoken of as a witness? What is a witness and why was John such an effective witness?
John spoke to the spiritual hunger of his day.
There are some estimates that he baptized as many as 300,000 people. Many of these whom he baptized made the difficult trek from Jerusalem down to the Jordan River. He must have been scratching where people itched. He could have used his popular support to try to advance some sort of selfish agenda, but that would have been the furthest thing from John’s mind. He didn’t need to try to convince people how cute, or clever, or compelling he was. Instead, he disappeared as much as he could so that the word he was speaking could be heard. In so doing, he became one of the most compelling persons who ever lived, apart from Jesus Himself.
A second feature of John’s witness:
He highlighted the need for repentance.
Doesn’t it just make sense that those who sense a hunger in their spirit need to repent in order to have that hunger satisfied? John told those who asked that his baptism was with water and was preparatory to a greater baptism which would be given by the coming Messiah at a later date. His baptism called on Jews to do what only Gentiles had been asked to do up until this point — be baptized.
The most important element of John’s witness was:
He pointed to the One coming after Him.
John never failed to confess that he was not the Christ. He probably could have deluded people into thinking that he was if he had wanted to but he accepted his God-given role of pointing to the Coming One. He knew he was unworthy to loose the sandals of Jesus.
A witness doesn’t have to impress with the force of his personality or the cleverness of his arguments. He or she simply needs to go to hungry people and by word and deed let them know that through repentance and faith, they can find that spiritual hunger satisfied. (Mark A. Johnson)
4th Sunday of Advent (B)
December 19, 1999
His Name is Jesus
These beautiful verses recall for many of us the stories of Christ’s birth. Childhood memories of Christmas pageants and nativity sets help us to recall the precious story of God sending an angel to a special young woman to announce to her that she was his choice to bear the savior of the world. The story contains both mystery and miracle. How does one explain a God who so focuses Himself that He would come into flesh and dwell among us? The story raises the question of the doctrine of the Trinity itself — God the Father sending God the Holy Spirit to create within a woman God the Son. It is indeed mystery and miracle.
The American poet Robert Browning expressed our awed and limited understanding.
I know not how that Bethlehem’s babe
could in the Godhead be
I only know that the manger child
has brought God’s love to me.
The answer is perhaps best understood by contemplating the name that is to be given the child: Jesus. In Hebrew and Aramaic, it is Yeshua, he who will save. God was known to the people of Israel as the one who saves by coming into their history. He came into the garden and called them into an account of their behavior. He came to the patriarchs in dreams and visions. He came to the enslaved through His prophet Moses. He continued to come through prophets and national conflicts throughout the centuries of the judges, the kingdoms, the exile. And once again He promises to come in the most self-revealing way, in the person of His Son, the one who is to be named Jesus.
Jesus is the Son of the most High, who will reign forever. Jesus the Savior is the God who comes not just to a people but to all peoples. Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed One, not just for a particular time but for all times. The Savior comes not to set a people free on a national level but on a cosmic level. The bondage is not just from an earthly power but from all powers not of God. When Jesus bore the cross He bore not just the weight of the wood but the sin of the world.
The angel is telling Mary more than she can begin to understand. Her response is a natural one, “How can this be, I have no husband?” Do not we all ask God that kind of question? How can you say you save me from this devastating situation, from this past of craziness, from myself? The answer is the same for us as it was for Mary: “With God nothing will be impossible.”
The power of God to come upon one woman is the same power of God to save from all the works of the flesh, a fallen world, even powerful Satan. We are told in I John 3:8 that God entered humanity that we might be saved from all the works of the devil. On the cross the total work of salvation was completed. With God nothing is impossible.
That which was begun with an announcement to a particular young woman at a particular time is consummated for eternity. Saint Paul writes in Philippians 2:9ff: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
His name shall be called Jesus, Savior, Son of God. (Carolyn Volentine)
Christmas 1 (B)
Sunday, December 26, 1999
Why Did He Come?
What did Jesus come to do? Of course, a part of our answer to that question would be John 3:17. “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”
Couple that first question with another question, “What is the number one challenge facing the church?” I believe it is for the church to realize that it is not like any other civic organization which exists to serve its members. The church exists to be God’s agent of redemption for the world. Our view of the church will depend largely upon our view of who Jesus is and what He came to do.
Luke is the most beloved and familiar of all of the Christmas accounts. He’s the one who tells us about the inn and the shepherds and the angelic choir. He also tells us about the first time Joseph and Mary took their little boy to church, so to speak.
It does bear mentioning that Jesus’ parents were devout in their faith. How would Jesus’ life had been different were that not the case? They were also not affluent in terms of this world’s goods. Jesus was the sinless Son of God. He was perfect. He was tempted at all points as we are, yet He was without sin. If you believe the temptations were real for Jesus and He could have failed, what impact would growing up in a less godly, less pious, less devout home have had on Him?
One insight into Jesus’ unique mission came from the lips of the aged Simeon as he spent his every waking moment at the temple. It must have been an unnerving scene as Old Man Simeon comes up to Joseph and Mary and takes the blue bundle out of her arms and looks him over. I wonder how many young couples with their first child in tow Simeon had accosted over the years. There may have been people in Jerusalem who were convinced that Simeon wasn’t quite all there.
This man of questionable sanity (in the mind of some) had it together more than anybody else because with one look at that baby, he knew that he had seen all that he had lived for these many years. Simeon longed to see the consolation of Israel — the promise that in spite of Israel’s persistent waywardness and rebellion, God would redeem them. He was given wholly over to that task.
There may have been some people who hung out at the temple or its environs who thought Simeon was a little bit quirky or kooky or eccentric. Others, though, have written about Simeon, “Simeon is one of those fortunate persons who has come to the end of the way with the conviction that life could have been no more rewarding and meaningful.” What made it possible for Simeon to say that? It was simply that he had faith that God would consummate His plan of redemption and he lived to see Jesus. That sounds like somebody who’s got it all together if you ask me.
It is ironic that the One who is to be the Consolation of Israel would be the cause of rising and falling for many. Those who come to a knowledge of him — notice I did not say a saving knowledge of him — will have a choice to make. Accept Him and be saved or reject Him to their own damnation. The treatment of this redeemer would be a cause of soul-wrenching agony to His mother.
Simeon wasn’t the only one with special insight into Jesus. Anna, an old lady who lived at the temple in fasting and prayer knew right away that he was the one. She gave thanks and let it be known that Israel’s Consolation had arrived.
What did Jesus come to do? He came to be Savior. He came to be the cause of the rising and falling of many in Israel. (Mark Johnson)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Scott M. Gibson, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, MA; William L. Hogan, Professor of Preaching, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS; Mark Johnson, Pastor, Greenbelt Baptist Church, Greenbelt, MD; Carolyn Volentine, Pastor, DeQuincy United Methodist Church, DeQuincy, LA; and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.
Proper 27 (A)