23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 3, 1996
Being an Effective Witness
I Thessalonians 2:9-13
One of the greatest tragedies of modern Christianity is the failure of God’s people to witness effectively. It’s not that they don’t know the right Bible verses, the appropriate strategies or the latest techniques. The problem resides in the messengers — in us. Without a doubt, it is becoming more and more difficult to tell the difference between the saved and the lost, the believer and the unbeliever, the saint and the sinner. Many Christians have been so successful in assimilating contemporary values into their lifestyle that they lack the distinctive qualities of real discipleship.
Ironically, as more and more people begin to seek spiritual fulfillment and the meaning of life, they bypass the gospel for the ghetto of mystical experience. A couple of years ago, a woman wrote a book about a life-after-death experience. She claimed to have died on an operating table during surgery and had a conversation with Jesus in heaven before being brought back to life by her doctors. Today, she tells her story to standing-room-only crowds who long to hear her comforting words about everyone going to heaven, including beloved pets. Why do people listen to her? One of the reasons they deny the veracity of biblical truth for these empty promises relates to the absence of any significant testimony within the lives of co-workers, classmates and friends who carry the name of Christ.
For the apostle Paul, his testimony included more than words; it incorporated his entire life. God used Paul to plant new churches as he spread the good news about Jesus to the Gentile world. The secret of his success was based largely on a willingness to model the Christ-like life. In I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Paul reminds those Christians how he behaved when he was with them. His actions serve as a paradigm for Christians today if they follow four essential steps to being an effective witness.
Step One: Free Yourself From Prohibitive Dependencies
The first bi-vocational preacher of the gospel was the apostle Paul. Whenever he went to a new community he relied on his skill in tent making to provide for his needs. Occasionally he made exceptions and allowed the local Christians or another church to support his missionary endeavors, but Paul never wanted to be financially dependent upon those to whom he witnessed.
In this letter to the Thessalonians, he notes three reasons for being free from prohibitive dependencies. First, Paul never wanted a suspicion of greed to cloud the judgment of would-be converts (2:5). Even today, many skeptics believe ministers are in their vocation for the money. By refusing to accept “love offerings” from the local people, Paul precluded the development of doubts about his motivation for preaching in their community.
Likewise, Paul did not want to be a burden upon his new converts (2:9). He was not recruiting supporters for “Apostle Paul, Inc.” and did not want to trouble these babes in Christ with financial hardship. Neither did he want them to feel resentful about their tithe to the Lord.
Finally, Paul labored to win the respect of “outsiders” (4:12; NIV). The routine of tent making in the local marketplace demonstrated a willingness to work like everyone else. He identified himself with the other common people who had to toil for a living. Such people naturally respect a man who earns a living from the sweat of his brow rather than from “hand-outs,” not to mention the improved chance of gaining a hearing from those around him.
The opportunity for being heard without added prejudices or biases against one’s message remains a crucial issue in evangelism. Although this first step pertains to vocational ministers more than laymen, the truth is the same: being dependent upon others might prohibit your message by enticing you to soften the hard facts or to tell people only what they want to hear. By being independent, an effective witness can freely explain the truth about Christ and our need as sinners for his atoning sacrifice on the cross.
Step Two: Practice What You Preach
The second step involves the authentic character of the Christian’s lifestyle. In his On Rhetoric, Aristotle cites the integrity of the speaker (or ethos) as a crucial element in persuasive speech. Though Paul did not try to persuade people into believing his message, he did acknowledge the importance of credibility. He reminds the Thessalonians that they and God are witnesses to his holiness, righteousness and innocence while among them.
Yet the issue of manifesting a virtuous morality goes beyond the notion of “practice what you preach.” For Paul, the central focus for Christians must always be on the interests and needs of others, not on selfish desires. Paul scrutinized his own behavior so meticulously because he was consumed with a passion for bringing others to Christ. He realized that God had chosen him to be a witness: to testify about all he knew of the Son of God who died for personal sin, who was resurrected and who indwells his followers through the Holy Spirit.
When Christians have a love relationship with their Lord, they cannot help but overflow with the joy, peace and wholeness that Jesus bestows. The presence of Christ also brings a passionate concern for others who need the Master’s healing touch. The combination of a transformed lifestyle and an overwhelming burden for the lost result in the kind of holiness, righteousness and innocence to which Paul refers. Thus, being authentic should be viewed more as a natural progression than a coercive step.
Step Three: Assume Parental Responsibility
After cultivating a desire to share Christ, a witness becomes responsible for those individuals placed within his path. Paul described his attitude toward the Thessalonians as indicative of a parent-child relationship. As a nursing mother nurtures her newborn baby, so Paul tenderly handled these infant disciples (2:7). Now in verses eleven and twelve, he recalls the fatherly manner in which he encouraged, comforted and urged those neophytes into pursuing a life worthy of God.
Loving parents should always function as a wellspring of encouragement and support for their children; especially when they make mistakes. The tendency to dominate and control children may arise out of a sincere desire to keep them from harm, but often produces repressed resentment and the inability to independently navigate through the trials and adversities of life.
In the same way, mature Christians should treat those to whom they are witnessing with the affection and understanding a parent has for a child. At times, great patience is demanded along with a consistent exhortation to embrace the truth of God’s plan. Nevertheless, as a parent will always love their child even when he makes a mistake, so should Christians be committed to nurturing the lost. By setting the example and encouraging others to respond in repentance and belief, believers can be a source of strength and stability for those who discover their need for the Lord.
Step Four: Recognize the Authority of Your Words
The last step to being an effective witness is to recognize the authority of your words and God’s message. Paul understood the plan of salvation through faith in Christ to be the only way to heaven. He did not dream about meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, that was real. Paul had confronted the risen Savior and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ had died for him. He spent years studying Scripture and coming to a knowledge of the truth. So when Paul preached by the power of the Holy Spirit, he knew that his message was not man-made. It originated from God and carried the same authority as if spoken from God, Himself.
Leading someone to accept Christ as Savior and Lord is an extremely exciting and fulfilling experience for Christians. To be used by God in this way illuminates the disciple’s heart with the desire to continually proclaim this message of hope. However, the credit and the glory belong to God. It is His work (v. 13), and His providence whether or not someone accepts or rejects Him.
This removes the responsibility of conversion from the shoulders of Christians who are merely heralds of the King. The messenger may be whipped, beaten, even stoned and left for dead as Paul was on numerous occasions. Yet the King’s word remains law regardless of the reception given to the one who proclaims it. Therefore, the last step to being an effective witness is to recognize and respond to the inherent authority of our words. No matter how Christians are received, they are God’s representatives and sanctioned to offer His invitation of everlasting life.
Being an effective witness is both a privilege and a challenge. When one contemplates the eternal consequences in accomplishing this command, the goal of every Christian should be to reach as many unbelievers as possible. By following the example of Paul, God’s people can know that they are initiating a work which continues in those who believe: to live a life worthy of God’s calling. (Craig Christina)
24th Sunday after Pentecost
November 10, 1996
What They Didn’t Know
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Funerals are always sad occasions. The death of a loved one elicits a pain and grief unlike any other. But Christians who claim the promises of God’s word are not left without hope because Christ will return with the blast of a trumpet; and those who accepted Him in this life will share in that glorious event.
In the years immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the early church struggled with the timing of His triumphant return. They believed the Lord was alive and in heaven. They knew He would come back to earth “in the same way [they saw] him go” (Acts 1:11). Yet, they assumed this would be sooner than later. As their Christian friends and family members died, they became confused about how the deceased would share in this final celebration.
For the church in Thessalonica, the issue became particularly perplexing. So Paul, in this letter, wrote to explain the facts concerning the coming day of resurrection. Understanding this passage of Scripture provides certain assurance that physical death is never the end. The elect will grieve, but not like those without Christ. The comforting hope of being with the Lord and participating in His return promises a reunion which lasts forever.
The Lord Himself Will Come Down From Heaven
Although the return of Christ is predicted throughout Scripture, Paul reveals a specificity that firmly establishes the events of that day. First, the Lord’s return will be very public. Just as the angels promised the first disciples that they would see Jesus return in the same way He left, so Paul adds that this will occur with a loud command, the voice of the archangel (presumably Michael) and the trumpet call of God. Similarly, Jesus likened His return to “lightning which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other” (Luke 17:24; NIV).
This imagery forecasts the clear visibility of Christ as He descends from heaven. In some way, people all over the world will be able to witness the drama as it unfolds. Those who do not know the biblical account may not understand what they see, but they will see it nevertheless.
In addition to the visual display, Christ’s return will be heard as well. As to the type of command, the words of the archangel Michael and the pitch of the trumpet, Paul remains silent though he describes the sound as being “loud.” Even someone cleaning out her basement will be startled by the noise coming from above.
A seminary student once told the story of a class discussion on Revelation 19:15 in which Jesus is described as coming down from heaven on a white horse with a sharp sword coming out of his mouth. The class agreed that the sword represented the words he would speak to bring an end to the world. The professor asked his students to reflect upon what that word might be and then to bring their suggestions to class the next day.
Upon driving to campus the following morning, the professor was delayed when he noticed an ambulance and several police cars down at the end of his street. He stopped by to investigate the scene. On the sidewalk lay a seven-year-old girl struck between the eyes by the stray bullet of a gang fight.
When the professor got to class, he reported the encounter to his students and told them he knew the word Jesus would speak. “Enough! Enough violence, enough pain, enough suffering!” The return of Christ will bring an end to the despair, misery and corruption of this present age in a very public way.
The Dead in Christ Will Rise First
The invitation to accept Christ goes hand in hand with the promise of eternal life. So when believers lie cold and lifeless in a casket, it’s no wonder people get confused about life after death.
In Paul’s day, death was something to be feared and brought little comfort to pagans who viewed it as the final chapter of existence. So the pressing issue among the Thessalonicans pertained to the condition of believers who had already died and their ability to be resurrected. Being transformed from a living physical body to a living spiritual body was a lot easier to handle than the idea of resurrecting a decayed corpse.
Paul alleviates this concern by emphasizing the precession of deceased Christians. Not only will they participate in the resurrection, but they also will precede Christ’s followers on earth. Three times Paul offers this guarantee.
First, he states that Christ will bring along “those who have fallen asleep in him” (v. 14). The metaphor of sleep does not mean a state of unconsciousness or soul-sleeping. It was a common expression of that day to describe death (cf. John 11:11; Acts 7:60; I Cor. 15:6). Elsewhere, Paul decisively speaks of the death of Christians as being “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). The fact that Christ comes down from heaven with deceased believers in tow reiterates the concept of eternal life with Christ rather on earth or in heaven after death.
The second and third guarantees are found in verses fifteen and sixteen. In these verses, Paul discloses a special revelation from the Lord (v. 15) by noting the order of the resurrection (v. 16). Those who have fallen asleep will be first followed by those left on earth. Although scholars differ, the most likely explanation of this sequence indicates that the resurrection — that is, receiving the imperishable spiritual body — transpires only on the day of return. This fact in no way diminishes the eternal existence of Christians before this day. His sheep will always be with him (John 10:28), but they receive immortal bodies at Christ’s return (I Cor. 15:51-53).
Then We Who Are Alive
Finally, Paul addresses those who are still living at the time of Christ’s return (v. 17). After the dead are resurrected, believers on earth join them and Jesus in the clouds. In spite of the sequential structure, this moment will take place so fast that it will make no practical difference. As Jesus reminds His disciples in Luke 17, it will be too late to make a decision to follow Him. When He returns, the time to decide has passed (Lk. 17:24-35).
These words of comfort may also be words of warning. As Christians, we await with great anticipation the return of our Lord and Savior. For the lost, this day will bring judgment and condemnation. The knowledge of these events should inspire all of God’s people to rededicate themselves to sharing Christ with those around them. Time passes, and we mourn the loss of loved ones; but we also know that we will see them again providing they know the Lord. When the day comes and we find ourselves soaring in the sky, the people who watch us go will wonder what they didn’t know. (Craig Christina)
25th Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 1996
Wake Up!
(I Thessalonians 5:1-11)
Years ago an elderly couple visited our worship services. They attended for several months, always sitting near the front of our worship center. One Sunday, after the sermon, the woman paused while exiting the church.
“Young man,” she said, “we would like you to visit in our home this week.”
“I would be glad to. I’ll call and set up a good time to visit,” I responded, hopeful of adding more sheep to the fold.
I made the appointment, then wondered about this couple until our meeting time. Why did I wonder? Each Sunday he slept while she tried to keep him awake. I wished to add sheep to the fold, but their serious demeanor made me wonder if they might seek to join with certain conditions, like We’ll join but could you do a better job of preaching so my husband will stay awake?
In worrisome times like these, why not prepare a kind, but firm pastoral response: What? Could you not stay awake with me one hour? Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation! (Matt. 26:40-41). After all, conflict management finds resolve in curt words of spiritual nourishment. In other words, I was going to tell them to eat what I put on the plate at feeding time or look for another place to feed!
The day came for our meeting and, as with most items of worry, my fears imagined a scenario that never occurred. Preachers do this too often, you know.
“Young man,” the woman began speaking, nervous and fidgety. “We want to join your church. But there is one thing we want to ask before we join.”
My defense mechanism raised its antenna. I prepared for attack. How about the personal attack? You really don’t belong in this church! The theological attack? Excuse me. It’s not ‘my’ church. It’s God’s church! The spiritual attack? Pray about it. Are you sure you’re doing God’s will?
Fortunately, I did not open my mouth. I listened as she kept talking. “Is it okay if we join even though my husband will sleep through your sermons? You see, he has a heart condition and the medicine makes him sleepy. We like your sermons. If we join, you won’t take it personal, will you?”
I lowered my antenna. “No, of course not. Can you join this Sunday?”
“Sure!” she said as they both relaxed and smiled. “I’ll do my best to keep him from sleeping!”
I felt relief, too. The couple joined. And she spent each Sunday, seated on row three near the front, poking him in the ribs, trying to keep him awake during the sermon.
This passage is Paul’s way of ribbing the church at Thessalonica, begging them to wake up, or at least try to stay awake spiritually. Christ will soon come!
I. Wake Up and Sit Up!
Paul’s focus here is on the let us of verse 6. He uses three strong Greek words: sleep, watch, and sober. He does not want the believers to sleep. The idea details a carnal indifference because of a lack of spiritual alertness. Watch indicates vigilance and expectancy, not a moral and spiritual laxity. Watch challenges the believers to sit up and take notice of what God is doing, what He desires to do, and what He will yet do in His coming. Sober associates itself with watchfulness by urging the believers to be free from the influence of intoxicants. What might those intoxicants, or spiritual poisons be? Sin, pride, immorality, hatred, and on the list could go. Why this soberness, though?
First, because of the times which the readers know firsthand (v. 1). Second, because Jesus will come like a thief breaking into your house at night (v. 2). Be prepared! Is your security system activated? Third, common citizens will call out words of safety and prosperity, an endless echo of “Peace and Safety!” Jesus comes and destruction of those who know Him not begins. The day will bring the groping pain of a woman in labor (v. 5).
Unbelievers are like prisoners who cannot escape a raging fire. Thy crawl and struggle in darkness, fighting for their very lives (v. 4-5). Believers find protection, a security system linked to the power of Christ. They walk free as sons of light. They revel and rejoice in the light of day (v. 5).
Christ is coming, so wake up and sit up. Be alert spiritually. Are your sins confessed? Are you reading your Bible? Are you praying? Are you serving Christ? Are you ready for His coming?
III. Wake Up and Dress Up!
Paul jabs the Thessalonians in the rib again. “Be sober!” he commands (v. 8). Do not be like a drunk man who stumbles, vomits, and says things which embarrass. He does not know who he is, nor where he is going (v. 7).
Rather, put on a breastplate and a helmet. An implied put off the stumbling, filthy sickness of sin may go with this passage. Clean up or sober up like a drunk who quits the bottle. Then daily prepare yourself for Christ’s coming by wearing a breastplate of faith and love. Faith gives light to face the day. Love radiates Christ’s light to others. Together these twin tools of battle assist you in facing Satan, who aims fiery darts at the chest.
Next place a helmet on your head. It is hope. Such hope is rooted in the salvation which comes through Christ. Do you enjoy that kind of hope? How do you start your day? Coffee? The morning paper? Checking the weather on the Internet? By turning on the television? By taking a shower? Why not start the day by dressing up to prepare for Christ’s coming?
III. Wake Up and Cheer Up!
Paul continues his ribbing. He speaks of sad, sorrowful images: thief, labor pains. Darkness, drunkenness, falling asleep in a critical moment. He climaxes with good news. Cheer up!
We can cheer up because wrath and its fury does not await us (v. 9). We obtain, or receive in full, salvation. The final down payment comes.. The complete gift comes. His investment reaches maturity and we grasp it with our hearts. We live with Christ! Isn’t this cause for cheer?
Not only do we cheer up, we cheer others up. We comfort and encourage others with the news of Jesus’ coming — the good news of His salvation. We build others up (v. 11). When was the last time you cheered someone up? Why not try it today! (John D. Duncan)
Christ the King
November 24, 1996
A Thanksgiving Prayer
(Ephesians 1:15-23)
“It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord,” says the Psalmist (92:1). Native Americans and the first pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving after surviving a harsh winter. Thanksgiving became both a logical thing and a good thing because they survived. Thanksgiving adds a fullness, a richness to your spiritual life.
But what about a lack of thanksgiving? John Henry Jowett says, “Life without thankfulness is devoid of love and passion. Hope without thankfulness is lacking in fine perception. Faith without thankfulness lacks strength and fortitude. Every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.”
When we turn to this scripture, we discover that Paul agrees with the psalmist. It is good to give thanks to the Lord. Paul does not limp, he jumps up and down on the road of Christian service. Thanksgiving leaps!
He hears of the Ephesian believers, their faith and love (v. 15). Faith points toward God. Love flows to our fellow man where faith overflows. The result? A faith and love that celebrates with a word of thanks to God. In fact, Paul’s word of thanks actually rolls off his tongue as a prayer for spiritual wisdom. Have you considered your word of thanksgiving as a way to pray for others? Paul does.
I. A thanksgiving prayer opens the gates of God’s glory
Paul, writing under the inspiration of God from a lonely prison cell, cannot refrain from giving thanks to God for the Ephesians (v. 18). His prayer of thanks is a prayer of “good grace,” the agreement of God’s work in their lives and in the church.
I like to think of Paul thanking God for people by name, special people who serve in the church at Ephesus. Paul thanked God for these people by name. He prays for their general needs. Is this not one focus of prayer? Is this not a part of our appreciation to God? A Bill or Tom or Mary with whom we minister? Now we offer a word of thanksgiving to God and pray for them. Thanksgiving becomes prayer and vice versa.
When thanksgiving is transformed into prayer for others, the flood gates of God’s glory open. Obviously this glory connects with the Lord Jesus Christ, who represents God’s redeeming work through the cross and resurrection. The glory shines in the person of Christ. God’s glory radiates Christ’s redeeming work that we may receive the gift of God’s glory. What is this gift?
It is twofold: First, Paul prays that God may give the Ephesians the gift of the spirit of wisdom; Second, Paul prays that God may give the Ephesians the gift of the revelation of the full knowledge of God (v. 17). The “spirit of wisdom” reflects God’s glory indwelling the heart in the person of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom empowers life in its most practical sense.
“Revelation” applauds God’s glory as the unveiling, as if pulling back a curtain, of God’s work in Christ. This work changes the heart, flooding the believer with the “full knowledge” of Christ. Why is he thankful? In a nut-shell, Paul thanks the Lord while praying for the Ephesians because of salvation.
God’s glory has shone, still shines, and forever shines in the hearts of believers. Paul’s prayer is for the Ephesians, that as God’s glory shines light into the heart, their spiritual eyes will open wider. In other words, Paul prays that the saints will have their eyes lighted. What do you see?
In a world where we see athletes running, cars speeding, airplanes flying, information zipping, hearts breaking, Paul’s thanks turn to a prayer for seeing God, His glory as it is revealed. What does God’s glory reveal?
First, a hope produced by God’s calling. “Calling” refers to the benefits of salvation. Later Paul talks about the prize of the high calling (Phil. 3:14). God’s glory fills the Ephesians with God’s knowledge. Knowledge gives a glorious light while living in darkness.
Second, weigh the riches joined with God’s inheritance. These riches are produced by God’s glory. His glory illumines the heart so that we come to view His inheritance. Here, Paul narrows the focus to God’s spiritual inheritance which comes through a knowledge of Him.
Third, observe the abundance produced by His power. Paul uses five words for power in these verses (vv. 19-20): power, working, worked, might, and dominion. He emphasizes what God does, not what man does. We become the conduit through which God’s power flows. His energy energizes us for service, even for victory over unseen spiritual forces and strong human forces. God’s name overshadows any earthly name. His name summarizes His power. For this Paul gives thanks in a prayerful tone.
Is there someone for whom you need to give thanks to God? Might your thanksgiving prayer turn to prayer for the gates of God’s glory to open? For the filling of God’s knowledge in the heart? Remember, thanksgiving leaps! A lack of thanksgiving limps. Are you leeping or limping? (John D. Duncan)
First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 1996
A Special Christmas Gift
(1 Corinthians 1:3-9)
“The hinge of history is on the door of a Bethlehem stable,” Ralph Sockman once observed. Those words describe how Christ changes history. His birth greets the world with grace (v. 3). His birth delivers peace (v. 3). The hinge of history squeaks as the door of a stable opens. Behind the door grace and peace enter the world in the life of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Christmas reminds us of the gift of God’s grace. It also brings to rememberance gifts shared around the Christmas tree: a new sweater, a bike, doll, a baseball glove, a new computer. Paul’s memory floats images of the gift of God’s grace and the gifts of things shared in the ministry. Hear Paul’s words.
I. The gift of God’s grace
Paul thanks God for His grace. This grace is given by God, handed over in a sense. It is personal, the inner working of God in the soul. This grace connects us to God’s kingdom, but it also connects Paul to the Ephesian believers. Imagine that. They are separated by hundreds of miles, yet united because of the grace of Christ.
Paul is thankful for the grace of God given to Ephesians. In essence, he says, “I am thankful God graced you.” Was Paul thinking of specific people, people with names and faces? Was he simply acknowledging how God brought change in lives? Was Paul noting lifestyle corrections, a change of heart which led to a change of action? Probably all of the above.
How does Paul describe this movement of grace? He describes it in this way: “enriched” (v. 5). The idea is that an outside agent (God) acts on behalf of someone to bring change. The change is spiritual and lasting. A person is enriched, or made rich, suggesting the furnishing of spiritual possessions in the rooms of the heart.
God does the enriching. He enriches your speech. He enriches your knowledge. Lightfoot refers to these enrichments as an outward expression (speech) and an inward conviction (knowledge). Has grace enriched your heart?
II. What does this gift of grace do?
It stabilizes life. Paul tells us that grace sends signals. It puts off a pleasing aroma. It anchors the soul How does he say it?
He indicates the witness or testimony of Christ was “confirmed” in them. Again, the idea is of an outside agent (God by His grace) stabilizing or strengthening life. God makes the heart firm by His grace.
This grace stabilizes life, but it also excites life. How? By creating expectation. You eagerly wait for the coming of Christ. You eagerly await Christ’s coming, like you would the visit of a close friend.
Paul then says an interesting thing. He says, “Eagerly wait for Christ, but know that Christ confirms or strengthens you while you wait.” In other words, God confirms you while you eagerly expect him to come. God strengthens you so you can stand before God as without fault in the day of His coming. Isn’t this gift of grace great? It strengthens and excites you simultaneously.
III. What God’s gift of grace promises
The enriching, confirming, and revealing work of God’s grace does not deny realities. People miss out on the enriching work of God’s grace by trashing their hearts with sin. People weaken their lives with the daily grind. This grind sometimes casts shadows on the soul. Life pulls downward. Emotions unravel. Your soulful singing releases a tune: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen!”
Yet through it all, the promise of God’s grace produces a simple refrain: God is faithful. God is faithful in the attacks of culture wars. God is faithful in hospital rooms when you are hooked to a heart monitor. God is faithful when you feel abandoned. God is faithful in the valley of the shadow of death. God is faithful amid internal struggles.
What is the bonus added to this promise? God called you into fellowship with Himself. You share in His person and work. You commune with Him.
Henri Nouwen lived in a Trappist monastery for seven months. The priest writes of his experience in the book, The Genese Diary. He writes of internal struggles to seek inner purity. He concludes by saying, “if anything significant takes place in my life, it is not the result of my own ‘spiritual’ calisthenics, but only the manifestation of God’s unconditional grace.”
Isn’t this the significance of Christmas? The gift of grace has come, a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. The gift of grace comes to us. And we exclaim, “God is faithful! Amazing grace!” (John D. Duncan)
2nd Sunday of Advent
December 8, 1996
The Promise of Christmas
(II Peter 3:8-15)
Christmas brings the dawning of a new day. As preacher George Buttrick suggested, God “came down the backstairs at Bethlehem, lest he blind us by excess light.” God entered the world quietly, as if entering the stage behind the scenes. He came “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).
Time marches on. Calendars are full. Clocks stare at us on the dash of the car. People worry they will be late for an appointment. Time enslaves us, the hectic mad dash of life.
But God keeps time differently than we do. One day is as a thousand years. A thousand years is as one day. The hands of the clock rotate. As the hands rotate, scoffers mock. Lust rages. All the while God slips in the back door, bursting into time to deliver a promise.
Christmas reveals the story that God came once. In a sense, it reminds us that He will come again. While you keep time, God delays His coming. Why? Because he wants you to understand the promise of Christmas. What is that promise? The promise of God which is not willing that any should perish, but that all come to repentance. I like the words of Bible scholar Charles Bigg. He says, “But do not you fail to see this one thing.” Emphasis is on the you. Do not fail to understand this promise.
I. The promise invites us to repent
Have you ever thought of God as slow? Maybe slow to answer prayer? Negligent in an area where you were concerned? That God is falling short of your expectations?
Apparently those to whom Peter wrote thought of God as slow, or “slack” (v. 9). No. Rather God is patient — that is, longsuffering. It speaks of a God who is slow to pay back wrong. God is wronged by the man who uses his name as a curse at work. God is wronged by the skeptic who makes fun of Christianity. God is wronged by the atheist who protests God’s very existence. God is wronged by the person who is apathetic toward His promise.
But God is patient with such people. Why? Because He desires or wishes that all would come to repentance (v. 9). Repentance speaks of a change of direction: from vanity to purpose, from skepticism to hope, from disbelief to belief, from apathy to sympathy regarding God and His promise. Do you need that kind of change? That kind of Christmas promise?
II. The promise calls us to account
The promise of Christmas alerts us to the second coming of Christ. This time God will not quietly tiptoe down the stairs of heaven; there will be noise, heat, and fire, the terror of an unexpected intruder (v. 10). A. T. Robertson describes the day as a “whizzing sound of rapid motion through the air, like the flight of a bird, thunder, fierce flame.”
“Who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderer’s soap” (Malachi 3:2).
Peter answers Malachi’s question. Those who stand are those who accepted God’s Son, His promise. All will be called to account. Christ’s second coming motivates the believer to live an accountable life now. How?
Peter mentions two ways. First, the Christian is to live in holy conduct; that is, set apart as one who turns away from the things which do not honor God (v. 11). Second, the Christian is to practice godliness. It is reverence of God that flows from worship of Him.
What happens as you are called to account under God’s promise? What does God do in your life as you practice holy conduct and reverent worship?
III. The promise causes us to expect
We look for a new heaven and a new earth (v. 13). The dissolving of the old and the ushering in of the new is based on God’s promise. There is an expectancy of His coming like the anticipation of a promised guest. Contrast the excitement of verse 13 with the terror of verse 10. Excitement swells as you think of Christ’s coming. You are prepared for it. Terror produces fear as you think of a thief. The lack of preparation increases fear.
As Christians we look forward to Christ’s coming. At Christmas righteousness lay on hay resting in a stable. At Christ’s second coming a new heaven and new earth will house the righteousness of God. At Christmas, God tiptoes. At Christ’s second coming, God enters the front door. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. In that day we will all be like wise men who bow down and worship.
Peter tells the believers to “make every effort” (be diligent) to be found without stain and without fault. Does this mean we are to strive for perfection? No. It simply means that we practice the holiness and worship set forth in verse 11.
We also keep on considering the patience of God. It is salvation, the slowness of God to delay His coming so your co-workers, neighbors, family members, and friends might turn to God and His promise.
God has two entrances. God comes down the backstairs of heaven at Christmas. At Christmas, God opens the door for all to believe in Him, in His promise. One day in the future, however, God will enter the front door of history, in Christ’s second coming. He brings time to a close. The door slams shut on those who reject Him.
The good news? It’s Christmas and the door is still open. Why not receive this promise now, the promise of salvation in Christ? (John D. Duncan)
Third Sunday of Advent
December 15, 1996
Questions for Witnesses
(John 1:6-8,19-28)
Christians are challenged to invite their friends to church and to share their faith with others. What reaction can you expect when you do? Let’s look at the reaction John the Baptist gets in our text.
I. People will question your authority
The priests ask John, “Who are you?” His answer, “I am not the Christ,” and their follow up questions, “Are you Elijah? The Prophet?” indicate they want to know what is the authority behind his message. “How do we know your message is true?”
The people with whom you share your faith will know you are neither a biblical prophet or Christ Himself, and they will want to know what authority these figures hold today. People today question authority and truth, many claiming there is no absolute truth.
The impact of John’s message on his own life is the first evidence he gives those who hear him. When John’s disciples ask Jesus about his identity, Jesus tells them to look at his own life. “Go tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk” (Matt. 11:4). When Jesus talks about John, He asks what people see when they look at him. Jesus points out John’s life is consistent with his message.
People outside the church talk about “the hypocrites” in the churches. Why? Because they have seen enough “Christians” whose lives did not reflect the impact of the Gospel on them. The first thing a Christian witness must do is demonstrate the changes the Gospel makes on a person’s life. John doesn’t just speak an answer to their question; he lives it.
II. People will question your motives
John’s questioners press harder. His answer not only explains to them his authority, but it indicates that once under such authority, he is compelled to share his faith. “Who are you?” they ask. “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the LORD.'”
John’s quote is immediately familiar to those who question him. The voice is one upon whom the Spirit of God has rested, bringing with it a message for the people. John identifies himself with a prophet who was known to have received a vision of God, and who could not be forced to keep silent. John identifies with a prophet whose love and compassion for his people compel him to proclaim the message of comfort, of peace, of restoration, and of repentance to people who are alienated, distrustful, and confused.
Looking at John, you see someone who did not appear in anyway to personally benefit from people hearing him. As Jesus indicates in his description of him, John was not getting rich preaching in the desert. He was not inviting people to church for his own gain, but for their benefit.
Your friends will know if you are inviting them to church so you can win recognition for having invited the most people, or if you are inviting them because you care about them. You know what an impact Jesus has made in your life. He is the source of much of your happiness and peace. You simply want them to share the same benefits.
III. People will question your methods
John’s method included baptizing people to cleanse them of sin. His critics question his technique. They will question us about everything we do.
Some churches use every gimmick under the sun to get people to come. We must examine our promotions to insure they begin with biblical authority and are motivated by concern for people. Are we proclaiming the Gospel and meeting peoples’ needs, or simply putting on a show which will entertain and attract a crowd?
If our authority, our motives, and our methods are pure, they will withstand the scrutiny of the public, and will honor the One who sends us to share the good news we celebrate this season of the year: Christ has come! (Bill Groover)
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 22, 1996
Mary, the Model
(Luke 1:26-38)
“Who is the finest Christian in the world today?” There would be several nominees. Billy Graham is always one name that comes to mind when that question is asked. He has probably preached the gospel to more people than anyone else in history and appealed simply for people to come to Christ. That is remarkable by itself. Equally remarkable about Billy Graham is his absolute freedom from even the slightest taint of scandal. Billy Graham is renowned for his humility and his integrity. Truly a great saint!
Another nominee would be Mother Theresa. This Albanian nun has gone to one of the most wretched cities on the globe, Calcutta, India, and dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor. She is determined to see the face of Jesus in every person she sees and is also determined that no one should die alone. Her selfless service has won her the admiration of skeptics and faithful alike.
But the greatest person in God’s eyes may be a person whose name we will never know. She quietly goes about her daily routine–perhaps in a remote, desolate corner of the globe–selflessly serving others doing things that aren’t accompanied by a large fanfare. Her only concern is that she makes a difference in someone else’s life for Jesus Christ.
At least one scholar suggests that a likely candidate for such honors would be the mother of our Lord.1 Think about it. She is the woman whom God chose to be the mother of His Son. In the face of an announcement that could turn her world upside down, she replies, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” In her response, she makes herself available for God’s service and becomes a channel through which we see the grace and power of God. The grace of God because the consummation of God’s plan of redemption is about to take place; the power of God because God will be working through the lowly, the poor, and the powerless to accomplish His purposes.
A person looking at Mary through merely human eyes would be hard-pressed to see anything in her that would merit her selection as the mother of God’s Son. She likely was poor. She was from a remote, out-of-the-way place called Nazareth. Nathaniel asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” She could trace her family tree back to David but so could a lot of other people. Surely there must have been someone else, more influential, less off the beaten path who would be better suited to nurture God the Son.
But Gabriel went to Nazareth. Barriers of low social standing or being completely unknown to those who would fancy themselves to be the movers and shakers are nothing to God.
Mary was the kind of person whom God — who knows all and sees all — knew would be the ideal mother for His Son. The angel Gabriel went to Galilee to the town of Nazareth to appear to her. The indication that God’s grace is being manifest in and through this story is the announcement that Mary has received the favor of God. After all, what is grace? It is the unmerited favor of God. It is strange, though, that grace is often troubling. It usually doesn’t trouble me when someone wants to give some good thing to me that I don’t deserve — or does it? What if that influential deacon wants to pay for me and my wife to take a 2-day trip to the nearest posh resort for some personal R&R? Is he genuinely concerned for our well-being or does he have some sort of angle? How do I handle it when I’m tapped to preach the annual sermon at that next big meeting? Especially when there are better preachers who have paid more dues than I have who haven’t been so honored? It’s a wonderful thing to be the recipient of grace but it does have a down-side sometimes — or at least we seem to think it does. It is strange that the usual reaction of a human being seeing an angel is fear. It is interesting that we tend to try to figure what someone’s angle is rather than accepting their grace with gratitude.
The process of trying to figure out an angle must stem from a lack of trust. Sometimes learning to trust God is a difficult and painful process. Mary had learned in the simple faith of her youth to trust God. The angel announced that she would give birth to a child who would be called Jesus. He would be great and would be called the Son of the Most High God. He would inhabit the throne of His father David, and He would reign over the house of Jacob forever. This is incredible news. How would all of this happen?
When Zechariah was told that his aged and barren wife would bear a child, his response was one of incredulity. Because of his lack of faith, he was unable to speak until the birth of that son. Mary’s question takes a different tone. She is not defiantly demanding that God explain to her how this will be. She is not saying, “You’ve got to show me before I’ll believe it.” Her response is one of wonder and amazement that God would choose a girl like her from an unknown place like Nazareth for this great honor.
Mary’s faith was strengthened through her experience in giving birth to Jesus. As she watched her son grow and come to maturity, she never lost that sense of confidence in Him or in His Father. At the marriage supper in Cana of Galilee, she told the attendants, “Do whatever Jesus tells you to do.” She had begun with trust and had found grace throughout her life to trust Jesus more day by day. Mary had found grace to trust God and saw the grace of God moving through her that would send God’s Messiah into the world.
God’s grace is seen in the fact that He chose to redeem the world. His power is seen in the fact that he uses whomever He chooses to accomplish His purposes. Mary shows us that the old adage “it’s not our ability but our availability” is true. She would give birth to a son who would be the savior of the world because she was willing to allow God to turn her world upside down. In Mary’s yieldedness to God the Father to become the nurturer of God the Son, she displays for us one who allows us to see the grace and power of God. (Mark Johnson)
1Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1982, pp. 22-26, quoted in Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Interpretation Commentary). Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, p. 28.
First Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 1996
The Gift of Freedom
(Galatians 4:4-7)
When I mention freedom, it may cause some to wonder if maybe I’m somehow going to bring together Christmas and the theme of American patriotism. I’ll save that sermon for the Fourth of July but I do want to talk about freedom.
We are freedom-loving people. There is something within us, whether it’s in the water we drink or in the air that we breathe that we don’t want to live under any kind of oppression. Some of us may be under heavy burdens and pray, somehow, that we might be set free from those burdens. Some are carrying around guilt and would like nothing better than to be set free from the guilt that cripples their lives.
Yet while we love our freedom, many of us find it easy to return to things that threaten our freedom. It’s as if freedom is too great a burden to bear for some people. They’ve got to have rigid rules, guidelines, and standards to live by. The Galatians were that way. Paul came and preached to them the good news that Jesus Christ died to set them free from the law. Their right standing with God did not come from their adherence to the Jewish law or to circumcision, it came through a faith, trust relationship with Jesus Christ. The Galatians fell prey to a group of people who played on their fears that such good news was simply too good to be true. Surely, God expects more of us than simply to trust Him and to place our faith in Jesus Christ. But Paul says that is the essence of what being a Christian is all about.
In this Advent Season, we celebrate God’s intervention into human history that makes our right standing with God possible. Paul tells us, “in the fullness of time, God sent his son to redeem those of us who were born under the law so we might become the sons and daughters of God.” Placed in the broader context of Galatians, this text tells us that freedom is one of our privileges as an heir of God.
The way we become sons and daughters of God is through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul makes a point here that those of us who have been baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ.
Paul has referred to the law as a paidagogos — a teacher — who was put in charge to lead us to Christ. Now, in Christ, we are responsible adults, so to speak. Why would we want to return to a status less than that as free adults? Why would anyone want to give up their freedom?
Paul is writing, in verses 1-3, about a change in status when one passes from the control of the paidagogos to the rights of adulthood. No adult who has tasted freedom would be willing to return to being under trustees and guardians and administrators. An heir who is under the guardianship of a trustee owns the whole estate though he is not yet able to run the estate. The father has set a time when he will gain the full rights and privileges as an heir. It’s the same way with trust funds with “rich kids” today. A trust may be established in the name of a minor child but a stipulation will be made as to when the child will become eligible to receive the benefits of the trust.
There was a time prior to the coming of Christ and his fullest revelation when we were held in subjection to the basic principles of the world. We were in slavery until we received the full revelation of Christ. The law was preparatory to being made aware of our need of Christ. We were kept in bondage to the law so that we could realize how desperately we needed to be made free. Paul writes and warns these foolish Galatians who wanted to return to submission to the law that God wanted them to be free.
At Christmas, and the reason that this text is appropriate during the Advent Season, we celebrate that God moved in Christ to set us free from the bondage to the law. Salvation is by grace through faith to all who will believe. This was not an afterthought on God’s part. From the very beginning of time, He had a plan in place by which He would effect our freedom. It had to do with His willingness to allow His Son to lay down His life as the sacrifice for our sin.
It happened when the time was exactly right. God promised that a Messiah would come to deliver us from our sin. He would come from the people of Israel, from the tribe of Judah. From the House of David, He would be born of a virgin. He would be born in Bethlehem and would be visited by Wise Men.
There are other indicators that in terms of what was happening in the world, the timing was right for Jesus’ birth. The Jewish people, for whom the gospel was first directed, dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin. That’s significant because when Paul began to preach, he went initially to the Jewish synagogues where the people would have a predisposition to receiving his message.
In the legal realm, the Pax Romana ruled. The Romans insisted that everyone proclaim that Caesar was Lord. The Jews were so persistent in their refusal to do so, they were granted an exemption. It was right at that time that Jesus was born. The Pax Romana also ensured that there would be relative peace and stability that would allow greater freedom and ease of travel in preaching the gospel. Cultural factors were right. The empire had a common language and even some secular thinkers were beginning to lament the terrible state of moral degradation in the empire. Into a climate like this, with God’s perfect timing, Jesus came to lay down His life. He came to pay the penalty for our sins — to set us free from a yoke of law and bondage. It was important that He was born of a virgin, born under the law so that He could set us free from the law.
Now we have the full rights as sons and daughters if we have placed our faith in Jesus Christ. We have His spirit indwelling us testifying with our spirits that we are the children of God and we are now able to say, “Abba, (Daddy) Father.” We are no longer slaves, we are sons and daughters; since we are sons and daughters, we are heirs together with Christ. (Mark Johnson)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Craig Christina, Ph.D. candidate in Christian preaching, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY; John D. Duncan, Pastor, Lakeside Baptist Church, Granbury, TX; Bill Groover, Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; and Mark Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching.

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