The Virgins and their Lamps January 01, 2009Posted by preacherwin in Kingdom Parables, Sermons.
Tags: Bridegroom, foolish virgins, Groom, I never knew you, Jesus' Second Coming, Jewish Weddings, Kingdom Parables, Matthew 25:1-13, Oil Lamps, parousia, salvation not by church membership, salvation not by works, Salvation only by faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, stewardship, Virgins, Virgins and Lamps, Wedding Feast of the Lamb, wise and foolish stewards, wise virgins
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Westminster Presbyterian Church
The Virgins and their Lamps
One thing that the Jewish people have on us is that they know how to throw a party. Indeed, we do, as Christians, have several special days that we celebrate—we have Christmas, we have Easter, and as American Christians, we have Thanksgiving, which, despite thoughts in our secular world, is a religious holiday in the sense that it falls back on the tradition of the Puritans that they began back with us, but most of our festivals—most of our days—are just that—they are day-long events where we celebrate for a day and the next day we get back to business as usual. But for the Jewish people, most of their festivals lasted at least a week if not longer than that—and weddings were no exception. The wedding celebration with friends would last for a full week, and there is some evidence that in certain sects of Judaism, the celebration with the immediate family would go on for a full month as they went on with celebrating this new marriage and in celebrating this new couple that has been joined together in marriage. In addition, weddings were not permitted to be scheduled in another time frame when another celebration would be going on in the Jewish culture, so that, and I quote, “so that the rejoicing of one kind would not be mixed with the rejoicing of another kind.” In other words, there is too much opportunity for us to rejoice and have fun and to enjoy this, don’t overlap them—but let’s have this here and this here and schedule appropriately.
In addition, typical weddings were prescribed to be held on Wednesdays, so that the groom would have at least three days to enjoy his bride prior to his Sabbath obligations. In addition, Scripture also relates to us that the new groom was exempted from any form of military duty so that he could be home with his wife as her husband for a full year before he would have any responsibilities back on the battlegrounds.
The typical wedding process would entail the groom and his friends, which we would refer to as the groomsmen in our culture, coming with much celebration through the streets of the town to go fetch the bride. They would come and find the bride and then they would escort the bride, along with the revelries, to the groom’s house for the marriage blessing to be placed upon the bride and the groom. The couple would then be escorted by everyone into the bridal chambers and the celebration would continue outside as the bride and the groom would begin the process of consummating their marriage. And they would only return the next morning to then continue the celebrations—they had a clear understanding that life was lived in community—that life was lived in community of the faithful, with other family, and with other believers. And when the family is grown or bonded together in such a covenantal way, they saw that it was the responsibility of the community as such to celebrate with them.
This is the context into which Jesus was born into. This is the context into which Jesus grew up. And this is the context within which Jesus is teaching the people around him. And it is in this particular context in which Jesus relates this particular kingdom parable, which we often refer to as the parable of the 10 virgins, to that of the coming groom to collect his bride. But note the broader context of these parables as well. He is talking about the second-coming. He is talking about the return of himself to collect the church as his great bride. And it is in this context that Jesus tells and relates this parable of the ten virgins.
Now Jesus begins this parable in verse 1 of chapter 25 with this language: “Now the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps…” Now we need to make a few notes here to unpackage this illustration that Jesus is using. Ten virgins have gone down to meet the bridegroom carrying lamps. Ancient Jewish custom required that there be at least 10 lamps burning as a sign of God’s witness and as a sign of God’s blessing for the marriage. So this is the context that you find these lamps being brought down.
Now typically, these were oil lamps, and these were oil lamps that would be mounted on a tall staff or a stick so that they could be held up or shown into the room to light the celebration. In addition, the virgins, and the language of virginity is Biblical language that is symbolic of spiritual purity as well as physical purity. The bride of Christ is called to make herself ready, to make herself clean, to be prepared and ready—that we are to be clean before our groom. And this is something that we should not miss as Jesus is teaching us this parable. And note too, as Jesus relates that, that they took their lamps. Some of the variants in the Greek text go as far as to say that they took “their own” lamps to meet him. In other words, the lamps that they had were not lamps that they were borrowing from the bridal chamber or the bridal party, but these were their own personal lamps that they brought and were responsible to bring.
Yet in verses two through four, Jesus now introduces to us the problem of this parable. For their were ten virgins, but in this language of the ten virgins, Jesus relates that five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. The wise ones brought a flask of oil and the foolish ones brought none, apparently expecting that the others in their fellowship would provide them with the oil that they needed to light and to shine at the celebration.
Now we need to stop here and make a couple of observations. First, note that there is no mention of the bride in this parable whatsoever. In fact, it is implied as we read through this parable, that the only ones that are in the bridal chamber and celebrating with the Lord as he comes are the wise virgins that are prepared. And two: note too, the implication that the groom is gone and has been gone for a long time. It is not even really known exactly when he is going to return nor is it known when the wedding is going to take place, we only know that said wedding will take place when said groom returns to have that celebration.
Now, note the difference between these groups of virgins: one is ready and one is not. One is in faith expecting and anticipating the return of the groom and the others are not. It is almost as if they are acting as if they really don’t believe that the groom is going to show up on this particular night. Beloved, a lamp without oil is useless unless you don’t really expect that you are going to need to use it.
I remember when I was in the Boy Scouts, one of the most common things that I forgot—you know that Boy Scouts are always supposed to “Be Prepared”—one of the most common things that I forgot to take with me on my campouts was matches. You know, and that wasn’t such a big deal when you were going out with a group of other Boy Scouts, because invariably one of the others had plenty of matches to share. Yet, when you are going out alone, if you expect that you are going to have to light a fire, you darn well better be ready with some matches or a really good tinderbox and such.
You see, these virgins were attending and unprepared but there is a sense in their unprepared-ness, that they don’t think that they will have to use those lamps. There is a sense, I think, if we kind of read between the lines in this parable, that this vigil, if you will, of waiting for the bridegroom to come, has probably been going on for a long time. These virgins may have begun by bringing their oil with them and gotten lazy.
Now, with that being said, and knowing that Jesus is telling us this parable to guide our minds to the hope and the anticipation of his return to collect his church, I wonder how often, as Christians, we end up in similar situations. I wonder how often we, when come to faith, have all of the excitement and joy and anticipation of the return of our Lord, yet, when we have been doing “the Christian thing” if you will, for a while, we get dry and we sometimes act as we don’t really believe that there is any reason to look to the sky. Beloved, there is this sense in scripture—this anticipation, that as Christians is supposed to mark our lives—we are to be a people, yes, going about the duties and the tasks of the day, but at the same time taking those quick glances, wondering, “could the groom be coming?” “Could the groom be coming soon” and being ready and prepared for the return of that groom.
Also you see these virgins as they are there, these virgins are acting as if they are saying, “I really don’t believe that he is going to come tonight, but I am still a virgin, I am still dressed for the occasion, I still have my lamp, and I will be surrounded by others who certainly will have oil with them—I will just use their oil. How often, too, we run into Christians who fill our churches and they have this sense that their salvation is based on the good things that they have done or the good things that they are doing, or simply in the fact that their role is in the church. And beloved, that too is a lie, it originates in the pits of hell, and as one preacher said, smells of smoke. Beloved, salvation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Note that these virgins were responsible for bringing their own lamps and their own oil into the fellowship.
With that in mind, let us explore this parable further, because as we recognize this whole situation, this whole problem, this whole wisdom and folly, if you will, revolves around the presence of oil or whether or not they brought their flask of oil. The word here in the Greek is of a specific kind of oil, it is not general oil, but it is oil that comes from an olive. Now, I know that was a common oil that people used in the day, but there were other things that one could get oil from and there are other Greek words that refer to oil from different kinds of things. And indeed, olive oil was a common oil that was burned in lamps, but scripturally, when you go through your Old Testament, one of the things that you will find is that olive oil was the kind of oil that God prescribed for the anointing of his people. It is the oil that is prescribed for blessing and it is the oil that God uses as an illustration when you get to the book of Zechariah, for the outpouring of his Spirit into believers. There is a sense here, I believe, that Jesus is getting at, that you have a contrast between in the virgins. You have the contrast in the virgins who have oil and in those who do not have oil. People in church who have oil and people in church who do not have oil. People in church who have the Spirit, surrounded by people in church who do not have the Spirit of God within them.
I wonder how often we assume that if you are a virgin, prepared for the wedding in all visible ways, that you are filled with oil in your lamp as well. Indeed, I think that this is one of the great lessons that we need to learn, that we need to discern in our own lives, and ask ourselves, what the source of our oil will be? Is the source of our oil going to be the friends that we surround ourselves with? Is the source of our oil going to be our own works? Or is the source of our oil the one who can provide life-giving oil, the Lord Jesus Christ, himself.
I plead with you, I beg with you, to examine yourself closely, and to ask yourself this question, “Where is your oil?”
Thus, as we see this story going on, though, Jesus continues and relates, that we see these virgins, awaiting the master, they don’t know when he is coming, and they begin to fall asleep. And they begin to slumber. Sometimes when people have read this parable, they have read this parable as these virgins going out to meet the bridegroom, to see them walking the streets anticipating and waiting, to greet him as he is coming. Yet that is difficult in terms of reading this because none of us would expect these virgins to fall asleep on the street corners. But instead, as they went out, we need to read that as they went out from their homes and into the bridal chambers, awaiting the celebration to take place. Waiting for the groom to come, and it is there that they fall asleep, it is there that they close their eyes and rest, yet, set a watch. One waiting to vigil through the night, waiting to see if the groom would come. And indeed, that time comes.
Now note, when we read this we need not read this with American eyes. When we see midnight, we need not think twelve AM, they had no concept of that in Jesus’ day. But literally, the Greek says, “in the middle of the night” or “at the mid-point” of the night, whenever that unexpectedly takes place, the groom then arrives. And the ladies begin trimming and preparing their lamps. The ladies take their lamps and they begin lighting them and getting them ready for the celebration to take place, but something happens—the ladies who have oil, their lamps light up and they are able to trim them and have them ready, but those who do not have oil have nothing but the wick to light. Have you ever tried to light an oil lamp with no oil in the lamp? The wick might take a spark for a moment or two, but it just doesn’t last very long.
I think this is interesting, because the foolish ones go to the wise ones and say, “give us your oil”—give us some of your oil and share with us. And the reason that I think this is interesting is because for the longest time I used to think that what is going on here, in good Christian charity, why couldn’t these wise virgins share with the others. Certainly there would have been enough at least to get the party started in the night. Certainly the groom, being the Lord Jesus Christ, would have understood their charity to share with the others.
It did not strike me for quite a long time that these wise virgins might not have been able to share, that they might have been unable to do so. For, you see, the oil of their lamp, I would argue, does not belong to them. It is not theirs to give, or to receive, or to take away, but belongs to the master. Here is the reason that I would support that: if you look to the parable that Jesus tells before this, and if you look to the parable that Jesus tells after this, you find a striking similarity. In both of those cases, and I would argue, all three of these cases, you find stewards that have been entrusted with the master’s property while the master has been away. And then when the master returns, they are called to account for how they used said master’s property.
In light of that, you find that these virgins have all been entrusted with an amount of oil—a flask of oil—that has been given to them for the express purpose of the celebration of the wedding supper. Yet five of these virgins have been good stewards, five of these virgins have kept their flasks ready and been prepared for the return of the bridegroom. Yet five have not brought theirs with them. Whether it has been because they have been lazy and left it on the wayside, or whether it has been because they have abused their responsibility and used said oil for other things, assuming that the bridegroom would never come. It does not matter—these virgins have been entrusted with the oil for a purpose, and that purpose is the celebration of the wedding supper of the Lamb. And it is not theirs to give away, to squander, or to share with those who have abused their own gift that was given.
So the bridegroom arrives, and those virgins who were prepared went and met him and went with him into the marriage feast, the door being locked shut behind them. And this, beloved, leads us to the major point of this parable. Not only can you not trust your salvation to hanging out with believers if you will, and that you must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But, two, the timing that Bridegroom will come—it has not been given for us to know and you must be ready. Beloved, there is no second-chance theology. There is no, “whoops, I got things wrong now that you have come and I am standing in judgment, let me bow and accept you now.” We are given this life to make ourselves ready—to be prepared as the virgins waiting on the wedding feast to take place. And Jesus Christ is the master for whom we must be ready. He has entrusted us with his Spirit, he has given believers his Spirit as through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And ultimately, eternally, those to whom he has given life, he will bring to himself.
But how often our lives are filled with those who think they have some oil, yet have squandered it for other things. Who think that they don’t need the oil to stand before the Lord Jesus Christ in judgment. Who think that the concept of being indwelt with the Holy Spirit is something that has more to do with attendance in church and less to do with your attendance upon the Lord Jesus Christ. The question then, for us, is “are you ready?” Are you the wise virgin with your lamps filled with the master’s oil, ready to celebrate the coming of our Lord? Are you ready? But know this, if you are not, if your lamp is empty like that of the foolish virgins. If your life is moral and just, if your attendance is perfect in church, if you do good works and have served in the church even for years yet do not have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, your lamp is empty. And he will say to you through a closed door, “I have never known you.”
Beloved, while there is life, while there is breath in your lungs, there is opportunity to pray that the Lord Jesus Christ will not leave you behind. That the Lord Jesus Christ would fill your life with oil and that you might be admitted to the wedding feast. But beloved, know this as well, while there is breath in your lungs, there is the opportunity to share that good news with someone else, whether it be a friend, a family member, a co-worker, or someone you might meet on a street corner, there is that opportunity that they too might be brought into the wedding feast of Lamb. Be like that wise virgin. But my prayer to you is that unlike these wise virgins that are described in this parable, be ready and willing, when you see others showing up without their oil, to speak the truth and say, “go get it now and do not wait until it is too late.”
Hidden Treasure and Pearls December 30, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Kingdom Parables, Sermons.
Tags: Buried Treasure, Cinderella, Fairytales, Holy Spirit, Kingdom Parables, Matthew 13:44-46, Pearl of Great Price, Scripture, Seeking God, Without Excuse
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Westminster Presbyterian Church, Milton
March 30, 2008
(Note that the audio is garbled from about minute 5 to minute 10: sorry for the technical difficulty)
Hidden Treasure and Pearls
People love to find hidden things that they simply did not know were there in the first place. It takes form in a lot of different ways. From the man combing the beach with a metal detector to detectives combing a crime scene for clues to solve a murder or some form of other crime—to archaeologists going out on digs seeking to find lost treasures of ancient kings, from hiding Easter eggs for children to go find to simply playing hide and seek with the little ones. From stories of pirates and buried treasure to bargain hunting in flea marts and yard sales and all of those places where we go to seek our own little treasures that we might be able to find. My own vice, I should confess, is ebay, living in a technical world of giant yard sales if you will.
With this fascination in mind and knowing that this fascination is an age-old fascination that is not new to us in our own generation, we come to the parable about the kingdom of heaven. Now, Jesus in this chapter is telling a series of parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like and that this parable fits in with a series of parables that are found here and elsewhere in the Gospels, usually begun by the language of, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” or “with what shall I compare the Kingdom of Heaven?” And here Jesus is using, as he often does in his parables, a story that is common and familiar to his audience, to convey a great truth.
Now this being said, do not be confused here. Just because people of Jesus’ day could pretty much universally relate to the context of the illustration that Jesus used—whether it is fishing or planting or finding a buried treasure—that does not mean that they understood the deeper and eternal significance of the parables. Jesus teaches a little bit earlier on in this chapter that the very purpose—the very reason that Jesus tells—or taught—parables was to leave those who are spiritually blind and deaf in spiritual darkness and silence. You see, they could understand and, if you will, even be entertained by the story, and they may even learn certain moral lessons from it, but they could not understand its eternal significance and truth unless God was opening their eyes to that great truth.
In a sense, you might say that the parables were meant for believers’ ears, and not for ears, if you will, of unbelievers. I find it interesting, and here I am purely speculating, on this question, because oftentimes as we go into teaching children, and we teach children around the gospel, one of the earliest things that we do is to teach children some of the parables that Jesus taught. And sometimes, as I was reflecting on this, I wonder whether or not we are doing our children a disservice—introducing them to the moral ideas when they are really too young to understand the deeper and eternal truth. At the same time, I wonder whether we are doing ourselves a disservice, because sometimes when we focus on teaching certain things only to children, or primarily to children, we begin to sometimes teach ourselves that these are messages for children, and then as adults, we don’t pay as close attention to them as we ought—when they are meant for us and for our edification, particularly as mature believers.
Another example, to maybe illustrate this idea, comes from the secular world, would be folklore and fairy tales. Many adults are surprised when they read old versions of fairytales that they grew up with as children. For example, those that are recorded by the Brothers Grimm—because they are gory, they are harsh. The Cinderella story by the Brothers Grimm has eyes being pecked out by birds and toes chopped off and blood-trails being left all over the place. You see the original stories in fairytales were written for adults, not children. Yet there was a movement somewhere in the 16th century led by a French writer, Charles Perrault, adapted these folktales for children. In fact, it is Perrault’s adaptations that Disney largely used to turn those folktales into cartoons for us and for our children to grow up on. And as a result, when we encounter fairytales, and when we hear folklore, our response tends to be that those are just children’s stories. And when we do that, we miss the deep moral and social commentaries that the stories contain.
As I was preparing this sermon, I was wondering whether we are at some level guilty of doing the same thing with the parables of Jesus. And not paying as close attention to them, as believers, as they are due. So I would like to approach these two parables simply by making a series of observations to get us digging deeper within them.
Firstly, to understand the context of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, we need to be sure that we understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is referring to. Now often, when we think of the Kingdom of Heaven, we think of the Heavenly realms—we think of that great and glorious, promised day when we will join with all believers of ages past and all of creation in praising our glorious Lord. If you will, the whole church of the generations in one giant choir, singing praises to God on High. In the language of Matthew 28, it is the picture of believers coming in from the east and from the west—from the gentile world throughout to recline at the table with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. Believers beginning with Genesis, joining together as one church, not divided by our denominational differences, but as the true church in worship of our King.
And beloved, this is a true and an accurate picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, but the Kingdom of Heaven is not that which is only to come, but it is the church here and now. Indeed, both the messages that were proclaimed by Jesus and John the Baptist was this: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is At hand!” Not to come, but is at hand—not to come, but it is at hand—it is here right now. And certainly, while we are a people of anticipation—anticipating that perfect day when the Kingdom of Heaven will come in its great perfection, we are also enjoying its imperfect blessings in the here and now throughout our generations.
Look around you, look around you at the fellows that are sitting in the pews behind you and beside you and in front of you. These are fellow members in the Kingdom of Heaven. If you are trusting in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, this is your, if you will, is your membership card. When I travel to Ukraine in the summer, one of the things that I have to take with me and keep with me whenever I am outside of the apartment, is my little passport from United States. If I do not have this I can be arrested and detained by the Ukrainian police. And other professors have had that happen to them. That passport identifies me belonging to this nation. Your faith in Jesus Christ identifies you—it is, if you will, your spiritual passport that identifies you as belonging to Jesus Christ. And as we gather here together to worship, as the church gathered together, we become in a sense like an outpost or an embassy—a little kingdom surrounded by a hostile world.
This place which we come to gather not only weekly, but whenever God would gather us together, is a place for retreat, it is a place for building up, it is a place for edification and encouragement, not for tearing down. We are part of the Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, we are anticipating its fullness, but when we recognize the hear and now—the reality of the Kingdom in life, the already, when we read these parables then, these parables are talking about us—and they are talking about us here as the gathered church.
Secondly, notice that in both of these two parables, the one who finds the treasure, whether it is the box of riches or the pearl of great value, is looking for it. This is pretty obvious in the second parable but may or may not be so obvious in the first. But look at its context for just a moment. This treasure that has been found is a treasure that has been buried in a field. The language of the field refers not necessarily as much to uncultivated wild fields but more specifically to those fields that would have been used for cultivating crops. Fields that would be regularly tilled from year to year and turned over. And that field—that particular field—contains a buried treasure. Now think of it for a second, we are in the panhandle of Florida, imagine yourself in an ancient context, where Alabama, being its own state, would decide to improve its tax-base, that they would decide to invade this section of the panhandle of Florida. In fear of the oncoming invasion, you decide that you are going to beat feet, but you also hope to come back someday. So you would take the things that you are unable to take with you that are of great value and bury them so that the “dern Alabamians” would not get them and so that you could come back into the land and take back what you know to be your own.
When you bury a treasure, you do not bury it just below the surface. But you bury it deep down. The man who discovered this treasure—and though not common in our day and age, was a very common event especially in Israel of ancient times, for Israel was a crossroad of nations—that treasure would have been deep and the people who would have been hearing Jesus’ parable would have assumed that as the norm. He would not have had to say, “He buried a treasure deep down,” that would have been one of those, “of course he did” comments.
That means two things. The man who found the treasure had to be looking for it, and he had to know generally where it was. Whether you want to imagine a treasure map or whatever reason, he had to have some idea as to where the treasure was for he was looking for it. And indeed, not only was he looking for it, but he dug it up, which means that he had to be prepared to find it. He had to have had a shovel and equipment with him so that he could have done that work.
And then he covered it back up. And he went to sell what he had so that he could legitimately buy the land. Indeed, this is true as well of the one who was seeking the pearl. Because if you are looking for pearls you don’t just go in and say, “Oh, that one is pretty.” But when you are looking for pearls, you look at its color, you look at its luster, you look at its size and all of those things that give it its value.
With that in mind, then, we need to ask the question: How did these people in the respective parables know where to look? Or perhaps I should even say, “know what to look for?” And how does the Holy Spirit play into this looking?
Now scripture presents this as a great truth: that the natural world itself, that the heavens, the mountains, and the valleys, and the river, and the oceans themselves, declare the glory of the Lord. This is the argument that Paul is making in Romans 1. This is the argument that you find in Psalm 8 and Psalm 19. That the heavens declare the glory of God that everyone is left without excuse. No, the natural world is not enough—it does not give enough information—to tell you how to become saved and be born again—but it does tell you to “go and look.” Go and look and if you do not then you are without excuse. And then it is the Holy Spirit that works to drive a person into the exposure to the Gospel so that when they sit and are under its proclamation and its teaching, that truth, that Gospel, finds itself in a person’s heart, and opens their eyes so that they might believe because they have seen the great truth. Beloved, the scriptures are that source—the scriptures provide, if you will, that treasure map. Why is it that the scriptures, that God in his word, so heavily emphasizes the importance of them being taught and being preached and being proclaimed—because the scriptures provide that treasure map that takes you from what the natural world can give you and leads you to Christ Jesus.
But you have to apply this to the Kingdom as well. For oftentimes, we who are in the kingdom, think of ourselves as people who can simply put up our boots and rest on our laurels. “Aha! We have been saved—we have been given eternal life! We no longer need to seek after great riches.” Beloved, the picture that is portrayed is of those who are seeking. God has given us his word so that we might know him and so that we might know him more fully and more clearly and through knowing him, that we might grow more and more like him as grow to love him more and more. Beloved, I commend to you God’s word. And I commend it to you that it is more valuable than the fields of treasure that we find in the world around us. But I get ahead of myself.
Thirdly, not only did the owner not know its true value, perhaps, particularly in the pearl market, but also the owner of the field did not know of the treasure that was within. But also those who were also out searching did not either know where to look or did not know the value of that which they lay their eyes upon. Have you ever had those conversations with people? Where you share the news of the Gospel with them, where you share great riches of God’s word and they kind of look at you and say, “that’s nice, I am glad that works for you, but that’s now what works for me.” It requires more than the intellect, but requires a movement of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, is that not what Jesus said to Peter, when Peter confessed him to be the Christ? That Simon Bar-Jonah, Man did not reveal this to you, but this was revealed to you by Heaven above—by God’s Holy Spirit.
And finally, and this is the most important point of both of these parables, the things of God—the Kingdom of Heaven—God’s word—a true relationship with Jesus Christ is the very great treasure, and it is more valuable than anything else in this world. I heard a preacher once say that “you will never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have, and then you will know—and you will know for sure—that Jesus is all you need.”
In our western society, we tend to surround ourselves with a lot of “stuff.” And those things are blessings to us—we have to be honest—and those blessings come from God and from God’s own hand. But we need to ask ourselves always, if the infinite God can find his perfect satisfaction in himself and in his Son, Jesus Christ, why is it that we so often feel that we will not be satisfied—even as believers—until we have just a little bit more stuff to fill our lives with?
Beloved, these are great truths that we need to set before us, but to understand these parables, to if you will, “to get them,” is not simply a state of saying, “oh, yeah, that makes sense—that is a very, very wise thing for Jesus to say.” But it requires you to step out and obey them—it requires you to step out and apply them to your life. And beloved, that is an entirely different, and an entirely more difficult thing for us to do. It requires us to step out in faith and to rest in that faith for all we have.
Hear Us From Heaven-Independence Day Sermon December 30, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Occasional Sermons, Sermons.
Tags: 2 Chronicles 7:12-15, 4th of July, America Founded on Christian Principles, Basis for our inalienable rights, Basis for the family, Biblical basis for constitution, Christian Nation, Declaration of Independence, Humility, Imago Dei, inalienable rights, Independence Day, National Repentance, redefining gender, repentance, Thomas Jefferson, turn from evil ways
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Westminster Presbyterian Church
“Hear us From Heaven: An Independence Day Sermon”
Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.
(2 Chronicles 7:12-15, ESV)
Two-hundred and Thirty-two years ago, fifty-six men gathered together for the purpose of pledging to one another their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, and to gather to sign a document drafted by young Thomas Jefferson. A document that began with the following words:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which would impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
It is worth noting that the 4th of July not only remembers the signing of the Declaration of American Independence, but it also remembers the death of its author, Thomas Jefferson as well as his friend, John Adams, another signer, who both died within hours of one another on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of this document.
I think that it is also interesting to note, that Thomas Jefferson, who would become the third President of the United States, and who would accomplish many things as a historian, a philosopher, and as a public official in his lifetime, desired as his epitaph to be remembered only for three things:
The First—of writing this Declaration of Independence
The Second—of writing the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
The Third—for founding the University of Virginia
With this in mind, on the celebration of the birthday of the signing of this document, I would like to essentially talk about three things: 1) I would like to talk about the character of the document and of the men who signed that document, 2) I would like talk about the character of our nation now as we have departed from the heart of this document, and 3) of the character of the solution as God reveals it in scripture.
The Declaration of American Independence, though no verses are explicitly cited, is an intensely Biblical document. Why were there no verses cited within it? They were working on a certain assumption—they were working on the assumption that the Bible is the cornerstone of all good and just political systems of government. The Bible had been the cornerstone of all humanitarian governmental documents up to that date and they were working on the assumption that it was a given that all future governmental documents would also be based upon Biblical principle.
But the text of the Declaration of Independence is especially built on two very important Biblical ideas.
Firstly, that men and women are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. You need to understand what that word “inalienable” means because it is a word that we don’t commonly use anymore. The word inalienable means that it cannot be taken away; that it cannot be given away; that it cannot be deprived of someone; it is part of the warp and of the woof of the very being of their existence; it is part of who they are, and it is impossible to strip or to separate somebody from that which is inalienable to them.
And they held that these rights were inalienable to all men: The Right of Life; the Right of the Pursuit of Happiness. Why is it that they are inalienable? Because they understood Genesis 1:27. That God, when he looked down upon his creation and he decided to make man, he decided to make man and woman in a very particular and special way. That we would be made not in the image of the natural world, but that we would be made in God’s very image. To use technical, theological terms, we call this the Doctrine of the Imago Dei, the Image of God in man. That we are image bearers, from conception unto death we bear the image of God. Men and women, throughout the world, throughout history, and for all time, we bear God’s image. And because God has those rights within himself, as something that is inseparable, as something that is part of God’s inseparable character, we who are created in the image of a God who has these rights and freedoms unto himself also have these rights and freedom within ourselves as part of our very being. To take those rights away, they understood, was to make someone no longer human.
We need to understand and be reminded of that. That everyone, men and women, children, young and old, the embryo within her/his mother’s womb, the elderly who is dying in a sickbed, the person who is laying there, barely able to move, eat, or breathe. The homeless man begging on the street corner, the hooker, the prostitute, the indigent, all bear the image of God. And our founding documents remind us of something very important. Because they bear the image of God, these rights and privileges to them are inalienable. They cannot be taken away. And we that understand that not only have the right to protect it for ourselves, but have an obligation to protect it within others. They understood that the British government of the day was stripping them of those inalienable rights—that it was treating them as if they were no longer human and that they had a responsibility to those that they served to stand up and to protect those rights within them.
To Life: Genesis 9:6 (ESV) reads as follows—
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
By man shall his blood be shed.
For God made man in his own image.
Because you bear the image of God, it is sin for somebody to kill you, period, no ifs, ands, or buts. That makes abortion murder. That makes euthanasia murder. Beloved, that gives us a responsibility to stand against these things—that our founding fathers understood, we must stand against.
To Liberty: The state of being free from oppressive restrictions or forced enslavements. The ability to act and be responsible for one’s own actions. Is not man accountable before God? Is not man accountable before God’s divine judgments? Indeed, they understood that this is part of the Biblical model that has been presented to us, that we need to understand ourselves, and when we understand ourselves, these rights cannot be taken away from us.
And the Pursuit of Happiness—that is so long as that said happiness does not rob others of their life and of their liberty.
The second principle is a principle that Peter affirms in 1 Peter 2:13-15. That the role of the government, that the job of the government was to do primarily two things: to reward those who do good and to punish those who do evil. And they thus affirmed in a case where a higher government abuses their privilege and role severely, no longer serving the Biblical mandate for what a government was called and set to do, the lower or lesser powers of government had a responsibility to protect those who are under them. This is the concept of what we call Federal Headship. It goes down not only in terms of our governments, but it applies to our families as well, where fathers have a responsibility to protect and care for their children and their wives.
It is important for us to understand just how important our founding fathers understood that these Biblical principles were. Benjamin Franklin, who was not by any means a Christian, held that these Biblical principles were fundamental to a free society.
George Washington, in his farewell address said, that national morality is impossible without religious principles.
Charles Carroll, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a representative from the state of Maryland, said:
Without morals, a republic cannot subsist for any length of time; those, therefore, who are decrying the Christian religion…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free government.
You know, that could be written today. Do you understand what Carroll is saying to us? He is saying that if you are seeking to undermine Biblical principles in our culture, in our society, in our families, in our children, you are undermining the very foundation of the nation that we live in.
John Adams wrote that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” See what he is saying. There is an expectation that the writers of the Constitution had, that we would be a religious and moral people—explicitly a Christian people.
Noah Webster, the compiler of the first dictionary of American usage and Federalist political writer, though he was not one of the signers of the Declaration or Constitution (though he taught or influenced the teaching of some of the signers’ children) wrote in his preface to the 1828 edition to the American Dictionary of English Usage, the following words:
In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed. No truth is any more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.
Are you hearing the words? He is saying that the government of our nation—if our government is not functioning from a Christian perspective, if it is not grounded in scripture, that it will strip us of our freedoms and of our securities. Abraham Lincoln would echo these words later by one day saying: “the philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”
And beloved, how far we have gone. Let me begin by noting the mis-construal if you will of the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights –the amendment to the constitution, to mean that church and state can have nothing to do with one another. Let me read for you the first part of that amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof.”
The language of “church and state” or to quote Jefferson, of the “wall of separation” developed when he was writing to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut who were trying to develop a state religion. He said you cannot do that and that this is the reason for this amendment—so that the government cannot mandate to us what religion that we can be.
But at the same time we need to remember the second document that Jefferson wanted to be remembered for—the document that was written to preserve the religious freedom in Virginia. Now what he wrote that document for was along similar lines. He said understand that the government cannot compel you as an individual to pay money to a particular church, or denomination, or affiliation, of different set of beliefs than that of your own Christian peculiar ideology. In other words, the Baptists weren’t to be required to pay for the Presbyterians, and the Presbyterians were not required to pay the Methodists and all around the circle this is developed.
This document was never meant to strip religion out of public life. It was never meant to strip religion out of government life, and it was never meant to even begin to suggest that government officials should not take their religion and their religious ideas into the realm of government and guide them in the writing of government documents. Because that is exactly what all of our founding fathers did. They took Christian beliefs into their roles in state.
Yet this misunderstanding—this mis-construal—has allowed secularists to radically transform the educational system and the legal system of our nation from what is intended to be an explicitly Christian system of government and education has become an explicitly secular one. Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that Christians abandon government or abandon the world of teaching, but what I am suggesting is that a secular model is fundamentally corrupted and mis-construing what our government was meant to be. And it has led to a breakdown of morality that has infected all of our society.
Since 1973 and the Roe vs. Wade decision, approximately 48 million babies have been aborted. That is 342 times more people that were killed at Hiroshima when we dropped the Nuclear bomb there. That is approximately 1 out of every 4 American pregnancies is terminated through abortion.
School shootings is on the rise. There were four in February of this year alone—all of the way down on the Middle School level. Violent crime statistics are on the rise. “Pornography floods the streets like open sewers,” to quote one Christian speaker. Homosexuality is becoming the norm. Redefining the marriage is on the legislation in multiple states. Do you understand, that when we understand the Bible, going back to Genesis chapter 2, that the family—the husband and the wife and their children—is the most fundamental unit within society. Beloved, when you change the definition of the family, you change the definition of the society. When you change the culture of the family, you change the culture of the society that that family was meant to be a foundation for.
They are redefining gender, not simply in terms of roles, but even what it means to be male and female. Beloved, these things are infecting the church. Homosexuals are being ordained, adultery is on the rise even in evangelical churches amongst evangelical church leaders. There is secularization not only in church services but in the way things are done. And Christians so often no longer live every aspect of their lives—or live outside of the church—in the same way as they live inside of the church. I could go on, but I don’t expect that I need to.
So what is the solution?
I was talking with someone the other day about some of these things and he pointed out that all of these issues—whether homosexuality or abortion—are symptoms. Sin is the disease. The symptoms are a result of us fleeing from scripture.
So lest you think that my text for this morning is the Declaration of Independence, what does scripture say the solution is?
Look with me back at 2 Chronicles 7, verses 12 and following:
“When the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him, ‘I have heard your prayers.’”
Notice historically, what this is following. Solomon has just finished building the Temple and they have just finished celebrating and sacrificing to the Lord—this is a high time! This is a time of celebration, a time of rejoicing, a time of God’s glory! And God says to him… “when I shut up the heavens…”
Wait a minute! What is going on here! We are glorying in your name, what’s this shutting up the heavens! The tendency of man is to slip into sin.
“When I shut up the heavens, so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence amongst my people…”
Note the language of “my”—he has not rejected them as his people, even under discipline.
“If my people who are called by my name…”
Notice the emphasis on my people and called by my name. Beloved, that is us. As born again believers in Jesus Christ we are called “my people” by God in his word.
“If they humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear them from heaven and I will forgive their sin and heal their land”
I am going to make two comments:
First, note the heart’s attitude. We are to humble ourselves before God when pray and when we seek his face. How oftentimes when we go to the Lord in prayer we go fairly casually, we go thinking of it as an obligation or something that we simply must do. Scripture says that we are entering into the presence of an almighty God. That should make our knees quiver a little bit. Rejoice, yes in the privilege that we have been given, but it should make our knees quiver. It should humble us knowing that a God of might and a God of glory, a God who is above all things has said, ‘yes, you may come into my presence—in your sin and your wickedness, let me draw you to myself.’ Humbly—what a model for us—how we should be convicted of those words.
Secondly, note our actions. Not only are we to pray and seek forgiveness. But God says that there is something more. That we are to turn from our wicked ways. Beloved, that takes action. That takes simply not saying, ‘Lord forgive me for all of my idolatry,’ and leaving those idols in place. Read the Old Testament historical accounts and you will find that when God blesses his people, it is a result of the king standing up and destroying and tearing down the idols that the sinners have set up before them. What are the idols around us that need to be torn down? If we want to repent, if we want to expect God to heal our land and to bring revival as we so often pray for, what are we doing to tear down the idols of our culture? To bring them into wreckage. And beloved, we need to begin that task not simply engaging the culture out there—we do need to do that—but we need to begin that task by engaging the culture in our own lives. What are the idols that you need to tear down in your own life? What are those things that are stumbling blocks between you and God?
I want to leave you with two verses that stand in contrast of one another:
Verse 14b—“Then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land…”
Verse 22—“Then they will say” (this is those who will refuse to repent and turn from their wicked ways) “because they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on gods and worshiped them and served them, therefore he has wrought all this disaster upon them.”
Beloved, which of these two verses will you choose to pursue? Which of these two verses do you yearn to see, to secure the blessings of liberty for yourself and for your posterity?
Beloved, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Circumcise Our Hearts! (Deuteronomy 30) November 03, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Occasional Sermons, Sermons.
Tags: Baptism, Church, Circumcision, Circumcision of the Heart, Covenant, Heart, Paedobaptism, Sacrament, seal, sign
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Westminster Presbyterian Church
Circumcise Our Hearts!
We have the great joy and privilege this morning to celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism with the Fuentes Family. Ivan and Adrian will soon be presented by their parents by the profession of their parents’ faith and the covenant sign and seal of God and of his covenant community will be placed upon their heads. And this is not a guarantee of salvation for these boys, but it is, as Peter would word it, an appeal to God of a good or of a clean conscience, that as believing parents, as Zach and Jenny raise these children in the faith and in the presence of the covenant community, and under the means of grace, that God will bring these two boys to faith in himself. For God’s word will not go out void, as Isaiah tells us. And if we train up a child in the way that he should go, he will not depart from it, Solomon writes in the book of Proverbs.
With this before us, I thought that it would be appropriate for us to spend some time reflecting upon baptism and its role within the covenant community. And particularly as Presbyterians who baptize our children, understanding Baptism to be the New Testament replacement for the covenant of circumcision, to briefly lay out its purpose and its role in the light of God’s covenantal promises.
To start with, we need to ask the question, what is a covenant? And what is a covenant community? We use that language a lot and we speak in that way quite often, but sometimes I wonder whether those familiar phrases are really phrases that we know what they mean. In the most basic language, a covenant is an agreement between two parties, typically one party is more powerful than the other one, and in ancient times there were regular covenant agreements that were oftentimes called Susrain/Vassal Agreements, where one was a Susrain or a King would make a covenantal agreement with those who were to be his vassals, those who were to be his underlings. “This is what I will do for you—I will protect you, typically—and here are the penalties for you if you are unfaithful to me.” “And these are the aspects of this covenant.” And these covenants were typically sealed with the shedding of blood.
Now if you go back to Genesis 15 sometime you will find the great example of how God was making this kind of covenant with Abram (Abraham). Abram was commanded to go and gather a series of animals and he was commanded to divide those animals in half, separating them into two rows with the bloody entrails stretched out between them. And of course, the typical way in which a covenant would have been ratified then would have been that both parties would come and walk through the gory blood trail as a signification and to say that if I don’t keep this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me.
Something very special and unique took place in Genesis 15 when God made that covenant, because Abram (Abraham) was not instructed to walk through that pathway of blood. Instead, God put Abram to sleep and God came in a great vision and God walked through those split animals in Abram’s stead. What God was communicating is here is the covenant and here are the expectations that I am placing upon you, Abram, and upon your children. And if you don’t live up to those expectations, may what happened to those animals happen to me. And indeed that is part of the reason that God’s Son had to come and die upon the cross in a horrible way, that he was the one shedding his own blood that those animals represented—because of our covenantal unfaithfulness.
This is the idea of the covenant and this is the idea and importance of the blood of that covenant. We get to Genesis 17, though, and God gives Abraham a sign of this covenant is circumcision. God tells Abraham that not only must he be circumcised, but all of the children in his household from eight days old and up must be circumcised—indeed, all of his servants who are under his protection—his covenant household—were also to be circumcised. The bloody sign of that circumcision being a sign and a seal of that covenant, God’s bloody covenant which he made with his people beforehand.
Yet, notice something, as we look to Deuteronomy Chapter 30, and this is one of the reasons that I wanted to look at that this morning. Because God speaks in scripture of a second kind of circumcision. Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, verse 6, Moses says, “And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring.”
What is the purpose of this second kind of circumcision that scripture speaks of? Moses will tell us: “So that you will love the Lord you God with all of your heart and with all of your soul”—literally, “for the sake of your life.” Do you see what God is doing here? God is pointing back to the external sign of circumcision and saying that this language, this idea, this pointing to the covenant, this seal is a seal of something that is also pointing to an inward reality of faith and the new life that is given.
Paul picks up this language that is given in Romans, Chapter 2 and Chapter 4, to speak of how this outer circumcision is not enough without the circumcision of the heart that accompanies it—the spiritual rebirth that comes through faith. For how can we love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul if God has not first given us new life? Thus one circumcision is an outward sign and the other circumcision is an inward reality that the first circumcision points toward.
Yet, if this is the case, why are we told that outward circumcision is no longer to be practiced in the new covenant age—in the New Testament age of the church of Jesus Christ? The reason is that the circumcision is a bloody sign and Christ has already shed his blood to fulfill the covenant that God has made with his people, illustrated all of the way back in Genesis 15. No longer, writes the writer of Hebrews in Hebrews, Chapter 10, do we need to repeat these bloody sacrifices, for Christ has sacrificed his blood for us once and for all. Thanks be to God for that gift! And as a result, we who are believers stand before a righteous and almighty God, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and not our own righteousness. And we are called righteous, we are called justified, and we are called sons of the living God.
So just as the bloody celebration of Passover, which represented God’s redemption is replaced by the blood-less celebration of the Lord’s Table, so too, the bloody outward sign of circumcision is replaced by the blood-less sign of water baptism—signifying the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Thus, in Acts 2:37-39, when the people were cut to the heart, we are told, under Peter’s preaching, and they asked, “what must I do to be saved?” Peter said to repent and to be baptized—and verse 39—“and this promise is for you and for your children and all who are far off and all who the Lord calls to himself. As the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-29, “for in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith. As many of you as who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, but we are all one in Christ. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to the promise.”
So as we go into baptism, we understand that it is a visible sign of the covenant of grace, a sign that will be sealed officially and fully when these children come to faith on their own. It is an outward sign of being part of the covenant community and of the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ.
So how does this tie back into Deuteronomy 30? I think that we have already seen that this language of the circumcision of the heart is what we tie back into. This language of God, in the hope and in the promise of a good conscience, that these two children being lifted up before him and God placing that covenantal seal on their heads. And the hope and the prayer is that as we present these children that God will indeed make real what that sign represents in their lives.
With that in mind, I would like to make three observations. First, note the emphasis on children in the verses of Deuteronomy 30. Verse 2: “repent to the Lord, you and your children as you return to the Lord.” Verse 6: “God will circumcise you and your offspring.” Verse 16: “and you shall live and multiply,” recognizing that the children that God has given us are blessings that come into our lives. And verse 19: “Choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”
One thing that we protestants do exceptionally well is to put forward the reality that salvation is by faith and by faith alone in Jesus Christ. That there is no works that bring us salvation—there is no lineage or family tree that brings us salvation. There are no statutes or roles that will guarantee our salvation. That salvation is through a personal relationship—an intimate relationship—with the Lord God.
Yet, in light of that emphasis, I believe that we have lost a sense that Scripture has put before us that faith is something that is to be taught and passed down, if you will, in principle, from generation to generation. That a church is not meant to start over, if you will, every generation as it goes from scratch, but instead, children are expected to pick up the mantle of faith and obedience to Jesus Christ that these signs that we place on them point toward and that their parents model for them. In our protestant churches, so often it is not the norm that you see two or three or four generations gathered together for worship. But so often, the norm is that of children rebelling against the faith of their parents. I am not advocating that we as protestants should try and fulfill some kind of Roman Catholic or other idea that is part of this—but advocating that we question whether or not we are placing enough emphasis not just on the personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but in raising our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And indeed even raising and pointing our children to that same faith.
My prayer, my exhortation for you, Zach and Jenny, in particular, but also for all of us who have children or even who have adult children who have moved on in life, or who have grandchildren, is that we raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord—that we are being deliberate about pointing our children towards faith in Jesus Christ in a powerful way. That we raise our children in the church, that we raise our children always pointing to the reality that the sign that has been placed upon their head points toward. With the expectation, not the general hope, but the expectation that they will come to faith in God himself. And that we strive, that we not see generations rise up as we read through the historical books in the Old Testament, particularly in Judges, that does not know the things that God has done—not just in Biblical times, but in the history of our nation, in the history of the world, in the history of the church, and in the history of their individual family. Children should know their parents’ witness story—children should know their parents’ confession of faith and how their parents came to faith in Jesus Christ. And we as parents should be deliberate about pointing our children toward that reality and that expectation that they too would come to faith in our Lord and Savior.
Secondly, note too the language of blessing and cursing that is attached to covenant membership. All too often we like to talk about the blessings as comfortable and pleasing to do. But we don’t often talk as freely about the judgments that are given in connection with the blessings. Those who are born again believers—those who are redeemed need to always remember one thing—we have been redeemed from something and that something is the righteous judgment that God brings for sin. If we don’t preach judgment and we don’t preach the threat of judgment at the same time that we preach redemption, redemption won’t have its meaning, it won’t have its power because people won’t understand what it is that they have been saved and delivered from. Eternal Judgment of God. If we are to preach the gospel of redemption to our children and to our neighbors, we must also not be afraid to preach what we have been redeemed from.
Christ did not die to make you nice—he died to make you holy. And he died to deliver you from the wrath to come. Make sure that when you are sharing the gospel with others that you understand the stakes that you are playing with. This is not a kids game of penny poker, but this is a matter of life and death. The stakes are eternal. Do not take them lightly. If you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, you will be rightfully condemned to the fires of hell. If your children do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they will be rightfully condemned to eternal damnation.
Beloved, are you comfortable with those stakes, because these are the stakes that we are playing with. Are you satisfied in knowing which side of the divide that you stand upon—and your loved ones stand upon. If not, this is the day of decision. This is the day that you have the time to speak these words to your children, to your families, and to yourself.
And Thirdly, finally notice the emphasis on your response to choose life. In verse 16, Moses writes, “Obey the commandments.” How do we do this? Love the Lord our God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes and his rules that we might live and multiply. Do you see what he is saying? That just coming to faith, just saying, “Lord forgive me,” is not simply what you have been called to do—that is a first step. But we are also called to live it out. We are also called to walk the walk of faith. We are also called to walk before the nations proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, loving the Lord, walking in his ways, and keeping his words.
I would like to close this morning with verses 19 and 20 of this chapter. Moses speaks these words to you and to me, and he speaks as follows:
I this day, I call heaven and earth as witness against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him for he is your life and length of days. That you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob to give them.
Beloved, choose this day whom you will serve. Choose this day what inheritance that you are seeking—an inheritance that is here in the wealth of the nations, or an inheritance that is being reserved, as Peter writes, in heaven, free from being defiled and corrupted.
Sermons in Jude October 07, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Sermons, Sermons on Jude.
Tags: Apologetics, Jude, Sermon, Warnings
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Westminster Presbyterian Church
Pastor, Win Groseclose
Warning Signs (Jude 1-2): 8/26/07 01-warning-signs
Contending for the Faith (Jude 3-4): 9/2/07 02-contending-for-the-faith
Jesus Who Saves and Brings into Judgment (Jude 5-7): 9/9/07 03-jesus-who-saves-and-brings-into-judgment
The Lord Rebuke You (Jude 8-9): 9/23/07 04-the-lord-rebuke-you
Woe to Them! (Jude 10-11): 9/30/07 05-woe-to-them
Metaphors (Jude 12-13): 10/7/07 06-metaphors
Holy Ones, Judgment, and the Ungodly (Jude 14-16): 10/14/07 07-holy-ones-judgment-and-the-ungodly
Build Up-Don’t Puff Up (Jude 17-21): 10/21/07 08-build-up-dont-puff-up
Jude’s Evangelism Technique (Jude 22-23): 10/28/07 09-judes-evangelism-technique
Words of Glory (Jude 24-25): 11/04/08 10-words-of-glory
The Problem of Sin: James 1:14-15 September 28, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Assorted Sermons, Sermons.
Tags: Did God create sin?, God, James 1:14-15, Sin, Why does God punish sin?, Why is there Sin?
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Westminster Presbyterian Church
The Problem of Sin
The difference between this third issue or this third problem that we have been looking at in these verses from the first chapter of James, is that there is a distinction between the first two. The first two are dealing largely with the things that are outside of us. The problem of evil coming into the world—as old as some of my elementary school students think that I may happen to be, I am still not old enough, nor is anyone in this room old enough, remember when evil came into the world with Adam and Eve. Though, as I said, many of my elementary schoolers think that I am older than dirt.
And when we are dealing with the problem of pain, we are again dealing with something that is largely outside of us. It is something that God is indeed using in our lives to conform us into the image of his Son, but again it is something that is largely taking place outside of our being—or at least is beginning there.
This third question that comes out of the first chapter in these verses shifts and no longer is dealing with things that begin largely outside of us or things that begin working from the outside working in, but this is something that in fact that begins on the inside and works outwardly. You see, we still have a remnant of the old man within us, and we are to be about working to tear it down and destroy it, but at the same time he is working against us, testing us and trying us. For the believer is one who pursues righteousness and not sin but we are yet those who are not yet perfect, and those which stumble, and those that yet fall. I heard it once said that the holier the individual, the more acutely aware they will be of the sin that is dwelling in their being. This morning, as a result of that and as a result of what James is teaching us, I would like to essentially do three things:
First, I would like to paint a clear picture of what James is describing in these two verses.
Second, I would like us to understand the very nature of sin itself as a repetition of Adam and Eve’s Original Sin—something that we are guilty of in addition to our own sinful behavior—I want to see those in connection.
And Thirdly, I want to remind us of the hope that we have of forgiveness that is in Jesus Christ. I want to remind us of where James is going with this passage.
But first, let us paint the picture, let us look to see what it is that James is clearly saying in this text. First, remember (you are going to get sick of me saying this over and over again), but remember the context that we have. James had began this question with this statement: that you, as you resist temptation—as you resist trial—it will make you stronger in faith. It will make you and grow you to the point where you will be lacking in nothing. James is speaking ultimately of Glorification here. He is not speaking of something that we will not fully realize as we live on this earth, but he is speaking of something that we are moving towards as we are getting ready to be glorified and spend eternity with Christ. He is speaking of more than purely a restoration, but he is speaking of a remaking of us into the image of Jesus.
Yet, as we get here and look at this verse, James is speaking of just the opposite things. The resistance to sin, the resistance to temptation, builds us up and strengthens us. When we fall into sin, when we pursue the things of this world, that sin ultimately brings death—when it is fully formed. This is something that will ultimately come back to the sin of Adam and Eve in terms of his reference, but we will come back to this.
But do you see the contrast that he is making? He is painting, if you will, two pictures, or two avenues. And he is saying that this is the one that living faithfully leads you towards, yes it will be hard, yes, it will be difficult, yes it will be filled with pain. Jesus never tells us that it will be otherwise, but look at the destination that it leads you towards. At the same time, there is an easy road, there is a road that is filled with desire and the lusts of the heart and temptation and trial and giving in to those things. And ultimately, that path has a destination as well. And that destination is death.
Literally, James, when he writes these words says, “Yet, when each individual…” Note right there what he is saying here. He is not talking about corporate sin. There is such a thing as corporate sin, it happens, but James is not dealing with that sort of thing in verse 14. He is saying that each individual, he is dealing with each one of us personally and individually. And saying, look, when each of you, individually and personally is tempted, this is that same word again that we have been using—tested, tried—by his personal lusts. Note the emphasis that he is making it once again—he is not talking generically about lusts. He is not talking about the things that are just generically in the world, but he is saying, Look, there are things that cause you and me to stumble and fall, and they are not generic, they are different—they are individual. What causes me to stumble and fall may be and probably is something that is entirely different that what causes you to stumble and fall. Certainly we have things in common, but oftentimes the things that tempt one are not necessarily the things that tempt another, and that is why Paul teaches in Corinthians that we need to be sensitive to those things and be sensitive to our weaker brethren, and not by things that we are perfectly able to do, lead them into sin and trial and stumbling with our freedoms.
By our personal lusts. Lusts is language in the Greek, that refers to things that have been forbidden. This is not something that is just dealing with that which is probably okay, but maybe cause me to stumble and fall. These are things that explicitly, as James is saying, have been forbidden to you and to me in His word. He is saying, “Does God use this to tempt us? No!” But, God does use this to make us holy. And he is saying that when we are tempted, when we are tested and tried by our personal lusts, being “drug away” is the literal connotations of this word, and then enticed. I like this language here, because it so often reflects the way that we fall into sin. The language of drug away implies in the beginning that we are kind of fighting against something, that we are kind of resisting against something. That we are saying, “No, I am not going to go there, I am not going to fall into that sin and into that trial.” But then enticed. Enticed is a reflection of the idea that we are kind of going along with this.
How often this reflects our experience. I think that if we are honest with ourselves, we know the things that ensnare, to use the language of Hebrews. And usually, when it comes to those things, we resist them at first. Usually we are aware of them enough and go, “No, God does not want me to do this, this is sin, and I am not going to go down that path.”
But something happens to us. And usually the way it goes is that even though we say, “no,” we dwell upon it. We think about it. We entertain the idea and then constantly say, no, but the more we do that, the more we drift closer and closer—the more our resistances are broken down, and the more inclined we are to move from this idea that idea that I am fighting against it, kicking my heels, burying them into the dirt, and into flirting with it. And when we go from one to the other we fall into sin—over and over again.
Kids learn this technique at a very early age. It is not only the pitting of Mom against Dad, when Mom says, “No,” going to ask Dad. But it is also the pitting of them against themselves and their patience, because if a child asks his Mother or Father for something enough times, over and over again, they know that one of two things will happen: they’ll get a spanking or they’ll get what they want. And oftentimes, in our culture, because parents get frustrated and say, “Enough! Alright! Go get it! Go to it!” we give in. So too, Satan uses this same technique with us. Our hearts use this same technique, seeking to justify and to lure us into sin. John Calvin was one who said that the heart of man is a perpetual factory of idols. And indeed, I think that there is great truth in there, but if that is true, then we need to ask ourselves firstoff, what our minds will be doing. Because our minds really can become one of two things. Our minds can become the guard on the wall, protecting our heart from the things that would entice them to make idols, and stopping them within as a guard or a policeman might do, or they can become the advertising division, helping us to justify sin. As soon as we allow our minds to justify sin, then we will step and go down that pathway.
James continues, he says, “then” or “next”… You kind of get the sense, as he goes through this, that he is taking you down or showing us the slippery slope, and saying that as soon as those forbidden lusts are conceived—they give birth to a child, and that child is sin. And that child, when it is brought to completion—or sin, when it comes to full maturity—to keep this analogy that he is using of a child in our lives—brings forth death. Brings forth death.
Paul wrote in Romans 6:23—“for the wages of sin is death”
How often we fail to think this way. How often we fail to put that seriously before us, when we are being enticed into sin. To understand this fully, though, we must understand the context that James is alluding to in this passage. And I would argue that he is looking back at Genesis chapter 3. Now too often, when we think of Genesis chapter 3, we think of those awful little children stories and that pretty little boa constrictor that is hanging out of the tree and talking to Eve and having a happy little conversation there within—sometimes even poetically written out.
And when we look at the command of God not to eat of the fruit of the tree we kind of see this as a strange and arbitrary command of God. Yet, if we turn back and spend some time in Genesis 3, we will find something that is very, very different. And we will find something that is far more sinister than what we usually introduce our children to in the childrens books.
I want to begin by saying that we do not know how long, or how much time took place in between Genesis 2 and Genesis 3. We don’t know how long Adam and Eve lived together after this wonderful marriage arrangement. After the guy writes poetry to her—and ladies you know that the guy is head over heels, because that is something that it is not so often that macho men—and Adam must have been a Macho man because he was created by God and in God’s image. We don’t how long it took for Genesis 2 to end and Genesis 3 to begin. I would at least suggest—in opposition to some that have gone in our tradition—that it was probably a little bit longer than shorter.
Thomas Watson once said that he felt that he thought that it was the very next day that Adam and Eve entered into sin, and I don’t know that gives credit to the way that God created them—without the sin nature that we have. And I don’t know that that gives credit to what it must have been like to live in the presence of God and in paradise.
Never the less, man had been given the command of not eating with the implication that he was to teach his wife and their children of the importance of this command as well. How important it is to teach our children the things of God. And how often we fail in this task that we have been commissioned to do. Over and over again, scripture commands us to teach our children the things of God so that they might not stray. Of course, to teach something, we have to know it in the first place.
And one of the things that I have found in the past couple of years as I have been teaching is that teaching something to someone else actually helps you to know it and understand it far better than you did when you began the process. There is a great deal of wisdom in these commands to teach our children because as we are teaching our children these things and as we are emphasizing these things in their lives, we are also forced to confront them and emphasized them in our own lives as well.
And man had seemed a pretty poor job of teaching Eve. As we look at her misquoting of the law. As we look at her dialogue with Satan and we see how far she falls and stumbles. She takes away from God’s command in terms of lightening it. No longer does she say that you will surely die—in the Hebrew, “die, die,” it is a strong way of emphasis. But she just says, “you’ll die.” And she adds to God’s command. No longer is it only, “you shall not eat”, but now, “no touchie” is added to it. Satan exploits it by perfectly quoting God’s word-in verse 4, you will surely die—turning it on its head.
The implication at the woman’s presence at the tree is that she has likely been dwelling in this location for some time—wondering about this command that God has given her. Is it not implying perhaps, as she rationalizes and says, “I saw that it was good for food…” You see what she has been dealing with? I want to stop right here for a moment, because oftentimes when we look at this we think of this as an arbitrary command of God. How is it that we are to see it otherwise? Every other command, the command to go and to multiply, to heed the moral law, to work and to keep the garden were commands that made sense to the intellect and really appealed to the desires. Why would Eve not want to do those things? These command were designed to delight and to fulfill, but this one is a little bit different. Yet, beloved, that is the nature of obedience.
See, obedience is not pure obedience if we can rationalize and we do it out of our own desires to do it. If I say to my son after dinner, “Paul, eat your desert!” His obedience in eating his desert, his ice cream or M&Ms or whatever it might be, has nothing to do with his obedience to me. It has everything to do with the pursuit of his own desires because he is doing what he wanted to do in the first place anyway. And he is even nodding his head in the back. Obedience is not pure obedience until you obey even when you don’t understand why you are obeying. Because you obey out of your respect and out of your love and out of your admiration for the one who has commanded this of you. Beloved, this is pure obedience and beloved, this is why this command sometimes seems arbitrary to us. It was designed to teach them about what it means to obey.
And beloved, this is not what we see taking place next. Not only does she see and say, “this looks good to eat.” But she also says, that she desired it as something that would make one wise. You know, even the serpent did not say that. Even the serpent did not say that it would make you wise. He simply says that it will help you discern between good and evil. But as Eve was justifying her sin in her own heart, she took and added to even what Satan had introduced to her.
Beloved, is that not what we also do? And there are two aspects of sin that are involved here. She was denying the truthfulness of God’s command—“if you eat it you will die”—and she is going, “oh, let’s see what happens!” and Adam eats right along with her. Essentially they are accusing God of being a liar. And they wanted to become like God—or “gods” depending on how you want to render this language from the Hebrew. It is idolatry. They basically were forsaking their place in the garden, as being servants, as being submissive and under God. Seeking to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. And beloved, James is saying here by implication, that when you engage in sin, you too enter into these same three sins:
You are guilty of allowing yourself to become enticed to justify sin, to deceive yourself that what is poisonous is not really as bad as it is or as God tells you. You are doubting God’s truthfulness, that when God says, “No!” that he means it. And you are wanting to take God’s place—to obey your own reasoning and not God’s plain commands.
How often we act this way. How often we take our own sins so lightly. How often we place ourselves in situations where we will be tempted and where we will be tried and how oftentimes we are so little different from Eve and not even stay away from the object that will tempt us. But we stroll into its presence. And how often we fail to guard—as Adam failed to guard his wife—ourselves. How often, beloved, we take our own sin so lightly. And beloved, when we take sin lightly, we take redemption lightly as well.
With this in mind, let us briefly remind ourselves of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. And let us begin with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, verse 15. They were given a promise of the coming Messiah. Do you understand how wonderful this promise is? That even in their rebellion, in their opposition of God, God gave them a promise and they did not go to bed one night in their fallen lives without the promise that a redeemer is coming. And throughout scripture we find this same language being used.
Isaiah 1:18, “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord, ‘though your sins are scarlet they will become white like snow, though they are red, like crimson, they will become white like wool.’”
Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
We could go on and on…
Nehemiah 9:17, “But you are a God, Oh God, ready to forgive, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, you did not forsake them.” Speaking about Israel in the wilderness.
Isaiah 44:22, “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you!”
And beloved, we are just barely scratching the surface of the Old Testament alone. We could also cite passages like: Matthew 6:14, Mark 3:28; Acts 5:13, 13:28; Ephesians 1:7, 1 Timothy 1:15, Hebrews 8:12, and I can go on and on and on all morning and barely scratch the surface, but I would like to go back to Romans 6:23, and look at the second part of that passage. Indeed Paul begins, “For the wages of sin is death, but,” notice this wonderful “But” here in the middle of this verse! “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Beloved, there is redemption in Christ Jesus even though we stand guilty of our sin. There is no denying it, there is no excusing it, we deserve the wrath of an angry and a righteous God, for by our sins we have rejected his ways, we have accused him of being a liar, we have rejected his good things and we have sought to set ourselves over God and not under his authority. We are rebels and we are usurpers, yet God has sent his Son to pay the price on your behalf and on mine. He called you to himself. And he has made us rebels into children.
Look at the next verses in the book of James that we will look at. He is calling believers and saying, “Look” (verse 18) “We are a kind of firstfruits.” Firstfruits are things that the Israelites were called to set aside for a holy use, for God’s own use—and he is saying that applies to you! That applies to me! God has done this in our lives.
Beloved, as we come to this point, my prayer is that you would examine your own heart. Maybe you have sought to trust in your own works, your own church membership to save yourself. Maybe, you don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ and you hear of this hope and of this promise of forgiveness that is given over and over in scripture. Maybe you have that relationship, but sin and disobedience has dulled it, and made it seem distant. Maybe your relationship is well, but that the trials and the testing that you have undergone as of late seems too much to bear, and you feel just worn out.
Beloved, wherever you are in this mix and mess that we call life in a fallen world, would you pray with me, pray from the depths of your heart, along with me…
The Problem of Pain: James 1:13 September 28, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Assorted Sermons, Sermons.
Tags: God, Is God good?, James 1:13, Pain, The Problem of Pain, Why do Bad things happen to Good People?, Why is there pain in the world?
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Westminster Presbyterian Church
The Problem of Pain
Last week, as we engaged this passage, we raised the question about the problem of Evil. Where did evil come from? And how are we to understand the presence of sin and of evil in light of God’s sovereignty—in light of what Paul writes about in Ephesians 1:11, of God ordering all things according to the council of his own will? And we began at least in doing this at James’ great statement that God tempts no one and that he cannot be tempted. Now James goes on in this passage to talk about sin and about sin’s effect as it grows in our lives. Yet as I look and as I read through this passage, there seems to be a question that bridges the question of the Problem of Evil and the Problem of sin, and that question is the Problem of Pain.
Or maybe to rephrase that problem of pain, we could rephrase it like this: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Now, this is a question that has been approached and tried to be dealt with in a number of ways. In the 1980s, there was a conservative Jewish Rabbi, by the name of Harold Kushner, who still shows up every once in a while in talkshows like Larry King and ones like that. Kushner wrote a book trying to reconcile the death of his son with his own faith and asking just this very question. Unfortunately, the sad conclusion was that there are just some things in this world that God just cannot control. We see in our own modern culture two theologies—both going almost hand in hand—one called Open Theism and the other one that is called Process Theology, which is taking this idea to its logical end—that God really doesn’t know the future, but that God kind of looks out and works in our lives and hopes that he can kind of make the best out of things. But beloved, as I have said before in different ways and in different places, but that is a lie, it comes from the pits of Hell, and it smells of smoke.
But some have taken it to the opposite logical end. They have said that everything that happens bad in this world, that everything wicked and evil by our own measure is a mark of God’s judgment upon us because clearly none is good but God. And while the Bible does affirm in places that while God does discipline his people as a father disciplines his children, Jesus also makes it clear that when bad things happen, there is not a one to one correlation between those things and any one person’s sins and that event. We can go to John chapter 9 for example when Jesus is confronted with the man who was born blind, and understand that in ancient times, if you were born blind, that was a really bad thing. And his disciples came up to him, and said, “Look, Master, whose sin was it that caused this? Was it his parents’ sin? Was it his sin? How do we understand this?” And Jesus’ response is very telling. He said this man was born blind not because of his sin or because of anyone else’s sin, but this man was born blind so that God would be glorified in him (John 9:3). Now don’t lose this idea of tempting and testing and trials in our lives for the glory of God, I want to come back to that idea.
So with this in mind, lodged in the back of our minds, let us begin by framing the question about the problem of pain and let us ask ourselves, in light of the answer of the problem of pain, how now shall we live in light of the pain that we experience?
To begin with, the question of the problem of pain, C.S. Lewis sums up the question in this way:
“If God were good, he would want his creatures to be happy, and if God were all powerful, he would be able to make them so. But the creatures are not happy, therefore God either lacks goodness or power or both.”
Now this very phrasing of the question has led many to either throw up their hands in despair and say, “I’m doomed!” or to say that there are just some things that you have to take by faith and move on. When you do this, that creates in our mind a false dualism, a false division, a division between matters of faith and matters of reason—that there are some things that we just have to take as matters of faith and that reason has nothing to do with it. And the rest of life we live in a rational and in a reasonable way.
But the Bible presents faith in a very different way. It presents faith as something as something that is perfectly reasonable or reason filled or logical and that it is a logical response to the work of an Almighty God. Hebrews 11:1 presents faith as the “assurance,” the uJpo/stasiß (hupostasis), the guarantee, the entitlement, literally this word refers to the underlying or undergirding, foundational condition that other things are built upon. The writer of Hebrews is saying that faith is this assurance, this underlying—undergirding—assurance that the promises of God that we have for heaven is true. That it is absolute, that it is a fundamental guarantee. I think as a side-note that one reason that we must recognize that faith originates with God and not with us is how could a guarantee of the promises of God originate with us? But that guarantee of the promises of God must originate with God because he is the only one who can guarantee them in our lives and in the lives of his people. The writer of goes on and he says that not only is it that assurance, but it is the conviction—the absolute proof—of that which cannot be seen.
Do you hear the finality in this language? This is not a blind faith that is being portrayed for us, but it is a faith that is being described as a response to God’s testimony in the life of his beings. And note how the rest of the Hebrews chapter 11 continues. It reinforces the idea that Jesus says to the blind man that this trial, this problem, this testing was done for the glory of God by looking at all of these people that are listed in what is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith.” These people all demonstrated their faith to the glory of God by facing great trials and great difficulties. In other words, in a sense, we could reword it this way: “The very way that you suffer, when you suffer pain and trial, communicates God’s glory to the world.
My grandmother moved in with us a number of years before she died. I remember when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer that had gone to the pancreas and to other places. The doctor had basically prescribed that she would live for about three months, and she lived for about a year. I remember that he one wish was that she be able to die at home and not in a hospital somewhere. And we as a family said that we would do everything in our power to grant that wish. And we, by God’s grace, we were able to do that. But, you know, I learned more about living in faith from watching my grandmother die in faith than I have ever learned from watching somebody live in faith. Watching her suffer, watching in agony and never losing her faith and never being short of pointing others to the glory of God—even in the midst of her greatest trials. One of the things that you will hear oftentimes over and over in my pastoral prayers, where praying for people who are ill—even to the point of death—that that can be a good thing. Yes, we will long when we miss them, but their witness even to the point of death—their Christian witness, is a powerful witness that communicates the glory of God to those around them.
So if faith is something that is real, and it is something that is substantial, when we are confronted with problems, when we are confronted with objections, we need not feel as if we have to back-pedal from those objections and kind of come up with an easy-pat solution to them.
So how do we deal with this question in the way that Lewis frames it? This question, this statement that the world often raises, that if God were all good he would want his creatures to be happy and if God were all powerful, he would be able to do it. But the creatures are not happy, therefore God is lacking either in goodness or power or both.
Now the first thing that we must do is to assert that God is good and that God is all-powerful. Jesus himself teaches that none is good but God. John in his third epistle commends us to imitate God—to imitate that which is good and to restrain from evil as we live our lives. God is explicitly called, “All-Mighty” 58 times throughout the scriptures, and that is not to mention the nearly countless works of an almighty God that are attributed to Him.
Thus we are left with a question: “If God is good, and he is, if God is almighty, and he is, why aren’t the creatures happy? Doesn’t God want happiness for us? Now, I would argue that the answer to that question is, “Yes!” That God does will our happiness, but true happiness for us is not rooted in worldly comforts, but it is rooted in eternal comforts. And what is thus truly good for us is being conformed into the image of God’s Son so that we might enjoy those eternal comforts. And if we are to be conformed into the image of our Lord, ought we not walk the path, the very same path, that our Lord walked. Jesus said to those who would be disciples of him, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Now sometimes we are guilty in our culture of taking this language all too lightly. “Oh, that’s just my cross to bear, it will be okay.” For Christ, the cross was an implement of torture and of pain—there is nothing comforting about it. That statement of Christ’s, “that if you want to follow me, you too must bear a cross,” is something that ought to make us cringe in our boots as we hear that. Because when we look at ourselves, when we look at our sinful state. When we look at how we have been bent, how we have been broken, how we have been twisted, how we have been gored—inhumanly torn—as a result of the fall, what loving parent, as he looks upon his child, would not long to see that child restored. And as we bear that cross to be like Christ—that is the process—that is the tool—that our loving parent, if you will, uses to unbend us, to put us back together—untwist us and heal the destruction in our bodies and in our lives that was brought on by the fall of Adam and Eve.
If your loved one—does not matter who it is—a child, a parent, a wife—if one of your loved ones contracted an illness or a disease that caused that person to become twisted, warped, or if you will, bent under that disease. You would love that person in spite of that ailment. In fact, your love might be realized all the more in spite of that ailment, but that would still not take away the reality that you would long to see that ailment removed from the body of the one that you loved.
And removing our ailments, our bentness, if you will, hurts. I have cracked or had hairline fractures in a handful of bones, but only once have I ever really badly broken a bone and it was my finger, playing football. The finger was actually broken and shattered out of the socket. But do you know what is amazing about the whole experience? It didn’t hurt. In fact, it didn’t hurt the rest of the day and going home at night and getting it put in a splint and going to the doctors the next day. It didn’t start hurting until the doctor decided to straighten it. It hurts when something that is broken needs to be set back in place.
Let me give you another analogy. One of my buddies, back in Maryland, about seven or eight years ago his wife was involved in a pretty horrendous car accident. She was waiting to make a left hand turn into their development, she was rear-ended by someone who was not paying attention and smacked into her at about 45-55 miles per hour, and because she was waiting to make that left hand turn, when he rear-ended her he forced her head on into an incoming pickup truck, so she was hit from behind and from the front all at once. Her injuries were overwhelming. It is a testimony of God’s grace that she even survived the wreck, having seen the car, and knowing what she went through as a result of that. Had emergency crews not arrived and worked quickly, she probably would have died as a result. But you know, looking at that event, it would not have been seen by anyone involved as a merciful, or if you will, an act of goodness, had on the part of the EMTs, when they arrived, had they said, “Well she is probably going to die anyway, let’s just make her comfortable as she dies here in this car. Instead they did everything in their power to preserve and then restore her life and her body. The multiple surgeries, the physical therapy that she faced in the weeks and in the months that followed, were painful and they were taxing on both her and on her husband. But when she emerged on the other side, she emerged stronger because of the process.
Don’t you see how God is doing the same thing with us as we face our trials and our difficulties? As James says in verse 4 of this chapter is that they are designed to make us complete, to make us perfect—lacking nothing. We often don’t get to see the eternal big picture, in terms of why we are called to do this or to do that, but here is one of those instances where scripture does allow us to do that. Because we are being gloriously transformed. As Paul writes to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 3:18:
“And we all, with unveiled face (making reference to Moses), are being transformed (metamorphized to take some liberties with the Greek text) into the same image, from one degree of glory into another, for this comes from the Lord, who is Spirit.”
But beloved, right now, in the midst of being transformed—transfigured even—it hurts. It really, really, hurts. Yet, for us to want less pain—recognizing this—is essentially asking God to show us less love and not more. It is God’s love that motivates, that draws us to being transformed before Him.
So, what then is our response in the midst of pain and suffering? The answer is simple and plain but hard to apply: Obedience. Bare obedience before God. Look back at Hebrews 11 once again and ask yourself how these folks responded to what God was doing in their lives. How Abraham took his son to be sacrificed up upon the mountain, how Moses rejected the comfort of Pharaoh’s household to live in the desert to prepare to lead God’s people, how the saints through the ages have undergone horrific deaths and trials, all standing on the truth of God’s word. And understand that obedience does not require you to understand the whys and the wherefores of what God is doing—it simply requires that you trust the God who does understand and who has ordered all of the whys and the wherefores according to the council of his will and for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes. And all of this is done, beloved, all of this is done through our painful preparation, through what we undergo, what trials that we face to prepare us for our entrance into glory. And ultimately, once we are prepared, and even through the process of being prepared, God is glorified by bringing us to himself as his people.
I want to close with this thought—we began by raising the question—why is it that bad things happen to good people—or perhaps we should reword that question, why do God’s people suffer so much trial and pain? As a result of recognizing what our ultimate good is for—recognizing that what is good for us is to make us more like Christ and not to make us comfortable in this life, the question that we perhaps ought to be asking is this: “Why is it that some of God’s people suffer so little?” Or, “Why don’t we suffer more?”
The Problem of Evil: James 1:13 September 28, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Assorted Sermons, Sermons.
Tags: Did God create Evil?, Evil, God, James 1:13
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Westminster Presbyterian Church
The Problem of Evil
There are some passages in scripture that tend to lend themselves to raising broad questions that may even be beyond the immediate text of the passage that they are dealing with. Questions, that to answer, one needs essentially to look outside of the given text and to look at the breadth of scripture to get at what God would have us to understand. And it seems to me that as I reflect on verses 13 through 15 in particular of chapter one that two of these kinds of questions are explicitly raised in James’ text and one is implicitly raised as you raise those other two questions.
Explicitly, James seems to be making the statement that God is not the author of temptation or sin and that God tempts no one as well. Tied closely with this is the explicit and clear idea that God is not nor has ever been the source of evil. Yet as we look around the world, there is evil. As we look around the world, we are tempted. And if God, as scripture also teaches us, orders all things according to the council of his will, then how do we explain these things in the world around us. Thus for the next several weeks I would like to address three issues: The first, that we will be looking at this morning is the problem of evil; the second will be the problem of pain; and the third is the problem of sin.
Let’s begin by looking more closely at the statement that James is making in verse 13. Now remember the context—context is king when we deal with these passages in small doses—the context is that of dealing with perseverance in suffering for faith—suffering many trials and tests of diverse kinds. Now James begins in verse 13 by saying, “let no one say when he is tempted…” Now this language of temptation is language that can refer to a general testing. I teach in school and I test the kids—whether they like it or not I test them periodically to see whether they have gained said knowledge that I wanted them to get out of the unit which we studied.
But this word can also refer to a different kind of testing, a testing that is designed to entice someone to commit sinful or unacceptable behavior. And this is the broader context of what James is getting at here. This is not the kind of test that one might take in school to make sure that one understands the basic material. But this is the kind of test that were one to fail that test, would lead one into sin. This is the same kind of language that is used of Jesus’ own being tempted in the wilderness. It is the language of the Pharisees, who were seeking to test Jesus and test Jesus in order that they might trap him and arrest him. It is the language that we find in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.” It is also the language of how the disciples were tempted to fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus had gone to pray and he said to the disciples, “stay and watch and pray with me, and don’t fall into temptation and go to sleep.”
That in itself, particularly in terms of the Gethsemane passage, has some very important implications for us. For such language applied is not only to spiritual temptation and spiritual sin but also is applied to physical sin. What it is that Jesus is dealing with the disciples is that they were given an instruction, they were given a command. They were instructed to watch and pray with Christ while he went further into the garden to pray and to prepare himself for his own arrest. The temptation that they faced was not whether to pray or not but to be able to stay awake and to be faithful to doing what Jesus had called them to do.
How often we go through our own lives, as we go to our own time of prayer, as we go to our own time of devotion, that we too struggle, as those disciples did, against fatigue and against sleepiness. How often we have no problem sitting and picking up a magazine and reading it all of the way through, but as soon as we pick up our Bible, three verses into it, our heads are nodding and we are nodding off. How often we have no problem sitting down and watching a television show but when we sit down to pray we find ourselves dozing or we find our mind wandering into a hundred different areas. I think that the implication here that is being made is that this is just as much a temptation into sin as it would have been had Jesus accepted the Devil’s temptation to worship him or something along those lines.
In the book by C.S. Lewis entitled Peralandra, the second of his space trilogy, he describes himself being battered by what he calls “the barrage.” And the Barrage is his feeling doubt, and his feeling distrust, and his feeling discouraged as he goes to do those things that he needs to do that God has commanded him to do. How often we face those same kinds of doubts, those same kinds of worries—am I really up to this test? Am I fairly fearful of what it might mean if I were to step out in faith for this thing or that. This kind of trial, C.S. Lewis describes as the Barrage, and he describes it as the work of the demons that are around us in this world. This causes us by doubt and by fear to not do the things that God has commanded us to do. If you will, even a form of trial and a form of test.
I think that there is a lot of truth in that. So often we don’t think in terms of all of the things that cause us to stumble and fall. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters gives us a myriad of wonderful examples of this. This character that Screwtape is trying to test and tempt ends up going to church and ends up writing to his Uncle Wormwood saying, “I have all these problems, this guy has gone to church, I have lost him.” And Wormwood says, “what are you talking about? Sit him next to someone he doesn’t like. Sit him down next to someone he knows all of the good gossip about, and he will spend more time focusing on the nit-picking thing about the person he does not like or knows all of the gossip about than about what is going on in church. So often we look at these things and say that they are just part of the weakness of our own human nature, indeed, they are part of the weakness of our own fallen sinful nature. But, indeed, they are in a sense a form of trial and form of temptation that we are to resist, that we are to labor against.
When we go to pray at night, when we go to open our Bibles to read, do we ask God to help us resist temptation? Do we ask God to help us keep our eyes awake and alert so that we might grow in our knowledge of Him? That we might grow in our devotion to Him as we go before His holy throne. I think that there is a great deal that we can learn from this.
But now, with this understanding, James goes on to say something very important. He says, when you are tempted or tested in this way, let no one say, that “I am being tempted by God.” And he gives a reason. He says, and here is the reason, he says literally, “because God is untemptable, and he tempts no one.” That God is beyond the possibility of being tempted. It is something that is unable to happen to him. And such a statement, as one who is untemptable, is made of no other person in the Bible. It essentially says that God is so pure and so perfect, that because God is who he is, even the concept of God succumbing to temptation and sin is utter nonsense. It would be like saying that “x+y=4” and “x+y=16.” Both cannot be true.
Sometimes we refer to this as the “Law of Non-Contradiction.” That two contradictory things cannot exist together. You cannot be a boy and a girl at the same time; there are rules and guidelines that set one against the other. For God to be tempted would be a contradiction of his very character, is what James is saying here. But this being said, it raises two very important questions in our minds. First of all, if God cannot be tempted, how then was Jesus tempted? Was his temptation something that was real? Or was it something that was simply played out as an actor upon the stage? And secondly, if God cannot be tempted and does not tempted, how is it that a God who orders all things according to the council of his will allows us to be tempted? Or perhaps we could say, how is it that an untemptable God allows his creatures to undergo that which he is not susceptible to?
First, if God cannot be tempted, how is it that Jesus was tempted? For indeed, does not the writer of Hebrews say in Hebrews 4:15, “for we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted”—same language—“has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This is the same word that is being used so how are we to understand this? Is James just talking about God the Father as being the only one who is untemptable? No, that would make the three members of the Trinity have different attributes applied to them and thus would reduce the Son and the Father to not being of the same essence, thus undoing the Trinity and presenting a polytheistic religion—something that is contrary both to scripture and to the Jewish tradition upon which our Christian tradition is built, for the Old Testament scriptures do explicitly state that God is one.
Then, was Jesus perhaps just play acting as the Devil tempted him? We have to answer, no, as well. Not only would it reduce this passage that we just read from Hebrews to nonsense, for how can he identify with us with that he has not undergone. But also, Jesus, as the second Adam, had to be tempted and tested in the same way that Adam was tempted and tested so that he could succeed where Adam failed. One thing that is interesting to note, is that if you look at the account of Adam failing the test of eating the fruit, that he was tempted or tested in three ways. He was tempted with food that looked to be good. He was tempted to doubt the truthfulness of God’s word, and he was tempted to idolatry, making himself to be a god. Indeed, those are the three temptations that Jesus himself faced in the wilderness.
So with those before us, what options do we have before us in answering this question? Theologians in the early church were faced with this question at a very early date. And the answer that they found was in the description of the dual nature of our Lord. That Jesus, while one person, was both fully human and fully divine. That he was not simply kind of a fleshy body indwelt by the Spirit of God, but everything that makes you and I human, Jesus himself had. He had a human mind, he had a human soul and a human spirit but he also was divine in all three of those ways. And in this way, they understood the temptation of our Lord, that it was Jesus’ human nature that was susceptible to these temptations, even though his divine essence was not. That it was a real possibility for Christ to sin when he was tempted, but as he did not have a nature of sin to compel him to do so all was not lost and Christ underwent the temptation without falling into sin.
We can draw a great deal of comfort from what the writer of Hebrews is reminding us of. For all of the temptations that are common to life, we are told that Jesus underwent. He can sympathize with us in our pain and our heartache. More importantly, he can empathize with us for he has gone through it already. And it is out of that identification with us. It is out of his ability to identify and relate to us that is the driving force behind his passionate intercession with God for us on our behalf. We can take our cares to the cross knowing that the one that we take those cares to understands us in our pain, he understands us in our weakness, he understands us in our hurt, he understands us in our heartache, he understands us in all of our desires and in our weaknesses. How often as we go through life, as we face trials and as we face difficulties, we feel as if nobody understands us, we feel as if we are speaking but we cannot communicate our heartache to somebody because nobody will understand what we are going through. Beloved, let me remind you that Christ Jesus does understand and Christ Jesus has promised never to leave nor forsake you, for he has borne our weaknesses, he has suffered our infirmities, and he knows you. He knows you in your strength and in your heartache, and he knows you better than you know yourself. Take those things to him; take your cares to his feet.
Secondly, if God cannot be tempted, and does not tempt, How is it that a God who orders all things according to the council of his own will allows us to be tempted? Or how is it that an untemptable God allows his creatures to undergo that which he himself is not susceptible to. And that gets at the real question of the problem of evil around us in this world. If God is God and all that he created was pronounced to be good, where does evil come from?
There have been many approaches that have been used to handle this question. Some have argued that it is all the Devil’s fault. That after Satan’s fall and rebellion everything just kind of fell apart and God had to just kind of work things through to make sense out of it. Others have argued that God made man in such a way that God made man with a free and absolute will, and thus we chose to bring evil into this world. While both of these answers have sought to protect God from evil, they raise two important questions: Is God not omnipotent—is he not all powerful? Is God not omniscient—is God not all-knowing? Does God somehow restrict his power and his knowing when it comes to man’s ability to choose right and wrong? Were this the case, it would reduce all prophesy to something that is a little bit more than just a good guess on God’s part. While some in our society would present God as doing just this, God just kind of working, not knowing the future, just working and hoping to bring his good ends about—tweaking history to manipulate it as best as possible. That kind of teaching, beloved, is a lie, it comes from the pits of hell, and it smells of smoke.
Scripture presents God as being God and Sovereign creator over all things. Scripture presents God as the author of the rise and the fall of nations and of men—of God opening Lydia’s heart so that she would be receptive to the gospel and of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he would march on to his own destruction. Isaiah 45:7 presents God as the author of both peace and calamity and everything in between. The words in the Hebrew here are “ra” and “shalom.” Shalom means “peace” or “goodwill.” Ra is the Hebrew word that can mean problems or calamities or trials—that when addressing the problem of evil, and when addressing the problem of its origin, we need to reject those proposed solutions. And the first thing that we need to do is to define what we mean by the word, “evil.”
The Oxford American Dictionary, defines evil as that which is profoundly immoral or malevolent. I think that the Bible helps clarify that a little bit more. As you go through in the language and you are dealing with the question of evil and of sin, and evil is that which is done in rebellion against God. With that in mind, I would suggest that we understand evil a little differently. Just as goodness is not so much a created thing but is a reflection of the character of God, so too, I would suggest that evil should not so much be seen as a created thing but as reflection of the character of sin. Think of it this way—that which is good for us is that which draws us closer to God; and that which is evil for us is that which draws us away from God.
Yet, this still leaves us with an important question: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, if God orders all things according to the council of his will, even, in many cases, our own wills. If all that God does is good—why did God allow, or even ordain, that the angels first and then man would fall? I think that St. Augustine’s answer is right on the mark. Augustine argued that had we not fallen as a race, we would never have understood the depth of Christ’s sacrificial love for us as his people. Though the fall brought pain and it brought misery into our lives, and though it was a sinful action on the part of men and angels, it was yet good that God permitted us to fall. The song that the choir sang a little bit ago, echoes that sentiment. Speaking of Christ with his arms outstretched—speaking of the blood that Christ shed as he was on the cross—writing out to you and to me, to his people throughout the ages, that “I love you.” How we could not have known that level, that expression of Christ’s willingness to die and express his love to us had we not fallen in sin. And thus, as we return back to the book of James, the suffering that we endure is good, for it grows us into the image of Christ Jesus.