Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Hope of Advent - Psalm 130

Psalm 130
Introduction: The Old Testament Scriptures testified to the hope of a coming Messiah (Luke 24:44). We read for example in Luke 24 that Jesus expounded to his disciples all that was written  “in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” concerning Himself. That verse implies that in the “Big Story” of Scripture, the meta-narrative that encompasses the entire Bible and all of human history, we see the anticipation of the culmination of God’s plan in Jesus.  God extended “hope” for his people from the time of the fall as he called believers to look forward to the coming of a Redeemer in the fullness of time. In Galatians Paul said,
In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.  4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:3-5).
In modern English the word “hope” is often used of a vague, wishful thinking about the future, the idea that maybe everything will work out, it will all be ok.  The biblical idea of “hope” is quite different. We look ahead with confidence because we know that history really is “His Story.” We have a sure hope, a confident expectation about tomorrow, if we trust in Him. I thought, this first Sunday of advent, we would focus on an Old Testament text that revealed the hope believers had then and there, before the incarnation of the Son, and consider what that means for us, here and now, in the light of Advent.
       I chose this text because Christmas is a time when a lot of people struggle with depression, they seem to lose hope. For one thing, we are moving toward the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and many suffer with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) at some level, too little sunlight.  I don’t understand the physiology of it, but something physical seems to be going on there. I think it may also be true that Christmas stirs memories and people struggle with difficult things from their pasts, or even loneliness in the present. Psalm 130 is a psalm of ascent, a song sung by the worshippers as they moved toward Jerusalem for one of the pilgrim feasts of Israel, toward the temple and the place of God’s presence. I think it is fitting for us, as we enter the advent season, and move toward the celebration of the incarnation of the Son.
The Big Idea:  The incarnation of the Son means hope for the hopeless, a confident expectation for the future that comes from trusting the Author of life.
I. Advent means hope for the needy (1-3). At Christmas we sing about “Joy to the world” but the truth is, we are surrounded by hurting people. Many are right with the psalmist,
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!  2 O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” 
        “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord…” - The psalmist might be moving toward worship, but he isn’t there yet, he is hurting and he is honest with God about it. He cries out from the “depths,” apparently struggling with depression or pain or heartbreak. He feels like he is sinking, drowning in his painful circumstances.  Have you been there? But he doesn't put on a mask, at least not with God. He acknowledges the depths to which he had sunken, his desperate need, and he cries out to the Lord, pleading with Him to hear.  Are you someone who struggles with depression or discouragement this time of the year? As a believer it may be even more complicated by feelings of guilt—What’s  wrong with me? I shouldn’t feel this way! Maybe even well meaning but simplistic advice from other believers has only made it worse. Read the psalms, read this psalm, and be honest with God as the psalmist was. That is one thing I love about the book of Psalms. There is no hiding, no fake smiles, no pretending, complete transparency. Open your heart to God. Remember we have a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses!
       I see hope already in the name and the title that he uses for God in verses 1 to 3. It’s something we could easily miss in most English translations unless we are reading carefully. He addresses God alternatively as LORD (Yahweh) [most English translations use a capital “L” followed by small upper case letters to indicate this] and Lord (Adonai) [written with only the initial L capitalized followed by lower-case letters]. Yahweh is the personal name of the Lord, the name He revealed to Moses as He spoke from the burning bush. It is associated with His self-revelation and the covenants, His commitment to His promises. He is imminent. He is also Adonai, Lord, Master, which seems to appeal to His sovereignty and His divine power, He is transcendent. As the psalmist cries out to God He is looking toward Jerusalem, toward the Temple, toward the God who he knows, the Savior of Israel. He is the God of the covenants, faithful and true, the God who chose to enter into a relationship with humans and always keeps His promises. The God who is omnipotent and able to bring order out of chaos, who is bigger than any challenge we might face. There is hope in His name!
       If the Lord were to call us to account for our sin we would have no hope (3). The psalmist knows his guilt, he understands that his only hope is in the grace and mercy of God. "If you, o LORD [Yahweh] should mark iniquities, who o Lord [Adonai] could stand?" IF you are determined to keep score, I'm dead. Finished. I have no hope. The psalmist is hurting, but he is in a better place than a lot of people as this verse shows. He realizes that his deepest need is not justice or security or even healing. His deepest need is for forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God.  He needs grace and mercy. Black Friday sales are a good thing for consumers, some of you were out there! But the rudeness and arguments and even fights that sometimes happen remind us that all is not well in the world. The television reports from Ferguson remind us that the deepest need of humans of every race is a changed heart.  The incarnation of the Son means hope for the hopeless, a confident expectation for the future that can come only from trusting the Author of life.

II. Advent means Hope for the greatest need of humans: forgiveness and redemption (4-6).
4 But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.  5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;  6 my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning
            The first word in v.4 causes the “hope” to begin welling up within us: If you keep score of our sins we’re lost, “But…” Yes, we are in a world disoriented by sin and if we were called to account for our own sin we would be lost, without God and without hope. “But with you there is forgiveness…” Doesn’t this call to mind the similar contrast in Ephesians 2:1-7?
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-  3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  4 But God,[this calls to mind the contrast in Ps 130:4] being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved-  6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
That is the real story of Christmas! We read it earlier in Galatians 4:4,5…
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
           Here, in the psalm he says, “…with You there is forgiveness, that you may be feared…” God’s mercy and grace means He is to be feared, He is to be reverenced, He deserves all the glory. He did it all! Not because of works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to His cross I cling!”  The consciousness of sin, recognizing our total inability, the understanding that our only hope is 1) mercy, not receiving what we deserve, and 2) grace, receiving that which we do not deserve, in these rest our only hope.
       "I wait for the LORD (Yahweh)..." The God who has promised, the God who is faithful... "My soul waits..." Even in the deepest recesses of my heart, in my soul, I wait expectantly, with a sure hope, a confident expectation that is based not on what I deserve (God forbid!) but on the character of God. "In His word I hope..." Yahweh has revealed himself in history, and in His grace He has spoken to us, so we can trust Him. Think about this: if we are going to believe God, take him at His word, rest in His promises and hope in His word, we need to read the word that He has given us. Have you been reading your Bible regularly in 2014?  If not, start now! One of the beauties of the Christian life is that as long as we are here, we can walk in the path that God has laid out for us, and discover the truths of His word (by the way we are going to read aloud through the Book of Revelation on New Years Eve again, consider joining us!).  Hoping in His Word, goes beyond the anticipation of humans as they "wait" for something they know is coming. It's a wait that is marked by peace and assurance, confidence that the answer is coming.
            So we wait, and hope in Him. “More than the watchman waits for the morning…” Expectantly, certain of what is coming, watching, waiting in hope.  Have you ever worked the night shift? I have. Some nights, the darkness can seem to linger. Watching the clock, did someone hit the pause button? Anticipation! The incarnation of the Son means hope for the hopeless, a confident expectation for the future that comes from trusting the Author of life.  

III. Because Advent means hope for the greatest need of people, it is a message we are called to share (7,8). Vv. 7-8 The psalmist has looked up (at least implicitly, since He knows Yahweh and calls to him), He has looked around at his circumstances and looked inwardly at his own heart, he has looked ahead in hope, and now finally he looks outwardly, calling his fellow Israelites to "hope in the LORD..."
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.  8 And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
NB the change from description to proclamation, the exhortation is to “Hope in Yahweh…” Put your trust for tomorrow in the God of the covenants, the God who knows you and is faithful, keeping His promises. Why should we hope in Him? First of all, “…For with the LORD there is steadfast love…” (ESV). This is the word chesed,  sometimes translated “mercy,” “lovingkindness,” or “unfailing love.” The hope we have in the Lord is based on His character, it is also based on what He has done:
and with him is plentiful redemption.  8 And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities
“Redemption” implies a price being paid to set someone free.  I thought of the scene in the Lion, the witch, and the wardrobe, from the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, when Aslan went to the stone table and gave his life so that Edmond could go free… It’s a transparent picture of the substitutionary atonement, the sacrifice of the Lamb so that His sheep could be forgiven. There is “plentiful redemption” at the Cross. We are all “Edmond” who have trusted in Jesus, He gave His life to redeem all who would believe.  It was a perfect sacrifice, sufficient for all, so that all are without excuse. What an unimaginable gift!
What is God saying to me in this passage? The incarnation of the Son means hope for the hopeless, a confident expectation for the future that comes from trusting the Author of life.

What would God have me to do in response to this passage? It may be that some of you are feeling down, even perhaps, losing hope – it seems to happen a lot this time of the year. Look up, fix your eyes on Jesus, remember who He is and why He came into the world. He came to give hope to the hopeless, to offer hope to sinners like us. Christmas is a time to remember that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life…” That means that whoever believes, whoever is trusting in Him alone as their hope for forgiveness, has a sure hope, a certainty of eternal life. That is the greatest Christmas gift, the greatest gift imaginable. Do you have that hope? Then look too at those around you, because some are without hope. Family, friends, acquaintances. Ask God for the opportunity to point someone to Hope of Advent, the One who came to give hope to all who will believe.  Think about that, AMEN.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Got Peace? Give Thanks! Philippians 4:4-7

Philippians 4:4-7
Introduction: What do you think of on Thanksgiving? For many Americans it’s family, food, and football!  Some don’t even call it Thanksgiving any more, it’s just “Turkey Day.”  Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation is something we can hear afresh today:
"It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord. We know that by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens." 
I don’t think America has ever been a theocracy, and we may never get such a call from a President of the United States again, but as individual believers, and as the Church, we should not only on a designated day, but every day, be marked by an attitude of gratitude toward the Lord. It’s something that should characterize us as believers.
       According to the Apostle Paul one attitude that marks unbelievers, along with a failure to honor Him for who He is, is that they do not give Him thanks, “…21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” (Rom 1:21-22).  Tremper Longman commented on this verse saying that it shows, at one level, that every human knows God, that is, they know that He exists. But for the non-Christian, they don’t honor Him, or give thanks. Ingratitude flows from unbelief. I always am intrigued when an unbeliever says “I am thankful.” What do they mean? How can you be thankful when you don’t acknowledge the One who is deserving of all honor and glory? Who are they thankful to? A genuinely thankful heart is an attitude that flows from a life that has been redeemed by the grace of God. One writer said Thankfulness is the spontaneous expression of pleasure in the gift and the Giver.” I love that, we’re thankful for what He has done, we praise Him for who He is. Our love and joy in knowing the Giver has to be the foundation for the Christian. Jonathan Edwards called love for the Giver the “foundation of gratitude”:
True gratitude or thankfulness to God for his kindness to us, arises from a foundation laid before, of love to God for what he is in himself; whereas a natural gratitude has no such antecedent foundation. The gracious stirrings of grateful affection to God, for kindness received, always are from a stock of love already in the heart, established in the first place on... God's own excellency.
That points to our pleasure in the Giver, not just the gift, our delight in God who chose us and who loves us.
The Big Idea: Because of who God is and what He has done for us, believers have reason to be thankful in every situation of life.
I. A thankful heart is full of joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always…” (4).
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
            “Rejoice…” How can we rejoice always?  It’s not an emotion or a feeling that we have, but, as Gordon Fee says, “…it is a deep down confidence that God is in control of everything for the believer’s good and for his own glory, and thus all is well no matter what the circumstances.” It doesn’t mean that we rejoice because of painful or difficult circumstances – but we know we can trust God in the midst of the storm! It’s helpful here to remember the circumstance in which Paul is writing this letter. He is a prisoner, most likely in Rome. It seems likely to me that this is the Roman imprisonment we see at the end of the Book of Acts. There was some doubt as to the outcome, whether he would be released, left in chains, or put to death.  Remember also that the Philippians knew Paul, he had been arrested there as well back in Acts 16, at that time Paul was miraculously released. It was then that the Philippian jailer came to faith in Christ. Now years later, it was unclear how this imprisonment would end, but Paul was full of joy, absolutely convinced that God is sovereign, in absolute control of history, and of our place in “His story.” The better we know Him, the more that confidence is going to fill our hearts and give us joy in both the gift and the Giver.
            “…in the Lord…” It’s because we are in Christ, a part of the new creation that we can rejoice. We belong to the king of kings, the creator of the universe knows us and we are his. We are in the world, and in the world we will have tribulation, but that is temporary.  What is permanent and real and goes beyond the circumstance of the moment is that we are “IN CHRIST.”  Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17,
 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
The English translations all have problems with this verse and as a result the tendency has been to emphasize the idea that when we become a Christian our life is changed, we’re a “new creature.” That is true, but I don’t think that is the main idea here. A woodenly literal translation would be, “If then anyone is in Christ – a new creation! The old things are gone, and look, the new have come!” The idea is that we are part, already, in a preliminary sense, of the New Creation that God has promised. This is already/not yet of New Testament theology that seems to me to be at the heart of the Christian life. Like Paul said to the Colossians, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son…” (Col 1:13).
            Because that is our position, our new reality in Christ, we can rejoice in the Lord “…always…” It’s not only when things go well, or go our way or according to our plan that we can have joy – we have a peace in times of chaos, even when we don’t understand, because we know the Lord of Creation, the King, the Author of the Big Story, and we know His plan is always good.  Just for emphasis Paul repeats the exhortation: “I’ll say it again, Rejoice!”  Because of who God is and what He has done for us, believers have reason to be thankful in every situation of life.
II. A thankful heart is marked by gentle forbearance (5a).
“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.”
 “Let your gentle spirit be known…” This phrase has suffered various translations.  The Message is more of a commentary than a translation but I find it helpful, it says: “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you are on their side, working with them and not against them”. MacArthur suggests the term has the idea of “charity toward the faults of others, big heartedness.”  Fee suggests as a translation “gentle forbearance.”  There is an interesting play on words here: later he’ll say we make our requests known to God- but to our fellow humans – in the church and out – because of our joy in the Lord, our grateful heart toward Him, we give evidence of, we “make known,” a “gentle spirit” toward our fellow sojourners in this life.  People need to know that we care, genuinely about them, that we extend grace toward them. They need to understand that we really want them to know and experience God’s best.  We can be patient with others because of who God is and what He has done for us, and as believers, as recipients of grace, we have reason to be thankful in every situation of life.

III. We can be thankful that the Lord is near, so there is no need to worry, there is nothing to fear (5b-6a).
“The Lord is at hand;  6 do not be anxious about anything…”
            Why is it that joy and gratitude fill our hearts? “The Lord is near…”  Psalm 145:18 says “the Lord is near to all who call on Him.” Whether Paul is referring to the nearness of the Lord’s return (which is true), or the promise of his presence here and now (which is also a fact), this statement of fact seems to be the motivation to live a life that reflects God’s grace and mercy to our fellow humans, and also to give a basis for the next phrase, “Don’t worry about anything!
Be anxious for nothing…”  Virtually every one of us will experience anxiety at one time or another.  The reason Paul puts this statement in this letter is that even 2000 years ago anxiety was a problem.  We don’t need to be paralyzed by the pressures, and trials, and chaos of life.  Why panic when we can pray? Jesus uses this phrase several times….
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?  26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?  28 "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  31 So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:25-34).
Worry, anxiety, they accomplish nothing, at least nothing positive. Because of who God is and what He has done for us, believers have reason to be thankful in every situation of life.
IV. Rather than worry, we can pray with thanksgiving to God in every situation of life (6b).
“…but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” 
“…but in everything…” The contrast is emphatic. Not only should we not be anxious, but this is what we should do instead, in “everything,” that is, every situation of life this is what we need to do. Not only when we experience what seem to be “showers of blessing,” but even in times of darkness and storm and uncertainty, we need to look up to Him.
“…by prayer and supplication…” We can go to the Lord of the Universe, the God who knows us and loves us, the all-powerful Creator.  He bids us come, He is waiting patiently to hear from us.  Do you believe in prayer? What an invitation we have, to come into the presence of Yahweh, our Lord and Master, and bring our requests and needs to Him.
“…with thanksgiving…” Expressing our requests is to come by prayer, “with thanksgiving.” I don’t think we go thanking him for trials or difficulties – but the point is in spite of them we can still be thankful to God.  Think about it: We are forgiven – we have eternal life!  In that beautiful litany of praise at the end of Romans 8 we read,
As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." [That is what we see, that is our experience in this present age isn’t it?]  37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,  39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:36-39).
If you can reflect on that, try to get your mind around it, bask in the truth of it, you will overflow with thankfulness for the gift and especially for the Giver.
“…let your requests be made know to God…” Still he wants us to come, asking, knocking, seeking. It’s how we affirm our dependence upon Him, our trust in Him. Our little granddaughter Arden just turned two. She doesn’t talk a lot yet. Well, actually she does talk a lot, we just can’t understand most of it! But when she is doing something and gets stuck or has a problem her tone will change and she’ll whimper, “HELP ME!” Our prayers may sound like that to God. Our cries for help to Father, acknowledging our need, affirming our confidence that He can handle whatever we are facing.  Now when the child or grand-child call out for help, we immediately look, but sometimes we see that this is something that they need to figure out and work through, and as they do, they’ll learn and grow.  Abba is always watching, He really does know best. Because of who God is and what He has done for us believers have reason to be thankful always.
V. As we come to God and express our trust and thankfulness to Him, He promises to guard our hearts and minds with His peace (7).
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
And the peace of God…”  God is the source of real peace. It’s not just an absence of conflict, it relates to the idea of Shalom in the Old Testament. We live in a world disoriented by sin, but as we know God, and go to Him in prayer, with thanksgiving, he leads us to a place of rest, a place of confidence, of a calmness and assurance that God is still there, He hasn’t changed, He still loves us, and He will work all things together for our good and for His glory.
            Notice that it is a peace “…which surpasses all comprehension…” It’s not logical, it goes beyond human wisdom, understanding or comprehension.  It’s a supernatural calmness that comes from knowing God, and trusting that He is near, that He is present and working, and absolutely trustworthy.
God’s peace “…will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  The image is of God’s peace, watching over our hearts and our minds, in Christ.  He is our watchman, a sentry, always on guard, protecting us, ever vigilant.  Remember the story of the little child frightened by a terrible thunderstorm.  Finally his eyes started to grow weary and he asked, “Mommy, are you sure God never sleeps?” The answer came, “That’s right, he never sleeps!”  “Well, I guess I’ll go to sleep then, there is no sense both of us staying awake!”  David was reflecting on God’s care in the midst of a time of crisis in his life when he said in Psalm 3, “…I lay down and sleep, I awake, for the Lord sustains me…”  He recognized that God was caring for him, even when he was most vulnerable. What are the storms that frighten you today? If they don’t frighten you, do they rob your joy, or damper your thankfulness?  It can be problems in the family or at work, it could be a bad report from the doctor, or a crushing financial need. Whatever we face, rather than being overwhelmed by anxiety, we can have peace.
What is God saying to me in this passage? Because of who God is and what He has done for us, believers have reason to be thankful in every situation of life.

What would God have me to do in response to this passage?  Thanksgiving is more than family, food, and football, especially for those who know the King of all creation, the Lord of History, the Savior of all who come to Him in faith. This week think of Him, who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all. Think, and then thank Him for His amazing grace.                          AMEN.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Missions, the Spirit, and the Church - Acts 13:1-4

Missions, the Spirit, and the Church
Acts 13:1-4

Introduction:  Mars Hill Church in the area of Seattle, Washington was shaken recently by the resignation of their founding pastor, Mark Driscoll.  It had grown to multiple sites with perhaps 15,000 people attending the services weekly.  Mark was confronted by the elder board and other pastors and accused of a totalitarian management style and bullying those who disagreed with him. After hearing the conclusion of their investigation, even though he said he had done nothing to disqualify himself from the ministry, he surprised the church by resigning. The multiple campuses are each going to make their own decision about going on independently, or closing their doors. Essentially, by year end, Mars Hill Church will be no more.

       The dissolution of this mega-church raises an important question: who’s church is this anyway?  It sometimes happens that a leader can become so identified with a church that people can hardly imagine going on without him.  The church where Mary Ann and I were members while we served with WorldVenture in Brazil, just had their Senior Pastor of 38 years retire. No doubt whatever they do some people will be dissatisfied and some will probably leave. This passage in the book of Acts shows us a moment of dynamic transition in a church, the church in Antioch, when God calls 40% of their leadership, two out its five pastor/teachers, to a new work. To understand the significance of what is happening we have to remember the context: the Book of Acts has been called the “Acts of the Apostles” by the church, it is really the Acts of Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, through the Church. 

       Who’s church is this anyway? In a certain sense, we all who are members can say it is our church.  But unquestionably the Head of the Church is Jesus. He continues to build His church as he carries out his mission. The other outstanding truth we’ve been seeing in Acts is the presence of the Holy Spirit to fill, empower, and guide the church as it engages in mission.  There was a fundamental change at Pentecost when the exalted Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on the church. The same Spirit that empowered and guided the church in the book of Acts, is with us and in us today, His presence is what sets this dispensation, from Pentecost to the rapture, apart from every other period of redemptive history. That is the Big Idea in this passage…

The Big Idea: Led and empowered by the Spirit, the church recognizes the diverse gifts God has given as we carry out His mission together.

I. The Church God Uses: Spiritual leadership welcomes the diversity which is part of God’s design for the church (1-2a).
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said…”
Diversity of gifts.  We are reminded here of the different gifts God gives to carry out the ministry of the local church. Only two are mentioned in this passage, “prophets and teachers,” but it is a reminder that God bestows gifts and raises up leaders. We read for example in Ephesians 4:7-13,
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.  8 Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men."  9 (In saying, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)  11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers,  12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…”   
This is by no means an exhaustive list of spiritual gifts, seemingly in this passage the focus is more on “leadership” in terms of the gifts that are mentioned. Notice in v.12 that the purpose of these gifts is “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry…”  In a certain sense, these leaders are “coaches” who help the team, the entire church body, to discover and develop the gifts that God has given them to engage in mission.  I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 are two more passages that deal with the church as a body, each member sovereignly gifted to carry out the work of ministry. In all three passages, Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 Paul presents a pattern that could be illustrated as a simple equation:

unity + diversity à maturity

The church is a unified body composed of individual members, and the different gifts and abilities of each member work together to build up the body.  Each of us is important, we need everyone engaged at some level in the mission of the church.  We probably have a higher percentage of people involved in some aspect of ministry than many churches. Ideally, 100% of our members and regular attenders should have a good handle on what their spiritual gift(s) is(are) and should have opportunity to intentionally use those gifts both in equipping and encouraging each other, and in reaching out to the unsaved in our sphere of influence.

Diversity of backgrounds and ethnicities.  The Bible talks about the church as a diverse community, composed of believers from every tribe and nation. In the Great Commission the disciples were told to make disciples of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20, cf. Acts 1:8). The Book of Revelation describes this mixed multitude forming a harmonious chorus singing praise to the Lamb. We read for example in Revelation 5:9,10…  
And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,  10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’"
We see reflected in the leadership at Antioch a mosaic of ethnic and racial diversity and can imagine that to some extent that reflected the diversity of the body.  Our community is not very diverse, but heaven will be! How can we partner with ministries like the Root Cellar in Lewiston or Torli’s church in Boston to reach the nations that are coming to our shores?  How can we plan ahead to reach out to the diverse visitors and seasonal workers that come to our area in the summer season from all over the world?  How can we partner with the church in Haiti or Uganda or Liberia or elsewhere in the world to carry out the Great Commission?  It starts not with strategy or programs, but with our relationship with the Lord. Someone said,
“The Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of Missions. The closer to Him we are, the more intensely missionary we must become…” (Source unknown).
From Pentecost to the Rapture, the mission he has given us is our task, and the indwelling Spirit is our power. Led and empowered by the Spirit, the church recognizes the diverse gifts God has given as we carry out His mission together.

II. The Direction God Gives: God will guide and empower His people as He carries out His mission (2).
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’"
Notice the activity that leaders were engaged in: “…worshipping the Lord and fasting…” It’s a context of worship and prayer, of seeking God. I think the Westminster catechism is correct in saying that the chief end of man if to glorify God. The glory of God is both the motivation and the fruit of missions.  It is interesting to remember the kinds of things Jesus had specifically told his disciples to pray about. Considering the direction they receive here, I wonder if the admonition of Jesus at the end of Matthew 9 might have been a part of their prayers.
 “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest…’" (Matthew 9:37-38).
If this was their prayer, God answered, maybe in a way they didn’t expect! Two of their leaders, two who had ministered in their midst and who were a part of the body were called and the church was to confirm that, setting them apart for the work! God answered, and it cost them something. Are we willing? Are we available, to send or to go?
Set apart Barnabas and Saul” The Apostle Paul recognizes that he was set apart by God when he says at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” (Rom 1:1).  God tells the church to “…set apart for me…” indicating that He had a plan and purpose for Saul (Paul) and Barnabas.  They were called by God and were to be set apart by the church for God’s purpose. And as surely as He had a plan for these men He has a plan for every one of us that know Him. Are we willing? Are we available? Are you willing to be stretched and trust Him even outside of your “comfort zone?”

Notice also that it is God’s sovereign plan and calling, “…for the work to which I have called them…” God had already called them. But notice that God works through the church. He didn’t simply speak to Paul and Barnabas and leave at that, rather He spoke to the assembled, praying, worshipping leaders.  The church is God’s design. One aspect of the unity of the church is seeking wisdom, and counsel, and prayer from each other.  Do you believe that? It goes against the independent spirit we celebrate as Americans, but that is the teaching of the New Testament. Led and empowered by the Spirit, the church recognizes the diverse gifts God has given as we carry out His mission together.

III. The Attitude God Blesses: God works through the church as it seeks Him and is obedient in standing with and sending out the called (3-4).
Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.  4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus” (Acts 13:3-4).
Let’s look at this a phrase at a time.
       “Then after fasting and praying…” – The church together sought God and obeyed God. But prayer was key. I was reading an article about the First Baptist Church of Houston this week. They have been experiencing revival and growth, not through programs and new ministries, but the key has been getting back to the basics, emphasizing prayer and then focusing outward on mission, locally and globally.  That’s what we see happening in Acts, we see a praying church.  We have a prayer meeting downstairs at 8:30, welcoming God’s presence,
       “…they laid hands on them…” – This was not “ordaining” these men for ministry, they had been in the ministry for years! It was recognizing God’s call and direction (or re-direction!), and affirming that the leadership stood with them and would support them as the Lord enabled.
          “They sent them off…” lit, “They released them…” – This is a different verb than that which occurs in the next phrase. The normal translation of this word is “release, let go.” The Spirit called, the Spirit sent them out, the church recognized and confirmed that calling and “released” them, let them go, with their blessing.
          “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit they went…”
The attitude I see here is submission and obedience. Remember the words of Chuck Colson,
“It is not what we do that matters, it is what a sovereign God chooses to do through us.  God doesn’t want our achievements, He wants us. He doesn’t demand our success, He demands our obedience…”
Remember Acts chapter 12, there is no better place to be than in the center of His will. Trust and obey, there is no other way!
What is God saying to me in this passage? Led and empowered by the Spirit, the church recognizes the diverse gifts God has given as we carry out His mission together.

What would God have me to do in response to this passage? Do you recognize the truth that God’s Spirit is with you and in you? Do you see the importance of the local church in the plan of God?  One way you can demonstrate that is by becoming a member. We are one, a single unified body. Every member has been gifted and called and strategically placed here by design. As we come together in meetings like Sunday morning service, we worship Him, we recognize His presence, we also come to hear the word and be equipped to serve Him more effectively.  Together we have a part in His mission. Let’s embrace it!  We are missionaries, the mission field starts as soon as we step out of these doors.        AMEN.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sin, Salvation, and the Church of God Acts 12:19b-25

Sin, Salvation, and the Church of God
Acts 12:19b-25
Introduction: Last week as I preached on the contrasting story of James and Peter I emphasized the big idea that “God alone numbers our days, and the safest place always is to be at the center of His will.” I didn’t expect that on Tuesday night, Wednesday morning my next younger brother would have a stroke and heart attack, and enter eternity.  Surely that is a reminder to me of the urgency of the message we preach and the importance of being certain we are ready. God numbers our days, we don’t know how much time we have. God has made a way for us to have forgiveness and peace.  People have a lot of ideas about “God” and the way to Heaven. Ligonier ministries last week released the results of a poll taken of 3000 people, asking about their thoughts concerning heaven and hell, the Bible, and other biblical doctrines.  The majority of those polled thought it reasonable that there are many paths that lead to heaven.  There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end there of are the ways of death. The only thing that matters is the truth, and the truth is that God has spoken in His Word. We’re going to look at the last scene in Acts 12…
The Big Idea: God is holy and He must punish sin. By His grace He has made a way for sinners to be reconciled to himself in Christ. He continues to use His church, sinners saved by grace, to carry out His program.
I. God is Holy and He will judge sinners (19b-23). The Book of Acts has illustrated the holiness of God from a couple of perspectives. Back in chapter 5 we saw the story of Ananias and Sapphira the question of sin in the church was addressed. We learned that God will not ignore sin in the life of the believer. The writer to the Hebrews says “…He chastens every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:6b). And in extreme cases, as we read in I Corinthians 11, “some sleep” as a result of their sin. Only the death of believers is described as “sleep” in the Bible. The other issue is the question of sin in the life of unbelievers. The story of Herod shows that sinners cannot ignore God with impunity; He will be no means leave the guilty unpunished. We read in 12:19b-23…
Then he [Herod] went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.  20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king's country for food.  21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them.  22 And the people were shouting, "The voice of a god, and not of a man!"  23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.  24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
In Herod’s case judgment was immediate and decisive
Herod, like his uncle and grandfather before him, used his position and power to his best advantage, and pity anyone that he thought stood in his way! Do you think we have bad politicians in this country? (Maybe we do, don’t forget to vote on Tuesday!). In some parts of the world things are so bad that corruption is almost considered “normal.”  They say in Brazil the reason that God doesn’t give that country natural disasters is that the politicians are bad enough!  Well the Herodian dynasty illustrates what corruption and abuse of power looked like in one corner of the ancient world.  A few “Herod’s” appear in the New Testament narrative…

-         Herod the Great was King when the magi came to Judea looking for the new born king of the Jews. Herod acted deceptively and then struck out in anger, having all the male children under 2 in Bethlehem put to death.

-         Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, took the wife of his half brother and had John the Baptist beheaded when he spoke against his sin. This was also the Herod before whom Jesus appeared during his passion.

-         Herod Agrippa the 1st is the one we see here in Acts 12, he had James put to death and then had Peter arrested.

-         Later in Acts 26 his son, Herod Agrippa II, will hear Paul’s testimony before Paul is sent to Rome.

None of these guys were a model of fairness and impartiality, and they all rejected the notion that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Kings, and the only hope for sinful humans. In a certain sense they are a caricature of sinful humans: rejecting the Light, choosing darkness, acting as though they were the true sovereign, exalting themselves and putting down others.  The Herods were a power hungry lot, and they would use their power to put down anyone who they deemed as a threat.  Herod Agrippa II will apparently come oh so close when he hears Paul preach, “You almost persuade me to be a Christian!”  What a sad thought: almost persuaded! The gospel is clear, but except for the gracious intervention of God humans refuse the message that is their only hope.

            In the midst of this drought and famine the people of Tyre and Sidon knew they were dependent on Herod’s favor, so they sought reconciliation, reaching out to one of his servants, Blastus.  The mention of the servant’s name is a small detail, but one that reminds us that these were real people and historical events.  The fact that Herod received the words of the crowd with acceptance and favor when they said “the voice of a god and not a man!” is the real point here—and that amounted to idolatry, putting a creature in the place of the Creator. Herod is “struck down by and angel of the Lord,” judged on the spot for accepting their blasphemous words.  Interestingly the Jewish historian Josephus also reports this event, adding the detail that Herod was immediately struck down and died a few days later.
       The message was clear to the witnesses of this event: The voice of a god? Uh oh, maybe not!  Now the truth is we rarely see such swift and unquestionable judgment in the Bible or in the world today. At times it seems that evil flourishes and people not only resist the truth but mock and ridicule the faith. Be sure of this: God will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. They will give an account, and forever is a long time.  Most people don’t believe in a literal hell, but guess what, believe it or not, it is real.

In every case, unrepentant sinners will be judged justly and eternally.
God is patiently working out His plan in history and judgment will certainly come for all who reject Jesus and continue in their unbelief.
*In the Ligonier ministry poll more people believed in Heaven than in Hell. Most people didn’t think that even a small sin leaves a person guilty and deserving of hell. Popular thinking is that people are basically good, and that eternal judgment is only for the worst of the worst.  The Bible says God is holy, “of purer eyes than to look upon initquity,” and any sin is  rebellion against Him, “cosmic treason” as R.C. Sproul would say. What did Adam and Eve do? They only ate a piece of fruit. And they brought sin and death and the curse on all of creation!  Know this:  God is holy and just, and He will judge the world in righteousness. And because God is holy He must punish sin.  Even so, and here is the good news, by His grace He has made a way for sinners to be reconciled to himself in Christ. Amazingly, He continues to use His church, sinners saved by grace, to carry out His program.

II. God is Omnipotent and nothing will impede his plan: Jesus is building the church (24). We read in v.24, “But the word of God increased and multiplied.” We’ve seen a few similar “summary statements” as Luke presents the unfolding story of the church in the Book of Acts:

Acts 2:46-47   46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 6:7   7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 9:31  31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.

The point has been clear enough: nothing the church faces, not the test of success, not trials from within or persecutions from without, nothing is going to impede the work of Christ in building His church. He is all powerful, His plan will be accomplished, He is building His church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
            “The word of God increased…” i.e. more and more the Good News of Jesus was being proclaimed by the Christ followers.  Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.  Acts of kindness are good but they don’t save anyone. Salvation comes from hearing the gospel and believing it, taking God at His word.
            “…and multiplied…” In 6:7 the same word is used to refer to the number of believers increasing in number.  Remember where Acts started, maybe a couple of hundred believers in Jesus, led by the apostles Jesus had chosen, preaching the message of salvation by grace through faith.  A motley crew entrusted with the task of reaching the world with the Gospel!  There was an explosion of growth and that growth is continuing as the message goes out into every corner of the world.  The world desperately needs to know that God is holy and must punish sin. By His grace He has made a way for sinners to be reconciled to himself in Christ. He continues to use His church, sinners saved by grace, to carry out His program.

III. God is Gracious, and will use redeemed sinners to carry out His program (25). And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.” The ones who are mentioned here are illustrative of some God will use as He carries out His program.
            “Barnabas…” We know little about his past, only that he is described as a good man, full of the Spirit. We know that he was a generous giver, we know the disciples called him “Barnabas,” “Son of encouragement” and we see that character illustrated in the Bible.  We also know that he was from Cyprus, so he may have been viewed as a bit of an outsider, especially by the core of believers in Jerusalem. He was from away, but he didn’t let that impede his willingness to serve. He may have been a foreigner to some, but he loved God and loved people and was available for God use him.
            “Saul” was the zealous rabbi and persecutor of the Christians who came to faith in Christ in Acts 9, on the road to Damascus. So we know that there are some who are converted from an unlikely, un-Christian past, fighting against God when they experience His grace and forgiveness, and who then are used by him in unexpected ways. So you may see someone in your family or your neighborhood who seems like the last person in the world that might get saved, well it could be that He is another Saul of Tarsus, and that God has a wonderful plan for His life.
            “John, who’s other name was Mark…”  John Mark will prove to be an interesting character. He joins Paul and Barnabas for a part of the first missionary journey, but then he abandons the team. A drop out, from a human perspective a failure. When Barnabas wants to welcome him back on the second missionary missionary journey Paul disagrees and they wind up going out separately- Paul didn’t trust him. But God was working in John Mark, and in Paul, and later in his life Paul asked for him to come, saying that he was useful in the ministry.  Forgiveness, grace, restoration, sometimes failure, but as long as God has us in the world He has a plan for us, and God will use us, if we listen, if we confess our sin and our need and come to him, willing and available, He will use us.  Remember the words of Charles Colson: “God doesn’t demand our success, He demands our obedience.”  So these three, a foreigner, a failure, and a fighter against the truth, and God by His grace was able to intervene and use them all. And whatever your background, whatever you have done or become, if you’ll turn to Him in repentance and faith He will use you.

What is God saying to me in this passage? God is holy and must punish sin. By His grace He has made a way for sinners to be reconciled to himself in Christ. He continues to use His church, sinners saved by grace, to carry out His program.

What would God have me to do in response to this passage? This transitional moment in the book of Acts, is an excellent lead in to celebrating the Lord’s Table. We see here the desperate need of humans, the powerful truth of the Gospel, and God’s gracious plan for the church. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  The basic prerequisite to participating in this table is trust in Jesus as your personal Savior and Lord. Do you know Him?  Will you trust Him? And believer, the ordinance is a reminder of the seriousness of sin, all sin is cosmic treason against God. He knows your heart. And He promises that “if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I Jn 1:9).     Think about that,   AMEN.