The Church as a Family of Families

The following message is based on 1 Timothy 3:14-16 and deals with the nature of relationships within the church.  It was preached on January 20, 2013.

Over the past 20 years, there seems to have been a change in the cultural climate.  Life appears to be faster than ever.  Information is limited to sound bytes and headlines.  We live moment to moment.  Jeff Reed describes our society as one that builds into us a mindset about our personal development.

  • We want quick fixes—not long-term solutions
  • We want how to’s—not the ability to think clearly.
  • We want short training—not lifelong learning.
  • We want tantalizing subjects—not serious ordered learning.
  • We want fill-in-the-blank exercises—not reflective writing.
  • We want one-time applications—not serious projects.[1]

Does that resonate with you?  Do you feel that there is a constant push for the immediate, the easy, the short, the entertaining, the shallow?  While this takes place around us, the church is supposed to be the alternative.  The Christian faith is not like that.  Churches try to present the faith as such, but Jesus did not die for our convenience.  He said in Matthew 16:24: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

We continue our study on church health and relationships.  Today, I’ve entitled our message, “The Church as a Family of Families,” based on the small group literature from the Biblical Institute of Leadership Development.  Our Scripture is found in 1 Timothy 3.  This morning, let us ask, “What is the church?”  and “What behavior must be present in those of us who belong to the church?”

Let us consider the two C’s of a health community of faith, that is: Conduct and Confession.  First, let us look at…

THE CONDUCT THAT BEFITS CHRISTIANS

1 Timothy 3:14 says: “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, 15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household….”  Paul uses two words that ought to gain our attention.  The first is “conduct.”  The Greek implies a way of life.  Membership in a local church has certain implications.  It means that members of a congregation treat one another, as they would members of their own homes.  Notice Paul’s words in 1Timothy 5:1-2: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”  The church is not a social gathering for networking or relationships; nor is it a pool of competition to breed jealousy and envy.  Rather, the church is a family where we respect each other, encourage each other and build one another up.  We see each other as created in the image of God.  Each of us is to live complimentary of one another, for the purpose of mutual blessing.

Secondly, we are to care for one another’s needs.  Take for instance, widows in Paul’s day who did not have any family to see after them.  They certainly did not have the luxury of government programs for the aged or under privileged.  The church is to care for such, as 1 Timothy 5:5 says: “The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.”  And verse 16: “If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.”  The church is meant to be a family that looks out for those members uniquely in need.

Thirdly, the church is to be led by godly men who take seriously their callings, skillful at leading their families and having a good reputation.  1 Timothy 3:1: “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”

Why are these things necessary? Because this is what God expects of us.  This is what people need.  This is what is attractive to those outside of the faith.  This is what the church is supposed to be.  Next, let us look at…

THE CONFESSION THAT BEFITS THE CHURCH.

Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:14: “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, 15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”  Last week I mentioned that illustration about leaves.   A brown leaf in winter is a sign that it has fulfilled its mission.  It was here only for a little while to provide pure oxygen and a healthier atmosphere in an otherwise polluted world.  What difference are you making in this place?

Another analogy is that of the pillar.  If you know something about architecture, pillars are used not only for support, but also to project beauty.  Hence, there’s the Corinthian column, the Ionian column, etc.  Churches are collective bodies of Christians, which function as pillars and foundations of the church.  Woe to us if we don’t comment on the spiritual and moral decline of our nation and world.  Our job is to point others authentically to Christ!  We are living sign posts!  We are also known by the love and support we give one another John Stott writes: ‘One of the surest roads to the reform and renewal of the church is to recover its essential identity as “God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”’[2]  To be a church member means something!

A common misconception is that you can have a relationship with God, but be completely separated from His people.  Most recently, I heard actor Dustin Hoffman’s feelings on the subject in response to his dad’s atheism.  He said recently in an interview regarding his lack of religious upbringing: “I remember lying on the grass at night on my back ….  And I would talk to God and I would ask him questions and I would hear his answers. So I kind of made up my own God. I don’t know if it’s correct to have it or not, but organized religion has always (been something that)- I’ve kept a kind of distance from. And I don’t think it has anything to do with your own personal feelings. And in order to please God or to do things moral, to have a morality in order to please God or get into heaven, I have always felt is kind of hypocritical.

I think your morality is your morality and you have it just because that’s the way you want to live your life. Not to get a reward. The reward is in the living itself.[3]  Are we allowed to make up our own God?  Is it right to forsake the assembly of His people?  Is Christianity just another self help approach to life?  What is the problem with this angle?  God does have a specific family; a people for His own possession.  And they are in an organized body called the Church!  1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

That includes a confession that Jesus has changed our lives.  Notice the confession that Paul states concerning the life of Christ in verse 16: “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”  The New American standard uses the words that are actually in the text: “By common confession….”  In other words, these are the things commonly held among believers.  This is the life of Christ in one sentence.

Not long after Paul died, the church began dealing with cults that denied the existence of the Son of God in bodily form.  Therefore, the churches had to affirm that Jesus came in the flesh and that He was the Son of the living God, as Peter confessed at Caesarea Philippi, what we heard read earlier.  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Today, we have considered the two C’s of church health: THE CONDUCT and THE CONFESSION THAT BEFITS THE CHURCH.  According to British demographer David Barrett, the Church is losing 7,600 attendees a day in Europe and North America, That means that every week, more than 53,000 people leave church and never come back. To put that in perspective, consider that the United States lost about 57,500 people in the Vietnam War. In a different sense—though strangely appropriate—the church “loses” almost that many every week.[4]   Could it be that we’ve lost our footing?  Remember 1 Timothy 3:14: “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, 15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. 16 Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”


[1] Jeff Reed, Belonging to a Family of Families, 7.

[2] John Stott, 1 Timothy and Titus: Fighting the Good Fight, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1998), 28.

[4] William Hendricks, Exit Interviews, Revealing Stories of Why People are Leaving the Church, p. 252 found in Fresh Illustrations.

“One Family”

The following message is based on Ephesians 3:1-11 and discusses what the Church is here for.  This message was delievered on January 13, 2013

Have you ever felt like you weren’t being heard?  I recently ran across a cartoon that depicts a couple sharing a moment at a coffee shop.  The man is engaged with his electronic device.  His attention is divided, zeroed-in on his email or Facebook, blocking everyone else out around him.  The woman says: “Do you mind if I strap your phone to my forehead so I can pretend you’re looking at me when I talk?”  In a culture where there are electronic devices to take the place of one-to-one communication, it is important to avoid seeing texting, email and Facebook as a substitute for connecting with a friend or spending time with a family member, or other Christians.

Today, we begin a new sermon series on church health.  The reason why we are doing this series is because it is needed.  On a yearly basis, we must look at how we are doing church, how we are practicing our faith as a collective body.  This particular series presupposes a couple of things.  One is discipleship.  My messages over the next few weeks will be under the assumption that you have made the Lord Jesus Christ, your king and God and that you’ve committed your life to Him; that you’ve been baptized and desire to follow Him.  If not, please see me.  Let’s talk!

I’m also presupposing that you do not see yourself as an independent person.  That you desire meaningful relationships with other Christians.  That you value relationships and you want to be a better Christian.  Today, I want to present to you God’s design for the church, which I’ve entitled our message: “One Family.”  Today I want to talk about the mystery, the ministry and the manifestation of God’s “One Family,” the Church.  First, we learn that…

GOD’S MYSTERY HAS INCLUDED US.

There is a mystery that surrounds the Church as God’s “One Family.”  In Ephesians 3:6, we are introduced to the mystery of God.  In this context, a mystery is something that was hidden for a time, but has now been revealed.  This mystery is mentioned in such places as 1:9: “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment– to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”

And twice in Ephesians 3:4-6: “In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

As the people of God, our Lord has entrusted us with the best news in the world.  That is, God has a plan for the human race in Christ.  Although mankind is separated from God through sin, He has reached out to us in love through the gospel of Jesus to redeem and transform a people of His own possession.  The church was built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ being the chief cornerstone.  If you know anything about architecture, a building cannot stand without a proper foundation.  And the most important piece of the foundation is the cornerstone.

God would have us promote an environment of inclusion without diminishing our doctrine or ethics.  He is calling us to reach out to folks that are both the same as us and different than us. We are here to introduce good news to others that introduces a different world view and a different lifestyle, because Jesus died and rose again. Where else but in the church can you get that?  If we hold on to the unity, church will be diverse.  We have a unity that is pretty remarkable.  Although there are different denominations, various people, diverse races, God has a family in mind.  Heaven is a picture of both unity and diversity.  Note Revelation 5:9: “And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”  God’s mystery has included us.  We also find that…

PAUL’S MINISTRY HAS BLESSED US.

Towards this mystery, Paul was called to preach the message of the gospel.  Verses 8-9 state: “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.”  Paul, arguably the greatest Christian since the founding of the Church, was the “apostle to the Gentiles.”  He went on at least three missionary journeys to carry God’s word to the world.  Having been blessed by that ministry and recipients of the good news of Christ, we, as His people, carry on that ministry of preaching and spreading the word to a needy world.  The world needs the church.  The statistics on the health of the family are pretty shocking.

During 2010, an estimated 3.3 million referrals involving the alleged maltreatment of approximately 5.9 million children were made to CPS agencies. More than 3.6 million children (duplicate count) or just under 3 million children (unique count) were the subjects of one or more reports.1 Of the number of child maltreatment reports in 2010, More than 75 percent (78.3 percent) of victims suffered neglect.[1]  Most of those were children between one and four years old.

The survey of 23,000 high school students, which was conducted by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, reveals that in 2010, 59 percent of students admitted they had cheated on an exam in the past year; Students who copied an Internet document for an assignment stood at 34 percent.  Students who said they lied to a teacher in the past year about something significant stood at 61 percent.  Those who lied to their parents about something significant were 80 percent.  STEALING: In 2010, 27 percent of the students said they had stolen something from a store in the past year. 17 percent said they stole something from a friend in the past year and the percentage who said they stole something from a parent or other relative in the past year was 21percent.

And the saddest statistic is that many so called “Christians” are being more influenced by the world, than by Christ and His word.  The author states that “…more than 60% of the children in our Western churches are failing to continue with the faith as they establish their own households.”[2]

The church is instructed with bringing the true meaning of the gospel to people.  When we get serious about glorifying God, our lives will create relationships by which we can connect with others.

John Calvin knew that the church was central to everything that God did, to such the extent that he said: “You cannot claim God as your father, if the church be not your mother.”  His point is that there is no such thing as an isolated Christian, apart from the presence of a community of faith that aims to educate, encourage and transform its members.

What are people missing out on when they do not affiliate with a local body of Christians?  First of all, the clear preaching and teaching of God’s inspired word.  Do you want to hear from God?  Then you must open yourself to hear from God in His holy word.  It is as Psalm 119:105 says: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”  To this end, I love the Christian Endeavor Pledge, which states: “Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I promise Him that I will strive to do whatever He would like to have me do; that I will make it the rule of my life to pray and to read the Bible every day, and to support the work and worship of my own church in every way possible; and that just so far as I know how, throughout my whole life, I will endeavor to lead a Christian life.”  God’s mystery has included us and Paul’s ministry has blessed us.  Lastly…

THE HOLY SPIRIT’S MANIFESTATION COMPELS US.

The family is God’s idea and personal growth and development is just a couple of ways the family benefits society.  Note Jeff Reed’s definition of God’s design for the church: “God’s design for the local church is for it to be a family of families with strong, intergenerational roots: a powerful force in raising children, in building strong marriages, and in cultivating an intergenerational heritage (faith in God) that grows stronger generation by generation.”[3]

God would have us here for the world.  Someone once said that the church is the only organization on this earth that does not exist for itself.  We are here to reach others and that means to reach out to others, as His ambassadors.  2 Corinthians 5:15: “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. …18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Most recently, Juli Apple had the opportunity to have a 30 minute conversation with a man using the Central’s Community Center.  He wanted to know all about our church.  Another person outside of our church said that the community center is the best thing to happen to this community in a long time.

Another thing that people miss out on by not connecting with the Church is the support that comes from being from others of like mind and faith.  John Donne was a 16th century English poet and Anglican priest.  He wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, …any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” We need each other if we are to be everything God wants us to be.

Michael Griffiths, a well-known missions leader states: “Perhaps sometimes in the West we have lost sight of the importance of these basic Christian communities, and think that churches are merely incidental organizations within institutionalized Christianity.  We think that the gospel tells how an individual may be saved.  Churches are not merely incidental means of grace to help individuals to be saved.  They are not merely temporary providers of care and protection while we are on earth.  God’s long term purpose is to produce a new, beautiful, redeemed human society in which He Himself will dwell.”[4]

So you might ask: Pastor David, what are you saying?  What do you want me to do?  How am I to live differently in light of Ephesians 3 and God’s call to be involved in His administration of including the Gentiles into His spiritual building/administration?  Why not reach out to someone around you?  Why not invite someone to church?  Why not pray for someone?  How about taking an unchurched friend to coffee or lunch?  Or what about reaching out to someone in need?

GOD’S MYSTERY HAS INCLUDED US; PAUL’S MINISTRY HAS BLESSED US; AND THE SPIRIT’S MANIFESTATION COMPELS US.

J. W. Bardsley in his book: Many Mansions, The fading of a leaf is a proof that its work is accomplished and that its mission is fulfilled. The leaves of trees are made subservient by an all-wise Creator to most important ends. One of their chiefest functions is to keep up the purity of the atmosphere. As Christ said of His disciples, ‘Ye are the salt of the earth,’ we might say of them, ‘Ye are the leaves of the world’; your office is to stay the moral pollution which surrounds you and to breathe a healthy and life-giving influence. To have done this is not to have lived in vain.[5]


[1] Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2012). Child Maltreatment 2010: Summary of key findings. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jeff Reed, Belonging to a Family of Families (Ames, IA: BILD International, 1997), 6.

[4] Michael Griffiths, What on Earth Are You Doing?: Jesus’ Call to World Mission.

[5] The Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts, Volume 2, Part 1: Luke through Romans.

“Post Christmas Blues?”

The following message is based on Psalm 90 and discusses our God’s eternality and humankind’s mortality, as we see in another year.  It was given on December 30, 2012.

This week I had the pleasure of having family in from California and Missouri.  We had a great time with our favorite foods, playing games, opening presents, touring Philadelphia, etc.  They all left yesterday and I have to admit, it was a bit of a letdown.  Life must return to normal.  Everybody must go back to work; kids must go back to school.  Reality sets in.  When all of this fun, goodwill and joy come to a screeching halt, if you’re like me, you could experience Post Christmas Blues.

Although we love these things, like food, family and fun, we are also reminded that the true meaning of Christmas is something that should last long past the holiday.  Jesus gives us reason to celebrate with those things we count as blessings.  He is life’s main blessing: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life.”

One of the methods in dealing with post Christmas blues is by having a plan, goal or direction for the new year.  As a new year dawns, what do we want for 2013?  What is life all about?  What direction do we want for our lives?  What is our vision as individuals and as a church?  For part of that answer, we turn to Psalm 90, which speaks of the eternality of God and the frailty of man.  It reminds us that the years are given to us as a gift.  Each one is precious.  We must make the most of them.  How do we do that?

Let’s consider some observations from Psalm 90.  Thought to be written after the tragedy at Kadesh- Barnea, when God denied the Israelites entrance into the Promised Land because of their lack of faith, it is the oldest psalm in the book of Psalms.  Even though the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness, they needed to be reminded of some important lessons.  Man is limited in many ways.  The first of which is…

WE ARE LIMITED BY SPACE, WHILE GOD IS OMNIPRESENT.

This psalm forms the start of book four of the Psalms.  Psalm 90 is entitled: “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.”  Interesting to note that this is the only psalm that is ascribed to Moses.  It “contrasts God’s eternity and human mortality.  Moses seems to pray for God’s blessing on his own generation, doomed to wander in the wilderness.”[1]

Notice verse one: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. 2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  Ironically enough, Moses wrote this psalm during or around the time of the exodus and wilderness wandering.  At a time when the people of God did not have an established home or a place where they could literally “hang their hat,” the prophet sang of how God was their dwelling place, “throughout all generations.”  In His character, in His love and in His identity as their Creator and Father, the Israelites did not have to have an established place, at least for the time being.  This led them to depend on God for everything.  Egypt was a source of food, even though the labor was harsh.  Now, God would be their source of sustenance.

There were several reasons why God took His people through the wilderness.  Consider the following:

  • He would lead them with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.  Exodus 13:21-22
  • He would part the Red Sea for them on their way into the wilderness journey. Exodus 14:13-14
  • They would experience the bitter waters of Marah and then the 12 springs of Elim. Exodus 15:22-27
  • He would show them his provision through the manna and quail.  Exodus 16
  • He would give them the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai as well as other laws I call “respect and responsibility” laws. Exodus 20

Some people are nomadic by nature.  The Kurdish people in the Middle East have no country to call their own.  They have been pushed out of countries such as Turkey and Iraq, so they live in pockets wherever they can.  Others have to leave their homeland because they are forced out.  Maybe it is religious reasons, maybe it is economic reasons.  I remember meeting a man named Abraham from Egypt.  He had made his way to Greece. I asked him why he left his home country.  He said it was because he could not find work.  He was trying to support his family.

This reminds us that sometimes we can get too attached to what is around us.  We don’t stop and consider that the only source of real stability in our lives is God.  It is only through a relationship with Him that the fear about the future can be taken away.

I was reminded of the reason why I celebrate Christmas in the words of Norval Geldenhuys: “Without the coming of Christ we should have no assurance that God really exists as a personal God, perfect in love and mercy, and we should still have been overcome with fear as regards the invisible, the hereafter, the divine and eternal. But thanks be to God that His Son gave Himself to the world in condescending love and became Man, bringing a perfect revelation of God as the Holy and Merciful Lord.”

God is our dwelling place.  Therefore Jesus must be our focus.  Jesus said in John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.”  WE ARE LIMITED BY SPACE, WHILE GOD IS OMNIPRESENT.  Secondly…

WE ARE LIMITED BY TIME, WHILE GOD IS ETERNAL.

This passage also reveals how mankind is incredibly finite.  Notice verse three: “You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. 5 You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning– 6 though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.”

Compared to God, our existence is limited by time and ability.  The book of James describes us as a vapor that is here only for a short while.  James 4:14 tells us: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  Psalm 90:10 says: “The length of our days is seventy years– or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”

In contrast, God is unlimited by time and space.  Notice the way that Peter puts it in 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”  Keil and Delitzsch put it this way: “He is however exalted above all time, inasmuch as the longest period appears to Him very short, and in the shortest period the greatest work can be executed by Him. …A whole millennium appears to God, when He glances over it, just as the yesterday does to us… .”[2]

In other words, adopt Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:21: “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”  Paul saw His life as a commodity for Christ.  He wanted to live on for the sake of his spiritual children, for those in Philippi.  But he knew with these imprisonments, he could, or maybe even would lose His life.  Joy is mentioned in this letter no less than 13 times.  His focus was ministry; ours should be as well.  Tim Tebow recently put things in good perspective when he said: “Your character is who you are as a man and that’s a lot more important… “It’s a football game. That’s one thing, if you’re good or bad at football, but your character and integrity, that’s who you are as a man. That’s a lot more important. … I take that way more serious than I’ll ever take a football game.”[3]  Since our lives are short, how should we make the most of it?  Consider our church’s mission: To love God, serve others and grow disciples.  So I invite you this year to…

 

  • Make the glory of God your goal.
  • Make the love of others your mission.
  • Make your spiritual growth and that of others your passion.

 

This morning, we are limited by space, but God is omnipresent.  Secondly, we are limited by time, but God is eternal.  Consider the following poem as you prepare to start off this year:

 

Another new year now awaits us,

A page that is spotless and white;

New grace, dear Lord, wilt Thou give us,

To watch each new day what we write

Thine all-seeing eye is upon us,

Thine ear hears the words which we speak,

Thy heart knows the impulse which moves us,

Thy mind knows the object we seek.

The days Thou shalt give us in mercy,

We promise to spend to Thy praise;

And may honor, and power and glory

Be Thine, O Thou Ancient of Days![4]

 

 


[1] NGSB, 854.

[2] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume 5: Psalms.

[4] —Author Unknown, Encyclopedia of 15,000 Illustrations: Signs of the Times.

 

A Series of Gifts: Worship

The following message is based on Matthew 2:1-11 and presents the subject of worship, taking the example of the Magi.  Their example reminds us that worship is an action of adoration directed to Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.  It was delivered on Christmas Eve, 2012 at the Central Schwenkfelder Church.

When we reflect on the original Christmas story, many images come to mind.  We think of the manger or stable, because Mary and Joseph could not find a room at the inn.  We think of the shepherds who obeyed the call of the angels to come and find the Christ child.  And of course, there are the wise men.  Magi, as they’re known, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

During this season of Advent, we have been studying those gifts which money cannot buy, that cannot be secured with a credit card or purchased online; those things that are spiritual in nature, which God affords us through Christmas.  Not meant as an exhaustive list, we first looked at forgiveness of sins, then joy; and yesterday assurance.  Tonight we look at a special gift as we focus on Matthew’s account of these men from the East, the Magi, as they are known, to see the significance behind their visit.  Let us look at the gift of worship.

What is worship? Is it a noun?  Is it a service with an organ, hymn books and such on Sundays?  Or is it a verb, an action word?  Maybe most people would assume the former.  But  A.W. Tozer, popular 20th century pastor and writer, defined worship as something that we do when he said this: “Worship is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient Mystery, that Majesty which philosophers call the First Cause, but which we call Our Father Which Art in Heaven.[1]  My aim this afternoon is to remind us of what worship is and why we are here.  It centers on the gift of Jesus.  We see a great example of worship in the actions of the Magi.

These were a group of men that traveled from far away.  They came from the East.  They probably traveled from lands as far away as Babylon, Persian or the Arabian desert.  These Gentile men were influenced by the Old Testament prophecy that a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel (Numbers 24:17).  From the Jews in their land and their own interest in the stars, they knew that they must follow this star that had been so prominent in the night sky.  After days of traveling through the Middle East, they finally reached the birthplace of the king. This particular star would later rest above the town of Bethlehem, where they were probably met by the shepherds, telling them of the angel’s message.  So when they saw the star they knew they had arrived and “…rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

Now look at what these sojourners do when they come upon Christ who was just days old at this time.  Verse 11 tells us that “…they came into the house and saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Mary and Joseph had moved from the stable and are now in a much more comfortable place.  The Magi are let in and they pay their respects to the baby Jesus.  Now we are not to think that they worshipped Jesus like Christians worship Him today.  The NRSV simply says that they “paid homage to Him.”  They certainly recognized him as a monarch.  They knew this little one was the sovereign of Israel, but did they know that His reign occupied the kingdom of God?  God uses their gestures to show us the significance of Christ.  These gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, were no doubt signs of respect and reverence in the ancient Near East.

What is their significance?  Gold has always been a very costly item, the most precious of metals, and at one time measuring the true value of any monetary system.  Frankincense was thought to have been a glittering odorous gum obtained by making incisions in the bark of several trees.  Myrrh was a much valued spice and perfume found in Arabia and a few other places.  Psalm 45:8 tells us of the dress of the king: “All Thy garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia;”   In other words, all three of these gifts were expensive and given by the Magi to the newborn King.

Matthew 2:11 states: “And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” The Greek term is proskunew which means: “to fall down and worship, to prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, or welcome respectfully.  The Persians had a custom of prostrating oneself before a person and kissing his feet, the hem of his garment, the ground, etc. before their deified king.[2]

This reminds us that true worship involves self-abasement, self sacrifice, and self-denial.  It has nothing to do with the right genre of music or a sermon that happens to be entertaining.  Although God did not call us to be boring, we who participate in worship (the entire congregation) must keep in mind that God is the center of attention.  Worship is an action directed towards Him.  It is not an event that we attend like a football game or a hockey match.  It involves adoration, praise.  It is not entertainment.  It is more than just a service; it is a lifestyle.  The attention is on God!

Every person is religious; we all worship something.  For some, it may be an image; for others, it may be themselves.  Still for others, it may be a drive for success, the accumulation of wealth.  And there are those that worship pleasure, the satisfaction of our appetites, whatever that might be.  I recently asked a college-age friend of mine what were the idols on his campus.  He said: “gold, girls and glory.”  As I said yesterday, God has created each of us with a hole in our soul that can only be filled by Him.  We might try to fit other things in there, but we will never be truly satisfied unless we come to Christ and are reconciled to Him.

One of the interesting things in this story is that the title that the Magi gave Jesus, is what would later hang above Jesus’ head as He hung on the cross: King of the Jews.  As a type of irony, to prove God’s endorsement of His one and only Son, He was called “King of the Jews” at His birth and at His death!

In contrast to the Magi, you have Herod.  King Herod was not really concerned about the birth of Christ, as you can read later in his slaughter of the innocents.  He was probably disturbed out of insecurity and jealousy.  Herod was a ruthless king.  Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian writes this epitaph:  “A man he was of great barbarity toward all men equally, and a slave to his passions…”[3]

What can we learn from such things?  Certainly this: that those closest to the means of grace, and those that should have the best understanding of God, are sometimes far from Him.  And those that we might least suspect would have a desire for him, are sometimes the hungriest.  The magi, traveled from far away to worship the King of the Jews.  The whole of the Scribes and Pharisees were close by, yet showed no desire to investigate the birth of Christ.  And even when they were exposed to Jesus’ teaching, never responded in as much to leave their own comfort zone, and yet they knew the most.

Some of us who have attended church all of our lives run the risk of losing our passion for Christ.  We think that we’ve “heard it all before.”  We might be the most susceptible to “missing the boat.”  Then there are those that have lived apart from Christ all of their lives.  When they hear the gospel for the first time, it appears as how it was meant- revolutionary.  J.C. Ryle, English pastor of the late 19th century said: “Let us beware of resting satisfied with head-knowledge.  It is an excellent thing, when rightly used.  But a man may have much of it, and yet perish everlastingly.  What is the state of our hearts?  This is the great question.”[4]

Christ is worthy of our worship, just as He was worthy of theirs.  He is Lord and king and we must recognize Him as such.      Back then the Magi gave Him gifts.  Jesus then gave His life.  Today, He asks us if we would give Him our lives.  Communion is a symbol of that exchange, where we recognize His gift and we offer ourselves back to Him.  The bread represents His body.  The cup represents His blood.  This is why belieivers often recite the Apostle’s Creed on communion Sundays, a statement that provides a summary of what it taught in the New Testament.  Communion is also a time of confession and rededication.   As we partake of the symbols together, let us remember all that Christ has done for us.


[1] A.W. Tozer, quoted in D.J. Fant, A.W. Tozer, Christian Publications, 1964, p. 90.

[2] BAGD, 716-17.

[3] The Works of Josephus (Ant., XVII, viii, 1).

[4] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), 11.

“A Series of Gifts: Assurance”

The following message is taken from Luke 1:26-38, the passage which tells of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, telling her of God’s special plan for the birth of Christ.  It was preached on December 16 and 23, 2012.

 

What is assurance?  Webster’s uses such words as security, a being certain in the mind, confidence of mind or manner; easy freedom from self-doubt or uncertainty.  Today, people place their assurance in many places.  Some put their assurance in government, whoever holds office.  Some put their assurance in their education or career, their ability to make money. Others put their assurance in relationships- whether it is in a child or a spouse or a friend.  When these relationships dissolve, they feel lost and alone.  This past week, the parents of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, sent their children off to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, school fully expecting to see them at the end of the day.  Tragically, they could not be assured of this.

But do any of these destinations for our assurance please God?  At a strategic time in their history, Israel sought an unhealthy alliance with the Egyptians.  Isaiah 31:1 states: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD.”  Before then; and since then, God has been showing man that He must realize his own self abasement and that He is desperately in need of God for his life to have meaning and purpose. God has created each of us with a void that can only be filled by Him.

This could have been the thoughts of the young Virgin Mary, before she was visited by the angel Gabriel to announce her role in bearing the Christ child. This morning, let us consider this event and see that yet another gift that Jesus came to give was and is assurance.  We first learn that…

ASSURANCE COMES ONLY FROM GOD.

Note Luke 1:26: “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’  “But she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be.”  After the angel Gabriel approaches Mary, she was scared to death.  Fear is a real part of life.  Mary was afraid when she encountered the angel.  But notice that the angel dispels her fear by informing her that she is being picked for a very special role in the plans of God.  Verse 30: ‘And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.

This brings up the interesting roles of angels.  An angel tops some of your Christmas trees in your homes.  What place do they have in the Christmas story?  Last week, we saw how the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Christ.  “Do not fear, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all the people….”  Here we see the role of Gabriel, one of God’s special angels.  Let us be reminded of the role of angels.  They are given the task of announcing, providing protection, and service. As Hebrews 1:14 teaches, they are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.

Here, the angel would tell Mary that she was a special individual in the plans of God.  She is not our co-redemptrixt, as some churches teach.  Nor is she to be the recipient of our prayers.  We pray to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; not another human being.  But Mary is the mother of the Lord Jesus and a willing servant to the things of God.  She was a woman of incredible faith.  Her statement in verse 38 is a statement we should all adopt for our lives: “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Just as Mary needed God’s assurance, we do too.  Through a colleague of mine, he received this quote from someone in the ministry: “When bad things like this happen, people ask, “why doesn’t God do something?”  Well, He did.  He sent Jesus.  It is our job to let them know.” Not only do we find that assurance comes from God, next, we discover that…

REAL ASSURANCE IS FOUND ONLY IN JESUS.

What will happen is listed in verse 30.  This explains who Jesus is.  First of all, “He will be great.”  Secondly, “He will be called the Son of the Most high.”  Then there are two statements that attribute the office of the Messiah to Jesus.  “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.  His kingdom will have no end.”  There is tremendous Jewish significance in this statement.  I mentioned last week that in the first century, there was a sense of anticipation for Jews surrounding the coming of the Messiah.  He was seen as a rescuer, a political figure that would come and crush God’s enemies, particularly the Romans.  But Jesus is a different type of Savior.  He saves from the guilt and power of sin.

This citation is a reference from the book of Daniel, 7:13.  It says: “I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. 14 “And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”  Many times, Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man.  That was because He fulfilled this reference in the book of Daniel as God’s unique Son.

Christians live with the knowledge that God is upon His throne.  He reigns perfectly.  He will right every wrong and bring justice to the earth one day.  Although I experience heinous crimes, disease, disappointment and stress in this life, God has so ordered my existence that my comfort is not the main objective, but that I may be formed to be more like Christ, so that I can live and reign with Him when He returns.  Paul wrote in Romans 7:24: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God– through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

There are those things to be afraid of; but our fear should be diminished by the assurance that we have in Christ.  Listen to the following testimony by Subal Dang from India.  He writes of Bhubaneswar, a city in central India, where 1.9 million people live.  “Bhubaneswar is mostly Hindu.  Nearly 95% of the surrounding Orissa State is Hindu.  This perspective dominates the government, and it can make it difficult to be a Christian at times.  The radical Hindu groups are the most dangerous.  In 2008 there was some very significant violence directed toward Christians in my area. Some Christians were killed, churches were burned, and many lost their homes and property.

This continues in Orissa where Christians still live in a state of insecurity and danger.  Sometimes government food supplies that should be distributed among the poor are not delivered to the Christians.  In some villages Christian children are not allowed access to government schools.  The former archbishop of the Catholic Church in the Orissa region, Raphael Cheenath has said: “There is no violence, but there is no peace.  About 16,000 families have no homes and Christians are not allowed to return to 20 villages unless they convert to Hinduism.  In many villages in Kandhamal, Christians live with mistreatment and humiliation every day. They are not allowed to take water from the village well, collect firewood, or buy food from shops.  The authorities do nothing to prevent such abuse, even if we have made complaints. Their silence is disturbing.”

Christmas remains one of the most exciting times for Christians even with threats in nearby regions.  It is a time to send cards or give gifts to friends and family.  On Christmas Day, almost all families will go to church services in the morning.  Afterwards there will be a time of feasting for the entire church.  In the evening on December 25, Christians will gather at the church and dance, sing, act our plays, or perform comic routines.  We will also act out Bible stories such as Jesus’ birth.

Christmas is also a time for more intense spiritual discipline in for Christian in my part of the world.  Some people like to fast during this time.  They may fast for 2-3 days around Christmas.  Others will devote themselves to special prayer times.  Some will pray for the gospel message to reach the world or for peace.  Others pray for the gospel ministry in India, especially since other religious groups are more open to the Christian message.

Fear and joy were a part of the very first Christmas.  The angel told (Mary) not to fear because she had found favor with God.  This Christmas, I hope that you, too, will seek favor with God.  If you are feeling fear, being in the center of God’s will is the best place to be.[2]

This morning, we have found that assurance is comes from God and found only in Jesus.  This means that assurance is possible, regardless of our contexts or the experiences we face.  God has created us in such a way that real assurance can only be found in knowing Him.  Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century church father, said: “…because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”[3]

 

A Series of Gifts: Good News!

The following message is based on Luke 2:8-21, when the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus.  It was delievered on December 9, 2012

An announcement is news made public.  Announcements are as useful to today as they were 2,000 years ago.  They come in varied mediums, whether they come across the ticker at the bottom of the television screen, over an intercom, or on the front page of the newspaper.  An announcement is meant to inform or prepare us. Some announcements are good; others are disappointing, still others are devastating.  In Brenda Warner’s book, One Call Away, the author writes of different times in her life when a phone call brought her to the brink.  For instance, a healthy baby tragically injured in the bathtub; a sudden end to a career she loved; betrayal and divorce; poverty; public humiliation; a deadly natural disaster that destroyed her foundation and shook her to her core. In response, she chose to rely on the Lord Jesus Christ and realized that He had a plan through it all.  Announcements can be life-changing.

Luke 2:10 contains most likely the greatest announcement of all time. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”  The scene takes place on the day of or shortly after Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  Some shepherds were in the field outside of the city, watching their flocks.  It is interesting that God chose shepherds to announce the birth of his Son. Shepherds were among the working class of the first century.  They were dirty and smelled of their jobs.  They were not necessarily a prestigious class.  Hard work and poverty can be depressing.  These were people that could’ve probably used some good news.

This announcement comes to them and at first, they are filled with fear.  Another translation states that they were “terrified.”  This was due to the awesome presence of the angelic majesty.  But the angel tells them “do not be afraid.”  For they are about to be given good news of great joy that shall be for all the people.  Shepherds were a good example of that inclusiveness that makes Christmas and Easter and Christianity so special.  The gospel is for every man, woman, boy and girl, regardless of background, skin color, vocation or caste.

The reason that they would not give way to fear is that this announcement was a source of good news that produced great joy.  Our world is desperate for good news.  If we pick up our local newspapers or turn on the radio, or watch the television, we find despair abounds.  Natural disasters, disease, and violence are common.  Love seems to be a premium in our world today. But the angels said this would be good news for all people.  Jesus would come as the world’s only Savior.

In the first century, there was a sense of anticipation for Jews surrounding the coming of the Messiah.  He was seen as a rescuer, a political figure that would come and crush God’s enemies, particularly the Romans.  But Jesus is a different type of Savior.  He saves from the guilt and power of sin.  Remember what the angel said to Joseph as we studied last week from Matthew 1:20: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

In order to appreciate the good news, you must first understand the bad news.  Each one of us has disobeyed God from birth.  Since the fall of humankind, not one of us was taught how to lie, how to be selfish, or how to steal.  We do that naturally.  R.C. Sproul says: “We are not sinful because we sin; we sin because we are sinful.”  Since the God of the universe is perfect in character, all sin greatly offends Him.  But God, looking upon our plight, sent us one who would deliver us from such a dilemma.  This is why Jesus is called the Savior.

This message is becoming more dear to those who believe it and more repulsive to those who hate it.  Consider the words of the late new atheist Christopher Hitchens: “. . . I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

Do you need good news today?  Consider this!  God did something for you many years ago that you could never do for yourself.  He sent His one and only Son Jesus to this earth to save you from sin’s guilt and power.  When you could never erase the guilt of your disobedience, Christ did it for you when He died on the cross.  For those who would turn from their sin and put their trust in Him, Jesus not only forgives us, but grants us eternal life, regardless of your race, your gender or your assets.  Maybe you have no church affiliation, or at least you have not taken God or church very seriously. You may have even said: “That’s not for me; only for religious people.”Could it be because you’ve not looked at Christmas as good news?

Consider where Jesus was born.  Bethlehem is a humble place, a bedroom community of Jerusalem.  We are told of its modesty in Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Today, Bethlehem is small and relatively dirty.  There’s not much is taking place there.  But God often uses the small and insignificant to prove His incredible power.

The fact that Jesus was born in a manger would be a sign for the shepherds.  Why this sign?  Because not many babies are born in a manger.  A manger was a feed trough.  It was not a place to lay a child.  But because the accommodations were not afforded Joseph and Mary, they were born where cattle are kept.  This sign would be another indication of the humility of Christ coming to our world and identifying with us.

Consider Christmas in other parts of the world.  Hear this from Alta Mene, a young man from Albania.  He stated: “While there were many Communist countries surrounding us during the time of the Cold War, were unique.  We were the only one to declare publicly our country to be atheist.  We did so in 1971 under our leader Enver Hoxha.  He told us that Islam had been the religion of the Turkish occupier.  Orthodoxy was the religion of the Greeks, and Catholicism was the religion of the Italian invaders and Austrian imperialism.  It was better just to be Albanian, which he meant to be without any religion.

He did many other things in our country.  Besides declaring our nation to be atheist, he closed our borders.  As a result of his policies, my country became very isolated from other nations.  Nobody could enter or leave.

My father saw the effects of Enver Hoxha’s reign on the Christian community.  He witnessed many attacks on the church.  For example, as a ten year old, he witnessed the destruction of a Catholic Church in the city of Lac.  The local Communist party leader led a group of 200-300 people armed with sledgehammers to demolish the large Church there.  The leader whipped people into a frenzy, invoking nationalistic feelings leading to the destruction of the building.  My father heard stories from this time that some in the crowd were scared.  Others felt that the icons within the church were even shedding tears.  It was a sad memory for him.

My father served as a captain in the Albanian army.  His responsibility was to protect the borders of Albania.  His specific job was to listen for broadcasts indicating an American invasion.

While on duty listening to radio communications, my father came to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Instead of paying attention to possible American messages about an invasion of Albania, he decided to listen to a radio broadcast from Trans World Radio.  This organization transmits the Christian message by radio into countries where it might otherwise not be heard.  The broadcast to which he was listening came from Monaco, a small country near Italy.

His decision to listen to this broadcast instead of doing his military duty could have put our family in great danger.  If my father had been caught listening to the TWR message, he could have been thrown into prison or he could have lost his life.  He was not caught, however, and after listening to several broadcasts, he eventually put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  This changed our entire family’s life and also the Christian community.

During the reign of Enver Hoxha, we could not celebrate Christmas publicly.  The government wanted all celebrations to be on the New Year.  For example, we did not have Christmas trees.  Instead, they were called New Year’s trees.

People were encouraged to gather with their families at New Year and have a family meal.  The government even doubled the meat ration for that week.  Christians, however, still celebrated Christmas.  We did so secretly with a family meal.

Now that Communist times are over, Christmas is a time of great celebration in the church in Albania.  On December 24, our entire church gathers for feasting, music, and dancing.  The following morning we have a worship service.  In the afternoon on Christmas Day, there is a time to spend with family.

God called the shepherds years ago.  They brought their sheep and lambs to Jesus and it reminds me of how the small and humble person can come and know Jesus.  When God acts and calls His people they will come, no matter what man may say.  For years our country refused God, but His call is stronger still!” [1]


[1] Drake Williams, Joy of the World, 45-48.

A Series of Gifts: Forgiveness

The following message is based on Matthew 1:18-25 which tells us of the angel’s message to Joseph.  It was delivered on December 2, 2012.

Christmas is the season of giving.  Some gifts are those we find in a department store, in a catalog or online.  Others are such that a pricetag cannot be placed upon them.  Consider the following story.

Louis Pasteur, the pioneer of immunology, lived at a time when thousands of people died each year of rabies.  Pasteur had worked for years on a vaccine.  Just as he was about to begin experimenting on himself, a nine-year-old, Joseph Meister, was bitten by a rabid dog.  The boy’s mother begged Pasteur to experiment on her son. Pasteur injected Joseph for ten days- and the boy lived.

Decades later, of all the things Pasteur could have had etched on his headstone, he asked for three words: JOSEPH MEISTER LIVED.  For Pasteur, it was just one physical life, who by the way, ended up dying of something else eventually.  But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, millions will be able to live eternally through faith in Him.

The highest honor of any believer is to bear the title: “Christian”, because it recalls the One who laid down his life for us.  But it is not just a name.  It is a name associated with a deed.  It speaks of what Jesus did for you and me.  Although much of America and the western world equates Christmas with materialism, I would like for us to consider the spiritual blessing we who are Christians have because of Jesus and His coming.  The one gift that I would like to elaborate on is forgiveness.  For that, we turn to Matthew chapter one.

CHRISTMAS CELEBRATES THE GIFT OF JESUS.

Matthew 1 gives us the scene of Joseph, a righteous man, engaged to Mary.  Both are from the village of Nazareth.  Notice that verse 18 states: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”

The fact that Mary was pregnant and was probably beginning to “show” should have bothered Joseph.  He was betrothed to Mary.  He was considered to be “her husband (verse 19).”  And yet, there was only one thing he could assume: Mary had been unfaithful.

Jewish betrothal was something serious.  The only way a betrothal could be disestablished was divorce.  To proceed with the marriage, would have meant Joseph was immoral.  To divorce Mary openly would have subjected her to shame, ridicule, and in the most extreme cases, possible death by stoning.  But Joseph was just and merciful.  He sought to do the most inconspicuous of things.  The Scripture says in verse 19: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”

The birth of Jesus tells us that at the heart of Christianity is a belief in the miraculous, that God can do the impossible.  It is truly supernatural that one could be born not from two parents, but through the power of God wrought upon a young woman of just 15 years of age.  That is the definition of a miracle: the author of creation intercepting the natural order to perform something that is truly supernatural. How did this happen?  It is unexplainable, as other miracles are.

And yet, it was something that was foretold nearly 700 years before Jesus came.  The prophet Isaiah foretold of a virgin that would bear a child.  His name would be Immanuel.  It took the angel to relate this to the skittish Joseph, as he told of the special circumstances surrounding our Lord’s birth.  Then he gave the reason:  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.”  What we have in verse 22 is a fulfillment formula that Matthew uses 12 times, to specifically state that the life of Christ fulfills what God promised hundreds of years before.

The virgin birth is more than just a theological tenet.  Rather it speaks of God who came to us as one of us.  I’ve heard it said that Jesus was the missionary “par excellence.”  All missionaries leave their home country, travel to a distant land, learn the language and the customs of its citizens before they start to minister to the people and spread their message.  Jesus set the standard of such activity, when He left throne in heaven and came to dwell among us.  Paul wrote in Philippians 2:6 that Jesus: “…made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”

What is your response to such a gesture?  Does it inspire you?  Does it humble you?  The fact that God became one of us, to minister to us- does that not do something for you?  Is that not a loving thing to do?

CHRISTMAS ALSO CELEBRATES THE GIFT OF FORGIVENESS.

Notice how the angel instructed Joseph to name Mary’s son.  Matthew 1:21 “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”  The meaning of Jesus’ name ties into His ultimate mission.  The meaning of that term is Savior.[1]  Jesus’ name is a Greek equivalent to the Hebrew name: “Joshua.”  Although many were called “Joshua,” which means “The Lord saves,” only Jesus was given the name with an Old Testament reference to Psalm 130:8: “And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” There is deep significance in the name “Jesus.”  Listen to what D.A. Carson says about the name of Jesus.  “It was no doubt divine grace that solicited Mary’s cooperation before the conception and Joseph’s cooperation only after it.  Here Joseph is drawn into the mystery of the incarnation.  Mary was told Jesus’ name (Luke 1:31); but Joseph was told both name and reason for it.”[2]

The reason for His name is given by the angel: “…for He will save His people from their sins.”  The Greek term is swzw which is put in the future form and means: “to preserve from eternal death and judgment.[3]  This is reiterated by Jesus Himself in Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which is lost.”  And 1 Timothy 1:15: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

When we read what the Bible says about being “saved” we are to understand as a comprehensive process based on Jesus’ miraculous mission.  It involves a person recognizing the moral mistakes they’ve made in their lives; that such things have offended God, recognizing that Jesus came in order that we might be forgiven of those offenses and that by turning from our sin and placing our trust in Him, we are reconciled to God.  This is what the Bible means by being saved.

This is God’s plan for your life.  The Barna Research group revealed the results of a survey several years ago that found that 46% of all men and 40% of all women are still hunting for life’s plan.  Could it be that we are hunting and searching, for a needle in a haystack, while God has made it plain to us through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ?

The following is a testimony from one of Dr. Drake’s students from China, Keran Wang.  She writes: “I grew up in China without hearing about the Christian faith.  China has been influenced by Confucianism for centuries, and it still exerts influence today. This way of thinking has nothing to say about sin, wrong, or evil.  For the Confucians, each person is created good.  Someone becomes bad or evil only when that one comes into contact with evil things, but education in virtue can prevent evil.   Good education in virtue will create genuinely good people, and then in turn this will make a good society.”

“Confucian teachings, however, are not the only beliefs within China.  Communism now also exerts influence throughout my home country.  Communism encourages people to devote their lives to the state.  Christianity gets in the way.  Because Communists are fearful of the Christian influence in China, they try to control it.  Christians are advised to go to state registered churches, while other churches have to hide themselves to avoid possible persecution.”

“I became a Christian when I moved to the Netherlands.  At Christmas time in 2003 I realized that I needed Jesus as my Savior.  While I had been taught many other ways to believe throughout my life, I came to realize that my wrongdoing could not be excused by education or overcome by devotion to the state.  Instead, I needed to have my sins wiped away by Jesus.  He was the only one who could forgive me and grant me life.”[4]

Each one of us must know that forgiveness and transformation is found in a person- that person is Jesus.  It is not a philosophy or an ideology.  Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we could receive but it takes a formal reception, which is asking Christ to rule and reign in your life, turning from sin and seeking His forgiveness.


[1] New Geneva Study Bible, 1506.

[2] D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: “Matthew,” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 75.

[3] BAGD, 798c.

[4] Drake Williams, Joy of the World:31 International Christmas Devotionals, 8-11.

“Great Service”

The following message is based on Mark 10:35-45 and covers the topic of pride and service within the Christian life.  It was preached at the Palm Schwenkfelder Church in Palm, PA on  October 21, 2012 for Schwenkfelder Ministerium Pulpit Exchange.

How do we define “greatness?”  With any word, there is often the world’s definition, then the Bible’s definition.  According to Webster’s, greatness is defined as chief or preeminent over others —often used in titles.  We witness people striving for greatness and notoriety on such popular shows as “American Idol,” “Britain’s Got Talent,” and “The Voice.”  And then there are examples from history.  Take, for instance, Alexander the Great, who before his death at the young age of 32 conquered much of the known world, from Greece to the Himalayas during the 4th century B.C.  He was undefeated in battle and considered one of the most successful commanders ever.

Usually, we define greatness as having to do with money, power and accomplishment.  Mohammed Ali often referred to himself as “the Greatest.”  Coach Urban Meyer has referred to Tim Tebow, his quarterback at the University of Florida from 2006 to 2009 as “GOAT,” which stands for “Greatest of All Time.”  These definitions usually have to do with money, power and accomplishment.

Then there is the Biblical definition, which Jesus gives in our passage today.  His meaning will surprise you.  We first learn that…

GREATNESS IS NOT MEASURED BY POSITION OR POWER.

Earlier in chapter 10, Jesus discussed how hard it was for the rich to enter the kingdom.  It is a call to forsake all things for the gospel (verse 30).  Notice His words in verse 31: “Many who are first, will be last; and the last, first.”   Jesus tells of His impending death in 32-34.  He tells His disciples that He is headed to Jerusalem and that He will be brought trial, and that He will die at the hands of sinful men.  This is the third time that Jesus predicts His imposing death.  As His followers, we must know that Jesus’ death was something necessary and by God’s design.  It was according to the Father’s plan and foreknowledge (Acts 2:23).  The disciples failed to understand its necessity or its enormity.

James and John approach Jesus, asking to sit at places of honor and authority.  There is quite a contrast in the nature of the subject preceding and the question asked by James and John in verse 35: “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” 36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37 And they said to Him, “Grant that we may sit in Your glory, one on Your right, and one on Your left.”  These were two men who walked closely to Jesus.  Peter, James and John were the threesome that Jesus invested the most time in.  They were the “Sons of Thunder.”  James and John were brothers, the sons of Zebedee.  It makes one think that what Jesus said did not sink in.

The disciples’ status and rank were discussed earlier in 9:34.  This is possibly a continuation of former times when they asked for special privileges when Jesus would rule, as was assumed that the Messiah would do after ousting the Romans.  When my child wants something, he or she asks me.  If he wants it more, he asks 2 or 3 times.  Or if they are really desperate, they can be downright incessant.  They envisioned an earthly kingdom that ran according to human norms.  David Garland notes: “The Zebedee brothers are not asking for the honor of being crucified with Jesus.  What they really expect is a kingdom for themselves, where they can impose their own will on others.[1]  They had it in their own minds what “greatness” was.

But Jesus turns their definition on its head by saying: “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to Him, “We are able.”  Cup and baptism are used to represent experiences that qualify for this place.  The cup is a metaphor for suffering.  “The cup,” was a cup of wrath.  That’s why Jesus prayed in the Garden in Matthew 26:39:  “”My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”  What’s the talk of baptism?  Here the word is used as a form of identification, that with calamity.  Jesus would be plunged into adversity.  The way of Jesus is one of suffering.  Garland writes: “The way of Jesus is self-giving service.  They are not to be on the receiving end of service but on the giving end.”[2]

Verse 40- “But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  These positions were not for Jesus to grant, but only the Father.  Only to those for whom it has been prepared.  Yet, many of the disciples would die a martyr’s death.  Peter would be crucified upside down.  James would be thrown off the temple roof.  Andrew would be crucified.  Paul would be beheaded.  The way of an apostle was hard and difficult.  And yet, all of them went down in the annals of history as being great men!  Greatness is not measured by position or power.  Secondly…

GREATNESS IS MEASURED BY ATTITUDE AND ACTION.

At this request, we read in verse 41 that the others felt indignant towards James and John.  Jesus uses it as a springboard to teach His disciples about greatness.  He says: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 “But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

He says that greatness is measured by servant hood; by serving others.  A few years ago, Central Church adopted a mission statement.  This is a short, concise sentence that tells what we are about and what we aspire to be about in our world and community.  It is simply to Love God, to serve others and to grow disciples.  Compare this with the secular and pagan world:  Rulers of the Gentiles lord over their authority.  Some of you may have caught the recent program on Caligula, the Roman emperor.  He was a harsh ruler, suspected of being insane.  He would go after his own family members and had them executed if he suspected them of treason.  Caligula had his family members put to death.  He wanted to be worshipped; and he decided to rule ruthlessly, with an iron fist in order to be revered as a god.  Caligula believed that in order to be great, you must become a god.  Jesus taught, in order to become great, you must become a servant.

In this background, Jesus introduces a bit of an antithesis: to be great, you must be a servant; to be first, you must be a slave.  This mindset is also listed in Philippians 2:3.  Here, Paul writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”

Jesus is our ultimate example of service.  Here was the greatest, Who became the lowliest, for our sake.  Notice verse 45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Garland states: “Jesus has told his disciples that he must die, but this is the only passage in Mark that tells us why he must die: He ‘gives His life as a ransom for many. ‘The term ‘ransom,’ was used for compensation for personal injury or a crime, for purchasing the freedom of an enslaved relative.  And for the price paid as an equivalent for the sacrifice of the firstborn.  In extrabiblical sources, it referred to the amount paid to free a slave or prisoner, redeem a pledge, or reclaim something owned.

I was brought face to face with something extraordinary recently.  My wife and I visited the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Franklin Institute last weekend.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered by accident in 1947, is the single most critical literary discovery of our modern times.  Before the discovery, the oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Bible dated to around 1,000 A.D.  But the Scrolls uncovered portions of the Old Testament that predated Christ.  As I got in line to look at these darkened pieces of parchment under glass, one was a portion of Isaiah 53:11-12, dated to the year 1 A.D., around the time of Jesus’ birth.  It said: “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.”  Christ gave His life to ransom us from sin’s slavery.  He set us free to serve God.  Aren’t we glad that Jesus gave His life as a ransom for us!  Friends, that’s you and me.

What about us?  Are we making the most of the opportunities God places in front of us to serve others?

Today, we’ve been reminded that greatness is not measured by position or power, but by attitude and action.  In Christ, there was no polished rhetoric.  Only words backed up by actions.  Directly after this incident, Jesus heals Bartimaeus, Son of Timaeus.  This man, calls out to Jesus, saying, “Jesus, Son of David (anointed one, king of Israel, the heir of the house of David), asks: “What do you want me to do for you?”

It was the great Martin Luther King, Jr. that said: You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You don’t have to know Plato and Aristotle.  You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”[3]


[1] David E. Garland, “Mark,” The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 411.

[2] Garland, 413.

[3] Garland, 417.

A New Identity

The following message is based on Ephesians 4.17-24 and deals with the change of lifestyle that a Christian encounters by grace through faith.  It was preached at the Central Schwenkfelder Church on Reformation Sunday, October 28, 2012

The United States Marshall Service operates what some of us know as the Witness Protection Program.  In this program, the Marshall Service would go to great lengths to protect valuable witnesses to key federal trials in the United States.  The Marshall Service would do everything from changing the person’s name to granting them a new place to live to giving them a new occupation to even giving the witness stories to tell their families if anyone should ask about their whereabouts.

Become a Christian involves a change in identity, a transformation from being one kind of person to another.  A person undergoes a radical identity change when he becomes a believer.  Everything about their old lifestyle is laid aside and a new manner of living becomes evident.  This is because of a new mindset they are given, as the Holy Spirit works in their lives.  On this Reformation Sunday, let us turn to Ephesians 4:17 and see about Paul’s introduction of “A New Identity.”

ONE CHARACTERISTIC OF AUTHENTIC CHRISTIAN FAITH IS THAT WE ARE NOT LONGER TO BE INFLUENCED BY THE WORLD AROUND US.

Notice what Paul says in verse 17: “This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.”  Walking is a metaphor used to describe a lifestyle.  Paul lists several things here that are characteristic of the Gentile world of his day and are true of unregenerate people today.  As believers, we are not to walk (live and/or think) like this.  It is a constant casting aside of the old sinful nature.  Although we live in the world, we are not of the world.  First, they are known by their ignorance.  This is spiritual ignorance.  It does not have to do with social graces.  It does not imply money or etiquette.  A person can have those things, yet still suffer from being spiritually unaware.

It reminds me of the story of a pastor who minister in New Orleans’s French Quarter.  He made it his habit to walk down the street and speak to shop owners.  On one of his walks, he noticed a man who happened to be wearing a cross around his neck.  When asked why he wore such a piece of jewelry, the man said: “Oh, I just think it looks nice.”  The pastor went on to relate the gospel message to this businessman, much to his disinterest.

A week or so later a, violent hurricane was approaching the area and the pastor took another walk down the same street.  This time, he noticed everyone boarding up their storefronts and apartments.  The store-owner spotted the clergyman and rushed out to him quite nervously, gripping the cross necklace and asked: “Preacher, Preacher, how does this thing work again?”  Unbelievers sometimes don’t understand the gospel message because of a lack of interest and spiritual ignorance.  Some don’t accept the message of the good news because they do not know any better.  The Bible is quite plain in teaching that it takes the Spirit of God to affect a person’s heart and open them up to the things of Christ.  God has to illuminate the mind and the heart to be receptive to these things.

Another thing than characterizes an unregenerate person is their hardness of heart.  Paul lists this as one of the badges of the Gentiles in Verse 18.  What is a hard heart?  It implies that one is so callous to the things of God that they want very little to do with Him.  They are angry at God for not giving them what they feel they are owed.  Some have claimed agnosticism out of default.  These have said that they do not know if there is a god.  But if there is, they believe in a rather small god that only exists to do things for us; never to keep us accountable, or who could create the universe in six days.  And those that are hardened against God are usually hardened against people.  They become antisocial to the point that nothing can make them happy.  They don’t believe in anything except themselves; and even then they have their doubts.

ANOTHER CHARACTERISTIC OF AUTHENTIC CHRISTIAN FAITH IS THAT WE ARE CHANGED.

To these things the Christian is encouraged to lay aside the old man; to leave the ignorance and hard- heartedness that can suck the joy and purpose out of life.  Notice what Paul says in verse 20: “But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind,”

All of us have behavior that we left at the time that Christ came into our lives, if Christ, has in fact, come into our lives.  Some of us still struggle with putting off that old sinful nature and completely laying it aside.  Some of us had behavior before we were saved that could utterly destroy our lives if we dove back in it today.  As born again Christians, we must continually put off the “old man,” that former way of living.  If I came to church wearing an old stinky sweatshirt and jeans that had dirt caked into the fibers, you would say: “Man, go change!  Go get a shower!”  In the nostrils of God, our bad behavior has a stench associated with it.  But thank God that He is able to constantly cleanse us and renew us according to the power of the Holy Spirit.  Romans 13:12 states: “The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.”

A key catalyst to this laying aside of the old and putting on the new is to be renewed in our minds.  Romans 12:2 states: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Some ways in which to be renewed in the spirit of our minds are to expose ourselves to those things which renew us.  Things like prayer, Scripture reading and serving others.  Anything that would encourage us to reflect on what it means to follow Christ.

Dietrich Bonheoffer was a Lutheran pastor and seminary professor that suffered imprisonment during WW II in Germany.  He started a seminary where the first two hours of every day was spent with students and faculty participating in spiritual exercise.  That in turn produced discipline and renewal that gave them stamina to persevere during the most difficult of times.

Today is Reformation Sunday.  This Protestant movement of the 16th century was a recovery of the authority of the Bible in all aspects of faith.  The five solas teach us that Christianity is a series of five “onlys.”  These are sola scriptura, which defined the Bible as the church’s only authority; sola gratia, which taught that one is saved by grace alone; sola fide, which said that faith is the only means by which one can be brought into relationship with God; solus Christus, which taught that Christ alone is the head of the church and the one in whom we must trust.  And Soli Deo Gloria- which said that we exist for the glory of God alone.

As the Reformation came and went, there is the ongoing need to pass on our faith to the next generation.  One thing that strikes me as odd about today’s culture is a do-it-yourself mentality to most anything.  People cannot pick and choose what they believe in and what they disregard.  The new self that God grants one who comes to Him newly, is a complete package, one that is created in the “righteousness and holiness of truth.”   The term “god,” means many things to many people.  While spirituality is popular, the church is losing many every day.  There is critical importance for dads, especially to take up the spiritual banner for your family.  We are to teach “these things” to our children, “when we lie down, when we rise up, when we walk by the way,” as Deuteronomy 6 teaches.  This may take the form of family devotions, Bible reading, praying for your family.  Over the past 24 hours, have I done something spiritual with my family?  James and Katie have taken special vows to promote the spiritual maturity of their family.  Our passage has to do with maturity, spiritual maturity.  Dads, it is your job to disciple your family!  Moms, if your husbands won’t do it, you do it!  May God help you.

When we speak of laying aside the old things and putting on the new self, what does that mean for us?  What do you and I need to lay aside?  What do we need to put on?  A few actions are listed in verses 25 and following.  Note Paul’s list.  Things like lying (verse 25) are replaced with truthfulness; anger is replaced with peace (verse 26), stealing (of all kinds, verse 28) is replaced with work, vulgarity (verse 29) is replaced with encouragement; and bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice (verse 31) are replaced with kindness.  The wonderful thing about the gospel is that God is able to transform us through the power of His Holy Spirit.  We cannot do it on our own, nor does God expect us to.  God enables us as we avail ourselves to Him!

This weekend I attended a ministry workshop in Ohio.  The theme was on conflict, sponsored by Peacemaker ministries.  I was reminded how little I realized there was about peacemaking.  One of the things that the leader pointed out is that what we aren’t willing to cast aside, those barriers of peace, can become an idol.  We feel entitled to the anger, resentment, and slander because of what has been done to us.  That doesn’t make it right.  Such things are obstacles to personal and relational peace.  We must cast them aside.

This morning, we have studied Ephesians 4 and Paul’s instruction on the before and after of Christian transformation, “A New Identity.”  Some may say, that just isn’t practical.  That cannot happen.  To that I would disagree.  It happens every day and it can happen to you.  It is a mindset that brings about a new behavior that has God written all over it from beginning to end.

One of the people that this happened to is Brian Welch.  Dena Ross of Beliefnet.com writes: “On the outside, things seemed great for guitarist Brian Welch. He was a member of one of the most popular heavy metal bands of the ’90s, Korn.  He had lots of money, and he was partying with some of the biggest names in the music industry. But behind the fame, Grammy Awards, and Billboard hits, Welch was battling many demons–an addiction to crystal meth, depression, and what he described as evil of a spiritual kind. It was only after hitting rock bottom that he found what he believed was missing in his life–God.

Welch became a Christian, quit drugs, and dedicated his life to his faith and his young daughter, Jennea. And then he did the unthinkable–he left one of the most successful bands in music history.  Describing his departure, he said: ‘I really felt God helped me have the courage to quit. I wasn’t happy with Korn for the last few years because my heart was with my (child). She was with her nanny most of the time at home. I was always worried about her and wondering if she felt she was unloved because her mother left her [when she was a baby], and I was never home. It was just a constant battle.

But when I gave my life to God, I felt like He gave me the courage to say no to my rock-star dream, to say no to my own desires, and to look at her and say, “Yes, I’m going to be home, and I’m going to take care of you. It’s about you now.”  So, it wasn’t that hard. People think, “What about all that money and fame?” Well, I had that for 10 years, and it wasn’t making me satisfied. It was cool and everything, but it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. It was like freedom when I quit Korn.’  Some might say that is a miracle- that God would change someone that dramatic.  The truth is that God does that every day.  He is able to grant that freedom to all who come to Him in sincerity and truth.

What are We Rallying For? by Rev. David W. McKinley

The following sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and addresses the value of Christian Education programs in the local church.  It was preached at the Central Shwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on September 9, 3012.

This time of year is exciting for teachers, for they see the students come back into the classroom.  There are high hopes that this year will be a successful one; that many will expand their knowledge and learn much from the instructions, reading, and test taking.  Today is Rally Day.  It marks the beginning of another year of church activities and the formal beginning of our Christian Education programs such as Sunday School for all ages, small groups, and youth groups.  Rally Day is kind of like a back to school time.  It is a time when teachers begin with their new Sunday School classes.  When you’re away too long, it is hard to get back into the routine.  Rally Day reminds us that some routines are healthier than others, and that routines are easy to get out of.

Every Rally Day, we do two things that are very special.  First, you saw us give away a number of Bibles to 3rd graders.  It reminds us that we should be reading our Bibles.  How valuable is the Bible to us?  2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that it is the very word of God and is able to equip us for every good work God brings our way.

I am especially thankful for our dedicated our teachers, leaders and board members that work hard to facilitate our spiritual growth in this church.  Or rather, these have dedicated themselves to this noble task of instructing and facilitating spiritual growth for our congregation.  How important are these vows that they’ve committed themselves to!

On a day that we think about our spiritual growth, I would like to draw our attention to something that Paul states in his first letter to the Church at Corinth.  He puts Christian workers I proper perspective by stating in 1 Corinthians 3:6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”  This reminds us of a few things.

GOD IS AT WORK IN THE LIFE OF OUR CHURCH.

First of all, God is doing something in our midst.  The Christian faith is not to make your life easier.  It does not exist to make your life more comfortable.  Following Jesus does not give you a new psychology for your own benefit.  Rather, God is about the business of making His followers more like His Son, Jesus Christ. Romans 8:29: “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son… .”

Even though God is the One who causes the growth, we must take the responsibility for our own growth.  The New King James states verse seven: “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.”  These programs are designed to help you to Grow, to connect and to serve.  (See Central’s diagram)

Without them, the opposite can take place.  It is possible for Christian atrophy to occur.  That is what Paul was getting at here.  The Corinthian Christians had become carnal.  1 Corinthians 3:1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly.”  It is not that they were void of God’s Spirit, but they had not availed themselves to His working.  They had remained babes, and had become carnal.  Note Ephesians 4:14, that we are to: “…no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.”

Christianity is made up of a series of graduations of spiritual maturity.  To those that avail themselves to God’s word and His Holy Spirit, He brings about growth.  Paul mentions God causing the growth twice in this passage.  Once in verse six and another time in verse seven.  It reminds us that God is sovereign over our spiritual growth. When we participate in a Sunday School class or a small group, there are lots of things taking place that contribute to such maturity.  There’s teaching, reading, study by students and instructor; asking questions. The goal is to withdraw the worldliness from your life and ingest some solid spiritual food.  This is what the Corinthians needed.   What is worldliness?  It is the jealously, the quarreling, the bad attitude, the racism, etc that keep us from moving on with God.  We must be challenged to get rid of those things; to let them go.  We all need an attitude adjustment at times. The Reformer John Calvin noted that: “So long as the flesh, that is to say, natural corruption, prevails in a man, it has so completely possession of the man’s mind, that the wisdom of God finds no admittance.  Hence, if we would make proficiency in the Lord’s school, we must first of all renounce our own judgment and our own will.”[1]

The popular British columnist, Christopher Hitchens was an atheist.  After he developed esophageal cancer, he remained a bitter atheist until the end, even in spite of his brother, Peter Hitchens, being a Christian.  This is what he said about prayer: “A different secular problem also occurs to me: what if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered?  That would somehow be irritating.”[2]  What does God say about those that rebelliously deny His existence?  Psalm 14: “The fool has said in his heart, there is no god.”

We must not take ourselves out of the process. One can plant the hardiest seed that he can find; but without water, it will not germinate.  Or one can faithfully water a plot of land routinely, but it will not magically sprout tomatoes or carrots, if those seeds are not embedded in the ground.  And neither will happen if God does not bring about the miracle of germination and fertilization.  The point: God causes the growth.  The same idea is communicated by Jesus in John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.”  Today, I want to encourage you to get invovlved.  It will make a difference in your life.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF STUDYING WITH GOD’S FAMILY, THE CHURCH?

When you participate in one of our Christian Education programs, whether it is a Sunday School class, a small group, there are many benefits.  For one, you open yourself up to learn by the teaching and the discussions that take place.  You develop a comfort level with others in the church.  You find your niche. In such discussions, you find that you are not alone in your feelings or in your questions.  We get meaning and purpose from what is said.  Strength and growth come from God.

We all have something to contribute.  One person noted that the parenting advice that came from a SS discussion years ago, still functions as a resource for her.  In her words, “It made an impact.”  That if you don’t attend Sunday School, you miss out on so much!  You also might be challenged.  Sometimes we need to hear the uncomfortable things in order to be stretched and to grow.

What you will sacrifice in a little bit of extra sleep or free time, you gain in making new friends while learning from God’s word.  In SS and small groups, relationships are formed.  Bonding takes place.  You discover that there are others to rely upon.  For instance, one family is dealing with a very difficult illness.  The person who organized meals remarked how she had to turn people away because there was such an outpouring of love.

Being a part of a Sunday School class or small group also gives you opportunities for outreach, that might not be as readily available.  As a church family, we must be open to strangers and seek those from outside.  We must break the barrier that is there by default.  But we create our own barriers. We must be looking for ways to “Love God, Serve Others and Grow Disciples.”

These programs are not about entertainment, but about praising God.  Getting the attention off of our own needs and giving something of ourselves.  If you teach, you get a lot out of it.  We should all be looking to do whatever God has called us to do.

But sometimes we fell like we don’t have the time or energy to prepare.  We don’t want to do it.  Carl Sensenig shared something that his dad used to say: “You will make time for those things that are really important.”  Serving has a role in your spiritual growth.  GOD IS AT WORK IN THE LIFE OF OUR CHURCH.  I hope that this fall affords you many opportunities to experience it.

A church member wrote to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. “I’ve gone and done it for 30 long years now,” he wrote, “and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the preachers are wasting theirs too by giving lengthy sermons at all.”

This started a real controversy in the “Letters to the Editor” column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher: “I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this… They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead.”


[1] Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 123.