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Advent Four: Jesus

Luke 2:1-7

Introduction

What is the difference between the birth of Jesus and the births of other gods and heroes in the ancient world as we read in the myths? The big difference is that Jesus is real and those other figures are just imaginary. The Greek and Roman gods never existed but Jesus actually was born and grew up and walked around the lands of Galilee and Judea.

One of the ways the Bible reminds us of that is by putting the birth of Jesus in a specific historical context. Whereas those other gods and heroes are placed in the mythic past, the Bible places Jesus firmly in history, not distant history but recent history for those who were reading the Gospels for the first time.

When we read that Jesus was born in the days of Caesar Augustus, we are tempted to pass over such descriptions as meaningless decoration to the important part of the story. I’m going to suggest that we slow down and allow these details to sink in. Let us try and read this Gospel as if the Roman Empire was not ancient history but rather the defining political and cultural force of the day. To do this, we are going to compare Jesus Christ and Caesar Augustus.

Caesar Augustus

Before he was a Roman Emperor named Augustus, he was a young man named Octavian, born close to sixty years before Jesus. Octavian was not born as a king or an emperor or anything else. There was no way someone could have predicted what he would become.

Octavian’s grandmother was the sister of Julius Caesar and Caesar eventually adopted Octavian as his own.

Things really took off for Octavian when Julius Caesar was assassinated. Octavian and Mark Antony took their armies against those responsible for the murder. But that alliance didn’t last long and eventually Octavian fought and defeated Mark Antony. Octavian became the first emperor and was thenceforth known as Caesar Augustus. The name Augustus means “the illustrious one.” It obviously reflects his great humility.

So the first thing that we need to notice is how Augustus comes to power. It is through military might. First the defeat of his enemies and then the defeat of his allies. It is through violence that Augustus reigns.

One of the things that Augustus was known for was the creation of something called Pax Romana, often translated as Roman peace. For many of the lands found within the Roman Empire, they were experiencing peace for the first time. Conflict, based either on ethnic hatred or economic greed, came to an end for the first time in many generations. This sounds like a good thing and it is an impressive achievement. But at what cost?

Augustus didn’t create Pax Romana by convincing the people of the virtues of peace or by helping conflicted parties work through their conflicts. Roman peace was enforced through threats of violence. The message of Roman peace was this: “You will stop fighting with your neighbours or we will destroy you.” It worked. Most of the time.

Another thing that Augustus was known for was his working to strengthen morality. Augustus rightly understood that a society that was immoral to the core could not survive. Augustus attempted to build his empire on a solid foundation of moral virtue. He did this by legislating morality and punishing immoral acts with harsh penalties. To be fair to Augustus, he took these laws seriously and when his own daughter broke them, he had her exiled. Ultimately these laws failed to improve the morality of the empire. You can punish certain acts but you can’t really legislate morality.

Augustus called himself the son of god, being the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been made a god after his death. Augustus was also considered lord and saviour. Despite this, he was still a mortal and he knew he could not live forever. Most of his plans for succession failed and eventually the empire passed on to his step-son Tiberius. Tiberius didn’t live up to the legacy of Augustus and his successors were even worse. The seeds for the downfall of the Roman Empire had already been planted at its own birth.

Jesus Christ

So how does Jesus compare to Caesar Augustus? One difference is that Jesus was born as a king and his throne didn’t depend on being adopted by another ruler or the winning of some battles. Jesus, while still in the manger, was already King of kings and Lord of lords. This is why we find in Matthew that Herod the Great felt so threatened that he had all the young boys in Bethlehem murdered. Jesus was born as a king.

We find that Jesus fulfilled the role of Prince of Peace. That would seem to have something in common with Augustus and his Pax Romana. But only a superficial level. There is peace and there is peace. The Roman idea of peace was the absence of conflict, an absence motivated by the threat of violence. The Hebrew idea of peace was shalom, which means wholeness. Shalom is not just stopping two people from killing each other, it is about the restoration and reconciliation of the relationship between the two people. This is the type of peace that Jesus was born to bring. Jesus brings peace in three areas: peace with God, peace with other people and peace within ourselves. This peace comes not from the threat of violence but from an inner healing that comes from becoming a follower of Jesus.

This is related to the next aspect of Jesus. Like Augustus, Jesus is also interested in morality. When Jesus grew up, he surrounded himself with people that the religious leaders called the sinners. These were the prostitutes and tax collectors, people no self-respecting rabbi would normally associate with. When we read these stories, we might get the impression that Jesus was so nonjudgmental that he didn’t care about morality. That is not the case at all. Jesus cared very much about morality and holiness. But Jesus didn’t see that as happening by imposing strict rules and threatening harsh punishments. Morality came about through loving relationships and through lifelong discipleship. Like the peace we already mentioned, this is something that was done from the inside out and Jesus was willing to do the hard work that would lead to lasting change.

Caesar Augustus’ empire was built on violence, violence against his enemies. Jesus’ kingdom was also built on violence, but this time violence against the king. Jesus experienced his greatest victory on the cross, allowing his own creation to kill him in a painful and humiliating manner. But this was not the end.

Augustus’ legacy fizzled out after a series of bad successors. Jesus’ reign continued, first with the resurrection from the dead, then the ascension into heaven and it continues as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf.

Anyone who observed Augustus and Jesus at the beginning of the first century would have assumed that Augustus was far superior. History has demonstrated that they were wrong and that it is only Jesus that has created lasting change.

Conclusion

The earliest Christians had a very simple but radical creed. The basic Christian confession was Jesus is Lord. That might not seem radical to us, but in their context, it got them into much trouble. Saying Jesus is Lord was also claiming that Caesar was not Lord. The Christian confession was a direct attack on the authority of the Emperor.

Jesus Christ was born during the reign of the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Although they had similar interests in peace and morality and both claimed to be Lord, Saviour and Son of God, they were in fact very different. Jesus born in a manger, growing up in humble circumstances, was able to achieve what Augustus could only dream about. He did it not through human power but by the power of the cross and the resurrection which was able to do the deep work to make lasting change.

Advent Three: Mary

Luke 1:26-38

Introduction

Can you think of specific people in your life that have been influential in your spiritual development? When I think about those who have helped me grow, I can think of a number of pastors and professors. Of all the people you thought about, how many were teenagers? I would like to suggest that there is a specific teenager that we can all learn from. Her name is Mary.

Based on Jewish traditions that we have, scholars believe that Mary was probably around thirteen or fourteen years old when she became pregnant with Jesus. Let that sink in. I was thirty-two years old when my first son was born and I felt very unprepared to be a parent. And my son was just a normal child, not the Son of God or Saviour of the world.

Yet Mary’s young age makes here example even more praiseworthy. But before going too far down that route, we need to acknowledge that protestants and Roman Catholics have different views of Mary. Roman Catholics have a very exalted view of Mary. They believe that she was born without sin, that she remained a virgin her entire life and she was taken up to heaven without having died. They also believe that she has an important role today, being someone whom you can go through to bring your needs to Jesus. Since none of those things are found in the Bible, we are going to look at Mary as a normal young woman who was called to take on an important role. I believe that by setting aside all of the later additions to Mary, we can find an example that is practical and relevant to our experience. We are going to look to Mary as a model for us of the Christian life.

Mary Experienced Awe

Like Zechariah and Joseph, Mary was visited by an angel. These angelic visitations are such a familiar part of the Christmas story that we sometimes take them for granted. Angels visiting from heaven are just one of those things that happen.

What I see in this story about Mary is that she has an appropriate reaction and that is awe. Gabriel tells her not to be afraid, presumably because he could sense her reaction. This is not because she was only a young girl and was being silly. Experiencing God’s presence, even through an angel, is a big thing.

Have you ever been in the presence of great power? It could be something natural such as a waterfall. Or it could be manmade such as a nuclear power plant. Did you have a sense of awe being around it? Not necessarily fear, as if you were in danger, but a feeling of being near something very powerful?

At a previous church, we lived near a Canadian Forces training base. Sometimes as we were leaving for church, we would hear machine gun fire and other times we would hear artillery fire. We were near power. More than that, there was once an earthquake that took place under Georgian Bay that for some reason gave off a loud bang and shook our house. That was power.

What do we believe happens when we gather for worship? Do we believe that this is just about hearing Bible verses and singing Christian songs? Or do we believe that we are coming into God’s presence? And what is our reaction to that presence if we believe it?

Mary is our model. She experienced God’s presence and she demonstrated a sense of awe. I don’t see a fear in terms of terror, but an realistic concept of reverence and appreciation for what was taking place.

For all our talk of being in a personal relationship with Jesus and having God as our loving Father, all good things, we should also regain that sense of awe. Let us never get so familiar with God that we forget about the incredible power we are coming into contact with.

Mary Sought Wisdom

As we read the various announcement stories in Luke, we should notice something. Similar messages were given to Zechariah and Mary and both of them responded by asking questions. But when Zechariah asked his question, his ability to speak was taken away, while Gabriel politely answered Mary’s question. Was this a double standard?

There are some important differences. One is about who they were. Zechariah was an elderly priest who knew the Bible well and would have been familiar with how God had done similar things in the past. Mary was a young girl who lived in a culture where girls didn’t receive much training because their role was primarily that of being a wife and mother. Zechariah and Mary were coming from two very different places.

But there is more than this. Although both Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and Elizabeth was barren, what was being promised was at least in the role of the imagination. The conception would take place the good old fashioned way and it was something that God had done in the past. Not to take away from the miraculous nature of what took place, our technology today enables women who were considered barren and those who normally considered too old to have children to become pregnant.

What took place with Mary was completely different. Never before had a woman given birth to a baby conceived as a virgin. This was completely unique. Mary asked about this, not out of a spirit of doubt but as someone legitimately needing to know. What was the process by which this baby would come about?

I firmly believe that Christianity is a faith where questions are welcome. We are called upon to ask for wisdom. There is so much that we don’t know. Even without virgin births, this world is extremely confusing. Why are bad things happening? Why are good things happening? What is God calling us to do? What steps do we need to take to follow that path? Those are good questions and we need to ask them. We see in this story a young woman who sought wisdom. We need to follow her example.

Mary Offered Service

We have seen that Mary experienced awe in the presence of God and that she sought wisdom for God’s will. All of this is very good and both should be a part of our Christian experience. But there is one more step.

The next thing that Mary did was make herself available to God. She offered her service to God, agreeing to do what he called her to do. This does not mean that she had all the answers or that there were no more questions. It just means that at a certain point, we need to roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done.

For Mary this was the beginning of a path that would be very difficult for us. As Jesus grew up and began his ministry, we see that there was some family conflict. His brothers and sisters, and possibly Mary herself, didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. They tried to rein him in and to act more “normal” but with no success. Worse than this, Mary had to see her son arrested, condemned and executed. Parents who have had to experience the death of their child will tell you it is one of the worst things that could happen. But Mary still made herself available.

When do we make ourselves available? Is there a certain level of knowledge or experience that we need before we can do it? Is there ever a point where we feel fully prepared and equipped? I’m all for training and preparation, but these are not meant to indefinitely postpone our service for God. One of the things that I appreciated about my seminary experience was that I had to do a ministry placement right away, before having completed any courses. It felt a bit like being thrown into the water and then being told how to swim. But it was good.

The Bible includes a number of stories of prophets and others who tried to get out of their call. They weren’t ready or didn’t have the right gifts. The thing that they have in common is that God didn’t let them get away from it. There is a time when God calls us to do something and we, like Mary, need to make ourselves available.

This is not limited to pastors, missionaries or professors. This is something for all Christians. There is no division within the church between those who do ministry and those who receive it. All there is are those who do ministry. We are all called to ministry. We are invited to seek wisdom from God as to what that looks like, but we still need to make ourselves available, whether or not we feel ready.

Conclusion

We need a hero. We need someone to look up to. That person is Mary. I don’t mean an exalted semi-divine Mary that can work miracles. I mean a young teenager Mary who was called by God to serve in a very intimidating situation. There is so much that we can learn from Mary. We can rediscover what it means to be in the presence of God. We can seek that same kind of awe that Mary experienced when she was visited from heaven. Our context may be different but it is the same God. We can seek God’s wisdom. It is okay to have questions and it is important to ask God for wisdom. There is so much that we don’t know and God has the answers. As important as it is to ask questions, we can’t wait until we have all the answers before we do anything. Imagine all that Mary had on her mind and yet she offered herself to God as his servant. God has a call on everyone of our lives. While we seek his wisdom, let us offer ourselves to God, trusting that we will get the on-the-job training that we need. That’s what Mary did and that’s what we need to do as well.

Advent Two: Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25

Introduction

When I was a child growing up in church I would be one of the first to volunteer for one of the roles in the Sunday school Christmas pageant. It is not that I was a keener and that I loved being a part of it. I wanted to grab the best part before anyone else got it. What was the best part? Joseph.

Joseph was the best part because he didn’t have to say anything. All Joseph had to do was stand there beside Mary while wearing a bathrobe and a towel on his head. I didn’t want to get stuck with the role of angel because I would have to memorize lines.

While my attitude was a bit silly, Joseph doesn’t seem to grow in importance as we grow older. Yes, Joseph is represented in our nativity sets and Christmas art, but he is kind of the background decoration. Even the manger and straw seem more important than Joseph. But is that fair? Could we have a Christmas story without Joseph? Since Joseph didn’t play a role in the conception of Jesus, does he matter at all? That is what we are going to look at.

Joseph is Silent

I mentioned that I liked playing Joseph because I didn’t have to say any lines in the Christmas pageant. I only realized this week that Joseph doesn’t even get lines in the Bible. Joseph only appears in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. We are told by the narrator what Joseph was intending or what he did, but no words are put in his mouth. We have Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are arguably less important to the story, making statements. Even the shepherds and magi are given words to speak. Mary has plenty to say. Even as a young boy, when Jesus went missing in the temple, it is Mary who speaks on behalf of herself and Joseph. Joseph is completely silent. Isn’t that strange?

After the story of young Jesus in the temple, Joseph never appears again. We are told about interactions with Mary, as well as with the brothers and sisters of Jesus. But no Joseph. Why is that? The assumption is that Joseph likely died sometime between when Jesus was twelve-years old and when he started his ministry around the age of thirty. That is significant. This means that Jesus understood loss. We shouldn’t think that Jesus didn’t feel much, since Joseph was only the adoptive father. As a person who was adopted by my father and as a father who has adopted children, I can tell you that the adoptive relationship is as close as the biological relationship. We should be careful to not speculate too much, but how did Jesus feel watching Joseph die, knowing that eventually he would be raising some total strangers from the dead.

There is something attractive to me about the way Joseph is portrayed in the Gospels. There are those of us who enjoy the spotlight. It is exciting to be front and centre and to be the one making everything happen. But there are also those of us that enjoy being in the background. We like to be quiet and behind the scenes. It is not about being lazy, it is about having a different sort of impact. For such as these, the example of Joseph is meaningful. Joseph could easily be the patron saint of the strong but silent type.

Joseph is Important

So if Joseph doesn’t get any lines in the Gospels, does that make him unimportant? Is he just decoration like the animals that are standing around the manger? I would like to suggest that Joseph was one of the most important figures at the birth of Jesus and it couldn’t have happened without him.

Like Zechariah before him and Mary around the same time, Joseph receives an angelic visitation. It is worth noting how the angel addresses Joseph. The angel calls him “Joseph, son of David.” Why would the angel do that?

While Joseph probably didn’t feel particularly royal, he was indeed of the line of David. For a number of centuries, there was a descendant of David on the throne of first Israel and then Judah. Then came the exile and the Babylonians ended that dynasty. Some Jews hoped that at the end of the exile that a son of David would once again become king of the Jews but it didn’t happen. In fact, at the time that Joseph was receiving this vision, the king of the Jews was Herod the Great. Herod was at best only half-Jewish and while he may have been great in terms of accomplishments, he was not good but was rather quite evil.

The descendants of King David continued to live their lives quietly and out of sight. There were hopes that God would raise up someone from the line of David to be the messiah. The messiah or anointed one, would be someone who would free the Jews from their oppressors and return them to the golden age of King David. But descendants of David did not rush out and try to make that happen. That would be a good ways to get on the wrong side of a Roman sword. It was a good idea that the less people who knew about your connection to David, the better.

So why does the angel address Joseph as son of David? It was not to differentiate from other Josephs in the room. It was because Joseph’s participation in the line of David was the reason that he was chosen to be involved in the greatest miracle ever. It was through Joseph that Jesus would be considered a son of David, fulfilling messianic prophecies and completing the promise given to David one thousand years before.

But Joseph wasn’t biologically related to Jesus. How could that Davidic connection be passed on through adoption? If we have a problem with that, it is because we misunderstand the power of adoption. Adoption was not considered a second-rate relationship. In fact, in some ways it was a more important relationship. You are stuck with your biological children, but the child you adopt is the one that have deliberately chosen.

Let me illustrate this with an older contemporary of Jesus, Caesar Augustus. Augustus, back when he was called Octavian, who was adopted by Julius Caesar. After Julius Caesar was murdered, the senate voted to make him a god. Augustus, based on this, then became to describe himself as the son of god. No one debated this on the basis of Augustus only being adopted. Adoption was a strong enough bond that Augustus could legitimately called the son of god.

In the same way, Joseph adopting Jesus as his own son, allowed the Davidic line to pass through to Jesus, making him the son of David and thus the promised messiah. None of this could happen without Joseph.

Joseph is Obedient

There is one more thing I want to highlight about Joseph. I want you to notice these words, “ When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” (Matthew 1:24)

For some context, here is what is going on. Joseph and Mary had been pledged in marriage. This was more than engagement but not full marriage. So they were living separately, but an actual divorce was required to break off the relationship. Joseph had discovered that Mary was pregnant, which was a problem. He assumed something had happened with another man. Joseph could have made a big deal about it and have humiliated Mary for betraying him. While hurt, he still had compassion, and so his intention was to divorce Mary quietly.

It was in this context that the angel appears and explains the situation. There was no biological human father. The child was conceived miraculously. Mary was still a virgin. This child would grow up to save his people from their sins.

Last week, we saw how Zechariah questioned the angel about how these things could happen. Joseph had much more to lose when it came to a child being born. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth giving birth in her old age was interesting, but it couldn’t hurt his reputation. Joseph’s wife Mary getting pregnant and not by Joseph, would be something that could deeply damage his reputation. People seemed to be aware that something happened but they would likely not assume a virgin birth. This would hang over Joseph and Mary.

But Joseph was obedient. He didn’t argue with the angel. He didn’t try to negotiate. He simply did what he was commanded to do. This is an example for all of us. There is a place for us simply to be obedient to what we are called to do. We are called to love God and love people. Instead of trying to analyze that and determine the limits, we should just follow Joseph and be obedient. God wants us to do something and we do it. It is as simple as that.

Conclusion

I like Joseph. Perhaps it is the introvert in me but I like the way he is portrayed in the Gospels. He is quiet and behind the scenes. There is nothing flashy about him and he doesn’t call attention to himself. In fact, none of his words are recorded for us.

But that is not to say that Joseph brings nothing to the table. Joseph is essential to the Christmas story. Jesus as the promised messiah needed to be of the line of David. It is through Joseph that Jesus receives this. Adoption does not make this any less valid. Jesus can be addressed as the son of David because Joseph is the son of David.

There is a role for every one of us. We have something to bring. That doesn’t mean that we are up front or are speaking publicly. Some of the most effective people in the kingdom of God are  behind the scenes and we never hear about them. Joseph is our inspiration. How is God addressing us? What potential does he see in us? Joseph responded in obedience. May we respond in the same way.   

Advent One: Zechariah

Luke 1:5-25

Introduction

Have you ever been in a position when you had some amazing news to share? Something had happened. Perhaps you got engaged or you were expecting a baby or you just got your dream job. When you have big news, who do you tell first? That’s a big decision. For some people, they just explode with sharing and they will tell the nearest person, even if they are a total stranger. For others, they are very strategic. They create a hierarchy within their minds of who must be told before who and all of the timing set out.

Now imagine that you are God. I know that’s dangerous. Not only are you God, it is now time to take that largest step of all eternity. In the past, you have spoken through the prophets and that was fine, but now communication is about to take a whole new level. It is time for the incarnation. Instead of a prophet, God the Son was about to appear as a human being, born as a baby on that little speck called planet Earth.

Who would you tell first? Kings and emperors? Scholars and religious leaders? Who gets the news first? And what does that say about what you value?

Thankfully we are not God and we don’t need to use our imagination because the story is told for us. The first person that God tells is a man named Zechariah. Now to be completely accurate, Zechariah is told about the birth of John the Baptist and not Jesus. But in the biblical story, the coming of John the Baptist is intimately connected with the coming of Jesus Christ. You can’t really separate them. The only reason John appeared was to prepare the way for Jesus. John was the necessary first step.

But what does this revelation to Zechariah say about how God interacts with us?

Zechariah’s Question

One question we should ask is whether or not Zechariah was an expected choice. The answer is yes and no.

On one hand, Zechariah makes all the sense in the world. Not only did he have a great Old Testament name, he also was of the tribe of Levi, the one tribe allowed to work in the temple. Not only was he a Levite, he was from a priestly family, one of the descendants of Aaron, able to perform temple duties that other Levites could not. We should not necessarily see Zechariah as a religious scholar, not in the way the Pharisees were. But as a priest, he probably had much more knowledge of the Bible than the average Jew. He held a respected position in society.

I said that he had an Old Testament name, the same name as one of the prophets. There is another Old Testament connection. Zechariah was old and his wife Elizabeth was barren. This is a motif found throughout the Old Testament, with Abraham and Sarah just being the most famous examples. Time after time in the Old Testament, God worked miracles through people just like Zechariah. In many ways, Zechariah almost seems to be an Old Testament figure plucked out and placed in the New Testament.

It was to Zechariah, as he was performing his temple duties, that the angel Gabriel appeared. Now the Jerusalem temple was a special place and the Jews understood God to be dwelling within the temple, but we should not get the idea that angelic visitations were a regular occurrence. In fact, it was generally believed that communication with God had stopped after the last prophet, who was Malachi. No one expected to hear from God, through an angel or any other way. The only way you could hear from God was through the study of the Bible.

So Zechariah was appropriately surprised when Gabriel appeared to him. Especially when he heard the content of the message. This was not just God saying ‘hi’ or offering some positive work evaluation for his temple duties. Gabriel came to let Zechariah know that he and Elizabeth would be having a baby. Before getting into his reaction, remember what I said about communication with God ending with Malachi? Malachi ends with a prophecy of the coming of Elijah. Although the baby that would be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth would not physically be Elijah, his ministry would be the continuing of Elijah’s ministry. So the birth of this miracle baby would pick up where Malachi stopped, resuming God’s interaction with his people.

So how did Zechariah take it? Remember that he probably had above average knowledge of the Bible and would have been familiar with the many times that God did something similar in the Old Testament. But instead of just receiving this good news, he responded with, “How can I be sure of this?” That was the wrong thing to say. The angel took away Zechariah’s ability to speak until the baby was born. We might think that seems rather harsh. But Zechariah wanted some sort of evidence that this would happen and he got what he asked for. Taking away his voice was his sign. And he did receive his voice back when the baby was born and he named his son John as the angel commanded. 

I said that Zechariah was both expected and unexpected as a first contact with heaven. Expected because on paper, he seemed more than qualified. Unexpected because Zechariah didn’t embrace the message with a rush of faith. He seems to be a bit of a skeptic and to have some doubts about the whole thing. That is something for us to think about.

Our Questions

What about us? Does God’s choice of Zechariah have any encouragement for us? We might not be able to identify with Zechariah’s good qualifications, but we might be able to identify with his questions.

Moving from specifics to generalities, Zechariah struggled with how he could hope in the midst of a hopeless situation. Even with the head knowledge of how God acted in the past didn’t stop him from questioning how God would act now. Can we identify with this?

We live in an interesting time. We have seen technological advances that leave our heads spinning. There is much good that has been taken place in terms of communication and medical treatments.

But I don’t see people feeling much more hope. I suspect that many people would say that we live in a dark world. If anything, technological advances simply allow us to witness quicker and with more details the tragedies of our world. There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world. Not just natural disasters, but violence that could be avoided, through terrorism, crime and war. In addition, the media is reporting on how once respected actors, newscasters and politicians, are being accused of sexual abuse and harassment. Despite how far we have come, people still see other people as things to be used.

It is possible that none of those things are what is weighing on your mind. Perhaps there is a different kind of darkness. Something from your past or something happening right now. It is difficult to hold onto hope.

You have read the Bible stories. You have heard how God has acted in the past. Perhaps you even remember God answering prayers in your life in amazing ways. Despite all of this head knowledge, you struggle to hold onto hope. Just like Zechariah.

Remember Zechariah. God chose him as the first person to tell the big news of what was about to happen. God specifically chose him. I want to ask you, was God surprised by Zechariah’s reaction? Or did God already know Zechariah would respond with doubt and he chose him anyway? And knowing Zechariah would doubt, did God still answer his prayer? Yes, God did.

Hope in a hopeless situation. I want you to know two things. That hope doesn’t depend on the type of circumstances you are in, nor does it depend on how brave or courageous or optimistic we might be. It only depends on God. For me, as one who is skeptical by nature, Zechariah is an encouragement.

Conclusion

The story of Zechariah is an appropriate reflection for the first Sunday of Advent. Today we light the first candle and each week we will light another candle, until this room is filled with candles on Christmas Eve. We believe that the light is coming into the darkness but it begins with one candle.

I’m encouraged by Zechariah because not all of us are heroes of the faith. When God offers us hope, we might wonder how that could possibly be. Zechariah wondered and his prayer was still answered. We can have hope beyond what we feel inside. God is a God of hope and Advent is about building that hope one light at a time, getting us to Jesus.

How We Worship

John 4:19-24

Introduction

Have you ever heard of the worship wars? This is a phrase that is used to describe conflict within churches over styles of worship music. It was more intense a number of decades ago but still exists to a certain extent today. Basically, there were people who felt that the traditional hymns were the only way to worship and there were others who felt that the newer songs were the only way to worship. It was a bitter conflict and people would leave the church if they didn’t get their own way. The irony is that long before this, there was another worship war back when hymns were introduced. Previously the church had only sung Psalms and many felt that the introduction of hymns was worldly and irreverent. There are still churches today who have not made the transition from Psalms to hymns and never intend to.

The problem with all of this is that I have read the Bible carefully to find the passages that say that worship is about satisfying our personal preferences and I have still not found them. Even though the impulse to keep worship as being about us is so strong, I cannot find any biblical support for that idea.

Who am I addressing here? Am I pointing fingers at people who want hymns or people who want newer songs? The answer is yes and even more specifically, I’m pointing my fingers at me.

Let me share two quick stories. I try to visit other churches on my Sundays off, so that I can find ideas to steal for our church. I visited one church that had only hymns and they were hymns that I was completely unfamiliar with. I can remember thinking during the service, “Well this is rather boring.” Another Sunday I went to a church that was completely opposite. They had an extremely good band of talented musicians. They were doing all new songs, so new that I did not know any of them. While respecting their musical ability, I found myself getting critical because the unfamiliarity was hindering me from entering into worship.

What was the problem with those two churches? The problem was that I was there and I had a bad attitude. I showed up looking for my desires to be met rather than to worship God.

The problem with the worship wars is that they are based on an assumption that worship is all about us rather than all about God. But that still leaves us with the question of what our worship is supposed to look like. If the problem with us-centred worship is that it is unbiblical, then we should turn to the Scriptures to find out what real worship is supposed to be like.

Spirit and Truth

Long before there was a battle over styles of music, there was another worship war. This war was between the Samaritans and Jews. The Jews believed the one place to worship God was the temple mount in Jerusalem. The Samaritans believed the one place to worship was Mount Gerazim. This worship war sometimes became literal, as the Jews eventually destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. I suspect that the Samaritans didn’t shed too many tears when the Romans later destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

It is in this context that we have a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Jesus had been hitting a little too close to home as he been speaking to the woman on spiritual matters. It seems the woman became uncomfortable and tried to distract Jesus with a religious controversy. Jesus can’t get inside her heart if he is busy debating a controversial issue. Or can he?

The woman brings up the worship war of the day, the question of where the proper place was to worship. While Jesus admits that the Jews are technically right, he also states that all of that is being swept away. The worship that God is seeking is not about this mountain or that mountain. Instead, God is looking for people to worship in spirit and in truth. But what does that mean?

Worshiping in spirit is about moving beyond ritual and empty actions. Worship is not just about the words we say and the actions we take. Just singing a song or even taking communion is not worship by itself. Worshiping in spirit is about making a real connection with God. This is not to say that a more dynamic charismatic worship is more spiritual than a traditional liturgical style. I grew up in the Anglican church and for the majority of my Sundays growing up, the liturgy didn’t mean anything to me. But I remember coming to that same church after having had an experience with God and reciting that same liturgy and feeling like my eyes were open for the first time. God was real and the liturgy was saying beautiful things about God. In the same way, I have attended Pentecostal worship services where my heart was completely not in it. I was not interested and had no desire to connect with God. Worshiping in spirit is not about style, it is about attitude.

But we are not just to worship in spirit. We are to worship in truth as well. The idea of true statements about God may seem foreign to the idea of worship. But it isn’t. Do you remember the first time you fell in love with someone? You wanted to be around that person but you also wanted to learn about them. What did they like? What did they hate? What did you have in common?

Truth about God is vital to worship. We are not just worshiping a vague force out there. We are worshiping a God that has specific characteristics and knowing more about God will help us to worship. I have mentioned that Charles Wesley is my favourite hymn-writer. While I like the music of his hymns, I really appreciate the deep theological content of his lyrics. That doesn’t make all hymns better than all new songs. There are some old hymns with some pretty fluffy lyrics. There are also some new songs that are rather shallow. But some of the new songs are being written in the style of the hymn-writers like Wesley, and they make profound theological statements about God. What I look for in songs is not the date in which it was written or the book that it was found but rather if it will help us to worship in spirit and in truth.

How We Should Worship

We need to worship in spirit and in truth. That is good but perhaps we could use a bit more guidance as to what that looks like in a practical level. We need a model. What if our model was what Jesus taught as the greatest commandments?

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39)

I see in this passage a set of priorities that should help us worship God in a biblical way.

The first priority is to love God. That is the number one reason for us to worship God. It is not to be entertained, it is not to have your preferences met. It is to praise and worship God. I know from my own temptations that I want it to be about me, but it is not. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard people complain about worship and how they didn’t get anything out of it. They had a set of expectations of what would make an enjoyable worship services and those expectations were not met. But where in the Bible does ever talk about worship being about making us feel entertained or even getting something out of it?

Do you know where the first mention of the word ‘worship’ is in the Bible? It is first mentioned in Genesis in the story of Abraham taking his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him. Thankfully, God ended up providing a ram to be sacrificed instead, but Abraham didn’t know that at the time. Worship first appears, not as something for humans to get something out, but rather to sacrifice and give of that which was most precious. Worship is first foremost about God.

The second priority is about other people. You might think we should just end with the God part but worship is interconnected with our relationship with other people. Paul in Ephesians says this: “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19) In 1 Corinthians 14, we have the most extended teaching on what a Christian worship service is supposed to look like. While Paul admits that the personal connection between the individual and God is important, Paul makes is very clear that at a corporate worship gathering, what is far more important is how we are helping the people around us to worship and connect with God. So when we come to church, before we ever get to the point of asking, “Am I enjoying this?” we should be asking what can I do to help the people around me to worship connect with God? I once heard a story of a pastor asking a congregation what they would do to see their children and grandchildren know Jesus. He asked them if they would give up their lives? Most of them eagerly agreed that they would give up their lives for their children to know Jesus. He then asked if they would give up their music in church? Far fewer were ready to make that sacrifice. I would ask, how important is helping others to connect with God when it comes to worship?

None of this is to say that our personal tastes don’t matter. We are created with a certain personality and we have specific tastes and desires. Even the greatest commandments have a place for loving ourselves. So, if I announced that starting next Sunday, we were going to switch church musical styles to rap music or thrash metal, you could be excused for wanting to check out another church where connecting with God might be a possibility. The point is that our personal preferences come in third. When we come to church, we seek to worship God, putting God first. Then we seek to help others connect with God. Only then do our personal preferences come into play.

Conclusion

What do I want you to get out of this? If you get anything out of this, it is that worship is not about us. When I say that, I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone. I have tastes and preferences for worship music. I’m also self-aware enough to know that I want my needs met. I want to come to church to receive and not to give.

But that is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus tells us that worship is not about style or preferences but is about worshiping in spirit and truth. We can do this by worshiping according the model that Jesus gives us. We need to get our priorities together. The priorities are clear:

  1. God.
  2. Others.
  3. Us.

If we can orient ourselves to the biblical model, then we can become the worshipers that God is seeking.

Why We Worship

Psalm 100

Introduction

What is it that we are doing here? What do we call this time together? It’s not a Bible study, even though we read the Bible and hopefully learn something from it. It is not fellowship time, although we enjoy being around each other and we are seeking to build community. It is not a fundraising event, even though we appreciate your financial support through your tithes and offerings.

We call this our worship service. Learning, fellowship and giving are all still important, but they are done as part of our primary goal of coming into God’s presence and worshiping him. But how much do we know about worship? Is worship simply about singing songs about faith? What does worship look like and why do we do it? This message is the first of two looking at the nature of worship. We will look at why we worship and then how we worship.

To do this, we need to clear up some misconceptions about worship. I have talked previously that I spent some time in my life as an atheist. There were many factors that contributed to my atheism but one was based on confusion about worship. I remember having a conversation with a friend about why Christianity didn’t make sense. Christians, so I supposed, thought that God had such a fragile ego that he needed people to tell him how good he was or he would send them to hell. I had no interest in such a God. Thankfully, that is just a completely wrong understanding of worship. Not only is there no statement in the Bible that says “praise God or burn in hell,” it is completely wrong when it comes to God’s desire for worship.

We do not worship God because he has low self-esteem and he needs to be cheered up by us saying nice things to him. God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is an eternal relationship of love and God is complete, even without us. God does not need our existence, much less our worship.

So why do we worship? That is a good question and the Bible has much to say about this subject. To investigate, we will turn to the Psalms, the praise book of the Hebrews.

Biblical Worship

Many of the Psalms are traditionally attributed to David. Although Psalm 100 doesn’t mention David, it might be worth saying something about David. in 2 Samuel 6, we find the story of the ark of the covenant being brought into Jerusalem. Although we might want to plan a reverent and solemn procession, David was filled with joy and he jumped and danced the entire way. One of David’s wives saw this and thought it was completely undignified and she felt like David had made a fool out of himself. David responded by saying, “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” (2 Samuel 6:22-23) I want you to see two things here. One is that David only cared what God thought and secondly, his worship was a response to what God had done for him.

We see something similar in Psalm 100. Notice the mention of God’s people as “the sheep of his pasture.” David had been a shepherd and before he led Israel, his job was to lead sheep. The shepherd, as David knew from experience, cared for the needs of the sheep and protected them. This is the story of Israel as well. The Old Testament is filled with stories of Israel getting into trouble and God intervening to save them. The foundational event for Israel was the exodus out of Egypt and their rescue from slavery. To this day, Jews gather together to celebrate the Passover and to worship God for what he had done for their people.

The rest of Psalm 100 focuses on thanksgiving. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” (Psalm 100:4) I love how Eugene Peterson translates this in his Message version. “Enter with the password: “Thank you!” Make yourselves at home, talking praise. Thank him. Worship him.”

Let that sink in. The password for entering into God’s presence is “Thank you.” I forget my computer passwords all the time and I will confess that I sometimes forget this one as well.

David was able to worship freely because he held onto what God had done for him. David was not trying to cheer God up after a bad day. It was natural for David to worship God because his heart was full of thanksgiving. The same is true for Israel. It is not that Israel lived in the past in an unhealthy way, but their reflection on God’s saving activity in the past gave them hope for the future. They were thankful for God’s faithfulness to previous generations and this naturally led to worship. Something to consider is that the Old Testament more interested in the nature of Israel’s worship than it is in the specifics of every theological belief.

What about us as Christians? If the key event for Israel was the exodus from Egypt, the key event for the Church is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We often think of the Apostle Paul as a theologian and evangelist but he was also a worshiper. One of the most worshipful letters he ever wrote was Ephesians.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding.” (Ephesians 1:3-8)

Paul follows the same pattern as the Old Testament. Paul recounts what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and this naturally spills out into worship as a thankful response. Jesus died for our sins and he conquered death with his resurrection. No matter what else happens in our life, we have a reason to be thankful.

Worship in the Church

What we have seen is that worship in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is all about giving thanks. Thankfulness is the fuel for worship. We do not worship God because we are afraid of him and fear that he will punish us if we don’t worship. God has done so much for us, especially in Jesus Christ, that worship should be our natural response.

It is part of being in a healthy relationship. When our children are ungrateful for something, it is sign to me that there is something wrong. We don’t punish them for not being thankful but we see that our relationship needs some work. When they spontaneously thank us either for something we have done or just for who we are, it is not about our ego but is about a reminder that our relationship is healthy.

This attitude of thankfulness needs to be cultivated because it is so easy take things for granted and to dwell on the negative. It is as we work on our thankfulness that our capacity for worshiping God grows. We can be thankful on numerous levels.

One is the personal level. What has God done for you? What prayers has God answered? What blessings have you received even without praying? Take some time and write down what you are thankful for. It could be your health, your friends and family, a safe place to live. Really reflect on how God has blessed you personally.

Another is on the congregational level. Although we can worship on our own, there is something special that happens when we worship as a congregation. What do we have to be thankful about with this church? Don’t focus on how you wish the church was different. Focus on the blessings that are here right now. There is so much good stuff going on QSBC and as the pastor, I get to see the big picture more than most people. There are good reasons for us to worship God.

There is also the global level, perhaps even including the cosmic. God is bigger than just as individuals or us as one congregation. God is at work all around the world. God is using Christians to make a difference. God is giving strength and boldness to Christians in very difficult circumstance. God has provided a way through Jesus Christ so that all may call upon him and the Holy Spirit is drawing people to himself. We should worship our great big God.

Conclusion

Why do we worship? That is the all important question. I can tell you that it is not to stroke God’s ego. Nor is it about entertaining ourselves or impressing people with our liturgical or musical skills. The answer is very simple. We worship because we are thankful.

God is both a loving and powerful God. He is not an absent and impersonal force. God is a personal God who cares about us and who has a long history of intervening on our behalf. God did that for Israel in the exodus. He did it numerous times for David, so much that David wrote many Psalms of worship. God did it for us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus died on the cross and he rose from the dead. Jesus offers us victory over sin and death. God continues to work in our lives, revealing himself, blessing us and showing us his love.

We need to ask ourselves how we feel about all this. Are we truly thankful? If we are thankful, then we should be worshiping and praising God. How that worship looks will be the subject of the next message.

More Than Conquerors?

Romans 8:35-39

Introduction

We want God to bless this church. We want God to bless all the churches in our city and surrounding community. We want God to bless every church around the world that calls upon Jesus as Lord. But how do we know if this prayer is answered? How can we know if a church is blessed or not?

There are those who hold to a prosperity gospel, which states that among other things, that God’s blessings and revealed in abundant wealth and physical health. While many Christians reject this message of the televangelists that you need to be rich to be blessed, there are those who hold to what I call “prosperity light.”

Prosperity light is not so dogmatic as to say that God will make everyone rich and heal every disease or injury. But there is an assumption that as Christians, we deserve a certain level of comfort and power. This is manifested in different ways. For example, if you look at the influence the church had in our culture fifty years ago compared to today, things are much different. For some this is something to grieve as it’s felt that it is our right as a church to be the directing influence in culture. Our current marginalization feels unnatural to some.

Aside from political or cultural influence, there are other ideas of what a blessed church looks like. This includes plenty of resources, in terms of people and money. It includes popularity and comfort. It includes an experience that primarily makes us happy.

I’m not criticizing any of these things. They are nice when they are there. But that is not necessarily the picture that the New Testament gives. We don’t see a church that is rejoicing in its power and comfort.

Today, as we recognize the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, we are going to reflect on what a blessed church looks like. Is the persecuted church less blessed than we are? Is it the comfortable western church or the global persecuted church in the natural state for the Christian church? We will examine Paul’s teaching in Romans to sort through these questions.

Roman Church

It is important to provide some brief background to the church in Rome. This is helpful in general when looking at a passage, but is particularly relevant to our subject today.

The church at Rome probably started after the day of Pentecost when Jewish visitors from Rome became followers of Jesus in Jerusalem before returning to Rome. The first core group of Christians in Rome were Jewish Christians. At some point, Claudius, the Roman Emperor, expelled all the Jews from the city of Rome. This included the Jewish Christians. The Roman church needed to rebuild from the remaining few Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. Eventually the Jewish Christians were able to return and rejoin their Gentile brothers and sisters.

So we see that some persecution was a part of the Roman church experience from the beginning. But if they thought Claudius was bad, Nero was much worse. There are accounts of Nero tying Christians to stakes and setting them on fire to light up his gardens. The Christians were not trusted because in their confession that Jesus was Lord, it was implied that Caesar was not Lord. The uncertain loyalty and the lack of influence made the Christians easy targets. Fast forwarding a bit, it would be in Rome that both Paul and Peter would be executed. Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded.

It is to this church that Paul writes these words of encouragement. He makes the audacious claim that we are more than conquerors. Not just conquerors, but more than conquerors. The problem is that we have to push out of our mind what we normally identify as victory. It is not about power or influence or comfort or wealth. He is talking about a church that is at the mercy of the Roman authorities and yet is still more than conquerors.

Our position has as its foundation not what the world considers to be power but in the love of Christ. Paul makes this amazing statement: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35) In case you are wondering, the answer is no these things cannot separate us from the love of Christ. And yet these are the things that make us doubt that love. When life falls apart we wonder if God has abandoned us or is punishing us. Many times I have heard people ask why God is allowing these things to happen.

Part of the confusion is based on our unconscious decision to embrace prosperity light. If we assume that God’s primary concern is our personal comfort, any difficulty is going to seem unnatural. But a comfortable and safe church is not the model that is presented in the New Testament.

I often read this passage in Romans at funerals because I believe that it has words of encouragement in our darkest hours. But I will confess that I usually leave out verse 36. “As it is written:“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:36) It doesn’t really lend itself to comforting families as they grieve. However, Paul included these words for a reason. They make us feel uncomfortable but they force us to remember that our faith is designed to thrive in the harshest situations rather than the easiest.

Persecuted Church

This brings up to the persecuted church. Many Christians think that the persecuted church is ancient history. Yes Christians were persecuted in the first few centuries but once the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, things have been easy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is more persecution of Christians going on right now than there has been at any other time in history. The killing of Christians by ISIS in Iraq and Syria is only the most obvious examples. Much more persecution is taking place and we should not interpret the media’s silence on this persecution as a sign that it is not taking place.

As Christians in Canada, we need to be clear what persecution is and what it is not. Someone may not like you wearing a cross around your neck. Someone may give you a dirty look when you say grace in a public restaurant. Friends or family may make fun of you for attending church. None of that is persecution. I’m not dismissing how that may make us feel, but it is not persecution.

Around the world, there are people who are dying for their faith. Making a choice to stand for Christ puts not only their own life on the line but that of their family as well. In some countries, economic sanctions are put on Christians, keeping them in poverty and limiting their opportunities. In some countries Christians must worship in secret. They may meet in homes as the government has shut down all public church buildings. That is persecution.

Are these churches blessed? While we may not be eager for that type of “blessing: in Canada, it actually is what Paul is talking about in Romans. Paul would much easier recognize the persecuted church around the world than the wealthy megachurch in the west.

I would like to share an observation that I have made while talking to skeptics. Supposedly, the problem of suffering is a devastating critique to the Christian God. Apparently a good and powerful God would not allow suffering in this life. My observation is that this complaint comes from comfortable, wealthy and healthy skeptics. It is the west with our prosperity light that we struggle with this tension.

When we look to the globe and the Christians who are being persecuted, we don’t find this same critique. In fact it is in the areas where Christian ministry is the most difficult that faith is the most vibrant the church is growing. The early Church Father Tertullian said the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” That was true in the late second century when Tertullian wrote that and it is true today.

The persecuted church is the church that is more than conquerors. How can this be? It all comes down to who our Saviour is. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the crucified Saviour. Jesus is the one who was arrested, condemned, beaten and execute in the most shameful way possible. Jesus is the measure of faithfulness. How dare we think that comfort is the measure of blessing when our Saviour died in such a manner.

But this is not about suffering for the sake of suffering. It was through suffering that the ultimate victory over sin and death took place, There is the cross but there is the empty tomb as well. The suffering of the persecuted church is not the full story. God is at work in the midst of that persecution, bringing about his glory and eventually the full coming of the kingdom of God. The reason we can have hope is that what we see now is not all that there will ever be.

Conclusion

We should not just take one day to remember our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. It should be a regular part of our prayer life. There are all sorts of resources available for us to pray intelligently about their specific needs.

But in addition to praying for them, we should be learning from them. We should never fall in the error of thinking we are enjoying God’s blessings while they are not. A blessed church is not measured by the level of comfort. A blessed church is measured by its level of faithfulness. The persecuted church is tested regularly and is found faithful. How will we do when we face the test?

Martin Luther Nailed It!

Romans 1:16-17

Introduction

Many children are looking forward to October 31. They enjoy dressing up as their favourite superhero or some other character, and even more the large amounts of sugary treats that they will consume. It is a great time for all.

But this October 31 is much more significant than Halloween. Many people in the church world recognize October 31, not so much as Halloween, but as Reformation Day. It was this day in history that people acknowledge what was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. And this year, it is exactly 500 years since the start of that momentous movement. It was that event 500 years ago that not only the church, but the entire world was changed. And all this by some guy posting some theological points on a church door. A man named Martin Luther.

Why should we care? We are Baptists and not Lutherans. Some Baptists would even say we are not protestants, but I think that might be a stretch. We are definitely not here to worship Martin Luther. Not only was he a mere human, he was also someone with some significant faults. But perhaps it is in his mistakes that we can find hope. If we take one thing from Martin Luther’s story, it is that God uses imperfect people to fulfill his perfect will.

As I said, Reformation Day is the day we remember Luther posting something on a church door. What he posted was something called the 95 theses, that 95 theological points that he wanted to make. In this he was responding to the Roman Catholic Church. We need to remember that this was not a correction from outside but from inside. Luther had for many years been faithful member of the Catholic Church. His primary goal, at least in the beginning, was not to tear down  the Roman Catholic Church or to start his own sectarian group. His deepest desire was to reform the church, to correct the errors that had crept in and to bring everything back on track. There was one particular error that he wanted to address was something called indulgences. The Roman Catholic Church was on a major building trend, including the building of some very important churches in Rome. Such activity required large amounts of money. The church knew that many people were concerned about how long they would spend in purgatory. Although purgatory is not mentioned in the Bible, people believed that everyone who died, even good Catholics, still had some sin and were not ready to meet God, so almost everyone would have to spend time in purgatory to pay off those sins. Purgatory was not as bad as hell, but was still not some place you would want to spend a long time in. It was also believed that the Pope had the spiritual authority to shorten the time that people would spend in purgatory. This shortening of time was made available for a price by selling indulgences. People could give money to the church and thus would be able to cut time off their time in purgatory and get them into heaven quicker.

I must make clear that none of this is meant as an attack on the Roman Catholic Church as it is today. Even during the time of Luther, there were many who stayed with the Catholic Church but acknowledged that the selling of the indulgences was an abuse. The Roman Catholic Church experienced its own reformation after this event and I would say that the Roman Catholic Church ultimately benefited from Martin Luther’s critique.

Responding to the selling of the indulgences was a large part of what Luther did 500 years ago. But it was so much more than that. It was something that directly affects us, something that is relevant even if we have never heard of indulgences. To do that, we are going to have to back up a bit on Luther’s story, going some years before the posting on the Wittenberg door.

The Story of Martin Luther

Our story really begins when Luther was in his early twenties. Luther was an intelligent and gifted young man. He was training to become a lawyer and his parents were looking forward to him marrying and making lots of grand babies for them. That’s why they were horrified by what happened one fateful night. Luther was caught in a terrible storm. Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening. Being so scared, he called out to St. Anne and said that if she saved him, he would give up his career as a lawyer and become a monk. Luther survived the storm and became a monk, much to the disappointment of his family (at least on the last point). There is some irony here as Luther would eventually reject the praying to saints.

Was Luther a good monk? That would depend on who you asked. He was brilliant. He dove into his studies and eventually became a theology professor. He had a deep understanding of the Scriptures and was hungry for more. He also took the disciplines and activities of being monk very seriously. He once even walked all the way from the monastery in Germany to Rome, a distance of 1000 miles. So why was there a problem? Luther regularly annoyed his fellow monks and their superiors. Not because of his lack of discipline but because of his overcommitment. If Luther knew one thing it was that he was sinful and that sin separated him from a holy God. He tried to do everything and more to bridge that gap between himself and God. He punished his body, confessed his sins, prayed and read the Bible. But no matter what he did, he could never seem to close that gap between himself and God. Assurance of being accepted by God continued elude him.

That’s where the Bible came in. As a monk, Bible reading was a part of his role. As a theology professor, he needed to do the extra study to teach. One of the parts of the Bible that Luther began to study was Paul’s letter to the Romans. The basic message of Romans is that all people, Jews and Gentiles, start off in the same place as alienated from God and that we can only be saved from this alienation through faith in Jesus Christ. This was exactly what Luther had been struggling with. Paul talks in Romans about righteousness. That’s was Luther’s goal. But Paul makes it clear that we cannot work our way to that righteousness, but rather we are declared righteous by God when we put our faith in Jesus. This is what Luther had been looking for all the time. Luther stopped striving and put his faith in Jesus and found his assurance. This gave him the strength, not just to finally have personal peace, but to transform the church and ultimately the world.

Before leaving Luther, I will tell you that he left the monastery and got married, to an ex-nun of all people and had lots of babies. His parents were happy.

Salvation By Faith

Enough about Martin Luther. We have our own problems. We may not go to the extremes of Martin Luther, but we all start off alienated from God and have to address the question of how get right with God.

I would not want to compare myself with Martin Luther, but there was a time in my life where I believed in God but felt distant from him. I tried to earn God’s love and acceptances. I fulfilled all the duties that I thought were expected of me, tried to be a good person, but the harder I worked, the more distant God seemed. I eventually came to the point where I gave up striving and surrendered myself to Jesus and received my assurance that I was right with God.

Paul, who wrote Romans, was a hard working religious person. He was so zealous for God, he persecuted Christians, who he saw as corrupting his native Judaism. It was only through meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus that Paul’s eyes were finally opened.

In Romans, Paul is writing to two groups of Christians, each of whom think they had an advantage over the other. Paul demolishes their pretensions of advantage and reminds them that they all start from the same place of sin.

Paul speaks of the gospel, the good news. This gospel is not just a neat theological slogan, it is the power of God. This power works toward salvation. This power reveals righteousness.

Would you describe yourself as righteous? Many of us would not want to self-describe as righteous because it sounds like we are puffing ourselves up. But that is because we think of righteousness as something we achieve ourselves and we are only too aware of our shortcomings. But the righteousness that Paul talks about is not one that we can earn. Rather God declares us to be righteous. It is like being out on trial and hearing at the end of the trial the welcome words of the judge, “Not guilty!” That is what God does for us. We are declared righteous.

That is only reached by faith. we must put our faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is more than just believing. Most people believe that there was some person named Jesus, they may even believe some theological facts about him. Faith is closer to trust than it is to mental assent. It is the difference between believing that person could fly a plane and trusting enough to go up in the plane with that person as the pilot.

None of this is meant to say that works are not important. Paul stresses over and over that we are only saved by faith and yet he did so much to preach the gospel and spread the kingdom of God. Martin Luther, once he gave up striving and embraced faith, eventually accomplished more  once he gave up trying to earn God’s love than he did when he was seeking it.

Living as a Christian, working for the kingdom, these are things that we do as a result of being in God’s family, not as a way to get in or even to stay in God’s family. Followers of Jesus seek to become more like Jesus because we are already in the family and a family resemblance should be a natural part of that.

Conclusion

We are not here to worship Martin Luther. He was a man like any other, a jumble of good and bad qualities. But God used that man 500 years ago and many times since to spread the message that we cannot earn our own righteousness but we can be declared righteous by faith.

This was the message that Paul needed, that Luther needed and that we need today. Are you striving and feeling like you are always failing? Let it go and surrender to Jesus. What Jesus did on the cross and his resurrection has the power to do what we cannot do ourselves. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are adopted into the family of God. the gap between ourselves is closed and we are declared righteous, whether we feel it or not. This is the power of salvation, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Lost and Found

Luke 15:1-10

Introduction

What is it that gets you excited? What is it that makes you want to give a shout for joy? This won’t surprise many but for me it has to do with books. I love books but there is a specific kind of situation that really makes me happy.

From time to time, there is a specific book that I will want to get. I will check it out online and take a look at the price. Then I begin to second guess myself. Do I really need to spend the money? Do I really need another book? I will put it out of mind for a bit and then go back and check it out again. So what is it that gets me excited? After talking myself out of it, I see the exact book that I have been looking at in a second hand bookstore on sale for next to nothing. I take it as a sign and immediately purchase this long sought after book. Does this make me a nerd? I’m okay with that.

You may have something completely different as your motivation for joy. It could be the growing of flowers or the completion of something you have been building. It may be writing a story or writing a song. It could be the learning of a new skill. Each of us are different.

What about God? There is a danger that we see God as an impersonal force. But the Bible describes God as having a personality. While some people focus on God’s anger, the Bible also talks about God being joyful.

Jesus tells us in this passage about what it is that inspires a party in heaven. This is something worth dwelling on, especially since we can have a role in sparking that burst of joy.

Joy of Finding the Lost

In Luke 15, we are presented with three parables that are all interconnected. They are the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. A good argument could be made to look at all three together. However, the parable of the lost son, often called the parable of the prodigal son, is so rich that it will be looked at by itself. Just realize that the same theme is running through all three parables.

The parable of the lost sheep taps into the feelings that many of Jesus’ listeners would have experienced. Some of them would have had herds and would have experienced something like this. There you have one hundred sheep and suddenly one goes missing. What are you going to do? Do you remain satisfied that you still have ninety-nine and leave it at that?

Amanda and I have five children. If one of them went missing, which has happened, can you imagine us being satisfied that we still have 80% of our children? That would never happen.

The shepherd understand that the sheep are safer in numbers and in danger in isolation. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes after the one lost sheep. The shepherd is on a mission and will not rest until the lost sheep is found. When the sheep is found, the response of the shepherd is not anger for all the fuss it caused but tremendous joy. Not only does the shepherd feel the joy, he shares it with his friends and neighbours. It is time for a party.

One of the themes that Luke provides in his Gospel is a pairing of male and female examples. He frequently shares two different but similar stories, one featuring a male and the other a female. It is sign of the universality of the kingdom of God.

So Luke tells a story of another lost item, this time from the perspective of a woman. A woman has ten coins and loses one. She begins a frantic search for the lost coin and doesn’t rest until it is found. There have been some interesting theories as to what exactly is going on here. But I think that we can make it more complicated than it needs to be. All of us have lost something and have been frustrated while it is missing. That is the main point. As with the shepherd, the woman finds what was lost and celebrates the discovery. Again, like the shepherd, she calls in her friends and neighbours to join in her joy.

What Jesus is doing is awakening us to the emotions that we have experienced in finding the lost. I want you to think about a time that has happened to you. It might have been your car keys or perhaps a valuable family heirloom. You may have thought it was gone for good and then just as you are about to give up hope, there it is. There is a physical reaction of joy when the lost, especially the valued lost, is found.

Jesus shares this with us because this is what happens in heaven when the lost, in terms of people, are found. But what does that have to do with us?

The Lost Are Being Looked For

The beauty of the parables is that they do not provide all of the explicit details. Jesus invites us to enter into the story and to explore the way this will look in our lives. In this parable, I see four questions that are worth asking that may help us see what this means for us.

1.Who are the Lost?

The first question we should ask is about the identity of the lost. The parables describe a lost sheep and a lost coin. Who are the lost ones in our life? Some have simplified this down to non-Christians. If a person has not experienced Jesus Christ, they are the lost. There is some truth in this. Lostness is all about isolation from where we are supposed to be. Since we are meant to be in relationship with God through Jesus, when we are separated from God, we are lost. At the same time, lostness is about more than this. The power of the image speaks to that hopelessness that comes when something is missing. Who is that feels lost? How about those suffering from mental illness and addictions? How about the homeless and poor? How about those who have been sexually abused and struggle with trust? There are people who have called out to Jesus but still feel lost. They may know where they are going when they die but don’t know where they belong while they are alive. Think about the people that you know who are lost, whether they are Christian or non-Christian. Do we have the burden for the lost that the shepherd and the woman show in this parable?

2.Who is seeking the Lost?

This brings us to the next question. Who is it that goes and looks for the lost? It could be argued that it is Jesus that looks for the lost. Jesus is called elsewhere the Good Shepherd (john 10:11). This true and Jesus does seek out the lost. But think about a time when you were lost and Jesus found you. How did that happen? Was it direct intervention by Jesus? Or did Jesus use other means? Perhaps other people? When I think of my journey, there were many people involved. Some people were praying for me and others spoke to me. There were people who wanted me found and they participated in the search. I would say that these parables do not invite us to sit back in our comfortable chairs and let Jesus do all the work. Rather we are called to join in the search.

3.What will we do to find the Lost?

Once we understand that we have a role, we have to ask what our role will be. What are we willing to do to pursue the lost? What if having a heart for the lost means entering into relationships with people who make us uncomfortable? What if seeking the lost means that church is no longer just about what makes me happy? What if we have to talk to someone about Jesus or share what God has done in our life? What if we volunteer to work in ministries that care for practical needs? If you have been in the position of losing something and being desperate to find it, you know that it takes over your life. Even if you have other tasks to accomplish, the search is still running in the background. These parables challenges us on how seriously we take the lostness of the lost.

4.How do we feel when the Lost are found?

Looking at these parables could feel pretty condemning with the wrong emphasis. We might feel guilty for ever having fun or ever relaxing? We should be search 24/7 for the lost. And yet the emphasis in these parables, and it appears in the third parable as well, is that of the joy in the finding. All three talk about parties and this is tied into what happens in heaven. There is a party in heaven when the lost are found. Are we as eager to party in the church? What happens when the lost are found? Do we see that as business as usual? Or worse do we see that as disrupting the way we like things done? What does it do to you when you hear about a person meeting Jesus for the first time?  What does it do to you when a person gets their life back together, when relationships are restored and people move from isolation to community? I generally don’t like telling you what to do but I think Jesus makes it clear that our response should be intense joy.

Conclusion

“I once was lost but now am found.” John Newton wrote those words for his hymn Amazing Grace. This is about him coming from separation from God to relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The way the story is normally told is that he was a captain of a slave ship, he met Jesus, his life was turned around and then he preached the gospel and wrote hymns. The true story is a bit more messy. John Newton met Jesus in 1748 and he gave up profanity and gambling. But he did not give up slaving. He continued to participate in the slave trade until 1754. He didn’t speak out against the slave trade until 1788. The true story is not as neat and tidy as the popular story.

I share this to say that the life of finding the lost is not not always easy. In fact both parables are meant for us to enter into the anxiety of the those that are searching. As we participate in the search, there will be difficult moments. Some lost will not be found and others will stumble many times before coming home.

But Jesus wants us to dwell on the joy of finding. Jesus is ready to party of all the lost that will be found. This is not all left on us, as Jesus is involved in the search, but we are invited to full participants. If you feel lost today, please know that Jesus and his church want you to be found. If you are found, share that joy by finding the others and be ready to celebrate when the lost come home.