Sunday, November 29, 2009

Redemption Drawing Near

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-22; Luke 21:5-36

A FEW YEARS AGO I WAS at a pastors’ conference where we were doing an in-depth study of the Book of Psalms. During one of the question and answer periods, one pastor gave his opinion that the psalms where God’s people complain of hardship, trouble, grief, oppression and so on simply shouldn’t be used in white middle-class American churches. Middle-class American Christians don’t have troubles like that, he said. Such psalms are irrelevant to our lives and we shouldn’t say them.

I wondered if he really knew what went on in his parish. True, we don’t tend to undergo suffering to the extent our brothers and sisters in Somalia or India or Saudi Arabia do. But we know what it’s like to have trouble. Especially with the economy as bad as it is and the future of our country as uncertain as it is, we find ourselves subject to worry, care, and for some of us, real hardship. The Psalms are given to us for our comfort, as is our passage from the Gospel of St. Luke.

. . . Comfort? Where’s the comfort in Luke chapter 21? It begins all right in verse 5, with the disciples pointing out the marvellous beauty of the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem. Life was hard and uncertain when you were a poor Galilean peasant, and being a follower of Rabbi Jesus could make things even harder. The Temple, at least, was something solid and permanent. An ordinary Jew could rely on it and feel sure about things, even when life wasn’t so good. That’s because it was a sign of God’s covenant with His people Israel. The disciples and all the Jews could look at the temple and know that in spite of the Roman occupation and everything else they were going through, God was still with them.

So does our Lord Jesus confirm their confidence? No. He says, "As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down."

What a knife in the gut! Good on the original disciples--they didn’t contradict Jesus (for once) or say, "But Lord! That’s impossible!" Instead, they asked, "Teacher, when will these things happen?" By now they’d learned to trust Jesus to know what He was talking about.

Jesus doesn’t answer their "When?" question. It wasn’t His will to give them an exact year and day and hour. Instead, He revealed to them and to us the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem with it. And at the same time, Jesus let us know how we can recognise the end of the age and the time of His coming as Judge and King.

We’re looking forward to that, right? His coming will be the end of all our trouble and the beginning of our eternal bliss. But before that Day comes, things on this earth will not get better, they will get much, much worse. Wars. Natural disasters. Pandemics. Terror. Cataclysms in the heavens and on the earth. Jesus said so, and He can be trusted to know what He’s talking about.

A lot of Bible commentators and ordinary Christians, too, get confused over this prophecy. Some say the whole thing applies to the time in A.D. 70 when the Romans marched in and destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the Jews to the four corners of the world. While others say it all has to do with events that will happen sometime in the future, and the destruction of Jerusalem long ago has nothing to do with it.

But Bible prophecy again and again is fulfilled in a layered way. God revealed His will in pictures and mirrors. One event in the short term would serve as a symbol for something to happen thereafter. For instance, God’s great salvation in freeing His people from Egypt is a picture of what God would do in freeing us His people from slavery to sin by Christ’s death on the cross.

And here in Luke 21, the terrible events Jesus prophesied for Jerusalem were a picture of what will take place someday in the future when God’s judgement descends on all humanity when the Son of Man returns as King. We know from the text itself that the two events have been put together in one prophecy, for the Holy Spirit has Luke write very clearly in verse 24 that "Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled." These events couldn’t all happen at once, in the past or in the future. When Jesus talked about the destruction of Jerusalem and about the end of the age, He wasn’t talking about the same time. Rather, He was talking about the same thing. And that thing is the process by which our sovereign God will judge unfaithfulness and evil in this world, install Jesus the Righteous Branch of David as King on the throne of the universe, and bring relief and redemption to His faithful people.

Advent’s a lot like that. It also has two parts. We look for the coming of Christ, the King. We prepare ourselves to receive Him in memory as the human Child born over two thousand years ago. But we also must make ourselves ready for His coming again in glory. We don’t know when that will happen; our Lord didn’t give us the year or day or hour. But it’s all part of God’s sovereign act of judging unrighteousness, making Jesus King, and bringing us redemption that He started long, long ago.

Let this passage be a warning to us, not to load God’s symbols with our own meanings. The Jews thought the Temple would stand forever as a sign of God’s favor to them. We humans see the Christ Child in the manger and think it’s all right to make God out to be weak and manageable and subject to our wants and desires. We sinners can cope with Jesus as a helpless baby. We can even take the grown-up Rabbi preaching woe to the Pharisees-- as long as we think "the Pharisees" are always Those Other People. But in our rebellion and idolatry we cannot take the Son of God hanging on a cross; much less are we ready to welcome the Son of Man come to judge us and rule over us forever.

None of us can accept Christ as He really is-- until God by His own unfettered will and sovereign initiative moves in our hearts by the power of His Holy Spirit and converts us into His own people. But when He does, we become a whole new people! People of redemption, people of righteousness, people of hope! In our Jeremiah passage, verse 16 says, "In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord our Righteousness." But if you go to Jeremiah 23, it speaks there as well of the Righteous Branch raised up from David, and says "This is the name by which He will be called: The Lord our Righteousness." The Jerusalem Jeremiah foretells is not the city destroyed in his day. It’s not the rebuilt city overthrown by General Titus in A.D. 70. It is God’s new Jerusalem, His new Israel, His Church, and we can bear the name "The Lord our Righteousness" because it’s the name of our Redeemer Jesus, the righteous Son of David. We now belong to Him and live in Him, and because we do, we will escape the eternal judgement that will come on the God-hating generation of this world.

In verse 28 Jesus says, "Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Interestingly, this word "redemption" doesn’t mean "ransom"-- for the payment that bought us out of slavery to sin was the blood He shed long ago on His cross. Rather, the word means "release" or "deliverance." When all the world is melting in terror and hiding from the wrath of almighty God, His people can stand on their feet like free men and women liberated by Jesus’ blood and expect to be freed from the persecutions and hardships of those last days. Be of good hope, Christian people! No matter how terrible things may get, God is in control and will bring you through. You may give your physical body as a witness to Christ and His gospel, but as to your soul, not a hair of your head will perish.

However, this is no time for complacency, Christian friends. As our Lord says in verse 34, both pleasure and hardship can weigh down our hearts so we lose faith in the goodness and saving power of God. At this season of the year, it’s doubly heart-breaking to hear someone say, "I’ve lost my job; at our house we won’t have any Christmas." Oh, no, no! You’ve lost your livelihood; does that mean you’ve lost Jesus the living Lord as well? You say you can’t give your children any Christmas this year? But my sad friend, God has already given Christmas to your children and to you as well! Tell them the story of the Son of God who became flesh, who died and rose for their salvation, and you’ve given your children more of a rich and blessed Christmas than most of the richest households will get around this fallen world!

Or there are hearts touched by tragedy, who say Christmas has been destroyed for them because of the grief that has torn apart their lives. If that is you, I beg you to see that this is the time for you to lift up your head, for your redemption is drawing near! Sorrow may have invaded your life, but the Son of God has invaded this world of sin and pain and death; His arm is stronger than the worse that can happen to any of us, and by His cross the victory is already yours.

The Devil wants us to be distracted and not be watching for the second coming of our Lord. He wants us to stop being faithful to Jesus in our everyday lives. For what is it for us to be on the watch? In every other place in Scripture where the return of Christ is described, keeping watch means to keep doing the work He has given you to do, cheerfully, in His name and to His glory. To watch means to endure the ordinary hardships of human life gracefully, drawing always on the power of your Lord Jesus Christ, so that when the greater trials come we’re used to depending on Him. And always, always, to watch means for us to seek and enjoy the means of grace-- reading His word, hearing it preached, praying in Jesus’ name, celebrating and sharing the sacraments He has given us, assembling and serving with His people, the church. In this way Christ Himself will prepare you to be a witness to Him, both in times of peace and in times of persecution and hardship.

After our sermon hymn, we will administer the sacrament of holy baptism to D---, daughter of S--- and L--- and granddaughter of C--- and J---. Do not be deceived: You may see only something being done to an adorable baby. But baptism is a sign of the great conflict between heaven and hell that Jesus describes in the Gospels. War is waged over the souls of little ones such as this, and by baptism we signify that we claim her for Jesus Christ. Greater than that, in baptism God claims her for His own, that she might not be in terror on the Day when Christ comes as Judge, but lovingly look up and hail Him as Her Redeemer and King.

This is God’s promise to us in all our baptisms. If King Jesus comes soon, we will undergo a baptism of fire we never could endure on our own. But our God is strong. He is in control. And just as He brought us through the waters of baptism to new life in His Son, He will also bring us through the deathly fire of that Day to eternal life and peace with Him.

Be of good hope. Your sin was judged and destroyed on the cross of your Lord Jesus Christ. In this Advent season, prepare yourselves to relive the coming of your King as the Babe of Bethlehem. And at the same time, keep watch and live prepared to welcome Jesus your King when He comes to receive you into His glory. In His name and by His power, you can stand and look up, for your redemption is drawing near.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What God Does with Small and Broken Things

Texts: Haggai 2:1-9; 2 Corinthians 6:3 - 7:1

LET’S IMAGINE a scene from long ago. It’s 519 years before the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, within the ruins of the city of Jerusalem, in the days after some of the exiles have returned from Babylon to rebuild the city . . . .

The old couple struggled up the way from city below. Painfully, they reached the summit of Mount Moriah and stood silently, watching.

"Look, Tzipora," said the old man, pointing with his stick. "There they are, at it."

"Yes, Eliezar," his wife answered. "They’ve been working for almost a month."

"Yes, and where has it gotten us?" Eliezar replied bitterly. "Beginning of last month, that prophet Haggai comes telling Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest that it’s past time for us to be rebuilding the Lord’s temple. He says the reason the harvest has been so bad is because we’ve been building ourselves nice houses and neglecting the house of the Lord. But how can we build the Lord the kind of temple He deserves?"

"But Eliezar," Tzipora replied, "the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord Almighty! We have to listen to him. The governor and the high priest listened to him. We all did. Remember how our spirits rose when Haggai said, ‘"I am with you," declares the Lord’? Remember how we feared the Lord our God and came and began to work to rebuild His house?"

"Yes, yes, I remember all that!" said her husband, wearily. "It was only a few weeks ago; I haven’t lost my memory yet! . . . Though it might be better for me if I had." He stopped, and regarded the ragtag gang of amateur builders laboring on the temple’s framework. "Look at that," he resumed. "Timber, not stone! Tzipora, you remember our temple before the Babylonians burned it! We were both children then, but you remember those massive stones King Solomon brought from Lebanon! You remember how glorious our Temple was!"

"Yes, Eliezar, I remember."

"Well, look at that," he said again. "Look at it! Do we have any hope of matching Solomon’s temple now? Even if we had the strength to build it, even if we were numerous enough, where could we poor Jews find the money? Where is the silver and gold it would take to erect such a temple in our day? And the nations around us! They’d never let us build what we should! We’ve been trying to rebuild this temple the past nineteen years, and every time we begin, those Gentiles write off to the king in Persia and get him to make us stop! Now King Darius says we can go ahead, but what’s the use?"

"But the Lord’s command, Eliezar!"

"Yes, Tzipora, the Lord commanded us to return to the work. But how can He be pleased with what we can give? Don’t you remember that day when the prophet Ezekiel spoke to us when we were still in Babylon? Such a new temple he described! How glorious with its walls and courts and gates and altar! That’s what the Lord expects us to build! And we can’t do it! We can’t do it! This new temple is nothing. Nothing."

"Nothing," his wife echoed, and sighed.

Eliezar and Tzipora watched the workmen struggle on. And almost as if the laborers had overheard the old man’s bitter words, the shouts over the work seemed subdued, flattened, discouraged.

Around the corner of the shell of the building appeared two men in fine robes and turbans, obviously high officials. "Look, Eliezar! There’s Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest!"

"Inspecting the work, I suppose," he replied. "I wonder what they think of it."

The old couple saw the governor say something to the high priest, who shook his head. Both men seemed weary, their shoulders drooping, their heads low.

Suddenly, a firm step sounded on the pavement behind Tzipora and Eliezar. Startled, they turned, the woman’s hand to her heart. "Oh! My lord Haggai!" she gasped. The prophet’s eyes seemed to burn into her soul.

"My lord, the governor and the high priest are there, just above," faltered Eliezar. "You have business with them?"

"Yes," said the prophet, "and with you, Eliezar son of Berekiah. And with you, Tzipora wife of Eliezar." He smiled. "Come. Hear what the Lord has to say to you and to all the remnant of His people. Come."

. . . People of the Presbyterian Church of N---, I don't think you have to reach far to identify with Eliezar and Tzipora. Going by what I heard when I preached here in August, there are many of you who remember how it used to be, back in the glory days of this congregation. I’m guessing that someplace you have an anniversary photo showing so many members you could never get them inside the doors at once. There was a time when the Sunday School swarmed with children; when church societies and organizations flourished; when acts of charity and service flowed out of this place with many willing hands to help them along. You remember when this congregation and its pastor and officers were leaders in this community, and the light of Jesus Christ shone out from this place like a beacon of peace and hope.

And now? Let the prophet Haggai speaking in the name of the Lord tell us how things are now. Just as he asked the Jews of Jerusalem in 519 BC, he asks you, "Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem like nothing?"

But hear now what the Lord has to say to you. Be encouraged, people of the Presbyterian Church of N---. The words of Haggai to the remnant of Israel are God’s words to you and to all God’s struggling people around this fallen world. The Scripture says to you, "'But now be strong, you elders. Be strong, you deacons and musicians and teachers. Be strong, all you people of the church. Be strong, and work. For I am with you,' declares the Lord Almighty.

"‘Be strong, and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty." Our downfall in our brokenness is that so often we think it’s all up to us to fix it. And either we try really, really hard and maybe we come up with something and are pumped up with pride in ourselves, or we get discouraged and give up because we can’t make things happen the way they used to or the way we think they should. We act as if God were busy up in heaven doing whatever and leaving it all to us, or maybe He’s on the sidelines, cheering us on, but in the end it’s our work to rebuild the church, not His.

But no! "‘I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty." Whatever He asks us to do in His name, He is the prime mover. He is the one who takes the lead and makes sure the job gets done. For us to think and act otherwise isn’t merely counterproductive, it’s sin.

In 519 BC God promised to help His people because of the covenant He made with Israel when He brought them out of Egypt. But you can claim His power on the basis of a better covenant, the one our Sovereign Lord made with you on Calvary through the blood of His only Son Jesus Christ.

For hear what the Lord says to all His chosen people, from Israel of old to us His new Israel today. He says,

"‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty."

Our Lord shook the heavens and the earth when He brought His people out of Egypt. But much more did He shake all creation when He Himself became incarnate in Jesus Christ, eternal God in human flesh! He shook all creation when God the Son of Man hung on a cross to take His own righteous wrath against our sin. He shook all creation when Jesus our Saviour rose triumphant from the dead to give new and unending life to all who are called in His name. Jesus Christ is the desired of all nations, and it is in Him and Him alone that God’s church is filled with glory.

The peoples of this earth don’t realize that Jesus crucified and risen is their desire. All of us-- all of us-- manufacture messiahs of our own imagining to fulfill our hopes and dreams, and we keep on doing it until God by His Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see His glory in Jesus Christ. It is the glory of Christ’s church, the glory of this congregation, to display to the world the true Messiah, to show the lost where their true longing lies. In this very town you are surrounded by unbelievers and people who claim to be Christian but know nothing whatever of the free grace of Jesus Christ who died to save them from their sins. This house is needed here. You are needed here. The Lord says to you, "Build!" No, not the physical building of the church, necessarily, but build your ministry in this place! Serve Him where He has put you; be a witness to the nations right where you are and right as you are!

But how can you do that? Does this church not seem small and broken? Just keeping the doors open is a struggle. And as for having the power and resources to rebuild the ministry of this church, who here feels the power in him or herself to do that? Ministry takes money, doesn’t it? Where is it to come from, especially in this rotten economy?

Remember what the Lord said through Haggai:

"‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty."

If money is needed, the Lord can provide it. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills! All creation is His! If money is the answer here, our Lord will shower it down.

But maybe God has something greater in mind, something money can’t buy. For,

"‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty."

Was Haggai the prophet referring to the literal temple the Jews were trying to rebuild? No! Compared to Solomon’s temple, that building truly was nothing. No, the glory prophesied was that of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Though they didn’t know it, the temple of God being built there was the people of God themselves. As they trusted and worked and worshipped, they were being made into a fit vessel from which the Messiah would come. As they trusted God and obeyed Him even in their smallness and brokenness, they became a channel through which the Lord would demonstrate His creation-shaking glory. And as He did it through them, so He can do it through you.

I know of a church over in Oxford, England. It was down to so few members, the diocese was about to close it. But six elderly women covenanted together to pray for the ministry of St. Matthew’s church and the Lord in His power answered their prayer. A couple of years later that church was filled to the windows with people of all ages and had a thriving ministry.

There may not be that many people in this area for that to happen here. But even in its smallness and brokenness, this house can be filled with the glory of God. This congregation can be made strong to do His will.

Isn’t that always the way of our Lord? Time and again He takes the littlest, the least, the youngest, the broken, the despised in the eyes of this world and uses it to show His almighty power. St. Paul in our New Testament reading declares that his own ministry is commended in his hardships, afflictions, dishonor, insignificance, poverty, and poor reputation. All the things that the world would look down upon, God turns into badges of honor. Not that these things are virtues in themselves, but because in Paul’s weakness, the gifts of God’s Spirit and His divine power more clearly shine forth. God uses Paul’s very smallness and brokenness to demonstrate the glory of Jesus Christ to the world.

For what could be more small and broken and despised than our Lord Himself, on that dark Friday on Calvary? The religious authorities mocked Him, the civil authorities considered Him a problem to be swept out of the way, the devil of Hell probably roared in premature triumph. Hung as a criminal on a cross! Rejected, scorned, bruised, and broken, Jesus was not the glorious Messiah the people expected to see. How could this Nazarene be the desired of all nations? Did He not look to all the world like nothing?

But in the very nothingness of the crucified Jesus, our God brought everything to this blind and broken world. He exalted this Lord Jesus to His right hand in glory and appointed that in Him and Him alone all men must meet with God. Jesus Christ is our Temple. He is the one place where the Almighty grants His peace. And as He dwells in you His church and as you His church dwell in Him, you are His temple here on earth.

And so, as St. Paul says, we must stop being unequally yoked with unbelievers. There are all sorts of ideas about what that means, but at the very least it must mean, Do not use the ways of this world to promote the goals of God. The world demands strength and power, but we preach Christ crucified in weakness. The world says church growth comes from high-tech glamor and the latest sure-fire marketing methods and appeals to sinners’ felt needs, but we preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. The world says success is judged by size and numbers and the bigger the better, but we preach faithfulness to our God and trust in Him to fill this house with His glory, however large or small the membership may be.

People of God, trust in His power, not in your own. Rejoice in your smallness and brokenness, for God is with you and will do great things in you. There is ministry here for you to do and He has given you gifts by the Holy Spirit for you to do it. So be strong, and work. Build the church in this place, not in your own strength, but in the strength of Jesus Christ, your Temple and your glory. Consecrate yourselves to Him in holiness, for in Him, you are all the temple of the living God.

To close, let us pray a prayer that John Calvin wrote in response to this passage in Haggai:

Grant, Almighty God, that as we are not only alienated in mind from thee, but also often relapse after having been once stirred up by thee, either into perverseness, or into our own vanity, or are led astray by various things, so that nothing is more difficult than to pursue our course until we reach the end of our race- - O grant that we may not confide in our own strength, nor claim for ourselves more than what is right, but, with our hearts raised above, depend on thee alone, and constantly call on thee to supply us with new strength, and so to confirm us that we may persevere to the end in the discharge of our duty, until we shall at length attain the true and perfect form of that temple which thou commandest us to build, in which thy perfect glory shines forth, and into which we are to be transformed by Christ our Lord. Amen.