Sunday, March 20, 2011

Don't Be Surprised

Texts: Psalm 116; John 15:18 - 16:11; 16:33

THREE OR FOUR WEEKS ago I decided to preach today on the theme, "In this world you will have trouble. But be of good courage, I [Jesus] have overcome the world." I use the New International Version for my personal devotions, and "trouble" is how it translated the Greek here in verse 16:33. And after the events in Japan this past week, I thought that it'd be more appropriate than ever to preach on the whys and wherefores of the trouble and disasters that comes to us in this world, especially when it seems to contradict our belief in an all-powerful and all-good God.

But the Scripture has a way of speaking for itself, and when I looked closer at this passage in John, I had to admit that the "trouble" Jesus is speaking of isn't things like earthquakes and tsunamis and bankruptcy and cancer, terrible as those things are. It's the tribulation and persecution that will certainly come to those who belong to and identify with Jesus Christ.

I mentioned last Sunday the sort of comments that were coming up online, in response to videos of the destruction in Japan. Comments where people were using this tragedy as a soapbox from which to deny and blaspheme God and insult His believing people. Examples? "Your god is a fairy tale." "I don't believe in a sky monster that causes disasters." "You're a schizophrenic primitive-minded retard who's still living in the dark ages." "Your Jesus story doesn't make any sense." "Stop praying, start helping." And so on. I've been online since 1998 or so, and it seems to me that this sort of thing is getting worse and worse. Used to be, if someone disagreed with another person's religious position, they'd keep their mouths shut about it. Or at least have an honest go at proving why the religious person was wrong. But more and more, the vitriol, nastiness, and just plain hatred leveled at Christian believers is unveiled, aggressive, and totally unapologetic.

But should we be surprised? Not at all. John records in chapter 15, verse 8 of his gospel that Jesus said this to His disciples, the night He was betrayed: "If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you." In fact, we should feel more surprised and worried if we never get any trouble for being a Christian, for then we might need to question our identity in Christ.

Jesus says that the world hated Him before it hated us. First, maybe we should define this word, "world." After all, doesn't John 3:16 say, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life"? Yes, Jesus said that there. But let's keep in mind that that "world" is all the lost, rebellious, God-hating sinners that love darkness rather than light, the world that needed the blood of the Son of God to be shed before even one of us could be called out of darkness into God's marvellous light. "The world" is the whole manmade system of thinking and believing that denies God and sets up thousands of idols rather than bow the knee to Him. It's the evil urge in all of us that says "Me first!" and be damned-- yes, damned-- to anyone who gets in our way.

Last Sunday evening, I was participating in an online conversation on Facebook. One friend, who's the mother of four, posted this statement: " . . . the most destructive force on the planet is not a tornado, tsunami or earthquake, it's a 16 month old human child."

Well, some people sympathized--we know how one-year-olds can be--and one aunt Expressed Astonishment that anyone could imply such a thing about her adorable nephew. But one friend wrote a comment that simply said, "Too soon."

Too soon to be minimizing the tragedy unfolding in Japan by saying that it takes a back seat to the depredations of one's destructive toddler. Too soon, while post-tsunami victims were perhaps taking their last despairing breaths under the wreckage; too soon, while survivors were numbly searching for lost loved ones, while the crises at the nuclear plants grew worse and worse. Surely, to liken all that pain and horror to the rampages of a self-willed infant was bad taste at best and cold-hearten unkindness to the people of Japan at worst.

But that very spirit of rebellion that's frustrating but cute in a toddler is the same heart of sin that erupts in hatred of God and persecution of His Church. Jesus says, "If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world-- therefore the world hates you."

Remember, now we are in Christ. We are identified with Him, as He has identified Himself with us. He is our Elder Brother, our greatest of Friends, and our Master. If you have trouble in this world because you belong to Jesus, don't be surprised. As He reminds us, "Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you."

But it hasn't seemed to be that way, not here in America, at least. For a long time in the 19th and 20th centuries, if you were a nice, respectable, middle or upper class person and you weren't Jewish, you were considered to be a Christian. And that was a good thing. In fact, you weren't considered a good candidate for certain jobs or offices if you couldn't claim membership in some church or other. And we all believed in God and Jesus Christ (or we thought everyone did) and when it comes down to it, maybe a lot of us believed in God and Jesus Christ because we thought everyone did.

But now it's getting harder. Now we're encountering more people we know and even like who think Christianity is silly or even dangerous. Now our faith has to be in Jesus, and not in the idea that society in general believes.

There in the Upper Room, Jesus was preparing the Eleven for the fact that life was not going to be easy when He's gone. And if it wasn't easy for them, in a way, it's even harder for us. For unlike them, we have never physically seen, heard, and touched Him. What we know, however, is that we have been marked with His name; He has put His new life into us and we are His. So now, let's not be surprised when the world treats us badly, for it only proves they neither know Christ nor the One who sent Him.

And there's no excuse for it. Just because everything Jesus said and did is in the past does not mean He didn't do them or that they're no longer true. The Son of God was born into this world to manifest the power and glory of the Father in this world. He did this in everything He did and in every word He spoke. Those who complain, "Your Jesus story doesn't make sense" really mean "it doesn't fit in with my desire to be the god of my own life." For such people, the existence of God is the most inconvenient thing there could be. And we, as symbols of the risen Christ, get in their way just by existing.

But, you might say, not everyone denies there's a God. Most people do hold to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humanity, right? And even if they don't believe in Jesus, they're still on our side, yes?

Well, actually, no. Jesus Himself is the touchstone, the definition of what it means to have faith in the one true God. If you're going to talk about God the Father, it's crucial we make sure we're talking about the One, True, and Living God, not some idol we've made up in our heads. God is triune, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You can't have God as your Father if Jesus is not the Brother who saved you, first. Our Lord says in verse 23, "Whoever hates me hates my Father as well." He proved He was the Son of God by the miracles He did, and after this teaching, in four short days, He would prove it conclusively by rising from the dead. If He hadn't done all this, people might have some excuse, "But now," Jesus says, "they have seen and hated both me and my Father."

But doesn't that raise the question, what about people who have never heard about Christ? The hidden assumption goes something like, "God isn't being fair to those other people, therefore I don't have to believe in Him." The real question is, What about you now that you have heard? And if you have heard and believed and you're concerned about the heathen (or so you say), what might God want you to do for them so they can hear?

Don't be surprised when the people of this world come up with every excuse they can to reject Christ and ridicule you for your faith in Him. And do not fear when it comes time to testify to what Jesus has done on your behalf. For that is the job of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. He's your crack attorney when the world tries to put you in the dock for the offense of the cross. He gives witness to the truth of Jesus and in His power, you and I can testify to Jesus, too.

The Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures reminds us what "testifying on Jesus' behalf" means. It's all about the cross, how the Lord of life was slain to give eternal life to sinners like me and you. If we go telling people they should come to Jesus because believing in Him will make their earthly existence all comfortable and easy, we deserve every bit of ridicule we get from the pagan world. It amounts to taking the Lord's name in vain, for He never promised that being His servant would be comfortable or easy. When disaster comes and people mock that false sugar-daddy god, we shouldn't be surprised. As we shouldn't be surprised when people reject the message that they need a Saviour from their sin. That's going to happen, so Jesus warns us ahead of time, so we will not stumble when rejection comes.

And we need to be warned that the most painful rejection will come from people who seemed to be fellow-Christians. For the disciples, the fiercest and most tragic persecution came from their fellow-Jews, the ones who were the most religious, the ones who would have claimed they had the best interests of God's people at heart. It's the same for us today. In the March/April issue of Modern Reformation, Reformed pastor Fletcher Matandika, from Malawi, writes an open letter to the North American churches, lamenting our shallow refusal to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. He writes, "A few years ago, an older minister from a mainline denomination who had reached retirement age lamented as we talked. ‘Fletcher,' [the pastor said], ‘I cannot preach about sin in my congregation. People get mad at me and they would walk out of the church if I did that.'" If it's difficult for us pastors, how much harder it will be for you. People who claim the name of Christ will call you narrowminded and bigoted for upholding the standards of Scripture. They'll tell you we know more today about Jesus' identity and mission than Jesus knew Himself-- and they'll say it in the name of God. As Jesus said to the Eleven, "They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God."

This happened literally to most of the disciples. I pray the Lord will spare us and it will not come to the shedding of our blood. In many parts of the world, you know, it does. And if you truly are in Christ, your heart will bleed over what the world says about Him and about you for the sake of His name. "But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them." Don't be surprised!

And do not fear. The Holy Spirit is with you, helping you to withstand whatever the world may throw your way. The world may mock and ridicule and deny, but the Spirit exposes the guilt of the world. The fact that they rejected the Son of God when He came proves their sin. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven proves His righteousness. And the fact of His triumph proves that Satan has already been judged.

The world will do whatever it can to deny the witness of the Spirit about Jesus Christ. Indeed, they cannot receive His message, for their minds are darkened by their own rebellion and wilfulness. So do not be surprised if the world hates you, for it hated Jesus first.

Rather, be of good courage. Jesus Christ took your sin and bore its penalty in His own body. Testify to that fact, whenever the Spirit leads you. Pray for those who persecute you-- the Lord saved us, and He is able to save whomever He chooses to call. In this world, we will face persecution. But be of good heart and stand strong, for Jesus our Lord has overcome the world.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

This Little Word 'In'

Texts: Ephesians 1:1-14; John 14:8-21

I, N-- IN. SUCH A LITTLE WORD, YOU MIGHT overlook it. Insignificant, really.

But ask a junior high girl if it matters what crowd she belongs to, she'll tell you this word ‘in' is a matter of life or social death.

Ask the product designer who has to gauge what people are likely to buy. His game or car or cell phone had better line up with what's in-- or his working life could be in its way out.

Or think of a person who's starving. Is ‘in' a meaningless word to one who more than anything needs food in him? For him, that word ‘in' is a question of life or death.

Our New Testament was written in Greek, and in that language ‘in' in a very little word, too. It's epsilon, nu: en, and even Greek readers might not be blamed if they happened to overlook it in the midst of all the bigger, more important-looking words on the page. But this little Greek word ‘en,' and its English translation ‘in,' means eternal life to sinners like me and you.

Still, we can find this little word ‘in' to be confusing. In our reading from the 14th chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, our Lord Jesus is speaking to His closest disciples the night before He will be crucified. We can expect that every word of this farewell address will be especially important. But then we get to verse 13, where it says, "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me." And we have verse 20, where Jesus says, "On that day you will realize that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you." And the temptation is to say, "Wait, what? Jesus, you're saying that you're in the Father and the Father's in you and we're in you and the Spirit's in us and how can anyone keep this straight?" So we gloss over those parts and jump down to verse 23 where Jesus says, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching." Active obedience, that we can understand. All this about who's in whom and one being in the other, that's too hard.

But if we'll take the time to unravel what our Lord is saying, we'll find that this little word ‘in' invites us to enjoy everything our God is and everything He has for us, in this world and the world to come.

From the very beginning of this fourteenth chapter of John's gospel, Jesus has been teaching His disciples that they should identify Him with God the Father. They should trust Him as they trust God. He is leaving them, He says, but that's so he can prepare them a place in His Father's house. He's told them that He is the only way to the Father. He says that if they really knew Him, they'd know the Father as well. And He has good news for them: "From now on," says Jesus, "you do know him and have seen him."

But the disciples can't imagine how they possibly could have seen the Father. So, Philip speaks up and says, "Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."

Philip thinks Jesus is saying they can see the Father in Him the same way we speak of seeing God in the beauty of a sunset or in the power of a thunderstorm. But if Jesus is going away, Philip and the others want a more direct vision of the Person of God. Like Moses in the book of Exodus, they want actually to lay their eyes on Him, if only for a little while. Moses got a one-time view of God's glory, and that gave him the strength to go on as the leader of Israel. So if only Jesus would bring the disciples that same sort of divine vision, it'd be enough to help them endure after He's gone.

They failed to see who Jesus really was. And how blind we can be today! Even people who claim to be ministers of the Gospel believe and preach that Jesus came to point us to God, but that He wasn't actually God Himself. But Jesus has patience with Philip as I pray He will have mercy on us. He says, "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." They'd lost the truth in plain sight! The whole point of Jesus' ministry, the whole object of all His preaching and teaching and miracles, was to demonstrate that He, Jesus, was God in human flesh. Not merely a messenger or a herald, but God Himself. To see Jesus was and is to behold God!

Therefore Jesus asks all His disciples, including us, "Don't you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" To say that they are in one another is to say that this Man Jesus and the eternal God are totally identified with one another. What one is, the other is. What one has, the other has. What one does, the other does. So when Jesus promises you eternal life, He can give it, because He is the God of Life. When He promises that His Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth, He can keep that promise, because He is the divine Word of Truth. When He says that anyone who has faith in Him will do even greater things than the miracles He did, He can make that happen, because He is in the Father and the Father is in Him, continually working the power of God in this world.

For this purpose He sent us the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is our Counselor, our Paraclete-- literally, the One who comes alongside us. But it gets better than that. For as Jesus promises in verse 17, "You know Him, for he lives with you and is in you." There it is again, that little word ‘in'! The Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, is God in us, leading us into the life of divine truth and growing us in the truth of divine life.

Jesus a few days later will prove that He has the power of divine life when He rises from the dead. He says, "Before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day"-- after He has been raised, after the Spirit has been given-- "you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you."

"I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you."

But how can that be? Hasn't Jesus asserted that He and the eternal God are totally identified with one another? What one is, the other is. What one has, the other has. What one does, the other does. How can this be true for us and God? God is eternal and infinite; we are finite and mortal. God is perfectly holy, righteous, and true; we are impure, sinful, and false. God is self-sufficient life, uncreated, in need of nothing; we are dependent on Him for the least operation of the molecules of our cells. How can we be identified with God the Son, so that it can be said that we are in Him and He is in us?

Maybe it's just a subjective thing. Like the way we might identify with a hero in a movie or a novel. That hero inspires us, we try to be like him, and that makes us more heroic and better people. Same with Jesus, right?

Actually, no. It takes more than our emotions and imaginations for us to be in Christ and for Christ to be in us. It took Him a lot more, the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood. St. Paul writes in the seventh verse of the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, "In him"-- that is, in Jesus-- "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins." We are in Christ because He has redeemed us on the cross. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. He identified with us in our sin and took the punishment for it in His own body. And having paid the price totally and forever, He identifies us with Him before the Father, and identifies Himself with us in the world. He credits us with His righteousness and holiness and imparts to us His life, wisdom, and joy. So that in Him and through Him, we can participate in the eternal blessed life of God. Verse 3 of our Ephesians passage says the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. How? Where? In Christ! There's that little word ‘in' again, that word that means so much. "For," Paul says, "he"-- that is, God-- "chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight." In Christ we were predestined to share the holy and blameless life of God! In love He planned for us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ! Again, in verse 6, God has freely given us His glorious grace, in the One he loves-- that is, in Jesus the Son of God, who is in the Father as the Father is in Him. In, in, in!

And He has made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ. We fret and mourn over the evil and disasters that happen in this world, and it can be a total mystery how God will work it all out, or whether He's working it out at all. But in Christ, we can trust that the day will come when all will reach its fulfillment, and all things in heaven and on earth will be brought together under the one headship of Jesus Christ our Lord. In Him we have also been made heirs of God, so that we ourselves might be to the praise of His glory. The glorious riches that belong to God's eternal Son now are coming to us, too, because when the Father sees Christ, He sees us in Him as well.

So how did this happen? Was it because we were more virtuous or deserving than other people? Not at all. Rather, we were included in Christ when we heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation. The proof and seal of our salvation is the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, commending to us the truth of Jesus Christ and what He did that we might be saved. For as Paul writes, "You were marked in him"-- in Christ-- "with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession, to the praise of his glory."

You are God's possession! The Son of God who is in the Father lives in you and you live in Him! Even in this time of Lent, when we consider soberly what it cost Jesus to redeem us, let us also praise God and give Him glory for the love and grace He lavished on us in His Son, that we might be saved.

It would be wrong of me to conclude without saying something about the disastrous earthquake and tsunami in Japan day before yesterday. You may have seen video footage of the seaside towns being overwhelmed by that raging black wave, that took boats, buildings, vehicles, and people before it. I watched these videos on the Internet, and it was agonizing to see doom flooding in to overtake these poor victims.

But equally chilling and horrifying was reading the comments many people were leaving on these clips. People were making racist jokes. Others were self-righteously opining that the Japanese "deserved" this because they still have a whaling industry. Still others, worst of all, were using this disaster as an excuse to blaspheme God and insult His faithful people.

Are the Japanese worse sinners than any others, that this tsunami overtook them? Were the people of Christchurch, New Zealand, worse than any, or the inhabitants of Chile, or Haiti, or Chicago in this winter's snowstorms, or anyone to whom natural disaster occurs? No, not at all. We are all equally guilty before our holy God. And by some cause or another, physical death will come to all of us someday, and for some of us, as for the people on the coast of Japan, death may come suddenly and soon.

When it does, may we be found in Christ, that we may eternally share every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. May we already be at home with God, as Jesus promises in John's gospel, because by His grace Jesus has made His home in us. But if we refuse to be in Christ, if in our pride and wickedness we insist on remaining outside of Him, there remains no hope for us, only everlasting destruction.

‘In' is such a little word, but it holds a world of meaning when the One we are in is Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen King of heaven and earth. To be outside Him is death and disaster; to be in Him means communion with God and life and blessing forever more. Amen.