Sunday, May 20, 2018

Ten Bridesmaids

As most of you know, I have three children. Have you ever noticed that your children's greatest weaknesses were likely... inherited from you? Here's another observation: your children's greatest weaknesses are often the flip-side of their greatest strengths.
My oldest, Grace, was a wonderful child. She was always most contented. But the flip-side of that meant that she seemed to resent any influence toward change at all. (I know where she got that from!) The first breakthrough we had in that respect took place after Grace started school. In Kindergarten, there were four words that could light a fire under Grace. Perhaps if you are a parent of young children you know what is coming. Those four miracle words were: “don’t miss the bus!” Grace would invariably accomplish more in the thirty seconds after hearing those words than she had in the thirty minutes before hearing them. And after a few months of Kindergarten, she even seemed willing to forgive me, even though I was disrupting her life regularly, because she realizes that when Daddy said “don’t miss the bus!” -- I never said it unless it was coming soon -- it was always entirely out of love for her.
You see, contrary to much of what the world will tell you, it really is loving to disrupt someone in the present to protect them from a much worse fate in the future. Having experienced the consequences of missing the bus (receiving grief from her teacher and her classmates), she recognized that a little bit of loving disruption was a small price to pay to be protected from those consequences.
This morning, we’re going to consider some of Jesus words -- words spoken out of love for us -- words coming from two different places in the gospels -- and words that should have for us the same impact that “don’t miss the bus!” had for Grace. The first passage we need to look at is in Luke chapter 13, starting in verse 22:
[Jesus] went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone asked him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”
“Someone asked Jesus, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’” Now whoever that someone was, they were clever enough to ask the right person the right question. Did you know that the name “Jesus” means “God saves?” And do you remember that the angel Gabriel, announcing the birth of Jesus, said to his mother, Mary, “...and he will save his people...” So right on! Jesus is particularly committed to saving people. And there are those in this room who have had more than a glimpse of this salvation: they know what it is to be saved, and they know Who it is that saves them.
If you haven’t experienced that salvation this morning, you might one day come to realize that you (also) desperately need it -- just like the rest of us. And I have some good news for you when that time comes: the Bible says that, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” And to help us out, God even sent Jesus, who came dying to save us.
What does it mean to be saved? Well, in the Biblical language, the poor will receive good news; the blind will receive their sight; and the oppressed will be freed. Sure: there have been many who have come claiming to be able to deliver such things, but their ideas inevitably turn out to be like “shuffling deck-chairs on the Titanic”. (You understand that expression, I'm sure: the Titanic is going down, and shuffling its deck-chairs isn't going to help). There is only one person in history who is actually able to address our deepest needs and our deepest problems. As the Bible puts it:
Jesus is the only One who can save people. No one else in the world is able to save us.
But “will only a few be saved?” Let’s read on (Luke 13:23):
...someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
“Many will try to enter and will not be able to!” Well! Clearly, it is only a few that will be saved. But that’s not all: Jesus is also saying that if we want to experience salvation it will take some effort on our part! For many people, that doesn’t sound much like good news. But since Jesus is the source of this salvation we’re talking about, we would do well to pay close attention to what he’s saying. Please listen carefully to what Jesus continues to say in Luke chapter 13:
For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’
“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’
[verse 29] 29But people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30And behold, some who are now last will be first, and some who are now first will be last.”
Not only is it the case that only a few will be saved, but it also sounds like there will be folks who expect to be saved … and they won’t be. And what an uncomfortable rejection they receive: “I don’t know you or where you come from.” You know, it really can be stressed enough: our salvation depends on knowing Jesus and being known by him! And here, Jesus is clearly saying that there will be some who think they should be known, but aren’t. Of course, this means that we need to be careful and we need to be humble.
At the same time, it also sounds like there are folks who we might not expect to be saved … but they will be! That’s the point Jesus is making in verse 29 (...people will come from east and west, and from north and south): there will be plenty of surprises among the rolls of the kingdom of God. How do we know that’s what Jesus was saying? -- well, it isn’t the first time he said it: in Matthew 8:11 he says the same thing (“many will come from east and west and recline at table ... in the kingdom of heaven”) while commending a Roman centurion -- someone who, in the minds of the Jewish folk listening, was a representative of everything corrupt and evil. So no matter where you are from, no matter what you have done, no matter how much of a mess you have made of your life, you aren’t beyond the reach of his mercy. We have good grounds for being both careful and for being optimistic. 
But another thing to notice here is that there doesn’t appear to be any warning at all that the owner of the house is about to close and lock the door. We need to be aware that that kind of surprise is in our destiny, too. There is going to come a time in every one of our lives when it will be too late.  At that point, it is going to be “game over: no more lives; no more chances.” For many of us, it could be the day we die. For others, they might get into such a habit of turning away from God, and turning God away. But it could also be when Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. The Bible makes it clear that:
... it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, (Hebrews 9:27)
We aren’t going to be given any warning, folks. And we all want to be on the inside when that time comes and that door is closed. So “Don’t miss the bus!”
Oh: did you notice that the original question was about being saved, but Jesus’ answer is all about making it into the kingdom of God. (right? that’s verse 29: “But people will come from [all over the place], and [feast] in the kingdom of God.”) So we’re going to look at some of the things that Jesus says about the kingdom of God this morning, understanding that, as far as Jesus is concerned, our entrance into the kingdom of God represents salvation for every one of us.
Now I’m sure that you are aware that Jesus taught in parables. And Jesus introduces twelve of his parables with words to the effect “the kingdom of God is like” or “the kingdom of heaven will be like”. So this morning, we are going to take a closer look at one of those parables. It is found in Matthew chapter 25, starting at verse 1.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was a long time coming, they all became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids rose and trimmed their lamps. 8And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11Afterward the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’
I’m sure that you noticed the similarity between this parable and the passage that we read earlier. In both places, a door is shut. In both places, no warning is given. In both places, there are people who are kept outside. In both places, those outside desperately want to be granted entrance. And in both places, we hear those scariest of all the words in the Bible: “I do not know you.” Please understand: Jesus is using these foolish bridesmaids and their failure as a warning to us! He doesn’t want us to be caught out. In his great love for us, he wants us to be ready; he wants to tell us “Don’t miss the bus!”
That wedding banquet? It represents no less than our eternal salvation. It is an image that shows up elsewhere in scripture, too. In the book of Revelation (19:9), we read:
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who have been invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And the angel added, “These are the true words of God.”
Participating in this wedding reception represents the ultimate blessing. Revelation goes on to describe what it will be like in that day:
Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them... He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.
If you receive that invitation to Lamb’s wedding supper, you wouldn’t think twice about letting everything else go in order to attend. Seriously.
Yesterday, a royal wedding occurred [May 19, 2018: Prince Harry & Meghan Markle]. For many people throughout the commonwealth, it was a really big deal. Estimates suggest that the wedding itself cost in the vicinity of $5 million. And that’s not even including the security, which might have been as much as fifteen times the rest of the event. Nice budget for a private party. You can well imagine that some of the 600 people who received invitations  changed their plans when they it arrived. There were very few, if any, who were invited and didn’t attend.
But the wedding supper of the Lamb will blow yesterday’s wedding out of the water -- nobody is going to be bored there, that’s for sure. For starters, our host will be the source of all things good. But the number and quality of the people will also be unprecedented. Not convinced? You mean you aren’t impressed with some church people? Well, you are not alone. But two things about that. First, scripture makes it clear that none of our failings or uglinesses will be present: in that day, we read that (Eph 5:27)
the church [will be presented to him] in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
We’re going to tidy up real nice, people! But, second, it certainly seems from our parable this morning that there are some within the church who won’t make it at all. That is, our ideas of who belongs in the church and God’s ideas of who belongs in the church are not necessarily in sync. Sure, when we go to church, we expect the people to be citizens of the kingdom, but God doesn’t take any steps to fulfill that expectation!
In fact, Jesus makes that clear in other parables, doesn’t he? The kingdom of heaven, he says (in Matthew 13), is like a field full of both wheat and weeds. There, the landowner gives instructions that no action will be taken to separate the two until harvest time. And the kingdom of heaven, he says (toward the end of that same chapter), is like a net catching both good and bad fish, and -- once again -- their separation only happens at the “end of the age”. Even in our parable, the difference between those who make it in and those who are kept out is really subtle, doesn’t it? Right up until the very last second, even the foolish bridesmaids had every expectation to be granted access to the marriage feast, didn’t they?
In Jesus’ day, wedding feasts were great occasions. They involved many guests, lots of food and drink, and they lasting a long time. The feast would begin “when all was ready.” Of course the food had to be prepared, but there were also last-minute negotiations taking place between the groom, his family and his in-laws about the terms of the marriage contract. The contract needed to be signed and the dowry needed to be paid before the feast began.
And while these negotiations took place, the bride, surrounded by bridesmaids, would be waiting at her house. In the custom of the day, the arrival of the bridegroom meant that everything was ready: the wedding feast was about to begin with a procession: musicians and dancing would accompany the groom as he brought the bride to his parental home.
Now isn’t it interesting that all the action -- all the good stuff that folks would naturally anticipate -- occurs after the bridegroom arrives, but in Jesus’ parable, all the real drama takes place during the wait for his arrival. Because it is always during that “long time coming” that folks struggle. We see a similar thing going on in the parable of the Talents, don’t we? There, the kingdom of God is like a king who has gone off to a foreign land with a promise of return. His servants are expected to make responsible use of his resources while the master is away.
But it is that time that God seems far away that all the important decisions are made -- because, after all, that is when we are beset by constant temptation. Human psychology is peculiar. Scripture says that (Ecclesiastes 3:11b):
God has set eternity in the human heart.
Developing that theme, Pascal says that:
...this infinite abyss can [only] be filled ... by God himself.
Similarly, Augustine writes:
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
We might not recognize it, but we are wired to desire what only God can provide. And that inner craving is so strong, when God seems far away we are sorely tempted to punish him -- yes, you heard that right: we attempt to punish God. How do we do that? -- well, by... punishing others and punishing ourselves. (Perhaps you might have seen children “punish” their parents in a similar way). Theodore Dalrymple said, “We live in societies in which an unprecedented proportion of the total of suffering is self-inflicted.” So we indulge ourselves; and we take advantage of others. And we deceive ourselves into thinking that actions like these are to our benefit, when, in fact, they only damage us, making us very much less of the person that God intended us to be -- actually reducing our potential. It is those times that God seems far away that are the most critical times in our lives. And it is during that “long time coming” that the bridesmaids make decisions that make all the difference for them.
Your entrance into his Kingdom -- your eternal life and happiness -- depends on being wise rather than foolish. And considering how important this is, I can’t help but be reminded of something Einstein once said:
If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask...
The reason this principle is so important is that the parable before us this morning is almost certain to generate a huge number of questions. Questions like “what’s the deal with the oil?” Or “why wouldn’t the wise bridesmaids share?” But because our very lives really do depend on the “solution to this problem”, we need to carefully consider the proper question to ask about this parable. But let me suggest that in order to find the proper question, we need to consider a lead-in question first, that is:
·         Why weren’t the foolish bridesmaids admitted to the wedding celebration?
Now this one isn’t difficult to answer: the answer is all over our text. In the introduction to our parable (in the previous chapter), Jesus says (24:44):
Therefore you also must be ready
And if we look at the verse immediately following our parable, Jesus says, (v13 AMP)
Therefore, be on the alert [be prepared and ready]
Similarly, in the parable itself (v10), we read:
those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast
So the answer to our first question (“why weren’t the foolish bridesmaids admitted?”) is simply: “they weren’t ready!” But, of course, that leads us directly to the proper question (which is):
·         What does this parable tell us about how to be ready?
I’d like to offer three answers to that question this morning, starting with:
1 - It is personal.
You can’t make your way into the kingdom of God on anyone else’s coattails. The wise bridesmaids were ready, and the foolish bridesmaids thought they could use their friends’ readiness for their own advantage. But they couldn’t. Instead, it was necessary that they should make their own personal arrangements.
It doesn’t matter who you hang out with. And it doesn’t matter what your last name is. You have to take personal responsibility for your own entrance into the kingdom of God.
There is also an interesting implication here: if (may it never be), you someday hear those fateful words, "I never knew you," you can't blame your parents; you can't blame your church; you can't blame your politicians. There is only one person that is to blame.
2 - Yes: readiness is personal, but it is also precious.
Being ready requires time and resources. The fact that the foolish bridesmaids are sent off to buy extra oil indicates as much. And, of course, that investment of time and resources is the wise things to do. But you know, Jesus does not trick anyone into his kingdom, giving us flowery promises of an easy life. Rather we are told to count the cost -- and in this respect, Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, saying (Luke 14:33):
you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything.
No question about it: Jesus knows that many are going to weigh the options and walk away from his offer. But those who do can’t blame him when they hear those fateful words. But for those willing to trust in him, the more they invest, the more they find joy in their investment. Elsewhere, Jesus says (Matthew 13:44):
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
So don’t think of your investment in the Kingdom as “pricey” -- think of it as “precious”: it is so much more than worth it.
3 - Readiness is personal, and it is precious, but it also needs to be is priority.
Did you notice that every one of the bridesmaids had plenty of opportunity to be ready? Even the foolish bridesmaids could easily have gone to buy their extra oil during that “long time coming” -- rather than waiting for it to be too late. So we must invest in our readiness now. As the Bible says (2 Corinthians 6:2):
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
For some, perhaps even here this morning, this could be the critical time in your life. Now if you are thinking that you've done just fine up to the present and don't need to take any action -- well, that's precisely the mistake that the foolish bridesmaids made, isn't it? You're being given a chance to respond appropriately even now. As we read in Peter’s second letter (3:9):
The Lord is ... patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
There is going to be a party, folks -- it is going to be amazing, and you won’t want to miss it. But you’re going to have to take some responsibility if you want to make it in. In fact, you’ll want to “make every effort” to be ready: and being ready is something you’ll want to take personally; being ready is something you’ll want to consider precious and being ready is something you’ll want to make a priority. “Don’t miss that bus!”

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Most Astonishing Promise

What a fascinating passage of scripture (John 16:16-33). But if you -- like me -- find some things about this passage to be puzzling, isn’t it comforting to notice that the disciples also appear to be confused? In verse 17, they say to each other, “What does he mean?” (that is, “What does Jesus mean?”) And in verse 18, after repeating that same question, they say quite explicitly, “We don’t understand what he is saying.

Isn’t it great that the gospel writers aren’t at all shy about acknowledging when the disciples were out of sync with Jesus? Of course, the good news is that in spite of their inability to grasp what Jesus is saying, Jesus didn’t give up on them. So whenever we struggle to understand something Jesus is saying to us, whenever we struggle to be in harmony with him, we can be assured that he is not about to give up on us, either….

But isn’t it also interesting to notice that the things that confuse Jesus’ disciples aren’t the same things that puzzle us? In verse 18, the disciples ask about this “little while” business. But when Jesus says, “in a little while you will no longer see me,” we now know that he could well have been speaking about his approaching crucifixion and death -- it is, after all, something that he predicted at least three times. And then when he adds, “and then after a little while you will see me”? Well, we now know that Jesus would also rise from the dead in great victory. And so we aren’t as puzzled today as the disciples were when Jesus said these words. Having the death and resurrection in mind also helps us understand verses 20-22:

20 Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

Can you imagine being one of those disciples between Jesus death on Good Friday and his resurrection Easter Sunday morning? When their leader and friend was executed they very likely did “weep and mourn” (as Jesus predicted). It would have appeared to them that they had made a failed investment -- that they had “bet on the wrong horse”.

Now that’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? You take a chance on someone or something, and it fails, or -- even worse -- they fail you. And the more time or money or energy you invested, the more it hurts. The disciples left everything to follow Jesus. They had spent three years of their lives dedicated to him. So you can imagine the disciples’ emotional turmoil during that longest and darkest of Saturdays. But you can also imagine their exceeding joy the following day -- when the reality of Jesus’ victory over death began to sink in. But here, in our text this morning, we aren’t there yet. Neither the death or resurrection of Jesus has happened. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can appreciate what seems to have confused the disciples.

But now we come to the most difficult portion of our text -- at least for us (there is no indication that it was a concern for the disciples). Before we read it, I’d like to give you a “heads-up:” We will be reading Jesus’ promise to his disciples -- his promise to us, and one of the most significant promises in the Bible! But in order to understand it better, it could help to consider an important question: that is, what is the purpose of a promise?

If your child is participating in a play at school, and you promise her that you will leave work early in order to attend, well, there isn’t just one purpose of such a promise. First, there is the immediate purpose -- that is, attending her play. If you were to ask her, “why did your Daddy promise to leave work early?” She might reply, “so he could see me!” And she would be right. But there can also be an ultimate purpose. If someone asked you, “why did you promise to leave work early?” you might reply, “to build a relationship with my daughter!” And you would also be right, naturally.

The Bible is full of promises. And while we might understandably be inclined to focus on the immediate purpose of those promises (being human as we are), scripture make it clear that there are also ultimate purposes, including nothing less that re-making us in the image of our Lord and Savior -- grafting us into the True Vine that Real spoke about last week, enabling us to abide with him, and he with us. As Peter writes (2 Peter 1:4):

he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

So now, as we turn to Jesus’ amazing promise to us, let’s not focus entirely on the immediate purpose, or we could easily lose sight of the ultimate purpose.

23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

Now to us, hearing these words almost two thousand years later, they sure sound like Jesus is writing a blank cheque for us, don’t they? “My Father will give you whatever you ask…” But I’m sure that I’m not the only one here who has prayed earnestly, prayed fervently, prayed committedly, prayed faithfully, without receiving the thing that was prayed for. So how do we deal with that? For starters, we must not get hung up on the immediate purpose of this promise -- that is, receiving whatever we ask for. We will only begin to begin to appreciate this promise if we also consider its ultimate purpose.

There is, after all, a whole lot riding on this promise. Because there is nothing like a broken promise to rip your heart out; nothing like a broken promise to make other promises seem worthless. After all, if we can’t take this promise seriously, how can we take Jesus’ other promises seriously? When Jesus says:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

And when Jesus says,

Let not your heart be troubled; …. I go to prepare a place for you.

We must be able to trust him, and so we must also be willing to wrestle with -- perhaps understand -- this promise. But more importantly, we need to experience it.

The problem, of course, is that this promise sometimes doesn’t seem to stand up to the tragedies we face in life. Those heartbreaking prayer requests -- asking for the health of someone we love -- or perhaps even more heartbreaking -- asking for the salvation of someone we love -- they all too often go unfulfilled.

And it won’t do to say that “well, God answered those prayers… he just chose to answer with a ‘no’.” Have you ever heard that? Except that Jesus doesn’t just promise that the Father will just hear, or even respond. No: he says: “my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” And to lay it on even thicker, Jesus doesn’t just give this promise once. We see it at least four times in the gospel of John alone. In chapter 14, we read:

13 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.

And in chapter 15, we read:

7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified

And later:

16 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

And the same promise appears twice in the gospel of Matthew (7:7, 21:22), once in the gospel of Mark (11:24), once in the gospel of Luke (11:9) as well as in the first letter of John (5:14,15). This is some serious business. We can’t just brush it off. It even appears that Jesus is insisting that we take him seriously here -- that is, he is encouraging us to make a point of regularly coming to him with our requests! Here is verse 24 again:

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

At this point, let’s agree that these nine passages are really nine different expressions of the same promise. Let’s also notice that there are two types of details in some or all of these passages. On the one hand, there are some we could call the “gate” for this promise, and on the other hand, those we could call the “goal” for this promise. These are the bookends, and between the gate and the goal is where the game is played.

Suppose you participate in a long distance run like the Boston Marathon. Going in, you’re told that successful participants will receive a certificate indicating their completion of that prestigious endeavor. But a few kilometers before the finish line, you spy Rosie Ruiz ahead of you. She was the runner who, in 1980, “won” the race, only to be stripped of the honor when it was found that she didn’t start with the rest of the runners. She didn’t enter through the “gate”, so she couldn’t claim the prize. Similarly, if a runner lost his way, and even ran the full distance in record time without crossing the finish line, you’d feel very sorry for him, but you wouldn’t give him the prize, either. He didn’t achieve the “goal”. Between the gates and the goal is where the game is played.

In the slide, I’ve colored the text. In green, you see the promise itself. In yellow, what we could call the “gate”, and in red what we could call the “goal”.

In our text (at the top) in order to receive what we ask, the “gate” is that the asking be done “in Jesus name.” (as it is in John 14 and John 15:16) In Matthew and in Mark, the gate is to ask “in faith.” In 1 John, the gate is to ask “according to God’s will.” In John 15:7, the gate is to be “abiding in the True Vine (that is, in Jesus, himself).” But “operating in Jesus name” just is “abiding in Jesus” which just is “being aligned with the Father’s will” which just is “living by faith in Him”. As Tom Short says, “Our faith activates the promises of God and makes them real for us.” Those of the nine passages that have an explicit “gate” are simply different expressions of the same “gate”.

But this “in my name” business needs a bit more attention, especially given the common Christian practice to simply tack on “in Jesus name” to the end of our prayers. There is nothing wrong about doing that, of course. It usually expresses our intention to pray in Jesus’ name. But to express an intention and to actually pray in Jesus’ name are two quite different things. After all, Jesus makes it clear that it doesn’t matter if we imagine that we are acting in his name; it only matters if he considers what we do to be in his name. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells the crowd (Matthew 7):

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Jesus isn’t buying it when these people think that they have done so much “in his name.” Instead, his reply is the scariest sequence of words in all of scripture: “I never knew you,” he says. Knowing him is important. Knowing him is critical. Clearly, we can’t enter the Kingdom without knowing him. But at the same time, it is also those that do the Father’s will who will enter the Kingdom. Once again: doing God’s will and knowing Jesus and operating in his name are aspects of one and the same thing.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, how did it go? After “our Father”, we are to pray, “Hallowed be your name.” That is, before we go any further, we must recognize the respect that is due to his name. We don’t treat it as a light thing. Instead, becoming a representative of his name is the goal of a lifetime. After that comes: “Your Kingdom come; your will be done -- on Earth (i.e., in my life) as it is in heaven.” That is, we can only begin to learn to pray if we start with acknowledging his purposes, and his goals. We need our heart’s desire to be in harmony and alignment with the Almighty.

But to really appreciate this “in my name” idea, let me remind you of one of its few modern applications. Suppose you are heading down the highway, without paying attention to how fast you are going, and a policeman pulls you over for speeding. He has stopped you “in the name of the law.” It means, among other things, that the policeman is representing the law. In the same way, when we do something in the name of Jesus, we are representing him. But just as the policeman needs training in his profession, needs qualification as the law’s representative, and needs to be well-versed in the law before acting in its name, we, too, need to get to know Jesus before we can legitimately claim to be doing anything in his name. As we said: knowing him is critical.

“In Jesus’ name” is not just something we tack on at the periphery of the Christian life. Rather, it represents something fundamentally pivotal in our Christian experience. In testimony to this fact, the expressions “in the name of Jesus”, “in Jesus”, “in Jesus’ name” and “in Christ” appear over one hundred times in the New Testament, where we also read:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17)

So that’s the “gate”: if we are willing to get to know Jesus so deeply that we can represent him to the lost world around us -- because that’s what it means to operate “in his name” -- then we will fulfill the requirements for the promise.

But what about the “goal?” Here, we consider the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ promise. In our text, Jesus says that the goal is to make “our joy complete.” That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But how about those other passages? In John 14 and 15:7, the goal of the promise is to glorify the Father. In John 15:16, the goal is to have us bear much fruit and to love one another. As the Sunday School memorably reminded us a few weeks ago, “love” and “joy” are the first two of the fruit of the spirit. In John 15:8, Jesus indicates that our demonstrating this fruit is the truest manner by which we glorify the Father:

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit.

So, once again, when these passage include a “goal” they are just different expressions of the same goal. When we come to God with our requests, if our purpose is in harmony with the purpose of the promise, then the promise is ours. As Samuel Gordon writes in Quiet talks on prayer “The roots of prayer lie in oneness of purpose” -- our purpose must become more aligned with His purpose.

But even with all that I’ve said this morning, there is an uncomfortable reality in this promise that can’t be avoided. That is, no matter how many times our prayers have been answered, when the time comes that we ask and we don’t receive, then it implies that we simply weren’t in harmony with Jesus in the first place. Either we missed the gate or we missed the goal. “But I tried!” our heart cried out. “I did all I could,” we say to ourselves. It sometimes feels like Jesus must have been setting us up for heartbreak. What more can we do to be in harmony with him? Now that’s the right question to ask!

But in response, let me remind you that our text began with the disciples struggling with Jesus words -- they weren’t in harmony with him at the time. And Jesus gave them this promise in the context of their disharmony. Confusion on the part of the disciples is also part of the context of the same promise in chapter 14. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

Let me suggest that our attempts to ask in Jesus name are the best possible remedy for being out of harmony with him. That is, Jesus knows that our asking, expecting and hoping to have our requests answered is actually an effective means of getting to know him better and beginning to abide in him more!

This is how it works: whenever we know an important rule in principle, but are unsure about how that rule applies in practice, what do we do? We give it a try. When it doesn’t appear that the rule “worked”, it simply means that we either missed the gate or missed the goal. It isn’t fun when that happens, but we don’t give up. After all, Jesus tells us that there is great joy and great reward in discovering exactly how this rule “works”. So we must not give up. Will it mean developing patience? Certainly (that’s the fourth fruit of the Spirit, incidentally). Will it mean some heartbreak? Certainly. If we are in harmony with Jesus, our hearts will break at the suffering in the world, even as his does. But will it be worth it in the end? Absolutely.

In Luke 18, Jesus “told [his disciples] a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Jesus knows that there is nothing able to align our hearts with God more -- nothing that brings our hearts into harmony with him more -- than coming to Him again and again with our requests, carefully paying particular attention to the requests that are granted, and adjusting ourselves accordingly. As Andrew Murray wrote: "All this must be learned. It can only be learned in the school of much prayer, for practice makes perfect."
How does Paul put it?

in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6,7)

God knows that our hearts can be slowly brought in harmony with his Son Jesus if we follow this advice: in everything let your requests be made known to God. If you, like the disciples, still aren’t sure, why not start small -- start with the basics. Start with requests that scripture indicates are in God’s will; start with requests that scripture indicates are “in his name”. What would those things be? In 1 Thess 5, we read:

Rejoice always and pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Have you ever prayed that God would help you to learn to pray? Have you ever prayed that God would help you be thankful? Have you ever prayed for access to the joy of the Spirit? Those are great places to start. But this morning we’ve encountered a number of other things that God clearly wants for us. Have you ever prayed to be more securely established in Jesus? Have you ever prayed to be living according to his will? Have you ever prayed for more of the fruit of the Spirit in your life? How about for more of the Holy Spirit in your life?

If we remain faithful in those prayers, we will first begin to experience the ultimate purpose of this promise. And then (and only then) will we experience its immediate purpose, that is -- receiving whatever we ask for in his name.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Suffering ...and Glory

Welcome back to 1st Peter. It’s been a while. Since the previous 1st-Peter sermon, we had Christmas -- and I hope that the holidays were a blessing to everyone -- and then we had three missionary Sundays. So if you are anything like me, you forgot a bunch of what we covered from 1st Peter back in November. So, for review, we made it through three chapters out of five; today will be chapter four, and next week we’ll wrap up the series with chapter five.

Now if we were to summarize the theme of Peter’s first letter in a single word, you might choose the word “suffering”. In fact, a little more than one in six -- almost 20% -- of all the verses in 1st Peter make explicit reference to suffering. So today we can’t help but revisit this theme. Especially now that we’re into chapter four, that begins with these words (4:1):

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same attitude.”

It appears that Peter is hung up about suffering. And that might be troubling for many people these days. After all, if the Christian life is going to involve suffering, why do we want to have anything to do with it? How can we expect people to be willing to sign up for it? And how has the Christian message done so well in the marketplace of ideas if suffering features so prominently?

Well, if we think that the apostle Peter is simply trying to comfort his readers in their suffering, then we’ve totally misunderstood him. We need to appreciate that throughout this letter, Peter is actually building an argument concerning suffering; he is explaining the purpose of suffering. He is situating suffering in a bigger picture. So let’s explore that bigger picture this morning.

For starters, suffering is certainly part of the human condition. 350 years ago, there was a philosopher [Thomas Hobbes] who famously said that human life is typically “nasty, brutish and short.” Another famous philosopher, occasionally known as “the man in black”, put it this way:

“Life is Pain... Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”

And, sure enough, verses from 1st Peter tell the same story (1:24):

“For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,”

The message is clear: suffering is just part of being human. Over the last three weeks, we heard speakers coming from Kurdistan, from Syria, and from Sudan -- war-torn places where the value of human life seems downgraded, and where evil can appear suddenly and deliver great suffering. We heard of livelihoods and possessions destroyed. We heard of hunger and hardship. And whenever we turn on the news, we witness human suffering around the world.

“But hold on,” you might say, “modern medicine and modern technology have changed things; things are much better here, and we can hope that they will eventually change things throughout the world.” It’s a nice story, but the fact is that in spite of technological progress, incidence of diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, depression and anxiety are all up -- not down -- in first world countries. And the incidence of ...death? Well, that’s still at the 100% it’s been throughout history.

We just like to avoid looking at suffering. We just want it to be kept at arm’s length. If people are sick, we have hospitals. If people are dying, we have palliative facilities. Now both of those are wonderful things, but the point is that they create the illusion for the rest of us that suffering is an exception rather than the rule that it is. We might be able to avoid looking at suffering, but we can’t avoid suffering -- that’s just part of being human.

So how do we respond to suffering? How should we respond to suffering? The key is found in our very first verse - the one we’ve already read:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same attitude.

Now what attitude would that be? Let’s have a look at that this morning. On the one hand, we’ll keep our Bibles open to 1st Peter. But on the other hand, we’ll also spend some time in the rest of the New Testament -- gimplsing, where we can, Jesus’ attitude.

As we know from all the gospels, Jesus knew ahead of time that he was destined for torture and execution -- he explicitly predicted as much to his disciples at least three times, but in John’s gospel six chapters are dedicated to the last few days and hours leading up to that crucifixion. And at the beginning of those six chapters, we read (John 12:23):

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….

Now, as you know, “the Son of Man” was how Jesus referred to himself. He knew he was on the road to great suffering, but how does he describe it? “The Son of Man [is] to be glorified.” And at the end of those same six chapters, right before the soldiers come to arrest him, we find Jesus praying with these words:

Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son.

Isn’t that remarkable? The hour had come for his beating. The hour had come for his torture. The hour had come for his ridicule, his humiliation, and his suffocation on that Roman cross. But Jesus can see through that suffering -- it is as if it were just a transparent door for him -- and he can see the glory that awaits him on the other side. Now, as Peter puts it, we are to

arm ourselves with the same attitude.

Now the idea that glory can be a consequence of suffering also shows up in our text (4:12,13):

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

Yes: we will be overjoyed with Christ in his glory. But more than that, we will also participate in his glory. We will share in his glory. That’s what we read a few verse later (5:1): Peter says that he has witnessed Jesus’ suffering and will share in his glory. And this same idea shows up elsewhere:

Romans 8:17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

2 Cor 4:17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

Yes: the glory to come naturally belongs to our Lord and Savior, but it is a glory that he is willing to share with us! We may share in his glory -- but only if we are willing to share in his suffering.

You know, once you’ve encountered this interesting side-by-side placement of suffering and glory in the New Testament, it seems to show up everywhere. In fact, I did a quick check, and I encountered at least twenty such instances -- and I’m sure I missed at least a few. For our purposes this morning, two are particularly important, because they speak specifically to the attitude of Christ. The first is from the book of Hebrews (12:2):

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Yes: we fix our eyes on Jesus, so that we can learn from him -- so that we can consider his attitude, that ability to see glory through suffering. The attitude that Peter instructs us to adopt. And it isn’t just Peter. In Philippians, Paul writes these same instructions to us:

have the same attitude as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not [cling to his rights as God];
7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, ...
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to [the point of] death...
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place....

This theme, of glory through suffering, isn’t just the theme of the fourth chapter of 1st Peter. It is the theme of the entire book of 1st Peter. And not just the theme of the book of 1st Peter, either. It is the theme of the entire New Testament, resting as it does on the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. So we fix our eyes on him, and his attitude of... as we read:

  • Endurance
  • Servanthood
  • Humility
  • Obedience
Scripture makes it clear: this is the only sure path to glory.

Now, of course, it is one thing to say that there can be glory through suffering, but it is another thing altogether to be able, like Jesus, to see that glory, particularly when we are experiencing significant suffering. But let me suggest that if are willing to pay close attention to Jesus attitude -- as described in the gospels and echoed in 1st Peter -- we will discover three necessary ingredients to experiencing victory in suffering.

But before we consider those three elements, it is appropriate to notice from our text that not just any suffering can be turned into glory. As you will notice in verses fifteen and sixteen, Peter makes it clear that we can’t expect glory for just any suffering -- and certainly not suffering resulting from our own misbehavior:

If you suffer, it should not be ...even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

So what does it mean to suffer as a Christian in Canada today?

As you may recall, introducing the theme of suffering from 1st Peter last fall, Andy very wisely reminded us that while we may not face violence for our faith in Canada, there is a very real sense in which the culture around us feels (and this is quote from Andy’s notes) “that church is ... out of step with Canadian values.”

Well, that observation was perhaps prophetic. As you may know, quite recently the federal government decided to add an ideological purity test to their applications for summer work grants. This is how the government website puts it:

applicants will be required to attest that both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada...

Now that sounds great -- what could be objectionable about that, right? Who would ever be disrespectful of individual human rights? Well, the very next sentence clarifies:

These [human rights] include reproductive rights.

“Reproductive rights” -- hmm, later, that’s made a little more explicit: it means “access to safe and legal abortions.” It doesn’t matter that Canada doesn’t actually have an abortion law; apparently, disagreement with elected officials on this topic makes you a second-class citizen: if you do disagree with them, don't bother applying for a student work grant.

Now the great irony in all of this is that on their website, in order to justify such an unprecedented action, the government invokes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But it is that very Charter that explicitly protects the "fundamental freedoms" of, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and freedom of belief. But somehow, according to the present government, those freedoms aren't quite as important as the need to toe the party line on the topic of abortion. Sure: we may not suffer violence for faithfulness to Jesus Christ, but we will certainly be treated differently for it.

Of course, when we are treated as second-class citizens, there is enormous temptation to get all bent out of shape at the injustice of it all, but that could be exactly what our text is telling us not to do. Instead, the message of 1st Peter is that when we encounter such things -- rights abuses, marginalization, discrimination, mistreatment and injustice -- that we consider the attitude of Christ. In particular, if Christ did not cling to his rights as God, if we claim to be his followers, it shouldn't be our first instinct to cling to our rights as Canadian citizens.

After all, in the first chapter of 1st Peter (v17) and also in the second chapter (v11), Peter tells his readers to consider themselves “foreigners” in this world. Are we being treated like we don’t belong? Do we feel like we don’t really “fit in”? Peter says, “own that.” Is the church out of step with “Canadian values”? Peter is saying “Amen to that”! As Paul put it (Romans 12:2):

Don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world.

Or, as Jesus says in John chapter 17, where he is praying for us:

They [(meaning us)] are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

The attitude here is to be looking forward to another city, whose architect and builder is God. So the first element of Jesus’ attitude -- enabling the ability to see glory through suffering -- is to consider oneself a foreigner, knowing that our home is not of this world. Let’s could call this element “belonging elsewhere”. And on this point, our text (verse 3-5) reads:

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do [and] They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

That longing to belong, that our culture drills into us as early as primary school? On the one hand, it tempts us to conform ourselves to this world. But on the other, it reminds us that we were really wired for another one altogether. If we want to experience victory -- even in suffering -- we need to recognize our “belonging elsewhere.”

Now the second common element between 1st Peter and the gospels is the repeated admonition to love each other. In our text, we read:

4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

(which, incidentally, is an echo of)

1:22 love one another deeply, from the heart.

(and also)

3:18 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.

Suffering always comes with temptation -- the temptation to turn inward. In the grip of suffering, it is terribly difficult to see beyond oneself. And so developing a habit of love, which is always outward-facing, is a wonderful antidote. Loving each other deeply gives God the opportunity to plant his glory in our hearts. Of course, suffering can also increase our sympathy for others who are going through hardship. Are we willing to accept suffering if it represented an act of love to those around? Well, that’s what Jesus’ attitude certainly was. The gospels say that Jesus showed “the full extent of his love” by going to the cross for us. And it was with that in view that Jesus gives his most famous instruction to his disciples (15:9, 13, 13:34):

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Those five words -- “as I have loved you” -- contain such a challenge. If our love is to be anything like the variety of love that Jesus has shown to us, we must be willing to suffer for it. How often do we let inconvenience dictate the limits of our love to each other, when Jesus didn’t allow suffering -- and even death -- to become a limitation on his love.

This last week, I encountered a really interesting English word -- the word “insufferable”. Of course, we use that word when we speak of someone else whose behavior we can hardly tolerate - or more accurately, whose behavior we are unwilling to suffer. But there is nothing that anyone has ever done that Jesus found to be “insufferable.” In fact, his suffering was enough to address the sins of every human being who has ever lived. And we are, as Peter puts it, to “arm ourselves with the same attitude”. If you want to experience victory this morning -- even in suffering, “be loving others”.

So far, then, our two key elements of Jesus’ attitude are then:

  1. Belonging elsewhere -- considering ourselves foreigners;
  2. Be loving others -- letting our suffering improve our ability to reach out in love.

And finally, we need to have an attitude of:

  1. Believing in God

Now you might think, “that’s no surprise,” but let’s check out a few examples in this regard. In the final verse of our chapter, we read:

4:19 those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

When we are overwhelmed in our suffering, we fall back on our trust in God. We know that he is the only eternal hope. We know that we can count on his promises. As we read in the book of James (1:12):

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

That’s right: the glory that we have been talking about is promised to us -- if we are able to remain faithful in the face of suffering. And we know that we can count on our faithful Creator, because we have seen how he has glorified his son. Remember Jesus’ final words from the cross? In Luke 23:46, we read:

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

In the extremity of his suffering, even at the point of death, Jesus turned to his Father, knowing that he was absolutely trustworthy. And in his final action, Jesus’ reliance on God becomes an example for us. That’s what it says explicitly in 1st Peter:

2:21-25 “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

This commitment to believe in God -- no matter what trials we are facing, whether frustration, mistreatment, pain or even injustice -- this is the third key element of Jesus’ attitude.

But one more thing to notice: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Similarly, in Colossians, Paul writes that he “rejoice[s] in what [he is] suffering for [his readers].” Could it be that the example that Christ is setting for us, and the example that Paul is setting for us is a willingness to suffer for the sake of others?

Here, in my hand, I have a document written by my father-in-law, Chester Perkins, who went by his nickname, Chet. Its title is: “60 Years as a Paraplegic.” In it, Chet describes the experience of contracting polio in 1954, and the agony and the humiliation that it represented. As a young husband, father, and farmer, his world was shattered. He prayed fervently for healing, or at least for some use of his legs. But more than that, he prayed that God would protect him from bitterness. While God declined to answer the first prayer in the way that Chet had hoped, He generously answered the second. For anyone who knew him, Chet was the most gracious and delightful of men. This is how he closes his reflection on sixty years of physical suffering:

Sixty years have passed so quickly. I have no reason to complain about my lot in life, nor to question God as to why I should be afflicted. The Lord has been very good to me and has helped me see that His ways are better than anything I could have planned.… I would not have chosen to have polio and be disabled, but I choose to believe that my life has been better used in the roles I have been directed to due to my disability. In no way do I feel that I have been cheated.

Now, if you ever met my father-in-law, you’d appreciate that he was entirely sincere as he wrote this. This is what it means to believe in God. We trust him to inject glory even into our suffering. Because not only is it possible to see the victory God intends for us through suffering, but it is possible to experience the victory that God intends for us in spite of suffering.

You can’t avoid suffering, but you can avoid being crushed by it. If we want victory -- even in suffering, we need to adopt the attitude of Jesus:

  • Belonging elsewhere -- considering ourselves foreigners in this world
  • Be loving others -- even as Christ loved us
  • Believing in God -- committing ourselves to the one who judges justly.