Lord's Day last Pastor John treated us to the second installment in his series of “Freedom in Jesus Christ”. He began, unsurprisingly, by reading from Galatians (you fellows are quickly becoming more familiar with this biblical letter than any other!)
Galatians chapter 1 verses 1-17 Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers and sisters with me, To the churches in Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
It seems that Paul spent about three years in Arabia from shortly after his totally life-altering experience on the road to Damascus. Why did he do this? Paul had an intellect of the first rank, and he had both a Greek and a Hebrew education to match. (Today it would be as if he had a PhD in Physics AND a Doctor of Divinity degree.) Now, all of his previous assumptions in life were up-ended. He needed quite some time in a remote place to sort it all out, especially to understand how all of his Hebrew learning, which is to say the 39 books of the Old Testament, actually prefigured very thoroughly the coming of the Christ whom he had just met. At length Paul had brought his formidable intellect in synchrony with his new-found spirit as a servant of the Christ. He was now ready to undertake the mission to the Gentiles that the Christ had settled upon his shoulders. He left Arabia and went back into the world – the same dark, fallen world that we all inhabit today. The rest as they say is history, history that you know from the Book of Acts and from reading Paul's many epistles.
Now, Pastor John is very fond of Jazz music. Jazz is a uniquely American musical genre about a century old. In his sermon Pastor John explained to us that “improvising” is what he most appreciates about Jazz. It is for him the music of freedom. It is very important to understand that Jazz builds on themes and structures, which is to say discipline, already there. The better trained (which is to say, disciplined) the musician is, the more he has freedom WITHIN the boundaries of the art of music to convincingly express himself. From this interesting analogy we understand that it is just this way for followers of the Christ: we commit ourselves to the Christ's discipline so that we can live life fully within God's framework. Joyfully, we restrict ourselves so that we have true freedom from fear and failure. We very willingly discipline ourselves to the desires of God, so that we have the true freedom in His unrestricted love.
The Apostle Paul understood through his lengthy time of lonely reflection after Damascus that as perfect as is the law, handed down twice to the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt, this law that Paul as Saul of Tarsus had thoroughly studied under the great teacher Gamaliel, was still no more than a guide to EXTERNAL conduct. The law could not by itself change the inner person. If the inner person was not changed, of course due to his naturally sinful nature he would fail to fully observe the law. Being religious according to the law cannot change you on the inside; it changes you partially on the outside at most. It is the gift of grace from God that decisively changes you from the inside and gives you true freedom in God's love.
To hammer home the point to us, Pastor John showed us a video clip from a film rendition of Victor Hugo's great novel “Les Miserables” (first published in France in 1862). In the video clip the protagonist, Jean Valjean, is a habitual criminal given refuge by an elderly priest. Alas, that great kindness does not change Jean Valjean's criminal heart, and he makes off with valuables from the priest's church. He is caught by the local gendarmes (they are like sheriff's deputies in this country) and brought back to the churchyard to be confronted by the priest.
In front of everybody, the priest covers up for Jean Valjean!
Remember, the priest surprises everybody by saying that he GAVE the valuables to Jean Valjean, and to top it off, he claims that Jean forgot to take a couple of other items as well! Well, the gendarmes and everybody else present could hardly argue with that, so in an amazing turn of events Jean has been saved from the very deserved penalty of his theft.
This is the turning point in Jean Valjean's life. At last he realizes that there is “something greater than me that I am receiving and don't deserve”. All of the well-known rules and regulations of life didn't change Jean. Grace and love changed him – as it changes us!
To further drive into our minds the qualitative difference between the legalistic attention to rules and the truly godly attention to...God. Pastor John gave us the tale of the three little pigs....well no, rather, three fellows on the construction site. The.first guy was making bricks. The second fellow was building a wall. But it was the third person looking up into the vastness of God's sky who was building a cathedral.
Bricks are rules, Jesus is a cathedral. The Gospel CAN change you. We were further reminded of this from John 1:12 "But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God." Yes what (bad) you have done is overbalanced by what God has done – in the sacrifice of His son on the cross. Our “goodness” from “following the rules” will blind us to our need for the Savior. We are further reminded from Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” which Paul penned when writing to the congregations in Rome because he remembered from the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 64:6) “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away”
Not some rule book but the Gospel will give you purpose in your life. You read Galatians. 1:16 “to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being” and further, Galatians 1:23-24. “They only heard the report: 'The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.' And they praised God because of me”.
Paul first knew the Christ, then he made known the Christ. So also with us. This is very far removed from trying to feel good in front of others because of what you know from a rule book.
Pastor John mentioned that making known the Christ through the patient building of relationships goes against the natural desires he feels often times, on account of the introverted portion of his nature.
The difference is mo-ti-va-tion. Enthralled as he is by the love of the Christ, Pastor John goes against his innate, natural desires. He does what the Lord prompts him to do not because of anything about his personality or personal desires but of what he knows that his Savior would have of him, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. When still a teen the man we know as Pastor John became so changed that he became president of his youth group. This happened, not because of any personal natural desire but because of a special someone who, like that priest who reached out to Jean Valjean, reached out to a lonely teen
...named John Yeo.
So fellows - continue making connections: making deep, intimate connections with others is doing God's business.
Lastly, Pastor John quoted Scotty Smith, a young Tennessee pastor and author: “You know every vain, foolish, and evil thought we’ve ever conceived; every lustful, greedy fantasy in which we’ve engaged. Only you hear every grace-robbing, grandstanding, gossipy word we speak. Only you know the broken cisterns of our choices—our idols, the many things to which we turn to find life somewhere else than in you. Yet you pursue us, welcome us, and love us, and you are changing us. What a wonderful, merciful Savior you are, Jesus. Life, temporal and eternal, can only be found in you. So very Amen we pray, in your transcendent and transforming name.”
So, don't get hung up with bricks or even walls. Look up, up to God and see the bigger picture by letting go of natural selfish desires. Be free from fears and anxieties and entangling sin. Become agents of REAL change in this sorry fallen world through the Gospel.