Since Lord's Day last we've been on our fifth serving of Freedom in Christ, thanks to Pastor John. He started us off reading from Galatians chapter 3, verses 10 through 14: "For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.' Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because 'the righteous will live by faith'. The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, 'The person who does these things will live by them.' Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.' He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
“Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole” (or a tree, or a cross). Keep that in mind through this recap fellows. Hope that by the end of this recap we all understand that the curse was broken, which is eternally important to us, if only we believe.
Pastor John continues to emphasize to us that inherently imperfect men cannot measure up to the demands of the Ten Commandments, cannot live according to the Law as handed down to Moses twice. Our heavenly Father foresaw as much and sent His perfect Son to take upon Himself all our imperfection – our sin – that if we believe in Him, we are absolved of our sin; we are made righteous in the eyes of the Father. This rescue, this salvation not by earning, but by believing, (and then spending our daily lives gratefully trying to imitate).
By way of illustration of the point Pastor John opened a book of fairy tales and recalled the “Princess and the Frog, which figured in the “Once Upon A Time” TV series. In it, a true love kiss breaks a curse. So it is also with us! A savior comes, to break the curse of sin and death. That curse is laid out for us in Galatians. 3:10. "For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
What that means, fellows, is that trying to do the impossible in EARNING salvation according to the law is doomed to failure; none of us can humanly succeed. And in trying and failing to do what we humanly cannot do we are...cursed! Thrown off a cliff as it were, or something equally catastrophic. So trying to live according to the law will of itself bar us from salvation.
Now, as we have said before, God's holiness cannot tolerate the proximity, the nearness, of unholiness. Yet at the end of time we, each of us, MUST come near to God. Well then?
Read Isaiah 6:5 “'Woe to me!' I cried. 'I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.'”
Coming near means to die from God's holiness....except that the Son of God came to save us by covering us with His holiness! Remember Moses and the burning bush? The burning bush is an example. Jesus was, in effect, burned for us. What has been burned cannot be burned again. The final sacrifice.
We read 1 Peter 2:24 “He himself bore our sins” on his body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness; 'by his wounds you have been healed.'”
We read from Galatians above that cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. Only Jesus could break the curse of sin and death by Himself being hung on a tree.
Some of you fellows at least have read Chronicles of Narnia. One major story in it is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. In that story four children, whose diverse characters seem to sum up mankind, encounter The White Witch who personifies evil, and Aslan, a lion, who seems like a portrait of the Christ in his goodness and self-sacrifice.
In reading such a story and taking it in we can readily see that Jesus is enough. His grace is sufficient, just as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians. 2:2 “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
We march down a long hall of faith when read from the Book of Hebrews chapter 11. Here we read chapter 11 verses 13 through 16 “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
Pastor John explained to us that Abraham (one of the heroes of faith in Hebrews chapter 11) knew that the REAL blessing was not in land, progeny or anything else. The real blessing was God's promise of “a better land” which we know as life eternal with Him.
Further on in Hebrews 11 we read verses 32 through 38. “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”
As Pastor John agreed with us, all that really didn' t sound like a blessing Yet we soon realize that the faith held by those people was incomparably the greatest blessing. He then remembered Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries who went to a remote region of Ecuador in 1956 to spread the Gospel. He knew before he went that it was very dangerous, and he was killed before he could get going in his work. But his wife and others came after him, and their forgiving example won converts belief in the Christ as nothing else could have. Jim Elliot's attitude was profoundly simple: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose. He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose”. If the author of Hebrews were writing today, surely he would include Jim Elliot as a hero of faith.
The Gospel is heart surgery, by which the Savior removes our hearts of stone and replaces it with hearts of flesh. As we cannot ascend to heaven on our own, God came down to where we are to give us hope and eternal blessing. Becoming better people is not what the Gospel is about. Nor a better life. All this temporal stuff we worry about every day won't matter. Whether or not we each have eternal life is the bottom line.
We summed up our installment in Freedom in Christ by reading John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent”
Truly, next to this whatever else we know...is dust.
Fellows, we are into our fourth week of Freedom in Christ. Lord's Day last Pastor John read from Paul's letter to the Galatians, chapter 3 verses 1 through 5 “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?”
The Apostle Paul could well ask each of us that same question: “does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?”
Pastor John gave us the example of Jim Carrey. This fellow is a comedy actor. He's worked in the profession for 30 years and became successful and famous and financially well-off. But it seems that his success has not destroyed his soul. He has said “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”
Similarly, in the musical “Evita” the actress Madonna's Eva Peron sings “as for fortune and as for fame, I never invited them in, though they seem to the world to be all that I desire. They are illusions; they are not what they promised to be, the answer was here all along...”
Fellows, the world tempts us in more way than we can count, yet the real answer is and has been in our hands all along: unadulterated faith in Jesus as our savior from the imperfection called sin that otherwise separates us all from the Father.
Pastor John reminded us that we should put aside our consumerist mind-set. Jesus is not a product for trial. He is our salvation. Similarly, firefighters say “get on the ladder!” to people they are rescuing from burning office towers and condo high-rises. They do not say “try the ladder to see how you like it.”
I must pose this question to each of you: if you know sin, have repented, and have been baptized, did you receive the spirit through works of the law? Adhering to some rule book? Or have you received the spirit through simple, unadulterated belief in Jesus as Son of God?
If once having received the spirit, would you then be led astray by someone to go back to first base and try to attain salvation through our own effort? Having begun by the spirit would you lose sight of that and go back to trying to earn it “through the flesh” - through good works?
Pastor John then reinforced the point by quoting from the letter to the Hebrews 11:6 “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Nothing about earning it through good works!
You fellows all know, as Pastor John affirmed, that to work a computer must be...plugged in. Same for followers of the Christ: unless we are plugged into the source (the word of God) it is no good. Without belief, all of the reading, singing, worship services just become pointless labor. The effort becomes a burden so we get burned out running spiritually empty. It is a matter not of what we do, but how and why we do it! From Paul's letter to the Philippians 4:13 “I can do all this through him who gives me strength”
The key as Pastor John taught us is not “I can do”, but “through Him”. In his three-year earthly ministry Jesus always talked about faith not about technique. He never had a “how-to” manual to issue to his disciples. Pastor John gave us a number of passages to decisively illustrate the point:
Matthew 6:30 “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”
Matthew 8:26 “He replied, 'You of little faith, why are you so afraid?' Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.”
Matthew 14:31 “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'”
Matthew 16:8 “Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, 'You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?'”
Matthew 17:20 “He replied, 'Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.'”
Salvation is all about FAITH derived from historical facts recorded beyond dispute in the Bible. Fortified by such faith we can step out of the comfort zones we each have, to obey even in difficult circumstances. An example is to forgive. Pastor John learned something about this long ago. A friend of his accidentally destroyed a substantial body of files Pastor John had for his favorite “Legend of Zelda” game. Pastor John decided then and there that he would learn from the Book of Ecclesiastes that his being so enmeshed in the game was pointless, a useless vanity. And Pastor John forgave his friend.
We read 2 Corinthians 12:9 “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” When we live out our lives in faith it is all meaningful. God does not need our works to channel his power through us. “My power is made perfect in weakness.” So, the spirit of God is hindered by our works. Our greatest work is not based on talent or knowledge or skills
...but on humble prayer of submission. Then, our deeds truly reflect the fruit of the spirit in us.
Three days ago we joined Pastor John in his “Freedom in Jesus Christ” series, wherein we are learning the true meaning of freedom!
In this installment he got us underway by reading from Galatians chapter 2, verses 19 through 21: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Pastor John then got us cogitating by giving us a video clip example from the 2004 movie comedy “50 First Dates”. The young lady protagonist in the film has chronic amnesia, which is to say, short-term memory loss. Every time she can't remember "who is this man?" (that she met and married).
Suppose your mom starts waking up every morning and each time she is surprised to find a man – your dad - in bed with her...”who is this man?” Worse, she then gets up and pretty quickly she sees you...”who are you?”
So, in the movie for the man and woman their times together are always first dates, always getting acquainted. Over and over again. 50 times. The issue then is: with such chronic amnesia, how can you have a successful life together?
Eventually, she watches a video of her life so that she can get caught up to date and then move forward in her life with her husband.
Hey - it applies to us! Don't we so often develop, shall we call it “Gospel amnesia”?
We forget the goodness of the news which is the Gospel?. We forget the amazing grace we have received? Jesus of Nazareth, of the House of David, the one perfect being ever to have trod the earth, died on the cross in full and final payment for OUR sins and sinful natures.
But let us be honest with ourselves and confess...we live our lives as if it never happened!
Gospel amnesia indeed.
Pastor John showed us that Gospel amnesia didn't start with us. Again Pastor John read from
Paul's letter to the Galatians, 2:11-14. “When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, 'You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?'”
As Pastor John so well illustrated to us last week, the Gospel plus nothing is eternal life; the Gospel plus anything is eternal death. Peter was not only a hypocrite, as Paul explained, but also in effect saying that Jesus's death and resurrection was not enough; one also had to follow Jewish customs to be a Christian and be saved. Peter knew the right answer but he let himself be led astray by Jewish social pressure. So, he had to be caught up short by Paul.
The point of the Gospel is to rely 100 percent on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and on nothing else. No work that we can do that changes that. We read from Paul's letter to the Romans 6:23. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Get the point! Pastor John illustrated with a couple of graphs. Both graphs show life after conversion, in each case with the converted person's growing awareness of God's holiness and his own sinfulness.
The difference is in having a growing understanding of the Gospel, or not.
If no such growing understanding, then there is in the growing divide between our awareness of God's holiness and our awareness of our own sinfulness a growing tendency either to try to earn salvation through adherence to a set of rules or to surrender to feelings of guilt and despair.
If we DO having a growing understanding of the Gospel after conversion to belief, then the ever-widening gap between our awareness of God's holiness and our awareness of our own sinfulness is TOTALLY OCCUPIED with our ever-growing wonder and gratitude for Jesus's death on the cross and His resurrection.
God sees us as morally righteous because He sees us, just as believers and nothing more or less, through the lens of Jesus.
A mom and a dad don't forget who each other is each morning, right? What usually begins as exciting infatuation hopefully deepens into true love as the years go by. This deepening love comes through lives spent together meeting all of the crises and obligations that this temporal existence brings, and its occasional joys also. In this lack of amnesia, their love for each other steadily grows.
Hopefully also, it is that way with each of us. No amnesia with us; we don't forget the good news of the Gospel. Instead, we turn to it each day through the Word, each hour through prayer, every week through worship. We don't have amnesia about the Good News because in our ever-amazed gratitude, we constantly seek to live the Gospel, day by day, hour by hour, in WHATEVER circumstances we find ourselves in.
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.