Sunday, November 27, 2016

The First Noel (Genesis 3:15)

A familiar song that is heard this time of year says, “The first noel the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” That word noel comes to us from French, and it generally equates with “Christmas.” It comes into French from the Latin natalis, which relates to “birth.” So, in English we have the word natal, which comes from the same Latin word, and is probably most commonly associated with something like a neonatal unit at a hospital, where newborn babies receive care. But it is the French word noel that we often find occurring in Christmas songs and Christmas cards. And if we speak of “the first noel,” as the familiar song says, we tend to think of that one in the second chapter of Luke where the angels bring the good news of Christmas to the shepherds. This, however, is not “the first noel,” or first “Christmas message,” that we find in the Bible. Far from it, in fact. Prior to the coming of Christ into the world at that first Christmas, there were numerous prophecies and proclamations of the coming Messiah who would rescue His people from sin and establish His everlasting kingdom of peace and righteousness.

If we want to find “the first noel,” we have to look further back in history from the one “the angel did say” unto “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” The very first noel is the one that the Lord God did say unto a certain evil serpent in the Garden of Eden, and the first human beings to whom he lied. We find it in Genesis 3:15. Theologians refer to this verse as the protoevangelium – “the first Gospel” – for here, in the moments immediately following the first sin of the human race, we find the first promise of redemption that will save the human race from the curse of sin.

Though this message may not often appear in Christmas cards and Christmas carols, it is as much a part of the Christmas story as the angels, the shepherds, and the magi. Genesis 3:15 is the seed from which the Christmas tree grows. And so, as we look at this, the first noel, we want to consider the reason for Christmas, the reality of Christmas, and the result of Christmas.

I. The reason for Christmas

Fill in the blank: “________________ is the reason for the season.” Now, if you said, “Jesus,” you are right, but that’s a Sunday School answer. You know what I mean about a Sunday School answer, don’t you? The story is told of a little boy in Sunday School; when the teacher said, “I’m thinking of something small and grey, has a fuzzy tail, likes to climb trees and eat acorns,” the kid said, “Well, it really sounds like you are talking about a squirrel, but the answer is probably Jesus.” So, let’s think about it for a moment, and move beyond the Sunday School answer and fill in the blank: “_____________ is the reason for the season.” There are probably many words, including Jesus, that will fill the blank correctly, but the one I’m thinking of is “Sin.”

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “There he goes again. He’s so hung up on preaching about sin that he’s gone and dragged it into Christmas now.” Well, no, I haven’t dragged it into Christmas. It was there from the beginning. In fact, apart from sin, there is no need for Christmas. First Timothy 1:15 says, “It is a trustworthy saying, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” So, in a very real sense, sin is the reason for the season.

In the verses preceding our text, we find the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is obvious that we are not merely talking about a reptile, but a spiritual, personal being. The serpent is referred to with personal pronouns, and is described as one with intelligence, speech, and knowledge that surpasses even that of the man and woman who were created in the image of God. The serpent has an awareness of the supernatural world.[1] And so, later on in Scripture, the identity of the serpent is made plain, but it was never in doubt. Revelation 12:9 speaks of “the great dragon … the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world.” Whether he adapted to the physical form of a serpent, or the imagery of the serpent is used metaphorically here, we do not know, and it doesn’t matter all that much. The point is that Satan had come into the garden of paradise in order to bring about the ruin of humanity by deception and temptation.

He came to the woman and began to cast doubt on the Word of God. “Indeed, has God said …?”, he began. Subsequently, he would flatly deny the truthfulness of God’s promise. God had said, “In the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Satan said, “You surely will not die!” It is always a tactic of the enemy to entice us to question what God really has and has not said.

But he went further, “has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” In point of fact, God had not said that. Actually God said they could eat freely from any tree of the garden, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was God’s will that humanity understand good and evil by His revelation, and not by personal experience. It was for their good that God gave them a restriction on this tree, that they might trust Him at His word and not experience the devastation of disobedience for themselves. But Satan always seeks to arouse within us a doubt concerning the nature of God. He entices us to question whether or not God is really good, and whether or not He really has our best interests at heart in His will. So, Satan said to Eve, “God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” You see, he has her thinking now that God is holding her back from attaining her maximum potential; from achieving her best life now.

So, with doubts in her mind about God’s word and His nature, Eve took the fruit and ate it. She had been deceived. But when she offered it to Adam, he simply ate along with her. His sin was not that of being deceived, but of flatly disobeying a clear command of the Lord. Scripture is clear and consistent that human sinfulness has its origin, not in the deception to which Eve fell prey, but to the disobedience of Adam. And it was because of this sin, the promise of a coming Redeemer was proclaimed. Because God desires and designed man for an eternal relationship with Him, He immediately announced that He would bring about deliverance for humanity.

With the entrance of sin into the world, the cosmic conflict between God and Satan entered a new theater of battle. The battle began when Satan, who was created as an angel, rebelled against the Lord and took a host of angels with him in the revolution. But by bringing humanity into the fray, the battle moved to the earth, where we continue to live in the midst of the strife. The Lord said to Satan, “Because you have done this … I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” That phrase “her seed” points to the One who would come to deliver humanity from sin, the Messiah Jesus. He would come to wage war against Satan and save those who trust in Him.  

As a foreshadowing of what the Redeemer would do for humanity, verse 21 says that “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” He did not make for them a garment of wool. A lamb can be shorn of its wool and it will grow back. But the Lord made garments of skin, and the only way a living thing can provide its skin is to die. Remember that the Lord said, “In the day that you eat from this tree you will surely die.” Indeed, on that day they began dying physically. And death spread to all men through sin. But God inaugurated a process of redemption for humanity on that day, by which an innocent substitute could die as a sacrifice for the guilt of the sinner. Just as the animal died as a sacrifice to become a covering for Adam and Eve’s sin guilt, so the Redeemer would come and suffer on behalf of sinful men to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And this brings us to the second element of this first noel.

II. The reality of Christmas

We have all seen lots of artwork depicting the nativity scene, haven’t we? We’ve got a lovely stained glass scene here in the sanctuary and these figures we put out at Advent, and maybe we have nativity figures we put up in our home. We see the scenes on Christmas cards, magazine covers, and so on. Here is Jesus, minutes after emerging from His mother’s womb, sleeping peacefully while his adoring mother, in her full attire, spotless and clean, looks on with a smile and a radiant glow about her. And they’re in a barn. I don’t know about you, but that scene is not reminiscent of any barn I have ever been in, nor is it reminiscent of any labor and delivery scenario I have ever seen. I’ve watched two children be born. If we were to have posed for a picture in either situation, it would have taken days for us to look like the nativity characters we typically see. It is not a nice, neat, tranquil thing. And neither should we think of Christmas as such. God forbid that we consider His coming into the world to deliver us from sin a nice, neat, tranquil thing. The reality is far different from the artwork depicting it.

The reality of Christmas is that the Savior who was promised to come did come in a very unusual way. When the Lord spoke of “her seed,” He was indicating that the Redeemer would come into the world in a way that no other being ever has. The word “seed,” when used of human beings, can have a general reference to “offspring,” but most commonly it is used to refer to the descendants of a male, not a female. This is evident when we see how the Hebrew scholars translated this passage into Greek over two hundred years before the birth of Christ. They chose to translate the Hebrew word that is translated for us as “seed” with the Greek word spermatos. That is an unusual word to attribute to a female. Under normal circumstances, we might have expected the Lord to say that he would put enmity between Satan and the woman, or between Satan and the human race, and between his seed and Adam’s seed. But He said “her seed.” And this points to the unusual reality by which Jesus Christ came into the world through the virgin birth.

Isaiah understood the strangeness of this idea, so when he spoke of the coming of the Messiah, he said in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” There are many who assert that the word used by Isaiah here should refer, not to a virgin, but to a young woman of a marriageable age. It is interesting that the Greek translation of the Hebrew here (again, produced 250 years before the birth of Christ) uses a word that exclusively means “virgin.” It is the same word used in the New Testament to describe Mary’s virginity. You do not have to be a Bible scholar, however, to realize that there is nothing significant about a young woman of marriageable age bearing a son. The child’s birth is a sign because of its strangeness. He would be born “the seed of woman,” that is, without an earthly father, to a mother who is a virgin when she conceives.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, her response was, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Literally, the Greek text says, “How can this be, since I have not known a man,” employing “known” in the common euphemistic sense of sexual relations. But the angel explained it to her: “The angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:26-35).

And so we have the wonderful statement in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” In order to redeem us from the curse of sin and adopt us anew as His rightful sons and daughters after our sinful rebellion, God became a man, coming into the world through the virgin birth, in fulfillment of the promise made in the Garden of Eden. The redeemer would be the seed of woman, and that title can be applied to no one else but Jesus. His coming into the world through the unusual and complicated circumstances of a virgin birth is the reality which we celebrate at Christmas. It was foretold in the first noel.

We come now to …
III. The result of Christmas

A number of years ago, I heard one of the great preachers of the last half century, Dr. Haddon Robinson, preach a great message at a pastors conference. He began rather bluntly by saying, “I want to confront something that I think is present here in this room. I want to address a specific prejudice that many of you are guilty of. I believe that there are a lot of you who don’t like … snakes.” Guilty as charged! I hate snakes! I have trouble sleeping at night if I even see a picture of a snake. I have friends who love snakes, and they tell me that there are good snakes, and harmless snakes. Listen, in my opinion, the only good snake is a dead snake, and every snake is harmful to me because I feel like I’m having a heart attack whenever I see one! So I will confess to you that, when it comes to snakes, I am a serial killer. I’ve been known to run over them, put the car in reverse, and run over them a few more times just to make sure I got them good. But the best way to get rid of a snake is to cut off its head. And I have found morbid joy in so doing on a number of occasions in my life.

But the first noel is not telling us about how to deal with our snake problems. It is telling us how God is going to deal with our sin problem. He is sending a Redeemer into the world who is going to defeat Satan fully and finally. The Lord said to the serpent concerning the one who would be born as the seed of woman, “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” The Hebrew word translated “bruise” could just as well be translated as “crush.”

So we see here that the ancient conflict between God and Satan will have as its climax an encounter in which there is suffering on both parts. Satan will inflict harm on the Redeemer, and the Redeemer will inflict harm upon him as well. But notice the difference. The Redeemer will be bruised, or crushed, at the heel. Some of you have suffered foot injuries, and you know they are no laughing matter. An injured heel can be debilitating for a season, but usually such injuries are temporary. Bones heal and muscle rebuilds. But a crushing of the head is a fatal blow. There is no recovery when the head has been crushed. And here we have the foreshadowing of the Cross of Christ.

At the cross, Jesus laid down His life and died. It must have appeared as if the first noel was a lie! Jesus was dead and Satan was enjoying the victory he seemed to have won. The bloody, battered body of Jesus was put away behind the sealed stone tomb. But on the third day, the most extraordinary thing happened. This One who was dead returned to life in triumph. In His death, He had taken all of our sin – beginning with Adam’s and including all the sin of the entire human race – and He suffered the punishment of that sin under the full outpouring of God’s judgment in His death. He was the substitutionary sacrifice whose death rescues us from our sin guilt and provides a covering of righteousness for us. Here is the fulfillment of the imagery in the slaying of the animal in Eden that Adam and Eve could be covered with garments of skin. And in overcoming sin and death and hell for us, Jesus delivered the final fatal blow to Satan. With His bruised heel now healed, He crushed the head of the evil one forever.

First John 3:8 says, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” In the words of Hebrews 2:14-15, Christ came, and suffered and died, “that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

If you’ve ever removed the head of a serpent, you know that there is a short period in which the nerves in the body continue to function, causing the snake to flop around and wiggle. And I suggest to you that the works of the devil that are ongoing in the world today are just this – the flipping and flopping about of a defeated and destroyed enemy whose demise is imminent. The day is coming when Christ shall return and cast this serpent of old into his eternal destruction. Revelation 20:10 says that the devil “who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone,” where he will be tormented “day and night forever and ever.” And the glory of God’s grace toward us in defeating this enemy and rescuing us from his bondage can be seen in Romans 16:20, where we read that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet!

While the echo of the crunch of forbidden fruit was still reverberating in the garden, the promise was made that the serpent’s head would be crushed. This is why, throughout history, Satan tried to forestall and prevent Christmas from happening. The slaughter of the Hebrew children in Egypt was a Satanic attempt to end the line that would bring Christ into the world. Haman’s efforts to destroy the Jews in the days of Esther had its origins in the heart of darkness as a means of preventing the seed of woman from being born. Herod’s order of the murder of all the male children born in Bethlehem was yet another feeble attempt to prevent this outcome. And finally at the cross, Satan seemed to have won the battle. But the battle was not over. The risen Christ would come forth from death having conquered the devil forever and rendered him powerless over those who have faith in Jesus. Though he may try to remind you of your sinful past, you can stand by faith in Christ and remind him of his future – a future that is sure and settled, and has been since God spoke the words of the first noel to him in the Garden of Eden.

This is the result of Christmas! The Redeemer has come! The Seed of Woman, Jesus Christ, has come into the world and destroyed the works of the serpent forever. And we share in His victory by faith. God had spoken it in the first noel.

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” has undergone many changes since it was first written. We sing it to a different tune, under a different title, and with different words than the original composition. But in the original hymn, there was this long forgotten stanza:

Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s Conquering Seed, Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.

Those words reflect the first noel, the protoevangelium, the first Gospel message, and first Christmas song. By God’s grace, may we all know and experience the reason, the reality and the results of Christmas. We can, because the seed of woman has come, and the serpent’s head has been crushed.

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 38. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

In Everything Give Thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18)


Have you ever “sought God’s will”? Have you ever prayed for God to show you or make known to you His will? It is a noble aim, for who among does not wish to live our lives in accordance with God’s will. A problem arises, however, when we come down to how we go about seeking God’s will, or how we expect God to make it known. Often times, we expect God to make His will known by some sign or some experience or emotion. At times, perhaps, we expect others to inform us of what God’s will is. It is as though we believe that God has hidden His will away from us, and expects us to go on some odyssean quest to find it, not unlike some mythological adventure to lay hands on the Holy Grail. What this amounts to, in fact, is a mistaken notion of who our God is. He is not hiding His will from us, but rather desires to guide us in the doing of His will. And this is why He has revealed Himself and His will to us plainly in His Word, the Bible. Everything that the Bible says “do,” it is God’s will for us to do. Everything that the Bible says, “do not do,” it is God’s will for us not to do it! Now let us not be like the rich young ruler, to whom Jesus said, “Keep the commandments,” and he responded, “Which ones?” When Jesus began to enumerate them, the young man said, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” (Matt 19:16-22). If we say, “Well, I am waiting for God to let me know what His will is,” the answer is that He has told you in His Word. And if we say, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?”, then we lie to ourselves and to God. The fact of the matter is that we have our hands full with the doing and not doing of what is plainly stated in Scripture, and if we will but obey His Word, we will find ourselves actually doing His will as His providence directs our lives. Even if we reduce it down to the two greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor, beyond this, we are free in Christ to follow the desires of our hearts.

In 1 Thessalonians 5, we find a passage in which several aspects of God’s will for our lives are spelled out specifically. It includes encouraging one another, appreciating those who labor for the Lord, living in peace with one another. It also includes admonishing the unruly, helping the weak, and showing patience to all; not repaying evil with evil, but always seeking the good of others. In verses 16-17, Paul says, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing.” And then in verse 18, he says, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” His will encompasses all these things, and others which are set forth in Scripture, but today – on the Sunday preceding Thanksgiving – I want to focus our attention on this singular aspect of God’s will for His people: “In everything give thanks.”

I. What does it mean to “give thanks”?

One of the greatest demonstrations of thanksgiving in the Bible is found in Luke 17. There we read about ten lepers “who stood at a distance” as Jesus passed by. They cried out to Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus did just that. He spoke, and they were healed of their disease. As they went away from Him, one “turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him.” Jesus said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine – where are they?” (Luke 17:11-19).

We all find ourselves somewhere in that story. All of us are like those lepers. We have nothing in and of ourselves to commend ourselves to God or for which to boast before men. Anything and everything we have comes to us from God’s gracious hand. And so, we are ever recipients before Him. Moments ago in this service, we collected an offering. In that moment, perhaps you thought, “I am a giver. I am giving what is mine to God.” No, for what we give to God is but a portion of what He first has given to us. So we are always the receiver, even in our giving. Now, there are some who, like the one leper in the story, who recognize this and render appropriate thanks to the Lord. Some see that apart from His provision, we would have nothing and be nothing. And so we give Him thanks. But many more, and all of us at times, are like the other nine. Having received freely from God all that we have, we fail to render thanks to Him for His mercy and grace.

To give thanks or show gratitude is to recognize God is the ultimate giver of all good things. As James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” He may give to us through intermediate agents, but He is the ultimate source of the gift. Suppose someone gives you a gift of some sort. It is right to give them thanks for their generosity, but then we must also give thanks to God, who put it in their hearts to give. A thankful person is one who recognizes this and acknowledges to God and man that all that we have and all that we are is ours because of the kindness of God.

The great Puritan Richard Baxter, in his monumental work A Christian Directory, devotes a great deal of attention to thankfulness. He begins, “Let thankfulness to God thy Creator, Redeemer, and Regenerator, be the very temperament of thy soul, and faithfully expressed by thy tongue and life.” And then he says, “An unthankful person is but a devourer of mercies, and a grave to bury them in, and one that hath not the wit and honesty to know and acknowledge the hand that giveth them; but the thankful looketh above himself, and returneth all, as he is able, to Him from whom they flow.” [1]

Suppose that you were to invite a guest to dinner at your home. In preparation for the occasion, you go out and spend a lot of money on special ingredients for the meal, and you slave away for hours in the kitchen and dining room. You make all the favorite dishes of your guest, and clean the house and set the table to perfection. Some of you will do this very thing this week. Now, suppose that your guest arrives. As you open the door for your guest, he or she walks past you without a word, plops down at the table and begins to bang the silverware on the table saying, “I’m hungry! Feed me!” Overlooking the impertinence, you serve the feast that has been loving and painstakingly prepared. Imagine your guest then helping himself or herself to excessive portions, depriving others of their own portions, and gulping them down hurriedly, before arising from the table and bolting out the door without a word. Maybe they pause at the door and turn back to you and say, “I will be back for breakfast in the morning!” And off they go into the night. How would you feel about that? Have they not been but a devourer of mercies? Have not your mercies been buried in the shallow grave of their ungrateful bodies? How offended we would be if such were to happen at our dinner tables on Thursday! And yet, we are all guilty of an ever greater ingratitude toward God on occasion, and some habitually.

Again, Richard Baxter says, “True thankfulness kindleth in the heart a love to the Giver above the gift.”[2] That means that we do not merely give thanks to God for the things He has given to us and done for us, but we thank Him for being a God who loves us and cares for us enough to provide for our needs. The gifts are great! But the Giver of these gifts is even greater! This is why it is beneficial for Christian people to periodically and prayerfully fast. Fasting is typically associated with giving up food or with certain kinds of food. But in reality, a fast can be of anything in our lives. For example, we might fast from such things as watching television or engaging in social media. Whatever it is that we choose to give up for the season of fasting, the purpose is to move our gratitude beyond the gifts themselves and focus our joy with laser-like precision on the Giver Himself. Fasting says, “God, you are greater to me than _____________.” And you fill in the blank with whatever it is that you are giving up. And in so doing, we demonstrate our gratitude for God because of who He is, and not merely what He has done for us or given to us.

The greatest lesson in thankfulness I ever learned was taught to me one night, many years ago, in a prayer meeting in another church I pastored. It was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and I began the prayer meeting by having us sing together, “Count Your Blessings, Name Them One By One.” And then I asked every person present to name one thing for which they were thankful. So it began, “my family,” “good health,” “the freedoms we have in America,” “my job,” “my home,” and so on. And as we came around to a precious elderly woman – one of the greatest prayer warriors and wisest students of the Bible I have ever known. She said, “Well, it’s not that I am not thankful for all those things that have already been mentioned, but even pagans can be thankful for those things!” And then, from memory, she began to recite from the first chapter of Ephesians,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him, with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.

Then she said, “That is what I am thankful for!” The room was silent. Some were embarrassed, some were ashamed, and some (myself included) were convicted! That dear saint, who is now with the Lord, taught me and a whole lot of other folks that night that, of all people, Christians have so much for which to give thanks! We have been given every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ! We have been chosen, predestined, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, enlightened, saved, sealed with the Holy Spirit! So, as Baxter says, “True thankfulness having a just estimate of mercies comparatively, preferreth spiritual and everlasting mercies before those that are merely corporal and transitory.” And he goes on to specify what some of those spiritual mercies are: “The saving of our souls from hell, and promising us eternal life, besides the giving us our very beings and all that we have.” He says that these things “oblige us to be totally and absolutely His, that is so transcendent a Benefactor to us, and causeth the thankful person to devote and resign himself and all that he hath to God, to answer so great an obligation.”[3]

So what does it mean to give thanks? It means to ever recognize the goodness of God, who by His loving and gracious nature, has given to us all that we have and all that we are. It is to thank Him for the gifts, but most of all to honor Him as the merciful Giver and yield ourselves to Him in full faith and allegiance. Baxter says, “A creature that is wholly his Creator’s, and is preserved every moment by Him, and daily fed and maintained by His bounty, and is put into a capacity of life eternal, must needs be obliged to incessant gratitude.[4] And with this understanding of thanksgiving, we are prepared to tackle the more difficult question that 1 Thessalonians 5:18 raises for us. It is God’s will for us to give thanks, and to give thanks in everything.

The question we now consider is …

II. How can I give thanks in everything?

Most of you know that I am a tremendous nerd when it comes to Disney stuff. It’s been a lifelong obsession. Now, I take a lot of flack for that from some people. People say, “That’s just kids’ stuff.” Well, I happen to agree with C. S. Lewis on what he said about children’s literature. He said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty …. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.”[5] Elsewhere he said, “A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.”[6] It is really fascinating to go back and revisit the stories, whether in book or movie, that I enjoyed as a child and see how they impact me now as an adult. It is an entirely different experience, and mostly for the better. One example of this is the Disney movie “Bambi.” When I was a kid, I really didn’t like this movie! It was so sad! I mean, who takes a kid to watch a movie in which such terrible things happen to the main character? Spoiler alert: less than half way through the movie, Bambi’s mother gets killed and his forest home goes up in flames! When I was a kid, all I could think about was how much this poor little deer lost. But now I’m an adult, and I realize that life is filled with loss. So Bambi is not unique in the losses he suffered. And I think that is one of the points of the movie that I get as an adult that I missed as a child. It’s not really about what he lost, but about what he had. At every stage of life, in spite of the hardships he faced, Bambi had the support of loving relationships to help carry him through.

You see, when the Bible tells us to give thanks in everything, we need to understand that it is not telling us to give thanks for everything. The idea is not here that we should stand on the side of the road after a terrible car accident and say, “Well, thank God for that!” If we fall down the steps, we don’t say at the bottom, “Thank you Lord for that fall down the steps!” I chose silly examples out of sensitivity and discretion, but you can imagine the scenario of far worse things. There have been many times when I have been in the middle of a sorrow- and shock-filled room saying, “Lord, why?” And the one thing I am always sure not to say to hurting people is, “Well, now, let’s give thanks to God for this terrible thing that has happened.” No, there are many things in life that we have encountered and will encounter for which we cannot give thanks.

Though we cannot give thanks for them, however, we can give thanks in them. And that is what the Bible says here. IN everything, give thanks. No matter what it is that you are going through, there is something (likely, many things) for which you can give thanks to God! It is not always easy to do in the midst of disquieting circumstances, but if we will tune our hearts to praise and thank Him, we will find that even in the midst of the difficulties, His goodness abounds to us. Here again, Baxter’s words are so helpful: “If you cannot be so thankful as you desire, yet spend as much time in the confessing of God’s mercy to you, as in confessing you sins and mentioning your wants. Thanksgiving is an effectual petitioning for more: it showeth that the soul is not drowned in selfishness, but would carry the fruit of all His mercies back to God.”[7]  

When all you can think of is what you have lost and what you lack, it helps to discipline your mind to consider what you have, what you have not lost, and what you cannot lose. Baxter says, “Compare thy proportion of mercies with the rest of the people’s in the world. And thou wilt find that it is not one of many thousands that hath thy proportion. It is so small a part of the world that are Christians, and of those so few that are orthodox, reformed Christians, and of those so few that are seriously godly as devoted to God, and of those so few that fall not into some perplexities, errors, scandals, or great afflictions and distress, that those few that are in none of these ranks have cause of wondrous thankfulness to God.” And Baxter says this is true, even of “the most afflicted Christians in the world.”[8]

If we could but train our minds to ever rehearse all that is ours in Jesus Christ … it would change our perspective every day that we live. Whether on the mountain top or in the valley; whether at work or at home; whether in the hospital or the funeral home; if we could recount before God with thanksgiving all the blessings that He has bestowed upon us, we would know that no matter how bad things are, we are never alone, never forgotten, never abandoned, never unloved. This is why Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Again Baxter: “Let the greatness of the manifold mercies of God, be continually before your eyes. Thankfulness is caused by the due apprehension of the greatness of mercies.”[9]

So what are these manifold mercies which are to be continually before our eyes? Time does not permit me to quote Baxter at length here, for he expounds on a full fifteen of them. But let me summarize and condense as much as I am able.

  • The love of God in giving us a redeemer, and the love of Christ in giving His life for us.
  • God's grace, His pardon of all our sins, His justification (that is, He has clothed us in the righteousness of Christ), our adoption into His family, and the promise of eternal life.
  • His providence and the servants He used to bring us to faith in Christ.
  • The faith, repentance, and right desires, which He has given to us by the power of His Holy Spirit who dwells within us to put sin to death and purify us
  • He has placed us in His church, given us His word, and fellowship with His people.
  • The kindness that is shown to us by His people, even as they admonish, reprove and encourage us.
  • The preservation and deliverance of our souls from error, seduction, terror, distress, temptation "and many a soul-wounding sin."
  • “The mercies of adversity,” be they necessary chastisements, or the honor of suffering for His name, and His comfort that accompanies these adversities.
  • The fellowship we have with God in our public and private acts of prayer, meditation, and worship.
  • That He chooses to use the likes of us for the good of others.
  • His patience with us which preserves us in faith in spite of our "constant unprofitableness and provocations."
  • "Our hopes of everlasting rest and glory, when this sinful life is at an end."[10] 
    • “Let heaven be ever in thine eye, and still think of the endless joy which thou shalt have with Christ – for that is the mercy of all mercies; and he that hath not that in hope to be thankful for, will never thankful aright for anything. … The more believing and heavenly the mind is, the more thankful.”[11]

It is for these reasons, and countless more we could list, that the child of God who has been born again by faith in Christ can give thanks in everything! These are mercies that are ours in Christ for eternity. No matter what we lose in this life, and we will lose much because of sin’s devastation of the human race and this world, these things are ours and can never be taken from us, lost, or forfeited! When we have lost it all, we have not lost it all! We can give thanks to God for what those who have it all have never had! So the Christian does not have one day a year to call “Thanksgiving.” For the follower of Jesus, every moment of every day is Thanksgiving. Baxter says, “Aggravate these mercies in your more enlarged meditations, and they will sure constrain you to cry out, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name!” He is quoting Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion.

If you have yet to come into a personal relationship with God by faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you still have much for which to give thanks to God. Though you are separated from Him, His love knows no boundaries. He gives you life and breath and every good thing in your life. Most of all, He has given you this day called “today” and this moment called “now” as an opportunity for you to respond to His love and grace by turning from sin and self to cast yourself upon Him in faith and receive the infinite and eternal mercies of salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. With thanksgiving, would you turn to Him and be saved?

[1] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 2008), 142.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 142-143.
[4] Ibid., 143.
[5] C. S. Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds (San Diego: Harcourt, 1975), 15.
[6] Lewis, “Fairy Stories,” in Of Other Worlds, 38.
[7] Baxter, 145.
[8] Ibid., 144.
[9] Ibid., 143.
[10] Summarized, paraphrased, and condensed from Baxter, 143-144.
[11] Ibid., 145. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Now What? (Various Scriptures)

Philippians 2:14-15; 3:20

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world … For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

So, I’ve been away for a little while. Did I miss anything important? Has there been anything significant happening in the news? Of course, I jest. You may recall that two Sundays ago, I said from this pulpit, “The next time I see you all, we will have a new President-elect.” I also said that either result will mean that we are living in a different day and age here in the United States of America. Just how different it will be remains to be seen. But today, I want to speak to the gathered church, with a charitable assumption that I am talking by-and-large to Christian people who are born-again by faith in Jesus Christ. And what I want to share with you is a gameplan for “Now What?” How shall we, as Christian people, live in this new day and age? In fact, as we look at this gameplan, we will discover that it is not a new gameplan, because no matter how things have changed or will change for us as Americans, there are a good number of things that will never change for us Christians. We believe in a sovereign God, we believe that we are first and foremost citizens of heaven, and we believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and that He reigns over an unshakable kingdom that will never end. No election result can ever change those matters.

I began outlining this gameplan while I was lying in bed at my hotel on Tuesday morning before the first election returns began to come in. And as I thought about it, it occurred to me that the outcome of the election would not affect this gameplan. This is the way that we as Christians ought to live whether we live in Barack Obama’s America, Hillary Clinton’s America, or Donald Trump’s America. In fact, it is the same gameplan for our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Putin’s Russia, in Kim John-un’s North Korea, or in King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia. What varies from place to place is the cultural context in which we live out this gameplan, but the gameplan itself does not change.

In the text that I just read from Philippians, we see the big picture. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.” I like how the NIV words that last phrase: “you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” And the reason we are able to do this is because our citizenship in America is secondary at best. First and foremost, we are citizens of something bigger than America. As born-again believers in Christ, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. So, we have the ability to shine the glory of heaven into the darkness of our culture like a lighthouse that beckons others to find their safe harbor in this everlasting kingdom, come what may in America.

It should be obvious that America is a divided nation. The very fact that the race for governor in North Carolina is still too close to call is but one indication of that. Other examples of it can be seen in the calls to abandon the electoral college, in public demonstrations in the streets because one group’s candidate lost, and in the incessant and hollow assertions of those who now say they are moving to another country because they cannot stand the President-Elect. In 1858, at the Illinois Republican State Convention, Abraham Lincoln was chosen to be the candidate for Senate. By the way, in that election, Lincoln won the popular vote and lost the election. But, back to the convention. His speech to that assembly has come to be known as the “House Divided” speech. In the opening lines, Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Though that phrase has been attributed to Lincoln countless times, you must know that it was not original with him. Lincoln was quoting Jesus Christ when he said that. And in a divided land, it must be the followers of Jesus Christ who show the way forward in unity and peace.

For the last fifty years, Immanuel Baptist Church has been known as “a church for all people.” I often say that being a church for all people does not equal being a church for every person, for it takes a special kind of person to belong to a church for all people. To be a viable part of a church for all people, one must understand that his or her fundamental identity does not come from the color of his or her skin, the language spoken in his or her home, the country of his or her origin, or even the political party with which he or she aligns. While we have for five decades insisted that whites and blacks, Asians and Native Americans can sit side-by-side on the same pew here, the challenge for us in the foreseeable future is to demonstrate that Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents can worship together in one place, and love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, because we understand that our fundamental identity is found in and through our relationship with Jesus Christ. No matter what else threatens to divide us, it is “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, one God and Father of all” which unites us. Therefore, while others may take to the streets in demonstration because their side lost; while others threaten to move to another land because they cannot stomach the thought of their political rival having authority; while others clamor for the restructuring of our electoral process in America; we as Christians must rise above the fray and do better than this. While we will remain a church for all people, if one cannot live in this way, then we may well not be a church for that individual, because that individual is trying to find his or her fundamental identity outside of Jesus Christ.

So, as we consider a gameplan for “Now What?,” we ask ourselves the question, “How shall we live as citizens of Jesus Christ’s Kingdom in Donald Trump’s America?” Whether you voted for him or against him, it does not matter. Your King has expectations of you, and those expectations comprise our gameplan for “Now What?”

I. Pray (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

We are a people of prayer. We must be! If Christians are not people of prayer then no one is, for we alone have been promised access to God through Jesus Christ and the assurance that He will hear us and answer us when we pray. So we are admonished repeatedly in Scripture to pray, and even to “pray at all times” (Eph 6:18) and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). And as we pray, we must obey the Lord’s command to pray for those who are in authority. In 1 Timothy 2:1-3, Paul says, “First of all, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Let’s unpack that for a moment. He says, “First of all.” That is not always how we think of prayer. We often think of prayer, “Last of all.” We find ourselves saying, “Well, I guess all we can do now is pray!” How foolish! If we had prayed first of all instead of last of all, we may have eliminated a lot of frustration! Prayer must be a priority in our lives! Now, we will all be very spiritual and say, “Oh, but it is!” The fact is that there isn’t a one of us who couldn’t stand to pray more than we do. In fact, in nearly a quarter century of being a Christian, I have only ever known one person about whom I could say, “I think they pray enough.” But that person would probably be the first person to say, “No, I should pray more than I do.” Friends, you can pray wherever you are, and I hope you do. But, should it not concern us when the least attended service of the church life is the prayer meeting? Is it not a problem when churches drop prayer meeting from the calendar because of poor attendance and participation? Is it not hypocritical to have a meeting and call it a prayer meeting and spend the least amount of time in it actually praying? I am going to come right out and say it – prayer meeting is Wednesday night at 6:30 in the chapel, and it is not going to change. Whether one or one hundred people show up, we are going to pray, because there is nothing more important for us to do than to talk to the sovereign God of the universe about the things that concern us! And there are some of you who would be there if you could, but you can’t. I understand that. But there are likely many more who are not there, but should be. If prayer is to be “first of all,” one of the ways we can demonstrate that is by being at the prayer meeting! And I will go a step further and say that men in particular need to heed this. Not that women shouldn’t, but the prayer meeting in many churches is typically only well attended by women! Why single out men? Because the Bible singles out men! Look at verse 8: “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray.” There are many times that I can count the men in prayer meeting on one hand. Men, prayer meeting is not a ministry of the WMU. God has called upon men to lead, and the way to lead is from the knees. So, all Christians need to prioritize prayer, and the men especially need to see their own need to do this.

Then Paul describes the multifaceted aspects of prayer: entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings.” Prayer is not just asking God to give you stuff. It includes that, but it is more than that. It is thanking Him for what He has given you and for what He is doing in our lives and the lives of others. It is entreating Him to fulfill the promises of His word. It is interceding for others in need. And it includes asking God to meet our needs as well.

Now notice for whom we should pray. Generally speaking, he says we should pray “on behalf of all men.” That means that there is no one for whom you should not pray! If you know someone, then you know someone who needs prayer because we all do! So, we must develop the spiritual discipline of harnessing our thoughts and transforming them into prayer. When someone comes to mind, pray for them. Are you thinking about your fellow church member? Pray for them. Are you thinking about someone in your family? Pray for them! Are you thinking about some celebrity? Pray for them too! Are you thinking about someone whom you dislike or who has done you wrong? Definitely pray for them! Are you thinking about Donald Trump? Are you praying for him? Notice that after saying, “on behalf of all men,” we find specifically named, “kings and all who are in authority.” So, let me put it plainly – it is a sin to not pray for the president, the governor, the mayor, and so on. If we spent as much time praying for our government officials as we do complaining about them, and as much energy in prayer as we do in our social media political banter, we might see real change take place in us and in them. But you may say, “Well, I can’t pray for Donald Trump because I do not like him and I did not vote for him.” Let me remind you that the king for whom Paul was praying and admonishing others to pray for here in this passage was the Roman Caesar. Most likely at this time it was Nero, the emperor who blamed the fire of Rome (for which he was most responsible) on the Christians and instigated the hatred and persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire. In fact, he is the Caesar who ultimately ordered the beheading of Paul. But Paul doesn’t say, “Boycott and protest! Move out of the Empire! Take it to the streets!” No, he says, “Take it to the Lord.” Pray for your government officials. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” Since that is the case, we must pray for the Lord to turn the hearts of our leaders in the ways that further His purposes in the world.

Now notice why we pray for them: “So that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Look at those words: tranquil, quiet, godliness, dignity. Are we seeing much of those qualities in the political rhetoric in contemporary America? No! But we should be seeing it, especially when we look to the church of Jesus Christ. If we were marked by those qualities, the world around us would take notice of the difference. We will shine like stars against the backdrop of a sin-darkened generation. As we pray, we allow God to form those qualities within us.

Finally, notice what we pray for them: “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” What was Paul praying for Nero? He was praying for God to save him! He was praying for God to open his eyes to spiritual truth! Now, we have had, and currently have, a number of professing Christians in public office in America, and for that we can thank God. Of course, we also have those who hypocritically profess faith in Christ in order to win over the evangelical voting bloc. And we have those who are avowed enemies of the cross of Christ. But for all of them we pray for God to save them and bring them into knowledge of the truth. Even if they are saved people, we still pray for God to bring them further into His truth, and for Him to make salvation and truth known to others through them.

So step one of the gameplan is pray!

II. Submit (Romans 13:1-7)

Because of sin’s corruption in the human heart, submission is not a popular idea. It never has been, since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Children resist submission to parents; spouses resist submission in marriage; employees resist it in the workplace; and moreover we all resist submission to God. In fact, these other areas of life are in place to train us to live in submission to God in all areas of life! And one of those areas has to do with our submission to governing authorities.

In Romans 13, we have a biblical command to be in subjection to governing authorities. Just a quick reminder again, the governing authorities who were in power when Paul wrote these words were the very authorities who were trying to stamp out the Christian church and who would eventually put Paul and countless other Christians to death. So, the command is not to like them, or agree with them, but to be in subjection to them. Now, why should we do that? He gives us the answer: “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” Now, I will be the first to admit that this is a difficult thing to wrestle with as we look at history. But we have just recently concluded a study in Habakkuk which presents us with one of the best illustrations of the principle. There, you will recall, God raised up the evil Babylonians to bring about His judgment on the nation of Judah. That does not mean that God blessed the Babylonians’ cruelty or gave them some exemption from their own judgment – for He most certainly did not. Rather, it is to say that God is sovereign over the rise and fall of nations, rulers, kings, presidents, and other authorities. Whether in a democracy or democratic republic where the people vote for their leaders, or in a monarchy where the power is handed down generationally within a ruling family, or in an oligarchy where a small number of people choose the leaders for a nation, God is over and above all these processes, and He superintends the outcome for His purposes. We may not always understand His purposes, and in fact I would say that we rarely do in these situations, but we do not have to understand it. Sometimes God raises up good and godly leaders to bless a nation; and sometimes He raises up evil rulers to bring about judgment; and often the case is somewhere in between. But it is always the case that the ultimate cause of anyone coming into authority is God Himself. Daniel 2:21 says, “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings.”

Therefore, Romans 13 says that whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God and will receive condemnation. In other words, to rebel or resist the authorities that God has raised up is a sin against God. Paul goes on to explain why this is so. In verses 3 and 4, he explains that rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil, and that governing authorities are actually God’s ordained ministers for the good of society. In other words, government exists to promote goodness and punish wickedness on God’s behalf by serving up a temporal judgment that prepares the way for the ultimate judgment that God Himself will deliver at the end of all things. So, Paul says, if you do evil, you should be afraid, for God has allowed the government to have the sword – that is, the right of punishment – for His purposes. But if you want to be free from fear, just do what is good, and commit yourself to the Lord. Pay your taxes honestly, honor and submit to those who hold positions of authority, because these things ultimately honor God.

Now, there are a small number of cases in Scripture where we find exceptions to this. When a government perverts its divinely ordained function of promoting good and punishing evil, and begins instead to punish good and promote evil, we find the church of Jesus Christ practicing what can be called “civil disobedience.” We see it in Acts 4, for example, when the church was commanded to no longer speak in the name of Jesus. This was a ruling that the church simply could not obey. Peter and John replied to the leaders and said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Ac 4:19). They did not riot, protest, or hold demonstrations. They simply continued on in obedience to the Lord Jesus in defiance of the law of the land. And they suffered greatly for so doing. At various points in church history, the earthly powers that be compelled Christians to renounce their faith or die, and overwhelmingly the response of the believers through the ages was to embrace martyrdom rather than denying the Lord Jesus. But even this act of civil disobedience is itself a submission to these authorities. They did not take up arms to fight or overthrow the government. They simply said, “We will not obey you, and if that means imprisonment or death, then we acknowledge that you have the right to do that, and we accept it.”

This is not where we are in modern America. At least, not yet. It may come to this. We may yet see a day when ministers of the Gospel are prosecuted for refusing to conduct same-sex weddings, or when churches are penalized for not allowing unrepentant sinners to join or maintain membership. We may find laws instituted such as already exist in many parts of the world which outlaw evangelism. If such conditions arise, then the responsibility of the church is to render full obedience to God in Christ, and to submit to the government’s authority to deliver whatever penalty and punishment to us that is prescribed within the laws of the land. So, even in our resistance (should the case arise) there is a submission to the authorities which God has established for His own purposes.

So as we look at our gameplan for “Now What?”, the first element of it is to pray, and the second is to submit. We come now to the third.

III. Love

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment” (Matt 22:39). Then He said, “The second is like it.” Now, had I been the Pharisee who had asked him the question, I might have interrupted and said, “Wait, wait, wait! I didn’t ask for two! I only asked for the greatest ONE!” But these two commandments are so closely intertwined, that Jesus could not deliver the first without the second as well. And the second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (22:40).

Now, because we are so corrupted by sin and self-absorbed, we have twisted this statement around to mean that the most important thing we can do is love ourselves, so that we can then love others in the same way as we love ourselves. That is most certainly not what Jesus is getting at here. To understand what He means here, you have to assume that we are all driven primarily by self-love. It is our primary motivator for better and for worse. So, really Jesus is assuming that self-love already exists, and He calls us to allow love for others to become our primary motivator. If it helps you make sense of the command, you can think of it as, “Love your neighbor instead of loving yourself so much!” That explanation becomes clear when we compare this commandment to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. There He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” So, Jesus is calling us to a higher love for others – for others who may not love us, in fact who may hate us and persecute us. Jesus says love them and pray for them.

When He gave the first and second great commandments, and spoke of loving your neighbor, the Pharisee who asked the question said to him, “And who is my neighbor?” He was looking for a list. He didn’t want to go around just loving everyone, so he needed to know whom he had to love, and from whom he could withhold his love. But Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, the “loving person,” the one who loved his neighbor, was the Samaritan – one whom the Jews would despise simply because of his ethnicity. He was the good neighbor because he showed love to one who would not have shown him love in return, and gave of himself to serve that one in love.

Friends, when I say that love is part of our gameplan for “Now What?” I mean that we have to find tangible, demonstrable ways of showing the love of Christ to those who are not like us. And as we consider “Now What?” that might well be most relevant to thinking of those whose political opinions differ from ours. It has been heartbreaking to see allegiance to candidates and parties divide people from their friends and loved ones through this political season. Christians must lead the way and say, “I love you no matter who you voted for, and no matter what party you align with.” And we must demonstrate that love with more than words. It will require selfless, sacrificial love, but Christ has called us to nothing less than this.

What does that kind of love look like when it is put into action? The most vivid description is found in 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13:4-7). As we survey our cultural landscape over the last few weeks, we have to confess that we have not seen much of this kind of love on display. And most regrettably, we have even found it lacking amongst the followers of Jesus Christ. Friends, if the Kingdom of Jesus is to be found legitimate by those who do not know Him in this nation, then they will have to see a difference in the way we live. And that difference is most evident in how we love others, even others who are not like us, even others who disagree with us, even others who hate us, call us names, and wish to persecute us. They can make it very difficult for us to love them, but they do not have the power to stop us from loving them in obedience to Christ. If we do, we gain a hearing for the Gospel of Jesus in our generation, and we can be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). We will shine like stars in the sky in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  

If you pray in the way that the Bible commands us to pray, and if you live in humble submission to authority in the way that the Bible admonishes us to, and if you love in the way that Jesus teaches and models for us, people will wonder how it is possible. They will say, “How can you live that way when our nation is in such a condition, and when our president is now this person?” And they would say that no matter which candidate won the election. And in response we can say, “Because my citizenship is ultimately in heaven, and my King is ultimately Jesus. My identity is found first and foremost in my relationship with Him, and He has commanded me to pray for all men to come to saving knowledge of His truth, including the rulers of our land. And because He is sovereign over kings and rulers and nations, and raises them up and brings them down for His purpose, I can live in humble submission to them out of reverence for Christ. It doesn’t mean I will always agree, or even always obey, but it means that I will not rebel against God’s authority, even if I have to accept punishment at the hands of men for my obedience to Him. And most of all, He has loved me when I was most unlovable, and met my deepest need when I was at war with Him in my sin by taking my penalty on His cross so that I could have a relationship with Him for all eternity. And if He can do that for me, then I can love anyone I encounter with His love which knows no boundaries or limitations.”

Do you know how the world will respond when they encounter a Christian who has that kind of consistent outlook? I don’t either, because I don’t know if the world has ever seen it! But the stage is set for us to live out this gameplan here and now like we never have before! And if we do, I believe that we will find an audience for the Gospel message, which has the power to save souls and transform lives, and when lives are transformed, nations are changed. Don’t expect the government to change the nation. Only the church can do that by the Spirit-empowered proclamation of the Gospel through lives that are lived in demonstration of the love of Jesus! May the church shine like stars! Let’s put this gameplan in action and see what King Jesus can do!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Joy in the Day of Distress (Habakkuk 3:16-19)

We come now to the end of the Book of Habakkuk. I am sure I am not the only one who has been surprised at how timely this book of the Bible has been over the last several months that we have been studying it. And today as we come to the finale of the book, it becomes most relevant to American Christians who find ourselves in the most turbulent cultural context in the last half century at least, and as we stand on the brink of perhaps the most critical presidential election in our lifetimes.

In order to set the stage for this text, let me recap as briefly as I can the entire book of Habakkuk thus far. The book begins with the prophet crying out to God about the immorality and injustice that is rampant in Judah. He asks God why He is not doing anything about it and how long it will endure. God’s answer is that He is doing something about it, although no one would believe it if they were told. He is raising up the Chaldeans – better known to us as the Babylonians – to invade Judah as a judgment from God Himself. God is disciplining His own people by using this pagan nation to come against them. Habakkuk then begins to argue with God this punishment is too severe, that it is out of character for God to do this, and inconsistent with His purposes. But Habakkuk also acknowledges that God may yet be able to show him how to see all this differently, so he says that he will go up to the watchtower and wait for God to respond and even rebuke him.

Throughout Chapter 2, God began to elaborate on His purposes. While Judah must face this judgment at the hands of the Babylonians, the Babylonians themselves would face a judgment of their own in due time. But God assured Habakkuk of three things: (1) the righteous would live by faith (2:4). That is, those who had faith in the promises of God would be justified, or made righteous before God, and by that same faith they would persevere through the hardships that were to come, even unto life everlasting. (2) The knowledge of the glory of the Lord would one day cover the earth as water covers the sea (2:14). That is, no matter how bad things get in this fallen world, there is a better day coming. Until that day, nothing in this world is as it should be. Sin has corrupted every person and indeed the entire planet. But one day, God’s glory will permeate the world under the rightful reign of King Jesus, and we must live with an eye toward that day. (3) The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him (2:20). This means that no matter how badly things seem to be spiraling out of control, God is still in control of it all and is accomplishing His purposes in the world in spite of how things appear. Therefore, we do not need to argue with Him or protest against His ways, but rather humble ourselves in silent submission to Him and yield ourselves to His word.

With these things clarified now in his heart and mind, Habakkuk’s perspective is completely transformed. Chapter three consists of a psalm of praise, sung to the Lord as a hymn of celebration of all that God is, all that He has done, and all that He will do for His people who walk with Him by faith. He sings of how the Lord will come even as He has come to the aid of His people in the past. Those past events were foreshadowing the ultimate coming of the Lord, when He would come for the salvation of His people and the judgment of all nations. We have discussed in weeks past how Habakkuk could not distinguish between those aspects of the Lord’s coming which would take place in the first coming of Christ and those which will occur in His second coming. But we have a more complete revelation that enables us to see that distinction with great clarity.

Now we come to what amounts to the final stanza of Habakkuk’s hymn. He has heard what God has spoken, and he has come to accept that there is no changing the situation. Bad things are coming – a day of distress, he calls it. But in the midst of this, the prophet exclaims that he has joy. How does one have joy when facing the day of distress? There are three keys to this joy found here in the text. If we would have joy in the midst of what appears to be our own day of distress, we must take up these keys ourselves and unlock that joy in our own lives.

I. We must acknowledge our feelings (v16).

I am not sure where the lie came from, apart from hell itself, that says that Christians must be stoics who show no emotion, or can only show emotion when they are jolly and happy. For a people who claim to be followers of One who called Himself “the Truth,” we seem to be pretty comfortable being dishonest with ourselves and others about what is going on inside of us. Perhaps we feel like honesty about our feelings would betray a lack of faith, or would demonstrate that we do not have it all together. Well, the fact is that we do not have it all together, and that is why we need Jesus. If we had it all together, we’d be able to manage without Him. No one has it all together. Christians are just those who are brave enough to admit it. And as for a lack of faith, well, that would only be true if we put our faith in our feelings. But we do not. We put our faith in One who transcends our feelings, and who is able to secure us in spite of our feelings. So, there’s no reason why we cannot just acknowledge our feelings. That is what Habakkuk does here in verse 16.

He says, “I heard and my inward parts trembled, at the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, and in my place I tremble.” So, first we must get the idea of how thoroughly shaken he is. He is physically affected from head to foot and from inside out. It would not be a far stretch to say that he feels as though he is about to pass out. His knees knock, his bones feel like they are rubber, his internal organs are quaking, and his lips are choking back tears and cries of anguish. Now, what has him feeling this way? It is what he has heard.

Now, we would not be wrong to say that Habakkuk demonstrates here what he says in verse 2 of this chapter, “Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear.” Indeed, as the Lord says in Isaiah 66:2, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” Habakkuk is indeed trembling at the Word of the Lord, and so should we all. But more specifically, what has Habakkuk feeling the way he acknowledges here is not that the Lord has spoken, but what the Lord has spoken. Notice how he goes on and says that he is trembling in this way “because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, for the people to arise who will invade us.”

Habakkuk knows that at this point there is no escaping the calamity that is to come. God has decreed that it is to happen and there is no alternative. Up until this time, he could hope for a change in the direction of things, but now God has revealed to him that there will be no change. Babylon is coming. The invasion will happen. No one will be exempt from it. All he can do is wait for the day of distress to happen, and he is honest about how that makes him feel. He is shaking in his boots.

Friends, I suggest to you that this has layers of application for each and every one of us. On a personal level, it could apply to a situation in your family life, your work, your interpersonal relationships, or your health, to name a few areas. It may be that in one or more of those situations, you have been praying, hoping for a change to come, hoping that God would intervene and bring better news than what you feared or expected. And that news has not come. Perhaps instead, the worst news has been confirmed and is now inevitable. On a national level, I think we can see the relevance and application of it pretty easily. Because I will be away for a few days, the next time I see you all, we will have a new President-elect. I suspect only a minority of Americans can honestly say that any of the foreseeable options is what they would have wanted to see. Truth be told, I held off going to the polls for early voting as long as I could until I was certain that there would not be a last minute change in the ballot. But there seems no escaping it. Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. And either result will mean that we are living in a different day and age. I would say for better or for worse, but I’m not yet convinced that there is a “better.” The best argument anyone has been able to set forth for either major candidate is that they are choosing “the lesser of two evils.” Friends, you understand that by definition a “lesser evil” is still evil?

Now, whether we are talking about a personal situation or a national one, there’s no use in telling someone who is trembling to the core to just stop it or knock it off. About the worst advice you can give to someone who is downcast is to say, “Come on now, just cheer up!” Don’t you think they would if they could? Aren’t you glad this isn’t how God deals with us? Instead, He says, “Cast all your cares upon Me, because I care for you” (1 Pet 5:7). He welcomes us to be honest with Him and to acknowledge our feelings. It isn’t like He doesn’t already know. So, if there is a situation in your life that has you trembling, tell Him about it as you call out to Him. Habakkuk did that, and it was a key to unlocking joy even on the day of distress.

II. We must envision our fears (v17).

Here we are in that season of the year that emphasizes frightening things – and this time, I’m talking about Halloween, not election day. Tomorrow evening, people will dress up like all sorts of scary creatures, and they will watch scary movies, and tell scary stories. They will go to “haunted houses,” and terrorize themselves with artificial fears. I’m not a big fan of that kind of thing. I get the creeps just walking through the Halloween section of the store. There’s enough stuff in the real world to be afraid of without having to manufacture fear. Most people are afraid of many things. Some people are afraid of everything. But no one is afraid of nothing.

One of the biggest fears people have is of the unknown – the uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow may bring. Perhaps that is where many of us find ourselves here a week out from election day. But Habakkuk’s fear was not of the unknown. It was a fear of the known. He knew exactly what was about to happen and what it would mean for himself and his people. The Babylonians had already invaded almost every surrounding nation in the region, and the news had spread of what they would do when they overran a region. He knew that his country would fare no better.

In verse 17, he spells it out. He envisions a future in which the worst of his fears would be realized. The fig tree would no longer blossom; there would be no fruit on the vines; the olive trees would fail. There would be no grain growing in the fields. The cattle and the flocks would be killed or taken away. The items listed here that will be destroyed by the invading hordes are ranked in order of severity, from least to greatest. Figs were a delicacy, for sure, but life could go on without them. Grapes were used to make wine, but its absence would mean more of an inconvenience than a hardship. Olives were pressed for oil, and used for cooking and for light. Now things get difficult. Now life begins to be affected. But, there are alternatives, and folks could get by. But next comes the grain of the field. Wiping out the grain fields could mean starvation for many. The sheep and the cattle produce milk, meat, and wool for clothing. And now you have people who are hungry and naked, immersed in the darkness with nothing to eat and no way to cook it. They’ve lost it all. It is a terrifying thing to envision.

Most of us have a hard time relating to this imagery because we have not lived in this sort of agrarian society. What would it look like for us to envision a terrifying future such as this? Wiersbe tries to help us see it as he paraphrases verse 17 for a modern society: “Although the stock market might collapse and no jobs are listed in the newspaper, although no food is on the shelves in the supermarket and everything is closed down because nobody has any money, although everything is falling apart ….”[1] That might come close to it. Or perhaps it could be couched in terms of what you think America will look like one day after the election. Or perhaps you could make it more personal than that. Whatever it is that you fear losing most – your health, your economic viability, your career, your family. Go ahead and envision what it might be to lose it all. You could. Habakkuk knew that he would. He is saying, “Lord, I can see the army approaching even now, and they are going to wipe everything out!” He is envisioning his fears. And this is a key to having joy on the day of distress.

Now, here is where you might be wondering, “How in the world is such a terrible idea a key to finding joy?” It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? That’s not how the advertisers sell us things, is it? They seem to appeal to that idea that says in our minds, “Think about having it all! Think for a moment what it would be like if you could have that thing you really want. And then you will know joy.” But that doesn’t produce joy. It kills it. It reminds you of what you lack. It works against contentment and stirs up envy, greed, and covetousness. And there is not an envious, covetous person anywhere in the world who knows what it means to have joy. Habakkuk has joy in the day of despair because he has been honest about his feelings, and he has envisioned his fears. And in so doing, he has come to the point of realizing that his joy is not found in his feelings, nor is it found in the things that he has which he stands to lose. And this brings us to the third key to unlocking joy in the day of distress.

III. Ensure that our joy is in God alone (vv18-19).

Sometimes the smallest words have the biggest meanings. In our text today, I suggest to you that the little word “yet” is the pendulum on which the entire passage swings. There is a day of distress coming, and all Habakkuk can do is tremble from head to toe as he awaits it. It will mean disaster, destruction, and death for many. It will mean that many, including perhaps himself, will be displaced from their homeland and taken as slaves to Babylon. YET. It is a tiny word. It means, “in spite of all this.” He is making a conscious decision here to not allow these things to divert the compass of his soul away from the true north point of joy.

He says, “yet I will exult.” We don’t talk much about exulting today. In other passages, this word is translated as “become jubilant.” English dictionaries translate exult as “to show or feel elation or jubilation.” To exult in something is to delight in it. So Habakkuk says that he will exult, and then that he will rejoice in spite of the day of distress that is coming. He is not rejoicing and exulting because of his feelings or because of his circumstances. It is in spite of them. But let us be very clear about this. Habakkuk is not saying, “I’m just going to ignore all this negativity and stick my head in the sand and be happy anyway even though everything is going down the tubes!” No. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” is not a Christian worldview. It is utterly pagan. Nowhere in Scripture is the Christian ever expected to have that kind of mindset. But we are told that we can have joy in spite of our circumstances and our feelings. And how can we do that?

Here is where we have look at the locus of Habakkuk’s joy and exultation. He says, “I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength.” You see, Habakkuk’s joy is not tethered to his feelings or his circumstances. The anchor of his joy has sunk immovably into the Person of God Himself. Feelings change; circumstances change; but God never changes. If our joy is firmly fixed on Him, then it cannot be shaken. No matter the outcome of the election, no matter what happens at work tomorrow, no matter what the bank statement says, no matter the report that the doctor gives you this week – joy that is anchored to God alone is an unshakable joy that safeguards the believer in spite of feelings and circumstances.

There are four things about God that are the basis for Habakkuk’s joy here, and they are the same for us. First, he rejoices in the God of His salvation. He knows, on the promises of God’s word, that there will be deliverance for those who trust in the Lord. “The righteous will live by his faith!” God has promised it. Habakkuk is doing it. And he will continue to do it. Even when this world has done its dead level worst to him, there will life everlasting for the one who trusts in the saving promises of God. We can rejoice in this matter even more, for we know the One who has come to accomplish this salvation for us: Jesus Christ. He is the God of our salvation. No matter what happens to us in this world, we know that we are loved by God, for He gave His only begotten Son to save us. We know that death is the worst thing that can happen to us here, but it is not the end, because death has been swallowed up by life in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we share in His victory by faith. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?”

Not only does Habakkuk rejoice that God is his salvation, but also because God is His strength. Habakkuk’s bones feel like they are melting like wax within him and his knees are knocking beneath his frame. He has no strength of his own in which to stand in the face of the day of distress that is coming. But he does not have to rely on His own strength, because the Lord is His strength and therefore he can rejoice. As Nehemiah said, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10). Paul said that the Lord had promised him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, Paul could boast in his weakness, saying “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). Whatever it is that you are facing, it cannot steal joy away from you if you fix your joy on Christ as your strength. The power of the One who overcame even death for you lives within you. You do not have to depend on your own resources to get you through. The Lord is your strength, and therefore you can rejoice even when feelings and circumstances tempt you to despair.

Thirdly, Habakkuk says that he can rejoice because the Lord is his security. He says, “He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places.” A hind is a female deer, and the prophet wants us to envision her taking surefooted and stable steps up a rocky mountainside to a high place of safety and security where no predator can do her any harm. And Habakkuk says that the Lord has given him that kind of security. He has given it to us as well. Though we live in this valley filled with many dangers, toils, and snares, and the journey leads us up many difficult hills and over much rocky terrain, the Lord is our security and therefore we can rejoice in Him. He did not promise us a smooth path or an easy road. In fact, the opposite is true. He promised us that in this world we will have tribulation (Jn 16:33). In Acts 14:22, we are promised, “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.” But the Lord has promised us hinds feet to walk on the high places. He is our security when all around us is crumbling and falling apart. We can rejoice that we have security like that.

Finally, Habakkuk can rejoice in the Lord because the Lord is his song. The last line of Habakkuk may seem rather insignificant. It says, “For the choir director, on my stringed instruments.” But that notation indicates that the prophet is singing these words! Not only is he singing these words, but he gives these words to the choir director so that others can join him in this joyful song. I’m not a big fan of country music, but if there was ever a perfect country song, it has to be Merle Haggard’s “Sing A Sad Song.” It says, “Sing me a song of sadness, and sing it as blue as I feel; If a tear should appear, it’s because she’s not here; sing a sad song, and sing it for me.” You would think Habakkuk could sing a song like that here, wouldn’t you? The invading army is on the march, all the crops are about to be wiped out, and they’re even going to kill the sheep and the cows! That’s got all the makings of a great country song. But Habakkuk does not sing a country song. He sings a hymn of joyful praise because the Lord is His song, and the Lord is worthy of worship regardless of how we feel or our present circumstances! So, with these closing words, Habakkuk is beckoning us to join the choir. He’s inviting us to take an honest look at our feelings, and to envision the horror of our deepest fears. But then he’s exhorting us to look beyond these things to the God who has saved us through the cross of Jesus Christ, the God who promises to be our strength when we are weak, the God who secures us as we walk this rocky uphill path of life in this fallen world, and he says, “Sing a song of joy to Him, because He is God, and He is good!”

John Calvin said,
Our joy shall not depend on outward prosperity; for though the Lord may afflict us in an extreme degree, there will yet be always some consolation to sustain our minds, that they may not succumb under evils so grievous; for we are fully persuaded, that our salvation is in God’s hand, and that He is its faithful guardian. We shall, therefore, rest quietly, though heaven and earth were rolled together, and all places were full of confusion; yea, though God fulminated from heaven, we shall yet be in a tranquil state of mind, looking for his gratuitous salvation.[2]

Because we are Christians, we can be honest about our feelings. Because we are Christians, we can envision the brutal realities of this fallen world and know that all that we hold dear in this life could be stripped from us in a moment. And YET, because we are Christians, we can rejoice and exult in God, our Savior, our Strength, our Security, and our Song. This is what makes us different from the world around us. And in the days to come, we will have a great opportunity to demonstrate that glorious difference as we hold fast to our joy, because our joy is in the Lord.

[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 117.
[2] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, Vol. IV., Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 174.