One of the greatest apparent advantages to a godless way of life is the freedom that it allows. No longer must the unbeliever be concerned with the law of God and whether it permits him to do what he wants to. Instead, he is free to do whatever he thinks is right.
However, this seeming benefit comes at a steep cost. When we are free to do whatever we want, there is nothing for us to do. There is no meaning for us to achieve, no purpose for us to fulfill.
When we point this out to atheists, they often reply that they are free to create their own meaning. You can decide to make your life about whatever you want it to be about! Sadly, the reality here does not measure up to the theory. The goals that we choose for ourselves inevitably prove unfulfilling.
This is well illustrated by the first couple of chapters of Ecclesiastes. In them, Solomon deploys the nearly unlimited resources that he has amassed in order to discover purpose for his life. He embarks on massive building projects and funds to the fullest every pleasure that he enjoys.
The worldly would suppose this to be heaven on earth. Many of them live with the goal of accumulating wealth until they too, like Solomon, can do anything they want. However, Solomon’s experience with it was anything but heavenly, and the few who achieve such levels of wealth today also discover that it is unsatisfying.
As the Israelite king says in Ecclesiastes 2:11, “When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun.” If we place our hope in ourselves, we will be disappointed.
Still others seek to find meaning in some earthly cause. There are those who give their lives to an organization or business; still others live for an ideal, like environmentalism.
The problem is, though, that results don’t live up to our aspirations. Businesses fail or, worse still, fire us. Organizations fall short of their goals. Causes get sidetracked by human selfishness and pride. More subtly, success may be even harder to deal with. What do you do if some worldly goal of yours is completely achieved? Go fishing?
Thus, we see that honoring the purpose for which we are created, though it appears very restrictive, is actually a blessing. Christians can live a meaningful, fulfilled life from beginning to end without facing the disappointment that hounds the worldly. Because God's goals are bigger than we are, we never find them inadequate. Better still, when we come to the end of our lives, we can anticipate an eternal reward instead of oblivion or eternal punishment. The yoke of Christ may appear to be a burden, but when we take it up, we find it to be lighter than anything else.
They say you can never step in the same river twice. However, one of the quirks of being a hymnist is that sometimes you get to watch your younger self stepping in the river repeatedly. I rarely return to my older work; it tends to make me want to red-pen it savagely. Occasionally, though, I am present in an assembly when a song leader leads one of my hymns, often one that is more than 20 years old.
I experienced this last March when I was visiting with the Kleinwood church. Whether because of my presence or because of happenstance, one of the hymns selected that Sunday was “Servant Song”.
The hymn has particular spiritual resonance for me because it marks the low point of my life as a Christian. While thinking I was being righteous, I had allowed myself to be deceived into practicing evil. I had realized my error at the cost of tremendous suffering, and in January 2000, I was trying to pick up the pieces. I knew I needed to rebuild my spiritual life from the ground up.
Into this emotional turmoil, all unaware, came Richard Morrison. He emailed me, asking me if I wanted to write additional verses to a Jimmy Owens hymn entitled “Servant Song”, which he had recently arranged.
Immediately, I told him yes. I thought (and still think) that the tune was beautiful and the core thought of the hymn was compelling. I knew that a servant was exactly what I wasn't, but it was exactly what I wanted to be. When I was still working with the church in Joliet, the song leaders there would use “Servant Song” as an invitation hymn, and that's honestly about right.
I am a perfectionist and an utterly unrepentant one. There are hymns that I've worked on for more than a decade. However, I wrote those two verses in about 15 minutes, and the version that is sung today is identical to the original.
As I was reflecting on these things last March, a new thought occurred to me. “Servant Song” is a prayer, an appeal addressed directly to the Father. When I wrote those words, I meant them so strongly that it hurt. When churches began to sing them, while using the text to worship, they also unwittingly were repeating my cry from the depths. That same prayer has been amplified before the throne of God for more than 20 years.
With the benefit of those two extra decades, I now can see how God has answered that prayer in my life. The results have been imperfect because they involved me. Selfishness and pride continue to be stumbling blocks to the working out of God's will in my life, and I know they always will be.
Nonetheless, in large measure my prayer has been answered. Indeed, it has directed the course of my life. In 2000, I had no intention of becoming a preacher, but I became one anyway--after kicking against the goads for a good long while. With each passing year, I learned more and more that the work of the evangelist is the work of servanthood. I asked to be made a servant, and I was made one.
I also have been given a gift that few receive: the gift of being able to return to the beginning from the end. From the perspective of the end of my life, I can trace the unwavering course of God's answer despite the twists and turns I introduced. For that, at the last, I am thankful.
When we hear the word “fellowship”, we recognize it as having a positive connotation. At its most basic level, it makes us think of good time shared with others. As we grow in our biblical understanding of the concept, we might add things like worshiping together or being generous with our money to the list.
However, not all that the Bible says about fellowship is pleasant. This is apparent to us when we read about the unfruitful works of darkness in 2 Corinthians 6. Another, even more challenging, use appears in Philippians 3:10. Here, Paul expresses his desire to know the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ.
This would strike the world as an utterly strange goal. Suffering is bad; who wants to seek it out? Nonetheless, if we want to be conformed to the image of our Master, we also must be conformed to the suffering that was such an important part of His earthly life. This morning, then, as part of our quarterly study of fellowship, let's explore the fellowship of suffering.
Today, I'd like us to consider three primary ways in which we ought to have fellowship in the sufferings of Christ. The first of these is fellowship in self-denial. Let's read together from Matthew 5:38-42. This is a text that we often like to break apart. In particular, we like to focus on v. 39.
However, if we want to appreciate the Lord's meaning, we need to read vs. 39-42 as his response to v. 38. “An eye for an eye” was originally a judicial precept of the Law of Moses, but by the time of Christ, it had evolved into a justification for self-willed retaliation. As Jesus commonly does, He addresses not only the practice of retaliation but also the self-will that underlies the desire to retaliate.
Thus, we should read all of the scenarios Jesus proposes as a critique of worldly selfishness. The worldly want to hit back, counter- sue, give only what is required, and give nothing if not required. All of us can appreciate the feeling of satisfaction that comes with these things. We are standing up for ourselves!
By contrast, it's hard to stand there and take it, let the jerk win his lawsuit, carry the soldier’s burden farther, and see our money go to someone who didn't work for it. There is suffering involved! All the same, we see this behavior modeled by our Lord, who didn't look out for His interests but for ours. When He was required to give us nothing, He gave us His own life, and His self-denial gives us our example.
Second, we have fellowship in the sufferings of Christ through submission. This is not a popular topic! I've been maintaining my blog online since early 2014, and in that time, I have learned what things will lead to hundreds of people in the comments yelling at me. First, I create controversy when I illustrate a post using a picture of a woman. Second, though, I make a bunch of Christians really mad when I write about submission. We do not live in a submissive society, so it is hard for us to submit to God, to human authorities, to elders, or to our spouses.
Even so, we must pay attention to the word of God in 1 Peter 2:13-25. This is a long reading, but I think we need to read the whole thing to appreciate Peter's argument. He is discussing an ugly truth about the Roman Empire. Under Roman law, slaves were legally the property of their masters, and those masters could do whatever they wanted with the slaves, beating them or even worse.
To modern-day Americans, the solution is obvious. These slaves who are being abused should run away! However, that's not what Peter says. He urges first of all submission to the government, and as part of submission to the government, slaves must submit to their masters even when those masters are beating them.
This is a hard saying, and I think Peter knew that it was a hard saying when he wrote it. He was commanding innocent Christians to stay in a situation where they were suffering even though they were innocent. In doing so, they entered into fellowship with the sufferings of Christ, who Himself suffered unjustly just like they were doing. Ironically, the last part of v. 21 often is quoted as generic justification for imitating Jesus. However, the text explicitly is about following in the steps of Jesus in enduring suffering.
Thankfully, we do not have masters and slaves in the United States today, so none of us are required to stick around even though our legal owner beats us. However, the Biblical principle here is so strongly stated that it should lead us to reconsider our attitude towards submission. Too often, Christians disobey the law they don't agree with, ignore the elders they think are wrong, and walk out on the jerk spouse.
That is not the truth that Peter taught, and it is not the example that Christ gave. The counsel of both is to submit, even when it's painful, and even when it's hard. When we bear up despite suffering unjustly, we participate in the holy suffering of Christ.
Finally, we share in His sufferings when we accept ostracism. let's read here from Hebrews 13:10-14. I know Clay preached a sermon on this a few months back, but it fits so neatly into this topic that I couldn't help myself!
The Hebrews writer here is addressing a problem commonly faced by Jewish Christians in the first century. 2000 years ago, Jews were not “worship at the church of your choice” kind of folks. If you were a Jew, and you claimed Jesus as your Lord, your friends and family would cut you off. They wouldn't protect you from persecution, and they might even persecute you themselves. Not surprisingly, a lot of converts found this pressure unbearable and returned to the synagogues, which is why the book of Hebrews was written.
Here, the writer urges Jewish Christians to embrace the social stigma and shame. He notes that on the Jewish day of atonement, the bodies of the sacrifices were to be burned outside the camp, signifying that sin had left the camp. Like that, Jesus himself literally suffered outside the gates of Jerusalem. It also was a sign that He had been cut off.
In the same way, the writer tells his audience to go outside the camp, even though it meant not being associated with their people anymore. After all, outside the camp was the only place they could find Jesus.
The same is true for us. Even though we are not necessarily ostracized because of our faith in Christ, we constantly face pressure to conform to the world. Life is much easier for us if we hold our peace on certain issues, booze it up at the office Christmas party, watch the same trashy stuff on TV, and generally live lives that are indistinguishable from the lives of those around us. The more we stick out, the more we will be ostracized.
We must remember, though, that Christ is not in the camp with the world. He is outside the camp, and if we want to go to Him, we must show the world that we are not like they are. We don't have to manufacture issues by dressing funny or refusing to celebrate certain holidays. Instead, obeying the will of God is all that is required. When the world sees us fearlessly living for Him, they won't like it one little bit, but He will, and that's all that matters.
Our final Bible reading in the New Testament, Revelation 21 and 22, contains a great deal of imagery that is familiar to us from the songs that we sing. Here, we find the street of gold, the river of life, the trees that bear fruit every month, and a city where there is no night because it is illuminated by God and the Lamb. When we read these images, we immediately associate them with heaven because that's what our hymns do.
However, on their own terms, the last two chapters of Revelation are not about heaven. This comes as a shock to many Christians, but it is plain on the face of the text. In Revelation 21:1-2, the actual state of affairs is described. The first heaven and the first earth are destroyed, along with the sea, signifying the end of the Hebrew cosmos. They are replaced with a new heaven and a new earth.
Into this new cosmos descends a city from heaven. The city is described as the holy city, the new Jerusalem, a city prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. A very similar description of this city appears in Revelation 21:10. Once again, John makes clear that this is a city coming from heaven.
This city is the subject of most of the rest of the book. It is the city with 12 gates, 12 foundations, and walls built of precious stones. Everything else in the city is made of gold. In this city there is no night, the throne of God is in its center, and the river of the water of life flows from that throne. The tree of life flourishes along the banks of the river. Here, the people of God will reign along with Him forever and ever.
Certainly, there is considerable dispute about the nature of this city. Some believe that it represents the victorious church. Others, myself included, think that it describes the eternal reward of the faithful. However, never once does John call it “heaven”.
As always, John's words here ought to be taken seriously but not literally. Because we live in the present creation, we have no way of comprehending what the future creation will be like. Nonetheless, the glorious imagery that John uses helps us to appreciate the glory that awaits us.
I wish that the authors of our hymns about heaven had been more careful with their language. Interestingly, the greatest of our hymns about the life to come, “There Is a Habitation”, never once describes the holy city as heaven. The author of the hymn was a 19th-century gospel preacher named Love H. Jameson. He clearly knew his Bible well, and all of his descriptions of our future home are easily justifiable from Scripture.
Even now, I don't mind singing about the streets of gold in heaven. I think we should sing with longing for our future home, and I am willing to use “heaven” accommodatively to get the point across. However, as we sing, we should remember that the Bible itself says something different.
1 Timothy 2:9-10 is the most prominent modesty text in the Bible. On its face, it is concerned with displays of wealth in clothing. Back in the day, Greco-Roman women used fancy hairstyles, gold, and pearls to show off money and status. Paul told them that they ought to be showing off Christ instead.
Today, the cultural context has changed. Some people still wear lots of jewelry, but to us, it’s a lower-class affectation rather than an upper-class one. Tony the used-car salesman with his rings and his bling does not impress us as having Made It.
For that matter, the messaging of haute couture is lost on most of us. I guess wearing Manolo Blahniks matters to some, but I couldn’t tell a pair of high-dollar shoes from a hole in the ground. I shop at Walmart, and they don’t sell those there.
However, you know what possession does immediately communicate wealth and status to every American? A high-dollar car. I may not know beans about designer fashion, but I sure know what the luxury auto makers are! Thanks to the commercials they run during college-football games, I also know that if I bought one, the car payment would be about the same as my mortgage payment.
Admittedly, cars aren’t clothing, so they’re outside the explicit terms of 1 Timothy 2. Of course, the revealing clothing that is the primary subject of our modesty discussions today isn’t about money, so it’s outside the explicit terms of the text too. I believe it’s valid to make the latter application, but isn’t the former application at least equally valid? It does warn the same kinds of people that Paul originally warned.
Nonetheless, we hear a lot more in the brotherhood about cleavage than about cars. Reasons for this may vary. However, a cynical outsider certainly would observe that cleavage sermons are aimed at young women with little stature in the church or influence over the preacher. By contrast, car sermons would target wealthier brethren who tend to have stature and influence both.
It's probably about time to talk car ownership, then. We ought to ask ourselves not only whether we are dressing modestly but also whether we are driving modestly. Note that modesty analyses are not concerned with motive. Paul does not ask why a woman has an elaborate hairstyle, gold, and pearls. He merely tells her she needs to put them aside. Nor, for that matter, do we give a pass to the young thing in the flirty top because she has acted in innocence. Let us not shy away from applying the same standard to ourselves!
I’m not going provide a list of immodest makes, models, or—God forbid!—trimlines. That’s not my place, any more than it’s my place to tell the sisters what clothing goes too far.
Instead, I want everybody to ask the same kinds of questions. Does my car allow others to see Jesus in me, or are they going to get stuck looking at the car? If somebody comes rattling up to the church building in a Buick from the Carter administration, and they see my car in the parking lot, are they going to assume that my church is not for people like them? Most simply, did I drop a lot of money on my car because I wanted to impress people?
These are unfamiliar questions. They may be painful ones. However, in a world that offers us every opportunity for self-idolatry, they are questions we must ask.