The man is blessed in the Maker’s eyes
Who does not walk where wicked men advise;
He does not stand where sinners love to go,
Nor does he seek the scoffer’s seat below,
But in the law of God is his delight;
On it, he meditates both day and night.
This man is firmly planted, like a tree;
Beside the streams of water he will be;
His fruit will be abundant every year;
In time of drought, his leaves will still appear.
In all he does, whatever he may see,
His righteous work will find prosperity.
It is not so for those who disobey;
They are like chaff the breezes drive away.
They will not stand when judged, nor find a place
When righteous ones assemble in His grace.
The Lord regards the pathway of the pure,
But those who walk in sin will not endure.
I suspect that the longer a preacher works with a congregation, the more the congregation gets used to the preacher and can identify his particular hobbyhorses. That being the case, I’m sure that some of you, at least, have figured out that I’m particularly interested in fear. In my time, I’ve seen a dismayingly large number of people give in to fear in their spiritual lives, and whenever they do, it never works out well. Fear is a much bigger spiritual problem than we commonly recognize!
In fact, I think it’s fair to say that fear operates to destroy us in a particular way. This characteristic of fear is not an obvious one. Indeed, it leads to results that are the opposite of what we would expect. Nonetheless, it appears to me to be true.
What I see is this: whenever we give in to fear, we bring the thing that we fear upon us. When we sin because we are afraid of some outcome, we actually are inviting that thing to happen. I’ve seen this happen in real life, but it happens in the pages of Scripture too. This evening, then, let’s consider some unhappy people who fell before the rule of fear.
The first test case I want us to consider is SAUL. Saul has a problem with fear throughout his lifetime, but we see him sin because of fear for the first time in 1 Samuel 13:5-14. As I read this story, I honestly feel a fair amount of sympathy for Saul. He’s in a terrible situation! Saul hasn’t been king for very long at all, so he’s still unsteady on his feet. The Philistines are invading with a massive army. Samuel has told Saul to wait for him to come and offer sacrifices, but Samuel is nowhere to be seen. The people are terrified, and with every day that Samuel doesn’t show up, more of them desert.
Naturally, Saul is afraid, and because he is afraid, he does something that he knows is wrong. He offers the sacrifices himself. Is this understandable? Absolutely. Does that make it right? Absolutely not! In fact, this is one of the characteristics of fear that we need to watch out for: it makes sin appear excusable. We think it’s OK to do something we normally wouldn’t do because we’re afraid. However, God does not want us to show fear in doing wrong. He wants us to show faith in continuing to do right.
As Saul’s faith would have been rewarded, his fear is punished. Samuel appears just as he finishes the burnt offerings. Remember how the rule of fear is that you bring the fear upon you? Look at it here. Saul offered the sacrifices because he was afraid of losing his kingdom. Now, Samuel tells him that because he offered the sacrifices, he will lose his kingdom. Because of his sin, Saul must face the very thing he was afraid of.
Our second illustration is ZEDEKIAH. Here, turn with me to Jeremiah 38:14-23. You know, it’s interesting. We think of the books of Kings and Chronicles as books of history, and Jeremiah as a book of prophecy, but Jeremiah contains much more detail about the end of the kingdom of Judah than either 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles. This story is one of many that are recorded in Jeremiah and not elsewhere.
In any event, during the final siege of Jerusalem, at a point where Jeremiah already has been imprisoned for telling the truth, Zedekiah secretly summons him. He asks for a word from the Lord. Jeremiah tells him that if he wants to survive and wants the city to be spared, he needs to surrender immediately.
However, Zedekiah is afraid. He is concerned that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews who already have gone over to the Chaldeans will abuse him. Jeremiah tells him that won’t happen, but he can tell that Zedekiah doesn’t believe him, so he warns the unhappy king that if he does not surrender, he will be taken, the city will be burned, and his household will be destroyed. Sadly, this is the way things play out. As the next chapter of Jeremiah reveals, Zedekiah tries to flee but is taken. In punishment, the Babylonians kill his sons before his eyes and then blind him so that it is the last thing he will ever see.
The tragic story of Zedekiah illustrates a particular kind of fear: the fear of dealing with the unpleasant consequences of sin. Zedekiah was a wicked king, and Jerusalem was under siege in the first place because of his wickedness. It was time for him to face the music, to do what he could to make his peace with the Babylonians and with God. However, he was afraid to do that, so he lost everything that remained.
So too for us. There are times when we also must face the music. It can be really painful to work through the consequences of our sin, but if we refuse, the consequences will be even worse.
Finally, let’s consider THE ONE-TALENT SERVANT. We see his story in Matthew 25:14-18, 24-27. This is a familiar parable, and we’re only considering the unpleasant part. Elsewhere, the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant work to earn more and are rewarded. Here, rather than seeing opportunity like they did, the one-talent servant sees only the prospect of failure. He is worried about being punished by his unsympathetic master, and his fear paralyzes him. He buries his talent, and when the master returns, he tries to argue that his failure is his master’s fault because his master made him afraid.
What’s the outcome? We should be starting to see the pattern by now. Saul was afraid of losing his kingdom, sinned, and lost it. Zedekiah was afraid of being tortured, sinned, and was tortured. Similarly, the one-talent servant was afraid of being punished, disobeyed, and was punished. He gave into his fear and brought the thing he feared upon himself.
Today, we must beware of the fear of failure in serving the Lord too. How often do we see some spiritual opportunity before us, but we are afraid of failing, and so we don’t take it? Let’s think about this. Yes, if we take action for the Lord, we risk failure. However, if we never do anything, we guarantee failure. Nobody ever succeeds at what they refuse to attempt!
There are times when serving God demands that we step into the unknown. That’s not easy or fun. I’m here to tell you, brethren, I’m a conservative soul. By nature, I hate taking risks like that! However, if we allow Satan to use our fears to keep us from acting, none of us ever will accomplish anything for God at all.
Through the years, God has managed to hammer a few insights about the Bible into my thick head. One of them is that in the gospels, the order of stories matters. It’s common for the Evangelist to arrange material so that a text offers commentary on what precedes and follows it.
Reading the gospels in this way widens our focus. Rather than merely considering what a passage says, it’s important for us to ask what its context says about it too. Often, the writers do not spell out these connections (just as Jesus did not spell out the meaning of the parables for the multitudes), but when we make them ourselves, they give us a deeper insight into the Scriptures.
This process is particularly fruitful in Matthew 25. Even though Matthew presents all this material as part of one long discourse, we often don’t study it that way (except maybe at the end of a book study on Matthew when the teacher is desperately trying to reach Matthew 28 by the end of the quarter). We know the parable of the virgins, the parable of the talents, and the throne scene, but rarely do we tie all three of them together.
However, when we do, an important message emerges. The parable of the virgins is about perseverance. We are supposed to be like the wise virgins who kept their lamps lit until the bridegroom arrived, rather than like the foolish virgins who ran out of oil.
The parable of the talents is about productivity. We are to imitate the five-talent and two-talent servants, who did something with what they had been given, rather than the one-talent servant, who accomplished nothing.
The throne scene is about compassion. Jesus wants us to see that caring for His brothers and sisters is so important that He makes it equivalent to caring for Him. Our eternal destiny depends on the way we treat one another.
When we consider these three messages together, it answers questions that each individual message leaves unanswered. If we want to be like the wise virgins, in what should we persevere? Contextually, the answer is that we should persevere in taking advantage of opportunities to care for one another. If we want to be productive like the faithful servants, what does that look like? Contextually, it looks like caring for one another until the end of our time on earth. If we want to minister to one another’s needs, how should we do that? We should do it by continually taking advantage of opportunities for service.
Interestingly, this combined analysis leads to different applications than the ones we usually make. For instance, we generally read the parable of the talents as being about staying faithful (continuing to show up for services, not falling away) rather than serving faithfully. It’s a lot less demanding that way! However, when we pay attention to the full message of the Lord, we better understand the path that He would have us walk.
Compared to practically any other historical account in my experience, the Scriptures generally and the gospels in particular are very terse. The Evangelists write as though the Holy Spirit were charging them by the word. They condense stories to a few paragraphs and character sketches to a few words.
Even though these words are extraordinarily elegant and well chosen, at times they leave gaps in our understanding, especially when it comes to elements that readers 2000 years ago would have understood without further explanation. Just as we can refer to the Statue of Liberty or the White House without having to explain those structures in great detail to an American audience, the gospel writers assume familiarity with the landmarks of first-century Jerusalem. Unless we make an effort to include geographical understanding in the way we read the gospels, sometimes we’re going to miss the point.
In this week’s Bible reading, there are (at least) two places in which a grasp of Bible geography helps us to take hold of Jesus’ meaning. The first occurs during the story of the barren fig tree in Matthew 21:19-22. This text is often misappropriated by the name-it-and-claim-it folks who seize upon the message of v. 22 and insist that we are guaranteed to get everything we pray for, provided we pray in faith.
However, this interpretation fails to recognize several things. First, Jesus isn’t randomly venting His spleen on a poor unoffending fig tree. Instead, He is acting out the conclusion to the parable of Luke 13:6-9, a parable told against God’s unproductive people. In destroying the actual fig tree rather than giving it one more year as in the parable, He is announcing that time is up and the Jewish nation is going to be destroyed.
In this context, the discussion of “this mountain” in Matthew 21:21 takes on a whole new light. Jerusalem, after all, is built on a mountain. As Jesus and His disciples were leaving the city, its prominence, especially the prominence of the Temple Mount, would have been obvious. Jesus, then, isn’t telling His apostles that they will have the power to rearrange random topographical features. Instead, He is revealing that they will participate in the overthrow of the Jewish religious aristocracy that controlled the Temple Mount, and if they prayed, God would give them the help they needed.
A similar analysis applies to the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21:33-46. Once again, Jesus’ words are referential, this time to the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. In Jesus’ repurposing, though, the problem isn’t unproductive soil, as in Isaiah. Instead, it is those who are controlling the vineyard and misappropriating its fruits.
The way Jesus opens the parable leaves no doubt about the identity of the guilty parties. To us, the details about the wall, tower, and winepress seem insignificant. However, Jesus is relating this parable inside the courts of the Temple, so that the wall becomes the wall of the temple, the tower becomes the Temple, and the winepress, the purification basin in the courtyard. It is easy to imagine the Lord gesturing to these features as He speaks! Once again, an understanding of geography makes His meaning clear, and it is certainly true that at the time, His enemies did not miss it.
As has been announced, today at 3, Jason is going to facilitate a brainstorming session in Room 10 about evangelism. I intend to be there, and I would encourage everyone else here to attend as well.
This morning, though, I would like us to consider evangelism more generally, not just what we should do, but how we should think about it. I am sure that when at least some of you figured out what the sermon topic was going to be, you said to yourself “Oh, great. Evangelism,” and sank down a little deeper in the pew. For many Christians, evangelism sermons are guilt-trip sermons. Here is this commandment, and we’re not keeping it, so anything the preacher says about evangelism is going to make us feel bad and not change our behavior.
That’s not my intention this morning. I’m not here to beat anybody up. Instead, I want to help. Let me suggest that maybe part of our struggles with evangelism is the way that we think about it, that the same fear and guilt that all those evangelism sermons stir up is part of the problem. Today, then, let’s spend a few minutes reframing evangelism.
First, I think, we need to UNDERSTAND OUR SITUATION. Consider what Jesus has to say about the original context of the gospel in Matthew 24:4-14. In context, He is talking about the events that will lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and it is obvious that the road is going to be rough. There are going to be wars, earthquakes, famines, and persecution. However, in this span of 40 troubled years, the gospel is going to be preached to all the nations.
We know from the rest of the New Testament that during that time, the gospel saw great success. Now, it might seem strange that the gospel was so successful in such troubled times, but let me suggest to you this morning that the gospel was successful because the times were troubled. When everything else was falling apart, people were more disposed to turn to God.
Today, the times also are troubled. Many of our certainties about life have been upended. We don’t know what the future holds. People are afraid. Many are turning for answers to politics, just as many people did in the first century. However, I think those political answers will disappoint, or worse, just as they did 2000 years ago.
That leaves the field wide open for the gospel. In troubled times, God is the best and only answer. I admit that I’m uncertain about the future too, but ultimately, I’m not worried about it, because I know whom I have believed. God is going to take care of me, He is going to take care of all of us, and when others come to Him, He will take care of them too. We are the only people who can promise peace and security and guarantee that it will happen, and if you don’t think that’s powerfully appealing right now, you don’t understand people at all!
Second, let’s spend some time UNDERSTANDING OURSELVES. As an entrée into this topic, let’s look at Philippians 4:15-16. Here, we learn that of all the churches Paul established, the church in Philippi was the only one to support him during his second missionary journey. They were a generous church when others weren’t.
From this, I want to introduce an idea that is both a duh point and incredibly important. Churches are different. Just like people have different strengths and weaknesses, churches have different strengths and weaknesses too. In fact, it’s fair to say that churches have different personalities and identities too. Even if a church does pretty much the same thing on Sunday morning as another church, that different personality is going to shape the way it operates in a million tiny ways.
Since I came here, I’ve invested a lot of thought in figuring out the Jackson Heights church personality. Lauren can testify that when we were on vacation a couple weeks back, I spent hours trying to pin it down. I think the best way to sum it up is to say that the Jackson Heights church is a gracious church. As a whole, this church really likes helping people and being nice to them. That is our core identity.
Again, this shows up in a million tiny ways. It shows up in the way that we welcome visitors. It shows up in the way the members are so generous to people who come through the door wanting money. It shows up in the way we try to bring new members in and make them part of the group. And so on.
Now, I know that some of you long-time Jackson-Heightsians are listening to this and saying, “So?” Trust me when I say that other churches are not like this. Things this congregation takes for granted don’t happen everywhere else. They make us distinctive.
I say all of this for two reasons. First, it is a powerfully attractive personality to have. Who doesn’t want to be part of a gracious group of people that will treat them well and really likes helping others? Second, once we’ve identified our strengths, that will help us to play to our strengths and be as effective as possible.
With this in mind, let’s consider the interplay between THE GOSPEL AND MERCY. Here, look at the words of Jesus in Luke 10:36-37. This is the punchline of the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus’ message is clear. We choose who our neighbors are, and we choose by showing mercy to them.
The parable of the good Samaritan isn’t exactly a secret. I would imagine that there are many in this room who have helped a stranded stranger or a man who was down on his luck because they wanted to go and do likewise. I think that’s wonderful! I hope that those of you who have been doing this will continue to do so and that those who haven’t will start.
However, I think that the most important application of the parable is one that we perhaps haven’t thought about, and that’s evangelism. Feeding the hungry is an act of mercy. Caring for the sick is an act of mercy. How much more, then, is introducing the lost and hurting to Jesus also an act of mercy?
Yes, I know that proclaiming the gospel is a commandment, but maybe it will help us be more vocal if we don’t think of the commandment as our motivation. If the only reason we’re reaching out to people in the world is so that God won’t be mad at us, that can only make us self-centered and self-conscious. Really, that kind of evangelism is about us, not them.
By contrast, mercy is other-centered and not at all conscious of itself. We are merciful because we see the plight of others and respond. There are lots of people here who are great at seeing others’ needs and then helping, and that’s exactly what evangelism is.
Don’t go through life, then, with this little voice in the back of your head saying, “I have to tell others about Jesus, or I’m letting God down.” Go through life looking for people who need help: the neighbor who has lost their mom, the co-worker who is going through a divorce, the friend whose kids have gone off the rails.
Then, we. . . help them. We tell them that we’re hurting with them, but that we know a place where they can go where people will love and care for them, where they can find a spiritual family and a spiritual home. And if they think Christians are great, just wait until they get to know Christ!