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The Holiness of the Christian

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The other day, I was chatting with my brother about all sorts of things, and the conversation turned to religion.  Even though he is not a Christian, he observed something that I also have noticed throughout the years.  You would think that the religious groups that would do the best would be the ones that make the most accommodation with the irreligious world around them. 

However, exactly the opposite is true.  Religious traditions that compromise end up dissolving into meaninglessness.  By contrast, the religious traditions that take a stand for something, that draw clear lines between them and the world, are the ones that thrive. 

The lesson for us is clear.  Despite all the voices clamoring for us to go with the flow when it comes to women preachers, the instrument, toleration of homosexual activity, and so on, that is the one thing that we must not do.  We must take our stand on the word of God and stay there.  If we do, that will ensure our survival for years to come, but even more importantly, it will find favor with God.  This morning, then, let’s consider what the Scriptures teach us about the holiness of the Christian.

Our text this morning will be the second half of 1 Peter 1, and in it, Peter begins by setting out THE STANDARD OF HOLINESS.  Look at 1 Peter 1:13-17.  The first thing that we see in this context is that we seek holiness because of our hope.  Indeed, holiness must begin by setting our hope completely on the grace that will be brought to us.  That’s not “half-heartedly”.  It’s not “kind of”.  It’s “completely”!  If we are hoping in anything else other than Jesus, Satan will use our double-mindedness to turn our lives aside from holiness.  We are holy because we long to inherit eternal life, and there is no other way.

Second, there can be no compromise when it comes to holiness either.  Peter doesn’t tell us that we are to be holy like other Christians, or even holy like a respected religious leader.  Instead, we are to be holy as God is holy.  His holiness is to be evident in every aspect of our conduct.  We don’t get to negotiate with God about our favorite sins.  Either we hate those and strive to exterminate them from our lives, or we abandon the commitment to holiness that He expects.

Finally, because of our commitment to holiness, we are to think about ourselves and live in a certain way.  First, we are to view ourselves as strangers, exiles on the earth.  We often sing “This World Is Not My Home”.  I think that’s a fine hymn to sing, but we can’t just sing it on Sunday.  We have to live it out Monday through Saturday too, and if the world isn’t our home, then we’d better not be living like we expect to stay here forever! 

Instead, Peter says we need to walk in reverence.  Some translations say “fear” here.  We need to look suspiciously at everything in our lives to make sure it won’t cost us our souls, because it is certain that Satan is trying something with every one of us.

However, we can’t hope to attain holiness through our own righteousness.  Instead, we must seek HOLINESS THROUGH CHRIST.  Here, consider 1 Peter 1:18-21.  We walk in fear not merely because we are concerned with losing our hope.  Instead, we walk in fear also because of the staggering price that was paid for us. 

As Peter points out, we weren’t redeemed with human money.  We were bought with the precious blood of Christ.  Every one of us who is a Christian has that blood anointing our souls right now.  The value of the lifeblood of the Son of God is beyond human comprehension.  It should awe us to think of how much God paid to ransom us! 

Once that blood has been applied to our souls, there is nothing we can do to get rid of it.  Be as righteous as we want to be, be as wicked as we want to be, the blood is still there.  The only question is what it will say about us in the judgment.  If we have been faithful, it will speak up to justify us, but if we have been unfaithful, it will cry out to condemn us.  We will be guilty of that precious blood, and in His righteous wrath, God will condemn us to the lowest depths of hell.  We need to walk in fear, brethren, because we have been bought with a price.

However, there’s a flip side to that coin.  Precisely because the blood of Jesus is so precious and powerful, we can put our trust in Him.  As Peter says, God raised Jesus from the dead and gave Him glory so that our faith and hope would be in Him.  Our faith and hope is not in ourselves, in our flawed human righteousness.  We must walk in fear, yes, but we never should think that we are doing the justifying.  Instead, we are justified by blood, which has the power to erase the record of our crimes so completely that it is as though they never happened.  If we remain faithful, that blood will do its great work.

Finally, Peter describes THE FRUIT OF HOLINESS.  Consider his words in 1 Peter 1:22-25.  Here, I think Peter offers us an important insight into what holiness looks like.  From somewhere, maybe the idiom “holier-than-thou”, we’ve got this idea that holy people are a bunch of stuck-up snobs that wander around looking down their noses at all those wretched sinners like the Pharisee in Luke 18. 

Peter, though, wants us to see that exactly the opposite is true.  When we purify ourselves through obedience, that’s so that we can fervently love one another from the heart.  Holiness doesn’t reveal itself through contempt.  It reveals itself through compassion, kindness, and love.

This makes perfect sense once we remember that we are to be holy as God is holy.  That’s not only a how-much statement.  It’s a how statement.  God isn’t a contemptuous, judgmental jerk.  Instead, even though He is perfect, He paid a tremendous price so that we could be perfected.  Holiness cares deeply about others.

However, this doesn’t mean that we get to freelance our idea of love like the world does, declaring evil good because we already have declared it loving.  Instead, if indeed we have been born again, that is through the seed of the word of God.  Just like the word defines holiness, it also defines love.  Just like an acorn contains the instructions to make an oak tree and a grain of wheat the instructions to make a wheat stalk, the Bible contains the instructions to make a disciple.  That word endures forever, so what a disciple looked like and did 2000 years ago is the same thing that disciples look like and do today.  If we move away from the pattern of the word of God, we only can move toward unrighteousness.

The Hope of the Christian

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

As you may or may not have heard, in a couple days, this country is going to be having an election.  In some ways, all of us are looking forward to this with anticipation.  It will be lovely to be done with political ads, at least for the next year or so!  

However, at least judging from what I see on Facebook, at least some Christians are considering the election with great concern.  They are making, or at least sharing, all these dire predictions about what will happen if the wrong guy wins.  I can only conclude from this that if the wrong guy does win, they’ll have some bad moments!

I totally get that.  I think it’s praiseworthy for Christians to love their country and be concerned about its future.  As God says in Jeremiah 29:7, His people are to seek the welfare of the city where they are in exile.

Nonetheless, we must remember that we are in exile, and that as blessed as we are to live in the United States, this country is not our true homeland.  This is not where our future lies.  To help us remember that through Election Day and beyond, let’s spend this evening considering the hope of the Christian.

Throughout this lesson, we’re going to be looking at a context from 1 Peter 1, and the first lesson it teaches us is that our hope is A LIVING HOPE.  Here, let’s read from 1 Peter 1:1-5.  To begin with in this text, let’s consider what it means that as Christians, we have been born into this hope.  Peter tells us that Christ rose from the dead so that in imitation of Him, we could be born again.  One of the big differences between the old life of sin and the new life in Christ is that the new life is a hopeful life. 

Think about it.  If you’re outside of Christ, you don’t have much to look forward to.  You get a few decades of suffering, you die, and it’s game over.  In Christ, though, we look forward to eternal life with Him, a life that is incomparably better than anything any of us ever have experienced. 

What’s more, we can be certain of receiving our eternal inheritance.  Peter tells us that it is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, and kept in heaven for us.  Nothing bad can touch it.  We only can lose our inheritance by losing our hope.

In the meantime, Peter informs us that God is guarding us by His power through faith.  This does not mean that Christians never suffer nor undergo trial.  In fact, Peter will tell us in the very next verse that they do!  It does mean, though, that throughout trial and suffering, God will safeguard what matters.  In the first century, some Christians died for their faith, but God carried their souls safely through.  Today, no matter how bad things get, He will do the same for us.

Second, Peter shows us that we can continue to HOPE THROUGH TRIAL.  Consider 1 Peter 1:6-9.  Nobody enjoys trial or suffering, but Peter wants us to understand that those things are part of the life of the Christian too.  Indeed, sometimes we undergo suffering precisely because we are Christians.

Nonetheless, Peter points to two positive effects of trial.  The first is that trial refines us.  Suffering changes us, and the greater the suffering, the more extreme the change. 

This change can be in either direction.  Sometimes, Christians don’t seek the Lord in trial, and they become embittered or even fall away because of it.  However, when they do seek the Lord, the trial purifies their character and makes them more like Christ.  Some of the most amazing Christians I have ever known had suffered greatly in the past, and they would not have been who they were without the suffering.

The second positive effect of trial is that it glorifies God.  As you’re aware, I love going on vacation to national parks and seeing God’s awe-inspiring creation.  However, the most awe-inspiring works of God that I’ve ever seen in my life are when some Christian faces a soul-crushing tragedy but stands tall because they are standing on the rock of Jesus Christ.  That kind of faith glorifies Him now, and it will continue to glorify Him eternally.

Because of these things, Peter says that we actually ought to rejoice in suffering, especially when the suffering is going to be terminal.  Remember:  some of the original recipients of this letter were going to face the sword of the executioner or the fangs of the wild beast in the arena.  Even to these, Peter—who knew he would be among them soon—is saying, “Rejoice!”

Let’s look at this from our perspective.  Right now, thankfully, it doesn’t look likely that most of us are going to be killed by persecution.  However, if the world continues, most of us are going to have that conversation with the doctor that he starts by telling us to sit down. 

In that day, worldly wisdom says to be upset, maybe even to blame God.  The wisdom from above, though, says to rejoice and be thankful.  This is not because we’re masochistic people who enjoy the thought of Alzheimer’s or terminal cancer.  It is because we have a living hope that death cannot destroy, and in that dark hour, our hope will be all that matters.

Finally, let’s examine how we can learn HOPE FROM THE PROPHETS.  This time, our reading is 1 Peter 1:10-12.  At first glance, this seems like a big non sequitur.  Peter was talking along about our hope and holding on to that hope through trial, then all of a sudden he’s talking about the prophets who foretold the coming of Jesus.

In reality, this isn’t a non sequitur at all.  Instead, Peter is identifying one of the most important bases of our hope—the prophetic evidence for Christ.  Let’s put it like this.  Ever run into a skeptic who wanted to see a miracle to prove that Jesus was the Son of God?  Well, the Bible is a miracle we can hold in our hands.  In this, I don’t merely mean that the Bible records the evidence of miracles.  Instead, it is a book that could not have been created without the intervention of God.

Let’s pick one example.  Last week before the Lord’s Supper, Charlie read part of Psalm 22 for us.  This reading included Psalm 22:16, where David says, “They pierced my hands and my feet.”  We understand this, of course, as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. 

Well, why did David say that?  This was not something that happened to him personally.  In fact, in his time, it didn’t happen to anybody.  The ancient Israelites didn’t crucify people.  In the ancient world, only the Romans commonly used that as a method of executing criminals.  And yet, David, writing in a world with no crucifixion and no Romans, predicted that God’s servant would be crucified.  A thousand years later, this happened to Jesus, carried out not by Jesus’ friends but by His enemies. 

Here’s what this leaves us with.  David, writing a millennium before Jesus, made a very specific prophecy about how Jesus would die, even though he had no cultural reason to say such a thing.  Then, in the fullness of time, Jesus’ enemies kill Him in exactly that way, in their hatred ironically confirming that He was the Messiah. 

Frankly, I am at a loss to explain this other than as the handiwork of God.  What other explanation possibly could be offered?  Nor is Psalm 22:16 the only prophecy like this.  There are others, equally specific, right in the same psalm.  There are many more in other psalms, and there are still more scattered throughout the Old Testament—hundreds of them in all.  Jesus fulfilled all these, and because He did, we can have every confidence that God exists and that Jesus is His Son.  Our hope is not foolish.  It is certain.  

People of the Book

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

When my family and I were on vacation last month, the Sunday we were gone, we assembled with a local congregation of Christians.  It certainly was one of the more memorable services I’ve attended, but not in a good way.  Most notably, it took 45 minutes for anyone behind the pulpit to invite me to open a Bible.  No Scripture was read during the Lord’s Supper, and even the sermon was a long story rather than an examination of God’s word.

Not surprisingly, this was a church in trouble.  Even though there were about 100 people in that building, my children were far and away the youngest present.  The singing was downright dispiriting.  I’ve been far more edified by the song worship of congregations a tenth of that size.  Unless something dramatic changes, that church will shut its doors, and right now, all they’re doing is running out the clock.

This is not something that only happens to other churches.  It can happen to the Jackson Heights church too, and all the problems begin with a failure to turn to the word.  The Bible is the wellspring of our spiritual existence, and as soon as this congregation gets cut off from God’s word, it will wither and die.  The same thing happens to Christians who lose their connection to the Scriptures.  With this in mind, then, let’s consider this morning what we can do to be people of the book.

There are many passages that could help us with this study, but I think one of the most powerful statements of God’s will here appears in Deuteronomy 30:11-14.  In fact, this text is so rich that we’re going to stay here for the rest of the morning.

In it, Moses makes three main points, and the first of these is that if we want to be people of the book, we have to SEEK THE WORD.  In this regard, he tells us first of all that the word is not too difficult for us.  Contextually, this isn’t talking about the word being difficult to do.  It’s about the word being difficult to understand. 

There are plenty of false teachers out there who insist that the word is too difficult, that everybody can’t understand it, but that’s a lie.  In reality, everybody here who has enough spiritual understanding to be accountable to God for their sins also has enough spiritual understanding to grasp the gospel.  Now, it is true that different people have different gifts when it comes to Bible study, and some can understand more than others, but all of us can understand what we need to.

Second, we don’t need to find somebody else to understand the word for us either.  As Moses says, we don’t need to ask who will go up to heaven and get the word, or who will go across the sea to get it.  Instead, the word is very near to each one of us.

This means that every one of us should make the Bible our guide rather than relying on any human being to be our guide.  I hope that the things that I teach and preach are helpful to you spiritually, but never should any of you take my word for it instead of searching the Scriptures for yourself.  I think Clay does an excellent job in his work here, but I know he too would say, “Don’t trust me.  Trust the word of God.”  Sad to say, millions will find themselves in hell because they trusted a man instead of the word.  The more time we spend with the word ourselves, the safer our souls will be.

Second, we must OWN THE WORD.  We must make it our own.  We must make it a part of ourselves.  Notice that Moses says that the word is to be found in two places in God’s people.  It is to be in their mouths, and it is to be in their hearts.

Let’s start with the mouth.  A couple of years ago, there was a meme floating around on Facebook that bemoaned one of the consequences of getting older.  It said, “These days, I open my mouth, and my mother comes out.”  I’m here to tell you, brethren, that’s true for me!  I’m pretty much the male version of my mother.  In fact, part of me is kind of glad that nobody here but Lauren met my mother so that none of you can tell how bad I’ve gotten!

Many of us know what that’s like.  We know what it’s like to open our mouths and have our parents come out.  How often do we open our mouths and have our Father in heaven come out?  How often do we open our mouths and have Jesus come out?  How often do we open our mouths and have Bible come out?  If we truly have made the word our own, it will reveal itself in our speech.  If, on the other hand, nobody could tell from talking to us that we’ve ever cracked a Bible, we’ve got work to do.

In fact, there’s only one way to make sure that Bible comes out of our mouths.  It’s by implanting the word in our hearts.  It’s by studying the Scriptures with the goal of remembering them and transforming ourselves. 

It’s one thing to be a hearer of the word, to show up for services and sit passively through sermons and Bible classes.  It’s another to be a student of the word, to be eager, attentive, hungry to learn, to ask questions when we don’t understand.  We can’t absorb the word by osmosis, like the student who tries to prepare for a math test by putting the textbook under his pillow.  Instead, we must choose to actively take it within ourselves and make it a part of us.

Finally, we must KEEP THE WORD.  As Moses indicates, God has revealed His will to us and instructed us to internalize it so that we can keep all the commandments of His law.  Bible study isn’t an intellectual exercise.  It’s a life-transformation exercise, and if the word does not transform our lives, we have missed the entire point of the activity.

Sadly, I’ve known Christians who have missed the point like this.  They regard themselves as great students of the word.  Frequently, they sneer at the ignorance of their brothers and sisters in the congregation. 

However, their lives reveal their own lack of understanding.  They struggle with horrendous sin problems.  Their marriages are a mess.  Their interactions with others are frequently unpleasant, marked by anger, bitterness, and pride.  Now, I’m not in any position to assess the claims that such people make about how much time they spend with the Bible.  Nonetheless, I can say with confidence that whatever time they have spent, it has not had the effect on them that God desires it to have.

Of course, even as we consider such Christians, we must beware of falling into the same trap.  They claim to be freshwater springs, but they send out salt water.  How about us, though?  How is the transforming work of the word of God evident in our lives?

Many of us here are not new Christians.  We’ve been studying the word for decades, and if we have applied ourselves at all, that should have resulted in a pretty decent understanding of what’s between the covers of the Bible.

As James says in James 3:13, if indeed we are wise and understanding, it’s time to reveal the gentleness of that wisdom in our good behavior.  It’s time to erase the last traces of worldly wisdom from the way we treat others.  We know that God wants us to be peacemakers in all our relationships, especially the relationships of our families.  Well, it’s time to start making peace.  We know that God wants us to be gentle and compassionate to those who have any kind of need, whether physical, mental, or spiritual.  Well, it’s time to start caring for those people.  Only in this way do our lives proclaim God’s will and show His glory to others.

The Rule of Fear

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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.

Reframing Evangelism

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

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! 

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