Face the challenge

Fear versus Service

Scripture Readings

  • 2Corinthians 4:1-15
  • 1Kings 18:1-18

Introduction

Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ,

I cannot testify as personal experience with the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4.  His life of service in the Lord is surely an example we all should strive for when he writes to a church who questioned his authority as apostle:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:8–11, ESV)

But to be honest, in my years of pastoral ministry (and all others who stand in gospel service), and even more so as missionary to our own people of the outback of Australia, I can’t say that there has been one single visit which I have not approached with a measure of fear in my heart.  There is of course a certain joy in explaining the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to others; but it is fair to say that sinful human nature always interferes with a sense of failure and rejection.

Sinful man, although saved in Christ and made new, knows his limitations, and he understands that what is left of the old man in him, stands in his way to do evangelism naturally.  This is no smokescreen to hide behind; it is not an excuse to not do it, but I have come to the conclusion that evangelism is not a gift we are naturally born with – it remains hard work, it calls for effort and resolve to intentionally crucify the old nature daily, talking up the cross and follow Christ.  That is the price of discipleship.

There are times that we are called to be salt:  salt does not work visibly, but it surely works, working as a restraint on decay, and also providing taste.  There are other times that we need to be light:  The Lord said about light that it cannot be hidden under a bucket.  Christians are like a city on a mountain, surely visible, attracting the lost and providing harbour to the homeless.

But for sure, we cannot not always act as we are called as agents into God’s secret service; sometimes it might be necessary, but when push to to shove, we need to show our colours.  And when that happens, we have to do and say as Paul said and did:

For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:11, ESV)

God’s work not stopped in difficult times

Called during a spiritual drought

Ahab was the king, and the people worshipped Baal and his wife Asherah. We know the story of how god provided for Elijah and fed him by sending ravens to bring him meat. This provides for us the lesson that God provides for his church in times of severe trouble.  And like Elijah disappeared for some years from the scene, one might say that the church should perhaps, and I say perhaps, sometimes spend more time in prayer for God’s will to be done, more than being pertinently aimed at open and confrontational Evangelism.  These times might serve as living under the wings of the Lord to regain strength and resolve to once again be ready for battle to go full throttle into battle when God’s timing demands so.

This does not mean that the church goes into hiding and do nothing.  Even in this time of seeming inactive ministry, Elijah did not stop doing welfare and spreading the care of God to widows and others in need.  This remains our job, and maybe we should pray that God would give us an understanding what it really means to care for the sick, the bereaved, the poor, the widows, those in prison and those who are generally destitute and without direction.

Cared for through the spiritual drought

The Lord demands us as his disciples to be faithful witnesses and He challenges to remain faithful even when the situation changes, which might call for the mode of our service to change.  Elijah left the boundaries of Israel and trekked north where he ministered as God’s prophet

Elijah’s and Obadiah’s needed.

The Holy Spirit could have missed out the reference to Obadiah altogether and we wouldn’t even have noticed it.  We could skip from verse 2a to verse 17.  We would surely get to the big confrontation on the mountain more quickly – yet the Holy Spirit has seen fit to include the paragraph about an otherwise unknown servant of God.   (Keep in mind that this Obadiah is not the one who wrote the prophesy recorded in the last part of our Old Testament.)

There are a number of ways of approaching this little interlude before the great events on Mount Carmel – and they tend to focus on the different ways of service to the Lord under different circumstances.  It teaches us that we need to be ready for service under all circumstances.

But we are told about Obadiah – because in God’s scheme of things there is a place for the Elijah’s and the Obadiah’s: the man of action, and the man of hesitance.  Elijah seemed like someone who showed up from nowhere and just as soon disappeared. Obadiah was always there – working away in the court of wicked king Ahab.  It is true:  sometimes God needs someone for a big moment – just like Mount Carmel – and sometimes He needs someone to work away quietly behind the scenes.

Yes, these are two very different men of God.  One comes onto the scene of history in a dramatic way – living a life that is largely apart from the main action of the drama; the other has a life of duty to a Godless king in times of apostasy and danger.   One leaves behind a long record of great deeds done for the Lord – the other is consigned a footnote to the Biblical record – but both are men of God who learn a similar lesson: that God is in control and has followers who are also faithful, even if altogether unknown.

We may not aspire to the Carmel heights of triumph that Elijah experienced – but we are all called to obedience taking up the opportunity of the moment and transform it into an act of singular obedience and devotion.

In looking at the life and ministry of Obadiah we see at least three things:

  • The background to his devotion (v12b  and vv 3 + 4)
  • The tests of his devotion (v5 and v8)
  • The limits of his devotion (v3a  v9  v12a and v 13)

The background of Obadiah’s devotion

Obadiah was a man of privilege: in charge of the palace of the King.  He was a devout man since his youth: He says that he worshipped the Lord since his youth.

The testimony of Obadiah is reflected in a lifelong devotion, as recognised and trusted character and a faithful servant even of a godless King.  Who can tell what godly influences first had their effect in his life?  But what we do know is that he was consistent and steady under difficulty.

Unlike Elijah – his was a life exposed in close proximity to the royal court – whereas Elijah had this habit of coming and going!

The tests of Obadiah’s devotion

There are three ways in which he was tested and they show the character and spiritual stature of this man.

The most striking test was witnessed by the historian and by Obadiah’s own testimony:

Care for the prophets of the Lord

Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hid them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.

This is a remarkable achievement – Obadiah had already demonstrated – and undoubtedly continued to do so throughout the drought – his care for the prophets of the Lord.  He was not just a private believer in those apostate days – but one who would take risks to demonstrate his faith. Not a Carmel type demonstration indeed – but a secret and sustained devotion.  He took risks for his faith.  He cared for the Lord’s people.

Serving under a godless king

This faith was further tested by the everyday demands of Ahab: Obadiah was required to do as Ahab commanded – even though he must have found it difficult. Many believers work against such a background.  There was Nicodemus, a Pharisee ruler who came to Jesus in the night out, perhaps out  of fear for the people (the Bible doesn’t say), but later he believed in Christ, stood up in defense of Christ, but seems not to have understood the full extent of who Christ was. The Bible does not tell us explicitly that he made a public switch to follow Christ.

Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue (John 12:42)

Crispus and Sosthenes on the other hand were rulers of the synagogue in Corinth, but when they learned about Christ and his salvation, they made a public choice:  they stepped out of their positions and openly followed Christ.

His was a faith of lifelong standing

It had endured the difficulties of service at the court of Ahab and the consequences of the drought.  His was a position of prominence and service:  Obadiah was in charge of the palace.

But the significant challenge comes when he meets Elijah: It was that test that almost resulted in failure.  Obadiah had a dangerous but settled ministry – and Elijah’s challenge tests his devotion in an altogether new way. It was this challenge that, more than anything else, revealed the:

Limitations of Obadiah’s devotion

Obadiah’s devotion was limited by the responsibilities of his job

Like us – Obadiah had to do as he was told and the demands of his job often required that he made decisions about what was true and good and upright.  That is a real situation for today’s believer.

Not very many can have the unique position of an Elijah – where the lines of demarcation are clearly drawn – and Ahab concludes “he is his enemy” – most of us have to work against a background of misunderstanding and doubt and sometimes downright opposition.

We need to weigh up the limiting factors in our employment, or situation. We have to respond accordingly.

Obadiah’s devotion is limited by his misunderstanding of Elijah’s command to go to Elijah and tell him the man he was after is ready to face him in the Name of God.

He didn’t have a great deal of confidence in Elijah’s words.

I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me.

He knows that Elijah is subject to the guidance, indeed direct intervention of God’s Spirit – and so he doubts that Elijah will be there when Ahab is brought back.

That is a by-product of a life lived in constant touch with the enemies of the Lord, or a life lived in service of a godless king.  Obadiah knows the Spirit is at work – but he doesn’t understand that the Spirit may be counted on to be faithful in these very difficult circumstances.

Obadiah – quite naturally – fears for his own life – for what Elijah is asking touches his basic security in a unique way.

Obadiah’s devotion is limited by his sense of what he had done

Obadiah tends to dwell on what he had achieved – rather than what he may still achieve.  It is this challenge that I believe touches us today most strongly.

“Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? ” (1 Kings 18:13, ESV)

The key words in this passage are:“what I did” and  “now”.   We must understand that what happened in the past was a learning school to prepare us for the future.  The past is not my shelve of good works to justify my unwillingness to tackle the future.  The past, and what the Lord wanted us to do under those specific circumstances, are the building blocks to be better prepared for future obedience.  Never can the things I did in the past be treated to excuse me from future challenges.

This happens too much in the church: “Look, I have been a Sunday school teacher for years and I have given my energy for that ministry; so don’t count me in when it comes to new challenges of church life.”  True, ailing health and growing age can be a limiting factor to be fully active in the service of the Lord.  But when the excuse to be actively involved in God’s work is purely a matter of choice based on the committed performances of the past, it exposes a selfish dedication, looking on opportunities of the past as a way of gaining good standing with God.  The Bible does not know about such commitment.

So often we live in the past. We celebrate the victories that were – but we hesitate at the challenges of now.

Two ways to apply the lesson of Obadiah

What I will do

In relation to Christian service it isn’t what I have done – but what I will do that counts.  It is what I am busy with when the Master of the house returns.

Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.

When Obadiah is told by Elijah to tell Ahab – he responds by reminding the prophet of his past devotion to the Lord.  Obadiah can testify to a life of devotion to God. His was a faith of lifelong standing.  It had endured the difficulties of service at the court of Ahab and the consequences of the drought.

Consistent and steady in difficulty

Who can tell what godly influences first had their effect in his life?  What we do know is that he was consistent and steady under difficulty. Unlike Elijah – his was a life exposed in close proximity to the royal court – whereas Elijah had this habit of coming and going!

It was that test that almost resulted in failure.  But, by the grace of God, Obadiah remained faithful and faced the challenge.  We read in verse 16:

So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah. (1 Kings 18:16, ESV)

Conclusion

My dear brother and sister,

There are the Elijahs and the Obadiahs:  both are called for service.  Some stand in the front line, all the time; other work in the background, all the time.  But sometimes God wants us to step out in faith and face the challenge.  Our task is not to proclaim the arrival of Elijah; our task is to proclaim the Kingdom of Christ.  Take God on his word to do as He promise, and trust Him, even in the face of sure death.

Elijah, Peter, Paul, all the other disciples and thousands of martyrs in the past stepped up to the charge to proclaim Jesus Christ as King and trust Him with their lives.  Others, like Obadiah, Nicodemus, Demas were hesitant, they looked back like the wife of Lot.  Such soldiers do not much for the glory of the Commander of the Army of Heaven.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 27 January 2013, at Wee Waa Presbyterian Church

Why does your Master eat with sinners?

Scripture Readings

  • Isaiah 57:14-21
  • Luke 5:27-32

Introduction

My dear brother and sister in the Lord Jesus Christ,

What if you were king!  If you were given the task to start a movement with the purpose of changing the world forever, what would you do?

What would your teachings be?  Would you be bold to teach that murder begins in the heart of man, and he that calls his brother a “fool” will be in danger to burn in hell?  Would you teach that adultery is a sin and not a virtue as it is depicted today in the media?  (One superstar a while ago boasted in the fact that he went through nine marriages and eight divorces!)  Would you teach to love your enemy instead of taking revenge – a notion that lies behind all so-called “soap-operas”, which most Christians so dearly love to follow?

Who would you choose as leaders to have great impact on others that will last forever?  You would not spend much time talking to and dealing with the outcast of society, those who live in the gutters of this world, and those not trusted for their dubious business dealings. The demon-possessed will not be on your list.  And what would you do with a paralytic on your team?  Moreover, why would you include the socially outcast, those who are known for their greediness and dishonesty?  Ask political leaders how newspapers, which under normal circumstances thrive on immorality and gossip, can so easily become the moral judges if any leader in society becomes dishonest and corrupt.

Jesus Christ building his everlasting kingdom

Luke 4:14 takes us to Galilee, the region where Jesus commenced his public ministry.

Galilee – this was the region allotted to the tribes of Issachar, Naphtali, Asher and Zebulun.  Later a section of the tribe of Gad moved up to the northern parts.  These tribes had the assignment given to them to destroy and displace the people who initially inhabited the land.  They were disobedient, reluctant to do it and unfaithful to the Lord; and eventually they began to mix with these people. In the days of Ahab, the godless king with his wife Jezebel, this part of Israel drifted away so far from the true worship of God that they were described by Isaiah as Galilee of the Gentiles, a people walking in darkness.

A whole range of foreign kings over a period of more than 1,300 years invaded this most fertile part of Israel with its more than 200 villages spread over only 6,000 sq miles.  They became part of the Assyrian Empire and as a result the assimilated into the religion of the day.  At best, their worship was a mixed one, known for its syncretism.

But Jesus, according to God’s plan of redemption through his Son, spent most of his ministry in this area.  Here was no religious elite.  It was a multinational area where you could find more Roman officials than Jewish leaders. The strong trade of Capernaum linked Jerusalem in the south with Damascus in the north.

It is noteworthy that of Jesus’ thirty-two beautiful parables, no less than nineteen were spoken in Galilee. And it is no less remarkable that of his entire thirty-three great miracles, twenty-five were performed in this province. His first miracle was done at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and his last, after his resurrection, on the shore of Galilee’s sea. In Galilee Christ called his first disciples; and there occurred the awe-inspiring scene of the Transfiguration.

It was in Galilee that our Lord commenced his work to set up a Kingdom that would last forever.  Here He would call his disciples and appoint his apostles.  Here He would tell them about the Cross, which awaited Him.  Here He would teach them about the Kingdom of God and its extension right across the world.  From here He would ascend into heaven.

Jesus and Matthew

Jesus was on his way to seek the and save the lost.  He needed another member on his team of disciples.  So He passed the toll both on that busy road between Damascus and Jerusalem.  Suddenly He stopped.  He had not met the man taking the taxes from those who passed by, but He knew him.  He had known him from all times.  This man, Levi, was the tax collector.

In Jesus’ day taxes on transported goods were contracted out to local collectors. Levi was such a person. He would pay an agreed-upon sum in advance to the Roman officials for the right to collect taxes in an area. His profit came from the excess he could squeeze out of the people.

The Jewish people hated these tax collectors not only for their corruption, but also because they worked for and with the despised Romans. Tax collectors were ranked with murderers and robbers, and a Jew was permitted by the Pharisees to even lie to them if necessary.

The attitude found in the gospels is similar. Tax collectors are lumped together with harlots (Matt. 21:31), Gentiles (Matt. 18:17), and, most often, sinners (Matt. 9:10). They were as offensive to Jews for their economic and social practices as lepers were for their uncleanness; both were excluded from the people of God.

Jesus walked across to the tax booth.  And he called Levi.  It was no sermon.  It was the carpenter of Nazareth, the Son of God, who called a sinner, a man deeply in need for salvation.  A man desperately sick who urgently needed a doctor.

Maybe Levi, as he sat going about his business of cheating his own people had heard about Jesus – how He healed the sick and restored the leper.

People had different opinions about Jesus.  Levi would overhear them, because they would not ask his opinion.  Deep down in his heart Levi, although a man of good economic standing, a businessman with good arithmetic and writing skills – remember he eventually wrote the Gospel according to Matthew! – was terribly lonely.

Then he looked up, for someone was talking to him. It was a voice with authority like no other.  “Follow Me.”  It was not an invitation to spend the afternoon with Jesus.  It was a life-changing call.  Levi knew it.  So when he got up and closed his books, he knew it was for the last time.  He gave up a lucrative business, and followed Jesus.  The Bible said he left everything and followed Jesus.

A new life opened up for Levi, the son of Alphaeus. We don’t know if his brother James had already become a follower of Jesus.  Probably not – it was only after this episode that the name of James, the other son of Alphaeus, is mentioned.  Three pairs of brothers:  Simon Peter and Andrew, John and James the sons of Zebedee, and now Levi and James, the sons of Alphaeus.

Why would Jesus call this man Levi?  Was he not a tax collector?  Was he not despised by his people?  Was he not part of that portion of Israel where true worship was not really practiced?  Was he not from the tribes who distrusted the Lord and did not drive out the heathen nations before them?  Would it not be better for Jesus to call someone from a more respectable tribe like Judah or Benjamin?  Or at least someone who lived in Jerusalem where the true temple-worship was still practiced?  Why Levi?

Christ and sinners

There is a question in the Scripture regarding the call of Levi that many Christians today will find very hard to answer.

Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’? (Matthew 9:11)

What would your answer be?  Is it possible that Jesus would be an embarrassment to you by spending time with the socially outcast?  Remember, He spent a lot of time with sinners, with prostitutes and tax collectors.  He did not spend so much time with the religious elite as with those in the gutter of life.  Answer this question:  Why does your Saviour spend so much time with the sinner and the outcast?

Did Jesus call Levi because He foreknew that Levi would one day apply his writing skills and write the life story about Jesus of Nazareth?  Did Christ call Levi because his economic skills could be used to further the cause of the Gospel?

Did Levi answer the call of Jesus because he felt rejected by others?  Did he leave everything behind because he felt this was a chance in a million to gain recognition as an Israelite?
Why Levi?  Then answer lies in what Jesus said in answer to the Pharisees and Scribes:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)

What does Jesus mean by this?  Levi was spiritually deadly sick.  Levi was morally deadly sick.  He was on his way to hell.  The Saviour was there to seek and to save.  That’s why He called him.  There was not a single shred of good in Levi.  There was not a quality in him that would persuade Jesus to call him as an apostle.  On the contrary, he was in desperate need for the Doctor.  He was corrupt in his soul and unrighteous by nature and he needed a righteousness coming from outside of himself.

In short Christ called this sinner to repentance.  And Levi knew that.  The Pharisees couldn’t see their own spiritual corruptness before God.  They were self-righteous as they tried to buy their way into heaven by good deeds.

Why does your Master eat with sinners?  On this the apostle Paul answered:

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

He also declares himself to be the least of the apostles, not even deserving to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church.

It is a shame to be a sinner, but it is no shame to a saved sinner.  It is a shame to be sinner, but trying to disguise your sin by good works and own merit is even worse. But it is no shame to admit your sin and by saved by Christ.  It is dreadful to be sick to death, and then still pretend you are healthy, carrying on with life as if nothing is happening. It is far more profitable to admit you are terminally ill and get help from the doctor, and also get your life in order so you can die prepared.

Matthew Henry writes:

There is no heart too hard for the Spirit and grace of neither Christ to work upon, nor any difficulties in the way of a sinner’s conversion impossible to his power.

Why Levi?  He was lost. Why save Levi?  There was a Saviour gracious enough to call him. That’s why.  That’s the heart of the Gospel.  The sovereign God saves because of his mercy.  He calls because of his eternal love.  He calls who He wants.  He calls because we are lost.

Levi becomes Matthew

The Scriptures refers to Levi as Matthew after the episode of the calling of Levi. The name Matthew means “a gift of God”.  So complete was the change in the life of this man that his name would now tell of the grace of God.

As a saved sinner, Matthew just had to do something to make known the grace of God in his life.  He arranged a huge feast.  He probably wanted people of his tribe to attend, but they would not mix with sinners.  And he could not possibly let the opportunity go by not telling his fellow-tax collectors about his new life and his Saviour. They accepted his invitation and Jesus, still on his way to seek and save the lost, accepted the invitation as well.

There he was, a saved sinner, introducing his lost sinner friends to the Saviour King of the world.

And once again this question:  Why does your Master eat with sinners and tax-collectors?  Matthew could answer them.  His answer would probably sound like this:

“I was lost in sin, deadly wounded by sin; terminally ill, with no cure for my problem.  Jesus came along and by grace He stopped at my tax collectors booth where I displayed my utter corruptness.  He didn’t ask questions.  He just called.  I couldn’t resist and followed Him.  My life changed.  He made me new and forgave my sin.  I just bring Him glory for his grace. Through his Spirit He led me to write down the Good News of the Gospel.”

Hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Levi whose name was Matthew:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Conclusion

Answer this question:  “Why does your Master eat with sinners?”  Would Jesus eat with you?

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday  20th January 2013 at Wee Waa Presbyterian Church

Christmas: God rent the heavens

Scripture Readings:

  • Isaiah 63:7-9
  • Isaiah 63:15-19
  • Isaiah 64:5-9
  • Isaiah 64:1-4, Luke 2:8-14

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

God is good and merciful

We come together tonight and we can only say, “How good is God!”

With Isaiah we say:

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Isaiah 63:7, ESV)

This church, as is the case with the church of God all over the world from all eternity which includes God’s people from all tongues, nations and tribes, exists because God called it into existence.  It is because of God’s mercy and grace that we are here tonight.  Our Lord is our God, and our Lord is our Master – He owns us.

Many good things He has done for us.  His compassion and his kindness towards us sustains us.

He is our Father, He is our Saviour – we are privileged to be called “the people of the Lord”, not be anything we have done, but what He has done in his mercy.  Listen to this verse:

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9, ESV)

Right in the beginning when He called his people out of the bondage of Egypt we hear Him say:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey … (Exodus 3:7–8, ESV)

He carried them on eagles wings. He gave them the angel of his presence and in his love and mercy He redeemed them. There at Mount Sinai He revealed Himself in his majesty as they saw the smoke and heard the earth shake.   He declared them to be his holy nation, a priesthood of redeemed people to proclaim his wondrous deeds.  Never has any God done such a wondrous and glorious thing.

Has the love of God cooled?

But something happened.  Somehow it was as if they did not experience the same kind of powerful presence and guidance of the Lord anymore.  It was just as if God did not care to intervene from them as He did at first. They began to ask:

Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me. (Isaiah 63:15, ESV)

They almost wanted to remind God that He is their father, although their arch fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob acknowledge them anymore.

There was something wrong:  it seems as if God not care if they were committing sin or wandering away from Him, as if the Lord did not care if their hearts were hardened.  They have seen the enemy come and take possession of their inheritance – God does not care.  So they prayed:

Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. (Isaiah 63:17, ESV)

What seemed to have been the problem?  Is it God whose love cooled?  Is it God who has to return?  Is God still their God?  How does it happen that your spiritual life, and the spiritual life of a congregation can become stale and lifeless? One goes through all the motions of reading your Bible, maybe even pray, attend worship services, and even contribute financially to the work of the Lord, and yet – one has to drag oneself along. Why does it seem that God is far away?

There is this verse we should keep in mind:

But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. (Isaiah 63:10, ESV)

We have sinned

But there is a wideness in God’s mercy.  Although He is grieved, although He becomes angry even with his own, He leaves with us a hunger and a thirst.  We crave the living water, although we realise we do not deserve it.  So we cry out:

How can we be saved? (Isa 64:5)

We look at our lives and we say:

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. (Isaiah 64:6–7, ESV)

By his mercy He makes us remember how good his love is.  He calls us to Himself with cords of love, because He is our Father.

At that low watermark, when we hit rockbottom, we cry out for help.  Our will crumbles and our desires do not count, but we just cannot live without the newness of his mercies every morning.  So we pray:

But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8, ESV)

We pray:

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence. (Isaiah 64:1, ESV)

This is a risky prayer.  It is a risky thing for a sinner to pray to the holy God of Heaven to rend the heavens and come down, especially after you know that He hates sin and you just acknowledged your sin before Him.  List to how the Psalmist describes what happens when God answers such a prayer:

He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds. The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. (Ps 18:9–13, ESV)

At Sinai their reaction upon God rending the skies and revealing his holiness:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off (Exodus 20:18, ESV)

How will God answer the prayer of his people?

Hundreds of years passed since Isaiah prayed the prayer of Isaiah 64 for God to rend the heavens.  There was even a period of 450 years between the Old and New Testament when God seemingly turned his back on his people, and did not even had a prophecy for them.  God was silent while the enemy trampled the inheritance of the Lord.  Would God answer the prayer of Isaiah?  Would God forget his people, forget his Covenant with Abraham and David?  Can God be trusted?

We look around us today and see how the people of the Lord is trampled upon.  His Word has become fodder to politicians, comedians and many scientists.  Every effort is put in place to discredit His wondrous work in creation.  It seems as if the Church of Christ is dwindling into obscurity, and to be honest we lose hope to see the promise of the return of our Lord realised. It is all true?  Is it all trustworthy?  Will God answer us?

Has He not answered us?

God saves: Immanuel

It was a cold night on the fields of Bethlehem Ephrata. There were shepherds in the filed keeping watch over their sheep.  Something extraordinary happened.  The heavens opened, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.  God has come to visit his people.

This expression “glory-of-the-Lord” is important.  It is mentioned every time God has come to live with is people to show his greatness, holiness and compassion, like when the glory of the Lord entered the tabernacle, or the temple.  It was a good sign.  There was good message – not a message of condemnation and reproach, but a message of good hope and great joy:

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11, ESV)

There were angles all over the place singing the praises of God:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14, ESV)

God is pleased with his people, not angry.  How can we be saved?  How can this be possible?

You might wonder, dear friend, how can God have a message for you tonight, telling you that He is pleased with you, while you know very well in your heart that you don’t deserve it; you know very well that you despised Him and hated your fellow men.  As one fellow puts it: “I kicked Him in the teeth for more than sixty years of my life, I hated Him and despised Him, yet, when I ended up in hospital with my life hanging on a thread and I called upon Him, He was there the first time and showed his mercy to me.”

How is this possible?  Listen:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, ESV)

This Jesus grew up and began his ministry which culminated in Him being nailed to a cross just outside Jerusalem.  Of Him Isaiah said:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5–6, ESV)

The Lord did rend the heavens, not to pour out his wrath, but to announce the birth of Him who would eventually bore the full wrath of God to set us free.

This is the message of Christmas.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on 24 December (Christmas Eve) 2012

The coming of the Christ (3)

 Keep watch – the hour is unknown

Scripture Readings

  • 2Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Matthew 24:36-51

Introduction

We survived December 21, 2012 – the day the world was supposed to come to an end.

Because we are supposed to be on one of the first nations the sun rises everyday, Tourism Australia’s Facebook page was flooded with more than 1000 posts such as “Any survivors?” and “Are you guys still alive?” as December 21 – the last day of the Mayan calendar – hit.

Tourism Australia posted a reply saying “Yes, we’re alive”, which resulted in more than 100,000 “likes” and more than 10,000 comments.

All the extra attention helped the See Australia page reach more than four million fans overnight, cementing its position as the largest tourism destination page in the world. Almost as in the days of Noah …

To survive to possibility of the end of the world, a checklist is provided:

  • Waterproof matches: for possible tsunamis
  • Lots of garlic: to make you less appealing to the hungry Mayan gods
  • Batteries: lots of it!
  • Corn chips: Mayans offered maize to appease the gods
  • Hangover pills: just in case it was not the end of the world Compass: the poles might swing around
  • Move to the outback where skyscrapers cannot fall on you
  • Consider building an ark

What amazes and saddens me is that so many people lend their ears to obscure predictions and calculations (you do know how hard it is to even come up with a date like 20 December 2012 from so-called “evidence” read into the Long and Short Mayan Calendar off decayed clay tablets, nearly impossible to decipher), but when it comes to the Bible, the Word of God – the most trusted book of all history – the world seems to reject everything it says.

This of course was not the first time that the end of the world was predicted. The problem with these outrageous predictions is that people will eventually not listen to any warning about the return of Jesus Christ. This fact Jesus proclaimed in the chapter we read together from Matthew 25:

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35, ESV)

This helps us to understand that, just as the prophets of the Old Testament were foretelling the birth of Christ as fact, so the Holy Spirit of God through the Scriptures tell us about the coming of our Lord on the clouds at the end of time.

The birth of Messiah heard, yet not heeded

Although not every word the prophets spoke, directly pointed to the specific time of the birth of Jesus, what they said pointed to the time of the Day of the Lord, when as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 1:

As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, was not Yes and No, but in Him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him. (2 Corinthians 1:18–20, ESV)

As we have seen last week and at other occasions, everything in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament called and cried out for the perfect to come: no more blood, no more sacrificial animals, no more temples with sections that kept people away from the holiness of God, no high priests, but a perfect and unblemished sacrifice by a perfect high priest; that was fulfilled in Christ.

The writer of Hebrews looks at Jesus and saw in Him the fulfilment:

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11–12, ESV)

Moses therefore said to the people:

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— (Deuteronomy 18:15, ESV)

Everything about the kings of Israel cried out for the perfect King to establish a perfect kingdom of God, a King who would serve and protect his people, a King who did not burden his people, but who would take the burned off his people, a King who would destroy the enemy completely and would bring lasting peace to his people. This King had to more than David, but still in the promised line of David.

God’s promise to David was written down by the prophet:

And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’ ” (2 Samuel 7:16, ESV)

When Matthew began his Gospel he used this fact as a starting point:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1, ESV)

With this statement Matthew saw all of God’s actions with his people, all his promises to them fulfilled in one Person: Jesus Christ.

Isaiah then wrote about Christ:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, (Isaiah 11:1–3, ESV)

So when Matthew wrote his Gospel we hear this phrase repeated, “to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophets.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:22–23, ESV)

The chief priests and teachers of the law knew exactly the place where the Messiah was born:

“In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “ ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” (Matthew 2:5–6, ESV)

Joseph and Mary took Jesus and fled to Egypt.

This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14–15, ESV)

Upon their return from Egypt they went to live in Nazareth,

… so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:23, ESV)

When Jesus commenced his ministry He went and lived in Capernaum. Why? so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:14–16, ESV)

Sometime later He returned to Nazareth and went to the synagogue where He took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19, ESV)

He then declared: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21, ESV)

Yet, John writes:

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive Him. (John 1:10–11, ESV)

As in the days of Noah

In his final teaching before He went to Jerusalem to be crucified Jesus taught his disciples:

“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:36–37, ESV)

What Jesus teaches in these verses is that his second coming will unexpected, but certain. Therefore He repeats the warning:

Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42, ESV)

People in the days of Noah knew about the impending destruction: They spent the 120 years which God had fixed as the limit of his grace “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” as though no judgment were impending. These things are not sinful in themselves; but when there is total disregard of God’s warnings it becomes sinful. These men should have repented in sackcloth and in ashes.

They heard, but they did not understand; they saw but did not understand the meaning of what they saw, because of their spiritual blindness and hardness of heart. This, our Lord says, how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. (Matthew 24:40–41, ESV)

The meaning of these verses is determined by it context, and the context is that some will be ready and expecting the return of Christ and some not: Some are like Noah, while others are like the people in the time of Noah caught up in the deluge. Everything about the return of Christ by some will be explained away “naturally,” “reasonably,” even “scientifically” until the fatal day arrives.

If you had a warning about a possible break-in and you kept watch because did not know when exactly they would strike, you would be in a position to fend them off. This did not happen. The owner of the house was not ready for the robbers, and his house was broken into. Therefore, once again, this warning:

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:44, ESV)

In other words, learn from the people who lived in the days of Noah: they had the general warning concerning the impending flood, but they (and even Noah) did not know the day on which God would open the heavens and the fountains of the earth. Noah was ready, they were not.

We do not know the time of the return of our Lord, but we know that He is going to return, no doubt. In a sense then, the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar is in some ways a good thing. We scoffed at the reliability of the prediction, but we cannot scoff at the fact that we need to be ready for the end of this world when our Lord will certainly return.

It is my duty this morning then to not only freshly remind you of the words of our Lord, but to insist on account of this absolute reliable Word of our Lord which will never pass away, that you be ready.

What does it mean to be ready?

We have heard over the last two Sundays how the leaders of the Jewish people, and through them, the people themselves, treated the Word of God. First they were like tenants in the vineyard, entrusted with the vineyard to produce a crop of fruit which would please the landlord. In stead, they killed one messenger after the other, and at last the heir to the vineyard.

In the next parable they were the privileged who were invited to the wedding banquet of the son, but they turned the invitation down, and others become violent, mistreating and killing the servants who came to invite them to the banquet.

Something of the same is happening here in our passage today: it talks about servants put in charge of the household to give them food at the proper time. Jesus is speaking of the ministers and pastors of his church whose obligation is double and includes that of the household committed to them. Until his lord comes he faithfully does exactly what his lord told him, and his lord finds him engaged in the things of his lord. He does not sit idly outside of the house looking for his lord and speculating about his return; he is inside, steadily doing his lord’s bidding.

This of course is not limited to ministers only, but to every Christian. We are called to be prophet, priest and king. It is not the job of the minister only to preach the Word, to intercede for the lost and help those in need, and to rule over sin and the effects of sin, we all are. From all of us will be demanded what we did with the talents entrusted to us as members of the household of the Lord.

To be ready for the return of the Lord is therefore to be fruitful, to be busy in the vineyard, to have something in our hand when He returns. It is his crop, his fruit, his pound, his talents entrusted to us. What do we do with it?

It seems that if we take our eye off the fact of the return of our Lord, we tend to think what we have as a church belongs to us. It does not take long and we get stuck into one another. We quarrel about what we claim to be ours, and in no time the Kingdom of God to us exists in material things. We treat one another harshly, not lovingly; we do not long to serve, but to be served. Such a church becomes a disgrace not only to the Name of the Lord, but to the world they live in. It becomes dead, fruitless and without any sings of being the body of the Lord. Ministers are liked because they say what members want to hear, and when they dare say something different they becomes an enemy of the people. Worse, ministers can easily slip into the comfort of being liked and loved, and not preach the Word of God.

It is just too terrifying to think of the consequences:

the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:50–51, ESV)

Conclusion

My dear brothers and sister in the Lord, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians; he also refers to the fact that the rerun of the Lord will be like a thief in the night. He says

So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 5:6, ESV)

But he also sees the fact of the coming of the Lord as a source of encouragement:

Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thes 4:18, ESV)

I want to encourage you in the Name of the Lord: Jesus Christ is coming again. Let’s be like faithful servants busy with the things of our Lord when He comes.

Sermone Preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 23 December 2012