The day the Lord listened to a man

Conquering those who heard

Scripture Readings

  • John 15:1-8
  • Joshua 10:1-28

Introduction

My dear brother and sister in the Lord,

The book of Joshua tells about how Israel, under their new leader, Joshua, entered and conquered the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Moses died and Joshua was installed as God’s man of choice to lead his people across the Jordan River to take possession of the Promised Land.

What is described in Joshua is a type and pattern of the work of the church of Christ in its missionary work.  Under our Joshua, Jesus Christ, the church marches on to the very ends of the earth to proclaim the message of salvation in Christ.

Important markers

There are few important things we need to keep in mind as we apply this story of conquering the world and the enemy of God.

Our promised land: our basis of operation to reach the ends of the earth

First, the Promised Land was a gift to the Israelites, something for which they had not worked.  Yet, they were in the line of fire all the time as they engaged in battle to conquer it.  Their Promised Land was not a destination in itself; it was a means to the destination, which was to proclaim the great deeds of God to all nations, and glorify the greatness of his name.  In a sense then, the Promised Land was supposed to be for them the basis of their operation, and not the final resting place.

For the church, our promised land is not in the first instance heaven, but this world in which we are nothing but sojourners, living in tents.  We are not saved to be saved, but we are saved to proclaim to the nations the wonderful works of grace in Jesus Christ, so that the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as water covers the sea.  Jesus Christ is our inheritance, our Promised Land, and He will one day take us to the mansions of his Father; but in the meantime, we are engaged in a process of conquering.  We do so, because our Commander-in-Chief, saved us, conquered death, sin, hell and Satan – He is sending us out; in His Name we have victory.

Hearing is obeying

Second, it seems as if the two words שׁמר (shmr), which means to obey/to guard/listen, and another or, שׁמע (shm’) which means (and we use it in the same way in English too) to obey/hear, are important markers in the book of Joshua.

To guard/to listen/to obey, is generally directed at Israel.  God commands them to adhere to his commands, and to live by them.  This is their guarantee to successfully wipe out the enemy and take possession of the Promised Land. Disobedience led to destruction.

In Joshua 1:7 we read:

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. (Joshua 1:7, NIV)

When the people prepared themselves to conquer Jericho this warning came to them:

But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. (Joshua 6:18, NIV)

We know the story of Achan who took some of the spoil and put it in his tent, which led to them being defeated by the people of Ai. He did not obey to the words of the Lord.

At the end of Joshua’s life he once again calls to people to obedience:

“Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left. (Joshua 23:6, NIV)

All the disobedience of Israel was fulfilled in Christ’s perfect obedience to be our perfect righteousness before God.

Hearing is to fear

The other word, when used in connection of the enemy has another meaning. It is music to the ears of those who are part of the conquering battle.  Joshua sent out two spies into Jericho.  When they got there they met Rahab.  She came to faith in the God of Israel because of this:

We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. (Joshua 2:10–11, NIV)

They heard about the great deeds of God and they understood that God is God in heaven.  Another one:

Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites. (Joshua 5:1, NIV)

When the people marched around Jericho, on the seventh day, they were to shout aloud on the sound of the trumpets of the priests:

When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. (Joshua 6:20, NIV)

Even the walls of Jericho could not remain standing when they heard about the great God of Israel!

The story continues.  Turn with me to Joshua 9:1-2:

Now when all the kings west of the Jordan heard about these things they came together to wage war against Joshua and Israel. (Joshua 9:1–2, NIV)

Directly following these verses, another group, the Gibeonites, also heard what God had done through Joshua, and they submitted themselves as slaves to Israel. (Joshua 9:2)

Why did they do it?

“For we have heard reports of Him [God]: all that He did in Egypt, and all that He did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan (Joshua 9:9–10, NIV)

Then in Chapter 10:1:

Now Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem heard that Joshua had taken Ai and totally destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and that the people of Gibeon had made a treaty of peace with Israel and had become their allies. (Joshua 10:1, NIV)

Important lessons

What does all of this mean to us as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ?

We are engaged in a battle

I think it helps us to understand that we are, or are supposed to be, in a battle.  In an effort to conquer the nations with the message of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must make known his deeds of salvation.  We must think big of God and his kingdom.

James Montgomery-Boice tells this story:

About twelve years after Donald Grey Barnhouse had graduated from Princeton, he was invited back to preach in the chapel, and when he arrived, he noticed that [Robert Dick] Wilson (his former professor in Hebrew) had taken a place near the front to hear him. When the service was over, his old Hebrew professor came up to Barnhouse and said, “If you come back again, I will not come to hear you preach. I only come once. I am glad that you are a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.”

Barnhouse asked Wilson to explain. He said, “Well, some men have a little god, and they are always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles. He can’t take care of the inspiration of the Scriptures and their preservation and transmission to us. They have a little god, and I call them little-godders. Then there are those who have a great God. He speaks, and it is done. He commands, and it stands fast. He knows how to show himself strong on behalf of those who fear him. You have a great God, and he will bless your ministry.”

Donald Barnhouse did have a great God, and he did bless his ministry. But that God is our God too, just as he was the God of Joshua and the victorious Israelites. Nothing is too great for him.

The power of the Word

It is when people hear this message that something happens:  God works in their hearts to see Him in his greatness.  Paul says:

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (Romans 10:17)

The message might be foolishness to some, but to those whom God elected from all eternity, it is the power of God unto salvation.  A few Sundays ago we met John the Baptist.  His only strategy and task was to preach the Word of God.  It worked!  One of the catch cries of the Reformers was sola Scriptura, the Bible only.  Everything was put into place to get the Word out:  it was translated, printed and distributed.  Missionaries who conquered dark places like India, China and Africa took only one thing with them:  the Bible and the message of Christ.

The Lord says:

“Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:29, NIV)

The Battle belongs to the Lord

We face opposition, but we are never alone.  As God promised Joshua, so He still promises us:

No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. (Joshua 1:5, NIV)

Only, we do not have a Joshua who led the people into a certain geographical area somewhere in the Middle East, we have Jesus Christ, our Joshua, who not only conquered death and hell and sin and satan, who said:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20, NIV)

Remember the battle does not belong to us.  When the forces of the enemy descended upon Joshua and the battle became heavy, we read this verse:

Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel. (Joshua 10:14, NIV)

The work of the church is never its own work; it is the work of the Lord.  He bought us, set us free, gave us his Holy Spirit, and He marches out ahead of us as our Commander in Chief.  Let’s listen to this verse again:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11–16, NIV)

We need to obey the Word ourselves

We need to be faithful to the Word of God.  The enemy of the cross will not hear and shudder, if we we do not proclaim the Word without compromise.  We can try to water down the Scriptures to make it more acceptable to the unbelieving world up to the point that there is nothing for them to believe in anymore.

Add to this personal obedience and holiness.  How may times do we get tripped up in our own unholiness while satan sits with a smile knowing that our testimony is weak and untrustworthy.  J.C. Ryle once said, “People may refuse to see the truth of our arguments, but they cannot evade the evidence of a holy life.

The power of prayer

Another thing, and we will look at this more in detail next week, never underestimate the power of prayer.  Joshua prayed to the Lord “in the presence of Israel”, which means that he prayed in their behalf, and he asked for the impossible to happen:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” (Joshua 10:12, NIV)

The result?

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel! (Joshua 10:13–14, NIV)

Conclusion

There is one text where the meaning of the word “to keep” did not imply human activity of obeying, but points to God’s act of mercy by protecting his people.

He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. (Joshua 24:17, NIV)

Now in Joshua 10:14 we learn that God listened to a man.  It does not mean that God obeyed man’s command, but it means that God delighted in helping his people who cry out in battle for the glory of his Name.

Jesus Christ, our Joshua – yes, indeed far more than Joshua of Israel, gave us this promise:

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:14–17, NIV)

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 19 January 2014

 

Yet another year of grace

  • Isaiah 5:1-7
  • Luke 13:1-9

Introduction

We met John the Baptist last week.  We also met Herod and Pilate.  The message last week was that God’s Christmas strategy to reach the ends of the world is through his Word and through those whom He uses to preach that Word.

It sounds silly and foolish to the world, and even to some Christians it may sound as if we need to add some other tricks to make things a bit more attractive and palatable to reach the masses who seem lost without the Gospel.

We understand from the Bible that the task of the church is primarily the tell about Christ, the Son of God, born in flesh in Bethlehem, who came to seek and save the lost, who came to take on Himself the sin of those who are by nature rebels against the will of God.  He was crucified on the cross of Calvary as the sacrifice determined and set by his Father to purchase our righteousness so we are set free.  He rose on the third day, and later ascended into heaven to take his place as the King of kings at the right hand of the Father.  And He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

We need to tell those who we come in contact with that all people need to repent and put their faith in Christ, all need to die of themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus as if they are not living for themselves but for Him who died for them, He who promised to come again.

This message is salvation to those who hear, and in whose hearts the Father, by the glorious work of the Holy Spirit, puts new life.  Paul states it this way:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. (Romans 1:16)

 Produce fruit – the Messiah is born

John the Baptist preached repentance and faith in God, and He pointed them to the promised Messiah, who would baptise with fire and the Holy Spirit.  At the Jordan where he baptised, John used certain terms:

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:8, NIV)

“We have Abraham as Father”.  What some meant when they come to hear the Baptist preach, was that they are the privileged people of God, called by Him, born from the seed of him, Abraham, who is their father.  They are the covenant people, different from all the nations in the world.  They don’t really need repentance.  The Romans, yes, they are horrible people, sinful, and violent, trampling on the blood of God’s people.  So, you can just think what they must have though about the soldiers who also came to John by the Jordan and even asked of him what they should do.

To all who came to listen to his preaching, John said,  “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”  He told about the glory of the Messiah, whose sandals he was not worthy to undo, who would baptise them with the Holy Spirit and with fire, but he also warned that this Messiah is ready with his winnowing fork to “clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:17, NIV)

So, the message of John was both exhortation and good news.  repentance and bearing fruit – this was the gospel and the good news we read about in 3:18.  He, on the other did not hold back on telling them that indifference to and rebellion against the Son of God means consequent judgement.  All of this began at Christmas – but it moved forward towards the cross and resurrection of Christ – through to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the spreading of the Gospel of Christ into all the world.

In the background we read in Luke 3 about Herod and Pilate.  Herod had all baby boys two years and younger killed.

We need to understand this message very clearly today.  Never can we remain at the crib of Bethlehem.  We need to understand that Christ was born to win us from slavery of sin, not only to make us his children, but to use us as his children to bear fruit in keeping with repentance – this fruit-bearing includes consequent faith, which includes the taking up of our cross and following Jesus.  That was and remains God plan of redemption:  the message of Christmas must reach the ends of the world, and to this end, we are involved.  We are not saved to be saved, but saved to bear fruit.

Are we all sinners?

Now here in Chapter 13, way into the ministry of Jesus, most probably upon entering Jerusalem for the second last time before He was crucified, our Lord speaks to certain people who came to Him with intriguing questions.

The argument revolves around God’s perceived unfairness upon the innocent, or perceived justice upon the sinful:  their were some Galileans, who in keeping with the prescription of the Law, brought their sacrifices into Jerusalem.  Whilst at the altar, blood-thirsty Pilate – there he is again – like blood-thirsty Herod, his brother in crime some thirty years ago, who killed the baby boys, thought it good to have the Jews killed.  The result was that their own blood mingled with those of the animals they brought to sacrifice.

This could only be understood in two ways:  either those who came to Jesus with this perceived problem thought that those who were killed by Pilate were very sinful, and God, at the hand of Pilate struck them dead.  They were after all Galileans, Isaiah’s people who lived in darkness (Isaiah 9) – people of mixed religious background, the Samaritans of the old Testament.

There is another incident:  There was a tower, called Siloam, which one day just gave way whilst some “innocent” people walked by, and 12 of them got killed.  These people are not described as Jews; it could have been Romans.  Were they innocent or was it God’s punishment upon them for harbouring some bad sin in their bosoms?  The assumption with those in discussion with Jesus is that they deserved to die because of their sinfulness.

How did our Lord react to these questions?

I think it is quite possible, even more so if we take the next paragraph into consideration, that those who posed the disaster at the temple as deserved at the hand of Pilate and even God in the case of the fallen tower, saw themselves as being part of the category of people who went to John at the Jordan who called themselves “children of Abraham” – inherently good people who should actually not experience in Jerusalem the sort of treatment Pilate dished out to those who were killed whilst bringing sacrifices to God, or as bad as those who walked under the falling tower.  Those people – keep in mind the first group was referred to as Galileans (they lived way out of Jerusalem and were of mixed religious background – might have deserved some sort of punishment); and the same applies to the hapless twelve under the rubble of the tower, but not them.  They were pure bred, full-blooded Israelites, children of Abraham.

Our Lord did not even go into their assumed hypothesis.  He preached the same message as John:

Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:2–3, NIV)

It was now the Person John was referring to who was ready with his winnowing fork talking to them.  When John said, “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Luke 3:8) he was pointing to Him who now says, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

In effect our Lord also said “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’”.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  All need to repent, even good church people.  Yes, those baptised, those who grew up in the church, those who can so easily point fingers to God’s apparent judgement upon the godless and the Muslims and the Buddhists and the atheists.  A morally good life does not exempt any person from suffering, just as a morally bad life does not necessarily mean judgement.  The saying of Jesus in Matthew 7, I think, comes into play:  look at the plank in your own eye before try to see the speck in someone else’s eye.  Never let the spirit of the Pharisee take hold of you when you look at others and then say, “I think You, Father, that I am not like any of these”; rather, say, “Have mercy on me for I am a sinner!”

Fruit in the vineyard 

This is clearly explained in the next few verses.

There was a man who had a vineyard, and he planted a fig tree within.  The reason why he planted both types of trees was not to sit in the shade of to admire their leaves.  The Bible says:

“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. (Luke 13:6, NIV)

Who was this man?  It seems very clear that the parable describes this man as God.  What were the two trees, and why would there be a difference between the vines and the fig tree?  Many people have different ideas, but the best would be to understand the vineyard as being the people of God, wider Israel, including the northern part where the Galileans come from.  Jesus is now entering Jerusalem, and it seems the context wants us to understand that Jerusalem, the heartland of Jewish religion, there where the temple was, where the sacrifices were brought, there where the Jewish Council sat – this privileged place, referred to right through the Bible as the mountain of the Lord, was the fig tree.

The rest of the vineyard sporadically showed some signs of fruit as people came to faith in Christ as the Messiah.  But Jerusalem’s heart was heart.  For three years of ministry of the Messiah there was no fruit:

So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ (Luke 13:7, NIV)

John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, they heard Him preach, they saw Him do miracles – and yet there was no fruit.  What was the fruit the owner of the vineyard was looking for:  essentially the same as what John was talking about:  repentance and a life in keeping with repentance and faith in the One sent by God.  It did not happen.

So, God said, “Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?

Is God unjust?  Is God unloving in demanding this? No.  It is just reasonable; ask anyone who has fruit trees.  It is better to spend the time and energy, and yes, the soil on something better tree, even if it means you will have to wait a bit longer to see real fruit.

Keep it another year

But then, the keeper of the vineyard, clearly pointing to our Lord Jesus, because of his mercy, pleaded:

“ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. (Luke 13:8, NIV)

He would do whatever it would take to care of the tree so that there would be fruit to satisfy the Father.  He continued to preach, to teach, to perform miracles, to call people to repentance.  And He would become the last passover Lamb – even if it meant that He would die at the hands of God’s own covenant people – his own people who did not recognise Him.

This is a remarkable way in which the Bible describes the intercession of Christ on behalf of those who would come to the Father because of his life-giving death on the cross.  Don’t dig them out, give then more time.  Give them more time, more grace, more opportunity to bear fruit of repentance and service in the Kingdom of the Father.

But the even the Intercessor knew that grace, although immense and free, might run out:

If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ” (Luke 13:9)

The parable is open-ended.  It does not tell about the owner of the vineyard who came back after the year.  Applied to Jerusalem and the Israel, it has an end.  They did not seize the opportunity of grace offered to them.  They crucified their Saviour, crying our, “Let his blood be on us and our children!”  About forty years after that, the Romans came and destroyed their temple, their city and plundered their land.  They spurned the grace granted to them by their Christ – and the judgement of God fell on them.  Perhaps, as the walls of the city came tumbling wind on them and they fled their houses, the words of our Lord rang in their ears:

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:2–3, NIV)

Conclusion

My dear brother and sister, we have seen Christmas come and go.  We heard about the Saviour born in Bethlehem according to the Scriptures.  This message called us to worship Him as the Son of God.  Over and over again we have heard the Gospel, and we clearly understand that calling ourselves “children of Abraham” means nothing if we do not repent and follow Jesus Christ.

We have now entered another year – the year 2014 of our Lord.  It brings new opportunities and challenges – and privileges. If this church is indeed part of the vineyard of the Lord, it is logic to assume that He is looking for fruit?  It fair to assume that we live on borrowed time, especially in the light of the grace and mercy in Jesus Christ.  Do we hear our Lord intercede for us, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilise it.”  What grace and mercy!

But do we understand the rest of what He says, “If [it does not bear fruit], then cut it down.”

Shall we beg for mercy?  Shall we resolve to be a fruit-bearing church?  Shall we, one by one, ask the Lord to give us grace – maybe for another year – to bear fruit that will glorify Him.

Let us pray.

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 5 January 2014

 

 

God’s Christmas strategy

  • Luke 1:67-79
  • Luke 3:1-6

Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Most people find history boring, and if I told you that the sermon is coming from Luke 3:1-2 you might think of shutting down.  I urge you, however, not to.  What God has to say in these verses is very relevant to us – and it will help us to understand and interpret our times too.

Before we get there, here are some interesting facts from the latest census in Australia:

Between 1986 and 2006, the number of Hindus in Australia increased sevenfold, while the number of Buddhists has fivefold. The number of Australians with no religious affiliation rose from 18.7 to 22.3 per cent between 2006 and 2011. In the 2006 census, 55,000 people even selected “Jedi” as their religious affiliation, a belief system stemming from George Lucas’ representation of “the Force” in his “Star Wars” series.

We ask, “Has the message of the birth of Christ not been heard over the last 5 years?  Did we not have 6 Christmases between 2006 and now, and yet it seems Christianity is in decline?

Is there reason to be concerned?  You bet, there is! Is there reason be in panic?  No.  What, then should we do?  Let’s look at those verse again:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1–2, NIV)

The year of Tiberius Caesar 

Before we continue, let’s hear this verse from our chapter in Luke 3 too:

And all people will see God’s salvation. (Luke 3:6, NIV)

The father of John the Baptist was filled by the Holy Spirit and prophesied on the day his son was born:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come to his people and redeemed them. (Luke 1:68, NIV)

His son grew up, left home and lived in the desert east of the Jordan, in the desert areas.  His food was locusts and wild honey, and his clothing was camel’s hair and a leather belt. Almost like Elijah.

Christ was born, he and his parents had to flee to Egypt, they later returned and went to live in Nazareth.  In the thirty years between the birth of Christ and John the Baptist’s ministry here was a moment of hope when Jesus was twelve and sat in the temple, amazing the teachers of the law with his knowledge of the things of God. But then for eighteen years nothing happened.  Of the message of peace to mankind, of salvation, of hope – nothing happened.

Our text on the other hand, spells out the activity of those working against the Kingdom of God.  Caesar Augustus hold a census of his kingdom, he earned taxes, he sent out his armies to further conquer the world, he appointed officials and governors, he appointed his successor, Tiberius Spartacus, who consolidated the roman Empire to a mighty world power which did not know resistance.  The Caesar became mighty and was worshipped as a god.

Pontus Pilate was the governor and the sons of Herod the Great became successor to him.  They broke up the kingdom of David and each governed a little part of it, while Pilate was seated in Jerusalem where David used to be the ruler after God’s own heart.  When Jesus was born the old kingdom of David was still intact, but now, thirty years later, it was ripped apart and the people of God were scattered and oppressed by so many foreign rulers that one wonders if they themselves understood who their actual authority was.  Ultimately they knew that the Caesar in Rome deposed and appointed at will, and that they had to obey.

The priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas

God ordained that the sons of Aaron should serve as priests and the the high priest were to serve for life.  They would represent God to the people and the people to God.

But the time Luke was recording in his Gospel the final dismantling of the high priesthood took place.  Annas was high priest, but the Romans replaced him with three others in a row, and later they appointed Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas as high priest.  Annas sieged the moment and as our text says, the two of them acted as the high priest simultaneously.  Instead of keeping the office holy, they bent the rules to their liking and even forged some political advantages out of their position.

So, politically, socially and religiously nothing positive happened since the birth of Christ.  One could say God had a small block of land in the desert of Judea, no prophet, no priest, no clergy, no representative – nothing.

The years were marked by the Caesar of the day, society as well as church were dominated by foreign influence, and it seems as if the kingdom of God got no where, in spite of the fact that the Messiah was born, in spite of the fact that the angels announced his birth, in spite of the fact that even the stars in the skies announced his arrival, in spite of the fact that wise men worshipped Him  with gold and incense and myrrh.  Christmas was over and nothing happened.  Even the star disappeared.  Add to this the 450 years of silence between the Old and the new Testament.

It was the fifteenth year of Tiberius. God gave him all the benefit of the doubt:  he was at his strongest, his kingdom at its height, his influence irresistible, his enemies exhausted, his pride at its pinnacle.

On God’s side was a man living in a desert, some sort of fanatic, some out of sorts fellow, a non-conformist and a-social individual – not your typical Presbyterian! And somewhere in the workshop of a carpenter, there was a man called Jesus.  But the world knew nothing of Him.

The year of our Lord

Our text moves forward:

… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:2, NIV)

God called John the Baptist into motion.  His brief was the same as that of Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. (Luke 3:4–5, NIV)

Why?  Where will this end?

And all people will see God’s salvation.’ ” (Luke 3:6, NIV)

One can only shake one’s head and say this is a bit ambitious; “all people”?  Really?  Maybe all people in Judea?  All people in the Roman world?  Even that is a tough call.  All people in the world?  Surely not; just look at the statistics of the last census?  People are not attracted to God’s kingdom!

The pathetic condition of God’s people, as well as the glory of God’s enemy are known to us.  It was God’s timing.  And it was perfect.

God’s power base was in the desert, and one man – for the moment.  No army, no weapons, no apparent organisation.  The world calls it foolishness.

He was not powerful, he had no influence, he knew nobody with influence.  How could he stand up against Tiberius or Herod or the other governors?  How would he face Pilate?  Would he be wiser that Annas and Caiaphas?  No.

But he had something:  the Word of God.  God commissioned him with nothing more, but nothing less.  Fearlessly he began to preach this Word.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:7–8, NIV)

Not only Jews came to see him; Roman soldiers did too – and in this something of “all mankind” began to see the salvation of God.

John pointed to Jesus.  That was his message:

I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16–17, NIV)

The Word of God was his sword, the message of Christ was his battle cry, and baptism as a sign of repentance to the living God became his ministry to people who were lost in sin, bewildered by godless politics and without direction in a spiritual desert.  East of the Jordan they were baptised, and renewed in their hearts and minds they crossed back into the promised land, ready to receive their Messiah.

Who was Tiberius again?  And Pilate and Herod – what can you tell about them?  And Annas and Caiaphas?  When did they live?  When was the Roman Empire at its height, and when did it fall?  Have you forgotten?

Just in case you did not keep in mind, we are at the end of 2013, the year of our Lord. It is as almost 2014 anno Domini – the Year of Our Lord!

Since John the Baptist started proclaiming the Word about the Messiah, the Christ of Christmas, things changed.  Old kingdoms came and went, rulers and princes and kings came and went.  Very early in the piece John lost his head under Herod, and after him thousands of others lost their lives too for the same reason as John.

Our Lord stood before all four:  Pilate, who had Him whipped; Herod, who scorned Him; Annas, who delivered Him to the people; and Caiaphas who had Him crucified.  It was perfect in God’s timing that they would be people of authority facing his Son; sometime in the future, at the return of our Lord, they will kneel before Him – and He will judge them as He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

His disciples had to report to Annas and Caiaphas (Acts 4:6), while Pilate and Herod had their actions investigated (Acts 4:27), but they did not hesitate.  Full of the Holy Spirit they prayer to God:

Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. (Acts 4:29, NIV)

Conclusion

If it happens that you are a bit apprehensive about the success of the Kingdom of our Lord, I need to call your attention to your task:  Like John the Baptist, take the Word of God, and proclaim it!  I cannot guarantee that you will not end up in trouble for it; many others before you did.  But let us remember what J.C. Ryle, the old faithful preacher of the Word of God once said:

“The saddest symptom about many so-called Christians is the utter absence of anything like conflict and fight against spiritual apathy in their Christianity. They eat, they drink, they dress, they work, they amuse themselves, they get money, they spend money, they go through a brief round of formal religious services once or twice every week. But of the great spiritual warfare – its watchings and strugglings, its agonies and anxieties, its battles and contests – of all things they appear to know nothing at all. Let us take care that this case is not our own.”

Do you want to see the Kingdom of God grow?  Is their a desire for us to see the church of Christ grow?  Let’s take up the Word like John.  He had nothing else, no weapon other than the Word.

Let’s look forward and allow us the luxury to in our mind’s eye see how all of this will end, one day when God says it’s time for it to happen:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11–16, NIV)

Take courage, He has authority in heaven and on earth.

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 29th December 2013