A life worthy of the Lord

Series Title:  Growing in knowledge of Jesus Christ

Scripture Readings

  • Hosea 4:1-9
  • Colossians 1:3-14

Introduction

Millions of people attended Christmas worship services just two day ago right across the world.  One can only wonder how many those attend the services today.  And one would probably more amazed by the small number whose life is changing, or has changed, because of what they learned or understood about the reason why Christ came into the world.

Many cannot get beyond the manger and the lowing cattle.  A great multitude love the carols, while others only enjoy the Christmas pudding after the service with relatives and friends.

But that is not how we continue on from the manger, the Baby in the crib, star, the wise men and Bethlehem of 2000 years ago.  There we meet Him who had been promised by the prophets, but from there we follow Him to become his disciples.

The Gospel summed up

On Christmas day we heard the glorious message of Christ who was sent into the darkness of this world to be the light leading us back to the Father.  The last verse we read this morning from Colossians 1 explains it perfectly:

For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14, NIV)

This verse is the gospel summed up:

  • God rescued us from darkness who held us in bondage.
  • God saved us from that kingdom and brought us into the kingdom of his Son.
  • God loved his Son, and by extension, He loves us.
  • We are redeemed, bought with a price.
  • Our sins are forgiven.

What this verse teaches us is that there was something which created a deep gulf between us and God:  sin.  Sin is described as living in darkness.  God, who is powerful over all things in the universe had the power and the will to get us out of that darkness.  His plan was put into motion and then executed by his Son, Jesus Christ.  What did He do?  He saved us, He redeemed us from the grip of darkness of sin and made us members of his kingdom.

This is the message which signalled the beginning of the Gospels.  It all started in Bethlehem when Jesus Christ was born in a meagre out-building of the inn.  He surely did not strike anyone as a king then, but that was the beginning of God’s rescue plan to destroy the power of the darkness. Remember, the darkness could not overcome it!  (John 1)  Why?  Although he was just a baby in a crib, He was also the eternal Son of God on a mission to save the lost out of darkness and bringing them into the light of God’s presence and freedom of the bondage of sin.

When one studies the letter of Paul to the Colossians one cannot otherwise but come to the conclusion that Paul had one major purpose for writing the letter:  He wanted the Christians in Colossae to know Christ better, and therefore live lives that would glorify Him.  The purpose of the Holy Spirit including this book into the Bible is nothing short of the same purpose.  We will get to more specific indicators of this truth just a bit later.

The change in Christ: anarchy to love

Paul is filled with thankfulness towards his Father for the salvation of those who were once lost but have now found new life in Christ Jesus.  Once they lived in darkness, but now they are people of love and faith, hanging on to a living hope stored up for them in heaven.

This is a mighty statement: by nature we are born into darkness; we are not inclined to love, but rather hate.  Born sinners gossip, they steal, they hate, they murder, etc.  Paul puts it these words in Galatians 5:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19–21, NIV)

You say we are not like that!  Well, the first son of Adam and Eve after they fell into sin murdered his brother.  We might not go to these extremes, but it seems reasonable to believe the very inclusion into the Ten Commandments a command against murder, means that sinful mankind is capable of murder at some point in the bondage in sin.  Add to this all the other commandments.

When the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and the Holy Spirit does the job of regeneration, the opposite of all these things begin to reign in the life of a sinner.  Once again, let’s here Paul:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22–23, NIV)

The good news of Jesus Christ

Paul refers to the gospel of Jesus Christ in verse 5:

… the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel (Colossians 1:5, NIV)

When the Colossians heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, something amazing happened:  they were taken out of darkness, out of bondage, into the kingdom of light.  Now, all of this message would have come to nothing if what the apostle preached to them was only a set of philosophical ideas.  The Christian message is not theory, or a set of self-help rules of morality.  That’s what some people think, and even some church people might think so.  The only reason why they come to church or read the Bible is to brush up on their do-it-yourself endeavours to become a better person.  This is not the Gospel of Christ who took us out of the bondage of darkness putting us into the kingdom of light of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Progress in the Gospel

But this verse continues into the next:

In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. (Colossians 1:6, NIV)

Epaphras was their pastor.  He continued to preach the Gospel once preached by Paul.  The Gospel has the effect that God’s people grow in their understanding of its message.  This truth of the Gospel is the truth about Jesus Christ who sets man free.

When they heard this Gospel they were put on a road of discovery and service.  Their service was a service of love:  they began to love one another as fellow believers who now share the same hope.  Their discovery was what Paul prayed for when he said:

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, (Colossians 1:9, NIV)

And this is what so many Christians are in need of.  We need to grow in our understanding of who the baby in the crib of Bethlehem was.  Growing spiritually in our knowledge of who Jesus Christ is and what He wants us to be in Him and under Him, leads to a life which is to the glory of God.

Paul prays for the church to be filled with the knowledge of his will.  This implies spiritual growth.  We read a bout the people of God in the time of Hosea.  Their problem was that they were destroyed by a lack of knowledge of God.  Knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ comes through the fervent study of his Word and communication with Him in prayer; it comes by worshipping together with others members of God’s family in corporate worship; it comes from studying with others in Bible study groups; it comes by reading books and contemplation about God – something which our generation has lost the art of.

We don’t read, we’re addicted to electronic media, and the riches of contemplation and private time with the Lord has been replaced by words about God, short soundbites regarding Him, and summarised experiences of what we hear of others in their walk with God.  But of the authentic, genuine relationship with God meditating on his Word and talking with Him we don’t really know.  We are so noise addicted that we sometimes need to have a radio on while we spend time with God.

My dear friend, don’t be surprised if your spiritual life is dry and lifeless, don’t be shocked if your spiritual life is stunted and fruitless if this is the description of your spiritual life.  I am afraid that the church of Jesus Christ has become a illiterate church.  I heard about a study which found that only 2% of people who attend church on a Sunday actually read the Scriptures during the week.

If we take the words of Paul within its context this morning we have to say that such a life is not worthy of the Lord.  Why?  We simply don’t know “how to please Him in every way” (verse 10)

Paul uses very strong words and expressions here.  Listen:

so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, (Colossians 1:10–11, NIV)

Do you get the gist of his thought:  “every way”, “every good work”, “growing in the knowledge of God”, “strengthened with all power”?  Paul was not looking for church members who had a date of conversion; he was not looking for people who understood something of a baby in a crib; he was looking for people who showed signs of growing up and have become useful in the kingdom of God.  There must be fruit, there must be knowledge, there must be growth.

We are struggling with all sorts of theories and teachings coming our way, and we need to stand on the foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In Ephesians 4 Paul writes:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:14–16, NIV)

To the glory of the Father

Our chapter this morning ends with an humbling pronouncement:

being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:11–12, NIV)

The spiritually healthy Christian, the Christian who is growing in knowledge of the Gospel and Jesus Christ, is someone with “great endurance and patience”.  Being a Christian in the time of Paul was not easy task, and its nothing better now.  The spiritually exercised and fit Christian can run the long distance without becoming out of breath at this first hurdle.  You can remember those painful stitches in your side when you had to run and you were not fit. Those things was a sure pointer of running on a lack of oxygen.  Only spiritual exercise brings the stamina to be patient as we run to the winning post which might look so far.  Sometimes we see athletes run the last round of the marathon with agony and pain clearly visible on their faces.  It seems the Christian race should somewhat different: our verse talks about endurance, patience – and joy!  And along along we should give thanks to the Father.  What a calling, what a challenge!

Is all of this meant to see if we can stack up enough good deeds to eventually enter heaven?  Fortunately not.  Listen to the good news of the Gospel:

God has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. (verse 12)

Am I qualified to be in the winning team of heaven?  Yes!  But how?  Listen again:

For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14, NIV)

Let’s put it this way:  redemption began at the crib of Bethlehem, but it culminated in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Son of God did it all:  He satisfied the standard of God for righteousness and holiness.  He rescued me.  By faith now God looks at Him, and by faith I’m qualified.

If that is the case, I need to know Him better; I need to serve Him by serving Him more and more.  Only then will my life be “worthy of the Lord.”

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on 27 December 2015

The lonely barber

It was time for a haircut.  I’ve been to this barber before and was impressed by his old-style professionalism.  His wealth of local knowledge was another drawcard.

The narrow alley to his shop was almost void of any pedestrian traffic, and as I walked into his shop I found the old man sitting on an old leather couch, bent forward as he read the daily newspaper.  Or had he nodded off?

“Do you have time to cut my hair today?” I asked.

“My customers have deserted me.  I’ve been open for two hours already and no one has come in yet.”

I remembered seeing the hand-written sign out on the kerb.  “Barber open Sundays and Tuesdays. 9.00am – Noon.”  The letters in different colours of chalk seemed to be written by a hand who knew the spelling, but lost its steadiness between points.

“Well, then I’m the lucky guy today,” and followed his gesture to sit in the grand old leather chair with shiny steel lattice footrest.

In front of me an array of scissors, combs and brushes were neatly arranged on dark green narrow pieces of towels.

He took my glasses off, carefully collapsed the sides and rested them on an open space on the towels.

The mirror in front of my reflected the face of a man well over seventy behind me.

“I’ve been in this business for more than forty five years now.  I choose to keep working, but have cut it back to two days per week.  I’m seventy seven this year.”

The way he selected and handled the scissors surely tells the story of a master of the trade.

“How do you want me to cut it?”

“There’s not much on top, but don’t cut the rest too short, thanks.”

He draped the barber’s mantle over my shoulder, took a sheet of paper towel, folded it neatly and tucked it between the mantle and my neck before he pulled the velcro tight.

With remarkable speed he sniped-sniped-sniped the scissors – all in the air.  That was just the warm-up.

“I used to have enough customers to have the shop open for six days a week.  People came in from the smaller towns too, but they have deserted me.  I wonder if I should just shut the doors and walk away.”

I tried to comfort him.  “May people do not even cut their hair these days; the styles changed. It’s become fashion to have one’s hair unkempt.  And others just do it themselves.  You can tell by the untidiness of the young folk’s hair, can’t you.”

He was not fishing for comfort, neither was he looking for an solution to his problem.

For a while the only sound was the clicking of the blades of the scissors.

He broke the silence by telling me and abbreviated version of his life story.  After migrating from Italy following the war, the two newly weds settled in one of our of capital cities, but later, for the good of the two children, they decided to move out to our town.

“It was good then.  It took some time to get to know people, but we were well received.  And the kids loved it.”

He carefully selected another pair of scissors, and even chose another comb.

“They finished school and left to go back to the big smoke, leaving us alone.”

Alone.  Deserted.  The words rang in my ears.

From what I saw in the mirror he should have been finished by now.  But there were apparently some hair on the back of my head that needed more attention.

“One came to visit us last week.  She just left this morning.  It was terrible!”

“I know. We always find it hard to see our lot go after a visit”, I chipped in.

“No, not that.  The whole week with her here was terrible.   We quarrelled all the time.  All of the past and all the mistakes we make rearing them were brought up, over and over again.”

I was beginning to wonder if my ears were safe in the way of the sharp blades of the scissors, now markedly unsteady in his hands.

“It happens all the time.  My wife stopped talking, and I am left to do the fending.  I’m tired of doing it.  Maybe if it’s better if she does not come to visit again.  Just leave us alone.”

It’s funny how the Lord sometimes put you in a position where you don’t have a choice but pastorally care for people.

I tried, “Well, you have some grandchildren.”

“No!”  I traced helplessness in his voice.  “There is only one, but we may not contact him, and he is barred from contacting us.  We haven’t  seen him in four years.  We can only sent money for Christmas presents.”

Why me, Lord?, I secretly asked.  Why do I have to listen to this angry tirade of a lonely barber?  I gathered my thoughts as I heard the words of the apostle, “Make the best of every opportunity …”

“This is where we have to apply our faith,” I said.  “God is a God of the lonely and forgotten.  He is always listening when we pour our our grief and sorrow at his feet.”

“I do go to mass from time to time, but I think I should stop doing that too.  My wife is nagging me to go every day.  Why?  God is not listening. And He abandoned my children!”

I was sure there was nothing on my head to be cut any shorter, yet he picked up another smaller pair of scissors, which disappeared in my ears and my nose.

“Oh, boy,” I thought.  “Just take it slow.  At least I visited your shop today!”

“I’m ready to give it all away.  A life of hard work, rearing children who now turn their backs on us, relatives who died in my homeland, and customers who left me alone.”

Maybe he should ask someone else to write more steadily on his chalkboard; the shaky handwriting might scare some customers away, especially if one keeps in mind the sharp scissors and the barbers razor.

Speaking of it.  He gave a step towards mirror and picked up the sharpest instrument in his shop.  With remarkable skill he unfolded the blade, grabbed what seemed like a leather belt hanging from a hook and swiped the blade forwards and backwards over the belt to give it an even better cutting edge.

It was time for me to say something, not only to help him not to injure me, but to calm his heart.  As he was scraping the blade to line the edges down the hairlines of my neck, I said, “Christmas is coming.  And it’s the story of God showing mercy to lonely and lost sinners by giving us his Son.  Perhaps you have reached a point in your life where you need to put your hand in the hand of Him who died and was raised to make us His children and give us joy.  You now that carol, ‘Joy to the world’, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, trust Him who knew loneliness better than any of us.”

I could also tell Him about Christ who cried out, “Why have You forsaken Me!”, but left it to the Spirit of God to convince my old barber that a living faith in Christ is what his heart was crying out for.

With a tearing sound he undid the velcro of the mantle, removed the paper towel, puffed some powder onto my neck and brushed it away.

At the counter our hands exchanged money, and I noticed that the till was empty.

And so was his heart.  And mine.

May the words of the Gospel reverberate in his mind when he hears, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

Written by D. Rudi Schwartz

 

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

 

 

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 (1)

Will there be fruit in the vineyard of the Son?

Scripture Readings

  • John 1:1-15
  • Matthew 21:33-46

Introduction

My dear friend in Christ Jesus,

The prophet Isaiah recorded a parable in Isaiah 5 which is very much like the one we read in the Scriptures this morning from Matthew 21. It tells about God who planted a vineyard.

He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? (Isaiah 5:2–4, ESV)

The purpose of planting a vineyard is to enjoy the fruit.  In terms of the Bible fruit stems from faith in God and Jesus Christ and presents itself in righteousness, obedience, holiness, service in God’s church and the world, etc.  In short, to bear fruit in the Kingdom of God is to glorify and love Him in all we do, while we present Him to the world in which we live: what we do here on earth should be aimed at making God look great, and point the unsaved to Him so that He could save them too.

Last week we heard the Bible speak to us when God declared us to be his treasured possession and his priesthood of a nation. We are called to live holy lives as God is holy.

The long-suffering of God

God’s people does not exist because they worked themselves up as a nation with special characteristics. They did not become the people of God as if they reached a certain standard first and therefore had the right to choose a king of their choice, which was the Creator God.  It is quite the opposite.

Our text states:

There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. (Matthew 21:33, ESV)

The landowner planted a vineyard.  It was his choice.  For this vineyard He provided a fence around it to give them safety and security.  In this vineyard He gave all that was needed to produce a good crop: there was a wine press and a watchtower.  He then, as landlord who can do with his vineyard as he pleases, rented it out to some farmers when He went on a journey.

The vineyard remained his property; the farmers worked for Him and He would pay them for their labours when He returned.  The fruit belonged to Him, as the Bible says,

When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. (Matthew 21:34, ESV)

This is God at work. The church is God’s property.  He called the church, saved it, provided everything for it, protected it and gave enough so that there would be a harvest.

In the narrow context of this parable Jesus is addressing the Chief Priests, but the reference to the withered fig tree without fruit in the middle of the chapter also includes the whole nation of the Jews as God’s Old Testament church. They were the vineyard of the Lord.  The farmers seem to refer to the religious leaders of the people who were supposed to lead them into holiness and fruitful living to the glory of the Lord.  For them God did everything.

Over centuries He sent his prophets to call them to repentance, over and over again.  They refused to listen to these servants of the Lord, beat them, killed them and stoned them.  In long-suffering and unspeakable grace the Lord then continued to send servants, even more than the first time, but even they were treated the same way.

One of the main themes regarding sin right through the Bible lies in idolatry.  Idolatry is to produce one’s own god.  Israel and its leaders in the time of the Old Testament did not altogether do away with God, but they used his Name and fashioned for themselves another god to suit their need of what a god should be like. This is in disobedience of the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4–6, ESV)

When one devises or in and any way approve any religious worship not instituted by God himself; or when one makes any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever and worship it, one corrupts the worship of God.  We may not add to the way God commanded, or take from it, even add tradition from others.  Neglect of God-ordained worship is nothing else but idolatry.

All these things Israel did some point in time; sometimes only part of it, and sometimes all of it at the same time.  Yet, God kept sending prophets.

The last book of the Hebrew Old Testament, 2Chronicles 36 reads:

The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy. (2 Chronicles 36:15–16, ESV)

One asks, “Was God unreasonable by sending them off to captivity in Babylon?”  No!  His righteousness demanded it.

The question we need to ask ourselves, of course, is, “What is there that God has not done for us to bear fruit?” What does his church look like in terms of fruit bearing? What do we do with the message of the Scriptures preached to us every week, year in, year out?  We are God’s people, his vineyard, the fruit belongs to Him.  He is sending his Son again to bring in the harvest.  That is the theme of advent: God sent his Son to seek and save the lost, and when He returns on the clouds on that glorious day, He will gather in the harvest which He bought with his own blood.

God sent his Son

In the chapter from John’s Gospel we read this morning, we heard:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 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 1:9–11, ESV)

He came to his own but his own people did not receive them.  The parable of the tenants puts it this way: they did not respect the son for what and who He was.

The popular notion then that Christmas time is just a time of joy, fun and laughter tells only one side of the story.  There is a dark side to Christmas:  Christ’s own people rejected Him.  He came to die for sin, and the world was indeed extremely dark when He was born.  There was no joy at the time; just misery and spiritual darkness.  The Son, the Creator of all things Himself, was rejected by his own – in a narrower sense, his own Jewish people.  They did not recognise Him, and therefore they rejected Him.  And yet,

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, ESV)

That is the good news of Christmas: The Son became flesh, a human being like us, and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory.  Of Him we sing: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King!”

It seems as if the farmers of our parable actually knew who Jesus was, but they refused to hear, they hardened their hearts and stopped their ears to hear the truth.  Listen what they said:

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (Matthew 21:38–39, ESV)

Each generation of Jewish leaders sanctioned the deeds of their fathers by repeating them. They made all the previous murders their own by adding to them; and the climax was reached by the last generation of these leaders when it killed Jesus.  They killed Jesus because they feared to lose their own positions. Their blind unbelief hid the spiritual nature of the kingdom from them, and thus the fact that they could never hold the outward rule while its inwardness was foreign to them, remained hidden from them. “Let us have” means “possess” the inheritance. They wanted to possess the branch on which they sat by cutting it off from the tree which bore that branch.

Not many days after Jesus told this parable, not even a week, He was arrested, falsely accused, deserted by his disciples, flogged, and nailed to the cross.  They killed the Son.  But they did not get the inheritance.

The same Jesus is coming again; this time not to save the lost, but to judge the living and the dead.  He will return to the world which was created trough Him; He will purge it from dross, He will crush those who rejected Him, because those who fall on Him will be broken to pieces, and he on whom it falls will be crushed.

Let what happened to old Israel be an example to us, God’s privileged people in Jesus Christ. Let’s not wait till it is too late before we fall before Him and worship Him as King and Lord.  There is no second chance.

The Kingdom given away

The death and rejection of the Christ did not eliminate Him. The very contrary is true: this made him what the new structure needed: “corner head,” cornerstone. The dead Jesus arose from the grave. The cornerstone would be the whole foundation. As such He is set at the chief corner and as such He governs every angle of both the foundation and the building itself.

Up to that point he kingdom had been confined to the Jews. This was true even with regard to the ministry of Jesus; but now this would be changed.

John said his own rejected Him and did not receive Him.  But this is not where the story stops, it continues in good news:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13, ESV)

God’s plan was to extend his Kingdom to other peoples besides the Jews.  It is now not only those who by natural descent, like the Jews, are called children of God, but those “born of God”.  And they who are born of God receive Christ; when this happens God gives them the right to become children of God.

This new “people” is defined as one that produces the fruits of the kingdom. It is the new spiritual Israel of true believers, composed of men of all nationalities including also Jewish believers.  They now become a “nation” with the God of grace ruling in their hearts through Christ. The term “fruits”, which are, of course, contrition, faith, and works of faith.

It is by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God who came to seek and save the lost, that the Gospel came to us, and that we may be called children of God.  It is only by faith in Him that you may be called a child of God – more that this, you receive the right to be His child.

Paul writes to the Ephesians:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21, ESV)

Time for the harvest is approaching

It is custom to in the weeks leading up to 25 December, when we celebrate the birth of Christ, that we ponder the meaning of his coming to do the will of the Father on earth.  We read the story of how his birth was foretold, and how those prophecies were fulfilled in the splendid night of his birth.

We know the story well, but there is a danger in listening to this story only:  hearing it over and over again might just lead us to not look at his Second Coming.  We might even be caught unprepared like the Jews who knew the prophesies about his coming, and yet, when He came, they were unprepared.

Let us hear that message again this time of the year, and let us sing carols and songs of joy because of his Birth: the Messiah is born; He became flesh and He lived amongst us and we saw his glory.  Praise God!

But let us also reflect on his return.  Our parable says harvest time approached.  Two thousand years have passed and we are now so much closer to the harvest of all time: Jesus is coming again!

For those who believe this is absolutely good news, and we cry out as the longing bride of the groom:

“Amen! Come Lord Jesus!”

He cannot come soon enough.  Of this world where sin and its effect is getter darker by the day; of this world where the vile is becoming viler, and those who are doing wrong seems to boast in their wrongdoing, I don’t want to be part.  Something deep inside my says I have something better to long for.  On the pages of the Scriptures I read of the Groom returning to his bride, and I pray that the Lord will come.  I pray for his Kingdom to come, not now in this dispensation only, but come – finally!

With the joy in my heart about this day, I cringe when I read,

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. (Revelation 22:12, ESV)

I realise that his return is also a time of giving account.  And I pray that I will be found busy in the things of my Lord when He comes.  I pray that the world and what it has on offer will not become my home; I pray that I will not be led astray and I be caught without oil in my lamp at the return of the groom.

But one thing sets my heart at rest:  He paid for my; He made me righteous in his blood; through his Spirit he adopted my as son and gave me the right to be called a son go God.  And that gives me peace.

Conclusion

We need to ready for Christ’s return; we need to busy for his return.  Don’t give your kingdom away.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 9 December 2012