Only Jesus Christ – no if’s, no but’s (1)

Series title:  Growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ

Scripture Readings

  • Ephesians 4:1-13
  • Colossians 2:9-15

Introduction

Dear friends in the Lord,

Our series from Colossians goes under the heading “Growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”  We find terms like fulness, wisdom, understanding, every way, all power, all things, everything, glorious riches, all wisdom, perfect in Christ, all energy, full riches, complete understanding, all treasures, etc. are terms driving the message of this letter.  And these things point to Jesus Christ, the One perfect Saviour between God and us.  To know Him is life-changing; eternity depends on it.

Last week we looked at the necessity to grow in the knowledge of our Saviour.  This week we continue and examine the effect of a poor knowledge of Jesus Christ

The effect of a poor knowledge of who Christ is

Verse 8 spells out the devastation of a poor understanding of the Gospel.  It spells out the result of a church where people are in no position to defend the Gospel.  Let’s read:

 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

The language of this verse is very openly that of a struggle or battle.  This side is the truth, the other side is false gospel.  One is about Christ, the other is about the devil.  One is about light, the other is about darkness.  On one side the forces of the Gospel are gathered; on the other side the forces of darkness.  The fight is between two kingdoms:  the Kingdom of the Son of God’s love, the Crown Prince of the living God, against the kingdom of darkness, rules by the destroyer of souls.

Those gathered under the banner of Jesus Christ look at the cross where He defeated the powers of darkness.  His victory there is their victory.  Under his banner they march forth.  He is the head of every power and authority.  When they were baptised, they were baptised in Him; through faith they received all that belongs to Him sealed and signified in the sacrament.  Spiritually they rose with Christ from the dead by the power of God. They believe Him who raised Christ from the dead.

False doctrines 

Ceremonialism

Under those who joined the church in Colossae were people with Jewish background.  Judaism still dictated their theological thinking.  To become part of the people of God they taught that men had to be circumcised.  This was only one aspect of their teaching which became a problem in that church.  Next week we will look at other aspects of their teaching.

For these people the act of circumcision was the thing, and not as much as what it signified.  Right through the Old Testament God held the charge against Israel that they were uncircumcised in heart.  Moses warned the people:

Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16, NIV)

The prophet Jeremiah delivered the Word of the Lord to the people:

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it. (Jeremiah 4:4, NIV)

Outwardly (ceremonially) they held to the practice but inwardly there was no sign of trust in God.  Paul writes about this:

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. (Romans 2:28, NIV)

This is what Paul refers to in verse 8:  “these things depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”.

When Paul addressed this problem in Colossae he pointed them to Christ:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. (Colossians 2:9–10, NIV)

Now, we need to understand the following two verses very carefully.  Paul argues that the sign and ceremony which visibly made man part of the Old Testament people of God, circumcision, is replaced by something else, while what was spiritually required to become part of the covenant people still remains:  what remains is the act of God’s grace

which took away one’s sinful nature…  Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ (Colossians 2:11, NIV)

How did that happen?  God’s saving grace is seen only in Jesus Christ:

In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11–12, NIV)

Listen carefully to this text.  What does it say?  Let’s take it apart, step by step.

  • We need a circumcision of the heart to become part of God’s family.
  • The circumcision we get is through the saving grace of God in Christ.  He circumcise us spiritually.
  • The salvation we need is in Him and is our gift because of his death and resurrection.  He was buried and He was raised from the dead.
  • Through our union with Him we are not buried or brought to life through the sacrament of baptism; we plainly receive what He accomplished for us.
  • What makes salvation a reality in our life is a living faith and trust in Him who was buried and was made alive.
  • Baptism therefore does not require of us to ceremonially be buried in the water to be spiritually made alive.  This is to add to the verse.
  • Baptism is nothing less and nothing more than a sign and symbol that what Christ has done by dying and being raised from the dead in our place.
  • By faith what He has done, is now mine.  Baptism means therefore nothing more and nothing less than the sign circumcision in the old Testament.
  • Nothing changed as far as the substance of our salvation is concerned (it God’s work of grace!), but what has changed is the sign

That’s exactly what Paul states in the next verse:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, (Colossians 2:13, NIV)

We find the same idea in Romans 6:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3–5, NIV)

When were we buried with Him?  When He died.  When were we raised to life?  When He rose to life.  Did it happen when we were baptised?  No.  Baptism was the sign that it surely did happen, but it was grace which united us with Him.

The claim of the ceremonialists in the time of Colossae that circumcision was still necessary was to deny the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  In fact, it was to deny the fruit of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Little wonder then that they wanted to add all sorts of legalistic requirements as we shall see next week.

But what is also true is that those who demand that all babies should by baptised as soon as possible after their birth less they die outside Christ has no Biblical warrant.  The Roman Church teaches that the sacrament acts as a funnel through which grace is poured out on the soul.  It is therefore not uncommon to attend a funeral in that church and then to hear over and over again that the deceased person was baptised, and therefore saved.

It is equally unbiblical to teach that if one was not immersed into water through baptism one will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  What saves us is not the water and the quantity of it;  what saves is God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  Baptism is a sign of grace and receiving that sign is setting one apart from the world as being owned by God.

The theology of Jesus Christ

On the other hand Paul gives a few remarkable statements:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. (Colossians 2:9–10, NIV)

  • Christ is God, the second Person of the Trinity, who came to dwell with us in all his fulness.
  • When in Him we lack nothing , we were brought to fulness.  To his work we add nothing, but we cannot take from it, or diminish the work of his salvation.
  • In Him we were circumcised not with a circumcision done by hands (Colossians 2:11)  Not like the Jews believed!
  • We are saved by God’s act of grace, not be ceremonies (Colossians 2:12) Not like the Jews believed!
  • Our sins are forgiven and by faith we are united with Him who is our Saviour (Colossians 2:13)

Conclusion

We will have to continue next week and find out more about Christ alone, no if’s, no but’s.  Let’s thank God for the fulness of his Son who has become our Saviour.

Amen

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 17 January 2015

 

 

The best for last

Series Title:  “Better things are coming”

Scripture Readings

  • 2Chronicles 12:1-12
  • 1 Peter 5:5-11

Introduction

My dear fellow believers in Christ Jesus,

Like all children I always wondered why the dessert is served last.   Why the need to eat the cabbage, broccoli, spinach and the pumpkin first, while the ice cream and custard  have to wait till last?  Does a child have to suffer through “bad” stuff to get to the “good” stuff.  And Mom was adamant about it, if there was still veggies on your plate, forget about the dessert – even if it took hours, with Mom knitting a full part of a jumper sitting across the table.  In the end one learns too swallow the veggies as soon as possible because it means that you will have the ice cream still frozen, not having to drink it.

What seems “bad” for any child is usually good.  And the same applies to Christian life.  Our “bad” times are for our good.  The believers whom Peter addressed in his letter experienced the same:  they suffered under the hands of godless people, and if they had the choice, they would rather go straight to heaven and cut out the suffering part.  Peter instructed them that, like gold and silver, they needed to be cleansed.

Humility under the mighty hand of God

Submission

We’ve come across the idea of submission in our study of this letter, haven’t we?  Peter returns to it.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:6, NIV)

All of us know this old song:

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble

when you’re perfect in every way.

I can’t wait to look in the mirror

cause I get better looking each day.

To know me is to love me

I must be a hell of a man.

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble

but I’m doing the best that I can. 

The reality of a life of suffering is that one can upset with God.  When things are not going to what we mapped out for ourselves we start pointing the finger at God and accuse Him of not being loving and kind.  “Why, Lord!  Why do I need to go through this?  How can You say You love me and then take me through this suffering and unhappiness?

How can Mom say she loves me and then withhold the ice cream from me, having me eat cabbage?

When this form of bitterness springs up in my heart I better learn from the words of Peter.  “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Humility

Someone writes that humility is that to the Christian which holiness is to God.  He says

“humility is the coil in the Christian’s loom; all other graces, whether of a lively or sombre hue, are the yarn, by which the piece is transformed.  But from beginning to end, humility permeates it all.”

Rehoboam and his people resisted God and became proud.  The Lord sent the enemy against them, which plundered the temple of the Lord and took all the treasurers of gold which Solomon in this splendour put there.  It was a complete disaster.  What happened then?  The prophet Shemaiah took the message of God to them:  “You have abandoned God, now He is abandoning you.”  And then this verse:

The leaders of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, “The Lord is just.” (2 Chronicles 12:6, NIV)

What follows speaks of the grace of God:  When the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, this word of the Lord came to Shemaiah:

“Since they have humbled themselves, I will not destroy them but will soon give them deliverance. (2 Chronicles 12:7, NIV)

We remember the parable of our Lord.  There was the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Both of them prayed.  the Pharisee rattled off all his good deeds.

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ (Luke 18:11–12, NIV)

It was a different story with the tax collector;  he had only one line in his prayer:

He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13, NIV)

How does our Saviour look at these two people?

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14, NIV)

Suffering

Suffering is temporary.  A friend of mine visited a lady of his congregation in hospital.  She was terribly ill and suffered a lot of pain.  He ministered to her and prayed for her.  He thanked God for the pain and the suffering He has sent the way of that lady.  When he finished his prayer, she was visibly angry with him.  How dare he thank God for her illness and suffering.  He paged through the bible to Philippians 4:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4–7, NIV)

He cares for you

Suffering serves a purpose in the great plan of God.  The good advise of the Word of God is this:  when we are perplexed and filled with anxiety – like Rehoboam and his officials in the face of the Egyptian king Shishak – when we can’t see the purpose of the suffering, and when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, then:

Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7, NIV)

What!?  I am suffering!  Just be calm, sober-minded and self-controlled.  Focus upon the fact that He who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light, He who says if you put your trust in the precious Cornerstone you will never be put to shame, his Word stands forever.  Yes, He cares for you, trust Him; believe Him, entrust your life to Him.

The devouring lion

If you don’t and start to waver now, just keep this in mind:

Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, NIV)

He is ready to hear your groaning against the will of the Lord in your life -even if it includes suffering.  He is ready to once again whisper in your ear, “Did God really say…?”  When we start doubting the will of God in our lives, he stands ready to rip us to pieces.  No, resist him, stand firm in your faith.  Why?  You’re not the first Christian, and you won’t be the last to go through suffering.  Listen:

“ …because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5:9, NIV)

Further:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. (Hebrews 12:7–8, NIV)

The best for last

The God of all grace

Verse 10 takes us back to the God who called, who sustains, who made us part of his household.  He is the God of all grace.  Grace has no true meaning outside of the actions of God.  the Old Testament uses a word chesed which encompasses all of God’s love, his long-suffering, mercy, and grace.  This is what Peter has in mind in this text.  We can say: all the acts of God which took us, who deserved nothing from Him, to be his own through the saving work of Jesus Christ – that is grace.  It is boundless grace, from the beginning to the end.

In Christ Jesus

What God did in grace was done in Chris Jesus, his only begotten Son.  By faith in Him we are joined and united with Him.  What He experienced by faith becomes our experience – we don’t need to go through the same experience.  The Father looks at those who are by faith united to the son as if they did what only the Son could do.  He died and paid the penalty for sin because we couldn’t ;  He rose in victory from the dead because we could, but in the eyes of God those who cling to Him as their only righteousness and salvation achieved what Christ achieved.  And now this:  Because Christ ascended into heaven to the right hand of God the Father, God the Father bestows honour and security, as well as authority, on believers.  In fact, all the blessings of the Covenant of God fulfilled and sealed in the blood of Christ, now become the blessings to the people saved by Christ.

This is precisely what our verse (10) conveys:

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10, NIV)

God brings all things under Him

A perfect conclusion

God Himself – not by proxy or passed-on authority to angels or any other celestial being – after this temporary suffering we might go through (yes: in the big scheme of things earthly suffering is only “for a little while” – there is a definite limit to our suffering) – God himself will restore us.  A better choice of word here is “to bring to conclusion”, or “bring something to the point of purpose”, or to “perfect, bring to a closing”.

What seems without purpose now will then be seen as perfect; the loose ends with so many question marks will then be tied into the the neat master piece of God where we will see exclamation marks.

Reaching maturity

I many ways we are just children in faith.  Peter called us in chapter 2 to grow up from being new-born babies in faith by the Word of God.  But all of us are on our way.  After all of this God’s work of salvation in Christ will take us to the full stature of Christ where we will be made strong and reach maturity.

Firm and steadfast

We need to become pillars in the temple of our Lord.  That requires strength and steadfastness.  Here we stumble and tremble, but then, when things will be brought to fulfilment in the Christ God will make us strong, firm and steadfast so we will be able to do all things to his will and purpose.

The all-powerful God

Omnipotent

This takes us to the climax of the teaching of this letter:  God and his omnipotent power.  Think about it: nothing can stand against God.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39, NIV)

Not bound by time

“For ever and ever” – He created time and is not prisoner of time or space.  No other creature his this power.  And God Himself, because of what Christ did for lost sinners, will take us into this timeless glory where we will bow before Him to whom all things brings glory.  And we will call Him “Father” – for ever and ever.

My dear fellow-believers, look up!  Better things are coming

Conclusion

A dying member of his church called her minister to talk about her funeral.  They discussed the hymns and Bible readings and the place of her grave. She then had this last request.  “No flowers, please.  I just ask that you put a dessert spoon on my coffin.  it must be clear for every one to see.  And if they ask you what that means, just tell them I looked forward to the sweetness of the dessert of being with God.

Better things are coming.  Amen

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 22 November 2015

Dead in sin, alive in Christ

Communion Service – association with and participation in Christ

Scripture Readings

  • Colossians 2:13-3:4

Introduction

First, an illustration.  Heila and I visited a very interesting shop not so long ago during a visit to the Blue Mountains in NSW.  This particular shop is home to the largest collection of teapots in the world. On shelves about pelmet height, are displayed more than 4,000 teapots.  But that’s not all:  apart from this very extensive collection of teapots, you can find every conceivable piece of glassware.  Wherever to put your foot down or swing your arm or point your finger at, you bump into precious glassware.  Don’t go there with grandchildren; if you have to use a walking stick, stay away!

Now the question, how can the owners assure that they conduct a profitable business?  One possible answer to this intriguing question possibly lies in the notice at the entrance of this shop.  It says You brake it, you pay for it. Entering into the shop, accepting this condition, makes you a partner of the business for the duration of the visit, sharing in the risk of running it.

The operative words here are association and participation.  This takes us back to Colossians 2:11-15. I will try to explain this fairly complex paragraph in the word of God by breaking it up in little bits.

Old Testament Covenant

The background of the verses 11-14 is the Biblical doctrine of God’s Covenant with his people.  God called Israel, which is the Church in Old Testament times, to be his people.  He made an agreement with them in which He was the principle partner, and they the minor partners.  Because God is the only God who could save, provide, protect and assure safety, He by grace took Israel to be his people.  He placed upon them obligations stipulated in His covenant, requiring of them to live holy lives as people of God.

He also gave them signs as a seal of this covenant:  all male children had to be circumcised.  This circumcision was ultimately a circumcision of the heart, something not done by hands but by the Holy Spirit of God. This sign was a sign of God’s grace, but by this sign they would be set apart from the rest of the nations as God’s holy nation.  They had to turn from their evil practices, not live as the nations around them and worship God only as He commanded them. The term we may use for their sanctification within this context is the term we find in our verse of Col 2:11 – they had to put to death their sinful nature.

In Leviticus 19:2 God commanded Moses to speak to the people:  “Say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord you God am holy.’” They had to revere their parents, keep the Sabbaths, turn away from idols, serve God only and bring sacrifices to them in the prescribed way, love their neighbours, not steal, not cheat, do honest work, etc.  And about every time God gives them the command, He adds to it: “I am the Lord your God.”  Why?  Well, He saved them and made a covenant with them.  That’s why.  He owns them and the stipulations of his covenant demanded it.

The sign of circumcision (as an Old Testament sacrament) was accompanied by sacrifices.  All sacrifices had their fulfilment in the Passover Lamb (the other Old Testament sacrament). The sacrifices they were to bring to the Lord assured that they could enjoy communion with Him because of their sins being forgiven.  They did not die for their sins, but the animals did.  Their participation in the act of sacrifice and their association with the blood of the animal brought to them forgiveness.

New Testament Covenant

Let’s go back to Colossians.  God extended his covenant of mercy to all nations through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  People from all tribes and tongues and nations now become members of the household of God.  How?  The same way as the people of the Old Testament:  by grace, by covenant and through sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is like the animals killed for their salvation.  His death and resurrection now is just enormously more and ultimately more perfect than animal sacrifice.

God also gives to his New Covenant people a sign of his covenant.  It is the same circumcision not done by hands; it remains the mysterious and gracious work of the Holy Spirit. He gives them a circumcision of the heart, here called the circumcision of Christ.

Now we need to take it step by step to understand the argument of the apostle Paul.  The people did not die and pay the price of sin; but by association and participation in the death and blood of the sacrificial animal God granted them forgiveness.  The same now applies for the New Covenant people.  We don’t die or pay the price for our sins, but by faith we associate with and participate in the death of Jesus Christ.  So, when He died on the cross, we died.  When He was buried, we were buried.  When He rose again, we rose.  Now, and this is a very legitimate question, how do I know it is for sure?  God gave us signs as a seal and guarantee like He gave to the people of the Old Testament.  To them He gave the sign of circumcision, to us He gives us the circumcision of Christ’s complete righteousness and baptism is the new sign of the very same covenant of grace.  When we are baptised, all Jesus Christ did to meet the righteousness of God, by faith became ours.  Baptism is the sign that Jesus Christ is the One who died and was raised again in my place so I can become part of God’s family.  By faith I participate in his death.  As God worked in Jesus Christ to raise Him from the dead, so we are raised with Him through the eternal power of God.  By faith I participate in his resurrection. We only need the sign that associates us with Him and assures us of our participation in his redemption.  The rest is God’s act of mercy and grace.  Listen:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)

The Passover Lamb was nailed to the cross of Calvary to take away our sins.  He cancelled the written code, always reminding us of our unrighteousness having all our trespasses written in and He nailed it to the cross.  This is what we remember and celebrate at the Lord’s Table.

There on the cross Jesus Christ also triumphed over all powers to that they may never have a claim over our lives (verse 15). Paul states it like this in his letter to Timothy:

“… our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:10)

The author of Hebrews underscores this by saying

“Since the children have flesh and blood, He [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14)

Two signs in the Old Testament and two signs in the New Testament, pointing to the same act of grace from God in two different dispensations.  Circumcision is replaced by baptism; the sacrificial system replaced by the cross of Jesus as we remember it at the Lord’s Table.  In both these cases the principle to have part in salvation applies:  by faith we associate with Him; by faith we participate in his victory over sin and death. This is the amazing, remarkable and incredible fact of the grace of God.

One with Christ in holy living

Now, just as circumcision did not save God’s Church in the Old Testament, so baptism does not save the people of God’s Church in the New Testament. It was a sign of God’s grace; it is not grace itself. Through Christ God’s people become members of his body, and we are called to live holy lives, dedicated to God.  We need to put to death our earthly nature.

This then takes us to chapter 3 where Paul resumes the argument:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1,3)

Here the principle of association with and participation in comes in again.  The Sacraments bind us to Christ.  This assures our participation in his death and resurrection, but it calls for our association with Him in setting our hearts on things above where He is, because our lives are hidden in Him. This is essentially the same as what Paul says in Rom 12:2:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)

He also stresses the same point in Rom 8:

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6:8, 11-13)

Conclusion

Let’s for one moment get back to where we started.  Remember the glassware shop and the notice You brake it, you pay for it? We pointed out to the principle of association with and participation in.  Going into that shop poses a risk:  I might enjoy what I see, but I might walk away from it a lot poorer than I walked into it.

It is so much different when I walk into God’s grace.  First of all, I enter into his grace by his invitation, not by my decision. Secondly, my broken life and the rest of God’s creation that I effected so badly because of my sinfulness do not have a notice You brake, you pay for it on it.  The wonder of God’s grace is that, although I am truly responsible, and therefore accountable to God, someone else paid to make it whole and repair what I broke.  Jesus Christ is that one.  By faith what He did becomes mine.  Faith gives what belongs to Him to me.  I associate with Him and participate in Him.  That’s grace!

Two or three years before the death of John Newton, well-known minister of the Word in the 18th Century and author of the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, when his sight was so dim that he was no longer able to read, a friend and brother in the ministry called to have breakfast with him. Their custom was to read the Word of God following mealtime, after which Newton would make a few short remarks on the Biblical passage, and then they prayed. On a specific day, however, there was silence after the words of Scripture “by the grace of God I am what I am” were read.

Finally, after several minutes, Newton spoke,

“I am not what I ought to be! How imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be, although I abhor that which is evil and would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be, but soon I shall be out of mortality, and with it all sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge that by the grace of God I am what I am!” 

Then, after a pause, he said. “Now let us pray!”

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 7 December 2014 (Communion Service)

Abraham, the Father of all Believers (9)

See, I make everything new

Scripture Readings

  • Romans 4:16-25
  • Genesis 17:1-19

Introduction

When I went to high school I met a giant.  He was in year eleven and stood six foot and 10 inches tall in his shoes.  When he finished school at the age of eighteen, he was a full seven foot tall.  In the new language it is 2.13 meters.

Andrew Hall’s hight came in handy at the end of school days when he could close any school classroom window without ever reaching out for a stick.  He would take the rugby ball and just through it where he wanted on the rugby field.

Andrew met a girl about six inches shorter than him.  Their car was a Mini, with no back seat; the front seats were mounted on extra long rails, which made them look like they were filling all of the Mini.

Interestingly, the seven foot tall Andrew Hall had a nickname which he carried into the rest of his life:  Tiny.  I heard his boy were also called by that name.

Abram

Abram’s name, unlike that of Tiny, was not something given to him to mock him, although it would have been quite easy to do so.

In the time of Abram it was the tradition to, when, introduced make much of the name of every person.  Names meant something.  It was common to ask this question, because it was important to the people of the middle east. It would go like this:  “Good morning, what is your name?”  “Abram.” “Well that means ‘father of many’.  May I ask how many children do you have?”   “One.”  “One?”

It is not impossible, because of his riches, that Abram met many traders in his tents.  These questions would be asked over and over again, and every time Abram faced the surprised faces of his guests.

He was now ninety nine years old, and still there was only one child.  And in the back of his mind, Abram knew that that son, was not the son of the promise.  He held on to the promises of the Lord, but his name, “Father of many” began to sound like the seven foot Tiny’s nickname.

Between the year Ismael was born and now, thirteen years passed by and not a word of the Lord.  Was it impossible to think that Abram was thinking of getting himself another name to spare him the possible ridicule?

God Almighty

And then God appeared to him again.  Abram and Sarai was that old that if they had given up hope to have a child of their own, getting one would all the more point to the glorious power of God who can do what no man can.

It was the first time God introduced Himself by this Name:  El Shaddai! This name revealed something about the Person of God that made Abram fell flat on his face.  Like Daniel and John:

While He was saying this to me, I bowed with my face toward the ground and was speechless. (Daniel 10:15, NIV)

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. (Revelation 1:17, NIV)

Abram was unable to bear the sight of the divine glory.  He humbled himself in reverence before the holy God who bowed down from heaven to speak to him personally.

Our fellowship with God may never lead to familiarity.  If we ever thought that we can get God to our level, we need to ask ourselves if we indeed know the glorious God of creation and re-creation.  It is a sickness of our time that reverence for God has flown our the back door when we gather for his worship.  No, in worship we are gathered in the throne room of the Creator of the universe who is holy, clothed in majesty, glorious in power and great in limitless wisdom, power and might.  It is only when we understand what it means to bow in adoration, giving Him the glory of due his Name, that we will find meaning worshipping Him.

God Almighty speaks to Abram.  He is the all-sufficient God who always does enough in completeness.  He is enough in Himself; He is self-sufficient; He has everything, yet He needs nothing.  He calls us into covenant with Him and therefore He is enough for us, we have enough in Him, because He satisfies all we need.  David says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I will lack nothing.” The Psalmist confesses:

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. (Psalm 73:25, NIV)

Facedown before the Almighty God Abram is commanded to blamelessly walk before God.  The holy God demands that those who believe in Him and walk in a covenant relationship with Him would reflect something of his own character.  “Be holy as I am holy.”  The right attitude of a sinner living in a relationship with God would be the same as that of David:

Keep your servant also from wilful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression. (Psalm 19:13, NIV)

It calls for integrity, honesty, it is to set God always before us, and to think, and speak, and act, in everything, as if we are always under his eye. It is to have a constant regard to his Word as our rule, and to his glory as our end in all our actions, and to be continually in his fear.  Listen to these verses:

As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy. (Psalm 123:2, NIV)

If Abram thought his name was embarrassing because he had only one son at that stage, what God had to say would change his life.  Abram’s name would change from “father of many” to “father of many nations”.  Not only was the covenant something God promised, but now it would be established and sealed with a sign. How God would do this would be spectacularly impossible for any human being:  a man of almost hundred, and his wife ninety, will have a son.

Sarah

Sarai’s name was changed too.  She was now a princes, the mother of many kings; the mother of many nations.  It all had its beginning with one son.  God honoured the marriage between Abraham and Sarah to fulfil his promise to them.  Not Ismael, who was born from a marriage not blessed in the first instance by God; not a son born out of the plans made by a man and his wives, but a son born when all seemed so impossible, so that God would receive all the honour.

Isaac

Within a year, the barren princess Sarah would give birth to a son.  God gave him his name:  Isaac! Verse 17, I think, does not tell us that Abraham mocked God if God could not do what He said he would.  No, I see a man flat on his face on the ground, in joy, laughing as laugh of jubilation.  Yes, there was initial unbelief, because he was still thinking that maybe Ishmael would have a part in it.

Abraham’s unbelief is met with the confirmation of God, “Yes your wife Sarah will bear you a son.” Ismael will be blessed, but not in the same way.  The name Isaac, which means laughter or joy, will bring joy to millions others whom God by grace will include into his covenant. All believers in every age should be looked upon as Abraham’s spiritual seed, and that he should be called, not only the friend of God, but the father of all believers.  Years later Paul writes:

As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not. (Romans 4:17, NIV)

God’s covenant with Abraham was everlasting in an evangelical sense. The covenant of grace is everlasting. It is from everlasting to everlasting in its consequences.  In his body Abraham got the irreversible sign of circumcision, the very organ used to procreate and bring forth seed, is now externally marked:  Abraham became the father of all who believe because in him God established the covenant from which “The Seed”, Jesus Christ would come.  The covenant had an internal blessing which was by the Spirit of Christ’s seed to gather children for God in every age.

Christian

By the same grace God showed to Abraham, and through the same covenant we get a name change too.  By faith in God and his Son Jesus Christ we become children of God and we are called “Christian” – we belong to Christ.  God promised to his people:

The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. (Isaiah 62:2–3, NIV)

John and James, disciples of Jesus, had a name change too.  First they were “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), then John became the apostle of love.

Paul writes that every family in heaven and on earth derives its name from the Father (Ephesians 3:14–15).  John even refers to disciples of Christ who went out for the sake of the Name, forsaking everything to bring glory to Christ (3John 7)

I make everything new

For Abraham and Sarah that day was a new beginning:  a new name, a new sign, a new promise, a newborn son – all by God Almighty, who says what He does, and does what He says.  And it ultimately pointed forward to Christ, whose name is Immanuel, and Jesus, the one who saves. Because of his death and resurrection we hear:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

This Christ, the seed of Abraham, now seated on the throne promises:

“I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5, NIV)  He also promised:

 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17, NIV)

Conclusion

We have real names, and we have nicknames.  But what really counts is the name we received when we believe like Abraham and Sarah:

Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (Romans 4:20–24, NIV)

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 21 September 2014

Abraham the Father of all Believers (6)

God’s unilateral agreement of grace

Scripture Readings

  • Galatians 3:6-18
  • Genesis 15

Introduction

Dear family of God,

It is impossible for the sinking swimmer to negotiate with the lifesaver agreements before he is rescued.  At that point in time the lifesaver is in charge; the troubled swimmer is in need.  To survive he needs to obey the commands shouted out to him; he has to trust the lifesaver with his life.  There is no time for doubts; he does not have the luxury to question the credentials of the lifesaver or his equipment.  If he wants to survive he has to cooperate because it is a matter of life and death.

When God calls us into a relationship with Him the Bible calls it a covenant relationship.  In this relationship we, as the sinking sinner, have no say, other than to, against all odds, stretch out our hands to the saving God who delights in saving us and making us his children.  That obedient stretching out of our hand is faith.  Faith is not a form of good works; it is what you do when you know you deserve nothing else but to sink into eternal hell, and then see the saving hand of the Saviour.  At that stage faith does not ask questions, or it cannot doubt – it is the only possible option to survive:  all preparations for the rescue operation are done; God does not initiate a rescue plan with flaws in it.  It is complete, and God has to be trusted for it.

To then stretch out our hand is what the Bible calls faith.  To not do so is called unbelief which leads to eternal condemnation.

Do not be afraid

I am your shield

Our chapter begins with, “After this …”  It clearly takes us back to chapter 14.  There Abraham rescued his nephew, Lot, from the hands of the mighty kings.  One might think that those kings could get it in their hearts to call another campaign in retribution to punish Abraham.  But God assured him that he should not be afraid.  He promised to be his shield.  In seeking righteousness according to the principles of God’s kingdom and for the sake of Christ, Christians expose themselves to the hatred of the world.  We must remember:  Do not be afraid, God is our shield.  The enemy might be able to destroy our bodies, but they will never be able to touch our souls.

The son of the HMAS leader, who converted to Christ, declared in an interview after he very strongly spoke out against Islam, that his life might be in danger, that he might be hunted down for what he is saying, but he is confident that they will never silence his testimony and they have no right on his soul.  May God protect him.

I am you reward

Abraham decided to not take his award for the campaign against the mighty kings, and he gave it all away to the king of Sodom.  Although he put his life in danger to rescue Lot, he put his trust in God to provide for him.  God had already promised him all of the land to the west, eats, north and the south.

In this verse God assured him that He is Abraham’s reward.  God is our portion; or put it the other way round, our portion is God.  The elder son in the parable of Jesus did not understand this, although he lived with is father while the younger brother squandered is inheritance.  While refusing to call his lost brother “brother”, but rather refer to him as “this son of yours”, he complained with his father that he never got anything, not even a goat to celebrate with his friends, but his father said:

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’ (Luke 15:31, NIV)

To be joyful in the Lord we, by faith, need to embrace this reality:  God is our portion.  In Christ our reward is sins forgiven, and life everlasting with Him in the world to come.

What if circumstances proves different?

Personally I think that Bible translators gave us a translation leaving us with the idea that Abraham did not believe God.  Verse two in our translation begins with “but”, whereas it can and should rightfully be translated as “and”.

Abraham did not complain with the Lord in a “but” sense; he accepted God’s blessing upon him, but he wanted to know how this is going to work out.  His language is almost that of the man who prayed, “I believe, help me to have faith.”

His reply to the Lord, “What can you give me?” is not a challenge to God as if God’s promise was meaningless.  It was more with a sense of anticipation that he asked this question.

When I was involved in the Inland Mission, more than once I found myself in a financial predicament.  In those times I would constantly ask God if He wanted me to continue with the work; and every time I was assured that He indeed wanted me to continue.  That assurance did not put money in my pocket to pay for diesel or the rego.  God taught me not to doubt Him and it became a matter of faithful anticipation of his provision every time I opened the mailbox.  At one time the rego ran out and I needed about $650.00 to renew it.  I prayed about it and later went to the post office knowing that God will provide.  I got a letter in the mail for a ladies group, which read, “We thought you might need money to your rego.  Please accept this donation.” Rego was due that day, and the amount was $650.00.

Abraham did not question the Lord in unbelief; rather he, with anticipation asked, “How?” With him he only had his financial manager, Eliezer of Damascus.  Was he the one God would use to fulfil his promises?  No children of his own yet?  No, not Eliezer,

This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4, NIV)

Look up to the heavens and look at the stars.  You cannot count them. and the Lord said to Abraham:

“Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5, NIV)

Looking at the mighty and glorious display of the handiwork of God clearly visible in the night sky, Abraham believed God.  If God could call of that stars into existence out of nothing, surely giving Abraham an offspring in not such a great deal.

Abraham believed God.  This takes us back to the previous chapter where we first read about the king of righteousness.  We then understood that Abraham, in his meeting with Melchizedek, had a glimpse of the ultimate King of Righteousness and Peace, Jesus Christ.  What seemed humanly impossible is possible with God, and every promise God made with Abraham, and every step He took Abraham through would point to Christ who is the eternal High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  Abraham was still on his maturity in faith, but the light, although dim, was burning.  He had to learn more for God.

God took him back to his salvation from the futility of serving idols and who brought him to that point in his life:

“I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” (Genesis 15:7, NIV)

God used his covenant Name, YHWH.  He is the creator of heaven and earth.  He holds nations in his hands; He holds time in his hand.  He had all the right to give Abraham and his offspring any land He wanted to. Little wonder then that Abraham called out: “O, Sovereign Lord!” Lord of Lords!  God of gods!  “Show me how this is going to work out.  Give me a sign.”

So, what if circumstance proves different?  Trust God.  Don’t give up.  The Almighty God of gods is working out his eternal plan.

God’s Comprehensive (unilateral) agreement of grace

How would God accomplish his plan with Abraham?

Through sacrifice

God ordered Abraham to bring a heifer, a goat and a ram, together with a dove and a young pigeon.  The bigger animals were of perfect age – three years.

In ancient times kings made agreements by cutting animals in half and then walk in the middle between the different parts as a sign that if they were not faithful to the agreement the lot of the animals would be their lot.

What God introduced here is his covenant of grace sealed in blood. The animals mentioned here are those that were later used in the later sacrificial system.

Through suffering

At first it seemed that God was not in it.  In waiting for God birds of pray descended upon it.  God later made it clear to Abraham that these birds symbolised the Egyptians who would enslave his descendants. The dreadful dark clouds we read about which Abraham saw in this vision stressed the point even further.  The deep sleep of Abraham symbolised that time where it would seem as if Israel was forgotten, and that God had forgotten his promises to Abraham. God wanted Abraham to know that through much suffering God will call his people back to the promised land.  All of this called forward to Christ who was God’s suffering servant who saved by suffering himself to free those who are in bondage of sin.

A limited time

In all of this God gave Abraham two promises:  the time of slavery will be limited, and the oppressors will be punished.  For those who are currently brutally oppressed in the Middle East and Africa, this should be comforting.  Let’s all remember this, God will avenge the blood of those who are beheaded because of their testimony of Christ.  The book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of what is happening behind the scenes and why:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. (Revelation 6:9–11, NIV)

Back to Abraham’s vision.  Why wait?  Why can’t God give him what He promised there and then?  Because of God’s long-suffering, patience and grace.  The Amorites, then living in the land, still had time to repent.  if they didn’t, their sin will reach full measure.  Then God will make the descendants of Abraham return.

God’s grace alone

With Abraham still looking on, and with the darkness of night approaching, something happened:  there was a smoking pot and a blazing torch passing between the pieces of the animals. God often appeared in smoke, like on the mountain when He gave them the Law.  He also appeared to his people leading them through the cloud column by day and the pillar of fire by night.  This was God passing through the cut animals.  He was alone.  He did not ask Abraham to be with him, as was the custom when people made an covenant. There was nothing Abraham could bring to make the agreement valid.  It rested upon God alone.  He saved by grace, and whoever believes in Him will not be ashamed.

Our Lord went through Gethsemane alone, He walked the streets of Jerusalem as the despised, and there on Calvary’s Hill He took the punishment alone. The curse of covenant-breaking which was ours, He took on Him, and his body was broken, his blood was shed like the animals of Abraham.  Abraham was an onlooker; God’s covenant was one of grace.  And so it is today.

The Gospel to us through Abraham

We read from Galatians 3 this morning.  Paul writes:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (Galatians 3:8, NIV)

How did this work out?  Let’s hear from Paul again:

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16, NIV)

Yes, God did give the Promised Land to Abraham and his descendants, but they were merely custodians of the land for as long as God prepared they way for the Messiah to come, for from them He was born.  After Christ fulfilled  his work of salvation the prominence of Israel as God’s sole covenant people was superseded by the Church.  Listen:

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:14, NIV)

And Jesus commanded his church to evangelise the nations, baptise them and teach them all the things He commanded.  All who believe in Christ are now children of Abraham according to the promise.  We in Wee Waa, not from the Jewish line, by faith have become children of Abraham:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:28–29, NIV)

Conclusion

This is our Gospel:  Not relying on us, not asking anything from us, God made an agreement, one-sidedly, by grace to make us his children.  Through Christ, the blessings of Abraham are ours – but only because of Christ.  Take it by faith, and be saved by grace.  AMEN.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 31 August 2014

Remember your creator

Public Profession of Faith of new members

Scripture Readings

  • 2 Timothy 3:10-17
  • Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8

Introduction

My dear young friends,

Today is one of the most important days in your life:  Today, before God and his congregation, in the Name of Jesus Christ, you made profession of your faith in God.  You did it publicly, so that all might know that you love the Lord Jesus Christ.  This public profession of your faith will now be followed-up by repeatedly sitting at the table of the Lord where you will declare that you remember that He died for your sin, that He rose to give you new life, that He called you to serve Him with all your heart, mind and soul; you will also proclaim to the world that you are waiting for his return and that you long to be with Him into all eternity.

You would want to get some wise words today; some ideas that will keep you on track as a young Christian till the day of Christ’s return.  We can go to some people of fame for advise.  Like:

Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. (Charlie Chaplin)

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years. (Abraham Lincoln)

Only those are fit to live who are not afraid to die. (General McArthur)

Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. (Helen Keller)

But we should go to the Bible.  The verses I chose to preach from today is from Ecclesiastes.

It’s all in vain

It is generally accepted that king Solomon, or at least someone who were close to him, wrote the book of Ecclesiastes.  It was maybe a collection of his thoughts when he became an old man – even after he strayed from God.  Solomon, although an exceptionally wise man who got what he had as a gift from God, did not end up dying as a wise man.  We read this about Solomon:

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command. (1 Kings 11:4, 9–10, NIV)

It seems then that Solomon entered the last stages of his life as a man who lost his vision of life and on God.  The first verse of the book of Ecclesiastes begins like this:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV)

To him wisdom became meaningless, pleasures became meaningless:  he tried out wine and laughter – that was meaningless!  He tried out great projects – houses, gardens, parks, silver and gold, women (ending up with 1,000 altogether!) – yes, he says, “I denied myself nothing” (Ecc 2:10), but even that seemed meaningless in the end.  He found out that both human wisdom and folly, both hard work and laziness lead to nothing but meaninglessness.

He even got to the low point in his life to argue that there is not much difference between the righteous and the unrighteous:  both comes under the judgement of the Lord (Ecc 3:18-19).  His life spiralled down into what seems like a depression;  it seems he became lonely with no one to cheer him up, so he writes about the value of having a friend:

If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. (Ecclesiastes 4:10, NIV)

Squandered opportunities

It was not that the king did not know better.  No, he was privileged to have it all in his hand, but somehow he let go of it.  Listen:

Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning. (Ecclesiastes 4:13, NIV)

There was a time that he stood in the presence of the Living God who chose him to be the king of Israel.  He made certain promises to God, but now it seems that he had not been not sincere.  Now he understands the value of being honest with God:

When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfil it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfil your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfil it. Therefore fear God. (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5,7 NIV)

After living in a period of extraordinary wealth in which he accumulated chariots and horses, and the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills (1 Kings 10:26–27, NIV), he ended up saying:

Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands. (Ecclesiastes 5:15, NIV)

Someone said the shroud of death has no pockets.  Solomon understood that very clearly.

He ended up saying that instead of searching of riches and pleasure, his time would have been better spent with those mourning the death of a loved one.  He says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3, NIV)

There is still meaning in life

In amongst all this pessimism and meaningless Solomon found something which is worthwhile and meaningful.

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26, NIV)

Then, apparently much later in life, he gives this testimony:

You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. (Ecclesiastes 11:9, NIV)

There is almost a sadness in this verse.  This wise king who had everything going for him, wasted his opportunities, his gifts, his talents – he was just a bad steward of the things God apportioned to him.  Now, at the end of his life, he looks back and instead of thanking God for all he had, he fears God’s judgment.

We have to understand that God did not put us on earth to never experience joy and happiness.  It is also wrong to think that to follow one’s dreams is sinful.  No, all of us received from God talents, skills, friends, family and opportunities to enjoy the time God appointed for us on earth.  What is more unattractive that a lemon-faced Christian!  As a matter of fact, the fruit of the Spirit are all things which make the children of God so much different that those who do not believe Him:

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

We are not meant to be locked up in cloisters and monasteries where we have to renounce all pleasures and joys.  Paul writes about people who just can’t help themselves but to add to the Gospel, making rules of “Do not handle!”, “Do not taste!” and “Do not touch!”  What sort of life is that?  The word “joy” is repeated over and over again in the Bible.  The Christian, of all people, should be joyful and happy.

But for the Christian joy does not lie in getting drunk of be given to all sorts of worldly pleasures.  The concept of joy in the bible is always connected to the child of God’s life in the presence of God.  In his letter to Timothy Paul writes:

Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22, NIV)

Worldly pleasures, or sinful pleasures are a killer.  This is what got Solomon where he found himself:  his joy abandoned him, and his life was filled with regret and sadness.  Ask about every adult here today about their regret about sin and the pain it brought in their hearts and their relationships with one another and above all, their relationship with God.

Remember your Creator

There is a remedy against spiritual nothingness and meaninglessness.  It would be horrible to live a life, to have had all opportunities, skills and talents, and then, when one is old to then say, “I find no pleasure in life.”

The good advise of a man who seemingly threw it all away is this:

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”— (Ecclesiastes 12:1, NIV)

What does this “remember” mean? It surely means more than to remember someone’s birthday, or to remember when the exams start.

The Biblical “remember” has something of “constantly keeping in one’s mind”, so that one’s path is determined by what you are thinking about.

To remember our Creator is exactly that:  to always understand the God created you.  He created the world, time, talent and opportunities.  To remember this is to then direct one’s way in obedience to the Creator to please Him in all one does.  This is why the Bible teaches:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. (Colossians 3:23, NIV)

So, when you now start your journey as communicant members of the church of Christ, you must remember your Creator.

But the “remember” of the Bible constantly takes the people of God back to the salvation of God; through Christ and his Spirit he re-created us.  To remember God is to remember his acts of mercy.  Our minds should be filled with thanksgiving for the fact that Jesus Christ took our punishment upon Him when He died on the cross.  It also means that our minds must be filled with thankfulness that his resurrection means our new life.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1, NIV)

The days of trouble

Just briefly this warning:  the opposite of remember is to forget, or at least to delay – tomorrow, or later.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”— (Ecclesiastes 12:1, NIV)

There are millions of people who found the way to eternal hell just because they thought there would be another day.  Besides, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But the reality is also that constant delay may lead to a day that the delight of the Gospel will not be the pleasure of your soul.  O, the number of old people I come across who repeat these words, “I find no pleasure in the Gospel!”  The brain has become misty and foggy; the heart is hard and the mind stubborn.  What tragedy then that they unwittingly repeat the words of Solomon, “It is all meaningless; all comes to nothing!”

Conclusion

You have made a good choice to make profession of your faith now while you are young.  We praise and thank God for you.  It is with excitement that I recommended you to the elders for membership.  Your knowledge of the things of our Lord and the Scripture is exemplary.  I look forward to work with you in the body of the Lord – for his glory.  I plead with the congregation to stand by their commitment to set a godly example for you, to pray for you and to encourage you in your walk with the Lord.

But you will eventually move on, leave school, meet friends and chisel out you career, and get married.  I plead with you in the Name of Jesus Christ, your Redeemer:  “Remember your Creator!”  Do this and life will never be meaningless.

AMEN

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 24 August 2014

Abraham the Father of all believers (4)

Alone, but with God

Scripture Readings

  • Hebrews 6:13-20
  • Genesis 13:5-18

Introduction

A Sunday school teacher asked if any of his students could remember an instance in Scripture of anyone making a bad decision.

“I do,” replied a boy, “Esau made a bad decision when he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.”

A second said, “Judas made a bad decision when he sold his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.”

A third replied, “Ananias and Sapphira made a bad decision when they sold their land and then told Peter a falsehood about it.”

A fourth observed. “Our Lord tells us that he makes a bad decision who, to gain the whole world, loses his own soul.”

Something of this last example happened in the life of both Abraham and Lot.  It was Abraham’s idea to lie about Sarah in Egypt to save his own skin.  By the grace of God, he and his whole company, including Lot, was saved from this lie, and brought back to the land of promise.  Being back to where he belonged Abraham called upon the Name of the Lord. From the whole framework of the Scriptures one can deduce that Abraham made confession of his sins.  In the tone of the lost son he went back to his father’s house only to realise that, as one commentator puts it,

“Swine-husks are often the hors d’oeuvres before the fatted calf. The only way to get back into the will of God is to go back to the very cause of the departure, confess it, forsake it, and return to the place of fellowship.” (Donald Grey Barnhouse)

Lot was with Abraham and went through the ordeal in Egypt.  But later had to make a choice:  he pitched his tents near Sodom.  He gained the world, but lost his soul.  That seems the difference between Abraham and Lot: Abraham went back to the place where he worshipped the Lord; Lot went to the place which seemed good and green and lush – but endangered his walk with the Lord.

The privileged Lot

The custom of the middle east was to adopt the son of your brother when he died.  I see no reason to think that Abraham committed as sin to bring Lot along into the Promised Land in the first place.  He had done what was culturally demanded of him.  It is therefore reasonable to think that Lot shared in the blessings of God which he made to Abraham – not by his own choice in the first instance, but by God’s provision for him.

In a sense, then, Lot was in a very privileged situation:  the childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, had someone in their household who shared what they had as if he was their own.  Lot was first in line to inherit if Abraham died, because women did not have a particular high legal standing those days.

It might even be that Abraham looked at Lot like his own son.  Remember, Sarah was barren.  It was quite possible that Abraham interpreted God’s promise to him to have many descendants as something that will come about through Lot.  At face value it was the only possible way.

In many respects Abraham specially care for Lot.  The very fact that they both became rich tells the story of care from Abraham’s side.  Instead of keeping everything to himself, he shared with Lot.  Abraham was the older man, Lot the younger who had the future and therefore he had to be set up well to be in a position to take it further should Abraham die.

The grand plan of God

Man proposes, but God disposes.  Abraham and Lot’s plans were not the plan of God.

It must have been a hard decision for Abraham to one day face Lot with a proposal to part ways, but the tension between them became untenable.  We know the awkwardness which sometimes creeps into a relationship: at first it’s hard to talk about, but in the end everyone knows that the festering sore has become impossible to ignore.  Maybe Abraham and Sarah spoke about this many a time when they couldn’t sleep.  Did they discuss the consequence of parting ways with Lot and what it would mean in terms of the promises of God? At that stage it seemed that Lot was the only one through whom the promises would become a reality.

So, he approached Lot:

Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” (Genesis 13:9, NIV)

In this Abraham still held on the that of the promise: the whole land will eventually belong to his descendants.  It was the how it would happen that changed.

Surely Abraham would have had the right to make the first choice. Lot was only the junior partner, yet he got the first choice.  But Abraham had learned in Egypt that God’s choice would be the best for him.

Now the theme of Abraham’s life is developing.  When, many years later, God tested his obedience to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac, on the mountains of Moriah, he said:  “God will provide.”  This is the language of faith, the language of one who has seen and experienced the hard knocks of disappointments of own decision-making.

There on the heights of the Judean  mountains, looking down on the Jordan valley with its green pastures and all its promises, both men stood: they had choices to make.

A bad choice

The Bible pictures Lot as a man without real principles.  The first choice he could make was to submit to the leadership of Abraham and order his herdsman to stop the quarrelling.  He chose to follow material wealth and comfort above the company of the chosen friend of God and the blessings it would have brought him.  To him everything looked like the garden of Eden, and even Egypt with it’s green pastures all along the Nile River, constantly fed by a life-giving stream of water all year round.

Isn’t it interesting that for shallow Christians things can sometimes appear to have both spiritual as well as worldly value?  It’s like with the seed which that fell on the rocky ground:  it sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow, but when the sun came up, the plants were scorched and they withered because they had no root. Of these people the Lord said:

But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (Mark 4:17, NIV)

We know this very well; the church has such members.  They understand the power of prayer, but only when they are in need – you see them at days of prayers for rain or a national disaster, or when death and sickness have come near them.  When the blue skies return to them, they disappear.  They sit on two chairs and talk both languages – they see Sodom but think it is the Garden of Eden; they live in Egypt, but have friends in Paradise. If tempted by the devil they would have jumped from the mountainside trusting that angels would be there to catch them.

The promise of the evil one is a hollow promise: the green pastures soon turn into the salt pits of God’s destruction upon this world.  The argument goes that they can serve God there too.  Don’t the green plains of this world need witness too?  The question is:  Did Lot witness for the Lord while he was pitching his tents there?  Do you witness for the Lord when you go there, or is it just a very convenient way of saying you can’t really make a choice to follow Christ with an undivided heart?

Both men, Abraham and Lot were rich, but Lot’s riches owned him and dictated his actions – he wanted more!  What Abraham owned did not posses him – he was content with God’s choice for him.  Lot eventually lost everything – even his wife – and fled the city with his tail between his legs: humiliated and only just alive. Paul writes:

… Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.(2 Timothy 4:9–10, NIV)

The word for “go one his way” is the same word used in Luke 8:14 for the seed that were choked by life’s worries.  I think there is a similarity here: Demas, once a co-worker with Paul was not whole-heartedly in it: he loved the world and eventually deserted Paul and went his way.   Don’t go there!  Peter writes:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time (or: the rest of your life) in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1–2, ESV)

Wandering off can be a process.  First, Lot just look towards Sodom.  There was something in this “looking”; Abraham also saw what Lot saw, and he knew what Lot knew looking at Sodom.  Lot’s looking was driven by a heart that saw worldly riches and pleasures.  Secondly, he then chose to go and live “near Sodom”.  Why? He also knew it was a utterly wicked city.  He would not initially mix with them. Thirdly, it did not take him too long to find himself living right in the midst of them.  2Peter 2:7-8 says he was tormented by the lawlessness of the people of Sodom, but it seems his wife and daughters were not.  Then, the last in this downward journey, he became part of them.  Genesis 19:1 suggests that he became an elder of Sodom as he sat in the gateway of the city.  The next time we see him as a refugee fleeing for his life, having lost everything but his life.

There is nothing this world has on offer which is lasting.  The pie in the sky when you die does not apply to believing Christians; it applies to half-baked Christians, and those who reject the authority of God in Jesus Christ. Don’t go there!

Man proposes, but God disposes

After Lot’s departure Abraham found himself alone – but with God.  If ever he had hoped that God would bring his promised blessings to fruition through Lot, he now needed to rethink everything from scratch.  One can only wonder what kept his mind ticking in sleepless nights ahead of him. He was getting older, his wife was barren and there was no successor in sight.

We have an interesting text straight after Lot left Abraham:  the Lord commanded Abraham to look up.  Lot had also looked up; Abraham’s looking up was not what the world had on offer for him.  The text says:

“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward … Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14, 17, ESV)

Yes, Abraham did lose Lot, and he probably did not get what he would have chosen for himself, but he gained the renewed assurance from the God of glory who saved him from worshipping lifeless idols that his promise still stands. Interesting, when Jacob was fleeing from Esau he slept in Bethel.  His head rested on a rock.  This was nothing compared to the green pastures of the Sodom valley.  It was dusty, dry and rocky country – but it was God’s country!

Abraham stood on the rocky outcrops and what he saw was probably not much to be desired.  But God was with him.  There he could build an altar to the living God.  He once again learned to trust God – even if his soul was downcast and he longed to have Lot with him.  But he was dependent on God to provide every step of the way.

Look up!

For us who live on this side of the cross of Jesus Christ, who is the fulfilment of all the promises of God, the One who has gone ahead of us to prepare our heavenly promised land, there is also a “Look up!”  Hebrews 2:9 says:

But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9, ESV)

For our journey we have the heroes of faith, including Abraham listed in Hebrews 11, but we have the One who fully completed the race and has overcome in the most definite sense, Jesus Christ, our Lord and we, lookto Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2, ESV)

Him we consider so that we will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:3). The world we are living in speaks to us in a conflicting discord of voices. They come from without and within—from the world, the flesh, and the Devil.  If we listen to them we become confused and ineffective as Christians. The cure for that is to lift up our eyes to Jesus and listen to Him only.

More than that, Abraham went back to the tree of Mamre, that place where he built the first altar to the Lord, the place where the Canaanites worshipped their gods of fertility.  God promised him that land. At time it was filled with evil, but Abraham worshipped God.  It reminds us of something Jesus Christ said when He visited Samaria, which is geographically not far from Bethel:

Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. (John 4:35, ESV)

Look up! To inherit this land of promise means to see that the harvest is ripe.  There’s work to do.  But Christ also said:

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

Look like Abraham; see what he saw by faith.  We are not alone. Jesus said, “Look, I am with you.”  The land, the world, is not settled yet.  There’s work to do.

AMEN.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 10 August 2014