The throne of the Servant King

Series title: From wrack and ruins to blessings and beauty

Scripture Readings

  • Revelation 5
  • Haggai 2:20-23

Introduction

Dear brothers and Sisters in the Lord,

In just more than a week this year will be history.  The old calendars will disappear from our walls and the back of our doors, and we will replace it with new one for 2016.

Some of us will then write in the major events in our family life, like birthdays and anniversaries.  We do it because these dates are markers of our earthly journey:  it will be thirty eight years since we got married; it will be so many years since our first child was born, and so many years since the first grandchild was born.  On those days we will give special thought to the occasion, and we will thank the Lord for every day, month and year He has added to our lives.

The book of Haggai has a few markers on the calendar.  It starts with 29 August 520 when the prophet delivered the first message from the Lord to them.  They were struggling to keep the cash flow going after their return from Babylonian exile: crops failed, pestilence chewed the crops away, and what was left the drought and inflation slurped up.  Haggai showed them what their problem was:  they had their priorities wrong – God was shoved to the back-burner, and their own interests were high on their wish list.  Get this right, his message was, and God will take care of the rest.  His words were:

Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. (Haggai 1:5, NIV)

Only a few weeks later, after the Lord stirred their hearts and the hearts of the leaders, on 21 September 520, what they thought was impossible, happened:  they found time and money and began the work of the temple.

Another month away, on 18th October 520, the word of the Lord came to them again.  This time it was to encourage them:

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:6–7, NIV)

This spurred them on to keep working in spite of severe opposition, and on 18 December 520, now almost finished with the work, or at least after the groundwork was done, the word of God came to them again:  He requires holiness from his people, and – as we saw last week – this is only bound to the altar and the sacrifice.  For as long as they understood that they cannot meet the demand of God to be holy by themselves, but only by continued sacrifice and salvation by the blood of the sacrificial animal as God demanded, and therefore living in the right relationship with God, He would be pleased with them.  A new temple means nothing if the people worshipping there are not made new.

From our perspective after the cross of Christ, it means our continued relationship with Christ as we cling to his righteousness: only then have we become royal priests as Peter puts it:

As you come to Him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to Him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–5, NIV)

Mark this date

Then, as we have read this morning the word of God continues:

“ ‘Now give careful thought to this from this day on—consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple. (Haggai 2:15, NIV)

As if God takes them back to the days when they had their priorities wrong, He reminded them of their failures.  Nothing worked out, everything failed.  But now, with priorities restored and with God having restored their relationship with Him, things are going to be different.

‘From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: (Haggai 2:18, NIV)

Go to your calendar and circle this date and take God on his word, ponder what He says and what He promises.

‘From this day on I will bless you.’ ” (Haggai 2:19, NIV)

We need to be careful to not fall in the trap of the so-called prosperity Gospel here.  Where this so-called gospel is teaching is not much different to the teaching of the Roman Church before the Reformation when sinners, loaded with guilt of their sins and the sins of those who died outside of grace, were told that if they put their money in the collection basket, grace will come to them in all sorts of ways.  Prosperity Gospel may not be as blunt, but where it goes wrong is their teaching is that the grace is not the main thing.  This theology attracts people not through teaching that Christ by forgiving us from our sins, restoring us as God’s children, giving us far more than what we even can dream and fathom in the sense of a new family in Christ, and granting us a place in heaven.  Their teaching almost bypasses the grace of God in Christ Jesus, and draws a straight line between the good things I do, more so in terms of giving money, and the output of ever greater blessing in the form of earthly possessions.  If I follow Christ and serve Him with my money, He will give me more money and earthly possessions.  It’s almost like the people who followed Jesus only because of the bread and the food He provided.

This is not what this passage teaches.  What it does teach is that without God, even what God provides in the form of earthly blessing, has no value – it will eventually loose all value.  On there contrary, holiness because of Christ’s cross and our clinging to that righteousness pulls everything in life into meaning:  what we gain in Christ has eternal value.  But more than that:  we may expect God to, by his grace and mercy, add to our spiritual blessings; but we understand this life from our perspective from eternity, and not the other way round.  A ploy of the devil is to make us think that we need to have everything here and now, and if we don’t get it, well, then there is something wrong with God.

No, the blessings promised by God were strictly connected to the rebuilding of the temple.  And it was not primarily their achievement, but the glory of God which was now in their midst.  That was the reason for their future blessings.

The servant king

To mark the day of blessing is to look at Christ, our servant King.  This is what the second part of the sermon of Haggai wanted to teach the people on the 18th of December 520:

I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother. (Haggai 2:22, NIV)

This verse pointed to the work of God and not to the power and achievements of Zerubbabel.  Their change of heart to begin with the building of the temple was because of the stirring of God and the encouragement through his word by the prophet.  Now, in the same way, what was about to happen, was God’s work again.

God would do wonderful things in and through Zerubbabel, all because God chose him.

“ ‘On that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:23, NIV)

Who was this man, this Zerubbabel?  He was the son of Shealtiel and thus grandson of King Jehoiachin.  Jehoiachin was appointed king of Judah by the Babylonians following the revolt and death of his father Jehoiakim who was king of Judah.  He was the son of Josiah whose place he took at the command of Neco II of Egypt. His name was changed from Eliakim to Jehoiachin.  Why is this so important?  Well, it is important to understand that God was true to his promises to David that there would also be one of his descendants on his throne.

For the returned exiles it almost looked like God had forgotten David.  But now, after the exile, God remembered and made true his promises.  There was only one son left – one to continue the line of David.  Now God renewed his covenant with the words:  “I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you.”

This promise is directed primarily to Zerubbabel, the Lord’s representative, in order to help him supervise the work on the temple, control the whole community and stand firm in faith amid the surrounding turmoil. The verb ‘take’ emphasizes the Lord’s choice, his special election and appointment of Zerubbabel. He will advance, honour, defend and own the adopted leader of his people.

Zerubbabel was not only ‘governor of Judah’ (2:21) but also ‘my servant’. This title was given to David.  Zerubbabel, a descendant of the line of David, will be heir to the throne of his forebear and predecessor, David, because he will have an absolute and universal reign.

A ‘signet ring’ was a token of authority that was worn by the king either on his right hand or on a chain around his neck. It was engraved with the monarch’s seal, and used to endorse official documents and decrees. It was the legal representative of the man himself and corresponded to the throne.

Zerubbabel would re-establish the throne of David, re-establish the Israelites as God’s chosen people, and as such the people of God would be a blessing to the peoples around them.

Oh, how great are the promises of the faithful God.  No worldly king or authority can stand in his way.  He will have his kingdom come.  Mark this day:  it is written in the plans of God as the day of the Lord.

The unbreakable link

When Matthew wrote his gospel, he thought it good to begin to explain God’s plan though the generations. We don’t like genealogies, but listen to this:

After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, (Matthew 1:12, NIV)

Matthew worked his way through the generations from Abraham, through Zerubbabel and ends it with these words:

and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. (Matthew 1:16, NIV)

Even Luke, the good doctor who “searched carefully everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3) writes:

the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, (Luke 3:27, NIV)

Luke began with Jesus, worked his way through Zerubbabel and ended up with Adam.

God’s unbreakable link of promise to give his people One who would crush the head of the serpent and deal with the enemy of the cross, worked itself out through the returned exiles from Babylon, their leaders, Zerubbabel, and all the way to Christ.  And if Zerubbabel wore the signet ring of God, then, Jesus was the signet ring of God.

We have seen the glory of the Father!  The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15–17, NIV)

The blessings the Bible is referring to in Haggai were not primarily a better price for the grain, or a better economic climate, or a bigger house, and more cars and a fat bank account; no, it pointed forward to the blessing in Christ.

Of Him we have read this morning:

And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:9, NIV)

And to his coming again we are looking forward.  The earth and the heavens will be shaken when He comes to judge the living and the dead:  The Rider on the white horse will sit victoriously on his galopping horse as He overthrows the thrones of them who resisted his kingdom:

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 19:15–16, NIV)

This is the Christmas Child.  Let us worship Him.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 20 December 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

Living under worldly authority

Series:  “Better things are coming”

Scripture Readings

  • Psalm 45:1-9
  • 1 Peter 2:13-17

Series so far

Christians are people who once were lost, but:

  • who received a new life from God by grace
  • who come to Christ and honour Him
  • who spiritually sacrifice praise to God
  • who draw from eternal hope to overcome present suffering
  • who now live as aliens
  • who are now satisfied in Christ, and say “no” to sinful desires

Summary of this sermon

  • Why do we need to submit to worldly authority?
  • We submit as people made free by God
  • We submit to honour God
  • Must we submit under all circumstances?

Introduction

Kim Davies, county clerk in the state of Kentucky was jailed last week.  She was supposed to issue marriage certificates to same sex-couples.  Kim Davies said:

“I promised to love him with all my heart, mind and soul because I wanted to make heaven my home…” 

She described how she became a Christian and said she is unable to believe anything else. The court ruled that her good faith belief is simply not a viable defence.  Should she have resigned from her position before all of this happened?  We do not know the full answer just now.  But what is clear from all of what has happened, we know that it is surely far more difficult to be a Christian in the once Christian America.

The Christians to whom Peter wrote became citizens of a new kingdom.  Their highest allegiance was to God and not to the Caesar.  Everyone else saw the Caesar as a god who made life possible for them.  He presented himself as god and they worshipped him as god.  But Christians did not bow to him.  Caesar worshippers held that the Christians turned against the gods of the old who had made Rome strong; they had this superstitious believe that Christians were responsible for the disasters which were overtaking the Mediterranean world.

Westminster Confession of Faith

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil authorities, to be, under Him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good. And, for this purpose, has armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers.  It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people.

Submission with the purpose of doing good

For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. (verse 15)

We get our directions for living and conducting our lives in a pagan culture from the Bible where the will of God is revealed. Remember, we are aliens and strangers. We follow the terms of God’s covenant as the way how to live in this world. He tells us what is right and what is wrong through his Book.  The Bible is our supreme authority for daily living.

But we are not called to a sort of Christian jihad: we are not persecuting others because they don’t believe as we believe; we don’t behead those who pass rules and laws which do not reflect our understanding of the Bible. It would be nice if all laws were Christian laws; but this is unfortunately not the case.

God’s purpose for his for us as his church – just like it was for the people of Israel – is that we live out such a joyful, sacrificial, humble, fearless life of goodness to others that their vilification of Christianity will finally be silenced. Remember what the verse says:

By doing good you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.

Foolish people, as we have seen in our study of Proverbs, are not those who are intellectually backwards, but those who do not believe in God.  On average non-Christians do no know about God.  They form their ideas, make pronouncements, and judge Christians accordingly.  Christians in the time of Peter were distrusted in part because of the so-called “secret” and misunderstood nature of their worship. Words like “love feast” and talk of “eating Christ’s flesh” sounded understandably suspicious to the pagans, and Christians were suspected of cannibalism, incest, orgies, and all sorts of immorality. Many stories even today are spread against Christ, Christians and the church.  Many of them are true, because Christians don’t live holy lives.

In a discussion of Facebook about what has happened to Kim Davies last week someone writes:

If you choose to fashion your belief system around a collection of bronze-age goat-herder fairy tales, edited, redacted and thoroughly bastardised in the Middle Ages, now used to suck money out of the poor and ignorant by Calvinist televangelists, fine. But don’t expect the rest of us who live here in the 21st century age of Science and Reason to be bound by your ghastly primitive prejudices and predilections.

Unfortunately what Christians sometimes say they believe and what Christians live out don’t always add up.  That is a sin in the eyes of God.  Unholiness brings dishonour to the Name of Christ. So, some criticism against the church is justified.

When Christians can’t love one another, when Christians drag one another before the civil authorities, when Christians lie and swear and drink and cheat like the rest of the world, it brings dishonour to the Name of God.  In short, when Christians feel at home in the world and start loving the world, and when they forget that they have heavenly citizenship, the world rightfully judge the church.

But if by our lives and example we love out what we believe, the uninformed world will be informed and the ignorance of the world will be silenced.

Let us take an example:  Any good Christian parent, who wants to glorify God in the upbringing of their children, will know that God demands us to discipline our children.  The general picture the world has about a disciplining  parent is one who walks around with a long stick, hitting the children on their heads.  The world has this idea that we lock our children up on rooms.  But discipline is far more than the rod.  Upbringing under God for his glory is what counts.  If we are successful in this the world will look at children of Christian parents and they see the difference.  They already see the difference as they in droves enrol their children at Christian schools.  Of course, if we fail in doing what God says and we follow worldly standards in raising our children, we have nothing to silence them with.  We failed and brought dishonour to the name of God.

In everything we do, we get our strategy and the strength and guidance to live it from God.

Submission to authority as bond slaves of Christ

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God (verse 16).

What this verse teaches is that we belong to God and not to any government or human institution. We are slaves of God and not man. We do not submit to human institutions as slaves to those institutions but as God’s free people. We submit in freedom for his sake. Not in bondage for the king’s sake.

Our society is full of examples of people who are not free, although boasting in their freedom.  However, immorality and ungodliness leads to slavery and bondage – just ask the alcoholic and the drug addict; just ask the parent who could not care less about the upbringing of his child, and now spend endless nights crying themselves to sleep.

Can you remember the days where there was not a mention of public liability?  Why was it so?  Long ago people had a sense of responsibility; they knew that they were accountable.  Further, then people understood that their lives are in the hands of God.  They trusted God.  Now they trust the good (or bad!) lawyer or solicitor to wring the last drop of blood our of the party they sue – only to spend the money in a way they find acceptable in their own sight:  there is nothing of God and his will in this.

We are aliens in this world.  We have passed from death to life. But in the meantime God sends us back into this world – not as we once were – but as free people, as aliens who live by other values and other standards and goals and priorities. We do submit; we are not Christian jihadists. We submit freely, not shrinking before human authorities, but gladly obeying our one true King – God.

Because we belong to God, our whole nature of freedom and joy and fearlessness and radical uniqueness from this world is founded in Him – which in one sense is slavery (because his authority over us is absolute) but in another sense is glorious freedom (because He changed our hearts so that we love doing what He gives us to do). As Martin Luther said in his wonderful little treatise called “The Freedom of a Christian:”

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

The key to that paradox is God. Freed by God from slavery to all human institutions; and sent by God freely and submissively into those institutions – for his sake!

Submission in order to honour

Honour all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the king.

Maybe there is a progression here. First give to all human beings (good and bad) a basic respect and honour. The way you respect a murderer and the way you respect a saint like Billy Graham will be different. But both need respect as people created by God.

Then beyond that common respect and honour of all humanity, there is a special love that is to be given to “the brotherhood,” that is, to fellow Christians.

Then beyond that common respect for all and that special love for Christians there is a special fear appropriate to God, and no one else. We are not slaves of men, and so we do not fear men. We give them honour freely. And we love Christians freely. And we bow to God’s absolute authority reverently.

Then, back to the basic honour — “Honour the king (include here in the honour and respect given to all). If the king is not a Christian, he is not to be feared and he need not be loved as Christians are loved. But he, or more so, his office must be honoured.

First comes our absolute allegiance to God. Next comes our affectionate love for other believers. Then comes our honour to the king and other unbelievers. The king is not God. Only God is God.

Respect and honour

What happened to respect in this world?  But more important than that:  Do Christians show respect?  Do Christian parents teach their children to respect their parents?  And their neighbours? And above all God?  Listen to the Word of God in this respect:

See if you can pick up the context in Leviticus 19:2-3:

Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. ‘Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:2-3)

All respect and honour to all forms of authority begins with God:  He is holy, He is our God.  Then parents under God respect God by respecting their parents.  Parents need to set the example of respect and honour before their children in the way the honour and respect God.  Once children pick this up they will be able to honour God, respect their parents and honour all other forms of authority flowing from it:  this means that they will see other as created beings of God, including teachers, the police, governments who over us for our own good.  Children who grow up in this understanding that all authority begins with God who loves sinners to the point that He gave his Son to pay to forgive them, will ultimately understand that when earthly authority demands of them to love institutions and people more than Him, they will know to make the right choice:  they will obey God more than people.

Conclusion

Let’s sum it up:

  • The demand to to submit to worldly authority does not rule out exceptions, for God is the ultimate authority.
  • Believers should be inclined to obey and submit to, not disobey, rulers.
  • The authority of worldly rulers is not absolute.
  • We always need to distinguish between the office and the person holding the office. Even the police are under the law, and so is anyone in office:  all are under God.
  • Believers are to submit “for the Lord’s sake”; the Lord’s honour it always at stake.
  • Authorities should be resisted if commands were issued that violated the Lord’s will.
  • “Doing what is right” means that Christians behave as good citizens.
  • All believers should do what is right to strengthen the social fabric.  (Think for example of hospitals, care for the elderly, Christian schools, the involvement of Christians in benevolent societies, etc.)
  • The good behaviour of Christians will lessen slanderous attacks on believers, revealing for example that charges of moral failure have no basis.
  • Believers do not enjoy unrestricted freedom. Their freedom is exercised under God’s authority.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on 6th September 2015

The life-changing power of God’s Word

Reformation 2014

Scripture Readings

  • Psalm 19
  • 1 Peter 1:13-25

Introduction

Us who grew up in modern times will find it hard to imagine life without electricity:  no running water in our homes, no fridges, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, TV’s, computers, air-conditioners … How annoying is it to have only one powerpoint in a room of older homes while we need ten for all the conveniences which depends on electricity.  One thing we can say about  electricity, is that life was literally darker without it.

The Bible describes the world before the coming of Christ also as a dark place; not literally dark, but spiritually dark. John puts it this way:

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.  The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. (John 1:5, 9)

Peter in the second chapter, referring the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, of his first letter says God “called you out of darkness into his wonderful night.”

The Word of God

Everything about it is excellent

Life without the Word of God, both the Word as the Son of God, and the Word, the Bible is a life of darkness.  In Psalm 19 we read, “The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.” Read those verse again and you will understand everything about the Word of God is excellent:  it is perfect, reviving the soul; it is trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, they are sure, altogether righteous, more precious than gold, sweeter than honey, and in keeping God’s Word there is great reward.

Paul endorses by saying it is

“able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

because

“…all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2Timothy 3:17)

Without the Word everything else is horrible

There was a time in the history of the church, that it was considered a crime for a member of the church to read to the word of God.  In cases where there were copies of the Bible, uneducated people couldn’t read it because it was in Latin.  There are recorded cases of parishes with a priest who couldn’t read, or did not even have a copy of the Word of God to have someone else read it.  Ordinary churchgoers were then left to believe that strict observance of the seven sacraments of the church of Rome would put them in the right relationship with God.

People like Wycliffe who translated the Scriptures were declared heretics and excommunicated from the church.  He died in 1384, and about 150 years after his death his bones were exhumed and burned to ashes.

So, what was the church of God like without the Word?  In one word:  dark!  Not only for members of the church, but for those who were ordained in the offices.  Moral depravity was rampant, and theological teaching was absent and without life-giving truth.  People believed what they were told without the Scripture to test the teaching.

Financial gain was important for the church to build cathedrals, and to support the priesthood.  Indulgences were introduced, making people believe that their sins were forgiven on account of the amount of financial support they give to the church.  What  further kept people from freedom was the belief that souls could be prayed and bought out of purgatory – all without any Biblical foundation.  The average churchgoer lived in fear for a vengeful God who had nothing but punishment for the sinner.  Not having the promises of the Word of God to read for themselves, they had to rely on the absolution of the priest as their middleman between them and God.

To make things ever worse, because the message of the church was that its government was above and over the civil governments, disobedience to the state also meant disobedience to the church.  It also meant that civil leaders were appointed by the church.  Society was held in fear of a revengeful God who served his punishment through the church who did not hesitate to burn people at the stake.  Thousands upon thousands died, not because they believed in the Bible and Jesus Christ, but because they dared oppose the authority of the church, even if it meant that they ate any thing else but fish on a Friday!

How God uses the Word

We now have to go to the words of 1Peter 1:

… since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God… (1 Peter 1:22–23)

Peter here connects with what he had  already written in verses 10-12. He referred to the work of the prophets as recorded in the Bible, the word of God.  What did these prophets research and write about?  “The Spirit of Christ in them was pointing” to the “sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” which became “the Gospel preached” by people “by the Holy Sprit”.  Peter says in verse 25, “This is the word that was preached to you.”

These sufferings of Christ are the “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect”, which He gave to “redeem” us “from the empty way of life.”  This word is the truth:  “You have obeyed the truth.”

So, what happens in the normal scheme of things is that God uses people whom He calls to preach the Word, which is from God, driven by the Holy Spirit.  This word is the truth.  All in the Psalms and the prophets were pointing to Jesus Christ and his redeeming work.  The simple, but treasured message of the Gospel is about Jesus Christ who came into this world to set the sinner free by grace.  His blood is more precious than gold or silver which cannot save and will count for nothing when we appear at the judgement throne before God.  “Through Him you believe in God.”  Why is this so important?  Because only He gives new life!  “God raised Him from the dead and glorified Him.”  The only way to heaven is by faith in Him who redeemed the lost by his blood, by taking their punishment as his own, to die the death they should have died, to raise victoriously from the grave, so that they who believe in Him will live with Him into all eternity.

The redemption God provided for us is complete.  Being dead in our trespasses we would not have the capacity to change ourselves to believe and make what Jesus has done for us our own.  So, the next miracle happens:

“… you have been born again, … through the living and abiding word of God. The word of the Lord stands forever, and this is the word that was preached to you.”

The Spirit of God who once breathed to Word into existence uses this word about Jesus Christ and his life-giving grace to sinner, uses the Word the bring about life from above.  What this new birth makes us children of God.  John also referred to this in his Gospel:

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)

Paul puts in these terms:

But God … made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (Ephesians 2:4–6)

Listen to this wonderful word of grace and hope:

He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, (1 Peter 1:3–4)

No paying of indulgences, no purgatory, no ongoing moneys, no ongoing life-wrenching fair.  Its grace, free grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The truth of this Gospel sets us free!  It is through the Word of God, brought about by the Holy Spirit, speaking about Jesus Christ, that we believe:

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

Now we understand the cry of the reformers: the Word alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, all for the glory of God alone.

A holy life

If salvation is ultimately for the glory of God, it speaks for itself that our lives should forth his glory.  As his “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” we are called to live holy lives, because God is holy.   One of the main ingredients of the diet of the Christian to live to the glory of God, is to

“… like newborn babies, crave spiritual milk so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.

Why?  “We have tasted that the Lord is good.

Conclusion

My friend, allow me to say that your spiritual life, if not rooted in the Word of God, and your walk in the Lord, if not daily fed by the spiritual milk of the Word of God, is most probably almost dead.  I say this because it’s the truth based on the Word itself.  As children of the Reformation we have to go back to where it all started:  a rediscovery of the Scriptures.  Don’t allow your walk in the Lord to be lifeless because your study of God’s Word is wanting.  It is by this Word that you will be able to stand against the onslaught of the enemy.  The Word is after all, in our battle against evil, the only weapon of offence; all the other things are for defence (Ephesians 6).  May God help us.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 2 November 2014

Abraham Father of All Believers (7)

Do not be wise in your own eyes

Scripture Readings

  • Galatians 4:21-5:6
  • Genesis 16:1-7

Introduction

Dear fellow believers,

Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, had his portrait done by Sir Peter Lely.  Lely had the skill of painting away the not so flattering features of the royals, but when commissioned to do Cromwell’s painting,  the instruction of Oliver was clear:

“Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”

If the Bible was my book and I had a say in what should be in it, it would be thinner and it would focus on the beauty of the glory of God only.  I would omit chapter 16 of Genesis.  Chapter 15 is good, because is records God’s grace to Abraham and his offspring.  But chapter 16 exposes the ugliness of what happens when a hero in faith relies on his own understanding.

But the path of faith is not walked by perfect feet.  Certainly, it tells about the glory and grace of the omnipotent and all-wise God who shows compassion towards fallen sinners; but, it includes the stories of fallen man like us.  Now I can understand how the holy God, through Jesus Christ, reaches out to me and make me his child: and all of that by grace!

Sarai speaks

Up to this point in Genesis, the Bible does not record any spoken word of Sarai.  The account of God’s dealing with Abraham excludes any direct dialogue between God and Sarai, and Sarai with Abraham.  It seems as if she was, included in the words and actions of Abraham, was the silent, believing partner.  Even in the story of what happened in Egypt where she was given into the house of the pharaoh, not a word of Sarai was recorded.

Then, after the mountain-top experience of her husband where God revealed his unilateral agreement of grace to Abraham and his offspring to make him the father of all believers, Sarai speaks.

Surely her husband had shared with her all the things God communicated with him.  She was included in the deal.  She thought about it. But she had a few of her own ideas about it.

She was barren

This was the first thing she spoke about: “The Lord has kept me from having children.”  Or, “The Lord restrained me.

She thought about what God said to Abraham, she looked at her own inability, and she understood (for a human point of view) that God would exclude her from what is going to happen to Abraham.  She, at this stage, did not protest her barrenness; she took it as something which God allowed to happen.  One could say that she, in all humility before the will of God, submitted to the idea that she will never have any children.

It seems a natural thing to look at your circumstances, weigh up the impossibilities, and then look at all other possibilities.  That’s how human nature works.

Perfectly acceptable custom

In those days it was perfectly okay and acceptable to give your personal slave girl to your husband as a surrogate to bear children if your proved to be barren.  Any child born out of that union would be regarded as the child of the first wife.

Sarai looked at this option.  She might even have thought that it was by the providence of God that she and Abraham had to go to Egypt so she could get Hagar as a slave: she was Gods hand-picked choice to bear the child of the promise.  There would be no shame in this arrangement; as a matter of fact this was an arrangement that would take away the shame from both Abraham and Sarai, because in those days there was a stigma to barren women.

Willing to stand back

In perfect submission to her husband and all which God promised to him, Sarai was quite willing to play second fiddle, stand back and disappear on the background. If this was God’s will for her life, so be it.  What as picture of submission and humility.

God’s kingdom be built

She said to Abraham:

The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” (Genesis 16:2, NIV)

In these words Sarai thought in some way she would be included, although not directly.  “I could built my family through her.”  It was the second option, but rather this than nothing!

It as surely the desire of Abraham too that Sarai would be included into God’s plan for all who would believe. Just imagine, God called this man and his wife, she agreed to be with him wherever he goes, whatever the circumstance, whatever the cost. But in the end she was not part of it, God had to launch “Plan B”: get Hagar into his plan, because He overlooked one small bit of detail:  Sarai was barren.

Abraham acts

Did God really intended Sarai to have direct part?

Maybe, at this point of time, Abraham went through all the encounters he had with God. “To your descendants I give this land.”  “Your descendants will be be as many as the the stars and the sand of the seashore.”  It’s about Abraham’s seed; Sarai is not explicitly mentioned here. The more he thought about it, the more it became clear to him:  “I’m the father; Sarai is barren; there’s another women in the house.  God allowed her to part of the family.  She is an Egyptian, and did God not say all the nations of the earth will be blessed through me?  This is from God.  I’s my second choice, but it could be God’s first choice!”

Mutual agreement

Abraham agreed to what Sarai said.”  Abraham was an honourable man; what he did was not without the consent of his lawfully wedded wife.  I suppose they talked about it, weighed up the pros and cons, and in the end a day was set for Abraham to formally take Hagar as his secondary wife.

This happened “ten years after they arrived in Canaan” (verse 3), still waiting for the promises of God to come true. I don’t think the inclusion of this line is in the Bible for nothing.  It is almost as if Moses wrote it there for us to understand that all possible human recourses were exhausted.

Sarai gave away her rights to Hagar, and Abraham did what he did for one thing, and one thing only:  they wanted to be obedient to the Lord to see his promises come true.

Hagar fell pregnant.  What a relief! It worked! It would still be better if this was a boy.

By faith?

Sarai

Sarai’s actions seemed plausible and laudable. But her actions speak of unbelief.  Her answer to her barrenness did not keep in mind the power of God.  Further, it seems as if Hagar had no say in the whole scheme.  She was treated the way you would expect of unbelievers.  It might have been politically correct to do pass on your maidservant to your husband as secondary wife, but it was not according to the plan of God. Sarai’s polygamous solution was conventional and proper in the eyes of everyone, but God.

Further, her words, “I can build my family through her” (verse 3) completely kept God out of the picture.  God could not do it, now I will have to step up and do it! Faith flew out the backdoor.

Someone comments:

It was wrong against God, Whose word had been given and Whose time should have been waited. It was wrong against Abraham, leading him out of the pathway of patient waiting for God’s will. It was wrong against Hagar, and did not recognize her individuality and rights in the matter. It was wrong against Sarah herself, robbing her of a high privilege as well as leading to disobedience

Abraham

Like Adam in the Garden, listened to his wife.  Although already legally married to one wife, Abraham here acted like the unbelievers in the country they came to live.  God’s calling for them was to be holy and different from the nations and their customs, but here he used the customs of heathen nations to justify has actions to become the husband of more than one wife.

Once he had followed the voice of God in Ur and obeyed.  He heard God’s promises spelled out to him over and over again.  In the shadow of chapter 15, where God explicitly, in a very unambiguous way, demonstrated to him that all is in God’s hands, he still fell back on his own wisdom.  There was no direction from God to take Hagar as his wife.  Instead, now he listened to the voice of his wife.

The language in this chapter is almost identical to that of chapter three.  There Eve said to Adam and he agreed; here Sarai said to Abraham and he agreed.  There Eve took and gave to her husband; here Sarai took and gave to her husband. Both Adam and Eve partook willingly; here, both Abraham and Sari partook willingly

The consequences

Hagar

Up to this point Hagar was treated like a commodity, a soulless baby machine.  She was dragged into this drama to solve the problems of the childless parents, and she was used for nothing else.

Little wonder then that she, after falling pregnant, despised Sarai.

This is what happens when we take things in our hands, and not wait upon God.  Someone said, “He who believes should never be in a hurry.”  If we are, we have to face the consequences.

One consequence is sin comes into our lives and dominate it.  At first there was just Abraham and Sarai; now it was Hagar first, then Abraham and Sarai.  What seemed to be background music, now became in-your-face-noise.  The fruit of our schemes become unwelcome quests, but we just can’t rid of it – it’s pregnant!

Hagar was treated badly – yes she was mistreated, the same word used for cursed.

Bitterness

The easy-going Sarai now became an erupting volcano. Bitterness sprang up, the blame game began:  “Your are responsible for my wrong.”  Even the fact that Hagar despised Sarai became Abraham’s fault.  She realises that what she and Abraham had done can only be judged by God, but she put it in such a way as she expected God to punish Abraham.

Too late!

This is where we see that Abraham was actually no hero.  Like Elijah who in one chapter saw the glory of God in victory of the Baal priests, and in the next find himself in the bush, wishing that he was never born, here we see Abraham falling from the heights of his experience with the living God falling to the depths of humiliation and weakness.

Your servant is in your hands. Do with her whatever you think best.” (verse 6) Yes, but she is pregnant with your child! What a love triangle; what a disaster! As a strong husband he should have assured Sarai of his love and that she was first. He should have accepted the full blame and responsibility. He should have dealt kindly and firmly with Hagar.  He didn’t. He should have sought the face of God in prayer, apologised to his wife and cared for the woman now carrying his baby.

It is interesting that neither Abraham nor Sarai referred to Hagar by name:  she was just “the servant”!

A commentator writes:

“The thing that shouts loudest here in the story is that there was not an honorable character in the lot. All were ignoble. Abram was the worst. He was pathetic, passive, impotent, and uncaring of either woman. Neither woman had any compassion on the other. Sarai was worse, but you get the idea that Hagar would have done the same if she could. Notwithstanding, Hagar was the prime victim. And Sarai was a not-so-distant second.

All of this started when one becomes wise in one’s own eyes, not trusting God.

Conclusion

Before we condemn Abraham, Sarai and Hagar, we need to be honest before God here.  Aren’t we just the same?  One moment on the mountaintop of grace, the next we take things in our own hands, and when it blows up we blame God for it!  Or we blame one another.

We learn from this to always trust God who is powerful, all-wise and perfect in his ways.  Never can we do God’s work for Him.  We’ll be sure to mess it up.

God honours marriage. Let’s leaner this from this story.  God has never intended for marriage to be between more than just one man and one wife.  The mere fact is very clear from what Paul later declared:

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Ephesians 5:29–31, NIV)

In matters spiritual beware of what might look like good advice, but not tested by the Word of God, even if that comes from those closest to you.  Even Job’s wife enticed him to curse God and die.

We need to confess to God that our plans are not his plans.  We need to submit to Him and ask Him to teach us patience, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

If we in the process wronged anyone we need to go back and beg forgiveness in the Name of Jesus Christ.

If in the process we have set things in motion which will have consequences beyond our control, we need to beg God’s forgiveness and pray that He will somehow teach us how to best deal with it.

As church, the body of Christ, we need to ask Him to keep us within his will, love his Word, keep praying for his guidance, not embark on any program if it may in any way be against his declared will in the Scriptures.

We need to go on our knees and thank God that He did not abandon his plan of salvation even in the face of disbelief and disobedience, but that He brought it to fruition by sending Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Redeemer through the true son of the promise, honouring the marriage of Abrham ans Sarai.

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them. (Proverbs 26:12, NIV)

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:21, NIV)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. (Proverbs 3:5–7, NIV)

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 7 September 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 (2)

Pilgrim through a barren land

(audio file will be posted here)

Scripture Readings

  • Acts 7:1-8
  • Genesis 12:1-9

Introduction

My dear brother and sister in the Lord,

Someone said in a writer’s conference. “If you want to write, put glue on the seat of your pants and sit in a chair!” He said no amount of talent or conducive atmosphere can make up for hard work—stick-to-it-ive-ness!

As Thomas Carlyle neared completion of his masterpiece, The French Revolution, a thoughtless cleaner gathered up the his written pages and tossed them into the fire. Disappointed and heartsick Carlyle did not pamper himself with self-pity nor did he harm the cleaner—he sat down and rewrote it from memory.

Noah Webster thought he could complete his dictionary in “three to five years.” It required twenty-one!  What persistence!

It was faith and faithful obedience that kept Abraham going in a barren land with nothing to drive him, other than God Himself, and the promise of the God of glory who called him out of idolatry to freedom.

The God of glory

As we saw last week, Abraham was no better than all the people living around him before God called him.  In fact, the Bible tells us that he worshipped idols at the time of his calling.  God did not look from heaven for a good bloke to start a nation whom He would make a covenant with.  There was none.  All people after Adam were born professional sinners, by nature inclined to worship anyone else but God.  And that includes us. It calls for a divinely appointed work of grace to make us see who God is, and then become aware of our sin.  Once again it is only more grace that helps us turn away from the folly of our sinful existence to follow God.

Our reading of Acts 7 made mention of this in the life of Abraham.  Stephen was about to be stoned to death for his witness of Jesus Christ when he said:

“Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran.” (Acts 7:2, NIV)

The God of glory appeared to him.  That made the difference.  This expression is used of moments in the life of God’s people when He appeared in majesty to them to assure them of his holy presence.  It was usually in the form of a cloud or fire, or both.  When the Israelites left Egypt because God made redemption possible for them, we read, while they were still a short distance out of Egypt:

He spread out a cloud as a covering, and a fire to give light at night. (Psalm 105:39, NIV)

When they faced the Red Sea ahead of them and the armies of the pharaoh behind them:

Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. (Exodus 14:19–20, NIV)

This is the God of glory who revealed Himself as the Deliverer of his people.  When the people groaned before Moses about their food, Moses said:

In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him.” (Exodus 16:6–7, NIV)

When the people were grumbling because of the lack of water, this is how the Lord answered:

… and the glory of the Lord appeared to them [Moses and Aaron]. The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” (Numbers 20:6–8, NIV)

When the Tabernacle was completed, and later the Temple, on both occasions we read:

When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. (1 Kings 8:10–11, NIV)

This was the sure sign to the people of God that He was in their midst to guide them, protect them and to have communion with them.

It was this God of glory who appeared to Abraham while he was still worshipping other gods in Mesopotamia. This appearance is life changing.  This is, I believe, the same thing that happened to Paul on the road to Damascus.  It changed his life around from being a persecutor of the church to a missionary of the church of Christ.

The God of glory appeared to Abraham while his was still in Mesopotamia” – while he was worshipping other gods.   Joshua 24:2 shines a light on another aspect of Abraham’s salvation.  This is an act of God:

But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. (Joshua 24:3, NIV)

It is by an act of mercy from God that we are saved.  It is his work, revealing Him in his glory in Jesus Christ.  Have you read this next verse carefully?  Listen:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8–9, NIV)

Jesus Christ is the glory of the Lord personified.  John puts this way:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)

Let us not be amazed by the calling of Abraham, as if he was a special human being, having done special things before God in order to be called to be the father of believers.  They way in which he was saved – by grace, called away from the idols of this world to a new obedience – is exactly why he is the father of all believers: we are saved the same way.  We don’t deserve grace, but we are given grace.  This grace is life-changing.  It surely changed Abraham’s life from an idol-worshipper to a worshipper of the only God.

God’s claim on Abraham’s life

God’s call

What is conversion?  What defines one’s life as a converted sinner?

The Lord, calling Abraham, said:

‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ (Acts 7:3, NIV) 

This is stated in more detail in Genesis 12:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. (Genesis 12:1, NIV)

It is important that we understand God’s call to Abraham, and as such, to us:  In Abraham’s case it involved a definitive separation from his past. Although Abraham had no good in him that could possibly commend him to God, but this does not mean that there was nothing for Abraham to do once God called him into a relationship with Him. An essential part of God’s call was for Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household.

Ur in Abraham’s time was apparently where the deep and rich soil, washed down by the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf, gathered in a delta.  It was a pleasant part of the world.  There were apples, grapes, pomegranates, and tamarisks growing wild. It called for a certain resolution to leave a country like that and trek across the Arabian desert to an unknown and less desirable land. But this is what God told Abram to do. He said, “Leave your country.…

But there was another part to God’s command to Abraham: he had to leave his people.  In those days being among one’s own people meant acceptance, prosperity, and security.  Abraham had to go out nearly alone into a world filled potential enemies.  As a matter of fact the Bible states:

At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:6, NIV)

Applied to us, it does not demand of us to all pack our bags and go live somewhere else.  One commentator says, in demanding these from Abraham meant that he had to

… disentangle himself from the idolatries of his native land, and even sever his connection with the nearest and the dearest, rather than imperil his salvation by remaining in Chaldæa; and in a like spirit does the voice of Jesus in the gospel direct men to forsake the world … to renounce its possessions, occupations, amusements; yea, to dissolve its friendships and endearing relationships, if they would now be numbered among his disciples, and eventually enter into life.

That is conversion.

God’s mission

Added to the other things, Abraham had to leave his immediate relations behind.  It would not have been so bad perhaps if they could all have migrated as a clan, which would mean support and protection.  It was necessary for his spiritual growth to leave them behind. His environment was not conducive to that growth. His family would not help him in the pilgrimage.

The demands are still the same.  Jesus Said:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? (Luke 9:23–25, NIV)

It is to ask for too much?  If not, we could gain the world and forfeit our very self.

Ahraham met the God of glory, he encountered this glory and the his world did not stack up.  Consequently the Bible tells:  “So he left the land of the Chaldeans.”  He left, and God sent him.  That’s what Stephen says in Acts 7.  God enabled him to answer the call, and He enabled him to go.

We should not embellish on what the Bible does not clearly state, but to go and settle in Canaan the living God called and sent him there would not be easy.

It was a land where Baal and Astarte were the main gods in a pantheon of gods, most prominent were the gods of fertility and war.  Temple prostitution was common, and worshippers sacrificed their children.  The religion appealed to immoral and in-born sinfulness of the natural man.  It was almost like one does not believe in something; you just do what comes naturally, give yourself over to the sin that controls your life – what you then indulge in is your religion.   You only need to look at some programs on TV to understand that the world of Abraham was not much different – and it has become a religion in our day too.

Abraham journeyed into the land and found himself at the great tree of Moreh.  It seems as if this tree, or clump of trees, was the place where the Canaanites worshipped and where they got there oracles from.  It was at this place that the Canaanites gathered to indulge in their primitive religion of human sacrifice and prostitution.  What a place to come too after the holy God of glory called you into his service!  But what did Abraham do?  He built an altar to the Lord.  He distinguishes his God from the gods of the place and its tree by building an altar to Yahweh who has appeared to him.

What made the difference in Abraham’s life?  The God of glory who appeared to him in Ur is the God who sent him there, and He is the God who once again appeared to him – none less glorious than before.

God’s promise

There, at the altar and tree where the godless worshipped, there God appeared to him and promised him, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

A commentator remarks:

God’s [Yahweh’s] word to Abram and his response in setting up the altar together tear the seamless web connecting gods and people and land in Canaan.

Abraham’s altar may have looked the same as those already there, but God’s promise to give this land to his descendants, becomes to Abraham a sign of eventual possession of that land. Factually the Canaanites occupied the land as their sacred symbol showed, but Abraham occupied it in symbol only.  Abraham’s altar speaks of a future rooted in the past – God’s call and promise: he claimed his future, not by building a rival city, but by building an altar. His altar remained as witness to the fact that in this place a child of God once knelt and prayed, proclaimed the gospel of grace, and claimed that spot for God’s glory.

This is something the church of Jesus Christ must learn to understand.  We do not build rival cities by gathering earthly signs of power.  We spend our time on earth as pilgrims with no permanent address.  Abraham is an example of how we are to be in the world and yet not of it, of what it means to be a pilgrim.  Canaan was never exactly the same after he had passed through.  He built altars to the living God.  His business was God’s Kingdom.  What is our business?

A pilgrim is one who has left home but is also traveling to another home. A pilgrim has had a vision of a goal, a destination, and is determined to only have a tent until he can move in to the house.  When the Lord appeared to him at the trees of Moreh, he understood that God is in Canaan too, and that one day, in God’s own timing, the whole place will belong to his people; till then, he was just a pilgrim through the barren, trusting God only – although he sometimes misunderstood God’s guidance.

Conclusion

My dear friend, Abraham is in more than one instance an example to follow.  His faith in God was accredited to him as righteousness.  His obedience to trust God when all looked bleak should help us to trust God, even when we have to, as Hebrews puts it, have confidence in only what we hope for, and have assurance in the things we don’t yet see .

But more so was our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is far more than just an example.  He left his Father’s glory to establish the kingdom of God on earth.  Not a kingdom in political sense.  Pilate heard it from Him, “My kingdom is not from this world, it is from another place.” (John 18:36)  Yes, He is King.  Pilate was correct when he had the inscription made, “The King of the Jews.” (John 19:19) But that inscription was nailed with Jesus to the cross where He died, only to rise again, to open the door to the city Abraham saw by faith, built by God.  There was no other pilgrim like our Lord Jesus Christ. There was no barren land like the one He came to die in and for.

He now calls us to leave everything behind to follow Him, and to like Abraham erect spiritual altars in this godless Canaan to the God of glory.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on sunday 20 July 2014