Only Jesus Christ – no if’s, no but’s (3)

Series Title:  “Growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ”

Scripture Reading

  • Colossians 2:13-23

Introduction

The story was told about a city which was hit by a phenomenal disaster on a Saturday afternoon.  Hardly any piece of infrastructure was left standing, and many people lost their homes and possessions.  One of the pastors of the city spoke to another and asked him what he would be telling his congregation the next morning.  “What can one preach after a day like this?”, he asked.

His colleague replied with strong resolve, “I will just tell them who Jesus Christ is.  Once they understood the message of Christ, all other things fade away in the background.”

Many people who are followers of the Prosperity Gospel, something that preachers like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers and Robert Schuller present as “authentic” Christianity, would be very disappointed to hear a message about Christ only after they have lost all earthly riches and belongings.

The Apostle Paul had a visit from Epaphras the evangelist, where Epaphras also preached the Gospel.  The occasion might have been when the church in Philippi send him to encourage Paul with gifts in Rome where he was held in house arrest. Epaphras fell dangerously ill during this visit and Paul sent him home.  But what he told Paul about the church in Colossae gave rise to the letter of Paul to the Colossians.

There were false teachers in Colossae who were misleading the the church.  The only response strategy Paul had was to once again imprint on them who Jesus Christ was; to what He has done to save the church, no one should add, because to do that would amount to nothing else but blasphemy.

It’s still happening

What happened then, is still happening today.  There is a desire with Christians to “dig deeper” – they are after a more and deeper spiritual experience.  It is sad that some of these people then start looking at foreign places.  It is foreign to the Gospel, or what started as a honest search, ends up in a satisfaction beyond what the Gospel presents in Jesus Christ.

The problem in not a desire to grow in deeper understanding of Christ and obedience to Him – and as such, a better knowledge of the Bible; the problem arises when something is added unto the message.  Invariably this “added-on-to” part usually ends up being the major point of contention, and it leads to judgementalism:  if you don’t experience what I’m experiencing, your surely can’t be a real Christian.   The Biblical message about Jesus Christ becomes a stepping stone to get to the “deeper” and and “richer” – and all other who have not reached that point are looked down upon as lesser Christians.

The ceremonialists

That was the problem with the Judaisers, the group who still wanted to cling to the circumcision – you might be a believer in Christ, but if you are not circumcised, you’re not there yet.  Applied to our day, if you have not experienced credo baptism by immersion you cannot possibly be a Christian – and by extension, you will never receive the Holy Spirit.  And if you have not spoken in tongues – well, that’s a sure sign that you have never been saved.

We labelled these group of people the ceremonialists.

The Gnostics

Then, there was another group, the Gnostics.  They were the forerunners of the Modern New Age.  Their ideas were not new then, and it is not new now.  It actually takes us back to primitive theology were earth, air, water and wind – or broadly – all nature is worshipped.  Man is his own god, and god is in every man.  There is no sin, hell or Satan.  We cannot know God fully, but we can work our up to Him; if we don;t make it the first time, then we come back and we try all over again, and again, and again – till we make it.  Knowledge is the big thing, but it is secretive knowledge, airy-fairy stuff.

The legalists

But we now come to another group; they were the legalists.  As a matter of fact, it is right here where ceremonialists and Gnostics meet, because both of them is in essence a self-help or self-improvement religion.  It denies the grace of God in Christ Jesus and try to find a way to get up to God.

Special days and food restrictions

Paul writes of them:

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. (Colossians 2:16, NIV)

The text I just quoted begins with a therefore.  This is important, and we need to come back to it – next week, maybe.

Interestingly, both the Gnostics and the those who clung to the New Testament as if Jesus never came to fulfil the Law, had observed these things:  forbidden food, religious festivals, New Moon celebrations and Sabbath days.  And we even have them today amongst those who promote legalism; in some cases it is just more refined.

The New Agers have their taboos in food and easily become vegans. You cannot eat anything you killed – that’s to disturbe the balance in nature!  As Christians we know how the answer this:  the world and everything in and on it belongs to God who created it.  We don’t worship it, and we understand that God gave us the mandate to cultivate the land and have dominion over creation – understanding all the way that we are accountable to Him for the way we do it; it is not ours to abuse it any way we like. Paul clarifies this in 1 Corinthians 8:

… for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:6, NIV)

The Jews on the other hand had lot of things they abstained from eating.  As golden rule we need to understand that all the foods Israel was forbidden to eat were scavengers: they lived off what was dead.  And this was important in the Old Testament because God is the holy God of the living.  Approaching Him after even touching the dead was forbidden, let alone eating food of things which lived on dead things.  But the curse on death was overcome in and through Jesus Christ.  Through his perfect sacrifice what kept us from God was overcome so now in his Name we come to God.  So, if people of other faiths try to ridicule Christians for the law against eating prawns, they just don’t understand the power of the cross of Jesus Christ.

The effect of all of this is that we are not bound by the dietary laws of the Old Testament anymore.  There is no theological reason as to why we cannot eat pork or prawns now.  But I know of people who for others reasons abstain from eating pork.  Let’s remember this principle:

… if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:13, NIV)

Eating or not eating has nothing to do with being saved or not.  Faith in the righteousness of Jesus Christ only is what saves the sinner.  The apostle says:

But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (1 Corinthians 8:8, NIV)

The same applies to religious festivals and New Moons.  Some in Colossae assigned special weight to these days and those who participated in it looked down on others to did not.  This was added as a necessary observance to show that one had really come to faith.  Once again, it was Christ-plus.  It was a way of adding good works as steps to God, a way of self-improvement.

Just a word about the Sabbaths and New Moons of the Jewish people.  In many cases these two were mentioned in the same breath.  I understand from the context in Colossians that this reference did not only refer to the seventh day of the week; there were other sabbaths in the Jewish calendar too.  There was for instance the Sabbath of the Years for the land to have a rest.

When it comes to celebrate one day out of seven for rest and worship, we understand that even this is fulfilled in Christ.  So, in strict terms, we do not have a sabbath day anymore – we don’t keep to the restrictions of a sabbath journey; we don’t have morning and evening sacrifices of lambs and bulls anymore; we don’t have special services by special ranks of people lighting the candles, putting oil in the lamps and presenting certain offerings anymore.  All that was fulfilled in Christ.

But we have a Christian sabbath:  on this day we celebrate the new life in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.  As Paul puts it:

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:17, NIV)

The New Testament calls it the Day of the Lord.  They gathered on the first day of the week for worship.  On this day we gather too for the same reason.  We come together in corporate worship, we fellowship and encourage one another in our faith-walk.  The principle of the Old Testament remains the same:  one in seven days belongs to the special worship of God by his church family.

The exact day, the seventh or the first day of the week is not the main point.  The main point is the celebration of Christ victory over death.  There are others who think differently; they hold to a Saturday.  I don’t necessarily agree with their theological and practical arguments, but just like as it applies to them, it should not be a point of contention.  The point is, do you believe that Jesus Christ came to fulfil the Law and bring us salvation?

But once again, if this day is another box we want to tick in doing good works, it is adding to the salvation of Christ, which is idolatry.

False humility

But the  practices of the legalists go even further:

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. (Colossians 2:18, NIV)

It can so easily happen that trying so hard to be good includes the attitude that those who have not attained what I have attained cannot be Christians.  There are some people who are so humble, they are actually proud of it.  This is what this text says.

Selling all you have and giving it to the poor is a good thing, but this can also become a show: Look at me, I’ve made the sacrifice and you continue to live in your fancy house and drive your expensive cars.  Even being humble can be wrong at times, especially if someone wants to tick the box and climb another notch to perfection.

The mystics

Messages from angels

What about people who got so advanced in their spiritual life that they even speak to angels and receive messages from them!  They must be special!  Is that something to strive for?  No!  The only voice I have allegiance to is the voice of God who spoken what He wanted to say in the Bible.  And yes, I need to read it more and more and put every effort in understanding it.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he had something similar in mind.  There were those who looked down on other members of the church because they did not speak in tongues.  Paul made a list of the gifts and every time he put the gift of tongues last in order of importance.  Then he says this to them:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1–3, NIV)

A true sign of being filled with the Spirit of God is not the extra-special things, but the elementary principle of Christian life:  love.  Jesus did not say to his disciples that other would know that they are his disciples because they speak in tongues or have the gift of healing, or any other gift, but the gift of love.

Conclusion

My dear friend what saves is faith in the living Saviour who came to seek and save the lost.  It’s Him and Him only.  Of course faith has arms and legs and lips.  We’ll get to that some time in our study of this letter of Paul.

I found this illustration:

When interviewing Dr. A. J. Gordon as a prospective pastor of a Boston church, the pulpit committee asked: “If you are called to the pastorate of our church will you preach against the cards, the theatre, and dancing?” “I will,” solemnly affirmed Dr. Gordon. He was called.

Months passed and he didn’t say a word against the cards, the theatre, and dancing. The official board of the church said, “Almost a year has gone by and you have said nothing against cards, the theatre, and dancing. We wonder why.”

Dr. Gordon replied essentially as follows: “Gentlemen, it is true that I have said nothing against these things, but I have preached Christ who is the only Saviour from all evils. When He comes into one’s heart all evil things vanish from the life like the mist before the hot breath of the noonday sun.”

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 31 January 2016

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

 

Living by Faith (8)

Faith: victorious, embattled and seemingly defeated

Scripture Readings:

  • 1 Kings 18:30-46
  • Hebrews 11:32-12:3

Introduction

My dear brother and sister in the Lord,

Faith is to be sure of what we hope for and to be certain of what we do not see.  But, this faith is not something mystical, a feeling, a sort of thrill one gets when you stand on the verge of something daring or adventurous, where one just do it because of the energy rush it might produce.  I know of Christians like that: they always live on the peak of their emotions and everything that smells of the mundane which lacks “excitement” to them is to not trust God.  The problem is, they sometimes fashion their own god who has to constantly satisfy their need for adventure; and if this does not happen, they sometimes find themselves very deep in doubt:  God becomes a distant “something” and they themselves need another spurt of spiritual adrenaline to get going again.

The problem is their definition of faith; it differs from the Biblical definition:  Everyone who comes to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrew 11:6)

The present day manifestation of the so-called prosperity gospel, or the name-and-claim faith, is that those involved in it does not understand that although God never fails, He might send some difficult circumstances with the good times: when faith seemingly sees defeat, they walk away, or blame the sinner for a lack of faith.  They always want to see victory; while poverty, oppression, persecution, battles and failure do not exist in their vocabulary.

This “theology” is summarised in these words:

The supporters of this movement believe that faith works like a mighty power or force.  Through faith we can obtain anything we want — health, wealth, success, or whatever we please.  However, this force is released only through the spoken word.  As we speak words of faith, power is discharged to accomplish our desires.

Kenneth Hagin claims that while he was “in the Spirit,” Jesus told him to get a pencil and a piece of paper.  He then instructed him to “write down: 1, 2, 3, 4.”  Jesus then allegedly told Hagin that “if anybody, anywhere, will take these four steps or put these four principles into operation, he will always receive whatever he wants from Me or from God the Father.”  That includes whatever you want financially.  The formula is simply: “Say it, Do it, Receive it, and Tell it.”

  • Step number one is “Say it.” “Positive or negative, it is up to the individual.  According to what the individual says, that shall he receive.”
  • Step number two is “Do it.”  “Your action defeats you or puts you over.  According to your action, you receive or you are kept from receiving.”
  • Step number three is “Receive it.”  We are to plug into the “powerhouse of heaven.”  “Faith is the plug, praise God!  Just plug in.”
  • Step number four is, “Tell it so others may believe.”  This final step might be considered the Faith movement’s outreach program

The heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11, as we saw it over the last seven weeks, knew nothing of this sort of faith.  What they did believe in was that God exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.

Their faith life tells us a few things.  In the first instance:

Faith at times can indeed be victorious

Gideon

Gideon was no professional soldier.  When God called him to service he doubted God:

Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6:13, NIV)

He was timid:

Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:15, NIV)

Like most of us he wanted a sign that God indeed called him:

If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.” (Judges 6:17, NIV)

When he had gathered thirty-two thousand men to face the Midianites who had been terrorising the people of God, God ordered him to sent home those who “trembled and feared” – twenty-two thousand walked away.  Of the ten thousand that remained God only used three hundred.  This was a lesson in faith.

God granted him to hear the Midianites interpret a dream of a barley loaf which tumbled in to their camp and crushed the tent in which the soldiers sat.  “This is the sword do Gideon!”, he heard them say.  Gideon went back to his soldiers and said, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianites in your hands.”  God caused the enemy to be confused, they ran into one another and killed one another with their swords.  The Israelites routed the Medianites that day under the leadership of Gideon. They,

through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised. (Hebrews 11:33, NIV)

Elijah

The people were gathered on Mount Carmel.  Also present was Ahab, the godless king of Israel, four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal as well as four hundred prophets of Asherah, his wife.
Elijah challenged the people of God:

How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing. (1 Kings 18:21, NIV)

He ordered the prophets of Baal to get two bulls and sacrifice them.  If their god is God, then there would be fire from heaven.  But if the God of heaven answers with fire, He would be God.
What followed seems a bit comical:

So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. (1 Kings 18:26, NIV)

Elijah taunted them:

Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27, NIV)

Nothing happened.  I think by then the people just stood in silence with guilt burning in their hearts:  they have forsaken the living God for and idol who cant speak, hear, who can’t even sleep, of go on a journey:  He is dead! A nothing.

When it was time for the evening sacrifice Elijah took the wood, cut the meat into pieces and laid it on the wood.  Just to make sure that he believed that God exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him, he for three times ordered for water to fill the ditch around the altar.  Then he prayed:

Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Kings 18:36–37, NIV)

God answered and the prophets of Baal and Asherah were killed as the people were restored to the Lord:

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39, NIV)

Then, God sent rain as Elijah stood on his knees before God.  Elijah,

through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised. (Hebrews 11:33, NIV)

Daniel and his friends

King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. He issued a command:

As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” (Daniel 3:5–6, NIV)

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, being God-fearing young men, did not bow to this idol.  They were brought to the king and charged.  Nebuchadnezzar then said to them:

Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? (Daniel 3:14, NIV)

They were given another chance, but they replied:

King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. (Daniel 3:16–17, NIV)

We know the story how they were thrown in to the furnace, which was that hot that the soldiers who put them into it died of the heat.  They were not alone.  Even the king saw it:

He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” (Daniel 3:25, NIV)

When they were released their clothes did not even smell of fire. They,

through faith quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength. (Hebrews 11:34, NIV)

Daniel was a man of prayer.  Nebuchadnezzar’s officials wanted to get rid of him and made the king pass this decree:

that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. (Daniel 6:7, NIV)

Daniel was then thrown into the lions den, sure to die at the fury of the hungry lions. The den was shut and the king sealed the entrance to it with his signet ring.  Nebuchadnezzar could not sleep that night and early, at down the next morning he went to the den only to find Daniel alive:

My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty.” (Daniel 6:22, NIV)

Daniel, by faith in God, “shut the mouths of lions.” (Hebrews 11:33)

The list can go on about those “whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” (Hebrews 11:34, NIV)

They were granted victory, because in God’s plan they were needed to be there at that specific time in the unfolding mercy of God towards his people to make them look up to God as the only God and turn away from idols.  In the hands of God they were the instruments needed then – just as God still uses specific people to act in his Name to call people to repentance as He determined from all eternity to do.  Their success is not their faith, but their faith in God, or better put:  their success was God’s success as He used those who faithfully served Him whatever the circumstances.

Faith sometimes finds itself embattled

Jeremiah

Jeremiah dearly loved his people and his country.  But he loved God more, and had no choice but to preach only what God commanded him.  It was God’s intention to call the people to repentance:

Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from their evil ways. Then I will relent and not inflict on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done. (Jeremiah 26:3, NIV)

What happened when they heard the words of God?

But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die!” (Jeremiah 26:8, NIV)

This man of God stood his ground, because he believed that God exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.  He kept preaching God’s word uncompromised.

“As for me, I am in your hands; do with me whatever you think is good and right. Be assured, however, that if you put me to death, you will bring the guilt of innocent blood on yourselves and on this city and on those who live in it, for in truth the Lord has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing.” (Jeremiah 26:14–15, NIV)

At that time they came to their senses and did not do harm to him, unlike they did to Uriah, another prophet before him who was struck down with a sword and his body thrown into the burial place of the common people (Jeremiah 26:23).

But only a few years down the track it was the same story with Jeremiah:  they wanted him dead (Jeremiah 38:4).  They chucked him into a cistern full of mud and left him to die.  God was merciful to him and he was rescued before he died.  It took thirty men to pull him out of the mud.  They first almost tore his arms off his shoulders, but they worked out a plan with old rags of clothes to pad the ropes and so rescued him (Jeremiah 38:12-13).

He was “tortured”, like so many other prophets.  Even our Lord said of Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37, NIV)

Maccabees

There was a time between 164 and 167 B.C., there was a push between some of the religious and political leaders of Israel and the leaders of the Greek Empire to dispense with Jewish law and to adopt a Greek lifestyle. It was during this time that a Jewish mother and her seven sons were arrested. The king was having them beaten to force them to eat pork.

Then one of the young men said, “What do you hope to gain by doing this? We would rather die than abandon the traditions of our ancestors.”

This made the king so furious that he gave orders for huge pans and kettles to be heated red hot, and it was done immediately. Then he told his men to cut off the tongue of the one who had spoken and to scalp him and chop off his hands and feet, while his mother and six brothers looked on. After the young man had been reduced to a helpless mass of breathing flesh, the king gave orders for him to be carried over and thrown into one of the pans. As a cloud of smoke streamed up from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die bravely, saying,

The Lord God is looking on and understands our suffering. Moses made this clear when he wrote a song condemning those who had abandoned the Lord. He said, The Lord will have mercy on those who serve him.

It was probably episodes like this which is remembered by the words of our text in Hebrews 11:35.

There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. (Hebrews 11:35, NIV)

Faith finds itself sometimes embattled.  “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.” (Hebrews 11:36, NIV)

Not everyone is granted victory, because in God’s plan they are needed to suffer at that specific time in the unfolding plan of God towards this world to make them understand that through suffering their faith is refined; their suffering in is some cases what makes the unbeliever look up and worship God.  In the hands of God they are the instruments needed then – just as God still uses specific people to act in his Name to call people suffer as He determined from all eternity to do.  Their suffering is not the result of faltering faith, but their unwavering faith points to God’s faithfulness:  their suffering is God’s success as He used those who faithfully served Him whatever the circumstances.

They believe God exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrew 11:6)

Faith sometimes seemingly defeated

Tradition has it that Isaiah was sawed in two, and history’s page is littered with examples of Christians who were chained and put in to prison.

Almost naked and forgotten like John the Baptist, they go about in this world despised, desuetude, persecuted and mistreated – and beheaded.  They find no home other than caves and holes in the ground.  Yes, this is still happening today.  They are applauded and commended for their faith – by God!  This world is not worthy of them.

Graham Stains, secretary of the New Delhi based Evangelical Missionary Society, and his sons, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 8, died after a crowd of more than 30 people doused their vehicle with kerosene and set it ablaze outside a makeshift church in the town of Manoharpur in the eastern state of Orissa.  Defeated?  No, they are not dead; they are victorious with their Master.  The work continues in the life of his wife – and many others who saw this horror and committed their lives to God.

since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:40, NIV)

They believed in Christ, so do we.  He is coming again to take us to our eternal home to be with Him and all happiness.  Those who rejected Him and those He sent to them will experience his wrath – forever!

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartzon Sunday 11 November 2012