Christ Makes Changes

From the fall of the human being into sin, illness has plagued this world. There is much conversation today about our physical ailments Ð heart disease, cancer, respiratory illnesses, nerve disorders, and hundreds of others. In Biblical days, the medical profession was not as sophisticated in giving names to these illnesses, and the treatment of them was inadequate.

There are also the mental illnesses. It is strange that, even in our day, many people cannot comprehend mental illness as a real physical disorder. If they have stomach problems, people accept it and get medical assistance. However, if the brain does not function normally, and there are nerve disorders, we are embarrassed and feel this should not happen. We tell the mental patient to “snap out of it.” This makes the person feel guilty and he or she says, “I do not know what is the matter with me. I should be able to shake these awful feelings.”

Psychologists have put names on mental illnesses such as paranoia, schizophrenia, manic-depressive, and a host of others. In Jesus’ day, mental illness was called demon possession, and the treatment was to isolate these sick people from society. Much of this same treatment was used in the 20th century. Ride by some of these state hospitals and you will hear older people say, “This was once the insane asylum.”

In our text we read about Jesus healing a man who was demon possessed. He refused to wear clothes and chose to live in the tombs rather than a house. He was chained and guarded, but his strength was so great that he broke the chains and ran from the guards. When Jesus stepped ashore in the region of the Gerasenes, having crossed the Sea of Galilee, the demon-possessed man shouted, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Jesus then commanded the evil spirits to come out of him. Then something strange happened, and I quote: “A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned” (32-33).

Many of us do not understand the meaning of this today, nor did the Gerasenes. When they came to the place where the miracle had been performed, they were afraid. The man who had been mentally ill was sitting at Jesus’ feet. He was clothed and perfectly normal. No longer did he need to be chained or watched by guards.

It was in this setting that the Bible says, “All the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. Can you believe it? Instead of thanking God for healing this mentally sick man, they asked the Healer to leave. Perhaps some were thinking about the financial loss of the swine. Hardly could one man be worth that much money. Everything was going all right. Why these drastic changes? There were many weird stories, but to date he had hurt no one. They wondered what other changes Jesus might make if He stayed in their region, so they would feel much more comfortable if He were gone.

Jesus did not resist their request. He went. This teaches us that Jesus will not force Himself on anyone. His desire is to make great changes in the lives of all people. However, if we do not want these changes to take place in our lives, He will leave us alone. The human being is still free to say no to God. The tragedy is that we all do say no to God’s making changes in our lives in one way or another.

Most people want to claim some kind of religion, but they do not want a relationship with Jesus that is personal. Religion under control will never affect you. Let Christ into your life and you become, in the words of St. Paul, “a new creation.” Christians who have been converted to Christ relate stories of how their friends and relatives treated them after their conversion. Some go as far as to say, “We liked John better before he became a Christian.” What are some of these changes that Christ makes?

1. When Jesus takes control of my life, it changes my lifestyle. The religious person, who would praise God in church on Sunday and curse him in the business world on Monday, has changed. The father, who was concerned only about his own pleasures, is now focused on caring for his children. The person, who was growing wealthier by the day, begins to ask himself and his partners, “While our dealings are legal, are they honest?” The person who lived an immoral life gets a new set of values when she realizes that sexual activity is limited to the married state.

These changes are bothersome to old buddies, and they say, “If Jesus made these changes in our friend’s life, let’s not get too close to Him, lest more of us lose the fun of living. We want to be in control of our own lives.”

2. Jesus introduces us to who we are. Society tells us that we are great people and points out all the good things we do. Jesus rejoices over our philanthropy, but also reminds us that by nature we are sinful and need to be “born again.” Remember His strong statement, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” I do not just need to be moralized. I need to be redeemed, and Christ alone can redeem me. When Peter denied Christ, the Savior said, “Now you have met your sinful self. You know how weak you are.” When Judas betrayed Him, Jesus said, “Now you know who your real god is Ð money.” When Thomas doubted Jesus, the Lord showed this disciple how weak his faith was. Peter, Judas, and Thomas did not like those introductions to themselves, and neither do we. It was better the other way when we had a good opinion of who we were. Perhaps asking Jesus to leave would be better before we get too negative in our thinking about our own person.

3. Jesus will rearrange our values. The material possessions of life are high on the average person’s list of values. What is my net worth? How many square feet are there in my house? What kind of automobile do I drive? What prestigious college do my children attend? Where will we spend our next vacation Ð the Bahamas in the winter or Lake Placid in the summer? What clubs should I join? Where should I play golf? What kind of people will be my closest friends? There is nothing wrong with any of these items, but do they get top priority in our lives?

Then Jesus comes into my life. The values are rearranged. It is not my net worth that is most important, but how I use my wealth. It is not the size of my house, but is it a dwelling where Christ is Lord and the children are being introduced to Jesus Christ by God-fearing parents. It is not what kind of impression am I making in society by the car I drive, the college my children attend, the clubs to which I belong, the places I vacation, but is my life lived out in a way that is pleasing to God.

When you see people’s values change like that, some friends and relatives get afraid, and they do not want to get too close to this Jesus who might change them also, so they do not want Him around. Religion, yes Ð Jesus, no. “Go away, Jesus. I like my religious life the way it is. It is on my terms. Religion never changes anything in my life, and yet I can present myself as a God-fearing person.” How tragic when the One who can give us the abundant life is asked to leave! But leave He will if that is our desire, for He never forces Himself on us.

While the Gerasenes were asking Jesus to leave them, the healed man begged to go with Jesus, but the Lord denied his request. “ÔReturn home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him” (39).

When some people hear Jesus say, “Come, follow me,” they enter the seminary and serve Christ as ordained servants in His Church. More often, Jesus says, “Go home and live out your faith among your family and friends. Tell them what I have done for you.” One calling is as important as the other. You are not more of a servant of Christ standing in the pulpit than walking in the business world.

It was Paul who wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he (or she) is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17). If you do not want your life to change, resist Jesus Christ. The Gerasenes had learned this to be true, and they were absolutely right. However, if you are spiritually sick and want to be healed, turn to Christ. He will make you spiritually healthy. Where Jesus lives, changes are being made that draw us closer to God.

What Draws a Person to Christ?

One warm Sunday afternoon, I was watching my grandson play baseball when suddenly I had double vision. It didn’t clear, and in a few minutes I was on my way home driving the car with one eye shut. The next morning it was no better, so I made my way to the doctor’s office. It didn’t take him long to tell me that it was necessary to go to the hospital. I had a small stroke and needed some help.

I had been having regular appointments with the eye doctor. However, these were only checkups, and if I had to cancel the appointment, it was not important. But on this day, I was in trouble and needed his services immediately. The thought of having serious eye problems drew me to his office. No one had to talk me into going for help.

The woman we read about in our text was in the same predicament. She was in big spiritual trouble and knew she needed help. When she heard Jesus was in town, no one had to talk her into seeing Him.

Jesus was a guest in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Simon’s house had a courtyard where people often ate. When a rabbi was the guest, many people strayed into the courtyard to hear what he had to say. Proper etiquette was to wash the guest’s feet, give him the kiss of peace (which was a mark of respect), and anoint his head with ointment.

It was in this courtyard that Jesus taught a mighty lesson which speaks to our society hundreds of years later. According to our text, this woman was a prostitute. She sold her body to some of the most prominent men in society. At that time in her life, it seemed as though she didn’t have a care in the world. She would have had no interest in stopping by to meet Jesus. What did He have to offer a person who was getting along nicely in life? But something had changed. Her life was empty and filled with guilt. She had little self-respect. What was her future? Maybe some of the teachings she had learned as a kid, including “Thou shall not commit adultery,” were beginning to register as true.

When the depressed woman learned that Jesus was in town, she bought some perfume and went to Simon’s house. This was her time to get help. As she listened, Jesus spoke to her needs. She became more and more convicted of her sins. She knelt at His feet and her tears wet them. With her hair she wiped his feet, and then poured the perfume on them.

Seeing this, Simon the Pharisee said in disgust, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who is touching Him and what kind of a woman she is.” (39)

Knowing his thoughts, Jesus told Simon this parable: “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denari and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

Then Jesus looked at the woman and reminded Simon that he had not washed Jesus’ feet, nor given Him the kiss of peace, nor anointed His head. He then pointed out what this woman had done for Him.

Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

The woman’s life was changed. She had peace. She lived with the assurance that her sins were forgiven. There was a new life before her that was filled with purpose. Poor old Simon had listened to Jesus teach, but could only conclude that He was not a prophet. His “law religion” brought him no peace. Simon’s happiness was limited to what his affluence could buy him. How sad. And yet, there are millions of people who walk in Simon’s footsteps today. They know Jesus’ teachings, but life is going so fast they have little need of Him.

What can the individual learn from this parable?

Here is one lesson: Until I have come to a conviction of my sins, Jesus has little place in my life. Until I see the seriousness of living out of a relationship with God, why should I become so interested in Christ, the Gospel, and His Church? I can have my scheduled appointments with God. I can visit His house and hear His Word on special days, just like when I visit the doctor for my checkups, but most likely it will take a crisis to bring me to Christ.

Let me tell you that He will be there to receive you in your time of crisis, but if it is your plan to wait until that day comes, please reconsider. Don’t cheat yourself of the joy and peace that only Christ can bring you right now.

What can a congregation learn from this parable?

It teaches clearly that we do not know who might have wandered into the worship service on a given Sunday morning. It might be a crisis day for the person. He or she is at the end of their rope. Perhaps the person is asking, as never before, “Does this Church have anything to offer me in my desperate condition? Make sure they are introduced to the Savior, and the way of salvation is clearly taught so that the seeking soul will hear of God’s love in Christ.

But the text also tells us that there are those who are hurting badly, but will not enter a place of worship. Some of them are too timid or embarrassed to go to church. Others do not believe the Church has a message for them. They have had enough people preaching at them and reminding them of what wretched creatures they are. They need to be bathed in the Gospel. The Church, through its members, must go to these people who are in the stream of society and introduce them to the Lord who loves them.

It could be that some of you who have been listening to this radio program may say, “Yes, I’m in trouble. I need a Savior.” He wants to be a part of your life. He is rapping at your heart’s door. Invite Him in, and then go to a Christian friend, relative, or pastor and get help. Jesus’ words to the woman of our text, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.” will speak to you; and when Christ lives in you, your life will be turned around.

Progressive Revelation

The Bible is often referred to as God’s revealed word. In the Bible, God is communicating divine truth. He is enlightening us regarding His plan of salvation and will for our lives. This revelation comes to us in a progressive manner, a little at a time. Jesus says, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12).

Let’s take one basic teaching of Jesus and see how it is developed throughout the New Testament. One of the best-known verses in the Bible is recorded in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

This verse states a general truth that presents several specific teachings. We are taught that God loves us. It progresses and says that He loved us so much that He gave His only Son. The next step is to tell us that if we believe in Him, we will have eternal life.

What a great message, and it becomes more wonderful as the Word opens to us the meanings of these great truths.

We ask, “Why did God have to give His Son for us?” Further teaching tells us that we are sinful people. This is a revelation, for the world tells us that we are not perfect, but well-meaning people. Certainly we are not, by nature, sinful. However, Scripture tells us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This reveals to us that our God is a righteous god who does not condone sin but is willing to forgive it. Sin breaks the relationship with God.

Our Father could have discarded us, but His love was so great that He set up a plan of salvation, which would bring sinful people back into a relationship with Him. This He did by giving His Son. This Son is Jesus Christ, who came into the world, took our sins upon Him, and died as a payment for our sins. The Bible teaches, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his stripes we have been healed.” He died in our place.

God’s Word continues to make this revelation clear. With our sins forgiven, we not only walk with the Lord Jesus here on earth, but when we die, we will inherit a place prepared by God for us called heaven. It’s a place where we will have a new body. We are the possessors of eternal life. While the details of eternal life are yet a mystery, Jesus has told us, “I go to prepare a place for you. And I will come and receive you to myself that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-6).

This promise gives us the assurance of our salvation if we believe in Christ. This gift of eternal life is offered to all people, but only those who accept Christ will receive it. “He came to his own (the Jewish people), but his own did not receive him. Yet, to all who received Him, he gave power to become the children of God” (John 1:11-12). The broken relationship between God and the human race can now be replaced with a father-child relationship.

This revelation continues revealing that the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts. It is not something we create ourselves. (“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.”) Therefore, if I will expose myself to reading the Bible and hearing God’s Word being taught, faith will be created within me, and I will trust Jesus as my Savior and Lord.

We could go on and learn how God’s revelation is progressive. He gives us a bit at a time, but always makes it clear that, while we walk on earth, we will only “know in part, but someday we will understand fully” (I Corinthians 13:12).

A study of our hymns shows how God’s children have based their lives on the truths of God’s Word. In the midst of the Reformation, Luther grew weary. It was through Psalm 46 that God spoke to him. In the words, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble . . . Be still and know that I am God.” Luther found peace and penned his feelings in the great hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. In the last stanza he writes,

“What though they take this life,

Goods, honor, child, and wife,

Their hatred still is vain

They have no lasting gain.

We still possess the Kingdom.”

Lena Sandel is another great example of one who lived in close relationship with her Heavenly Father. As she and her father were traveling in their native land of Sweden, she witnessed him being thrown into the sea by the jerk of the ship, and before her eyes he drowned. What a horrible experience for this woman! The historians tell us that Miss Sandel returned to her home and wrote the hymn, Children of the Heavenly Father. She expressed her faith in these words of the hymn,

“Though he giveth or he taketh

God his children ne’er forsaketh.

His the loving purpose solely

To preserve them pure and holy.”

Lena had heard her Savior calling, “Come unto me and I will give you rest.”

As he concludes the words of our text, Jesus says, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then a little while and you will see me.” Those are words spoken to Jesus’ disciples in every age. Right now we listen carefully as He speaks to us in His Word. We ponder some of these mysteries. We discuss with fellow believers what is meant by some of these truths that go far beyond human understanding. We may even argue about them to the point that we establish different denominations. I recall having a lively discussion one day on the subject of baptism with my Christian brother, the pastor of a Baptist Church. Each of us quoted Scripture and contended that our interpretations were correct. When the conversation ended, we smiled, shook hands, and expressed our appreciation for the other. We never once questioned that we were Christians. We just had different understandings on this subject, but we were united in the core of the Gospel that, in Jesus Christ, we have a Savior. One day, when we get to heaven, we will find out who was right Ð the Baptists or the Lutherans. Will that not be a glorious day?

In the meantime, we hang onto Christ knowing that, for now, we see through a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Each day God gives us is another peek into His divine revelation.

Pentecost Then and Now

One of America’s best-known churches declares, “In contrast to many churches, which organize their year around the Christian calendar, we acknowledge only two Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter. We also have given special services for the cultural holidays of Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July.”

Two major Church holidays Ð what other one is missing? Let me tell you if you don’t know. It’s Pentecost Sunday. This is the festival that proclaims the Holy Spirit’s coming in a very unique way to work in people’s lives. Without the Holy Spirit’s work, there would be no Christmas or Easter, because it is the Holy Spirit who creates faith in our hearts whereby we can receive Christ who was born in Bethlehem’s manger, crucified at Calvary, and raised on Easter Sunday. No one by his own reason or strength can or will confess Jesus as God, who became man and walked among us. Only the Holy Spirit can create faith in our hearts to empower us to receive Jesus as the One who died and rose as a payment for our sins and promises us eternal life.

My question is, if no one can come to Christ without the work of the Holy Spirit, should not the Church festival that emphasizes His work in our lives be of equal importance as Christmas and Easter? The answer is obvious.

The New Testament places great emphasis on the Spirit’s work. The creedal statements of the Church emphasized the importance of His work. Martin Luther, one of the Church’s greatest theologians, said it well in his small catechism. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; . . .”

This is Pentecost Sunday! I want to refresh our memories on the importance of the Holy Spirit’s work; and to do this we turn in our Bibles to Acts 2.

Pentecost was a festival that the Jews celebrated. Their purpose was twofold: to celebrate God giving the Law to Moses, and their offering the first of the crops to God. It was an international crowd, for people came from many countries to be in Jerusalem on that day. It was at that time the Holy Spirit came to the disciples. We read, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (2-4).

This led the people to assume they were in the midst of a drunken brawl. At that time Peter stood up and began to preach. His sermon can be summarized in these words, “God has made Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (36). Peter wanted the crowd to know that people nailed Jesus to the cross and placed His body in a tomb, but God raised Him from the dead. He now lives.

The sermon brought amazing results. The Bible says, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ÔBrothers, what shall we do?'” (37)

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off Ð for all whom the Lord our God will call.” You will become new people. In many ways, life will not change. You will do your work as always. You will be parents of your children and friends of your neighbors, but you will have a new spirit and a message to share with others that will turn their hearts to God. You will be God’s ambassadors, and He will appeal to this world through you.

On that day 3,000 people confessed their faith in Christ and received the Holy Spirit. The Church was born!

That is a summary of the first Pentecost. What about Pentecost today?

For 2,000 years, the Holy Spirit has been at work convicting, enlightening, creating faith, and changing lives. He has been using people to carry the message of Christ to all parts of the world. Men and women have asked the old question, “What shall we do?” The answer is the same. “Receive Jesus Christ.” The Church continues to grow. Sometimes we hear people say, “We are in the post-Christian age.” I imagine they mean that Christianity has really had its day and now it will gradually find its place in history and not be a dynamic force to consider. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Holy Spirit will continue to do His work in people’s lives as long as the earth stands. If people reject His work, He will move onto other places. This is evident when we visit places that once were Christian and today you have to hunt hard to find a Christian congregation. However, the Church is strong in other parts of the globe.

But let’s look at the Church in our towns. We have what is often called the Visible Church. In any given town, there will be churches of different denominations. Does this mean that all of the members of these churches are believers in Jesus Christ? The answer is no. People become members of congregations for different reasons. They have not yet received Christ as Savior and Lord, but the Holy Spirit is at work in them, awaiting the day when they will say, “What shall we do?” This is the time when you share in a new way the marvelous story of God’s love for them in sending Christ to be their Savior and Lord.

It was my experience that, in the preparation of the sermon to be delivered on a Sunday morning, I had to preach to those who were not yet Christian, but seeking to know more about Christ. I also had to preach to those who were Christian that they might grow in their relationship with Christ.

Seeing all of these churches of differing denominations, it would be logical for the non-Christian to ask, “Does Christ have many Churches on this earth?”

The answer again is no. There is only one Christian Church.

Why then all of these different groups?

God has given us His Word. Its message goes far beyond human understanding. Therefore, people have differed in interpreting the meaning of the message. The teaching on baptism is a good example. Some understand the Scriptures to teach that God is at work through the sacrament, establishing a covenant with the person being baptized. Since God is at work, the person can be brought to the baptismal font as an infant. After the boy or girl has been baptized, the parents are told to take their child home and introduce him or her to Jesus. This denomination believes that the child has become a Christian in baptism. However, this child can walk away from his faith unless he is confronted with Christ, and even then he may say, “I don’t want Christ.” At that time, the person is not a Christian, but stands in need of being brought back into the Kingdom of God, which he left on his own free will. His coming back is called a conversion.

Other Christian churches believe that baptism is a rite for those who now publicly confess their faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. This child hears the Gospel of Jesus. The Holy Spirit creates faith in his/her soul, and he/she confesses their faith in Jesus as Savior. On the basis of their confession, he/she is baptized. This is called a believer’s baptism.

Since this group of Christians cannot agree on which understanding of Scripture is correct on baptism, the one group constructs a building and is known in the community as the Lutheran Church. The other group has their building and is known as the Baptist Church in the town.

Are they one? Yes, their oneness is in Jesus Christ. Those who confess Jesus as the Son of the God and Savior of the world are Christian. Different interpretations of God’s Word separate them, but they all agree on the core of the Gospel, that through faith in Jesus Christ, they belong to the family of God and are brothers and sisters in the faith.

There is then in a congregation, the Invisible Church. These are the people who are baptized believers in Jesus Christ. To better understand, let me illustrate by depicting a congregation that has 1,000 members in its church membership directory. Let’s say that 600 are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior and the other 400 are not able to make that confession at the present time. In the same time, there is another congregation that has 500 members and 300 of them are believers in Christ. There are two churches in that town numbering 1,500 members. This is the visible church seen by the human eye. But in reality, there is only one Church that meets in two buildings, and there are 900 members who confess faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.

You may ask, “Who determines which people are believers, and who are not?” Only God and the individual can answer that question. It is not for us to judge. However, it is common for a person, yet to become a believer, who will tell his or her friend that he or she is not a Christian. These people are asking for help. They joined the congregation, made a public confession with a group of people that they believed in Christ, but really had not taken it seriously. Now, through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit is doing His work. A believer leads that person to faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. When he or she receives Christ in faith, he or she has moved into the Church Invisible, while yet remaining a part of the visible Church.

I began by mentioning a congregation that does not celebrate the Festival of Pentecost. Should we assume that other means could be helpful in bringing people to Christ? Can a good job of psychologizing bring the person to a more receptive attitude of hearing about Christ? This method is being tried, not only in the one church I called attention to in the introduction of this sermon, but in churches across the country. Many fast-growing congregations are placing great emphasis on creating the right atmosphere that will not offend the person who is seeking the meaning of life. Do not mention the word sin. This could be repulsive to the seeker. Be careful in choosing the right hymns. Eliminate the cross, for this deals with death, and the person is not ready to deal with such a frightening subject.

I have to leave the rights and wrongs of this method to smarter people than I, but the Scriptures, as I understand them, do not use this approach. Jesus said to those who were following Him, “If you want to be my followers, leave your father and mother and come. Take up your cross and follow me.” He was up front in telling those who followed him that, while salvation was free, discipleship could be costly.

It is my observance that many of us have relied far too heavily on what we can do to bring a spiritual awakening to the Church and have forgotten the Holy Spirit’s work in our own spiritual life and the life of the Church. Spiritual awakening is the work of the Holy Spirit, and our small part in it is to faithfully tell the story of Jesus and His love for the world.