Four Types of Ears

Our text contains some of the basic teachings of the Christian faith. In this part of the Bible Jesus says, “You must be born again.” This startling statement is followed by a summary of the Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Words such as these fall on different ears and raise questions unique to the person. Let’s take a look at some of these different ears.

Nicodemus, the man in our text, had religious ears. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Council. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. He opens the conversation by saying, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Our Lord responds by saying, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

This term, born again, confused Nicodemus. What is its meaning? Certainly a person cannot be physically born again. Jesus explains, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” In other words, human beings must have a spiritual birth to enter God’s Kingdom. You don’t just have to be patched up, moralized as some would say. You need to be reborn.

Nicodemus knew the Law of God. He also knew God’s covenant with Israel Ð that one day a Messiah would come and restore them to the Kingdom of God. Now this Pharisee needed to hear the Gospel. He needed to learn that you are not saved by being a Jew, or by keeping the Law. He was being taught with the Gospel that our salvation comes through trusting Christ as the Savior and Lord of the world.

This is the evangelical message, not only for Nicodemus of 2,000 years ago, but also for all people in every age. The Law of God is important, but it can save no one. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith Ð and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God Ð not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9)

Ears that are expecting to win their salvation by the life they live need to be converted.

Secondly, there are the uninformed ears. There were many in Jesus’ day who had never heard the Gospel. The same is true in our day. How many people living on your street have never heard the Gospel? We, who have been raised in Christian families, take too much for granted in assuming that everyone knows about Jesus. If they have not been taught the truths of the Christian faith, they certainly must have picked it up some place. Not so. I recall a college professor coming to my study one day and asking me to give him a 15-minute summary of what Christianity is all about. He had not come from a Christian home. His family never attended church. While he heard his friends talk about Christianity, it was of little interest to him, so the message passed him by.

If you would like a shocker some evening, ask some of your neighbors to put in the proper chronological order main Biblical characters like Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul. Don’t be surprised if they begin with Moses, go on to Paul, and end up with Abraham. For millions of people there is complete ignorance.

This uninformed ear needs to hear the Gospel taught as simply as you would tell it to a child in his or her first year of Sunday school. They need to hear the song, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” They need to know that God wants to live in a personal relationship with them and sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross as a payment for their sins. He wants to forgive them their sins and bring them into His Kingdom forever. That’s the purpose of this sermon today.

Thirdly, there are ears that have been attracted to other voices. This brings to mind a person by the name of Zacchaeus. He was a Jewish man who left the teachings of his fathers to work for the Roman government as a tax collector. They offered him a good living. To Zacchaeus money was the important item in life, and so he became the prodigal. He was a turncoat. Well, he got this money. When Jesus met Zacchaeus in his hometown of Jericho, he was a hated rich man who had lost all respect by the townspeople. Jesus spent the night with this man, and turned his life around. He began to see the folly of his ways. Having squared his life with God, Zacchaeus began to experience what true happiness was all about. No longer were those “other voices” as attractive as they once were.

Are you one of those who left Christ for whatever reason it might have been? He is speaking to you now. The message is so simple: God loves you and wants you back home with Him. Haven’t you had enough of life without Him?

But then there is the Christian ear who hears this message brought to Nicodemus. It is the old story that never grows old. It brings us assurance and security. If you are old and shut-in and wonder if anyone cares anymore, Jesus says, “I love you. You are mine. I have bought you with a price.” If Satan is tempting you and making your life miserable, Jesus reminds us that God is our refuge and strength. Through Him we receive power to overcome even Satan.

The glorious Gospel has a message for all types of ears. Let our prayer be simple and to the point:

“Lord, wherever we are in our relationship with You, open our ears. For until you open them, we are deaf to the glorious message of God’s love in Christ.”

Jesus Says, “I Understand”

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There is an old proverb that says, “Opportunity knocks at the door only once, but temptation hangs around persistently all the days of our lives.”

If that proverb be at least partially true, we need to know as much about temptation as we possibly can, and there is none better to be our teacher than Jesus Himself.

What does Jesus know about temptation? He is the sinless One, someone says. The Bible tells us, “He has been in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:13) And so the text talks about Jesus being tempted by Satan.

Let me first ask you, do you believe in a personal devil?

If you reply, “Yes, I do,” then there is the question, “Why?”

How would you answer? Let me tell you some of my answers. The tempter was after Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He was after the three fathers of the Jewish people – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was after Israel’s greatest king, David, “a man after God’s own heart.” He was after the Apostles; he was after Jesus; and he is after me every hour of the day.

Our text says, “Jesus was led to the desert to be tempted by the devil.” From this experience in His life, Jesus gives us many insights into temptation. Here are three of these insights:

1. Satan attacks when we are most vulnerable. He comes when we are tired, alone, and discouraged. Jesus had been in the desert for 40 days. He had not eaten during this time. He must have been emotionally exhausted as he saw what the next few years had in store for Him. At that hour, with his body crying out for food, Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” What an opportune time to attack Jesus!

Think about it. When do you experience some of your greatest temptations? You might answer, When I am with a group of people, and they influence me to do things that I know are contrary to God’s will. How true, but don’t you also have some of your most difficult temptations when you’re alone?

The young person is alone in her room. Her folks are not happy with her grades. Her boyfriend is not giving her the kind of attention she wants, and she can’t seem to decide what kind of work she wants to do in life. Life seems so heavy. Satan is right there and says, “I thought you had a Lord who was going to answer all of these problems for you. Why didn’t he make school as easy for you as He did for your brother? Why do you have to live with these strict laws regarding sex that are way outdated? Why bother yourself about tomorrow? Enjoy today and do what brings happiness.” This is the hour when Satan’s attack is so powerful.

But you know it isn’t any easier for grandpa, who is now living in the nursing home. He is 86 years old. Life was pretty good for grandpa until grandma died four years ago. They were always together. Now it is so lonesome without her. Why does he have to live? He can’t see well, and he worries about losing his license to drive the car. So many of his buddies are dead. His needs are not being met; at least that is the way grandpa feels. And Satan says, “I thought God was going to give you a peace that is beyond reason? Where is it? Where is your God who promised to be with you in the difficult times of life?” That’s temptation in the last days of grandpa’s life, and it is just as strong as when he was 18 wondering about his future.

In those vulnerable hours, Satan’s attack is, “Where is your God?”

2. Satan questions our identity and our relationship with God. The devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (vs. 6)

Imagine the temptation when Satan says, “If you are the Son of God . . .” Jesus had heard the voice from heaven say at His baptism, “This is my beloved Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” Now Satan is trying to make Jesus question this revelation. He must have been asking Himself, “Am I really the Messiah?”

Think of the times when Satan said to Christian people, “Do you really think you are God’s child? Do you really think you are saved? Are you really convinced that all of God’s promises telling you that He is with you are true? Then why do you have all of these trials? Look at all the good you have done for the Church, all the good things you have done for your family, how prominent you have been in the community, and then this tragedy comes to you.” He is getting you to question your identity – Am I really a Christian, and if so, what does that mean?

3. Satan offers us the world if we will bow down and worship him. “He showed him the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and then said, ‘All of this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.’” There is a price to pay, but think of the material blessings if we will forsake God and bow down to Satan.

The devil is still at it. Could Satan have spoken to a high-ranking official at Enron, who already had millions of dollars, one night as he flew in a private jet to his 6_ million-dollar-house? You and your colleagues at Enron have done a marvelous job in leading this company to big things. Would you like to go farther? You will have to bow down and let me direct you. Here is one way you can show a big profit and better dividends for your stockholders. You can avoid paying federal income tax for 4 out of 5 years and receive millions of dollars in federal tax refunds. All of this is legal, even if it might not be quite moral. Wrong decisions were made, and you know the rest of the story. Many employees have lost their retirement benefits and others have lost millions of dollars as they watched their investments become almost worthless.

Humans often fall to Satan’s tricks, but not our Lord. He defeated Satan by again turning to God’s Word when He said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Tricky fellow, this Satan, isn’t he? He’s powerful too, but Jesus Christ defeated him. Jesus not only gives us insights into how Satan attacks us, but He shows His children how to resist the devil’s attacks. With each temptation, Jesus resisted Satan by quoting Scripture. What does it tell us? Know God’s Word so well that His divine truths will be your defense against the tempter. And that Word has its power in the truth that Jesus, through His resurrection, won the victory for us over Satan. He can tempt us, and too often we fall. But ultimately we have the victory over sin through the Resurrected Christ.

Our world reveals that Satan is alive and well. One of the news magazines printed on its cover, “So many choices, and no one to trust. In today’s world you’re on your own baby.”

There are many temptations, but we do not face them alone. Christ is our victor!

Deepening Our Understanding of Life

There is a danger that our lives can be lived on the surface, lacking depth of thought. Emotions can direct our behavior more than clear thinking. This is one of the many thoughts that come from our text. It is the story of Jesus with Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration.

The story is well known to Bible readers. Jesus had hard days before Him. He was facing much suffering, which would climax with His crucifixion. It was time to get away from the crowd and be alone with God and those nearest to Him. When they arrived high on the mountain, the Bible says, “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus.” Then came a voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him.”

In those moments Jesus was assured that He was doing His Father’s will. He knew this was His mission. Jesus was to die for the sins of the world, but He needed those affirming words from His Father to move Him on His way to the cross.

What an experience it was for His three disciples. Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, they would hear Jesus say, “My heart is troubled. What shall I say? Save me from this hour? No, it was this very reason I came to this hour.” (John 12:27) They saw Jesus wrestling with doing the will of God. It was not a decision made on the basis of feelings. It was well thought through in the presence of His disciples.

Being there with Jesus was an overwhelming experience. Peter shows his feelings when he says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters Ð one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” This is a statement based on emotion and not well thought through. Peter wanted to act. Today we would classify him as a “mover and shaker.” There would be a time for Peter to move, but at that hour, it was a time to listen and learn.

As they went down the mountain to join the other disciples and to get back into the real world, Jesus said to the three, “Don’t tell anyone about this experience until I have been raised from the dead.” Why did He give this counsel? They were not yet ready to talk. The whole message of salvation was not clear to them. Many of these truths would not become reality until they stood beneath the cross and saw Jesus die. Even then, His death would not make sense. They had to see Jesus after the resurrection. They were being prepared to bring this great message to our world Ð namely that Christ has died as a payment for the world’s sins and has been raised from the dead to win victory over sin, death, and the devil. Finally, on Pentecost Sunday, which is 50 days after Easter, the Holy Spirit anointed the followers of Jesus, and they went on their way proclaiming what we now call the Gospel.

Here is the point Ð if we are going to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, we must be mature in our faith. This maturity comes when we spend time alone with Christ in His Word and let Him show us who He is and what He has done for us.

We need to be affirmed in what we believe. Life, with its hard knocks, can cause us to question what we believe and what our mission is. If Jesus needs to be affirmed by His Father, don’t we? It is thrilling to know there are many Christians who have this maturity of trusting Christ through thick and thin.

Recently I was teaching a Bible class on this very subject of growing in our faith. In the class was a woman who had recently buried a small grandson who died of a brain tumor. I asked her if this caused her to question God’s love. She replied, “Oh my, no. I don’t know why all of this is happening. I suppose it is because we live in an imperfect world and sickness is a part of it. But I trust Christ to give me strength in these heartbreaking experiences. He will see me through, and one day it will make more sense than it does to me right now.” Her faith is not built on emotion. She has been assured that all Jesus promised would be fulfilled.

We need to be corrected often. We can easily have a wrong understanding of Christianity. All will not necessarily go well as we live out our lives. I think of a woman in our congregation who, in the space of two months, has buried her 60-year-old husband, her 95-year-old mother, and now has learned that her son has a malignancy of the thyroid. Not long ago this same family was enjoying life. One of their greatest joys was to sail their beautiful boat on Lake Michigan. Now their sailing days are over, at least for some of the family. These are very difficult times when the only answer is to be alone with Jesus and let Him speak to you through His Word. It might help to take two or three other people, as Jesus did, to be with you in some of these sessions with our Lord. In the presence of Christ and His Church, we receive power to move on, until that day when we meet Him face to face.

The majority of people will not understand this closing statement, but let me say it any way. It comes from Scripture. Without Christ, our lives lack a depth in understanding what life is all about. Without Him, the human being lives on the surface. Without Christ, we are inadequate to face life, and all that it can throw at us. But with Him walking by our side and giving us counsel in His Holy Word, there will be strength, direction, and peace in carrying our small crosses to His cross and empty tomb.

Be still and know that He is God and not we nor any other human being.

Tell Me the Old, Old Story

Whether you are a computer analyst, farmer, sales person, teacher, mechanic, pastor, dentist, lawyer, physician, or whatever, continuing education is necessary in our day. So we attend seminars to see what is new in our field of labor. Are there solutions for some of our old problems? Are there new insights into old truths?

The physician goes to learn what will help the patient get well. As long as people are dying there are diseases to be conquered. Researches have come forth with marvelous answers that have prolonged our lives. Think of life before antibiotics or the polio vaccine. The physician is looking for solutions.

The pastor’s problems are different from the physician’s. Sin is the problem. It destroys relationships with God and human beings. But Christ is the solution to the problem. Christ paid the price for the sins of the world on the cross, and by His resurrection He won the victory for all believers over sin, death, and the devil. We don’t go to seminars to learn about new solutions for sin. Christ is the answer to our spiritual problems. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. What, then, are the problems facing the pastor?

1. How can I gain new insights into God’s Word that will show people Christ is the solution to his or her spiritual problems?

2. How can I best communicate the Gospel in my day that people will understand the Gospel through which the Holy Spirit can lead them to faith in Christ?

First, let’s turn to our text and review how the Gospel of Christ unfolded and how it remains the solution to our problem with sin, which destroys our relationship with both God and humans.

We meet John the Baptist again. His mother, Elizabeth, was the Virgin Mary’s cousin. His father was Zechariah, a priest. He lived in the wilderness near the Dead Sea. During his years, John had heard of this Messiah who was to come. Without a doubt, he also knew something about Jesus, his second cousin according to the flesh. When he was about 30 years old, John began to preach, reminding the people that there needed to be a spiritual revival in Judaism. Their ritualistic religion was not enough. It was necessary for them to repent of their sins and turn to God. He also told them the Messiah was coming soon. The message was fresh, and the people flocked to hear this evangelist as he preached and baptized.

Then came the day when Jesus was to be baptized. John gave this testimony, “I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ÔThe man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I have seen, and I testify, this is the Son of God.'”

John the Baptist stood not only in the presence of his cousin, but he met Him as the Messiah. What does this tell us? People can teach about Christ, but only the Holy Spirit can reveal Him as our Savior and Lord. Millions of people know about Christ, but few in comparison knew Him as the one alone who can bring us into a personal relationship with God.

Here you have an example of what a spiritual awakening, or conversion, is. You might know a great deal about Christ. You came from a fine church home. The Bible was read in your home, and you were faithful in attending Sunday school and confirmation classes. You have great admiration for Christ, but you really don’t know what power He can have in your life. You do not look to Him for forgiveness, nor do you expect or want Him to direct your life. The relationship with Jesus is quite impersonal. What happened in John’s life is what is needed in your life. As John looked into the face of Jesus that day, the Holy Spirit said, “Look, John! This person is your Savior.” The same needs to happen in your life. It is then you are given the power by the Holy Spirit to say, “Come into my life, Lord Jesus.”

While the prophets pointed to the Messiah who was coming to this world, this accounting of Jesus in our text is really the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation focused in Christ, which is the old, old story of Jesus and His love.

The pastor’s burden is to gain new insights into this story that will speak not only to his or her life, but to people both inside and outside the Church. It’s the old story, but it is always bringing us new insights. For example, what is all included in this plea, “Receive Jesus”? Some years ago, I attended a theological seminar on the life and ministry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. At Flossenberg, only a few weeks before the end of the war, he was hanged, martyred for the cause of Christ.

Many of Bonhoeffer’s writings were preserved and put into a book entitled, The Cost of Discipleship, which has touched the lives of thousands of us. It was at that seminar I was reminded that, when we receive Christ as our Savior and Lord, we take serious His words, “Take up your cross and follow me.” It affected my preaching. It was not a new solution to the human’s relationship with God. It was the old, old story with a new insight.

The second reason for pastors to attend seminars is to learn how we can best communicate this message that the Holy Spirit can open people’s eyes and bring us to faith in Christ.

One of the great continuing education courses offered 40 years ago was, “The Bethel Bible Series.” The course was written and taught by Dr. Harley Swiggum. What a blessing it has been for our congregation as we have seen how the old, old story of Jesus and His love fits into an overview of the Bible. Unless we have an overview of the Bible, the Gospel lacks meaning. The Old Testament points us to the Christ who is coming and gives us hints of his birth, the ministry of John the Baptist, which is our text for today, the life and teachings of Jesus, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. This course continues to be taught in our congregation 40 years after it was introduced. It was a seminar worth attending to learn more about telling the Biblical story.

But today there is another effective tool in telling that old, old story in a more intimate way. It is the small group. Here 6 or 8 people gather in a home around a cup of coffee and study some of the great truths of the Scriptures. You become a caring group around God’s Word. You share your joys and sorrows and the understanding that God has given to you, which have been blessings. It is a wonderful setting to share the Gospel with one who might know the old, old story, but has not met Jesus in a personal way. Robert Hesterness, one of the great authorities on the small group, was our teacher at a seminar on this subject.

When I was a kid, there was only one worship setting. Today we have many. There is still the traditional service with its hymns and liturgies that serve certain people well. Others like the more informal settings with its gospel-type music, and still others like contemporary worship with its praise songs. The worship settings, and the way the Gospel is presented, will change from one generation to the next, and we must always be open to these changes.

Our text has told us about the unfolding of God’s marvelous way of salvation. Today it is the old, old story, which is always new though its message is as old as the ages. Let’s not get too concerned about how the message is communicated, but let us ever be faithful to the old, old story of Jesus and His love.