Gospel Matters

Shortly after I was accepted into seminary back in 1976, a letter came in the mail for me from a dear friend whom I respected a great deal. He was congratulating me on being accepted into training for the ministry. He told me how excited he was that I was sensing a calling into the Lord’s service, and he encouraged me by saying he thought I had what it takes to be a good pastor. Then he gave me some great advice in the closing of that letter. He said my faith would be challenged a great deal as I attended classes, and I would hear things that could possibly shake my foundational faith, but I should hold on to that simple gospel I had been raised in all the way through my early years. He said, “Hang onto the evangelical gospel your parents taught you and you’ve heard from me.”

I kept that letter all the way through my seminary experience, and I would frequently pull it out and read it for encouragement to keep my head on straight as I went through my great seminary training.

By the way, the friend who wrote that letter was my predecessor, Pastor Homer Larsen. It was an important letter in my life that helped me stay on track.

We have a letter before us today that was also very important and continues to be very important. It was written from a pastor out of love and concern for some younger Christians in congregations in what we now know as modern-day Turkey. They are referred to as the Galatians. This letter was written about 50 A.D. The pastor who wrote it was Paul, who had started the churches. He heard of some issues that had come up Ð some strange things being talked about and being believed Ð and it caused Paul great alarm. His intention in this letter is to help them get back on track.

He begins by saying, Paul, an apostle . . . sent by Jesus. It was his way of reestablishing his credentials in the minds of these people who were wondering, I suppose, if Paul really had the answers they needed in regard to God, and salvation, and so on.

Paul says, I am an apostle with a capital A. In other words, Jesus, who Paul met face-to-face sent him. Jesus gave Paul this revelation that he shared with the Galatians. And he adds, “To the churches of Galatia.” He was writing to a number of congregations.

The feel of the letter is a little different from the rest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. It is tinged with a bit of frustration and disappointment as he cuts right through the formalities. In most letters, for instance, after the salutation he expresses his thanks to God for them. Not in this letter. Paul gets right at the heart of the message. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Paul’s ire is up. It appears they have turned away from the gospel message Paul gave them. They were drifting away from the truth. And so we hear disappointment in these words of Paul. It’s kind of like a parent saying, I can’t believe you are doing this after the way I’ve brought you up.

We see what’s going on, Paul goes on to explain. Some are confusing you and perverting the gospel of Christ. Who are they? A group of Jewish Christians, perhaps from Jerusalem, who would follow Paul into the communities where he started the churches, wait until he leaves, and then move in and teach something different from what Paul taught. For example, Paul taught that a person is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But when he left, the Jewish Christians said, Wait a minute! Paul didn’t give you the whole story. (He’s a Johnny-come-lately anyway.) We’ve been trained by the apostles in Jerusalem, the ones who walked with Jesus. They taught another gospel, which wasn’t a gospel at all, as Paul tells us in his letter.

The folks in Galatia were not Jewish; they were Gentiles. The Jewish Christians would tell them, You need to become Jewish like us Ð follow our dietary laws and observe the festivals and feasts we have observed for so many years as Jewish people. And, if you truly want to become a card-carrying, saved Christian, you need to become circumcised. Basically they were being told there is no such thing as a free lunch. You only get what you deserve. And the Galatian people were swallowing up this “new and improved” gospel. Jesus is nice, but you must also become Jewish to receive salvation. Their doctrines, then, and everything they believed were impacted by this belief.

I like John Stott’s words written years ago. He said, “The devil disturbs the church as much by error as by evil. When he cannot entice Christian people into sin, he deceives them with false doctrine.”

This is what was happening in these congregations. It is a big deal because people’s eternal destinies are at stake. The people were beginning to move from trusting in Christ to trusting in themselves: trying to do the right thing so God will love them and accept them for eternity. As people bought into that teaching, the possibility existed that the whole Christian Church would be split by these deferring teachings. Things were going to fall apart. So the purpose of this letter is to get these folks back on track, back to trusting the truth of the gospel Paul had given them and living in line with the gospel.

Now we ask the question, What is the gospel? The word itself means an announcement. For example, when a king left to win battles off in a faraway land, he would send messengers back to announce the good news, the gospel, to the people of his country.

Therefore, we have our king Ð King Jesus Ð who has done a great thing for us. The gospel is an announcement of what He has done for us. Paul gives us an encapsulation of it in the opening verses of this letter. He says “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever.

So, what is the gospel?

It is an announcement of what Jesus Christ has done for us.

What did He do for us?

He gave Himself for our sins to set us free. We were helplessly, hopelessly lost in our sinfulness in God’s sight. Jesus came in and substituted Himself for us. He gave Himself for us. He took our place, our punishment upon Himself. He took the hit for our sinfulness.

When we substitute ourselves for God and try to run our lives, making ourselves God, that is sin. But Jesus Christ substituted Himself for us! That is the Good News, and it equals salvation. God the Father affirmed this sacrifice as a substitution for sin when He raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is the One in whom we place our trust.

Someone once explained that there are two kinds of religions in this world. One kind is spelled D – O. It is all the religions of the world except one. Do this and do that; then God will love you and take care of you. Christianity, however, is spelled D – O – N -E. Jesus Christ went to the cross to pay for our sins. He died and rose victorious over the grave. Whoever places their trust in what He has done is saved! We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. This is what we proclaim to the world.

The gospel calls for our response like a beggar with empty hands. We receive what Jesus has done for us Ð the gift of salvation. The results are then, as Paul says, grace, mercy, and peace. My sins are remitted, I have peace in my conscience, and fear is gone because I am now a child of God. I belong to Him forever.

Tim Keller, a great evangelical preacher from New York, defines the gospel this way: “We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted by Christ than we ever dared hope.” This is the gospel, and it is what Paul is calling these folks in Galatia back to.

Anyone who is teaching you, Jesus plus something else equals salvation, let that person be condemned and accursed. They are steering you in the wrong direction. They are sinning against God.

Which gospel are you relying on Ð a man-made gospel or God’s gospel? The gospel of D – O or the real gospel of D – O – N – E?

Some people might be thinking, Well, we know better than that today. Those people back then were simpletons who could not figure this out. People don’t get mixed up about this today, do they? Let me tell you, they do.

Not long ago I was called to the home of some members of my congregation who were having some trouble in their home and needed to meet with me. So I sat down at their dining room table with them one Saturday morning, and they explained they had been having a Bible study with some Jehovah’s Witnesses and were getting all mixed up. “We feel so anxious. We don’t know what we are really standing on anymore. Would you help us? Explain the gospel to us again.”

That morning I led them through Scripture Ð the concrete gospel that has been passed down through the ages for two thousand years. They then recommitted themselves to trusting in that gospel for their salvation.

Some churches get caught up in customs, traditions, and so on. They began to tack on things to the gospel. You have to act this way and do this certain thing, whatever it may be. That teaching is Jesus plus something else. It is legalism, and not the gospel. In some more liberal churches, you hear mixed-up messages like these:

All roads lead to the same place.

It really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere about it.

Just love your neighbor as yourself, and you’re in.

These messages are not the gospel. They turn the gospel into a “you-can-earn-your-way-into-God’s-favor-by-loving-your-neighbor” doctrine. It is a kick in the teeth of Jesus who gave His life on the cross for us.

Recently, I was visiting with an individual who was dying. I didn’t know him well. His wife had been attending our church. However, he had only recently begun coming since he’d been so ill. I wanted to know about his spiritual state, so I asked, “Are you afraid to die?”

He said, “No, I’m not really afraid, I guess.”

I pursued the question even further. “Do you know if you are going to go to heaven?”

He said, “I hope so.”

I said, “What do you mean, Ôyou hope so.'”

He said, “Well, I’m not sure. You see, I haven’t been a very good Christian.”

Again, the gospel is being missed. It’s Jesus plus . . . I haven’t been a very good person.

So I said to him, “I haven’t been a very good Christian either. But I know where I’m going because I’m saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Trust His promises, Bob!”

You see, your creed Ð what you believe Ð matters. Paul is telling us in this letter that there is no other gospel. The Gospel matters! There must be no compromise, no add-ons!

I have a formula I like to share with people:

Jesus

+

Something

=

Nothing

This is not the gospel; it’s a dead end.

But,

Jesus

+

Nothing

=

Everything

Jesus has done it ALL for you and me. This is the formula to live by. You can bet the farm on it!

Dr. Albert Einstein was a brilliant man who lived years ago. All kinds of stories have been passed around about his eccentricities. One day a cleaning lady came into his lecture hall in New Jersey. She saw all these complicated equations written on the chalkboards. Over them Einstein scrawled “Erase.” But in the corner was a little, bitty formula over which he wrote, “Do not erase.” It said, 2 + 2 = 4.

What was Dr. Einstein trying to teach his students? Could it be that the mind can go far and face the complexities of life if it hangs onto the basic truths? What I’m asking of you today is the same thing. Jesus plus nothing equals everything. Trust this formula. Do not erase.

What’s the Good News?

Did you hear about the pastor who moved to a new town to begin ministry in a new congregation? After his very first worship service, as the people greeted him in line, a little boy placed a one dollar bill in the pastor’s hand. “What’s this for?” the pastor said.

“Well, sir, after you finished your message today, my father said, “You’re the poorest preacher we’ve ever had!’ So instead of putting it in the offering plate, I thought I’d just give it to you.” Funny how words can have multiple meanings isn’t it? That’s also true of the gospel of Jesus Christ – the profound truth that God, in love, sent His Son, Jesus, into our world that all the world might be reconciled to Him.

In the Good News is an implicit, negative truth about us. The truth is the life we’ve been living is flawed. So in Luke chapter 4, as Jesus rises in the synagogue to speak about the prophet Isaiah’s words (that He’s anointed to bring Good News), the truth is that when Jesus says He’ll make us rich, without Jesus Christ we are poor, bankrupt, without capacity to care for ourselves. When Jesus says He’s going to set us free, the truth is that without Jesus we are imprisoned in many forms of bondage and limits. When Jesus says He’s going to open our eyes so we can see, the truth is we’re either blind about our own flaws or we’re blind to the essence of life itself. Or best of all, when Jesus says, you are forgiven in my name, the truth is we are sinners, flawed, broken rebels who need the grace of God and the reconciliation into a relationship with our heavenly Father.

So what is the Good News of Jesus Christ? The Church has treasured the gospel of Jesus as the heartbeat of its life ever since its birth, and it is the passion of our mission as God’s people to share the life-changing message that Jesus Christ has come in our world to give us abundant life. But in a pragmatic reality, what does that mean for us in the 21st century, and how do we embrace that truth in a way that transforms our lives?

The first truth of this Good News is that we have a Father in heaven, the source of our life. Our Parent. He’s not only all-powerful, He’s also all loving, and He continually searches to find us wherever we are and embrace us in love in Jesus’ name.

I remember visiting with a colleague pastor years ago who shared about a day his teenage son ran away. The superintendent of schools called his house and said, “Why isn’t your son in school today?”

“Oh, he is!” said the pastor.

“No, I’m sorry he’s not,” said the school official. So the pastor went home and discovered the family car was gone and some money that had been in his bedroom closet was gone as well. Further, he learned that his son had gone along with the girl he’d been dating. Neither the girl’s parents nor this father had any idea where this young teenage couple had gone.

So they put out an all-points bulletin all across the country as they searched for this young couple. For three agonizing days they prayed and they waited and they longed for a word. Finally, a phone call came from a police officer in Kansas City saying, “Sir, we have your son.”

“I’ll be right there as fast as I can,” he said.

Well, this pastor was a 6′ 8″ man Ð big and tall Ð and his son was tall as well. But when the father entered the police station, the young son cowered in his shame and guilt. “I really screwed up, dad. I deceived you; I ran away; I took money from you.” The father just wrapped his big arms around his son and squeezed him very tightly. “No, I’ve really messed up. I ruined your reputation. I don’t know what you’re going to do now.”

The father embraced his son again and said, “I’m so glad you’re okay. I love you. Let’s go home.”

That story embodies the truth of the gospel that our heavenly Father is restless until He finds us where we are, and in the name of Jesus invites us to experience His love in a personal relationship. He invites us to trust His forgiving grace and to walk with Him day by day in the journey of life.

The second truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the grace that God pours out to us is always greater than the sum total of our sins and failures. John tells us, “In his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16) Jeremiah tells us, In the book of Lamentations the third chapter it says this: “I recall to mind and therefore I have hope: The Lord’s loving kindness never runs out. His mercies are fresh and new every morning” (Lamentations 3:21-23).

You and I through faith can come to God again and again and ask in prayer, “Wash me clean, O God. Forgive my sins in Jesus’ name.” We resonate with the prayer of King David in Psalm 51 after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Don’t cast me out of your presence. Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.”

In the name of Jesus Christ, grace is always greater than all our failures, and we have total access to the presence of God. Our greatest failures become the moments of God’s greatest glory to forgive. Our broken, shattered lives now reflect the light of Jesus’ love in a way that turns our lives into something beautiful.

I remember traveling with my family out West years ago. We came to a campground with a big sign that said, “Stay with us. Showers are free.”

In God’s love Ð in the name of Jesus Ð we can bathe daily, cleansing our souls in the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ.

The third profound truth of the Good News of Jesus is that when He ascended into heaven, He did as He said. He sent the Holy Spirit to us. The Word of God calls Him our Paraclete Ð one who comes alongside to help. He is a Counselor who understands both our fragile, vulnerable hearts and our God-given glory. Jesus is truly Immanuel Ð God with us. So that means in the sending of the Holy Spirit, you and I are never alone. Wherever we are, God is with us. Jesus, you remember, said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never leave you or forsake you. (Heb. 13:5).”

Hebrews chapter 4 tells us that Jesus, our high priest, is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. He has been tested in all things as we are, yet He was perfect (vs. 15). “A bruised reed he will never break. A dimly burning wick, he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). The Holy Spirit is our counselor who understands our weak hearts, but He is also our counselor who stands alongside us, encourages us, and draws out of us our glory, our created giftedness, the beauty God has given to you as His child. And by His Spirit He wants to harness that glorious giftedness in you for the purposes of God.

The fourth truth of the Gospel of Jesus is that, in His name, He calls us into a unity of peace. We live in a time in our American culture where there still are tremendous problems with racism, injustices, division between peoples. My wife Denise is a public music teacher. A few years, back she taught in a very racially diverse school system called Barber. It was about 75% Hispanic, about 20% African-American, and about 5% white.

During a third-grade class session on studying history in the social unrest of the 1960s, the teacher was sharing with them about the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, who conducted peaceful, nonviolent marches to call public attention to the racial inequalities and injustices and oppression. So Denise taught the classes the theme song, “We Shall Overcome.” It became a song for them of hope, of potential victory someday when all of life might resolve in a beautiful way. As those little third-graders sang the song, much to the amazement of Denise, the girls and boys began to weep. Tears rolled down their cheeks, and she realized that they not only were learning about it as an element of history, they were still living in the experience of racial injustice, oppression, mistreat-ment for no other reason except the color of their skin or the language they spoke.

Ephesians 2 tells us Jesus is our Peace who has broken down the barrier, the dividing wall of those who are far from God and those who are near. Jesus has not only broken down the dividing wall between us sinners and the holiness of God, but He has also broken down the barrier between us and other peoples. By faith in Jesus as the Prince of Peace, we begin to live in the reality of God’s will, in the unity of His love. We seek to usher in God’s vision of peace even as we look ahead to a day in heaven where, as it describes in Revelation, people of all races, language, cultures, and nations will be united in the presence of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain. Jesus is our peace.

Lastly, the Good News means we are never without hope. We have a prevailing cynicism and despair in our day. A lot of people have thrown themselves into a lifestyle of pure hedonism, in part, I believe, because of a lack of confidence in our future. To ease the pain of anxiety about the future, people escape into drugs, sensual pleasures, the pursuit of money, or accumulation of material goods. They have lost hope and have no vision for the future. As a result, the moral infrastructure of our culture seems to be disappearing. Family systems are breaking down. People labor in disappointing emptiness, powerlessness, and anxiety.

The Good News is that God is all-powerful. He is transcendent over all the limits we live in. He is the embodiment of our hope. When God the Father sent Jesus into our world, not only did He go to the cross to die for our sins, but He also died on the cross to embrace us in our darkest moments. He died to embrace the world and its brokenness. Someday the resurrected Lord will come again. He will heal the world and draw all people into His presence of love and life forever.

God still reigns! He’s in control, and the unfolding of history will come to the end God desires. The future, therefore, does not have to be a continuation of our past trauma or our present struggles and failures. The future will become what God says it will be in Jesus’ name. Faith gives birth to hope allowing us to walk with strength.

Years ago, I was invited to help with a Special Olympics event. My job as a volunteer was to stand at the finish line of every race and be a hugger. Whoever ran and competed in my lane, when they crossed the finish line, I was to embrace them in a hug and offer them congratulations and encouragement for a job well done.

However we run the race, God the Father embraces us in Jesus’ name saying, “You are my child. I love you. Your sins are forgiven. You belong to me. You can trust my heart.”

What Good News we celebrate! What hope we share, because in the finish of all things we know we are in the embrace of God, and God’s favor rests upon us. We can believe it.

Read the Signs

Signs are important to us. They help us to navigate the various destinations on our roadways. They can also save us from some embarrassing moments, such as entering the wrong gender restroom in a public building. Health experts teach us to look for warning signs for heart attacks, addictions, depression, even suicide. Signs are also put up to protect us and keep us cautious as we enter into certain locations.

Baseball players and coaches know the importance of signs. They use them on the field to communicate the next pitch or steal a base, and if the sign is missed by a player, it can lead to some disastrous consequences for the team.

You may be wondering where I am going with all this talk about signs. Well, Jesus used signs to help people understand who He was and what He could mean for their lives. John’s Gospel refers to the miracles of Jesus as signs, and these signs were meant to point to a great message, a truth about Jesus. We have one of those signs before us today as we read about Jesus turning water into a fine wine at a wedding in a community called Cana. John tells us that this was the first sign of Jesus. He revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.

The word “glory” that John uses here is referring to the very power and presence of God the Almighty. The sign of changing water into wine is meant to point us to the identity of Jesus. He’s the Son of God; God in the flesh made manifest.

 

In the introduction of John’s Gospel, this beloved disciple gives his testimony about Jesus by saying, “. . . and the Word (Jesus) became flesh and lived among us. And we have seen his glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

This sign also tells us that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah that the Jewish people had been anticipating for so many years. The prophets of the Old Testament described signs that would appear when the Messiah arrived. Isaiah and Joel, Amos and Jeremiah,

described the messianic days as times of great abundance. One hundred eighty gallons of fine wine at a wedding definitely qualifies as abundance, wouldn’t you say? John testifies to the grace upon grace he has received from Jesus, the abundance.

This sign also tells us of what Jesus had come to do in our lives. He had six stone jars, ceremonial jars, filled with water for ritual cleansing. Jesus took something old and changed it into something new Ð a joyful substance: wine! The rabbis used to say, “Without wine, there is no joy!” According to our story, the joy was about to run out of the celebration, and a family would have be publicly embarrassed. Jesus’ fine-wine miracle brought new joy and celebration to the wedding.

We see Jesus taking something that was affiliated with the old Ð ceremonial ritual jars Ð and bringing something wonderful and new and life-giving. This miracle is a sign of new times. He has come to replace the old with the new. As Jesus transformed water into a fine tasting wine, His came to transform religion into deep personal relationships with God. Sinners turned into Saints. Old, bland lives turned into something new and exciting.

This sign also reveals a bit of Jesus’ personality. When His mother alerted Him to the problem, He told her that His hour had not yet arrived. He was talking about His glorification as the Son of God, which would ultimately be His death on the cross to pay for the sins of the world. But nevertheless, after she turned away from Him, Jesus made the decision to save these people from embarrassment.

Jesus had compassion, concern for even little things in people’s lives. This act of saving a wedding party is a rather homey story. I like this Jesus! No one at the party except the disciples and the servants knew what He had done, so He surely wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He was simply saving this family from embarrassment in their community and keeping the wedding celebration going. What bothered the family moved Jesus to action, and so He stepped in and helped. This sign shows us a compassionate and caring Jesus.

You may be wondering, So it’s a sign. What does it have to do with me? Years ago, a renowned biblical commentator named William Barclay wrote regarding this passage. “John tells us not of things that Jesus did once in Palestine, but of things Jesus still does today in the lives of people.” My friends you see, this Jesus, whom we read about in the wedding at Cana, is still with us as the risen Lord. After He was nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, He was raised again to life and is still present in our midst to do some life-giving things in your life.

I heard a cute story quite a few years ago about a little girl who came home from Sunday school one day and excitedly told the Wedding at Cana story to her mother. Mom asked, “So what you think the story means?”

The young girl answered, “I guess it means if you’re throwing a party, it would be smart to invite Jesus.” I’d say “Amen” to that!

It’s interesting to me that our wedding service in the Lutheran hymnal picks up on that bit of wisdom in its opening prayer. Listen to these words that I have prayed at so many wedding services through the years: “Eternal God, our Creator and Redeemer, as You gladdened the wedding at Cana in Galilee by the presence of your Son, so by His presence now bring Your joy to this wedding. Look in favor upon this couple and grant that they, rejoicing in all Your gifts, may at length celebrate with Christ the marriage feast, which has no end.” Jesus brings something very special to a home, to a married couple.

This sign tells us that Jesus was not only the Son of God, He also came (and continues to come) to bring new life and joy. He is compassionate and caring about what’s going on in your life.

Okay, someone might say, I get what you’re saying, but what are do we to do with that knowledge you just shared with us? John gives us the purpose of the story in verse 11 where it tells us this was the first time Jesus manifested His glory and then says, “And his disciples believed in him.”

There you have it! Jesus gave the first of His signs at Cana of Galilee. He revealed His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.

That is the purpose for us to see in this story. We see this amazing, powerful Jesus and the newness he can bring into a person’s life. This story was saved for us so that, like those disciples, we might believe in Jesus Christ and entrust our lives to His care. In fact, after Jesus’ resurrection, when His person and ministry was once and for all confirmed and affirmed by God, John wrote this, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name.”

What does it mean to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah? John tells us the disciples went with Him after the wedding. They stayed with Him and became personally involved with Him even though they didn’t have everything figured out about Him. We know this from reading the Gospels. Nevertheless, they followed Jesus, they lived with Him; they traveled with Him; they asked questions of Him; they observed Him; they served and obeyed Him; they listened to Him, and they learned to trust Him more and more as they found Him to be the trustworthy Son of God. When you think about it, their faith, their belief involved the whole person Ð mind, body, emotions and all the rest Ð in a personal relationship with Christ.

The story is told of a man who was going to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls pushing a wheelbarrow in front of him. The crowd gathered on the day for the risky walk. The wind was blowing hard and whipping the rope back and forth. As the time for the walk grew close, the crowd began yelling advice; “Don’t try it! You’ll never make it!” Then one man jumped from the crowd and approached the tightrope walker. He said to the adventurer, “Go ahead. Make the walk. You can do it. I believe in you.” To this encouragement, the tightrope walker replied with an invitation, “Okay, if you believe in me so strongly, you get in the wheelbarrow and come with me.”

To have faith, to believe in Jesus is not some detached intellectual confidence in a doctrine. It’s not just a head thing. It is a personal involvement and trust, which is being willing to get in the wheelbarrow and come with Jesus, give Him full authority over every area of your life.

So what would it look like to get in the wheelbarrow and come with Jesus? Well, as the disciples sat at His feet and listened and reflected on His words, you and I can do that ourselves in a daily reading of the Gospels from our Bibles. Spend time with Jesus there and let Him talk with you. I cannot emphasize enough how important and good it is to open your Bible every day and let Jesus teach you about who He is, what He has done for you, and what He can do in you to train you in kingdom-of-God living. He will remind you of His promises and let you experience the truth of His teaching by actually doing what He says, as Mary told the servants in the story today. Do what He says.

There’s a boatload of joy and adventure waiting for you and me for the rest of our days as we spend them with Jesus in His Word. For instance, what blessings, adventure, and joy awaits those who take Jesus’ instruction to His disciples after He washed their feet to wash each other’s feet (John 13). He is telling us to be a servant to others.

Does someone in your life needs their feet washed? Do they need your service, your help? Maybe it could begin right home in your marriage and then branch out into your church family and your community. Jesus promises blessing to those who do His Word in His name. I would encourage you to take Him up on His word and do it.

That is just one example; Jesus has so much life to offer you and me. The Gospels are chock full of new adventures for your life if you will devote yourself to letting Him speak to you in those Gospels, then dare to do something with His Word. What joy and blessing the Son of God has for each person who will personally follow Him. Try it! You’ll like it!

 

Who Is Jesus?

Now that the Christmas season is behind us, let’s take a look at the all-important question: Who is this Jesus anyway?

That question has been asked down through the ages since Jesus began His ministry in Galilee so long ago. I would speculate that it was even asked during His growing-up years. For instance, the Gospel of Luke tells a story about the boy Jesus. His parents lost Him and later found Him sitting in the Jerusalem temple as He listened to the teachers and asked questions of them. Those teachers must have been wondering, Who is this bright, young boy who knows so much and asks such good questions? Who is this Jesus? He really seems to know His theology.

Just as people back then asked Who is Jesus?, we wrestle with the same question today. The question might be asked by a husband, for instance, as he watches his wife faithfully drive off to a worship service at the church down the road each Sunday morning, even on cold winter days. He wonders why church is such a priority for her when she could sleep in and relax around the house with him. What’s the big deal anyway? Who is this Jesus who has such an important impact on her life?

Or there is Joanne who ponders this question as she observes her recently widowed neighbor, Martha. “This is difficult,” Martha tells Joanne one day, “but the Lord has been getting me through it, and I know I’ll be okay.” Joanne, who is unchurched, wonders, Who is this Jesus who gives my friend such strength?

Who is this Jesus? is a question that perhaps an alcoholic asks his drinking buddy who has been sober for more than a year. This buddy, who is enjoying his sobriety, tells his friend that when he received Jesus Christ as his Savior, he was able to stop drinking through Christ’s power. Who is this Jesus that can help a person like that? his friend wonders.

Who is this Jesus? Perhaps that is a question a mother asks when she receives a letter from her daughter informing her that she’s planning to spend three years in Africa as a missionary nurse. She wonders, Who is this Jesus that can draw such a commitment from my daughter? I don’t quite understand. She is sacrificing so much!

A lot of people are wondering, Who is this Jesus? The bookstores contain many good books that address the same question. I recently enjoyed a good one in particular Ð Philip Yancey’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew. He writes a wonderful little portion in one of the chapters about the impact Jesus has had on people and history.

“When I switched on my computer this morning, Microsoft Windows flashed the date, implicitly acknowledging that, whatever you may believe about it, the birth of Jesus was so important, it split history into two parts: B.C. and A.D. Everything that has ever happened on this planet falls into the category of before Christ or after Christ.

“When the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, Richard Nixon got carried away with excitement saying it was the greatest day since creation, until Billy Graham solemnly reminded him of Christ and Easter and Christmas. By any measure of history, Billy Graham was right. The Galilean, who in his lifetime spoke to fewer people than would fill just one of the many stadiums Billy Graham has filled, changed the world more than any other person. He introduced a new force field into history and now holds the allegiance of a third of all people on earth.

“Today people even use his name to curse by. How strange it would seem to us if a businessman missed a golf put and yelled, “Thomas Jefferson!” or if a plumber screamed, “Mahatma Gandhi!” when his pipe wrench mashed against a finger. We cannot get away from this man Jesus.”

Yancey writes further. “H. G. Wells said more than nineteen hundred years later, ÔA historian like myself, who doesn’t even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this most significant man. The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is, Did what he leave grow? Did he start men thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? In this test, Jesus stands first. You can gauge the size of a ship that has passed out of sight by the huge wake it leaves behind.'” Wonderful thoughts from Philip Yancey.

So, who was this Jesus who had such an important impact on our world? As we turn to the Word of God Ð His revelation to us Ð we find a few answers in the Gospel of St. Luke. Today’s story about the baptism of Jesus enlightens us about the person of Jesus, His purpose and His promises.

Just 15 days ago, we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Many of us sang this Christmas carol in a worship service, “What child is this who laid to rest . . .” Today’s text jumps ahead thirty years in Jesus’ life to give us the answer.

We find the adult Jesus in a huge crowd who had come out to be baptized by John the Baptist. John, who actually was a cousin of Jesus, had been preaching in the wilderness and was causing quite a stir as he drew crowds from Jerusalem and the surrounding regions to hear his message of repentance. The voice of God had been silent for more than four hundred years. So when John began to preach with such authority, people were wondering if he were the Messiah, the Christ, that the people of Israel had been looking for. Now learning of their question, John shook his head and answered them, “I baptize you with water but one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to even untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Some people wonder, as they see Jesus step into the waters, why He was being baptized? After all, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was sinless, wasn’t He?

That is a fair and good question. Peter gives us an answer in Acts chapter 10. He describes Jesus’ baptism as a commissioning, His anointing as He began His ministry to rescue the world from sin and death. I’ve heard it referred to as a stage of His unveiling and revelation. The Gospel of Luke tells us that after Jesus emerged from the Jordan River and was praying, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in a bodily manner, like a dove. The voice of God spoke saying, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.”

This is the first answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” The voice of God referred to Him as His “beloved Son.” He is the Son of God.

John describes Jesus in his Gospel with these words: “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus), and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh. Later, Peter, James, and John will hear God tell them on a mountaintop, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Matt. 17:5). So as we see in this passage, Jesus is not merely a great moral teacher or philosopher as someone described him. He is the Son of God.

The great Christian defender of the faith from the last century, C.S. Lewis, points out in his book Mere Christianity, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said, would not be a great moral teacher. Either he would be a lunatic on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, or he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or He is a madman Ð perhaps even something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about Him simply being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God Ð true God and true man. He is to be trusted and worshiped and followed.

John the Baptist would later point his own disciples to Jesus and say, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! . . . I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him” (John 1:29, 32). We all follow a leader of some sort in our lives. The Son of God stepped into our world that first Christmas in order that we might follow Him. Jesus came so we might believe in Him and Him alone, follow Him, and thus receive eternal life.

On Jesus’ baptism day, these words from heaven Ð You are my beloved Son Ð revealed Jesus, the person, to us. The second half of the statement Ð with you I am well pleased Ð revealed Jesus’ purpose for coming into this world. These words of affirmation held some special meaning. Jesus knew His Old Testament prophecies and was well aware that these words were from the servant song in the book of Isaiah, chapter 42.

Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah, filled with the Spirit of God, told of a servant of God who would suffer and die for the sins of the people. “By his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5). He would die as a sacrifice for the sins of people like you and me. His purpose, as revealed on His baptismal day at the Jordan River, was to die as a sacrifice for the sins of people. Our broken relationship with God, which was caused by our sin, would be bridged once and for all by the cross on which the suffering servant Jesus died. The Son of God (the servant) came to save us and give His life as a ransom for us.

Finally, we learn from John the Baptist about the promising life Jesus has come to give us. John said in his statement about Jesus, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Who is this Holy Spirit? He is the One who helps us understand Jesus.

Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, writes of the Holy Spirit’s amazing work when he says, “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctifies and keeps me in the true faith.” The Holy Spirit helps me know, trust, and grow closer in my relationship with Jesus throughout my life. He changes me into something beautiful in God’s sight. Like a potter shapes a piece of clay, He conforms me into the image of Jesus and grows me in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Think of it! Jesus promises to make us more lovable and kind as we open our lives to His counsel and as we study and apply God’s Word in our lives. That promise still stands.

What about the fire image John used? After Easter on Pentecost, tongues of fire rested on the disciples’ heads, and as they told the story of Jesus, many believed and were saved. They were empowered to impact other people’s eternal destinies. That promise still stands as well.

Who was this Jesus Ð the person, His purpose, His promises? He is the Son of God who came to die on a cross to rescue you and me from sin and give us a new life with the Holy Spirit working inside of us. Trust Him, follow Him, worship Him as your Lord and Savior. Open His Word daily. Let Him speak to you and work in you. Call upon His name in prayer. For as you follow Him, therein is the life God intended for you.

Just What I Needed: Strength

In his book A Scent of Love Keith Miller tells a funny, but true, story about a mother who was having a very bad day. She piled all the kids into her little red Volkswagen bug that morning to go out to an animal farm. This animal farm was a place where the animals roam freely. Kids can pet them and even ride an elephant.

When the mother and her children arrived, the parking lot was full. However, she managed to find a place away from the parking lot. So she squeezed in the path, and off they went to enjoy the day together.

Later in the afternoon, she suddenly remembered she was supposed to pick up her husband at the airport, and she was probably going to be late now. So she herded the kids back to her car. But to her horror, she found the whole front end of her little red Volkswagen bug was smooshed in. Angrily she went to the powers that be to find out what had happened to her car. They explained that Millie, the elephant, liked to sometimes perform tricks, and one of her tricks was to sit on a little red tub. They explained that when Millie saw the little red Volkswagen bug she could not resist and sat on the car. They said, “Don’t worry, we’ll pay for it when you have it fixed.” She was irate. What a day!

She got back to the car piled the kids in Ð it was still drivable because its engine was in the back Ð and down the highway they went to pickup dad. But then they ran into a bad traffic situation. An accident of some sort had occurred and cars were lined up. By this time, she was just out of her mind. She pulled the call to the shoulder and drove past all the cars lined up on the highway. She didn’t even notice the two patrolmen up near the front. One was writing some details about the accident; the other was directing traffic. She just zipped right by them. The officer who was directing traffic ran over his motorcycle and turn on the siren, chased after and finally pulled her over. He said to her, “Lady, don’t you know it’s against the law to leave the scene of an accident?”

She replied, “Officer, I didn’t have an accident.” He raised his eyebrows, looked at the front of her car, and said, “What’s that?”

“An elephant sat on it.”

He proceeded to take out a little balloon for her to do a breathalyzer test.

Have you ever heard the adage, “Some days life throws a curve ball at you?” I would say that poor woman had been thrown a major curve ball that day and some might laugh at the story. However, being thrown a curve ball by life is not so funny. In fact, it can be rather painful. For example:

You go to the doctor, and he finds a lump and begins to use a word that begins with C. Life has thrown you a curve ball.

You are standing at the grave side. The person you have been married to for fifty some years is now gone, and you are facing your first holiday alone. You don’t know how you can go on without him. Life has thrown you a curve ball.

You are feeling weak and you don’t know what to do. Perhaps you are getting older, and sometimes with getting older comes the loss of taking care of yourself. You move from your home to assisted living. Life has thrown you a curve ball as you adjust.

A friend of mine told me this past week that she has to give up her car. Life has thrown her a curve ball.

Perhaps you are a parent who is worried sick about your kids. You did everything you could to raise them in the faith and to be good citizens as well. But now they are in trouble, and they’ve walked away from the Lord. Life has thrown you a curve ball, and you don’t know what to do.

Maybe you’re a young person whose mother and father have told you they are getting a divorce. Life has thrown you a curve ball as you wonder what your future will look like. Or you are off to college. You’re not making connections. You miss your friends and family and are homesick. Life has thrown you a curve ball.

Again and again life throws us a curve ball. And when it does, we can feel fatigued and inadequate, and we find ourselves wondering how we will get through.

Paul was a man from New Testament times. He knew exactly what you might be going through. He talked of having a thorn in the flesh. Some sort of chronic pain plagued him throughout his life. He faced hardships, such as beatings, for his faith in public. He experienced rejection from friends who didn’t understand him because he followed Jesus. He talked of jailings, shipwrecks, and all kinds of horrible, no good, very bad days in his life.

Paul was a follower of Jesus. He discovered for himself that no one is exempt from facing life’s curve balls, whether they are a believer or not. He found himself in jail with the possibility of never getting out again, perhaps even losing his life, when a group of friends from the northern church of Greece sent him some support Ð a financial gift. They were the Philippians. He was so filled with gratitude, he wrote them a letter back that made it into the New Testament. In his letter, he said, I want to thank you for your kindness, your concern for me. But I also want you to know something amazing has happened. I have learned the secret of contentment, of facing plenty and want, abundance and need. You see, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Did you catch that? I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. This is his testimony as he faces the curve balls of life.

We sometimes hear this passage used in the field of athletics, like it is some sort of special power we have to score a touchdown or defeat someone in the boxing ring. Evander Holyfield had it on his robe when he boxed Mike Tyson. It is also used in the field of business by those who want a job promotion and be a success. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But it is not the context of this verse.

Paul is in jail. He may not get out. He may even die there. From the outside look in, one might say his life is not working out. And as he faces this time of great need and want, he says, I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me. This verse is not about scoring a touchdown or getting a job promotion. It is about facing life’s curve balls. Paul is testifying to the power of Christ at work in his life.

Behind this verse is a lot of history, a lot of stories about how Christ was faithful and had gotten him through. If read the book of Acts and some of Paul’s other letters, you find stories of Jesus working in Paul. Paul tells us, Jesus is not only “God with us Ð Immanuel,” but he is also God in us. Since I’ve gotten to know Jesus Christ, I’ve discovered that it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. He resides in me. He infuses me with His strength and power to face all circumstances life throws at me.

Paul was giving a testimony to the power of Christ during those times of life when things just don’t add up. Paul was experiencing what Jesus Christ came to give us that first Christmas Ð strength. Paul echos the angel’s words to Joseph in the Christmas story, “He shall be called, Immanuel Ð God with us.” Jesus came to be with us, walk alongside of us, and be available to us. Besides the promise of eternity in Heaven, Jesus promised to walk with us through the rest of our lives. Paul has experienced His presence as he faced the ups and the downs of life, the curve balls of daily living.

Let me cut to the chase here Ð the same Jesus Christ who strengthened Paul in New Testament times, who rose from the dead after dying for our sins, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is available and present for every one of us. I see Him at work in the lives of so many in my own congregation as I walk with them through hardships. There’s Al who is battling cancer. He says to me, “I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have my faith in Jesus Christ.”There’s Dan who is battling ALS. He says, “It’s a ÔJesus thing’ that helps me keep a positive attitude in the midst of all of this.” There’s Gabby who says she’s adjusting to her first year of college. “I don’t know where I’d be without Jesus.” There’s Erv who I had breakfast with last week. He lost his wife in the past several months and is facing his first Christmas alone. Yes, he is hurting, but he says, “I don’t know where I’d be without my faith Jesus at work in my life.” Again and again I hear these testimonies: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me in the here and the now.”

Recently I heard a great testimony in an interview with Rick and Kay Warren. Their son, who had a mental illness, had committed suicide. They talked about the horror of finding their son dead and the resulting pain.

In the interview, Kay said people ask her how she is doing even several months later. She tells them, “I am terrible, but it’s okay.” And then she said this remarkable thing: “I tell them I’m devastated, but I am not destroyed.” You see, behind that statement is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. She is being held up by the One who is there for her. She has a strong personal relationship with Christ Jesus.

My dear brothers and sisters, listen to me closely: the same gift of strength is available to you, and it comes when a person lives in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “I count everything as loss in comparison to knowing Jesus” (Phil. 3:8). He’s talking about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Christ is not some figure in a history book or a painting on a wall. He is real. He’s here Ð present and available. That is what Kay Warren has found, what people in my congregation have found, and what I have experienced my own life. Having that relationship begins, first of all, by asking Him into your life. He wants to step in. He says, “Behold I stand at the door knock if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I’ll come in and eat with him and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). In other words, we will have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Maybe that is where it needs to begin for you. You’ve kept Christ at arms length. He’s knocking today. He wants to be in your life. He wants to strengthen you, and give you eternal life. And if you’ve been walking with Christ, but the relationship has been kind of distant, maybe today is the day to pursue a more personal relationship with him. What is the basis of a personal relationship? It’s just like marriage. What if I only talk to my wife or listen to my wife once a month? We won’t have much of a relationship.

We need to talk with God. We need open our lives to Him, give Him everything we are facing in our lives, entrust ourselves to His care in prayer, and listen to His counsel. He has promised to speak with us in a personal way as we live with Him in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the rest of the Bible. He has things to share with us that can change our lives! He has promises for us to call upon His name with and to build our lives upon. He has instructions for us, and He’s told us a person who takes those instructions and puts them to work in his life is like a wise man who builds his house upon a strong foundation. When the storms of life come, they cannot knock that house down! He has words for us Ð wisdom, direction, questions Ð to help us think through life’s priorities. If we allow him to speak to us in a personal way, and we take Him seriously in His Word, we find ourselves being drawn closer and closer to Him, and we discover that this Jesus knows what makes life work best for us.

Finally, as we live among God’s faithful people, as we worship with them, as we enter into a small group with them and discuss the word of God together, as we lean on each other to see Jesus and learn the truth of the promise, “Where two or three of you are gathered, there am I in the midst of them,” we meet Jesus. Jesus is not hiding. Maybe we’re the ones who are hiding. Too often He wants to have a personal relationship with you. He wants to give you the ability to say with the apostle Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Thanks be to God for this gift! Take Him up on it.