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Sermon 01-24-21: “God’s Grace in a Storm”

January 26, 2021

Scripture: Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-5, 10

Objectively speaking, the “hero” of today’s scripture, Jonah, is probably the most successful preacher who has ever lived. Or close enough! By the end of this book, we learn that through Jonah’s faithful preaching of God’s Word, 120,000 people repented of their sins, turned in faith to the one true God, and were rescued from God’s wrath. They were saved.

Jonah was very successful in his mission! Billy Graham reached more lost people than that, but that was over the course of 70 years; Jonah did it in three days!

But perhaps that’s where the comparisons end. Based on what we learn from chapter 1 of this book, Jonah does not seem much like Billy Graham.

After all, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and preach God’s Word against them because of their great evil. Nineveh is 600 miles east of Israel. So what does this great great man of God, this great prophet, this most successful preacher who ever lived, do? Verse 3 tells us: He boarded a ship bound for a place called Tarshish, which was “away from the presence of the Lord.” 

Tarshish is all the way across the Mediterranean, in Europe, in present-day Spain. As far as Jonah is concerned, it’s on the other side of the world—and it is absolutely as far as he could go opposite the place where God was calling him to go. Do you think Jonah was confused about directions? 

One of my best friends in high school, for example—a brilliant kid—was so bad with directions he did not know his left hand from his right. He only knew for sure which way was left by holding his two hands, looking at his thumb and forefinger, and seeing which one formed an “L” on his hand. I’m not kidding. 

So maybe Jonah got his east and west mixed up? I mean, surely this great Bible hero—this great man of God, this most successful preacher who ever lived—would not disobey God in such a flagrant way! Right? 

Yeah, right! God told Jonah, “Go east,” and Jonah told God, in so many words, “No, thanks! Instead, I’m going to go as far west as my map tells me that I can go!”

He’s no Billy Graham!

So our temptation is to feel morally superior to Jonah. We think, “Jonah is awful! He’s the worst! He’s such a screwup! I mean, God called him to do something—perhaps even in an audible voice! We don’t know! Regardless, it was obvious and unmistakeable to Jonah that God was commanding him to go and do this thing, and he disobeyed God! 

And we’re tempted to place ourselves above Jonah, and look down on Jonah, and think, “If God told me to do something or to say something to rescue lost people from their sins, I would gladly go and do it!”

Oh, wait… “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” Some preacher once joked, if you want to hear God speak to you in an audible voice, read the Bible out loud!

So when we consider our failure to witness, maybe we’re not so different from Jonah…?

But maybe we’re worse than Jonah, because unlike us, at least Jonah had a good excuse not to obey his particular commission! Nineveh was the capital of a nation that, in about 25 years, would wipe Jonah’s nation off the face of the earth. Jonah was from the northern kingdom of Israel. He was part of the ten tribes of Israel that would no longer exist after the Assyrians conquered them and brought them into captivity, never to return. So to Jonah, the Ninevites represented an evil, deadly, violent, hated enemy… It would be like God calling me to go to—I don’t know—to Afghanistan on September 12, 2001, and preach the gospel to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. No, thanks, God!

So we’re hardly in a position to judge Jonah too harshly!

So Jonah’s plan was to run away from God, to run away from the place where God was calling him to go, and to sail to the other side of the world. But God loved Jonah and was unwilling to give up on him—even if Jonah was ready to give up on God. And verse 4 records some of the most merciful, most loving, most compassionate words in all of scripture: “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.”

Hold on… That doesn’t sound very merciful or loving or compassionate!”

But not so fast… If we are a part of God’s family through faith in Christ, God will ensure that every storm—literal or figurative—that God sends our way—every storm that, in his sovereignty, he allows us to face—will ultimately be for our good. 

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, would certainly agree. As most of you know, he spent a couple of difficult, fruitless years as a pastor and missionary in the new British colony of Georgia. Maybe you’ve been there? In fact, if you go to Reynolds Square today, in the historic district of Savannah, there’s a statue of Wesley where his original parsonage stood. But on the month-long journey from England to America in January 1736, a violent storm in the Atlantic threatened to sink the ship.

He and his fellow Englishmen were terrified, screaming in fear. Meanwhile a group of German missionaries and their families, associated with the Moravian church, were circled up, holding hands, and singing hymns—men, women, children. Wesley was impressed by their confidence, their calm, their lack of fear. He asked one of them later why they were so calm when everyone else on board was panicking. This man said, “We’re not afraid to die.” 

Wesley later realized that the difference between these Moravian Christians and himself was that they were saved, and he wasn’t.

In his journal he wrote, 

“I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me?… I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, ‘To die is gain!'”

Wesley was so impressed by the faith of these Moravians that when he came back to England, he made friends with some of them. And Wesley was literally at a Moravian-sponsored Bible study on Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, at 8:45 p.m., when—as he wrote in his journal—“my heart was strangely warmed,” and “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” And immediately afterward, the Methodist renewal movement began sweeping across England, Scotland, and Ireland and across the Atlantic to the colonies of America.

It’s no exaggeration to say that you and I are in this church this morning in part because God sent a storm! Because God used this storm to wake Wesley up to the reality that even though he was an ordained minister in the Church of England, he didn’t yet trust in Jesus as his Savior and Lord. He wasn’t saved. And through that event at Aldersgate, Wesley brought revival to the Church of England and founded our Methodist church in America, which has led to so many other Wesleyan and Methodist churches, to Holiness churches, eventually even to Pentecostal churches… and… well, as a result, literally millions of saints will be in heaven in part because God sent a storm!

Or consider Jesus’ own disciples… On two different occasions in the gospels Jesus sends his own disciples into a life-threatening storm, on board a tiny fishing boat, on the Sea of Galilee. Both times the disciples thought they were going to drown… They were bailing water, battling wind and waves, afraid for their lives. Yet God used both storms to teach them something about Jesus and his gospel and their trust in him. After the second storm, Matthew says, “And those in the boat worshiped [Jesus], saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

Suppose you could go back in time and interview these disciples—who have just realized that Jesus is God in the flesh, and have just had this amazing worship experience—suppose you could ask them, “Was it merciful and loving and compassionate for Jesus Christ to send you into a life-threatening storm like that?” What do you think they would say?

They would say, “Of course it was merciful and loving and compassionate! To have that experience with Christ, to behold his glory, to grow in our relationship with Christ, to trust in him more, to fall more deeply in love with him—it was totally worth the storm!” 

And that’s what the sailors on board this ship bound for Tarshish would have said about their storm… because look at verse 16: After they throw Jonah into the sea, after “the sea ceased from raging,” we’re told that “the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” That they “made vows” means something like this: “They committed their lives to believing in, loving, fearing, and serving the God of Israel for the rest of their lives—the same God who would later become flesh and dwell among us as Jesus Christ.

If it took a life-threatening storm to bring them to saving faith in God, well, none of these sailors who are enjoying God in heaven right now are complaining, I promise you that! 

And I’m guessing that the 120,000 Ninevites would agree with those sailors. After all, if not for this storm, Jonah would never have been willing to sacrifice his life, would never have been swallowed by God’s miraculous fish, would never have repented, and would never have fulfilled God’s mission for him to preach to the Ninevites… which gave them the chance to repent of their sins and be saved from God’s wrath.

For those of us who are Christians, therefore, we can be confident that the storms God sends us will be good for us… that God will use them for our good.

There’s a profound song by singer-songwriter Laura Story about this very topic. It’s called “Blessings,” which she wrote when her husband was battling a life-threatening illness. It includes these poignant words:

We pray for blessings

We pray for peace

Comfort for family, protection while we sleep

We pray for healing, for prosperity

We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering

All the while, You hear each spoken need

Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?

What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

I haven’t known a thousand sleepless nights, but I’ve known more than a few in my life. I bet you have, too. Is it possible that that situation or person or event in your life, that storm in your life, which caused or is causing those sleepless nights is precisely what you need to “know that God is near” and draw closer to him, and trust in him more, and depend on him more? And if the end result of that trial you’re going through is that you finally learn this lesson—and your faith in Jesus is strengthened—wouldn’t it all have been worth it?

Of course it would!

The message that God sends us through these storms is usually the same as the captain’s message to Jonah in verse 6: “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god!”

Maybe, like John Wesley, you need to face the fact that you’ve never truly trusted in Christ as your Savior, you’ve never surrendered to him as Lord, and Christ is calling you right now to do that! If so, wake up!

Or maybe you know that, even though you’re a Christian, there’s some habitual sin, besetting sin, in your life of which you need to repent—even if all you can do to repent is confess your powerlessness over the sin and ask God’s grace to change you. If so, wake up!

Or maybe, like Jonah himself, you need to do your part to rescue lost people from the consequences of their sin—which is death and eternal separation from God. If so, wake up!

By the way, why was Jonah sleeping in the first place? No one else was!

Jonah is sleeping because he’s depressed, because he’s given up hope! Unlike all these pagan sailors on board the ship—who are desperately praying to their phony gods—Jonah doesn’t think that praying to his God—the God who is real—will do him any good. Why? Because he believes that God is angry at him, that God won’t listen to him, and that God is going to kill him… because he’s sinned… because he’s disobeyed God. Jonah is asleep because he doesn’t consider the possibility that God could still love him… that God could be using this storm for anything other than his destruction… that this storm is really God’s mercy in disguise. 

How surprised he must have been, in verse 17, when he learns that God actually appointed a giant fish to swallow him up—not to kill him, but to rescue him and give him new life.

Oh, wait. You mean, God hasn’t given up on me? God still has a plan for my life? God can still use me… in spite of my many failures, in spite of my disobedience, in spite of my sin? 


And it’s true for you, too! Look at chapter 3, verses 1 and 2: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” These are the same words that God used back in chapter 1, verse 1. The difference is that this time Jonah obeys God. 

But I need to make three important observations. First, God rescued Jonah from the storm by appointing this big fish before Jonah did anything to repent. In other words, God didn’t save him with the fish on the condition that he be really, really sorry for what he did. Second, notice what God doesn’t say in chapter 3, verse 1. He doesn’t say, “Jonah, you really messed up last time, but I’m giving you one more chance. You better get it right this time!” No! God doesn’t mention Jonah’s previous sin and disobedience. It’s almost like it didn’t happen… Because as far as God is concerned, it didn’t. What does the Bible say? “[A]s far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove our transgressions from us.” “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Third, many of you know how the Book of Jonah ends. Jonah is mad at God for saving the Ninevites and full of self-pity. And it’s almost like… Jonah still doesn’t have his act togetherHe’s still a sinner… even after all the grace and mercy God showed him! And God just keeps on loving him!

So… The grace that God showed to Jonah did not depend on him being really, really sorry for his sins, and it also didn’t depend on future faithful performance

What is God trying to show us? Only this: If we are his children through faith in Christ, his love and mercy and grace and acceptance of us does not depend on who we are and what we’ve done, but only on who his Son Jesus is and what he’s done for us. Listen: Forget what’s happened in your past. If you’re a Christian, it’s as if you’re standing on the shore with Jonah in Chapter 3, verse 1, and God is saying, “Now, you go and do these things I’m telling you to do. Okay?” God isn’t holding your sins against you. God is giving you a fresh start right now. God is saying, “I’m not mad at you! I’m not disappointed in you. I couldn’t love you more than you do. I’m not against you; I’m on your side. Nothing you do, nothing you refuse to do, will ever change that. Because you’re my child, and I love you!”

If it’s true for Jonah, why do you think it wouldn’t be true for you? Jonah’s sinned in a spectacular way! It doesn’t seem to matter. God keeps on loving him anyway! And it’s true for you too if you’re his child.

But why does God show us such grace? Jonah tells us why… Actually, Jesus himself says that Jonah tells us why. Jesus refers to this event in the gospels as “the sign of Jonah.” What he means is, Jonah helps to show us who Jesus is and what he accomplished for us.

Think about it… Apart from the free gift of salvation available through Christ, it’s as if we’re the ones on board that ship, which will soon be destroyed by a violent storm. Like Jonah, we’re facing God’s wrath because of our sin. And like Jonah, we’re about to be thrown into a deep, dark abyss—which for us means hell, eternal separation from God. It’s what our sins deserve. 

And that’s what will happen to us… unless someone else steps forward and volunteers to take our place, to suffer the death penalty that we deserve—and that someone, of course, the only one who’s eligible to do it, is God’s Son Jesus. 

Like Jonah, Christ chooses to sacrifice his life to save ours. By doing so, he turns away God’s wrath toward sin so we can have peace and reconciliation with God. And, like Jonah, after three days, he was given new life—so that the good news could be preached to God’s enemies, to “sinful Ninevites” like us, so that we could be saved and have eternal life.

Brothers and sisters, if you believe this, will you say Amen? If you’ve received this free gift of salvation through faith in Christ, will you say Amen? If, like Jonah, you’re ready to go and share this good news with others through both your actions and your words, will you say Amen?

If you, like those sailors, like those Ninevites, are ready to repent and be saved, you’re invited to come forward and do that now… Amen.

Sermon 01-17-21: “Come and See”

January 20, 2021

Scripture: John 1:43-51

Young people who hear me say this won’t believe me, but there was a period of time—gosh, 25 years ago now—when buying products made by Apple Computer was considered very risky—even foolish. Because many so-called experts were predicting that Apple Computer would soon be out of business…

Back then, being a “fanboy” of Apple, as I was, was a little like being in a religious cult. I’m not kidding. And if so, I drank the Kool-Aid. See, I was very eager to convince friends, family, co-workers, and even complete strangers that their lives would be much better if they purchased a Macintosh computer and not one of those evil Windows PCs. Please don’t make fun of me. I know it’s silly now.

One time, I was at a computer store, looking at all these shiny new Mac computers that I couldn’t afford, when a young man came up to me and asked me if I knew anything about Macs, that he was considering switching from Windows to Mac, and he wanted to know why I thought it was better. 

Well, friend, I’m glad you asked… and I proceeded to talk to him for a long time, and patiently answered all of his questions. I enjoyed talking to him about my love of Macs; I believed in these products! He said, “Listen, you’ve been very helpful. I’m going to go home and think about it. But if I have any more questions, would you mind if I gave you a call.” Not at all!

I didn’t give it a second thought, but a few days later he called. And boy did he had questions for me: First, he asked, “Have you ever considered being your own boss? Have you ever thought of owning your own business? Do you want to enjoy financial freedom and independence? If so, let me tell you about… this particular multilevel marketing company!” 

I should have known, right?

I mean no offense against multilevel marketing… I promise. I myself have a cabinet full of Tupperware. It’s just that… I know why he was talking to me. He wanted to sell me something—which is fine. But why was I so eager to talk to him. I wasn’t getting paid. I didn’t work for Apple. I wasn’t making a commission.

It was only later when this troubling thought crossed my mind: “Why can’t talking to other people about Jesus be as easy as talking about Apple computers?” It’s an important question because remember your membership vows as a United Methodist. If you have joined a United Methodist church since 1996, you have promised to serve Jesus and support the church through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. But you’re not just witnessing because of a promise you made to your church, Jesus commands you to do it!

The word “witnessing” comes from the version of the Great Commission that Jesus gives his disciples in Acts 1:8, forty days after the resurrection and moments before he ascended to heaven: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” When Jesus spoke these words, the continent of North America would have seemed to his listeners like the “end of the earth,” but we are no longer even close to the end. According to a missions organization called the Joshua Project, of 7.75 billion people living in the world right now, fully 3.23 billion live in one of 7,414 people groups who haven’t heard the gospel and currently have no access to it. That represents 41.6 percent of the world’s population! 

And of course this doesn’t count the United States, in which a majority of the population identifies as Christian. According to a 2020 study by Barna Research, however, only a quarter of these self-identified Christians “agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month”! Weekly church attendance is down one-third from 1993. 

Our country is filled, in other words, with nominal Christians. So it’s no secret that we have a mission field right here, in our own backyard!

And I’m sharing this with you because today’s scripture has a lot to do with evangelism! And more than a few preachers and commentators say that John chapter 1, beginning with verse 35, gives us a template for how to do evangelism. So let’s pay attention.

First, look at verse 43: “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” This chapter narrates Jesus’ call of his first five disciples: John, the author of this gospel, Andrew and his brother Peter, Philip, and Nathanael, whom we know from the other gospels by his last name, Bartholomew, which means “son of Tholomaios.” 

In the the other three gospels, you may recall, it almost seems like, when Jesus calls his twelve disciples, he’s using some kind of Obi Wan Kenobi mind control… Like he’s using the Force or something: Peter, Andrew, James, and John are working on their fishing boats, Jesus passes by and says, “Follow me,” and—without even knowing who Jesus is, as far as we know—they drop everything and follow him.

But John gives us a fuller, more complete picture. The first chapter of John tells us that these disciples already knew Jesus… they had already been converted; they had already begun following Jesus even as they continued working their day jobs. But when Jesus later calls these these five men, and seven others, to be his twelve disciples, he’s calling them to full-time ministry… to leave their homes, their families, their vocations, and to follow him full-time. That’s the difference. The call of the twelve in the other three gospels takes place some time after the events of John 1. John 1 tells the story of when these first five men came to faith in Christ.

But I love verse 43: Jesus goes to Galilee, finds Philip, and says, “Follow me.” Why does Jesus do this? A clue is given in verse 44: “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” Andrew and Peter, you see, had met Jesus and started following him the day before, in verses 40 to 42. Jesus went to Galilee to find Philip and call him as a disciple, in other words, because Philip’s friends Andrew and Peter had asked Jesus to go. Andrew and Peter already knew that Philip would be receptive to becoming a disciple of Jesus, and they asked him to go. I’m reading between the lines, but this seems like a reasonable inference.

So the first and most important principle of evangelism is to ask Jesus to go to people who are lost and in need of him, to reveal himself to people, to call people to become his disciples. As Jesus himself will later say in John’s gospel, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Before anyone becomes a Christian, something supernatural must take place. We need to pray that that supernatural thing happens! 

I think I know Methodists pretty well. And I know myself pretty well. And I know that many of us would rather drink an extra dose of colonoscopy prep than to open our mouths and say something about Jesus and our faith. And we often say we don’t know how to do it, or what to say. And I get it. But I hope you see that this first and most important principle of evangelism is something that you already know how to do. Pray! 

Not long ago, a retired pastor and district superintendent in our conference, Warren Lathem—legendary pastor of Mt. Pisgah United Methodist, who got his start right here in Toccoa at St. James UMC, and one of the most successful Methodist preachers of his generation, posted the following complaint on Facebook. He said that now that he’s retired from full-time pastoral ministry, he gets to go and speak and preach at a lot of churches. And these churches, like our church, have prayer times, during which people often share prayer requests. And he said that he hears requests all the time for physical healings and physical safety—healing from sickness, healing after surgery, safety during childbirth, safety for police officers and soldiers. And he hears requests for comfort for people who are grieving for loved ones who’ve died. And there’s nothing at all wrong with these kinds of requests. 

What’s wrong, he said, is what’s left unsaid: Rarely if ever has he heard anyone say, “I want to pray for my husband—my son, my daughter, my neighbor, my friend—who is lost. Who doesn’t know Jesus. Who isn’t saved. Who is in need of spiritual healing, healing for their souls. Who is in far greater danger than anyone suffering from cancer, or a heart attack, or a natural disaster, or violence. Why? Because the threat that this lost person is facing doesn’t just kill the body but sends the soul to hell. 

Not that we shouldn’t also pray for the physical welfare of ourselves and people we love—by all means—but what if we decided as a church that what happens to us matters far less than what happens to those who don’t know Jesus? What if we lived as if our first and most important responsibility was to fulfill the Great Commission to be witnesses in the world?

Are you praying right now for friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, classmates who need Jesus? Tell Jesus to go to them! You can do that, even if you think you can’t do anything else!

Now let’s look at verse 45: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’” So here, notice, Philip is speaking from personal experience—“we have found,” I know from first-hand experience that what I’m telling you is true—but he’s doing more than that. Because he likely already knows that if he’s going to convince his skeptical friend Nathanael to follow Jesus, he’s going to have to prove from scripture that Jesus is the Messiah—so he connects Jesus to messianic prophecies from the Old Testament.

But guess what? Philip is not doing a very good job at it. He says, “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Now hold on! While it’s true that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he’s not from there, not originally. He’s from Bethlehem. Nathanael knows his Bible, and he knows that it prophesies that the Messiah must be from Bethlehem. I’m sure that’s in part why Nathanael scoffs in verse 46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” So Philip is wrong about Nazareth.

Also, he tells Nathanael that Jesus is the “son of Joseph.” Well, he’s the adoptive son of Joseph, but that’s hardly as important as a fact that Nathanael himself would grasp in verse 49, after he meets Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God.

My point is, although I admire Philip’s eagerness to share his faith with his potentially hostile and skeptical friend, he doesn’t say nearly enough about Jesus. And what he says is misleading.

But… this leads us to the second important principle about witnessing that emerges from today’s scripture: You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to say all the right words. I’m not suggesting for a moment that you shouldn’t try to get it right, but you shouldn’t let your fear of saying something wrong prevent you from saying anything. Because remember the Great Commission verse I shared earlier: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” It is not ultimately up to you to save anyone. But if you’re in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit living inside you, and he is giving you power to be an effective witness. 

Just a few days ago, there was a family—two parents and a bunch of kids—playing on our playground next to my office. And I didn’t know them. And I was busy. But I thought, “Brent, behold your mission field. Go and meet them, talk to them, invite them… witness to them. What an easy opportunity. You know you’re supposed to.” And I thought, “I don’t know what to say.” And I felt as if the Lord were telling me, as he has before, “Just open your mouth. I’ll give you the words.” And so I did… I opened my mouth. And it was easy. And it was great. And Jesus tells us in the gospels, “Don’t worry about how to defend yourself or what to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said.” I know from experience that that’s true.

When it comes to witnessing, do what Philip did… just open your mouth, just take the risk! Trust in the Holy Spirit… Your words of witness have power… not because of who you are, but who God is!

Finally, when Nathanael objects and says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” it seems likely that Philip doesn’t know how to respond. He doesn’t know why Jesus is from Nazareth when he’s supposed to be from Bethlehem. Jesus probably hadn’t told him that yet. He just met him. That’s okay. Witnessing is not about having all the answers. But notice how Philip responds: “Come and see.” As one commentator says, Philip doesn’t say, “Go and see,” as if to say, “You’re on your own, buddy. Figure it out for yourself!” He says, “Come and see. I don’t necessarily know how to answer your questions and handle your objections. I’m going to let Jesus do that. Come with me and let’s have you meet him for yourself… See for yourself if I’m telling the truth. Experience him for yourself!”

And we may recall the story of Samaritan woman at the well, in John chapter 4, later in this gospel. She goes and witnesses to her entire village: “I’ve just met the Messiah! He told me all that I ever did!” So they listen to her words and come and meet Jesus for themselves. John 4:42: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” And some commentators grumble about how this is sexist: “Of course they’re not going to take the word of a woman!” But that misses the point entirely: The point is, no one comes to saving faith in Christ because of anyone’s words—I made this point earlier. But everyone who becomes a Christian does so because of personal experience with Christ… a personal encounter with Christ!

Ultimately that’s what saves Nathanael. Yes, he needs his friend Philip to witness to him, but it isn’t until Jesus speaks to him, with supernatural insight about his character and his life—“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” And he’s like, “How do you know me?” And Jesus says, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” We always want John to give us more information. And commentators love speculating about the symbolic meaning of the “fig tree,” and what Nathanael was doing, but that misses the point: the point is, Jesus had supernatural knowledge about Nathanael that Jesus couldn’t have known apart from God. Maybe Nathanael was under a fig tree on the other side of the hill… there’s simply no way Jesus could have seen him with his eyes. The point is, Nathanael experiences Jesus for himself—he has a supernatural encounter with Christ—and he confesses his faith and is saved.

So a third and final principle of evangelism is, We must give people an opportunity to experience Christ for themselves. And so one important and practical way we do this is—no surprise here—inviting people to worship with us on Sunday.

Remember the first point—to pray. This third point is a lot like that, in the sense that everyone can do it! It’s not hard to invite! And I know a lot of you are inviting. One visitor that we had recently filled out a visitor’s card and said that she heard about our church because of “that nice lady at the Hallmark store”—referring, of course, to Patti Joiner. So I know many of you are doing this, but I think we can all agree that we can improve in this area. Right? And I know that visiting church is a little sketchy until we get vaccinated and we’re on the other side of this pandemic. But we do have excellent, high-quality live streaming and online services that you can point your friends and neighbors to. You can share the links with your friends. These services can be an outstanding tool for outreach. And I know that’s happening a little.

But what I’m saying is, if we are going to a people who are committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, it’s going to take all of us working together… deliberately.

Are we praying every day for lost people we know who need Jesus? Are we trusting not in ourselves to have the right words but in the power of the Holy Spirit, which each one of us Christians has? Finally, are we inviting lost people to experience Jesus for themselves? 

But let’s go back to my question at the top of the sermon: “Why was it easier for me to talk to complete strangers about Apple computers—many years ago—than it was to talk even to close friends about Jesus? I mean, I’m sure there are many interesting sociological reasons. For one thing, we all feel a lot of pressure to conform to our world around us, and let’s face it: talking about Jesus is deeply countercultural. It’s not something that the vast majority of people do. So it’s scary, we feel all alone. But there’s a deeper reason…

It’s been five years since I was personally shaken by a terrifying event in the news. You may recall the headlines. Twenty-one Egyptian Christians were led in chains by ISIS terrorists down to a beach in Libya… where each one of them was beheaded for one simple reason: because they confessed their faith in Jesus Christ. They could have saved their lives, if they had simply renounced their faith. But they refused. And I didn’t dare watch the video that these terrorists posted online. But it’s a fact that before the sword came down on each of their necks, they shouted their praise and thanks to Jesus their Lord.

What courage! What a witness!

And we Christians in the West are simultaneously inspired by their witness and relieved… “Thank God we don’t have to go through that! Thank God we’ll never face that! Thank God that doesn’t happen here!” I mean, those kinds of things happen to Christians every day all around the world—now more than ever… but at least they don’t happen to us here.

And we agree when we hear about something like this, we think,  “That is so evil! That is the work of Satan!”

And it is… But let me please ask you: Do you think that the same devil isn’t at work here… I mean, you’ve gotta admit, Satan has done some of his best work here in the United States. What I mean is, literally none of us is coming close to risking our lives, or even our livelihoods, or any measure of our safety or security when we—like those Egyptian Christians—bear witness to Christ, share the gospel, talk about Jesus. Unlike those Egyptian Christians, in most cases, we risk very little harm to ourselves by witnessing. There’s just almost nothing to lose.

Yet isn’t it amazing how Satan has managed to convince us otherwise? He doesn’t even need the threat of a sword, the threat of terrorists capturing us under a lawless government, the threat of martyrdom… The devil doesn’t need any of those things to convince us not to witness! Even with our First Amendment protection, even with freedom of speech, even with religious liberty, we are scared to death to obey our Lord and to fulfill the Great Commission!

It’s unbelievable when you think about it! So like I said, the devil is doing some of his best, most subtle, most destructive work right here in our country! 

And look at that headlines recently: He loves distracting Christians with politics! Anything to keep them preoccupied with something other than winning the lost to Jesus Christ!

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Ultimately, Satan is the reason witnessing is so hard. Whereas he couldn’t have cared less 25 years ago whether I talked to anyone about Apple computers, he cares a great deal about whether I talk to someone about Jesus! So he fights me, and he fights you whenever we think about doing it! Let’s not let him win at Toccoa First United Methodist. I urge you: put on the whole armor of God and fight him! But he cares a great deal about whether I talk to someone about Jesus!

Sermon 01-10-21: “Hope in Our Wilderness”

January 13, 2021

Scripture: Mark 1:4-11

I came home from work last Wednesday, not having watched the news or paid close attention to social media during the day. Like everyone, I was deeply troubled, sad, even angry. Several fellow clergy online were posting their thoughts and speaking out. And I thought, “I have nothing to say that will be helpful right now.” One clergy friend posted on Facebook, “Well, I guess I’ll have to rewrite my sermon now!” And that made me angry—I thought, “How were you able to write your sermon before Wednesday in the first place? You’re just rubbing it now!” 

But seriously, I thought, “I hope that the gospel is good enough for this Sunday. I hope it’s relevant. Surely it is.” Some of Paul’s final words to his young protege Timothy in 2 Timothy are these: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” 

I don’t know if, in light of last week’s events, the gospel is “in season” or “out of season,” but it’s all I’ve got! I wholeheartedly believe that the gospel is what we and our world need now more than ever. So I hope you’ll understand and appreciate that in this sermon I’m going to preach the gospel.

I’ve seen the memes on social media in light of last week’s news: The year 2020 is talking to the year 2021, and he says, “You can’t be any worse than me!” And 2021 says, “Hold my beer.” While that’s funny and all, I don’t think that’s a Christian way of interpreting what’s happening in our world. In light of last Wednesday’s news, a lot of people who said “good riddance” to the year 2020 are now looking ahead to this new year with fear. And if that describes you, I want to encourage you with our heavenly Father’s words to Jesus in verse 11. After Jesus is baptized, we’re told that the heavens are “torn open,” the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, and he hears these words from his heavenly Father: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The heavens are torn and the Spirit descends. The Greek word for “torn” in verse 11 only appears in one other place in the Gospel of Mark. In chapter 15, verse 38, the moment after Jesus dies on the cross. At that very moment, Mark tells us, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” 

What does the torn curtain represent? 

Well, this was the curtain that separated Holy of Holies in the temple, from the rest of the sanctuary. The Spirit of God resided in a special way inside that room—so much so that it was dangerous for a sinful person to get too near. Only the high priest could enter that room once a year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and offer a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin on behalf of God’s people.

This curtain represents the fact that our sins have separated us from a holy God—that we can never be too close to God without his holiness destroying us. We see this many times in the Old Testament, but one famous example is when the prophet Isaiah has this amazing encounter with God in the temple, and he thinks he’s going to die: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Like I said, our sin separates us from God. We sinners can’t get too close to a holy God without being destroyed!

But the reason that the curtain in the temple is torn in Mark 15:38 is to symbolize that just as the Holy Spirit came down into Jesus, so the Holy Spirit will come down into all of us who have faith in Christ.

And by the way, just in case you think I’m making too much of that little word “torn” that appears both here and in Mark 15:38… notice, in both today’s text and in Mark 15, the very next verse following this “tearing”: In today’s scripture God says, “You are my beloved Son.” In Mark 15:39, the Roman centurion at the cross says, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” In both cases, with the coming of the Spirit comes recognition of who Jesus truly is! That is not an accident! Isn’t God awesome the way he guided the authors of his Word to write what they wrote!

But how is that possible that the Holy Spirit could come and live inside of us? We sinners couldn’t approach the Holy of Holies before and now, somehow, it’s as if the “Holy of Holies” is in our heart! Which is what the Bible means when it says that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” What’s changed?

What’s changed is this: in God’s eyes, he no longer sees us as sinners. The death we deserved to die for our sins, the hell we deserved to suffer for our sins… Christ has died and suffered for us. In Romans 6, the apostle Paul says that this is what our own baptism represents. We are clean. Our sins are washed white as snow. We now stand before God as perfectly holy. God is as “well pleased” with us as he is with his only begotten Son. Why wouldn’t he be? We now possess not our own righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters—through adoption—whom he loves every bit as much as his only begotten Son! 

Pastor Tim Keller tweeted the following this week, which, in my opinion, perfectly captures this truth: “To be adopted means that now God loves us as if we had done all Jesus had done.”

Isn’t that unbelievable? It might feel that unbelievable, but I need you to believe it up here [point to head] even if you’re having a hard time feeling it. I need you to understand this because here’s what it means:

If you are in Christ, our heavenly Father is not angry with you. He has no wrath toward you. He is not disappointed with you. And he is not punishing you for your sin… because your sins, as I’ve said, have already been punished… on the cross. To believe that God is punishing you for your sins now is to believe that God has punished your sins twice. That makes no sense. That’s unjust! Therefore, the moment you believed in Jesus, everything changed in your relationship with God.

Isn’t that good news?

I hope so, because, to say the least, whatever God, in his sovereign rule over our universe, is up to in our world—including when he allows bad, or painful, or evil things to happen to us, or even to our country—whatever he’s up to, it’s not because he’s angry with us who are his children, or disappointed, or surprised by something that we’ve done. No, his Word promises that in everything he is working for the good of those who “love him” and “who are called according to his purpose”—and that is literally all of us who have been born again through faith in Christ.

Can I get an “Amen”? 

Now, I’ve been talking about punishment for sin, which is different from God’s discipline. God will discipline his children. The New Testament tells us that in a dozen different passages. And you may say, “Isn’t that the same thing as punishment?” No… he disciplines us so that we’ll overcome sin—which is bad for us… which ultimately prevents us from finding lasting happiness and joy. He disciplines us for our own good.

Look, like you, I’ve felt a little anxious in light of recent events in our country, and there’s no question that it’s forced me to my knees more than usual, it’s forced me to draw closer to God—and it’s exposed within me my own sins, which so often impede my ability to trust in God more. That is God’s discipline… and that is a good thing!

So God disciplines us so that we can identify sin in our lives. And when we recognize our sin, we repent. Even though God does not view us as sinners, we still need to confess and repent of sin continually.

Our problem is… we often misunderstand what repentance is… 

Here’s what I mean: We often feel convicted about our sins, we feel guilty about our sins—and godly guilt is good… We feel like God is calling us to change. And our first response is to ask, “What do I need to do differently? What do I need to do to fix this problem in my life? What do I need to do to get my act together? What do I need to do to make it right?”

And I’m talking doing good things. Like, “I need to pray more. I need to go to church more. I need to read the Bible more. I need to volunteer more of my time. I need to give more of my money. I need to witness more. I need to be more disciplined. I need to give up this bad or sinful or destructive habit or addictions.” These are all good things to do. Or maybe we feel convicted to take up a cause—in the church or outside of the church. “We need to fight for racial justice. We need to fight for the sanctity of life. We need to fight to stop human trafficking. We need to fight to save our planet. We need to fight for religious liberty. We need to fight for… well, fill in the blank.” Whatever it is, when we get convicted that we’ve failed, that we’ve fallen short, that we’ve become complacent—indeed, that we’ve sinned against God and we need to changeour first thought is often, “I need to do this and that and the other thing.”

The problem is, we begin to think of repentance primarily as something that we must do. We tell ourselves something like this: “God saved me. God forgave me. God gave me a new life. God gave me a new birth. God gave me a second chance—or a 2,482nd chance… I didn’t deserve it. But he did it. God did his part… So now I need to do my part. And God helps those who help themselves so… Here’s what I must do! ” And we Christians often think of repentance as something we need to do. It is “our part.”

But here’s the problem: if repentance is mostly up to us… if it’s mostly something that we have to do… guess what? We will fail.

If you don’t believe me, go to a gym in the month of January. What do you see? You see that it’s crowded; it’s busier than normal. Why? Because people like me have made a New Year’s Resolution. “This year, I’m really going to do it. This year, I’m really going to get in shape. This year, I’m going to get those washboard abs. This year, I’m going to get swole.” But I said that last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

But despite my best intentions, despite summoning all the will power I can—if history is any guide—let’s face it: I probably won’t be successful. And when I go to the gym in mid-February, and I see that—surprise, surprise—it’s not nearly as crowded as it is now, then I’ll know that most everyone else has also failed to keep their promises to themselves, failed to live up to their best intentions, failed to keep their resolutions, failed to have sufficient will-power to do what they wanted to do.

In today’s scripture, people are coming out into the wilderness to be baptized by John as a sign of repentance.

More than a few commentators point out the symbolism of John’s actions here. God is using John, in other words, to make a connection to perhaps the most important event in Israel’s history: the exodus from Egypt. God rescued Moses and the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and brought them to freedom. And how did he do that? By bringing his people out into the wilderness and through the waters of judgment and death—the waters of the Red Sea—thereby destroying the enemy that was trying to destroy his people, and setting his people free. 

In today’s scripture, God is saying that he’s about to do something similar—only infinitely better! The new covenant of salvation through faith in Christ looks back on the old covenant that God established with Moses. What God did on a small scale to rescue his people from slavery and death, he will do now on a cosmic scale through Christ. And baptism symbolizes this: it symbolizes people going out into the wilderness, being delivered through the waters of judgment and death, into freedom from the slavery of sin and death and Satan Because… just as God defeated the Egyptians, so he defeats our enemy, which sin, death, and the devil.

Our own United Methodist baptism liturgy makes the connection between the Exodus and baptism in the baptismal prayer:

When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt,

you led them to freedom through the sea.

Their children you brought through the Jordan

to the land which you promised.

So let’s talk about the people that John is baptizing… 

Don’t you just know that most of these people went with the best of intentions to change. Most of them went with firm resolve to live differently from now on. Most of them went, summoning all the willpower they could muster—praying something like this: “This time, God, I’m going to do it. This time, God, I’m really going to get in shape, spiritually. This time, God, I’m really going to turn over a new leaf. This time, God, I’m going to study your holy Word every day. This time, God, I’m going to go to synagogue every week. This time, God, I’m going to tithe my income. This time, God, I’m going to kick that destructive addiction. This time, God, I’m going to live a life of sexual purity. This time, God, I’m going to do better… I’m going to be better… I know I failed miserably last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. But this time…”

I suspect many of you know exactly how that feels.

My point is, if God were simply using John’s baptism to tell his people, “I’m going to establish a new covenant with you, and it’s going to depend on you and your faithfulness in order to be successful,” that wouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence, right? You can go back and read the Book of Exodus—and literally any book from the Old Testament—and see how badly God’s people failed to be faithful—in spite of the fact that God rescued them from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea. 

So what’s going to be different this time? After all, all of these people who were coming out to the wilderness to be baptized by John were going to fail to be faithful to God—in spite of their best intentions, in spite of their willpower, in spite of their resolve to change. 

So what’s going to be different this time?

Only everything! Everything will be different this time! Because Jesus shows us what’s going to be different this time. Look at verse 9: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

If you’ve paid attention to today’s scripture, this should bother you. Why? Because of what verses 4 and 5 say: John’s baptism “proclaimed” repentance and forgiveness of sins—and the people getting baptized were “confessing their sins.” But if that’s the case, why on earth is Jesus getting baptized? Indeed, John himself understands the problem in Matthew’s account of this same event. In Matthew, John objects: “I need to be baptized by you! Why on earth are you asking me to baptize you?” In other words, he’s saying, “You’re the perfect, sinless Son of God! You don’t need to repent!”

And that’s true. But by submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus is saying something like this: “Two thousand years ago, when God rescued his people from slavery and delivered them through the waters, they failed; they were unable to be faithful to me. Indeed, every human who’s ever lived has failed to be faithful to me. So now, I’m going to do for you what you were unable to do for yourselves. I’m going to go into the wilderness and cross through the waters of judgment and death, and live that life of perfect obedience to my Father that you are unable live. I’m going to succeed where you failed. I’m going to do it for you. My righteousness will become your righteousness. I’ll give it to you as a free gift.

“And while it’s true that I haven’t sinned, on the cross I’m willingly going to be treated as a sinner; I’m willingly going to receive the punishment that your sins deserve; I’m willingly going receive the judgment, the death, the separation from God that your sins deserve. Because I love you that much. And I want to save you.

“So you’re right, John… Because I haven’t sinned, I don’t need this baptism. Except I’m showing you, and I’m showing the world, that I’m taking your place—and I’m taking the place of sinners everywhere. And I’m showing you that I’m willing to be treated as a sinner—so I can suffer your punishment, suffer your death, suffer your hell… so that you don’t have to.”

That’s the good news that verse 9 points to! That’s the gospel: Jesus did for us what we were unable to do for ourselves. 

So with that in mind, let me say one final thing about repentance, let’s go back to the Exodus event for a moment. There’s a remarkable conversation back in Exodus chapter 33 between God and Moses. I preached on this in the fall, but it’s worth revisiting—and I invite you to read this chapter on your own time. But after Israel commits idolatry with the golden calf—while Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments—God is righteously angry. And he tells Moses that he’s no longer going to accompany Moses and the people into the Promised Land. He’ll send an angel to lead them instead. God tells Moses, in so many words, “I’ll give you and the people everything I promised to give you—I’ll give you land, prosperity, military success, protection from all your enemies, protection from dangerous wildlife, protection from plagues… You can have your ‘land flowing with milk and honey.’ I’ll solve all of your worldly problems. I’ll meet all of your physical needs. I’ll bless you with every blessing you could possibly want… Except… you won’t get me.

And Moses said, in so many words, “In that case, God, let me die here. Because I’d rather die here… right now… with you… than live and prosper and enjoy every blessing this world has to offer… without you. It’s not worth it, Lord. If I can’t have you, I don’t want anything else. Nothing takes the place of you. There’s no adequate substitute for you. So, God, let me die here with you… than live over there, for even a moment, without you. You’re worth more than everything else the world has to offer.”

And I can’t help but hear an echo of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.”

I can’t help but hear an echo of Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:44 to 46: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Do we treasure Christ like that? Is he our greatest treasure, such that all earthly treasure is garbage in comparison, such that we’d rather die than live without the treasure, such that we’d literally give everything in order to receive that treasure?

See, that’s where the problem starts… Our biggest human problem isn’t what we fail to do. Our biggest human problem is what we fail to desire—it’s whom we fail to desire.

Repentance isn’t mostly saying, “I’m sorry, Lord, for what I did… or what I failed to do.” Repentance is mostly saying, “I’m sorry, Lord, that I don’t desire you more, that I don’t want you more, that I don’t treasure you more, than all these other things with which the world, the flesh, and the devil tempt me.”

True repentance begins there… If only we could learn to treasure Christ above everything else, to find satisfaction in Christ above everything else, to find joy in Christ above everything else… if we could only do that, suddenly we would also find new power to change our sinful habits, our sinful thoughts, and our sinful behaviors.

If we could only learn to treasure Christ above everything else, how would that not solve any problem we’re facing?

Dear Lord, hear my prayer! This is not a problem I can solve through my will-power, or by “trying harder,” or by having the best of intentions: I need your Holy Spirit to work in me, to change me, so that I can treasure you more than anything else! Amen.

Sermon 01-03-2021: “Three Responses to King Jesus”

January 7, 2021

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

I love today’s scripture, in part because it reminds me of a formative event in my own life as a Christian. My Wednesday night Bible study has already heard this testimony, but I’d like to share it with you. About 13 years ago, I was serving a large church, Alpharetta First United Methodist, as one of two associate pastors. Like April I was in the process of becoming fully ordained. Unlike April, I was in a bad place, spiritually speaking, with my faith.

It was in part because, unlike April, I went to a mainline Protestant seminary that deliberately sowed seeds of doubt in the truthfulness of scripture—including the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Looking back, I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare that came my way when I decided to answer God’s call into ministry. I was like a sheep led to the slaughter! And as a result, I graduated from seminary riddled with doubts.

Suffice it to say that I don’t for a moment doubt the Virgin Birth anymore. And I could easily and happily answer the objections of my skeptical seminary professors today. But that’s not where I was in 2007, shortly after graduation, when the senior pastor of the large church I served gave me an assignment: He got a call the day before from a man who said he’d like for a pastor to visit him. He said he needed prayer and pastoral care. This man wasn’t a member of our church. His home church was in another state. He had recently moved to the area when he got very sick, and he’d spent several months convalescing at home, cut off from his church family.

So he told Don, the senior pastor, he needed a pastor to come see him. And so Don gave that assignment to me. Larisa, the other associate pastor, had primary responsibility for “pastoral care.” She would normally be the one to make the visit. But Don said, “I don’t feel comfortable sending Larisa. I’m worried this man might be crazy. So I don’t think it’s safe for her to go. So I’m sending you. And by the way, do you have a gun?”

He asked me that! I did not have a gun. But I had a cell phone. And I promise you, as I knocked on the front door of his home, I had already pre-dialed 9-1-1, and I was ready to press “send.” I’m serious! I’m a scaredy-cat!

Anyway, my fears were unfounded, as it turns out. This was a very sweet, deeply Christian man—if a bit eccentric… an absent-minded professor type. In fact, this man literally had a Ph.D. from Harvard. He had spent his career as an engineer with NASA, and he was now retired.

We became friends, and I visited him frequently. One day, shortly before Christmas a few months later, I paid him a visit: He met me at the door, excited to show me what he’d been working on: He said, “I think I know the exact date of Jesus’ birth.” And on his coffee table were astronomy journals, calculators, and star charts scattered around—not to mention a Bible open to today’s scripture

My friend, it turns out, was an amateur astronomer, and while cross-referencing today’s scripture, he walked me, step-by-step, through his work, which led him to conclude that Jesus was born on this day. Are you ready for me to give it to you?

I don’t remember. I didn’t write it down. Sadly.

And I’m not even saying he was right. He admitted there was a lot of guesswork involved based on various assumptions. But that wasn’t important. What was important to me at the time is that here was a deeply intellectual man whom I respected, who was much smarter than I was, who knew far more science than I knew—not to mention all those skeptical professors at my seminary—and yet here was someone who simply believed the Bible, including the Virgin Birth, the angels and shepherds, and the magi and the miraculous star.

If a Christian like him has no trouble believing the Bible, why do I?

That made a huge impact on me. In a way, God was using my friend the same way he was using this star—to lead me to Jesus, or at least to lead me back to him, back to believing wholeheartedly in him, back to trusting in God’s Word. To say the least, this experience was one important turning point in my life, in my faith, in my ministry.

But whether my friend knew the exact date or not, he was exactly right about these “wise men.” The Greek word is magi, which is the root of the word “magic.” The word could rightly be translated as astrologer but that’s misleading. When we hear astrologer—if we’re of a certain age—what do we think of? Jeanne Dixon. At least I do! Back in the ’70s and ’80s, the supermarket tabloids always featured her predictions for the new year. Remember? So when we hear astrologer, we think of this superstitious nonsense. 

And of course, like Jeanne Dixon, these magi also believed in superstitious nonsense. They believed that when something significant or unusual was happening in the night sky, with the stars and planets, that meant that something significant or unusual was happening, or would soon be happening, on earth. So these magi believed that the movement of stars and planets predicted the future… or heralded urgent news about the present! But in order for them to make these predictions, they had to first understand the movement of stars and planets. 

So make no mistake: These men were superstitious. They were pagans. They were polytheists. They were idolaters. They were very far from faith in the God of Israel, the one true God. But they were also the world’s foremost experts in the science of astronomy. So they would notice unusual astronomical events.

So let’s say that the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which we saw last week, was what the Wise Men saw. As I said on Christmas Eve, it’s possible. Here’s how they might have interpreted it. In ancient astrology, Jupiter was the planet associated with kings and royalty. Saturn was a planet associated with Israel. So… something have to do with royalty, something having to do with Israel… And since these magi were from Babylon, the Persian Gulf area, they would likely have interacted with members of the Jewish community that had settled there after Jews were deported to Babylon 600 years earlier. Perhaps they even read their scripture, including the oracle of Balaam in Numbers 24:17, who spoke of a “star coming forth out of” Israel, which they knew had something to do with the Messiah.

So they put all these things together… Star, royalty, Israel, Messiah… and it’s not hard to see why this might lead these men to Jerusalem, to the capital of Israel, asking about the whereabouts of a the newborn “king of the Jews.” At least that’s how God used this star to reach them with the gospel. For them, the heavens were announcing the good news of the birth of Christ. And they responded in faith. And they responded with joy. And they were saved.

And I want to say more about their response in a moment… but there are two other responses to the news of Jesus’ birth in today’s scripture: hostility, as exemplified by King Herod, and indifference, as exemplified by the chief priests and scribes.

First, hostility… Now let’s give Herod some credit: At least he understood exactly who Jesus was and the threat that he Jesus posed! Herod knew, for instance, that if Jesus was the Messiah, the king of the Jews, the king of the universe, the Son of God, it meant that everything in Herod’s life would have to change; it meant that he couldn’t continue to rule his life and the lives of others in the same way; it meant that the world wasn’t big enough for two kings, and Herod would have to step aside. So naturally, Herod wanted Jesus dead!

And for Herod, killing people who posed a threat to him was, tragically, just another day at the office. He had three of his own sons killed, whom he believed were conspiring to take his throne. This prompted the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus—who gave Herod his kingship—to joke that it was safer to be a pig in Herod’s household than a son… Why? Because even though Herod wasn’t ethnically Jewish, he followed Jewish dietary laws and refused to eat pork. So pigs were safer than sons! Herod also had one of his own wives killed because he believed she was conspiring against him. So the fact that he would later send his soldiers to slaughter all male children in Bethlehem two and under… that was perfectly in keeping with what we know about him.

He was a bad man.

So I hope you won’t be too offended if I ask you—and me—to consider some ways in which… maybe… we’re not so different… from Herod. Listen to the way pastor Tim Keller puts it in his book Hidden Christmas:

“Why do you think it is so hard to pray? Why do you think it is so hard to concentrate on the most glorious person possible? Why, when God answers a prayer, do you say, “Oh, I will never forget this, Lord,” but soon you do anyway? How many times have you said, “I will never do this again!” and two weeks later you do it again? In Romans 7:15 Paul says, “What I hate I do.” There is still a little King Herod inside you. It means you have got to be far more intentional about Christian growth, about prayer, and about accountability to other people to overcome your bad habits. You can’t just glide through the Christian life. There is still something in you that fights it.”

Is he right? Is there something within you that fights your efforts to surrender to the Lordship of Christ? Of course there is! I’m currently reading Paul’s letter to Titus in my quiet time. In the very first verse, Paul calls himself a “servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ.” But the English word “servant” in that verse is a little weak. In Greek the word is literally slave. In the first century, a slave was someone who usually “sold himself into slavery” in order to pay off debts… the way we might think of indentured servants. So first-century slavery was usually voluntary. And it usually lasted for a limited period of time. But for as long as you were a slave, you had no rights. You belonged completely to someone else! You existed to serve them.

So does the Bible mean when it says we’re supposed to be servants of God like that?

Because let’s face it: although we often talk about “serving God,” we never talk about being God’s slaves! We often talk about “serving God” as if it’s something we do at our own convenience. But if we’re a “servant” the way Paul is a servant, that means our lives are completely at the disposal of God. It means we voluntarily surrender our rights before God. It means our time is not our own to do with as we please; it belongs to God. Our money doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to God. Our lives are not our own to do with as we please. They belong to God. 

If I’m a servant of God the way the Bible says I should be, that means I should wake up each day with one overriding thought: How can I please my Lord today? What can I do for him today? What can I give for him today? How can bring glory to him today—what can I do to make him look great?

I don’t usually do that. Instead, I wake up each day with my own agenda. And the extent to which I’m happy on that particular day—or sad or angry or depressed—usually depends not on whether I’ve pleased God, but whether I’ve been able to follow through on my agenda. 

And I’m secretly hoping that God’s agenda won’t interfere very much with my agenda!

Why am I like this? Because I have a “little Herod” living inside of me! I’m very reluctant to step down off the throne of my life and let Jesus sit there… in my place. And I’m guessing you’re not so different from me!

So we’re a lot like Herod… But we may be even more like the chief priests and scribes in today’s scripture. These were, after all, the pastors, bishops, district superintendents, Sunday school teachers, and Admin Board members of their day. These people believed the Bible. They went to church all the time. They knew that magi coming to town meant that the messianic prophecy might soon be coming to pass. So naturally these men, of all people—these Bible scholars, these believers in God’s Word—would jump at the chance to go to Bethlehem and see the newborn king. Right?

Wrong… Whereas these magi—Gentiles, pagans, idolators, and outsiders to God’s people Israel—whereas they traveled 700 miles west from the Persian Gulf to Judea for the sake of Christ, the “insiders”—the ones who already believed in the Bible—weren’t willing to travel seven measly miles south to Bethlehem to see Christ for themselves! 

“No, thanks!” they said. “We’ll just stay here at church.” Shouldn’t they have been excited and overwhelmed with joy? How is it possible that nothing in their lives would change in response to the birth of the newborn king? How could they be so dead—spiritually?

But when we consider our own lives, do we really have to wonder?

I mean, chances are if you’re at church this morning, you already believe in the right doctrines: you believe in God, you believe in his Son Jesus, you believe he died on the cross to save you from your sins. Chances are you’ve got it all together up here, intellectually. 

But please hear the warning of today’s scripture: Believing all the right things up here won’t save you apart from letting those beliefs penetrate your heart! Remember the apostle James’s warning, when he argues that saving faith will naturally result in good works. He says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

After all, Satan himself could intellectually ascribe to everything we say we believe in the Apostles’ Creed! He knows firsthand that it’s all true! So what? It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t lead us to repentance… it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fundamentally change the way we live!

There was a powerful, influential 20th-century English pastor named Martin Lloyd-Jones, who had an effective test for whether or not someone was genuinely a Christian. He would ask them, “Are you a Christian?” And often, in England at that time, at least, people would get defensive: “Of course I am! It’s hard work but I’m doing it. Why do you ask?” Because for most people, Christianity was mostly about things you had to do: go to church, believe in certain doctrines, live a certain kind of life. It’s something done by you—so there’s no astonishment about being a Christian. 

True Christianity, by contrast, is something done for you, and to you, and in you. And Lloyd-Jones said that when you understand that, there should be a constant note of surprise and wonder and joy. After all, if we’re Christians, that means before the foundation of the world, God knew us, God elected us, God wanted us to be with him for eternity. And God put into motion a plan to make that happen!

Who are we that God would do that for us? Who am I? What have I done to deserve all of this? Nothing!

So Martin Lloyd-Jones’s point is, “if someone asks you if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t say, ‘Of course!’ There should be no ‘of course-ness’ about it. It would be more appropriate to say, “Yes, I am a Christian, and that’s a miracle, isn’t it? Me! A Christian! Who would have ever thought it? Yet God did all this for me, and I’m his.”

To say the least, there was no “of-course-ness” about the way the magi responded to Christ. Why? Because these men were superstitious Gentile pagans, polytheists, and idolaters. A couple of magi, by the way, show up in the Book of Acts, and we can see from the way they’re portrayed there… they were not considered morally good, upstanding people of high character. 

On the contrary, these would be the last people we would expect Jesus to save, yet—in Matthew’s gospel—they’re practically the first ones he saved. I mean, God literally moved heaven and earth to reach them with the gospel. That’s how much he loved them and wanted to save them! And these men understood what God did for them! Nothing else explains verse 10: they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” 

How many times in your life have you “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”? Dear Lord, give me that kind of joy! I want to know that kind of joy! Don’t you? I want to come to church and worship the way these magi worshiped! Are we worshiping with joy?

How do we at least move in the direction of worshiping like that?

As with the magi, it’s by reminding ourselves again and again and again what God has done to bring us into a right relationship with him! Or to bring us back into a right relationship with him. I shared a testimony of how God did that in my own life… in part because it brings me joy to remember what God graciously did for me—even 25 years after I first became a Christian! There is no “of-course-ness” about the fact that I stand before you today as a beloved son of God, adopted into God’s family by grace. Because if it were up to me to be “righteous enough” to maintain my place in God’s family I would have been lost a long time ago! So it brings me joy to tell you how gracious God has been to me… about the miraculous and supernatural lengths to which he has gone to rescue me, a lost sheep, time and time again!

Even in today’s scripture there’s a reminder of what it would soon cost God to rescue lost sheep like us… Do you see it? Look at verse 2: These magi refer to Jesus as “king of the Jews.” Nowhere else in the gospels is Jesus called by this title… until the end… when Pilate asks Jesus if that’s who he is… when Roman soldiers mock him with that title and beat him and spit on him and place a crown of thorns on his head… when Pilate affixes a sign on the cross with that title…

So even today’s scripture foreshadows the cross… “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

By the way, historians have asked the question, “Who was Hitler before Hitler?” In other words, before the 1930s or ’40s, when everyone knew that Hitler was the very embodiment of evil, what historical figure was most often cited… as the embodiment of evil? Historians say that none other than King Herod played that role. When you wanted to compare someone to someone who was really evil, you would compare them to Herod. He set the bar for really evil men. Isn’t that interesting?

And yet… shocking as it is to say, God loved him enough to bring the gospel even to him… The magi brought him the gospel… enough of the gospel for him to repent of his sins and be saved for eternity. Even Herod had a chance. God wouldn’t let him die without giving him a chance to be saved. And of course he rejected the gospel. But if he hadn’t, if he had repented and believed in Jesus, none of us would say, “Of course Herod is a Christian!” We would say, “Isn’t God’s grace amazing… because no one deserves it less than Herod.”

Friends, if God has enough love and grace to offer salvation to him, don’t doubt for a moment that God has enough love and grace to offer it to you! You can repent and be saved even today!

Sermon 12-20-2020: “Mary, Most Likely to Succeed”

December 21, 2020

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

In last night’s SEC Championship game, Florida was down by six with seconds remaining on the clock. On this last possession, they had one goal: to advance the ball to midfield—so that Kyle Trask, Florida’s quarterback, could then heave the ball as far as he could throw it toward the end zone. If he were able to do that, many Florida receivers and many Alabama defenders would be gathered at or near the goal line. Florida’s receivers would try to catch the ball, score a touchdown and extra point, and win 53-52; Alabama’s defenders, meanwhile, would simply try to bat the ball down and hold on for a victory.

Florida wasn’t able to run that play, of course. Because time ran out before they reached midfield.

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Sermon 12-13-2020: “You Can Be a Star”

December 17, 2020

Scripture: John 1:6-8; 19-29

December 21 is the longest night of the year—the winter solstice. And this year, it’s also the night of an astronomical event that hasn’t happened in 800 years. Astronomers tell us that for the first time since the year 1226, we will be able to see with the naked eye an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky—such that these two planets will almost appear as one bright, shining star. This is such and unusual and interesting event that astronomers call this conjunction of planets the “Star of Bethlehem”—and many Christians have even speculated that God might have used this very event over 2,000 years ago to inspire the magi, or Wise Men, to travel the 700 miles or so from modern-day Baghdad to Jerusalem, looking for the Messiah.

Whether God used this natural event, or whether he used some supernatural event, the result is the same: Remember, these magi were literally world’s foremost experts in astronomy. So God spoke to them in a “language they could understand”—the language of astronomy. And what God told them through these stars is, “Go to Israel and worship the newborn king of the Jews.”

It was very gracious of God to do this! It’s unlikely that anything else would have gotten their attention! But as a result, these magi were saved—and if we are in Christ, just think… we will even have an opportunity to meet them some day.

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Sermon 12-06-2020: “More than ‘Muddling Through'”

December 11, 2020

Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11

I love Christmas music. I’m one of those weird people who begins playing Christmas music around November 1. Like many of you, one of my favorite Christmas songs is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”… except… I hate that line, “Someday soon we all will be together/ If the Fates allow.” The Fates? Those are three goddesses in Greco-Roman mythology! Anyway, I’m relieved to know that that wasn’t what the songwriter, Hugh Martin, originally wrote. See, Martin was a Christian. And he originally wrote “if the Lord allows.” But the producers of the Judy Garland movie, Meet Me in St. Louis—where the song originated—didn’t want it to be too religious—heaven forbid!—so they made him change that line.

Anyway, turns out that wasn’t the only lyrical change that has happened to the song. Do you know what the very next line is? “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”? We know it like the back of our hand, don’t we? Except that’s wrong!Go back and watch the movie Meet Me in St. Louis: Judy Garland sings, “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” 

We’ll have to muddle through somehow.

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Sermon 11-29-2020: “How to Stay Awake”

December 11, 2020

Scripture: Mark 13:24-37

Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. While the rest of our culture rushes headlong into the monthlong Christmas shopping season, preachers like me are supposed to say, “Hold on! Not so fast! It’s not Christmas yet! It’s Advent… it’s a season of preparation for Christmas.” And traditionally, on this First Sunday of Advent, we preachers prepare you for celebrating the first coming of Christ by focusing on the Second Coming.

So… While I’m not oblivious to the fact that our culture has already started the Christmas season, I’m hoping that preaching these traditional Advent texts will help us celebrate Christmas more joyously when the time comes!

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Sermon 11-22-2020: “The Gospel for Goats”

November 23, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46

Several years ago, there was a TV show called Saving Grace, starring Academy Award-winner Holly Hunter. It was sort of like a raunchy version of Touched by an Angel. For the wellbeing of your soul, I don’t recommend it. But in the show, a redneck angel named Earl is sent from heaven to save the lives of people who are otherwise hell-bent on destroying themselves. One of these people he’s sent to rescue is a prisoner on death row named Leon. Earl the angel meets with Leon in his prison cell regularly—and Earl gives Leon encouragement and hope. 

In one episode, however, we learn that Leon has been cheating on his “Christian” angel, Earl. It turns out Leon’s been meeting with a Muslim imam and reading the Koran—behind Earl’s back! Leon has decided to convert to Islam. Earl finds out about it and seems angry and hurt. He challenges Leon to go ahead and convert to Islam if that’s what he wants to do.

So before he recites whatever words you have to recite to become a Muslim, Leon says, “Well, I guess this is it. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.” And then Leon makes this Muslim “profession of faith.”

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Sermon 11-15-2020: “Enter into the Joy of Your Master”

November 15, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 25:14-30

When I was in seventh grade I played Pop Warner football—or “little league” football. Whatever you call it. I played center, like Bill Curry, whom I met as a ten-year-old at Georgia Tech, and who became a hero of mine. But I had a football coach who believed in me; who loved me… who helped to build me up and helped me feel good about myself during an otherwise difficult time in my life. And this coach gave me nickname—he didn’t give anyone else on the offensive line a nickname, but he gave me one. And I could not have been prouder of it. He called me “Mad Dog.”

I’ve heard players say of great coaches—like Nick Saban or Pat Dye or Vince Dooley or Bobby Dodd, coaches like that—I’ve heard them say, “I would run through a brick wall for that man.” Well, I know that feeling. Because this coach made me feel that way. I was proud to be called Mad Dog. And it brought me great joy to do what this coach asked me to do. It brought me great joy to make my coach happy. 

I want you to hold onto this thought… put a pin in it. We’ll come back to it.

In today’s scripture, there’s a rich man who is going away on a trip. While he’s gone he gives a considerable amount of money to three of his servants—these were likely well-educated accountants, businessmen, and entrepreneurs. They likely helped manage the man’s money and estate. And while he’s gone, he’s giving each of them a certain amount of money to invest—a certain number of “talents” to invest. 

Now, right away we have a problem: because the word “talent” has entered the English language directly from the Greek word that Jesus uses in this parable. We use the word “talent” today because of the Bible!

But the way we use it today isn’t what Jesus meant when he used it… In Jesus’ day, a talent was a measurement of money—literally worth about 75 lbs. of gold. If you want to think of it this way, a talent was the largest denomination of currency in Jesus’ day. So… do you know, for instance, what the largest denomination of currency in circulation in the United States is? A hundred-dollar bill. That’s not much anymore. In 1969, before the Federal Reserve stopped printing it, however, the largest denomination was a $10,000 bill. That’s a little closer to what Jesus is talking about when he talks about a “talent”… except a talent was much, much more.

It was about twenty years’ wages for an average laborer. So even one talent was an enormous sum of money! About $700,000. Can you imagine? The servant who received five talents received three and a half million dollars. But let’s not pity the third servant who “only” received one measly talent: seven-hundred grand is nothing to sneeze at.

So notice the first two servants invested or started businesses or put the money to work in some way, and by the time the master returned, they each had doubled the master’s investment—a one-hundred percent return on investment. That’s pretty darn good, wouldn’t you say?

The third servant, however, doesn’t do anything with his talent—besides bury it in the ground.

And he explains why… Verses 24 and 25: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.”

Notice the servant is quite literally wrong about his master’s character. He says the master reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he scatters no seed? Are you kidding? On the contrary, the master is the one who gives the servants these enormous sums of money in the first place! “Take this money and do something with it… invest it… put it to work… trade with it.” That is the definition of “sowing” and “scattering seed.” 

If the third servant is to be believed, the master is taking what doesn’t belong to him and keeping it for himself—but that’s a lie because these eight talents do belong to the master in the first place!

This scripture is often preached during stewardship season. And if I were preaching it that way, I would emphasize this point: Every good thing you possess comes as a gift from God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” Psalm 24:1. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” 1 Corinthians 4:7. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17.

Therefore, want the three servants each received before the master went away were gifts of sheer grace. And so it is with us: We possess nothing good that doesn’t come from God—including every part of our lives. God literally cannot ask for something that he did not “sow” within us or create within us.

But it’s possible that the third servant saw that the other two servants were given more than he was given, and a part of the resentment and anger and unhappiness that he directs toward his master was based on the perception that he wasn’t being treated “fairly.”

What do you say to that? None of these three deserved anything that they received, so on what basis should they complain?

In my own life, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of my own unhappiness comes not from what God has actually given me, but from what God has given someone else, which he did not also give to me. Do you know what I mean? I want what other people have—never mind that what I’ve been given has been custom-designed by God and perfectly suited for me and for my life

Can I tell you something funny: For many years, I was an associate pastor at a large Methodist church in Alpharetta. I was in charge of our church’s contemporary worship service, which meant I got to preach every week, which was wonderful. Well, in Alpharetta, we were in the shadow of the Northpoint Community Church—Andy Stanley’s megachurch—literally and figuratively. Because if you involved in doing contemporary worship back then, in Alpharetta, Georgia, you were going to be compared, favorably but usually unfavorably, to Andy Stanley and Northpoint—objectively speaking, one of the largest and most successful churches in America. If my people didn’t like me, they would often go to Northpoint. Or they came from Northpoint. But I was used to being compared—usually in a negative way—with an incredibly gifted preacher and leader. I mean, how could I measure up? 

As many of you know, I was adopted. And back around that same time, I got in touch with my birth mother, Linda, for the first time. And Linda was very happy to find out I was a pastor. And she would hear me preach and just lay it on thick about how much she liked my preaching.

One day Linda, who lived in North Carolina, called me out of the blue: “I just heard the best preacher I’ve ever heard!” You know where this is going, right? She said, “I saw him on TV. And you know what? His church is down near your church. His name is… Andy Stanley? Do you know that name? He’s so good!”

And I’m like, “I know Andy Stanley… Everybody loves Andy Stanley!” And I remember grumbling about it back then!

But why? Give me one good reason I should resent Andy Stanley? By all means… God gave him five talents, at least, whereas he gave me one or less… But what I have is infinitely more than I deserve!

And what I have is—hear me say this—what I have is perfectly suited, custom-designed, custom-tailored for me and for my life. This is what Jesus means when he says, in verse 15, that the master gave to “each [servant] according to his ability.” What I have wouldn’t work in Andy Stanley’s life, but it works in mine.

After all, who but God could foresee the consequences of God possibly giving me the same gifts of grace that he gave to Andy Stanley? God probably knows that if he did give me those same gifts of grace, those gifts would destroy me; that that level of objective, worldly success—the sheer numbers, the TV audience, the size of the platform—that would go straight to my head, that would inflate my ego even more than it already is, and it would ruin me! My pride couldn’t handle it!

God knows that about me!

So instead of looking over my shoulder and comparing the gifts of grace that I’ve received with the gifts of grace that others have received, I need to trust that God has given me precisely those gifts of grace that I need—which, according to his Word, he has!

See, here’s where the third servant also gets it wrong: He simply doesn’t believe that his master knows what’s best for him or wants what’s best for him. This gift of grace—this one talent—feels like a burden to the servant, not a gift. The servant doesn’t want to have responsibility for it; he wants to do his own thing; he wants to live life on his own terms. He doesn’t want to have to answer to his master. So he does the absolute bare minimum: He digs a hole and buries the talent in the ground, where at least it should be safe for when his master returns. “If I bury this talent, I won’t have to give it a second thought. It will be out of sight, out of mind. In fact, if I bury what my master gave me, I won’t have to give him a second thought: He will also be out of sight, out of mind.” 

So he resents his master. He hates him. His actions prove it. And yet we read this parable and feel sorry for the poor guy because the master is going to give him his fondest wish for all eternity—to be completely free from his master’s care and concern, to be separated from him forever? The master is giving him what he wants!

By contrast, consider the other two servants’ attitudes: Look at verse 16: “He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.” The key words are “at once” or immediately. That implies a sense of excitement on the part of the first two servants… a sense of anticipation… a sense of joy

In fact, these first two servants remind me of the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4. After talking with Jesus for a while, she realizes whom she’s talking to, and what does she do? The Bible says she left her water jar—at the well, the very reason she went to the well in the first place was to get water… but in her excitement she forgets about that; she leaves the jar at the well; and she rushes back to town… and tells literally everyone in town about Jesus! Why?

Because what she found in Jesus was infinitely better than even her most basic human need for water! So of course she forgot her water jar!

Or remember Zacchaeus, the “wee little man”—a despised tax collector, hated by his fellow townspeople—who climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus over the crowd of people. But Jesus calls him by name. And the Bible says, “So [Zacchaeus] hurried and came down and received [Jesus] joyfully.” And then, when Jesus comes to his house, he tells Jesus he’s giving away half his wealth, and paying back four times whatever he stole from others. Why?

Because what he found in Jesus was infinitely better than money! So of course he gave all that money away!

Or remember the former prostitute who crashes the dinner party at Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke chapter 7: She’s making a scene, anointing Jesus’ feet with her tears and with expensive ointment. Showing gratitude and honor to Jesus by kissing his feet. Everyone’s gossiping about her. She’s embarrassing herself as far as the other dinner guests are concerned. Why?

Because what she found in Jesus was infinitely better than her livelihood, her earthly treasure, and her reputation. She didn’t care what people like Simon thought of her. So of course she served Jesus in this way!

And see… that’s what all three—the Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, and the former prostitute—this is what they had in common: They served Jesus… by all means. I mean, you give away half your wealth… to the church? That’s far more than a tithe. We all agree: that’s “serving” Jesus! The Samaritan woman was literally the most effective evangelist in all of scripture. Thanks to her witness, her entire village came to believe in Jesus! I mean, the apostle Paul reached more people in his ministry, but he also faced a lot of rejection along the way. Not this woman… she was batting a thousand in her efforts at evangelism! 

We all agree: that’s “serving” Jesus! 

And the former prostitute? She was literally “serving” Jesus by performing the most humble act of a service that even a slave in the first century could perform—washing a guest’s feet when he comes to someone’s house for dinner.

These people served, they served, they served… by all means. But their service—like the service of the first two servants in the parable—was characterized by joy and excitement. Was it hard for them to serve Jesus in this way? That’s like asking, was it hard for them to do something they wanted to do more than anything else? Of course not! It made them happy to serve Jesus in this way! They wouldn’t want to do anything other than serve him in this way!

And it was for the sake of their own happiness, their own pleasure, their own satisfaction, their own joy, that these servants did what they did for their master in the parable… or for Jesus in real life! 

Do you see that?

Being a Christian, loving Jesus, following Jesus, obeying Jesus, doing his will—indeed, serving Jesus—is meant to bring us a deeper and more lasting kind of happiness than is otherwise available in this world. It’s okay to want the kind of happiness that comes from Christ alone. Jesus gives us permission to want the kind of happiness that comes from him alone. In fact, Jesus says in this parable that we ought to pursue the kind of happiness that comes from him alone.

Somewhere along the way, I’m afraid too many of us have gotten the message that “serving Jesus” is hard; it’s unpleasant; it’s at least something that, all things being equal, we’re not supposed to want to do. I mean, yes, we do it… but only because we have to, or only because we’re supposed to… but mostly, we think… it disrupts our happiness. Happiness, as far as we’re concerned, is living a life devoted completely to ourselves, not to Jesus!

So like the third servant, we do the bare minimum sometimes—we dig our hole in the ground… But give him credit! That was probably a few hours of hard work on his part… a few hours of “serving” his master, in order to keep his master’s treasure safe. And I’ll bet he resented every minute of it… every scoop of dirt he shoveled… I bet he was cursing, wishing that he were doing literally anything else.

But give him credit: at least he “served” his master, right?

I said earlier that once the third servant finished burying his talent, his master was “out of sight, out of mind.” Contrast that with the other two… They doubled their master’s talents. They made an enormous amount of money. Many of you are successful business people. You know that in order to make that kind of return, these men had to commit their lives to it. You know it would take all of their time, talent, energy, skill, creativity, wits to do that… It would require them to think constantly about their master and his talents. It would require them to be preoccupied with their master. And as I said earlier, the evidence in the text is that they did so with eagerness. They did so happily. They did so with joy.

And they did so, not because they were these selfless martyrs who gritted their teeth and worked hard for this very demanding boss. That’s not why Jesus says they did it. They did it because they loved their master and they did it for the sake of the joy that they themselves would experience from pleasing their master! It brought them joy!

But maybe that’s an understatement… That’s putting it too mildly…

Remember I said earlier that the gifts of grace that God has given me—while, by all means, less than some and more than others—are exactly the right amount of gifts for me? 

Why are they the right amount? What are these gifts of grace meant to accomplish within me—which any more or any less might fail to accomplish?

They’re meant to enable me to do what each of these first two servants did: They’re meant to enable me to “enter into the joy of my master.” 

They’re meant to enable me to “enter into the joy” of my Lord Jesus! That’s an unimaginable amount of joy.

Because literally no one who has ever lived on this earth has experienced more joy than Jesus—and the thought that we get to “enter into” or experience for ourselves that same joy… that’s incomprehensible!

In case you don’t believe me when I say that no one who’s ever lived has known more joy than Jesus, I need you to look at something. If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn with me to Hebrews 12. Let’s look at verses 1 and 2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Why did Jesus “endure the cross”? For the joy that was set before him! He did it for joy… well, the joy of rescuing us from our sins and making us part of his family… the joy of bringing glory to his Father… the joy of pleasing his Father.

Now think about it: Jesus endured mocking, insults, spitting, and whipping… he endured the most painful, violent, hideous form of torture and execution ever invented—crucifixion. And as part of his crucifixion, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Which means on the cross he endured separation from his Father, which is hell itself.

And what Hebrews says here in verse 2 is that the joy that Jesus knew… on the other side of the cross… made his all his suffering, all the hell endured, completely worth it!

The magnitude of the joy that Jesus experienced was greater than the magnitude of his suffering. And Jesus wants to give us that joy! He wants us to experience it too!

If we understand what Jesus is offering us, how could we not happily work for that joy! Such that the idea of merely “serving” Jesus seems beside the point! I wouldn’t want to do anything else!

I began this sermon talking about how proud and happy I was for my coach to call me by a very special name…

Can you imagine how proud and happy I’ll be when my Lord calls me by a name that is infinitely more precious? I want him to call me “good and faithful servant.”