Second Reformed Church

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Lifted Up" Sermon: John 3:9-15

“Lifted Up”

[John 3:9-15]

May 17, 2015 Second Reformed Church

            Last week, we began to look at Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus.  We saw that Nicodemus was one of a group of Pharisees who believed that Jesus was sent by God and empowered by God, though they did not believe that He was God the Savior. Nicodemus alsoheld political office under the Romans and over the Jews.

            Jesus explained to Nicodemus that being enlightened to our sinful, rebellious state and our regeneration – our being given faith and belief in Jesus – is all the work of God the Holy Spirit – as He wills and for whomever He wills.  We must be born again – twice – a second time – to – not a mere head-knowledge of being a sinner – but a heart knowledge that believes that Jesus is God the Savior.  This is a gift of God – we cannot cause our spiritual birth – or resurrection – just as birth as a human is something that is done to us, so regeneration – being saved – is something that God does to us.
            
             But, Nicodemus did not understand:

“Nicodemus answered him, ‘How can these things be?’  Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?’”

Here we learn that Nicodemus was not merely a Pharisee – he was THE teacher of the nation of Israel.  Nicodemus was known be to be the best educated, most understanding, wisest teacher in all of Israel.  If anyone had a theological problem, Nicodemus would be the one to go to – and yet, Jesus shows him to not even have a basic understanding of the faith of Israel and God’s means of salvation.

Jesus was heart-broken and astounded that the ones who were to proclaim and teach the Word of God to all Israel – those whom God had chosen for Himself – the teachers did not know or believe what God’s Word says.

Some of you may be familiar with the name Dr. Bart Ehrman.  He is hailed by many are the greatest living scholar of the New Testament.  Yet, he doesn’t believe the Gospel and his books – which are largely about why the Gospel is not true, though readable and persuasive, are full of ignorance and errors.

Most seminaries today teach that the Bible is not historical and much of what the Bible teaches is not true.  And they produce ministers who don’t know their Bibles and don’t believe their Bibles, and believe that the Church is merely called to be another institution of social welfare and positive thinking.

The Church is for the proclamation of the historical Gospel of Jesus Christ and for the building up of Christians that we might better proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus continued, “’Truly, truly, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’”

Notice the emphasis:  “truly, truly” – “this is important; make sure you pay attention.”

“We” – who are this “we” that Jesus is talking about who speak what they know and bear witness to what they have seen?

Jesus was criticizing Nicodemus for not knowing and believing the Word of God – especially as THE teacher of Israel.  So, Jesus is talking about the Word of God as it was inspired by God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

It was as though Jesus said, “Truly, truly, God in Trinity has spoken through the authors of the Word of God and superintended over their writing so it would be in their style and their words and their language, yet, God in Trinity kept there from being any errors in the text.  Even so, with the attestation that this is the Word of God, inspired by the Triune God, utterly coherent and agreeable with itself, despite it being written by many authors over thousands of years, still you don’t receive it – you don’t believe. 

“If God in Trinity has given you His Word and condescended to use human language and symbols and words of earth – like human birth and the movement of the wind – and you don’t believe, how are you going to understand when I tell you about heavenly things – like regeneration – like the second birth?”

We see that the “we” is plural – what we don’t realizing – reading this in English – is that the “you” is also in the plural.  Jesus is not just referring to Nicodemus’ lack of knowledge and his unbelief, but to all of the teachers, and priests, and Pharisees who would continue to fight against Jesus and deny Him and eventually take part in having Him put to death.

Nicodemus has nothing more to say; he is listening.  And Jesus tells him two things:

First, no one can ascend to heaven except the One Who descended from heaven:  the Son of Man.

“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

Let us remember that Jesus’ favorite name to call Himself was “the Son of Man.”  That title comes from the book of Daniel – among other places:

Daniel wrote, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.  And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14, ESV).

“The Ancient of Days” is God the Father.  “The Son of Man” is Someone Who has access to God the Father – Someone Whom God the Father gave glory and an everlasting dominion and kingdom – Someone Whom all the peoples of earth will serve.  Jesus said that this is He.

And Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18b, ESV).

And John recorded, “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, ‘The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever’” (Revelation 11:15, ESV).

“The Son of Man” was understood in Jesus’ day to be God.  At Jesus’ trial, we read:

“And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tells us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’  Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so.  But I tell you the truth, from now on, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’  Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy.  What further witnesses do we need?  You have heard this blasphemy’” (Matthew 26:53b-55, ESV).

The High Priest asked Jesus if He is the Messiah – the Savior, God Himself.  And Jesus said, “Yes!  Not only that, I am the Son of Man – I am God in the flesh and I have all authority, and I am the judge of heaven and earth.”  That’s why the high priest tore his robe and said Jesus had committed blasphemy – He said He is God.

With that background – what did Jesus mean when He said, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man”?

First, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that no one is holy enough to come into the presence of God – no mere human being can do enough to be made right with God.  We can do nothing to fully pay the debt for our sin; much less can we keep all of God’s Law perfectly.

Second, He was telling Nicodemus that the Son of Man descended from heaven – “He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2, ESV) – and He incarnated in the Person of Jesus.

As Paul explained it, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:15-20, ESV).

And third, He was telling Nicodemus that the Son of Man is the only One Who is worthy and able to ascend to God – and He is the Son of Man.  Jesus is God the Son of Man, Who Alone makes the Way for anyone Who will believe to be born again, saved, sins forgiven, and made righteous.

And we know that Jesus ascended back to the Father and will descend again on that final day to judge the world and restore the Creation:

“And when [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11, ESV).

Because Jesus is God and Man in One Person – because He is the Son of Man Who descended from Heaven and incarnated in the Person of Jesus – He Alone is able to ascend back to the Father.  He is the Only One Who could possibly be the Savior of all those who will ever believe and make us able to come into the Presence of God the Father and live.

Nicodemus still said nothing; he was listening.

Second, salvation can only come through Jesus being “lifted up.”

“’And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”

In the Gospel of John, the phrase “lifted up” only has one meaning:  “crucified.”

So, just as Moses crucified the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be crucified.

What?

We have to turn back to the book of Numbers to find this history and to understand it:

We remember that Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years and on the first Passover, God freed the people of Israel, they crossed the Red Sea, and began to make their way towards Canaan, the Promised Land.  As they journeyed, God fed them with a food they called, “manna.”

And we read:

“From Mount Hor they set out by way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.  And the people became impatient on the way.  And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’  Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so many of the people of Israel died.  And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you.  Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’  So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who was bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’  So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole.  And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Numbers 21:4-9, ESV).

The people of Israel sinned against God and merited death.  Moses prayed for the people, who could not save themselves, and God interceded and made the way for them to be saved – by looking on the one who was affixed to the pole – by believing God by faith alone and repenting of their sin – and then, through the work that God did, they would be saved.

This event in the history of Israel was a type or a foreshadowing of what the Christ – the Messiah – the Savior – would have to do to save God’s people.  This is what Jesus was referring to as He spoke to Nicodemus – this thing happened in the history of Israel to help them recognize and understand that Jesus is the Savior.

There are four major similarities between the “lifting up of the bronze serpent” and the “lifting up of Jesus”:

First, in both cases, the death of the people is the reward for sin against God.

Second, in both cases, God, Himself, by His Grace and according to His Sovereign Pleasure, steps in to provide salvation.

Third, in both cases, a “lifting up” – or a crucifixion – must occur.

And fourth, in both cases, those who look at the one who is lifted up – through faith and with belief and repentance – are the ones who are healed – saved – given new life – born a second time.  [Cf. William Hendriksen, John, 138.]

Nicodemus should have understood – especially as THE teacher of Israel.  But he didn’t.

After the Resurrection, Jesus was walking with two of His disciples, “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27, ESV).

Jesus said the suffering and death – the lifting up – of the Christ is plain in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  Yet, as we saw last week, no one can understand God’s plan of salvation until God causes a person to be born twice – to believe in Jesus savingly, have faith, and repent.

So, let us learn to show the coherence of the Scripture and God’s plan of salvation.  Let us learn to see Jesus – God the Savior – in the Old Testament.  Let us notice when the New Testament writers point us to Old Testament Scripture to show that is it saying the same thing or that what has been said is fulfilled in the New Testament.  Let us be able to show that the Scripture makes sense.  And may God be pleased to use these efforts to draw people to Himself.

Humanity has a problem:  every mere human being is born a sinner.  And since we are born sinners, God’s Wrath is against us.  The only way to pay the debt owed to God is for a human who is holy and sinless to take the penalty for our sins and live a perfect and holy life under God’s Law which he would credit to our accounts.  No mere human being can do this.

The Solution, which has been God’s Plan since before the foundation of the world, is that God the Son, the Son of Man, would incarnate in the real human person of Jesus of Nazareth, keep the Law of God perfectly and in all holiness, only to be “lift up” – crucified – suffering the full Wrath of God for all of the sins of everyone who will ever believe throughout time and space – dying, rising, and ascending back to the Father, victorious in the salvation of His people.

Let us pray:


Almighty God, we thank You for sending the Son of Man to earth to be our Savior.  We thank You that Your Son was willing to come to earth, live, die, rise, and ascend as a real human being that we would be saved through His Work.  Help us to take Your Word seriously and help us to see and understand all those references to Christ in the Old Testament that we would better be able to proclaim the Gospel and glorify You.  Send God the Holy Spirit that He would take our words and apply them to those who hear us, changing hearts and minds according to Your Good Pleasure.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

"Born Twice" Sermon: John 3:1-8

“Born Twice”

[John 3:1-8]

May 10, 2015 Second Reformed Church
            
             Last week, we saw that Jesus did not give Himself over to the crowd because He understood that they were still in their sin – still following after their inclination of their heart towards evil – not after the things of God.  All mere human beings since Adam are born with original sin – that is, we are born desiring to sin – to rebel against God – to do the opposite of what God commands.
            
            The text moves from telling us that Jesus “knew what was in man” to “now there was a man” – and that is not accidental.  John is using a literary device to link these two – Jesus knew what is in man – and Nicodemus was one of them – a man who was interested in the signs Jesus was performing, but did not see and believe that the signs showed Jesus to be God the Savior.

We see first, this morning, that the Pharisees – or at least a certain group of them, believed that Jesus was sent by God.

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”

We remember the Pharisees were a group of Jews that worked meticulously at keeping the Law of God.  They were very learned men, and they were very moral people.  However, there was a tendency among the Pharisees to be so concerned with the outward appearance of people’s lives, that they neglected the heart – which is of primary importance in salvation.

This Pharisee, Nicodemus, was also a ruler of the Jews – he had political power – under the Romans – and over the Jewish people.

Nicodemus was a very influential person.

“This man came to Jesus by night”

And he came to Jesus at night – why?

We’re not told.  Many people have written and preached about Nicodemus coming secretly to Jesus so no one else would know about the meeting, but the text doesn’t say that – in fact, we will see that the text goes on to say that Nicodemus was one of a group that was curious about Jesus and believed that Jesus had been sent by God. 

What we are told later in the Gospel is that once Nicodemus believed in Jesus savingly – then – he followed Jesus in secret for fear of the Jews.  But, at this point, all we know is that they met at night – we are not told why.

“and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’”

Notice, Nicodemus says “we know.”  Nicodemus was part of a group of Jews – likely other Pharisees – who had seen the signs that Jesus had been doing and concluded – unlike others who accused Jesus of being in league with the devil – that He was sent by God and empowered by God to do the signs He was doing.  Nicodemus and his group recognized that Jesus was sent by God and was doing signs by the Power of God, but they didn’t understand what the signs meant, because they were still in their sin – they had not believed in Jesus savingly and been forgiven of their sins and credited with Jesus’ Righteousness.

It would be like showing someone a stop sign, and they could say it was a sign, but if you asked what the stop sign meant, they would say, “deer crossing” or, perhaps, “I don’t know.” The inclination to sin – which is called “original sin” – keeps people from seeing and believing the signs that have been given.

Nicodemus and others knew about Jesus, they believed Jesus was sent by God and empowered by God, but they did not believe in their hearts that Jesus is God the Savior – so they were still lost and condemned in their sins.  And we ought to take that to heart:  we can know everything about Jesus – His history and teachings – we can even intellectually agree that He said He is God the Savior and He must be God the Savior, but, if we do not believe in Him in our hearts, we are still unbelievers.

Then, Jesus does something very Jewish – very rabbinic – what question did Nicodemus ask Jesus?  He didn’t ask a question; still, Jesus had an answer.

And we see, second, we must be born twice to be saved – made right with God.

“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”

Notice, Jesus says, “truly, truly” – and we remember that when things are repeated, they are done so for emphasis – so, instead of saying “very truly,” Jesus said, “truly, truly,” but it means the same think – “pay attention, I’m saying something important.”

“Unless one is born again.”  Some of us will remember when President Carter was in office, he commented that he was a “born again Christian.”

The issue here is what the word “again” means.  This phrase can be translated, “born again,” “born anew,” “reborn,” “born twice,” “born a second time” – and there are distinctions among these expressions, but, since Nicodemus specifically comments about being “born a second time,” we will read this as being “born twice.”  Rather than merely being transformed into something different, there is a second, separate, similar, but distinct “birth” happening.

So, unless a person is born a second time, unless someone has a second birth, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does the second phrase mean?

Jesus is talking about having knowledge – in the sense of being intimately aware – of experiencing, understanding – being part of the kingdom of God.  As we said a moment ago – this is not merely the head knowledge that Nicodemus and his group had – this is a heart knowledge in which we are talking about true belief. 

Now, what is the “kingdom of God”?  In this context, it is the same thing as the Church – all those throughout time and space who believe savingly in the Savior God promised to send.

So, what Jesus said to Nicodemus was “Listen to me very carefully, this is important:  unless you are born twice, you cannot become a Christian.”  Unless you are born twice, you cannot have that intimate heart-belief that saves you from the Wrath of God for your sins and makes you righteous in the sight of God.  All the outward keeping of the Law is meaningless, if you are not born twice and have the saving faith to believe in the Savior.  You can’t work your way to salvation, you must be born twice, and then you will believe in your heart and confess with your mouth in the Savior God sent.

“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’”

Jesus had just told Nicodemus something profound and spiritual regarding the salvation of all those who will believe – and remember, Nicodemus was one of the best theologians of his day – and he responded, “Do you seriously mean we have to get back into our mother’s wombs?”

(There’s a picture!  Happy Mother’s Day!)

Nicodemus went straight to biology:  how is a person supposed to get back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?

We see, third, we do not choose to be born; birth happens to us.

Before we look at Jesus’ response, let me ask you:  did you ask your parents to conceive you?  Did you ask your mother to bear you and give birth to you?

You may have heard an angry child say, “I didn’t choose to be born!”  And while the child’s thanklessness and dishonoring of his parents is sin, he has a point:  no one chooses to be born.  No one causes himself to be born.  No one asks his mother to bear and give birth to him.  Right?

Our parent’s chose to come together in the flesh and conceive us and bear us and give birth to us, and we had no choice – no vote – no opinion in the matter.  Birth happened to us.

“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is the flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I say to you, “you must be born again.”  The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

So, let’s break this down:

“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’”

Again, Jesus begins His sentence emphasizing the importance of it, and then He expands what He said to Nicodemus:

First Jesus said, “Unless one is born again [born twice, born a second time], he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Now He says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

He is saying the same thing – only He explains that the two births He is talking about are the birth by water and the birth by the Spirit.  Unless one is born by both of these two births, he cannot savingly believe in Jesus – he cannot become a Christian.

So, what is it to be born of water and to be born of the Spirit?

“To be born of water” is something that everyone can be born of, but what it specifically means is not clear.  In looking at John’s baptism and at the fact the Nicodemus was a Pharisee, many scholars interpret this phrase to mean “being repentant for sin and desiring to follow after God’s Law.”

Remember, John the Baptist was baptizing Jews in the Jordan – saying that they needed to repent of their sin – to recognize that they are sinners and return to God.  And the Pharisees were working hard to keep (especially) the external rules of the Law.

So, it may be that this first birth is the birth of being drawn to God – understanding that we cannot merit forgiveness and salvation – we can never do enough good or keep the Law of God perfectly enough.

“To be born of the Spirit” is the birthing of a person by God the Holy Spirit.  It is the work by which God the Holy Spirit changes a person’s heart and its inclination and causes a person to believe with his heart that Jesus is God the Savior.  This is the birth by which a person is saved.

This is what Ezekiel prophesied to the exiles as he recorded the Word of God:  “And I will vindicate the holiness of my name, which had been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them.  And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.  I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols, I will cleanse you.  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.  And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:23-27, ESV).

God promised the exiles that the day would come when God would vindicate His Name and His Holiness before all the nations, and He would bring His people into the land from all nations, and spiritually birth them again, giving them a new heart and a new spirit, and indwelling them with God the Holy Spirit that they would be empowered to believe God and desire after His Will.

“’That which is born of the flesh is the flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’”

Jesus continues by paralleling the births again:  the first birth – the birth by water – is a fleshly birth – it is not a birth that can make a person right with God.  The second birth – the birth by the Spirit – is the spiritual birth – the raising from the dead of our spiritual self, so we believe in the Savior and desire God’s Will rightly.

With the prophesies and the promises of the Scripture, we look back now and wonder why Nicodemus didn’t get it – how could he read that passage from Ezekiel and not understand that God was going to cause a birthing among His people – even a resurrection of His people – that they would be able to be eternally forgiven? 

But we need to remember that Nicodemus was not yet a believer.  He had been born of the water – of the flesh.  He knew the Word of God.  He tried in his own power to keep the Word of God as best as he understood it.  But he had not been born again – he had not been born a second time.  Once he was, he would be able to see that God’s promise in Ezekiel is that God will replace the heart of His people – God will indwell His people in the Person of God the Holy Spirit – God will birth a people for Himself and to His Glory.

So, Jesus said, “’Do not marvel that I say to you, “you must be born again.”  The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus draws a parallel for Nicodemus to help him understand:  Consider the wind – the wind exists – you know it when it comes – it blows here and there – you can hear it – but you cannot pinpoint its origin – and you cannot plot out the path that it will take from you.  (Even with today’s scientific advancement, weather prediction – “meteorological science” – is an estimate – an approximation – the weatherman gets it wrong!)  And no human has control over the wind – where it comes from and where it goes.  God controls the wind.

In the same way, understand the second birth – being born again – being born twice – spiritual rebirth is a work of God the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit goes where He wills and births those He wills.  No human can control God and force God to cause a person to be born a second time.  Right?

So, what do we see this morning?

Nicodemus – and his group – had been born of water and the flesh.  They knew what God said, the believed God’s Word should be followed.  They followed the Law of God to the best of their ability.  But they, like all merely human people, were born sinners, inclined towards sin, and unable to keep the Law of God perfectly or to make themselves right with God.  So, while they could see that Jesus was from God and empowered by God, they didn’t understand or believe that He is God the Savior.

Jesus explained to Nicodemus that for anyone to be saved – to be right with God – to become a Christian – he has to be born twice – he has to be born again – he has to be born of the Spirit.  Unless and until he has been reborn by the Spirit and indwelled by Him, he cannot be saved or be right with God, and he remains under God’s righteous condemnation.

Lastly, this morning, Jesus explained to Nicodemus that we cannot choose to be born – we cannot will ourselves to be born – birth by the Spirit is a work of the Spirit as the Spirit wills – for His reasons and in His time.

This is what John meant when he wrote, “But to all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13, ESV).

Two applications we can take from this:

First, let us be humble and profoundly thankful if we are believers in Jesus Alone for salvation.  This belief is nothing we earned or caused – just as we don’t will or cause ourselves to be born – we don’t will or cause God to work salvation in us.  Salvation is the Work of God – by Himself, for Himself, as He wills.  God is beholden to no one.  No one can command God to act.  No one deserves or earns salvation.  It is all of grace – all a gift.

And second, every mere human being is born in the same state of sinful inclination, needing the same salvation from our One God and Savior, Jesus Christ.  And no matter what you do or I do or anyone else does, we cannot cause a person to believe savingly – and we cannot make God cause a person to believe savingly.

God has called us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ – those historical facts that we state in our Communion Liturgy – and we are also to pray for those who hear our proclaiming the Gospel – that God would be pleased to open their ears and hearts – causing them to be birthed by the Spirit.  Let us proclaim the Gospel as we have be called to proclaim, and let us pray for those who hear us, and then let us trust God that God will do what is pleasing to Him with the proclamation.  Let us proclaim the Gospel and trust God for the results of our proclaiming it.

Let us pray:


Almighty God, we want to be the captains of our fate – we don’t like to be told that we cannot birth ourselves – or do whatever we want.  Humble us and cause us to glory and rejoice in seeing You work Your Hand in the lives of men and women throughout the world – using our proclamation of the Gospel as the means by which You have chosen to bring people to salvation in Your Son and through the work of the Holy Spirit.  May Your Name and Your Holiness be glorified.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Frances Joseph Funeral

“Frances Joseph Funeral”

[John 3:16-18]

May 9, 2015 Cotton Funeral Home, Newark

            The first thing I think of what I think of Frances is her firmly, loudly, and faithfully calling us as a congregation saying, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24, ESV).

            When Frances was reading the Scripture or the Prayer of Confession, she – almost without fail – would call us to listen and hear with those words from the Psalm.  Sometimes she would also sing for us – helping us to come into worship in that way.

            My experience of Frances was that these words were her life:  “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”  Not to say there weren’t days of struggle and difficulty – but Frances’ central theme was that this is the day that the Lord has made – He has made it – He has given it to use – to enjoy – to praise Him for.  This day, the Sovereign God reigns overall of Creation and meets the needs of His children – and He has invited each one of us into it that we would rejoice in Who God is and what He has done.  And as we rejoice in Who God is and what He has done and consider all these things in each moment and each aspect of our lives, we will have joy – we will be filled with gladness.

            Are we able to say those words and believe them as we mourn Francesnow in death?  Are we able to be crushed in our hearts, with tears in our eyes, and say, even so, this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!  Not to deny the sadness we feel – even Jesus cried at the death of His friend, Lazarus – but cry – and cry out – with faith and in hope that this is not the end, and Frances shall rise from the dead on the last day.

            In our Scripture reading from John, we heard that God the Father loved the world – despite our sin – God so loved the world that God the Son came to earth in the Person of Jesus so that everyone who would believe in Him – as God the Savior – would not perish under God’s Wrath, but would have eternal life with our Triune God.

            God the Father did not send God the Son on a mission of judgment – He did not incarnate in the Person of Jesus to bring judgment, but to make the Only Way for anyone who will believe to be saved – to be made right with God.

            And “believe” is the correct word, because it doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done or what we do in the future – what matters – as far as salvation is concerned – as far as being right with God is concerned – is if we believe in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God Who lived and died to make us right with God, then we shall be saved.

            And if we do believe, it not only changes our everlasting future, but it changes our life today – it moves us from future condemnation – when Jesus does return as Judge – and gives us abundant life now.

            Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:18-25, ESV).

            I saw that joy for “the day that the Lord has made” in Frances – even in the midst of pain – time and time again:

            As she struggled as her knee pain got worse, and as her eyes grew dim and she saw less and less through them, we would ask her how she was and we would pray with her and for her, and she would thank us and say, “I am just so thankful I was able to get to church this morning.  I am just so thankful I can still get around.  There are so many people in worse shape than I am.   I am just so thankful I can be with you this morning.  I am just so thankful I can be with my family.  I brought pictures of this child or grandchild or this family member – isn’t he handsome, isn’t she beautiful?  Let me tell you about what she is doing – what he’s doing.  I am so thankful that my children and grandchildren and other family members remember the stories and the songs and the Bible verses I taught them.  How is your mother, sister, brother, and this person and that person?”

            This was Frances.  This was real – it was not an act – she overflowed with love and thanksgiving because of what she believed about her God and Savior.  And that love and thanksgiving overflowed to each one of us. 
            
            Frances believed in her God and Savior – and she believed that no matter what she suffered in this life – life with Jesus in the Kingdom is far, far greater.  And that enabled her to have joy through the pain and the frustration and failings of her body, until God took her home.

It was a rare privilege to know Frances and be loved by her as part of her response to her faith and belief.

It was also a rare privilege to know someone with such wisdom about the Scripture.

Frances participated in our Bible studies and adult studies at the church, and I quickly came to value the wisdom God gave her for handling the Word of God.

I remember – early in my ministry – that Frances pointed me to the words of Moses:  “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of the law” (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV).

I don’t know if I ever told her how profoundly that affected me and how it helps to guide me in ministry now:  Moses was affirming that God has told us a great deal in His Word – in fact, everything that we need to know for life and salvation in the presence of God is to be found in the pages of the Bible.

But there are things that God has not explained.  There are things God has not seen fit to answer.  There are times when wisdom calls us to say, “thus far and no further” – “thus says the Lord, and no more.”

St. Augustine was once asked what God was doing before He created everything that is, and Augustine said, “Creating Hell for people who ask stupid questions.”

What has God told us?  God is and was and will forever be.  God has not revealed anything more, so let us put on hands to our mouths on such questions.

Frances taught me that.  There is a time when the answer is “I don’t know.  God doesn’t tell us.  Shhh.”

Frances is with Jesus now.  I am sad that I will not see her or talk to her again in this life.  But I look forward with great hope and expectation for that final day when Jesus returns, and Frances rises from the dead – incorruptible – and all we who believe will proclaim, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Let us pray:


Almighty God, we come to You with tears, mourning our mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, family member, friend, fellow believer in Jesus Christ – a woman of faith and love and wisdom.  We thank You for Frances, and as we mourn her, we ask that You would bring her life and words to our minds that we would continue to learn from her – especially about Your Son – as we look forward to the Day of Resurrection.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.