Second Reformed Church

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Really?

I was looking at some RCA web sites to see what they say about what they believe.  One of them explained that the word "reformed" means "we believe in faith alone and that preaching is important."

Thursday Night Study

This week's Thursday evening study is cancelled due to the special Classis meeting (and, also, the fact that the pastor is sick).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review -- Apolo Anton Ohno

Apolo Anton Ohno, Olympic-medalist in short tract skating, has written two “volumes” of autobiography:  A Journey written in 2002, after the Winter Olympics, when Ohno was 19, and Zero Regrets written in 2010, after the Winter Olympics, when Ohno was 28.

Short track is one of the few sports I have ever enjoyed watching, so I was curious to read what Ohno would write about in his books.  Interestingly, and perhaps not unexpectedly, they are not the same, even though the first nineteen years covered the same material.

Thematically, the first book is about how what has always mattered to Ohno was the journey – the training – the road to – not the goals themselves, necessarily.  The second book is not as much about the journey but about not having any regrets wherever he ends up. 

The first book has more of a staccato writing style – this may be in part due to having different writing partners of each book.  There is a journey-istic sense of “getting to what’s next.”  The reader sees Ohno as being intelligent but restless and difficult, strong-headed and talented.  No matter what Ohno ends up doing, there is a fight to get there, both inside him and in reality.  Ohno credits his single-parent father with much of his success and shows a ferocity towards those who disagree with him or try to stop him from moving in the direction he desires.

The second book is more meditative, more gracious, more thankful for what he has achieved.  Although there is no doubt that Ohno continues to be both strong and strong-willed, there is a sense of gratitude that is lacking in the first book.  Ohno is more encouraging of his readers and other athletes in the second book, urging all to go forward with “no regrets.”

The history of Ohno’s father leaving Japan with nothing to come to the US and then raising his only son as a single parent beginning shortly after Ohno’s birth is an inspiring one.  The dedication that Ohno has to his craft – being the best physically, mentally, and socially, is also inspiring.  Ohno seems to be a fiercely loyal friend.

The difference between the two books is not only stylistic and thematic – the histories do not agree in all points.  Two glaring differences are in Ohno’s not getting on the plane to his first training camp.  In the first book, Ohno says his father instinctively knew he had not gotten on the plane, so he tracked him down at a friend’s house.  In the second book, Ohno’s father is completely oblivious until the trainer calls to question why he hasn’t shown up – only then does Ohno’s father set out on a longer search for his son.  Another is the reaction Ohno had to losing a race in 2002 due to a foul which was not called.  In the first volume, he is angry, says he was angry, and even calls his opponent names.  In the second, though he says he was disappointed, he says he was never angry with his opponent and did not allow it to make him have any regrets.

It was interesting to see at the time of Ohno’s confusion about whether to follow short track seriously, he prays “in Jesus’ Name,” and then, more specifically state din the second book, he went on to follow Eastern philosophy.  Both books would have been buffeted by saying more about the specific religious instruction he had, what he believes, and why he has come to adopt the philosophies he has.  Even if the answers are largely that he doesn’t believe “anything,” it would have been instructive to have that information.

Ohno is the most decorated winter Olympian to date, and it will be interesting to see if he races in the 2014 Olympics or retires.  He is on the cusp age-wise for the sport, but it seems he has the ability and the mind to continue.  Either way, perhaps it will spur a third volume, which will fill in some of the gaps, if not clear up inconsistencies, in the first two volumes.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Christmas Letter

November 26, 2011
Feast day of the Prophet Obadiah and Barlaam of Antioch

“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,” (Isaiah 64:1a, ESV).

Dear Members and Friends of Second Reformed Church,

          The greatest need of humanity is not food or shelter or clothing.  The greatest need of humanity is to understand how to answer – correctly – the question, “How shall I be saved?”  The greatest need of each of us is to understand how we might be right we God – saved from His Wrath for our sin.

          Isaiah was facing the reality that God’s people – like all of humanity – had sinned and deserve eternal suffering.  Israel had been conquered and taken into captivity in Assyria.  Given that reality, he asked, “How shall we be saved?”  The answer that he came up with is that God must come down and shake the Creation.

          In America, we misquote the Bible to make it say that Christmas is about God being happy with humanity – about cute babies that don’t make any noise – about getting gifts far exceeding our expectations.

          But the whole point of Christmas is that all of humanity is under the curse of God, and unless God does something about it, all of us will be tormented forever.  (But that can’t go on a Hallmark card, can it?)

          The point of Christmas is that God did come down, in the Person of Jesus.  God became Man and dwelt among us.  He lived under His Own Law – sinlessly, and He was put to death by sinful human beings, only to be physically raised from the dead to the glory of God the Father.

          Christmas without the Resurrection is meaningless.  But with the Resurrection, we can consider what it means that God came to earth – that God put on humanity in the Person of Jesus – that God was tempted as a human in every way that we are, yet did not sin

          May God grant each of us a more profound reality of God’s coming down to earth as we celebrate this Advent season and Christmas.

          Please join us for worship:

11/27/11 Advent 1
 Isaiah 64:1-9 “Now Consider”

12/4/11 Communion/Advent 2
 Isaiah 40:1-11 “Comfort Ye”

 12/11/11 Advent 3
 Isaiah 61:1-11 “The Year of the Lord’s Favor”

12/18/11 Advent 4
 II Samuel 7:1-17 “The Everlasting Throne”

12/24/11 Christmas Eve 7 PM
 Luke 2:1-20 “Good News”

          Immanuel!

          Rev. Peter Butler, Jr., pastor

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reformed Wisdom

John Calvin on John 4:1-42:

"We note the same laziness in ourselves, along with the lack of inclination to worship God when there is no convenient means of worship.  If we use such excuses, we will never profit from worship as we should.  Why does the church choose the hours that are most appropriate, a definite place to assemble, and a bell to ring, with all these matters carefully arranged?  It is because we humans have practically no desire to give ourselves to God unless we are first drawn to do so."

Happy Thanksgiving

The office will be open today from 8 to 12, rather than tomorrow.  Also, tomorrow evening's study is cancelled.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Christ the King" Sermon: Matthew 25:31-46


“Christ the King”

[Matthew 25:31-46] 

November 20. 2011 Second Reformed Church

Today is Christ the King Sunday, and the Lectionary text is one that is probably familiar to many of us:  “the sheep and the goats.”

We need to turn back to chapter twenty-four to find out why Jesus gave this portrait of the Judgment.  Understand, this is not a parable, it is future history – it is prophecy.

As chapter twenty-four opens, Jesus and His disciples are leaving the Temple, and Jesus tells them that the Temple is going to be destroyed – not a single stone will be left standing one upon another.  And the disciples reel off three questions for Jesus:  When will the Temple be destroyed?  What are the signs of Jesus’ Return?  And, what are the signs of the close (or end) of the age?

After asking these questions, Jesus tells His disciples a series of parables, interspersed with prophecies.  What He did not do was give them a time that the Temple would be destroyed, nor did He give them any specific signs of Jesus’ Return or the close of the age.  Instead of giving them the information they wanted to know, He gave them the information they needed to know.

One of the things He told them about His Return is the text that we read this morning.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.”

Jesus told them that He would return, not as an infant, but in the full revelation of His Deity.  Jesus Christ – God the Savior – would return in His Glory.  Jesus will come radiating the weight of His Deity.  All of the world will know that He is God the Only Savior.

All the angles will come with Jesus – an entourage of heavenly beings declaring their worship of Jesus before the whole created order.  Jesus will lead His Holy Army to the earth for the purpose of showing His Righteousness – His Holiness – in judgment.

“Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31, ESV).

All the peoples of the earth will see Jesus coming down out of the heavens, and all those who persisted in rejecting Jesus and His Gospel will cry out in anguish and hatred and terror – and those who have believed will also be gathered together.

And as Jesus arrives with all of His angels, He will sit on His Glorious Throne.  The Throne of the Son will be transported to earth, and Jesus will sit on the Throne as a declaration that He – as God – is King and Sovereign over all of Creation.  And He has come to judge.

“Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”

Every human being from throughout history and time will be gathered before the Throne.  And Jesus will separate all of humanity into two groups:  those who believed in the Savior God sent – the sheep, and those who did not believe – the goats.  Nothing will be hidden and no one will be able to deceive our God and Savior – the Sovereign King Who sits on His Throne.  And Jesus will pronounce their destinies.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

Notice that Jesus immediately states that salvation – being the blessed of the Father – is not based on anything anyone does or does not do.  It is impossible to earn or lose salvation.  Jesus tells those who will be received into the Kingdom – all those who believe in God’s Savior – that the Kingdom was prepared for them before they existed.  From the moment of Creation, it was set that this group of people would be received into God’s Kingdom.

Paul also tells us that salvation was decided before we existed:  “And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (Romans 9:10-13, ESV).

“But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—“(1 Corinthians 2:9, ESV).

And then Jesus tells them something very curious:  “’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’”

Didn’t Jesus just say that their inheritance of the Kingdom was not based on their actions?  How then does Jesus seem to be saying that they are received into the Kingdom based on their good works?

First, they asked a question more pressing to them:   “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Is Jesus saying that they earned the inheritance of the Kingdom?  Is Jesus saying that our good works save us?  If He is, then the Bible is self-contradictory, and we might as well go home.

And Jesus says that they did these things “to the least of His brothers” – or, “brothers and sisters.”  Does that mean we don’t have to do good works towards non-Christians?

No, what Jesus is saying is that the proof of their faith – the proof of their believing in Him savingly – is seen in their loving, caring, showing hospitality, providing for Christians in need.  Jesus is not saying that we do not have to give love, care, hospitality, and provision to non-Christians, but He is emphasizing the depth of the relationship we ought to have with other Christians because they are Christians.  Because they are also members of the Body of Christ, when we love and care and show hospitality and provide for them, it is as though we do these things for Jesus.

James says the same thing: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17, ESV).

We must understand James is using rhetoric – neither he, nor Jesus, is saying that we earn our salvation.  James is saying, if a person claims to have faith, and there is no outward show of love by virtue of that faith – that faith is not real – that person is not a Christian.

It is possible to lie; it is possible to be self-deceived.  But it is not possible to be a Christian and not actively care about other Christians – especially – as well as other people – more generally.

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:1-11, ESV).

Consider the recent storm we had – many branches were broken and were dead.  Consider trees and bushes in your yard – branches die now and then.  The branches are still branches, but they are dead branches.  Dead braches are good for nothing, except to be “burned up in the fire.”  Good branches bear fruit.

Good works do not save us, but good works prove that we are saved.  We cannot do good works except we savingly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Unless we are in the Vine, we cannot bear fruit.  Only true Christians can do good works – works of obedience and love for Jesus to others.

What Jesus, the King, is saying then, is not that inheritance of the Kingdom is earned by doing good works, but a Christian’s good works prove that the Father chose him before the foundation of the world and gave him the inheritance of the Kingdom.

King Jesus is telling the sheep that He knows they are the ones who God has given the Kingdom as an inheritance because of the evidence of their good works.  They obeyed Jesus and showed love in a way that non-Christians cannot do – loving others for the sake of Jesus.

And then he turned to the goats – to the religious people – to the church goers and others who thought they were good enough, even though they didn’t believe in Jesus Alone for salvation:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46, ESV).

The goats called Jesus Lord, but they didn’t believe in Him.    Jesus said, “ Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46, ESV).  The goats claimed that they believed in Jesus as their Savior – they called themselves believers – Christians, but they refused to obey Jesus, despite calling Him, “Lord.”    Yet, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, ESV).  If we don’t love Jesus, if we don’t keep His Commandments, if we don’t live out that love in good works, no matter what we call ourselves, we are not Christians.  If we don’t live out our love of Jesus, we will not inherit the Kingdom.

The disciples wanted to know when the Temple would be destroyed, and what the signs would be for Jesus’ Return and the end of the age.  Jesus told them that He is God, the King of the Universe, Sovereign over Salvation, and the Judge of humanity.  He told them that salvation is not a matter of what we do, but what we do proves whether we have really believed in Jesus Alone for salvation or not.

Have you fed someone who couldn’t afford a meal?

Have you given someone a drink who had nothing to quench his thirst?

Have you ever clothed anyone who couldn’t afford clothing?

Have you ever visited someone who was sick?

Have you ever visited someone who was in jail?

If you have, have you done these things because you love Jesus and want to obey Him?

Have you told the people you were serving that you are doing what you are doing because Jesus is the Sovereign King and your Savior?

Jesus is the Almighty Sovereign King, our God and Savior.  Let us find ways to live out our belief in that Truth – to love our neighbor at least as much as we love ourselves – and to love God with our entire being.

Let us pray:
            Sovereign King, we praise You for being Sovereign.  We thank You for being our salvation from before the beginning.  We thank You for calling us to a life of love and obedience to prove to the world that You are King and Savior.  Help us to be obedient and loving.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cold?

This Saturday, November 19th, from 10 AM to 12 PM, D.V., Second Reformed Church will be giving away free new and gently used winter coats.  If you are in need of a winter coast, please come.  We have adult and child sizes.  You must appear to receive a coat.  One coat per person.  You will not be allowed to take a coat for someone who does not come.  Thank you.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: "Opening Up Haggai"

Opening Up Haggai by Peter Williams is the first commentary I have used in the “Opening Up” series published by Day One, and I look forward to using additional volumes.

The “Opening Up” series is a solid Reformed and biblical commentary series which also functions as a devotional and/or study guide/group study.  Each volume begins with solid contextual introduction, and then, each chapter contains an exposition of a coherent section of the text.  At the end of each chapter, there is a “for further study” section which refers one to relevant scriptural texts to buffet and explain the text being exposited, as well as a “to think about and discuss” section which asks the preacher/reader/group to consider doctrinal, textual, and practical questions about the text and leading from the text.

The author of this volume exposits the text seriously as the Word of God and writes in a language that most lay people will understand.  (However, if one is looking for a commentary/devotional/study that spends much time on the languages and critical studies, one will not find it here.)

I found the Haggai volume a solid help in preparing my sermons on Haggai and in agreement with other Reformed commentaries.

I recommend this volume for preachers, students, private and group study, and for devotional use.  I hope other volumes of the series are equally valuable.

Reformed Wisdom

"We must not expect all believers in Christ to be exactly like one another. We must not set down others as having no grace, because their experience does not entirely tally with our own. The sheep in the Lord's flock have each their own peculiarities. The trees in the Lord's garden are not all precisely alike. All true servants of God agree in the principal things of religion. All are led by one Spirit. All feel their sins, and all trust in Christ. All repent, all believe, and all are holy. But in minor matters they often differ widely. Let not one despise another on this account. There will be Martha's and there will be Mary's in the Church until the Lord comes again." -- J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospel:  Luke, vol. 1., 384-385, Luke 10:38-42.  (Gently lifted from:   http://jcrylequotes.com/2011/11/14/all-believers-are-not-alike/)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"What Will You Sow?" Sermon: II Corinthians 9:6-15


“What Will You Sow?”

           [II Corinthians 9:6-15]           

November 13, 2011 Second Reformed Church

            “God loves a cheerful giver.”

            This is one of those phrases in the Bible that is known by many Christians and non-Christians alike.  And the interpretation of this snippet is usually something along the lines of “I don’t have to give anything – time, money, or skill – to the church unless it makes me happy.”  While there is a grain of truth in that interpretation, that is not what Paul is telling us in today’s Scripture.  God does not allow us to be obedient or not obedient based on how “tickled” we are from one moment to the next.

            In the mid-50’s A.D., the church in Jerusalem was suffering severe persecution.  It was so bad, they wrote to the churches around the empire for financial help, and people, such as Paul, went from place to place collecting money for the support of the church in Jerusalem.  It had become very difficult for Christians to buy or sell, and for their sustenance, they came to rely on the churches who were not suffering in that way.

            Although we are not familiar with much of that type of persecution in the Unites States, we know in other countries around the world, Christians are put to death, and others are denied access to jobs and food and shelter.  Christians suffering persecution ask for prayers and physical help from other churches.

            Paul was coming to the end of a year-long tour of collecting money for the church in Jerusalem, and in this second letter to the Corinthians, he told them that their generosity was known throughout the empire.  The Corinthian Church was known as a church that regularly gave sacrificially to others, and it was also known that they had pledged a huge financial gift to the church in Jerusalem.  Paul was giving them a “heads up” that he was on his way to collect the pledge that they had promised before all the churches.  Paul wanted to make sure that they were ready to keep the promise they had made – the promise that they had chosen to make in joy and support of the church in Jerusalem.  He did not want to arrive and find that they hadn’t gotten their pledge together – he didn’t want there to be the mutual embarrassment of coming to them with his entourage and have them say, “Oh, we didn’t get the money together yet.”  He was writing so they would be ready – prepared to give the gift that they pledged to give.

            And so we come to this morning’s Scripture:

            “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”

            If you watch the TV preachers, you will hear this explained that if you give God ten dollars, He’ll give you a hundred, and if you give Him a hundred, He’ll give you a new car or pay off your mortgage.  This is not what Paul means.

            Remember we are writing to people who farm and raise cattle.  They would understand that if you plant a single seed – and it grows well – you will receive a number of food items.  If you plant a bean seed, you will not receive a single bean, but multiple pods of beans.  And the more you plant – all things being equal – the more will grow.

            The error the TV preaches make it to say that if you give money in the offering plate, you will receive x times the money back.  There is no such promise.

            Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”  (Matthew 16:24b-26, ESV).

            The picture of Christian generosity is one of sacrifice and self-denial.  While there is nothing wrong with being wealthy, we are not called to build up our wealth.  We are called to give as much of ourselves and our blessings as we are able for the sake of the Kingdom.  Our primary goal is to make sure that the Gospel of Jesus Christ goes out, and God has given us time and money and gifts to use to make sure that everyone will hear that there is no salvation except through Jesus Alone.

            So, in this verse, Paul is not telling the Corinthians that they will get rich with money as they give more money, he is telling them that the greater their generosity is – and this church was consistently sacrificially generous – the greater their generosity – the more that they sowed for the sake of the Gospel – the greater effect their gift would have – the more people would hear the Gospel, and the greater blessings they would receive – spiritually, not necessarily materially.

            In other words, don’t put your offering in the plate, or volunteer around the church, expecting a financial windfall.  Give as generously as possible, because you want to see the Gospel go out and because God will bless you spiritually.  It’s not wrong to desire spiritual blessing because God wants us to be conformed into the Image of His Son (cf. Romans 8:29).

            Giving is a part of the worship of God – it is a participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Giving generously is a sign of trust and Christian maturity.

            That is not to say that the person who gives the most money or time is the most mature Christian.  Remember what we read in the Gospel:  “Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on’” (Luke 21:1-4, ESV).  Jesus pointed out the difference between the mega-rich people who gave a lot of money, though it was nothing for them to give large amounts of money, and the widow who gave her last two cents.  The woman who gave her last two cents was obediently worshipping God and was blessed by Him.

            For example, if you make $1,000 a week and put one dollar in the offering, you have not sown much and you should not expect much.  Your gift will not go very far.  But if you are out of work and have no income at all –  and you do not receive government aid, or support from a family member or friend, you do not have a large savings, etc.  If you put a dollar in the offering that may well be a sacrificially generous gift and you will have sown much, and you may expect to reap great spiritual rewards for the Kingdom and in your life.

            Then we come to that misquoted verse:  “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

            It is true that God wants us to give joyfully – to desire to give more and more and beyond what we have in the past.  But this verse is not an excuse not to give if you don’t “feel it.”  There’s a Dennis the Menace cartoon that I have at home where Dennis is shaking the minister’s hand after worship, and Dennis says, “My Dad says you’d do a lot better if you took the offering before your sermon.”  This verse is not an excuse to give based on our mood or on our perception of the worship service.

            Paul was writing to a church that had promised to give a certain large amount of money for the relief effort at the church in Jerusalem.  He was telling the Corinthians, effectively, “I’m letting you know I’m on my way to collect the money that you volunteered to give, because I want you to be ready and cheerful about giving – just as you were when you pledged this money – not caught off guard and caught resenting the collection of your promised gift.”

            Some churches give out pledge cards for the year.  What Paul was saying is “The pledge card that you filled out says you are filled with joy to give $10,000 to the church this year, and so you’re ready – and not caught off guard – I want you to know I’m on my way to pick up your pledged gift.”

            That’s what this verse is saying.

            Paul continues:  “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, ‘He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.’  He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”

            Paul reminded the Corinthians and us, the more generously, the more liberally, the more sacrificially, the more abundantly we give to God’s Work, the more God will give us to give to God’s Work.  Understand, the promise is not if we give a lot, we’ll become wealthy.  The promise is, if we give a lot, God will always make sure that we have more to give.

            We already have the promise in the Lord’s Prayer that God will always provide us with everything we need.  We may not always have what we want.  We may not always understand why God knows we do or do not need something.  But this is a different promise.

            God promises that, if we give in abundance to His Work, He will give us more abundance to be able to give more to His Work – in time, money, and talents.  There is no guarantee of our becoming wealthy in any material sense of the word, except as we will give it away for the good of the Kingdom.

            In the parable of the good steward, Jesus said, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17, ESV).  The master had given the steward a small sum to invest for him.  The steward invested the money, made a profit for the master, and the master was pleased, so the master gave the steward more to steward for him.

            The same is true for us; the more we give of our time, money, and gifts, the more that God will give us for the purpose of giving more.   Test God on this.  Pray to have more to give, and God will give you more to give or show you how you already have more that you can give.  God will not short-change His Work, and God delights in seeing us be good and joyful stewards of what He gives us.

            Paul cites Psalm 112:9 as proof of this:  God distributes freely.  Everything we have is from God, and God delights in our using what He has given us to show other people how glorious He is – to show others that He Alone is the Savior of all those who will believe.

            God will, as Paul writes, give us the seed we need to increase in righteousness.  God will continue to grow us into the Image of His Son, and one way He does that is through giving us more so that we may give more away for the sake of the Gospel.

            Pray that God will show you how to use your time for Him.  Pray that God will show you how to use your gifts for Him.  Pray that God will show you how to give your money for Him.  And God will show us and God will provide for us so we will be able to give and give abundantly, and cheerfully, because we have received what we asked from God.

            Paul emphasizes again, “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”

            One of the reasons God blesses us with time and money and gifts is so we will give them away and use them for the ministry of His Church – for the spreading of the Gospel.  This giving – generous, liberal, sacrificial giving – also leads us to give thanks to God for the ability to give towards the Work of God.  God gives to us so we can give to Him and give thanks to Him for the ability to give!

            Do you ever feel thankful – maybe even a little giddy – as you donate your time to the Work of God, or as you give your offering, or as you use your ability, expertise, gifts, for God and His Work?  Paul says that when we are joy-filled – cheerful – anxious to give and to give more and more, we will find ourselves being thankful to God.  Are you thankful that you can give?  Are you so thankful that you are giving more and more – which will make you more thankful?

            But that’s not even the final benefit of giving to God and His Work:  “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you.”

            If we sow large amounts of seed, if we give generously and abundantly and sacrificially, God will give us more to give, we will give thanks to God for giving us what we give and for making able to give more, and those who are ministered to because of our giving will also give thanks to God!

            Our giving not only makes us thankful, but it makes others thankful – to those who give, yes, but ultimately – and more importantly – to God.  And, the giver and the receiver will pray for each other.

            Paul ends this section by writing, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”

            What is God’s “inexpressible gift?”

            Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, ESV).  And, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32, ESV).

            Is there anything more – anything greater – that God could have given us to make our lives better – to show us His Love – to make us cheerfully generous and thankful?

            God has given us abilities, time, and money to use to accomplish His Work on earth – the spreading of the Gospel.

            God has given us more than we need so we would be able to give.  And God continues to give us more and more by His Grace as we give more and more for His Work.

            Giving to God and for the sake of His Gospel makes us thankful.

            Giving to God and for the sake of His Gospel makes those affected by our giving thankful.

            Giving to God for the sake of the Gospel makes the giver and the receiver pray for each other.

            And we can never complain that God hasn’t given us all we need, because God has given us everything we need – even the greatest Gift of His Son that we might be saved.

            Let us pray:
            Almighty God, Giver of Every Good Gift, we come before You in prayer, in thankfulness, in joy and cheerfulness, desiring to give and to give more that Your Will would be done on earth as it is in heaven – that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would go to the ends of the earth – that every person on the plant would know that there is only salvation in Jesus Alone.  Lord, help us to trust You.  Help us to give more.  Help us to give more than that.  Help us to be so thankful to You that it is pure joy to take up our cross and give everything away for Your Sake.  Give us Your Grace and prove Yourself to be the One Holy God.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Still Hungry?

Tomorrow, Sunday, November 13th, we plan (D.V.) to have our pot-luck lunch which was cancelled a few weeks ago due to the storm.  Please join us for worship and then stay to share your lunch with us.  Worship is at 10:30 AM.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Review: "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt"

I have been interested to read about Anne Rice’s return to the Roman Catholic Church, which she has written about in her autobiographic work, but I have not gotten to it yet.  What I did just read is her book, Christ the Lord:  Out of Egypt.

In the appended author’s note, Rice gives a brief overview of her relationship to the Roman Catholic Church from birth to today, and she explains the research that she did to write this book about the first thirteen years of Jesus’ life.  And she has done a great deal of research on all sides of the fence:  she read the biblical text, scholarly works on the dating and authorship of the texts – and, interestingly, concludes that the historical critical late-dating of the texts is spurious, historians like Josephus and Philo, the Gnostic writings, and modern theologians of all stripes.  She has put her work in.

What she comes up with is a very readable and compelling account of Jesus’ first thirteen years.  There were times as I was reading, I could feel grit in my clothes, and there are comments and turns of phrases which show she knows what the period was like.

In these things, this is an excellent novel.  However, I am concerned that some will read this, not as a novel, but as history.  Thankfully, she does not put this forward as history (as Dan Brown does his novels).  However, it is confusing to read her putting forth both a traditional/conservative biblical reading of the biblical texts while combining them with the Gnostic texts (which she finds, for some unwritten reason, “compelling”).

This makes for some historical curiosities:  on the one hand, she asserts that Jesus was born of a virgin, on the other, she says He has older siblings.   She asserts the Jewish understanding of Christ the Lord, but then presents Him as not knowing Who He is, and sinning – capriciously using His “abilities” to raise the dead, kill His childhood friends, and create living animals out of clay.

This is a well-written and enjoyable novel.   It makes me all the more interested in hearing Rice’s longer confession of her faith.  However, I would be careful who I would recommend this novel to, and I certainly would not give it to someone who wants to know Who Jesus is – the Real, Historical, Biblical Jesus, that is.

Monday, November 07, 2011

"The Great Multitude" Sermon: Revelation 7:9-17


“The Great Multitude”

[Revelation 7:9-17]

November 6, 2011 Second Reformed Church

            Today is All Saints’ Sunday, and as we remember those who have died in the faith, and especially those who have died during the past year, we turn to John’s vision of the Kingdom.

            As we open the book of Revelation, we ought to understand a few things:  John wrote this book while in exile on the island of Patmos, off the western coast of what he would have known as Asia – what we call today, Turkey.  John was writing in the late sixties A. D.  At this time, Nero was emperor of Rome, and he was viciously running a campaign to slaughter Christians and stamp out Christianity.

            John wrote his book under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit to the seven churches of Turkey:  Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.  They were experiencing the wrath of Nero, and John wrote this letter to them to be an encouragement to them – and all Christians.  The book of Revelation is not a horror story – it is not meant to scare us – the point of the book is to comfort.  John wanted to assure the churches that no matter how horrible the persecution was or could become, there was no reason to fear Nero and his troops – or any evil –  because Jesus is our Victorious Savior.

            As we look at the book of Revelation – and we’re only looking at one passage today – not the whole book – we ought to understand it as a book of comfort and hope – not one of terror.  The same Jesus Who saved people from the seven churches of Asia – Turkey – is our Savior today, if we have believed the Gospel.

            If you believe that God came to earth in the Person of Jesus, died for our sins, physically rose from the dead, and ascended back to the Throne of the Son, the worst possible thing that you can imagine ever happening to you will be less than the hope and the joy that we can confidently believe is coming.

            Jesus said, “So have no fear of them [the devil and his demons], for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:26-33, ESV).

            And 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” (Romans 8:18, ESV).

            This hope – that John shows in the book of Revelation – is the hope we have for all those who have died believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Death is not the end, and those who believe in Jesus Alone for salvation will be raised to life imperishable – life in Glory.

            One more thing we need to recognize as we look at the book of Revelation – it is written in code.  John did not want the Romans to get and understand the book, so he wrote it in code using first century Jewish symbolism.  The symbols of Revelation must be interpreted in light of first century Jewish symbolism or we will come up with something other than what God is revealing.

            What is the revelation of the book of Revelation?  Jesus has already won.  And no matter how many battles seem to be lost in this life, we are eternally safe in Jesus.  He is completely victorious and will not lose even one of His people.

And so we come to the seventh chapter of the book of Revelation.  The chapter opens with angels gathering 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel – sealing them – claiming them as elect unto salvation.  The chapter opens with God announcing that He has not forsaken biological Israel.  In fact, 12,000 out of each of the twelve tribes will be saved. 

What does that mean?  It does not mean that there will be exactly 12,000 saved out of the descendants of each of the tribes of Israel.  The numbers twelve and ten are numbers of completion in Jewish numerology, and the twelve tribes represent the full people of biological Israel.  So, God is saying that everyone whom God intends to save out of biological Israel will be saved.  There are and will be Jews who believe in Jesus as the Savior, and every one that God intends to believe will come to faith.  That is what the opening verses of the chapter mean.

Then John sees a great multitude, as we read.  These are from every nation and tribe and people and language – and these people are standing before the Throne and the Lamb – these people have also believed savingly in Jesus.  These are the non-Jews – the Gentiles – you and me – all those who have no biological heritage in Israel, yet have believe in Jesus as Savior.  People like those who were part of the seven churches of Asia.

The promise that God made to our father Abraham was “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,” (Genesis 26:4, ESV).  From the beginning, salvation was not just for the Jews – it was first to the Jews – but also to all people – anyone of any nation or tribe or people or language who believed savingly in Jesus.  We see in the Scripture that from the Creation, until Jesus, almost all of those who profess faith in the Savior Who was to come were Israelites – only a few were non-Jews.  But after Jesus came, most of those who believed in Him are non-Jews, though Jews still come to faith.

This great multitude is standing before the Throne and the Lamb.  The fact that they are standing before God symbolizes their reliance of Christ for their position before God.  They are only able to stand in God’s Presence because they have been saved by Jesus.

This great multitude is dressed in white robes.  White symbolizes purity – holiness – which is theirs in Christ.

This great multitude waves palms.  Waving palms was symbolic of victory and triumph.  They are symbolizing the victory and triumph of God in saving them from His Wrath.

And then John records that this great multitude cries out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  They attribute Sovereignty and Kingship to God and the Lamb.  Under the Roman Empire, one was required to bow before the Caesar and recognize him as the sovereign king of the empire.  The fact that they are crying out shows that they were willing to endure anything to be able to proclaim Jesus as the Caesar – the Lord of Heaven and earth.

Also, we see that the great multitude attributes salvation wholly to God and the Lamb – not to anything they did or did not do.  Salvation is the choice of our Sovereign God.  No one is received into the Kingdom by choosing salvation.  God chooses those He wills for salvation.

At the crying out of the great multitude, the angels and the elders and the four living creatures – all the beings of Heaven who have perfectly obeyed God from the beginning, fall down on their faces and worship God.  Why?  Turning your face away, covering your face, and especially bowing down – putting your face below the Sovereign’s Feet – was a sign of reverence, worship, and adoration.

As we come into the sanctuary, we join together as the Church to worship God – we stand before His Face right now – but in the Kingdom, we will see Jesus face-to-face, and the right response in seeing Him will be for us to fall on our faces – in wonder and awe and thanksgiving and praise.  If worship is truly “accomplished” in our sanctuaries, we will “see” God and cry out in praise and thanks for Who He is.  Worship is not first and foremost about us becoming better people or feeling better about ourselves or life or whatever or “getting something” – the purpose of worship is for us – like the beings of Heaven – to fall before God – at least in our hearts – and say, “You’re amazing – thank You for being God.” 

Those humans who had been saved by God acknowledged God as the Sovereign Lord and Savior, and then John saw the beings of Heaven cry out, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Glorifying God is crying out everything we know to be true about God and praising Him for it.  “It is so!  God is most blessed, most glorious, all wisdom, all thanks-deserving, all honor-deserving, all-powerful, almighty – for ever and ever and ever.  It is so!”

The beings of Heaven, who are perfect from the moment of their creation, and the humans who make up the great multitude – as well as the 144,000 – worship God in harmony for all of eternity.  From the moment of Creation and throughout all of eternity, the beings of Heaven and every person who dies believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ are engaged in perfect, eternal worship.  Being in harmony with them is what we strive for in our worship on earth.

Then one of the elders asks John if he knows who the great multitude is – to see how observant he is.  And John, in humility, turns the question back on the elder and tells him that he knows.  In other words, “You tell me.”

And the elder tells him that they “are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.”  They were yet to come through the tribulation to die.  What and when is this “great tribulation,” “great trouble,” “great pressure”?  Remember who John was writing to – the Christians in Asia who were suffering “great tribulation.”  The great tribulation is the period from Jesus’ Ascension until He returns.  The Christians of Asia who were being slaughtered for believing in Jesus are part of the great multitude.

John did not sugar-coat their suffering.  In fact, he told them that it was revealed to him that all those who call on the Name of Jesus for salvation would suffer in an unprecedented way until His Return.  All those who believe in Jesus for salvation are called to participate in the sufferings of our Lord, and for them, and for many in countries around the world, profession of faith in Jesus means death.

And some of you may be thinking, “Well, we don’t see that here, in the United States – the Christian Nation.”  The United States in an anomaly, but there is still persecution – it’s just more of a quiet persecution.  We don’t (often) slaughter people for professing faith in Christ (at this point in time), but there is pressure to marginalize them and quiet them and ridicule them – even by those who claim to be Christians. 

At our recent student exams at Classis, one of our ministers asked that the two students being examined be failed because they professed belief that God created the Creation.  The minister argued that belief in the historicity of the opening chapters of Genesis causes racism and the Nazi party.  It wasn’t murder, but it was persecution.

The good news John had for the churches in Asia was if they were put to death – or in any way persecuted for Christ – “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

John wrote, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7, ESV).

Because Jesus was put to death in the flesh, all those who believe in Him for Salvation have been cleansed of their sin – they have been forgiven for all of their sin.  If you have believed in Jesus Alone for salvation, you have been washed in the Blood of Jesus; you are wearing white robes which have been washed in the Blood of Jesus.  Symbolism.  If you have believed in Jesus Alone for your salvation, all of your sins, past, present, and future, including your sin nature, has been forgiven and purified in Jesus.

For the Christian, ultimately, death is not a problem.  Most of us don’t desire to be sick or to go through the process of death, but in a very real sense, we look forward to death, because death is all good.  The late Larry Norman was asked if he had any goals and he said, “Yes, I want to die.”  The reason he could say that is because he was a Christian and knew that his dying would bring him into the Presence of Jesus, our God and Savior.

Now, John was not encouraging suicide or being morbid.  John was revealing to them the sure hope that they and all Christians have that we have been forgiven in Jesus – through the suffering He endured for our sins – so, for the Christian, death is deliverance for everything broken and marred and evil and sinful.

Although we mourn those who have died in the faith, because we have lost them being with us for a time, we do not mourn as those who have no hope.  Paul wrote, “But we have this treasure [the Gospel] in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:7-18 ESV).

Still God graciously gave John a glimpse of the eternal to give peace and hope to the churches of Asia and all those who see Christians die in the faith and for the faith:  those who have died are safe, well, pure, and holy.  They are in the presence of their God and Savior.  And they are worshipping:  “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple;” (Revelation 7:15a, ESV).

And this is the condition they are in:  “and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.  They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat” (Revelation 7:15b-16, ESV).  Those who have died in the faith and for the faith are protected by God and all suffering and pain has been removed from them.  This is not the end of the story – there is still the resurrection to come when Jesus returns.  But all those who have died believing that Jesus Alone is the Savior that God sent are with Him, healthy and at peace, waiting for the Day of Resurrection.

“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17, ESV).

Jesus, the Lamb, is the Shepherd, Who cares for His Sheep – and has died for them:  “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2, ESV).

Jesus guides each one of His sheep to the Living Water Who is Himself: “Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life’” (John 4:13-14, ESV).

And God makes crying a thing of the past.  “You [God] make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11, ESV).

“for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10, ESV).

The first century churches in Asia were suffering persecution, and they were being put to death by the armies of Caesar Nero.  John sent the letter of Revelation to the churches to put them at peace and reinforce and encourage their hope.  Yes, they were suffering the worst persecution ever know to the people of God, and it will continue until Jesus Returns.  However, all those who have died in the faith, and all those who will die in the faith, are received into Paradise.  They are free of sin – forgiven.  They are joyfully worshipping God.  And they are whole, healthy, at peace, waiting for Jesus’ Return, when we all who believe in Jesus Alone for salvation will be raised from our graves and reunited with one another to live eternally in the Kingdom of our God and Savior.

Let us pray:
            Almighty God, Who is sovereign over life and death, we thank You for the love of life and the Creation that You have given to us.  Thank You for giving us, not only this life, but the life to come, with Jesus, perfected and made holy like Him.  We ask that You would minister to us and give us Your Grace as we receive the bread and the cup.  Help us to hold fast to that hope that we can mourn the death of our loved ones and yet hold on with unshakable confidence to Your Promise that they are well, they shall be raised, and we will all be together in Your Kingdom.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.