Monday, December 31, 2012
December 30, 2012 Second Reformed Church
We consider, this first Sunday after Christmas, who “the Word” is. The Apostle John wrote his gospel and began with this imagery of “the Word” which we read this morning. It's helpful to know exactly why John wrote his gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31, ESV).
John explained that he didn't write down everything that Jesus did and said, but that he wrote down what he did so that everyone who read it would understand that Jesus is: first, the Savior that God promised to send from the beginning – the Messiah – the Christ. Second, Jesus is the Son of God – and he explores a very particular meaning of that in his gospel – namely, that Jesus is God the Son – He is Divine – One of the Persons of God. Third, that the readers of his gospel do not have life unless they believe in Jesus Alone; life can only be found through believing in Jesus. That's why John wrote his gospel.
We are only going to look at the issues found in the first eighteen verses of his gospel – and those, even, very briefly:
John begins his gospel, “in the beginning,” and every Jew and every Greek who read those words would've immediately been taken back to the first phrase of the book of Genesis. What does John mean by “in the beginning”? The phrase that John uses means “the cut of the corner,” “the edge,” “the first,” “before to begin the begin” – John is talking about the moment before the material world existed – the moment before time and space and stuff. Can you picture in your mind the moment before time existed? The moment before space existed? The moment before anything of material substance existed? I can't. But that's what he's talking about – it's a time that reaches past our understanding, because we are all living within time and space and material substance. “In the beginning” is right before that.
“In the beginning the word”– “the logos” – what is this term but John is using? “The Word” can be as simply defined as “the word”– and it can be defined in many similar ways having to do with speech and language. But John means something more here – and we see that as we go through these eighteen verses, but in this context, “the Word” is “God's full self-revelation through Jesus Christ” (Bible Windows). In this context, “the Word” means what Paul wrote, “For in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” (Colossians 2:9, ESV). “The Word” means God Incarnate – and it is not just the influence of God or a piece of God or the power of God, but “the Word” is the fullness – the completeness – the wholeness – of God dwelling in the human body. The point being, as we see in the end of our text for this morning, Jesus is not merely a human being but He is Very God Himself.
And so we look at a few items in our text:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
John begins by telling his readers that “the Word” was not created at the time that Jesus of Nazareth the human being was created – “the Word” was before any created stuff was – and “the Word” was with God – “the Word” and God are distinct. And “the Word” was God – “the Word” has the same deity as God. In talking in the Trinitarian language that we use, we would say that there is only One God but God exists in more than one person – and here we have the Person of the Father and the Person of the Son. “The Word” and God are not two different gods. They are the same One God. But They are distinct. That means that God the Father can be reigning from heaven while God the Son is incarnate in the person of Jesus living in Israel. They are the same One God. They are fully the same deity. The fact that they exist in persons does not make one more or less deity than the other. They are exactly the same deity – the same God – fully God – completely God. And yet God is able to exist at the same time in different persons.
Almost as an example, John says of “the Word”: "All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
First. John tells us that “the Word” is the Creator of everything that exists and that He is the One through whom life is given.
And yet we read in Genesis, that God created everything that is, and that the Holy Spirit created everything that is: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:1-2, ESV).
Paul echoes John’s claim that “the Word” is the Creator of everything by saying this of Jesus: "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
(Colossians 1:16, ESV).
So, in very short order, we have laid the foundation for the Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead: there is One and only One God, and that One God exists in Three Persons Who are each completely the same One God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Holy Spirit are spirits and have never put on flesh, whereas the Son came to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
And, when John speaks of “the Word” being the life in the light of men, he does not only mean that Jesus gives biological life to humanity, but also spiritual life to those who believe in Him – as we shall see. The prophet Isaiah said prophetically of Jesus: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, ESV).
As we saw during Advent, Jesus did not just fall out of the sky, announcing Himself, but God sent His cousin, John the Baptist, as a forerunner to announce the coming of “the Word” to earth in the person of Jesus: "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
And so we continue with the description of the Word Incarnate: “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
John the Baptist prepared the way – announcing that the Messiah had come – the long promised Savior had come into the world. We saw through John's preaching and through his baptism that he made it clear to all those who came to him that salvation was not through biology – it was not through being a descendent of Abraham – but it was through being one who believed in the promises made to Abraham – and the promises that God made to send the Savior and to bless the world through that Savior – through the descendent of Abraham – Who would come to save His people.
As we know, through reading the Gospels, Jesus came into the world – “the Word” incarnate in the person of Jesus – the Creator of the world – and even so, the world as a whole rejected Jesus – they did not believe that He was the Savior that God sent. Even more tragically, perhaps, He came to the biological descendents of Abraham – the ones who should have recognized Him as the Savior that God sent – the ones who had received the promises and the prophecies of the written Word of God for them to hear and meditate – yet, they also did not believe Him – they, by and large, rejected Jesus and did not believe that He was the Savior that God had sent.
We might wonder why – why did most of the Jews – and why do most of the people the world hear the promises of God, hear the prophecies that were made, see them fulfilled in Jesus, and still reject Him?
Jesus explained: “Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it”
(Matthew 13:10-17, ESV).
Jesus explained that His rejection was a fulfillment of prophecy – that it was never God's intention to save everyone – in fact, most people were destined to reject Him. Part of Jesus' Mission was to preach His Gospel and have it be rejected so that those who rejected it would have no excuse.
But there always was and there always will be a remnant – a remnant of Israel – a remnant in the world who did receive Him – and who will receive Him – all those who do believe in Jesus Alone for their salvation: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Notice that there are some who did receive Jesus – just as there are some who receive them now, and those who do receive Jesus Alone as their Savior – those who do believe the Gospel that God – “the Word” – incarnated in the person of Jesus, lived a perfect life under God's law, died for the sins of everyone who would ever believe, physically rose from the dead and ascended back to His throne – will not just be saved from the Wrath of God for their sins, but they will be given the right to become children of God – they will be the ones who are allowed to call God, “Father” – to know His Fatherly Love in all its fullness – to be received by Him forever into His Kingdom.
But notice what John says – those who do believe in Jesus Alone for salvation do not choose to do so of their own will. No, anyone who believes in Jesus Alone for salvation – who calls God, rightly, their “Father” – God made them children of God. If you believe, it was not by any will of your own, but because God made you believe – God willed you to believe.
Paul explained: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:14-24, ESV).
The point which Paul emphasizes again is that since we are all born sinners, it is not possible for anyone by his or her own will to choose to believe in Jesus Alone for salvation – God must change the heart – the inclination – and make us believe – literally bring us back to life from the dead – as Paul wrote: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:1-10, ESV).
And so salvation is completely the Work of God – a Gift of God, of whom no one is deserving.
John continues: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
And so John emphasizes again “the Word” existed prior to the Incarnation – “the Word” – the Son of God – existed as Spirit with the Father and the Holy Spirit until the Incarnation. Then – “at the right time,” as the Scripture puts it – “the Word” became flesh – the Son incarnated – God became a human being without becoming less than God. In doing that, all we who believe can now see the Glory of God. As John goes on to say. No one can see the Father – no one can see God and live, but we can see God – the Glory of God – mediated through the
Incarnate Word Who is Jesus. And because Jesus is God and human, He is able to give us grace upon grace. He is able to live a perfect life and impute that perfect life – that righteousness – to us and He was able to take upon Himself – in that moment on the cross, the infinite Wrath of God against all of our sins – and rise again.
John ends this section, reminding us, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.”
One of the purposes of the Law is to show us our sin, but it is impossible for the Law to grant salvation – it was never the purpose of the Law to grant salvation. As Paul wrote, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV).
So Jesus, the Savior, brings us grace and truth and salvation through Him Alone. We can see God. We can call God our “Father,” we can be made right with God – righteous in His Sight – forgiven for all of our sins. What great thanks do we owe “the Word” for becoming flesh in the person of Jesus that we who God chose out of the spiritually dead should know and live eternally with Him?
As we end the Christmas season, let us remember that the little Baby Whose birth we celebrate is “the Word” – the Son of God – full deity – Who chose to come to earth in the person of Jesus to save a people for Himself through His Life, suffering, death, and Resurrection. Now all those that He has chosen for Himself can see God and come into His Presence, knowing Him as their loving “Father” – and Jesus, “the Word,” as our Elder Brother.
Let us ponder this mystery: the Almighty God – the Triune God – before time and space and created stuff, chose in the Second Person – Who is the Son – “the Word” – to create and then save a people for Himself that we might know Him and His grace. Let us give thanks as we receive the bread and the cup this morning – as we continue to receive His Grace and continue to be made more able to do the work that is set before us – to see Him more clearly – to be made more ready for the Kingdom.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You for this revelation of Yourself to the opening words of John's gospel. Help us to understand what You have said and still to be amazed and ponder the mystery of what You have done. Keep thoughts of the Incarnation from being a once a year event, but let us continually look and wonder at Your Glory and what You have done for us. May Jesus Christ be praised, Amen.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
December 24, 2012 Second Reformed Church
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Hebrews 1:1-4, ESV).
These are the opening words of the letter to the Hebrews – we looked at them earlier this year. One of the points of this text is that Jesus came after a series of prophecies concerning His coming. We are ending the season of Advent this evening – a season of preparation – a season of remembering a long prophetic history – some 4,000 years of prophets – before Jesus was born on earth – before God, the Son, incarnate in the person of Jesus, the firstborn son of the Virgin Mary.
We have said one of the most important things and one of the most key points of Christianity that makes it different from other religions is that Christianity stands or falls on history. Christianity is one of the only religions in which the historical facts of it must be true – there must be a way of authenticating what is written – or it is meaningless – it is vanity.
In the opening verses of chapter 2 of Luke's Gospel, he shows us that a number of historical items had to come into alignment for it to be the right time for God to come to earth as the Savior of His people and fulfill all the prophecies made about Him. Jesus was not born at a random time or in a random place or in a random way – all the points of prophecy had to align for Him to come and be the Savior of all those who would ever believe.
Chapter 2 opens: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
This is not merely important for dating when Jesus was born, but also for showing that Israel was occupied by the Romans. If Israel had not been occupied by the Romans at the time of Jesus's birth, Jesus would not have fulfilled the prophecies about Him. The importance of this is not just to be found in Jesus's trial and crucifixion but in His birth as well, because it was the Romans who chose to take a census – to account and register the people of the nations that they were occupying – and this census caused families in Israel to relocate – and that relocation made it possible for Jesus to be born where the prophets prophesied He would be born.
Israel was a nation which was subdivided by tribe. We remember that Abraham had twelve: Judah, Issachar, Naphtali, Joseph, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Reuben, Simeon, Asher, Levi, and Gad. The Promised Land was divided among the tribes and was to remain in their individual families forever. Of course, Levi and his family was not given land because they were the priests, and Joseph was not given land, but his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were given land. So there were twelve tribes who owned land, and everyone could trace their lineage back to one of the twelve tribes and their land – or to the priesthood of Levi.
Knowing this to be the case, the Romans used this system in Israel as a way to count and register the people of the land – and when the census occurred each person had to temporarily relocate and register in the land of their father – in the land of the tribe to which they belonged.
Joseph, the betrothed to Mary, the legal father of Jesus, was a resident of Nazareth in Galilee, but he was of the line of David, and from the tribe of Judah, and so we read:
“And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,”
“Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons” (1 Samuel 17:12, ESV).
And so the holy family was relocated for the birth of Jesus and, to fulfill prophecy, He was born in Bethlehem:
As the prophet Micah said, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2, ESV).
So to fulfill this prophecy, the Romans had to occupy Israel, they had to call for a census, Israel had to be divided by tribes, the Romans had to observe that tribal division and take the census based on tribal heritage, Joseph had to be a descendent of David, who was from Bethlehem, in the tribe of Judah, so Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, fulfilling the prophecy of Micah.
It was also important that Joseph be a descendent of David so Jesus would also be a descendent of David and be in the line for the kingship of Israel. As God promised, “But King Solomon shall be blessed, and the throne of David shall be established before the LORD forever”
(1 Kings 2:45, ESV).
If Jesus had not been the son of Joseph, the son of David, who had been promised that the throne would be David's forever, we would not have the testimony of the Magi – the Jesus is the rightful king of Israel and also worthy of worship:
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’” (Matthew 2:1-2, ESV).
As we looked at yesterday, it was also extremely important that Mary, the mother of Jesus, be who she was – that she be a virgin who had conceived by the miraculous Work of God:
As Isaiah prophesied: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, ESV).
God caused Mary to conceive a man without a sin nature, but with both a human nature and a divine nature. Jesus was not born a sinner, but both fully God and fully human – which we have seen before was necessary for Him to be able to live a perfect life under God’s Law, died for the sins of everyone who would ever believe, and then physically rise from the dead and ascend – in His body – back to the throne of the Son, where He reigns at the Right Hand of God.
“to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Years later, nothing had changed, “And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’” (Matthew 8:20, ESV).
Was the fulfillment of all these prophecies – and more – merely a coincidence?
The evidence for Who Jesus is is overwhelming – He is God the Savior. The evidence can be checked – compared with other historians, compared logically, compared linguistically... The evidence is not lacking – it’s just that some people have no place for Him.
Jesus is here now, and we continue to meet with Him spiritually in the Sacrament.
Think about this birth…see if you have room for the Savior.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, as we celebrate the day we set aside to remember Your birth – Your incarnation – as a human, forgive us for our sins. Open our hearts and minds and help us to honestly know if You have room with us. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.
Monday, December 24, 2012
December 23, 2012 Second Reformed Church
Mary sang a song – which is this morning’s Scripture. It is called “The Magnificat” after the Latin rendering of the first phrase. It is a song of Mary’s faith in the God of Israel – the One True God.
We will remember that Elizabeth, Mary’s elder sister, was the wife of Zachariah, who was serving as high priest that year. Zachariah and Elizabeth had wanted children, but she was barren. And when an angel told Zachariah that they would bear a son, he laughed and became mute until the birth of the child, who became John the Baptist.
In the latter months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, her virgin sister, who was engaged to Joseph, and was recently pregnant by a miraculous Work of God, went to visit Elizabeth and support her as she neared the birth of her child.
When Mary arrived at the home of Zachariah and Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and jumped for joy in the womb, recognizing the Child that Mary was carrying. And Elizabeth was also filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with loud joy: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:42-45, ESV).
Elizabeth confirmed what Mary and Joseph had been told by the angels: Mary was blessed by God; the Baby in her womb was blessed by God. And we don’t see it in the English, but Elizabeth asks why she has been granted the blessing of this visit from the mother of her Lord – the mother of the Kurios – the mother of God. Mary was to give birth to the Incarnate God.
And again, Elizabeth confirmed the blessing by telling Mary that her unborn child recognized God in the flesh growing within her and jumped for joy in her womb. And Elizabeth blessed Mary for believing that the Word of the Lord would be fulfilled – Mary was a woman of faith – and the song she sang was a song of faith.
First, let us notice that Mary gave thanksgiving to God for His Mercy to her:
“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
Mary begins by praising God – by drawing attention to Him – and recognizing Him as her only Savior. She cries out that He Alone is the One to rejoice in for this blessing that she has received. And this salvation enables her to rejoice and give thanks to her Savior. Why? Because she recognized that she was not chosen to be the mother of our Lord because of who she was or what she did. Mary recognized that she was a humble virgin, that she was – in the eyes of the world – lowly – she was a nobody, she recognized that God chose her for God’s Reasons and not because she merited special treatment from Him.
Mary does not contradict herself is saying that all the world from then on would know her and call her blessed – because God has used her to His Glory. God has used her to bring salvation to God’s people. Because God showed kindness to her in this way, she rejoiced and gave thanks to God for Who He is and what He has done – not because she deserved to be the mother of our Lord.
Here, we see that Mary is our teacher in humility. Mary had a realistic understanding of who she was before God. She knew that she was not any great person in the grand scheme of humanity and, more than that, she recognized that she was a sinner – underserving of God’s Mercy – surely underserving of being chosen to be the mother of our Lord.
And yet, she is right and humble in her assertion that from that day forward everyone would call her blessed. She was not blessed for who she was, per se, but for how God used her to save His people. That does not mean that we should look down on Mary or dismiss her – no, God tells us in His Word that we should hold Mary in high esteem, because she understood herself and submitted to God in faithfulness and rejoiced and gave thanks to be used by Him.
How humble are we? Would we, like Mary, hear the Word of the Lord and say, “Yes, Lord”? Would we submit to whatever God calls us to do – not matter what it is – if it glorified God? Do we think too highly of ourselves – even at times – do we know we are better than so and so – more holy than so and so – do we try to avoid certainly people because they are beneath us? Would we have scoffed and walked away, shaking our heads, if a young virgin, engaged to a carpenter, told us that God had blessed her by entering her womb to bring about the salvation of His people?
In verse 48, Mary calls herself “humble” and a “servant.” She is using these words in amazement that God would choose to use a poor woman – women were – at best – second class citizens at that time – they could not be trusted, they could not testify in court. She was engaged to a carpenter, not a prince or a governor. She would have been seen as a “maidservant.” She was a nobody in the world. She was a sinner deserving God’s Wrath. She was a faithful Jewess, who believed the Word of God and submitted to Him when He called, saying, “Here I am, Lord, do with Your servant as You will.” It caused her great joy and thanksgiving to be used by God for His purposes. Are we joy-filled and thankful to God for the way He has chosen to use us?
Paul explains in Romans that God, our Creator, choses to save out of humanity those He wills to save, based on His Own Will and not based on anything anyone does or does not do – we cannot merit salvation – it is the gift of God. And then Paul answers an objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:19-24, ESV).
Paul explains that God is a potter Who molds people and uses them according to His Will and for His Glory. Mary recognized that she was a lump of clay in her God’s Hands – and she rejoiced and gave thanks for the way God chose to use her. And we ought to look to her and thank God for her – that God used her to bring salvation to His people – and we ought to consider our own lives with humble seriousness and find reason to give thanks in loud joy to God for what He has and is doing with us.
Second, Mary acknowledges that God is Holy and exercises Sovereign Power and Judgment over all of Creation:
‘and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
The God Mary knew and believed in is Holy – He is Purity above Pure. He is the God Who cannot have sin in His Presence, which is one reason He promised to send a Savior – that all those who believe in Him would be forgiven for all of their sins and made righteous and holy through God’s Own Work, that we – and all those who ever believe – could stand before Him sinless and holy. This is the God Who is incomparably Great and infinitely Exalted.
God is the God of Mercy to all those who humble themselves before Him in true, faithful belief. Those who fear Him – who are awestruck by Who He is – are taken by God to be His Own. And this is not just for Mary’s day – but for all those who have believed since the Creation and for every generation that passes until Jesus returns to restore the Creation. This God has shown Himself throughout history to be the God of Power and Strength – which is what the reference to His Arm means – He has fought on the side of His people and He has victoriously won over the Creation that turned against Him through the sending of this Baby – God Incarnate – Who lived a holy life under God’s Law, died for the sins of everyone who would ever believe, and then physically rose from the dead – victorious over sin and death and hell – to resume His Reign at the Right Hand of God. All we who believe have a True Man, Who is also God, sitting on His Throne, Almighty, Unconquerable, the Great God of Mercy Who understands us and makes the Way for us to come before Him as children before their Father through this Baby Whose birth we celebrate.
But not all believe. Some do not fear God, but shake their fists at Him in cosmic rebellion. They say that they will not have God as their Sovereign – in their pride they believe they are the masters of their own fates. These God will scatter and bring to judgment and punish according to their crime – infinite rebellion against their God and Creator. These have said in their hearts that they have no need of a Savior – and on the last day, they will find that they do not have one.
Some who have ascended to power and authority think they are above God, but God will bring them down from their thrones, because every person who has power and authority has the power and authority they have because God has given it to them to steward and use to His Glory. Paul reminds us: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV). President Bush was put in power by God, and President Obama was put in power by God, and everyone who has any authority was put there by God, and they will be judged.
We see this truth in Daniel’s prayer of thanksgiving to God for allowing him to interpret the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him. To you, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and might, and have now made known to me what we asked of you, for you have made known to us the king's matter” (Daniel 2:20b-23, ESV).
And King Nebuchadnezzar, after God had humbled him for his sin, came to the same confession: “At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:34-35, ESV).
Yet, as Mary sang, those who humble themselves before God – those who recognize His Sovereignty over Creation and take faith in the Savior He sent for everyone who will ever believe – those God exalts because they are made righteous by His Son. He provides for all of the needs of those who seek Him as their Heavenly and Merciful Father. God cares for and provides for His people with spiritual and physical care. All of our needs are met.
Do we recognize God’s Sovereignty? Do we come before Him humbly and with thanksgiving for all He has done? Do we recognize that each of us has our needs met by Him? Do we believe it? Or do we believe we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps? Do we believe that we have earned our place in the world and God has done little or nothing for us? Do we look at the Baby Jesus and wonder what God has done for us lately?
Third, Mary rejoices in God for His Faithfulness in bringing to pass the Promised Salvation:
‘He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’”
After thanking God for His Mercy and acknowledging God as the Sovereign Judge over all of Creation, she ends her song by thanking God, specifically, for what He was doing in and through her – keeping His Promise to bring the Savior for Israel and all believers throughout the world.
Our God is a promise-keeping God. He never fails us. He always does exactly what He says He will do. Our God does not change or make mistakes. As James reminds us: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17, ESV). God does not and cannot change, so He can be trusted to keep every word He has uttered.
After the Fall in the Garden, God promised in His Curse to the serpent – the devil: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15, ESV). God promised war and hatred between the children of God and those who choose to follow the devil. God would allow the devil to deceive and work his evil amongst humanity and in the Creation for a time – and within the boundaries that God set (cf. Job 1). And God promised that the day would come when one of the Sons of Eve – even though He would be bruised, even to death – death on a cross, He would trample on the head of the serpent, saving the people of God and banishing the devil and all those who follow him to eternal hell.
And God met with Abram and made him an unconditional promise – that the Savior would come through his line and bless all the nations of the world – not just Israel: “and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice”
(Genesis 22:18, ESV).
God is trustworthy and He fulfilled His Promise to bring a Savior for all those who would believe. That Savior – that Baby – is God Himself, born of the Virgin Mary.
What do we most enjoy – treasure – about this time of year? Friends and family? Music? The tree and the lights? Presents? Special food? Are we amazed – and do we rejoice – in the fact that God kept His Promise and sent a Savior for every one of us who will believe?
Mary was in a very difficult situation – one that could have had her put to death: she was engaged, a virgin, yet she was with child. She did not have money and was not engaged to be married into money. Even if Joseph consented to be her husband, now that she was with child – prior to marriage – and still claiming never to have been with a man – there would always be people who would snicker and made rude comments – there were likely people who never believed her story – just as many don’t today.
But Mary was a faithful believer. She knew the Word of God and the Promise that God would one day send a Savior. She also knew that she was a nobody in the eyes of the world. So, when the angel announced to her and God confirmed through the word of her sister that she was bearing God in the flesh – the Savior Who had come for His people – and their salvation – Mary gave thanks to God for His Mercy. Mary acknowledged that God is the Sovereign Judge of the Creation. And she rejoiced in the fact that God cannot but keep His Promise, because God is God – the One True God.
Let us humbly rejoice and give thanks before our God and Savior – let us pray:
Almighty God, help us in this season of fun, friends, and family, to thank You for Your Mercy, to recognize You as Sovereign, and to give thanks to You for keeping Your Promise to send the Savior. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.
Monday, December 17, 2012
“What Shall We Do?”
December 16, 2012 Second Reformed Church
Last week, we began looking at John's baptizing of Jews with the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We saw that this means that forgiveness – salvation from God's Wrath – the wages of sin – is based on a true belief and confession that results in change.
“He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”
John speaks a harsh word to the people who've come to him – indicating that they had not come with a response to the Scripture, but in response to seeing the crowds gathered around John. Matthew specifies that the Pharisees and Sadducees (cf. Matthew 3:7) had come to John for the wrong reasons – thinking that the baptism itself would save them.
John explained to them that coming and confessing itself and claiming Abraham as their father was not enough for salvation. He warned them that this alone would lead to the ax being laid at the root of the tree – that they would fall and die and suffer the hellfire if they did not actually believe and repent and change their ways.
If you have come this morning believing the historical facts of the Gospel, but not changing your life – not receiving the Work of the Holy Spirit in your life – you have not truly believed. And you will suffer the same hellfire that John warned the Pharisees and Sadducees of – merely reciting the facts of the Gospel is not enough – it must change your life. And if you're not changed by the facts of the Gospel, then you have not truly believed – and you are not saved.
Paul explains: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6, ESV).
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9, ESV).
“and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10, ESV).
“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:7-9, ESV).
The point Paul is making is that the Wrath of God is indeed against those who do not repent and believe – and repentance includes turning around – changing – becoming a new creation. Belief in the words alone is not enough – yes, we are saved by faith alone, but it is not a faith that is alone – as the reformers would tell us. Belief in the Gospel must lead to a change of life – we must flee from temptation and we must repent of our sins. Otherwise, we have not been saved.
There are plenty of people who hear the words of the Gospel and think it sounds all very well, who even believe the facts of the history of Jesus Christ, but do not truly repent and change their lives. That is not saying that we are saved by works – we are saved by faith alone – but that faith leads to growth – to the production of fruit – we prove our faith by living as God has called us to live – and if we do not, then we prove that we are not really saved.
Do we understand the point that the John is making? The Pharisees and the Sadducees were coming – they were saying they were descendents of Abraham – they were saying that they had done the good works of the Law – but they had not truly believed. John says – the Scripture says – that belief leads to good works – belief leads to the proof of belief by good works. Good works alone – biology alone – is not enough. Jesus did not merely come to save people who are of a certain race. Jesus did not merely come to save those who do what is good in the eyes of humanity. Jesus came to save those who believe in the historical facts of the Gospel and change their lives because of it – because God uses the facts of the Gospel to cause belief, people change their lives as proof of the belief that they have – that is salvation.
John says that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from the stones. Now, whether John meant this literally – referring back to the Creation, when Adam and Eve were created from the dirt and a rib – or whether he was referring to the fact that God takes our heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh when we are caused to believe in the Gospel – the result is the same.
If we do not believe the Gsoepl and change our lives – repent and do the good works that God has set before us – we have ot truly believed and the eternal fires of hell are still awaiting us.
“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’
Three types of people approached John with true repentance and asked what they should do: people in general, tax collectors, and soldiers.
John told the people in general that they should love their neighbors. They should show generosity and love – not that everyone should be equal and have an equal amount of money and things – but if someone was in need, and they had the ability to meet that need, they ought to meet that need.
To the tax collectors, John told them that they ought not to overcharge – they ought to be honest in their work and in the authority that they had been given. They should collect only what they needed to collect and not abuse their authority so they could profit by it.
To the soldiers, John told them that they ought not to shake people down – they ought not to torture slaves to get them to lie about their masters hiding money – they ought to treat people with respect and to get true answers about the money they received in the taxes that were due to be paid.
For all of the people: John told them to be content with what they had. God is Sovereign over all things and He has given each one of us different things, different jobs, different gifts, and we ought to be joyful with that and thank God for that and be pleased for the way that God has chosen to show Himself and provide for us.
Overall, John was telling the people to love their neighbors – not to lie, not to cheat, not to embezzle, not to work the system to their benefit. Rather, John told them that they ought to love their neighbors, to seek the best for them, and for each person – no matter what God has given them – no matter what God has given us – to be satisfied – to truly give thanks to God for what we have received – and to learn how to steward that – how to manage that well, to the Glory of God.
Are you satisfied with what you have? I suspect the general American answer would be, “no.” We are not satisfied. We think we deserve more. No matter how much we accumulate – no matter how much we have, and have received – we are not truly thankful. Am I wrong? Are you truly thankful for what you have? Are you using what you have to the Glory of God? Are you believing the Gospel, doing the good works that God has set before you, and being thankful for what you have – no, “but this” or “that”?
Generally, the people sought to build up for themselves – to collect more for themselves – they were not satisfied. The tax collectors where not satisfied with their wages, but they sought to overcharge the people they were charged with collecting taxes from. And the soldiers sought to torture people into false confessions so they could receive more money. Have you been honest in the position that God has given you? Are you satisfied with what God has given you? Are you using everything you have to the Glory of God?
Paul wrote: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28, ESV).
Don't be confused by what Paul has said, just because you are not a thief – per se – does not mean that you have not stolen. If you have abused your position in any way to get something that does not belong to you, you have stolen – we talked about that last week. God has given each one of us enough – and called us to work that we might provide for our needs – and that we would have enough to share with someone else.
Have you helpped anyone this week? Are you prepared to give sacrificially in thanksgiving this morning to God? John asked the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who warned them – why they were there – and I ask us the same question, why are we here? Are we here to get something? Or are we here to worship God? To feel a true sense of satisfaction in God and in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or are welooking for one more thing we don't deserve?
John told the people to be careful – to truly believe and then to follow God by doing the good works that He is calling us to do. Stop cheating. Stop being selfish. Stop being covetous. Stop lusting. Stop being unsatisfied with what God knows you need. Stop using your position to abuse other people. To hear what John is saying? Or are you being prepared for the hellfire?
As James wrote: “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).
And John wrote: “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, ESV).
Don't misunderstand what they are saying: they are not saying that salvation is by works – by the good works that we do – good works are a fruit – they are a sign of true belief in the Gospel. But if we don't care – if we don't do anything – if you don't seek to make the Gospel known through every means that you have to make it known, do you really believe? And don't say you don't have the means to make it known, because if you made it here this morning, you have the means to make it known. If nothing else – and we are the richest country in the world – if nothing else, have you opened your mouth this week?
The time is grown short. We don't have time to play games in church any more. Jesus Christ has called us to faithfulness – and believing the Gospel – truly with all our hearts – the historical facts of what happened – and living it out by good works that other people would see that we truly believe that Jesus Christ is God the Savior.
In 1979, my pastor said – and I believe he was right –“we don't have much time” – how much time then might we have in 2012?
Examine your hearts. Ask yourself if you truly believe the facts of the Gospel. Ask yourself if you have truly repented of your sin. Ask yourself if you are truly seeking to follow God, and all the good works that He has called you to do. If you are, may Christ be praised. If you are not, know you're not safe. The Wrath of God is against all unbelievers – and our only hope is to faith in Jesus Christ Alone. And once our hearts have been changed, God causes us to do good works to His Glory.
Are you a Pharisee or a Sadducees, or are you one of the people that asked John, “what shall we do?”– People who asked in true heart repentance how they might live in a way that is pleasing to God. I am truly afraid for most people who call themselves Christians – because they think that being a Christian is being a good person – and you and I are not good enough.
The people were impressed with the way that John was speaking. They wondered if he might be the Messiah – the Savior – the Christ:
“As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
John explained to them that he is not the Christ – the Messiah – the Savior – he was merely one calling the people to repentance and washing them with water to symbolically wash away their sin. The Savior who would come – Jesus Christ – the birth of Whom we especially remember in these coming weeks – He is the Almighty God – and John had the good sense to understand that he was not worthy to untie the dirty sandals of His feet. John understood that Jesus came to save through His life and death and to give them in indwelling of God the Holy Spirit, Who would work in them and lead them in holy living – in becoming more like Jesus Himself.
John explained to them that when the Christ came, He would separate the people with the winnowing fork – that He would clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into His barn. And I doubt many of us have done that. In the days of Jesus and John wheat was brought into a barn, and it was beaten on the ground – on the threshing floor until the heads of wheat broke loose from the stems onto the ground. And then the farmer would take his winnowing fork and throw the grains of wheat into the air and the chaff – the papery covering of the wheat would separate from the seed itself, which would could be made into bread. The chaff – that papery covering which seem to be part of the wheat, but was actually useless in the making of bread – would be separated and taken and burned in the fire. Whereas the seed itself would be ground into flour and made into bread.
The point that John was making is that Jesus knows the difference between people who look like Christians and people who are Christians. And in the end, Jesus will separate those people who thought they were good enough – to have the right heritage – who had good works behind them – but did not truly believe the historical facts which make up the Gospel – and He will throw them into the fire. The wheat – the true seeds – He will grind into flour and make into holy bread – those who truly believe in the facts of the Gospel and who have changed lives because of it – Jesus will make like Him and welcome them into His Eternal Kingdom.
“So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.”
And so John preach the Good News – let us not mistakenly read this passage to say that the Good News is to do good works, and we will be saved – because that is a lie. The Good News is that God came to earth in the person of Jesus, lived a perfect life under God's law, died for the sins of everyone would ever believe, and physically rose from the dead and ascended back to His throne. All those who believe these facts of the Gospel are indwelled by God the Holy Spirit, and we are motivated by the Spirit to do good works – to follow the Law of God – not for our salvation – but to show that we have been saved by Christ Alone.
Do you believe the Gospel, or are you here for some other reason?
John is not saying that we are saved by our works, he is saying that good works are result of being saved by Jesus Alone – by the Gospel. Your good works cannot save you.
What shall we do? Believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then what shall we do? Live in a way that is pleasing and glorify to Jesus Christ – obey what He has told us to obey, repent of your sin – truly turn away and fight temptation to sin – be honestly satisfied with where God has placed you and steward what God has given you to His Glory.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, it often seems to us that we should be able to earn our way to heaven. Convinces us of our sin – of our desperate need of Jesus Christ Alone for salvation – cause us to believe His Gospel, to long for His salvation, to seek to follow him in every way that He has taught us, and cause us to be satisfied with what He sees is right for each of us – and then cause us to steward – to give – to live our lives in such a way that show that You are God – our Only Hope – the Savior Whose Grace we receive through the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper – for it is in Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.