I’m sure we’d all agree that right now, a vaccine for COVID19 would change everything. In an instant. There’d be no need to self-isolate. We’d have freedom to meet again, to hug each other, to hang out with your friends, your extended family, your boyfriend or your girlfriend and to go on holiday. There’d be no more fear whenever we left the house, fear of being infected and there’d be no panic buying.
I’m a routine guy, I like a bit of structure, a bit of order. And so for me, it sounds weird, but the thing I’ve missed most has been my routine. My rhythm, my rhythm of exercise, my rhythm of a lunch date with Teresa on my day off, my rhythm of seeing you in the flesh on Sunday!
Now yes, a vaccine for COVID19 would change everything. But what about the resurrection of Jesus? Does that change anything?
We’re in John 21. If you’re watching today, and you’re checking us out, so good to have you with us! Our custom here at MBM is to look at the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, because that’s the way God’s revealed it.
John 20 finished with John telling us why he’s gone to the trouble of writing 20 majestic chapters. Why?
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. ~John 20:31 (NIV)
Now, I don’t know about you, but to me, John could have ended it there. He’s given us the entire biography of Jesus, from beginning to end. And now he’s saying, over to you. Believe!
But he doesn’t end it, John’s going to put pen to paper for one more chapter. Why? Because John doesn’t want to just download a set of facts. A set of propositions about Jesus. He wants to make it personal for you, he wants to show you and I exactly what it means to have life in his name. I, for one, am so thankful that he did that.
I reckon John 21, through the life of one person, Peter, teaches us two things.
1. Forgiveness is possible. So accept it
2. Following Jesus is essential. So keep at it.
John 21:15 begins with these words, “When they had finished eating”. This is the third appearance Jesus has made since he walked out that tomb. This time, he’s having fish and chips with his disciples. I love the fact that here, we have Jesus, the one who has endured the most bloody of deaths. In a new glorious body, the one with fresh wounds from the nails that went through his hands and the spear that went into his side.
That same Jesus, is now cooking a BBQ brekkie for his mates, at a beach next to the Sea of Galilee. You can see it on Google maps. This is not a made-up story. This really happened! It’s early in the morning and some, not all the disciples, they’ve been doing one of the few things you CAN still go out and do during coronavirus lockdown–fishing!
In some ways, life had gone back to normal for these guys. Before they’d met Jesus, they were fishermen. Now that Jesus had come and gone life had gone back to normal for these guys. Back on the boats, dropping the nets. Well that’s all about to change! Jesus turns up in verse 4.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. (NIV)
That’s understandable, it’s dark and the boat’s about 100 metres out in the water. Then comes some advice from the shore.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” ~John 21:6a (NIV)
Try the other side of your boat Jesus said! The result?
When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. ~John 21:6b (NIV)
Gee, I wish Jesus gave me fishing tips when I was teaching my son to fish a few years back. We were up at South West Rocks. Apparently one of the easiest places to catch fish. Not for us!
We’d gone out early in the morning and late in the afternoon. We tried this spot and that spot, this bait and that bait. Just as we were about to give up and end the holiday without any fish, we caught one! 1! That’s nothing compared to the 153 fish the disciples caught in an instant.
Well, with a truckload of fish, the guys who were in the boat were surely wondering: “Who’s standing on the shore giving us these fishing tips?”
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” ~John 21:7a (NIV)
I love this next bit
As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. ~John 21:7b (NIV)
No hesitation whatsoever, whereas we usually take off our clothes before jumping in the water. Peter puts on his clothes. And swims in to meet Jesus.
Now we’re about to eavesdrop in on the first recorded conversation between Peter and Jesus since Good Friday. You could say a lot has changed since then.
Now, in case you don’t know much about Peter, this is a guy who’s got a big heart. A big heart for Jesus. But that often leaves him with a truckload of regrets. It lands him in a lot of trouble, Peter likes to talk a big game but he often has difficulty backing it up. Like the time Peter, after Jesus revealed he was going to suffer and die. Peter tried to pull Jesus aside and rebuke him. Pete, you don’t tell the sinless son of God what to do.
And then there was the time when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus goes off to pray and says to Peter and a few others: watch out for me. What do they all do? They all nod off instead. They let Jesus down.
One more. Back in John 13. Jesus is sharing his last meal with his disciples. He told them he’s about to go to the cross. Peter boldly puts himself out there and says: “I will die for you Jesus” But sadly, instead of dying for Jesus, he denied Jesus. Not once. Not twice. But three times. I’m not with him. I don’t know him. I wasn’t there. Talk about overpromising and under-delivering. That was the story of Peter’s life. So with all that background info on Peter.
On how he’s let Jesus down again and again and again. We’re kind of holding our breath as we come to this first conversation between Peter and Jesus. But notice Jesus’ words: He could easily have said: “Pete, I told you so” “Pete, you let me down” But no, instead of rejection, instead of retaliation from Jesus. Instead of revenge, Jesus offers a welcome reception. He makes restoration by inviting Peter to share a meal with him.
“Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” ~John 21:10 (NIV)
“Come and have breakfast.” ~John 21:12 (NIV)
This is more than invitation to simply eat food, it’s an invitation to friendship. Meals are super significant, they’re super symbolic, today and back then, even more so. Whenever you see Jesus inviting people to share a meal with him. That’s a powerful declaration. A statement that says: “We’re at peace with each other” In a tangible and concrete way. Meals express that.
I’ve got say, that’s one of the good things about coronavirus. As a family, we’ve had time to slow down and have meals with each other. The conversations have been richer and we’ve been able to connect in a meaningful way. In fact, one those highlights was last Saturday, where in the Lee household, we had a formal dinner. All of us got dressed up. The boys donned ties. The girls put on dresses and makeup. We brought out the fancy plates. Dimmed the lighting. Then after dinner, wait for it, there was dancing too. It was a real treat!
Well, what a breakfast this was for Peter. In the space of 1 meal, he’s gone from being full of regret to being full of forgiveness. If Thomas, who we saw last week in John 20, speaks to the corner of doubt lurking in each of us. Then Peter’s story here in John 21 speaks to the truckloads of regret and failures that are in all of us.
What Jesus has done here for Peter. He’s also done it for you and I. Jesus says to you and I ‘Forgiveness is possible!’ If you’ve not yet tasted or not yet received this forgiveness Jesus is offering you, then look at Peter. Peter is the perfect example that no matter what you’ve done, no matter who you’ve become, no matter how many times you’ve mucked it up. That is not the end of the story. You. Can. Be. Forgiven.
Come and join the rest of us. We’re all in the same boat as Peter. We who have got our own quota of regrets, of failures and of stuff ups. That’s the great message of Christianity, that’s what we’ve just celebrated at Easter, what happened on that cross didn’t happen at a distance, it’s not ancient history. No - it affects you and I, here today, April 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic! Perhaps, this pandemic is God’s way of getting your attention.
As CS Lewis puts it: God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Whereas the message from our government has been, don’t hoard toilet paper! The message from Jesus is this: Don’t stockpile your sin! Let Jesus take that weight, that guilt, that shame off you.
Perhaps in this season of lockdown, you’re tuning in as someone who use to check out the things of God. Maybe you’ve drifted from Jesus. Well, let me assure you, today’s as good a day as any other to come home. Get in touch with us via our website. We’d love to help you take those next steps.
2. Following is essential.
Remember how we started at verse 15? Well, let’s get back to it! Jesus asks Peter straight up.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” ~John 21:15b (NIV)
Notice Jesus, he doesn’t call him Simon Peter, instead he calls him Simon, son of John. It’s the name before Jesus called him to follow him. Again, reminding us that Jesus has rewound the clock here, it’s a clean slate, a fresh start for Pete.
Jesus goes on to ask Peter two more times: Pete do you love me. Peter do you love me. It wasn’t that Peter had a hearing problem or a comprehension problem. No Jesus asks Peter three times for his own good. He wants to give a very powerful. A very public demonstration of just how rich in mercy he really is. To the disciples at that breakfast and to us reading today.
In fact, come the third time Peter’s a bit over it. He’s got nothing, no track record to appeal to. All he’s got is the character of Jesus.
Lord, you know all things. ~John 21:17 (NIV)
That is both a scary thought, that Jesus knows every single thing about you, the deep recesses of your heart. But it’s also a comforting thought, that Jesus came not to judge, but to show mercy.
And by the way, we’re talking about the same Jesus who knows when and how coronavirus is going to end. It’s this Jesus who is saying to you and I ‘Forgiveness is possible so, accept it.’ ‘Following is essential, so hang in there.’
Well, the Jesus who knows Peter, also knows your heart and He knows mine. He asks us the same questions:
Peter’s answer is the model answer in verses 15, 16 and 17.
“Yes” Peter says, “you know that I love you”.
Let’s face it friends. Now, perhaps more than ever in our life, Jesus question here is more important than ever. Our love for Jesus is being tested during this season of COVID19, because if there was a time to get away with godliness, to pretend, or to fake our love for Jesus. Now would be it! because we’re all locked up. We’re not in each others lives as much, not rubbing shoulders with the usual accountability structures. Porn is now that much easier to get away with. We’re on screens and on devices more than ever. Stealing time from our boss as we work from home is as easy as.
Loving Jesus, it’s not just some warm, fuzzy feeling you have towards Jesus. Jesus has already told us what loving him looks like.
“If you love me, keep my commands.” ~John 14:15 (NIV)
To love Jesus, is to obey what he says, to let him call the shots, to live under his rule, that’s how we show we love him!
After hearing Peter declare his love for Jesus, it’s now time for Jesus to respond. If this were Hollywood, what do you reckon the next words out of Jesus mouth would be? Hollywood would make Jesus say: “Aww. I love you too Pete. Give us a big hug”
But instead, what does Jesus say?
“Feed my sheep” ~John 21:17 (NIV)
The Good Shepherd now invites Peter to shepherd his sheep. To love them, to feed them, to protect them. It’s as if Jesus says: Pete, you’re back on the team. Welcome back. Now, it’s time to get to work because my sheep matter. I’m handing them over to you, I’m not abandoning them. But as I return to be with my Father, you’re to look after them here on earth. Jesus not only lays down his life for his sheep He’s committed to making sure they carry on as his sheep.
Now - whilst we’re in lockdown for who knows how long, I’ve got to admit I’ve had plenty of corona-goals. I’m trying to make the most of the “extra time”. I’ve started doing a bit of home re-organisation, a bit of decluttering. I’ve started baking my own sourdough bread! And I’ve picked up the ukulele again. I just turned 40 last week, hence these new glasses. At some point in this decade, I expect to be asking myself again and again: Is this my purpose in life? Is this what life’s about?
Well, John 21 helps me put all those things in perspective. It helps me keep the main thing, the main thing. Because Jesus says life is about two words.
Follow me! ~John 21:19 (NIV)
Following Jesus is the catch all phrase Jesus uses to describe everything we’ve seen so far. Following Jesus looks like loving him. Following Jesus looks like being committed to Jesus’ people and in verses 18 and 19, following Jesus looks like following him until death!
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. ~John 21:18-19 (NIV)
Jesus predicted Peter would deny for him. Now he’s predicting Peter would die for him! And where Peter’s denial shamed Jesus. Peter’s death will now glorify Jesus.
Friends, the coronavirus may be the way Jesus takes our lives, for many of us, it probably won’t, but one thing’s for sure, you be sure that this new season we find ourselves in, this is a test.
How prepared are you follow Jesus?
In not just the good times but also the bad. Not just when there’s plenty but when there’s less. Not just when it’s convenient but when you need to do some of the work yourself. Not just on Sundays but every day, in every aspect of life. The times when we’ll have less rather than more.
Jesus himself said: Following never was going to be easy. You didn’t sign up for a comfortable walk in the park when you signed up to follow me.
I began this talk by painting a picture of how everything would change if coronavirus ended tomorrow. Well, the truth is, everything has already changed. Because Jesus is risen.
John Piper puts it best:
What God is doing in the coronavirus is showing us, graphically, painfully, that nothing in this world gives the security and satisfaction that we find in the infinite greatness and worth of Jesus. This global pandemic takes away our freedom of movement, our business activity, and our face-to-face relations. It takes away our security and our comfort. And, in the end, it may take away our lives. But the reason God exposes us to such losses,
Piper concludes. Is this:
To rouse us to rely on Christ.
It’s this Christ who is alive, well and ruling the universe, even today. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the stories of people, months down the track, when we’re back in this building, I’m looking forward to hearing the stories that begin with these words: “During coronavirus, my love for Jesus grew”
How about we pray for that to happen?
You are a God who is compassionate. Rich in mercy. Slow to anger. You’re a forgiving God. We confess our many failings. Not only this day. This week. This season of coronavirus.
Thank you that our sin. Our shame. Our shortcomings are not the end of the story. That we are NOT cut off.
But you are a God who is RICH. Abundant in mercy. And we’ve seen that most clearly in Jesus.
Thanks so much that Jesus did what no one else can do.
Ask that during this time, we would love you more dearly. Follow you more wholeheartedly. And live for you unashamedly.
I wonder if you’ve ever thought to yourself: If only Jesus was around, things would be so much better. There’d be no coronavirus because Jesus would overcome it, he’d heal people on the spot. If people could see Jesus with their own eyes, everyone would believe in Jesus. There’d be no more tricky questions. Questions like: “Why is there suffering in this world?” We’d have direct access to Jesus.
But the fact that Jesus is not here, we can’t touch him we can’t see him, we can’t hear him and that’s actually a really good thing. Jesus has already warned that the world will hate him. The world will hate those who follow Jesus. And so in the midst of a hostile world, Jesus - in John 16 - is now going to prepare his disciples for his departure. Take a look at verse 7
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (NIV)
Jesus, the one who always acts for our good. Declares it’s actually better for me to go than to stay. If I DON’T go, then the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, won’t turn up. Jesus isn’t about to do a cut and run, to abort the mission.
The mission will go on. Jesus knows he’s heading for the cross but that won’t be the end. The next part of God’s plan is about to unfold.
Now before we dive further into John 16, it’s worth mentioning that this is ground zero when it comes to the Holy Spirit. There’s plenty of place we’re tempted to go when it comes to working out the person and work of the Holy Spirit. But there’s no better place to go than straight to the source. Here in John 16, we’re going straight to Jesus. And what He says about Himself. In fact, Jesus outlines two things about what the Holy Spirit does here in John 16.
The Spirit has:
1. MINISTRY TO THE WORLD
Most of the time in John’s gospel, ‘the world’ is used in the negative. It describes the hostile world order towards God. A world who rebels against its creator. We’ve seen it already last week - the world will hate. That’s a strong word, but it will hate you because you follow Jesus. It’s to this world, the Spirit, rather than abandoning, rather than giving up on the world, verses 8 - 9 tells us He’ll do three things.
When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (NIV)
Notice here how the Spirit is a ‘he’ not an ‘it’, the Spirit is not the force, like in Star Wars, he’s a person. He’s God! You can know him! You can be in relationship with him! His actions are real actions. So, when it comes to the world, he will prove the world to be in the wrong.
Whereas the world says: You and I - we’re actually pretty good people. The Spirit says to the world: you’re actually in the wrong. You’re wrong on the most important question in life. On where you stand with Jesus. Notice how it’s sin not sins. The ultimate sin is to reject Jesus.
Now because the Holy Spirit is doing the heavy lifting, when we evangelise, we don’t have to manipulate people. It takes the pressure off. We can’t nag people into the kingdom and nor do we have to! Don’t try and do the job of the Holy Spirit. We can reach peoples ears but we can’t reach their hearts. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit.
If you haven’t said Yes to Jesus, maybe the Holy Spirit is convicting you now.
I used to think I was a Christian at school. I didn’t do drugs, I never got drunk, I followed the rules, I can’t remember getting a detention. It wasn’t until the Spirit of God opened my eyes for me to realise that no matter how many good things I had done goodness was defined by something objective. Something definitive. And that’s whether I believe in Jesus or not. That’s definitive, objective. So, if you want to get right with God then ask him to persuade you, through the Spirit. Ask him to help you get over the line. Verse 10
about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer (NIV)
Whereas the world says: Jesus is irrelevant, that he really isn’t God, or from God. The Spirit says ‘Jesus is in the right, He is EXACTLY who he said he was.’ The Spirit confirms who Jesus claimed to be and this fact is in his resurrection and in his ascension. He is in the right!
This is not the righteousness we read about elsewhere in the Bible, particularly in Paul’s letters. Whereas that righteousness describes a legal standing before God. The righteousness the Spirit will convict the world about is in verse 11, that Jesus really IS who he says he is!
and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (NIV)
Whereas the world and its ruler, Satan, thinks it’s in the right. The Spirit, comes along and says ‘It’s game over. You’ve lost.’ Satan might say “God’s not there. God’s not for you”. But the Spirit simply says: that’s just a pack of lies. The Spirit will bring things out of the darkness and into the light, the deception and the corruption of the world will be exposed for what it is.
The prince of this world has been disarmed, defeated and destroyed, by a king, and not just any king, but the king of kings. The cross was Satan’s greatest failure. Not his greatest victory!
2.MINISTRY TO HIS FOLLOWERS
Throughout these chapters in John, one of the things that stands out is the fact that Jesus knows EXACTLY how his disciples are feeling. He knows their fears, their anxieties and their uncertainty, that’s exactly what he addresses in verse 19 - 22.
Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (NIV)
To help the disciples understand the fact Jesus is going to appear ‘in a little while’ Jesus uses the example of childbirth.
Now I’ve seen, with my own eyes, a child being born 4 times. But that’s nothing compared to my wife Teresa, she’s been through childbirth 4 times and none of it was pleasant. First there’s the lead up to the labour, the aches, the pains, the swollen ankles, not to mention the contractions, the screaming, the sheer length of time. With one of our children, she was in labour for nearly an entire day! But once each of our children came out those cries gave way to smiles and to relief at being able to hold, to hug, to kiss the child who’d spent 9 months in her womb. At last.
Notice here how Jesus says, your sorrow won’t be replaced by joy. It won’t be a case of trading in one for the other. No, sorrow will turn into joy. The very thing that generates so much agony and pain, that same event will become the very reason for celebration. Every moment of sorrow, every period of suffering, every temptation, every sickness. Every time you’re on the receiving end of persecution because you stuck your neck out for Jesus.
Every moment of discipline. Absolutely none of us find it pleasant at the time. But we can be sure that God isn’t wasting any of those things. He is the great recycler! You can be sure he’ll use those things for His glory, and our good!
Verse 23 shows that part of that joy you and I will experience will come through answered prayer.
In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (NIV)
Whereas Jesus’ disciples could only access the Father through Jesus. Now because of Jesus, they will have direct access to the Father. There’s nothing more joyous than having your prayers heard by the God of this universe. Your prayers aren’t simply hitting the wall and bouncing off the roof. Instead, because they’re prayers prayed in Jesus name, they will be heard.
And so, let me ask you, how are you going with those impossible prayer points?
Admittedly I’ve slipped off the horse. But knowing that it’s actually for my joy to keep praying prayers, in the name of Jesus, because of Jesus, through Jesus, all thanks to Jesus. That’s what inspires me to get back on the horse! And so, we come to last part of John 16. A timely word given the world we’re finding ourselves in right now.
“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (NIV)
Jesus has overcome the world in so many ways. One of the ways is there in verse 32. That there’ll be a time when Jesus is back reunited with his Father.
Jesus has overcome world in other ways too.
As each person is no longer part of this world but part of the kingdom!
It’s precisely because Jesus has overcome this world, we can now live in anxiety? No, we can have peace. Jesus wants us to take heart, to have confidence, to know his comfort. Thanks to Jesus, we have peace. What does peace look like in the midst of coronavirus?
I’ve washed my hands probably more this week than I ever have before. Can I encourage you, the next time you’re washing your hands, the proper way, remind yourself that, thanks to Jesus, You're held safe in the Father’s hands, the hands that flung the stars into space, that hung there on the cross, for me.
This week, I asked one of my daughters how she was feeling about the coronavirus, with things she was looking forward being cancelled left, right and centre. With routines being completely changed. I was expecting that she would say she’d be nervous, scared and uncertain. But her response surprised me. She said: “I don’t have to be nervous or afraid. God is with me. And I know I’m going to heaven”
She had ministered to me. She had shown me what peace during these crazy, uncertain times, looks like.
Thanks to Jesus, and His Spirit, you and I can have a peace that surpasses all understanding.
Bob Carr, former Premier of NSW, has had a number of achievements. He’s the longest serving NSW Premier. He delivered the 2000 Olympics. But it was actually in 1999, the year before the 2000 Olympics, when he had, in his words, one of his proudest achievements. In 1999 he called a drug summit. And the result, many people believe, was that Sydney was saved from a heroin epidemic.
See it was personal for Bob Carr. His own brother had died from a heroin overdose. And during the Summit, Carr was quoted as saying this. “The view I reached is that life is an inherently disappointing experience for most human beings” His experience of why people die of drug addictions, well, it’s to numb life’s disappointments.
Life doesn’t always work out the way we think it will or should.
You only need to scratch beneath the surface and you’ll see that we’ve all had our dreams get shattered. Our hopes have never materialised, disappointments have come our way. Health challenges both physical and mental, get in the way.
Someone else gets the job, you’re always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
I know a dad who, after discovering their kid had autism, has never really been the same. His own career had to be put on hold and he was crushed under the weight of family expectations.
Well someone who felt despair and devastation, hopelessness and hurt, pain and suffering, was the family we meet in Ruth 1. And what we discover from this story is that Yes, life is unfair. I think we’ve all felt and tasted that.
Life is unfair, but God is not.
Here in Chapter 1, there’s really two movements in the story.
There’s the story of Naomi going away. Verses 1-5.
Then there’s story of Naomi returning home. Verses 6-22.
So first, going away. This story opens, as you’d expect, under tragic circumstances, Ruth 1:1
In the days when the judges ruled… (NIV)
That’s code for, these were NOT good days. You only need to flip one page back in your Bible. To the very last sentence in the book of Judges. It closes with these words:
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit (NIV)
In other words: chaos and anarchy. As if that wasn’t bad enough. Next part of verse 1 “there was famine in the land” Between a drought and bushfires around us right now, it’s not too hard to imagine what life was like for these guys. Here’s Israel, with no one calling the shots, and a whole heap of angry people walking around! Famine in the land in the time of the judges meant one thing, and one thing only.
Israel had only themselves to blame.
Why do I say that? Well, a key part of the Old Testament story, in fact the entire story of the Bible, is the fact that God is a God who makes promises. God had promised, way back in Genesis 12. He promised an Iraqi pensioner named Abraham three things: Land, Offspring and Blessing.
And so you fast forward to Ruth.
Offspring, tick. Abraham was about 90 when God made the promise to him. Sarah, his wife was even older. Guess how many children they already had? Zero. But God opened Sarah’s womb so that Isaac would be born. And from Isaac, came more children who produced more children. Here they are now, a great nation - Israel - thousands upon thousands.
What about land? After a couple of false starts, plenty of doubting and wandering in the desert, Israel’s now home. Living in the land God had promised them.
And finally blessing. Well, not exactly. See God had given this land for Israel to enjoy. He’d given it to bless them! But instead, the people had turned their backs on God. They’d ignored God’s laws. They’d chosen to do what was right - not in God’s eyes, but in their own eyes. And so this land - with every potential to be a land flowing with milk and honey became a land with - well nothing. Literally. Israel was reaping what it had sown. Pun intended. It’s not as if they weren’t warned this would happen! Look at Leviticus 26:18-20
‘If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of your land yield their fruit. (NIV)
Come the second half of verse 1, there’s a mistake. Not a spelling mistake. Not a grammar mistake. But a mistake made by a man named Elimelek, this was the biggest mistake of his life. Ruth 1:1
…So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons went to live for a while in the country of Moab. (NIV)
Moving house, as so many of you know, is no easy task. There’s the culling, the packing boxes. But it’s more than that isn’t it? There’s pulling up roots, leaving friends. There’s uncertainty. This wasn’t a decision to move to Melbourne coz the coffee and culture’s better. Or to Brisbane coz the houses are cheaper. No, this was a deliberate move, on foot mind you, to Moab!
Of all places why Moab?! Moab was a nation literally birthed out of an incestuous relationship! Between Lot and his own daughter! She wants a child to preserve the family line. There’s no other men. She gets dad drunk, sleeps with him, and out pops Moab. Not only that, Moab had a reputation. So much so they weren’t allowed to enter any Israelite temple. And then speaking of Judges, in Judges 3, you can read about Eglon. He’s a, yes, you guessed it, King of Moab, who invades Israel.
Most people don’t go and set up home in the fields of their enemies. And yet, here’s one family who abandons the land God’s handed to them. Who move away from the people God’s surrounded them with. And cut themselves off from the blessing God was prepared to give them. The solution wasn’t to take matters into their own hands and run away. It was to fall on their knees and repent! To turn back to God!
So off goes Elimelek. Whose name by the way means “God is my king”. Boy, he’s done a terrible job of living up to his name! Elimelek is married to Naomi. Her name means sweet or pleasant. Along with their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. Their names mean ‘sick’ and ‘had it’. Bizarre. Don’t know why you’d name your kids ‘sick’ and ‘had it’
Together, they leave Bethlehem, literally “the house of Bread” to find some actual bread! Can you see the irony here! Well, how did things work out for them? Not good as you can imagine. Not good at all. Elimelek escapes death only to meet death in Moab. The two sons marry Moabite women. Orpah and Ruth. But then 10 years later both the sons die.
Naomi sets out from Bethlehem with her family. In the space of 5 verses, she’s left with nothing. She’s lost it all. Imagine how Naomi must have felt! One minute she’s got three men in her life. Next minute, they’re all dead. And now she’s stuck in a foreign country, with no income. No Centrelink system. No support structures. She’s broken, downcast and it seems, with no prospects on the horizon. She’s utterly hopeless. She has had the unimaginable grief of burying not only her husband.
And not just 1 son as if that’s not horrible enough. But both sons.
As someone who went through that last year when I buried my own daughter. I can get a glimpse of it. But not as much as my own mother-in-law. She probably comes the closest to Naomi here. She’s buried not only her own husband, but her own son and her grand-daughter.
I know many of you have endured some horrible things in your life. Utterly devastating. My experience is different to your experience. But it still hurts just the same. It still kicks us in the guts. And so, just as I said at the start, life’s unfair. Pain, suffering, disappointment, it’s not a question of if those things will come your way, but when.
What’s the solution? Become a Christian! Coz Jesus will fix everything. You’ll become bulletproof and nothing bad will ever happen again in your life. Right? WRONG!
In fact, I reckon being a follower of Jesus can make it even harder. See I’ve been following Jesus for about just over half my life. I believe that Jesus is calling the shots. He’s the boss. And if that’s the case, well then, why doesn’t God just click his fingers and fix it. If God’s all powerful, why doesn’t he bring an end to all the suffering, the hurt, the pain? Why does he make me go through the heartache of losing a child. Or why does your mental health get the better of you?
And so, the question that Ruth 1 answers is this. Is it worth following Jesus if you’re going to be disappointed? How are you gonna deal with the hard things in life when they come. Coz they’ll come!
One option would be to take the atheist position. “There’s no God anyway, so I won’t give a stuff. Life is just a series of random events, and these are the cards you get dealt”
Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer. It just seems a bit cold. We’re not robots, we’re humans, with the full range of emotions, and questions that we search for answers for. Well, the God of the Bible presents a different option. Look at Ruth 1:6
When Naomi heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. (NIV)
Where there had once been famine, God now steps in, He comes to the aid of his people. Not that he was ever absent. But here’s just another sign of how God acts for his people.
Friends, if you’re here today and you’re someone who’s not saved, then please understand this. That the Bible doesn’t see you as being in control of your life. Yes, you have responsibility. Yes, you have power. But there’s another being who has all power. There’s another being who has all control. He’s in control during Naomi’s time. And he’s certainly in control in ours. Both famine and feast come from the same God.
Let’s get back to our story. Whilst Naomi and the two girls are on the road, she gives the option to her two daughters-in-law to turn back. Not just once, but twice, verses 8-9
Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (NIV)
Then again in verse 13, Naomi tries again. Basically saying: “Think about it girls. Number 1 - I’m too old to get remarried. And second, even if I got a husband tonight. Then I’d have to have a son, and that’s a big if. Would you really wait till you could marry him?
Maybe Naomi’s realised: “Hang on a sec. Two Moabite women, two foreigners entering Judah with me. Maybe that’s not a good idea, maybe I should protect these women from the racism, from the prejudice. And besides, there’s better marriage prospects if they stay in Moab”
But Ruth won’t have a bar of it. She’ll dig her heels in. Ruth speaks only three times in this entire book, so pay attention. Verse 16 and 17.
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (NIV)
I reckon these have gotta be some of the most beautiful words you’ll read in all the Bible. Some people use these words as their marriage vows. But they’re even stronger than marriage! Whereas marriage vows go: For richer, for poor, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.
Ruth insists: “Naomi, not even death’s gonna separate us. I’m going to the grave with you” This is faithfulness in life and for life. Indeed it’s beyond life. Oh, and did you realise there’s absolutely no logical, no human reason for Ruth to say these words. Remember, she’s still going through her own grief, of losing a husband and of infertility. So why does she? Well I reckon she steps out in faith.
What prompts Ruth to turn from the god of Moab? A god called Chemosh, who by the way was a nasty piece of work. Chemosh required children and babies to be sacrificed to it. What prompts Ruth to turn to Naomi’s God, to Yahweh, the God of Abraham? Surely, it’s the fact that she has come to know this God for herself. Whether it was through Naomi. Whether it was through her husband when he was alive. Their testimony, their witness, their words. Even in trials and dark times. All that has led to Ruth now stepping out in faith. Hers is a faith that’s expressed. That’s lived out.
Well, Ruth and Naomi eventually arrive in Bethlehem. There’s quite a commotion. The other women barely recognise her. Word gets out: “Could this be Naomi?” Yes! Yes it is the women say. Naomi responds begins in verse 20.
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (NIV)
My goodness: Naomi does not do pretend. That’s one of the things you’ve gotta love about her! She knows she’s made poor choices. She’s not afraid to name how she’s feeling. Whereas you and I would be tempted to question God, to blame God, or at worst, to run away from God. Naomi hasn’t given up on God. She knows the same God is the author of the good, the bad and the ugly in life.
But here’s the thing, God has emptied Naomi. But he’s done it, I reckon to fill her up with something better. Naomi’s bitter, no doubt about it. But let me ask you this. If you were there, next to Naomi, how would you respond to her? Here’s how I’d respond: “Naomi, this is only chapter 1! You don’t know what’s gonna happen in Chapter 2 or Chapter 3. Chapter 4…….But God does. In fact, God knows all of your story.
In fact, we nearly missed it, but did you see it there even in the last verse of chapter 1? God is chipping away at Naomi’s bitterness. Verse 22
So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. (NIV)
How did Chapter 1 begin? In famine. Now, there’s about to be food, food and more food. It’s harvest time! God has well and truly come to the aid of his people! God’s timing is impeccable.
Second, up until now, we’ve known Ruth as just Ruth. But now, at the very end of the chapter, now is when the author tells us that Ruth is a Moabite. I reckon the author’s underlining it for us, putting it in bold. To say, Ruth, remember, she’s a foreigner. God’s kindness isn’t just limited to Israelites. It extends to strangers, foreigners, outsiders. In fact, through this Moabite, blessing comes to not only Naomi, but blessing comes to the entire world. Including you and I here today.
Spoiler alert. Ruth will meet a guy who she ends up marrying. She’ll have a child. Fast forward to the end of the book: Ruth 4:16-17
Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (NIV)
That same David would end up being the father of Jesus, the Son of David. Naomi was right, God may have emptied her by taking away her husband and her children. But God did it to give her something better, the blessing of a grandson. Naomi ended up getting something far greater than if she stayed in Moab.She had a hand in blessing the entire world.
At the beginning of this talk. Remember how I asked: Is it worth following Jesus in the midst of all the disappointments in life? Well the difference being a follower of Jesus makes is this. Sure the disappointments will continue to come. Yes, there’ll be suffering and setbacks. But what stops us becoming bitter? And instead makes us better is this wonderful promise from Jesus. That it’ll be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end. That’s what Jesus guarantees to those who trust in him. Those who let Jesus call the shots.
This book of Ruth just puts flesh on that promise. As God uses Naomi and Ruth, people who’ve had disappointments come their way just like you and I, people who’ve tasted all the muck and yuck life throws our way. There’s no miracles in the book of Ruth. Just the mess of life. Ruth is a beautiful example of how God uses messy people to put flesh on these very great and precious promises.
Friends, maybe you’re here today and you’re like Elimelek. You’ve wandered away from God. Maybe like him, you tried living life with him in the picture, but that didn’t work out. So you’ve taken matters into your own hand. If that’s you. Then hear the call to return. Respond like Naomi did. Don’t keep running away. Instead. Return. Return back to the fold of God. Move from being bitter, to being better.
Or maybe you’re someone who’s doing it tough. It doesn’t take much to scratch beneath the surface. We’ve all tasted bitterness. All endured disappointments. From the everyday to the enduring. Well, take a look at Hebrews 12: 7, 10-11
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (NIV)
Hebrews says: don’t be short-sighted. Take the long view when it comes to your hardships. See it from God’s eyes, see it as a loving heavenly Father disciplining you. Resist the urge to see hardship as a problem to be solved or a disaster without purpose. But instead, receive it as a gift from God, an opportunity to grow. An opportunity to bear fruit!
So the next time you’re stuck in traffic jams, think: perhaps God is teaching me patience, or giving me time to reflect on the song we sang at church. Next time, there’s screaming babies or sleepless nights tell yourself: “Father, even though things haven’t gone as well as I hoped. Give me the strength to remain calm.” Over time, the wonderful promise of Hebrews is that all those little moments will produce a bumper crop! Truckloads of righteous and peace that we may share in God’s holiness.
Lets face it, sometimes life can look messy, it’s all over the place. When you stand back, you see it as it truly is, a work of art. You admire it for all it’s worth. That’s the same here in Ruth 1. For when you and I stand back, we’re in awe that God’s kindness is way bigger than human mistakes. God’s kindness isn’t bound by our short-sightedness.
Australia, according to the famous writer Bill Bryson, has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world's ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of our creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world.
This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, or where seashells will not just sting you but sometimes go for you. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback.
He concludes with this: “I would rather have bowel surgery in the woods with a stick than return to this establishment!”
Australia may have more things that’ll kill you than anywhere else in the world, but death is a global phenomenon! Death doesn’t discriminate. It’s not racist. It’s not sexist. It doesn’t even care how old you are. Death doesn’t play favourites. Everyone gets the same treatment all the time.
Part of my own journey in coming to accept Jesus was because of death. Back in 1997, a guy in my year at school died while playing footy on the weekend. That was the wake-up call I needed.
That may be you today. Maybe you’re here today, you’ve been invited by someone, and you’re looking for real answers about life and death.
Can I say that, number 1, we are so glad you’re here with us. Number 2, each and every Sunday, Christians gather to talk about death—either the death of Jesus or the reality of our own death. Today, Psalm 90 perhaps puts death a little bit more in our face, but that’s just what we do. And number 3, I hope if nothing else, you’ll see that the Bible holds answers to some very real-life issues. We do not live in a pretend world. Instead, we believe that God offers us real answers and has provided a way for us to be able to stare death in the face.
Now if ever there was an expert on death, Moses who wrote Psalm 90, would be right up there! He saw stacks of people drop dead all around him, whether it was his own people in slavery, or the Egyptians as they got wiped out by plague after plague, or an entire generation of his own people who were wiped out in the desert.
Can you imagine forty years of funerals, burying his own family and friends. That’s a lot of grieving!
Moses answer to the question, “Why do humans die?” is this: Death is something we deserve! Death is God’s way of keeping us humans accountable for the way we’ve treated him. That’s a tough pill to swallow but Moses will also end this Psalm turning to God, showing us how we can face death wisely.
Psalm 90 is full of contrasts that drive home the big idea that God is God and we are not. Here are the three contrasts we’ll be walking through: first, compared to frail humans, God is eternal; second, towards sinful humans, God is angry; and third, for insecure humans, God offers security.
Before confronting us with our own mortality, Moses gives us a look at God’s eternity, verse 1:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. (NIV)
Moses, a guy who’d tasted homelessness for 40 years, saying, “You God have been my home all along!” I don’t know what it feels like when you walk through your front door into your home. For me I think, “This is my safe place, my secure place. This is where I rest, take refuge, and replenish. That is what Moses is getting at here. For Moses, God is not distant. He’s not limited to a building, like a temple. No, God is personal. He’s real. God shelters and comforts. He protects and preserves.
And God’s track record is that he’s this sort of God throughout all generations. Whereas we humans are limited to one generation—baby boomers, millennials, second generation Aussies like me—God transcends all generations. Verse 2 tells us that even before God gave birth to this world, he’s been there all along. He is from everlasting to everlasting.
In verses 3 and 4, Moses will now switch gears, as he thumps home how we humans, compared to the eternal God of this universe., have a limited shelf life. He says that God turns people back to dust. Not only are we made from dust, but we will return to dust. But God is described in verse 4:
A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (NIV)
These verses aren’t so much about the brevity of time but the brevity of life. Every day of our lives, from womb to tomb, even if they added up to a hundred years, or even a thousand, from God’s perspective they’re just like a single day. We are here today, gone tomorrow.
Have you ever noticed how us humans do almost anything to squeeze an extra two or three years out of life: a secret superfood diet here, an anti-ageing cream there. We get botox treatments or pop vitamins and supplements. But in verse 5, Moses gives us pictures. He says first, picture a flood. We’ve all seen the news footage of helplessness in the face of an overwhelming force that just wipes out everything in its path. God is the one who sweeps people away Then second there’s sleep. For me (and Teresa tells me this), once my head hits the pillow. I’m out. And that’s what Moses says our lives are like. One minute you’re awake, but the next moment you’re asleep. You wake up, and it feels like the night has gone just like that. And third, there’s grass. In the grand scheme of things, our lives are like blades of grass, one-day old grass in fact, alive in the morning, but gone by sunset.
Death may be God’s doing but it’s our fault. Take a look at verses 7 and 8:
We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. (NIV)
Our iniquities, our secret sins, are our acts of human rebellion. They are all met by God’s anger and indignation. Life’s cut short not because the chemo didn’t work, the road was slippery, or you didn’t have enough faith! Rather, the number one cause of death amongst humans is sin. While we might try and bury our heads in the sand when it comes to the topic of death, the Bible says that sin buries us, our entire bodies, heads and all!
If you haven’t read much of the Bible before, sin shows up early in the story—like 3 chapters in! In Genesis 2:16-17, God gives Adam and Eve this instruction:
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (NIV)
Imagine God has prepared a buffet for Adam and Eve, and on this buffet is the most amazing food. Your favourites are all there: seafood, prawns, lobsters, crab, steamed fish, sushi, cheese platters, wood-fired pizzas, a carvery of roast beef, roast pork, gourmet salads, soups, curries, casseroles, noodles, the works—and we haven’t even got to dessert yet! You name it, it’s there.
God’s created this buffet. It’s called creation. It’s all yours to enjoy. But God says that the best way to enjoy this buffet is to steer clear of one dish over there. It’s so off limits that you’ll get the death penalty if you eat it.
So what do Adam and Eve do? Rather than getting stuck into the sticky date pudding, the pavlova, and the gelato that’s on-tap, they go to the very thing God says is off limits. They go and load up their plates with fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and in doing so, they not only break God’s law, but they trample on his heart. They effectively say to God, “I know better. I don’t need you, God. I’m the one calling the shots, not you! I want to live my way, not your way.”
That’s was sin is! Sin, in the words of Don Carson, is the de-godding of God. And when you see sin as not just the breaking of rules, but the trampling on a heart, then God’s got every right to be angry hasn’t he?
God won’t let us keep trampling on his heart and keep rebelling. He’s angry as we turn our backs on him, stick up our noses, and give him the finger.
Now imagine if you were God. What do you think is the right and proper thing to do in this scenario? Adam and Eve crossed a line. Do you let them get away with it?
For God to be fair and just, he has to follow through. You school teachers, or lawyers, this is your job. Some of you are parents. You do this on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis! God’s no different. And so sure enough, God keeps his word.
We all love that God is a God who keeps his word when it benefits us. We love words like, “Nothing will separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”. But there’s a sharp edge to it as well. We’ve also got to take God at his word, even when it hurts us. When God says, “you will certainly die”, he means it! The wages of sin really is death.
Ray Kurzweil is a longevity guru, inventor and futurist. He reckons humans will become immortal by the middle of this century. He also takes 250 supplements a day in a bid to extend his life. Well, Ray, I’ve got news for you. I’m backing the God of the Bible on this one. Humans will never be immortal. Listen to how Romans 5:12 puts it:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man [that’s Adam] and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned (NIV)
There’s a simple cause and effect relationship when it comes to sin and death: all have sinned and therefore all will die.
You might be here today and the thing that has stopped you from coming to God is that you don’t think that you’re good enough for God to accept you. That’s right! Join the rest of us. None of us are. You’ll never be good enough. Like being stuck in quicksand, you and I are stuck in sin.
Notice with fresh flowers from the florist, that they are cut. They are cut off from the soil, and the water and nutrients cannot feed them, sustain them, or help them grow. The flowers might be fragrant, colourful, and beautiful at present, but the reality is that they are decaying and dying, heading for the compost. We are like cut flowers. Sure, some of us last a lot longer, and yes, we might appear nice, pretty, and all together on the outside. But because of our sin, we are cut off, not from the ground but instead from God. The reality is that you and I face the same destiny as the flowers: we are headed for compost and worm food. Time is not on our side.
But Moses goes a step further. God’s anger isn’t just felt in death, but it’s also felt in every single day leading up to it, verse 9:
All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. (NIV)
The way we began our life is the same way we’ll end it. Just as we’re born to the sound of moans from our mums, so too we’ll die to the sounds of groans, as we gasp for air. During the week someone from our 4pm congregation passed on this quote from a book she’s reading which sums it up so well: “This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but with a whimper” Life moves from sigh to sigh, and all because of our sin and God’s anger.
Verse 10 says that we may live till 70, maybe even 80, but along the way we can be guaranteed that there’ll be speedbumps. It won’t be smooth sailing. Troubles and sorrows will come our way. Parents will do it tough. Marriages will be strained. The black dog of depression will rear its ugly head. I’m sure if I asked you, you could all share your own story of troubles and sorrows. Suffering is a matter of not if, but when.
Friends, I know it’s been heavy going so far. Some of these things cut a little close to the bone. At the same time, I don’t want to make any apologies for it, for we are dealing with real lives. We’ve all been around death. We’ve all asked the ‘why’ question before. That’s why we need to hear the God of Psalm 90 who says that we are mortal because God is angry. And God is angry because we are sinful.
We don’t do pretend here at MBM, and we certainly don’t do pretend when it comes to death and pain. For me, death has been ‘in my face’ a little more than usual this week. Not only have I been thinking and writing about death, but I’ve been feeling it too. This week I’ve been to two separate cemeteries, last Saturday was the anniversary of Teresa’s younger brother committing suicide, and then yesterday it would have been my daughter’s first birthday. She only made it to 77 days. All of us in the Lee house are feeling it in different ways. There’s been tears shed, questions asked, and lots of hurt and sadness. I’ve hugged Teresa and the kids just that little bit longer and tighter. I’ve tried to embrace the days of sorrow and mourning and not run away from it.
Now if you were to ask me what got me through the last year and what I have learnt from this journey, I don’t reckon I could do much better than what Moses says as he wraps up this Psalm.
Moses tells insecure humans who are afraid of death that there’s a God who offers security, verse 12:
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (NIV)
Moses wants us to number our days precisely because they are numbered. Moses says, “Do the maths, pull out your calculator!” And so I did! I worked out that I’ve been alive for 14,304 days. That’s nearly 343,296 hours, which is 20 million 597 thousand 760 minutes. I love the minutes! They fool me into believing that my life is long. But I know it’s not and so do you. The next month, hour, day, or minute is not guaranteed to anyone of us.
When people ask me what God taught me from our journey with Evie, this was the lesson: tomorrow is not guaranteed. She was diagnosed with Edward’s Syndrome. Statistically, only 50% of these babies make it out of the womb alive, and of those 50%, only 10% make it to their first birthday. And so not knowing how long we’d have Evie for, we set about numbering our days. We paused to read a Psalm for each and every day that Evie was alive. When it came to feeding, I often did the early morning shifts. I always thought of it as our daddy-daughter date.
I tried to capture each day with a photo. Numbering our days as a family meant that we literally couldn’t plan ahead. We had to learn to live ‘in the moment’. For me as a planner, an organiser, that was hard. But there was something nice about just being in the moment. I tried to appreciate each hug I shared. The kids taught me what was important as I saw things through their eyes. Whenever they woke up, or came home, or came to the hospital, they’d literally run to see Evie. They’d get right up close to see their sister.
Verse 12 is the key verse of this Psalm. Get this right, and we face death right. To number our days is not just a maths lesson, but a lesson in life. It is wise to know that it’s God who determines how many days we’ll live, not us. It is wise to have him as our dwelling place in the face of death.
Next, Moses asks God to relent, in Verse 13. God, have compassion, have mercy! Moses is essentially begging God for forgiveness. Yes God, you’ve seen my secret sins. You’ve see all my sins. Please don’t give me or your people Israel what we deserve!
Instead, God, would you, verse 15, satisfy us in the way only you can satisfy us! Drive away the darkness of night. When I wake up in the morning, let me wake up to a love that never fails and that’s full of compassion.
Then in verse 15, Moses says “God make us glad for as many bad days there’s been.” And boy, Moses had his fair share of dark days: slavery in Egypt; laying bricks; forty years of wandering through the desert with hardly any food. God, balance the scales, replace those dark days with glad days! Give us joy!
Then in verse 16, Moses cries out, “God, may your deeds be shown.” Verse 17, “May your favour rest upon us. Yes God, even though you’ve got every right to be angry.
Please don’t withdraw! Don’t hide. Show us you’re there!”
As Moses has been praying, it’s pretty clear that he’s not been afraid to come before the God of this universe and to pray big prayers. But here’s the question: “Has God answered Moses’ bold prayer yet”?
Do you think God heard Moses pray for a new experience of his love, a deep love, a prayer for a heart full of wisdom, that one day, forgiveness would come? Do you, God, hear the prayer for grace?
Friends, know that what Moses prayed for, God has answered fully in Jesus. We know how much God heard that prayer and answered it, for we live this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Jesus is the one who enables us to taste God’s forgiveness. Jesus is the source of what 1 Peter describes as an inexpressible and glorious joy. Yes, we number our days on earth. But thanks to Jesus we also eagerly await unending days of eternal life.
And lastly, we can stare death in the face because Jesus walked out of the grave. As it says in 1 Corinthians 15.:55-57, ‘“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
What a good God we have! Think about it: the God who we’ve offended through our sin is the same God who steps in, gets his hands dirty, gets rid of the sting of sin, which is death, and instead offers us victory over death won by Jesus! Now that is victory! Death is not the end! There is hope beyond the grave!
Today we’ve seen the contrast between us and God right throughout this Psalm. God is eternal; we are not. Because of our sin; God is angry. And yet, for insecure humans who face certain death, God is the one who offers security and safety.
So it’s only fitting that we end with the story of two contrasting people who have faced death.
The first is Amber Scorah. Last weekend, Amber wrote this opinion piece in the New York Times. It was called, “Surviving the Death of my son after the death of my faith.” She wrote this:
“Several years after leaving my religion [Amber grew up as a Jehovah Witness], I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life. What I had not prepared myself for was death, grief without faith, which is to say death without hope.”
If there is no God, no Creator, and we are merely accidents, then every part of our life is an accident, and there is nothing after our death. It is simply a matter of atoms and molecules that were once together that then fall apart. The universe doesn't care. The sting of death was and continues to be very real for Amber. She not only had lost her dad at 18, but she had lost a 4 month old son. And yet, with raw honesty, if you look at the world the same way as Amber does, what you end up with is this:
“I know my mourning for my son will not end in seven years. I will mourn him forever. Or rather, not forever — until I die. This is the one comfort that unbelief gives you, that this life will end and the pain you carry along with it.”
Now compare Amber’s take on death, with our next person. His name is Michael Sledge. He’s a 33-year old British actor who battled cancer as a 15-year old. He has had heart failure, and a few weeks ago, he was sent home on palliative care after the doctors had run out of treatment options for a new illness. Michael said this in his Facebook post:
“If you're wondering why I'm not sounding freaked out by the whole situation. Well, initially I was, but, as always in a time of crisis (should have been way before I'm ashamed to say) I turned to God and my Christian faith. Been reading the Bible daily, listening to Christian songs and sermons and its changed my entire mindset to nothing but peace and gratitude. Guys, regardless of a few medical issues, I have been blessed with the best life and the best friends and aside from not following God more diligently earlier in life I don't have any regrets. If you don't know Jesus already, my only hope is that you get to know him before you get to my state. He'll totally rock your world in the best way!”
There are two different people with two different approaches to death. Friends, if you are here today and you haven’t yet taken the hand of Jesus (Or maybe if you’ve wandered away from faith like both these people have), then can I urge you to follow Michael’s advice? Don’t live a life of regret. It is much better to prepare for death now before it’s too late, for tomorrow is guaranteed to none of us. Take whatever that next step is for you. It could be to read the Bible with someone, or to ask that question of someone. Perhaps it’s to come clean, confess your sin, and accept Jesus as your boss. Quite literally this is a matter of life and death: eternal life and eternal death.
Friends at the end of the day it boils down to this: we can either have a full tomb and empty hope, or, thanks to Jesus, we can have an empty tomb and a living hope. That’s the choice before all of us today. If you’re here today and you’ve got a living hope because Jesus has made you alive, then the word for you today is this: invest in eternity. God has saved us from having numbered days to now having countless days. And so I don’t know about you, .but I want to make the most of them! I’m someone who loves ticking things off my to-do list. I’m big on productivity and getting things done. Well, Psalm 90 has reframed that for me, because it’s not about getting my things done but it’s about getting the things done that God wants me to get done! I want to begin each day with asking, “Lord, how can I make a difference for you today?” I want to finish each day being able to say, “Lord, thanks for using me today to make an impact.”
We’ve all heard of bucket lists haven’t we? These are things we want to do before we “kick the bucket”, before we die. Well I’m about to pray a prayer that I stumbled upon during the week that encourages us to make gospel bucket-lists.
Let’s pray it together
This Scripture reminds us we’re more like delicate morning glories than aging bonsai trees. You’ve created us for your pleasure, redeemed us by the gospel, and numbered our precious days. As our sovereign Father, how would you have us live between today and our last breath?
Indeed, in light of the gospel and your delights, what should we spend more time and less time doing? What do we need to make a bigger deal about, and a lesser deal of? When do we forgo busyness for fishing, acquiring for friendship, and making money for living on mission? By your Word, Spirit, and providence, lead us, Father. Show us how to live, work, and play to your glory.
With whom should we spend more face-to-face and heart-to-heart time? What relationships have we wrongly allowed to claim, name, and drain us—mentally and emotionally? Who’s really be held hostage by the chains and pains of our unforgiveness? Free us. Life’s not about getting even but giving grace.
Father, we praise you that we’re not going to merit anything by doing a better job with any of these things. None of these questions has a scorecard, thermometer, or jury attached to it. It’s Jesus’ performance and record in which we boast and rest.
But your grace frees us to ask the right questions and live a freer, more eternity-influenced life. So make our gospel-bucket-list for us, Father. So very Amen, we pray, in Jesus’ matchless and magnificent name.
'Chucking a sickie’ is as Aussie as meat pies and backyard cricket. It is estimated that Australians take over 90 million sick days every year. The average person takes 9.5 sick days. Now of course there are times where that is legitimate. If you’ve got the flu or food poisoning, we don’t want you coming to work. But with that amount of sick days, there are some pretty creative excuses people give for not coming to work. Here they are, and I’ll let you decide whether they are true or not. (Google told me so they must be true!)
At the back end of John 5, Jesus basically says that there are no excuses for not accepting him as God in the flesh. Picture a courtroom with Jesus on trial. Jesus has just made the massive claim that he is equal with God! The Jews respond, “How dare you?” So Jesus brings forward three testimonies to back up his massive claim.
You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth […] John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light. (John 5:33, 35 NIV)
The first witness Jesus calls is John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. These Jews knew exactly who John is. Back in John chapter 1, they sent a group to check him out, and John more or less said, “I’m not the Messiah you’re waiting for. I’m just the giant neon arrow pointing to the Messiah! You should pay attention to the guy coming after me. He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
Jesus describes John’s witness as a lamp that burned and lights up the path so you can find what you’re looking for. Well, here, these people could see Jesus, but they didn’t accept him as God. It’s like our Muslim friends or neighbours. They believe that Jesus is a messenger, but they reject his way to God. It is like the Jew who studies the Torah, but refuses to accept that Jesus is the Messiah.
Some of you here today may be like that. You’ve come to church, but you have not yet come to Jesus. You need to understand that after today, as a result of hearing God’s word, you will have no excuses, because you will have heard all the evidence you need to determine who Jesus is. You will need to decide whether Jesus is Lord, lunatic, or liar. That is what I had to do back in 1997, when a guy named Richard sat down with me and together we read through Mark’s Gospel.
In verse 34, Jesus accepts that John’s witness is good, but he offers testimony that is better that John the Baptist.
Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved (NIV)
The logic here is genius. Who else is qualified to tell us who God is and what he is like apart from God? The moment you allow a human to describe what God is like, you are elevating that human above God himself. So Jesus is effectively saying, “Let God tell you about God. If you want to know who God is and what he is like, go listen to God himself! God is the only one qualified to tell you about the existence, nature, and character of God. You can’t look down on God or put him under the microscope. Verse 36:
I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. (NIV)
The works that Jesus has been doing at the start of this chapter was the healing of the man who was paralyzed for 38 years. I am 38 years old. I can only imagine what it would be like to have lived my entire life with my muscles having degenerated, tendons wasted away, and limbs out of order. Yet, after he encounters Jesus, he stands on two feet with his mat tucked underneath his arm. That miracle alone is enough to prove that Jesus is who he says he is. If either you or I went up to someone in a wheelchair and told them to get up, we might end up with a punch in the face. But remember what Jesus said back in verse 19?
Very truly I tell you, the Son [i.e. Jesus] can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
What a humble statement! Whatever Jesus says or does is nothing more or less than what the Father sent him to do. The works of Jesus are the works of God himself! We saw this earlier in John chapter 5, that Jesus does not have an original bone in his body. He doesn’t go it alone but is under orders. He does exactly as he is told.
Jesus does things only God can do. How else do you explain the other miracles Jesus does? So in John 2, Jesus turns water into the finest Cab Sav. In chapter 5, Jesus feeds 5,000 adult men with a couple of breadsticks and some sushi. He will walk on water, heal a man born blind by giving him a mud mask, and raise Lazarus from the dead. You and I can’t do any of these miracles. They are the works of God. And if you don’t believe me, then next time that you are at the pool, don’t bother changing into your swimmers: try and walk across the water. That will prove that neither you nor I are God!
Despite all these works, Jesus knows that the job his Father has given him is not yet done, verse 36:
For the works that the Father has given me to finish testify that the Father has sent me. (NIV)
Jesus knows there is more of the Father’s work to be done. For all the miracles Jesus did, there is one ultimate work to finish. We see that work when we fast forward to John 19:30, and Jesus is on the cross, beaten, bloodied, and bruised. And so Jesus’ last words when he had received the drink were, “It is finished”. Jesus will finish the work of his Father by once and for all by dealing with sin, defeating the devil, and absorbing every last drop of the Father’s anger.
The ultimate proof that Jesus is God is that Jesus offers the acceptable sacrifice for the sins of the world. No one else qualifies as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. If someone other than God dies on the cross, the sin problem is still a problem. Sin hasn’t been dealt with, because all you’ve got is one sinful human dying in place of another sinful human! And that doesn’t cut it for God. He demands a perfect sacrifice. The only innocent, perfect sacrifice is God himself. God takes the initiative and offers himself to die in our place to satisfy his own righteous anger at our sin.
That is why Jesus is God’s way to God. There isn’t any other way. Jesus is telling the religious leaders, “The Father says I am who I am. That’s why I do what I do. I do what I do because of who I am.” These works are not the works of a mere human, a mere prophet. They are works only God himself can do, and he has given them to Jesus!
That brings us to the third testimony that Jesus brings forward. Jesus points not only to the works of the Father but also to the words of the Father when in verse 39 Jesus says to the Jews:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (NIV)
As far as God is concerned, the Old Testament is a one-way street that ends with Jesus. Jesus was God’s ‘Plan A’ all along. The Old Testament is the story of God’s preparation for, promise to, and purpose in sending Jesus.
The problem here is not that the Jewish leaders searched the Scriptures. It’s not a problem that they believed that the Bible gives eternal life. Rather, the problem was that they used God’s words against God’s Son!
Notice how the verse ends: “yet you refuse to come to me to have life”. Jesus is saying that even though the Scriptures all point to him, and they had the Scriptures and cherished them, yet they refused to come to him. It is not that they were ignorant, or confused, but they refused.
What a tragic and depressing scene! These folk devoted their entire lives to searching the Scriptures, day and night, in private and in public. They would have memorized it off by heart. They went to all that effort and yet they still missed the point of the Scriptures completely! All those propositions and prose point to a person, and his name is Jesus! Rather than trusting a book, they should have trusted the person who the book is about!
The Old Testament can be a little intimidating to read on your own. It is sometimes not straight-forward, with weird names and places, occasionally repetitive, written in all different genres, such as poetry, narrative, or wisdom literature. But the Bible reading tip here is that we read the Old Testament the way that Jesus wants us to read it. Reading the Old Testament can be a tough slog. I’ve been reading Jeremiah lately, and that is one heavy book. The question I’ve been trying to ask myself each time I’ve read it is, “Where is Jesus is in this passage?” Sometimes Jesus is found in a promise that he is going on to fulfill. At other times, Jesus is found in the righting of the wrongs of a situation that the Old Testament describes. And at still other times, Jesus is found in a person who is a type or pattern for his later coming. It may not always be an easy question to answer, but it is the right question to answer. Let’s not miss the entire point of the Scriptures when we read them: Jesus!
As you read the Bible, make the most of what God has made available to you. You might benefit from a book like Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture. That is probably the most helpful book available which helps us make sense of the Bible as one big story. Maybe making the most of what you can will mean meeting someone else during the week to read the Bible. Why not ask someone in your small group to meet one-on-one to read, say, Judges, or Joshua, or Jonah together?
So Jesus has brought forward three pieces of testimony: the witness of John the Baptist, the works of the Father, and the words of the Father. But before we go off into the jury room to consider our verdict on Jesus, he gives the religious leaders (and us) a warning. Those who are challenging him might think that they are judge and jury over Jesus and his claim to be equal with God, but at the end of the day, Jesus is going to be judge and jury over them, and us too. Jesus has given them and us reliable testimony, so that there can be no more excuses. If, after all this evidence, people still don’t believe in Jesus, it says more about them than it does about him. Think about how Jesus gets stuck into the religious leaders in verses 37 and 38. He says of them that they have never heard God’s voice, nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in them, for they do not believe in Jesus, the one who the Father sent.
Do you see the irony here? They’re seeing God with their eyes and hearing God with their ears—in the person of Jesus—and still they don’t believe in him.
But Jesus is not done pointing the finger just yet. In the next verse, he says that they pour over God’s words. They read the Bible over and over again. But in verse 40, they still don’t welcome God with open arms. The love of God is not on their radar. All this leads to verse 43, that they reject God. In fact, it is worse than that, because they would rather gain the praise and approval of other people than that of God. The love of others is more important than the love of God.
The modern day equivalent would be that Jesus says to the Bible scholar: “Sure you’ve got a PhD in the Bible, but you deny that I even existed, or that I rose from the dead”, so what good is it? Or to the person who says that they hear God speak to them but never obey him or repent of their sin, Jesus is saying “I don’t know you!” For all your piety, study, religiosity, intelligence, and experience, you have not come to me to have life. This warning is for the person who reads their Bible every day, goes to Growth Group, and comes to church, but has not received Jesus for who he is. They have spent all their time being informed, rather than transformed. They have forgotten that it is not about pages, but a person. That is one serious warning.
It boils down to people not wanting God on his terms. In the last decade, the task of sharing Jesus has changed. Whereas previously people were asking, “Is Jesus true?”, nowadays, people are asking, ”Does it work?” Does it fit in with my life? Is it going to benefit me and make a difference? There are plenty of people in our church who would say that Jesus is not only true, but following him works!
I remember sharing Jesus with a colleague at my old workplace. For him the stumbling block to accepting Jesus was that he couldn’t turn his back on his family’s religion. Yes Jesus was there, but keeping the family happy was the highest priority. Then there was the friend I went to school and uni with: “I don’t wanna do ‘the Jesus thing’. I’m on about working in finance so I can buy my Lamborghini.” I’ve even heard of someone who spent an entire year reading the Bible one-to-one, checking Jesus out, and then one day he reads a tweet by Ricky Gervais on atheism, and decides to live his life based on what a comedian said, rather than what the God of the universe, because that’s what worked for him!
If you haven’t yet taken the hand of Jesus, what is stopping you from accepting Jesus? What excuse are you telling yourself? Will a relationship in your life have to change? Is it that a parent won’t be happy?
One of the best questions you can ask your unsaved friend is “What is stopping you from accepting Jesus?” Chances are, their answer will be less about the evidence for Jesus, and more about them being worried about what others might think: a parent won’t be happy, a spouse will be upset, a dating relationship will have to end, or a friend will make fun of you. If and when they come to Jesus, there’s a good chance some of those things will happen. And if they do, they will be in good company. Plenty of people have faced something similar, but are still following Jesus today.
Evidence after evidence after evidence; witness after witness after witness: what we have here in John 5 is a three-legged stool, leaving you and I without excuse that Jesus really is who he says he is. Jesus leaves us with no excuses to not accept him as God! If you put your trust in Jesus, you are doing exactly what science does: you are making evidence-based conclusions. It is not a blind leap of faith, it is not parking your brain at the door, nor are you using Jesus as some sort of crutch to get you through life. You are accepting the evidence and making a reasonable judgement.
Just as Jesus testified to his Father, so too do Jesus’ people. We’re on about testifying to the Father too. We testify to the works of the Father, what Jesus has done, and to the words of the Father, with an open Bible. That happens in many different ways: with our lips and our lives, in public and private, at home, work, school, on campus, or at church.
I was so encouraged this week to hear that someone plucked up the courage to ask a friend, “Would you like to read the Bible with me?” Then there’s the guy who’s looking for work at the moment. Rather than wasting his time, he’s using that spare time to study the Scriptures. But unlike the Jewish leaders that John wrote about, he is doing it because he knows the person to whom those same Scriptures point. He is wanting to hear from Jesus so he can obey him and serve him. Then on Friday, I happened to be chatting to one of our ‘Jesus Club’ leaders, someone who is here every second Thursday night, testifying to the words of the Father among those with intellectual disabilities. How good was it to hear from Josie and Josiah this morning? Testifying to their Father for them meant giving up a day a week and then using that time to the Jesus whom the Scriptures testify among kids and youth, both at church and in our schools. Then there is Richard, who testified about Jesus to me, when I finished Year 12 back in 1997. Rich is now a missionary over in Thailand, and this week I did something that was long overdue: I wrote him an email thanking God for him and how he introduced me to Jesus from the Scriptures all those years ago. I wanted to encourage him to continue doing what he did with me, just now in a different country.
There are plenty more people I could mention. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I thank God for each of you and for the different ways you testify about your Father in heaven.
Whether it’s Disney, Hollywood, or Taylor Swift, the message they’re all communicating is the same: “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” This is me: take it or leave it. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. You’ve got no right to tell me what to do.” That’s the message of our entertainment industry, and it is fed to our kids, to our youth, and to us. The song “This is Me” was the soundtrack to one of my daughters’ dance item. My kids love doing “Shake it off” in carpool karaoke whenever that song is on the radio. And ‘Frozen’ parents or grandparents just cannot escape the song “Let it go”. And they all teach “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!”
We’ve been working our way through what New York pastor Tim Keller notes are the three mantras or mottos that define and shape our Western culture today. They are “Happiness is the highest goal in life”, which we looked at last week. We will look at “Be true to yourself” next week. Today however we’re looking at slogan number two: “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” In 2019, the greatest commandment has become “Be yourself”. And the second commandment is just like it: “Affirm and applaud whatever your neighbour chooses to be”.
We live in a day and age where one of the greatest sins has become denying who you are. It’s now a sin not to express who you are. And not only that, how dare anyone question or judge the way someone expresses themselves! And whatever you do, don’t let anyone else tell you what you can and can’t do. Whether it’s a parent, teacher, boss, the government, society, or even the church, “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do”.
Now there’s actually a kernel of truth here. There are times where we should say without any hesitation, “Don’t let someone else tell you what to do!” Let me rattle some of these situations off for you. If you are the victim of bullying, or any sort of abuse at school, work, or home (be it emotional, physical, spiritual, or financial), you’ve got every right to say, “I’m not going to let you tell me what to do!” The person trapped in a cult or modern slavery, or caught in drug or sex trafficking, or the woman pressured to get an abortion, it is there right to say “I’m not going to let you tell me what to do!” Wherever there is controlling behaviour, manipulation, or a power imbalance: “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.”
If you are a human being, you’ve thought, said, or acted this slogan out. That’s what teenage rebellion is all about. Yet, in order for us to function, we do need people to tell us what to do.
The voice on Google Maps tells us to turn left in 300 metres. A parent, counselor, mentor, or friend gives us a word of wisdom or advice to enable us to navigate a clear path. Indeed, we frequently pay people we barely know to boss us around and tell us to try harder and do better. I pay for that inside the four walls of the gym class up at the RSL.
Deep down at the heart of this slogan are two things: first, there’s a quest for identity, and second, there’s a fight for freedom.
First, let’s look at the quest for identity. Identity is made up of two parts: a sense of self, which is what makes you ‘you’ and not ‘me’; and a sense of worth, which is what makes you significant and valuable. The slogan “don’t let anyone tell you what to do” implies that the sense of self and worth comes from you and you alone. At one level, this way of thinking is relatively new, but in actual fact it has been around since the very first humans Adam and Eve walked the face of this earth, Genesis 2:16-17:
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (NIV)
God says to Adam that everything in the garden is his, but there’s just one thing he can’t do. So Adam, rather than delighting, enjoying, and revelling in all that God has given him, effectively says, “God, you can’t tell me what to do. I’m going to choose for myself what makes me happy.” And that’s been the story ever since, repeated generation after generation right up until today. The very first humans want to build their own identities. They want to say, “I did it my way!”
But the reality is that our identity is received, not achieved. That’s super important. Most of us live life trying to make a name for ourselves and to stand out. You’ve probably heard people say things like, “This is how I am: take it or leave it!” or “I was born this way!” Everyone has a story: you’ve got yours; I’ve got mine. And we love to tell these stories about what we like and what we hate, what we will and won’t do, who we will and won’t be seen with, and what we avoid and what we hope and aim for. That is all part of constructing our own identities.
And then along comes a passage like 1 Corinthians 6, which says that our identities are received and not achieved. Our sense of self and of worth comes from outside of us not from within us. Let’s start at verse 9:
Don’t be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)
Paul says in black and white that if someone wants to turn their back on God and not let him call the shots, then God won’t let them into his family. But that’s not the end of the story, for in the very next sentence comes one of my favourite verses in the Bible, verse 11:
And that is what some of you were [Note the past tense]. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (NIV)
Friends, do you see the incredible thing that Paul is saying here? He’s saying that the Corinthians once were this, but now they are something else. As Christians they have a new identity. The Christian has done nothing to earn it. It’s all been done for you. Can you believe it?
There are three descriptions of our new identity in verse 11. First, we who trust in Christ have been ‘washed’ clean from all the filth of our past. The muck of guilt and the stains of shame are all gone. Can it get any better? Second, we’ve been made holy. We’ve been plucked out of that mess of sin and set apart for better things. Third, we’ve also been justified. The verdict that God the judge of the universe gives us is ‘not guilty’, even though we rightly deserve punishment.
All of this was done and achieved by someone other than us. Yes, we got ourselves into this mess, but God has rescued us from it through his Son by his Spirit. He has done it! Your identity is received not achieved. It’s given to you by God, and as far as identities go, it doesn’t get any better.
I’ve tried to achieve my own way to identity. Let me share with you two ways I have tried. The first was during school. I was known as the basketball guy. I played a lot of it. I represented my school in it. I even managed to get a couple of awards in it. During school the popularity and acceptance was great. But in 2017 we had our 20 year reunion, and the question people asked me was, “So are you still playing basketball?” I was pigeon-holed in their thinking with the identity of ‘Dan the basketball guy’. The second was growing up as an Australian-born Chinese. I’ve had a foot in two worlds. And the chances are that if you’re from a migrant culture, you have had a foot in two worlds, too. And so when it came to deciding what to study at university, mum wanted me to do accounting, but I wanted to do human resources. The Chinese migrant mentality was to choose a secure course, where there are plenty of jobs that will pay well. My parents had made sacrifices for me and had hopes and expectations for their son. Well today I’m neither of those things. My identity is not found in what I excelled in at school, what I studied at university, nor what I did for work. It is found in Christ.
Western culture today says, “You’ve got to have a dream, and if you work hard enough, believe in yourself, don’t let anything or anyone tell you that you’re not good enough, not even your own parents, you will make your dreams and be true to yourself.”
In the movie, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, there’s a famous scene where the father, played by actor Will Smith, talks to his son about not letting anyone ever tell him that he can’t do something—not even him! Now did you know that the actor playing the son is his son in real life, Jaden Smith. Well a few years ago, Jaden, for his fifteenth birthday, told his parents, “Mum and Dad, I want to legally break free from you and live in a place all my own”. His mum was reported as being devastated and rightly so. But yet this is the spirit of our age.
We can work our fingers down to the bone trying to construct a better identity for ourselves, but we are only as good as the last thing we did: the last project, milestone, exam score, or in my case, the last sermon. If that is where our worth, meaning, and sense of self, then it is a dead end. It will eventually crush us. It just doesn’t work.
Instead why not take up the identity God’s offering you? What’s stopping you?
To those who respond to Jesus with repentance and faith, God gives a new identity. He says that you are a child of God, adopted into his family, no longer an outcast, and united with Christ. What happened to him will happen to you. You are a citizen of heaven: this is earth is not your home, heaven is. You are his people and no longer enemies. You are heir of God and co-heir with Christ: what’s been given to him will be given to you.
What more could you ask for? In Jesus, we have someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. In Jesus, we have he who gives us something better than anything we can get on our own.
We’ve looked at identity. Now let’s turn our attention to freedom. This motto screams loud and clear: “I’m free to do what I want and to be who what I want to be, no matter what anyone else says.”
The chances are that you’ve never heard of Emile Ratelband. He is a Dutchman who has been told by doctors that he has the body of a 45 year-old even though he’s 69. He is now arguing that he should be legally entitled to change his age on his birth certificate to 45. Not to do so, he claims, is discrimination. But the real motivation, according to Emile himself, is that he wants to change his birth date so he can achieve greater success at work and with women on the dating app ‘Tinder’. Here’s a quote from him: "When I'm on Tinder and it says I'm 69, I don't get an answer. When I'm 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”
Emile thinks he should be free to legally change his birth certificate. But according to God, ‘freedom’ is not what Emile thinks it is. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12 is quoting the worldview of the church in Corinth, Greece, when they say, “I have the right to do anything”. But Paul responds, “not everything is beneficial”. The Corinthians think, “I have the right to do anything”, but Paul says, “I will not be mastered by anything.”
And it turns out that 2,000 years on, nothing has changed. The church of Corinth in Ancient Greece and the church of MBM in Rooty Hill are not that different. We think freedom is the right to do whatever we want with whoever we want whenever we want. But Paul here is driven by a different set of criteria. Is it beneficial? Does it help others? Must I exercise my rights at this particular point in time?
Unlike any other time in human history, we’ve got more rights than ever before. We have rights as employees, rights based on gender, on marital status, and, for the time being, based on religion. Children have rights. And yet we chase after freedom. We fight for freedom.
See if you can guess this movie based on the description: an adventurous teenager sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, she meets someone who guides her in her quest to become a master wayfinder. Together, they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds. Along the way, she fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she always sought: her own identity.
What’s the movie? ‘Moana’. Take a look at the lyrics from one of its songs.
See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me,
And no one knows, how far it goes.
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me,
One day I'll know, if I go there's just no telling how far I'll go
What is Moana saying here? Essentially it is this: If I don’t let anyone else tell me what to do, if I keep that behind me like the wind in my sail, then there’s no telling how far I’ll go in life.
Moana is chasing ‘freedom from’. She seeks freedom from her family, from what her tribe tells her: that she’s too young, that she’s a girl, that it’s too dangerous and she should just accept who she is and stay on the island.
Of course, that’s not the only type of freedom we chase after. Maybe you are seeking freedom from the shackles of religion. Perhaps you think it is evil and outdated and that science has disproved God. Perhaps you desire freedom from massive debt, so you work, work, work. Maybe you long for freedom from that particular pain, and it so often leads to alcohol or drugs. Or perhaps you look for freedom from a difficult marriage: it is much easier to turn to porn, have an affair, or get divorced so you can marry someone else.
Well, come to the second half of 1 Corinthians 6:13, and Paul addresses the freedom to do whatever we want with our bodies.
The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (NIV)
God is saying that your body—the one he made and gave you—is special. To put it bluntly God cares about what you do with your genitals. He cares about who you share your body with, because he wants you to enjoy it in the best possible way!
And not only that, but did you know that your body is actually meant to house the true and living God himself. God is waiting to set up shop inside of you, and to dwell in you by his Spirit so that you can taste the freedom that awaits. Verse 19-20:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies. (NIV)
Your body is so special to God, that even though he owned us anyway, when we fell into sin he decided to buy us back again. He not only took on flesh and bones but he faced every temptation we have faced. He tasted every emotion we have felt. And then he died in your place and mind, all so he could rescue and redeem us, and call us his own. You are freed to live forever, verse 14. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Death is not the end. Our bodies will be awakened and rise from the graves. We will have new bodies fit for the new creation.
Do you get the impression that God is more committed to your body than you are?
Lord Acton is the great historian of freedom. He puts it like this: “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like; it’s the power to do what you ought.” In other words, if we only think that freedom is ‘freedom from’ restrictions, expectations, and being told what to do, then that’s really only half the story. God has purchased us and we belong to him. And because we belong to him, he can do whatever he wants with us. God in his kindness has freed us for a much better life, in fact, the best life.
That means I’m genuinely free from having to prove myself. I don’t have to fight to get your approval. I’m no longer worried about my reputation. I’m free from having to express who I am. I’m free from the pressure to stand out. No longer do I have to put myself out there and live out all my desires and feelings. No wonder Jesus says in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (NIV).
Because I’ve been truly set free, I want to let him call the shots in my life. Rather than thinking that God is an evil tyrant, he is actually a loving Lord. Rather than thinking that his way of life is outdated or oppressive, it is actually outstanding and worth obeying. Instead of defiantly declaring, “This is me”, what matters more is letting God declare, “This is who I made you to be”. And instead of resisting conformity, I’m going to let him conform me to be more like Jesus. That is what I call freedom and liberating! This is freedom on God’s terms. And it doesn’t get any better than that!
And so back to the motto: “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do”. Siding with Jesus means that I can look at this motto and say, “When it comes to identity, I’ve already been given the best kind of identity, thank you very much. And when it comes to freedom, I’m truly free by virtue of being freed for a life lived for Jesus.”
We began by talking about songs. It’s only fitting we finish up by talking about the song we’re about to sing:
This life I live is not my own,
For my redeemer paid the price.
He took it to be his alone,
To be his treasure and his prize.
The things of earth I leave behind
To live in worship of my King.
His is the right to rule my life,
Mine is the joy to live for him.
If your dad is crusty and your mum's in a flap
And you spill the custard in your sister's lap
If you're sent to bed and you don't know why
And you can't get to sleep and you just want to cry
That’s a verse from a Colin Buchanan song. It pretty much sums up a typical week in the Lee household. The chorus goes like this:
Remember the Lord
Remember that he is in control
Remember the Lord
He’s watching His children. He cares. Remember the Lord.
Do you want to know what difference Jesus makes in your life? Well James is your book. That’s the litmus test because time and time again, James give us a picture of what real faith, in real lives, lived in the real world, looks like. There’s no pretend, no filter, when it comes to James, whether it’s dealing with conflict (which we saw last week) or how we use our tongues (in chapter 3), or the way we treat others who are different from us (the poor, the widow, the orphan), or when trials and suffering comes our way.
In our passage, James speaks to two more topics: our ambitions and plans for the future; and how we use our wealth. In both those situations, James wants to say the key take-away is this: Remember the Lord. Remember that he is in control. Remember the Lord.
So let’s take a look at James 4:13. James says “Listen up” to you who say:
Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money. (NIV)
In this one verse, James has captured the heart’s desire of every migrant and every backpacker. My parents arrived from Hong Kong in Sydney in their twenties. Mum came to study and dad came to work, so that he could send money back to support his parents and sisters.
But it’s not so much who James is addressing as their attitude and what they say. James isn’t having a go at planning, but he is having a go at presumptuous planning, planning that leaves God out of the picture and puts you in the centre.
James knows full well that Dan Lee often thinks, “once it’s in the diary, it’s happening alright”. It is that tendency to assume that tomorrow, or next week, is guaranteed to roll around. I tried thinking about what sort of plans I made this week: I planned what we’re doing for Christmas; I planned a family holiday; I planned dinner; I helped a couple plan their wedding ceremony; I had to plan after school sport drop-offs and pick-ups. And in the midst of all that planning, James says, “Dan, take a look at verse 14a.”
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. (NIV)
We can try and have a guess at what will happen tomorrow. Thankfully the weather report was right about Wednesday’s storm. But that’s the best we can do. We can guess, wish, or hope for any number of things that could or could not happen before today is over. At morning tea, someone could say: “C’mon over. Let’s grab lunch.” There could be an accident on the road. A gastro-bug could suddenly wipe you out. Or Jesus could return before this sermon’s even over! As much as we might pay attention to the horoscope, tomorrow belongs to the Lord. As much as a doctor predicts the timeline on a diagnosis, tomorrow belongs to the Lord. As much as the financial adviser forecasts the share price, tomorrow belongs to the Lord.
That’s why, come verse 14b, James hits us with a dose of reality James asks, “What is your life?”
What instantly jump to your mind? I’m guess most of us would’ve said, “My life is made up of my achievements.” Or maybe you jumped to your regrets, your failures, the hardships that you’ve endured. And I’m sure there’s a few of us who would’ve jumped to your job, your family, or your relationships. But I’m not sure how many of us would’ve said what James says. ‘Life’ according to James is a four-letter word beginning with ‘M’, verse 14c:
You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (NIV)
Your life and my life is simply mist. Like the light spraying of water, we are here one moment, gone the next. Everything for which you work so hard and into which you pour yourself and that keeps you up at night will be gone, left behind, and become a distant memory. Tomorrow is not guaranteed—not to me, not to you, not to the person next to you. Saved or unsaved, we’re all in the same boat.
There is a difference if you are saved, if you are a Christian, because the beauty of being a child of God is that we can know where we’ll be in a million years and into eternity, even though we don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow. That’s not arrogance. That’s not the boasting James is warning us about there in verse 16. That is boasting not in ourselves but in Jesus and what he’s done and the hope that he’s secured for us. Jesus is the one who lived the perfect life that you and I couldn’t live, who died the death we deserve because we fall short of God’s pass mark which is 100%, and who is now risen to new life so we can look ahead with hope.
James 4:13 tells us what not to say. James 4:15 tells us what to say instead.
Instead, […] you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (NIV)
Notice how James doesn’t say, “Let go and let God.” He doesn’t say, “Take your foot off the pedal and don’t make any plans whatsoever.” No, God is still very much interested in the decisions, plans, and choices we make. Believe it or not, God is less concerned about who we marry, or whether we become a chippy or a computer scientist; rather, what matters to him is whether he’s even on the radar as you do those things. Will you let him set the agenda or will you give him the silent treatment? Remember that there is nothing wrong with planning; it’s the presumptuous planning that’s the mistake.
Let me share with you very real and personal example of how I tried to hold this tension together. As many of you know, we lost our baby daughter earlier this year. Now God didn’t tell me on August 23 that Evie was going to die the very next day, on August 24, day 77 of her life. In fact, I looked back at my diary to see what was scheduled for August 24. There was a netball game for my eldest. There was a training here at church I was supposed to be at and a phone call with another pastor. But in the end, none of those things happened because my plans got trumped by God’s plans. Only God knew the precise number of days Evie would have on this earth, with our family and with you as her church family. But that didn’t stop us from making plans along the way. We made a birth plan—which went completely out the window anyway. We made plans to get clothes, a car seat, and a cot as soon as she came out of the womb. Just before Evie died, we had started making plans for a 100-day milestone celebration. We planned, we prepared, we prayed for more than 77 days. But at the same time, we lived one day at a time. Teresa and I knew at any moment that God could take it in a completely different direction, and it wouldn’t have made him any less good or any less God.
Proverbs 16.9 sums up our journey:
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. (NIV)
And so as we come to the end of 2018 (it’s December already)! No doubt there’s a few plans in the works for next year—plans for a new job, a new project to tackle, new skills to learn, a new home to build, a new child arriving, travel plans, a new stage of life, a new spouse, a new boyfriend or girlfriend.
Here’s an idea: why not throw into the mix a plan for your godliness? It’s so encouraging that many of you do that year after year, as you commit to block out Sundays and small groups, and other things—whether it’s family lunches, kids birthday parties, which have to fall into place around those commitments. Some of you commit to teaching Scripture, making your plans around being in our local schools on Tuesday or Wednesday morning. Then there’s your time with the Lord, where it’s not a chore to fit in Bible reading and prayer time, whether it’s first thing in morning, or last thing at night. You work at letting everything else fit around that. You’re jealous and guard that time. All those things are bang on with God’s will.
So I’m going to give you a moment to pause and commit to putting this into action, because James is after doers, not just hearers of his word. Why not pull out your phone, jot down a note, or write down something to get the ball rolling on your plan for godliness for this coming week. That’s what I call planning with God in the picture!
Come chapter 5, James switches gears. This time. he’s got a different group of people in his sights. Chapter 5:1:
Now listen, you rich people (NIV)
By ‘rich people’ I take it that James is talking about rich unbelievers here. James gets stuck right into these guys. Verses 1-6 contain some of the strongest language in the entire New Testament. James does not hold back. He talks of weeping, wailing, and of misery that’s coming upon the rich, and their flesh being eaten like fire as they have condemned and murdered the innocent. This seems a bit of the top and a little too harsh. What’s going on here?
Even though James is addressing rich unbelievers, that’s not an excuse for us to tune out, because James is writing for the benefit of believers. He is basically saying that if you’ve been on the receiving end of unpaid wages, and you’ve been exploited by this corrupt and greedy outfit, then James wants you to know that God takes this stuff seriously. There’s no getting away with this sort of behaviour.
Before we go any further, let’s just name the elephant in the room. We’re talking about money again! Now remember that here at MBM we only talk about money at specific points in the year, like during November, which is our pledging season, and when it comes up in the Bible text. Well, it just so happens that these two things have fallen back to back here in James. So James 5 is warning us that whatever you do, do not be a hoarder when it comes to wealth. James 5 verses 2-3:
Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. (NIV)
What we have here is a picture of heaps and heaps of stuff going to waste. It’s as if the owner wanted to accumulate it simply for the sake of showing off how wealthy they are. Now that might make sense if this life was all there is. I’d be trying to get as rich as I could so I could indulge in spending it on whatever I like.
Only did you notice how James ends that sentence? He says to the rich people that they’ve hoarded wealth “in the last days”. That’s code for Jesus coming back at any moment now, because the time we’re living in are the last days. We are right now in the last days. The Promised Messiah the Old Testament was waiting for has turned up in the person of Jesus on that very first Christmas. Jesus has died, risen, and now rules and reigns as the boss of this entire universe, so that all that has to happen now is for Jesus to return to judge the living and the dead.
Given this is the theological timezone we’re living in now—“the last days”—James is saying that your hoarding is completely foolish and pointless. The moths have feasted on the clothes you’ve had lying around. The gold and silver jewellery have become corroded, because they’ve just been sitting there. If you were to put a 21st century spin on it, the market has suddenly crashed and off come a few zeroes from the end of those numbers in your investment portfolio. Friends, we breathe in on a daily basis slogans like “Greed is good” or “whoever dies with the most toys wins” or “having more is the name of the game”. Because it is part of the air we breathe in our materialistic, consumerist culture, together we need each other to help us be on our guard against greed.
Now don’t mis-hear James. He’s not saying you shouldn’t save for the future, or that you shouldn’t put extra money into your super from time to time. But hoarding wealth for the sake of being able to show off, or to just to keep it for yourself, is a big no-no as far as God’s concerned.
There are good ways and bad ways to use our wealth. When it comes to our money, our wealth, the Bible gives us five ways we can use it in a godly way. First we can use our wealth to bless ourselves. In other words, it’s good to not be dependent on others for our basic necessities. That’s why we work. Second, we can use our wealth to bless our families. Anyone who doesn’t provide for their family has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever. That’s how strong Paul puts it in 1 Timothy. Third with our money we can bless the poor especially within the household of God. Let’s face it, no one did it better than the Macedonians who in excelled in the grace of giving. They in fact gave out of their extreme poverty. Fourth, you can use your wealth to bless local church workers (1 Timothy 5:17-18; Galatians 6:6). As one who directly benefits from your generosity, let me just say how deeply thankful I am to God for your generosity. And fifth, we use our wealth to bless our missionaries (1 Corinthians 9:14), because that’s what enables the good news of Jesus to go to the ends of the earth.
The Bible expects that we’ll use our wealth to look after ourselves, but more than that, to also use our wealth to bless others. As those who have, we’re to be those who give. Now come verse 4, and James says that it’s not just hoarding that’s wrong, but also exploiting others with your wealth is not on either.
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. (NIV)
James is having a go at wealthy people who think they can get away with short-changing their workers. Sure, going without a day’s worth of wages might not mean much to them, but for the worker in the field, no wage means no food for their families. So the key question for us here is this: Is my wealth exploiting others or is it blessing others? If you’re a landlord, are you good to your tenants? Are the repairs done. Is the rent reasonable? If you’re a business owner, make sure you pay your staff properly. And even if you’re not either of those two, chances are that you’re someone who pays taxes.
And so James says to you guys that you’re mind set ought to shift from “The government’s got no right to take my money from me” to “this money is for the good of society and others.” That’s all of us. Your tax dollars are at work when you are in hospital, or your kids are in schools, or you are enjoying the beach.
This passage has made me stop and think, that rather than doing my usual Asian thing of looking for the cheapest price, or the best brand, but instead do the Christian thing and think, “hang on, do I know where this money is going? Who are the people who are involved from beginning to end? This is all part of stewarding, of using our wealth, responsibly, the way God wants us to. Let me end with another proverb. Proverbs 30.8-9:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.
Just like James, this proverb encourages us to throw ourselves on a God who bottom line is rock-solid dependable. God might not give us what we want, but he’ll sure give us what we need. He is a God who invites us to depend on him daily, that we wouldn’t have too much that we forget him entirely, nor that he’d give us too little so we end up dragging his name through the mud by resorting to stealing. I’ve been praying that proverb over these last few days. Maybe you’d like to as well. I’ve found it’s kept my greed in check just that little bit more, especially before I clicked buy on that Black Friday and Cyber Monday sale this week.
We have a God who is rich in mercy, who has given us every spiritual blessing, who hasn’t held back at all. We have a God who in James’ words has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of this world, to be rich in faith, a God who has promised us an eternal inheritance. And so, what a wonderful privilege it is to steward our wealth, to make our plans, with that kind of God in the picture, who is for us and on our side.
Now I don’t have the gift of song-writing like our very own Scott Lavender, or Veronica Li from our 6pm service, but I thought I’d sum up what James has been saying here in this passage by adding another verse to that Colin Buchanan song from the start. Here goes:
As you make your plans and decide where to go,
As you make your money, and watch it grow,
Remember the Lord, Remember that he is in control
Remember the Lord, He’s watching his children,
He cares oh-oh, Remember the Lord.
Gratitude is a sickness suffered by the dogs. So said the Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin. That’s one way to approach life. Or there’s GK Chesterton’s philosophy before he became a Christian. He too didn’t believe in God. But he soon realized that atheism was a dead end. This is what he said: The worst moment for an atheist (someone who doesn’t believe in God) is when he (or she) is really thankful, and they’ve got no one to thank. That was a turning point for Chesterton. At 48, he gave his life to Jesus. He now had someone to thank!
To be Christian is to be thankful. From beginning to end, Christians are to be marked by gratitude. At a meeting recently with the leadership team for our new 4pm service, I consciously listened to how each of them began their prayers, and every single one of them began, “Dear God, thank you.” Thank you God that your mercies are new every morning. Thank you for not holding my sin against me. Thank you for calling me to yourself. Thank you for my church, my parents, my family, my job, for the roof over my head.
It’s been nearly two months since our baby daughter Evie died from a rare genetic disorder. Our family still misses her dearly. We’re still grieving and sad. But deep down, though we miss her every day, we’re still thankful. We are thankful she made it out of the womb alive, thankful for the 77 days we got to hold, cuddle, kiss, and smell her, and thankful for the medical teams. We are thankful for our church family who supported us in so many ways, and thankful for what God taught and is teaching us. Not many 77-day old children get to have the sort of impact she did—on both you and us—and for this we give thanks.
In 1 Thessalonians 1, Paul is thankful. Paul is thanking God for people who live for God. Paul is not only thankful for the work of the gospel in people, but he is thankful for how the gospel works through people. Notice to whom Paul is thankful. The first words that come from Paul’s mouth to this church are not thank you but thank God, 1 Thessalonians 1:2:
“We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers” (NIV).
And part of the way Paul expresses that thankfulness is to pray for the Thessalonian Christians. Paul constantly talks to God about them. Imagine Paul’s prayer diary! The word “Thessalonians” would appear on nearly every page.
The gospel has powerfully worked in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians. The word ‘gospel’ simply means important news. There’s nothing more important than the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, because it is life-changing news. The words of the gospel are not just ordinary words. They are powerful words. In verse 5, Paul calls it “our gospel”. It is the gospel that Silas and Timothy and Paul presented to the Thessalonians. That gospel came to them not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.
To deal with blind eyes and hard hearts, words alone don’t cut it. God accompanies those words with power. God’s Spirit is the agent of God’s power for the Thessalonians. And that is also how the gospel worked and continues to work in your life. Someone spoke words about Jesus to you, and they weren’t just a talking head! The words of the gospel worked powerfully in your life. Or you were reading those words in the Bible for yourself, and they weren’t just words printed on a page, but God by his Spirit prepared you to receive those words, so that your mind would be penetrated, your heart captivated, and your will re-orientated. That is how you can now give God what he rightly deserves. Any time you open your Bible to read God’s word, or you down tools and get down on your knees to pray, or you pour out your praise to God in song, those acts are the result of receiving God’s words accompanied by God’s power through God’s Spirit.
This powerful gospel works in us to give us backbone, a spine, and make us courageous in the face of suffering. As many of you know, it’s only a matter of time until persecution comes to us as Christians, or other forms of pain, problems, and difficulties come our way. So it was for the Thessalonians, as we read in the second half of verse 6:
“For you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (NIV).
Acts 17 describes how the gospel first came to town, and it involved suffering. Paul and his companions spent three weeks persuading the Thessalonians that Jesus really is the long-awaited rescuer promised by God, who really did die and rise again. But after that three-week honeymoon, things started going pear-shaped. Some dodgy characters got jealous of all the hype, and they formed a mob that led to a riot. Some new converts got caught up in it all, and were dragged in front of the authorities.
Imagine if that was you, shortly after you accepted Jesus. If you had a target on your back as these new Thessalonian Christians had, would you hang in there? Do you think that anyone else would put their hands up to become a Christian, if this was the consequence? On a human level, no way! You would expect that suffering because of Jesus would make these new Christians turn their backs on Jesus. But that’s not how the gospel works in people. Instead, the gospel causes people to put down roots, to stand firm. And so we read in verse 6, that the Thessalonians “welcomed the message”. They embraced the message of the gospel with open arms.
But not only that, but God’s Spirit gave them joy. This three-letter word in verse 6 makes all the difference. Joy is what makes the Thessalonians and us not just survive but thrive when the storms of life set in. Joy is like an anchor that stops a boat being tossed by the wind and waves. Joy gives the feeling of something solid, concrete, and lasting. That is what joy is to the Christian when they face severe suffering.
History tells us the same story, that Christians show joy in the midst of suffering. It is the constant refrain, that again and again, men and women, the young and the old, by faith in Christ, display joy when tested by hardship and suffering.
Recently, I’ve been reading with my eldest daughter before bed some short biographies about girls who died in the name of Christ. We’ve just finished the story of Betty Stam. Betty grew up in China and in the 1930s returned there as a missionary. But one day, while she was bathing her three month old daughter, the Communist Army came and stole everything, putting the entire family in prison. The day before their execution, the local postmaster recognized them and asked, “Where are you going?” Their answer describes the joy that I’m talking about: “We do not know where they are going, but we are going to heaven.” Even with their backs against the wall, the gospel works in people. The gospel worked in the Thessalonian Christians, and in Betty Stam, and the gospel is working in you, to produce joy.
Here at MBM we talk a lot about transformed lives. What kind of transformation are we talking about? Is it a transformed body, either shedding five kilos, or bulking up five kilos? Is it a transformed home: a renovation, moving to a better suburb. Or is it a transformed lifestyle, that we might be on top of the bills, all the routines are in place, the home is all organized. Well, the transformation Paul is on about is right there in verses 9 and 10:
“They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (NIV).
This is a great picture of how the gospel works in people. The gospel transformation is described with three verbs: turn, serve, and wait. These Thessalonians had done a four-letter word beginning with ‘S’. They did a SWAP. Christianity is ‘SWAP-ianity’ because essentially you’re swapping sides. Instead of living for self, you live for God. Instead of chasing dead, worthless idols, you pursue and hunger for the true and living God. You swap an empty way of life for one that truly satisfies. You swap the comforts of this life for the treasures of heaven.
Most of us here have a sporting team that we follow. Some of us are more die-hard fans than others. For me, I follow the NBA, the American basketball competition. I used to play with a bunch of guys here from church, until I realized I was too old to play against Filipinos who were half our size, but twice as fast. I probably check the ESPN app, or website at least once a day. Don’t hold this against me, but I play what’s called a ‘fantasy league’ with some friends. Basically we pick actual players for our own teams and play against each other. Growing up, I used to have the posters on the wall. I had the replica toy figures, and the cards. I’ve got a whole cupboard full of them still in my parents’ home! I even brought along my favourite team jersey today.
Just as we all have sports and teams we love, there are also sports and teams that we cannot stand. For me it is Aussie Rules. Apologies in advance if AFL is your thing, but I for one cannot watch it. I don’t get the rules, and it looks like there’s no structure. It just seems chaotic. Last season I probably watched a grand total of five seconds of Aussie Rules football—and that only happened because I was watching Gogglebox on TV! I was actually watching other Aussies watching Aussie rules. But imagine if I turned my back on basketball and instead took up following AFL. Suppose I showed my swap in allegiance by choosing an AFL team to support and going to all their home and away games. Imagine I enrolled my kids into a junior AFL teams. And just suppose that I threw out my jersey of my favourite basketball team, and put on this jersey I bought yesterday with my own money just for this sermon. That’s right, I parted with my own money for this Sydney Swans AFL jersey, just to get a sense of the cost involved in swapping allegiance from one team to another.
Parting with some cash is nothing compared to the swap that these Thessalonians did. When they swapped over to God’s side from idols they stood out like a sore thumb. Everybody straightaway could tell they were different. They made a clean break from their old ways of life—who they hung around with, the way they did business, how they conducted their relationships—and started worshipping the one true and living God by worshipping him his way.
And 2,000 years later, things haven’t changed. In our society, the potential idols might have different names and labels, but they are not that different from those which had ensnared the Thessalonians.
Prior to swapping allegiance to the God Paul preached, they and we might have had idols that reflected our superstitions—spirits, crystals, charms, and ancestor worship—or our attempts at sophistication—a comfortable lifestyle, or wanting to be recognized and valued—or even a misuse and wrong prioritizing of the good gifts of God, like our families, our spouses, or our homes—they too become idols if they get in the way of giving God our all. But becoming a Christian for them and us involves swapping allegiance from those idols, whatever they might have been, to the one true and living God. They turned, served, and waited, and so must we.
The Thessalonian Christians turned to God from idols. They made a clean break with their idols. It was a conscious turning away from them, as they turned their backs on their pretend gods. That’s how they swapped sides and allegiance and loyalty. They turned from their idols. But these Thessalonian Christians swapped sides by turning to the true and living God. They abandoned the idols and fled to God.
But saved people now serve. That’s the second verb there—the Thessalonians turned from idols to serve the true and living God, and not the idols. They gave up being slaves to the harsh task master of idolatry, and instead serve the God of Paul’s proclamation, the one who only ever seeks to do good to us, to bless us rather than break us. They happily sacrificed and gave up their time, talents, and treasures in service of the true and living God, out of desire and not duty. And that is true of every true follower of God.
And lastly, these Thessalonians were marked by waiting. Now waiting can go one of two ways. One way to wait as a Christian is for us to kick our feet up, take things easy, and say to ourselves, “I know where I’ll be spending eternity. I’ll just take things easy, tick off my bucket list, and do it all with the safety net that Jesus is going to let me into heaven”. That is one type of waiting. Or there is waiting Thessalonian style. These Christians genuinely thought that Jesus could return at any minute during their lifetimes, and so their waiting involved getting to work. They felt the reality of imminent and coming judgment, and knew the urgency of the word of salvation. They didn’t want to have any regrets. For them, the time was short, and the name of Jesus must go forth!
Now one of the reasons why I love verses 9-10 is that this is a story not just of how the gospel worked in these Thessalonian Christians, but how the gospel worked through them too! That is clear from verse 7:
“And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (NIV).
In fact, Paul is saying here that he has no need to check in on the Thessalonian church, nor even does he need to say anything at all in addition to the common report about them. He too has heard the rumours, the word on the street about them which has in fact traveled all over Greece. The ‘goss’ about them is that the word of the gospel has undeniably worked powerfully in the Thessalonian believers. The gospel has demonstrably worked in them because they are replicating him.
The gospel believed and preached by the power of the Spirit produces other believers and preachers by the power of the Spirit who replicate the first believers and preachers. The Thessalonian church is the result of their replicating Paul, the believer who first spoke the gospel to them.
Most of us know what a cookie cutter is. The purpose of a cookie cutter is to replicate exactly the template, prototype, or model of the first cookie. It enables reproducing the same shaped cookie over and over again, without the later cookies losing their form and thus compromising the quality of the replication. The purpose of the cookie cutter is to ensure consistency and quality of the shape of the replicas.
Rather than re-producing cookies, Paul’s purpose in preaching in Thessalonica is to reproduce churches. Essential to that process is that the gospel must work in people, to make them believers—that is, to produce a conviction about God and a commitment from them to turn from their idols to the true God whom they now serve, and to wait for his Son from heaven. They have undergone a ‘turn, serve, wait’ transformation. As a result, these transformed people—believers or Christians— have an enduring joy no matter what gets thrown their way. God uses people like that, to make others sit up and take notice. They themselves become agents of further transformation.
But what was the origin of this transformation? Where did these Thessalonian Christians get this transforming power? Another way to answer this question, using my earlier analogy, is, “Who was the original cookie?” Verse 6 tells us that that it all began with Jesus:
“You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (NIV),
The cookie cutter worked in this first century setting by the Thessalonians imitating Paul, Silas, and Timothy, the ones who brought the gospel to them. But as the Thessalonians imitate Paul and his companions, we know that in reality, they are imitating Christ the Lord, because that is who the messengers are copying (1 Corinthians 11). Paul tells the Thessalonians to imitate him only because he himself is imitating Christ. So really, the original model cookie is Jesus. He’s been the prototype right from the very beginning.
But that’s not all. The cookie cutter kept on cutting more cookies, this time in the other direction. Take a look at verse 8:
“The Lord’s message rang out from you [the Thessalonians] not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere” (NIV).
So through the Thessalonian believers, the gospel went to all of Macedonia. The Macedonian Christians were famous for their generosity (2 Corinthians 8). They practically begged Paul to give, and in doing so, they bankrolled Paul to keep the cookie cutter going. So the gospel went not only to Macedonia but it also went to Achaia and modern day Athens. And from there the gospel went everywhere.
Don’t you love that? Paul just throws a blanket over the rest of the world. This gospel is unstoppable. No wonder Paul can finish off verse 8 by saying, “Therefore we do not need to say anything about it”. Paul is literally speechless. Who needs words when the evidence speaks for itself.
The faith of these Thessalonians was not a private faith. They did the very opposite of hiding their faith under a rock, or staying in a holy huddle. This gospel is infectious, contagious, and unstoppable.
I’ve got a wife who studied microbiology. I nearly failed science so I don’t get how this stuff works, but even I get that at a basic level. Infections spread! You’ve seen the movies like ‘Contagion’ or ‘Outbreak’ or my personal favourite, ‘The Rock’. That’s why people wear those big white suits. with their own oxygen supply.
In this passage, the gospel is infectious and contagious in a good way. We want others to be captivated and gripped by the gospel, so that their lives are transformed, and they turn to God, serve God, and wait for his Son to return. As people who have tasted and are living out those very things—turning, serving, and waiting--we’re the very means by which this gospel will continue to spread.
We don’t want to be here today.
And yet, we knew this day was coming.
2 weeks ago Evie came into this church for the very first time.
It was for her dedication and many of you joined us on that happy occasion.
Little did we know it would also be her last time at church.
When we were in hospital, some people – when they heard about the age of our other kids, and heard about the nearly 5 year gap between Evie and Alethea.
They asked us: “Was Evie an accident?”
Evie was no accident.
She was planned.
Teresa and I had been umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether to try for a fourth child.
And in the end, the decision was: we’d try before Teresa turned 40.
Never in our wildest dreams were we expecting to bury that same child BEFORE Teresa turned 40.
Our precious Evie was a fighter. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. She fought through 38 weeks in the womb. She fought her way out during birth. In the time it took me to park the car with the kids, after dropping Teresa at emergency, she’d already come out.
She fought to breathe on her own – unassisted. A miracle in itself.
And then she fought through 3 subsequent trips to the hospital. All centred around breathing.
Evie fought bravely for 77 days.
But at the same time, 77 days was nowhere near enough.
We were greedy.
We wanted more – 770 days. 7,077.
Even 78 would have been better.
But the God who numbers all our days…..decided that 77 would be the number for Evie.
And of those 77 days, only 32 were at home. In her own cot.
Evie spent more time in hospital and at a wonderful children’s hospice called Bear Cottage.
While we were at Bear Cottage, I came this quote on their wall:
“We can’t add years to a life. We can only add life to those years”
Right from the get go, we knew we couldn’t add days to Evie’s life.
It hurts so much knowing that I’ll miss out on watching Evie take her first step.
I won’t hear her first word.
There’ll be no toilet training.
Evie won’t get to ride on the back of daddy’s pushbike.
No 1st day of school.
I won’t get to hold her hand to cross the road.
Or give her piggy backs.
I’ll never get to carry her on my shoulders.
I’m not gonna be able to take her out for milkshakes like I do with the other kids.
There’ll be no braiding her hair with my fat fingers.
Mind you, speaking of hair, we won’t have to remove nits.
I’ll miss out on driving her to netball or dance performances.
No driving lessons for that matter.
Today will be the one and only time I’ll walk her down the aisle.
Even though we couldn’t add days to Evie’s life.
We tried our very best to add life to her days.
It was ALMOST a privilege to wake up every 3 hours through the middle of night to feed her. That was like our daddy-daughter date. Our hang out time.
I’ll never forget that tight grip of her tiny hand – wrapped around my finger.
Rubbing my nose along her cheek that chubbed up more and more with each day.
I’ll never forget praying with her.
Reading a Psalm to her. Reading stories.
Singing songs like Be Strong and Courageous to her.
Stroking her hair.
Smelling her skin.
Bath times were our thing!
I’m already missing the cuddles, holding her skin to skin, close to my chest.
I’m missing the squeezy hugs.
Now I can’t give you answers for WHY God decided Evie would have a short life.
But I know for sure, that something that God has taught me has been the truth of these words in Psalm 63:3
Psalm 63:3 says this:
Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.
As much as I wanted Evie to have a long life.
God wanted me to taste and see just how wide, how long, how high and how deep his love really is.
So that today, as hard as it is, my lips will glorify the God who gave us Evie.
I asked our kids what their favourite memory of Evie has been.
Maddie said… Everything.
Elijah said… hugs and holding her skin to skin
Alethea: poo-namis. Poo-namis that result in a change of nappy, her outfit AND her wrap.
When we were leaving Bear Cottage on Sunday, we each wrote a note to Evie on a little cardboard butterfly:
Alethea wrote all our names on it.
Elijah said: “I love you more than anything in the world. Your big brother Elijah:
And Maddie: “Evie – we love you and we will miss you. Evie is magnificent, cute, a gift and special”
Ever since we heard Evie’s diagnosis back in January, the impossible prayer point all along has been.
Number 1 – Evie would make it out of the womb alive so we could meet her.
Number 2 – Evie would get to blow out her first birthday candle.
In the end, God decided to say “Yes” to one and “No” the other.
But that doesn’t make him any less God.
We take great comfort that God himself is no stranger to the pain, the aches we’ve been feeling these last few days.
He’s been in our shoes.
When his one and only Son died on the cross.
Jesus himself – when he wept over Lazarus’ dead body - shed the same tears we’ve cried since Friday.
Even though God didn’t prolong Evie’s life.
We know with absolute certainty that he has the power to resurrect it.
Coz that’s exactly what he did with Jesus.
And as people who trust, follow, believe in that same Jesus, we know that what happened to Jesus will happen to us.
Death is not the end.
Ever since Evie died on Friday morning, I don’t think I’ve cried more in my life.
I’ve woken up, and straight away, the realisation that Evie is no longer in my room not has caused more tears.
And the tears are still there.
I’m not done yet.
Today, tomorrow, and for a long time to come.
But we don’t grieve and mourn as those without hope.
I’ve said all along, I wouldn’t have been able to do this journey without Jesus.
I would’ve fallen apart a long time ago.
I always thought Evie was a celebrity in her own right.
She’s been the most prayed for baby here at church.
Her Facebook group has 623 members.
Some of you here today wanted to be her Facebook friends before Teresa and I!
It’s been a privilege to share Evie with you.
Along the way, we’ve tried not to do pretend.
So please don’t think of us as super-Christians.
Instead, look to the Jesus who has smashed sin. And defeated death!
We know that Evie’s death has hit some of you harder than others.
Maybe it’s brought back memories of a child you’ve lost.
Maybe you or your own kids are sad and grieving right now.
We’ll be praying for you in the weeks and months ahead.
It’s been my absolute privilege to be Evie’s dad.
And even though I’ll have one less child to physically celebrate Father’s Day with this Sunday.
I’ll still be a proud dad of Evelyn Talitha Peiwang Lee.
But for now I hand her over to a better dad. Her heavenly dad. Her perfect dad.
A dad who can give her a resurrected body.
The God who loaned us Evie for 77 days, has now taken her back to be safe in his arms.
Until we hear we hear Jesus say “Talitha Koum”, we’ll forever miss our gorgeous girl.
I remember the day we discovered the term “Trisomy 18” and how crushed we were that our little girl had a genetic disorder and was classified as “incompatible with life”.
She would either not make it to birth or not make it to her first year. She would have severe mental and physical disabilities if she lived. We were crushed, angry, in denial, and felt at times that there was little to hope for. Even now, I feel frustrated and upset because we haven’t had enough time with her!!! We’ve been crying out every day to God to help us because we feel so much pain and we feel hopeless and weak and helpless.
But at the same time, God’s been so kind to us every step of this journey.
Whether it’s the blessings of paediatricians, doctors and nurses, midwives, therapists, volunteers – even the cleaners - that have supported us through this journey. Some of whom are here today. From Westmead, Westmead Children’s Hospital and Mount Druitt Hospital.
We’d especially like to thank the Palliative Care team at Westmead Children’s Hospital. And the wonderful team at Bear Cottage in Manly.
The professionalism, care, commitment and tireless hard work of all these folk makes them heroes in our eyes.
We’d also like to thank each and every one of you. For journeying with us every step of the way. Whether it was
Kind words written
Blankets knitted & crocheted
Feeding our chickens
Feeding our kids
Picking up our kids
Visiting us in hospital
Hugs and tears shared
Sending us texts and facebook messages
You being here today, supporting us and one another, is something we thank God for.
Evelyn’s life has impacted us deeply, and we hope that in her own way, she has brought you some joy too. Here are some things we’ve learnt:
We’ve been learning not to plan ahead too much but to make the most of every moment. Evie’s diagnosis meant that we’ve had to put our hopes and dreams for our daughter’s future away, and focus on enjoying our child for the day that’s in front of us. We arrived for our breech birth at Westmead hospital with nothing prepared (no car seat, no cot, no nappies). She came out in a huge hurry, 5 min after we arrived at the hospital. She emerged bottom first, and needing no help to breath or cry. What a miracle!
Evie’s living has reminded us daily that she is precious, valued and loved. Her inherent value and worthiness is NOT because of how healthy she is or what she can do, and its NOT because of what she’s capable of in the future. She is precious, loved and valuable because she is made by God and loved by Him. The quality of her life isn’t found in her potential – its found in God, who made her, who knows her thoroughly and who has taken her to be with him after a short while here.
God never says oops. He never slips up, he never makes any mistakes. There were errors in Evie’s genetic makeup, but she’s NOT a mistake or error. Her 77 days were precious, beautiful and memorable. Her features and mannerisms were adorable, from her crazy eyebrows, overlapping fingers, almond-shaped eyes, soft hair, pointy nose and lips. She gave us daily, hourly joy and we marvelled every day at the things she was able to do and achieve by God’s kindness: to breathe every breath, to have a strong heartbeat, to consume food, to lift up her head on her own, to graciously accept the shouting and jostling when her siblings fought about who got to carry her first. Our family loved her passionately and will continue to love and miss her.
We’ve learnt not just with head knowledge that God loves and cares for us. This has been a year of extreme stress, ever since we heard about Evie’s Trisomy 18 diagnosis in January. The last 2 months have seen us in and out of hospitals, doctors and juggling syringes, tubes and medications. When we’ve felt alone or overwhelmed, our God has provided just the nurse we needed to provide comfort or care, the perfect message from the Bible to soothe us, or relief in suffering for Evie and for us. We’ve experienced moments of laughter and celebration with each weekly milestone. God knows us and loves and actively cares for us. In the busyness of normal life, its hard to keep remembering that, but we have been made acutely aware of these realities over our Trisomy 18 journey.
Each day, we said this to Evie:
Daddy loves you, Mummy loves you and Jesus loves you most of all.
Evie, we ache. I was your mummy for only 77 days on the outside but I loved carrying you in my womb even before that. Mummy now has an empty womb, an empty car seat, empty bassinet, empty arms and a hollow heart. I will miss your little hand squeezing mine, your irregular heartbeat and deep breaths against my chest as I held you. I wish I had more time, more opportunities to feel your soft hair against my cheek, to breathe in your baby smell. From the time you were born to the last time I held you yesterday, I’ve been trying to memorise every look, the way you feel in my arms, every detail. I already miss singing to you and praying for you daily.
But here is why we chose your names:
Evelyn – our wished for life,
Talitha - our little girl,
Peiwang – hope… Dear Evie, our hope is sure and certain, even as we ache.
Jesus loves you, and you’re free from this unwell body now. Eternal life with your Saviour Jesus in now yours and you are safe. Jesus has defeated death. We are ever so thankful to God for 77 days with you, for the privilege of caring for you and sharing the world with you. We’ve had our last bath, last change of clothes, and last cuddle for now. But we will see you again because our hope is in Jesus Christ and the resurrection.
Evie’s diagnosis from the beginning may have been “incompatible with life”
But our God isn’t restricted by medical opinions.
Instead of incompatible with life, he’s declares loud and clear that Evie is “compatible with the life that really counts. Eternal life”
So many people - family and friends - love you, Evie. Daddy loves you, Mummy loves you, Maddie, Elijah and Thea love you. But Jesus loves you most of all.
I’ve never really been a fan of those get-to-know you games at youth group. They do serve a purpose. And I’ve learned things about people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. But the get-to-know you game I don’t really get is ‘Two truths and a lie’. Does that game actually encourage you to sin? Anyway, in the spirit of get to know you games, I’ll share two truths and a lie, you can try and pick the lie.
Which one do you think’s the lie? It’s the third one.
Well, this morning, we’re going to get to know the God of Daniel 3 by thinking about two truths about God taught in the passage, and a common lie about God—a lie that part of us thinks is true, but it is not.
King Nebuchadnezzar ruled over Babylon in modern day Iran and Iraq around 600-500 BC. He was the most powerful man in the world back then. And in Daniel chapter 3, he is dictating who his people can and can’t worship. Daniel 3:5-6:
As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever doesn’t fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace. (NIV)
Forget freedom of religion: this is prescription of religion. King Nebuchadnezzar tells you who to worship. He says that all people and all nations will bow down and worship his towering golden statue. Do like I tell you or else you’ll be thrown into a blazing furnace. You’ll do it when I tell you: When you hear the horn, the flute, the zither, the triangle, the bassoon, the egg shaker! That’s really how ridiculous this whole scene is.
Now as you heard our wonderful band playing this morning, playing delightfully on piano, shredding on guitar, rocking out on drums, how come none of you fell to the ground and started bowing down to a golden image?
Well firstly, because that golden image has since been levelled and it’s long gone. And secondly, Nebuchadnezzar is long gone too. He’s just another dead king who has no claim on your life. At the end of the day, this golden statue was simply some thing set up by some one an eight-storey high golden toothpick. The passage emphasises the idea of “set up”: 9 times it’s repeated in Daniel chapter 3. It might be bad English style to use the same word or phrase again and again, but the Bible is more interested in helping us see where are the really important bits by repeating them. So the phrase “set up” is found on the lips of Daniel in verse 1:
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. (NIV)
It’s on the lips of the herald telling the crowd in verse 5:
You must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up (NIV)
It’s found on the lips of the astrologers who dob in Daniel’s three mates in in verse 12:
They [Daniel’s three friends] neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up. (NIV)
Of course, Nebuchadnezzar himself says it too in verse 14:
Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? (NIV)
And finally, Daniel’s three mates go head on with Nebuchadnezzar, look him in the eye, and say to his face that he is not the king and then say in verse 18:
We want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
So why the repetition? It is because back in Daniel 2:20-21, we read, “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. (NIV)
Daniel is emphasizing that God is the real deal! Nebuchadnezzar can set up all the little images he wants, but he’s got nothing on the God who has put him on that throne in the first place. Before Daniel chapter 3 is about three men thrown into the fire and surviving, it is a battle of the gods. In the blue corner we have Nebuchadnezzar, and in the red corner, Yahweh, the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. As the chapter unfolds, it becomes clear that this battle is not even a contest! The first clue that it is no real contest is because one minute Nebuchadnezzar’s satraps, prefects, and governors are bowing down to the golden toothpick, and the next minute in verse 27 they’re crowding around to see the work of the real God. The second clue is Nebuchadnezzar himself. At the start of the chapter we’ve got an earthly king asserting his power, and at the end of the chapter, in verse 28 he’s done a complete 180:
Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants (NIV)
In fact, this same king not only recognises the power of a greater king, but in verse 29, Nebuchadnezzar makes a new law that if you badmouth God, you get the death sentence. And our God is the same God who calls the shots in Daniel chapter 3.
Let me share my proud dad moment. Yesterday, over breakfast, my son was telling me how one of his mates at school challenged him about God. His mate said, “God is fake. God is dead.” To which my son said, “No he’s not. I know he’s not fake because he created you, and he’s alive because Jesus rose up from the dead”
But let me share with you something that I’m not so proud of. I’d like to think that on my best days I’m all-in on this God who’s running the show, and who appoints kings just as easily as he removes them. I’d like to think in my best moments that I’m exactly like these three Jewish servants. But if truth be told there are plenty of times when I’m more like Nebuchadnezzar. I forget just how real God is, in my thoughts and actions, and simply pretend he’s not there.
I’m the one who wants my spouse to appreciate what I do. I want the boss to notice all the extra hours I’ve put in. I want my kids to do what I want them to do: tidy their room, finish their homework, or eat their breakfast.
Nebuchadnezzar sets up this golden toothpick so that people will notice him. He wants to leave his mark. Nebuchadnezzar has come and gone, just like every other fake God. It’s time to stop trying to find purpose in pretend gods, for there is only one true and living God.
The God who is there is slow to anger, abounding in love, upright, merciful, compassionate, gracious, faithful, and forgiving. He is the God to whom all people from all nations will be called to give an account. He is the one to whom every knee shall bow—willingly or unwillingly—and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.
So friends, let’s be ready for that day. Bow the knee today, willingly while you can.
Nebuchadnezzar said in 3:15 to the three Jewish men who refused to bow down to his statue, “What God will be able to rescue you from my hand?” Just because Nebuchadnezzar has the matchstick in his hands, he is not invincible. He’s got tiny view of God. He doubt’s God’s ability. It’s as if God hears Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge. God says, “Not even a furnace that’s heated seven times hotter than usual is going to stop me!”
Fire, even at normal heat, is hot. Things burn. Property gets destroyed. People die. And it’s the same here in Daniel 3. This was not pretend fire. Even the soldiers died just for doing their job. But God intervenes. He shows that he can save like no one else. For God is through the fourth figure in the fire, somehow present with his people protecting them. God can so protect his people that in 3:27, we read that fire did not harm their bodies. Not a single hair on their head is singed. They’re robes weren’t scorched. Not even the smell of fire was on them.
In our family, we love toasting marshmallows in the fire pit. But we don’t love it when our clothes smell like smoke afterwards. But these three men got amongst the flames but you couldn’t even tell. Daniel 3 teaches loud and clear that we have a God who rescues! God is committed to personally saving his people. He’s a God who will see us through
We see this in Jesus in his birth. God permanently sides with humanity and enters our broken world. On the cross, God wears our blame, absorbing every last drop of the judgement we deserve. In his resurrection, Jesus defeated death, sin, and Satan. Jesus has won.
As many of you know, we’ve been on a journey with our terminally-sick daughter Evie. Most of this sermon was written at her bedside at Mount Druitt Hospital. This was God’s way of reinforcing this point to me, and hopefully for you too. Because all the ambulances, doctors, nurses, medical equipment, tests, and scans in the world don’t save lives into eternity. They only prolong life in this world.
We’ve been reading a Psalm for each day of Evie’s life. So, let me share what we read on Wednesday, from Psalm 68.19-20:
Praise be to the Lord, to God our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens. Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign LORD comes escape from death. (NIV)
Our God is a God who saves. He can, does, and will save.
God is definitely not like Peter Chamberlin. Peter Chamberlin invented the forceps—the salad spoons that help doctors pull a baby out during labour. But Peter Chamberlin and his family sat on that life-saving device. They kept it a secret for themselves for nearly a hundred years. Think about how many women’s and children’s lives they could have saved, including one of my own kids who was delivered with forceps.
One fiery furnace later, God brings Nebuchadnezzar to finally realize that “no other god can save in this way”. (Dan 3:29) Friends, if you’ve not yet been saved by this wonderful God, that’s what he’s offering you today. But if you’re someone who has been saved, you can take great comfort in the fact that God not only wants to save you, but he also wants you to know you are saved! And the wonderful thing is that this same God is continuing to rescue people today. We live in a time of reaping, of seeing people move from death to life! That’s what inspires us to remain optimistic, to look for opportunities to share Jesus. We pray for boldness that we would take the opportunity when it arises. It all stems from who God is.
Truth number 1: God is real. So we only will bow down to him alone.
Truth number 2: God saves. So let’s be optimistic in seeing the name of Jesus go forward.
Now for the lie, something that part of us wished God said, but didn’t. It is that we think that God is committed to our comfort above all else. We think that God is here to meet our needs, that he fits around us. We think that if we follow God, everything in this life will work out perfectly. We expect that we get whatever you ask for in prayer. We expect that will see no sickness, no suffering, no opposition.
Daniel 3 shows that life was anything but comfortable for these three God-fearing men. When they heard the command, “Bow or burn”, they could have said, “Let’s just do it. Then we’ve got plenty more years” or “Let’s be respectful. We’ve lost everything to these guys”. Or when Nebuchadnezzar gave them a second chance, they could have thought, “Let’s just do a quick bow, and then later on we’ll say to God that we didn’t really mean it”. The choice was ‘bow’ or ‘burn’, and there was no third option, to ‘blend’ in. So they say in verses 16-17:
King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. (NIV)
Now that’s guts! They say to Nebuchadnezzar, “You are not the king: God is. We’d rather burn than bow. I don’t think I’d have the guts to say that. But these men stand on their convictions They do so because of the two truths we’ve already seen in Daniel 3: God is real and God saves. But then they go one step further, in verse 18:
But even if our God does not [save us from the flames], we want you to know, [Nebuchadnezzar] that we will not worship the image of gold you have set up. (NIV)
Friends, this is a picture of loyalty. Shardrach, Meschach, and Abednego refuse to compromise. They do not buy the lie that God is committed to their comfort. They don’t think that God owes them. They don’t think, “C’mon God, we’ve done our bit. Now do your bit”. We do. But they don’t!
These men are a model. They point to Jesus who was both sinless and impeccably faithful. Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus was obedient to death, even death on a cross. So we who live this side of Jesus’ death have every reason to hang in there, because we’re on the winning team. It is worth sticking your neck out for Jesus. But we won’t be shocked when it comes to pain or persecution.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
Whatever opposition or trials we face, don’t be surprised, because they’re to be expected for God’s people. These things are designed to make us better, not bitter. In fact, you can even rejoice in your suffering, because you’re exactly like you’re Saviour. Just as his suffering led to glory, so too will yours.
The closest I got to the situation we read about in Daniel 3 is a practice in Chinese culture, ancestor worship or veneration. So as a 9 or 10 year old, we would go to my grandparents’ cemetery in Rookwood, and lay out food, burn paper money, and pay our respects by bowing and burning incense. In offering those things, we were sustaining our dead ancestors and we had influence over other gods, who in turn will give you good fortune.
For my parents, this was purely a cultural thing. My brother asked my dad why we were doing this, and dad’s answer was that they’d grown up doing it and so we should too. But I don’t do this today—even though my parents still do—because there is only one God who is alive, well and ruling the universe. He is the one God who is real, who saves, and who rather than being committed to my comfort is instead committed to his own glory.
One of my quirky habits is my tendency to take note of car number plates, and especially personalized number plates. Call me a weirdo, but I find it fascinating to see the combination of letters and numbers people come up with on their number plates. After I dropped my daughter off at pre-school, I found myself behind a car with the number plate, “MRS-247”. That’s spot-on for Mother’s Day. There’s no let up with being a mum, it’s a 24/7 job.
Motherhood and parenting makes all sorts of demands at all times. Babies cry, nappies leak, dishes pile up, lunchboxes need filling, kids act up, siblings fight. And then there’s the never-ending drop offs and pick-ups, friend issues, tantrums, puberty, dating, marriage, jobs—and then just when you think they’re off your hands, the kids move back home, or you get called in for babysitting!
In Luke 10, we find the closest thing Jesus gave to a sermon on busyness. We find two women in this story, sisters, one called Martha, the other Mary. Jesus drops into Martha’s home, which prompted her natural response—I’ll prepare food, offer him a drink, and ensure he’s welcome. In Middle Eastern culture back then and in Asian culture too, to not welcome a guest and provide your very best food and drink was and is a big ‘no no’. That’s what makes Mary’s response so counter cultural. She just plonks herself down and hangs off every word that comes from Jesus’ mouth.
Here we have two sisters and two entirely different responses to Jesus coming over—serving and busyness, or sitting and learning. And Jesus’ verdict is this: Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her (v. 38).
We all know that Mary is supposed to be our example here, but did you find yourself siding with Martha? It’s not as if Martha was glued to her phone, watching kittens break dance on Youtube! Someone has to stack the chairs and set the table, preheat the oven and do the dishes.
One of the things I love my about my own mum is the fact that she’s always up for a chat, especially about the serious stuff in life. But we have a family with three young kids and another on the way, so I also appreciate the Martha in her. When my mum comes over to my house, after she’s said hello to everyone, maybe had something to drink, she can’t sit still. It’s only a matter of time before she’s sniffing around for housework to do, dishes to clean, laundry to fold, or clothes to iron. In fact, this shirt I’m wearing today was ironed by her! Now Teresa’s not watching Bachelor in Paradise while all this is happening! She’s just got her hands full doing other stuff.
But all of us can sympathize with Martha, for there is always something else that needs doing. Indeed, in our day and age, being busy has become a badge of honour. It shows that we’re needed and important.
Martha thinks her sister’s a bludger. She’s tried giving her eye-rolls, sighs, hands on hips, the passive aggressive comments. Nothing has got Mary up from Jesus’ feet to help her. All that’s left for Martha to do is to co-opt Jesus, so that Jesus can give her a piece of his mind. Verse 40, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (NIV). And Jesus’ response is in verse 41. Luke 10:41 “Martha, Martha”.
Jesus is doing exactly the opposite of what Martha wanted. Jesus does care for Martha. He’s got a soft spot for her entire family. But Martha is worried and upset about many things. And Jesus knows her and us better than we know ourselves. He can tell that Martha’s all worked up, fussing and fretting about everything that needs doing. And you and I battle with this, too. Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
Martha was busy multi-tasking, but Mary was uni-tasking. Mary’s one task was to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him. Martha’s mistake was to let the urgent crowd out the important and let the good become the enemy of the best. Martha did not put first things first. And you and I make that same mistake. Our current generation is distracted more than any other. Think of our smart phones and all those little icons vying for our attention. Netflix is saying, “Watch me”, podcasts are calling, “Listen to me”, and Facebook is saying “Check me”.
There was an American survey done of 8,000 Christians. 70% of them said they checked email or social media before they gave themselves to the disciplines of prayer and bible reading.
Friends, it’s time for us to sit at the feet of Jesus.
I was thrilled to hear about the Growth Group that meets here on Tuesday mornings, full of mums with newborn babies, challenging each other to think about how they can use their screen time. They were thinking about how they can use their 2am time as they settle their children for Jesus.
Teresa and I are a bit slow on the uptake, but this week we’ve become fans of the Bible app ‘Youversion’. Let me commend it to you. It allows you to read, listen, and watch the Bible, plus you can use it to encourage one another in Bible reading.
You can be a pastor, paid to preach and read the Bible, and still be distracted! So my sermon preparation this week involved a dilemma: do I jump straight into ‘work mode’ and keep chipping away at this talk, or do I sit down and do business with God on my own first?
Jesus cuts through all our distractions, stresses, and worries. Instead of the endless to-do lists, Jesus says in verse 42 that only one thing is need, and Mary has chosen it. Mary opted for what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.
No matter who you are or where you live, the best thing for your soul is to be fed by Jesus. He wants us to put that ahead of our work, family responsibilities, our hobbies and pleasures, and social lives.
To stop and listen to Jesus is even more important than our church responsibilities. So for a good number of ministry roles in our church, before someone can start that ministry they need to be part of a small group. We need to be fed before we feed others. Those who serve on Sunday kids and youth programs also have a service they sit in, as well as the one they serve in.
Jesus wants devoted disciples not distracted ones. He doesn’t want us busy running around doing stuff, even if that stuff is for him. We need to be nurtured and fed by him. So let’s give Jesus our devotion not our distraction.
Feeding your soul is always the best thing we can do.
Jesus doesn’t say how long to sit at his feet. That’s for you to figure out. Some of us might start with five minutes a day. A few unhurried minutes are better than a distracted hour. Consistency is the name of the game--that’s better than big bursts here and there.
Let me tell you about my grandmother who died about 10 years ago. I have distinct memories of walking downstairs early in the morning and seeing her praying, reading her Bible, and sometimes singing a song. Of course, there were other days when I slept in, and I’d wake up later to see her dusting the furniture. I can’t wait till we’re reunited again in heaven.
Now my wife Teresa will share with you from one mum to another.
Motherhood began for me about nine and a half years ago. My first significant memory as a mum was waiting to leave hospital and bursting into tears, because I was so deeply fearful of this sleeping bundle next to me. I’d prepared myself for pregnancy and the birth, but I didn’t having a manual for this next, crucial part. I felt terror because I was not sure what was needed or best, or how to make the most of my days. What should I do at each moment? Feed, play, do tummy time? When they are sleeping, do I shower, nap, read my bible, have a cuppa, or exercise? (Cleaning the house was never my priority!)
My children are at a different stage now. Do I allow them too much TV? Do I give them opportunities to play sport, or music, or to excel academically? What about having them learn a foreign language? Am I disciplining them enough? Do I give them enough independence? Am I multi-tasking too much?
Often I feel like a failure. I feel that the days are wasted and my efforts are futile. I feel that the glossy version of who I want to be is unreachable. Right now, I am “just a full time mum” and yet I feel like I hardly get anything of value done. On my worst days, I feel I have ruined my children and destined them to a lifetime of psychological trauma and disadvantage because I haven’t fed them organic, read enough to them, prayed with them, or kept my cool. Life is busy, and it is easy to fill our time with activities. I am a “do-er”, someone who willingly puts their hand up to help, serve, give, volunteer.
Mother’s Day reminds me that nine and a half years ago, my role in life changed forever. I became a mother, and that is something I will always be, even when my kids are long gone out of my home. I may even be a grandmother one day, who takes on a different blessing and burden. But while that is one facet of life, this bible passage points me to the fact that this is not who I truly am, not entirely. I am someone who is created in the image of God, and by God’s grace, someone who has been adopted into God’s family.
Sisters, it is so easy to be distracted by the good. As mother, friend, daughter, sister, worker, the to-do list is never-ending, and there is always someone or something that needs our attention and energy. And perhaps after that, we are distracted by our lack of energy, television, or the internet.
I struggle greatly to sit by Jesus feet. It is easier and it feels more productive to be organising something, helping someone with their homework, tidying something, or meeting someone. There seems little time in the day to sit. While it was a struggle when I first encountered motherhood to just sit and listen to Jesus, to be honest it has always been a struggle. It has always been hard just to stop and listen to Jesus—whether it was during my work life, while I was studying, or even now when I have the house to myself a couple of days a week. For example, even preparing for this talk, I was fluctuating between reading the Bible and reflecting on it and reorganizing my pantry. I alternate between trying to do it all, climbing the impossible mountain of tasks, and then giving up and hiding in the pantry and eating chocolate salvaged from my kids’ party bags while watching Youtube videos about life hacks.
I want to achieve, I desire recognition. I am task-focused, wanting to be busy rather than just be a child of God and sitting with him. I want pleasure, comfort, and reward rather than inconvenience or discomfort.
But God’s word shines the spotlight on who I truly am—not “just a mum”, or a “working mum,” or a “studying mum”, but just a child of God, plain and simple.
What do I need this Mother’s Day? New PJs, a dressing gown, food, flowers, sleep, coffee, a massage, me time, kids with their vouchers to do chores or treats without nagging? More important than all that, I need to remember that my identity and my true need is like Martha, to sit at Jesus’ feet. The urgent often consumes the important, so I need to be reminded to choose wisely, to choose what is needed. I need to be reminded to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8-9).
Some of you are mums, and some of you may be mums in the future. You will at least know a mother, even if it’s just your own. Be thankful for them and for all they do! But remember, and remind them, of what is truly needed: relationship and time with God. Perhaps you can free them up to “indulge” in what is needed, if they struggle.
Mothers, we can keep egging each other on, not just with tips on how to manage a kids tantrum or juggle work life with home duties, but how to include solid times with our Lord and God? We can remember to point others in our conversations to something more valuable than our children and households, and persevere with the practice of sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to him. Let’s take in what he teaches us, just like our kids sit and listen to the bedtime stories that we read to them. As we keep our eyes fixed on our Lord Jesus, and on the gospel, it helps us to remember we aren’t rewarded for what we can achieve ourselves, or through our children. Our hope isn’t in moving into that next stage—whether it’s a child who sleeps through the night, a kid who is toilet trained, or a kid who starts school—but our hope is in Jesus.
I don’t think that Martha was wrong. I think she was just confused about what mattered more. Jesus said that Mary had chosen what was better, and so should we. Do we want to hear, “Mum, you’re always on your phone”, or “Mum, you’re always reading your bible and praying”? I think we need to model to our children that our greatest priority isn’t success or happiness or perfection—whether ours or theirs—but listening to Jesus.
Dan remembers the times when we had a newborn and I would a Psalm each day while I breastfed. I barely remember it but treasure that I was sustained by God’s word during the “fog” of early motherhood, and encouraged to keep my eyes on Jesus.
I love technology, not just because we can have Facebook messenger chats with other mums who are up feeding their baby at 2am, but because we can share resources with one another: podcasts, articles, devotionals, and audio bibles.
I remember there were a few years where I felt like I hadn’t head a single sermon and that nothing would stick in my head when I read the Bible. I often retreated during sermon time to play with my kid somewhere less disturbing. To sing with my church family for 10 minutes each Sunday was my sermon. To enjoy and praise God and remember his goodness was sustaining. I read the book of Philippians once for over 6 months, not because I was looking up commentaries and solidly studying the book, but because I kept falling asleep, and needed to re-read the verses multiple times. But it was familiar enough for me to be reminded of some key truths that I needed to hold on to.
So friends, life is busy, and there are always urgent and important things to attend to. Our capacity is limited, our wills are weak, our hearts are wandering. Our seasons will change but we will always feel the temptation to be distracted, worried, or anxious as our sister Martha did.
But let’s put our giant to-do list down and sit at Jesus’ feet to really hear him. The relationship he offers us is really too wonderful to miss out on. Let’s keep encouraging one another to taste and see that our Lord really is so, so good. Because that’s what we really need. Please remind me? And I’ll work hard to remind you!
Let me just say a quick word to the men. To the dads and future dads, let’s take the initiative to free our wives up to hear the word. That might mean, on a Sunday, that we settle our child outside in the Garden Room so she can stay to hear the sermon and sing God’s praises. It will mean putting the kids to bed so she can make it to small group during the week. It will mean being proactive and re-arranging the schedule so she can have fellowship with other women.
I know one dad who gives his wife the entire Saturday morning off. He takes the kids, runs them around to sports, so that she can do whatever she wants, like read the Bible on her own, or with friends, or go shopping or go to a café. I know another dad who, during those breastfeeding years, started putting Bibles near the chairs and lounges all over the house. Then whenever his wife sat down, there was always a Bible within reach.
When Jesus’ own mum and brothers tried to see him but couldn’t because of the crowd, Jesus said in Luke 8:21 to those gathered around him, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” Then when a woman called out to Jesus about his own mother, Mary, saying that she was blessed, Jesus replied in Luke 11.28, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (NIV)
We are blessed when we sit at Jesus feet. In verse 42, Mary chose what was better, and it will never be taken away from her.” You may regret the time wasted on Netflix, but you won’t regret the time you spend in prayer and in the Bible.
Kevin De Young, in his helpful book, “Crazy Busy”, says:
By spending time with the Lord in the Word and prayer, we are likely to gain new perspective on our hassles and headaches. Starting each day with eternity makes our petty problems and long to-do lists seem less significant. By sitting at the feet of Jesus, we will grow more like him—more patient, more loving, more thoughtful. We’ll see that our screens do not satisfy like our Saviour. We’ll see that wisdom was not born yesterday, or thirty-four seconds ago on social media. We’ll learn to keep our complaints to a minimum and our eyes on the cross.
And so if you’re here today and you’re someone who wants to begin sitting at the feet of Jesus, who wants direction not distraction, then why not make this Mother’s Day the day when you choose what is not only better but what is best.
I want you to finish this sentence in your head: “Life is … ?” Now the optimist in me wants to say that life is amazing and wonderful. I’ve just come back from two weeks holidays. I’ve been waking up to beautiful panoramic views of blue sky and green bush each morning. I’ve experienced walking to the top of Australia by climbing mount Kosciusko. My family and I enjoyed having an entire beach to ourselves. And as my wife carries our fourth child in her womb I am super aware that life is precious! As the ad on TV goes, “Life is a gift. Every kick. Every heartbeat.”
But the pessimist (or perhaps the realist) in me also wants to finish the sentence by saying, “Life is unfair!” I think of the lady who lost her unborn child because a drunk driver crashed into her car. This horrible event makes me think that sometimes life is cruel. It is ANZAC Day next week, and it provides yet another reminder of the horrors of war.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a book found in the Old Testament of our Bibles. It was written about a thousand years before Jesus was born—around three thousand years ago. And the way Ecclesiastes would finish this sentence would be to say that “Life is meaningless”.
The author of Ecclesiastes is hunting for life’s meaning. But he is doing it by conducting an experiment, trying to see if he can find meaning in life by looking at what’s in front of his eyeballs. His method is to temporarily leaving his Bible closed. He is conducting a thought experiment in which he allows God out of the picture, and experiments with what he can see, feel, touch, sense, and experience. Can I get meaning from these things “under the sun” without reference to God in heaven. And so he asks, “What is the meaning of life? What is the gain? What is the point? And so far, Ecclesiastes has gone down one dead end after another.
For instance, take your work and your career ambitions. After his extensive experimenting, Ecclesiastes concludes that a person can work hard, but at the end of the day, all his toil only leads to sleepless nights and pain, and no real lasting gain, because when someone must leave their job, another person will come in and will either bin it, update it, or ruin it.
Or again, Ecclesiastes says that a person can buy up and experience all that this world has to offer by pursuing wealth, riches, and possessions, but for all that cannot take a single bit of it beyond the grave. And if someone pursues happiness or pleasure, they will simply end up chasing the next exciting thing in an endless, unfulfilling, meaningless cycle.
I’ve been reading the autobiography of Phil Knight. He’s the founder of Nike. Listen to his outlook on life before he started making running shoes:
“Like all my friends I wanted to be successful. Unlike my friends I didn’t know what that meant. Money? Maybe. Wife? Kids? House? Sure. But deep down I was searching for something else, something more. I wanted my life to be meaningful. Purposeful. Creative. And above all, different. I wanted to leave a mark on the world.”
Phil then booked a round-the-world ticket. Then, when he finds himself at the Great Sphinx in Cairo, it suddenly hit him, that the sun that hammered down on the thousands of men who built those pyramids is the same sun that shone on the millions of visitors who came afterwards, including him—and not a single one of those people has been remembered. Here’s a quote from Phil, “That’s when I realised all is vanity says the Bible, All is now says Zen … and all is dust, says the desert.” Phil Knight is the modern day equivalent to the author of Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes chapters 7 and 8, our writer sets his sights on wisdom. He considers that just maybe, life is all about being wise and making the right decisions. Ecclesiastes 7:25:
So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly. (NIV)
Now I don’t know what you think about when you hear the word ‘wisdom’. But whatever we do, we can’t make the mistake of thinking that ‘wisdom’ equals ‘information’. We are drowning in information overload these days, what with ‘podcasts’, ‘YouTube’, ‘Wikipedia’, smartphones. This is the age of ‘Google Assistants’, of ‘Siris’, of ‘Alexa’ and ‘Echo’.
But just because we can tell a device to switch off the lights, or ask it what the weather is going to be today, that doesn’t make us wise.
So let me give you a heads up about where we’re going in the rest of this talk. We’re about to look at five scenarios designed to show us that at best human wisdom can only make sense of some things but not all things. You can be street smart, book smart, you can have smartphones and your PhDs, but ultimately it’s all meaningless.
What we all really need is not so much wisdom that’s neat and tidy because life’s not like that. Instead we need wisdom that’s outside the box, wisdom that rattles the cage, wisdom that will expose our simplistic, shallow, sloppy ways of thinking. Ecclesiastes will points us in the direction of someone who can and does provide us ultimate wisdom.
The other day, my daughter played a quick game of “Would you rather?” with me. Would you rather eat 73 pieces of Vegemite on toast in one sitting or leap from a five-storey building into a giant bowl of cornflakes and milk? I am with you who choose jumping into a cereal bowl? If nothing else, it’ll be fun! Here’s another one for you animal lovers out there. Would you rather eat a handful of sleep from a dog’s eye, or a handful of wax from a cat’s ear?
In Ecclesiastes 7, we’re dealing with a different kind of “would you rather” questions, only there’s a lot more at stake. Here the writer of Ecclesiastes asks, “Would you rather be at a funeral or a festival? Deep down, would you rather have a fine reputation or a fancy car? Would you rather laugh or cry?”
So often, wisdom is all about choosing what is better. That is the key word here—‘better’. It pops up seven times in the space of eight verses, starting in Ecclesiastes 7:1, “A good name is better than fine perfume”.
Remember that there were no “Chemist Warehouses” back in those days, with aisles of fragrances, perfumes, and scented oils. Perfumes were valuable back then, but not as valuable as wearing the cologne of good character, or the perfume of a positive reputation.
Those who live under the same roof as us often see us at our worst. But rather than making others walk on eggshells around us, or numbing the pain with alcohol, it is far better to say sorry, seek forgiveness, and exercise self-control. That’s the wise thing to do.
Here at church, before anyone steps into any type of leadership position, we take character very seriously. Character counts. As a church, we value godliness over giftedness, because leadership is not about making us look good, but showing how good Jesus really is. Verses 1 to 4 continues in this way:
The day of death better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. (NIV)
Death is a better teacher than birth. You’re better off being at a funeral than a feast or a festival. Only when was the last time you actually wanted to be at a funeral? But as I look back at the funerals I’ve been to over the years, each of them in their own unique way confronted me with my own mortality. As painful as they were, everyone funeral, from the elderly man to the one year old baby boy, reminded me of my coming death in a way that a birthday party or a wedding hasn’t. That’s why the Psalmist says in Psalm 90.12, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
It is no good thinking about death when it’s your turn to be put in a coffin. Now is the time to make wise choices.
Here’s a thought for you: “Your last day on earth can be better than your first day on earth. Your last day, the day of your death, can actually be better than your birthday, all thanks to Jesus. Because on the day that Jesus was born, God turned up in the flesh. But that’s not end of story, because the one born in that crude wooden box went to die on a cruel wooden cross. Jesus’ death on our behalf secured everlasting peace, grounds our confidence, and provides solid hope. That is why the day of our deaths can be better than the day of our births, because we can before we die side with Jesus Christ, the one who stared death in the face and conquered it!
Thomas Boston puts it like this: “In the day of his birth he was born to die but in the day of his death he dies to live”—and I would add, Jesus lives forever.
Ecclesiastes then turns his attention away from your funeral and mine to the days leading up to it, to discuss how we should live out our days. Chapter 7 verse 8: "The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.”
Stick-ability is the name of the game here. Starting something is exciting, but it’s not in the same league as finishing it. I don’t need to remind you how good it is to see the end of that sucker, whether it’s a course of study, a work project, a home renovation, or saving up for something. It’s worth it when you reach your goal.
All these things require patience. ‘Patience’ carries that idea of long-suffering. It could well be that God wants us to hurry up and wait when we wish that God would hurry up and do something. Patience is need in many areas of life. Perhaps it is with your spouse—the wise spouse gives up trying to fix their partner’s annoying habits but instead encourages them to pursue godliness. Or perhaps you need to be patient with long-term singleness—better to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus than on who can be your marriage partner. But we’re all works in progress. So friends, don’t give up. God hasn’t! He’s committed to you for the long haul, and maybe more than we are ourselves. God’s shown this by giving you his Spirit to live and changing you from the inside out. Wisdom is beneficial. Chapter 7 verses 11 and 12:
Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it. (NIV)
Wisdom is good when life gets messy and complicated because wisdom preserves our souls. It keeps our heads above water. But as good or valuable or desirable as wisdom is under the sun, it only gets you so far. For there are times when life deals an unfair blow. Chapter 7 verse 15:
In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. (NIV)
What does wisdom bring to the table when good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? Back in February, a driver was looking at his mobile whilst driving for 20 seconds. What was this guy thinking! If that wasn’t bad enough, he ran into two cops who were setting up a Random Breath Test stop. They were simply doing their job, trying to keep drunk drivers off the road, and one of them ended up having his leg amputated! You could probably rattle off countless more similar stories in your own life or of people you know. What does wisdom bring to these situations?
Or what about chapter 8 verse 9, when someone lords it over others? What can wisdom do in the context of an abuse of power? Or in verse 10, there’s nothing wise about a wicked man getting a state funeral? Again and again we see just how limited earthly wisdom really is. Human wisdom just can’t cope when the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper.
Remember that the writer is looking at life under the sun. He is looking at human wisdom, which can certainly help, but will not ultimately satisfy the soul.
We see this when life gets frustrating, when your hands are tied and when there are things that are outside your control. Perhaps you are like me, and you like to have ‘all your ducks in a row’. You’ve got your diary all mapped out, and your ‘to do’ list ready to tick off. I call it organised. Others call it being a control freak. Well, start of Ecclesiastes chapter 8 is especially addressed to us, verses 2 to 3:
Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. (NIV)
The writer is imagining a king and one of his officials. But this could just as easily apply to your boss, your parents, or someone in authority over you. Inevitably in these sorts of relationships, there’s going to be a power struggle. The person who is in control won’t always get things right, and the other person won’t always do what the person in control wants them to do. Power can and will be abused. And as frustrating as that can be, and as tempting as it is to take matters into your own hands, the voice of wisdom says, “Obey your king!” A wise servant will say to his king (and every other authority God’s put in place), “Your wish is my command”.
Someone who tasted this frustration firsthand day in day out was Helmuth Von Moltke. Helmuth was drafted to work in counterintelligence for Nazi Germany. But he was also a Christian, and therefore a staunch opponent of Hitler. On the one hand, resorting to violence to take down the Nazis was off-limits for him. But he could make the best of a bad situation. And so he sought to rescue from certain death as many prisoners of the Nazis as possible. Not surprisingly, he was eventually accused of treason, put on trial, and sentenced to death. In his final letter home to his beloved wife Freya, he quotes what the judge asked him at his trial. “Only in one respect does the National Socialism resemble Christianity”, the judge shouted. “We demand the whole man. From whom do you take your orders, from the other world or from Adolf Hitler? Where lie your loyalty and your faith?”
It was a no brainer for Helmuth. He knew exactly where his loyalty and his faith lay—not with Hitler, but Jesus. And that’s exactly what he told his earthly judge. His faith had enabled him to act wisely in government service, and now it enabled him to act even more wisely when he faced his final hour. He’d taken chapter 8 verse 5 to heart:
Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. (NIV)
All of this is the best that human wisdom can offer with no God in the picture. That’s as good as it gets! Now remember what I said earlier, that the writer is deliberately driving us in the direction of someone who’s got something better on offer, someone who can give us ultimate answers. The writer drops three quick clues.
The first is in chapter 7 verses 13 to 14:
Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.
After trying so hard to keep God out of the picture, the writer of Ecclesiastes finally throws his hands in the air as if to say, “Alright, alright, I give up! There’s only so many fridge magnets and one liners I can handle! I can’t put up with another self-help book, or another psychobabble podcast! The only way I can make sense of the world is to turn to a God who is the author of all things, who knows the future.”
And this is the same God who, in the person and work of Jesus, has plunged headfirst into our messed up world to fix it up, to secure an eternity where there are no more frustrations or hardships, financial, relational, mental, or physical, and of no more mess-ups, mix-ups, or stuff-ups. But before then, a day is coming when all wrongs will be righted, and when all that is crooked with this world will be straightened, which leads us to the second clue in chapter 8 verses 12 to 13:
Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. 13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow. (NIV)
What a relief that God has in store a day when he’ll hold people accountable. But not only do we turn to a God who knows the future, but we have a God who knows us better than we know ourselves. Here is the third clue, which is also God’s verdict on you, me, and every other human in verse 20.
Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins. (NIV)
There is not a human alive today who can claim to be sinless, who has met God’s standards 100% all the time, whether it’s in their thought lives, in what comes out of their mouths, and in their actions.
At the end of the day, these three points remind us that God has power over the good and the bad, that accountability is around the corner, and that we’re not as good as we think we are. It’s those three things that help us make sense of life.
Now Christians are definitely not immune from what goes on in our world. Just because we side with Jesus, that doesn’t make us bulletproof or protect us in bubble wrap. The curve balls that life throws our way don’t simply ricochet and bounce off us. We too experience broken relationships, suffering, cancers. These things don’t discriminate between saved and unsaved people.
But Christians are people who’ve found answers, who’ve latched onto the only thing that makes sense, both in this life and the life to come.
With no God in the picture, we can all say, “Wisdom is a good thing”. But once you put God in the picture, you can definitely say, “Life can and does make sense.
And so, returning to our statement at the beginning, “Life is … ?” Life is best lived on God’s terms. Life is recognizing we’re not wiser than God! Life is living and believing that his way is always the best way. Ecclesiastes asks us which type of person we want to be.
Do you want to be someone who goes through life simply with human, earthly wisdom? Do you want to be someone who “googles” their way through life, who asks “Siri” or “Alexa”, anyone and everyone but the God who made you? Or do you want to be a different person, knowing full well that human wisdom won’t cut it, that it’s a dead end, and that instead you need divine wisdom that can only be found and revealed in the Bible. God’s wisdom is seen in a person an ordinary Jewish man whom God sent, who claimed to be king, and who died the most shameful of deaths on a cross in full view of everyone. That sounds like complete and utter foolishness in the world’s eyes, but it’s absolutely genius in God’s eyes, because it’s God’s way of offering forgiveness of sins. And three days later, God proved that Jesus Christ really is king, by raising him to life, never to die again.
If you’ve surrendered your crown and given it to Jesus, then the word to you is ‘keep going’. As tough and tiresome as it is, in the midst of worries and weariness and despite the fears that you’re missing out, keep going. With your Bible in hand, the lens through which we make sense of ourselves and the world, keep going by reading it, obeying it, trusting it, meditating on it. These words are your life!
And for those of you who haven’t yet taken the hand of Jesus, I want to ask, “Is life really better with Jesus?”
Someone who knew life was better with Jesus was Charles Ward. He was a sergeant in the US Army. In one of his last letters home, he wrote, “I hope I may come home again but life here is uncertain.” A few days later, Ward was wounded. And within the week he died. But in his last letter home he wrote, “Dear Mother, I may not again see you but do not fear for your tired soldier boy. Death has no fears for me. My hope is still firm in Jesus. Meet me … and Father in Heaven with all my dear friends. I have no special message to send you but bid you all a happy farewell. Your affectionate and soldier son, Charles Ward.”
How does Ecclesiastes itself finish the sentence I asked you at the beginning? Life is not about knowing all the answers. Instead, life is all about trusting and living for the one who does!
What is the meaning of life? What’s the point of it all? What’s the gain for all our efforts under the sun?
That’s what the book of Ecclesiastes is seeking to answer. Ecclesiastes is an Old Testament book which records observations about life. These observations were made by the Teacher of the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon, about a thousand years before Jesus turned up on that very first Christmas. This writer, Solomon, is trying to grasp hold of something tangible and concrete—something that lasts—in his life under the sun. He’s asking questions that you and I have asked at some point in our lives.
And all this writer is looking at to answer these questions is what’s in front of his eyeballs. There’s no God in the picture for this teacher. His Bible is closed. Yet this writer is on the hunt for meaning, for something that will satisfy him deep down in the very core of his soul.
The theme for these three chapters—chapters 4-6—is contentment.
Finish this sentence in your head—“my life would truly be content if only I had … ”
Now if I gave you $100,000, that would make a difference in your life, undoubtedly, but would it bring true, everlasting contentment?
If you moved into that better suburb, ticked off that bucket list item, or had that particular life partner, would that do it for you? Would you achieve lasting contentment?
Keep that question in the back of your mind as we listen in on this writer’s quest to find true contentment.
What we have in Ecclesiastes chapters 4 to 6 is a picture of life lived under three different masters. Under the sun, life is lived under a cruel master in chapter 4, under a greedy master in chapter 5, and under a pretend master in chapter 6.
Let’s look first at what life looks like under a cruel master. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3:
Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. 2And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. 3But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. (NIV)
This passage is a massive kick in the guts! There’s no soft intro here. The writer straight out the blocks says that ‘oppression’—which is the pursuit of profit or gain without any concern about the nature, needs, and rights of others—is part and parcel of life under the sun.
‘Oppression’ is what makes the world go ‘round. It takes extreme forms, such as a dictator like Mugabe or a warlord like Joseph Kony. And there are the faceless people responsible for the oppression of human trafficking, people smuggling, and drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions. But oppression can also be much closer to home, in the shape of the power-hungry boss, the bully of a co-worker, or that nasty family member. Oppression can take the form of someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to be ‘first’, to get their nose in front of yours, and to be noticed ahead of you.
Just this week, a former USA Gymnastics Team doctor was sentenced to 175 years prison for sexually assaulting young female athletes under his care. As a dad of three girls, I was sick to the stomach as I was reading their victim impact statements.
When you stop and look around at our world, actually it’s not that flash after all. All over the world, and including right here in our own backyard, vulnerable people are being steamrolled.
No wonder the writer’s conclusion is basically this—that it is better to die and get out of here, or better to never have been here in the first place and taste this cruel, sick kind of behaviour, than to be alive and see oppression running rampant all around you.
As hard as it is to hear these words, the writer is deliberately and intentionally giving us an honest look at life. That’s what I love about the Bible. It doesn’t do pretend. It’s why I especially love the book of Ecclesiastes.
Someone from church who battles with depression and anxiety said to me that the book of Ecclesiastes has helped him put things into perspective. A bloke sharing about his mental illness has said that these words are a comfort to him.
Another guy, one who has written a book on Ecclesiastes, has said that Ecclesiastes was written to depress you. It was written to depress you into dependence on the God who gives meaning. For it is God who has the answers to the longings and desires that keep you and I up at night.
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a cause behind all this evil, a fuel that feeds the fire of oppression. Ecclesiastes 4:4:
And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (NIV)
What is to blame for all this oppression? It is envy. Envy drives so much of what we do.
Envy boils down to three things. First, what I have is not enough. I am discontent and want more. Second, I want what you have. I am coveting what you have. Third, I don’t want you to have what you’ve got. I have malice toward you.
I don’t need to ask if you’ve ever felt those things before. I know that you have.
Why else do get what I call “the attack of the wants”? We see someone else’s home, and then we want to renovate our own house. We see their new gadget, and then we line up for the latest iPhone.
We generally don’t ask each other in casual conversation, “How much do you get paid? How much money do you have in your bank account?” One of the main reasons we don’t ask is because we’d end up envying each other.
It is as if we’re on this never-ending escalator, trying to move on up in the world. And as we go, we’re always looking around, to the left and then to the right. Instead of being content, we’re busy comparing ourselves with each other, and competing against each other. Envy is a cruel master.
And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. If envy is the disease, then contentment is part of the cure. Take a look at Ecclesiastes 4:5:
Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves. Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. (NIV)
The writer here is using an image of hands to describe the life lived, both wisely and unwisely, under the sun.
First he says, don’t just fold your hands. That is just kicking back, and being lazy, and it’s not the answer, because you will end up eating your own flesh! That’s what the original that is translated “ruin themselves” literally means.
Second he says that you don’t achieve contentment by being greedy. This is the desperate grabbing with both hands mentioned in the passage. This involves trying to hold as much as you can using both hands, frantically grasping at this and that.
The third option—one handful with tranquility—is the much better approach. That leads to peace and contentment.
Teresa and I were chatting yesterday, trying to think of who among our friends and family could we say had found contentment, as best as we could judge. Often it was the people who were satisfied with just one portion. They are those who holiday locally, and don’t have the latest technology. In other words, these are the people who live within their means.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t have any worries or stresses in their lives. But they certainly aren’t driven by the opinions of others.
So life energized by envy—that green monster—is a dead end. But what is life like under a greedy master? Ecclesiastes 5:10-11:
10Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. 11As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them? (NIV)
We’ve all heard of the ‘flu’, or influenza, but a couple of years back, a book called ‘Affluenza’ came out, and last year a sequel was released called, ‘Curing Affluenza’. The tag line of one of the books reads, “When too much is never enough”.
The writers define ‘affluenza’ as “that strange desire we feel to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know”. And they go on to say that ‘affluenza’ has not just changed the world, but it has also changed the way we see the world. If we are short of money, the solution is to borrow. If you are caught in the rain, buy an umbrella. If you are thirsty, buy a bottle of water and throw the bottle away.
And while we do this, our hearts are experiencing either the thrill of bargain hunting, the quest for something new or unique, or that moment when the shop assistant hands over a beautifully wrapped new purchase, with a bow, just as though it’s a present.
The authors go on to say that the love of buying things can, by definition, provide only a transient sense of satisfaction. The feeling can be lengthened by the “thrill of the chase”. It may include an afterglow that includes walking down the street with a new purchase in a branded carry bag, or even extend to the moment when you get to show your purchase to your friends and family. But that’s it.
Now does ‘Affluenza’ sound like Ecclesiastes or what!? After 3,000 years, for all our advances in human technology, scientific breakthroughs, or human enlightenment, nothing has changed. This is shown by the endless cycle of buy something, feel alive, that feeling fades, buy something else, feel alive again, and that feeling fades again. It’s like a dog chasing it’s tail.
In fact, it can get to the point of keeping you up all night. Ecclesiastes 5:12.
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (NIV)
I’m the son of migrants. My parents came from Hong Kong nearly 60 years ago. I know for a fact that my parents literally chose to go without sleep to provide for me and my brother. Both mum and dad worked shifts, involving late nights and early mornings. Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve learned from my parents about sacrifice and work ethic. But there comes a point when as Ecclesiastes 5:15 says,
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.
Friends, the mortality rate among humans has pretty much hovered around the 100% mark since forever. Try as we might, we can’t take any of our stuff with us. Your car will get passed on to someone else. Someone else will move into your house. The savings account will get divvied up, and the smashed avo you ate last week will become worm food. And in case I’m in denial, I’ve only got to read my will, which divides up my stuff, and says who gets what.
It’s pretty depressing to live life with a cruel master and a greedy master. But when we come to verse 18, the writer finally declares something to be good. Ecclesiastes 5:18-19:
This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. (NIV)
The teacher is saying here, “If you can, be content, collect what you can, enjoy what you can, don’t fuss too much, and hope for the best. But then along comes verse 20:
They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart (NIV)
It’s almost as if being content with your stuff acts like an anesthetic which numbs the pain of life and stops you from asking the hard questions. The other things you are occupied with push the big issues aside—“I will deal with that some other time.”
That doesn’t really sound all that satisfying.
Perhaps you are on a search for meaning. According to this writer of Ecclesiastes here, the best that you can hope for in your meaningless life under the sun is to spend the next five, ten, or however many years you get collecting what you can, enjoying what you can, and along the way, trying not to let personal disasters like life-threatening pregnancies worry you. That’s it, end of story.
But that is not the end of the story—not if we allow God into our lives under the sun. If you are willing to keep reading the rest of the Bible, you will see that Jesus comes along to offer us a life of true contentment under the sun. Jesus doesn’t allow us to be content with what we’ve collected. Instead, he gives those who are willing to live life under the sun on his terms riches that go beyond anything this world can ever give us.
And Jesus does this by giving us his very self. When Jesus walked the earth, he asked his listeners, Mark 8:36:
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Jesus asks that question because what he himself can give us is worth way more than the whole world. Jesus offers you and I meaning. The meaning Jesus gives goes to the core of our very souls.
This is why the rich man Zacchaeus gave up half of what he owned after he met Jesus. Zacchaeus gave it away to the poor because he had received grace and treasured the riches of eternity more than his riches. He wanted his soul to go beyond the grave.
I came across this quote by Randy Alcorn on Instagram this week:
When you leave this world, in a box, like everyone else, will you be known as one who accumulated treasures on earth that you couldn’t keep or will you be recognized as one who invested in treasures in heaven that you couldn’t lose?
We’ve seen the dead end of life under the cruel master of oppression (Ecclesiastes 4) the hopelessness of life under the greedy master of riches (Ecclesiastes 5), so let’s look very briefly at our third master, the pretend master.
In chapter 6, verses 3-6 the writer wants us to imagine someone who has a hundred children, lives for two thousand years, and has everything his heart could possibly desire. That sounds good, and certainly better than any of us get, but it’s not that good, because the writer concludes that you can have a life of ‘quantity’, but that doesn’t guarantee ‘quality’ of life. Someone with long life and abundant riches is still looking for lasting joy and deep satisfaction. In fact, the writer leaves us with this chilling conclusion, at the end of verse 3:
I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Compare the rich long-lived person with a stillborn child. The writer says that the rich long-lived person born into a life that’s not really life does not have as much ‘peace’ as the stillborn child. The word here translated ‘peace’ is the same one translated ‘tranquility’ we saw back in Ecclesiastes chapter 4. The writer is not minimizing the value of the life of a stillborn child. Rather, he is brutally exposing, with raw honesty, what life without God really looks like. Again and again, Ecclesiastes reminds us that life after the fall outside the garden is far from perfect. Not every pregnancy goes the distance. Parents have to bury their children. There are such things as funerals.
We live in a world that is under a pretend master. This master is not even there. And that leads to despair. Nothing seems to make sense. You eat, but you are still hungry. You try to be wise, but it doesn’t seem to help. You try to keep up with people, but it never satisfies. Talk is everywhere, but it doesn’t make sense.
And so chapter 6 ends on two piercing questions. The first question is in Ecclesiastes 6:12:
For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow?
That is followed by a second question Ecclesiastes 6:14:
Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?
Here are two brilliant questions. The first is who knows what is good in this world? The second is who knows what comes after this world? And the answer is, ‘not us’. As a fellow human being, I can’t claim to have definitive answers on life beyond the grave any more than you can.
It is estimated that 107 billion people have walked the face of this earth, and all have gone down into the big hole called ‘death’. But only one set of footprints have come out the other side. That’s one out of 107 billion, and those footprints belong to Jesus.
Jesus is the one human who is fully God at the same time. Jesus has all the answers about what’s beyond the grave.
Someone who’s search for meaning finally led to Jesus is Australian author, Tony Morphett. Before Tony met Jesus, he was an atheist. He didn’t believe in God at all. But he was also a highly superstitious man. One Friday the 13th, Tony finds himself catching a flight from Brisbane to Sydney. He takes a lucky charm with him—a stolen Gideon’s Bible from his hotel room. When he gets to Sydney, Tony starts reading Matthew’s Gospel, and by the end of it said, “I write fiction all the time, but this is anything but fiction. This is true truth. It has the mark of reality.” One of those verses Tony came across was Matthew 11:28:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Rather than us living life under a cruel master, Jesus gives you and I an alternative—life under his rule and lordship. It’s not oppressive, nor is it something that will crush you. It’s liberating, and it will bless you.
Jesus can say and mean these words because he himself experienced the cruelest of cruelties. He doesn’t stand like a detached Buddha who sits with a permanent smile on his face. Instead, Jesus dived head first into our mess, and like a sponge he absorbed and soaked up every single drop of God’s punishment that rightly should’ve been poured out on us, as he hung there on that cross. And because he did that, Jesus invites you and I to come and have life to the full (John 10:10).
In Jesus, we can have both quantity and quality of life. A life empty of meaning can be traded in for a life full of meaning. That’s the offer Jesus makes to you and I. So if you haven’t yet accepted this offer of true contentment, of life under a loving, merciful, forgiving, liberating, death-conquering master, what are you waiting for? Jesus offers us life with the best, most wonder kind of master. Each of us can find true meaning and contentment in Jesus.
As some of you know, my favourite TV show is ‘Survivor’. I’ve been watching the US version for a while now. Did you know it’s been going for 17 years, since the year 2000? That’s astonishing for a TV show. Well over those 17 years, it’s fair to say that the way the game is played has changed. Whereas once you won a $1 million if you stayed loyal to the end, kept your word, and stuck with your alliance, nowadays it seems like it’s the opposite, and people win the $1 million by making big moves that involve deceiving and betraying people at exactly the right time.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of broken promises. It’s a token example, but I remember when I was in Year 8, I was quite the entrepreneur. During recess and lunch, I had this little side business going of selling basketball cards. Now I’m almost certain there was a kid who took some cards, and promised to pay me back, but never did.
But I’m also absolutely certain that I’ve broken plenty of promises to others, too. There’s been plenty of times I’ve said I’ll do something, only not to follow through. It’s happened again just in the last fortnight. Someone from this church, from this service, who shall remain nameless, got a taste of that. I said I was going to send an email on the Monday, but it didn’t happen. I didn’t do it. I broke my promise.
In a moment, we’re going to hear a story from the Bible, and it’s a story that’s got everything to do with ‘faithfulness’. Faithfulness is all about keeping promises, about being people who say what we mean and mean what we say. And I for one, am thankful that when it comes to faithfulness, God is in a class all of his own.
Let’s set the scene. We are in a place called Mamre, about 32 km south of Jerusalem. God has turned up to Abraham’s place. Did you notice how the moment Abraham realises God has turned up at his front door, he goes all out, over the top, such was his devotion to God. The creator of the world, and the maker of promises, has come to visit.
It’s not surprising then, for us to read of this 99 year old man—probably wearing one of those one-piece kaftans, not that easy to run around in—yet running here, there, and everywhere. One minute he’s bowing at his visitors’ feet, and the next he’s bringing water for them to wash. Then he’s running out to select a calf, then he’s back in telling his servant to cook it. Then he’s back out to the guests to give them some milk. Abraham is waiting on his guests, literally hand and foot. We’d no doubt do it for a celebrity, a TV star, or royalty. Abraham does it for God.
This is a picture of outrageous hospitality. Forget the ‘Tim Tams’ and a cup of tea, we’re talking quality food, and lots of it! That’s what you get when you make bread out of 21 litres of flour like Abraham did! Not just the scrawny goat, these visitors are served up a choice, tender calf. It’d be like me serving you up some premium grade ‘wagyu’ beef next time you come over. But if God came over for a visit, surely you’d set out your best.
What is the occasion of this visit? God has turned up to say that he is about to fulfil a long-standing promise he has made to Abraham and Sarah. God is going to give Abraham and Sarah a son, just like he said.
Imagine that the latest news out of Buckingham Palace was instead of Prince Harry’s engagement to Megan Markle, that Queen Elizabeth, who’s 91, and Prince Philip, who’s 96, would next year have their first child. On the one hand, someone might think that’s creepy and gross, but on the other hand, it would be utterly amazing. Certainly, to make such a public announcement of such a promise would be at the very least, foolhardy and risky. But in our Bible passage, that’s exactly what God did. He promised in the most explicit terms to do the impossible. God said that he would give a pair of Iraqi old-age pensioners, one almost one hundred and one ninety, a baby! The nursing home now needs a nursery. Now they’ve got to get an extra set of wheels—not just the wheelchairs but a pram as well.
Now I reckon that some of us might not like the idea of God making such a humanly-impossible promise. You might think that God is being cruel to Abraham and Sarah here, that he’s toying with them and playing games. If so, then it may shock you, or perhaps make you even more upset, to realise that earlier on in Genesis, God intentionally and deliberately prevented Abraham and Sarah from having children.
And the chances are that if you’re someone here today who desperately wants kids but can’t have them, either biologically, or because there’s no partner, then this fact might be yet another kick in the guts, reminding you what you don’t have, and what God has withheld from you.
This raises the question, “What kind of God are we dealing with here?”
Maybe you’re someone who feels angry with God. “God, why didn’t you give me that child, that spouse, that job, that HSC mark?” Or maybe God has given you those things but life’s not turning out the way you hoped. Maybe you are someone who has been faithful to God over many years. Maybe you can honestly say, “God, I’ve given up so much for you. Jesus, I’ve counted the cost like you told me to. I’ve said ‘no’ to all the pleasures and temptations of this world, and yet, you’ve let me down. It feels like you owe me.”
Maybe you’re here today and this is exactly the sort of thing that’s stopping you from accepting Jesus. You’re pointing the finger right at God. God’s the one to blame. “Why God? Why? Why didn’t you stop my parents’ marriage from busting up? Why God? Why do you let this evil stuff happen?”
Suddenly, once you dig a little deeper, you realise there’s a lot not to like about this story. Suddenly we’ve got a dilemma on our hands. God’s got a lot to answer for.
But once we take a step back and see the big picture of this story, we realise that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are not our ways. It’s as if God’s operating on a totally different system here, like Mac versus Windows or iOS versus Android. Follow along with me as we rewind, and look back into the lives of Abraham and Sarah.
I mentioned before that God was the one who deliberately made Sarah infertile right from the get-go. That happened in Genesis 11. But come the very next chapter, Genesis 12, and God then makes not just one, not two, but three massive promises to Abraham. I remember them using the word ‘LOB’.
L is for Land.
O is for Offspring.
B is for Blessing.
Let’s hone in on that second promise of ‘offspring’ or ‘children’. In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet, God is actually making it harder for himself to keep his promise. One minute he makes Sarah infertile. The next minute he tells Abraham that he is going to be the father of many nations—that is, he is going to have lots of kids. And I reckon God does this because he wants to put his promise in big neon lights, to make it loud and clear to everyone, and that we make no mistake—that God is the only one who can deliver on this promise. If the job’s going to get done, it’s God himself, and he alone, who will get the job done.
Take a look at Sarah’s reaction to this promise. It’s there in Genesis 18:12.
Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “What, after I am worn out and my lord is old, now I’ll have this pleasure?”
Sarah’s reaction is our reaction: 90 year old women don’t become first-time mums! 90 year old woman don’t conceive let alone carry healthy children to full-term, and then on top of that, that both mother and child survive the delivery. We need to remember that we’re talking about no IVF, ultrasounds, epidurals, paediatricians, or hospitals back then.
But notice Genesis 18:14, two verses later, that we see God’s way when he tells Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Make no mistake, God says, “I will return at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
As far as God’s concerned, the due date for this baby is locked into the diary. The ‘when’, the ‘where’, the ‘who’—it’s all taken care of.
It is 25 years long years after God made that initial promise to Abraham when God finally comes good on his promise.
Take a look at Genesis 21:1-2—his fingerprints are all over this.
The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. (NIV)
Who was gracious? It was the LORD. It was he who did exactly as he had said. He did for Sarah “what he had promised”
Let me introduce you to Ramjit Raghav. Ramjit was 94 years old when he became a dad for the first time. His wife was 54 in case you’re wondering. And like Abraham, Ramjit had to change the nappies. He had to do the toilet training with his son, he had to help his son walk, at the same time that many people that age need someone to help them with those exact same things.
The difference between Ramjit and Abraham is that God promised Abraham that this humanly impossible thing would happen because God was going to turn Abraham into a great nation. God told Abraham, “Look up! As many as the number of stars in the sky, as countless as the sand on the beach, that’s how many people are going to call you ‘Dad’.”
But Abraham experienced none of that when God reiterated the promise in Genesis 18. There, Abraham’s nation had an ageing population which had a greater likelihood of shrinking than increasing. The very existence of Abraham’s family was at risk. And for all Abraham and Sarah’s laughing at the absurdity of this promise, doubting God’s ability to re-open her womb, it is God who ends up with the last laugh!
For ‘Isaac’, the name given to the miracle baby God gave Abraham and Sarah, means ‘laughter’. How appropriate it is. This confirms that God’s ways are not our ways. Our God is faithful. That’s what we learn about God from this story.
We’re talking about a God who not only makes promises, but who keeps them too! God is deadly serious. He says what he means and means what he says. We don’t worship a God who lies, a God who’s disinterested, who couldn’t give two hoots about keeping his word. No, we worship a God who follows through. God’s fulfilment of this promise shows that he, and he alone has done it, and that no human act, no scientific discovery or intervention, no rational or reasonable explanation, none of those human explanations is going to steal the limelight from the God of this universe and his willingness and ability to fulfil his promise.
When Teresa and I were planning our wedding, the thing we really wanted to emphasise was the faithfulness of God. This impacted the songs we sung and the sermon. When we made our vows, we promised “in sickness, in health, for better, for worse”. It was something that we wanted to hit home because unlike God who is faithful we as humans are faithless. I am so often faithless. So often, I don’t take God at his word. I play God myself. I give God the silent treatment. So often I trust in my ways rather than his ways.
Back to the story, let’s look at what happened to Sarah.
In Genesis 18:15, Sarah flat out lies pretty much right to God’s face.
But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” (NIV)
Now just imagine for a second if your best friend did that to you? Imagine if a child lies to their parents, an employee cheats their boss, or a student lies to their teacher. Well we don’t have to imagine. We know what happens. Politicians and leaders step down and get the sack, kids get time out and detention, athletes get suspended and fined. But none of that happens to Sarah.
Take a look at Genesis 21:1 again: “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah”. Rather than Sarah getting what she deserved—punishment—Sarah instead gets the exact opposite—grace. God gives Sarah not what she deserved but what he’s promised.
The one standout from this story for me is this: God doesn’t give you and I what we deserve. Instead, he gives us what he promises. That’s how faithful our God is. He’s committed to holding up his end of the bargain.
Again and again, at key turning points in the Bible storyline, God delivers a miracle child into the arms of a previously infertile couple. Whether it’s the judge Samson who was born to a ‘passed-it’ couple, or the prophet Samuel, the child Hannah was desperately praying for, or even John the Baptist, born to barren Zechariah and Elizabeth—time and time again God delivers what he has promised to the most unlikely recipients.
God is 100% committed to delivering on his promises. In fact, he is so committed to being faithful and for us to know it, that God himself turns up, born of a virgin, coming himself in the flesh, to show us how faithful he really is. Jesus was truly God and truly human, and he was always and in every way faithful to his Father. In his obedient life on earth, he was always and only doing the will of His Father, the work that the Father had given him to do. His impeccable obedience to his Father took him all the way to the cross. Jesus is the embodiment of the faithfulness of God.
And all of God’s promises point to him. Here is what 2 Corinthians 1:20 says:
For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him [Jesus ...] the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.
Friends, what that sentence is saying is that for every single one of God’s promises, God’s come good on them. In Jesus, every single promise that God has made has been met with a big fat ‘yes’.
I love the fact God is a promise-keeping God. That’s good news especially if right now you are doubting God, if you are not sure whether he is there, or if he is not answering your prayers the way you want, or you keep tripping over that same sin again and again, or that depression or anxiety is getting the better of you. Whatever is your situation, I think that this story assures us that God is a God who can be utterly and totally trusted. At the end of the day, we can be certain that he has got our back!
Sure things might not work out the way we’d like them in the short term. But the things that God has promised us both in this life and in the life to come are far far better. Let me give you three quick examples:
First, God promises me that I’m one of his children. This is what 1 John 3:1 says:
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
I love that word ‘lavished’. God’s love has been ‘lavished’ on us. Is it just me, or does that word ‘lavished’ scream out over-the-top, excessive, more-than-we-can-handle ‘love’? God is not a stingy God. No, God has demonstrated and shown us a love that is sacrificial, that we didn’t earn or couldn’t buy or don’t deserve. It is a love that was expressed when Jesus swapped places with us in his death on the cross. He died so we can live. And now, because of that love, I’m a child of God. And you are a child of God, too, if you’ve accepted God’s love in Jesus. That’s God’s first promise to you.
The second promise is the promise of being forgiven. That’s possible thanks to Jesus. I love the words of 1 John 1.9:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”
God promises to forgive us and cleanse us from not only a little bit of our unrighteousness or merely some of our sins, but from all unrighteous. God promises you and me that no matter what you’ve seen or where you’ve been, what you’ve done or who you’ve become, that the slate has been wiped completely clean. Each of us has a fresh start, thanks to Jesus shedding his blood for you. Your sins and my sins have all been paid for through Jesus’ death on the cross.
And the third promise is of eternal life. Seeing as we’re in 1 John, we might as well stay there. 1 John 2:25:
And this is what he promised us—eternal life.
How good is that? Jesus is offering those who trust in him life forever with him, with no shame, no regrets, and no guilt. He promises us an eternity with no more death, no more crying, no more pain. He has promised us a time of no more disability, whether physical or intellectual, no more mental illness, a time of no more death, decay, disorder, destruction, disease, or any other nasty thing starting with the letter ‘D’, including ‘diets’.
But for now we must wait. We wait for God to tick off that final promise he’s made, of Jesus’ return. Make no mistake, it will happen. That Christ coming back is a certainty. That’s locked in. But the exact date of his return remains a mystery.
Friends, if you’re someone who hasn’t yet taken the hand of Jesus, then know this, that according to the Bible, the only reason why Jesus hasn’t returned yet is because God is patient with you, and he is not wanting anyone to perish. Those promises I mentioned earlier can be yours today. Come and chat with us about it, because we want you to be ready for Christ’s return.
But for those who have already taken the hand of Jesus, there’s a reason why we often say around here, “Faithful in small things, entrusted with more things”. That’s a key value for us.
That is especially so for you guys who are millennials, who are also known as the ‘STABO’ generation. Have you heard that phrase before? ‘Subject To A Better Offer’?
We live in a time of ‘maybe’ buttons on Facebook events, or not replying to emails or texts just in case something better or more exciting comes up. But can I urge you not to be defined by the world. Instead, be defined by the God who doesn’t go back on his word. It’s impossible for him to lie or change his mind. This is the God who is impeccably faithful.
It is why we look forward to hearing those words “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Friends, God’s word for you today is this: God doesn’t give us what we deserve; instead, he gives us what he’s promised. He does this all so that we would end up better, not bitter: today, tomorrow, and every day into eternity.
Let’s talk to him right now with boldness and confidence.
What a privilege, Father, it is to believe, to have faith in you, not because of what we get out of it, as good as that is, but rather quite simply because of who you are. You are a God who can be trusted. You are a God is for us, not against us. You are a God who not only makes promises, but keeps them. You are a God who has given us his very best when we were at our worst.
And God, while we wait for that one last promise to be ticked off your list—that promise of Jesus coming back to judge the living and the dead—we pray that you will make us a people who are marked by faithfulness, too, the fruit of your Spirit that lives and dwells inside us. Make us a people who are faithful in our relationships, in our speech, in our conduct, until that day.
In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.