As Kingfishers Catch Fire (Review)

Eugene Peterson has long been one of my heroes. As I was studying to be a pastor, I would sometimes become anxious, thinking that I would have to become an über-extroverted CEO to keep up with contemporary expectations for what a pastor should be. I would be filled with dread and second-guessing until I went back and read some of Peterson’s writing on pastoring (like The Contemplative Pastor), and I would be reassured that I was not crazy to think that someone with my personality could do it, even in America.

Since then, I haven’t followed the path I thought I would. I love and am committed to the local church, but so far I haven’t ended up serving as a pastor. Peterson is still a hero, though, and I still turn to his writings for guidance not just on how to be a pastor in today’s world, but how to be a Christian—or even a human—as well.

9781601429674In mid-May this year, Waterbrook will publish As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, a collection of Peterson’s sermons from when he served Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. It’s the second of his books whose title comes from a single poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (the first being Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places). In the preface, he writes that the goal of all his pastoral work, including the sermons he preached, was congruence:

The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence—congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh. (xviii)

There are forty-nine sermons in this collection from the twenty-nine years Peterson was a pastor. They are divided into seven parts, with seven sermons each. Each part is focused on the books associated with a biblical figure: Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John. There is an introduction to each of these parts that sets the passages the sermons are based on in their biblical context. Peterson states outright that this is not a “best of” collection; rather, they are a representative sample.

Something is always lost when sermons are printed in a book, and no doubt that is the case here. But at the same time, getting a taste of these sermons is better than nothing, and I for one am grateful to have them. Each sermon is between five and six pages long, which is a good length to take one at a time as devotional reading.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

“He Will Come Again” — An Ascension Sunday Sermon

I preached two weeks ago at my church, Bellingham Covenant Church. Normally the audio of every sermon goes up on the church web site, but there were problems recording this one. For those who are interested in what I said, here are my notes:

“He Will Come Again in the Same Way You Have Seen Him Go”
Acts 1:6–11 and 1 Thess 4:13–18

I’ve heard my preaching style described as “professorial.” Pay attention, because there will be a test at the end.

Today is Ascension Sunday, which commemorates the day that Jesus ascended (went up) into heaven after his resurrection. The book of Acts says that Jesus spent 40 days after his resurrection with his disciples. 40 days after Easter was actually last Thursday, but since none of us were here, we can celebrate today. We’re going to celebrate Jesus’ ascension by talking about his return.

1 Thessalonians is Paul’s earliest letter that we have. He wrote it to the believers in Thessalonica, a church he had founded on his second missionary journey. They had apparently asked Paul a question about what happened to those Christians who died before Jesus’ return. They were concerned that those who had died would miss out in some way. Paul is NOT interested in giving a precise timeline about Jesus’ return. That’s sometimes what we want when we come to this passage & others like it, but Paul doesn’t tell us. This passage breaks down into two broad categories.

1. Paul encourages the Thessalonians regarding those who have died:

Verse 13 He doesn’t want them to mourn like those who have no hope.

Paul doesn’t say all mourning is bad. Jesus himself mourned at the grave of Lazarus.
“Those who have no hope” are the pagans, who did not believe in resurrection. Some believed that the dead continued in some kind of existence, but it wasn’t anything to look forward to. A letter from the second century AD, addressed to a couple who had lost a son by a friend of theirs who had suffered a similar bereavement herself, says, “I sorrowed and wept over your dear departed one as I wept over Didymas, … but really, there is nothing one can do in the face of such things. So, please comfort each other.”

Verse 14 the dead in Christ will be raised in the same way Jesus was raised.

The Christian hope is in resurrection. There are two kinds of hope. When I was first getting to know my wife, I hoped we would be able to start dating… Fast forward to when we got engaged. I hoped we would get married, but it was a different kind of hope. It was based on a promise we had made to each other. Christian hope is the latter kind of hope. It is based on Jesus’ promise.

Verse 18 Paul wants them to comfort one another with the words he says.

That is the main point. This text doesn’t tell us all we want to know b/c telling us everything is not the point of the text.

2. Paul sets forth in very broad strokes the way Jesus’ return will happen:

Verse 16 The Lord Jesus will come down from heaven.

Is heaven “up there” somewhere? No, it’s an alternate reality where Jesus lives and reigns now. In the ‘60s, Nikolai Kruschev said about the Soviet Union’s first cosmonaut, “He went into space, and he didn’t see God anywhere.” You wouldn’t expect to. Heaven isn’t a place in the physical universe. When we “go to heaven,” we don’t sit on clouds and play harps. We are just fully present in the place where Jesus reigns. Eventually, Revelation tells us there will be a new heavens and new earth where Jesus’ reign will be open and explicit.

Verse 16 The dead in Christ will rise first.

Are they currently with Jesus or not? It seems they are, in some way. The Bible is clear that those who die in Christ are immediately in Jesus’ presence. Jn 8:51: “whoever keeps my word will not see death.” We don’t know when they get resurrection bodies, or how long this intermediate state is. The Bible is not interested in giving us this information.

Verse 17 The ones still alive will be caught up and meet the Lord in the air.

The word for “meet” is a term (apantesis) used 2 other times in the NT. When a dignitary paid an official visit to a city, they would send out a delegation to meet him. Then they would turn around and escort him into the city:

  • Matt 25:6; parable of the ten virgins. They go out to meet the bridegroom and escort him to the banquet.
  • Acts 28:15; Paul approaching Rome. Roman Christians come out to meet him and escort him to the city.

Is that what Paul is getting at? He isn’t specific enough. I can only say it’s a possibility.

Verse 17 So we will be with the Lord forever.

The important thing is being with Jesus forever, along with those who have died in him. We don’t know how long this “meeting in the air” will be. Eventually we will all have resurrection bodies (Phil 3:20-1) and live on the new heavens and new earth.

3. What does this mean for us? I have one application:

We have hope in Jesus. Jesus is our only hope. We’re not going to save ourselves, and we’re not going to save the world ourselves. Hope in Jesus works itself out both on a social level and on an individual level.

Social Level: Too often we adopt Viking Christianity: we go around in this big boat, the Church. Sometimes we come ashore, find the nearest village, and raid it, tossing a few people over our shoulders and hurrying back to the boat so their souls can be saved. But acting this way shows a limited view of how God is moving in the world.
Here is a different model: A few years ago there were many commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and each one proposed a theory about why the wall fell when it did. One article focused on spiritual influences:

“The many anniversary celebrations, documentaries and discussions now underway across Germany seem to focus mostly on how fearless street protesters and astute politicians pulled off the “peaceful revolution” that ended communism. Films and photos of dissidents packed into the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin or Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church, the leading houses of worship that sheltered them until the Wall opened, are among the trademark images. But those crowded “peace prayer” evenings were only the tip of the iceberg of behind-the-scenes work by pastors and lay people who considered it their Christian duty to promote civil rights and human dignity in a rigid communist society.”

This is hope in Jesus as it is worked out on a social level.

Individual Level: A lot of people are without hope in this world. This is why you see an increase of people who believe in things like reincarnation. People don’t like to believe that death is the end. But reincarnation is ultimately a hopeless teaching. The idea behind it is that if you are good enough in this life, you get to advance to a higher life form in the next life. Well, who is going to guarantee that you’re good enough? Who is going to guarantee that you’re going to pass the test? This is like going to the gym and getting on a treadmill with no guarantee that you are ever going to get off. Jesus is the only true source of hope.

I mentioned that there would be a test at the end; here is the test:

What we need to do to pass this test is live a life that makes us acceptable before God. If we pass the test, we get to be raised from the dead and live forever in the new heaven and new earth. Since God is perfect, he requires that we get a perfect score. The bad news is, we’re not prepared. Some of us didn’t study at all. Others of us studied really hard, but we were studying the entirely wrong subject. The good news is, Jesus took this test for us, and he aced it. If we take his “A” instead of the “F” that we were going to earn on our own, we pass, and we get to live forever with him. That’s our only hope.

Road to Emmaus: Your Typical Post-Easter Sermon

It has taken me a while to get around to it, but the audio of the sermon I preached the week after Easter can be found here. It is on Luke 24:13-35, the story of Jesus appearing to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. I titled it, with apologies to Marcus Borg, “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time.”

Matthew 13:1-23 – Listening that Leads to Living

I preached this sermon on April 25 at Bellingham Covenant Church, as part of a series on Jesus’ parables. These are my notes, and not necessarily exactly what I said.

We are spending Easter season this year focusing on Jesus’ parables. Today we will look at the Parable of the Sower, which is a parable about parables. Jesus here talks about why people respond the way they do to his teaching, and he does this by saying that there are four groups of people represented by four different kinds of dirt. Jesus goes through these dirts progressively, from least receptive to most receptive.

As I go through these kinds of dirt, I want you to recognize that we’re all one kind of dirt. The question to ask ourselves is, “What kind of dirt are we?”

Soil 1 – This is the soil along the path, on which the seed falls but birds take it away.

These are the people who don’t understand. Some people think that this is a passage about predestination. These people couldn’t understand because they had no choice but not to understand. God decided before they were born that some people would understand and some people wouldn’t, and too bad for the people who don’t. After all, Jesus says in verse 11, “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given to you, but not to them,” doesn’t he?

But I don’t think this passage is about God condemning people unfairly. Jesus wants people to hear his message, and when we look at Jesus we see what God is like. I think we get a clue of what this parable is about based on where it is placed in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke all have this parable, and they put it in slightly different places, but they all have one thing in common: they start out talking about how everyone responded positively to Jesus’ teaching, then Jesus starts to encounter some opposition from religious leaders, and then – the parable of the sower.

This means, I think, that Jesus isn’t deliberately trying to keep people out. He is trying to explain why some people respond to his message and some don’t. The ones who don’t, the ones who are the first kind of dirt, are people who have hardened their own hearts. They decided that Jesus can’t teach them anything, so they don’t listen. The difference between the disciples and the people who didn’t understand isn’t that the disciples were so smart (If the gospels teach us anything about the disciples, it is that they were certainly not the smartest). It’s that the disciples cared enough to stick around for the explanation! Anybody could understand parables if they think they have something to learn. The focus here is not predestination, but revelation. God has revealed himself. How do people respond? Today, just like in Jesus’ day, some people are receptive to learning more, but others are just not interested. They think they have it all figured out. They trust their own wisdom, and don’t feel like they have anything to learn. The way to avoid being this first soil is to be receptive. You don’t have to have it all figured out. Just be receptive to Jesus and what he wants to teach you.

These next two kinds of dirt that end up responding negatively actually start out positively. We in the church need to pay close attention to them.

Soil 2 is the soil that is shallow. The seed springs up, but is quickly withered by the sun because of shallow roots. These people start out hearing the message with joy. But we find that hearing with joy is not enough. Trouble and persecution cause people to drop out if they have no roots. Fortunately we live in a place where there is no official government persecution of Christians. But it is still possible to be looked down on for being a Christian, and this can sometimes be the case. It’s not popular to believe that following Jesus is the only way for people to be saved. It’s also not popular to believe that there is even a need for people to be saved. This kind of persecution can happen to anyone, but I especially want to highlight those people who are raised in the church, but fall away once they move out of their parents’ house. I want to tell you my story, and contrast it with the story of others.

I grew up in a Christian home, and we went to church every Sunday. When I was 11, I accepted Jesus as my savior and was baptized. But as is the case with many people, my teenage years were difficult ones. My parents divorced when I was 13. I had a lot of the same problems many teenagers faced: I lacked self-confidence, I had acne. I didn’t have a great relationship with my parents because I had lost my trust in them. When I was 16 I got my first job. It was nice to have a little money, and the more I worked, the more money I got. At first I didn’t work on Sundays because I would go to church, but after a little while I started working on Sundays. They were between youth pastors at the church, and they had been for a couple of years. I didn’t feel like anyone would miss me there if I didn’t go, so I stopped and started working on Sundays instead.

But after several months, I came to a point where I felt I had to make a decision. I still considered myself a Christian, even though I didn’t go to church and rarely read my Bible. I decided that either I was going to give up on Christianity, or I was going to start living it – which meant going back to church, praying, trying to grow closer to God and find out what he wanted me to to with my life. And what it came down to for me was Jesus. I couldn’t give up on Jesus. I didn’t trust my parents anymore, and I didn’t feel that people at church cared about me all that much, but I had to stay a Christian because I loved Jesus and I knew that he loved me, even if I didn’t feel loved.

That was a turning point for me. I went back to church, got to know the new youth pastor, and when I went to college, I decided that I wanted to seek out a group of Christians on campus that I could be a part of. When I got to school, I found out that my RA was a Christian who was active in InterVarsity, so I joined InterVarsity, went on retreats, went to Bible studies, and eventually led a Bible study.

The more time I spent at college, the more I met people who had very similar backgrounds to mine. They were raised in Christian homes, going to church every Sunday. But when they got to college, they stopped going to church. In fact, they stopped having any sort of community with other Christians. They weren’t involved in InterVarsity or any of the other Christian student groups on campus. Some of them spent most weekends drunk at parties on Fraternity Row.

What’s the difference between them and me? Am I smarter? Did my parents work harder than theirs? Did my church work harder than theirs?

No.

The only difference between us is that, for some reason, my roots went deeper. Does this mean that there’s no hope for them? Not at all. I still think that God is working on everyone. I still think that they can soften their hearts. I still pray that they do.

Soil 3 is the soil on which the seed grows up, but is eventually choked by thorn bushes. We’re moving farther up the ladder of accepting Jesus’ message. These people can make it through the persecution, no problem. In their early days they maybe go out evangelizing on street corners, and they go on mission trips – but then something happens. Maybe they get married; maybe they get a nice house; maybe they get a mortgage; maybe they have to save up to send their kids through college. They start to worry about the future. They try to get as much money as they can to ensure that bad things don’t happen to them.

In other words, they turn into respectable, middle class people. Worries and the deceitfulness of wealth trip them up and they become unfruitful.

Notice Jesus’ choice of words: unfruitful. He doesn’t say they stop going to church. He doesn’t say they stop calling themselves Christians. He says they stop producing fruit. Their faith doesn’t show itself in good works, which means they really don’t have faith at all.

Soil 4 is the soil that produces fruit. These are the people who don’t just hear, but understand. Hearing with understanding is enough, Jesus says in verse 23. What is hearing with understanding? Hearing that leads to action. Listening that leads to living. That is what Jesus wants from us.

New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass, whose book Stories with Intent is a wonderful resource on Jesus’ parables, says this: “Churches should not be complicit in allowing people to think an initial response unaccompanied by productive living is saving faith” (176).

This parable encourages us to internalize the seed so that it affects everything we do.

So what does the seed represent? Jesus says it is God’s Word. When we as Christians think of God’s Word, we think of the Bible – and rightly so, since we believe that it is inspired by God and that he still uses it to speak to us today. But in Jesus’ day the Bible didn’t exist yet. When Jesus uses the phrase “God’s Word,” he’s referring to revelation – not the last book of the Bible, but God revealing what he is like. Jesus’ person and message are the word that he is speaking about.

And Jesus’ message is that he is God in human form, and it is his job to set the world right. God has given him authority to teach, to work miracles, and to forgive people of what they have done wrong. When he was crucified, he served as a sacrifice that brought about forgiveness, the same way sacrifices worked in the Old Testament, only better. Because this time, God was sacrificing himself in order to forgive people. Because forgiveness always hurts. And when Jesus rose from the dead, God vindicated him. Jesus’ resurrection was God’s way of saying, “He was right. He really was speaking for me, and acting for me.” And if you listen to him, and trust him, and understand to the point of staking your whole life on him, you too will have life in the same way that Jesus now has life. That’s the seed.

There were a lot of people in Jesus’ day who heard his message with joy. But they never let their hearing turn to action. They didn’t let their roots go deep into God’s Word and a community of disciples. They let themselves get distracted. We run the same risk today. Pride, persecution and the deceitfulness and distractions of wealth can keep us from being fruitful.

I’ll close with another quote from Klyne Snodgrass, because he says it so well:

“The parable is about hearing that leads to productive living, and adapting the parable will mean enabling people to move past merely hearing words – even with joy – to hearing that captures the whole person. People think they can look like giant oaks without putting down deep roots. When they realize how much effort it takes to put down deep roots, they too often settle for being bramble bushes” (176).

In the words of Jesus: Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

Easter Sunrise Devotional 2010

Easter Sunrise Service / 7:30 a.m. / 4-5-10 / Bellingham Covenant Church

When I was asked to share a devotional for this service, I tried to think of a funny story about an Easter celebration from when I was young.

I wasn’t able to think of one.

But I can share with you what Easter meant to me as a child:

Every year at church, they would give the children colored hard-boiled eggs. I remember sitting in the pew for the rest of the service, cradling the cool egg in my hands. I don’t really remember any of the Easter sermons I heard growing up.

But my parents made sure that I understood what Easter was about. Although I did participate in things like Easter egg hunts, my parents always emphasized that Easter was about Jesus’ resurrection. This began with my first birthday. My first birthday was on Easter, and my mom made me a cake in the shape of a lamb.

Another way they did this was that instead of getting an Easter basket filled with candies, instead it would be a Spring Basket. I’d get it on March 21st, the first day of spring, instead of Easter.

I’m glad my parents made a distinction between the ways Easter is celebrated sometimes, and the real meaning of Easter.

We live in a time and a culture where there is a memory of Christianity, but it is very weak.

Because it is so weak, Christian celebrations like Easter and Christmas get diluted. Christmas becomes about giving gifts to loved ones, instead of God’s gift of his Son. Easter becomes about spring as the celebration of new life in the natural world, instead of about celebrating Jesus’ conquering death with his resurrection.

An interesting tradition that I learned about when I lived in the Czech Republic was the pomlazka. It is a whip made out of willow branches, and traditionally boys are supposed to whip girls on the day after Easter because it was thought that this brought youth and health – besides being a good excuse to flirt with girls. Another tradition is dousing people with water. This also was supposed to bring youth and health.

Every country has traditions like these, but they don’t have anything to do with the reason why we as Christians celebrate Easter.

So why do we celebrate Easter? There is one main reason, and two other reasons that flow out of it.

1. Jesus conquered death. Some churches teach that Easter is about Jesus’ teaching living on in the hearts of his followers. But Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus has not been raised, our faith is worthless. Sin has brought death to every human being who ever lived, and Jesus’ resurrection means that sin has been defeated. Death has been defeated. Death didn’t just take its hands off Jesus for a little while; Death’s hands were broken. This is in contrast to Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead in John 11. Death took its hands off Lazarus for a while, but it came for him again. When Jesus rose from the dead, death never came for him again.

Another way that Jesus’ and Lazarus’ resurrections were different is the kind of body they had. Lazarus had the same body he had always had, and he needed people to take the grave clothes off of him when he came out of the tomb. By contrast, Jesus had a new body that mysteriously used up the material of his old body. He was able to pass through solid objects. He didn’t need to have the stone rolled away. It was for our benefit. So we could see that he had overcome death.

2. Jesus will raise us from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection means that if we have faith in him, we will rise from the dead the same as he did. With the same kind of body he had.

One of my favorite Easter songs over the past few years is a song written by my friend, Ben Keyes, called “From the Grave.” The chorus goes:

Hallelujah we will rise again
Angels, roll the stone away
Lord has raised his Son
Victory is won
He’s gonna call us from the grave

The verses are on this same theme, of God’s raising us from the dead. One verse goes:

I want to work in your kingdom
Give me back my hands
I want to work in your kingdom
Roll the stone away for me
I want to clap my hands in glory
Give me back my hands
I want to clap my hands in glory
Roll the stone away for me

At the resurrection, we’re not going to be playing harps on clouds. We’re going to have resurrection bodies, and we are going to be working in God’s new heavens and new earth.

3. Jesus’ resurrection also means that what we do in our lives today matters. Matter matters. Paul talks for 57 verses in 1 Corinthians 15 about the resurrection. In the very last verse of that chapter, verse 58, he follows all that indicative with an imperative. He tells the Corinthians what all that talk about the resurrection means for them: “Therefore… stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

I can’t say this any better than N.T. Wright said in his book, Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there (208, italics original).

I don’t remember any Easter sermons from when I was growing up, but I remember what my parents taught me:

Jesus conquered death.

Because Jesus conquered death, we will rise from the dead.

Because Jesus conquered death and he will raise us from the dead, how we live our lives matters.

More is Never Enough: 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19

Preached at the Lighthouse Mission (3/19/10) and Bellingham Covenant Church (3/21/10)

Introduction: Today I’m going to speak to you on a famous passage. It is also a famously misquoted passage. Many of us have heard someone say, “Money is the root of all evil!” But that is not what the passage says. This text is not saying that money is bad. This text is all about the love of money. An interesting thing about verses 17 to 19 is that Paul doesn’t command rich people to give everything away because money is evil. He commands them to be generous, but that’s not the same thing.

We might object and say, “Well look at Jesus and the rich young ruler. Didn’t Jesus command him to give away everything to the poor?” He did. Because Jesus always knew the right thing to say to people. But Jesus also accepted the financial support of several rich women, Luke 8 tells us.

So this text is about the love of money, but you could also say that it is about more than that. It is about the intense and selfish desire for more of anything, which we call greed.

Why am I talking to you about greed? Sermons on greed are for everyone, whether rich or poor. This passage is one that everyone needs to hear, because wealthy people are not the only ones who are susceptible to greed. Paul talks both about “those who want to become rich” and “those who are rich in this present world.” Greed can get into us whether we have a lot of stuff or not. Whether we’re rich or poor, the selfish desire for more can get into us and ruin us.

Before we get into the text, I want to give you some background. 1 Timothy is a letter that Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy. Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus and asked him to take care of the church there. Paul’s advice in this letter primarily has to do with how Timothy should deal with false teachers. One thing that characterized these false teachers was that they thought they could get rich from their teaching. They were first-century versions of televangelists; they were people who said, “If you give me your money, the Lord will bless you with whatever you want!” This kind of teaching was appealing to people then, just like it is appealing to people now, because it is a half-truth. Sometimes God does reward us financially. But he never promises to do that all the time, because that is never the point. The point is we should be more interested in the Giver than in the gifts he gives.

Paul here wants to fight against these false teachers by telling Timothy what the right attitude toward possessions is. He tells Timothy two things that I’ll draw out in this sermon: He tells him that greed is a trap, and he tells him how to keep from falling into that trap.

First, greed is a trap. It’s a trap in at least four ways.

It’s a trap because it warps our desires. The text calls them “foolish and harmful” desires. Here is how it works: When we get a little money, we are able to buy things we couldn’t before. That feels good. Soon we can’t live without the things we used to live without quite well. Before long, luxuries become necessities.

John Ortberg reproduces a chart in his book, When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box. In it, he shows how in 1970, not many Americans thought things like a second car or a second TV were necessities. 11% of people thought air conditioning in their car was a necessity in 1970.
In 2000, it was 65%. He says that “in a Gallup poll, the respondents, on average, said that 21 percent of Americans are rich.” (194) But do you know how many people said they were rich?

0.5%

Then Ortberg sums it up: “Everybody thinks he needs one thing to make himself rich: more.”

In our culture, advertising promotes this warping of desires. Ads used to talk about the product: how useful it was, how superior it was to other products of its kind. You don’t see that much anymore. Today’s ads take good things: love, friendship, belonging – and tell you that you can have them if you buy their product.

Have you ever noticed that you don’t actually see people sitting around drinking beer in a beer commercial? Instead, they show people having fun. The point is to make us think that a particular product will make us happy. But it won’t. We end up moving from one product to another, thinking that each new one will bring us happiness. It’s a trap.

The second reason It’s a trap is because it blinds us to the truth about ourselves. I mentioned that only .5% of Americans think they are rich, and this is clearly not true. This blindness to our own situation happens without us noticing, because there’s no objective way to measure greed.

Tim Keller, who is pastor of a church in New York, said that once he was speaking at a series of men’s breakfasts on the Seven Deadly Sins. His wife asked him one day if they advertised which ones were coming up next. He said yes. She said, “You wait. When you do the one on greed, you’ll get the lowest attendance out of all of them.”

And she was right. Why?

Because everyone thinks greed is a problem, but no one thinks they are greedy. We always compare ourselves favorably to others when it comes to greed.

Jesus says in Luke 12:15, “Watch out! Be on your guard against greed!” He doesn’t say, “Watch out for adultery,” because people know when they are committing adultery.

How do people know if they are being greedy? Nobody says, “If you make a 4 percent profit, that’s not greedy. But 5 percent, well, that’s greed!” Nobody says, “Saving up this much is not greedy, but five dollars more than that – that’s greedy.” Jesus tells us to watch out for greed because there’s no way to measure greed. And that makes it so much easier to deceive ourselves.

We may not feel greedy, but the more we have the more we’ll start to feel self-sufficient. And when we feel self-sufficient, we feel like we’re in control, like we can handle anything that comes along. And when we feel like we are in control of our lives, we become overconfident and we lose humility and teachability.

Jesus talked about this in the parable of the rich fool: Luke 12:16-21. We can deceive ourselves about how greedy we are just like the rich man in the parable. It’s a trap.

The third reason It’s a trap is because it promises security but doesn’t give it. Ecclesiastes 5:12 says, “The sleep of laborers is sweet… but the abundance of the rich permits them no sleep.” We think that if we only have enough money, we will be able to relax and enjoy life. But the truth is, when we have a lot of stuff, we worry more because we have more to lose. We think that just a little bit more money will make us secure, so that nothing can happen to us. This is true, within limits. For example, If I can’t afford to pay rent this month, a little more money will keep me from getting kicked out. But we make the mistake of thinking that more money always equals more security.

But if we look for security in our stuff, we will never feel at ease. Even if we had all we wanted, that would not guarantee that nothing bad would ever happen to us. It’s a trap.

The last reason It’s a trap is because more is never enough. Greed is addictive. Ecclesiastes 5:10 says: “Those who love money never have enough / Those who love wealth are never satisfied with their income.”

It’s an itch that can’t be scratched.

It’s a desire that can never be satisfied.

One story that illustrates all of the ways the desire for more is a trap is a story by Leo Tolstoy: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It’s about a Russian peasant farmer who is proud of his simple lifestyle. All he needs is some land. He says at the beginning of the story, “If I only had plenty of land, I wouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” He starts off with no land, but buys a few acres from a local landowner. But he becomes possessive, and has conflicts with his neighbors. So he moves somewhere else where he can have more land. He is successful, but he doesn’t like farming on rented land.

So he moves again and meets some nomads who have no use for farmland. They tell him that for 1000 rubles, he can spend a day walking around a parcel of land. He can mark his path with a spade along the way, and if he can make it back to where he started by sundown, he gets the land he covered.

He starts out, trying to get as much land as possible. But he keeps on going farther and farther because he keeps seeing land ahead that he wants. When it comes time to turn back, he has to run as fast as he can back to his starting point. When he gets there, he falls down exhausted, and the nomads congratulate him. But he doesn’t hear them, because he’s dead.

Greed had killed him. Not quickly, but a little bit at a time.

2. How do we avoid this trap of the desire for more?

First, learn contentment from Jesus – Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, because God has said ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” Note that word “because.”

The reason why we can be content is because God is with us. We can be content because he will take care of us. We don’t have to get while the getting’s good. We don’t have to look out for number one.

Paul says in Philippians 4:11 that he has learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. Here is a man who is writing from prison! But he had learned that godliness with contentment is great gain. The ability to be content no matter what our circumstances is real wealth.

When we look to Jesus for our security, we can begin to use the word “enough.” When we don’t have to always worry about how to get ahead, we can relax and live with simplicity.

The second way we can escape the trap of greed is to Learn generosity from Jesus. Once we find our contentment and security in Jesus, we can be more generous.

We know that God knows what we need, and we can trust God for what we need, and we can give any extra resources to people who need them more than we do. But it’s hard for us to be generous on our own, because we can always find reasons to keep what we have. The way we learn generosity is to receive generosity.

Jesus told us in Matthew 6 not to worry. Why?

Because our Father takes care of the birds and the flowers, so he’s certainly going to take care of us. If we believe that God is in charge of the universe, and we believe that God has abundant resources that he freely gives to us, how can we not be generous? If we believe that Jesus didn’t have to become human, didn’t have to save us, but he did anyway, and gave his own life to do it, how can we not be generous?

The more we understand how generous God is to us, the more we can be freed up to be generous to others.

A final way we can escape the trap of greed is to put our hope where it belongs – in Jesus.

The last part of this text tells us to put our hope in God, who “richly provides us with everything we need for our enjoyment.” God cares about our enjoyment!

Wealth is uncertain.

Stuff is uncertain.

We eventually lose all our stuff, either before we die or after. The last line of Tolstoy’s story says it well: “[The man’s] servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for [him] to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

He had all this land, this stuff, and people patted him on the back because he’d earned so much. And then he died and lost everything.

Underneath our desire for more there is a good desire: a desire to make our lives better. But if we spend our lives just trying to get more, eventually it will all be taken away.

We need to put our hope where it belongs. Paul says we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it.

There is one thing that can’t be taken away from us, and that is Jesus’ love and forgiveness. That’s our firm foundation. Putting our hope in Jesus is how we take hold of the life that is truly life. We can’t take any of our stuff with us, but that’s the thing – the one thing – that we can take with us.

He is the giver of all good things, including his own life.

Doesn’t it make sense for us to put our hope in that?
Let us pray.

For Unto Us a Child is Born – Isaiah 9:1-7

Below are the notes for the sermon I preached at Bellingham Covenant Church on November 29, 2009 – the first Sunday of Advent. As I was just beginning to prepare this sermon, I bought and started to read Darrell Johnson’s book The Glory of Preaching. Handily enough, the book included a sample outline of this very passage. So I used that as a base, modified it and expanded on it.

Unfortunately, there will be no audio posted on the Internet, because there was a problem with the sound that day.

Isaiah 9:2-7 – “For Unto Us a Child Is Born”

Intro: Happy New Year! This is the first Sunday of Advent, the time leading up to our celebration of Christmas. It’s the time when we start to think about what we are celebrating, and why we celebrate it. This is a well-known text that you see on greeting cards, and that you hear in the music of Handel’s Messiah. Today we’ll talk about why it is important.

We are going to start, though, by talking about fear. The phrase “Do not be afraid” occurs in the Bible 74 times, and it is usually God who says those words. We’re going to talk about fear today, but we are also going to talk about a reason why not to be afraid.

Background: Assyria was the greatest empire at the time this passage was written. On the map, the dark green was the Assyrian territory in 824 BC. The light green was the Assyrian empire in 671 BC. This prophecy was given around 730 BC. That means the Assyrian empire had been expanding for 100 years before this, and would continue to expand for another 60 years. Everyone was terrified of Assyria, and the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel (Judah, the southern kingdom, is the yellow blob on the map) were right in the middle of everything.

Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrian king, took part of Galilee, which was in the northern kingdom, sometime before 731 BC (2 Ki 15:29). Ahaz, who was king of Judah beginning in 735 BC, saw what was happening to the Northern Kingdom and was afraid. Because of this fear, he adopted a pro-Assyrian foreign policy. Pekah king of Israel and Rezin king of Damascus (Aram) attacked Judah because of this pro-Assyrian policy in 735 BC (2 Ki. 16:5, 2 Chr. 28:5-15)

Ahaz was terrified by the Syro-Ephraimite threat, and sent to Tiglath-Pileser for help (Is. 7:2, 2 Ki. 16:7-9). It is here that this passage (9:1-7) lies: about 735 BC.

Isaiah comes to the king and says: you are not depending on God to save you. You are depending on Assyria. You want Assyria to come; well, Assyria will come, all right. He’ll come like a flood, and the waters are going to be up to your neck! (8:8). The problem with King Ahaz was that he was depending on the power of Assyria to defend him and take away his fear instead of on the Lord. He didn’t want to give God control of the situation; he wanted to keep control for himself. This prophecy was fulfilled 30 years later under Sennacherib of Assyria (ca. 704 BC) (Is. 36). He invaded Judah, and was at the gates of Jerusalem, but in the end, he mysteriously withdrew. But that is another story (found in Is. 36-37).

But despite his message of judgment, Isaiah is ultimately hopeful. Judah has leadership that tries to keep control instead of relying on God, but these verses look ahead to a child who will be born and change everything.

Verses 4, 5 and 6 of this passage all begin with the Hebrew word ki. It’s a “key” word. It means “for,” or “because.” The things that happen in verses 2 and 3 happen because of what we find in verses 4, 5 and 6. And they escalate, building up to verse 6, which presents the central idea of this passage: Because this Child is born, everything changes; because the son is given, there is hope in the face of fear.

Four things happen because the child is born. Because the child is born:

Light shines in the darkness (9:2)

Chapter 8 ends with the words, “they will be thrust into utter darkness.” There is ultimately no hope for those who do not consult God. Ahaz wanted to do everything in his own power. He didn’t consult God because he didn’t want to depend on God. He didn’t want God to ask him for anything he didn’t want to give. He would rather rely on his own skills and intelligence. But his own skills and intelligence were not good enough.

But chapter 9 begins with the word, “Nevertheless.” Nevertheless, God will shine a light for those who can’t see for themselves. These people did not create this light for themselves. God gives his presence, his light, to people who are groping in the darkness. They can continue to grope around in the dark, or they can walk by the light.

Joy emerges in the gloom (9:3)

This is an incredible contrast with what has come before. Isaiah has just prophesied destruction, and here he is talking about joy.

The tense these verbs are in is the perfect. “You HAVE enlarged the nation.” God is giving his people hope. Even though there will be judgment, it will be followed by joy. It will surely come. Joy emerges, even in the gloom.

Freedom breaks through the oppression (9:4)

Why is there joy? FOR God has delivered his people from oppression. Too often, Christians think that true oppression, true bondage is to personal sin from which Jesus frees us. Other people say that Jesus came to free people from political oppression. Which one is it? The answer is: both. Jesus came to free people from bondage to sin. The main reason for the conflict between people is first that people are in conflict with God. But we can’t get right with God and act like that is the end of the story. When we love God, we have to love our neighbor. And part of loving our neighbor means participating with God in freeing people from oppression. This means fighting against human trafficking. This means fighting against poverty. There are two yokes that God frees people from. We can’t forget either one.

“Midian’s defeat” is talking about Judges 6-7, where he delivered his people from a real-life oppressor. In case the people of Isaiah’s day didn’t believe him, he points to a concrete example that everyone would recognize: Remember when God came into this hopeless situation and freed you? He did it then, and he can do it again.

Peace overcomes strife (9:5)

How is God going to get rid of oppression? He’s going to get rid of war.

Earlier in this book, Isaiah said that armies would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (2:4). But here he goes even further. Not just the weapons, but even the boots and the bloody garments will be burned. There will be absolutely no warfare.

There is joy BECAUSE God has delivered from oppression, and he does that BECAUSE he has brought an end to war. How can this happen? Because of the son with all the names:

Wonderful Counselor – “wonder of a counselor”
wonder – power (as in God showing his wonders in Egypt).
counselor – wise. The kings of Israel and Judah lacked wisdom, but this figure is perfectly wise.

Mighty God – The person who is being talked about is none other than God in human form. He is not just a great person.

Father of Eternity – He is father forever. Many ancient kings called themselves fathers to their people. In the ancient world, fatherhood is about taking care of people. This person will be a father, a protector, forever. Some people have difficulty thinking of God as father. When the Bible talks about God as father, it is not saying that he is a father like any other father, or even a king like any other king. He is the father that other fathers were meant to look like, and the king that other kings were meant to look like. He will protect and take care of his people forever. He will never fail. Earthly fathers fail. Earthly leaders fail. God will never fail.

Prince of Peace – He is not the kind of prince who squashes all defiance. He doesn’t throw his weight around, like the king of Assyria. He doesn’t rely on the strength of others, like the king of Judah. He will base his kingdom on justice and righteousness, rather than violence and coercion. And he will do this forever.

Now that we know what this child does, we can ask: Who is this child? Ahaz’s son Hezekiah was a good king, but he didn’t do all the things that this passage talks about.

No one fits the bill until the night Jesus was born, when the sky filled with angels saying, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” (Luke 2:10)
Matthew makes this explicit in 4:15-16, when he describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry by quoting this very passage.

If we follow Jesus and put our trust in him, this passage applies to us. So because Jesus has been born, and the government is on his shoulders,

We can know light in the darkness.
We can know joy in the gloom.
We can know freedom in the oppression.
We can know peace in the strife.

The theme of this section of Isaiah, is “trust.” King Ahaz needed to trust God rather than his own wisdom. That is still the message for us. Where do you need to give Jesus “the government” today?

When he is given control, everything changes. It isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy in Isaiah’s day. Even when Isaiah confronted him, Ahaz wouldn’t give up control.

It’s scary for us to give up control, but that is because we’re selfish and have trouble trusting.
But Jesus is trustworthy, and giving him control of all of life is the only thing that gives life.
Invite him into the darkness. Invite him into the gloom. Invite him into the oppression. Invite him into the strife. Give him the government. His shoulders are big enough to carry it.

“For unto us.” Because unto us. Everything can be different.