“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.


“A New Kind of Normal” – Loneliness

I preached this sermon yesterday at my church. It was a difficult one to write. I think this is because it was more topical instead of being based on a single Bible passage. That made it harder for me to decide what to put in and leave out. In the end, I may have put too much in. In spite of that, my prayer is that God spoke through a fragile instrument.

p.s. – These are my notes, slightly fleshed-out so that they make sense. Not the entire text of the sermon.

We are in the midst of a series called “A New Kind of Normal,” based on the book by Carol Kent. We are examining places where our lives are not what we would want. We would prefer for things to return to our definition of “normal.” Instead, we sometimes need to redefine “normal” based on our actual experience.

Often when we think of people who are alone, we think of single people, divorced people and widowed people. But those are not the only people who struggle with loneliness. Married people can also be lonely. This sermon is directed toward all people who experience loneliness, whether they are single, divorced, widowed or yes, even married. The sermon is in three parts: the first looks at our experience of loneliness, the second looks at what the Bible says about loneliness, and the third presents two steps to a “solution” for loneliness.

Our experience of loneliness

Loneliness is a big part of our society, and it has become bigger in the last 50 years or so.

The most recent census showed that 25 percent, or 27.2 million of U.S. households consisted of just one person. In 1950, it was just 10 percent.
Robert Putnam wrote a book ten years ago called Bowling Alone, about the loss of community in American life. The book gets its title from the fact that the number of people who bowl in America has gone up in recent years, but the number of bowling leagues has gone down. People today are less likely to form associations with others than they were a generation ago.

Loneliness has even become more prevalent in the last 20 years or so.
A study in the American Sociological Review from 2006 showed that the average American had just 2 friends with whom they could discuss matters important to them. The number of people with NO close friends in 1985 was 10 percent. In 2006 – 25 percent. Another 19 percent said they had just one: their spouse.

This may seem strange, because we have much more connecting technology now than we used to: cell phones, e-mail, Facebook. And yet people are lonely. People have an itch for community, but it’s not being scratched by how we use technology. Why is that?

What the Bible says about loneliness

Let’s look for an answer in what the Bible says about loneliness. If you look up “loneliness” in a concordance, you won’t find much. The Bible was addressed to a culture that was much different from our own. It’s not that people didn’t experience loneliness back then. It’s that if you were on your own, loneliness was the least of your problems. The three most vulnerable types of people in ancient societies were widows, orphans and aliens – people who didn’t have the support structure of family.

But the Bible does have something to say about loneliness. Let’s begin at the beginning. You may want to write these passages down to look at later.

Genesis 2:18
In the beginning, God made Adam, the first human, and put him in the Garden of Eden. After he put him there, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Then, after having Adam look at and name all the animals, God created woman.

Then along came the serpent and convinced them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had told them not to do. Then come the events of Genesis 3:8-13. They hear God coming, and for the first time they hide. They are alienated from God. Adam blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on, as the old joke goes.

The roots of loneliness are right here: because our ancestors suspected God was not working in their best interests, there is now a loss of intimacy between humans and God. Our natural inclination now is to be alienated from God and from other people. Is it any wonder that people struggle with loneliness?

Leviticus 13:45-46
In the rest of the Old Testament, from time to time you see people who have lost family or community. Here in Leviticus, people with leprosy or other skin diseases are told they must live alone. This gives new meaning to the fact that Jesus healed lepers in his earthly ministry. Part of his purpose was to restore community. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

1 Kings 19:1-5a, 13b-18
Here we see the prophet Elijah after he had killed 450 false prophets. Despite this great victory, he was afraid of Jezebel and ran away. This is a kind of loneliness that was his own fault. He was not really alone, but he had pity on himself and was afraid of the queen more than he was afraid of God.

The Psalmist’s loneliness: Psalms of Lament. Two good examples: Psalm 88:8, 15-18, 102:1-11. In psalms of lament, the psalmists feel abandoned by God and by other people. So far we’ve seen at least two kinds of loneliness: sometimes loneliness happens because community is taken from us, but sometimes loneliness happens because we are feeling frightened and sorry for ourselves.

New Testament loneliness: Jesus did not experience loneliness for most of his life. The only time he experienced loneliness was on the cross. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He is quoting the opening of Psalm 22. Jesus was experiencing a distance from his Father that he had never known. Jesus always referred to God as his Father, but here he uses the less intimate term “God.” At the end of Psalm 22, the psalmist is vindicated by God, and Jesus knew that he, too, would be vindicated by his resurrection. All the same, he experienced abandonment on the cross, even if he knew it was temporary.

2 Timothy 4:9-18. The final stop on our tour of loneliness in the Bible has us look at Paul’s loneliness at the end of his second letter to Timothy. Paul is in prison and writes to his protege Timothy toward the end of his life. He expresses the desolation that several of his friends and associates have left him. He knows that God is always with him, but that doesn’t take away the pain of being betrayed and deserted by humans.

So what do we learn from this crash course in what the Bible says about loneliness? We learn that:

1. Loneliness is a result of alienation from God and other people.
2. Loneliness can happen because of self-pity and self-absorption (as in the case of Elijah).
3. Loneliness can happen because we lack a community, or have been abandoned by our friends (as in the case of Paul).
4. Loneliness can happen if we feel abandoned by God.

The “solution” to loneliness: moving from loneliness to solitude with God and from solitude to community.

“Solution” is in quotes because there is no permanent solution to loneliness in this life. It is part of the human experience. Even if we go through long stretches where we don’t experience loneliness, none of us is completely immune.

Some of you may ask “Why isn’t marriage a solution to loneliness?” Two reasons: First, we’re not in the Garden of Eden anymore. Even if we get married, it’s still possible to feel lonely. Loneliness has a lot to do with our expectations of other people. If we expect a marriage partner to ease our loneliness and make us feel good all the time, we are going to be disappointed. Second, not everyone is going to get married. I don’t want to present marriage as a solution for single people, because we will not all experience marriage.

The first step in the “solution” is solitude. When we’re lonely, the biggest temptation is to distract ourselves. We call or e-mail people; we check our Facebook. But the way to make loneliness productive is to turn that loneliness into solitude. We need to go into the desert of loneliness and turn it into a garden of solitude. Henri Nouwen wrote,

“When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen with attention to the words and the worlds of others, but when we are driven by loneliness, we tend to select just those remarks and events that bring immediate satisfaction to our own craving needs.” – Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

When we are lonely, we are restless and unhappy, and we reach out to other people in order to have them meet our needs. When we are in solitude, we are content, we are listening to God, and we are able to listen to, care for and be present with people. What does solitude look like? Jesus gives us an example. He often sought solitude with his Father:

Mark 1:35 – “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
Luke 5:15 -”Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
Luke 6:12 – “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” Jesus led a very busy life, but always made time for solitude. When we’re lonely, shouldn’t we at least ask ourselves: am I reaching out to people for selfish reasons? Do I need solitude with God right now?

There are lots of ways to practice solitude. Spending daily time in prayer is one. Setting aside regular time to go on silent retreats is another. People who are really experienced with solitude can do it even in the midst of people. Richard Foster wrote:

Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times. Crowds, or the lack of them, have little to do with this inward attentiveness. It is quite possible to be a desert hermit and never experience solitude. But if we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.” – Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline

The second step in the “solution” is moving from solitude to community. And it’s really a two-step. We go from solitude to community, then back to solitude then back to community.

The Bible tells us that God’s people ought to be a community that reaches out to the lonely. God’s people ought to be a family:
Matthew 12:46-50 – Jesus: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
John 19:26-27 – Jesus on the cross: “here is your mother,” and “here is your son.”
Acts 2:45-47 – “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Galatians 6:10 – “let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers.”
Eph. 2:19 – “you are members of the household of God.”
The early Christians knew this. When there were plagues in the cities of the Roman Empire, nearly everyone cleared out, except for the Christians. They stayed behind to take care of the sick and dying, whether they were biological family or not. Julian the Apostate at one point wrote to his pagan priests, saying that Christians put them to shame because Christians took care of everyone. The reason why pagan priests couldn’t do this as naturally is because their gods didn’t humble themselves and die like outcasts.

Julian’s question to the pagan priests is a good question for us in the 21st century: “Why can’t we do the same thing?” We need to look to Luke 5:12-16 for guidance. Like the leper, we need to turn to Jesus to heal us from sin and the things that make us lonely, whether it is our self-pity, or whether we have been abandoned by others. When Jesus heals us, he always restores us to community. We always go from loneliness to solitude, and from solitude to community.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31: “One Body, Many Parts”

This past Sunday, I preached at my church. Soon the church will post the audio of it on its Web site, but for now here are my notes. I’ve fleshed them out a bit so you can follow the gist of the sermon:

What do the letters “INFP” mean? They are a Myers-Briggs type, and this is in fact my Myers-Briggs type. I visited a Web site this week that lists famous people who are listed under each personality type. Just for fun, I’ll read some famous INFPs:

Homer (author of the Iliad and the Odyssey)
Mary, mother of Jesus
John, the beloved disciple
Luke, author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts
William Shakespeare
Helen Keller, deaf and blind author
Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood)
Dick Clark (American Bandstand)
Neil Diamond, vocalist
Tom Brokaw, news anchor
Julia Roberts, actor
Fred Savage (“The Wonder Years”)
Fictional INFPs:
Anne (Anne of Green Gables)
Calvin (Calvin and Hobbes)
Bastian (The Neverending Story)
E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial

The Myers-Briggs isn’t the only personality test out there. Every time I log in to Facebook, it tells me that another one of my friends has taken a test to, say, find out which Muppet they are. In addition to personality tests, for Christians there are also spiritual gifts inventories. You take them, and you can figure out where you fit in the church: whether you should be prophesying or making coffee.

Why do people love these kinds of assessments so much? I would argue that we want to know that we’re not strange. We want to know that we are unique and that our quirks have a purpose. We want to know where we fit in.

There were no Myers-Briggs types in the ancient world, but here Paul is scratching that itch for significance for the Corinthians. He does it with a twist, though: he says “you are unique, and you matter – but it’s not all about you. You have special gifts, but you fit into a larger body.” The big idea in this passage is not just that we are special, but that God has put us all in the same body, each with unique gifts, and we need each other.

The Corinthians thought the Christian life was all about them. They thought that having spectacular gifts was the sign of true spirituality, and people who didn’t have them weren’t really spiritual. The spectacular gift to beat all spectacular gifts for them was speaking in tongues. So their worship was very disorderly, because the people who spoke in tongues were falling all over themselves to prove how super-spiritual they were, and were ignoring other people. The passage breaks into four parts:

12-13: No Lone Rangers

Paul tries to correct the Corinthians’ error by comparing the church to a body. We are Christ’s body, and we are each parts of that body. What unites us is not our race or our culture or our social status, but our baptism by one Spirit. Take a minute to think about how radical this is – especially in Corinth, where many of the problems the church had had to do with their preoccupation with status. Now take a minute to think about how strange this seems even today. There are, or should be, no race divisions in the church, no distinctions based on status. If the church remembered this throughout its history, modern slavery wouldn’t have happened – or at least the church wouldn’t have been complicit in it. It’s a good thing that some Christians, like William Wilberforce, understood what verses like this meant.

What unites us is that we were all baptized by the same Spirit. What is spirit baptism? It is not necessarily the manifestation of a spectacular gift. This is what happens to all of us when we trust Jesus and begin to follow him. Everyone is baptized once, and from then on they’re part of Christ’s body together with everyone who is now following or has ever followed Christ.

14-20: No Reason to Feel Inferior

What Paul says next is directed to those people who think that because they are not gifted in a particular way, that they are useless. Some people may think, “Well, if the church is a body, then I’m just an appendix. I’m not up front, I can’t play an instrument, I don’t have anything to contribute.” Paul is saying, though, that there are no unimportant parts in Christ’s body. The person who makes the coffee or vacuums the floor is just as important as the one who is preaching.

Also, if everyone had the so-called “important” gifts, then the church couldn’t function. If everyone did the same thing, Paul says we would be like a body covered in eyes.

I used to work at a camp when I was in college, and one summer our staff was pretty dysfunctional. One way this dysfunction manifested itself was in chapel, which we had every day. A lot of the staff wanted to be part of the worship team. A few weeks into the summer, half of the counselors were up on stage during chapel and everyone else was trying to look after their kids plus the kids of everyone on stage! This happened because we let ourselves believe that being part of the worship team was the best thing to do, so everyone wanted to do it. The problem is, when you think that some gifts are more prestigious or better than others, the church becomes dysfunctional.

21-26: No Reason to Feel Superior

Next, Paul defends against the other side of the coin: letting our significance blow up into self-importance. No gift is important on its own. Each person has his or her own proper place in the body, and we all need each other to function properly.

In v. 22, Paul says that the “weaker” parts are actually more necessary – like the internal organs. Your liver and your kidneys might look weak, but you can’t survive without them.

In v. 23, Paul is probably talking about sexual organs. We make sure that they are covered and treated with respect. God has actually given greater honor to those parts of his body that seem inferior. This is the way God works. He lifts up the weak.

In v. 26, Paul says we are knit together. We are supposed to care if someone else in the body is suffering. This applies to the local body, the church, and also to the worldwide body. When a member of the body is persecuted in a distant part of the world, we are supposed to suffer. When a member of the body is dying because of disease or hunger, we are supposed to suffer.

Likewise, when it’s going well for a member of the body, we are supposed to rejoice, because our destiny is tied up with these other members of the body.

27-31: The Best Gifts Build Others Up

Paul is driving the metaphor home here. Just in case anyone missed it before, he’s saying “YOU are the body of Christ.”

When we keep reading, we might think, “Hold on a minute. Paul has been going on about how no gifts are better than others, and now it looks like he’s ranking them.” Paul does give a list of gifts here at the end, and he does say some gifts are better than others, but he has a totally different ranking system from the Corinthians. The Corinthians say that the best gifts are the most spectacular ones; the ones that let you show off how spiritual you are – but he’s saying that the best gifts instead are the ones that build up other people the most. What are the greater gifts? Gifts that build up others, like prophecy (see 14:1-5):

“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy… Those who speak in a tongue edify themselves, but those who prophesy edify the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. Those who prophesy are greater than those who speak in tongues, unless they interpret, so that the church may be edified.”

What does it mean to “desire the greater gifts”? It doesn’t mean that we can ask the Spirit for what we want, and then like a vending machine he will give it to us. Then the focus would still be on us. It means that we should desire above all to build others up and serve the rest of the body.

In America, individual freedom and self-expression are part of our history. Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” People don’t go to New York City to visit the Statue of Responsibility. They don’t go to Philadelphia to see the Love Bell. Liberty is part of our DNA as a nation. And today, individual liberty and self-expression are becoming more important than ever. Sociologist Jean Twenge wrote a book recently called Generation Me. In it, she writes about how the current generation of young people is more focused on the needs of the individual than ever:

“So much of the “common sense” advice that’s given these days includes some variation on “self:”

Worried about how to act in a social situation? “Just be yourself.”

What’s the good thing about your alcoholism/drug addiction/murder conviction? “I learned a lot about myself.”

Concerned about your performance? “Believe in yourself.” (Often followed by “and anything is possible.”)

Should you buy the new pair of shoes or get the nose ring? “Yes, express yourself.”

Why should you leave the unfulfilling relationship/quit the boring job/tell off your mother-in-law? “You have to respect yourself.”

Trying to get rid of a bad habit? “Be honest with yourself.”

Confused about the best time to date or get married? “You have to love yourself before you can love someone else.”

Should you express your opinion? “Yes, stand up for yourself.””

Freedom is better than slavery, but it should never be the number one priority. Biblically, this is the wrong way to go. Instead, love should be our number one priority. Building up others should be our number one priority. Not using our gifts and our freedom the way we want.

Some of us might say, “God has gifted me to play the bagpipes, and I’ll leave the church unless I get to play them during worship.” That’s not what God gives us gifts for. God gives us gifts to build others up, not for making ourselves happy through self-expression.

Being part of the body also helps us to discern what our gifts are. Apart from community, we can deceive ourselves into believing we have gifts that we don’t.

Finally, Remember 1 Corinthians 12:7: A spiritual gift is a “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul goes on in chapter 13 to tell us how we should exercise whatever gifts we have. Love isn’t a special gift that some of us have and others don’t. It’s how all of us should exercise whatever gifts we have, no matter what they are. We can’t all have spectacular gifts. We can’t all have gifts that make other people sit up and take notice. But that’s not the point. We can all use our gifts to build one another up in love, and that is more important.

Numbers 21:4-9 – Looking for Life

Last weekend, Mary and I went down to Clear Lake, WA for me to preach at Community Covenant Church of Clear Lake. I had met the pastor there back in December at a gathering of local Covenant, and he sent out a general request for people to fill his pulpit during the month of March while he took some time off preaching. I responded, asked him what text he had planned on preaching from before he decided to take time off, and he said Numbers 21:4-9, the story of the brazen serpent in the wilderness.

What follows is not the full manuscript. I’m still working out what feels most comfortable for me in sermon preparation, and while it worked for a while for me to write a full manuscript and then condense it into an outline, this time I just did a detailed outline.

Numbers 21:4-9 – “Looking for Life”

Introduction: Snakes and humans have always had a strained relationship. Snakes are always portrayed in movies and popular culture as villains. Today we’re going to talk about one snake that wasn’t a villain. We’re going to go through this passage, and then I’ll close with three areas of application.

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.”

verse 4 and Background: The Israelites have come out of Egypt, met God at Sinai, sent scouts into the land, didn’t trust God, and were condemned to wander. They wander, Moses and Aaron make a big mistake and are condemned in ch. 20, Miriam and Aaron die (20:22-29), and they finally start to move toward the promised land. Then they are told by the Edomites that they can’t pass through, and they have to go toward the Red Sea. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, they’re finally starting to move. Now they’re backtracking (20:14-21), and they’re starting to grumble. Again.
The word “Impatient” literally means “short.”

“The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’”

verse 5: Israelites had previously complained (in 14:2ff, 20:3-5). They had also previously complained about the manna (Num 11). This is the last time they did it.
1. Grumbling is a sign of the passive, inactive bystander. Active people are too busy to grumble. (R. Bewes)
2. Grumbling affects the way we see reality. When we grumble, we aren’t seeing things clearly. The Israelites said “there is no food,” but clearly there was food every day. It was miraculous food that God provided them with day after day, but they couldn’t see it for what it was because they had already decided to grumble and feel sorry for themselves.

“Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”

verse 6: Some translations say “poisonous,” and other more literal translations say “fiery.” Some commentators think that this is referring to literal fire, but most believe that “fiery” is a reference to the effect of the venom.
The grumbling does not lead to provision of food and water, as it had previously, and we don’t hear about Moses interceding with God. What we hear about is judgment for their grumbling.

“The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”

verse 7: The people, realizing their sin, ask Moses to pray for the Lord to take away the snakes. The Israelites are actually beginning to show some humility and responsibility.

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

verse 8: God didn’t take away the threat, like the Israelites asked him to, and like he did earlier (Num. 11:1-3, with the fire consuming the edges of the camp, and 12:10, with Miriam’s leprosy).
Why? Maybe because in previous episodes, the Israelite repentance has been short-lived. The Israelites have been complaining since leaving Egypt, and every time that God has provided for them, they just went back to complaining.
This time, he doesn’t take away the threat, he provides a mode of healing. There seem to be echoes here of 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul asks God three times to take away his “thorn in the flesh.” Instead of taking it away, God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
How many times do we ask for the same thing? We want God to take away the thing that gives us pain. Sometimes he does. But sometimes he has a different purpose, and we have to trust him. Joni Eareckson Tada broke her neck in a diving accident when she was 17 and was paralyzed from the chest down. At first, she hated her disability, she hated her wheelchair. But eventually, she came to believe that it was part of God’s plan for her. She has used her disability to become an advocate for others with disabilities. In one of her books she prays, “I know I wouldn’t know you … I wouldn’t love and trust you … were it not for this wheelchair.” We so often pray for God to just take away the things that threaten us and make us afraid. Sometimes God does take those things away, but other times he doesn’t take the danger away but instead provides a way to handle suffering.

“So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

verse 9: Moses makes a bronze serpent, and people look at it and are healed. How could looking at a snake heal somebody? We live in the 21st century. We know about medicine, and we know that this is not the way it works – even if a snake on a pole is the symbol of medicine (the Rod of Asclepius).
But it isn’t the snake on the pole that saves people. It is the faith in the one behind it that saves. This isn’t some magic snake. The only reason it had power is that God chose it as his way of healing. God does this throughout Scripture. He asks people to do things they think are silly because he wants people to put their trust in him.
Looking is the same as believing and committing. When they looked at the snake, they believed that the Lord would heal them, and the Lord kept his promise.

2 Kings 18:4: The Israelites forgot this when King Hezekiah had to destroy the snake because the people were treating it like an idol: “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” (“piece of brass”)
The Israelites forgot that God was behind the serpent, and thought that in itself the serpent was magical. This is a natural tendency that persists throughout history. People keep looking for a silver bullet. This is why relics were so important in the Middle Ages. This is why books like “The Secret” are popular even today. We do this because putting our trust in something magical, or even in our own efforts, is easy, but putting our trust in God is hard.

For those of us who live after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, even after all this the brazen serpent may still seem like it’s far away and we can’t relate to it. Thankfully for us, Jesus refers to this story and shows us how to relate to it.

John 3:14-15: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Like the serpent, Jesus on the cross was the embodiment of both the curse and forgiveness of the curse. Snakes were the curse, and a snake was put up on a pole for all to see. Sin is our problem, and sin is put up on the cross for all to see. 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The cross is a visible sign of human failure, but also of God’s love. We look to an instrument of humiliation and death for a cure for our own humiliation and death.
Jesus’ being “lifted up” has a double meaning. First, he was literally lifted up from the ground. Second, he was exalted. Not afterwards, but while he was on the cross. This doesn’t make sense to the world. Deut. 21:23 says that anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.
Just like the serpent on a pole, there isn’t anything special about a man hanging on a cross. On the same day that Jesus died, two criminals were crucified with him. When Jews of that day looked at Jesus on the cross, they saw a blasphemer. When Romans of that day looked at Jesus on the cross, they saw a rebel and an insurrectionist. When non-Christians today look at Jesus on the cross, they see a good teacher, and they think it’s a shame that he had to die. But when Christians look at Jesus on the cross, they see something different. Just like the serpent on a pole, God decided that a man on a cross would be the means he would use to forgive and give life to people. It may seem silly to think that just looking and believing would give us life. But God works in the things we think are silly and foolish and humiliating.

3 applications:

Don’t grumble; look to God – Regardless of the cause of your suffering, grumbling is not the response that God wants from you. Phil 2:14 says “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” If you complain, you’re going to end up focused on yourself and will miss out on what God wants to show you in your circumstances. Also, grumbling becomes a lifestyle.

Look to God and not just the snake – Stay focused on God. Sometimes Christians get distracted by good things. In the Middle Ages, it was things like relics from saints. Today, it might be 7 steps to a happier life, or giving money or time to a ministry so God will bless us, or trying to get rid of sin on our own just by trying harder. These things aren’t bad, but if we look to them instead of the Cross, they’re not going to give us life. This is always a problem. John Calvin said the human heart is an idol factory. Every generation of God’s people has its own set of distractions that will pull it away from God. But we must look to the Cross.

Look to God in Jesus and believe – If you are not a Christian, I ask you to believe that he can forgive you and give you life, and accept that forgiveness and life from him. Even if you are a Christian, you may feel that there is some area of your life that God couldn’t possibly want to forgive you for. Or you may think that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, but this really doesn’t affect your life from day to day. I ask you to look to Jesus on the cross, and believe that he is there because he loves you and wants you to be with him. Believe that he, like that snake, was lifted up to give you life, and accept that life from him. Trust him with your life, and he will take away the poisonous snakebite of sin that affects us all.

Communion as Worship (I Corinthians 11:17-34)

This is the sermon I gave last Sunday, February 1, at my church. The audio can be found at the church’s Web site, http://www.bellinghamcovenantchurch.org.

This is the fourth sermon in a series on worship, and one very important thing that the church does when it gathers together to worship is eat the Lord’s Supper together. It is a mysterious thing, and different Christians have tried to express that mystery through the many names that are used to call it: the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table.

Many of us only have a vague idea of what we’re doing when we take the Lord’s Supper. When I was 15, I was part of a Roman Catholic choir that sang in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We sang at a Mass one morning, and after singing we all got in line and the priest gave us the “host” – a wafer. I grew up in a Baptist church, and I was used to eating cubes of white bread at communion. I had no idea what to do with this thing that had all these elaborate designs on it, so I put it in my pocket. It wasn’t until I got back to my seat that I looked around and saw everyone else eating theirs, so I took it out of my pocket and ate it without anyone looking. Turns out I probably should have left it in my pocket, because one of the Catholics in the choir scolded me later because only Catholics are supposed to take Mass in a Catholic church.

This passage helps us to know more clearly what we are doing when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. It also helps us to understand good ways and bad ways to celebrate the Lord’s Supper by showing us the bad example of the Corinthian church. The passage comes in three sections. The first one has to do with what is wrong in Corinth. The second has to do with what the Lord’s Supper is supposed to be, and the third has to do with how to celebrate it.

One: The nature of the problems in Corinth, and of this particular problem (17-22).

Corinth was an old Greek city that fought hard against the expansion of the Romans. It was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, and then was re-founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. It is located at a strategic place in Greece, where the mainland meets the large southern peninsula called the Pelepponesus. It became a major trading center because of this location. It was one of the largest cities in the Empire, and it was one of the most influential because of its imperial backing. Status – what class or social group you belonged to – was very important in Corinth, and as a result many of the problems the church in Corinth had were because of their cultural preoccupation with status.

This problem that Paul starts to deal with in verse 17 is one of those problems. The church in Corinth was a house church, or a series of house churches, like most early churches were. They would celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, but they would conduct it like every other meal in their culture – that is, they would divide everyone up by status. The rich people were in a special room, and the poor people were out in the atrium. Even at one table, people were served different food based on their status. If you were rich and had high status, you’d get the lobster. If you had low status, you’d get a burger from McDonald’s. This is what was happening in Corinth. The rich, high-status people were getting together beforehand, gorging themselves and getting drunk, and the poor people would show up later and everyone would be laying around the table, belching.

In verse 20, Paul says that because of this, they weren’t even really eating the Lord’s Supper. It was meant to be a common meal that was shared by everyone in the church, and the Corinthians made a travesty out of it by treating it like any other meal. They divided people up by class and they humiliated poor people.

Today, it would be like saying, “We’re going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper today, and if your income is over $100,000, you can come first and have the biggest piece of bread.” And status doesn’t just have to do with money: it can be dividing people up by race, or by education, or how many children a person has, or whether people have tattoos, or whether people have children who are Christians – any difference has at least the potential to be divisive. If we divide over those things, we’re not really eating the Lord’s Supper either.

Two: The nature of the Lord’s Supper (23-26).

Paul decides that he’s got to remind the Corinthians of the basics. They have forgotten what the Lord’s Supper is all about, and so he takes them back to the Last Supper, the meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was crucified. We could say a lot about what Paul says, because it’s packed with meaning. But for today, I’m going to point out four things that the Lord’s Supper is.

First, It’s a memorial.

“This is my body” and “Do this in remembrance of me.” Some of you may have come from a Catholic background, or you may just know that Catholics think the bread and wine actually turn into Jesus’ body and blood. There is a big theological word for this, called “transubstantiation.” They say that Jesus said, “This is my body,” and they say that he meant it was literally his body. But we don’t believe that, and here is an analogy that explains why. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” he was talking about the bread in the same way that we talk about photographs. I can show you a picture of myself and say, “This is me,” and you won’t be confused whether Elliot is the person speaking or the person in the photograph. In the same way, the bread does not literally and magically turn into Jesus’ body. Jesus’ disciples weren’t confused when he said “This is my body.” They didn’t ask, “Well, if that’s your body, then who are you?” They knew that when he said “This is my body,” he was talking about the bread as a symbol of his body.

But some Protestant churches go all the way in the other direction, saying that the bread is only something we use to remind us of Jesus. Some churches don’t like to use the word “sacrament,” and call it an “ordinance” instead. They say that there’s nothing important or symbolic about the bread and wine, we just do it to remember.

But we don’t go to that extreme either. We use the word “sacrament,” which just means “a symbol that has religious or spiritual significance for a community of faith.” Taking the Lord’s Supper isn’t just something we do to remember Jesus. It’s a symbol – like a flag, which represents the identity and aspirations of a nation, or a wedding ring, which represents the covenant commitment you have made to your husband or wife. Symbols are never just symbols. So the Lord’s Supper is “just bread and grape juice” in that they don’t magically turn into Jesus’ body and blood, but it is also not “just bread and grape juice” because it is a symbol. Paul himself says in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?”

If this is a little confusing to you, you’re not alone. I’ve been trying to explain symbols, but symbols can’t ever be fully explained. That’s why we use them – to signify something that we can’t fully put into words. There will always be some mystery when symbols are involved.

To sum up this first point: We do this in remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a memorial, but it is not just a cerebral action. It’s not just something that happens in our mind. Eating and drinking turn it into something that we do with our whole being. As Gordon Smith says in his book, A Holy Meal, on the Lord’s Supper, “We need to come to the table regularly, when we feel like it and when we don’t, for the great danger is that we would forget. We can so easily forget. I do not mean that we no longer recall or believe that something happened. Rather, our forgetting is one of no longer living aligned with the reality and wonder of Christ’s death and resurrection. We fail to live in the light of this ancient event. So easily through neglect the cross and the resurrection no longer penetrate our present, enabling us to live in the light of the gospel.” (42-3)

Second, the Lord’s Supper is fellowship (communion).

In the church where I grew up, there were some impressive stained glass windows. There was one on the left of Jesus carrying a lamb, there was one on the right of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion, and there was one on the back wall of Jesus ascending up into heaven. At the bottom of all the windows, there was a little sign that said, “Given in memory of so-and-so.” At the front of the sanctuary there was a table, and on the table was written the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” As a little kid, I thought that this was just a table given in honor of some person who had died, and I thought it strange that there was no name on it.

But my little kid thoughts were not right. Jesus isn’t just a dear friend who has died, and who we remember by eating bread and drinking wine or grape juice. He’s alive, and he is here with us when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. That’s why we sometimes hear this supper called “Communion,” or fellowship. We are in communion with one another, and we are in communion with him. That’s what the big problem was in the Corinthian church: they weren’t celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the right way because they weren’t in communion with one another. They didn’t look at each other and say, “We are one. Jesus has made us one.”
Even though it’s a little out of place, I’d like to mention what Paul says in verse 29 about “discerning the body.” The “body” that he is talking about is probably not the bread, or Jesus’ literal body. Paul is talking about divisions in the church, and so the “body” he is talking about is the body of Christ, the church.

So the practical effect of the Lord’s Supper being communion is that we should not come to communion when we are not at peace with one another. If we are refusing to talk to someone, or holding a grudge against them, we should not be participating in communion. In the Lord’s Prayer we repeat the words that Jesus taught us to pray: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” We need to be at peace before we participate in communion. If we want to be at peace with God, then we have to be at peace with other people.

Of course, sometimes these things are out of our control. Here is where Paul’s words in Romans 12:18 are helpful: he says that we should be at peace with everyone, “insofar as it depends on us.” We should do everything in our power to be at peace with people before participating in communion. But if we have tried to be reconciled with another person – if we have written a letter and they don’t respond, or we’ve called them and they’ve hung up on us, or we’ve tried to talk to them and they’ve ignored us, then we’ve done all we can do.

Third, the Lord’s Supper is a covenant renewal ceremony.

“This cup is a new covenant in my blood.” Jesus is saying that his blood, his sacrifice, replaces the old covenant, or agreement between God and people, written about in Exodus 24:3-8. This is the new covenant that Jeremiah wrote about in Jeremiah 31:31-34, when God said that he would write the law on our hearts.

All covenants are represented and remembered through symbolic acts. In the Old Testament, it usually involved animal sacrifice. An animal would be cut up into a few pieces. Part of the animal would be sacrificed – burnt up on an altar – and part of it would be eaten in a covenant meal.

In the new covenant, Jesus is both the sacrifice and the one we are in covenant with. Earlier in 1 Corinthians (5:7), Paul called Jesus the Passover Lamb who has been sacrificed. In the church, those symbolic acts that we use to remember the covenant are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Whenever we take the Lord’s Supper, we remember the covenant we made with God when we were baptized.

So the Lord’s Supper is a covenant renewal ceremony. We come to the table to receive mercy and forgiveness for all the ways we have not lived up to who we should be, and to declare our intention to renew the covenant.

Fourth, the Lord’s Supper is a declaration of thanksgiving and hope.

“Eucharist” is one of the fancy words that is used to describe the Lord’s Supper, and it comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving, used here in verse 24. That’s all it means: thanksgiving. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it really is a celebration. Jesus gave thanks, so we should too. We give thanks to God the Father for creating the world and us, we give thanks to Jesus for saving us by sacrificing himself on the cross, and we give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in us and comfort us.

The Lord’s Supper is often linked with the Passover, and it should be: the Last Supper was probably a Passover meal, and Jesus is referred to in the Bible as the Passover lamb. But the Lord’s Supper was also associated in the early church with the peace offering of Leviticus 7:11-18. It is a way to give thanks and celebrate.

“as often as you eat this break and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” This meal that we share together doesn’t just look back at the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. It looks forward to another meal that Jesus will eat with us when he returns. This meal is called the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19. We look backward in thankfulness, and forward in hope.
The Lord’s Supper should remind us that, even though things may be bad in the world now, that’s not the way things are always going to be. We don’t have to ignore the bad things in the world, and we don’t have to be fearmongers. We can look at the world realistically and say that things are going to be well in the end.

This also encourages us in mission. We know that all will be well in the end, and this should encourage us to share this hope with our friends and neighbors.

Three: How to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (27-34).

Moving on to the last part of the passage, I’m going to talk a bit about how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I’m not going to talk about whether you should pass the plates or have little glasses or whether you should celebrate once a month or every week or four times a year. I’m going to talk about what should be going on in our hearts when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

There are a few words here that have been misunderstood over the years in a lot of churches. They are found in verse 27: “in an unworthy manner.” These words have been used to encourage people to think that just because they are sinful, they can’t take the Lord’s Supper because that would mean they are taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. But looking at the context, that isn’t what Paul means at all. When he warns the Corinthians against taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, he telling them that they shouldn’t abuse it. They shouldn’t make the Lord’s Supper about status.

In verse 28, “Examine yourselves” doesn’t mean “make sure you don’t have any sin.” We come to the Lord’s Table to receive mercy, and if we waited until we were all without sin, no one would be able to come. Jesus is our host at this table, and Jesus ate with sinners! Jesus welcomes us at this table the same way he welcomed and forgave Peter after he denied him.

“Examine yourselves” does not mean “make sure you don’t have any sin.” Rather, it means, “Repent of your sins so that you can come to the table with thanksgiving, knowing that your sins are forgiven.”

“Discern the body” is talking about the Body of Christ, the church. The Lord’s Supper is a table of mercy where you can receive forgiveness, but is not just about you. It is not even just about you and Jesus. It is also about the Body of Christ, the church, coming together to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is not just any meal; it is THE meal at which the church declares that we are ONE in Christ. The church is not a club of like-minded people getting together because we like the socializing. We are, or ought to be, a diverse group gathered around Jesus Christ. There should be no divisions at the Lord’s Table. If we divide ourselves, if we start to think that some are better than others, Paul says that it is possible that God will judge us.

Jesus is the only thing that can keep us together. I read an article in the Washington Post recently called: “Why the Ideological Melting Pot is Getting So Lumpy.” Here is an excerpt:

“About two in three Americans say they prefer to live around people belonging to different races, religions and income groups. In reality, however, survey research shows that people are increasingly clustering together among those who are just like themselves, especially on the one attribute that ties the others together — political affiliation.

Nearly half of all Americans live in “landslide counties” where Democrats or Republicans regularly win in a rout. In the 2008 election, 48 percent of the votes for president were cast in counties where President-elect Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by more than 20 percentage points, according to the Pew Research Center.

The clustering of Democrats in Democratic areas and Republicans in Republican areas has been intensifying for at least three decades: In 1976, only about a quarter of all Americans lived in landslide counties. In 1992, a little more than a third of America was landslide country.

A third of both Obama’s and McCain’s supporters have said they “detest” the other guy.

A consequence of such polarization is that large numbers of Americans no longer have much contact with people belonging to the other party. Many feel the views of their political opponents are not just wrong but incomprehensible.”

This is the way the world is: people congregate with other people who are the same race, the same income, the same political affiliation. The Bible tells us that the church should not be like this. We are called to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. We are called to preach the gospel to the whole world; not only to people who are just like us. The Lord’s Supper tells us that we are one in Christ, and we should always be reminded to draw others into that fellowship. This is what the world needs.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that the Lord’s Supper is a time of hope. We don’t just look back during the Lord’s Supper; we look forward.
If you don’t like getting together with the Body of Christ and celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, you probably won’t like the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. If it is all about you and Jesus, and you don’t think you need to be a part of a community of believers, then you’re going to hate what will happen when Jesus comes back. Because it’s not going to be just you and Jesus; there are going to be a LOT of people there. There are no lone ranger Christians. There are no Christians who can have a good relationship with Jesus without having good relationships with his church. Some of you may have had bad experiences, or been parts of dysfunctional churches, and I wish that had not been the case. But past experiences are no reason to give up on trying to be the community that Jesus wants us to be.

Advent Sermon: Barrenness and Faithfulness

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and I kicked it off with a sermon at church this morning. I think it went well; people were very encouraging afterward. The only thing that I would change is that I would cut it down time-wise. I got to be over my time limit and had to rush things at the end. But people didn’t seem antsy, which was good.

The passage I spoke on was Luke 1:5-25, the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth. I wrote out the whole manuscript, then delivered it from a condensed outline. The manuscript is posted below, and I’ll post a link to the audio when the church puts it onlinethe church has posted the audio online here. Before jumping right into it, be warned: it is about 3500 words long.

zechariah-and-gabrielSince I’m still relatively new around here, I’m going to introduce myself, and this sermon, by talking about some of my favorite things about Advent.

One of my favorite things about Advent is tradition. I’m not just talking about things like Advent wreaths and Christmas pageants, although I love those. I’m talking about unusual, unique traditions. I encountered one of these traditions when I lived in the Czech Republic. Every year on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, people in the Czech Republic dress up as three people: St. Nicholas, an angel, and a devil. Now, when I say St. Nicholas, I don’t mean Santa Claus. There is no fuzzy red suit. They dress up as ST. NICHOLAS, which means they’re dressed like bishops. So St. Nicholas and his two escorts go around to the houses of various parents with small children, and St. Nicholas quizzes the children. In the old days, he used to quiz them about their Bible and catechism knowledge. Nowadays, he usually just quizzes them on whether they’ve been bad or good, and the angel writes down their responses in a book. If the children have been good, St. Nicholas gives them small presents, like candy. If they’ve been bad, they get coal from the devil. Or if they’ve been really bad, the devil has a sack. He puts them in the sack, throws it over his shoulder, and runs out the door. The people dressed up as devils are usually friends of the parents, so they usually only run around the block and return the kids home. But nothing makes a kid want to be good more than the threat of being stuffed in a sack by the devil. So if there are any parents of small children who are looking for new Advent traditions this year, I’d just like to remind you that St. Nicholas Day is this coming Saturday.

Another one of my favorite things about Advent is Christmas songs. I love Christmas songs, and I always start listening to them way too early every year. One thing that I love about Christmas songs is that many of them are about God’s faithfulness, and about God breaking in and changing everything. It’s as if there is a curtain being pulled back on the universe so that we can see what is really going on. One of my favorite songs that is like this is O Come O Come Emmanuel: “and ransom captive Israel / that mourns in lonely exile here / until the Son of God appear / Rejoice, Rejoice Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel.” Another one of my favorites is “O Holy Night” – “long lay the world in sin and error pining / ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth / a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices / for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

This passage is also about God’s faithfulness, about God breaking in and changing everything. There are three aspects of his faithfulness that we’re going to look at: first, he gives hope in hopeless situations. Second he fulfills his promises. Third, because he is faithful, and because he fulfills his promises, we can wait hopefully.

First, God gives hope in hopeless situations. In verses five and six, Zechariah and Elizabeth are introduced, and it looks like they have everything going for them. Zechariah is a priest. Not only is Zechariah a priest, but he is married to a descendant of Aaron. This was not required of priests. And not only is Zechariah a priest, and Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron as well, but they were blameless. To say that they were blameless does not mean that they were perfect. This is the same language that the Bible uses about Abraham and Noah. It just means that they obeyed the written commandments and generally lived good lives.

But not all was well. They didn’t have any children, and they were old. In modern times, this would be a disappointment. But in the ancient world, it was far worse. It was a disaster, and for two reasons: economic and social. It was an economic disaster because if a couple didn’t have children, they didn’t have anyone to take care of them in their old age. Today it would be as if Zechariah and Elizabeth had no insurance and no savings. Socially, it was a disaster because everyone thought that if you were barren, it must be your fault. You must have done something wrong. In the Old Testament, it is clear that God controls whether people have children. Rachel says to her husband Jacob, “Give me children or I’ll die!” Jacob responds, “God has kept you from having children, not me!” (Gen. 30:1-2) When Rachel does have a son, she says, “God has taken away my humiliation.” (30:22-23). The Old Testament law says that if you are obedient to his commandments, God will bless your womb (Deut 28). Psalm 127 also makes clear that children are a blessing from the Lord. People that have lots of children are like warriors with their quivers full of arrows. The flip side of all this is that if God’s blessing shows itself in a lot of children, then the lack of children must mean that you have done something wrong. The Bible doesn’t say this, but many ancient Israelites inferred it. Even though we know that Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous, their neighbors didn’t. Their neighbors thought that Zechariah and Elizabeth had a terrible secret. This is why, at the end of the passage, Elizabeth says, “He has taken away my shame before the people.”

This wasn’t just a hopeless situation for Zechariah and Elizabeth; it was a hopeless situation for Israel. Why? There are two kinds of hints in this passage. One relates to the political situation. The first person mentioned in this passage is King Herod. Herod was Jewish by religion, but not by blood. It was scandalous for Jews to be ruled by someone who wasn’t part of their people. He also was a violent man, prone to suspect people of plotting against him. We remember him at this time every year because of his killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem because of his paranoia. He also killed three of his sons and one of his wives because he suspected them of disloyalty. When he was ill and at the end of his life, he wanted to make sure that Judea would mourn at his death. So he rounded up several Jewish leaders in one spot and gave the order for them to be killed when he died (thankfully for them, this order was not carried out). Perhaps worse than anything else he did, he kept the Jews under Roman rule. They were occupied by a foreign military, and had to pay exorbitant taxes. We also find hints about the political situation from Zechariah. When Gabriel appears, he says to Zechariah that he will have a son, but Zechariah doesn’t believe. Why? Because Zechariah was probably not praying for a son anymore. It was more likely that his prayer was for the redemption of Israel. And later on, after his son is born, he sings a song. And the main theme of this song is not gratitude for having a son (although he was grateful). No, the main theme is, “God has saved us from our enemies.”

Another reason we can see that Israel was in a hopeless situation is that in the Bible, barren women represent the whole people of God. There are several barren women in the Bible: Sarah (Gen. 18), Rebekah (Gen. 25), Rachel, (Gen.30), Samson’s mother (Judges 13) and Hannah, Samuel’s mother (1 Sam. 1-2). You may say, “Well, barren women is definitely a theme in the Bible, but how do they represent the people of God?” Look closely. In the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, Hannah has just given birth to Samuel. In verse 5 she says, “The barren has borne seven,” but later, in verse 9, she says, “The LORD will guard the feet of his faithful ones.” And in verse 10, she talks about “his king” and “his anointed.” In another place in the Old Testament, Isaiah also draws a parallel between Israel and a barren woman. In chapter 54 he says, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!” and he is talking about Israel, the people of God. In this passage, Luke wants us to know that Israel was also in a hopeless situation. God sent John (and later, Jesus) not just to give hope to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but to give hope to his people as well.

God gives hope in the hopeless situations of an elderly couple, and Israel, and he gives hope in our hopeless situations too. Maybe you are barren physically, like Zechariah and Elizabeth. Maybe you’re also like them in that your economic future seems in danger. Maybe you’re barren emotionally: you’re so burned out that you could barely drag yourself to church this morning. Maybe you’re barren spiritually; you’re suffering and it seems to you that God doesn’t listen. I want you to know that God is a God of hope. But what kind of hope does God give?

In our culture, we tend to move toward two false kinds of hope. The first kind of hope is a vague sense that things will get better someday. “There’s a better day coming around the bend,” or “Your luck is bound to change.” I like to call this kind of hope “politician hope.” This is the kind of vague hope that politicians give us before the election. I used to go to a pizza place where my favorite thing on the menu was the “Pre-election Promise Pizza.” And what was on the Pre-election Promise Pizza? Anything you want. This isn’t the kind of hope that God gives. It’s not concrete, there’s nothing substantial to it, and there’s no guarantee that anything will happen.

The second kind of false hope that we sometimes have is the hope that our desires will be fulfilled. Some of you know that I am a substitute bus driver. I have been driving the same route for the last couple of weeks for a driver who has had surgery. A lot of the time, when I enforce the rules on the bus, I notice that some of the kids start talking about how they want the regular bus driver back. They think that when the regular driver comes back, they will be able to sit where they want, they can have candy on the bus, and they can play with as many toys as they like. But I know that I am not any more strict than the regular bus driver. If anything, I am less strict. But these kids are just taking their desires, extending them out into the future, and giving themselves false hope. A lot of the hope we have in our culture is just wish fulfillment, but we often don’t know that things would really be better if we got what we wanted. The problem is that often, our desires are not what they should be. There is no guarantee that we will get what we want, and even if we got it, we will be disappointed.

So what kind of hope does God give? The hope that God gives is based on his character and his promises. Christian hope is, as the author of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6:19). Later, he says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” The reason why our hope is sure is because God, who promised, is faithful. Hope in God is based on who he is, what he has done, and what he has said he will do. It is based on his faithfulness. Let’s return to the text and see how the hope he gives is related to his promises.

The second aspect of God’s faithfulness is that he keeps his promises. Zechariah is chosen by lot to go into the sanctuary to burn incense, probably the only time in his life he will be able to do that. There were thousands of priests in Israel at this time, but only one temple. So they were divided into 24 groups, and each one went up to the temple on two non-consecutive weeks a year. Even when there was only one group at the temple, there were still not enough priestly tasks for everyone to have a job. They cast lots for things like burning incense, and a priest probably only did it once in his life. In other words, this moment when Zechariah goes into the holy place is the high point of his life as a priest. The angel Gabriel appears to him, and tells him that he is going to have a son.

zechariah-and-gabriel-2God is doing two things here through his messenger Gabriel. He is making a promise, and he is fulfilling an earlier promise. The promise he makes is clear; you can see it in the text: “You’re going to have a son, he’s going to be great, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, he’s going to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

But what we need to look more closely to see is that this is a fulfillment of earlier promises. And Luke doesn’t want us to miss this, so he fills this passage with echoes from the Old Testament. When Gabriel says that John will have the spirit of Elijah, he is quoting the prophet Malachi. Malachi was the last prophet of the Old Testament, and his book is the last book of the Old Testament. The last two verses read like this:

“5 I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” God promised to Malachi that he would act. Gabriel is saying, and Luke is saying, that the day when God acts has come. God made a promise, and he is sticking by it.

Later in Luke’s gospel (chapter 3), John calls himself “the voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord” from Isaiah 40. The important point about Isaiah 40 is that it was calling the Israelites back from exile in Babylon. John saw his mission, and Luke saw John’s mission, to alert people to the fact that God was returning them from exile. Luke makes sure that we know that God is not just making promises, but he is fulfilling his earlier promises.

Zechariah didn’t get this at first. He heard the angel talk about joy and gladness, and it was so unlike what he had known in his life so far that he couldn’t believe it. He didn’t remember God’s promises. So he asked for a sign. “How will I know?” Gabriel sees his lack of faith in God’s promises, and tells Zechariah that he won’t be able to speak for a while. Gabriel essentially tells Zechariah, “Think about it and see whether this is true.” He got the sign he was asking for, but maybe not the one he was looking for. Zechariah has some time to think about it, and then when his son is born, he sees the fulfillment of God’s promise and he understands.

God makes promises to us as well. Jesus promised that we would receive the Holy Spirit. He promised that he would be with us always. He promised that we could receive forgiveness through him.
One thing that he has not promised us is that we will not suffer. It is important to remember this, because we sometimes think that if we’re good, nothing bad will happen to us. But there is no correlation between being good and not suffering. In John 9, Jesus’ disciples see a man born blind and ask him: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responds that this didn’t happen because of sin, but so that God’s works might be revealed – and Jesus heals him. In Luke 13, Jesus mentions a group of people who had been killed when a tower fell on them. The conventional wisdom of the day said that they must have died because they had sinned. But Jesus says the lesson is that all people need to repent, because if they don’t, they will also die. Another example is Job, who was a good man, but who suffered. His friends came to him and said, “Look, Job, we know you did something wrong to deserve this punishment. Confess, and everything will be all right.” Job says, “If I knew of anything to confess, I would! But I don’t know why this happened.” The ultimate example of a good person who suffered, though, is Jesus. Because we live after Jesus came, we have a resource for dealing with our suffering that Zechariah didn’t: we know how much God himself has suffered. Are you alone? Jesus died alone, abandoned by those he loved. Do you feel rejected? Jesus was rejected. Are you in pain? Jesus died an agonizingly painful death. We don’t know why we suffer. But the cross tells us that our suffering is not because God doesn’t care. God suffered for us, and God suffers with us. When Jesus appears to Saul in Acts 9, does he ask: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute my followers?” No, he asks why Saul is persecuting him. Jesus suffered for us, and Jesus suffers with us.

It is all right to pray for relief from suffering, though, as Paul prayed for relief from his thorn. Sometimes God heals. But other times, his response to us is the same as his response to Paul: “my grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Suffering is not the end for us, though. Another promise that Jesus has made is that he will come again, and wipe every tear from our eyes. He has promised that there will be a resurrection from the dead, and that, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “Death will be swallowed up in victory.”

Finally, because God is faithful, and because God always keeps his promises, we wait with hope. Waiting is a necessary part of life. This is an unpopular thing to say in our day and age, because control is one of our biggest idols. Money gives us control over our future. Technology gives us control over our environment. Medicine gives us control over our bodies. Money, technology and medicine are not bad things in themselves. But we often use them to convince ourselves that we are the ones in control. Unfortunately for us, though, we will all run into our limits. We will all have a crisis of control, whether it is big or small. Why do we get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic? I don’t know whether you do, but I sure do. Why is that? Because I control most of the things in my life, but one thing I can’t control is the behavior of other drivers. And that makes me mad. Others of us may get angry when we have bigger crises of control, like if we get sick, or a loved one gets sick or dies, or when the economy goes bad. I don’t know why these things happen, but I do know that when they do happen, God is being merciful to us. When we have a crisis of control, God is showing us the way things really are. And the way things really are is that we are utterly dependent.

So waiting is unavoidable in this life. Will we wait without hope, as Zechariah did? Will we get angry and try to maintain control? Or will we wait with hope? If you are suffering from some kind of barrenness – whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual – or if you’re tempted to give up hope and stop believing that God keeps his promises, take heart. Be encouraged, because God says to us the same thing that Gabriel said to Zechariah: Don’t be afraid. Jesus says to us in Luke 12:6-7:

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Again, he says in Revelation 1:17:

“Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.”

That is what the season of Advent is all about. It’s about remembering that we are still waiting, but also remembering that we have hope because of what God has done in the past and what he has promised for the future.