3) Pierced for Our Iniquities: The Love of God in Action
5) Following Christ
6) The Rock of Our Salvation
7) Isaiah 6: Our Holy God
8) Enduring Ridicule for Our Lord
9) Overcoming Disappointment With Thankfulness
10) Unfaithful Leaders: The Failure of Solomon
11) Healing Dysfunctional Relationships
12) Living with the Father
13) Living and Hoping According to the New Life
14)Born to Die
15) Grace: Something to Live By
Ministering to the Prodigal Child
As youth step out on their own into adulthood, parents wonder with bated breath what the next news will be, what the next phone call will bring—great joy and surprise or heartache and disappointment. In Luke 15 is the story known as “The Prodigal Son.” Most of you would be surprised to find out that that word “prodigal” is not in your Bible. The word “prodigal” is an old-fashioned word that simply means “extravagant” or “recklessly extravagant” and it was used to describe a rich man’s irresponsible son. This story is a parable. Parables are human stories with moral and spiritual meanings. “There was a man who had two sons and the younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had and he set off for a distant country and there he squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in the whole country and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country who sent him to his fields to feed his pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything and when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare and here I am, starving to death? I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called you son. Make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him and he ran to his son and threw his arms around him and he kissed him and the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘…quick, bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it because we are going to have a feast today and celebrate. For the son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and now is found.’”
Let me highlight three truths from the parable of the prodigal son. First, we learn from Luke 15:11-13 that we must release the prodigal to go his own way. That is hard to do. It is frustrating and painful. We resist it because we want to prevent our children from experiencing pain. We want to protect them from danger and harm. But God designed us to be free-will beings. And as we mature we are to grow toward that end. Turn over to Genesis chapter 2. In Genesis 2:24 it says a man shall leave his father and his mother. There is a cutting off point. Usually that is marriage, but there are also other times beside marriage. They are designed to leave.
Turn back a few verses to Genesis 2:8. Verse 8 talks about what God had done. It says: “The Lord God planted a garden in the east of Eden and there he put the man whom he had formed.” He put the man in the garden as an independent being. God designed man for independence. He designed us to be in free-will relationships. Do you understand why? He loves us and wants to give us the opportunity to love Him back. Love cannot be compelled. It must be freely given. He created us in His image with independence to freely choose to return love to Him. To lovingly release the prodigal means doing it without bitterness. The father in this parable released his son so that he knew he could come back. He knew the door would be open for reconciliation.
I have always pictured this passage as painting a very abrupt departure, as if the son said, “Give me my inheritance and I am out of here.” But the passage says that the father divided-up the estate. That takes a while to do, to figure out who is going to have what. I am sure this father is hoping the son is going to live up to the opportunity that he has been given. But not long after, it says, he sold off his estate. He liquidated it and took off in another direction.
That leads to the second point. We must allow the prodigal to suffer the consequences of his rebellion. In verse 14 it says that there was a great famine and then he was in need, he was in very great need, and no one gave him anything. It hurts to see or imagine your child in pain. But recognize, it is the consequences of actions that wake us up. Look at Galatians 6:7. “Don’t be deceived, God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction and the one who sows to please the spirit, from the spirit will reap eternal life.” Do not be deceived; you cannot cheat God. You cannot fool Him. You cannot slip one by on Him. You will reap what you sow! There will be natural consequences and spiritual consequences for our actions.
Thirdly, we must never stop praying. We must never give up hope of a return. Look at Luke 15:20. “But while he was still a long way off, the father saw him.” The father was always watching down that road. He is in the field working everyday and every once in a while he looks down the south road to see if his son is coming home. “Is there anybody on that road I might know?” His heart is lifted. His eyes are turned that way each day. The father is always watching and it says, “He saw him a long way off.” There are two stories before this one in Luke 15 and they both have to do with finding something that is lost. One is about a lost sheep and how the shepherd leaves 99 safe sheep to find the lost one. The other is about a widow who loses a coin and searches the whole house to find it. Both stories end in joy because the lost item was found after diligent searching. In the parable of the prodigal son the father experiences even greater joy because he found his son. Old men do not run often. It is not dignified. His heart compelled those old crotchety knees to move as quickly as possible. We must never stop praying. We must never give up hope.
Psalm 127 likens children as arrows in a quiver and releasing them is like taking a bow, pulling back, and letting the arrow do. The good news is that God has influence on that arrow after it leaves our bow. God can change its direction. Never give up hope. Keep praying. One of the things Oswald Chambers impressed on my heart years ago was that not only can prayer change a situation, circumstance, or human heart, but it also changes the one who is praying. Never stop praying because it will keep your heart soft and sensitive to God’s leading in your life. It is easy to become bitter and angry and frustrated, but God says pray because as you pray He will soften your heart. Never stop praying. This prodigal’s father was waiting anxiously and hopefully because he was praying for his son.
Releasing does not mean that you endorse their actions. Releasing does not mean that their ways will become your ways. Their choices will always be their choices. They do not define your worth or value as a parent. They do not necessarily define your values. They define their values. They have to choose to build on the foundation you have laid for them, presuming it was a good one. Your role is to lovingly encourage and trust them to make the right decisions. Not simply trusting them, but trusting God to be actively involved in the situation.
God could compel obedience like He does a tree or a flower or the planets in their orbits, but that would not be fitting for a creature created in His image. He could have made morality irrelevant to us, made us amoral creatures like a shark, mosquito, or penguin, but that would not be fitting for a creature created in His image. God never coerces or forces obedience. He nudges, woos, convicts, and draws us through His Spirit. If you are a prodigal son or daughter, I want you to understand that God wants you back. If you are a parent of a prodigal son or daughter, I want you to never give up on him or her. Whether he or she returns or not is between him or her and God, but you can keep the Spirit of God actively pursuing him or her by praying and never giving up. Never give up!
Satan: Our Adversary
The goal of this paper is to cut through six thousands years of myth and superstition and unravel who the devil is because he delights in confusing us. He delights in trying to get us to not worry about him. The devil, despite popular fiction, is not an impish character that is half goat and half man with horns, a pointy tail, and a pitchfork. He is not simply a force for evil. He is not simply the dark side of humanity. He is not simply something in each one of us that wants to do the wrong thing. Satan is a renegade angel and he is awesome. That is a word we generally use to refer to God. But Satan is awesome compared to humans. He is the most beautiful, the most powerful of all of God’s creation. In fact, he had so much influence that one-third of all heaven’s angels chose to follow him into rebellion. That does not describe a little guy with a goatee and a forktail. That is not a little, insignificant character made up by human imagination.
Where is Satan? Our first thought is that he is in hell where he belongs. “No, he is not!” Satan has never been to hell. It is guaranteed he is going there, but he is not there now. In fact, Peter tells us clearly that Satan is roaming the earth as a roaring lion looking for someone whom he can devour. Satan is the unseen power behind distrust in God. Satan is not omnipresent, as God is, but his powerful influence over the world of men is enormous. He cannot be more than one place at a time, but those angels who sided with him are many in number. Their mission, and his, is to overthrow God’s people and God’s ways from this earth. He wants to bring you down. Many of the things he has placed in this world are designed to do just that, bring you down!
Who is he, exactly? First, he is a created being. I want you to recognize this fact. Satan is not God. He is a created being. He is the highest of the created angels. The first creatures God created were beautiful and intelligent beings called angels. Recognize this important fact, God did not create a devil. He made an angel who was corrupted by his own beauty and wisdom. Satan is neither god nor human, he is a renegade angel.
Isaiah 14:12 calls this being “shining star, son of the morning,” or “Morning Star.” In Latin these words mean Lucifer. Lucifer was a created being of enormous power, beauty, and intelligence who gazed too long at his own beauty and admired too greatly his own wisdom. Lucifer, the Morning Star, became Satan, the adversary. Satan literally means ‘adversary’ in Hebrew. He went from being God’s trusted guardian to His vile enemy.
Let us learn from Isaiah 14:12-14. These verses tell us what happened to Lucifer. “How you are fallen from heaven, O shining star, son of the morning! You have been thrown down to the earth, you who destroyed the nations of the world. For you said to yourself, ‘I will ascend to heaven and set my throne above God’s stars. I will preside on the mountain of the gods far away in the north. I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High.” Lucifer wanted God’s place in the universe. He wanted God’s prestige. The respect and honor that God, the sovereign God was getting, he wanted for himself. He wanted God’s control over all of creation.
Based on his outward beauty and his God-given wisdom, he felt in his heart that he could be like the Almighty. Lucifer was an awesome creature but he lacked the character of God. Lucifer was created without sin but as a creature he did not possess the holy and loving core that God possesses. His outward splendor meant too much to him. In contrast, the Son of God voluntarily laid aside His outward splendor and put on a crown of thorns. Lucifer did not possess this kind of inner greatness. He let his beauty deceive him into thinking he was more than he was. Lucifer became Satan, God’s chief adversary.
Satan’s will is always self-centered. God’s will is others-centered. God values His own goodness because it overflows into the lives of His creatures. Lucifer valued his splendor because it made him ‘better’ than anyone else. Satan plans and connives to destroy God’s world and attempts to build his own. But God loves His creatures too much to allow Satan to take control. Satan would dominate the universe and would be a despotic king, making all bow before him, ruthlessly punishing all who opposed him. God in contrast is known for His mercy and forgiveness. He does not want any to perish but wants all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Satan will stomp on anyone who stands in his way.
We often interpret other people’s motivations by our own motivations. If you are greedy, you cannot understand someone else who will give something up for free that does not try to get something in return. If you are an angry person, you cannot understand someone who is calm and peaceful, who does not get upset over trivial things, who does not get upset every time a personal right is violated. We often interpret others character by our own character and that is how Satan interprets God. Satan could not see God’s goodness because he was too busy looking at himself. He led a rebellion against a gracious and wonderful God who only deserved to be honored and praised for all He had done.
What is Satan’s agenda? He is working to overthrow the kingdom of God. His strategy is to destroy anything that has to do with God. What do terrorists do? They try to hurt anything that you care about, to inspire fear, to make your life miserable. Satan is doing the same thing. Jesus said it this way, “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. But I have come to bring you life and give it in abundance.” Satan is after your homes, your marriages, your family, everything that God cares about. Everything God wants to invest His heart and energy into, Satan wants to tear down. The better we understand our adversary, the better we recognize his strategies.
This fallen being is given several names in Scripture that derive there meaning by some role he fulfills or some behavior he enacts. He is called the prince of this world because this is his headquarters. This is his territory. He is called the destroyer because he wants to destroy all that God has designed and all that He loves. He is called the dragon because he is a vicious and ferocious enemy. He is called the deceiver because he is the great con artist. He disguises evil as good. And he is called diablo because he is the father of lies, the father of all lying. Satan is the one who makes something so bad, so dangerous, look good. Satan is like that hunter who sets bait for bears in order to kill them. This hunter does not mean the bears well. His act of feeding the bears is not a kind act. It is a deceptive act that appears like kindness on the outside but once the motive is known becomes treacherous to the bears. The bears are deceived into thinking that all is well when in reality they are being set up for destruction. Satan attempts to do the same thing to us.
I want to dispel one final myth about Satan. I remember Twilight Zone as a kid and seeing the devil trying to get people to sign a contract to sell their soul to him. Any of you remember that? Satan does not do that because he does not have to. You are already under contract to him. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our hearts are born into that contract. That is bad news, but there is good news. There is a way to escape from Satan. Just one! By the name of Jesus Christ you are saved. Do not sit condemned under Satan’s rule in your life any longer. The only thing you have to do to escape is to accept Jesus Christ and the redeeming work He has accomplished at Calvary and you shall live. Reject Him and you shall die the second death, which is eternal and irrevocable separation from God where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:40-42).
Pierced for our Iniquities: The Love of God in Action
I have one point to make in this paper. “Christ died for you and you should never take it for granted.” We take things for granted when we become accustomed to having them, they become commonplace. We take things for granted when we forget how valuable they are, how much they cost. I want you to see the cross of Christ as God sees it. The cross of Christ is not a mere historical event that occurred 2,000 years ago, it is an event that should color the way you see the world. It is an event that should affect the priorities that govern your life. It is an event that should shape your character and impact your relationships. The cross of Christ is not just an historic event, it is a personal foundation upon which you can build your life.
In Isaiah 52, we are commissioned to share the good news to a world that is barraged by bad news. The world of today is a world thirsty for peace, for love, for purpose. In fact, that is the picture, literally, that God paints for us when He commands His people to take the good news to Zion. Zion literally means “parched place.” God essentially tells them to go to that parched place and tell the inhabitants that their God reigns and that living water is available.
In Matthew 23 Jesus calls the Pharisees and Scribes hypocrites. Pharisees and Scribes were the religious elite who based their religiosity on memorizing and teaching the law. If anyone should have known about the Messiah Isaiah wrote about, it should have been them. But their unbelief prevented them from accepting the obvious interpretations that pointed to a divine savior, a divine rescuer. Passages such as Isaiah 9:6, where the Messiah is called “mighty God,” or Isaiah 53:11b-12, where His work is described as “bearing the sins of many” and suffering “death,” are clear. They accepted neither implication. They rejected Jesus because He claimed to be God’s literal Son, equal with the Father, and because He predicted that He would die for the sins of Jew and Gentile. To them, both claims were blasphemous. Instead of seeking God’s grace through His provision, they were committed to earning God’s favor through keeping the law. Jesus called them hypocrites because they overlooked their own violations of the law. They overvalued themselves and their efforts at self-righteousness and undervalued God’s holiness. They wanted God to honor their efforts instead of honoring Him for His.
Regardless of what they believed, Isaiah is very clear about the nature and work of the Messiah. Isaiah 53:1-12 is remarkably clear and concise in its description of the person and work of the Messiah. As we read this together, ask yourself, How did the Pharisees and Scribes not see the truth about Jesus Christ? “Who has believed our message? To whom will the Lord reveal his saving power? My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, sprouting from a root in dry and sterile ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all. He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. From prison and trial they led him away to his death. But who among the people realized that he was dying for their sins—that he was suffering their punishment? He had done no wrong, and he never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and fill him with grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have a multitude of children, many heirs…. And because of what he has experienced, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins…. He bore the sins of many and interceded for sinners.” Combined with Psalm 22, Isaiah 53 clearly describes a savior who will literally suffer and die for the sins of people, Jew and Gentile.
The coming of Christ was a work of God. To convince the world that the cross was actually a work of God, God declared exactly how it would happen. Seven hundred years before that star would rise in Bethlehem, 500 years before Rome would even become a world power, God instructs Isaiah to describe in detail the key events of the cross, to prophesy about the mission and future work of Christ. A prophecy is the future told in advance by God through a prophet. God does this to validate what is happening. Isaiah 48:3-5: “I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. For I knew how stubborn you were; the sinews of your neck were iron, your forehead was bronze. Therefore I told you these things long ago; before they happened I announced them to you so that you could not say, ‘My idols did them; my wooden image and metal god ordained them.’”
Calvary is not just where forgiveness can be found but it is where we see God’s colossal hatred of our rebellion. It took the innocent and vicious suffering and death of God’s own Son to make the way for forgiveness to be possible. There was no other way! A holy and just God could not, cannot, overlook sin. Nor can He merely decide by His sovereignty to forgive those who make the most religious effort. “After all, He is God, can’t He do what He wants?” The answer is “Yes!” He can do what He wants. But recognize that His parameters for decision-making are different than yours and mine. His decision-making comes from a core that is a perfect harmonization of holiness and love. A mere declaration of pardon based on nothing more than a divine decision is open to criticism. The price for sin must be paid or justice will be violated. Violate justice and you are no longer holy. Based on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, God can forgive without violating His holiness. “Yes,” God can do what He wants and aren’t you glad His love moves Him to want to forgive you and bless your life! Calvary is the result of that love. Without that divine love you have no hope!
Calvary was not just about God satisfying His holiness ‘requirements’. It was where the depth of His love for humans, and all of creation, shone forth. Does a disinterested sovereign talk like God does in Isaiah 49:16? “I will not forget you. I have engraved your name on the palm of my hand.” God is vastly different from any image you have of powerful kings and despots. This engraving idea goes back to the high priest who was directed by God to take twelve stones and engrave the name of each of the sons of Israel on them and put them into the breastplate of the High Priest who wore it when he went into the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer shed blood to atone for the sins of the people (which prefigured Christ at Calvary), that he might bear the names of the sons of Israel that they might be forgiven and spiritually healed. When the soldiers pounded those nails into Jesus hands your name was there. As His spirit left Him in death and blood dripped from His side your name was there. He did it for you, as well as Himself! You were on His mind. Calvary frees Him to bless your life. Jesus says, “You no longer need that high priest, I am your high priest and I have written your names on the palm of my hand.” How then, in light of this, in light of who Christ is and what He has done for us, shall we live? What difference does it make? Live each day in light of the cross. Do not trample that glorious act of God under your feet by living as if it never happened!
If God demanded a perfect heart in us, we would be in big trouble. If we had to qualify morally and spiritually in order to be accepted by God, we would be in a hopeless situation. But because God is gracious we have hope. Isaiah 57:15-21 says: “The high and lofty one inhabits eternity, the Holy One, says this: ‘I live in that high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble. I refresh the humble and give new courage to those with repentant hearts. For I will not fight against you forever; I will not always show my anger. If I did, all people would pass away—all the souls I have made. I was angry and punished these greedy people. I withdrew myself from them, but they went right on sinning. I have seen what they do, but I will heal them anyway! I will lead them and comfort those who mourn. Then words of praise will be on their lips. May they have peace, both near and far, for I will heal them all,’ says the Lord. ‘But those who still reject me are like the restless sea. It is never still but continually churns up mire and dirt. There is no peace for the wicked,’ says my God.” God knows that all have sinned and fallen short of His righteousness but He is willing to forgive and spiritually sustain those who both recognize their fallenness and want to reconcile with Him.
There is something in us that says, “I choose not to follow God. I choose to go another direction.” A wayward heart, an unbelieving heart, does not take God seriously. It looks at God and says, “Oh, I am not sure if you are really there. I listen to some of what you say, but I’m going to incorporate anything else I think might be helpful.” So, you will wear a cross, a Star of David, a Buddha, a crescent, or anything else you think might be helpful. You mix it all together. The latest psychology is what you follow rather than following God’s word. You mix in superstition. You do not take God seriously.
Isaiah 57:7-8 says: “You have committed adultery on the mountaintops by worshipping idols there, and so you have been unfaithful to me. Behind closed doors, you have set up your idols and worship them instead of me. This is adultery, for you are loving these idols instead of loving me. You have climbed right in bed with these detestable gods.” Do you grasp His anguish? Do you grasp what He is feeling? God views your unfaithfulness not merely as an omission of some religious duty, but as a betrayal. Can you imagine coming home from work and finding your spouse in bed with your neighbor? How would you feel? It is that kind of betrayal He is describing in these verses. They exchanged the one who loved them and had shown them that many times for something cheap and titillating, sensually satisfying. Don’t we do the same thing? We think being unfaithful to God simply means wanting to choose our own way once in a while. We make some poor choices once in a while and suffer the consequences but we are good enough. We are not totally heathen. We are not totally unfaithful. I ask you, husband, wife, would just a little bit of adultery by your spouse be fine with you? God takes our personal relationship with him seriously. He takes it personally. An unbelieving heart is an unfaithful heart.
Isaiah 57:9-11 teaches us that a wayward heart is also an unrepentant heart. Notice the continuous searching for something that will satisfy spiritual perversion. Instead of turning back to God and His provision and righteous ways, these continue to seek out something that they can feel comfortable with. Instead of conforming to God’s standards these seek to find a match according to their own peculiar desires and spiritual tastes. “You have given olive oil and perfume to Molech as your gift. You have traveled far, even into the world of the dead, to find new gods to love. You grew weary in your search, but you never gave up. You strengthened yourself and went on. Why were you more afraid of them than of me? How is it that you don’t remember me or think about me? Is it because I have not corrected you that you have no fear of me?” These people kept meeting disappointment in the world, but refused to turn to God for His provision. They refused to repent.
A broken heart treasures God’s grace. It treasures the freedom He gives us. We are not in a shotgun wedding with God. He has chosen to bless us with freedom so that our faithfulness can be voluntary and from the heart. God is gracious to those who rely on His mercy and grace. But His wrath is against those who continue to reject His grace. “Let’s see if your idols can do anything for you when you cry to them for help. They are so helpless that a breath of wind can knock them down (v. 13a)!” Applied to us it might say, “When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you. Let your car and your house and your bank account and your retirement account save you. The wind will carry them off and a mere breath will blow them away. When compared to eternal things they are worthless!”
A godly heart is a confessing heart, a heart that admits brokenness and unworthiness before God. It expresses a willingness to walk with Him. A humble and broken heart will reveal itself by refusing to hide or excuse sin. Paraphrasing David in Psalm 32, “When I refused to admit my sin, I felt dead inside. I was weak and lifeless. Then I exposed my sin to God and He forgave me. He restored my health and my strength.” First John 1:9 says it very clearly, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” A godward heart has to be a confessing heart. It has to say, “Lord, I recognize the disconnect in my life and heart and I do not like it. Lord, there is no point in me saying or trying to hide it because you see it every day. Lord, it is there. I confess it. I admit it. Now Lord, help me to overcome it.”
A godward heart is also a revived heart. Revive means to nourish back to life, to refresh, to bring health and growth where there was once sickness and stagnation. Spiritual vitality replaces spiritual weakness.
And finally, a godward heart is a blessed heart. God wants your spiritual heart to prosper. Prosper may not mean what you think it means. It does not mean a bigger car or house or a bigger bank account, but it does mean spiritual aliveness and gratitude. A blessed heart is a grateful heart that is thankful for God’s grace and provision. Such a heart is at luxury to consider spiritually important issues because he or she is not chasing after all the things the world has to offer—fame, status, wealth to name only three.
If I were a horse I would not want to be a big, strong stallion with a shiny bit and saddle on my back, pushed and pulled around. I want to be an Indian pony. Not jerked around by the head but so sensitive that all the master has to do is just pull a little bit on my mane. He would just lean a little bit to the left, lean a little bit to the right, and I would sense where He wants me to go. Some of you God has to hit on the side of the head with a two-by-four to get you to take one step. God wants to run with you. He says, “I have great places for you to go, great things to show you.” Let your heart be spiritually sensitive to His leading. Listen to His instruction.
Remember the story of the prodigal son? If we were to flash forward a year and see the relationship between the father and his son, what would we see? What is the son doing a year later? Is that son’s attitude any different than it was before he left? Wouldn’t it be tragic if we see the son still rebellious toward the father and still wishing that he had his father’s money to spend on riotous and self-indulgent living? Wouldn’t that be a tragic end to the story? But is not that how many Christians live their christian lives? “Hey,” they might say, “I have a ticket to heaven, I am forgiven and so I can do what I want. I can live the way I want because I am taken care of, my sin is forgiven. I am fixed.” Are you living that way?
There is another ending to that story. It is where the son realizes how much his father loves him and that he wants to be in the father’s presence, to walk with his father, not away from him. Which kind of child are you? Jesus gave us that illustration because we can relate to it on a personal level and He wants us to personally be like the son who says, “I want to be back with you. I do not simply want your blessing, I want your presence in my life. I want your guidance. I am willing to be your son, not a man in rebellion to you.”
Living in light of the cross means three things. First, we are to take sin seriously. Sin does not go away when we become Christians. We can still rebel against God’s plans for our lives. We may accept His forgiveness and recognize His person, but we still want control over our personal lives. Sins can still be part of our character unless we submit to the Father and say, “Lord, I do not want to live that way. Strengthen me, guide me, help me.” Sin is still serious. Beware of thinking that because God forgives me I can live the way I want. God does not forgive you just because He loves you. That would be like God saying, “It does not really matter, I accept you anyway, you can do what you want.” Divine forgiveness is not cheap. God forgives you because of the cross of Christ. He sent Christ to the cross because of His love for you. But His holiness demanded that justice for sin be paid and He paid that price for you on the cross. He forgives us because His Son took the penalty. Sin is still a problem. He does not wink at it or sweep it under the rug. He does not say, “Well, never mind, it doesn’t really matter.” Do not continue to pierce the heart of God with your rebellion. God still hates sin. Calvary is the spectacle of that hatred.
We need to regain the conviction of sin. Being under grace, receiving the grace of God does not give you license to sin against God. First Corinthians 6:19 is very clear, it says, “You are not your own, you are bought with a price. Therefore, honor God with your body.” With your body, with your life, with your essence, with your strength, with all that you do, honor God. Rather than being abandoned to your old nature and habits, God says, “I have put in you a new nature. You have a choice.” He strengthens our hearts and spirits with His spirit so we are no longer slaves to our selfish nature. We can learn to choose to listen and trust His urgings.
Secondly, His grace should inspire our mercy toward others. His grace should inspire our graciousness. Remember the older brother of the prodigal son. He did not have that characteristic, did he? It was not fair that the father received the son back from such riotous living, he thought. Jesus made it perfectly clear. In the Lord’s prayer He said, “Forgive and it shall be forgiven you. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgive as you have been forgiven. He says very plainly, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.” Are you holding any grudges? Are you waiting for your day of revenge and retribution? And maybe you are not going to do anything, but you are thinking, “I am waiting for God to get him. It is only fair. I am not going to do anything to him, but God get him.” Don’t let that bitterness destroy your heart, because it will. God says, forgive them. Let it go. Has not Christ done enough for you and forgiven you enough that you can let it go? God wants you to experience not simply being forgiven but the joy and restoration that forgiveness can bring in your own life. Micah 6:8 says clearly: “No, O people, the Lord has already told you what is good, and this is what he requires: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Let His grace inspire your mercy, your graciousness, and then walk humbly with Him.
That leads us to the third point. We are to delight in walking with God. He has good things planned for you, a wonderful adventure ahead. There may be trials, persecutions, and hard times but if you stay by God’s side, He will give you rich and wonderful experiences and opportunities to serve Him. A couple years ago I rode a horse into church to teach a spiritual point. That point was to show how two different beings could interact together to accomplish great things. To go when God says to go. To stop when God says to stop. To turn when He says to turn, otherwise you are of no use and He will put you out to pasture. Do what God says so He can use you, so He can lead you on wonderful trails, so He can trust you in desperate or difficult situations. Let Him be the master. He knows where to go. He knows what you need. He will care for you every step of the way. Delight in walking His route.
Right now do you feel like God’s asking you to do something too hard? “Oh, I don’t see anybody else having to do that. Lord, why are you making me do it? Why do you want me to do that?” And we start whining at God. Jesus did not do any whining on the cross. “Oh, they will not really appreciate this anyway. They will just take advantage of it—why do I have to do this, Father?” He stepped to the cross in loving obedience to the Father, trusting Him and you can trust Him as well. Do you take the cross of Christ for granted? If you do, then you do not see it clearly. The Cross is where the same Person who inspired the angels in Isaiah 6 to shield their eyes and cover their feet out of reverent humility, exchanged His heavenly robe and glorious throne for a crown of thorns and cross made of wood. This One who sat majestically on a heavenly throne only He could sit on was nailed and fasten to a wooden cross previously used to punish thieves and murderers. Live in light of the cross. Live as though it means everything to you. Live as though it was central to all your actions and attitudes. Value it as God the Father values it. To Him it was the central event in the history of the universe, because by this event He will redeem sinners and remake the universe into a place of beauty free from death and destruction. Follow Christ by living in the light of the Cross!
The Rock of Our Salvation
What condemns us in the sight of God? Is it our many sins, acts of doing wrong? As we look at the world around us, is it the lying, cheating, violence, or rampant sexuality that gets us in trouble? These behaviors, and behaviors like them (Galatians 5:19-21), do result in negative and destructive consequences, but are they the reason God condemns us? I want you to understand that our disposition toward sin involves more than the commission of individual sins.
Look at Satan. Before he became Satan, God’s primary adversary, he was the greatest of God’s created creatures. His name was Lucifer, which means bright and shining Morning Star. He had honor and glory beyond any other created being. But there was one thing he did not have. He did not have the glory that was reserved only for God. Instead of being satisfied with the righteous order of things, he attempted to set himself on equal ground with God Himself. “How you are fallen from heaven, O shining star, son of the morning! You have been thrown down to earth, you who destroyed the nations of the world. For you said to yourself, ‘I will ascend to heaven and set my throne above God’s stars. I will preside on the mountain of the gods far away in the north. I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High’” (Isaiah 14:12-14). Satan is our example of what God hates about sin.
Satan opposed God’s created order, God’s will. God is Who He is! Unlike any other! He is the great “I Am”. When Moses asked God for His name, the Lord said, “I Am, the One Who always is.” Lucifer became Satan when he replaced the great I Am with himself. He became his own “I am”. He usurped God’s right to his heart. He became his own authority.
We do the same thing. We are little “I-am’s” who have made deliberate and emphatic declarations of independence from God. This involves more than committing individual sins; it involves siding with Satan against God’s holy right to rule His universe, to rule our lives. That is what the sin nature is all about. We are born little, screaming “I am’s”. But God comes to us and says, “Put yourself in proper perspective. How can you, the puny ‘I am’ that you are, think yourself to be above the great ‘I AM’? Come and sit under My umbrella of strength and mercy. I have paid the penalty for your rebellion. Come to Me and I will give you rest. Come to Me and I will restore our relationship.”
Restoration involves three steps, or phases—reconciliation, regeneration, and realignment. Reconciliation means becoming friends again. Regeneration involves establishing a heartbeat in our relationship with Him. Realignment involves ordering our lives around Him as our personal cornerstone. Isaiah 8, 26, and 28 help us to understand these three phases of restoration.
Reconciliation involves a change of attitude toward God. An attitude change from independence and self-sufficiency, and even opposition, to an attachment based on affection and friendship. Jesus told His disciples in John 15 that they were His friends. “You are my friends if you obey me. I no longer call you servants, because a master doesn’t confide in his servants. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” Imagine, the Son of God, who provoked the angels in Isaiah 6 to cover their eyes because of His glory calls His disciples “friends”. A secular king does not share much information or time with his subjects. To walk into the presence of a king in Esther’s day without an invitation could get one killed (Esther 4:11).
Notice, Jesus said a criteria of friendship is a certain openness that is willing to share personal information with each other, information that centers on the intentions and behaviors closest to their hearts. A reading of Isaiah 8 finds verses 11-14, a passage about trusting God, surrounded by verses where God is revealing future events that those who have a heart toward Him might learn to trust Him despite the uncertainty. God cares about His people. He wants their hearts to be calm and peaceful so He gives them something to trust Him for, a place where their hearts and minds can rest. The Lord is a strong rock worthy of our trust! “Do not think like everyone else does. Do not be afraid that some plan conceived behind closed doors will be the end of you. Do not fear anything except the Lord Almighty. He alone is the Holy One. If you fear him, you need fear nothing else. He will keep you safe (Isaiah 8:11-14a).”
Regeneration is being made alive to God. Our spiritual heart starts beating again. Isaiah 26:8 describes a heart that is alive toward God: “Lord, we love to obey your laws; our heart’s desire is to glorify your name.” He is the eternal Rock (v. 4) worthy of our trust and affection. He will not let us down. The proud will be humbled but the righteous will have their paths made smooth and straight (v. 7). Those who are spiritually alive receive (vs. 12, 19) the kindness of God and turn it into peace, joy, and righteousness. The wicked trample it and multiple their unrighteousness. “Your kindness to the wicked does not make them do good. They keep doing wrong and take no notice of the Lord’s majesty (v. 10).” The spiritually alive value God’s mercy and kindness and do not habitually abuse it, as the wicked do.
Realignment involves aligning our hearts and lives around God. Merrill Unger helps us understand what a cornerstone is. “The stone at the corner of two walls and uniting them; specifically, the stone built into one corner of the foundation of an edifice as the actual or nominal starting point of a building.” God is at the core of all that we are and do. He is our compass for living in this world and the next. God said in Isaiah 28:16: “Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem. It is firm, a tested and precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never run away again.” Who or what is this cornerstone he is referring to. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:4-6. “Come to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by the people, but he is precious to God who chose him. And now God is building you, as living stones, you are God’s holy priests, who offer the spiritual sacrifices that please him because of Jesus Christ. As the Scriptures express it, ‘I am placing a stone in Jerusalem, a chosen cornerstone, and anyone who believes in him will never be disappointed.’” Isaiah is speaking about Jesus Christ. Trust Him and you shall live. Reject Him and you will remain spiritually dead. It is Christ who we look toward to align our hearts and lives. As we look to Him our hearts and lives are straightened and crookedness is removed.
Our goal is not to live and die and get to heaven. Heaven is not a reward. Heaven is a place God has prepared for all who are restored to Him--those who love and honor Him. Our goal is to excel with Him in life. Each of us strives for personal, spiritual independence. We go through life trying to patch up our own dents, trying to add special fuel additives and think that our lives look healthy and fine. We add trinkets to the outside, flaming decals to cover up the mess that’s on the inside. It is better to team up with the chief engineer and follow His plan for your life. To gain his expertise. Romans 9:30 says it clearly, “The Gentiles have obtained salvation, have obtained righteousness, by faith, but Israel who pursued the law of righteousness, has not attained it.” Why? They did not pursue it by faith. They pursued heaven as if it were a reward. The Pharisees were rebuked by Jesus because they sought to please God and enter heaven on their own merit. They sought to crash the gates of heaven with their righteousness deeds, which, ironically, were not righteous at all. Jesus tells them (John 8:42-47) what God thinks of their lifestyle. “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It is because you are unable to do so! For you are the children of your father the Devil, and you love to do the evil things he does…. Anyone whose Father is God listens gladly to the words of God. Since you don’t, it proves you aren’t God’s children.” All who try to enter heaven on their own merit will hear those same words!
Isaiah 6: Our Holy God
Isaiah 6:1-9 are powerful verses. Isaiah is having a vision that takes him on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual rollercoaster. “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord. He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of his robe filled the Temple. Hovering around him were mighty seraphim, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with the remaining two they flew. In a great chorus they sang, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty! The whole earth is filled with his glory!’ The glorious singing shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire sanctuary was filled with smoke. Then I said, ‘My destruction is sealed, for I am a sinful man and a member of a sinful race. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!’ Then one of the seraphim flew over to the altar, and he picked up a burning coal with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, ‘See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.’ Then I heard the Lord asking, ‘Whom should I send as a messenger to my people? Who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Lord, I’ll go! Send me.’” This vision set Isaiah on course to have one of the most interesting and vital ministries of any Old Testament prophet.
The angels in Isaiah’s vision are described as having six wings, with each set of two having an important purpose. Verse two tells us about the wings. “With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.” What is the meaning of the placement of the wings? It seems to be an important part of the vision. The placement of the wings speaks to us of the character of these mighty beings. Unlike the fallen Lucifer, Satan, who proudly walks on the earth seeking whom he may devour, disrespectful of God’s authority, these angels stay around God’s throne and sing of His glory, not their own. The two wings covering their faces speak of their deep reverence and respect for God. The two covering their feet speak of their humility as they move about in God’s presence. The two that fly speak about their obedience to do God’s will. They restrain themselves to do what God wants them to do, and nothing else. If they were inclined they could fly faster with all six wings and impose their will on many because of their strength if they wanted to live independent of God. But out of humility and reverence for God they exist within His purposes for them. And they are not complaining. Satan bucks at God’s authority. These angels sing His praises. They sing of what they know about Him. “In a great chorus they sang, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty!’”
God’s holiness is the expression of His immeasurable goodness and total lack of guile, deceit, or perversity of any kind. There is no one else like Him. He is absolutely unique. The angels sang “holy, holy, holy” three times. One of the ways Hebrew writing emphasized something is to repeat it. When the Hebrew repeats something it is for impact. It is like saying, “I saw a stone. I saw a big stone. I saw a big, big stone. I saw a big, big, big stone.” If someone were to speak like this, you would understand that he or she was describing a gigantic boulder. A boulder beyond what anyone could lift, beyond what anyone could handle himself. When the angels say “holy, holy, holy,” they are saying that God’s holiness is beyond measure, beyond what they could bear. And so they covered their eyes while in God’s presence.
Isaiah was a pretty good guy by human standards. For the most part, he did the right things. He was like most of us. But compared to God, he was not good enough. In fact, as he saw God’s holy glory in his vision he cursed himself because of his sinfulness. Isaiah had no moral right to be where he was, before God’s very throne. And he knew it. Isaiah confesses his sin in the presence of God and His angels. At Isaiah’s confession, God has His angel touch Isaiah with a coal from the holy altar. This act symbolizes God’s holy provision for human sinfulness. In light of Christ’s holy sacrifice, Isaiah’s guilt can be removed from him and forgiveness granted. It is the Lord’s holy altar that makes the coal special, able to symbolize holy purity. John 12:41 tells us that the majesty Isaiah sees actually belongs to Christ Himself, the Son of God, before His incarnation. This majestic One who provoked the angels to hide their faces out of reverence and cover their feet out of humility, is the same Lord who united Himself with humanity to suffer, bleed, and die at Calvary’s cross, an act that made it possible for Isaiah’s, yours, and my sins to be forgiven.
First John 1:9 speaks to the importance of confession in God’s plan for us: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” As we see with Isaiah, the need for confession and repentance has always existed. Confession is not a New Testament invention. God’s heart is toward us, but our sin often separates us from Him. Confession and repentance, based on Christ’s work at Calvary, restores the relationship between God and sinful men and women.
The correct response to what God has done for us is a thankful willingness to let Him influence our lives. That is why Isaiah says, “Here am I, send me.” Isaiah had a willing, responsive heart. Contrast this with Moses who was asked, “Will you do this for me?” but came up with all kinds of excuses why he could not. Isaiah overheard God saying, “Oh, I wish I could warn my people, to express my words and thoughts in a clear way they can understand. To paint the pictures that I see of what they are doing. I wish there was someone who could go.” Isaiah went. Isaiah was willing to go and speak God’s message to His people.
God has created each one of us to have a personal relationship with Him. The scene Isaiah describes in chapter 6 does not depict a close, personal, intimate relationship between God and His angelic messengers. They cannot even look at Him as He shines in His glory. A celestial hug does not seem possible.
Brothers and sisters, this very person who struck awe and fear in the angelic hosts took off His kingly robe, descended the heavenly throne, passed the angelic hosts, and wrapped Himself in swaddling clothes, thorns, sweat, blood, and heartache. The Bible tells us in two major passages who God is at His core. The two passages are Isaiah 6:1-4 and 1 John 4:7-8. We have already read Isaiah 6:1-4. Now listen to1 John 4:7-8: “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God—for God is love.” God is, at His core, holy-love. Holiness points to His goodness. Love points to His caring. God loves His own goodness and is willing to defend it from all who would try to pollute and overthrow it. God cares about His goodness because it results in blessings for His creatures. God’s goodness cannot help but overflow into the lives of His creatures, it is His nature to care. A definition of God’s holiness offered by Thomas Traherne gives us a connection between holiness and love. God is not two qualities at His core but one viewed from different perspectives. Traherne said this about God’s holiness: “The infinite love of his own goodness is the holiness of God…. Holiness is that virtue in God, by which he loves the most perfect things, and infinitely delighteth in them. For by virtue of this affection he shuns and hates all that is profane, pursuing and delighting in all that is holy” (Christian Ethicks, p. 87). Now, How does someone who is holy-love in His core solve the relationship problem? He gets involved! Personally!
Ironic, isn’t it? The Lord sits on His throne and even the angels have to shield their eyes because of His holiness. At Calvary, in plain view, the Lord hangs on the cross, half-naked and beaten, and Jew and Gentile look and sneer. It is at Calvary where God exhibited His greatest glory for all who are willing to see. It is not the blinding light that grabs our hearts, it is the crown of thorns, the spital on the face, and the heartache of separation from the Father that draws us toward Him.
With this picture in your mind, will you allow God to touch your lips? Will you agree with Isaiah and give God’s message to others around you? America is growing more corrupt much as Judah was in Isaiah’s day. God commanded Isaiah to warn the people. Most did not listen. But some did!
Enduring Ridicule for Our Lord
It was a foggy morning. The fog was just beginning to lift as the sun was beginning to rise and Peter and the disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing. They were frustrated. And then on the shore stood a solitary figure. Jesus showed up and that changed everything. It changed the fish story. More importantly, it changed Peter. Peter had denied Jesus three times. Jesus had met with Peter and the disciples in the upper room, but it wasn’t until this scene on the lakeshore that Peter knew that his relationship with Jesus was ‘ok’.
Isn’t it great that God’s Word reveals real men with real struggles. They are not white-washed historical figures. They are men with failures so that we will know how to deal with our failures, we will know how to return, how to get straight, how to get back on board.
The book of Mark is the gospel that Peter inspired because it was written by Mark under Peter’s guidance, so it gives Peter’s insights, his specifics into what happened. While eating the Passover meal, the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples what was soon to happen. Mark 14:17-28 says: In the evening Jesus arrived with the twelve disciples. As they were sitting around the table eating, Jesus said, ‘The truth is, one of you will betray me, one of you who is here eating with me…. It is one of you twelve, one who is eating with me now. For I, the Son of Man, must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for my betrayer. Far better for him if he had never been born!…. All of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say, ‘God will strike the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised from the dead, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and meet you there.’” Peter heard what Jesus said and declared his loyalty. “Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will.” Jesus turned to him and said, “Peter, I tell you the truth. Today, yet this very night, before the cock crows two times, you will deny me three times.” But Peter insisted, “Jesus, you’re wrong, even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” The others also pledged their loyalty.
Peter was an aggressive individual. He brimmed with self-confidence. Peter meant what he said to Jesus. He fully intended to stay by Jesus’ side. The problem is that he tried to do it in his own strength. Jesus is quick to recognize this. He warns Peter, “You are going to deny me three times in just a few minutes. You are going to desert me.” Self-confidence is the first step in drifting away from God because we think we can handle everything on our own. “I have come a long way, I can deal with this. Jesus, let me make you proud of me how much power and how much strength I have, how mature I’ve grown. I can figure this one out on my own. I’m not a kid anymore. I want to do it myself. God, go help those other people. They need it more.” First Corinthians warns us that when we think we are spiritually strong we need to be careful because we are ready to fall. Proverbs promises that a proud attitude leads to ruin. The problem is thinking yourself to be more than you are. Building yourself up and pushing God out. We slowly but surely edge God out of our lives. Not because we hate him but because we do not think we need Him. We leave Him out of our family life. Pretty soon we edge Him out of every important area in our lives. Our self-confidence deceives us.
When Jesus is arrested, what does Peter do? He attempts to fulfill his promise to Jesus with a sword. He is willing to risk his life in a sword fight for Jesus. But that is not what Jesus wanted. How does a man who was willing to draw a sword to show his loyalty, desert that very person minutes later? Obviously, Peter was willing to risk his life for Jesus’, then why the desertion?
Remember, the gospel of Mark was written by Mark under Peter’s guidance. We find an interesting reference in Mark 14:51-52 that does not appear in the other three gospels. Peter must have wanted it included for a reason. “There was a young man following along behind, clothed only in a linen nightshirt. When the mob tried to grab him, they tore off his clothes, but he escaped and ran away naked.” That young man must have been humiliated. Humiliated! Just the sound of that word frightens us. Peter saw what happened to that young man and he wanted no part of it. “That is not going to happen to me,” he might have thought. Frightened and running from humiliation, he ran into a little servant girl, a teenage girl, who cowered him into denying Jesus by simply saying, “You were one of those with Jesus, the Nazarene.” Just then the first rooster crowed a warning to Peter to deny Jesus no more. Peter soon denied Jesus two more times. And then the rooster crowed a second time. “And [Peter] broke down and cried” (14:72). Peter was willing to die for Jesus but he was not willing to risk humiliation for Him!
Peter’s fear was later conquered. Look at 2 Peter 1:1-2. “This letter is from Simon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ. I am writing to all of you who share the same precious faith we have, faith given to us by Jesus Christ, our God and Savior, who makes us right with God. May God bless you with his special favor and wonderful peace as you come to know Jesus, our God and Lord, better and better.” F. B. Meyer says this concerning Peter’s last day: “After reducing Rome to ashes by the conflagration that his wanton cruelty had kindled, Nero cringed before the passionate resentment of his subjects, and in his endeavor to divert it from himself, imputed the hideous crime to the Christians. In his search for victims he scoured the empire, striking first and hardest at the most illustrious and well-known Christian leaders. Among these Paul was certainly one, and Peter was almost certainly another.
“What befell them in Rome is not chronicled by inspiration. Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth in the second century, states that Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom at the same time; and Jerome, in the fourth century, attests that Peter was crucified and crowned with martyrdom, his head being turned earthward and his feet in the air, because he held that he was unworthy to be crucified as his Lord was. Such was the death that he experienced at Rome. By such an exodus—for that is the Greek word—he passed out from this world to the bosom of the Redeemer, whom he had so ardently loved.” Crucifixion is a humiliating way to die. There is nothing dignified about it. Yet, Peter consented to be crucified upsidedown. Peter was always willing to die for Jesus Christ, but he was not always willing to be shamed for Him. Peter’s love for Jesus changed that!
Overcoming Disappointment With Thankfulness
When I was a little boy, when I was 10 years old, I dreamed of my 10th Christmas. All my friends had new two-wheel bicycles and I wanted one. Christmas morning I could not wait to get up. At 6:00 am, I crawled out of bed, opened the door, and looked in the living room and saw a bunch of presents under the tree. None of them was big enough to hold a bicycle. I thought, "Well, maybe they just haven’t put it together yet, maybe it’s not time yet." Around 9:00 my parents got up. We opened the presents but there was no bicycle. I had new underwear, a little tool set, so I was somewhat happy, but there was no bike. Another year without a bike. All my friends would cruise down the road in their nice bikes and I had to ride my old clunker. My dad said, "David, time to clean up and take out all the packages." That was not what I wanted to do at that moment. I was wallowing in self-pity. But I did it. When I rounded the corner with my arms full of trash I walked into a big red bike with a red ribbon tied to it. Until that point, I was thinking that maybe I asked for too much. My parents did not have a good crop on the farm that year. Maybe they could not afford it. Maybe it just was not going to happen for me this year, again. Maybe I did not deserve it. I even thought that they did not love me. After all, I was an afterthought, an accident. I was not planned. My next sibling is 17 years older than I am. But when I turned that corner and saw the bike, I knew I was wrong. I had manufactured all kinds of things in my mind that were false. I had plenty of evidence that my parents loved me, but I let my disappointment deceive me.
How many of you are disappointed with God? How many of you feel like I did, frustrated and lonely. Do you say things like these to yourself? "Maybe it is too much to expect. Maybe, I am not deserving. Maybe, I am not one of the chosen. Maybe, I am not really loved by God." All those are wrong. Psalm 22:3 says, "The Lord dwells in the praises of his people." You say, "Huh, that is a picture I cannot grasp." He lives, He dwells, He is enthroned, it says, in the praises of his people. When you praise God, God becomes real to you. He begins to dwell in your heart, you recognize who He is. It is like saying "Hello," rather than ignoring Him. And then God can respond to you. The word "worship" comes from a Hebrew word that means, to bow down, to have affection for, to kiss. Worship and praise are two different things. Praise is extolling, lifting up, valuing who He is with our words. Worship comes from the inside, from our hearts. We sing worship songs, but the goal is not to sing worship songs, the goal is to worship. Let me be very clear about something. You do not have to sing to worship. Worship is what happens when we catch a glimpse of God’s Being and then internally bow before Him out of reverence and love--reverence for who He is and love for what He has done.
The correct response to what God has done for us is a thankful willingness to let Him influence our lives. That is why Isaiah says, "Here am I, send me." Isaiah had a willing, responsive heart. Contrast this with Moses who was asked, "Will you do this for me?" but came up with all kinds of excuses why he could not. Isaiah overheard God saying, "Oh, I wish I could warn my people, to express my words and thoughts in a clear way they can understand. To paint the pictures that I see of what they are doing. I wish there was someone who could go." Isaiah went. Isaiah was willing to go and speak God’s message to His people.
God has created each one of us to have a personal relationship with Him. The scene Isaiah describes in chapter 6 does not depict a close, personal, intimate relationship between God and His angelic messengers. They cannot even look at Him as He shines in His glory. A celestial hug does not seem possible. Brothers and sisters, this very person who struck awe and fear in the angelic hosts took off His kingly robe, descended the heavenly throne, passed the angelic hosts, and wrapped Himself in swaddling clothes, thorns, sweat, blood, and heartache.
The Bible tells us in two major passages who God is at His core. The two passages are Isaiah 6:1-4 and 1 John 4:7-8. We have already read Isaiah 6:1-4. Now listen to 1 John 4:7-8: "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God—for God is love." God is, at His core, holy-love. Holiness points to His goodness. Love points to His caring. God loves His own goodness and is willing to defend it from all who would try to pollute and overthrow it. God cares about His goodness because it results in blessings for His creatures. God’s goodness cannot help but overflow into the lives of His creatures, it is His nature to care. How does someone who is holy-love in His core solve the relationship problem? He gets involved! Personally!
Ironic, isn’t it? The Lord sits on His throne and even the angels have to shield their eyes because of His holiness. At Calvary, in plain view, the Lord hangs on the cross, half-naked and beaten, and Jew and Gentile look and sneer. It is at Calvary where God exhibited His greatest glory for all who are willing to see. It is not the blinding light that grabs our hearts and stirs thankfulness, it is the crown of thorns, the spital on the face, and the heartache of separation from the Father that draws us toward Him.
With this picture in your mind, will you allow God to touch your lips? Will you agree with Isaiah and give God’s message to others around you? America is growing more corrupt much as Judah was in Isaiah’s day. God commanded Isaiah to warn the people. Most did not listen. But some did!
Unfaithful Leaders: The Failure of Solomon
Knowingly violating God’s best plan for a situation always brings bad consequences. And the closer someone is to God the more negative and far-reaching the consequences. The life and rule of Solomon is a good example of this principle. Early in his kingship over Israel he has an encounter with God that changed his life. "That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, ‘What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!’ Solomon replied, ‘You were wonderfully kind to my father, David, because he was honest and true and faithful to you. And you have continued this great kindness to him today by giving him a son to succeed him. O Lord my God, now you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a child who doesn’t know his way around. And here I am among your own chosen people, a nation so great they are too numerous to count! Give me an understanding mind so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great nation of yours?’ The Lord was pleased with Solomon’s reply and was glad that he asked for wisdom. So God replied, ‘Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people and have not asked for a long life or riches for yourself or the death of your enemies---I will give you what you asked for (1 Kings 3:5-12)!’" God promised to give Solomon all the wisdom he needed to govern. A thorough reading of 1 Kings 3-1 Kings 10 will show that God kept His promise to bless Solomon. He blessed Solomon with wisdom, honor, and riches.
One of the projects Solomon undertook was to build a central place of worship—a temple. Until this time there were many local sites for offering sacrifices and burnt incense. David wanted to build a temple, it was his idea, but was unable because the many wars he was involved in took-up too much of his time and attention. Blessed by peace Solomon built the temple according to God’s specifications.
After the temple and all the temple contents were finished and Solomon offered prayers and sacrifices of dedication, God appeared to Solomon a second time. "I have heard your prayer and your request. I have set apart this temple you have built so that my name will be honored there forever. I will always watch over it and care for it. As for you, if you will follow me with integrity and godliness, as David your father did, always obeying my commands and keeping my laws and regulations, then I will establish the throne of your dynasty over Israel forever. For I made this promise to your father, David; ‘You will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’ But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey my commands and laws, and if you go and worship other gods, then I will uproot the people of Israel from this land I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have set apart to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations. And though this temple is impressive now, it will become an appalling sight for all who pass by. They will scoff and ask, ‘Why did the Lord do such terrible things to his land and to his Temple?’ And the answer will be, ‘Because his people forgot the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they worshiped other gods instead. That is why the Lord has brought all these disasters upon them (1 Kings 9:3-9).’" Unfortunately, despite God’s explicit warnings and commands against marrying foreign, idolatrous wives Solomon married hundreds of them. And as God predicted, these women lead him and Israel away from the exclusive worship of God the Creator and Redeemer.
As a consequence of one powerful man’s disobedience and idolatry, the kingdom of Israel was split in two. Immediately after Solomon’s death the kingdom he worked so hard to build began to crumble. The corrupting process proceeded faster in the Northern section of the divided kingdom than it did in the Southern section. The Northern section, now called Israel, fulfilling God’s warning given to Solomon in 1 Kings 9, was sent into exile by the Assyrians in 722 B. C. The Southern section, now called Judah, was sent into exile by the Babylonians in 586 B. C.
These exiles were times of discipline for a rebellious people. They were not evidence that God had given-up on Israel. God always remembers His promises to Abraham and David. Temporary disobedience does not thwart God’s overall plans to fulfill His promises. History teaches us that these exiles accomplished an important objective—Israel never again returned to the idolatry that provoked the exiles.
The exiles were temporary. Starting in 538 B. C., God began returning people back to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. There were actually three periods of return. The first was under Zerubbabel in 538 B. C. The second was under Ezra in 458 B. C. The third was under Nehemiah in 445 B. C. It took a long time to undue what Solomon allowed to happen. God knew what would happen but Solomon did not listen to Him. Instead he listened to his pagan wives who steered him and the nation toward false gods and immoral living.
Solomon, despite his great wisdom, is an example of someone who knew God’s best plan for his life but failed to do it. Solomon’s unfaithfulness brought great suffering to his people. Solomon is often looked upon as a great man and is remembered for his great wisdom. But his end was not good. Solomon inherited peace, but eventually squandered it on immoral living.
Healing Dysfunctional Relationships
The Old Testament is filled with examples of destructive relationships. It is actually discouraging to read through and see the number of times relationships are dysfunctional. But it is also encouraging because God is there with them and finds ways to teach and heal relationships. In Romans 15 it tells us everything that was written in the Old Testament is given to teach us that we might have the hope of living better lives, free from the sin and conflict that fills almost every page. First Corinthians 10:11 says that the things written down are warnings for us. "All these events happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us, who live at the time when this age is drawing to a close."
Genesis 4 records the story about Cain and Abel. "In the course of time, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord, but Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. And the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering, He did not look with favor." Cain was approaching God on his terms. God had instructed them what they were to do and Cain said, "Well, I want to do it my way." When you come to God, you come on His terms. He is the one that sets the standards. He is the one who sets the guidelines. Look what it says about Cain's reaction. "So Cain was very angry and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, why are you angry and why is your face downcast?" I want you to recognize that God is watching. God saw his heart. God saw his face. He knew what was going on in his life. He knows what is going on in your life. He knows what you are thinking right now. God is present. God understands. God cares. And so what does God say to Cain? "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you. But you must master it." What a picture. Sin is crouching at your door. Evil desires to have you. In other words, "Trouble lies ahead that will destroy your life but you can avoid it if you will turn to Me and do the right thing."
I want you to notice three things about this. First, God notices his face. God takes note of him. It says, "Why is your face downcast?" Literally it means, "Why is your face looking downward? Why are you looking down? Why is your face dejected? What are you looking down there for? You are not going to find any answers down there." He wants Cain to look up. Look up! When you are hurt. When you are angry. When someone does some thing to you that is unfair and unjust. When you have been violated, where do you look? The natural way is to look down. The answers you need are not there. God says, "Look up to me. Look to where the answers lie. Where is your strength? It is not down there. Look up!" God says "look up" because He wants you to have a relationship with Him that supercedes all other relationships.
Your relationship with God forms the basis of your relationships with people. It forms a foundation for you to have right relationships with others. When you understand God’s acceptance and God’s design in your heart and life, that He has gifted you in certain areas, you can put yourself in proper perspective. You can learn to relax and are free from trying to prove your superiority over other people. You see yourself as simply a gifted man or woman of God who is brought into relationship with others to bring the gifts that God has given you to those around you. And that their gifts can bless your life, as well. It is a partnership where each fills out and compensates for the weaknesses of the other. You are created in His image. Do you see yourself from God’s viewpoint? Is your opinion of yourself defined by what others say about you, what others think about you, or is it defined by the One that created you? You are created in His image. He knows your past. He sees potential for your future. He has plans for your future. Let that guide your self-image. Stop looking down. Stop looking in the mirror and look up instead. See yourself as God sees you!
Secondly, look at verse 7. It says, "…if you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" To do what is right is the second point that God wants us to understand. "To do right." Where is Cain’s face? It is down and God says, "I want to lift your face." It is the same word that is used in the Hebrew in that passage that says "He is the lifter of my head." He wants to encourage you, bring you up, accept you. Not simply as if he were putting His arm around you but He wants to lift you up that you might gain His perspective on life. Do what is right. Do not do what you feel like doing without Scripture-influenced, spirit-led self-examination! Are your actions controlled by the way you feel? Are you in the habit of indulging your feelings without bringing them to the obedience of Christ first (2 Corinthians 10:5)? Or, are your actions controlled by a conscious decision to obey what God says? God has given you the ability to choose. He says, "Choose My way that your life might be blessed, that it might be well with you."
Then thirdly, look at the rest of verse 7. It says, "…but if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you." Can you hear it growling? Can you hear the snarls, the claws ripping the door, the anxiousness to pounce? But God says, "…you must master it." Most of the time we hear about temptation, we recall the verse that tells us to flee from it (1 Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 2:22). And there are some temptations we must flee from. Sexual immorality and spiritual idolatry are two things we are called to flee. We are called to have nothing to do with them. But some temptations we are called to master. You must control them or they will control you. That is why in Ephesians 4 it says to get rid of all anger, wrath, bitterness, resentment and malice. Get rid of them! Take control of them and rip them out of your life!
How much do you really want God’s will for your life and your relationships? Do you really want it? The dysfunction will be reduced or eliminated if we look to God when we feel bad, we seek to do what is right, and we commit ourselves to master the sinful urges that well up within us before they contribute to the dysfunction.
Living with the Father
There was a man who had two sons. And the younger son said, "Father, I am tired of hanging out here. I want my part of the inheritance now." And so the father gives it to him. The son goes to what is called a distant country and has a great time--by his standards. His experience is described as fun, frivolity, and loose living until all the money was gone. He ends up taking a job as a hired hand on a farm feeding pigs. After living with the pigs for a while he realizes he would be better off as one of his father’s hired servants. He says to himself, "I will go back to my father. I will see if he will take me in as one of his hired servants, as an employee of his farm because my dad treats his employees better than I am getting treated here." He goes back. The father sees his son coming down the road. He gets up and does something men of his age normally do not do, he ran. He ran down the road and in Luke 15:20 it says, "He threw his arms around him and embraced him and kissed him."
The story goes on to describe the older brother’s reaction. "That is not fair. I have been here the whole time and I never got a party." The older brother should have been happy that his brother was back. But he was not and for that the father rebuked him. And that was Jesus’ core message. Recognize, we are the younger son. We are the ones who are not doing everything right, who have not kept all the laws, who have not followed every statute. And actually, no one has! Jesus tells this story so that we will understand God’s heart. God longs for reconciliation. The self-righteous Pharisees were the older brother in Jesus’ story because they were unforgiving and had a heart that was far from God’s.
We can learn some things from this story. We must be careful that we do not end up thinking like the older brother. We start to get our lives in line and then we see somebody coming into our church or see somebody else who comes to Christ and they have all these things we hate, they do not dress modestly or conservatively, they do not look respectable, they do not behave properly, they do not talk like we do, they do not smell like we like them to smell. They just do not do things our way. We almost think that they do not deserve God’s grace. Or rather, we do think they do not deserve God’s grace!
But the Father says, "Do not despise what I love. I have been waiting for my son, my daughter for 20, 40, 50 years to come back to me and, yes! they have some baggage, but they are back, so rejoice." The message for us is to not be self-righteous to where we cannot love others, where we cannot be sensitive and kind to those who need it. But also, and I will say more importantly, for us to recognize that we are that brother because we have all wandered away and squandered some good thing God has given us. But then you turn around and start walking back toward the Father. He runs to you and says, "Welcome back. Please do not do that again because it is messing up your life, but welcome back. Come back into my household and live."
There are three key truths that we see in this story. First, we see that God is for you. This does not mean that God is for you, that He exists to take care of your wants and needs like some kind of cosmic genie. But it means that God is for you, not against you. God longs for your good, longs to have a relationship with you. He cares about you, He is for you. Secondly, God is for your best. He wants nothing but the best for you. He wants right relationships, right priorities, things that truly will fulfill your heart. He does not want you going through your life being cheated out of what He could do with your life. He is for your best. And thirdly, He is for your development. You are not at your best yet, so He is going to be working through things and bringing things into your life that will help you to develop.
Look at Luke 15. In verse 20 it says, "he ran and embraced him and kissed him." He is for you. In verse 22 we see that He wants nothing but your best. The father said, "bring the best robe, bring the family ring, bring sandals, his feet are bruised and raw from walking barefoot across these fields and on these roads." He wants the best for you. In verses 12 and 18 we see the son’s development. In verse 12 the son foolishly said "Father, give me the share." In verse 18 he said, "I will get up and go to my father. Before I could not wait to get away, now I want to go back." God is working for our development, on the choices we make, so that we, like the younger son, will long to live in the Father’s house.
Look at Proverbs chapter 3. Picture this father and his young son sitting on the front porch after a long day’s work. The sun is beginning to set and here are the words of the father to his son. Here is what this father and his God would be saying to his son, which is us, on the front stoop trying to get us to understand. "My son, do not forget my teaching but keep my commands in your heart for they will prolong your life and bring you prosperity or peace. Let love and faithfulness never leave you. Bind them around your neck and write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and have a good name in the sight of God and of men." Can you hear the father wanting to pour this truth and emblazon it on his son’s heart and life? If the son listens it will change his life. It says in verse 5, a verse we have all looked at many times, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him," recognize He has a hand in the things that are going on, "and he will make your paths straight." He will direct your walk. He will tell you, show you, lead you in the way to go. Do not think you can be wise in your own eyes. Fear the Lord, respect what He says and shun evil. There are going to be things coming at your doorstep every day that are going to try to wheedle their way into your life. The fences are to keep the wolves out, not just to keep you in. Shun evil because it will destroy your life. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones. It will help you stand straight and tall. "Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of your crops. Then your barns will be filled to overflowing and your vats will be filled to the brim with new wine." Does this sound like this is going to help the father? Does this sound like it is of benefit to dad? Or is it for the son the father pleads?
Do you sense the intense personality, the personal involvement of the father? Over 30 times in ten verses the direct pronoun "you" is used. You my son. It is for you. God is for you. Because He is for you He gives all these directives. Directives are things we do not like. They boss us, they say we have to do this or that, but when given by God they are for our benefit. It says in various places, "You do not forget my teaching." "You keep my commands." "Let love and faithfulness never leave you. Bind them around your neck." "You write them on your heart." "You trust in the Lord." "You do not lean on your own understanding." "You acknowledge God." "You do not be wise in yourself and your own ways." "You honor the Lord with your wealth." "You bring the first fruits of your crops to God." God’s gives personal, individual commands because there are personal and individual blessings that come with them. "Son, I love you so much and the greatest gift I can give you is to help you understand how life works." He tells him about all the blessings that will come with faithfulness to God and His ways. It will prolong your days, bring you prosperity, peace, you will win favor and have a good name in the sight of men and of God. It will make your paths straight. It will contribute to a healthy body and strong bones.
He is for you so He gives you directives. He is for you because He wants to bless you. But notice that all these blessings are tied to the directives in a conditional way. If you do this, then this will happen. "If you are real good, you will get this later." Is that not exactly what he is saying here? "Do this, trust me, it is going to work out. And you are going to see as a direct result." It all involves our choices and who we decide to model ourselves after, whose commands we listen to. Repeatedly it says things like "with your heart," "with your mind," "let your way be straight," "give of the firstfruits of your crops." It is designed to be a personal thing. He is for you. He is for your best and He is for your development. These blessings that God gives are tied directly to the blessings that He wants to pour out upon our lives. But some of the things He is talking about here are pretty hard. They involve a huge change in the way we do things and sometimes those are pretty tough to get over. But the change is necessary.
Living and Hoping According to the New Life
God has given us the freedom to live and act as we feel. Think about why we have so many problems in this world. Yes, there are natural problems. Hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes are problems our environment throws at us. But most of our problems, most of your problems at work, at home, in society are a matter of the selfish and willful human heart--selfishness, greed, rage, revenge, scheming--things that build up in your life that work together to destroy you. God says, “Let me dissolve those for you. Let me take away that bitterness, that resentment, that rage, that selfishness, that greed. Let me take those things away from you.” This world would be a pretty nice place if we let Him do it. It would be for our best and it would be for this world’s best. But He says, “I have given you free will in this area and I will respect that all the way to your grave. And until you invite me in, I am not free to get involved.” He will not intrude on our freedom, on our capacity to do good or our capacity to do evil. He will knock, He will put barriers in our way, He will lead people into our lives but He will not come in without a personal invitation.
If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, you are going to be in heaven and God is going to transform you. He will remake you because that is what you want Him to do. That transformation is going to instantaneous. But its time is not yet. God will transform His sons and daughters. Seeking to enter by merit will not force God’s hand. Unless we are adopted into His family, He will not redeem us.
Turn over to 1 Peter 1:3. Peter echoes the joy we have because of the resurrection of Christ. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In His great mercy, He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.” He has given us new birth. He has given us a fresh start. He has given us power to work through the problems that have plagued our lives. If you are a born-again Christian what are you doing with your new birth? Are you dragging all your old clothes, your old ways, around with you? Put a lid on that stuff and let it go! Jesus died for those things; do not keep giving them life! That is the power of His resurrection working in us now.
God has a plan and He has the power to carry that plan through if you are willing to say, “I want to be a part of that plan, a plan that says I have a choice and I want to choose You and I want to choose Your standards. I want Your ways imprinted on my heart.” God will forgive any of you, any of us, anyone who calls upon His grace and forgiveness. Ephesians 2:10 says that “we are His workmanship.” This is talking about rebirth and transformation. Paul says, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” He wants to bless your life and your family and make it fulfilling. Not just provide a safe and secure place that you can do whatever you want, but to give you the equipment, the power to make a difference in the lives of others.
Turn to Ephesians 1:18. Paul’s prays: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the rich and glorious inheritance that he has for you and also know his incredible power to affect life. He demonstrated that power when he raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at the right hand in heaven, conveying all authority to him over everything now and forever.” Do you understand what that means? It means that Jesus has inherited us. God the Father granted Him all authority, all respect, all power with us. It is like the Father saying, “Hey, if my Son will do this for these guys, He deserves them. He has shown that He will do whatever is in their best interest. He loves and cares for them so much I turn all authority, all power over to him that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.” That is the resurrection message.
Are you living in light of God’s plan? Or do you have your own plans and kind of watch for God to fit in with them? God has given you the freedom to choose your plan. But who is a better planner when you really think about it? Who really knows what is best for you and for all those you say you love? Every time you choose your plan over God’s plan, you are hurting yourself and those you affect with your selfishness.
God has blessed you with another day to choose differently, to follow His plan. God wants to have a relationship with you. You do not deserve it, but He has paid a heavy price for your heart. He will be glorified by our lives as our lives are changed. It is not that we will be all white and shining but that we will be better people, more like Jesus Christ. If you are indeed a child of God, then your life should show it. Your priorities, your preferences, your choices and deeds should show it. If your life gives no evidence that you are God’s child then perhaps you are not. Second Corinthians 13:5 tells us to “examine [ourselves] to see if [our] faith is really genuine.” Is there new life in you? If not, then you need to repent and turn to God through Jesus Christ.
Born to Die
It is easy to get lost and wrapped up in the trappings of Christmas and miss the purpose, miss what God intended for us to remember every year. It is not by accident that we have a calendar, that we have cycles in our lives. God gave Israel cycles, festivals, feasts, to remind them of His faithfulness. We need reminders of who we are and who God is and what He has done because time and time again, yesterday’s victories, yesterday’s “God sightings” are lost in today’s emergencies. Christmas is such a time for the Christian.
It is easy to get sidetracked by the non-christian things of the holiday season. And even on the more mundane happenings of that day 2,000 years ago. The little town of Bethlehem nestled in the hills and the warm fuzzies of the little baby lying on straw with cows lowing and sheep bleating in the background. But I tell you that the hopes and dreams that go with that baby are extraordinary and earth shattering. Christmas is about something we sometimes have a hard time seeing. Christmas is not just about a cute baby. It is about a mighty Savior.
Jesus was willing to step from glory to the mud and manure of a stable. From being clothed with light to wearing diapers. From angel choirs to donkeys. From overlooking all of creation to helpless and dependent in the little province of Palestine. It is a story of contrasts. As Luke says, “And the angel said to them, do not be afraid for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people. For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ, the sent one, the Lord. And this will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger.” From the very beginning, He is called the Savior because from the very beginning it was intended that He would die.
And that is the contrast that Mark brings out in his gospel. Mark completely skips over the nativity scene because Mark gets his information from Peter and Peter described what he personally saw and experienced. Peter was not there, so Peter does not talk about it. But Peter goes right into why Jesus came. Jesus did not come to “fix” the world. He came to redeem the world. Is anyone’s world fixed? Anybody live in a fixed world where nothing bad happens? Is everyone around you doing the right thing? Do you always do the right thing? Do your husband, your wife, your kids do the right thing all the time? Can you look around and say, “It is all fixed?” Jesus did not come to fix the world. He came to prepare us for a fixed world. He came to forgive us of our sins so that we can live in a fixed world.
Without the manger there could be no cross. Born first, die later. Both are manifestations of God’s great love for us. We receive the Christ hanging on the cross as a substitution for our sins. But I will say as hard as it was to die for us, I think it probably was harder to live for us, to leave all that He had to walk and live among us. It is much easier to die for someone than to live for him/her. My wife reminds me of that all the time. I would throw myself under a bus for her, but to live for her year after year takes more commitment and perseverance. Jesus came to not only live among us and die for us but also to reveal the Father to us, to give us understanding of who God is. As Colossians 1:15 says, “Christ is the physical representation of the invisible God.” To throw off the prerogatives of deity to clothe Himself in the shackles of human skin, blood, and bone was a mighty act of love. The manger declares that God is love.
Do you ever think of God as humble? God is humble. If anybody has the right to be arrogant and proud, I think God has it. “I can do whatever I want to do.” But in His humility, He restrains Himself to make room for us. As Philippians 2:6-8 explains, “For though He had the right to be God, He willingly let go of it. He did not feel it was something worthy of being held on to. He gave it up even taking on the form of a man, humbling himself even to the point of death on a cross.” He gave Himself for us—the ultimate act of humility. Not only does Calvary show humility, but His life lived in gentleness and obedience to the Father shows a deep seated humility that reveals His very nature. The manger is where God throttles Himself down. It is no small thing to grasp that the King of kings left the splendors of heaven for a manure-laden stable. The manger declares that God is humble.
God values our friendship. He values our life more than we value it ourselves. The manger and the cross declare His values, the priority He has for people. As a king He could have created us in order to have someone to rule over. After all, a king to be king needs subjects. A warrior to be a warrior needs war. But the manger and subsequent life of Jesus show that personal relationship is His priority. He wants our hearts not just our bended knee. That reveals a lot of who He is. Yes, because He is the Creator and Lord of all creation, He demands respect, it would be rebellious to think otherwise, but ultimately that worship we give is the organizing influence that sets all things right within us. The manger declares that God is personal.
All that happened with the manger, all that happened with the cross was prophesied, was declared ages before they happened. As Revelation 13:8 says, “The lamb was slain before the foundation of the world.” It was planned from the very beginning. God was able to work out the many thousands of details that it took for all of it to happen. The manger declares the sovereignty of God.
With this being true, what is so complicated in your life that God cannot work it out? What is going on in your life that is beyond God’s ability to sort out, to figure out, to know what needs to be done, to know how to do it, to know how He can use it in your life for something good? Maybe it is something that is very bad. So many times people misquote Romans 8:28. “We know that all things work for good.” They think of it as a statement that there is a principle of good coming from bad in our universe. It is inherit in the nature of the universe. But that is not what it says. All things do not work for good. There are bad things that go on in our lives that do not work for good. There are bad things that produce more badness in our world. There is unfairness and injustice everywhere. What does it say? “For we know that God works all things for good, for those who are called according to his good purposes.” It is God who takes bad things and causes good things to grow out of them. And most of the time He uses people to do it. Think about your own life. Have there been tragedies in your life you would not want to repeat, but you have seen good things grow in your character, in your life, and in your heart because of them? Are there things your children are going through and you say, “I wish they did not have to go through that but Lord, grow them because of it?” God works things for good. All things in themselves do not work for good. God is the one at work. And as we imitate Him, we work to bring good from bad.
But beyond that, there is an evil one who is working bad things in this world. The evil one is at work encouraging rebellion against God’s ways. Do you doubt that? Chance alone could not create some of the great evil and atrocities we see in our world. Great evil is more than just the absence of rational thought that can be fixed by thinking rightly. God breaks into our world and works good from evil for the benefit of those “who are called according to his good purposes.” God has a redemptive plan that is being worked out in history. “For I know the plans I have made for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good not for evil, to give you a hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). The manger and the cross declare that plan. So the next time you see a picture of “baby Jesus” lying in a manger do not think, “Oh, how cute,” but “Oh, God, what great thing have you done for me!”
Grace: Something to Live By
What God’s Word makes clear is that grace is not just something we receive so that something bad does not happen to us but chiefly so that grace can become operative in our lives. Too many people see grace’s intention as a something that is given to us to save us from eternal punishment and miss that God’s grace is meant to control and transform our lives.
From Genesis to Revelation we see that Creation and existence is about grace. Eternity with God is a grace experience. Grace is not only about not giving us what we deserve, eternal separation from God and His blessings, but grace is also enabling, or unto Christlikeness in our lives. Paul starts off every one of his letters, “grace and peace be to you.” Grace is necessary to live the Christian life. It is necessary to have any light for Jesus at all. Those that bear no fruit, have no light, are devoid of grace because God’s grace is enabling. It will shine. It will bear genuine fruit. And it will persevere. Paul talks a lot about grace. When he says, “May the grace of God be with you,” he is not merely saying, “I am glad you experienced God’s grace when you were saved,” but, “I pray for you that you walk in His grace now.”
Do you remember what Jesus said about enemies? “You have been taught from the very beginning to love your neighbors and hate your enemies. But I say unto you, love your enemies. If someone compels you to go one mile with them and carry their goods, go two. If someone slaps you on the cheek, give them the other one. If someone takes your coat, give them your scarf too.” Do you recognize grace in what Jesus is saying? See, it is not, well, he wants to borrow my coat. He is my friend, he has done a lot of nice things for me, so I will give him my scarf. No, it is the guy that is taking your coat that doesn’t deserve it and you are being wronged by it that Jesus says, "be gracious and give more." That is the teaching of Jesus. That is how grace lives in God’s heart.
So, I ask you, how is grace going in your life? Is grace really a part of your life? Is it making a noticeable difference? If not, then you need to get closer to God, the source of grace. And I have to tell you, you have a chance right now to start growing it because there are people in your life that do not deserve grace. There are people around you that do not deserve your kindness and care. There are people around you who need grace in their lives. Grace is like a blast of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant and noxious atmosphere. You could be the one who gives it to them.
God’s whole relationship with Israel was to be based on Deuteronomy 6:5: “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” And the out-working of this was to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This was grace living. Peter tells us (2 Peter 3:17-18) to grow in grace—to exhibit it more and more in our lives. Peter also tells us that we grow in grace as we grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we know Him better grace becomes more and more of who we are and what we do. This describes the Christian life--Jesus living through us unto Christlike behavior by the power of the Holy Spirit.