Monday, September 24, 2007

The Narrow Way (Luke 13:22-30)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
September 23, 2007


Thursday night Heather and I watched Survivor: China. We haven’t watched Survivor since the first show a few years ago, but checked this one out because, Leslie Nease, one of the DJs from our local Christian radio station (New Life 91.9) is on the show. If you don’t know what Survivor is, it’s a reality game show where two teams of people are put in a remote location for 16 weeks. They have to survive on their own and along the way they compete in various games and challenges, with one contestant being sent home each week.

Well, set in China, this show kicked off with a “welcoming ceremony” in a Buddhist temple. Anticipating Leslie’s reaction, the show host made clear that this was not worship, but just a welcome. What did Leslie do? When they were asked to bow down and pray before the statues of Buddha, she left the building. When they asked her about it afterwards, she said, “That felt like worship to me. I’m not religious, but I do have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and I will bow down and worship him alone.”

Good for Leslie! We are interested to see how she does on the show.

What did she mean, though, when she said that she is not religious? Why define her faith in terms of a relationship with Jesus?

That is exactly what our text this morning explores! Someone asked Jesus about who would be saved (presumably by him as the Messiah). Jesus’ answer surely was not what they were expecting. Let’s look at what happened.


Who (and how many) Will Be Saved? (v. 23-24)

As with the distorted understanding of Messiah and the Kingdom of God, “being saved” was understood in terms of God’s rescuing the Jewish people from the oppression of their day through a military revolution (or perhaps by some by a return to the purity of Law-keeping). The expectation behind the question put to Jesus, then, was that only some of Israel would be looking for the Messiah and be saved by Him.

As he did with explaining ‘Messiah’ and ‘Kingdom’, Jesus had to redefine ‘salvation’ and reset the expectations around what being saved meant. While our modern (and often distorted) expectations around salvation do not match the ancient (and also distorted) expectations, Jesus response to this question is timeless in application and just as important for us to hear as it was for the audience of his day.

There are several key principles which I’ll state up front, then look at with you in more detail.

The time to attend to faith and salvation is now, not later. While there may be positive elements to religion and religious practice, there are very real limits to what they contribute to our salvation, and not a few potential dangers of religion practiced for the wrong reasons. While “the door” is narrow, the invitation given is extraordinarily broad.

Let’s look more closely…


Now, Not Later (v. 25)

Jesus spoke with urgency. The time is now to enter through the narrow door. There is a time coming when the head of the house will shut the door and it will be too late. I’ll return to this at the end, but don’t miss what Jesus is saying. Salvation isn’t something to put off as if it were a convenience to fit into our otherwise busy schedules. His imagery here brings to mind Noah and the Ark. There was no one who would enter the ark when Noah was building it as a living demonstration of God’s salvation. It was only when destruction was obvious and imminent, and the Ark sealed up, that so many cried out to be let in.

Hear the Good News inside the warning: the door is still open today! There will come a time when it is “too late,” but today, this moment, it is not too late to run to Jesus.

For you who know Jesus, hear the urgency of this as well. Sharing the news about Jesus is, similarly, not something to put off as if it were a convenience to fit into our otherwise busy schedules. To not point someone to Jesus as if their life depended on it is unconscionable. I believe that failure to speak will be one of the sins of omission that will make us weep when we bow before God’s throne.

If we don’t see the urgency of that, then we need to think long and hard about what we think salvation means.


The Limits of Religion (vv. 26-28)

I find the next few verses very interesting. Listen to what those who are stuck outside are saying:

We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets. (v. 26)

He is, of course, talking to the scribes and Pharisees who followed him around constantly, but who didn’t “get it” in terms of who he was and what he was teaching. He is saying that being in the right place and even hearing the right words is not sufficient.

When I try to understand that in terms of church and modern Christianity, it makes me really uncomfortable. But I believe it is true. Being in the right place (church) and even hearing the right words (the Bible taught clearly) will not save you. Think about the old drowning man illustration. Just because someone throws you the life-saving ring and you correctly read the words on the side – “Life Saving Device” – does not mean that you will be saved. You must lay hold of the ring to be pulled to safety. Now that illustration has theological limitations, but you get the point. When you bow before the throne of Heaven, Jesus will not say, “Are you a member of Good Shepherd or a Presbyterian in good standing?” or even “How many sermons did you hear in your lifetime?” He will simply say, “Do you know me?” Or simpler still, he will either recognize me as his or not. This is what he describes in verse 27…

I tell you, I do not know where you are from…

He appeals particularly to his audience, who find such continuity with their Jewish ancestors, saying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob understood salvation and the narrow door, for they are in the Kingdom of Heaven. He says that it will be all the more tragic when these people who will not believe and follow him realize that they have indeed forgotten the face of their fathers.

Going to church, participating in church – that is, being religious – is not a bad thing, unless those things become a substitute for the relationship with God through Jesus. It’s like confusing movie nights, candlelight dinners, flowers, and phone calls with love itself. The two are related, but they can also be tragically disconnected.

Jesus invites us not only to hang around and listen, but to “Come, believe, and follow.” That is the door. There are not multiple doors; there is just “Come and follow me.” There is only Jesus Christ.


What is Not Narrow (vv. 29-30)

Jesus concludes with what may have been the most scandalous part of all for his Jewish audience. While the door is narrow (trusting Jesus, the one the Father sent), the invitation is extraordinarily broad. The scribes and Pharisees were probably not thinking beyond the Jewish community in asking this question, and in fact, were looking for Jesus to talk about a narrow ethnic and religious door. He surprised them the first time by saying the narrowness of salvation was through himself. He scandalized them a second time by suggesting that the invitation was broad.

They will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. (v. 29)

Again, this should not have surprised them; the promise to those same forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) had been that they would be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations of the world.

But, years later, this part of God’s promise had been misplaced.

What does that mean for us? Most directly, I think it challenges our self-centeredness as American Christians. That ties into the confusion about what exactly Christianity is. It is not our comfortable buildings, trained choirs, black robes, and large budgets. Those things are ok (if they don’t become idols!), but not the heart of Christianity. Rather, it is a living relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. I can guarantee you that there are millions upon millions of believers around the globe who have a far clearer understanding of that than we do, despite economic and educational limitations. We do not dare look down upon them as “poor third worlders” or “developing nations who are as children.”

Whenever you start sweating the narrow door part of Jesus’ invitation, that he is the only way and no one comes to the Father except through him, remember also the extraordinary breadth of the invitation. God’s invitation is exceedingly broad, so that every tribe and tongue and nation will be represented before the throne of God for all of eternity. That is one of the things that makes Christianity so gracious. It is not faith based on ethnicity or nationality, but on personal response to a loving God.

In the coming chapter of Luke, Jesus will go on to press this illustration and this theme, that God’s Kingdom is like a great banquet, and all are invited. Some who might be expected to come do not and some who might be expected not to come will. And so, Jesus says:

Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. (v. 30)


What’s Really Important

At the heart of Jesus’ words today is this: we will be surprised, he says, at who is saved, not because there are other ways to God, but because many of us don’t have a clear understanding of what (and who) saves us. And yet, even to those who are confused, Jesus speaks clearly that we might hear. The way to God is through Jesus Christ alone. And the time to come, believe, and follow Jesus is now. It is not tomorrow; it is not when we stand ready to be judged. The time is now.

So, beloved, hear the good news: God has come all the way down to where we are through Jesus Christ that we might turn and see Him face to face, know Him personally, and follow Him obediently. There is no sin, no past, no weight, that is too great for God. He invites you now to the banquet. You are His guest; come in!


Monday, September 17, 2007

Underdog! (Luke 13:18-21)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
September 16, 2007

Would you know the Savior if you saw him?

Of course… he would come with peals of thunder, lightning flashing, and angelic trumpets sounding. Or even if he came as a man, he would glow with a supernatural light, the essence of his God-ness.

In comic books, Superman is a type of the Savior. By ‘type’ I mean that he is patterned after other real-life saviors, most notably after Jesus himself. This is one of the really interesting things about comics or fantasy literature. It isn’t just make-believe stories for kids, it is a two-dimensional look at the great themes of human experience: good, evil, virtue, sin, judgment, and salvation.

This Fall, there will be a Hollywood movie remake of a cartoon that used to run when I was a kid. It’s based on the Superman story (which has overtones of the Gospel), but it’s geared down even a few more notches.

Maybe some of you will remember these characters: Sweet Polly Purebred, the damsel in distress; Simon Bar Sinister, the evil villain; and Shoeshine Boy, a clumsy, nerdy kid (dog) who shined shoes. But, when evil threatened and Polly was once again in trouble, he would dart into a phone booth and become a human-like dog superhero, Underdog.

Or if none of that jars your memory, maybe this most famous saying of his will [in my best Underdog voice]: “There’s no need to fear; Underdog is here!”

Whether intentionally or not, comic book heroes like Superman and Underdog get another aspect of the biblical story right: not only has a savior come from outside our world to rescue us here in this world, but this hero is humble, often-unnoticed, yet capable of amazing things.

Why talk about comics this morning? Stories point beyond their two-dimensional world to greater things. Jesus told stories. This morning, we are going to look at two stories he used to help describe what the Kingdom of God is like.



The Kingdom of God: Public Expectation

We’ve talked before about the public expectations about the Messiah at the time Jesus lived. The coming of the Messiah was greatly longed for and he was expected to be a mighty warrior returning to usher in God’s reign on earth. In practical terms, in Jesus’ day, this mighty King would drive the Romans out of Israel and restore the kingdom in God’s name.

So, with that expectation about the Messiah, there were corresponding expectations about the Kingdom of God. It was the earthly kingdom brought in, blessed, and protected by God. The Messiah was God’s anointed prophet, priest, and king.

Throughout Jesus’ teaching ministry, there is evidence that many who followed him believed not only that he was the Messiah, but that he was that kind of Messiah. For example, the Zealots were a kind of underground resistance army waiting for leadership to arise against the Romans. At least two of his disciples belonged to this group. They were, no doubt, hoping Jesus would be that leader.

Perhaps because of this expectation, Jesus seemed to go out of his way to talk about what the Kingdom of God was, and what his role and that of his followers were supposed to be.

In Luke 13, he gives two analogies to help explain what God’s Kingdom is like. Let’s look at each one in turn.


The Kingdom of God as Mustard Seed

The Kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches. (v. 19)

This is an analogy, so it does not give us a perfect understanding of what the Kingdom of God is like, but it does tell us something about it.

Two things stand out. First, the mustard seed is tiny when you are looking at it and hidden when planted. Jesus was telling the people that the Kingdom wasn’t coming in quite like they imagined. It had humble beginnings. It might not look like much right now, but like the mustard seed, it would grow into something quite substantial. In fact, the mustard plant in that part of the world can grow to 9 feet in size. That’s an enormous plant! So, this described a message Jesus often proclaimed. The Kingdom is now here, but it is not yet what it will become. Nonetheless, seek, believe, and serve.

The second thing about the mustard seed is that because it grows to such great size, it is large enough for birds to find shelter and refuge there. They will even make their nests (homes) in its branches. So also the Kingdom of God is our future home and a present refuge in times of trouble and “rain”.



The Kingdom of God as Leaven

The Kingdom of God… is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened. (v. 21)

Jesus moves quickly into a second analogy. This one has one point, but several implications. Leaven is yeast. It is the element that is put into floury dough to cause a chemical reaction and cause it to ‘rise’. Like the planted mustard seed, the leaven is hidden when it is first put inside the dough. But also like the mustard seed, it soon makes its presence known through its ‘fruit’. It transforms the ‘world’ around it, changing flat tasteless matzo into fresh, rich bread.

It strikes me as interesting that Jesus would choose to talk about three pecks of flour, given his three day burial (what an amazing image of yeast ‘entombed’ in dough!). Whether that was intentional or not, the illustration of the Kingdom being like yeast teaches us about the transformational influence of God’s presence in our world, even causing lifeless men and women to ‘rise’ to new life.


A Place in the Kingdom

So, hopefully having learned something about the Kingdom of God, what do we do with that knowledge? How do we relate to God’s Kingdom?

First, Jesus has taught us that God’s Kingdom is already here, but not yet fully realized. We will not be fully and completely joined to the Kingdom until we live with God in Heaven. And yet, also because of Jesus, we are already declared citizens of that Kingdom. And, as those bearing the imprint of our citizenship and filled with the Holy Spirit, we bear witness to God’s Kingdom through our words and actions. We are ambassadors for the Great King even now.

So, there are several points of application here.

Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God…”. We are to look for signs of God’s present rule in our world and in our lives. God as King is our first priority and our first allegiance, even now and in this world.

Not only are we to seek or look for God and His Kingdom, we are also to serve God. All Jesus’ language about “come and follow” and obedience and discipleship… that’s all a description of what it means to be God’s servant. Jesus modeled this perfectly through his own obedience and humble service, and we are to imitate and live that obedience out in our own lives.

Like the risen dough, we follow and serve God by being filled with God’s Word and Spirit. It is that transforming power of God’s presence in our lives that changes us from the inside out.

While we are still strangers in a strange land, our heavenly citizenship also means that we have the security of an eternal home. That means we also have a present refuge and sanctuary in this world. In the coming weeks, as we progress in Luke 13-14, we will study some of the implications of belonging to God and being a member of His household and a citizen of His Kingdom.

Jesus taught so much with simple words and examples. “Pay attention,” he said, “otherwise you might miss what God is doing.”

It may be the opportunity to invite a neighbor to church or an open door to share personally about why God is important in your life. It may be an opportunity to serve God in the church or in the neighborhood. It may be a need that you become aware of that you have the resources to address in Christ’s name. It may be a new sense of the importance of prayer. It may be responding to a call of God on your life – saying ‘yes’ to serve or obey God.

God’s presence and Kingdom is humble and does not demand attention; sometimes, it is even hidden. Like Underdog’s “Shoeshine Boy” or like Clark Kent, many other things will seem more attractive, more powerful, and more worth your attention. But God’s presence and power, embodied in His Kingdom, changes everything around it, including the lives of those who seek and serve Him. And when we are changed, we begin to leaven – to introduce God-change – to the neighborhood and world around us. Amen.


Monday, September 10, 2007

---CHARACTER STUDIES Index---

Hebrews 12:1-4 refers to the "cloud of witnesses" of the faithful who have gone before and encourages us to run the race with our eyes fixed on Jesus. This Summer we will be considering God's character in relation to some of the cloud of witnesses in scripture.

09-09-07 In Memory of Her (Mark 14:3-9)

09-02-07 Clean House, Dirty Closet: Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:31-33)

08-26-07 Good Friends II: Nathan (2 Samuel 12:1-14)

08-19-07 Good Friends I: Barnabas (Acts 11:22-26)

08-12-07 text not available

08-05-07 text not available

07-29-07 Working Women: Phoebe, Priscilla, Lydia (Romans 16, Acts 16, 18)

07-22-07 Women of the House: Anna, Eunice, Lois (Luke 2; 2 Timothy 1)

07-15-07 Brought in from Outside: Rahab (Joshua 2;1-24; Hebrews 11:31)

07-08-07 The Invisible Woman and the God Who Sees: Hagar (Genesis 16:1-16)

07-01-07 Strength and Weakness: Gideon (Judges 6-7)

06-24-07 God Wrestled Among Us: Jacob (Genesis 32:24-32; John 1:1-5,14)


Sunday, September 9, 2007

In Memory of Her (Mark 14:1-9)

Sermon by: Robert Austell

September 9, 2007


This is the last sermon of the summer series from Hebrews 12:1. We have been looking at the lives of faithful men and women of scripture in order to gain encouragement and direction as we run after Jesus Christ, avoiding the entanglement of sin as we do.


Today’s story is a vivid and moving picture of focused and extravagant love of Jesus. It is so focused and direct that even the very, very important ministry of caring for the poor (i.e. loving neighbor) is temporarily put on hold for this act of worship. It demonstrates to us the foundational importance of a personal and worshiping relationship with God through Jesus Christ as the center and basis for a faithful life.


There are many reasons to think this is the same story told in John 12. If so, then this woman is Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. It would take us down a long rabbit trail to explore why or why not it is the same story, and in any event, it would not change the lesson of the story. So, today we will focus on the woman in Mark 14, unnamed there, anything but forgotten.


This is such a vivid story. Told in only seven verses, you feel like you were there when you hear it. It is set right smack in the middle of political intrigue and plotting. (This may account for the differences between this version and John’s. Mark may be telling the story for thematic purpose rather than chronological accuracy.) The Passover feast was on and many, including Jesus, were coming to Jerusalem for the week-long religious observance.


Now the Passover and Unleavened Bread were two days away; and the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to seize Him by stealth and kill Him; for they were saying, “Not during the festival, otherwise there might be a riot of the people.” (vv. 1-2)


It’s clear at this point that they are out to get Jesus… they want to kill him. In the previous chapter in Mark, Jesus has told his followers to be on the alert for what is to come (mostly talking about the 2nd coming). The other gospels tell us it is at this same time that Jesus starts predicting his own death at the hands of the religious leaders.


Right after the story we read of Judas’ betrayal. What a contrast, then, to read of this extravagant act of love and worship. On one hand are all those, far and near, who are plotting to kill Jesus. On the other hand, close by, is this woman who honors him and anoints him as Messiah and King. It is an act of devotion and love, though Jesus recognizes and explains that it will serve to anoint him for his burial.



What Happened to “Love Your Neighbor”?


All of that sets the stage for this scene, but there are two actions that dominate the story. One is the pouring of perfume on Jesus’ head. We’ll get to that. The other is the reaction from the disciples. It is almost a scene-stealer, because if we think about it for even a moment, it is so easy to identify with the disciples.


On one hand, we think, “Oh, she put some perfume on Jesus and they made a big deal about it.” But, surely each of us would have protested with them! Here’s why:


…this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor. (v. 5)


It’s not just that Judas was greedy and made a big deal about it (John records these words as coming from his mouth). From every earthly perspective, she really had “wasted” this expensive perfume, as accused in v. 4.


A denarius was a coin worth approximately one day’s wage for a laborer. “Over three hundred denarii” was about a year’s wage. What would that be today? $25,000? $30,000? $40,000?

Imagine it…


“Pastor Robert, I’ve sold my car and have moved in with my parents, and I’ve saved all my paychecks for the past year. I’d like to have a huge birthday party for Jesus this Christmas and I’d like to have the church host it.”


“Dad, I’ve decided to drop out of college this last year, but I’d like to use that last year’s tuition to rent out Blumenthal and hire the Charlotte symphony to play the Doxology in honor of God. No tickets, no other program… just come together to honor God and go home.”


Are you starting to see the crazy extravagance of what she did? I know it’s Jesus, but surely, surely, there are better… more GODLY uses of our money. Surely something even Jesus would approve of!

To me, if you actually understand what this woman did, the disciples’ reaction is the most normal part of this story. Any one of us would have said the same.


And here’s the shocking part: Jesus told them to shut up.


Is that too strong? Listen…


Let her alone; why do you bother her? (v. 6)


And he goes on… if their jaws hadn’t hit the floor yet, then this probably did the trick:


She has done a good deed to me. (v. 6)


While I usually prefer our New American Standard translation, in this case the NIV has it right… she has done a “beautiful thing” to Jesus.


“But Jesus, you always talk about loving our neighbor. And we’re supposed to care for the poor. Especially at Passover, we always give special alms to the poor.”


And Jesus responds:


…you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have me. (v. 7)


Something has trumped love of neighbor and care of the poor. Jesus is not saying that these are not important. In fact, he spent much of his teaching and ministry demonstrating how important these are. But, there was something even more important that she got right. It had to do with who Jesus was. It had to do with timing. And it had to do with worship as an expression of love, response, and service.


Something about her action was extremely important, not only because Jesus declared it the right thing, but because he then said this:


Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her. (v. 9)


Let’s try to understand, then, what it is that she did and whether it is something we can and should participate in as we seek to be faithful to Jesus.



Love the Lord Your God


Commentators note that this act was not completely arbitrary for two reasons. It was a common practice to anoint people with oil or a bit of perfume at Passover time. It was also the practice of the Hebrew people to anoint their kings for service.


It is likely that the woman knew of both practices, but there was even more going on. If this was in fact Mary the sister of Lazarus (cf. John 12), then we already know of her inclination to prioritize being with Jesus even over serving Jesus. We also know from the lavish use of costly perfume that this act was one of extravagant love.


I’d like to suggest that what all of this adds up to is an act of extravagant and intensely direct worship. And I’d like to break this act of worship out into four parts.


Recognition


First, worship is recognition of the subject and object of our worship.


The prophets of old would anoint a king for service. Was Jesus a King? Surely he was, for he was the promised and expected Messiah. And this woman recognized him as such. It was a common practice to pour perfume on the head or feet of a guest, especially during Passover when so many traveled and stayed in homes near Jerusalem. Was Jesus an honored guest? Yes, he was, and much more. He was to become the new Passover Lamb, sacrificed once and for all.


The woman recognized Jesus as Lord, King, and Honored Guest; that recognition led to her act of worship.


Adoration


Her act was one of worship because it was a selfless act of adoration. It was more than selfless, even; it was sacrificial. She offered this extraordinarily costly perfume in what can only be described in human terms as wasteful.


There is a contemporary scholar named Marva Dawn who has written a book on worship called A Royal Waste of Time. While the stakes are not as high as seemingly pouring $30,000 down the drain, consider what you are doing when you come here to worship God. You spend anywhere from one hour to half of your Sunday here doing what? Singing, praying, listening to someone talk about God. You could be sleeping. You could be playing. You could be making good money. Many people choose those things over what you are doing right now. And many look at what you are doing and say the same thing the disciples said in v. 3, “What a waste!”


I remember going back to my old high school, where I was in the top of my class. I was talking with one of my old teachers and responding to their question about what I was doing now. When I told her I was a pastor, she made this tiny gesture with her head, kind of wagging it as if to say, “What a waste.”


Offering God true worship and adoration will always carry a sense of absurdity to those who do not know God. Even to us, it is easy to hear that nagging voice that says, “Maybe all this is a waste of time.”


The same might be said of two people in love. How they seem to “waste” so much time, money, and attention on each other. The same is true of God, if we know Him personally. It is then the “natural” thing to do to offer God adoration and praise, even extravagantly so.


Anticipation


There is also a sense in which worship is anticipation. We anticipate God’s promises and God’s sovereign wisdom and power for the future. Whether the woman made all the connections or not, Jesus certainly connected her action with an anticipation of his impending death and burial. In a similar way, when we come to the Lord’s Supper for communion, we not only remember and look back, and experience God’s grace in the present, we anticipate and look forward to the banqueting table God has set for us in Heaven.


Celebration


Finally, worship is celebration. This ties together recognition, adoration, and anticipation because we are celebrating who God is as well as what He has done, is doing, and is going to do. And no one who is truly celebrating another scrimps on the party. The woman went all out, even if it seemed extravagant and over the top to the others present. God is worth celebrating. Worship is celebration!



…And Love Your Neighbor


So what about the poor? What about those who haven’t heard the Good News? What about our mission and God’s mission to the world? Aren’t all those things really important?


Yes, they are. That’s why Jesus put them together. What is the greatest commandment?


The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and to love your neighbor as yourself. (cf. Mark 12:30-31)


Jesus had just taught this. Perhaps Mary even heard it. There it is – Jesus didn’t omit it… we are to love our neighbor. We are to feed the poor. We are to build houses for Habitat and support missionaries to those who haven’t heard. We are to love our enemies and join in God’s mission the world. But here’s the point: those things don’t matter if we don’t love God with all we are and all we have.


You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who is more gung-ho about God’s mission, whether that be ministries of mercy or sharing the Good News. But if I haven’t made this clear, then hear it clearly now, as taught in this passage:


All the love in the world is wasted without first loving the God who is the author and creator of that world and of love itself.


Want to talk about waste? There’s a statement to chew on.


All the love in the world is wasted without first loving the God who is the author and creator of that world and of love itself.


What Jesus taught is that loving God with all we have and all we are cannot but result in love of neighbor. Jesus taught that a lot! But the opposite is not true. Love of neighbor does not automatically result in loving or even knowing God.


And this woman – Mary – got it right.


That’s why wherever the Gospel – the Good News – is proclaimed, what she did will be remembered. It is because what she did was worship God with all she was and all she had, with heart, soul, mind, and strength. And where the Gospel goes and people respond, they too will come to know what it means to worship and serve the Lord.


The prophet Isaiah said, “Seek the Lord while He may be found.” (55:6) This blessed woman demonstrated both the wisdom and the beauty of doing just that. Amen.



Sunday, September 2, 2007

Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:31-33)

Sermon by: Robert Austell

September 2, 2007


We are finishing up our summer series, inspired by Hebrews 12:1, which describes a “great cloud of witnesses” – people of faith – who encourage us on in our race towards Jesus Christ, while helping us guard against the sin that would entangle and trip us up.


Today, we are looking at one of the so-called “good kings” of God’s people. He was some time after King David, when God’s people had divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Jehoshaphat was king of Judah, the southern kingdom.


As you read his story, you read of a godly king, one who sought God’s leading and blessing in everything he did, from establishing a judicial system to engaging in a defensive war against invading neighbors. He was diligent to obey God’s Law and to require that of the people he ruled.


And yet, at the end of the story of his reign, even as he is commended for being a godly ruler, there is a final dark line that indicates that all is not well in the land of Judah. There is still evil and sin afoot, almost lurking in the shadows. Beyond that even, almost as an epilogue to his story, Jehoshaphat goes on one last crazy shipping expedition against God’s will, and it ends in failure.


I want to tell you Jehoshaphat’s story as one who ran a nearly perfect race after God, but also note the very real dangers of sin, even at the end of the race, to entangle and trip us up. We must be obedient and follow after Jesus, but we must also be on guard against Satan, sin, and ourselves.



A Good and Godly King


If you want to read Jehoshaphat’s story in more detail, it’s found in 2 Chronicles 17-21, with a bit from the northern kingdom perspective in 1 Kings 22.


Jehoshaphat became King of Judah at 35, succeeding his father King Asa. Growing up he had seen Asa set an example of godliness, with a key act being his purging the land of idols, particularly those to Baal and Asherah. The northern kingdom had been overrun by this idol worship, but a series of godly kings in southern Judah continued to fight against the pagan practice. Like his father, Jehoshaphat “took great pride in the ways of the Lord and again removed the high places and the Asherim from Judah.” (2 Chronicles 17:6)


In addition to his work against idolatry, Jehoshaphat also regularly consulted God and His prophets before undertaking any activity. He established judges and courts of appeal and required godly character in these judges (ch. 19). And when the Moabites and Ammonites came to make war against Judah, he took the people out into the wilderness, declared a fast, and exhorted them to trust the Lord:


Listen to me, O Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, put your trust in the Lord your God and you will be established. Put your trust in His prophets and succeed.” (2 Chronicles 20:20)


He followed this preaching moment with a time of worship, with the musicians and singers singing praise to the Lord:


Give thanks to the Lord, for His lovingkindness is everlasting. (v. 21)


And God delivered His people and this godly king who were trusting in their Lord.


There are more details, but this gives you a glimpse at life in Judah under the rule of King Jehoshaphat.


And so we come to the summary of King Jehoshaphat’s life in verses 31-32:


Now Jehoshaphat reigned over Judah. He was thirty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-five years. And his mother’s name was Azubah the daughter of Shilhi. He walked in the way of his father Asa and did not depart form it, doing right in the sight of the Lord.


If we could end there, we would only know that Jehoshaphat was a good, godly, effective, and blessed King. Reading those two verses is like watching a race in a movie where the champion is running down the final stretch, ahead of the pack, with the finish line in sight.


And the music changes. Watching, you start looking around because there is a shadow and a darkness.



The Sin that Entangles


The high places, however, were not removed; the people had not yet directed their hearts to the God of their fathers. (v. 33)


I’ll be honest; I got stuck on that first part about not removing the high places of idol worship. I didn’t know quite what to make of that at first. We read about where Jehoshaphat started out on that issue. He removed the high places and the Asherim from Judah (ch. 17). But they either got put back up or he missed them the first time.


I’ll also tell you that my first thought was that Jehoshaphat wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. This was his skeleton-in-the-closet. Like so many successful politicians or televangelists, he had an impressive public image and ministry, but in the end we discover the dirty little secret.

As I read and re-read this verse, though, the second part of the verse began to come to the foreground: “The people had not yet directed their hearts to the God of their fathers” (v. 33b). It appears that the order went out, and perhaps some or all of the high places were destroyed, but the people of Judah rebuilt them.


And here’s the bottom line on that. Having a godly king and godly leadership isn’t enough. Being part of the more-godly-than-our-northen-relatives southern kingdom was enough. Having someone else clean up your act for you isn’t enough. In order to be obedient to God and not be entangled by sin, the people of Judah had to have a heart change.


I’ll just stop right now to make the application. It’s straightforward and easy to see. It is not enough to come to a good church and hear biblical preaching or even do godly things like service projects, mission trips, and worship itself, if your heart is not personally and individually and from your heart-of-hearts inclined toward God.


Your mom or dad making you live right is good for your health. Your preacher or friends coercing decent behavior may get you out of a worse mess this time around. But in terms of knowing God, experiencing true life and joy, and living life blessed by God, you will not get it without turning your heart to God.


That’s the power and the importance of the biblical message of repentance. It means a turn-around from the inside out.


So first, like Nathan’s words, “You are the man!” last week, we must realize that nobody and nothing else can make us right with God. Only Jesus can, experienced when we turn towards him and trust him with our lives. We can’t absorb faith or relationship with God from the people around us.


But secondarily, realize what this means for those who desire faithfulness from those around them – spouses, children, friends, and others. We can be a good witness, as Jehoshaphat was to the people of Judah. We can, for a time, make sure our young children make the right decisions and do the right things. We can point others towards God. But the change is ultimately between Jesus and the heart, and we are on the outside – interested, but outside.


Don’t let that put you off being a good witness and example and parent and friend. But realize what is our part and what is God’s part. Pray for heart-change. Pray for repentance. Pray for conviction of sin and the “turning”. Tell the story of your own turning to Jesus. Take every opportunity to point to Jesus Christ.



The Calling and the Danger of Mixed Company


Finally, and I want to be careful in how I say this, be mindful of the influence of the company you keep. Jesus says we should be in the world but not of the world. It is so much easier to either withdraw or get sucked in. But neither is an option. We are to be a faithful witness without being turned away ourselves.


Is this a possibility? Absolutely – look at Jehoshaphat.


First, we do have a clue as to how the idols and high places were re-introduced into Judah. Seeking an alliance with the northern kingdom, Jehoshaphat arranges an engagement between his son, Jehoram, and Athaliah, the daughter of King Ahab of the North. The northern kingdom had long been overrun by idol worship, and Athaliah re-introduced Ball worship when she came to Judah. This does not excuse the country from embracing, but it does solve one mystery.

My point is that it was not enough for Jehoshaphat to be godly. He could not keep all those around him from sinning, and soon the idolatry that Athaliah introduced had saturated his kingdom.


Secondly, we don’t really know what led to this, but at the end of ch. 20 we read that Jehoshaphat made an alliance with King Ahaziah of Israel, against the will of God. He built ships for a joint mission, but it ultimately failed. The apparent reason for this being against the will of God was the alliance with the ungodly Ahaziah, whose faithless reign was short-lived.


We are to be witnesses for Christ in the world, but it is so important for us to be on guard against sin and “alliances” that go against God’s will. Back to the analogy in Hebrews 12:1, we are running a race towards Jesus Christ. It is essential that we be turned towards him, else we are running away. But Hebrews also warns us to beware the sin that entangles. Jehoshaphat, who ran such a faithful race, was tripped up near the end of his life by an entanglement with sin – disobedience against God and an unhealthy “alliance.”


I don’t doubt that Jehoshaphat is numbered as one of the “cloud of faithful witnesses.” The failed naval mission fell through because of unfaithfulness, but I trust that resounding faithfulness throughout life was counted as righteousness.


What Jehoshaphat teaches us is threefold:


1. That we are not saved by the faith or right acts of those around us, but by turning to Jesus Christ in faith.


2. That we cannot save another, however much we love them, by our own faith or right acts. That loved one must themselves turn to Jesus Christ in faith to be saved.


3. We must guard ourselves diligently against sin, which threatens to tangle us up and render us ineffective for God. Constant obedience, prayer, and re-turning to God through His grace in Jesus, are what keep us in the race.


Take a quiet moment to close your eyes and consider Jesus Christ. What is your relationship to him? Is he a friend of a friend? Are you turned towards him or away from him? Do you need to change direction in your heart of hearts?


Take a moment to respond to these questions before God. Amen.