By the Power of the Spirit

(Ezekiel 36:23-28Acts 2:1-4, Galatians 5:16-26)

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned a conversation we had around our table at the presbytery’s leadership training event. Rick and Sue and I were sitting that morning with, among other people, one of the co-executives of our synod, who made a most interesting comment. We were talking about the difference between the experience of the people of God in the Old Testament and ours today, that we have the Spirit of God where they did not, and this chap noted that we often don’t want to talk about that, or even think about that. I think, as I said before, that our reluctance is driven in large part by fear—our fear of letting go, giving up our sense of control over our lives and letting the Spirit lead us—and that’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because it keeps us from experiencing the full reality of our redemption and our new life in Christ, part of which is being set free from fear; we wind up living as if we had no more power than anyone else in this world, but a higher standard to live up to. That makes trying to be Christian a painful slog, rather than the easy yoke and the life of joy and peace that Christ promises us.

Unfortunately, this is an area in which our tradition isn’t a great help to us; as a pastor I knew in college put it one time, Presbyterians believe in doing things “decently and in order,” and forget that when Paul uses those words, he’s talking about the proper place of prophecy and tongues in worship. The idea is that there needs to be a balance, so that the church doesn’t descend into emotionalism and chaos, on the one hand, but there’s room for the Spirit to move, on the other. I think a lot of times people who aren’t Pentecostal or charismatic look at those churches and just see emotionalism and chaos—and sometimes they’re right, to be sure; I’ve endured services like that—and overreact in the other direction, shutting off the Spirit. We don’t have a very good feel for the middle ground, because we don’t have a very clear idea of why we need the Holy Spirit; we have this vague idea that the Spirit is supposed to make people jump up and down, fall over, and say things we don’t understand, and maybe that frightens us, and we really don’t understand the Spirit’s work beyond that. Those sorts of manifestations are particular signs of the Spirit’s presence and activity, but in most cases they aren’t the point of the Spirit’s presence and activity; in focusing on them, we miss the forest for the trees.

In truth, the work of the Holy Spirit in and among us is far broader and deeper and more important than just the flashy stuff. There’s a reason that God’s final solution to his people’s unbelieving disobedience is, “I will put my Spirit in you”; there’s a reason that the conclusion of Christ’s work and the birth of the church as the new Israel is the fulfillment of that promise, as the Spirit is poured out on all of Jesus’ disciples. Everything that we say is true about life in Christ is true in us and for us because of the Holy Spirit; it’s the Spirit who unites us with Christ and holds us in the presence of God. It’s the Spirit of God who makes all things possible. Take out your Bibles, or pull out the Bible there under the pew in front of you, and let’s look at some of this reality.

First off, look at what Jesus says in John 14:26: “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Wait a minute—didn’t Jesus teach them all sorts of things? Yes, but remember, they never really understood—they didn’t get it; they couldn’t. It was only when the Spirit came to remind them of everything Jesus had said and to teach them what it all meant that it actually made sense to them. That’s why Paul talks in Ephesians 3 about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.”

Reformed types like to talk about “the perspicuity of Scripture”—the idea that anyone can read it and understand it, you don’t need a priest to tell you what the Bible means—which is good, sort of. Certainly, you don’t need a priest, but that’s not because Scripture is all so easy that a child could understand it, or that any unbeliever who picks up the Bible is immediately going to see Jesus. No, Scripture is clear because the Holy Spirit speaks through it and makes it clear to us; it is by the Spirit’s light that we understand, and that we see that this word contains the living Word, Jesus Christ.

Next, take a look at John 3:5-6: “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’” Jesus says this as he’s explaining to Nicodemus why he said, “You must be born again”; it’s the Spirit who accomplishes this by uniting us to Christ in his death and resurrection, as Paul says in Romans 6:3-7: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” It is by the work of the Holy Spirit that the death of Christ on the cross becomes for us and that the new life of his resurrection becomes ours, so that we become sharers in his kingdom; it is the Spirit who unites us to Christ as members of his body.

This means that we have fellowship with God—which is to say, he has made us his friends and invited us into his presence—as John says in 1 John 1:3; this is why, a little later on in that letter, in 3:1, John writes, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God—and that is what we are.” And then again in verse 24, John says, “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.” It is the Spirit who brings us into this fellowship with God, and who is the sign of that fellowship—who is the proof that God lives in us, and that we are alive in him. It’s through the Spirit that we have access to God in prayer, and through him (as Paul says in Romans 5:5) that God has poured out his love in our hearts.

Something else Paul says is that the Spirit is our assurance that God will be faithful to give us all that he has promised—he describes the Spirit as the deposit that guarantees our inheritance. In 2 Corinthians 5, he writes, “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling . . . so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” Then again in Ephesians 1:13-14, he says, “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” Last week, of course, I focused on that last phrase, but here, take a look at how the Spirit is described: he is the seal of our salvation, the one who signifies that we are in Christ, and the guarantee that we will receive the inheritance God has promised. He is our assurance that we are saved, and that our salvation is sure.

I could go on like this—the Spirit is the one who gives us the abilities and talents we have, so that we may use them for his glory and the work of his kingdom on earth, something Paul talks about in several places; the Spirit prays in and for us, Paul says in Romans 8:26-27, according to the will of God, “with groanings too deep for words”; the Spirit inspires us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to others, something we see a great deal in the book of Acts. I had originally thought to use these last few weeks to do a sermon series on the Holy Spirit, but there just weren’t enough Sundays to do a full series justice, if we started looking into these various things in detail. Maybe next year we’ll come back to that. 

For the moment, I hope you’re beginning to see how the Spirit is involved in every part of our lives as Christians, and how everything that we affirm is true by the Spirit’s work; and in particular, if you’ll look at Galatians 5, that the end goal of the Spirit’s work in us is transformation. The Spirit prods us to grow, and that growth produces fruit, and that fruit is the seed of further growth in our lives by the power of the Spirit, and so over time we are changed; and the more we change, the more we become like Christ, and the more our hearts are prepared for that day when we will stand in his presence and see him face to face.

And note two things about that: first, this is the Spirit’s work, not ours. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control—these are the things that ought to characterize us as Christians, but we can’t live a life filled with these qualities in our own strength. Some of them we can teach ourselves if we try really hard—self-control, for instance—but only at the expense of other things, and some of them are beyond our ability to do by force of will. Peace might be the best example of that. Trying to work on all eight of them at once would simply be too much for us, even for those with the strongest wills, and it would inevitably fail, in one way or another. To live this kind of life, we must live by the Spirit, and let the Spirit produce these qualities and virtues in us by his power.

Second, part of this is not gratifying the desires of the flesh. This means that yes, there is a moral component to living by the Spirit—there are those in the church who insist that God can’t possibly want us to live up to any standards of behavior that we don’t like, particularly when it comes to sexual morality, but that simply isn’t true—but it goes beyond what we think of as morality, because again, this isn’t just a matter of outward behavior. As Paul makes clear, this is about a complete change of perspective and orientation, giving up the orientation that we’ve learned from the world and accepting a whole new orientation that points us toward God. It’s about not merely resisting the desires of the flesh, but surrendering them to God and allowing his Spirit to give us new desires; it’s about letting God teach us by his Spirit to want what he wants for our lives.

So then, if this is God’s work in us, and nothing we can do in our own strength, what’s our part in it? Are we called to do nothing? No; our part is to cooperate with what God is doing in our lives. The most important thing we can do is simply to make this a priority, to put time with God first on our to-do list. The Spirit is always at work in us, whatever we may be doing, but some of the things we do are more congenial to that than others—and of course, when we choose to sin, we’re deliberately working against his work in us. It’s important, if we want to grow in our faith, to make time to pray, and read Scripture, and think—to spend time intentionally focused on God, intentionally opening our minds and our hearts to hear his voice and listen to what he has to say.

To the Glory of God

(Psalm 29Ephesians 1:11-14)

I want you to know that the Devil hates what you’re doing. Any time the people of God gather to worship God, to give him glory and hear the gospel preached, he loses; and so he’ll do anything in his power to prevent it. On an individual basis, he’ll try to prevent it by convincing people not to come. There was a gospel quartet in my church growing up—they called themselves “The Master’s Four”—and one of their signature songs was called “Excuses, Excuses.” I could probably sing about half of it even now, for all that it’s been twenty years and more since the last time I heard it, but I’ll spare you my attempts to play tenor. The verses are lists of the various sorts of excuses people use to get out of going to church—“Oh, the weather, it’s too hot; or maybe it’s too cold. In the springtime, when the weather’s just right, you have someplace else to go”—and the chorus sums it all up: “Excuses, excuses, you hear them every day; oh, the Devil, he’ll supply them if from church you’ll stay away. When people come to know the Lord, the Devil always loses, so to keep those folks away from church, he offers them excuses.”

Obviously, though, that works on some, but not on everyone; for all the Devil’s best efforts, a lot of people do still show up on Sunday mornings. So what’s he going to do? Yes, he’s doomed to fail, but he’s going to take as many people as he can down with him, and you should never underestimate his cunning. If he can’t keep us from worship, he’s going to try to neutralize our worship by turning our hearts away from our Lord and getting us to worship something other than Christ.

Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, talked about this at the conference last month, that we all have our idols and our temptations to idolatry—our spouses; our kids; our reputations; our jobs; our possessions; anything of real value to us, anything that’s truly meaningful to us and that truly matters in our lives, can become so important to us that it takes God’s right and proper place in our lives. The church can become an idol—usually the local congregation, but I know folks for whom I’d say their denomination has become an idol—and so can our nation and our patriotism. For many churches, of course, style of music is an idol; for some, the building becomes an idol. That was a problem in Colorado, for example. (It probably still is.)

These are all good things which we rightly love and value. We ought to love our families, we ought to love this church and be grateful for this building, we ought to love our nation and thank God every day for blessing us to live here, and certainly we ought to value the work he has given us to do. We ought to love music, which is a wonderful gift from God, and naturally we will prefer some kinds to others. But every last one of these things must—must—come second in our hearts to God; it’s not that we need to love them less, but that we need to love Jesus Christ more than any of them, and our first and foremost desire should be to serve and honor and glorify him by giving him pleasure, with our love for all those other people and things falling in order behind our love for him.

What we need to realize, and what we need to remember, is that God has shared his victory with us not for our glory but for his own. One of the chief reasons that his victory in our lives often doesn’t look like what we would expect it to look like is that it isn’t our victory for our purposes, but his victory for his purposes. As such, his victory is not about us getting what we want, or making us look good, or keeping us from hard times, or things going the way we think they should; that’s the mistake all those folks made who were prophesying that McCain would win back in November, because they were sure they knew what God’s victory had to look like. Some of them, their faith was shaken when they turned up wrong.

For my part, I agree with them that Senator McCain would have been a better president than Senator Obama, but that’s not the victory God intended, and not the victory toward which he was working; if we identify our own preferred causes with God’s, if we think that God’s glory requires that we get rich or that our church have more people, if we forget that America is not the kingdom of God to which we pledge our highest allegiance, we’re going to get those kinds of unwanted surprises, because we’re going to build up expectations that have nothing at all to do with what God’s actually on about. God may be intending to do what we want him to do, but then again, he may not—and even if he is, it might not come the way we expect, or look the way we think it will look. He does not promise to fulfill our expectations, he promises to glorify his name, and what glorifies him in our lives isn’t always what we think of as glorious.

That’s one reason why God allows us to suffer. We’ve talked about some of the reasons for that over the last couple weeks, but here’s another one: it’s often in our suffering that God is most glorified in our lives. John Piper captured this well in a sermon he gave some time ago, in which he launched into a full-throated assault on the so-called “prosperity gospel”; in the course of that, he said this [Note:  video below]: “When was the last time that any American, African, Asian ever said Jesus is all-satisfying because you drove a BMW? Never! They’ll say, ‘Did Jesus give you that? Well, I’ll take Jesus!’ That’s idolatry! That’s not the gospel. That’s elevating gifts above Giver. . . . God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him in the midst of loss, not prosperity.”

God wants us to know, even in the moments of the deepest agony our hearts could ever conceive, that he is enough; that he is good, that he will take care of us, that he will get us through it—and to be able, even through our tears and our pain, to affirm that in faith. As Dr. Piper says, it is that more than anything else that makes God look glorious as God, “not as giver of cars or safety or health,” but as God, because that shows his real power in our lives. The gods of this world can give us prosperity, though they are hard and demanding and fickle; they cannot sustain us in times of pain. Only God can do that.  As Howard Vanderwell of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship put it in discussing 1 Peter 1:1-9, “God had in mind to use [our trials] as an exhibit of genuine faith. The exhibit of such genuine faith lifts others, defeats the schemes of Satan, and brings glory to Christ.”

This is a strange thought to us, that God would want to be glorified in our suffering; but I think it’s strange in part because of the ideas the world gives us about glory. For God to be glorified means that he is seen and recognized for who he is in his true nature and character; this is why the Bible talks of Christ being glorified on the cross, because on the cross he showed the depths of his love for us, and how far he was willing to go and how much he was willing to endure and bear for our sake. It’s in his death on the cross that we see most clearly the nature and character of our God.

Similarly, what is the greatest thing God does in our lives? What shows his power and character and love most clearly? It isn’t the good times, because most people have good times, and they come for a lot of different reasons. It isn’t the times that nothing bad happens, because we quickly grow accustomed to that—we think of that as “normal life,” and don’t see all the bad things that could happen that he prevents. We don’t see the times that we don’t get into a nasty traffic accident because that driver over there took a different route across town this morning, or maybe called in sick with a bad cold instead of trying to fight it off and go to work, and so we don’t give God credit for those times. It isn’t our successes, because we usually take them for our own—we may thank God for them, but most of the time we really believe that we made them happen ourselves, and so does everyone else (both of our successes and their own). In all these things and all these times, there is really nothing to distinguish the people of God from those who are not his people, for as the Scriptures tell us, the rain that gives life to the crops falls on the just and the unjust alike.

Where we are distinguished from those who do not walk with Christ, where we see the power of God and the work of his Holy Spirit in our lives most clearly, is in the hard times in our lives, in our times of loss and suffering and struggle, as we see him lift us up and support us. This is when we see his character most clearly, because we can see that his goodness to us goes beyond giving us things to caring for us when we’re in need, when we’re in pain, when we’re hurting and blaming it on him, when we’re angry at him for allowing us to suffer. We can see that God doesn’t return anger for anger and blame for blame, nor does he expect or even want us to lie to him and tell him things are fine when he knows as well as we do that they aren’t. Instead, he takes it all, and he loves us and cares for us and supports us—directly, by his Spirit, and indirectly, through his people—and he gives us hope that there is a better future coming, when all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, as Julian of Norwich wrote. He enables us to sing songs of praise at funerals, because we know by his faithfulness that pain and death and grief and loss do not have the last word, for there is a resurrection. He enables us to overcome, to find his victory in the midst of our circumstances, and to keep going, finding comfort in him as we journey through the valley of the shadow of death, trusting that we will emerge at last on the other side.

It is in this, most of all, that God is glorified in us, because it’s in this that his hand is most clearly seen; it’s in such times that we have the least temptation to give anyone or anything other than God the glory. When things are going well, we’re especially vulnerable to those efforts of the Devil that I mentioned earlier to turn our hearts away from God and toward anyone or anything else. It’s easy in good times to focus on our gifts rather than on the Giver—not that we forget about him, exactly, we just don’t think about him all that much, because let’s face it, we don’t really have to. We can just kind of cruise along at our own speed, under our own power, and things go pretty well, and let the world pull us into the consumer mindset as we go along building the life we want at a price we can afford.

It’s even easy to let that infect our view of the church—and so over the last quarter-century or so of prosperity, we’ve seen a lot of churches and other organizations grow large and rich appealing to religious consumers, playing off the unexpressed but potent assumption that church exists like everything else does, to give us what we want. We’ve seen churches come to assume that worship is a product which is consumed by attenders, and that it should be marketed and sold like any other product; the gauge for whether worship is successful or not is whether people enjoy it and feel it meets their desires and expectations, and thus whether or not they want to come back and consume it again the next week.

Biblically speaking, that’s not worship, and that’s not what worship is about. Our worship shouldn’t merely express where we are now, it should also form us to be what Jesus calls us to be—namely, his faithful followers—by inspiring in us love for him and gratitude for all he has done for us. It is a discipline in which we engage and to which we submit—one which is, yes, rewarding and fulfilling, but not because of anything we do, but rather because of what God does in us. True worship moves us toward the understanding that all of life is to be lived to and for the glory of God.

As I’ve said before, I believe gratitude is the key element in that. I know people who try to live the Christian life by main effort, as a matter of duty—or because they’re terrified of going to Hell—and that doesn’t work, because there’s no joy in it; God is glorified in us when we’re responding to him and thanking him and praising him not out of fear or duty, but because we love him and because we truly appreciate and are grateful for all he’s done for us. And as with anything important, we learn by doing. We learn to love God better by loving him, by expressing our love to him and devoting time to worship and honor him and him alone; we learn gratitude by remembering what he has done for us, telling the stories over and over to ourselves and to each other, and by thanking him for his blessings. We learn as individuals to live life to the glory of God by coming together as his people to glorify him, to give our time over to him and let him work in us as he will. Doing this together here trains us to do it out there—which is why, as I said, anytime we gather together and worship God, the Devil loses, and why he’ll do anything he can to keep us away or undermine our purpose; because if he can keep us from giving glory to God and God alone in here, he can stop us from doing it out there. May it never be so for us.

In the Midst of Suffering

(2 Chronicles 20:14-222 Timothy 1:1-12)

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a couple of our folks here, and they asked me my opinion on the Rapture. I think they were a bit surprised when I told them I don’t believe in the Rapture—I will grant, mine is not the most common opinion—and wanted to know my reasons. There wasn’t time for an exhaustive explanation, so I pulled out 1 Thessalonians 4 and explained my understanding of the passage; that was sufficient unto the task, and we moved on to other things. I could have said more, though, about why I don’t believe God is going to give the church a “get out of suffering free” card on the Great Tribulation—with the simplest reason being, and maybe this sounds cynical of me, that he never gives us a “get out of suffering free” card on anything else. Like I said last week, God saves us into the world and its troubles, not out of them; if anything, we may even get a rougher ride than the average. The only thing that surprises me about that is that sometimes it surprises me, because I really ought to know better; my 11th-grade English teacher always used to say, “You’ve never lived ‘til you’ve been whomped,” and so it logically follows that if Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly, being whomped is going to be an important part of that.

Now, maybe that makes sense to you and maybe it doesn’t, but I’d argue that experience bears it out. In what is probably my generation’s collective favorite movie, The Princess Bride, the hero, Westley, snaps, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” I can only add that whatever they’re selling isn’t good for you, and will probably only leave you worse off in the long run. There’s just no way to avoid it: pain and suffering are part of the deal in this world. That’s part of what I meant when I said last week that Jesus doesn’t give us victory over our circumstances, but rather in the midst of our circumstances.

What then does it mean, at those times when our circumstances involve suffering, for us to live into the victory of Christ, the victory of the gospel, in the midst of suffering? I’d like to look at a couple things this morning. First, consider King Jehoshaphat. Our passage from 2 Chronicles is a continuation of the passage we read last week, which was Jehoshaphat’s prayer; if you were here last week, you remember that it was a time of crisis. The nation of Judah, the southern kingdom of the Israelites, had been invaded by armies from an alliance of three of their longstanding enemies—Moab, Ammon, and the people of Mt. Seir, the Meunites—and by the time the king got word, those armies had already overcome Israel’s frontier defenses and advanced as far as En-Gedi. This was important because En-Gedi was a major oasis west of the Dead Sea, and probably fortified, to boot—it certainly was later on; capturing En-Gedi meant that the allied armies had a source of fresh water and a base from which to support themselves as they pushed on into Judah. This was a big, big piece of very bad news.

In response, Jehoshaphat called a fast throughout the country, asking everyone to set aside food and all their normal activities to pray to God for help. Those who could do so came to Jerusalem, and they had a big prayer service, and the king stood up and prayed the prayer we read last week. I noted at the time that his prayer expresses his faith that God can and will deliver his people if we cry out to him—and what’s the foundation for his faith? Something that should sound very familiar to us after our time in Isaiah. Look back up the page at verse 6: “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you.” God is the God of everything, and he rules over everything, and everything is under his control—including the global economic system, including the government of this country, including the governments of nations like Iran and North Korea, including the leaders of al’Qaeda and other terrorist groups, including those in this country who want to criminalize certain biblical opinions (as they’ve already succeeded in doing in Canada). In all of it, in every part of it, God is in control, and nothing happens except he allows it. As such, when hard times come, we can cry out to him in full confidence that what we ask, he can do.

So King Jehoshaphat prays, and all his people pray, and then God’s Spirit inspires one of the Levites, a member of the priestly tribe, and he begins to prophesy. And notice what he says: “Don’t be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. . . . Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you.” The battle is not yours, but God’s. You know, there are all sorts of examples across the books of the Old Testament of Israel and Judah being attacked, being invaded, coming under threat, and of their rulers praying, seeking God, sometimes meeting God’s prophets when they’re trying to avoid seeking God; some of these rulers were godly and faithful people, as much as you can expect, and some of them were rather less so. Some get happy messages, like Jehoshaphat did here—he was one of the good ones—and some don’t. As we saw in looking at Isaiah, Judah would ultimately be conquered and its people taken off into exile as a judgment on them for their sins. Military victory isn’t always in the cards for them, because their agenda and God’s don’t always line up.

But one thing holds consistent: the battle is not yours, but God’s. This gets said a dozen different ways by a dozen different prophets to a dozen different kings. God is in control here, and he’s going to accomplish his purposes. It’s not up to you in your own strength, by your own little schemes and plans and methods, to make this happen—God’s going to do that. Sometimes that means his judgment is coming, and you’re not going to be able to turn it aside; sometimes—more often, really—it means that his deliverance is coming, and you can be free of the fear of screwing it up, or being inadequate to the task. Always it means that God is supreme, and that it’s only by his power that the battle will be won; not that we’re free to do nothing, because he still calls us to do our part, but that we need to let go the idea that it depends on us and our efforts.

Thus the prophet tells Jehoshaphat, “The battle is not yours, but God’s,” but he doesn’t tell the king to stay home and get on with other things. Instead, he tells them to march out of the city and take up defensive positions against the enemy—to go out to the battle, and then let God fight it. And so what do they do? They go out to the desert and take up their defensive positions, and then they take up their weapon: they sing songs of praise to God for the deliverance that hasn’t happened yet. And as they begin to sing—not before, but only as they act in faith and declare through their praise their certainty that God will be faithful to do as he has promised—it is then that God ambushes the enemy armies, turning them against each other and destroying them. He gives them the victory, through their faith; and he does the same for us.

Now, as we’ve noted, our victory in Christ doesn’t always look as straightforward as the victory Jehoshaphat experienced. Looking back, I would say that I experienced the victory of Christ in my last church in Colorado, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. Certainly, had I been a perfect pastor or had they been perfect people, things would have been better, but I was never going to be and neither were they—and our errors and sins didn’t derail God’s plan and purpose. It was hard, and there was a lot of pain in it, and a lot of things that I’m still dealing with (and surely the same for them); and yet, there were people who came to Christ, and others who grew in their faith, and some deep and very difficult and painful issues from hurts that had been inflicted on that people in the past were brought out into the open where they could begin to heal. It’s not the victory I asked for; I had dreams of the church growing by leaps and bounds, of a revival breaking out in that pagan little community, and all sorts of other spectacular things. I would have preferred a victory that involved less suffering. Nevertheless, that was the victory God intended, and through all of our best efforts—even when we thought we were doing other things—he brought it about. He is faithful who promised.

That’s why the second thing I would say to you is, have courage. John Piper summarizes Paul’s main point in our passage from 2 Timothy this way: “Timothy, keep feeding the white-hot flame of God’s gift—namely, of unashamed courage to speak openly of Christ and to suffer for the gospel.” I think he’s right to see that as the overarching message of this passage, and indeed of the whole letter. Note that: the idea is to see suffering for the sake of the gospel as something to be faced with courage, not something to be avoided. What’s specifically in view here, of course, is suffering that comes as a result of preaching the gospel, in the form of persecution; but I think the application is broader than that. To take one famous example, Adoniram Judson’s terrible suffering in Burma came not because he was preaching the gospel but because of war between Burma and Great Britain—yet his suffering was not any less for the sake of the gospel because of that, and he was not in any less need of courage with which to face it. If we’re seeking to follow Jesus faithfully, suffering and hard times will come, as the enemy tries to knock us off balance, to get us to back down or to doubt our Lord; if we hold fast and keep following Jesus, then our suffering is for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.

And we should hold fast, and we should keep following, and we should do so with boldness; and we should face the prospect of suffering—including, yes, the prospect of suffering for telling people about Jesus, though for the near future, that suffering is unlikely to involve more than a little resistance and a little rejection—we should face that prospect with boldness, for good reason. In fact, for two good reasons, in fact. One, we have a wonderful message to share: our Savior Christ Jesus destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. That’s something we ought to be excited about, and we ought to want to talk about with anyone who will listen and most people who won’t; for something that good, we shouldn’t be put off when people resist us.

And two, we have the Spirit of God, who is a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. We were talking about this a bit around our table yesterday morning, that we often don’t want to take seriously the fact that we have the Spirit in our lives, because we’re afraid of what might happen if we do. Which is to say, ironically enough, that we’re afraid of no longer having a spirit of fear—we’re afraid of what we might do if we acted in a spirit of power and love and self-control. We’re afraid to let go control and let God work, and I think at least in part that’s because if we do that, we might suffer.

And you know what? If we let go, we will suffer—it’s guaranteed. We have God’s word on that. But you know what else? If we don’t, we’re still going to suffer—the only difference is, it won’t be for God. We’ll suffer instead for our fears, and our doubts, and our sins, and there will be no victory in it. If we are willing to face the prospect of suffering for the gospel with boldness, with unashamed courage, by the power of the Spirit of God who is in us—who is not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and love and self-control—well, we’ll suffer either way, but if it’s for the gospel, it’s not for nothing, it’s for a purpose; and if we suffer for the gospel, then we suffer for Jesus, and he is with us in our suffering by the power of his Spirit.

The key thing in all this, I think, is that our suffering for the gospel is not unnecessary, it is not incidental, it is not pointless, and it does not mean that we have been defeated. Rather, as God used the suffering of Christ on the cross to crush the power of sin and death, so he works through our suffering for his sake to accomplish his purposes in us. He uses our suffering to humble us, to soften us, to teach us, to sand away our sin—and to prepare us to minister to others in their suffering, for we could not speak the word that sustains the weary and gives hope to those in pain had we not known weariness and pain ourselves; and when we suffer, he is with us to uphold us and to bring us through it, because he understands. He’s been there too.

For Such a Time as This

(2 Chronicles 20:5-132 Kings 7:3-92 Corinthians 9:6-15)

I’ve been saying in recent weeks that part of the good news that is ours in Jesus Christ is that now that Christ has won his victory, he extends that victory to us; I’ve said that all we need to do is accept that victory, accept his gift to us, and live accordingly. This is critical for us in understanding what it means to live the Christian life, because it points us to the fact that we should not expect Christ to leave us as we are, with the same old behavior patterns and the same old comfort zones. We may well have many of the same struggles—Jesus doesn’t magically make all our temptations go away when we become Christians—and indeed, as we grow closer to him, we tend to find new ones, as his Spirit convicts us of areas of sin that we’d overlooked; but though our struggles don’t disappear, our attitude toward them ought to change, and we ought to see progress in our lives toward the holiness of God. Our lives should not look the same as everyone else’s.

The problem in talking about Christian victory, though, is that we have to be careful to explain what we mean. After all, we have an idea of what victory means that we’ve learned from the world, and so it’s easy and natural to assume that God is talking about the same thing; that’s why we have the “prosperity gospel” types who teach that victorious Christian living means job success, financial comfort, a perfect marriage, kids who turn out exactly how you want them to turn out, and whatever else it might take to give you a perfect sense of self-satisfaction and self-fulfillment on your own terms. It’s basically your dream life on steroids, and if you don’t get it—if your life has disappointments and struggles and failures—well, then, you just must be a bad Christian.

And that isn’t the gospel. That isn’t even related to the gospel. When we talk about gospel victory, we need to remember first and foremost that our exemplar for gospel victory is Jesus—and what did his victory look like? Thorns—nails—public humiliation—and death from heart failure due to blood loss and dehydration. Victory in Jesus is not necessarily going to be a dream come true. In point of fact, where some like to talk about living in victory—your “best life,” whatever that means, now, without all the messy growth process—I think we do better to talk about living into Jesus’ victory, because it’s really not something that comes naturally for us. We have to retrain ourselves and our expectations, and our sense of what that victory actually means for us and our lives.

That begins, I think, with accepting that Jesus’ victory doesn’t mean victory over circumstances so much as it means victory in the midst of circumstances. God doesn’t save us out of the world, but rather into the world, for the sake of the world; he doesn’t insulate us from its problems because that would insulate us from the part he wants us to play in addressing them. As we look at the world around us, as we consider the hard times so many are facing, with layoffs and stock losses and foreclosures, it’s tempting to circle the wagons and focus on what this is doing to us. Certainly in our Session meetings, it’s very easy to think mostly about the effect that the economy is having on our giving and our dividend income and the value of our investments. It’s a lot harder in times like this to sit up and say, “We don’t exist for our own sake, just to take care of ourselves; we exist for the world around us, and we need to keep our focus there.” But you know what? Hard as it may be, that is why we exist, and that is what we need to do; as Mordecai said to Esther, it’s for such a time as this that God placed us here to begin with.

Which then leaves us with the question: what does it mean to live into Jesus’ victory, to experience his victory in our lives, for such a time as this? That’s what I want to focus on for the next few weeks. It’s a large question, so I’m not promising an exhaustive answer by any means, but I want to make a start on answering it, and give us some things from Scripture that we need to keep in mind. Take a look at our passage from 2 Kings. This is just one section out of a larger narrative that takes place during the reign of Jehoram, king of Israel, one of the sons of Ahab. You may remember King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, and how they were always at odds with the prophet Elijah. Ahab and his wife are both dead by this point, and Elijah has been taken up in the whirlwind; Jehoram reigns in Ahab’s place, and Elijah has been succeeded by his protégé, Elisha.

Jehoram’s actually not a bad king by Israel’s standards, as he generally treats Elisha with respect, but at the time of the story, things are going badly. Ben-Hadad, king of Aram—modern-day Syria—has invaded Israel and laid siege to the capital city, Samaria. This was on top of a famine in the land, and so there’s very little food in the city. In fact, things have gotten so bad that people are paying exorbitant prices for donkey heads and bird droppings just to have something to eat. It’s in this context that these four lepers decide that they might as well go see if they can surrender to the enemy; the worst that can happen is for the Arameans to kill them, and even then it’s likely to be a quick death—which is still better than starvation. And so they go down to the enemy camp, and what happens? They find it deserted. God has spooked the enemy, and the army has fled.

This is one of the great ironies of Israel’s history: four lepers, four outcasts, are now in possession of the good news of God’s deliverance. They are the heralds of salvation to a city they aren’t even allowed to enter, under normal circumstances. Indeed, the very fact that they were outcasts is what put them in position to make this discovery. Their first reaction is to keep it for themselves, but it doesn’t take them too long to wise up—and though their decision is partly pragmatic, it’s more than that, too; the desire to avoid getting in trouble plays its part, but the main reason they decide to bring their good news back to the city is that it’s the right thing to do. They had good news to report, and so they had the responsibility to share it with all those who needed it.

That’s where we find ourselves in these difficult times: we are those lepers. That can be hard for us to see, for a couple reasons, but it’s true. It’s hard to see, first off, because centuries of Christendom have covered our eyes to it—we aren’t used to seeing ourselves as marginal figures; we’re used to thinking of this as a Christian nation, and of ourselves as the majority and the mainstream. Demographically, that’s still true, but culturally, it really isn’t anymore, and practically speaking, it’s unhelpful; we need to realize that while the institutions of the church may still be prominent in this country, the message of the gospel—which is what the church is supposed to be about—is increasingly marginal, even among churchgoers. For the majority of people in this country, and in many congregations, “Christian” is defined roughly as being nice, being a pretty good person—or, to some people, being a royal hypocrite to pretend you’re better than everyone else when you’re not—going to church once in a while, and voting Republican. Oh, yeah, and liking Jesus. There’s not much more content to the cultural perception than that. If you start talking about the gospel, you might as well do it in the original Greek.

Now, this is less true here in Winona Lake than most places—this community is, for various reasons, on the lagging end of this social shift—but even here, this is the way things are going, and so it will become increasingly true as time goes on. Like the lepers, we have been given good news to share with hungry people, and like them, if we tell people about it, we aren’t going to meet with automatic belief and acceptance. People want to hear “Follow us and all of your financial problems will be solved”—that’s the good news they’re hoping for—and unlike the lepers, we don’t have that message; we can’t promise people a return to what they’ve come to think of as the good life. Instead, what we have to offer is the faith of Jehoshaphat: that when calamity and disaster come, if we will cry out to the Lord, he will hear us and save us. He doesn’t promise us prosperity in the midst of the meltdown, merely that he won’t let us be defeated by it. Which is not nothing, but isn’t necessarily what people are looking for, either. The good news we have to offer is much bigger and deeper than just financial prosperity; our responsibility is to help them see, by what we say and how we live, just what good news it is.

As to how we do that, I have a couple thoughts. First, we need to act according to what we believe; it’s not enough just to say we trust God and that we’ve put our faith in Christ, we need to follow through with action. We need to put our money where our mouth is. I’ve been convicted recently by these words from the Anchoress:

In hard times, give more. . . . I have found this to be true in my life—that God is never outdone in generosity. I believe it and I also trust in it, and therefore freely cast bread upon the waters. This is part of having “childlike faith,” which Christ tells us we must have. It is part of trusting. It is part of considering the lilies of the field. . . .

I know this will strike some as . . . a strange thing to hear someone say, “yes, times are scary, so go make a donation somewhere.” But despair is not the way of faith. Trust is. And trust does foolish things like donating to charities while worrying about one’s own job. When you are feeling afraid, an action denoting trust always makes you feel less fearful and more powerful.

This is some of what Paul’s getting at in 2 Corinthians 9. He’s appealing to them to be generous in their giving for the poor in the church in Jerusalem; a little earlier in the letter, he’s used the example of the believers in Macedonia, who were desperately poor and under persecution besides, and yet had given quite generously. Now, he essentially tells them, “Be generous, for God is never outdone in generosity.” This isn’t to say, as the TV preachers like to promise, that if you give money, God will give you more money back; Paul’s promise here is broader, that “you will be made rich in every way,” as “God is able to make all grace abound to you.” This is a promise of rich blessing, but not necessarily material wealth. But there is this assurance: if we will give generously, God will see to it that at all things and at all times, we may not have everything we want, but we will always have everything we need, so that we may abound in every good work. And in the meantime, even if our bank accounts aren’t richer, our lives will be.

Second, a practical suggestion for sharing the good news we’ve been given: start with the children of this community, and then with their parents. Kids, if you catch them young enough, don’t know if you’re cool or hip or if you’re square, and they don’t know if you’re the latest thing or yesterday’s news; mostly, they care about the important stuff—do you love them; do you pay attention to them; do you have good stories to tell; do you give them good candy—that sort of thing. As for their parents, they might not be all that interested in church for themselves, but if they need help raising their kids—which everybody does—and you can give them that help, and that support, and a listening ear, and a little guidance and a little godly wisdom, that will often get their attention. Sara and I have several high school classmates who are now devout Christians and very active in the church because God worked through their children to bring them to the faith. It happens; it happens all the time. We need to make a concerted effort to help it happen, because these are really the main windows for reaching people with the gospel: childhood first and foremost, and after that, parenthood. People do come to Christ at other times of life, but not often.

Which means that we need to do more than just honor mothers by giving out carnations once a year, though certainly honoring and thanking our mothers and the mothers among us is a good and important thing to do; we need to support mothers—and fathers—and help them to be better with their kids, and to get through the hard times of parenting with their own sanity and self-respect and faith intact. We have good news, and we know children who need to hear it, because their parents aren’t teaching them; and we know parents who need to hear it, and they’re open, because they’re trying to figure out what it is that their kids still need from them and how on earth they can possibly give it. They’re looking for people to love their kids, and to help them love their kids. We have a lot to offer them, beginning with the gospel of grace—and in the ordinary run of life, the only people I know who know they need grace more than kids are the parents who just lost it with those kids yesterday over the incident with the beach ball, the chocolate-chip cookies and the living-room furniture. They need grace, and they know it. We have grace to offer; we need to be about it.