Year theme: Closing the gap on faith and love
-Training not trying
-Direction not perfection
This fall we are looking at life together in a gospel community:
-Sharing the good news with those who do yet have given their lives to Christ…and experience his life in them.
-Living the good news in a healthy community that both enjoys and reflects the freedom of relationship with Christ.
The first 4 weeks of the fall season we will focus on “reaching out”
Dr. Semmelweis, who died in 1865, was called the “Savior of Mothers”…but he could not save himself from ignorance and bias.
He discovered that what was called “childbed fever” a terrible disease which killed many pregnant women could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection.
Believe it or not, surgeons and doctors at the time did not wash their hands…why waste the time?
He demonstrated that mortality rate could be reduced to below 1% just by washing hands between patients.
OB doctors at the time might perform an autopsy on a deceased female then do an examine on a live patient without washing hands between them.
His ideas were rejected because he could offer no scientific explanation why it worked… and so he was ridiculed, caste out…and 20 years after his discovery his peers and his own wife believed he was insane and he was committed to any asylum.
Two weeks after having been committed he was beaten by guards and died as result of his injuries.
Meanwhile, women continued to die needlessly for a few more years.
Terrible story…but…it demonstrates the awful power of reality over and against human opinion and bias and emotion.
Truth is a stubborn thing…it is vital that we align our lives with it…and never attempt to align it with our own will and wishes.
*To attempt to live outside of reality can be deadly…physically and spiritually.
The prophet Jeremiah was similar to Dr. Semmelweis.
He was given a difficult calling (actually, a terrible one)…he was to tell his own people that the clock had run out on their rebellion and that they were going to go into captivity as a nation…this is exactly what happened.
But before it happened he was seen as a traitor to the nation (imagine telling your leaders “surrendering to enemy” is God’s will for your country)
He was seen as a heretic (We are God’s people, how dare you say God will judge us)
And a public nuisance (he is making people feel bad, upsetting their happiness)…this was not “safe speech”
And he hated his job…
O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side! Report him! Let’s report him!” All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying, “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him (Jer. 20:7-10)
By the way “Terror on every side” was his nickname…a term of derision.
“Hey, hey guys…look…here comes old ‘terror on every side”
“Hey Jeremiah, seen any mean old Babylonians lately?”
So they punished him, they abused him, they tried to kill him…they wanted him to shut up…they did not like what he was saying.
However, what he was saying was true…it was real…and it was inevitable.
Shutting him up, casting him out…would not change reality.
Reality is going to win over desire, public opinion, and all the arguments rallied against it.
But embedded in the bad news was good news…if they refused the bad news, then they would miss the good news.
This was true for Dr. Semmelweis and for the people of Jeremiah’s time.
“The bad news there are invisible germs and they are killing us…the good news is we can kill them…if we will choose to do so!”
“The bad news is there is judgment coming from God…the good news is…he has not abandoned us…he will still be found by us if we seek him.”
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.
*Here that?…don’t listen to the dreams you encourage these false prophets to have.
*”Hey, I hear you have prophetic dreams that tell the future…would you have one that foretells me being rich and healthy?”
*”Sure, will do”
That’s Nuts…but it still happens today…people searching for experts to agree with them, to tell them what they want to hear.
Rather than…searching diligently for the truth…what is actually real…that is what we want.
In Proverbs Wisdom is personified and calls out to all who would listen…
If you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. Prov. 2:1-5
So Jeremiah told the truth, the difficult…but beautiful truth.
This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. (You guys are going to be there a long time…build houses, pray for the prosperity of the cities there…cause they are going to be your cities)
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
How often that has been turned into “God will give you all your wildest dreams and he will do it today!”…because it has been quoted out of its context.
The context was “Slavery to a foreign nation…you are going to lose everything.”
The time frame was “70 years”…God would restore them as a nation, but it was not going to be easy or quick.
Some eventually would be returned to their land (though many would die in Babylon)
But “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” Jer. 29:8-14
The heart of the promise was whatever their situation they could have relationship with God…if they would seek him, then he would allow himself to be found by them.
He would keep his promise, the people as a whole would return…but even for those individuals who died in Babylon there was the possibility of knowing God…if they would seek him.
Today: John chapter 3…Jesus…the way and the truth and the life…telling a religious expert the truth.
John 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Nicodemus appeared to be an authentic seeker…like the seeker God spoke about through Jeremiah.
He would later defend Jesus before other religious leaders and bring expensive burial supplies to Jesus’ tomb…he would become a follower not merely a seeker.
In this encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus was simultaneously drawn to him and confused by him.
He could see that Jesus was clearly from God but he was puzzled by what exactly Jesus was all about…he showed him great respect calling him “Rabbi” (teacher)…but he was confused by his teaching.
Nicodemus was a man who was trained in “religious” matters but he was unable to pinpoint exactly who Jesus really was.
He was said to be a seeker who came to Jesus at night.
We don’t know if this was because he was afraid of what his peers might think or just because it was when access to Jesus was more readily available.
But whatever the reason, he intentionally sought out Jesus…he had questions, he was confused…and he was honest.
It can be difficult to be in situations where you are supposed to be the “expert” the one with the right answer and you know…that you don’t know.
He was supposed to be in the “religious know” and yet here was a man who was clearly from God but Nicodemus didn’t understand him or what he was trying to say.
3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
Jesus did not equivocate but replied directly, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Jesus is not playing games with Nicodemus here…Jesus is pure joy (not a grim and somber person)…but he never plays with people’s lives.
Joyful people don’t play games with people.
Miserable, unhappy people…are the ones who play games with people.
Jesus has never been miserable or unhappy…he doesn’t play with people’s lives.
He is also not being vague.
He’s using a very common analogy…one that is universal in experience.
Everyone has been born; everyone can relate to this experience.
However the experience is mysterious.
We were all “there” when it happened, but we neither remember it or had a choice in the matter.
We all do know that when we were born we entered into life.
When someone is born again they likewise enter into the experience of the new life, life in the Kingdom of God.
But unlike physical birth…this birth you do remember and you do have a choice…you can and must decide to put your faith in Christ. (I don’t mean you can always remember the day and hour…I can’t…I mean it is a conscious decision on your part)
But like physical birth…this new life is not the result of effort on your part…a decision “yes”, effort “no”
“Born again” is a phrase that Jesus coined.
This is a bold and revolutionary idea.
In order for a person to live in the “Kingdom of God” (realm of God’s will, power, and purposes) he or she must experience new birth.
To enter this kingdom you must undergo a radical change…there is no more radical an idea of change than the idea of “new birth”
It is not just a transfer of loyalty, or change of citizenship…you must be a born into citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
We have people in our church who have become citizens of America by intention…by choice…they were not born here.
Most of us were simply born into citizenship here.
To enter into relationship with Christ you must “choose to be born” into the Kingdom.
It is faith decision on the part of the individual…and a supernatural act of God.
Nicodemus was understandable confused, this is not something that comes naturally to the human mind.
It is something that must be revealed by God and not simply reasoned out.
**This idea of revelation versus reason is an affront to some people.
They believe faith is a “crutch”…when it is in fact a telescope or a microscope…or just sight itself.
You simple cannot “see” what is actually there…without God revealing it to you.
And you respond to what God reveals by faith…God has revealed it what I can’t see with my eyes or discover on my own with my mind…but I believe it (what he has said) because I believe him.
This is not an irrational leap…faith is a very “rational” decision, if your faith is well placed.
We put money in a pneumatic tube and send it a person inside the bank building and have faith it will go to our account…I don’t know that person in there.
Or we trust that the x’s and o’s that our “money” has been turned into will actually make it to our account. (sometimes it doesn’t…but we continue to trust it will)
We have faith that the person making our food at restaurants (we don’t know them) won’t poison us.
We climb on planes having faith that all these people we don’t know…pilots, mechanics, engineers…are trustworthy.
Everyday…we take these “leaps” of faith in people and things…it’s not irrational because for the most part banks, and restaurants and planes are reliable.
But Faith in God…who we can know because he has made himself known…is an extremely rational act of faith…he is completely reliable.
Many people died before the microscopic world was discovered...and people refused to believe what they could not reason out. (Or see)
Just as surely as there was and is an invisible world of bacteria…there are realities that are not currently visible to the human eye or unaided human mind.
These things cannot be discovered or reasoned out…they must be revealed by God.
Einstein worked in his lab and came out with E=MC2
But he could not reason out the gospel…it, like all of the answers to humanities greatest questions…must be revealed.
So Jesus said…
13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven — the Son of Man.
What he is saying to the human religious expert is that…he, Jesus, knows that he is talking about.
He is an expert on these things…the answers to the great questions are revealed from heaven (from God)…and Jesus is the only one who has ever come from there.
So Nicodemus, the member of the Jewish ruling council, the expert…has just come into the presence of the “expert”.
God was standing here in front of him telling him what matters the most for humanity.
Jesus then reaches back in Nicodemus’ cultural history to give another analogy.
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
For the people of Jesus and Nic, the greatest event was the Exodus.
The exodus was the defining moment in the history of the people of God at time…it would superseded by the cross and empty tomb.
There, at the Exodus, God intervened in human history and supernaturally took the people from slavery to promise…like he did at the Cross of Christ.
It is clearly and consistently points forward to the gospel story.
Before the exodus Israel complained about their long captivity in Egypt.
Then they complained about the conditions of their journey to the Promised Land.
They complained about the leadership God had provided for them.
And they complained about the perceived threats of entering the Promised Land once they arrived there.
At one point their complaining brought judgment in the form of a large number of venomous snakes that bit and killed many of them.
Complaining is “unfaith verbalized”
If we trust God is in control and is loving and purposeful…then we will not complain.
But they complained, a lot…and so they experienced the “snakes”…This is the stuff of nightmares.
Imagine walking through open wilderness and suddenly finding yourself in a huge den of poisonous snakes…terrifying.
The judgment may seem harsh but the stakes were high.
These people were carrying the light of the truth of God to the nations.
If they lost the light, then far worse would befall humanity than some people dying by snakebite.
But God provided a cure for them in their suffering.
Moses fabricated a bronze snake and put it on a pole that could be raised up for anyone to see.
If a snake bit someone they could look to the bronze snake and live.
This may sound like so much “hocus pocus” but God was not playing games with them through the whole “snake on stick” story.
Israel continually forgot their great need for God.
Their demanding and complaining showed how in their hearts they some how believed they deserved good from God rather than judgment for their sins.
This plague of snakes, like other forms of judgment reminded them of their need.
The bronze snake on the pole on the other hand reminded them that their salvation was not in their own efforts but only in looking in faith to God.
Now Jesus talking to this Jewish religious expert was tying his own impending death on the cross to the cure in the wilderness.
He said that when he was lifted up, in crucifixion, then all who looked to him in faith would be saved.
*Now…imagine being in Nicodemas’ place.
It’s dark…you can just see Jesus’ face in the dim light.
His words, however, are clear and strong in the quiet night air.
You have all these ideas and images from your culture and your family and your experiences.
You know what you know…and now a man is standing there…right there telling you that he is from God, he is the fulfillment of the ages.
You see his eyes, they look like normal eyes.
His chest moving slightly in and out…he’s a regular human like you.
But what he has said (backed up by the signs (miracles) he has done)…has turned everything upside down.
You thought you had you had to earn…to work…to deserve…and you thought you did deserve for God to accept you and bless you.
But at the same time…like most people…you probably had a lot of doubt…insecurity.
In fact…that’s why you are here, standing alone with this unusual man in the night.
Then as Nicodemus stood taking part in one the greatest conversations any person has every had on planet earth…Jesus spoke what are arguably the most famous words ever spoken.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Then he went on…
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
John 3:16 is the Bible in a single verse.
However what is often missed is the conditional nature of the promise and the dire outcome for not fulfilling the condition.
The condition is “whoever believes.”
“Believe” is not merely acknowledging the existence of Jesus it is the act of placing one’s faith (confidence) in him.
It is the transferring of trust from self to Christ alone for salvation.
The outcome for the one who does trust Christ is relationship with God.
The outcome for this relationship with God has temporal and eternal implications.
They enter into a different kind of life now that extends past this life into eternity.
This different kind of life is a life as God designed it to be lived, a life in the Kingdom that involves all the benefits of living under a good, loving, and powerful King.
The outcome for rejecting Christ’s offer is that person will remain where they are in relationship to the King and his Kingdom.
They will live and die outside the reign of the King and outside the realm of his kind of life.
This condemnation, Jesus said, is something they are already experiencing but they can escape if they will trust him.
How do you reconcile “God so loved the world” with “whoever does not believe stands condemned already”?
How can God love the world (people) and not save them all?
Consider also the reality that God clearly values choice, personal belief.
There is no real relationship if there is no real choice.
Jesus said that God did not send him to condemn the world but to save it.
The purpose of God in Christ is to save…but to access that salvation people must believe.
It is not hard to believe that “some” people need the gospel.
Their lives are an obvious mess or they are ruthless and cruel.
We all know people who clearly need “God”
Then those are those…who seem okay.
The challenge is to believe that the “normal and nice” unbeliever needs the gospel.
Do all people really need to be “saved”?
Even to say this may be construed as arrogant, narrow minded, and judgmental.
To take action, as in actually sharing the gospel with the goal of someone moving from unbelief to belief, can been seen as terrible or even criminal.
You may very well be treated like Dr. Sammelweis…or Jeremiah.
But the question for us is not whether all people will “enjoy” or embrace the gospel message…some will, some won’t.
The question is…is this real, is this true?
Is relationship with God through Christ’s death and resurrection a purely religious construct (nice but not necessary for anything really real)?
Or it is like germs and gravity…you must understand and act in line with them if you want to survive and thrive in the real world?
You might be thought unkind or crazy if you warned someone about falling to death as they walked along a cliff’s edge…or encouraged a person to wash their hands for health.
They may not believe gravity or germs exist…and they might consider you unkind or a stupid for believing in them.
But, reality remains what it is…regardless of what people think, feel, or do.
It has never been “popular” to take stands regarding truth that others do not agree with.
The only way to remain popular among all people is to go all along with whatever others believe to be true.
But of course this is impossible in practice, how could you agree with everyone? Why would you try?
You must decide to do what is right by others regardless of how they perceive you.
Do not be arrogant, or hardheaded, or judgmental but do not have a failure of nerve in regards to the gospel either.
Do you believe the gospel is true? Do you believe Jesus is the savior of the world?
The gospel is not at odds with accepting all people and loving them where they are.
It is at odds with failing to speak and live what you believe is true.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
You have seekers all around you.
Maybe you are seeker…maybe you are unsure where you stand with Christ.
In many cases the fact that one is seeking may not be visible to those around them…the purposes of the heart are deep waters and it takes understanding to draw them out.
Then people may not know their own hearts…they are empty and feel their need but not even know that they are searching for God.
God, Solomon said, has put eternity in our hearts…all hearts are made for him.
You may look at their lives and see people who are hard, or have things together, or seem disinterested but you cannot judge based on externals.
Many people who are close to the Kingdom on the “inside” look far away from it on the “outside.”
Think for a moment about the people God has placed around your life.
Do you need to ask God to open your eyes to what might really be happening in their lives?
Seek the seeker; pray for eyes to see them as they are.
God is seeking them and they are seeking him…even if they don’t always know he is what they are searching for.