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Tuesday
May012018

Our Needs as Followers of Christ

Colossians 1:1-14.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on April 29, 2018.

The book of the Bible that we call Colossians was a letter written by the Apostle Paul to believers in the city of Colosse (sometimes spelled Colossae).  Like all new believers, the Colossians were in danger of listening to false teachers who would take advantage of their new faith in order to manipulate it towards a mixture of Christian beliefs with those of the Greeks or Jews.  The word that we use for such a mixture is “syncretism.”

In many ways this word describes much of the world today, who treat religion like a buffet table.  When we “cherry-pick” from different religions all the things that make sense to us, several things happen.  First, we have set ourselves up as the judge of what is truth, and yet by searching we confess that we do not know what is true.  So how could we be the best judge?  What guarantee is there that I will somehow choose wisely?  There is none.  Second, we end up with a number of ideas and lifestyle choices that are not coherent, or do not logically tie together (in fact they are often downright contradictions).  We end up with a philosophy of life that is inconsistent and even hypocritical.

Take for instance the reality that modern philosophy promotes a humanistic materialism.  The evolutionary theory that comes from such a view has no true basis for ethic or morality.  There is no such thing as absolute truth.  Who am I to tell a serial killer that what they do is wrong?  We are all just accidents that do not have true thoughts, but only a neuro-electrical version of the old Plinko game.  Yet, we cannot escape the fact that people find it impossible to live out such philosophies with consistency.  The first time someone steals something of yours, a deep inner compulsion pushes you to declare it as wrong.  To remain true to our philosophy we would have to recognize it is just a trick of our bodies and that it has no true validity.  Thus modern man finds himself clinging to a humanistic, evolutionary view of the world, while inconsistently absconding with views from Christianity or any other religion, hoping that know one notices (usually not even noticing ourselves).  Some sense of morality is helpful to a society regardless of whether or not we can make a logical case for the necessity of it without God.

As we look into this letter, we will find that God has spoken into the world and Jesus is that Word that He has spoken to us.  Man's attempts to find meaning outside God are barren.

Paul writes to the believers in Colosse.

Before we get into chapter 1 verse 1, it would be helpful to know exactly where Colosse was.  This city was in what we call Turkey today.  Here is a link to a map that will give you an idea (Thank you BibleAtlas.org).  It was very close to another city mentioned in the book of Revelation, Laodicea.

From what little information that we have in the Bible, it appears that this was not a city that Paul had evangelized.  A convert named Epaphras, who was from Colosse, seems to have brought the gospel to them and a church developed.

We also know that Paul wrote the letter from one of his imprisonments.  He later tells them to remember his chains (4:18).  It is believed the letter was written around AD 63 +/- several years.  While in prison, word had come to Paul about this community in Colosse and some of the doctrinal issues that had cropped up among them.  Thus Paul writes a letter concerning those issues, so that the believers of Colosse could have confidence in what they should believe and how they should live.

We also see that Paul instructs the Colossians to share this letter with the believers of Laodicea, and to read the letter that was written to the believers of Laodicea (4:16).  This helps us to see how the word of God was spread throughout these early churches.  It wasn’t until later that large groups of the Gospels and letters were put together and circulated more widely.

Paul gives thanks for these new believers.

In verses 3-8 Paul mentions several things for which he is thankful.  First, he is thankful for their faith in Jesus.  The reports of how they had embraced the truth about Christ, and the larger body of believers that they were joining, had come to Paul.  Their faith had expressed itself in a love for the saints.  Now remember that “saints” here does not mean an elite group of believers.  It is a term used of all believers that emphasized that each one had been set apart by God for His own purposes, a holy purpose. 

He also reminds them that this faith in Jesus gives them a hope that was laid up in heaven.  Peter uses the phrase, “reserved in heaven for you (1 Peter 1:4).”  Our inheritance is for us to be transformed into glorified bodies and to inherit the world with Jesus at His Second Coming.  We can see a familiar theme of Paul’s here with the three great virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.

He is also thankful that the word of truth was bringing forth fruit.  It is not enough to hear the word of the Lord, it must bear fruit to be of any value to us and to the world.  Part of that transforming fruit is their “Love in the Spirit” mentioned at the end of verse 8.

Love is an important principle among any people who are going to accomplish something together.  However, without the Holy Spirit, human love continually falls short.  It is here today and gone tomorrow.  For the believer, it is the presence of the Spirit of God that stirs us up to love one another.  When we refuse to listen to the Spirit, then dissension and divisions break out.  Such Spirit-led love has a strength that overcomes all adversity and human frailty that we may find within each other.  our love for one another is not based upon each other, but upon the Spirit of God that is teaching us how to love one another.  Thus the fruit of the Spirit are listed in Galatians 5:22-23.  This affects our relationship with other believers and with the world.  Paul is welcoming these new believers and rejoicing for their presence within the greater body of Christ.

As we look over this list, we may notice that Paul placed an emphasis on things that are not possessions and wealth.  It is good for believers to be thankful for the material blessings that they have in Christ.  But may we also learn to be even more thankful for the things that Paul listed.  Are you thankful for the people that God used to bring the gospel into your life?  Are you thankful for other believers?  Are you thankful for the grace to believe in Christ and become part of his family?  Are you thankful for the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in your life?  These are the things that we need most and for which we ought to give thanks to God most.

Paul prays for these new believers.

In verses 9-14, Paul lets them know the things he was praying for them.  It is good for us to hear this list because our prayers can become only a list of the material things that we are seeking from God.  Here Paul lists things that are far more important than new cars, houses, business deals, money, etc.

Paul prays that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will.  Of course the will of God is to embrace Jesus as our Lord, but it is clear that Paul is thinking more than just our initial acceptance of Jesus.  The phrases, “all wisdom” and “spiritual understanding” speak to living out our lives as believers in Jesus.  We run into all kinds of situations and temptations, in which we need the wisdom and understanding of the Spirit of God in order to do what God wants us to do.  In a nutshell the letters that Paul and the other apostles wrote were doing just that.  Paul was helping them to understand what God’s will was in every situation. Yes, God wants us to embrace Jesus and to be a person in which His Spirit can dwell.  But, then, through a dynamic relationship, He wants to transform our minds and our lives into the image of Jesus Christ.

Paul also prays that they would walk worthy of the Lord.  Paul is using the phrase to emphasize that we are capable of not listening to the Spirit from time to time.  The believer should never be comfortable with this.  The works of the flesh are obvious and believers need to recognize that the Lord Jesus is so glorious that we do not want to tarnish Him before the world.  Many might fear that this will tend towards legalism.  But, Paul’s point is not to create a legalism, but rather, to inspire us to proper actions.  Like a coach reminding students that they represent their school, Paul reminds us that we represent Jesus and our actions reflect upon Him.  

So is it possible to be fully pleasing to the Lord?  We are fully pleasing to the Lord when we listen to the Holy Spirit in regards to how we should live.  Of course this also involves those times when we fail.  Too often people forget that the Holy Spirit also leads us to repentance and forgiveness for those times when we fail.  It is not a phrase that seeks to disqualify and kick us out.  Rather, it is intended to motivate us.

Paul also prays that they would be fruitful in every good work.  This is another way of looking at the concept of walking worthy of the Lord.  A person who follows the Spirit of God will be fruitful in their life.  They will also be beneficial to others much like a fruit tree is beneficial to those who come upon it.  We will be a tree of life and a fresh water spring to the people around us because the Life of the Spirit will flow into us and through us.

Paul also prays that they will be strengthened with all might.  All of this talk about being like Christ and following the Holy Spirit requires much inner strength.  Intestinal fortitude, or “guts” for short, cannot come from our flesh.  It must have a spiritual source.  The closer we get to following Jesus the more our flesh gets queasy and weak.  We need the strength of Christ's glorious power working in us in order to put the desires of the flesh to death.  This daily dying to self and living in Christ is empowered by the Holy Spirit, if we yield to Him.  In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul was reminded by the Lord that “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”  In that passage the weakness is that which we have in our flesh.  When our flesh is weak, the powerful strength of the Lord will shine through and do its perfect work.  People will recognize that the power is of God and not of me.

Lastly, Paul prays that they will be thankful to God with Him.  We should be thankful that God has qualified us to be partakers in the inheritance of the saints.  This is what Daniel saw in chapter 7 verses 21-22.  “I was watching and the same horn was making war against the saints and prevailing against them, until the Ancient of Days came and a judgment was made in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came for the saints to possess the kingdom.”

We are also to be thankful that God has delivered us from the power of darkness (spiritual darkness and spiritual powers) and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.  Wow! Talk about a new immigration status.  Without Christ we are stuck under the powers of darkness that rule over this world.  Their kingdom will never bring peace and joy to the earth.  Yet, mankind continues to operate in league with them.  Through Christ we are able to break out of that spiritual matrix that enslaves the whole world.  We are then enabled to participate in the kingdom of Jesus.  That kingdom exists in part already.  But the fullness of it will be known when He returns to earth to set up an earthly kingdom.

We should also give thanks to the Father that we have been redeemed and have had our sins forgiven.  Jesus paid the price with his blood that purchased us back from the auction block and slavery of sin.  His death made it possible that our sins might be removed from us as far as the east is from the west.

Now as I close, be honest.  Are these the things in which you are most thankful and most likely to be praying for?  May the word of God instruct us in the things that truly make for our joy and that we truly need.  Of course we are instructed to pray for our daily bread.  But let’s pray for the things that Paul is praying, both for yourself and for fellow believers.  We all need these things even more than we need the material.

Our Needs audio

Tuesday
Dec192017

The Results of Spiritual Victory

1 Kings 18:40-46.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on December 17, 2017.

Last week we saw how God had honored Elijah’s public display of faith by a miraculous fire from heaven coming down upon his sacrifice.  This was all in contrast to the pitiful failure of the prophets of Baal.  Today we will look at the fallout of that momentous event and talk about spiritual victory in our own lives. 

But before we get into that it might help if you familiarize yourself with the geography of this passage.  Click here for an online map from a great website called BibleAtlas.org.  Pay attention that we are in the northern part of Israel west of the Sea of Galilee.  The sacrifice has taken place on Mt. Carmel which is on the left of the map part way down (part of the name has been cut off).  Jezreel is basically in the middle of the map with the Kishon River (thin blue line) flowing from that area past Mt. Carmel and into the Mediterranean Sea (where modern day Haifa sits).

The enemies of God’s work are executed

When we read verse 40 the passage can be shocking to our modern, western sensibilities.  However, I would remind you right up front that we in the West are shocked by things that people in the East are not, and vice versa.  Just because it offends us does not mean it is wrong.  So try and get over the shock that the prophet of God Elijah orders the people to execute all the prophets of Baal and, instead of tossing God’s Word aside, take time to understand what God wants us to understand here.

A big question that often arises from passages such as vs. 40, is that of whether or not Christians are hypocrites when they proclaim peace and yet have such a thing in their “holy book.”    If fact, one of our recent presidents, who also claims to be a Christian, chided Christians about eating shellfish when it is forbidden in the Old Testament.  Others claim that Christians are hypocrites when they promote love for our fellow man because of passages that speak of the death penalty for sexual perversion.  Each of these statements or accusations has a problem in their logic.  They assume that the Bible itself, and more importantly God who is its author, teaches that Christians should obey the Old Testament Laws.  In fact, the Bible teaches the opposite.  You cannot point out one verse and ignore the context of the rest of the Bible and also hold the intellectual high-ground.  If we want to deal with the Bible honestly then we must recognize or determine what God’s purpose was in creating Israel as a nation.  He created then and made a covenant with them in which they promised to obey The Law that God had given them through Moses.  Clearly they did not do such a good job at that, but then we would be casting stones from a glass house.  God’s purpose with Israel and The Law of Moses was not to provide a positive template for all the nations of the world.  The salvation of the world is not found in converting the whole world over to follow the Law of Moses.  The whole purpose of The Law was to shut the mouths of those who claim to be righteous.  Israel had divine laws (i.e. better than the wisest minds of mankind could come up with at the same time period).  Yet, the people of Israel were not divine and there lies the problem.  The Law of Moses failed to save Israel for the same reasons that the Constitution of the United States cannot save us.  Nations are run by people who are weak and condemned by the very laws they claim to follow.

So let’s look back at this situation.  Ahab is completely stunned.  Only moments ago, he held all the power.  He would execute Elijah when this was over with and he would continue to lead Israel into worshipping Baal rather than the God who had created Israel, Yahweh/Jehovah.  Much like a jury nullification of the law, the powerful demonstration of Yahweh’s power nullifies Ahab’s command.  The people and even his soldiers have just seen for themselves the power of God.  Notice that Ahab does not speak until the next chapter.  Even if Ahab would have tried to command for Elijah to be executed, who would have dared to carry it out?  Ahab rolled the dice and they came up “snake eyes,” or “dogs” as the ancient Romans used to say.  The stakes were Ahab’s life against the lives of the prophets of Baal and they lost.

But, Elijah’s command could not come from a truly righteous person could it?  We need to understand that Elijah is not some murderous psychopath who loves killing people.  The Law that God had given Israel (i.e. their constitution) stated that any prophet who led Israel to worship foreign God’s was guilty of a capital crime.  Thus these prophets new they were breaking The Law and committing a capital crime.  However, they could care less because they were under the protection of Israel’s Law-breaking king.  Ahab had been leading Israel in a direction that was illegal and treasonous.  These men have been helping him to commit this treason.  If you want to verify this then read Deuteronomy 13, especially verse 5.  Several times in Deuteronomy 13, 17, and 18 God declares these things a capital crime.  So now that we have exonerated Elijah from the guilt of homicide, we must deal with God.  It was His Law.  Is it barbaric?

Whether or not we agree with such a punishment today, we must agree that this was Israel’s law.  Part of understanding why God commands the death of false prophets is to understand the difference between God’s purpose with Israel and God’s purpose with the Church of Jesus Christ.  Israel was given the task to bring forth the Messiah or Savior for the world.  But, they also modeled to the world the problem with trying to create a perfect society through legislation.  All societies have to have laws to function.  But, even with divine laws it becomes a bloody business filled with hypocrisy.  This is true whether you are looking at the government of Israel or Sidon in the 9th century B.C., or you are looking at the modern governments of The United States of America, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, et. Al.  In the West we keep telling ourselves that if we just make better laws it will fix everything.  Yet, things keep getting worse and worse (yes, not everything is getting worse, but hear what I am saying).  We have to quit fooling ourselves.  Even divine laws, or laws created by an Artificial Intelligence, will fail to fix mankind because our problem is a spiritual one and is deep in each heart.  The best we can expect from laws is that they will slow down the evil nature of our hearts and give hope for people to see it and seek God’s help.  The only way to change a heart is repentance from our own dead works and turning towards belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  God’s laws of capital punishment on one hand teach us that some sins are worthy of death.  However, the cross teaches us that God does not want to execute us.  He is giving us a choice.  It is appointed unto a person once to live and then the judgment.   Through the Church God is warning the world of a coming judgment or execution.  Yet, He is also giving opportunity for people to make peace with Him by putting their faith in Jesus.  The Church is not about building a perfect kingdom, but rather, it is about calling people to become citizens who are being perfected by God.  Israel focused on a geographical place on earth that required capital punishment to keep it pure, and even that failed.  The Church focuses on the spiritual geography of our own heart.  Definitely Christians should obey the laws of the nation, as long as it doesn’t break God’s commands.  And, we should also work for better laws.  But laws are not our hope.  The return of Jesus our King is the hope that we hold out to the world.  This makes a big difference and makes the Gospel far more potent in light of Israel and The Law.  We await the Kingdom of Heaven to be brought down at the Second Coming of Jesus.  Until then, we do our best to live at peace with even those who disobey God.  Instead of executing those who break God’s command (as God told Israel), Christians speak the truth in love to them, while executing those things within our own heart and mind that would lead us astray from God’s Word.  That is why Christians should be restrained in the amount of laws that they promulgate.

A contrast of character

I spent a lot of time on verse 40 because the contents are important in our day and age.  In the rest of this chapter, we see a sharp contrast between the character of Elijah and that of Ahab.  Elijah is a wise leader and Ahab is a foolish one.  After the execution of the prophets of Baal, Elijah tells Ahab to go eat because of the sound of a great rain.  Now it is clear from the passage that there is no sound of rain at the moment.  What is Elijah talking about?  Elijah is speaking by faith.  Even though there is no outward sign, Elijah is confident that God will keep His word.  God had told him what would happen and we see him acting and speaking upon that.  As I said earlier, Ahab doesn’t speak here.  But his administration has been one, big lack of faith in God’s Word.  Now it is important to guard our heart, mind and our mouth.  We should be careful of our decisions and the way that we speak about things.  Am I trusting in God’s Word or doubting it?  Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  However, speaking by faith is not a matter of wish fulfillment, or only speaking “positive things.”  Christians should not fall into the error that tries to draw good things to us by acting and speaking positively.  Regardless of what you say and do, God is going to do certain things.  God is going to judge all the governments of the world in the future through the Second Coming of Christ.  It will be a great negative thing to those who are not on His side, but a great positive thing to those on the side of Jesus.  Speaking by faith is remembering what God has said and agreeing with it in our speech.  In other words we actually believe that God means what He says, and is not a liar.  May God help us to speak by faith in His word.

Although it is Elijah’s idea, Ahab is a king and can do what he wants.  Notice that King Ahab is feeding his belly while Elijah is praying for the rain to come.  Ahab is a man of the flesh, not because he eats food.  We all eat food and even Elijah ate food.  But something powerful and spiritual has just happened in Israel.  But one man is praying for God’s will and the other is satisfying the will of his stomach.  God’s people can enjoy the physical joys of life within godly boundaries.  However, we must not let our lives be only about them.  Though God has promised rain, Elijah will not rest until it comes.  He goes back up to Mt. Carmel and begins praying for God to fulfill His word.  Then we see a cycle of Elijah praying, and asking his servant to check and see if any rain is coming.  This goes on seven times until the servant notices a small cloud on the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea.  This seven times is intended to highlight that Elijah was not a man who would quit in prayer.  He persevered in prayer until God kept His word.  He waited upon the Lord completely and kept himself watchful through prayer.  We should be the same way concerning the Second Coming of Christ.  We should not be apathetic towards what God has said He will do with a kind of que sera, sera attitude (whatever will be, will be).  Jesus is not coming back for a people who have an intellectual assent that He will do so, but for those who have desired it and have spent their lives praying and watching for it (like Elijah).  When a cloud the size of a man’s hand is seen, then Elijah knows the fulfillment has come.  May God help us also to remain faithful even in the day of small things.  It may not seem like anything big, but God is in it and rejoices to make it happen.

In the end, it is God’s will working with Elijah’s faithfulness that brings rain to the land.  Elijah’s speech and life have been lived by faith in what God had said in the past and what He was personally telling Elijah.  In contrast, it was the unfaithfulness of Ahab and the people of Israel who followed him that led to the drought and famine, both naturally and spiritually.  We must be careful that we do not give up living lives faithful to God and His Word simply because the society around us does not pat us on the back for doing so.  Even in the face of active persecution, the hope of our land depends upon Christians living out lives faithful to Jesus.  We concern ourselves not with just physical rain and dry land, although that is important to people’s livelihood.  We concern ourselves more importantly on spreading the rain of God’s Word into the lives of those who are dry as deserts from years of rejecting or being ignorant of God’s Word.

Lastly we see that God’s power is upon those who are humble.  The power of God comes upon Elijah as the rain comes and he runs ahead of Ahab’s chariot to Jezreel.  Now in our competitive modern minds we would read this as God empowering Elijah to outrun the chariot of Ahab and to be the first to Jezreel.  Now this is no small feat.  Jezreel was about 10-15 miles away.  However, an ancient person reading this would see a servant running ahead of his master.  Elijah is running ahead of Ahab’s chariot, like a servant who is letting people know that the king is coming.  It is as if God is showing Ahab what could be.  God, and His servant Elijah, do not have to be enemies of Ahab.  Elijah was not seeking a crown, though he could have tried to take it after such a powerful display.  Who wouldn’t want a king who could call down fire from heaven?  Instead, Elijah’s run says to Ahab, I will take my place as your servant if you will take your place as God’s servant.  May the Lord help Christians today to have such a humility and empowerment from the Lord.   Instead of seeking to have the highest place, may we be the influence that those who have it need, to become what God wants them to be.

Spiritual Victory audio

Monday
Dec112017

Confrontation of a False God-II

1 Kings 18:30-39.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on December 10, 2017.

Last week we saw how the prophets of Baal, a false god of the Canaanites, were unable to get an answer of fire from the heavens.  Today we will look at Elijah’s turn, but in truth it is the One, True God’s turn to prove who He is.  As the day is well past, Elijah steps forward and starts the process of setting up the sacrifice, so that he can call upon the God of Israel to show Himself to the people watching.

Israel is drawn back to God

Several phrases throughout this passage make it clear that God does not want to “wow” the crowd.  Rather, He desires to draw Israel back to Him.  We see this in Elijah’s initial address for them to “come near” and also in Elijah’s prayer that Israel would understand that God is turning their hearts back to Him.  This is an important theme throughout the Bible.  Sin has separated man from God, but God calls out to mankind to draw near to Him through His sacrifice, Jesus the Christ.  Every time a person turns to the Lord in repentance, or a group of people turn back to Him in revival, it always begins with the grace of God turning our hearts and calling us to Him.  Of course people must respond.  God will not force people to come back to Him.  But it always starts with His grace to make it possible.  This call comes through the prophet of Elijah.  Come near, and see what God will do.  They deserved judgment for abandoning God and worshipping Baal.  But, instead, God is going to give a great demonstration of His power to them, while calling them back to Him.  Elijah is not the only prophet whom God did this through.

This same theme is highlighted by Jesus and His Apostles after Him.  Let us draw near to the throne of God for mercy.  In John 7:37-38 we see, “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  Also, in Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “Come to Me, all of you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  The Spirit of God is continually calling us to draw near to Him.  He wants to satiate our thirst and give us relief from the burden of our sins.  But do we hear him?  And, better yet, do we respond to Him?  He calls us near so that we can experience the goodness of who He is.

Before Elijah can set up the sacrifice, he has to repair an altar of the Lord that already existed on that site.  It had fallen apart and was in disrepair because of the abandonment of worshipping Him.  The people had grown weary of sacrificing and praying to Yahweh, and so had left off for more popular altars.  Never forget that when we abandon the things of God, their disrepair is a symbol of our lives spiritually.  Think about the abandonment of God’s exclusive institution of marriage for life.  All across this land are the tattered remnants of broken marriages left in the dust, which give us a picture of the hearts that have abandoned it.  We see the same thing with the raising of children.  Broken homes and children raised by single parents and grandparents have become the norm.  The broken kids who come out of dysfunction help us see our hearts.  Of course, we should encourage and help those who step up and care in a situation that is not optimal.    But that does not counter the point I am making.  How about the many churches around the country that are empty and in disrepair?  Sure, some of it is the fault of the churches and those who lead them, but not all of it.  There are many good churches around the country that are preaching the truth of God, but people don’t want to hear it and have abandoned being connected to a church.  The disrepair of such places becomes a prophetic symbol of our hearts and lives.  So Elijah repairs the altar because the altar is the place where an individual or a people gather to meet with God.  How is your altar today?  Is it in disrepair?  I am not talking about a literal altar.  We no longer sacrifice animals as they did in those days.  Our altar is a spiritual thing.  Wherever we draw near to God in prayer becomes our place of altar.  But the altar is about more than prayer.

First it is a place of preparation.  Yes, Elijah repairs the altar.   But then he has to put the wood upon it and then prepare the animal and lay its parts out.  Elijah also adds a strange aspect to this sacrifice.  He has a trench dug around the altar and has water poured out over the sacrifice and filling the trench.  Notice that the altar is not a speedy quick-order place.  It is a place where we spend time preparing ourselves to hear from God.  Don’t be so quick to walk away from the altar when it seems like God isn’t listening.

Of course, the altar is also a place where a sacrifice is made.  The secret is not the animal used, but the heart that prepares it, and the God to whom it is sacrificed.  God had told people to approach Him in that way.  It seems strange to us, but it is highly instructive.  First, it highlighted for them and for us the coming sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, as the Lamb provided by God.  It is also instructive because it always costs us something to approach God.  When our hearts are willing to give to God that which is valuable to us, He sees it from heaven and smiles upon us.  Elijah sacrifices a bull, but it is not the only thing being sacrificed.  The water is very precious on the heels of a 3.5 year drought.  I don’t know if it came from King Ahab’s personal stash, but everyone watching could not help but think of this as a tragic waste.  So what do we sacrifice today?  We no longer sacrifice animals because Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice for our sins.  We put on the altar of our heart those things that would separate us from God.  Some of those things are sinful.  We should put them on the altar so that God’s fire can burn them out of our lives.  However, some of those things are not sinful in and of themselves.  We still put them on the altar and let them go because we would rather have God than those things.  Some of those things that we put on the altar, that are not sinful, will be given back to us.  We see this with Abraham and the near s sacrifice of Isaac.   When God saw that Abraham would rather have God than the son whom God had promised him for so long, then God told Abraham to stop and gave him a substitute sacrifice.  This is an amazing picture of Christ.  But it also shows that God is not interested in taking things from us.  But rather, He wants our heart to be in right relationship to those good things in our life.  They are not God and they are not our source.  Only God deserves that highest place in our heart.

The altar is also a place of humility.  Elijah publicly risks himself.  Ahab can now put him to death or in prison.  What if this public demonstration fails?  Elijah does not have the ability to bring fire down from heaven.  He hasn’t been practicing in the desert and is now ready.  It took great trust, faith, and humility for Elijah to stand up in the face of a whole nation and declare that the God of Israel is greater than the false god Baal.  The altar is never about our great ability to approach God.  It is about our desperate desire to know God and His great grace to respond to our faithful obedience.

Lastly the altar is a place of prayer.  Once Elijah has everything in place, He calls out upon the Lord.  His prayer is in verses 36-37.  He makes it clear that this is about raising the honor of God and the truth about what has been going on in Israel.  He also makes it clear that this is about God turning the nation’s hearts back to Him again.  Oh that our hearts would be turned towards the Lord in the country, rather than to the world and what we want to do.  There is no shortcut to these things.  There is only a continual going back to the Lord, preparing ourselves in humility and speaking to God about those things in our life.  What is your will Lord?  I trust that You will answer, even when I go long periods of silence.  In fact, when we are waiting for a word from the Lord, it is easy to forget to be faithful to His last set of instructions.  God has told us to live lives that are faithfully following Jesus, not our imaginations of Jesus.  We are to be faithful to Jesus and to share the Gospel with the world around us.  You no longer have to climb up into the heavens to reach Him; He has come down to us in our worst hour.  Instead of running from Him, draw near!

At the end of Elijah’s prayer God responds in great power as fire falls from heaven upon the sacrifice and burns up everything even the water in the trench.  This causes all the people watching to break out in shocked praise of God.  The Lord, He is God!  This phrase is shouted by the people several times.  There was no question on that day just who was God.  It is indeed an amazing time when God demonstrates His great power.  But this demonstration is leading somewhere.  God is about to allow the rains to come back to Israel.  Men love to give credit to everything but the One True God.  In those days they would have accredited it to Baal the storm god, this was precisely his area of strength, water and fire the elements of storms.  Yet it wasn’t Baal who answered by fire that day, and thus the people would know later when the rains begin, that it was Yahweh, not Baal, who had done it.  In our day we would be giving the credit to nature, or to our scientist’s ability to manipulate it.  But, we should remember that God is the God of nature.  As the creator, He is the One who is ultimately in charge.  Nature is following the laws that He put in place from the beginning.  Now we cannot just run out and try to force God to show up in power.  Elijah states clearly that he is following the instructions that God has given him.  So what are our orders?  Though this is a real event that literally happened, there are also spiritual lessons here.  We can use this event as a metaphor for ourselves.  God needs faithful believers who will risk their lives on the altar and publically stand up for Him, whether He promises a powerful sign or not.  When we sacrifice our lives publically before the world and through prayer call upon the God of heaven, the fire from heaven will come down upon us.  This is the Holy Spirit of God.  Instead of destroying us, we are filled with the power to live godly lives and speak powerfully to the world around us.  This is the way that God has determined to turn hearts back to Him.  May we take time to repair the altar in our lives and begin walking with the Lord, rather than telling Him how He should be running things.

Confrontation II audio

Friday
Nov242017

The Lord of Life

1 Kings 17:17-24.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty on November 19, 2017.

In today’s passage tragedy is going to strike.  As is always the case, when calamity comes, we go from cruising through life to crying out in desperation.  Some use the existence of tragedy as a reason to reject the Creator.  However, the Bible teaches us that the All-Wise God knows what He is doing.  Even in the midst of tragedy He is merciful to mankind and has a plan to bring us to a place where tragedy will never again be able to strike us.  We serve the God who has the power of life and reigns supreme over death.  And, though it is clearly His will that all men should die and then face judgment, it is also His will that the righteous be raised up to eternal life.

God is still in control when tragedy strikes

Last week we saw God’s great mercy to this widow who wasn’t a part of the nation of Israel.  He did not just send her a prophet to feed her physical bread, but also to give her the truth.  Thus as the woman eats the miraculous physical bread, she is also the recipient of a miraculous side seat of the prophet Elijah.  Thus the God that Israel served cared even about a gentile widow who was on the verge of dying.  She had proven herself by sharing her last meal with Elijah and now enjoys the happiness of not having to worry about where the next meal for her son will come from.  While she was in this amazing time of joy, things headed in the right direction, and learning about God, things go sideways.  What is God doing?  She was no different than we are today.  What in the world is God doing today?  Well, we know that He is sending out Christians to speak the truth of God’s love to all people and His forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus.  So, why does it look like everything is falling into Chaos?  It looks that way because men’s hearts are evil and create chaos by their actions and choices.  So why doesn’t God stop it?  He doesn’t stop it because if He did there would be no more chance for salvation for them.  This woman was on the good path and could feel that surely she was now immune from difficulties.  The tragedy catches her by surprise, but not God.

It is here and many other places that we see the fact that tragedy strikes both the wicked and the righteous.  The woman’s son comes down with a sickness that quickly takes his life.  The tragedy of famine was already hitting the evil and good alike.  It doesn’t seem fair that God’s punishment of King Ahab and the people of Israel who were going along with him would also affect righteous people.  But, God always takes care of those who put their trust in Him.  Yes, He could supernaturally cause it to rain on just the crops of the righteous, but in His wisdom He often chooses to let it strike both alike.  The wicked in this situation have no hope.  But the righteous can pray and call out for the help that God has promised He will give.  Jesus warned his disciples not to think that tragedy is sent only to destroy sinners.  In Luke 13 he points out two situations in which people tragically died (some at the hands of a wicked king, and others at the accident of a tower collapsing).  He asks the question, “Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwell in Jerusalem?”  He then goes on to explain that, “I tell you no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”  We should not look on trying to figure out why it happened, but rather let it be a warning to us that our time could come just as unexpectedly.  Am I ready to meet my Maker?  Many people get no advance warning of their deaths.  They have no time to get ready for it.  We need to always be ready to face the Lord.  Now, when tragedy strikes it feels like there is no hope.  But in Christ there is always hope.  With God all things are possible, even life from the dead.

But the widow is not aware of this yet.  She can only see the despairing unfairness of her situation.  She thinks that she is being punished for some past sin.  It is also clear that Elijah the prophet doesn’t know what God is doing either.  Obviously, God had not told him what would happen.  So Elijah, in verse 20, asks God if He had done this.  But, he seems to be asking more of a “Why” question than anything.  Now the truth is that God is ultimately responsible.  He has either primarily caused it to happen, or He has secondarily allowed it to happen.  Either way, because God is a being with complete jurisdiction and power, He bears responsibility for what happens.  Those who try to blame the evil in the world on God only have a partial case.  Yes, it seems that God is failing in His duty even to allow evil to exist.  However, that is a very different then thinking that God does evil or makes people do evil things.  God is never directly or primarily responsible for evil, people and other created beings are.  Yet, even in the argument that He shouldn’t allow evil to occur, the premise is illogical.  Would we call a world where we didn’t have a true choice, good?  If God forced us to do good things, as He defines it, all the time, would we think it was good?  In His wisdom God has determined the best course and made the best decrees for giving mankind freedom and yet holding them accountable for their choices and actions.  We may disagree, but we cannot say He is the source of evil in the sense that He bears primary responsibility.  So is God sleeping at the wheel and doing a bad job of managing the universe?

As hard as it is for us within this world to see beyond it, God sees all.  When a person is going through a problem, they often become stuck in it.  If God directly causes a tragedy, then it is a rebuke to the wicked in order to humble them.  This “shot across the bow” gives them the mercy of rethinking their path.  Repentance becomes an open door before them regardless of whether or not they walk through it.  Sometimes the tragedy is to simply remove the wicked from the scene.  Their time is finished, much like Belshazzar and the mysterious hand, writing on the wall.  It can also be a test to the righteous, to see if they will still follow Him.  Or, sometimes it is merely to remove them from wicked circumstances.  Isaiah 57:1,2 says, “The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands.  For the righteous man is taken away from calamity, he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness.”  God also sometimes does so in order to display his glorious power through healing and deliverance.  Now all these things, and most likely more, can be the possible purpose when God directly causes tragedy.  In fact, it would seem that he often is doing many of them simultaneously in the lives the many different people affected.

Yet, many tragedies are not primarily caused by God, but rather simply allowed to take place by Him.  Whether it is a person simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or evil people preying on others, God has allowed mankind a certain space of freedom.  He is not instantaneous in His judgments and punishments.  He leaves room for people to repent and be saved from their sin.  Yet, if they do not repent, they will find that room to also be the rope by which they hang themselves.  They will be without excuse.  Though it is a grievous burden at times, we should not complain that God gives us such room.  The only other option would be a stifling dictatorship.  So God allows things to happen for much the same reasons as when He directly causes them to happen.  Ultimately He is giving mankind freedom to sin and yet freedom to choose righteousness.  If I only choose righteousness when God protects me in a safe cocoon, then I am not really choosing righteousness.  I am choosing safety, self-preservation.  But, if I choose righteousness even when suffering at the hands of evil, then I truly have chosen righteousness and such a choice truly is commendable.  God is not a dictator at heart.  He does not wish to control mankind, but to have a free relationship with mankind.  It is the devil, who accuses God at every turn, who is the dictator at heart.

The real question is how will I respond

Notice that God does not answer Elijah’s question about whether He did this or not, or why He might have allowed it to happen.  We should see this aspect also in the story of Job.  It is as if the Bible is telling us that even if we did have an answer it is not what is important in our life.  The problem isn’t that we don’t know what God is doing.  The problem is that we often fall to the temptation to doubt His love for us and go our own way.  This story is about how we respond to tragedy, and not why God allows it.  We don’t need to know, as much as we want it, but only what is next.  If the creator of the universe is good and working all things to our good, then we don’t need to understand His plan; only what we should do next. 

The reaction or next step for many people is bitterness, fear, and pushing God away.  This is the path that the widow starts to go down.  She regrets interacting with Elijah.  No matter how nice the miraculous bread was, it would be like gravel now that her son is dead.  You can almost hear her thinking in her mind, “I knew nothing good would come from letting a prophet stay in the house.”  She suspects that her son’s death is a punishment for a past sin.  If we imagine her life, we see a very difficult series of tragedies.  She lives in a pagan country with rampant immorality and abuse.  Her husband then died and left her poor and with a little child.  Then a famine comes and shuts off any hope she had of foraging and scraping out a living.  Yes, a prophet shows up, but now her child is dead.  Her heart begins to push away Elijah and the God that He represents.  They are to blame.  The isolation to which we retreat will wall us off from the goodness of God.  Of course, we should not blame this woman.  She is just a baby in the things of God.  Thus we should contrast her actions with those of Elijah’s.

Elijah is not a spiritual infant.  Yet, no amount of spiritual maturity can make life easy.  He does not respond in walking away from God and being fearful that God is rejecting him.  Rather, he responds in faith and begins fervently praying for God’s act of divine power to save the boy.  Is this how I respond?  Do we keep looking to God until we get an answer either way?  James uses Elijah as a model for believers in every generation.  He is a righteous man whose faith causes him to pray to God in the time of need.  Such prayers of faith accomplish much.  Let’s hear the verses.  James 5:13-18, “Is anyone among you suffering?  Let him pray.  Is anyone cheerful?  Let him sing psalms.  Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up.  And, if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.  Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.  The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.  Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months.  And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.”  Though, James points to the prayers concerning the famine, he could have just as easily pointed to these prayers for God to bring the boy back to life.  We can also pray like Elijah did, with faith in God, and fervency.

Yet, this story is not about being able to get a miracle every time something bad happens.  Ultimately it is a reminder that our God has the power of life even in the face of death.  Even if He does not bring someone back from the dead, He still has the purpose of raising us all up from the dead at the Day of Resurrection.  This boy has not been dead for long and thus we could say he is technically resuscitated.  Now, later at the raising of Lazarus from the dead, it had been 4 days.  This is more than resuscitation.  This would involve a clear rejuvenation of tissue.  In either of these cases the boy and Lazarus would go on and live the rest of their lives and come to death’s door for the second time.  However, this time Elijah or Jesus would not show up.  They are only given mortal life.  Why?  God’s plan for all mankind is greater than keeping us from dying or suffering tragedy.  His plan is to overcome the suffering and tragedy that we may face in life, even death.  Phillips Brooks, an 18th century American, Episcopal clergyman once said, “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men.  Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks.  Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you will be a miracle.”  God can handle our many questions asking why.  But, recognize that more important than “why” is what will I do now.  Let’s choose to trust God and be a people who pray with the faith and knowledge of just how great our God is.

Lord of Life audio