Acts chapter sixteen gives the account of Paul and Silas having been put in jail in Philippi. They had been arrested for preaching the Gospel and accused of causing a disturbance. They were stripped, beaten with rods, thrown into a dungeon, and had their feet put in stocks. A terrible experience for anyone. One would expect them to be angry, to be looking at their wounds, and concerned about what their fate would be in the morning. Instead, the text tells us that “about midnight (they) were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”(vs.25) You can read the account to see the outcome, but my point here is what they were focusing on. Of course they were hurting and uncomfortable, and their fate uncertain, but they chose to focus their attention, and their hope, upon the Lord. Instead of allowing themselves to be consumed with their situation they focused upon the Lord with prayer and song. They looked to the Lord who is our strength in all situations.
In the Small Catechism of Martin Luther he gives an explanation to each of the Ten Commandments. Each explanation begins, “We should so fear and love God that …” Fear and love are not mutually exclusive. We do a number of things to try to explain what this fear means – awe, reverence, respect – and all of those apply, but I have never felt that they truly explain what it mean to fear and love God. When I think of coming into the presence of Almighty God I literally tremble inside. I can’t imagine being in His holy presence. I know that I am redeemed by the precious blood of my Saviour, Jesus Christ. I know that I have been given His righteousness in exchange for my sin. I love the Lord and cling to His feet even as Mary did when she first saw the resurrected Christ. Yet He is holy. And when I first see Him I will fall at His feet as one dead, even as the Apostle John did in the first chapter of Revelation. St. Peter tells us to conduct ourselves in fear of Him we call Father during our time on earth.(IPt.1:17) “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.
We understand from Scripture that we can do nothing to earn our salvation. Our salvation is a free and unearned gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is important to understand two things that this does not mean. First, that, because we have our salvation as a gift, we are now free to do anything we want because God has accepted us. That would be an affront to the holiness of God, and a very dangerous path to walk. Second, because we can do nothing to earn our salvation, we therefore do not have to do anything. That would be a serious neglect of the gracious gift God has given. In Paul’s great statement about the free gift of our salvation in Ephesians 2:8 & 9, it is immediately followed by verse 10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We do not work to earn our salvation. But the more we understand and appreciate the magnitude of the gift of life we have been given, the more we want to share that gift in service to others. Paul wrote to the Romans, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” We can’t contain that love. By God’s grace it pours out in words and actions to the glory of our good Lord.
Peter and John had gone to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. (Acts chapter 4) They encountered a man crippled from birth bagging alms. In the name of Jesus they healed him. The authorities saw it, questioned them, and talked together about what they should do. “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”(vss.16-17) I marvel at this – I shouldn’t, but I do. “A notable sign, and we cannot deny it.” No matter, we’ve got to stop this thing anyway! It was a clear sign of God hand, but we can’t allow it because it will disrupt the present system that we depend upon. Nothing has really changed today. To allow God to get too close disrupts our plans, our income, our way of life. Yet that crippled man was healed and found life in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is still true for those who can set aside pride and prejudice, and humbly kneel at the manger and the cross.
New Years celebrations are important. Many people make a big deal out of celebrating on January first, the beginning of the calendar year. Actually it’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen the New Year in. I usually sleep through it. But there are other New Year celebrations. The Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the Fall. The Chinese have a Spring New Years festival, and the Muslims also have a date in the Fall for the beginning of their year. For Christians the New Year begins this coming Sunday with the First Sunday in Advent. The year is geared to the Scriptural accounts of all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The year begins by looking back at the astounding wonder of the Incarnation, Almighty God coming among us in the Baby born in Bethlehem. But it also looks forward to the time of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return. The calendar New Year is a time for revelry. The Christian New Year infuses us with hope, knowing all that God has done for us in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ, and in the certainty of the fulfillment of His promises to bring all things to their right conclusion.
In a six foot span of my desk top there are at least a dozen separate pieces of paper, each with a purpose, and each needing some kind of action. It looks like chaos, but I really do know the purpose of each, and the action to be taken (even if I put it off!). Some items are waiting for further information before I can do anything, but none are forgotten. I think about our Lord looking at the chaos of this world, infinitely greater than my desktop. Yet He knows every part. Nothing escapes His concern or His ultimate action. Perhaps He has to allow other things to take place first before He acts, but He will act in His good and perfect will. David looked at the chaos that surrounded Him, and cried out, “How long. O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” But, after several verses of lament, he concludes saying, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.”(Ps.13) There really is hope in the midst of the chaos of life.
God had chosen the Hebrews to bring His truth to the world. Jesus was born of the Hebrews in the midst of a Greek culture. That’s was a bit of a problem, and it is for us as well. There is a difference between Hebrew and Greek thinking. We need to approach the Bible as a Hebrew book. I was reading this morning in John 14 where Jesus was telling the disciples He was going to prepare a place for them, and that they knew the way.(vs.3f) Thomas objected, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Thomas was asking a Greek question. He wanted to know the details. He wanted step by step instruction. Jesus gave a Hebrew answer. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words, if you know Me, if you walk with Me, if you are willing to trust me, then I will lead you through all the steps you need to take. We so often struggle with the “what ifs” of life, trying to know in advance all that is ahead. Yet Jesus is extending His hand and asking us to walk with Him in trust. No, it’s not always easy. We are Greeks and want the road map. But Jesus is always there, extending His hand, and saying, “Come.”
Reading in the Gospels it will say Jesus did this and His disciples believed in Him. Then a little further on, Jesus did something else and His disciple believed in Him. But then something would happen and Jesus had to chide them on their unbelief. Even after Jesus was raised from the dead, walked with the disciples for forty days, and was ready to be taken up into heaven, Matthew tells us that “some doubted”.(28:17) Believing is difficult. We say we believe in Jesus, and we do. We really do, but we are surrounded by a broken world with its many trials, and things that really don’t make sense. It’s not that we question our salvation, or the love Jesus has for us, or sacrifice He made to redeem us. I think these are firm. But will the Lord work in this particular situation I’m facing? Will He answer this prayer I bring before Him, even as I still see the need before me not seeming to change? Yes, our eyes see the trials, and we are praying to an unseen realm. Even so, we have the evidence of all the Lord has done for us in past years. We know the love He has shown for us by paying the price for all of our sins. And we have His clear promise never to leave or forsake us. Even though we only see through a glass dimly right now, these are the rocks to which we cling. We can believe. The love Jesus has for us is deeper than anything we can imagine. We can trust ourselves, and all we care about, into His hands.
The leaves are beginning to change color. We saw one tree yesterday that three different colors in it. My Father made that for me to enjoy. My fingers are moving to type these letters. The mechanics of how our hands function is absolutely amazing. My Father designed them and gave them to me. We can look around at a thousand of other things in everyday life, things we take fore granted, but which are absolutely wonderful gifts from our Heavenly Father. My Father and your Father gave them to us. I will be at the hospital today with a cancer patient’s family. We weep time and again over this terrible disease, and the many other ills that face our world. Yet we can thank our Father that He has given many people the skills and desire to help and to heal. Look around today at the gifts your Father has given you. Rejoice, give thanks, and love Him.
Jesus always sees the bigger picture. A Jew named Nathaniel came toward Him one day. Jesus didn’t see just an ordinary townsman, but a man whose heart was free of any guile and bitterness. This was one who would be of great service to the Lord. Jesus walked by a tax collecting booth and looked at the hated man who was occupying it. He saw a man who the Jewish leaders considered a sinner, and the towns people reviled. But He also saw a man whose heart would change, and who would be mighty in proclaiming the Gospel to the Jewish people. Even with the storms on the Seas of Galilee, and the trials that the disciples would face, Jesus knew there was more than just the pain of the moment. Jesus is helping us to look beyond the surface, to look to Him to open our eyes, to pray and to trust that He is working to change our hearts for our good and for His good purpose.