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Standing on the (Cultural) Promises

2013 was a culturally eventful year for the United States: the Supreme Court upheld principal provisions of the Affordable [sic] Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, just as it overturned principal provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Prop 8, both of which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This second judicial decision paved the way for the wholesale legitimizing of same-sex co-habitation as marriage (it’s not actually marriage, of course).

It’s not surprising that MSNBC crowed in its web article posted October 23, “The culture wars are over.” It’s only slightly less surprising that some Christians, like prominent Tennessee evangelical pastor Dan Scott, in his widely distributed sermon “Taking Refuge: Reflections on Same-Sex Marriage,” arrived at the same conclusion but from a Christian angle. Christian culture and its grounding in God’s revelation have been rejected by a majority of the population, and they are incrementally enshrining their secular principles into law. It’s time for Christian culturalists to throw in the towel and embrace more modest projects — like being faithful in family and church.

The Failure of Abdication Strategies

While no one should unrealistically deny the recent successes of the enemies of Christian culture, this abdication strategy (= non-strategy) is precisely wrong. To borrow from the inimitable (and very non-Christian) Mark Twain, the reports of Christian culture’s death have been greatly exaggerated. For one thing, as Jonah Goldberg stated this year at the annual banquet for Jennifer Lahl’s The Center for Bioethics and Culture: “No cause is ever truly lost because no cause is ever truly won. Every cause is only one generation from victory — or defeat.” Historical “trends” are only as accurate as the latest data. I’m reminded of useless predictive statistics like this from football announcers: “This team has never lost when leading at halftime.” This is 100% true — until it isn’t.

Second, the seeds of future victory are often sown in present defeat. Out of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 disastrous presidential loss to Lyndon Johnson was forged a conservative political coalition that led to Ronald Reagan’s two victories, one a landslide (1984). We learn critical lessons in defeat that we can never learn in victories. I pity the individual (or cause) that hasn’t yet tasted defeat. He (or it) isn’t sufficiently mature to enjoy and benefit from victory. Setbacks in the issue of the legality of same-sex- “marriage” can prepare us for wiser cultural strategies — just as the loss in Roe v. Wade did.

Finally, and most importantly, Christians live by faith, not sight (2 Cor. 5:7). When God established his covenant with Abraham that included promises of a multitudinous seed and a “land flowing with milk and honey,” Abraham was a childless husband in a pagan culture. It almost seems as though God deliberately chose to launch his covenant nation with a man most unlikely to father it. God often is in the business situating his people in difficult (even impossible) circumstances in order to assure that when he fulfills his will mightily through them, he alone gets the glory.

The biblical promise of Christian culture is clear (Hab. 2:14; Zech. 14:1–20; Rom. 4:9–13). The question isn’t whether the Holy Spirit, in God’s good time, will use the Lord’s people to Christianize the world, but whether the Lord’s people will be faithful and zealous in believing the culture-conquering promises — and acting on them.

Today I urge you to believe — and act on — God’s (cultural) promises.

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A Curse on Aborticide

image0022Every January many churches in the United States highlight God’s truth as it relates to preborn children, notably in memory of Roe v. Wade, the January 22, 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Actually the term abortion includes the definition of “the expulsion of a fetus from the uterus by natural causes before it is able to survive independently,” denoting what is today termed miscarriage. This is not what most people mean when they use the word abortion, however. They mean the intentional termination of human pregnancy, abortion’s primary — but not exclusive — definition.

A more suitable term for that intentional act is aborticide, which is a perfectly legitimate English word and enjoys the rhetorical benefit of similarity to homicide, infanticide, suicide, regicide, and other words that denote the willful deprivation of human life. It’s a word that supporters of the act likely deplore for precisely the same reason that opponents would prefer it. Supporters want attention deflected from the (im)moral implications of the act and redirected to the benefits to the pregnant woman (“a woman’s right to her own body,” etc.).

The Christian verdict on aborticide derives from the Bible, which clearly, if not explicitly, condemns it.  All intentional deprivation of judicially innocent human life is murder (Gen. 9:6). Human life begins at conception (Jud. 16:17; Ps. 139:13–18; Jer. 1:5; Lk. 1:15). Therefore, aborticide is murder.

More specifically, biblical law requires compensation for a miscarriage unintentionally precipitated by violent human action (Ex. 21:22). Even if the child is miscarried as a result of violent actions that did not intend that fatal loss, the violent are guilty of what we term these days manslaughter (not fetus-slaughter).

A human fetus is a human, created in God’s image, entitled to full legal protection.

Legalized aborticide, therefore, is nothing short of legalized murder, not materially different from Nazi leglislation legalizing the extermination of Jews or Marxist laws allowing the liquidation of capitalists.

Aborticide and the Sexual Revolution

Aborticide is not a solitary horror foisted by political elites on a reluctant populace. While this act is nearly as old as sinful humanity, it became a sociopolitical policy in the West only after the 60’s Sexual Revolution since aborticide is, in Mary Eberstadt’s language, contraception’s backup plan. It is this fact, and likely this fact alone, that accounts for the gradual reduction in aborticide: as contraception becomes more effective and widespread, aborticide decreases. This reduction should furnish cold comfort, however, since it almost surely means that most aborted babies are unwanted residue from illicit and self-centered sexual gratification. In short, the current reduction of aborticide does not signal increased respect for human life — quite the opposite.

A figure at which neutral investigations arrived for acts of aborticide performed in the United States since 1973 is 50 million.  To set this figure in context, Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews. Stalin murdered 20 million of his countrymen. Mao may have murdered as many as 70 million.  The number of acts of aborticide just in the United States since 1973 boggles the mind, and by these standards the product of the aborticide industry in the United States is nothing less than human holocaust.

Aborticide and Wrath

 It also invites God’s judgment. Spilling innocent blood brings God’s anger to a boiling point. Habakkuk 2:8 is entirely typical of many warnings in the Old Testament prophets to both the Jews and the surrounding nations:

Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.

God measures out his wrath on a nation and culture that unrepentantly sheds innocent blood, and, while God is longsuffering, it is incredulous to believe that our nation will escape God’s judgment if we do not repent — and perhaps even if we do repent (2 Chr. 34:14–33). The blood of preborn innocents, like that of Abel’s (Gen. 4:10), cries from the ground for God’s holy vengeance.

For this reason also, praying for God’s wrath on the perpetrators of this holocaust is not merely appropriate, but imperative (Rev. 6:9–11). As Kemper Krabb’s haunting song “A Malediction” intones:

The judges sat outside the law

And in their pride no evil saw

In setting teeth to Satan’s jaw

And feeding him our children

A curse a curse the Law it cries

A curse a curse on mankind’s pride

A curse on him who would deny

God’s image in mankind

To invoke God’s wrath on unrepentant murderers of judicially innocent children is to invoke his tender grace and mercy on the precious lives of preborn children whom they would, if unmolested, also snuff out. Alternatively, to shy from such imprecations under the motivation of sensitivity to butchers of babes is to twist the justice of God and turn his grace into lasciviousness (Jude 1:4).

All followers of Jesus Christ who, therefore, love his holy law and mercy and grace and justice must beg God to grant repentance to our blood-soaked nation — and level his wrath against those lawless judges and unrepentant aborticide providers who “set their teeth to Satan’s jaw and feed him our children.”

To do less is a cruelty to the most vulnerable among us, even if marinated in misguided piety.

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The One People of God: Covenant as Jew and Gentile

Introduction

Cornerstone is a church, not a social club, not just a group of friends (though it is that, too). It’s a church. This first Sunday of 2014, on which we ordain and install a new officer, I feel led by the Holy Spirit to preach about the church.

What is the church? The church is the people of God washed in Jesus’ blood, animated by his resurrection, led by the Holy Spirit, brought together locally[1] under the oversight of local shepherds (elders) and the service of deacons. The church is God’s work, not man’s. The church is a vital part of the Lord’s kingdom. It’s a big part of what God’s doing to redeem the world in Jesus Christ.

But actually, today, in preaching about the church, I’m preaching about the covenant, because you can’t really understand the church unless you understand the covenant in the Bible.

There are all sorts of covenants in the Bible. People in the ancient world made many more covenants — and made a lot more about the idea of covenants — than we do today. That’s why we need to understand what a covenant is.

A covenant is a sacred agreement between 2 parties. It’s bound by an oath. It contains mutual obligations and benefits. It is handed down from generation to generation.

The two main covenants for the church today are the new covenant and the Abrahamic covenant. They are intertwined. Today I want to preach about the Abrahamic covenant in Galatians.

The Abrahamic Covenant (Gal. 3:7–14, 26–29)

Abraham (he was called Abram at the time) was a pagan who lived in Ur, in modern Iraq. Of all the people in the world, God chose (elected) this pagan to be his covenant partner. Why should God choose Abram rather than anybody else? Not because Abram was better or wiser or more righteous or more faithful. God elected Abram to participate in his covenant by God’s glorious, unfettered grace. In the same way, God told the Jews that he chose them because of his grace — nothing more or less (Dt. 9:6).

Know this: election is always according to grace and not works (Eph. 1:1–2:10). God chose us before birth to prove that the only thing that makes us different from everyone else is his grace (Rom. 9:11). This makes sure that man can’t boast. God alone gets the glory.

What are the provisions of the Abrahamic covenant?

Now, God promises Abram that if he would leave his father’s house and follow the one true Jehovah God, that God would give him a multitude of heirs, who would live in a glorious land all their own (they were later called Jews).

More importantly, God promised that God would be a God to this man and his children and grandchildren and his further descendents. He would be their loving and protective God, and they would be his choice people above all people in the earth (Gen. 12, 15, 17).

It’s easy to remember the three things that God promised to Abram: (1) a God, (2) a seed, and (3) a land.

Almost the entire rest of the OT is an account of God’s dealings with this covenant people. He miraculously gave Abram a son when he and his wife were beyond childbearing years. He brought them to a land called Canaan. His great-great-great grandchildren ended up as slaves in Egypt so that God could show his now multitude of Jews his great, loving might on their behalf.

Despite their sin and apostasy he led them into their own land. He gave them his loving law, but they kept departing from him and his law. So he brought hardships on them so they would repent and turn to him and then he’d deliver them. And finally they persisted in sin, so he sold them into exile: they were taken away to Assyria and Babylon.

Eventually at the end of the OT, he started bringing his people back to their land. The OT is one big story of God’s relentless, persevering, sacrificial love for his covenant people, the Jews. They kept abandoning God, but he refused to abandon them. He kept pursuing them.

Throughout all of this, God kept making a promise that he would send a Messiah, a Jewish Savior, who would stop this cycle. He would save his people finally and forever. He would bring salvation and righteousness and deliverance and peace to God’s people.

We know from reading the Bible that this Jewish Messiah was Jesus Christ.

Who are the parties to the Abrahamic covenant?

But when we come to Galatians, we learn something even more striking. We learn that this same Messiah is the true seed of Abraham that God promised that pagan in Ur so many generations before.

Now, what was the problem in the churches in Galatia that led Paul to write all this? False teachers were teaching that you had to act like an ethnic Jews in order to be right with God. You had to keep the Jewish (Mosaic, old covenant) law in order to be in covenant with God. Paul proved from the OT that this isn’t so.

First, he Paul shows that the law came along a long time after God made his covenant with Abram (Gal. 3:17), so obviously you don’t (and didn’t) have to keep the law in order to be part of God’s covenant people.

Then, Paul said that God got into covenant with Abraham while Abram was still a Gentile, precisely so that this covenant would include all the nations of the earth (Gal. 3:7–8). Paul is saying that God made a covenant with a Gentile, not a Jew, so that all nations, not just the Jews, could be in covenant with God.

But then Paul says something yet more amazing: the true seed of Abraham is none other than Jesus Christ! All along, when God was making promises to Abraham, he was making promises to and about his own Son, Jesus. God the Father would be a God to his Son Jesus. He would give his Son a multitudinous seed. He would give his Son a huge land to inherit.

And this shows what was so false about the teaching in Galatia: you get into covenant with God, not by being an ethnic Jew, not by keeping the law, but by becoming one with the seed of Abraham. And how do you do that? By faith (alone) in Jesus Christ. And when you become one with Jesus, you get all the glorious covenant promises give to Abraham (Gal. 3:29).

Lessons for the Church

Now, what are some implications for the church? For one thing, God’s glorious promises to the Jews are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus was a Jew. Do you ever wonder why the Gospels make so clear that Jesus was born as a Jew? Why? Because they want us to know that Jesus is the seed of Abraham. He is the covenant heir. Jesus is the inheritor of the OT promises.

If we misunderstand stand this, we’ll be led to one of two errors. Maybe we’ll think that God has erased the Jews, and they no longer have a part in God’s plan.[2] But this is false. Paul makes clear in Romans 11 (start in verse 1!) that one day as the Gospel overwhelms the earth, and as many Gentiles are converted, their salvation will provoke the Jews to jealousy. The Jews will say, “Wait. How can all you Gentiles get what was first promised to us?” And God will open their eyes to the Messiah, and a mass of Jews will turn to Jesus Christ. God is at work today among the Jews, bringing a number to the Messiah that most of them rejected 2000 years ago. And one day a multitude, more than man could number, will come to Messiah.

By the way, this is why we can be optimistic. The greatest days for the church are ahead, not behind, according to Paul in Romans 11. We might think the world looks bleak, but the blazing light of the gospel can dispel the inkiest darkness. And one day it will. And the Jews will be a big part of that gospel success.

Second error: we might think that God has two covenant plans, one with Jesus and the Gentiles, and one without Jesus but with the Jews. Yet Paul makes clear: there is no covenant plan apart from Jesus Christ! God is bringing both Jews and Gentiles and all another classes of people to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:27–28). God doesn’t have two covenant plans. He has one covenant plan, one covenant seed, one covenant people, all in Jesus Christ. Nobody gets to be right with God without faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only way.

And then a final lesson: if there is one people of God, the teachings of the Bible to God’s people apply to all of God’s people.

You might wonder why I preach from the OT. Some preachers almost never preach from the OT (Axel and I were talking about this last week). They think that the OT was written to the Jews but the NT is written to the Gentiles. But Paul taught just the opposite. He says that the OT was written specifically for us Gentile Christians (1 Cor. 9:9–10)!

Why is this? Because Jesus is the covenant seed of Abraham. All of the OT covenant promises are fulfilled in him. When we become part of Jesus by faith, we inherit all of the covenant promises. Understand that the issue is never Jews or Gentiles or even the church as such. The issue is always Jesus Christ and our union with him.

When we read the Psalms and God’s glorious promises to Israel, we’re reading promises to Jesus Christ.[3] When we become part of him, by faith, those promises become ours (Gal. 3:28).

This is why the whole Bible is for all of God’s people. We can read it and love it and believe it and live by it and die by it, because we are God’s one covenant people who have been washed by the blood and saved by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the true seed of Abraham. And we inherit all the promises by faith in him.

There is a single people of God: all of those who have placed faith in the Jewish Messiah.


[1] We sometimes hear about the “invisible” or “universal” church, but the fact is that in almost every case in the Bible (maybe every one), the church (ekklesia) refers to a locally assembled community of saints.

[2] Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

[3] This is equally true of the OT curses. For example, the book of Hebrews makes clear that if new covenant Christians turn away from Jesus Christ, they’ll be cursed (Heb. 10:29). This doesn’t mean that God’s eternally chosen ones will forfeit their election. It means that if we are enrolled among God’s people but abandon faith in his Son, we cannot be saved.

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The Way of Greatness


Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:20–28

Introduction

Sermonic

The Gospel is not just a message we believe. The Gospel is also a way that we must live. When we say that we’re Gospel people, we’re not just saying we trust the message. We’re also saying we live the message. The Bible will never allow us to sever the two. The message and the life go together. “If you love me, you will keep my. commandments,” Jesus said (Jn. 14:15). Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17).

Let me be more specific. In this account, Jesus teaches that his disciples to some degree recapitulate his own life: his life is a pattern for how they — how we — should live (vv. 22-23). Jesus lived and suffered and died and was resurrected and glorified and honored and rewarded, and so will we. Jesus was God’s Gospel Man, and we are called to be Gospel men and women, too.

Today I want to highlight one way of Christian living that’s at the heart of the Gospel. If we miss this way, we’ve missed the Gospel.

Textual

Jesus makes this very plain in answering James and John, his disciples, and their mother. Their mother had asked if in the kingdom, her sons could rule with Jesus on this left and and right hand. Jesus said, that’s our Father’s choice, not mine. And anyway, Jesus, asked, can you be baptized with my baptism? The other ten disciples were indignant at how James and John boasted they could be baptized the way that Jesus was — he was no doubt talking about his death, not about baptism in water (see vv. 17-25). “No problem: we’ll die like you, Lord, so that we can sit right next to you on the throne in a place of authority and power.”

Jesus replied, “You don’t you what you’re asking. You will be baptized as I will be (that is, they’d be martyred), but only the Father can decide who sits next to me in the kingdom.”

That’s when the other disciples got so indignant. We can’t blame James and John’s mother. All mothers want the best for their children. We don’t blame her for that, and neither did Jesus. But the disciples did blame James and John for their proud presumption. Interestingly, that’s not what Jesus did. He didn’t blame them for being proud and presumptuous. He blamed them for going about greatness in the wrong way.

That leads to my first truth.

God’s Way of Greatness

The pagan way of greatness

Jesus talked about the way the gentiles define greatness. By gentiles, Jesus wasn’t using a racial term. He didn’t mean non-Jews. Gentiles was shorthand for pagans and unbelievers — those outside the covenant people of God. He meant specifically the Romans, who were ruling the Jewish nation at the time.

Jesus was saying, “The pagans have their way of greatness, but that’s not the way of God’s people. We have a different conception of the path to greatness. Quit mimicking the unbelievers’ way. It’s totally off base. In fact, it’s just the opposite of the right way.”

Now, since we’re surrounded by a depraved and apostate culture, we need constantly to be asking ourselves this question: what is the gentile way, and what is God’s way? In everything: “dating,” clothing styles, body modification, “family planning,” movies, child-rearing practices, politics, voting, music, our monthly budget and debt, our approach to work, and on and on. We may not as God’s covenant people just default to the popular cultural way and assume it’s OK, because that way is likely to be the gentile way, the pagan way, the unbelieving way, and not God’s way.

What’s the pagan, unbelieving way to greatness? They lord it over their followers; they lust to exercise their authority (v. 25). They demand that everybody serve them. They are quintessential “takers.” They are the classic entitlement class. Other people are there to be used for their own depraved ambition. Other people are a means to an end. They’re always interested in “vertical mobility”: “whom can I step on to get a little higher in the great human dog pile?”

This pagan way of greatness is rife in human history. It’s as old as Genesis and as recent at 2014 America. It pervades all institutions: family, church, state, business, education, economy, art, all the way down.

The husband who uses his wife as a sex object and doormat and could care less about meeting her deep needs and desires is acting like a pagan. The husband who wields his authority over his wife like an ax isn’t a strong man; he’s a weak man.

The pastor or elders who expect the members to serve them and who want to be treated as celebrities are going the way of the pagans. We have too many celebrities in the pulpit today. They don’t even know their members’ names. How can they pray for their sheep by name they don’t even know their names? They seem to care more about their book tour or jet-setting or adulation than they do the deep needs and hardships and failures off their flock. They may be seeking greatness, but they’re seeking it in precisely the wrong way.

Years ago a pastor told me me that a 28-year-old young man approached him in the aisle after church one Sunday and said, “Pastor, I want to offer myself as an elder.” The pastor was old and wise but was quite taken aback and responded, “Well, eldership is a godly aspiration. Why do you want to be an elder?”

The young man replied, “Because I want to tell people what to do.” He was about as qualified to be an elder as a pizza shop delivery boy is qualified to be CEO of General Electric.

This is the pagan way in family and church. It’s also the pagan way in society. We must face squarely and not bat an eyelash that what we today term state socialism is the pagan way, and free markets are God’s way. How can we be so bold? Because state socialism is about demanding of other people, and free markets are about serving other people. The multibillionaire CEO might live in a mansion and drive a fleet of Rolls Royce’s, but along the way he had to get there by serving somebody. Somebody had a need, and he met that need.

Somebody said that America is the only country in the world where the multibillionaire calls his waiter, “Sir” Why? Because the multibillionaire respects the lowliest person who serves him. He knows that serving other people is the way to greatness.

Years ago I knew a man who was smart. He somehow had the idea that people should support him because he was smart. For some strange reason, they didn’t fall at his feet to support him. I finally told him to start serving other people, and then they’d support him. Smart people are a dime a dozen. There’s nothing special about being smart. But there’s plenty special about serving other people.

For Jesus, the summit of human greatness is serving other people. Please note that Jesus isn’t saying just that God loves humility. Of course, that’s true. He’s saying that of you want to be truly great, start serving people.

The quest for greatness is not misplaced. It’s laudable to to try to be great. But we must go about it in God’s way, not the gentile way.

Greatness comes through service. Have you ever noticed that our greatest influence comes with those that we serve, not those whom we command? Why does a faithful mother have such influence over the lives of her children? Because they see her work hard and sacrifice for them to meet their needs— to serve them. And that makes a profound, lifelong impression on them.

Pagans (including Christians acting like pagans) have the twisted idea that influence and power comes through authority. They’re wrong. Influence and power come through service.

Reach put and meet people’s needs. Sacrifice for them. You’ll be amazed at the authority you gain in their lives. And it’s not authority that’s commanded. It’s authority that earned through service.

The Gospel Way of Greatness

Jesus exemplified this truth, and he said so plainly (see v. 28). He’s offering his life and death as an example of the truth he was teaching the disciples. If you’d like to know why Jesus was the greatest Man who ever lived, it wasn’t just because he was the Son of God (true enough), but also because he served other people better than anybody in history.

He gave hope to the poor. He healed the diseased. He exalted women. He opened up his arms to the weak and discouraged and humble and repentant. He befriended tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners. He called twelve simple Jews and poured his life into them.

Most of all he gave his life on the Cross — not just as an example of love, but as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. Isaiah (53:4-5) prophesied:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.

In other words, Jesus was always looking out for other people; he wasn’t looking our for himself. His entire calling was enveloped in other people. He lived to please his Father, and he lived to serve his fellow humans, created in God’s image.

This is the Gospel. Listen to Matthew’s account (4:23-25):

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him ….

Please note: this doesn’t mean that Jesus had a “healing ministry.” He had a servant ministry. He didn’t blow into town as some faith-healer celebrity. He just wanted to help people. The gospel of the kingdom is the gospel of serving other people.

Living as God’s people means living a different way from the pagans. Living God’s way means living in the Gospel, and living in the Gospel means serving other people.

This is why Paul writes in Philippians 2:4, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Application and conclusion

I’d like to conclude by putting some flesh on the bones. What does it look like in our culture to be great by serving other people?

Husbands, it means asking your wife what you can do to make her life easier and committing yourself to doing it. Single adults, since marriage is all about service, finding a spouse is about finding someone you can serve.

The church is filled with people who have needs. God places people right in our path in the church so that we can serve them. Older ladies, this means giving your time to young mothers to give them counsel when they don’t know where to turn. It might mean babysitting. It might mean seeking out single ladies to pour your life into.

Older men, some of these younger men are navigating for the first time the choppy waves of family life. My job, your job, is to come beside them and advise them and encourage them on steering through those waters. It means giving financial and business advice. It means taking time to listen to them.

Serving other people sometimes means putting money into pressing needs that they have. It means encouraging even the smallest of our children, telling them how great Jesus is and how important they are to him. It means committing to pray for your sisters and brothers who are enduring great trials — and then doing that until God answers.

Gospel greatness requires living for other people. That’s Jesus’ way. That’s the Gospel way. And it’s God’s way for us.

The church is not just about telling God how great he is. It’s not just about sound teaching. It’s about treating people as he wants them treated. And Jesus Christ wants us to serve other people.

That’s God’s way to greatness.

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The 10 Best Books I’ve Read in the Last 10 Years

51ZBWzvnbPL__SS500_1. Herman Dooyeewerd, Roots of Western Culture

2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

3. Kenneth Minogue, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life

4. Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy

5.  Michael Reeves, The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit

6. Thomas Molnar, Utopia: The Perennial Heresy

7. Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society

8.  John Oswalt, Called to be Holy

9. G. C. Berkouwer, Modern Uncertainty and Christian Faith

10. Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010

Honorable Mention:

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel  

Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty

Richard Gaffin, By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation

Charles Guignon, Being Authentic

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

John Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth

Philip Short, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

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Lifelong Faithfulness — Ours and God’s

Text: 1 Samuel 12:1–5, 19—25

Introduction

Sermonic

Four factors have pressed me to preach about Samuel today.

First, I’m reading through the Bible’s historical books, and I just re-read this story, and it always rivets my attention.

Second, this is the last Sunday in 2013, and this is story conveys great truths for ending our year.

Third, I’ve been thinking about Axel Funke’s life story of God’s faithfulness, and Samuel’s account at its root sounds a lot like his.

Finally, I always like to preach about the family the last Sunday of the month, and this account certainly is about the family.

Textual

This is near the end of Samuel’s life. He was a great and godly prophet in Israel. He anointed the first two kings. He saw great triumph and tragedy. He was God’s man.

In this chapter he offers his valedictory. He recounts what God did, is doing, and will do. It’s a solemn and powerful sermon. It contains truths that can and should shape our lives.

Our Lifelong Faithfulness

Samuel’s testimony

Samuel was called by God from a child. His mother begged God to give her a child. She’d been barren. She was reproached by her husband’s other wife. She made a vow to God: if you give me a son, I’ll give him to you “all the days of his life” (1 Sam. 1:11). God heard her agonizing pleas. He gave her a son. And she fulfilled her vow. When she weaned him, she took him to the Lord’s temple and to Eli, God’s prophet. In due time, God revealed himself to this young boy, and he served God as a prophet in Israel the rest of his days.

Note carefully what Samuel said in v. 2 — “I have walked before you from my youth until this day.” Think of that testimony. Samuel challenged the Jews to indict him for public scandal or grave sin. They couldn’t do it (vv. 3–5). He wasn’t sinless, but he was godly. This is an important distinction. Just because we can’t be sinless doesn’t mean we can’t be godly. And Samuel’s very life — his entire life — was an example and testimony to the Jews.

Let’s explore this striking fact.

Samuel started walking before God as a child. He never stopped. His faithfulness was lifelong. He didn’t depart from the living God as a “teenager” (there were no teenagers in those days: teenager is distinctly modern, made-up category). Samuel didn’t go wild as a young adult and later settle down and come back to the Lord. He “walked [as a godly man] before [the Jews] from [his] youth until this day.”

This is normal Christian living. This isn’t (or shouldn’t be) exceptional. I have many friends who have lived this way — in lifelong faithfulness.  Some of you have. Your parents brought you up in the gospel and the church and the faith. You don’t recall a time that you weren’t nourished in the gospel. No, you aren’t sinless. You needed the gospel like we all do. But you’ve learned that God’s preventive grace is even greater than his recovering grace. Grace is displayed in an even greater way when God keeps a little child from a life of depravity than when he rescues a man from a life of depravity. It’s better to be preserved from immorality and drunkenness and covetousness and drug addiction and hatred than to be rescued from them. God is gracious in both cases, but preventive grace is even greater than recovering grace.

If you want to know why at Cornerstone we made abundant allowances for children and invite them to worship with us and preach a children’s sermon every Sunday have have the LAMBS group and baptize them and invite them to communion, it’s because God’s preventive grace is even greater than his recovering grace.

But Samuel’s testimony is an example for all the people of God, no matter how old you were when you started following Jesus. The message is this: we are charged to follow God totally, all the time, every time, in all we do.

We live in such a secular culture that it seems like a different world from the church and Christian family we inhabit. When we’re out in that world, it saps us of our Christian courage and vitality if we’re not careful. Filthy jokes seem less filthy. Sexual sins seem less sinful. Honesty in business seems less important. Training your children to love and serve God seems weird and radical. Remember this from David Wells: worldliness is anything that makes sin seem normal and righteousness seem strange.

Today we often talk about the sacred and the secular. But that’s a false antithesis. The actual antithesis is the one our forefathers understood: the sacred and the profane. If it’s not sacred, if it’s not given to God, if it’s not in harmony with God’s Word, it’s profane. It’s contrary to God’s will.

Friends, we live our entire lives before the face of God. Nothing we do or think is hidden from him (Ps. 139). The entire universe is God-conditioned. Everywhere we go, God confronts us. All of life is designed to worship and glorify Him.

There is no area of our lives where we can say — “This is mine. I can do as I please.” Not our thoughts. Not our money. Not our sex lives. Not our entertainment. Not our vocation. Not our vacation. Not our children or grandchildren. Not our music. Not our  words. Nothing.

Like Samuel, we’re called to be totally faithful to the Triune God.

Samuel’s prayer

Notice an act of faithfulness that Samuel mentions in v. 23: “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you.”

Samuel knew the power of prayer. His mother was a prayer warrior. She poured out her soul to God. That’s probably where he learned to pray. He also knew that not praying is a sin. He was a shepherd in Israel. The Jews were under his spiritual care. If he didn’t pray for them, he shirked his responsibility.

Today we have plenty of CEO’s in the pulpit, but not enough shepherds.  We need fewer CEO’s and more shepherds. We need elders who hold their sheep before the throne.

I have sinned in this area.  I haven’t always prayed for you as I should. But I try, by God’s grace, and God is helping me.

And you fathers and mothers, we are charged to pray for our children. Husbands,  we are required to pray for our wives.

Please don’t overlook the force of this passage. Samuel says that he sins if he refuses to pray for Israel. We sin if we refuse to pray for one another. In other words, this is a Christian duty that we have for each other. We owe it to one another to pray for each other. You have a Christian right to demand of your brothers and sisters that they pray for you.

That’s how important prayer for one another is.

Samuel’s exhortation

In vv. 6–17, Samuel exhorts the people. I was talking to Don this week and we were discussing the role of the church and its leadership in staying true to the biblical message. Our job isn’t to conform to the culture but to confront the culture’s sin: lovingly but firmly. If you read Samuel’s words, you’ll note how clear and forceful they are.  He’s saying that God did great things for you, and you sinned, but when you repented, God forgave you and restored you.

He reminds Israel how faithful God has been and how he requires his people to be faithful (vv. 13-15):

If you will fear the LORD and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well. But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king.

That’s just as true of Jesus’ church, and the NT writers said things just like this (see, e.g., Gal. 6:7–8). God chose us and loves us and cares for us and wants what’s best for us. He doesn’t give his commands to us to hurt us but to help us. He is our designer and therefore he knows what enhances and what distorts the design. When we disobey God, we don’t just break his heart; we break the design. We hurt ourselves. God loves us so much that he refuses to let us hurt ourselves without going to extraordinary lengths to stop us. 

God’s Lifelong Faithfulness

But the most weighty lesson we learn from Samuel’s farewell address is God’s faithfulness, not ours.  Our faithfulness is possible only because of God’s: “I … plead with you before the LORD concerning all the righteous deeds of the LORD that he performed for you and for your fathers” (v. 7). Now, did you notice something odd? Samuel didn’t speak of God’s grace or mercy, but of his righteous deeds. Of course, God is gracious to us, but he’s gracious in his righteousness.

Let me explain. Samuel is saying that God does right by his people. We often miss this. Because we don’t think covenantally, this fact of God’s character is invisible. We then think that God acts sentimentally. But God isn’t a sentimentalist. When he willingly bound himself to his people in covenant, he bound himself to act in a certain way toward them.

God isn’t arbitrary. He acts according to his character. He willingly entered into covenant with his people, Israel and us. This means that when he loves and protects and disciplines and forgives and restores us — he’s doing what he covenanted to do. God isn’t just “being nice.” We don’t serve a nice God. We serve a God far greater than a nice God. We serve a covenant-keeping God. And that God is much more loving, much more vigorous, much more powerful.

And this is why even though Israel sinned in demanding a king, God didn’t turn his back in his people. They confessed their sin (v. 19). See Samuel’s response: “Do not be afraid.” Isn’t that beautiful? God is bound to forgive, and he loves to forgive, his repentant people. That’s not God’s being nice. That’s part of his character. That’s who God is.

This is why God is relentless in his faithfulness to his people. Even when we sin against him, he acts to bring us back. He reminds the Jews that he sold them into captivity (see vv. 9–11), not to harm them, but to press them to repent and turn to him. Think of this. God doesn’t get fed up and annoyed and abandon his people. He doesn’t throw up his hands and say, “I’m through with you.” Even when he’s says things like this in exasperation (and he does say this from time to time), he always seems to relent. Why? He’s a covenant-keeping God. He loves to perform righteous deeds for his people.  He’ll move heaven and earth to rescue his people.

And this is why Samuel says, “The Lord will not abandon his people because he wants to uphold his great reputation” (v. 22, NET Bible).

And this is why God’s people in the Bible again and again do not pray sentimental prayers to God, “God, you’re a nice God. Please be nice to us.” A thousand times no. They pray, “God, you’re covenant-keeping God. You have bound yourself to me, and us. You are bound by your own character to help me, to help us. God, I remind you of your covenant word to your people. If you don’t come through, imagine how your reputation will be ruined in the presence of the wicked. They’ll scoff at this God who couldn’t rescue his people. God, be faithful to your covenant. Be faithful to your character.”

These are the prayers that God answers.  God isn’t a sentimentalist. God isn’t a nice God.

He’s much, much more. He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. This is the God we love and serve.

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