The Fifth Sunday in Lent March 13, 2005
388, 657, 30, 521(1, 4, 6)
Dear Fellow Christians:
Becky thought she was ready to be a mom. After all, she loved children. She loved to play with them, dress them, bathe them. She loved how cute they could be and how adorable they were while sleeping. What she wasn’t ready for were the sleepless nights, the ever-present mess and cleanup, the fussing and crying for no apparent reason, the dirty diapers, and the need for discipline.
Bill believed he was ready to be a dad. He envisioned the fishing and camping trips, the little league games, the Sunday afternoon picnics. What he failed to envision were the endless cares and concerns, the indecision of knowing how and when to punish, the responsibility, and the almost impossible task of trying to balance wife, work, children, and self.
Julianne was ready for the executive boardroom. For as long as she could remember she had dreamed of running a major corporation. She saw herself in the luxurious office, longed for the importance, the respect, and the spare-no-expense accommodations. What she hadn’t envisioned was the constant pressure, falling stock prices, office politics and intrigue, and the bitter enemies made along the way.
Life is a great teacher of reality, and experience is a fantasy crusher. Nothing on this earth is always good, always right, always enjoyable. No matter what your occupation, what your situation in life, or what your income, there are now and will always be hardships and disappointments. When we fail to appreciate that fact, we usually end up frustrated, disillusioned, and bitter.
Christianity is no different. Although we do not choose to become Christian (the Holy Spirit accomplished that in us) our ideas of what it means to be a child of God can be just as fanciful and just as naïve. Today’s text seeks to reveal our fanciful notions for what they are and to set our spiritual feet on the reality of God’s Word. Here we will be reminded of the need of every single Christian to be Torn Down and Rebuilt—Day by Day. The text that will separate true Christian joy from the false and dangerous illusion is found in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, the third chapter:
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
These are God’s Words. To remind ourselves of the absolute truth in these words, and to ask for his blessing as we consider this text, we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord, Your word is truth!” Amen.
Dear Spirited Slaves of the Lord Jesus, what a bright, shining jewel we have found in the words of this text. Here we find a place of pure and unassailable tranquility in the midst of the tumult of life. Here lies spiritual serenity in a world of stress, falsehood, and arrogance. Here we are reminded once again just why we are Christians, together with the facts of how it is that we came to be called God’s children. Note again from our text how Paul thrilled to this great revelation that had been made known to him by God the Holy Spirit: We have been given a righteousness that is genuine, certain, and indestructible. That means that we can now stand before our holy God without fear of condemnation, without fear that we will be made to suffer the eternal torments of Hell because of our countless sins. Our God sees no sin in us—none—because all has been placed on Jesus. Paul assures us of this when he says, “…that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” [vv.8-9] Who will condemn us on the Day of Judgment? Certainly not God the Father. Our text tells us that He is the one who has declared us righteous in Jesus Christ. Jesus will not condemn us, He came to save us. Nor will the Holy Spirit, for it is He who created this saving faith in our hearts, and even now protects and preserves that faith. Thanks be to God who has given us such a victory in our Lord Jesus Christ!
With this great victory in our hearts, we recognize that we are still living in dangerous times. Those who are only ready for the good and positive of any situation are really not ready at all. When I first began going to school, for example, I was bitterly disappointed to find that teachers were in the habit of slipping in class time, tests, and homework amidst recess, lunch, and fieldtrips during the average school day. I was fully ready for school when it revolved around color crayons, musical chairs, and naptime. I was rather appalled at what was later revealed to be the real thing. Who knew?
Unfortunately, what may have been rather cute as little boys and girls, ceases to be cute when it comes to living as mature Christians in a sinful world. The fact is we seem to have a kindergarten mentality about Christianity and what it means to walk as our Lord wants us to walk. Understand here that faith is supposed to be child-like, but the Christian is never supposed to be childish. We are childlike in that our faith is supposed to cling without doubt or hesitation to the fact that our sins have been forgiven by God the Father simply because Jesus died on the cross to pay for them. We stand holy and righteous in God’s sight and we will join our Lord in heaven for all eternity on the great Day of Judgment. This we are to believe with all childlike innocence. We are not, however, to harbor childish illusions of what our lives will be like as Christians living in a depraved, sin-riddled world.
What, then, are some of the illusions of Christianity? We can probably answer this question by considering what we expect as children of God in this sinful world. By all appearances we expect 1) A life of relative ease, 2) A quiet, comfortable death in our old age, and 3) An eternity in heaven.
Then we realize that there must be some mistake, because (except for number 3) that’s nothing like the life our Savior told us to expect. In John 16:33 He said, “In the world you will have tribulation.” In Luke 9:23 He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” Again, in speaking to his Father in our behalf, Jesus said in John 17:14-16, “I have given them Your Word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
Jesus did not promise us good times and lives of ease. He promised just the opposite, and yet something here seems very wrong. We don’t seem to be suffering like the Savior said we would suffer. Either Jesus was mistaken, or life today is much better than it was back then. We know that the former is not possible, for Jesus was and is perfect, and we are highly skeptical that life today is better than it was then. There must be another option. The cold hard fact is that there is another possibility—truly a dark and frightening option. We are not living, speaking, and thinking as our Lord intended. Like the kindergartner or naïve mom, we want our own special illusion of Christianity, not the real thing. We want our user-friendly version, not God’s.
Have you ever helped carry something that was grossly unbalanced—an outboard motor, for example? The guy on the propeller end can’t figure out what the guy on the engine end is grunting about. So also it seems that we always manage to keep ourselves on the light end of Christianity, and then wonder what all of the fuss is about. Is it possible that whenever we don’t feel the need for Bible study, Christian fellowship, daily prayer, and meditation it is because we are doing none of the daily heavy cross lifting to which Jesus referred? Each of us will have to answer honestly for ourselves and our own conduct.
We all have a very real and a very profound need to reexamine God’s version of the kind of Christianity He has in mind. Paul is the right man to consult for this, isn’t he? If we want to know about the life—the truly dedicated life—of a devoted ambassador for Christ, Paul is our man. Following his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul dedicated himself to the work of the Lord Jesus. No matter what he thought such service might bring, experience taught him reality. It cleared away all naïveté, all illusions of grandeur, and left Paul with the realities of life in the service of his Lord Jesus. What exactly were those realities?
In 1 Corinthians 15:31 Paul made an interesting statement. There he said, “I die daily.” Though it is a matter of some debate what Paul had in mind when he wrote these words, it is not unreasonable to call to mind Luther’s explanation for the meaning of Baptism:
“It means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance and die with all sins and evil desire. It also means that a new Man should daily appear and arise, who lives eternally before God in righteousness and purity.”
Christianity was always meant to be a day by day activity. Unfortunately, our custom of weekly church services has left us with the impression that it is, at best, a week to week affair. Scripture paints a much different picture of the frequency of proper faith maintenance in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the burnt offerings for sin were to be offered daily in the temple. “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs of the first year, day by day continually. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight” (Exodus 29:38-39). David said, “So I will sing praise to Your name forever, that I may daily perform my vows” (Psalm 61:8). In the New Testament, we are told that Jesus taught daily in the temple (Luke 19:47). He taught us about the need for at least daily prayer in the Lord’s Prayer when he said, “Give us day by day our daily bread.” (Luke 11:3) The early Christians met together daily for worship and fellowship (Acts 2 & 5). The noble Bereans were praised because “they received the Word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Paul witnessed daily in the synagogues and marketplaces wherever he found himself (Acts 17:17).
Yet our Old Adam argues that although our walk has been more of a wander, and our faith maintenance has been spotty at best, still we are in the faith. We are men and women of faith, and therefore what more could we ask? Much in every way!
Paul had learned how to daily realign his thoughts and aspirations into one of two categories—gains or losses—things to be desired or things to be thrown out. Note the dividing into good and bad in our text. The “all things” in the first verse refers to his Jewish ancestry, his circumcision, his training as a Pharisee, and the like. All of these things went daily onto the trash heap. What did he keep in their place? “The excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” Other bits of spiritual trash to be tossed out daily include my own righteousness based on my own actions, all sinful love of this world, and any notion that I have already achieved or completed my service to my Lord before my time of grace is ended. What replaces all of these things? It’s not hard to find the common theme in our text: “That I may gain Christ… righteousness that is through faith in Christ… the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings… the resurrection from the dead… the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” [vv.8ff]
Fellow Christians, we bear the name of Christ Jesus for a reason. The Christian faith is not about life on this earth; it is about Heaven and Hell—eternal life and eternal death. Through the Holy Spirit working through the Means of Grace, our Lord Jesus has revealed to us the one path to life: Jesus’ perfect life offered in innocent death on the cross as payment for the sins of all mankind. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus and that simple message is ours to proclaim to the world. Do a good job of it and you can fully expect that Satan will hate you for it. Christianity is indeed serious business. Don’t be naïve or immature about that. It is a sobering realization to note that the more I am dedicated to the work of the Lord, the more vicious I can expect the Devil’s attacks to become. Yet I know that this is the will of my Lord Jesus, who died to save me. I also know that I have this promise from Him: “The Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).
So also we pray, “Lord Jesus, by Your Spirit tear down and rebuild me day by day. Renew my spirit each morning with the blessed truth that Jesus has won the battle for my salvation, and has carried the full load of my sins to the cross. Then too I pray that you would mold me each day into the servant you want me to be, and let me serve you with single-minded devotion. Amen.”
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.