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During Captivity, God's People Take Comfort

By Pastor Piet Van Kampen

23rd Sun. after Pentecost, October 25/28, 2018

 

Jeremiah 31:7-9 (EHV)

7 This is what the Lord says.  Sing with joy for Jacob, and shout for the greatest of the nations.  Make your praises heard and say, “Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel!”  8 Watch, I will bring them from a land in the north and gather them from the ends of the earth... 

 

Terry was not in a good place.  His first marriage had ended badly due to his hard-drinking and infidelity.  Then, he’d recently found out that his girlfriend was pregnant.  All Terry really had going for him at this point in his life was his job.  He was a reporter for the Associated Press living in Beirut, Lebanon.  But then, Terry’s life went from not being in a good place to being in a really bad place.  In 1984 the terrorist group Hezbollah took Terry Anderson hostage and held him in captivity.  They finally released him seven years later in 1991. 

I doubt that any of you have been taken hostage in your life—if you have, you haven’t told me about it.  Yet, we can identify with Terry Anderson.  We can sympathize because we each have our own little “captivities” in this life:  times of suffering that turn our lives upside down.  Sometimes it’s our own fault—sometimes sinful pride and arrogance ends in harsh consequences.  And sometimes our suffering is not our fault, but the Lord in His infinite wisdom allows us to go through it.  Sometimes it lasts for a few hours or a few days; sometimes it goes on and on for years. 

In our lowest moments, we’re tempted to believe that God has abandoned us and our suffering will never end.  But is that really true?  Yes, we face suffering, but we do so as God’s people—and that means something.  These words from Jeremiah 31 were written for His people in their captivity, to give them hope that during captivity, God’s people take comfort—(1) resting on His promises and (2) calling on His deliverance.              

 

  1. Resting on His promises.

First of all, during captivity, God’s people take comfort, resting on His promises.  The Kingdom of Judah was not in a good place.  The country had turned away from God and worshiped idols, giving themselves over to all kinds of immoral behavior.  So, one day God’s judgment reached a tipping point.  And God’s people went from not being in a good place to being in a really bad place.  He allowed the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar to come and destroy Jerusalem.  And his army took tens of thousands of survivors and forced them to march hundreds of miles to Babylon, where they would serve in captivity for the next seventy years.  Put yourself in their shoes for a moment and just imagine how helpless and hopeless these people must have felt at that moment in time.  Did God still love them?  Would they ever see Jerusalem again?

We feel the same way in our own “captivities.”  The captivity of loneliness.  The captivity of anxiety and fear.  The captivity of illness or disability.  The captivity of too many bills and not enough money.  The captivity of too much responsibility and not enough wisdom to handle it.  We wonder if it will go on forever, if things will ever be different.  We wonder—if God’s still there. 

Yet those feelings are not entirely a bad thing.  Don’t get me wrong, suffering and captivity are terrible.  Yet we also have to see the good that the Lord can work, even in terrible times.  Suffering gets us to see our weakness as sinful human beings, how much we need God.  By their captivity in Babylon, the people of Judah realized that they were nothing without God.  Their suffering made them ready to listen to God again. 

And what did God have to say?  “This is what the LORD says… Watch, I will bring them from a land in the north and gather them from the ends of the earth” (v. 8). The LORD promised to save His people from their captivity—and to bring them back to the promised land!  And how would they know that it was the LORD’s doing?  “The blind and the lame will be there, the pregnant woman together with the woman in labor” (v. 8).  Everyone who would’ve otherwise found the journey impossible would be there!  They’d all be saved—and not just a tiny remnant!  “They will return as a huge community” (v. 8). 

These people—they’d turned away from God.  They were unfaithful to Him.  Why should God even care?  “For I am a father to Israel” (v. 9).  He would save them because He saw these people as His children—even though they didn’t deserve it. 

And that promise wasn’t just meant for the people of Judah.  God promised to not only bring his people home from Babylon, but to “gather them from the ends of the earth”!  This wasn’t just about the end of an earthly captivity; it was also about the end of our spiritual captivity—in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ!  Even though we turn away from God every day, Jesus willingly made Himself a captive to God’s Law, so He could perfectly obey God in our place.  And as He Himself faced the suffering of hell on our behalf, “after he was brought to his goal”—after His death on the cross—Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation” for all who believe in Him and follow Him (Hebrews 5:8-9).  And through the blood of Jesus, God now sees you as His children too. 

So during captivity, God’s people take comfort—resting on His promises!  We take comfort that, in the saving work of Jesus, we are still God’s people.  We take comfort that the same loving God who sent His Son to save us also loves us and helps us even now.  And even if that deliverance doesn’t come right now—it will come.  Letting go of everything else, we cling to God’s strength and God’s mercy because we know the word of Christ that says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”   

Early on in his captivity, Terry Anderson constantly protested the way his captors were treating him.  One day, he demanded that they give him a Bible.  He was a little surprised when they actually gave him one.  And over the next several years, as Terry put it, that Bible “got a lot of service.”  He read it cover to cover, many times.  And in that time the Holy Spirit changed Terry’s heart.  Terry went from being an agnostic—one step above an atheist—to being someone who had God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ.  And that grace sustained him.  Terry could rest knowing that no matter how his captivity was going to end, he would be with the Lord. 

 

  1. Calling on His deliverance.

Life didn’t become easy.  Terrible things still happened to Terry and his fellow hostages.  And the same was true for the children of Israel in their captivity.  “They will come weeping,” God says of His people (v. 9).  He doesn’t say whether it’s tears of sorrow and regret at the past or tears of joy at the future.  Maybe we’ve all shed some tears over the years during the captivity of our suffering.  And yet, as we rest on God’s promises, during captivity God’s people can take comfort, calling on His deliverance. 

“This is what the LORD says.  Sing with joy for Jacob, and shout for the greatest of the nations.  Make your praises heard and say, ‘Lord save your people, the remnant of Israel!’” (v. 7).  In Genesis, we’re told how men like Adam, Enoch, and Abraham “called on the name of the LORD”—how they began to publicly worship God.  Our own “captivities” of suffering give us the same opportunity—to proclaim, to praise, and to pray!

To proclaim—to “sing with joy for Jacob”, to proclaim the goodness and mercy of God even in our bad times, to share with others the very promises that give us so much comfort!

To praise—to “Make your praises heard”, to praise the LORD and worship Him, not only with loud hymns of praise here, but to make our entire lives one big doxology to God!  To set an example of faith and trust in the midst of whatever it is we’re going through! 

And to pray—to say, “Lord, save your people!”  To call on God at all times and in all places.  To be like blind Bartimaeus and keep on asking for God’s help—and when people tell us to stop to pray even louder. 

During Terry Anderson’s captivity, the grace of God enabled him to pray and encourage his fellow hostages.  And when it was all over—when he was finally set free—he publicly forgave the people who had hurt him. 

Terry’s now in his seventies.  And looking back, he admits that life hasn’t been easy.  Terry still struggles in his personal life.  And over the years, when he saw his captors’ faces on T.V., he’d catch himself angrily shouting at them.  In a recent interview he wondered out loud, “Am I a jerk because I was held hostage or did I survive captivity because I’m a jerk?”       

Terry’s weakness reminds us of our own, that we are the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman going into labor.  We can’t do it on our own; we need help all the time.  Yet you, me, Terry, and all of God’s people share the same hope and the same help from God’s holy Word: “I will bring them… I will lead them,” He says (v. 8, 9).  He does the work; not us.    

 

He led His people out of captivity and home to Jerusalem on a level road by streams of water.  And in the same way, He has put us on the level path of His Word and brought us to the life-giving Gospel river.  There He fills us with His power, so that amid our tears, we can still call on His holy name.  No matter what you’re going through, rest in His promises and call on His help—His help to save us now, His help to take us home to heaven.  Amen.  

"Bless" God for His Gracious Blessings

 

Jesus Defends His Gift of Marriage

Mark 10:2-16 (NKJ)  …  6 "But from the beginning of the creation, God 'made them male and female.'  7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 'and the two shall become one flesh'; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh.  9 "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." 

Being a Christian—a believer in Jesus as your Savior—isn’t about doing what’s “allowable,” it’s about the struggle to do what is right.  A few weeks ago I spoke with a man whose wife was languishing in the nursing home and he was wrestling with how he was going to pay for her care.  One piece of legal advice he got was to divorce his wife.  Then, she’d qualify for more social services and government programs; and plus, he’d be able to take care of his own needs.  He honestly thought about it; but, in the end, the man just couldn’t do it—he couldn’t divorce his wife.  As a believer in Jesus Christ, he recognized that his marriage was more than just a legal contract or a living arrangement; it was a gift of God—to himself as well as his wife. 

Sadly, that’s not the attitude of every Christian I’ve ever met.  Instead of treating marriage as God’s gift, Satan tempts us to treat it like a curse.  He attacks us with all kinds of temptations and accusations designed to change our minds about marriage—to make marriage all about me instead of all about we

Yet the Lord doesn’t leave us to face Satan’s attacks alone.  Our heavenly Father has sent forth His Son Jesus Christ to destroy the devil’s work!  And part of Jesus’ work on this earth was to defend His gift of marriage—to defend what marriage is and what marriage does.         

     

I.  He defends what marriage is.

First of all, Jesus defends what marriage is.  When it came to marriage, the Pharisees were experts in what people were allowed to do.  They came to Jesus and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (v. 2). 

Jesus understood what this was all about.  It was a test; they would judge Him based on how He answered.  So, He responded with a question of His own: “What did Moses command you?” (v. 3).

The Pharisees, since they were concerned with what a man was allowed to do, went back to the Mosaic law, to an obscure little section in Deuteronomy 24 where it says that men were permitted to write up a certificate of divorce and send away their wives (v. 4).  They legalistically used this little divorce regulation as a way to say, “See, God says divorce is OK.” 

And that’s where Jesus jumped in.  He defended marriage by pointing out the difference between what’s allowed and what’s right.  He told them that this divorce regulation was given to them not because God wanted to legitimize divorce, but “because of the hardness of your heart.”  Hard-hearted sinners were going to find ways to get rid of their spouses, with or without a legal means to do so.  So, God gave a divorce regulation to Israel to protect abandoned spouses from harm.  

Divorce is legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.  And to prove it Jesus took the Pharisees back to Moses—only this time to the book of Genesis: “But from the beginning, God ‘made them male and female’” (v. 6).  God had the gift of marriage in mind already at creation!  “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 7-8).  Jesus defends what marriage is:  one man; one woman; joined together by God in a “one flesh” relationship of companionship and fulfillment. 

And if that’s what a marriage is—a lifelong union established by God between one man and one woman, Jesus says it this way: “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (v. 9).  Later, Jesus explained it to His disciples: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (v. 11).  Since God brings people together in marriage, no one has the right to mess with a marriage!  If you are in a “one flesh” marriage relationship, and then you decide to get a divorce and marry somebody else, then you have violated that “one-flesh” relationship in the eyes of God.  The only time that doesn’t happen is when the other person abandons you or is unfaithful (1 Cor 7:14; Mt 5:32).  At that point, the marriage bond is already broken.  Obtaining a divorce is just putting down on paper what’s already happened in real life. 

 

II.  He defends what marriage does.

Yet why is it this way?  Why does Jesus take the institution of marriage so seriously to say that divorce is never God’s plan?  Because marriage itself is a gift!  And more than that, it’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving!  Jesus defends His gift of marriage—by defending what marriage does.

It is no coincidence in Mark’s gospel that Jesus talks about marriage and divorce, and then all of a sudden, we see mothers and fathers bring their little children to Jesus to bless them.  We tend to think of marriage in terms of the blessings to husband and wife; but it’s also a blessing to the children who are born from that “one flesh” relationship.  In Malachi 2:15, the prophet writes, “But did He not make [husband and wife] one… And why one?  He seeks godly offspring.”  Jesus defends Christian marriage because children who have both a Christian father and a Christian mother will more likely grow up to be faithful believers themselves. 

Jesus says, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God” (v. 15).  Jesus’ disciples were keeping the children from seeing Jesus and being blessed by Him.  And yet how often does that happen with our own children?  You fathers, especially, have a tremendous role to play in permitting your kids to come to Jesus.  We know now from long term studies that when both parents come to church, the chances of the children continuing to attend church on a regular basis go way up.  But what do you think happens to those kids’ spiritual lives if Dad doesn’t come to church?  Or if Mom and Dad break up their marriage?  Or if Mom or Dad is unfaithful?  Or if Mom and Dad don’t put any effort in at resolving their differences?  It can pull the rug right out from under their faith in Jesus!    

That’s why it’s so important to follow Jesus in defending marriage, no matter your stage of life.  If you’re single and want to be married someday, you can defend marriage by praying for and seeking a God-fearing spouse.  And don’t move in with that person before you get married!  “A man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife”, not his girlfriend. 

If you’re married, you can defend marriage by being the best husband or wife that you can be.  Don’t let anyone come between the two of you in your marriage, not even for a minute—not your jobs, not your friends, not your parents, and not even your kids!  And if you’re struggling, do everything you can to make it work—learn to get along for the sake of the kids

You can defend marriage even if you’re divorced!  If you were the one that caused the divorce, if you were unfaithful, if you were the one who left, you can repent.  You can admit to God that what you did was wrong and seek His grace.  And you can honor the “one-flesh” union that He established with you and your spouse, and not remarry.  And if you did not cause the divorce, if you were the one who was left behind or cheated on—maybe you just can’t get back together.  But you can forgive, and if you have children you can make it your life’s work to let those little ones come to Jesus.

It’s not about what’s allowable, it’s about struggling to do what is right.  And marriage and family life—it’s a struggle!  And when it gets hard, our sinful nature tells us to start looking for those loopholes, to find permission to do what we want.  But that self-centered search takes us to a dark place, where we realize that we don’t deserve the blessings of marriage at all.

Yet think of those children whose parents brought them to Jesus.  Those kids were sinners, every last one of them.  At some point in their lives, each of those children had done things that were worthy of a spanking.  They were born in sin and as they grew, they would continue to sin in new and interesting ways all the way into their adulthood.  And what did Jesus do with those sinful kids?  “He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them” (v. 16). 

And that is what He’s done for us too.  Jesus defends His gift of marriage—ultimately by saving us.  Even though we didn’t deserve it, the Son of God embraced and blessed all of humanity by coming into this world.  Instead of taking the easy way out and divorcing us for good, Jesus made the difficult, heartbreaking journey to the cross where He laid down His own life to save us.  The blood He shed has paid for every broken marriage, paid for every time we sought the easy way out, paid for every time in the hardness of our hearts we cared more for our own happiness than the happiness of our spouse.  He has paid for our sins in full.  And with that payment, God has taken us sinners up into His arms and declared us to be His children, holy and forgiven!  He has put His Holy Spirit into our hearts and given us that simple, childlike faith that takes Him at His Word!

And that’s why we want to do what’s right when it comes to Jesus’ gift of marriage, even if it is a struggle.  Because we know that He’s done more than right by us, blessing us far above and beyond what we deserve.  With the blessings of marriage and family in this life—but also with the blessings of being part of an even bigger family, a family that will last forever.  May that blessing be upon us and upon our children.  Amen.      

Michael Stands Up for God's People

 

The True G-O-A-T

September 20/23, 2018, 18th Sun. after Pentecost

Mark 9:30-37  33 Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?"   34 But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.  35 And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all."…   

Two weeks ago, social media was lit up with pictures and videos of Aaron Rodgers tearing up the Bears’ defense, all with that caption underneath:  #12 – the GOAT.  It used to be that if you called someone a “goat”, they were a loser.  But now when you hear that word “goat” thrown around, especially in the world of sports, it means the exact opposite.  The letters “G-O-A-T” now stand for the “Greatest Of All Time”. 

Now, to call Aaron Rodgers the greatest of all time—that might be hyperbole.  But it tells us something about how the world measures greatness, doesn’t it?  You don’t usually see pictures of the building custodian or the school lunch lady with the caption “GOAT”.  But titans of enterprise, CEOs, big time entertainers, and athletes—people who have accomplished great things in their lives, when they walk into the room, they instantly have our admiration, don’t they?  Everyone wants to be great like them.  But is that kind of greatness the kind that is truly important—truly great? 

Over the last few weeks we’ve been considering how Christ is our all in all.  How He saves us from our sins, how He does all things well, and how He makes us into cross-bearers along with Him.  Today we’re reminded that there’s one other thing Christ does for us:  He shows us what true greatness is all about.  Christ is our all in all; He defines true greatness—greatness (1) in Himself, and greatness (2) in all who follow Him.

 

1.  Christ defines true greatness in Himself.

As Jesus and the disciples passed through Galilee, they could have paraded through all the various towns and gotten all kinds of praise and attention from the crowds that would have shown up to welcome them, but that’s not what Jesus wanted.  He didn’t want anyone to know they were passing through Galilee (v. 30). 

Instead, Jesus wanted to teach.  He wanted His disciples to know about the kind of greatness He would put on display when He got to Jerusalem, how He would be betrayed into the hands of men and be killed, and then after His death, He would rise the third day (v. 31).  It would be the greatest of all time—nothing else can compare!  He would willingly allow Himself to be betrayed and put to death!  And then He would come back to life!  And in that feat of dying and rising, Jesus would deliver a whole world of sinners from eternal death in hell!

But the disciples just didn’t understand.  Instead of listening carefully and asking Jesus to explain, they went on in willful ignorance, afraid to ask Him what He meant (v. 32).  What Jesus was saying about being betrayed and killed was simply beyond their imagination.  It was a lot more fun and distracting to argue amongst themselves over which one of them was the greatest (v. 34). 

With Christ in our lives and hearts, we are in the presence of divine greatness every day.  And yet how often do we play that ignorance card ourselves when it comes to God’s definition of greatness?  How often do we pretend not to know the will of God for the sake of telling ourselves that we’re already great, that we don’t need any help?  We have this messed up, sinful, self-centered idea of greatness, that greatness is all about what other people—or even God—does for me.

And yet Christ defines true greatness here in Himself.  He displayed the greatness of His patient love again and again as He kept teaching His disciples the truth about Himself all the way down to Capernaum.  He didn’t blow up at them when they didn’t understand—or didn’t want to understand.  He didn’t call them to the carpet with fire and brimstone in front of the whole city for arguing over who was greater.  He quietly, privately called them to repent with a simple question (v. 33).  Their silence spoke volumes about their guilt.  But Jesus’ words spoke even more about His love and forgiveness. 

Jesus’ true greatness is found in the patient love that He shows to each of us.  In His willingness to teach us the same lesson again and again, no matter how ignorant we might be.  Instead of condemning us forever in hell, Jesus quietly in the small voice of His Word calls us to repent and confess our sins.  He brings us around to the truth—the truth of our sin, but also the truth of His grace.  The truth Jesus made the greatest sacrifice of all time, humbling Himself to be “obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Php 2:6-8).  By that greatest sacrifice, Jesus has washed away the stain of our self-centeredness and you and I are forgiven, declared “great”—declared righteous in the sight of God!

 

2.  Christ defines true greatness in all who follow Him. 

To look at Jesus is to look at true greatness, the greatness by which He accomplished the greatest thing of all:  saving the world from sin and death.  Christ defines true greatness—and as He defines that greatness in Himself, He also defines true greatness in all who follow Him

Jesus sat down and laid it out for His disciples: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (v. 35).  True greatness is the same for Christ’s followers as it is for Christ.  It’s the kind of love and humility that makes me “last of all”, that puts everyone else’s needs ahead of my own.  It’s the kind of love and humility that desires to serve all people—not only the people I like or the people who can help me get ahead, but to serve even the least among us. 

Jesus defines true greatness in us by burning in our minds the image of a little child, a young preschooler, wrapped in Jesus’ loving arms.  Jesus said, “Anyone who receives one of these little ones in My name, receives Me” (v. 36-37a).  He said it for a reason.  Often, it’s children who wind up getting the short end of the stick.  When families go through tough times, it’s kids that suffer the most.  When Mom and Dad decide to break up their family by getting a divorce, the kids are left to try to pick up the pieces.  The world says, kids are a burden, not a blessing.  The world says, “Don’t let kids get in the way of your greatness—your happiness.”  But Jesus says: You want to be great?  Serve a child.  Welcome a child in His name. 

It’s amazing to see when it happens; and it’s one of the neat things that I see in this church on a regular basis.  Not to pat ourselves on the back or anything, but it’s worth pointing out the way that some of you have become adopted parents and grandparents to the children in this church.  The way you’re willing to sit with kids during communion, or hold a baby, so that Mom and Dad can go up to the altar.  The way you actually talk with kids.  And I’ve never seen anyone in this church give the death stare to a mom with a fussy baby—and I pray I never do. 

That’s the kind of greatness Jesus is talking about.  The kind of greatness that looks forward to Family Bible Hour and enjoys working through the lesson with the kids.  The kind of greatness that takes time for the kids in your life—whether it’s your own kids or the neighbor kids.  The kind of greatness that takes our responsibility as Christian moms and dads seriously, that is willing to work on our marriages for the sake of the kids.  The kind of greatness that remembers what’s most important, that knowing enough to get a good job and have a good life is something—but it’s way more important for our kids to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. 

That kind of greatness doesn’t look like much in the eyes of the world.  But there are promises attached to this greatness.  The promise that, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (v. 37).  Whenever Christ’s love prompts us to want to love and serve someone else, even a child, we’re not just serving that child, we’re serving Christ.  Jesus says, “You did it to Me” (Mt 25:40).  No matter how seemingly small and insignificant, no matter how tainted and flawed, Jesus calls our works of humble service “great”—because they are made great in Him.  We have the greatness of being known by God and loved by Him even though we don’t deserve it at all. 

 

Aaron Rodgers may be great at throwing a football, but the real Greatest of All Time is Jesus.  The greatest love; the greatest humility; and the greatest glory—true greatness is His alone!  And to think, He shares that greatness with us!  Amen. 

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