JESUS: THE EVIDENCE IN OUR LIVES
The third in a series of three sermons given by Dr. Ralph Blair at the 2012 Preaching Festival held in Ocean Grove, N.J.
JESUS: THE EVIDENCE IN OUR LIVES
It’s Sunday morning. We’re meeting on this Sunday morning in the 21st-century because of that 1st-century Sunday morning when God raised Jesus from the dead. Since that Sunday morning, Christians have celebrated God’s raising Jesus from the dead for well over 100,000 Sunday mornings.
Christianity did not arise from a box of bones. So, the day named for the sun god became God’s Son’s Day. Without Jesus’ resurrection, it would be just another day in the week. Without Jesus’ resurrection, what this world would be and what we would be is anybody’s guess – except that, as Paul realized, we’d still all be lost in our sin and death. (I Cor 15:17ff)
So, now, this Sunday morning, let’s bring it home. We’ve looked into the Gospels’ evidence for Jesus, biblical evidence of the earliest Christians’ trust in Jesus and evidence for Jesus throughout history. But behind and beyond the book, the church, the history, there reigns the living God, the living God incarnate, crucified, dead, buried and raised from the dead, exalted in glory and coming again. God – All Power, All Truth, All Wisdom, All Mercy and All Love – is glorified. And we, by God’s will in Christ Jesus, may now live in the joy of His Grace and His Glory, here and hereafter.
Reliable as is the original evidence for Jesus, instructive as is the evidence of the aftermath of his earthly sojourn and of his ongoing influence in history, Christian faith and life is not merely in a book, not merely in the past nor even in a believing community, merely. We may know about him, but that’s not enough. Mere information is not God’s living gift to us. His living and everlasting gift is Himself in Christ Jesus. This is “the testament of Jesus” (Ernst Kasemann) in his prayer as priest and sacrifice. Hear the words His Father heard: “This is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and the one whom you have sent – Jesus the Christ.” (John 17:3)
“The Father and the Son know each other in a mutuality of love, and by the knowledge of God men and women are admitted to the mystery of this divine love, being loved by God and loving him – and one another – in return.” (F. F. Bruce)
Each of us gets to receive God’s Good News in Jesus – personally and together. In intimate relationship with the risen Christ, we’re gifted to live and joy in our Life in Him, now and always – as He promised. (Matt 28:20) So, the only appropriate response to such Good News is grateful loving and faithful living. Through trusting Jesus, and by God’s strengthening Spirit, we’re being conformed to Jesus’ image for everlasting life, beginning now.
We’ve looked into evidence that maybe wasn’t so clear to us before. But, the evidence is clear now. Jesus’ disciples, disillusioned and despairing after his death were – overnight – reunited with the risen Lord and motivated into a discipleship of joy in which they went on to give up all they had for the One who’d given up all He had for them.
Thousands thronged Jerusalem for Passover when God’s Lamb came to be crucified. Pharisees seethed with anger, seeing even Greeks asking to see Jesus. But, to Jesus, curious souls from across the Empire stood in for the whole lost world he’d come to save by his standing in for them. He saw that it was “time for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:19-23) Glorified – enthroned on Golgotha’s throne of thorns, nailed to a criminal’s cross!
When do we ask to see Jesus? How far out of our way do we go to see Jesus up close, to get to know him? Do we pray as Paul did, in his prison cell, in perhaps his final imprisonment for Christ? He wrote to Christians at Philippi: “I long to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, so as to, somehow, attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10f) When do we desire to know the living Christ like this? When do we give this even a thought? When do we hunger and thirst for living closer to Jesus? And what do we do about it?
It was for such a relationship with God that God made us in His image. But we rebelled. It was to reconcile us to Himself, for renewed relationship, that God came to us in the image of a man, Christ Jesus.
Don’t we sense there’s a lot about this world that’s wrong and that a lot of what’s wrong is what’s wrong with us? Our self-doubts, our defensiveness, our seeking affirmation right and left, in this or in that – these are symptoms of our gnawing suspicion that we’re not who or what we’re supposed to be. Yet, the Gospel says that, in Christ, God is bringing us back to who we’re supposed to be. He’s putting all wrongs to right. All that’s false will be made faithful and all that’s dead will come to life.
The only alternative to worshipping this God of Love is worshipping self – the idol of our delusions. But worship of self not only casts out none of our anxieties, it adds to our anxieties – for we really do know that, in ourselves, by ourselves, on our own, all alone, we’re not safe, we’re not at peace, there are no guarantees with us, in us. Even if we can believe that some others care for us, we know that, in the end, even they can’t save us from ourselves. They’re as lost and in need of being saved from self as we are.
The gifted novelist and short story writer, David Foster Wallace, is also known for a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. He told the graduates: “You get to decide what to worship.”
It was with insight, perhaps gained from years of coping with his chronic depression, that Wallace told these graduates that there’s something “weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life.” He said: “There is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships,” he said. Then he added: “The only choice we get is what to worship.” Referencing a religious array including “JC” (as he called him), Allah, YHWH and even the Wiccan Mother Goddess, he warned that, “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” He enumerated some of the predatory idols: “If you worship money and things,” he said, “you will never have enough. … Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. … Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” He pointed out that the “insidious thing about these forms of worship” is that they are so automatic, he called them “the default settings” – we might say they’re the bent and broken settings of what the Bible calls the Fall into sin. He then gave another wise warning: “The so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world … hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.” Brilliant!
Wallace was treated with antidepressants and electroconvulsive therapy for many years. But none of that ever really helped him overcome depression. Three years after his commencement address, he hanged himself.
But he’d given those graduates something by which we all might learn to back away from our slipping into seductive shams and shamans of solutions that really can’t solve the problem, so that we might be nudged back to God who, in Christ, wins the battle for true life for us, true victory over every real ordeal and every false ideal. He is the one we need to know personally.
Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles, gave birth to 19 children. Nine of them died in infancy. The devoted wife to an Anglican priest, the devoted mother to all her children, she was also a writer of meditations and commentaries on Christian faith.
Each day of the week, she’d set aside personal times to spend separately with one child at a time. She knew, too, that it was crucial to spend personal time with her Lord. She prayed: “I have found that to know Thee only as a philosopher, to have the most sublime and curious speculations concerning Thine essence, Thine attributes, Thy providence … will avail me nothing, unless at the same time I know Thee experimentally, … unless my soul feel and acknowledge that she can find no repose, no peace, no joy, but in loving and being loved by Thee. … To behold Thee in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world unto Thyself; … it is something my heart feels and labors under, but my tongue cannot express. I adore Thee, O God!”
Our Call to Worship today was The Shema, the ancient Hebrew prayer, prayed morning and evening for centuries. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut 6:4) Shema means “Hear!” But there’s more to it. The call of the living God calls for a living response. The words that follow the “Listen up!” are: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:5) Hearing that the LORD is our God, how can we neglect to fully reply with expressions of grateful love?
After all, if what’s heard is from the LORD, the one and only God, and if we belong to this one and only God – should we not act on this fact? And, if Adonai Eloheinu, “the LORD is our God,” meant Good News to His first-testament people, what are we of the second-testament to do, having heard God’s call in the Good News of the crucified and risen LORD?
When Jesus spoke of “ears to hear,” he had The Shema in mind – for, those “with ears to hear,” respond. Failing to hear the Good News of God’s grace and peace, and thus, failing to respond with relief and gratitude, how can we live out the grace and peace? We’re still trapped in self-centered isolation.
In his letter to Galatians, Paul alludes to some of the bent proclivities of this world’s system that are at odds with the gracious lifestyle of Christ’s calling. (Gal 5:19ff) He lists examples: idolatry, selfishness, envy, jealousy, dissensions, hatred, fits of rage, discord, lechery, smut and drunkenness.
Idolatry refuses to face Reality. Selfishness refuses to face oneself. Envy is fantasy misread as an accurate forecast of alternative experience. Jealousy mistakes our fantasies of others’ lives for the actual experience of their lives. Dissensions are self-centered efforts to lord it over others in even irrelevant splitting of hairs. Hatred is a booby prize that tries, but fails, to compensate for the high cost of envy, jealousy and dissension. And boiling rage blames the blindsiding backlash of that useless booby prize. All self-centeredness predictably provokes interpersonal discord – and worse. Then, to cope with that painful aftermath, people contrive escapist foolishness in lechery, smut and drunkenness. But escapism merely recycles the self-centered lifestyle until it runs its despairing and destructive course down to the dead end of utter death, itself.
Paul then goes on to contrast all these so-called solutions for the misery of this world’s self-centered worldview, this world’s systemic idolatry, with the fruit of the Spirit of God. (Gal 5:22) And love is what he cites as the first of the Spirit’s fruit. Love is foundational to all of the fruit of the Spirit of God. And God’s unconditional love in Christ is the foundation for the love that’s foundational for the flourishing of all of the Spirit’s fruit.
Jesus told his disciples: “I’m giving you a new commandment: “Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) He’s bypassing an old command – love your neighbor as you love yourself. (Lev.19:18) After all, we often love ourselves quite foolishly, don’t we! He’s giving them something new: “Love each other as I have loved you.” He loved them with all he had to give. So, John would write: “We love because he first loved us.” (I John 4:19)
If we sense even a fraction of what it means to be so dearly loved by God in Christ, and are reinforced in that love as we learn to live in that love of His and live out that love of His, what still gets in our way of sidestepping whatever faults we find in them? Christ sidestepped all their real faults – and all our real faults – and did really die on the cross for all of us. When we refuse to sidestep what we can easily misunderstand of what we label another’s faults, are we reminded of the faults others may mislabel in us? Jesus paid the full price for all their real faults and for all of our real faults. What’s our cost in refusing to sidestep their faults? Might it be we’re not familiar enough with the Savior and His love?
In personally knowing Christ’s love, we’re gifted to love that then flowers and flourishes as fruit of His own Spirit. Christ’s love casts out all the fear that fuels our bad behavior and gives us a peace that passes all understanding so that we might learn to pass that love along everyday. (I John 4:18)
In addition to the foundational love, Paul goes on to mention a few of the other fruit of God’s Spirit available to us. For example, he mentions joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Doesn’t God’s love evoke our joy? And, the strong security of God’s love – doesn’t that bring us peace? Confidence in God’s wise love produces the patience that a previously impatient Peter experienced and confirmed of God’s patience toward us all. (II Pet 3:9) Everyday experience of God’s love models the kindness, goodness and gentleness we’re called to imitate. Paul says it’s God’s kindness that first leads us to Him. (Rom 2:4) On his mission trips among the pagans, Paul told them of the obvious witness of God’s kindness in His gifts of rain and crops and seasons. (Acts 14:17) If such everyday necessities represent God’s kindness to clueless or thankless pagans, who are we to withhold kindness from those we deem clueless or thankless? For that matter, just how clued-in and thankful are we, ourselves? And surely God’s faithfulness to all of us who are so frequently faithless can renew our faithfulness to God and to those who, indeed, may not always be faithful to us. Well, God is faithful! God is faithful regardless of our faithlessness. And, what of self-control? What Paul seems to have in mind here, he expressed in one of his letters as an athlete’s self-discipline. Prioritizing for good results is as necessary for running the spiritual race as for running any marathon. And, hadn’t Christ disciplined himself in order to rescue us? He refused to use his equality with God for his own advantage, but spent himself in humility and in obedience down to death – even to death on a cross! Why? It was to meet the needs of sinful humanity? (Phil 2:6-8)
Surely, then, we can be self-disciplined enough to be of some usefulness to others instead of selfishly insisting on “my rights,” “my needs.” God’s gracious sovereignty is so large that we need never transgress self-control in order to get what we, so shortsightedly, insist are our needs. Besides, have we not yet learned that, in defining “our needs,” we so often need to redefine them later on. So much for our even knowing what our needs really are!
Paul sums up his discussion of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – by noting that, of course, they can’t be legislated. They are the Spirit’s gifts. Then, he puts really rather wryly: “Hey, there’s no law against any of these.”
In describing Christian love to Corinthians, Paul uses verbs, action words. This is significant, especially today when love is mistaken to be but a feeling. So, “I’m in love!” might mean nothing more than “I want it my way,” “I’m just not in love with you anymore,” might manifestly mean nothing more than, “I want it my way.”
In I Corinthians 13, Paul says: Love exercises patience with others. Paul prayed: “May the God of patience … grant you to be likeminded toward one another in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 15:5) If God, who has your very best interest in mind, can be patient about your welfare, can’t you be a bit patient, too? If your God can be patient with them, how is it that you are so impatient with them? Paul says: Love accommodates others. God accommodated us – descending into human flesh in Christ Jesus, to die to give us life. Paul says: Love shows kindness. But, if we don’t show kindness, Paul tells us: “God’s kindness leads us to repent” of that. (Rom 2:4) Paul says: Love doesn’t envy and begrudge others. Did God begrudge us his gifts of life and new life? Paul says: Love doesn’t show off. Was God’s bludgeoned, bloodied flesh at Golgotha showing off that He’s God in the flesh or was He bleeding, suffocating, dying alone, on our behalf? Paul says: Love doesn’t dishonor anyone. Has God left us to the dishonoring of ourselves or has God honored us by giving us Himself? Paul says: Love doesn’t put self ahead of others. Was Love, Himself, putting himself ahead of us when, in Christ, Love took our place on the cross? Paul says: Love isn’t quick to take offense – not if we’re aware of our own offense, absorbed into Christ on the cross. Paul says: Love gives others the benefit of the doubt. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,” what was he doing? Paul says: Love doesn’t keep a score of wrongs. Keeping score of wrongs builds a case for retaliation. That’s a sure sign of the scorekeeper’s sense of guilt, defensiveness and fear. Says the Psalmist: “If you, O Lord, kept score of sins, O Lord, who could keep standing?” (Ps 130:3) Paul says: Love doesn’t lick its chops over another’s folly or another’s embarrassment. Instead of God’s doing “gotcha,” God did Golgotha. Paul says: Love’s glad when truth prevails – as there’s joy in heaven over one sinner’s true repentance. Paul says: Love protects others – for God’s Love is a refuge and a shield, as the psalmist says so often. (Ps 18:2; 5:12) Paul says: Love keeps confidence – as Jesus kept confidence with Nicodemus when he sought Jesus under cover of night. The response of this high-ranking Pharisee is not recorded. All we know is that, when Jesus was in trouble with the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus publicly, cautiously, cautioned his fellow members to be fair. After Jesus’ death, Nicodemus helped wrap Jesus’ body in spices. Yet, it’s only in the latest of the four Gospels, John’s, that anything is implied about Nicodemus. (John 3:1-21; 7:45-51; 19:39-42) Paul says: Love does not accuse, for accusing tries to shift the blame – a symptom of sensed shame. Paul says: Love doesn’t read the worst into others’ motives. Such alleged “insight” can be reaction formation, projecting one’s own evil motives onto others. Paul says: Love perseveres through it all. Of course! What else is love to do but keep on keeping on? Paul says: Love never gives up on anyone. Why? Well, no one runs out of the need to be loved. And, since God never stops loving those he calls to love, we have been given a continuing supply of love from which we get to pass it on to others in need of love.
Does all this make sense? Does it make some sense? Is God’s love for us and for all, motivation enough for you, for me, to live God’s love with all? It’s in our living God’s love, in Christ Jesus, that we’re gifted to be evidence of Jesus in this world today. He’s here, with us, in us, always. As the theme of this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering puts it, then: “BE His heart, His hands, His voice” to the world around you.
Jesus told his disciples that others would know them as his disciples by their love. (John 13:35) Yet, sadly, surveys show that, today, others know Christians first and foremost by their anti-gay judgments. Tertullian quotes some pagans on early Christians. These pagans said: “Look at how they love one another. They’re even ready to lay down their lives for each other.” But, today, neither antigay- nor pro-gay Christians seem willing to lay down even a difference of opinion – let alone their lives – for each other. Are we?
Jacques Ellul was a firm believer in the full efficacy of Christ’s death as atonement for the sin of the world. Yet, he wasn’t naïve or sentimental. So, he noted his objection to a universalism that’s offensively exemplified in what he called, “the frivolous or worldly person who says that, ‘it’s all very easy then. I don’t need to bother about it. I can live as I like. I’m not under any religious restraints. There’s no need for works. … There’s not even any need for faith, since even atheists and pagans are saved.’ “
Ellul had a sober response to such flippant nonsense. He said: “This kind of talk is the only kind that might bring people into danger of damnation. For it is the talk of those to whom the good news has been fully proclaimed, and they despise it. There’s the rub. If people refuse to believe in God and in Jesus Christ during a hard and serious struggle, if they wrestle with God as Job did, then the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Jesus knows and understands (‘for he knows whereof we are made’ – cf. Ps. 103:14), and he finally grants his revelation. But what is not tolerable, what cannot be pardoned, is that when the love of God is known, when the full extent of his grace is understood, this grace should be mocked. The unacceptable thing is not to be moved by this love when it is known and recognized, not to respond to it, or rather to respond with ridicule. … This is the kind of hypocritical talk that makes a game of the truth. It involves a corruption of the very being against which there rings out the terrible warning: ‘God is not mocked.’ ” (Gal. 6:6).
As we noted, Dale Evans was one of 1912’s newborn. She and co-star Roy Rogers both had had failed marriages. But then, they came to Christ and their marriage was for 51 years. In 1952, before their daughter was 2 years old, they lost her to complications from Down’s syndrome. Dale wrote a book about it, called, Angel Unaware – from Hebrews 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” She and Roy dedicated their lives to special-needs children around the world.
She said she’d came to see that, “the most important question in anyone’s life is the question asked by poor Pilate: ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’” (Matt 27:22) She asked her readers to answer the question: “What will you do with Christ?”
This weekend, we’ve looked at original and ongoing evidence for Jesus. The evidence for Jesus in each of us depends on the response each of us gives to that question and how each of us lives the response.