Sunday – December 13, 2020 Matthew 2:1-12 “In Search of Wisemen”

Sunday – December 13, 2020

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Word On Worship – Sunday – December 13, 2020

Matthew 25:34-36
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Pandemics were not just experienced by the Roman Empire. From the 14th century onward, the Black Death haunted Europe. In just five years it wiped out as much as 25 million people or one-third the population of Europe, with urban areas particularly affected. Outbreaks continued recurring in the following centuries, including the plague that struck Wittenberg in 1527. Many fled, yet Luther and his pregnant wife, Katharina, remained to care for the sick, citing Matthew 25:41–46 as their guide.

The early Christians had more resilience because they had a robust hope in the face of death. And they were stronger as communities, forging even closer bonds through the sufferings they’d faced during the Black Death. Martin Luther concluded he must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me.” According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.

Luther spoke of circumstances where fleeing was permitted and, ever conscious of our propensity toward self-righteousness, he warned Christians not to judge one another for different decisions. But in writing of his own commitment, he remarked: “We are here alone with the deacons, but Christ is present too, that we may not be alone, and he will triumph in us over that old serpent, murderer, and author of sin, however much he may bruise Christ’s heel. Pray for us, and farewell.”

Notice how both Satan and also Christ loom large in Luther’s thinking. Satan is a murderer from the beginning (Luther had in mind Genesis 3:15), and he stands behind the plague. Yet Christ is far stronger, and far more involved. He is in those providing care, he is (per Matthew 25) in the sick, and he is in the victory the church will experience over Satan—a victory that includes even the smaller “deliverance” of recovery from the plague. Luther and Katharina survived, and the way of Jesus was vindicated in this intense trial. May we, as we continue through the COVID pandemic, to live out the wisdom and way of Jesus before a watching world in a way that glorifies Christ.

Sunday – November 29, 2020 Elder Thom Rachford Joshua 24:14-28 “Know Your Choices”

Sunday – November 29, 2020

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Word On Worship – Sunday – November 29, 2020

Luke 6:35-36
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.  36 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

How did the obscure, marginal, Jesus movement become the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries? To understand how this took place we need to explore a number of key factors—one of which is plagues. Indeed, to understand the rise of Christianity from a few followers of the Way to a faith that has changed the world, we need to understand the biblical and remarkable response by the Church to plagues of the past.  Over the next few weeks as we come to the end of 2020, I want examine briefly four pandemics in history and how the church has responded in the way of Christ. As we note their examples, let’s be inspired by their faith—even if we might make some adjustments for our own time and circumstances.

The Plague of Cyprian (249–262 AD) was a lethal pandemic that, at its height, caused upwards of 5,000 deaths a day in Rome. While the plague severely weakened the Roman empire, the Christian response to it won admiration and a greater following. Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, reported: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

This evident Christlikeness—taking death in order to give life—stood in stark contrast to those outside the church. Dionysius continues: “But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.” (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 7.22.7–10)

Plagues and pandemics intensify the natural course of life. They intensify our own sense of mortality and frailty. They also intensify opportunities to display counter-cultural, counter-conditional love. The church rose to the challenge in the second century, winning both admirers and also converts. While the outworking of love may look different in different ages, love must still be the aim—a love directed by the Holy Spirit, not our self-centered flesh. May we—with our own pandemic—live out the wisdom and way of Jesus before a watching world.

Sunday – May 24, 2020 Book of Acts – Acts 12:1-25 “Death and Deliverance”

Sunday – May 24, 2020

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Word On Worship – Sunday – May 24, 2020

Acts 12:1-2
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.

There are times when evil seems to be winning the day. Wicked men get away with murder and their popularity goes up, not down. Throughout the world, the saints of God are persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ and the righteous suffer terribly. Their loved ones are bereaved. It’s easy at such times to wonder, “Where is God in all of this? Why did He allow this to happen? How can any good come out of such awful wickedness?”

Peter, James and John had been close. James and John had asked to be given privileged positions, above the other disciples, by allowing them to sit at the right and left hand of the Lord in His kingdom. Instead of talking about these honored positions, Jesus turned the subject to His “baptism,” His suffering and death. He asked Peter and John if they were able to drink the cup which He was to drink. Ignorantly, they assured Jesus that they were able. Jesus responded by telling them that they would indeed drink of that cup, the cup of death. Little did either James or John realize how soon it would be before James would drink of that cup. They had spent three years in close contact with Jesus. But now, James was suddenly gone and Peter was awaiting execution. John was left wondering, “Why?”

What a commentary Acts 12 provides us on the words of John, recorded in the last chapter of his gospel. Peter, James, and John were all present when Jesus appeared to them. Peter was asked the three-fold question (“Do you love Me …”), and was given a three-fold command (“Feed My sheep.”). He was also given the command to follow Christ, with a specific reference to his death. And yet Peter wanted to know about John’s death, about what God had purposed for John. Here were Peter and John, thinking of their deaths, and now we see that in God’s plan and purpose it was neither of them who would be honored by the privilege of dying first. That privilege was saved for James.

There is nothing mechanical about the Christian life. God is not obliged to treat all Christians alike, and the record of the Bible is that God deals differently with each individual. Summed up in one word, God is sovereign. He works all things according to His own good pleasure. Men cannot and do not manipulate God; God manipulates men, for His glory and for their glory and good. How evident this is in the lives of these three men, all of whom experienced such different fates, all of whom served God in such different ways.

Sunday – February 23, 2020 Book of Acts – Acts 6: 8-16 “Stephen the Man”

Sunday – February 23, 2020

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Word On Worship – Sunday – February 23, 2020

Acts 6:8
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”

Stephen was described as a man who was both “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3) and as one who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5). His ministry to Hellenistic widows seems to have put him in contact with a great many Hellenistic Jews. Through Stephen, among the Hellenistic Jews, God accomplished many “great wonders and signs” (6:8). Feeding the widows gave Stephen a much greater exposure and the opportunity to function in a way that was similar to the twelve apostles. The mention of Stephen’s ability to perform “signs and wonders” is very significant. Up to this point, only the apostles were said to have worked signs and wonders. Since the twelve apostles would remain in Jerusalem after the church was scattered (Acts 8:1), it would seem that Stephen (here) and Philip (Acts 8) would serve as apostles to a more diverse group.

We are not told how the power to perform signs and wonders came upon Stephen. Had we been told, we would probably find this viewed as a formula by which saints are to manipulate or persuade God into acting as we would desire. Every indication is that both Stephen and the apostles were surprised by his ability to perform such miracles. It was not because Stephen “prayed through” the right formula nor because of the apostles, of their training, of discipleship, or ordination that these signs and wonders were performed. The simplest explanation for the mighty power which Stephen possessed was that the sovereign God had purposed to make him an apostle, in His own time, and in His own way.

In previous sermons in Acts, many have been saved. Here (and for the first time), the preacher is put to death. God prospers some sermons in the salvation of many, but He also uses sermons for other purposes, as here. We also see that there is an evangelistic thrust, resulting from this sermon. This is an evidence of God’s sovereign control. Those who are saved are not the audience of Stephen, but the Samaritans and Gentiles who will be saved because of the persecution resulting from Stephen’s death. Without knowing it, these Jews are propelling the gospel beyond Jerusalem to the very places from which they have come. Many will be saved because of the sermon and the death of Stephen. And the one who was a part of Stephen’s death—Saul—will be God’s chosen instrument to reach the Gentiles.

No wonder Stephen, a man who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” did not fear death and did not revere the physical temple in Jerusalem. He was a man who “saw” a better temple and whose hope was not earthly. He was free to die, as were the saints of old, because of His faith in God and the promises which were sure to come. May we be more like this great man of old whose life and ministry were short but significant.

Sunday – October 27, 2019 Gospel of Luke – Luke 23:40 to 24:35 “Dealing with the Death of Jesus”

Sunday – October 27, 2019

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Word On Worship – Sunday – October 27, 2019

Luke 23:50-52
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God.”

We should be very interested in the story of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus. No one knows where Arimathea was located, but the designation helps distinguish him from other Josephs. He was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the body of 70 men who governed the religious and many of the civic matters in Israel. It was the Sanhedrin that had condemned Jesus to death, although Joseph had not consented to their plan. Probably he had not spoken out as vigorously as he should have. John 19:38 tells us that he was a secret disciple of Jesus, for fear of the Jews. His fear had caused Joseph not to take a bold stand for Christ, even though in his heart he knew that he should have done so.

But now, after Jesus was dead, when His followers had gone into hiding, Joseph gathered up his courage (Mark 15:43), went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus so that he could give Him a proper burial. If he had not done so, Jesus’ body probably would have been thrown on a garbage heap and burned, robbing us of some of the major proofs of the resurrection, as we’ll see. We can thank Joseph for honoring Jesus with a proper burial and for giving us many evidences for our faith.

I believe Luke is commending the faith of Joseph and the women, seen by their concern for Jesus body and burial, at a time when this was a most unpopular, and even dangerous, thing to do. Faith in Christ requires an identification with Christ, which includes an identification with Him in His death. In their actions, they stood with Jesus, and apart from the Jewish religious leaders. Saving faith requires those saved from their sins stand apart from a world that has rejected Jesus, and stand with Him who was rejected and put to death. Joseph, Nicodemus, and the women are a picture of what faith requires by those who would be saved. Faith is expressed by an identification with the Jesus who died on the cross of Calvary. No wonder there is no focus on the eleven at this point, whose faith may not have failed, but whose faith surely is not praiseworthy at this point in time.

It does remind us that even when those who are chosen to lead fail to do so, God always has someone in the wings. Joseph was a man whom the disciples would never have considered a prospect for discipleship. He was a prominent member of the Council which, as a group, rejected Jesus. He was a man of influence and apparent wealth. And yet he was the one whom God had prepared so that the body of Jesus would be honored in death. God always has a person in place, but this is often not the person we would have expected to be God’s choice.

Sunday – October 6, 2019 Gospel of Luke – Luke 23:1-25 Part 2 “Rejection of Israel’s Messiah”

Sunday – October 6, 2019

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Word On Worship – Sunday – October 6, 2019

Luke 23:8-10
When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.

We all make offers we really don’t expect others to accept. I believe Pilate made the leaders of Israel—the chief priests and rulers of the people—an offer they would never accept—but they did. The religious leaders of Israel brought Jesus to Pilate, accusing Him of being a criminal worthy of death. But Pilate did not see it this way at all. Eventually, he made these leaders an offer I think he was sure they would not accept. His offer was to release to them Barabbas, a thief, a revolutionary, and a murderer. Which would they choose—to turn Barabbas loose on their city—or Jesus? Jesus was a man of peace, a seemingly harmless fellow. Barabbas was a dangerous criminal. Surely they would leave Barabbas in prison, where he belonged, and be content to have Jesus found guilty of a crime and then pardoned.

When we read the account of the trial of our Lord before the political rulers of that day, it is like watching a table tennis match. On the one hand, Jesus is passed back and forth between Pilate and Herod. On the other, the dialogue between Pilate and the religious leaders bounces back, from one to the other. Pilate repeatedly pronounces Jesus innocent of any crime, but the Jewish religious leaders respond by even more vigorously affirming His guilt, demanding nothing less than the death penalty. One would think that Pilate, with the power of Rome behind him, would have little difficulty enforcing his will on the people, but such is not the case. We see that indeed the people prevail, and the story ends with Pilate giving them their way, even though this means the death of an innocent man.

Why does Luke include this incident with Herod while no other gospel writer does? I believe it is important to see that everyone rejected Jesus as the Messiah, including Herod. But it was absolutely necessary for Rome and the Gentiles to share in the rejection and the crucifixion of Christ so that all men, not just the Jews, might be guilty of His innocent blood. Herod does play a part, but this is the time for the Gentiles to show their own disdain for the Savior.

If men are so utterly angry with God that they will always hate, oppose, and reject Him, how can they ever be convinced, converted, and changed? It will not be through human might or methods, but only through the Holy Spirit of God. As we read the Book of Acts we learn that men were convinced and converted—miraculously so, such as Saul—but they were convinced and converted through the work of God’s Spirit, as He empowered men and their testimony for Christ. May we go about His work, dependent upon His Word and dependent upon His Spirit.

Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019 – 2 Corinthians 5:1-19 “Why the Resurrection Matters”

Sunday – April 21, 2019

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Word On Worship – Sunday – April 21, 2019

1 Corinthians 15:1-2
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.

The resurrection is not a religious myth, which coincides with springtime to inspire us with hope and positive thinking. Rather, it is an historic fact that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the dead. It was a physical, not just a “spiritual” resurrection. To be sure, Jesus arose with a resurrection body, which has different properties than our earthly bodies, as Paul explains (15:35-49). But it was a body that could be seen and touched, that could eat and drink.

The resurrection is a matter of great import to the apostle Paul. Few men can claim to have been more impacted by the resurrection of our Lord than Paul. The resurrection of our Lord was the means by which Paul was converted from an enemy of Christ to a true believer. Three times in the Book of Acts (chapters 9, 22, and 26) Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus is reported. This appearance of the risen and glorified Christ blinded Paul, stopping him in his tracks, and led to his conversion. No wonder Paul saw the resurrection of our Lord as such a significant event. It turned Paul’s life upside-down.

Just how important was the resurrection of our Lord to Paul? It was not only the basis for his salvation and apostleship, it was a constant theme in his preaching (Acts 17:30-31; 24:15, 25). It was the reason for Paul’s imprisonment and trial before Caesar (Acts 23:6; 24:21; 26:6-8; 28:20). No wonder Paul is so emphatic about the resurrection of our Lord and about the error of those who say there is no resurrection of the dead. The gospel is the starting point and standard for all Christian teaching and practice. Paul takes us back to our origins to reinforce the vital role which the resurrection of our Lord plays in our salvation and Christian life.

Jesus indicated that the way for Him to bear fruit was to die. And then He applied this same truth to His disciples. Those who love their lives will lose their lives; those who hate their lives in this world will keep them eternally. The way Jesus would “draw all men to Himself” was by being lifted up on the cross of Calvary. Jesus taught that the way to life was the way of the cross. By means of His death, burial, and resurrection, we have been given life by faith in Him. Now, as Christians, we are to apply the same principle to our earthly life. We are to take up our cross, to hate our life, to die to self, and in this way, we will obtain life eternal. Here is an entirely unique approach to life. It is one you will never find originating from unbelievers, but you will find it repeatedly taught in the Word of God. Death is a defeated enemy; death is now our friend, and our way of life. To God be the glory!

Sunday – February 10, 2019 Gospel of Luke – Luke 13:31-36 “Christ Would But They Would Not”

Sunday – February 10, 2019

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Word On Worship – Sunday – February 10, 2019

Luke 13:31-33
Just at that time some Pharisees approached, saying to Him, “Go away, leave here, for Herod wants to kill You.” And He said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.’  Nevertheless, I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem.”

We have been told by Luke (once again) that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, teaching and ministering as He went (Luke 13:22). Jesus’ exodus from Jerusalem (via His death and ascension) will eventually close the narrow door, which He has urged His listeners to pass through. Verses 23-30 therefore stress the implications of Jesus’ approaching Jerusalem for the nation Israel. Verses 31-35 stress the implications of arriving in Jerusalem for Jesus.

Some Pharisees arrived, seemingly from Jerusalem. It appears that they have a kind of “news flash” for Jesus. Apparently, they have learned of Herod’s intention to put Jesus to death if He made an appearance in Jerusalem. They had come to warn Jesus of the danger of persisting on His present course. Herod earlier was desiring to see Jesus (Luke 9:9). The Pharisees, on the other hand, had rejected Him and had determined to put Him to death. Did they really wish to save Jesus from Herod’s treachery? It didn’t matter. Jesus would use this as a further occasion for teaching.

Jesus’ response to this warning was to tell these Pharisees to report back to Herod His commitment to carry on His ministry, as given by God, and as planned. It was business as usual for Jesus, even if that was dangerous, even if it meant death. Jesus was determined to finish what He had been sent to accomplish. No threat of danger would turn Him from His mission or from His ministry. The fainthearted might be tempted to pursue the same ministry, but in a safer location. Jesus was not going to let anything cause Him to take a detour, so that He could avoid the danger which lay ahead. How much this is like the warning which Paul received in Acts 21, telling Him that persisting on with his course would lead him into bondage. Paul’s response is in the footsteps of His Lord’s. Neither would let danger keep them from fulfilling their mission.

Jesus made it clear that He knew He would die in Jerusalem. He was not naive of the danger. He was not oblivious to the pain and the persecution which was ahead. He was conscious that this was His calling. Would He urge men to “strive” to enter the door? He was striving to open the door to salvation, by His sacrificial death. Today, when “playing it safe” seems to be the name of the game, even the smallest danger or threat may be enough to deter us. We conclude that “the Lord has closed the door,” when He may only have purposed for us to walk in His footsteps.

Sunday – January 6, 2019 Gospel of Luke – Luke 12:49-59 “The Consequences of Christ’s Coming”

Sunday – January 6, 2019

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Word On Worship – Sunday – January 6, 2019

Luke 12:49-51
I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!  But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division.

The word “fire” can arouse a wide variety of responses. If someone were to yell, “Fire!” at the top of their lungs, it would probably produce a great commotion. One the other hand, on a cold winter night, the suggestion to “build a fire in the fireplace” arouses all kinds of warm emotions. And who can forget singing “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” at Christmas time? Now, that give us a warm, sentimental feeling. But when Jesus said/says that He had come to “kindle a fire,” He was/is saying that He has come to bring about the outpouring of God’s wrath on sinful Israel. That certainly is neither warm nor sentimental!

There are a number of seeming contradictions in our Lord’s words, here and elsewhere in the gospels. He is the Prince of Peace, but He will bring division. He promises men life, but He calls on them to give up life. He tells men to lay up treasure in heaven, but they are to give up the pursuit of riches in this life, and to give to the poor. The difference is between the “ends” and the “means” by which they are achieved. “Peace” is the end, but a sword and division are the means. “Life” is the end, but death—our Lord’s death, and the/each disciple’s “taking up his cross” is the means. “Blessing and riches” are the end, but giving up the pursuit of them is the means. Since the means appear to contradict the ends, we must go about these means by faith, and not by sight.

But how can Jesus be so zealous for this “fire” to be kindled? If He is going to bring about the judgment of God upon sinners, and if this is not a work in which He takes pleasure, why is He eager for the “fire” to be kindled? I think the answer is simple—this painful and unpleasant (for both God and men, I believe) outpouring of wrath is a prerequisite of and preliminary to the establishment of the kingdom of God. In order for the kingdom of God to be established, sinners must be punished and sin eliminated.

The means by which God has determined to bring about His kingdom is not just painful to sinful men, it is exceedingly painful to God. Not only because men will suffer for their sins, but because Jesus Christ, God’s Son, will suffer His wrath as a payment for man’s sins. Jesus said that before He casts fire on the earth, He had a baptism with which to be baptized. This baptism is the death which He would die on the cross of Calvary. His death on the cross would set in motion a series of events, which will conclude in the pouring out of God’s divine wrath on sinners. The sad reality is that it is not really necessary, because Jesus experienced the full extent of God’s wrath on the cross. For those who trust in Him, that is the full payment for their sins, but for those who reject Him, there is yet to come the outpouring of God’s wrath in the day of judgment.