Hope – I Need Somebody (Hope- Not Just Anybody)

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“I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins”

One of the tenets of Christianity, found in every faith tradition and denomination, is that God forgives sins. Many examples of this belief can be found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and in the liturgy of the Church.

The most widely used creeds in Christian liturgy are the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. One or the other (or both) are recited in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many Protestant Churches. In these creeds, which are summaries of the Christian faith, the worshiper acknowledges belief in the forgiveness of sins.

What does it mean to declare, as a worshiper does when reciting the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”? What – and whose – sins are in mind?  Who is doing the forgiving? Does the forgiveness of sins make any difference in a person’s life?

When a Christian claims to believe in the forgiveness of sins, is she talking about her sins, her neighbor’s sins, or everyone’s sins? Are these sins little or big, foibles or atrocities?

The scope of forgiveness is vast. Jesus said that forgiveness would be proclaimed to all nations (or people groups). St. John wrote that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Forgiveness is universal in scope but conditional in application. The condition is faith in God through Jesus Christ.

No sin is by nature beyond forgiveness (except the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, but that is a topic for another time). Many people find the extravagant breadth of Christian forgiveness objectionable. Should even Hitler, if he has expressed “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ,” be forgiven? What about the sexual predator? The murderer?

I have had to be clear about this in my own mind. The forgiveness of sins is easy enough to believe when you are sitting in a church pew. It is another matter when you are sitting in a jail cell with a man accused of molesting a two-year-old child or a woman who shot her sleeping husband and then decapitated him so she could be with another man. In such situations, could I honestly say that I believe in the forgiveness of sins?

Yes. I have been able to believe in the forgiveness of sins – even in those cells – because I believe in the God of Jesus. I am, however, in doubt about whether the people I came to see believed. They didn’t stop making excuses long enough for me to find out, but people who believe in the forgiveness of sins make confession, not excuses.

When Christians, reciting the creed, say that they believe in the forgiveness of sins, it is important that they believe in the forgiveness of other people’s sins, not merely their own. Do we believe that God will forgive our enemy’s sins? If we do not, it is likely that we have fallen into the trap of thinking that others need to be forgiven while we need only be excused.

When we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, are we assuming that forgiveness resides in God’s domain but not in our own? Another way to put the question is to ask if God is the only forgiver or if others are included? When I acknowledge the forgiveness of sins, do I recognize that I too am called to be a forgiver?

God is surely the Primary Forgiver and it is his forgiveness that is central in the Scripture and in the creeds. But belief in the forgiveness of sins does not end at God’s throne. It descends to my desk chair, to the break room in the factory, and to the family kitchen. Jesus and his apostles will not allow us to exclude ourselves from the responsibility to forgive, anymore that they exclude us from the need to be forgiven.

Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” To believe in the forgiveness of sins is to believe that I need to be forgiven, not merely excused, that God will forgive, and that I must do likewise.

(First published by Gannett.)

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Faith Is Work

Amy Carmichael, said: “The tests are always unexpected things, not great things that can be written up, but the common little rubs of life, silly little nothings, things you are ashamed of minding [at all]. Yet they can knock a strong man over and lay him very low.” “The best training,” she says, “is to learn to accept everything as it comes, as from Him whom our soul loves.” [1]

She is talking about meeting these things with faith in our loving Father. Yes, that faith gets tested. It might feel like we cannot go any further in it. We want to retreat. Long to turn to distraction and self-indulgence. But whoever said that faith is easy?

This is Walter Wangerin, Jr.: “Faith is work. It is a struggle. You must struggle with all your heart. … And on the way, God will ambush you.” We struggle to trust. The doubts keep coming. We refuse to give in. We fight, fight to trust God; but it is so hard. We feel like we’re losing faith every other moment. But we aren’t. That is just the contaminants burning up. Our faith is being purified! And when we just can’t do it anymore, our heavenly Father comes from behind us to help.

I love the true story – many of you have seen the video – that came out of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was the 400-meter race. Derek Redmond of Great Britain entered the back stretch with a real possibility of winning gold and fulfilling his lifelong dream. And then it happened: his hamstring tore and all the other runners went flying past him. He crumpled, kneeling there on the track, in excruciating pain.

A nearby photographer captures the moment of his dream-ending collapse. Frustration and dejection are written on his face. The race is over. The other runners are crossing the line.

Then, surprisingly, Derek stands and begins to hop toward the finish line. The crowd, which has been watching, begins to clap, and then cheer, louder and louder.

Then the applause hushes a little. What is happening? There is a man running toward Derek on the track. It’s his father. He throws his arms around his son and in a voice full of emotion, whispers, “Come on, son. Let’s finish this together.” The applause grows louder than ever. The crowd cheers and weeps as they watch Derek’s father bearing his injured son across the finish line.[2]

How many times you and I have struggled to trust God! Our faith has come up short and we have fallen. We won’t win the race. We’re not even sure we can finish it. But we get up, broken and limping, and begin again.

We will cross the finish line, as every one of his children do, upheld by our Father’s arms. The hosts of heaven will be on their feet, and there will be jubilant praise, abundant honor, and resplendent glory. And we will hear the words – is he speaking to me, who fell, who failed, who lay crumpled on the ground? We will hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matthew 25:21).

[1] Amy Carmichael, “Candles in the Dark.” Christianity Today, Vol. 31, no. 2.

[2] Source: Jim Nicodem, “The Father Heart of God,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 152.

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Everyone Gets Tested (Not Everyone Passes)

Everyone gets tested. Ordained ministers get tested. Soldiers, sailors, and Marines get tested. High School and college graduates get tested. Lawyers get tested. Police officers get tested. Corrections officers get tested. Pilots get tested. Drivers get tested. Do followers of Jesus get tested? And, if so, does everyone pass the test? To get personal, will I pass the test?

Let me answer those questions. Yes, followers of Jesus get tested. No, not everyone passes. But, yes, you can pass the test. As C. S. Lewis so eloquently put it: “The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God” (italics added).[1]

But not everyone passes the test. Listen to what the author of Hebrews says (12:16-17): “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected.”

The word translated as “rejected” is a quality control word. It refers to something that cannot be used for its intended purpose because it has not passed quality or safety testing. The way Esau responded to a difficult circumstance indicated a flaw in his character. He was not yet a person to whom God could safely entrust his blessing. His response to the test showed that, in a critical moment, he would not turn to God but would turn elsewhere. It was his faith that was tested and it was found wanting.

Esau’s trial – so mundane and familiar – was a test of faith. It tested his trust in God, his dependence on him, and the integrity of the connection between him and God. We can get the idea that people who pass the test prove that they are smart or that they are spiritual or that they are strong. Not so. What is being tested – whether the test is mundane or exotic, familiar or extraordinary – is a person’s faith: his or her trust in God. It will help you to remember that.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.

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The Christian and Testing: Will We Pass the Test?

The Bible is uncomfortably clear: God test people and nations. Not everyone passes the test. Yet, as C. S. Lewis so eloquently put it: “The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.”

This encouraging sermon explores what the Bible says about testing: why God tests, what is being tested, and how to pass the test.

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When Does Happily Ever After Start?

In faith-friendly books and movies, principal characters always face struggles and frequently experience doubts. As their circumstances worsen, their doubts grow and then, at some critical moment, they face a difficult decision. Will they trust God or will they go their own way?

In the few movies and books in this genre with which I’m familiar, a secondary character usually models the wrong choice for the reader or viewer. The protagonist then models the right choice by trusting God. After that moment of faith, the suspense grows greater still. The question of whether the hero will trust God is already decided. Now the question is whether God will prove himself worthy of that trust.

He does. The football player wins the big game, the protagonist gets the guy or girl of their dreams, and answers to prayers multiply like loaves and fishes in the hands of Jesus. And they live happily ever after.

My question is: what role does faith play in their lives then? When you, the conquering hero, are living happily ever after with the love of your life, do you really need to trust God any longer? 

Most of us will never know the answer to that question—at least, not from personal experience. Most of us, even if we have found the love of our life, haven’t got to start the happily ever after part yet. We know that’s down the road—and it will be a bumpy ride getting there.

If one compares the plot lines from contemporary movies and books with the stories of the Bible, there seems to be a divergence. Yes, God answers prayers. Miracles happen. But troubles don’t end. Joy is present, but it is joy in spite of troubles, not in place of them.

Consider some of the heroes of the faith. St. Peter was crucified. St. Paul was beheaded (after a lengthy stay in prison). St. Stephen was stoned. In fact, all the original apostles, with the exception of John, died violent deaths.

And it is not just the way people of faith died, it is also the way they lived. Euodia and Syntyche, friends and co-workers “in the gospel,” had a falling out and were unable to reconcile without help. Aquila and Priscilla, an extraordinary married couple who were full of faith, were forced to leave their home and live in exile.

Paul and Barnabas, the superstars on God’s evangelistic team, got into an argument that ended their working relationship. St. John was arrested, removed from home and friends, and sentenced to exile on a remote Island in the Aegean Sea. These were people, every one of them, with a genuine and vibrant faith, but not one of them got happily ever after on earth.

Consider the men and women the author of Hebrews inducts into the Faith Hall of Fame (as chapter 11 is sometimes called.) They were all faith-filled people, and yet he says: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. … These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”

Not a lot of happily ever after there. Not yet, anyway. But there is an important lesson we can learn from these women and men: A person does not learn faith when everything is going smoothly. If we will not learn to trust God when things are tough and situations are scary, we will probably not learn to trust him at all.

And after we have first learned to trust God, we will have many opportunities to practice our lessons. We learn that too from faith’s Hall of Famers. For David, fighting Goliath was an introductory course. Far more difficult lessons lay before him. Likewise for Moses. Pharaoh and the Red Sea were just a warm-up.

St. Paul describes the life that God wants for people as one that progresses “from faith to faith.” In other words, one never outgrows the need to trust. Faith is required throughout life, until the happily ever after finally arrives – which it will surely do – for the faithful.

(Published previously by Gannett.)

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The Sorrows of the Past Will Hurt Us No More

In this 28-minute narrative sermon, we learn that Jesus’s people get confused, sad, broken, and hurt. In this world we have trouble – just as Jesus promised. But Christ enters our trouble and meets us there – and that changes everything. That changes us.

Sermon begins at 00:54. Listening Time: 28:00.
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Fountain of Life: Love for Jesus

In 1 Peter 1:3-9, we see how the flood of blessing that flows from the Fountain of Life spreads: It blesses us first with new life (verse 3), which comes with hope already installed. It blesses us with a spectacular inheritance (verse 4) that is kept completely safe. Not only that, but it keeps us safe too (verse 5), even in the trials of life (verse 6). It blesses us (verse 7) with a faith of inestimable value, a faith that withstands suffering and results (to our utter amazement) in praise, glory, and honor.

And the Fountain of Life keeps flowing; the flood of blessing keeps rising (verse 8): “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” Jesus once said that the Bible’s greatest command is to love God. Here it is presented not as a command but as a blessing that flows from God’s mercy. What greater blessing is there than to love God, to keep the greatest command not because we must (and no one can keep it for that reason) but because our heart is overflowing with love?

Those who love God are touched by a joy that they cannot put into words, one which people who have not experienced it simply don’t understand. Love for God, which comes from the love of God, instills joy in us even when we are rightly sad, deeply troubled, and unfairly treated. Love for God is the greatest blessing that flows from the Fountain of Life. It refreshes us and causes all good things to grow in our lives. Oh, to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength! To do so is to enter heaven’s joys right here on earth.

There are two more things to say. First, this flood of blessings – new life, unassailable hope, an impenetrable shield, trials that purify but never petrify, confidence in daily life, and joy that persists regardless of circumstances – all this is possible because on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. The opening into our world through which all these blessing flow is the resurrection of Jesus. You could almost say it was a flood of blessing that rolled the stone from the tomb.

The resurrection changes everything. The resurrection changes us. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…”

And finally: The blessings of the Fountain of Life flow from the mercy of God, through the resurrection of Christ, but to the person who has faith in Jesus. Did you notice the emphasis on faith throughout this passage? God guards his own through faith (v. 5). People without an authentic, dynamic trust in God are like a computer without a firewall. All kinds of things can get through to cause them harm. The shield of God is activated by faith.

Look at verse 7. It is faith that is proved genuine in trials – not intelligence, not strength, not determination. It is faith that turns trials – and everyone has trials – to a believer’s advantage. They are painful still, but full of purpose, and are preparing us for glory when Jesus Christ is revealed. Trials endured without faith, on the other hand, are ultimately meaningless.

Verse 8 show us that faith is a prerequisite to joy. It is as we believe in him that we are filled with joy. This belief is not mere assent to a doctrine, not even the doctrine that Christ died for our sins. It is a personal trust in Christ. In the Bible, genuine trust in Christ always involves entrusting our lives to Christ. And by, “our lives,” I do not mean our eternal destiny after we die but our actual lives while we live.  

The Fountain of Life is filling the world with a flood of blessing. But the same flood that raises those who have faith and carries them into the life of the age to come submerges those who do not have faith.

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Fountain of Life: Protection

St. Peter says (1 Peter 1:3-5) that the people of the new birth are hopeful people who have an outstanding inheritance kept for them. The word translated “kept” occurs often in Scripture. In Jesus’s prayer for his followers in John 17, he uses it four times, asking God to keep his people safe. It is used in the wonderful story in John 2 of the wedding reception that ran out of wine. Jesus miraculously made more wine out of water, and the emcee at the reception said coyly, “You have kept the best till now.”

That is what God is doing: keeping the best for last—and the best is not meaningless distractions but pleasures forevermore.[1] Think of a moment when your life was most full of joy: a wedding day, the birth of a child, your greatest triumph. In those moments your joy spilled over, was too much to contain; and yet all of earth’s best moments combined, for all of earth’s inhabitants, through all of earth’s years, are but a thimble-full of joy compared to the heavenly oceans of joy that await God’s people. To even begin to appreciate it, our souls must be radically enlarged.

We have this unimaginably rich inheritance waiting for us, and it is kept safe. It cannot be stolen, cannot be diminished, cannot be corrupted. But what good does that do us if we are not safe?

Let’s say you receive a letter from a law firm, informing you that some relative you only met once when you were a kid has left you 50 million dollars in his will. There are no other claimants. The inheritance is all yours and is perfectly safe. All you need to do is come to the law offices in Chicago, sign the papers, and the money will be transferred into your accounts.

So, you make the arrangements but on your way to receive your inheritance, you are sideswiped by a big rig, and killed. The inheritance was safe but you weren’t.

What about us? Are we safe on the way to our inheritance? The God whose mercy gives us hope is the same God who power provides us protection. Look at verse 5: “who through faith are shielded by God’s power.” A literal translation might go like this: “who, in the power of God are being guarded.” It is God’s power that surrounds us, shields us, guards us: his inviolable, impregnable, unassailable power.

But then, why do we suffer? Why are Christians in Egypt beheaded? Why are believers in China imprisoned? Why are the homes of Jesus’s followers in Nigeria burnt to the ground? Throw a dart at a map of the world, and you are almost as likely as not to hit a place where people are hurt, not in spite of the fact that they belong to God, but because they do. Where is the shield of God?

If God is protecting us, why did we get passed over for that promotion? Why do the cool kids at school ignore us or, worse, mock us because, “we’re religious”? Why, when we are trying to do the right thing, are we criticized and abandoned? Where is the shield of God?

We must understand: God’s protection does not rule out suffering. Suffering in this world is a given. Jesus told us: “In this world you will have trouble.”[2] (When you recount his promises, don’t forget that one.) St. Peter, who wrote this letter, was himself persecuted, humiliated, tortured, and killed. But had you asked him, as he was led off to be crucified upside down on a Roman cross, he would have said, “Yes, I am safe in the hands of God.”

[1] Psalm 16:11

[2] John 16:33

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Fountain of Life

Scot McKnight describes 1 Peter 1:3-9 as a “chain reaction” of blessing. Another way pf putting it is to say the fountain of life surges through the opening made by the resurrection of Jesus, flows over into every aspect of our lives now, and carries us into the age to come.

The first of those blessings is a new birth. God knows that we can never make our old lives right, so in his mercy, he has given us new ones. Verse 3: “He has given us new birth into a living hope.”

“Man is born to trouble,” Job said,[1] but he is reborn to glory. This second birth engenders a new kind of life within us, and that life comes with hope pre-installed. The believer in Jesus, whether he is 18 or 81, has hope, and the 81-year-old’s hope is frequently more vibrant than the 18-year-old’s!

Contrast that with Woody Allen, who once said about getting older: “The only thing you can do (because you’re always walking with an abyss right under your feet) is what you did when you were 20 … distract yourself …”

The abyss over which Allen was walking is hopelessness and hopeless people are desperate for distraction. They don’t know how to live without it. For the psalmist, God was an ever-present help in time of trouble. For us, the cell phone and TV are ever-present distractions in time of hopelessness. The more dependent people are on distractions, the more serious is their hope deficiency, which does not bode well for America. And here’s the thing: over time, hopelessness becomes distraction-resistant.

Hopelessness is a spiritual condition that requires a spiritual cure: a new birth, a new life, in which hope is already integrated. The merciful God has given us the cure. “he has given us new birth into a living hope…”

It is not only a living hope that pulses through this new life; it is also a lasting hope. Look at verse 4: It is “into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” Peter describes it rhythmically – even musically – in Greek, with each word starting with what’s called an alpha-privitive, which is like our prefix un. It could be translated it, “Un-perishable (if we can put it that way), undefiled and unfading.” F.W. Beare captured it well: “the inheritance is untouched by death, unstained by evil, unimpaired by time.”[2]

[1] Job 5:7

[2] Quote in Scot McKnight, NIV Application Commentary: First Peter, op.cit.

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