The Cross: The Center of the Story

The cross itself, in short, stands at the center of the Christian message, the Christian story, and the Christian life and mission. It has lost none of its revolutionary and transformative power down through the centuries. The cross is where the great story of God and creation, focused on the strange story of God and Israel and then focused still more sharply on the personal story of God and Jesus, came into terrible but life-giving clarity. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a one-off event, the one on behalf of the many, the one moment in history on behalf of all others through which sins are forgiven, the powers robbed of their power, and humans redeemed to take their place as worshippers and stewards, celebrating the powerful victory of God in his Messiah and so gaining the Spirit’s power to make his kingdom effective in the world.

N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, p. 416

The Heart and Purposes of God

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The individual disciples must have indelibly imprinted upon their souls the reality of this wonderful person who walked among us and suffered a cruel death to enable each of us to have life in God. It should become something that is never beyond the margins of their consciousness. . . . No one can have an adequate view of the heart and purposes of the God of the universe who does not understand that he permitted his son to die on the cross to reach out to all people, even people who hated him. That is who God is. . . . It is God looking at me from the cross with compassion and providing for me, with never-failing readiness to take my hand and walk on through life from wherever I may find myself at the time.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p.335

“Learn to do well.”

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This is how we are to learn to live. We are to have the right pattern. That pattern is Jesus. We are to have power, and that power comes from Jesus. And then we are to take the light and leading that Jesus gives, and we are to act up to the last limit of it, we are to practice it to the last chapter, and then we will learn to do well, and we will be doing well.

George W. Truett, “An Essential of Victory,” from On Eagle Wings: Fourteen Messages on Old Testament Themes

Truett’s text for this sermon was a select portion of Isaiah 1:17, which in the King James Version is rendered, “Learn to do well.” Other translations say learn to do good, or right.

Truett observes that we must not only learn to avoid evil, but to enact the good. He says, “There are two great aspects to the religious life. The one is negative and the other is positive.” We can mistakenly emphasize one over the other, obsessing over the avoidance of evil and refraining from actively doing good, or zealously seek to do what is right, while neglecting the renunciation of actions that run contrary to God’s will. In choosing the way of Jesus, we remain on his path. Other avenues are forsaken. Learning to do well involves gaining wisdom to distinguish good from evil, and to consistently desire and choose that which is of God, rather that that which is not.

Like many good preachers, Truett helps us remember how we are to learn to do well by using alliteration. Learning to do well involves a pattern, power, and practice. We look to Jesus as our model, but he is also our teacher and our helper, and we, being his students, are given opportunities to put what we learn into action under his loving and watchful eye.

Jesus made a claim in the gospels, spoken in various ways, that after he died and was raised from the dead, he would remain present with his followers. He will be with us always. When he departs, the Spirit would come. Jesus is the pattern. He supplies the power. We take up the practice. Let’s add one more word that starts with “p.” In learning to do well, his presence remains with us. For that, we can be thankful.

“People Don’t Know How to Share Their Faith”

Molly and I were on a walk one evening, and we talked about the notion or idea, commonly spoken among pastoral leaders, that people don’t know how to share their faith.

One thought: “People share their faith all the time.”

The question becomes, then, the substance of that faith. Is it faith in the God of Christianity, the God who is Trinity? Or some other deity, or some other center of authority? Is it a faith that is classically orthodox, or heterodox? Trust in the sacred, or the secular? Strong faith, or weak faith? Immature faith, or mature faith? Which faith? In whom, or what?

Faith sharing and evangelism are two distinct practices. Evangelism is the sharing of the gospel, which has both content and implications. You can be living in line with the good news, and thereby share your faith. When your actions (word, or deed) are then illumined by the core of your convictions, another layer is added. Proclamation is paired with demonstration. Witness is bolstered by evidence, the testimony of a way of life.

Ministers equip their people when they help them see and understand the various ways they share their faith, every day. And they go one step forward when they help their people understand the truths and doctrines of the Christian faith with clarity, and invite them to discover the ways convictions work themselves out in the world. Compassionate action is faith sharing. Listening is faith sharing. Offering wise counsel and advice, if offered as a Christian, is faith sharing. Practicing hospitality and visiting the sick is faith sharing. Having integrity in the workplace is faith sharing. Remaining faithful to your spouse and raising your children is faith sharing. If you are working out core convictions as a Christian in speech and action, you are sharing your faith.

When your actions are then narrated and named as being the outworking of these core convictions, witness is deepened, and furthered. After all, part of the Christian calling is to preach the gospel and to make disciples of all people. This work consists of no less than making an announcement that forgiveness of sins has been made possible and is on offer, that Jesus has been raised and now reigns. But winsomeness in witness involves much more, an invitation to a shared way of life in Christ, who now lives in those who believe.

May Christ Illuminate Your Night

Sometimes I wonder why this trust in Christ who comes to illuminate our night is so essential for me. And I realize this comes from a childhood experience.

During the weeks before Christmas, I used to spend lots of time in front of a manger scene looking at the Virgin Mary and the newborn infant at her feet. Such a simple image marks one for life. It enables us to realize one day that, through Christ, God himself came to be with us.

On Christmas Eve, we would go to church. When I was five or six years old, we lived in a mountain village, and the ground was covered with snow. Since I was the youngest, my father took me by the hand. My mother, my elder brother, and my seven sisters followed behind. My father showed me, in the clear sky, the shepherds’ star that the wise men had seen.

Those moments come to my mind when I hear the reading from the apostle Peter, “Fix your eyes on Christ as on a star shining in the night, until the day dawns and the morning rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

Brother Roger, Brother Roger of Taize: Essential Writings

On this Christmas Eve, contemplate the birth of Jesus.

Gather with other Christians to remember, once again, the miracle of the incarnation. This evening, join a church to celebrate. Lift your voice in song. Bow your heart in prayer. Consider afresh the story. Behold the child, his mother, those first visitors, in the mind’s eye. Remember these beginnings to the Christ story, why this story is told, how it ends, and what it means. Allow yourself to wonder. Give pause, and worship.

If you find yourself in darkness, remember that Christ has come to us as the light of the world. Fix your eyes upon him, wait upon the Lord. A new day has come, and is coming. Christ is born.

Share the Christmas Story with Confidence

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The Baptist Standard reports few Americans have the Christmas story down cold.

The Lifeway Research study sourced in the article found:

Slightly more than 1 in 5 Americans (22 percent) say they accurately could tell the Christmas story found in the Bible from memory. A plurality of U.S. adults (31 percent) say they could tell the story but may miss some details or get others wrong. Another quarter (25 percent) could only give a quick overview and 17 percent say they couldn’t tell any of it.

I guess this is news, insofar as the Christian community should know we have a story to tell that others are unfamiliar with. We shouldn’t assume everyone knows how the gospel writers recorded this event. And, within the Christian community, we don’t know it as well as we ought, and that’s a reality that needs to be faced. Therefore, we need to tell this story first to ourselves, so that when we tell it to those outside the community of the faith, we tell it right.

You may already know the Christmas story. The details are recorded in two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us the story of Jesus’ life. Only two of these writers focus explicitly on the events of Jesus’ birth.

These accounts are not identical. That’s important to note.

Rather than harmonizing the two and telling the story as a seamless whole, I think it is more faithful to the story to be clear concerning which details come from which account, and to understand why the authors present the story of Jesus’ birth as they do.

Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience living in the Gentile world, and includes details in his gospel to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope for a Messiah.

Luke wrote for a Gentile audience who would have been familiar with the stories of the Old Testament, but had different concerns, such as how Israel’s Messiah could also be the Lord of all the world.

Matthew’s account tells us of Joseph’s inner conflict following the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, the appearing of a star, and the journey of wise men who came to visit Jesus from the East, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Luke’s account includes the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, Caesar’s census, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, an inn with no vacancy, shepherds, the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields, and the first visitors to see Jesus in the manger.

The Christmas story, for Christian people, is one of those stories that is important enough for us to learn and to be able to tell it with ease. If you have a Bible on your shelf, however, you can pull it down, crack it open, and read an account. Many people can search on their phone or use an app even if there isn’t a Bible handy. Then, you can talk about what it means.

Christians believe that on the very first Christmas God entered history in Jesus of Nazareth. This event was a continuation of God’s involvement in history and the marking of a significant new chapter.

God appeared to us as a human being.

Tiny. Vulnerable. A gift.

This is the miracle of the incarnation. God brought to fulfillment the promises regarding the Messiah, a Savior, a King who would redeem humankind from sin.

The world has never been the same.

The wise men came in reverence and the shepherds came with wonderment and awe.

Mary treasured these things in her heart.

We ponder them still.

We tell of them.

We should tell them well, and with confidence.

The Preacher Shouldn’t Be There to Talk About You, Even Though They Likely Will

First, even if you lived a wretched life, the preacher shouldn’t lie about that. Maybe they should tell us the truth. Maybe the best thing we could hear is that you were a rotten person. Maybe we should make it a goal to live as exemplars of virtue, rather than as warnings against vice.

Second, the proper focus of a Christian funeral is God, not the deceased. A death is only the occasion for gathering. A Christian funeral is a service of worship. We hope we can give thanks for the person who has died. Sadly, there are cases where this is very hard to do.

Third, if you live in such a way as to be remembered by others as a “good” person, I do not want to dismiss the positive outcomes that could result from such an aim. But beware. We do good things all the time from bad motives. It would be better to live for the glory of God, realizing that all is a gift, than from a self-aggrandizing motivation.

Fourth, at a bare minimum, the truth that should be told at a Christian funeral is the truth of the gospel: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That is why we can grieve, but not as those who are without hope.

Sermon: “Come to Me”

This sermon was delivered to the people of the First Baptist Church, Valley Mills, Texas, on Sunday, July 5, 2020.

Introductory Remarks

Good morning.

If you would, please open your Bibles to Matthew 11:16-30. We’ll be reading out text in just a moment, and as we do so, I think it would be wise if as we hear these words we would also read these words together, so that we may think carefully about them as God’s people.

As you turn, let me say that it’s good to be with you, and it is an honor that your pastor, John Wheatley, invited me to join you today in worship. John is my friend by way of our shared work at Truett Seminary. John has also always spoken highly of you, this congregation. It is good to be with you this morning.

You may have heard or seen that my job at Truett has a long title: I serve as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. One of my friends asked, “Does that fit on your business card?” What does that mean? It means that I educate, inspire, and assist others in growing to become more like Jesus Christ in their inmost being, so that they might best serve his kingdom and purposes.

John said I could speak this morning about anything that I wanted to. Usually, when someone tells me that, I talk about professional wrestling. But instead, today I thought I’d talk about the work of spiritual formation. At Truett, when we engage with seminarians in our work to “become more like Jesus,” we can only hope that that work is already well underway, having begun in the context of the local church. The local church is the most vital, the most critical, and the most important setting within which people come to see Jesus, know Jesus, trust Jesus, follow Jesus, serve Jesus, and grow to become like Jesus until the day in which we are called home to be with Jesus in eternity.

Never forget that this shared work, as part of this people, in this local congregation, as part of this community, is interwoven and indispensable to the outworking of God’s redemptive purposes in history. God is working right here, among this people within whom Christ dwells. We are part of the body of Christ.

In order to function as the body of Christ we must listen to and heed the Word of God. Let’s hear these words from the Gospel of Matthew 11:16-30.

Reading: Matthew 11:16-30

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,

    and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

    and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This is God’s Word.

Outline

What does our Scripture reading have to teach us today? What is God saying to us, today, in this text?

How does this passage help us to grow in becoming more like Jesus? And how does it call us to change, to respond, to think differently, to feel differently, to speak differently, to act differently, in light of God’s character, God’s person, and God’s grace?

Let’s consider four broad movements found in this passage which we will examine together today:

  1. The Way is Not Plain to Everyone (9)
  2. The Way is Not Taken by All (8)
  3. The Way is a Path That’s Revealed (9)
  4. The Way is a Person, Who Calls (8)

The Way is Not Plain to Everyone

Imagine if you will for a moment you are the owner of a gas station along a main highway which runs through the center of a fairly well developed town. You’ve lived in the community for years, and you know every curve, bump, and byway like the back of your hand. You’ve been along the main roads and the backroads, the side streets and the alleyways. You’ve seen people come and go, houses built up and torn down, businesses launch and close down. You’ve seen it, and you know the place.

One day a stranger comes into your store and they ask you how to get to the Johnson place. The Johnsons live on the outskirts of town, five turns from your station. You quickly tell the stranger, “Head north, turn right on Maple, drive three quarters of a mile and take a left hand turn on a small, unmarked drive just past a metal sculpture built from old mufflers outside of the pizza place there, then catch FM 1695 eastbound until you pass a barn with a faded Texas flag painted on the rooftop, after which you’ll see CR 529. Turn right there, and another two miles down the way, you’ll come to the Johnson place. The Johnson’s have a green mailbox with a small John Deere tractor on the top, which hides slightly behind an old hackberry tree, so keep your eyes open.”

The stranger may say, “Come again?”

Now, it’s not that they couldn’t get there. It’s not that you didn’t do a good job describing the way. But it is nevertheless true that the more familiar you become with something–with a place, with a way of life, with a manner of speaking, with a set of beliefs or a way of seeing the world–the more you forget what it was like for you to discover these things yourself. It took time, experience. And when a new person comes along, an outsider who doesn’t share the same knowledge and experience, sometimes we assume they should just “get it.”

In our passage today, Jesus doesn’t address people who are trying to get to the Johnson place. Rather, Jesus is addressing people who are trying to determine if he is the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one who was anticipated and hoped for, the one who would usher in God’s kingdom and bring salvation and deliverance and peace.

If we look at the broader context, we see that Jesus is addressing “the crowd” when we begin our reading, and he is speaking to them specifically about John the Baptist. Jesus identifies John as a prophet, and more than a prophet: the Elijah who was to come, the one who would “prepare the way” for the Messiah. 

Nevertheless, there are those in the crowd who have refused to see John as the Messiah’s forerunner and to heed John’s direction, his “pointing the way,” if you will. When Jesus compares this generation to children saying, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn,” he is saying, this is a generation that cannot be satisfied, a generation that will always find a reason to say, “Nope, not that one.”

Jesus makes this plain for us when he says that John was rejected because he was too rigid, too strict, “neither eating nor drinking.” But when Jesus comes feasting, he is counted as being too loose. Tainted. Wild.

As readers today, and as those who are very familiar with the story of Jesus and where it goes, we think we wouldn’t have made the same mistake. We think, “Yes, we recognize Jesus. But outsiders, those in the crowd, they don’t. Why don’t they get it?”

But the irony here is that Matthew 11 begins with John the Baptist sending a word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replies, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

You see insiders and outsiders can get it wrong. They can miss Jesus because they expect the wrong things of Jesus. We can expect the wrong things of Jesus. Rather than seeing Jesus as the Way, they miss it. We miss it. The church, dare I say, has at times missed Jesus when he has been standing here and in our midst. We’ve said, “Nope, not that one.”

Followers of Jesus, myself included, should always be marked by a tremendous humility. We should demonstrate deep knowledge that the Way of Jesus, the Person of Jesus, the invitation of Jesus, is not plain to everyone, and it once wasn’t plain to us. And if it is plain to us–that’s a sign of God’s grace. And we should constantly humble ourselves, seeking after God, saying, “Lord, light my way.”

The Way is Not Taken By All

In addition to the way not being plain to everyone, our text today shows us that the way is not taken by all.

Jesus speaks harsh words, hard words for us to hear today, for we like to think of God as a God of mercy and love rather than as a God of justice and judgment. The truth is God is both. That is the testimony of the Scriptures. 

When Jesus says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe, Bethsaida! Woe, Capernaum!” we are given a warning. We would not want Jesus to say, “Woe to you, Austin! Woe, Waco! Woe, Woodway (where I live)! Woe, Valley Mills!” No, we do not want that.

Jesus speaks of the miracles performed in these places, the signs and wonders that had been performed in those places testifying to God’s power, to the inbreaking kingdom, and to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. Yet, not all accepted him.

And while we may say, “If I were there, I would have believed,” we cannot be so sure. They saw miracles. 

But, we have been given testimony to an even greater miracle. We have heard the witness of those who saw something greater than anything which took place in Chorazin or Bethsaida or Capernaum. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Paul writes:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

On the third day, the tomb was empty. Christ is risen. Do we believe in this testimony, and thereby, believe in Christ? If we have not accepted Jesus as the Risen One, we have not accepted his way.

The Way is a Path That’s Revealed

If we have not accepted Jesus, if we have not chosen to walk after him and to follow his way, perhaps it is because we have not yet seen. Earlier I spoke of the humility that should be characteristic of a Christian person. Why should a Christian person be humble? Because salvation is no accomplishment or work of our own. It is an act of God’s grace.

Notice that after Jesus finishes pronouncing woes, he transitions to offering praise. Jesus says, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”

Jesus then announces that “all things” have been entrusted to him by the Father, and that for those who trust Jesus, they too will know the Father. The Son reveals the Father. The Son, according to Hebrews 1:3, “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” In John 14:9, Jesus tells Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

Christians worship and proclaim God as Trinity–three persons; one God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each as unique divine persons, yet as One God. In Jesus Christ, we have been united to this God through the gift of faith. When Jesus says, “No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” he is telling us that he is the way to God.

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In John 14:7, Jesus adds, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

The way to God is a path that is revealed. It is revealed by a person: the Son.

The Way is a Person, the Son

If we’ve learned anything today from our constellation of texts, as we have brought other passages of Scripture to bear on our primary reading, we will have seen that Jesus not only reveals the way and leads the way, but he himself is the Way.

Jesus’ great invitation in our passage this morning is this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Those words have provided comfort to many for generations. They have provided comfort to me. Jesus looks upon the crowds, those who surround him, knowing that there are both those who reject him and those who desire to trust him, and he says these words, “Come to me.”

He speaks to the weary and the burdened. He offers rest. He uses an agrarian image, that of the yoke, bringing to our mind an image of the mature, well trained ox being paired together with a young, inexperienced steer. Jesus does not place himself behind the plow, urging us along, or ahead of the plow, showing the way. Rather, he places himself under the yoke, walking with, bearing up, experiencing alongside, and teaching, teaching, always teaching.

Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He says that he is gentle and humble in heart. Philosopher, theologian, and ordained Baptist preacher Dallas Willard once stated that discipleship to Jesus is “the way of the easy yoke,” not because following Jesus does not involve hardship or sacrifice, but because Jesus’ way truly is best. There is no other person, no other figure in human history, who can put us in touch with reality in such a way that we grow to be fully human, which is what God intended for us prior to the human race’s captivity to sin. 

Christ is the only one who can restore us, who can lead us into true rest. In fact, he has done it. Jesus bore our deepest burden and the greatest source of our weariness, the burden of sin, upon the cross, and there he put it to death. He is risen and now reigns, and his invitation still stands: “Come to me.” We are invited into his rest. It is freely given: a grace. We are invited to freely receive it.

The great salvation of Jesus is that not only does he redeem you from sin, not only does he reconcile you to God, but he remakes you, renews you, and reforms you so that you may faithfully serve as a representative of  Jesus Christ and his kingdom. He teaches you his way. He is the Way.

In John 17:3, Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me.” That’s the great invitation. Not, “be a better person.” But, “Come to me.” Trust in him. He will give you rest.

Will you do it? Will you come to Jesus?

Let us pray.