If we could borrow Marty McFly's time machine and set it to the 1st-century AD, let's say December, 95 AD, in Ephesus, and we could find the church there and listen to a sermon or two, what might we hear? Would we hear a 'Christmas' sermon? Well, perhaps. But it certainly would not use the word "Christmas," invented much later, nor would it probably deal with the popular themes of modern Christmas messages like angels and shepherds and mangers and stars.
In fact, if we were fortunate enough to hear a sermon from the apostle John, author of the gospel that bears his name (along with 1-3 John and the incredible book of Revelation) he may well talk about the coming of Jesus Christ into this world, but I doubt it would sound much like what you can hear from a pulpit in December of 2017.
John, we believe, was an overseer and evangelist with the church in Ephesus. His first letter sounds a lot more like a sermon than a letter. And one of the foci of 1 John is the truth of Jesus' first-coming and what is important about it. I plan to explore this with you at 36th Street in December.
I want to lead us through some of John’s most important teachings on this theme. We will do this not only on Sunday mornings but also at our evening assembly, where we will address some special topics related to this that come from John’s letters – things like the Anti-Christ (1-2 John), and the danger of false teachers (2 John), and the importance of hospitality (3 John).
I hope this will be a helpful and challenging and meaningful series of message for our spiritual family in December! Hope you’ll come!
“Are you a man, or a mouse?” is the way they used to say it, back in the day. Will you act with courage, or shrink back like a coward? In the Wizard of Oz, the cowardly lion needed an infusion of courage. He went to a wizard to get it.
We are often concerned with fending off fear and acting in the face of it. It is a struggle all sane people have, even if they do not admit it. How do the cowardly become courageous?
Consider the apostles of Jesus…
All of them, save John, apparently, were cowards at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. They all ran away and were later found huddled and shaking in their boots behind locked doors. A locked door may remove a threat, but it does nothing to alleviate fear. Peter went so far as to deny he even knew Jesus three times in order to evade trouble during the Lord’s trials.
They were cowards. That is not harsh, just the facts. I do not claim we would have done any better than them given the same set of facts. But how do the cowardly become courageous?
Look at Acts chapter 4. By Acts 4, it has been done – these men have found their courage. They are boldly and publicly proclaiming the good news of Jesus, despite the threats. Peter and John do so before their worst enemies – the Sanhedrin! When asked how they dared to continue to preach Christ in Jerusalem, they answer clearly and boldly and apparently without fear. How? How do the cowardly become courageous?
A couple of hints. Acts 4:8 – “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” There is no room for fear in a person filled with the Holy Spirit. Recall what the Scripture says – “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Then Acts 4:13 – after hearing what Peter said, the enemies realized something. These men had been with Jesus. They looked like Jesus, they acted like Jesus, they responded like Jesus. And of course, the name of Jesus was constantly on their lips, and they were consistently testifying to the truth of Jesus. No room for fear in that equation!
Filled with the Holy Spirit. Devoted to Jesus Christ. It’s how cowards become courageous! You don’t need a medal stamped “Courage!” You don’t need some macho pep-talk. You don’t even need a weapon. All you need is the Spirit within and a relationship with Jesus that shows to everyone without.
I continue to be fascinated with the exchange between Jonah and the pagan sailors on the good ship "Runaway" in Jonah chapter 1. When the sailors confront the prophet about his identity as they seek a reason for the calamity that has come upon them, Jonah responds with a highly orthodox statement of faith in Jonah 1:9 - "I fear Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." Sounds good, doesn't it? At first blush, this seems to be a prophet who knows his stuff, a real truth defender who is not afraid to tell it like it is!
And yet, a closer look reveals the words are merely words, and thus the sound they make is not certain. For these orthodox words come from the lips of a man trying to escape the will of this God he proclaims. Jonah may preach a strong sermon on God, who He is and what is important to believe about Him, but who would listen long when they realize the actions don't match the belief system? A false prophet might be false because of what he says about God, or he might be false because he does not truly follow God personally.
Then look at the sailors. Sure we could raise all kinds of objections to their unorthodox and superstitious views of life and spiritual matters. Yet these men throughout the mini-story of chapter 1 repeatedly cry out in prayer to the "gods" (verses 5-6), and to Yahweh (verse 14). In fact, before the chapter closes, the men are offerings vows and sacrifices to the one, true God.
Jonah, the prophet of God who preached but did not pray. The pagan sailors, who did not know God but sought His guidance and approval and spoke to Him from the midst of their storm. A man who knew the truth but did not live it. Confused idolaters who sought the truth with all their strength.
Orthodoxy is useless if not lived out in genuine ways. Confusion can be sorted through by a God full of mercy and steadfast love, if He has an honest heart to work with.
You can learn a lot in a boat.
Is it easier to identify with people when you find yourself in the same boat with them?
Jonah finds himself dealing with two different groups of pagans in the course of his story - those he shared a boat with in Jonah 1:4-16 and the citizens of Nineveh in Jonah 3:3-10. We have reflected already in this series on the ungodly attitude Jonah displayed toward the lost Assyrians. But have you ever thought about those pagan sailors and the difference in how Jonah ministered to them?
The sailors were as pagan as the citizens - they were doubtless idolaters of the first rank - superstitious to the core. But with them, Jonah shares his "testimony" - Jonah 1:9 - as well as doing a very Christ-like thing in offering up his own life to save that of these seamen - Jonah 1:12. His influence in this short time with these men is impressive, as Jonah has them praying to Yahweh God before all is said and done - Jonah 1:14.
Certainly this reflects the truth that Jonah was a hidebound Israelite nationalist, we might even say an anti-Assyrian racist. But perhaps there is more going on here. Jonah was in the boat with these sailors - for how long, we do not know, but surely it was a significant time. They were on their way to the furthest point west at the time - Tarshish - which many think was in Spain. Jonah spent time with these guys. They worked on the ship together. They talked and ate together. Maybe they shared stories together.
Maybe some of the difference we see is simply the fact that Jonah took the time to get to know these pagans a bit. He had time to discover they were not monsters, they were fellow human beings. They had wives and families. They had hopes and dreams. Different beliefs? Certainly! Different manners and morals? Most likely. But being in the boat with them gave them a shared experience and a common humanity, at least for a time. And such opened the door in Jonah's heart to be God to these men - to even offer his life for them.
I am humbled and a bit shamed when I ask myself the application question: how often have I taken the time to "get in the boat" with unbelievers, enemies, people I disagree with? How much time have I shared with people different from me - different in beliefs, different in lifestyle?
The answer to that question might shed light on my lack of influence in sharing Jesus with people who need Him.
As an evangelist, I would consider it a great success and would be overjoyed to find that somebody I was working with understood and accepted the following truths about the God of heaven: "You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster." This is what Jonah knew and believed about God- Jonah 4:2. And yet, it is so twisted that the prophet did not want this truth applied to the situation at hand: the fate of the sinners in Nineveh.
Jonah knew - he just knew! - that God was going to end up forgiving and saving these wicked Assyrians. He knew it! And he hated it! Would it be going too far to say Jonah hated God? Perhaps. But he certainly hated what God stood for. Sometimes we say of God (and sometimes of ourselves!) - "He loves the sinner but hates the sin." True. But imagine with our man Jonah: he loved God but hated what God did. Incredible!
How does this happen? Possibly it happens when a person forgets that the grace they have received is undeserved. How short was the memory of this reluctant prophet? He had just been rescued from a near-death experience in the belly of a monster fish (Jonah 2), through no effort of his own, and not deserving said rescue one little bit! It was totally a gift of mercy and grace from the God who loved him.
Turn just a page or so later in your Bible, and Jonah, still wet behind the ears with salt water and wiping seaweed out of his nostrils, sits pouting on a hillside, in a rage, apparently expecting God to change who He is and submit to Jonah's wishes for fire from heaven to descend upon this city, full of 120,000 fellow human beings and many innocent animals (Jonah 4:11). It is such a ludicrous scene we scratch our heads and struggle to understand.
We would never be like that!