Shaun begins the new year with the now-traditional what-is-the-gospel sermon, looking this time more particularly at the astounding features of *Who* is doing the reconciling and to whom all the reconciliation applies.Download Mp3
Note: due to technical difficulties, audio files for this sermon are not available. The manuscript for Shaun’s sermon is below with the caveat that the sermon preached is always a little different than the manuscript…
Jeff isn’t here so I can talk about him without him being embarrassed (until he listens online). Jeff is handy and I’ve had the good fortune of watching him work on projects around the church and around the manse. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that anything that is fixed is automatically attributed to Jeff. In my attempt to become a little more handy I’ve tried to notice things Jeff does. For example, even when he is excited to get started on a project he opens up the boxes and sets out all of the pieces and maps out the way he is going to put them all together. I’ve learned that you have to take stuff back apart less often that way. I should have been doing that all along I guess.
That seems like a wise way forward for us this morning too. We’ve been looking at two verses for the last four weeks and I think that before we try to put them all together, it would be good for us to lay them all out and make sure we have them in order before bolting them into place. So let me go ahead and tell you what my plan is for this sermon. First, I’d like to lay out the pieces and make sure we know what we have. Second, I’d like to address a potential objection that may arise. Then third, let’s try to understand what we’re supposed to do in response.
Looking at the Pieces
First the pieces. Max started off this Advent sermon series by rooting us in God’s love. That is the hub of these verses to be sure. God “so loved” the world in all of it’s rebellion and brokenness. That’s one piece. But the next piece follows by pointing out that God’s love for the world is demonstrated in that he sent his unique Son. I preached on that in week two. God the Father sent the Son who extended the offer of inheritance to the very same rebellious and broken world. That’s the second piece. Then last week Max preached on the third piece which was to show that God’s love is also seen in that, for those who would receive God’s love, the result is that they no longer have to live in a state of ongoing perishing. Life is available to the rebellious and broken world that God “so loves”.
This morning we come across the fourth piece in verse 17. It tells us that the point of Jesus coming was actually not to condemn the rebellious and broken world. The point was to save the world through the Son. The whole united lump of Jesus’ life, sacrificial death on the cross, and resurrection are the means by which God seeks to save.
So if we step back and look at these pieces we can start to get a sense of how to put them together. What I want you to see this morning is how good God’s intentions are towards a rebellious and broken world. God’s intention is to save. God’s intention is to share his love, even with a rebellious and broken world. When we look at these pieces we see a God with good intentions in the absolute sense of the term. Not just “nice” but truly good and loving. The point is not condemnation but salvation. This is God’s love.
A Potential Objection
Now, there have been plenty of times (not when Jeff is involved, mind you) when I have looked at the pieces to a project and been very skeptical if they really do go together the way they are supposed to. I suspect that some hearing what I’ve said so far could have some objections as to whether or not these pieces even can go together. You might be thinking, “But isn’t Jesus indeed coming to judge?” Maybe you have heard more than your share of judgment sermons from frothy preachers. Or maybe you have read passages like Matthew 25:31ff; Acts 10:42, 17:31; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27; Jude 15; 2 Peter 3:7; or the Apostle John’s own writings in John 5:22-27; and 1 John 4:17. These passages speak of Jesus and judgment. Jesus actually is coming to judge. Isn’t this a problem for our verse? It’s not for at least two reasons.
One reason the objection doesn’t hold is timing. John is writing here about Jesus’ incarnation and earthly ministry. His point is that it’s not about blasting away in judgment, but rather it’s about salvation. We might even say that the incarnation and earthly ministry of Jesus was a way to get the whole judgment thing right after years of God’s people saying, “Look at those nations Lord! Blast ‘em and make things right!” But Jesus comes and requires that God’s people take a peak in the mirror. The wickedness of the Nations is a real problem, but Jesus’ ministry prevented people from dismissing their own wickedness that was tucked under layers of religious cover. So the truth is that Jesus will one day sit to judge like all those verses say, but the incarnation was not for that purpose.
You might even notice that I switched words on you. I’m using the term judgment. The Apostle John exercises an economy of words in his writings that make the Greek simple to read but also more layered in understanding than it may appear at first glance. I think the ESV is helpful by translating this word in our our verses as “condemnation”. It gets at what I think is the correct connotation of the word John uses in this spot. The incarnation was not for trial and sentencing. There will be a time for that. But what John is writing about here was about presenting God’s love to the world so that the world could see there is a different way forward. There is another possible end. The Christ who was God-made-flesh would become the Christ-who-died-and-rose-again so that the rebellious and broken world could know peace with their creator and not have to fear Christ-the-just-judge.
In one sense, we could say that the incarnation was a kind of judgment (19) in that it tells the naked truth about us and our condition – we are helplessly sinful. But the incarnation was not a judgment in the sense that, instead of leveling a just sentence, it provided the singular means by which the world could avoid the condemnation it is already experiencing (18). There is a day coming when Jesus will sit on the Judgment Seat and all of life will be adjudicated for our heart-produced actions (e.g. Matt 25). But John tells us here that when Jesus showed up at his incarnation it was so that there could be hope, and life, and confident peace well ahead of that Great Assize. So the timing in reference matters to how we understand John’s meaning.
The Problem/Not-problem of Judgement
The other reason I don’t think the objection holds is more of an emotional reason. That is, the tug of our hearts affirms God’s judgment in Christ even if we don’t always recognize it. People bristle at the whole idea of judgment but the history of humankind is full of examples of people trying to make the world right. The annals of history demonstrate how people have tried to do it: wielding power through political might, conquering nations that get in the way of political might, and even rebelling against people who have wielded power through political might. There is the use of music and literature and other art forms to expose injustice and try to convey visions of what the ideal world should be. We use education, and science, and even financial policies as means to make things right. Everybody wants justice. We just argue over who gets to define it and how it should be meted out. Apart from Christ our notions of judgment truncate justice into little self-shaped corners of what “the right” might be.
But Jesus came to make all things right. Jesus came to bring the life that God intended for all of creation. Jesus comes to enact the exact kind of judgment our hearts are longing for but cloud over with hypocrisy, and self-centeredness, and lesser visions of what “the right” even means. Jesus will come to adjudicate that kind of justice. But Jesus also came the first time to provide a way out of the ways we participate in creating the need for renewed justice. Jesus came to end our condemnation so we can experience his righting of the world at peace with God and not under God’s just verdict.
What We Are to Do
Those might be meaty theological things to say. What do we do? In our verses, the line between remaining under condemnation and right-now-no-longer-being-condemned comes down to belief. According to verse 18, if true condemnation remains it is because a person has not believed in “the name of the only Son of God.” On the other hand, the one who does believe is not being condemned. Interestingly, even the grammar indicates that there is right now no condemnation for the one who believes. In one sense Jesus’ future acquittal of believers at judgment is right now being brought to bear in their lives. Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection you can right now know freedom from condemnation. That means that the question of how you will experience the God of heaven comes down to whether or not you will believe.
Now belief can be like music in a coffee shop. We know it is playing, and from time to time we pay attention long enough to say, “Oooh I like this song”. Or we bristle because they are playing Mariah Carey…again…but then we get back to our work as our awareness fades. Likewise for some, belief in Jesus is an idea you pay attention to when the sentiment hits, then ignore when the sentiment fades. Some of you may be fine with belief in principal but you aren’t acting on it in your lives. You might believe intellectually that Jesus makes theological sense but that has little bearing how you engage the world.
Belief in Jesus is about more than just ascent to sentimental ideas. It is about wholesale trust pressed into the crevices of life. Would you be willing to press belief in Jesus into how you work, how you play, how you make the decisions of your lives, even (dare I say it) how you feel about things? If you aren’t sure how to do that, let’s talk.
This week I got several emails and a few messages. It probably says more about my internal world the last few weeks, but a couple of them put me on the defensive. As I read them I wanted to protect myself from what they seemed to insinuate between the lines about me. My internal gears set to spinning with thoughts, and deflections, and even a bit of self-doubt. I say “between the lines” because digital communication leaves a lot of room to add in what the other person’s motives are. I mean, one of the messages even replied to what I said by writing, “ok”. What is that supposed to mean? “Ok” as in it’s fine or sarcastically “Ok” as in I’m way off base? I’m being a little silly I know, but what you assume about the motives of the person sending the message says a lot about how you receive it.
That brings us back to what I believe is the heart of this text when all of the pieces are fully assembled. This Jesus that God sent, as a baby, and as a teacher, and as an outsider, and as a king; this Jesus comes as God’s message to a rebellious and broken world. And what you think God’s motives are will say a lot about how you receive Jesus; whether you will reject him and remain in condemnation, or whether you will believe. Whether you will dismiss him or put your trust in him and know the life he offers.
For some of you this is a problem because, while you may have loads of well-organized theology in your mind, you live your lives like God is probably still out to get you, at least just a little bit. Would you be willing this morning to dare believe Jesus demonstrates that God’s intentions towards the world and towards you are good? That means you can stop living as though God is most likely scowling at you? Maybe you need to walk through that some more. Let’s talk.
Still the point of this Advent series has been to remind us that God actually loves us. That is why Jesus came. That is what we celebrate during this season. Will you believe?
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Note: due to technical difficulties, audio files for today’s sermon are not available. The manuscript for Shaun’s sermon is below with the caveat that the sermon preached is always a little different than the manuscript…
When Eva was much younger we were on the porch playing with bubbles. I would blow them, she would try to grab them, and when she would try to put her hands on one it would burst. Every once in a while one would land on her hand but about the time she would touch it, it would still burst. Have you ever felt that way about life? Have you ever tried to understand the meaning of all of the things you see around you, but every time you think you get close it falls apart? It seems we can never get our hands around the meaning of life and every time we think we get close it pops in our hands. We are constantly frustrated. As one theologian has said, no matter how hard we look “life does not provide the key to itself.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes understood the quest for an answer to the problem of living. The wisest man ever put all of his wisdom and resources to the task of understanding life and threw up his hands saying “I can’t get it!” The word translated “vanity” in the ESV means something like “vapor” or “mist” or “breath”. Translators have tried to carry the meaning of this in unfortunate ways like “meaningless”. But the author is not saying life is pointless, he is saying that you and I can’t get all of life any more than we can hold a wisp of smoke or grasp a bubble. This is problematic for us because we want answers! We want to know the solution to the problem of life and living! So is there a way forward? I’d like to propose that there is a way forward so this morning I’d like to talk about 2 possible solutions, 2 duties, and a surprise.
I. 2 Possible Solutions
The book of Ecclesiastes presents us with two possible solutions to the problem of living. The first is one that we are painfully familiar with. It is what the author calls a “striving after the wind.” We see this in verses 14 and 17 of the chapter we have just read and it pops up throughout Ecclesiastes. This is the author’s assessment of human attempts to figure out how life works and why. It is something like watching someone try to chase down a receipt in a wind storm.
There are lots of examples of this attempt to answer the problem of living. It goes on all around us and some of us are approaching life this way right now. You can put the “wind chasing” solution into at least two big categories. The first wind-chasing solution is trying to answer the problem of living with experience. That is, trying to find some sort of meaning in life we try to find it in the next big “rush.” Pornography, risky relationships, or drug use never satisfy cravings for fulfillment. Neither does the rush of a huge sale, a powerful promotion, a new religious experience, a whopping academic performance, or losing oneself in online fantasy worlds. And though it may be hard to hear, neither do things as beautiful as getting to live in your perfect setting, finally getting married, or having the child you’ve longed for. In the end, these things can only point to something else. Experiences in themselves do not hold the key to the problem of living.
Another form of wind-chasing is avoidance. Some try to avoid the big questions by keeping things “fun” and light, never letting the plow of life drop any deeper than the easy surface. Some try to avoid the problem of living by crowding out any times of quiet contemplation. I thought about this as we were at the Mall of America this past week. We like to create flashy means to a quick and easy (though not cheap) diversion. Air-brush caricatures, slushies, giant legos. These are to the problem of living what pop-rocks are to nutrition. They’re exciting in the mouth but empty in the stomach. They may feel fun for a moment but they don’t end with joy. They are just striving after the wind and never actually deal with the questions.
But, there is a different solution to the problem of living. That is to submit to the one who made us. This might seem like a silly thing to say but this is something that we struggle to do because we don’t want to admit that God has the right to tell us how to deal with life. I understand there may be some here (or listening) that question the whole notion of a creator. If that is you, I would say, hang around and see if the things that are said here over time about God ring true with reality. I’d love to talk more with you about that but I think that if you can suspend your suspicions about Christianity you might be intrigued.
When I say that the second solution to the problem of living is to submit to God as the creator of life, I am talking specifically about the God of the Bible. I mean the One the Bible says lovingly made all things good, who then endured the discontented rebellion of mankind, but whose perfect love and justice could not leave that disaster unfixed. In his great love he provided the means by which people could return to him and to life as it was designed. That means is the gift of Jesus, so that whoever would believe on him would not continue in perishing but be restored to true life. The question for us is whether we will keep striving after the wind or submit to the one who lovingly made us.
II. 2 Duties (Eccl 12:13)
The next question then is, what does submitting to God entail? If we are to submit to God’s way of dealing with life, his answer to the problem of living is found in a refrain throughout Ecclesiastes and again in the conclusion of the book found in chapter 12 verses 13. There we find that the key to dealing with the problem of living is articulated in two duties. We are to fear God and keep his commandments.
What does that mean? To fear God means to approach God with awe and love. We honor his right to tell us how the world he made works. We trust that he made us and knows how to take care of us. Further, he loves us enough to want to actually follow through with what is best for us in spite of our striving after empty imitations. To fear God means to care enough to put in the effort to explore his love for us and grow in our love for him. To fear God means to actually pay attention because his power and love justifies it.
Fearing God is pretty fundamental to submitting to his way of dealing with life. But the second thing is also pretty basic. We are to keep his commands. You would think that this one is so obvious that we wouldn’t have to be told. But over and over again but we try to deal with the problems of living in every way except doing what he says. We are willing to go through all sorts of flaming hoops for the key to life but God says in Micah 6:8, “Listen, I’ve told you what is good. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before me.” We look to the best seller list to give us the new “secret” to life but Jesus says in John 6, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We want the decoder ring for all of our decisions but the Lord says in Philippians 1:9-10, “have a bigger love for me and you’ll be able to discern what is right.”
God’s answer to the problem of living is really not rocket science. When the author of Ecclesiastes says the answer to the problem of living is to fear God and keep his commandments, it is a lot like Vince Lombardi telling his team every year, “Gentlemen, this is a football…” Friends, the Lord is God. You are his creatures. Fear him and keep his commandments.
III. A Surprise
Some of you feel like this is a non-answer to the question of meaning and in some respects that is true. The author does not give us an engineering diagram on how life works so that we can ascertain the ins and outs and thereby have a sense of control. God answers by saying “I am God…you are not…be the gloriously beloved creature.” What is amazing though is that if we would submit to our place as creatures made by a loving God who has revealed himself in Jesus – if we would in fact fear God keep his commandments – we would be surprised by the result.
I’ve been wrestling pretty hard in my heart lately. It has been fight for the joy that is mine in Christ. I recognize that a lot of the default impulses I have to answer the questions that rattle around in this noisy head of mine are a lot of wind-chasing. There are lots of ways a person can run. There are lots of answers that sound appealing until you pray them out loud and hear how much selfishness, and self-pity, and just plain silliness is involved even, if you can describe the silliness with spiritual sounding vocabulary.
If you read 3:9-13, 5:18-20, or 9:7-10 you would find the refrain I mentioned. Here the author seems to resign himself to work, relationships, and worship. You can read these verses as negative, but that is not the intent of the author. These verses are profoundly positive. The writer is saying, “Life is a vapor that you can’t close your hands on, but God has given you delights of work, commandments, relationships, food and drink. Go about living as God commands and enjoy the Lord’s good gifts.” Work. People. Food. Worship. These are the normal things of life. These are the basics we are called to give ourselves to. This is the context in which we are to fear God and keep his commandments. The big surprise though is that contentment and joy and even pleasure in life actually comes by faithfully living the life God has put before you as an obedient and thankful child of the creator. This is exactly what we are looking for. This is how we are to pursue the joyful contentment God has created us for.
I’ve told you before that during part of my time in seminary I worked as a janitor. There were times throughout the day I would find myself needing a scraper for some random bit of good or grime. Often the closest thing at hand for such a job was the YMCA card that was attached to my keychain. It kind of worked but it peeled, and folded in half, and eventually could not be read by the scanner at the YMCA. Because it wasn’t being utilized for its created purpose, it was being destroyed.
Some of you are chasing after the wind. You are longing for contentment and you are chasing it down like someone grasping at bubbles. You need to know that you will never be happy like that because that is not what God made you for. The more you chase after the wind, the more futile you will feel even if those futile feelings can be described with very intellectual sounding explanations. The Lord didn’t create us for discontent and joylessness so the quest for joy makes sense. It’s just that God made you for the kind of contentment that only comes by fearing him and keeping his commandments. There is a stunning simplicity to that.
What will you choose today, will you strive after the wind, or will you submit to God’s solution to the problem of living?
Max Harris continues the advent sermon series from John 3:16-17 with a focus on the role and impacts of God’s verifiable love in giving life that does not perish.Download Mp3
Shaun continues the advent sermon series from John 3: 16-17 with a focus on the uniqueness of the forgiveness and relational restoration made possible because of Jesus, in particular, being sent. This love, revealed and at work, changes how we can live.Download Mp3
Max Harris kicks off the Advent series on John 3:16-17 with a look at the very first part of the first verse: “God so loved the world”. There is no group of people who are are not included by “the world”, so the love is for an “us” that has no “them”. Furthermore, this love is not purely a legal or contractual love. but a deep and true love that God wants us to believe, enjoy, and model for others.Download Mp3
Shaun continues the sermon series from Exodus with the story of God providing water from the rock, looking at the responses of each of the parties (the Israelites, Moses, and God) to each other, the main lesson for both the Israelites and us, and how we can live out a blessed response to this main lesson.Download Mp3
Shaun continues the series of Moses with a look at how the story of the manna and quail called the Israelite people to trust in God. We too should trust God instead of grumbling, bet-hedging, or discarding what God says. Jesus is our “manna” – his very arrival shows that God is faithful.
Shaun continues through the narrative of Israel’s trek from Egypt to Sinai with discussion of God’s next communication with the people: He will be their healer, if they listen and obey. Shaun carries these two commandments forward to us today, discussing the distractions that hinder our ability to hear God and how to take the next step in obedience.Download Mp3