Category Archives: sermon-archive

gifts for the missionary

“Gifts for the missionary” was the title of the message I shared at three churches in Illinois September 10th and 17th, 2017.  Here is the message:

Daniel 1 (CSB17)

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. 2 The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God. Nebuchadnezzar carried them to the land of Babylon, to the house of his god, and put the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility– 4 young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the Chaldean language and literature. 5 The king assigned them daily provisions from the royal food and from the wine that he drank. They were to be trained for three years, and at the end of that time they were to attend the king. 6 Among them, from the Judahites, were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. 7 The chief eunuch gave them names; he gave the name Belteshazzar to Daniel, Shadrach to Hananiah, Meshach to Mishael, and Abednego to Azariah. 8 Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself. 9 God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch, 10 yet he said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and drink. What if he sees your faces looking thinner than the other young men your age? You would endanger my life with the king.” 11 So Daniel said to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king’s food, and deal with your servants based on what you see.” 14 He agreed with them about this and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food. 16 So the guard continued to remove their food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables. 17 God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind. 18 At the end of the time that the king had said to present them, the chief eunuch presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king interviewed them, and among all of them, no one was found equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they began to attend the king. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding that the king consulted them about, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and mediums in his entire kingdom. 21 Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.

 

Our text begins with a tragedy, but most of us skip right past it, only stopping to notice what we already know. So, allow me to share the background to the story.  The first person listed in the text is king Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim was the puppet of two Gentile superpowers. He first surrendered the sovereignty of his nation to Egypt. Then, after Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem he switched sides and supported that superpower.

 

The author of 2 Kings tells us that all this “happened to Judah at the Lord ‘s command to remove them from his presence” (2Ki 24:3 CSB). The kings of Judah had been so rebellious and violent that they had “filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive” (2Ki 24:4 CSB).

 

The prophets had warned Judah for years that it had no immunity from being judged by God. But they always felt that they could handle whatever happened. Maybe they thought that their former and present kings had made mistakes, but they probably thought that the next generation would be different. Surely the next crop of the best and the brightest in Judah would turn things around. But then, Nebuchadnezzar rounds up the lot of these best and brightest Judahites and takes them away to Babylon to make Babylonians out of them!

The real tragedy in all this is not just the fact that tough times have come to God’s people. The real tragedy is that it is God who is behind all this. This dark story serves as the background to the amazing book of Daniel.

The book of Daniel is best categorized as an apocalyptic prophecy. But this first chapter in the book makes no predictions and describes no events or nations in symbol. The chapter simply sets the historical backdrop for the parts of the book which do predict the future.

When I recently asked the Lord to give me a text which I could use to preach on world missions, he gave me this text. I didn’t exactly know why. I thought it probably had to do with the extensive cross-cultural training that Daniel and his three friends experienced. They were taken out of their home culture and context and forced to adjust to a new political structure, a new economic life, a new religious world, a new social environment, a new intellectual grid, and even a new artistic arena.

They were each given new Aramaic Babylonian names.

You might have noticed that two of their original Hebrew names ended in EL (DaniEL, MishaEL). EL is short for Elohim, the Hebrew word for God.

  • Daniel means “Elohim is my judge.”
  • Mishael means “Who is like Elohim?”

The other two names ended in YAH (HananiYAH, AzariYAH).  YAH is short for Yahveh, the covenant name for God.

  • Hananiah means “Yahveh is gracious.”
  • Azariah means “Yahveh is my helper.”

The chief eunuch gave these young men new, Aramaic Babylonian names that featured the names of the Babylonian gods Bel, Aku, Nebo or Nergal.

  • Belteshazzar probably meant “Bel will protect him.”
  • Shadrach probably meant “command of Aku.”
  • Meshach probably meant “who is like Aku?”
  • Abednego probably meant “servant of Nebo” or “servant of Nergal.”

This was only the first step in Nebuchadnezzar’s planned indoctrination of these young men. He would also make sure they became fluent in Aramaic, and skilled in the magic arts.

Part of the enticement for these young men to go along with the king’s plans was for them to be allowed a diet fit for the king himself – rich in meats, sweets and wine.  It was this enticement that Daniel objected to most of all.  He could treat all the other cultural immersion factors as academic. But if he got used to feasting like Nebuchadnezzar, he was sure that it would defile him.

Now, here is – I think – the theological focus of this chapter.  Daniel, as an Israelite, has a commandment that guided his life.  He had the Old Testament equivalent of the Great Commission.  His ancestor, Abraham, was commanded to bless the nations.

“And I will make of you an influential nation, and I will bless you and make your name important, and be a blessing (Gen 12:2 JDV).

Daniel felt personally responsible to be a positive influence upon the nation of Babylonia. But he knew that he could not make that influence if he entirely set aside his own identity as a Hebrew. They could take the Jew out of Jerusalem, but he would not allow them to take Jerusalem out of the Jew.

Herein is the missions challenge for all of us. We have each been called to serve God within a particular culture and ethno-linguistic people group.  How do we bless that culture without losing our Christian identity within it?  For Daniel, the question was how could he bless the Babylonians without totally becoming one. For Christians in 21st century anywhere, that is essentially the same challenge we face.

That was essentially the question I brought to this text as I stood with my Bible open a few days ago.  I was looking for a clue as to the structure of the chapter. I found that the same Hebrew word is repeated three times. The word drives the narrative. That word is the verb נתן (natan). It means “to give.”  It is translated with different words in English, but each time it appears, it categorizes the whole section it is in.

The first appearance of נתן is in verse 2:

“The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God.”

When the biblical author writes the story of this great tragedy, he is careful to maintain the complete sovereignty of God.  Jehoiakim failed, Judah failed, but God did not fail. Jerusalem was overrun by Gentiles because God allowed it. The temple was robbed because God gave its treasures up. The Israelites were taken captive because God made it happen. Yahveh was not pacing up and down in heaven, wondering what he could do.  History was still marching at his pace. The planet was still in his control.  When Daniel and his friends left Jerusalem, it was because God had a mission for them in Babylon.

The second appearance of נתן is in verse 9:

“God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch.”

The same God who orchestrated the events that brought Daniel and his friends to Babylon also orchestrated the relationships he had with others.  The key players who made it possible for the Hebrew men to restrict their diets ware the chief eunuch and the guard. It was not enough for Daniel and his friends to be in Babylon.  They had to demonstrate the difference between the Babylonian gods and their God.  They had to show their commitment to Yahveh.  God allowed the chief eunuch and the guard to show them favor so that they could see the difference.  They oversaw their training and it would be them who would decide whether they were worthy to be tested by the king.

The final appearance of נתן is in verse 17:

“God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom.”

Here again, we see God at work. Many of the Bibles and commentaries on this chapter emphasize the faithfulness of Daniel and his friends. They were found faithful.  But the author of this book is not just emphasizing human faithfulness.  He is demonstrating God’s involvement in the lives of these men.  These young men were highly skilled and proved themselves better than all the other candidates – not just because they were faithful to God – but because God gave them the knowledge and wisdom and skills they needed. God had a vested interest in putting these young men in positions of leadership in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.

Daniel recognized that as a child of Abraham he had the responsibility – nay, the mission to be a blessing to the nation of Babylonia.  God sovereignly orchestrated the details of world history to put him in Babylon.   God arranged the necessary relationships that enabled Daniel to remain faithful and distinctive as an Israelite despite Nebuchadnezzar’s plan to turn him into a Babylonian.  God also gave him the understanding and skills and resources he needed to succeed in his mission.

Fast forward a few thousand years. Now it is our turn. We also have a mission from God – a Great Commission from Christ. Christ has called us to make disciples of all nations.  Some of those nations might be relatively easy to reach for Christ.  But some – like Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon – will require a tremendous cultural immersion.

The good news is that the same God who worked behind the scenes in Daniel’s life to make him successful in his mission is ready to help us too.

  • He is sovereign, and he can change the course of world history if necessary to place you where he wants you.
  • He knows just the right people who you need to befriend to open the doors for your discipling ministry.
  • He stands ready to give you the knowledge, skills, and resources you need to get the job done.

Maybe you have never considered serving the Lord as a missionary.  Lots of people don’t.  Lots of people think that God cannot use them to reach others for Christ.  The only thing you need to be successful as a missionary is the one thing Daniel had – the presence of God.  So, I want to remind you of what Jesus said to his disciples right after he gave them his Great Commission. He said, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mat 28:20 CSB17).

 

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the big catch

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(See Matthew 4:18-22) Imagine Jesus walking on the beach of the lake called the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers, Simon (whom he had called Peter) and Andrew his brother, throwing a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. And at that time he commanded them, “Follow me, and I promise to make you into fishers of people.” Realizing who Jesus was, they immediately left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, repairing their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him too.

Our story of the big catch begins here – not in the bustling, crowded city of Jerusalem, but in a remote beach setting in Galilee. There would never have been a big catch in Jerusalem if there had not been a command and promise by Jesus that day on the beach. These four fishermen would have caught only fish if they had not obeyed Christ’s command and trusted in his promise that day.

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(See Luke 5:1-11) But something happened once while the crowd was mobbing him so they could hear the word of God, he was standing again on the beach of Lake Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee), and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had got out of them and were washing their nets. After getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And after he stopped speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Teacher, we worked hard all night and caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets.“ He didn’t realize that Jesus was using this experience to teach them what he had promised to teach – how to fish for people. When they had obeyed him and put the net on the other side, they caught so many fish that their nets started to rip. So they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they were about to sink. But when Simon Peter saw the miracle, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, because I am a sinful man!” Because Peter and all who were with him were stunned at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s work partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” So when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

This is the first of two lessons that Jesus taught Peter and the other disciples about fishing for people. That day, the disciples learned that God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions.

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(See John 21:4-11) On a day after Jesus’ resurrection, just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they threw it, and then they were not able to haul it in, because of the weight of the fish. John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.

This miracle is similar to the first one, but took place three years later. Jesus used this miracle to remind the disciples that they were going to be involved in the big catch soon – the people catch. The same principles of people catching are being taught by this miracle. But this incident seems to give a powerful hint as to when the big catch would take place. Why 153 fish? The Bible does not say, so we should be careful about speculating. There is an interesting coincidence. The year was 33AD. Not too many days from this incident, these disciples would be gathered together in Jerusalem as part of a larger group, waiting for Pentecost. That larger group numbered 120. 120 + 33 = 153.

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Jesus had commanded his disciples to gather in Jerusalem and to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit to manifest. Then they would know that it was time to drop their net. He had described that event as a second baptism, and reminded them that John’s baptism was in water, but this second baptism was going to be in the Holy Spirit. The lessons that Jesus had taught his disciples to get them ready for the big catch had all taken place in water. But the real catch was not going to be in water. The whole group was going to be immersed in the Holy Spirit, and the miracle would manifest. Remember the principles of the big catch: that God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions.

To put it another way, the big catch happens because God provides the hook, and his servants provide the bait. The hook is the miracle that draws the crowd. The bait is the gospel message about who Christ is and what he has done. The book of Acts demonstrates that the hook keeps changing, but the bait remains the same. The way God manifests his power to get people’s attention changes all the time, but the gospel of Jesus Christ stays the same. The pattern that we learn about in the book of Acts is not a constant repetition of Pentecost, but a people who patiently wait for the Lord to manifest his power, then seize the opportunity to let down their nets with gospel preaching.

The Jerusalem church was literally born in a day, but it happened that way because the disciples were willing to wait on the Lord to provide the location and the power, and they provided the witness.

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Another thing that we learn in the book of Acts is that this great megachurch that went from 120 to 3000 in one day, and 5000 not long afterwards – faced disaster after disaster in the years that followed. In fact, in less than forty years, this megachurch was out of business. Famine, persecution, and church conflict kept taking their toll, and finally all the Christians fled Jerusalem for Petra just prior to the siege and war that destroyed the temple in 70AD.

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But the megachurch was not God’s ultimate plan. God’s ultimate plan was for the gospel to go with these Christians as they scattered throughout the Roman empire.

God is doing the same kind of thing today. Sometimes he brings together large churches, at other times he sends people out to plant the gospel in places where there is no church. Sometimes we have great success, at other times we do not. What matters is that we stay faithful at the task.

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The fish are still out there. We may have to wait a lot for the next big catch, but God is still able to make it happen. His power is still present. He has taught us what we need to know to be involved in the next big catch. God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions. We don’t know what hook he is going to use next, but we do know what bait he has given us to use. That never changes. Paul said “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It was God’s power to save the Jews in Jerusalem, and the Greeks in Greece, and the Romans in Rome. It is God’s power to save the Filipinos, the Kiwis, the Japanese, the Malaysians, the Burmese, the Thai, the Indians, and even the Americans.

So, if you want to be ready for the next big catch, pull out your net and make sure that your presentation of the gospel is ready. Then, when God tells you where to witness, you can pull in a pile.

 

Discipling with a mother’s touch

Discipling with a mother’s touch

1 Thessalonians 2:1-9

1 For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition. 3 For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit;

4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. 5 For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed–God is witness– 6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. 7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. 9 For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

One of the foundational objectives of all Christians is to make disciples. Jesus commanded that we all take on this responsibility, and so we must ask ourselves what we are doing to make disciples of all nations every day.  But the Bible also gives us examples and instructions on how to disciple. Today we look at one of the passages where the apostle Paul describes his discipling ministry. In this passage, Paul told the Thessalonians that his missionary team discipled them with a mother’s touch. Let’s examine what he said more closely.

A mother boldly loves her children despite the pain and hardship her investment costs her (1-2).

 

  • My mother often said, “When they are small, they step on your toes, when they grow bigger, they step on your heart.” She knew that raising kids is hard work, and it is often painful and costly.
  • Paul reminded the Thessalonians that his team’s mission work in Thessalonica “was not in vain” — it was an investment of hard and costly work that paid off. We learn from 1 Thess. 1 that…
    • They brought the gospel to Thessalonica with full conviction, and displayed God’s power among them.
    • The Thessalonians learned the character of the mission team.
    • The Thessalonians became imitators of Paul’s team, receiving the gospel with joy despite the suffering it caused them.
    • The Thessalonians became an example of faith for other believers to follow in the regions of Macedonia and Achaia.
    • The Thessalonians turned from idol worshippers to true servants of the living and true God, and put their hope in the resurrected and returning Christ.
  • Paul reminded the Thessalonians that his team “had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi” – In Acts 16:9-40 we discover that …
    • Paul was in Troas when he saw a vision of a man from Macedonia begging him to come over to Macedonia and help the people there.
    • When they arrived in Philippi, they waited several days for an opportunity to preach the gospel.
    • They finally found a group of women that had come together. They shared the word with those women, and one of them – Lydia – came to Christ, and led her household to Christ, and opened her home for the mission team to use as their base while in Philippi.
    • They encountered a slave girl who was possessed by a spirit of divination. They cast the spirit out. The owners of the slave girl had Paul and Silas arrested, the crowds rioted and beat them, and then they were thrown in jail.
    • Paul and Silas prayed and sang for joy while in jail. I think I know why they were joyful. I’ll tell you in a minute.
    • At midnight, while Paul and Silas were singing, an earthquake shook the foundations of the jail house, and everyone’s chains were broken.
    • When the guard of the jail woke, and saw what had happened, he was about to kill himself. But Paul stopped him, and led him to Christ instead. Now, it is just my opinion, but I think Paul knew that this man was going to became a Christian the moment he saw him. He had seen in the vision at Troas a vision of a man from Macedonia. I think he saw that man.
    • After being released (and apologized to) the team left Philippi and headed to Thessalonica.
  • Paul’s team “had the boldness … to tell the Thessalonians the gospel of God amid much opposition.”
    • The Greek word for boldness here is παρρησιάζομαι to ‘speak without a sense of constraint’. The mission team challenged the people of Thessalonica to change their minds about Jesus.
  • In Acts 17:1-10a, we discover that…
    • They went to the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews from the scriptures.
    • Some of the Jews were persuaded, and so were a great many devout Greeks.
    • But the Jews who were not persuaded caused a riot, and had several of the believing Jews arrested. They were eventually fined and released, but they feared for the safety of the mission team, so sent them away by night to Berea.

A mother honestly loves her children without pretending to be someone she is not (3-6).

  • We raised our children in an environment very different from our own, by Penny did quite well because she never tried to be another friend for our daughters. They didn’t need another friend. They needed a mother who cared enough about them to challenge them to live right.
  • Paul said that his team’s exhortation did not come from error (3).
    • The Greek word is πλάνη ‘a wandering/roaming from the standard route’. The team preached the truth about Jesus. They didn’t falter from that standard.
  • Paul said that his team’s exhortation did not come from impurity (3).
    • The Greek word is ἀκαθαρσία filth, dirt, impurity. The team preached from pure motives.
  • Paul said that his team’s exhortation did not come from deceit (3).
    • The Greek word is δόλος ‘cunning that relies on deception for effectiveness.’ The team did not have to trick anyone, because the truth was enough to change people’s minds.
  • Paul said that his team’s exhortation did not come with flattering speech (5).
    • The Greek word is κολακεία ‘flatter’. The team did not have to appeal to anyone’s ego. The only thing they needed to know about their audience was that it was composed of 100% sinners in need of Christ.
  • Paul’s team’s exhortation did not come with a pretext for greed (5).
    • The Greek word is πλεονεξία ‘motivating force for gaining something beyond an acceptable standard’, greed, avarice. The team had nothing to gain from their audience except building the kingdom of Christ.
  • Paul’s team’s exhortation did not come with seeking glory from men (6).
    • The Greek word is δόξα the primary idea is one of ‘appearance’, then of ‘opinion’ based on what seems good or impressive, with ‘esteem’ as product] glory, honor. The team’s investment of their time and effort was temporary. They were interested in changing people’s minds about Christ, not gaining glory for themselves.

A mother tenderly loves her children, knowing that they need a gentle touch (7).

 

 

  • Paul said that his team “proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.”

A mother sacrificially loves her children, pouring out her life so that they can have what they need (8-9).

 

  • Mothers are among the hardest workers on the planet, yet ironically, they usually get no salary from the hardest work that they do.
  • Paul said, “we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives” (8).
  • He said, “For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (9).
    • in hendiadys κόπος καὶ μόχθος trouble and toil = exhausting toil.
    • What kind of troubles did Paul face? (2Co 11:23-28 NLT) I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. 24 Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26 I have travelled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. 27 I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. 28 Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches.
    • Paul told the Corinthians, “All of this is for your benefit. And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory” (2Co 4:15 NLT).
    • But what if you face the ultimate trouble? What if you die on your mission? (2Co 4:14) “We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you.”

The New Testament mentions a few mothers who were also exceptional disciplers:

 

  • John Mark’s mother (Acts 12).
  • Rufus’ mother (Romans 16).
  • Timothy’s mother (Eunice) (2 Timothy 1).

 

These ladies had what it takes to influence their children to commit their lives to Christ. We need disciplers like that.

 

We, the church of Jesus Christ, are called to make disciples, wherever we go, whatever we do. We can learn much about discipling by looking at a mother’s love, and caring for others with a mother’s touch.

Tough times prove our destiny

I read a lot of stories. One of the things I like about stories is how the characters come to life in my own mind because of the things they experience, and the thoughts they have. When I reflect on the stories, I compare the experiences and thoughts with my own experiences and thoughts.

The stories I like best are those where the heroes encounter a lot of troubles and challenges, but overcome them to accomplish their mission at the end.  The difficulties, plot twists, and even the failures and missteps are all part of the story, and they keep things from getting boring.

I have been reading through and studying some passages in God’s story – the Bible.  I have been trying to understand why God allows suffering, trials, temptations, difficulties, challenges – tough times – to pepper our lives and our stories.

When I looked at Jesus’ parable of the planter and soils in Matthew 13, I asked whether going through tough times implies that I am not a Christian. I discovered that my identity depends on who planted me, not on how difficult the soil is. In fact, Jesus tells us in that parable that God intentionally puts some of his seed in rough soil.  So, I should not be surprised to undergo challenges. The existence of those challenges serves to prove my identity as a Christian, not to disprove it.

When I looked at 1 Peter 1, I asked why God puts me through tough times – what is his ultimate plan for me, and why do I have to go through tough times to experience his ultimate plan.  Peter changes the metaphor, and says that God is a refiner. He puts his gold through the fire so that it comes out refined – purer.  Peter taught that Christians have a future we will inherit which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

When I looked at James 1, I asked how should I respond when tough times come. He says that I should respond with joy, because God is maturing me with the process. I should ask God for wisdom in how to respond, and trust him to give me that wisdom.

Today, I want to look at one of the passages where the apostle Paul talks about tough times.

Romans 5:1-5 JDV

1 Consequently, now that we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained admission by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we delight in the expectation of God’s glory. 3 Not only this, but we also delight in the things that we suffer, knowing that the suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, more expectation. 5 And what we expect does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

 

Paul was one of those heroes that we read about. And, like the heroes in the stories, he encountered a lot of suffering, trials, temptations, difficulties, challenges – tough times – throughout his life.  He had tremendous success as an evangelist and church planter, but he also paid the price for that success. This is how he described his life:

“with much greater labours, with far more imprisonments, with more severe beatings, facing death many times. Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing. Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:25-28 NET).

His life was chock full of tough times and ended in imprisonment and death by the sword. He described that life as a gruelling race that he fought to the finish, and his death as being poured out as an offering to God (2 Timothy 4:6-7).

So, I would say that Paul knew something about the topic of tough times that believers face.  Here is what he says about tough times in Romans 5:

First, he says that TOUGH TIMES CANNOT STEAL WHAT GOD HAS GIVEN TO US.

Paul was not a Pollyanna.  He did not paint the Christian life as a fairyland where Christians are guaranteed lives of health, prosperity and constant success.  Like Jesus, and James and Peter, Paul made it quite clear that Christians would face lives filled with challenges, and difficult choices. But Paul did say that in the midst of those hard races, there would always be some gifts that every Christian has that the tough times cannot take away.

  • Righteousness (1) – not the righteousness we give to God, but the righteousness he gave to us, not by our works, but by virtue of the shed blood of Christ. Our right standing with God is something that no struggle can take away from us.
  • Peace (1) – not the peace that comes from never experiencing trouble, but the peace with God that helps us to stay true to him in the midst of the struggle. A right relationship with God that trusts him to take care of all the sins in our past, and all the temptations we face now, and knows that he will, so we will have a spotless future.
  • Grace (2) — the armour in which we stand that makes it possible for us to “delight in the things we suffer.”  God’s grace toward us helps us to understand that the tough times are not judgments from an angry God. His judgment upon our sins is atoned for by the blood of his Son.
  • The Holy Spirit (5) — God’s Spirit alongside us and inside us who answers our prayers for wisdom, and helps us to see the finish line, no matter how tough the race gets. He also helps us to respond to suffering with the love of God, a love that is willing to pour our lives out for those who despise and reject us.

Secondly, Paul says that TOUGH TIMES ARE ALLOWED IN ORDER TO CHANGE US.

There was a philosophical battle going on in the time of Paul. The philosophers argued over what made a person manly.  They would look at paintings and carvings that depicted strong men in battle (like Hercules, fighting the Hydra). Some would say that the paintings described the struggle to conquer your surroundings, and that success made you manly.  Others would say that the struggles were part of the inner struggle to control and tame yourself morally.

Paul appears to have borrowed language used by some of these philosophers to describe how Christians should understand the tough times that they face.  He scribes a cycle of experiences which begins with an expectation of God’s glory (2). This may mean that we expect God to be glorified in what happens to us now, or it may mean that we expect to be ultimately glorified by God in the future.

The challenge comes when we suffer tough times.  This suffering directly contradicts our expectation. We have a choice. Either we despair and renounce our expectation, or we trust God and endure the suffering, refusing to unload our expectation.  Living out that choice to patiently endure tough times produces godly character.  The result is that we end up back where we started, with more expectation.  The expectation is preserved and enhanced by the experience.

So, how do tough times change us. They can change people by making them cynical and pessimistic, or they can strengthen their resolve and make them even more optimistic.  For Paul, tough times are a means of making our faith stronger.

Thirdly, Paul says TOUGH TIMES DEMONSTRATE OUR DESTINY.

Christians can be identified because we are the ones who “delight in the expectation of God’s glory” (2).  That means that what we want in life is for our heavenly Father’s reputation to be enhanced, and for his will to happen.

So, when something happens to us or to our loved ones which we cannot see as fitting into that frame – we choose to trust that God knows what is happening, and has allowed it for his greater glory. “What we expect does not disappoint us” (5), because we expect God to make sense of it all later. Until then, we trust our heavenly Father, and that brings him glory.

In Philippians, Paul described our faith reaction this way:

“Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7 NET).

Our expectation is challenged by tough times. Instead of becoming anxious and worrying about it, we choose to pray and God gives us peace in the midst of the struggle.  Our minds and hearts get peace, and God gets the glory for the strength we display.

Tough times prove our destiny. They give us an opportunity to display something within us which is stronger that the challenges we face.  Without the competition, the athlete would have no way of showing her strength. Without the conflict, the soldier would have no way of showing that he has been well trained. Without tough times, Christians would have no way of proving that God has given us something stronger than those tough times.

Tough times are not eternal. We are not going to be struggling with sin and sorrow and tragedy forever. But we will be able to look back on these tough times in the future and see that “our momentary, light suffering (was) producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

tough times prove our maturity

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I am not a huge fan of topical sermons. I think there is a danger of coming to the Bible with my mind already made up on a topic, and reading into the texts of scripture just what I want to hear. It is for that reason that I prefer messages like those of Dr. Flanagan of late.  He is approaching the entire Gospel of Luke, and trying to get at what Luke had in mind in the entire book, and relating each section to the book’s purpose as a whole. That is a safer practice, because it puts what God has to say above what I want to hear.

Nevertheless, I admit that there is a place in the church for topical preaching.  Sometimes I need to come to the scriptures with my questions, and seek God’s answers. That is what I have been trying to do with this series on tough times.  We have been going through some tough times as individuals, and as a church. I want to get God’s perspective on these tough times.

When I looked at Jesus’ parable of the planter and soils in Matthew 13, I asked whether going through tough times implies that I am not a Christian. I discovered that my identity depends on who planted me, not on how difficult the soil is. In fact, Jesus tells us in that parable that God intentionally puts some of his seed in rough soil.  So, I should not be surprised to undergo challenges. The existence of those challenges serves to prove my identity as a Christian, not to disprove it.

When I looked at 1 Peter 1, I asked why God puts me through tough times – what is his ultimate plan for me, and why do I have to go through tough times to experience his ultimate plan.  Peter changes the metaphor, and says that God is a refiner. He puts his gold through the fire so that it comes out refined – purer.  Peter taught that Christians have a future we will inherit which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

So, today I want to explore another text which treats the subject of tough times.

James 1: 2-8 NET

2    My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials,

3     because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

4     And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.

5     But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him.

6     But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind.

7     For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord,

8     since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways.

Some of you have probably wondered why I took so long to get to this passage.  For many, it is the go-to passage on the subject, and for at least three good reasons.

  1. The audience is similar. James is writing to churches.
  2. The context is similar. The churches are facing hard times – I mean really hard times – as in some are being persecuted and killed.
  3. Some gospel songs and choruses are based on this text, so it is easier to remember.

So, what is James telling Christians in this passage that relates directly to my questions about tough times in my context today? Here is what I find.

First, TOUGH TIMES ARE ALLOWED IN ORDER TO MATURE US.

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James says that tough times come into our lives “so that (we) will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.” (4).  In other words, just being a disciple of Christ is not enough. God wants disciples to be discipled. He uses other Christians to do that, but he also uses tough times as part of the process.

James tells us not to be surprised when “all sorts of trials” come to us.  God is producing the character quality of endurance by allowing those tough times to affect us.  He is testing our faith.  He is not testing to see if we have faith. He is proving the existence of our faith by means of the trials.

True Faith + Tough Times = Endurance

True Faith + Tough Times = Maturity

Secondly, TOUGH TIMES ARE ALLOWED IN ORDER TO PROMOTE PRAYER FOR WISDOM.

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James gives a prescription for those believers who want to know what to do when things get tough. He says “if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God.” (5).  Notice that James does not say our first prayer should be “Lord, take this problem away from me.!” No, our first prayer should be “Lord, what are you teaching me through this trial?”

We human beings can endure all kinds of hardship as long as we are aware of the purpose for the pain. When we lose sight of the purpose, even the slightest hardship can be our undoing.

Thirdly, TOUGH TIMES ARE ALLOWED IN ORDER TO PRODUCE STRENGTH.

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James gives these battle hardened soldiers in the churches he is writing to some good strategic advice. When they pray, “(they) must ask in faith without doubting.” (6).  I know a lot of preachers have taught this text as if it is saying that if you ask God to deliver you from your hardship, you have to really believe or God is going to let you keep experiencing the hardship until you do.  I do not think that is what James is saying at all.

Let’s look at the text again:

5           But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him.

6              But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind.

7              For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord,

8              since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways.

What are we encouraged to ask for in this text?  Wisdom (5).

What, then, should we expect to receive (7) if our prayers are answered? Wisdom!

A prayer for wisdom is a request for insight that will help me endure the tough times I am going through.  If I pray for this wisdom, I should expect the Lord to give me wisdom enough to endure the tough times.

What happens when a double-minded person goes through tough times? Either they only ask for deliverance, or they ask for wisdom, doubting that God would ever give them this wisdom. They are unstable, immature.

The reason this is so important is that God does not guarantee me or anyone else that he is going to fix things.  What he guarantees is that he will give us wisdom enough to endure the tough times in peace. But this wisdom and peace is not automatic. With each new trial, the potential for wisdom and peace is there, but we have to keep asking for it.

Paul said something similar:

“Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7 NET).

Again, notice that the outcome is not “God promises to fix all my problems.”  The real outcome is that even though we go through tough times our hearts and minds will be guarded from anxiety and given peace!

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LORD, mature us. Show us how to respond to all the tough times we face with a determination to know your wisdom as we face them.  We are not praying for easy lives. We are praying for you to make us into strong people.

 

Tough times prove our faith

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1 Peter 1:3-9 (NET)

 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you,5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold — gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away — and will bring praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 because you are attaining the goal of your faith — the salvation of your souls.

2016 is over and done with, and I for one am happy to see it go. It has been Jefferson’s “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” year.  One of the reasons I decided to preach this series of sermons is I just needed to remind myself why believers go through tough times. I know that the Bible gives some good answers to that question, but when you go through tough times, it is not easy to remember them.

So, last time, when we looked at Jesus’ story about the planter and the soils, we saw that it is not unusual for believers to experience tough times, because our ability to overcome them and remain fruitful is evidence of our identity as real Christians.

In today’s text, Peter says something very much the same.  In fact, it seems like Peter is reflecting on what Christ said in the parable.  It may very well be the case. There are quite a few similarities.  But Peter steps back from the planter/harvest allegory and uses more familiar church language when he talks about being given new birth and a salvation that will be revealed when Christ returns.

There is a lot of truth packed into these few verses, but what I want to investigate further is what Peter says about tough times.  He puts what he says about tough times (or, what he calls various trials) in the larger context of what God has decided to do in the lives of Christians, and how that will end up bringing him eternal praise, glory and honour.

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TOUGH TIMES COME TO CHALLENGE OUR FAITH, BUT CANNOT CHANGE OUR FUTURE

 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you,5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

What Peter wants believers to know is that the God who planted them is going to harvest them. The God who gave them new birth is going to make sure that those born-again people are raised to eternal life when Jesus comes. So, yes, tough times are going to come. But those tough times cannot change the believer’s destiny. How do we know that? The evidence Peter puts forth for that claim is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In fact, it was the resurrection of Christ from the dead that made being born-again possible.

Paul talked about Jesus being the first-fruits of the harvest.  The Jewish feast that celebrated first-fruits was a faith-celebration of the whole harvest.  They did not wait until the whole harvest was in before they celebrated. They celebrated in faith once the first-fruits appeared.  Peter looks at a church whose members suffer tough times sometimes, and he tells us to look at Jesus. Jesus has already been raised from the dead to live immortal. That is our future.  Tough times will come, but they cannot change what God did for us in the past, so they cannot change what he is going to do in the future.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you,5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Peter chooses to use the birth metaphor instead of the harvest metaphor because he wants to assure the believers who are going through tough times that God has not abandoned them.  So, it is not like God planted them, and then went off somewhere else to tend another crop. Now, God gave them new birth, and he has an inheritance waiting to give to those new children that he has given birth to.

Notice what Peter says about that inheritance:

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(You may not have noticed, but the three words rhyme in Greek, and they start with the same letter in Greek.) They are …

 

  • imperishable, [άφθαρτον]

 

This is a word that Paul uses to describe God’s immortality, and the immortality that believers will be raised with.  When Peter uses it to describe our inheritance, he is assuring believers that nothing is going to change their future.

In fact, Peter kind-of mixes metaphors in verse 23 of this same chapter when he tells believers that they … “have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” So, Peter is telling us not that we are immortal already, but that immortality has been planted in us.

  • undefiled, [αμίαντον]

 

This word is used to describe something that is pure, uncontaminated.  If Peter is using it to refer to seed, it means that believers are made of pure seed which will produce a pure crop. If Peter is alluding to believers’ inheritance and their being given birth to by God, then it takes on the further meaning of the holiness of the parent.  Our future depends on our origin. Our inheritance depends on who gave us birth.

  • unfading [αμάραντον]

 

This is an interesting word for Peter to use in this context.  It is a word that describes a flower in full-bloom. In fact, there is a species of flowering grain called the amaranth.

 

What Peter seems to be saying is that if God has given you birth, you do not have to worry about your relationship with him fading away and dying off. That is a good thing to know, especially if you face tough times.

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TOUGH TIMES COME TO TEST OUR FAITH, BUT CANNOT AFFECT WHO WE REALLY ARE

 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold — gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away — and will bring praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

So, having assured the believers he is writing to that their future is safe in God’s hands, he now goes on to address what it is that tough times are sent for in the present.  He changes the metaphor again. Instead of a plant, or a child, here Peter describes the Christian in terms of a precious metal, like gold.

Most substances when subjected to fire are completely destroyed.  But gold is different. If you put gold in the fire, what is going to happen is that anything that is not gold is going to burn away, and what you will have left is gold. So, Peter is saying that tough times are not there to destroy us. They are there to show what we are really made of, who we really are.

6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold — gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away — and will bring praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

In fact, the result of the tough times is that God is going to be worshipped.  Our going through the tough times happens so that God will be eternally praised because of the faith he gave us to overcome the tough times.

So, you see, if you ask the gold whether it wants to go through the fire, it would probably say no thank you very much.  But if you ask the refiner, he would say, “absolutely.”  Why? Because the refiner wants to produce a brilliant pure gold, and for that, he needs to put it through the fire.

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TOUGH TIMES COME TO STEAL OUR JOY, BUT CANNOT OVERCOME OUR FAITH IN CHRIST

8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 because you are attaining the goal of your faith — the salvation of your souls.

So, to sum up Peter’s message so far. He says that tough times are not going to change what happened in the past: God gave those believers a new birth to a permanent inheritance.  He also says that tough times are not going to change what is going to happen in the future.  It is all going to come through the fire and reveal a pure gold that brings glory and praise to the Refiner.

So, the last thing Peter wants to reflect upon is the present.  He sees a church that has put her faith in a Saviour that she presently cannot see.  He sees that church rejoicing in her Saviour with an indescribable and glorious joy.  Then he sees tough times come.  Those tough times are not going to destroy her faith.  She has something that those tough times cannot touch. She has a living and enduring faith in Christ. She is attaining the goal of her faith. She is being saved by Him.

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When we go through tough times, we need to remember that it does not mean that God has abandoned us. It means the opposite. He is there, refining us so that who we are blesses him forever.

 

tough times prove our identity

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Matthew 13:18-23 (JDV)

18 “So listen to the parable of the planter:

19 When anyone hears the message about the coming kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been planted in his heart. This is what was planted along the path.

20 As for what was planted on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the message and immediately receives it with joy,

21 yet he has no internal root, so stays true for a while, but when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message, he falls away right then.

22 As for what was planted among thorns, this is the one who hears the message, but the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches choke the message, and it becomes unfruitful.

23 As for what was planted on good soil, this is the one who hears the message and understands it. He really bears fruit and produces, in one case a hundred times as much, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


Our church has experienced a series of unfortunate events in the past few months. Bad things have happened one after another, and it has caused many of us to rethink our situation. Some of us are wondering whether our church is going to survive, as domino after domino keeps toppling. I think it is appropriate for us to look into the Bible, and see what God has to say about when Christians go through tough times.

This passage is a good one to start with. It is the place where Jesus explains his parable of the soils. The parable itself was used by Jesus to show that there will always be different responses to the gospel when it is preached in the world. Jesus highlights four different responses using the allegory of four soils, and how they affect the seed planted in them.

The first soil he mentions is “the path” which doesn’t really receive the seed at all. The birds come and eat the seed before it has a chance to germinate and start growing. There is no life there. The truth comes and goes without any affect.

The last soil Jesus speaks of is the good soil which produces an abundant crop. This is the ideal.

I don’t want to focus on either one of these today.

In other sermons, I have talked about the four different kinds of response to the gospel, but that is not the direction I want to take today. Instead, I want to talk about the way Jesus describes tough times in this story.

 

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TOUGH TIMES COME TO CHALLENGE OUR FAITH, TO TEMPT US TO DEFECT.

“when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message, he falls away right then” (21).

This is when the tough times come into our lives for the express purpose of destroying our faith, and getting us to deny either God’s existence, or his relevance for our lives.

But I want you to notice the picture that Jesus has painted for us to look at. It is a picture of a crop that spouts up immediately. It is on rocky ground, so there is no internal root, but it looks just like the crop which had spouted on the good soil. When Jesus explains what the picture means, he says that it is people who receive the message of the kingdom immediately and joyfully.

I have seen so many people who appeared to have quickly and dramatically come to faith in Christ, but then just as quickly and dramatically lose all connection with the gospel and the church. That is what Jesus is talking about.

There are two causes for this phenomenon: an internal cause and an external cause. The external cause that Jesus refers to is when someone or something challenges the message of the gospel in your life. That is “when troubles or opposition arise on account of the message.” So, when the enemy of our faith notices that we are taking God’s word seriously, he will send direct challenges to the veracity of that word. But the parable does not say that Satan is directly responsible every time trouble comes into a person’s life. Trouble comes because trouble comes. Opposition arises because the message of the gospel is counter culture. Opposition is a natural thing in this world system. It should not surprise us when it happens.

But Jesus also mentioned the internal cause of defection. The defector “has no internal root, so stays true for a while” … but defects as soon as his beliefs are challenged. In other words, there is no faith there strong enough to overcome the effect of the troubles that Satan or the world sends to destroy it.

I worry sometimes that we tend to idolize people with the wrong kind of faith. Celebrities come along and appear to say something nice about Jesus, and we evangelicals fall all over ourselves to promote them. Then, when Jesus is no longer the flavour of the month for those celebrities any more, we look like idiots.

One thing we can learn from this portion of scripture is that true faith is long-haul faith. Troubles coming into our lives can actually help us to determine if we have that long-haul kind of faith. They can prove our identity as true Christians, because they reveal our roots. If our faith is real, it can withstand the challenges of the opposition.

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TOUGH TIMES COME TO CHOKE OUR FAITH, TO DIVERT OUR ATTENTION.

“the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches choke the message, and it becomes unfruitful” (22).

The second way that Jesus describes tough times in this story is by painting a picture of a crop surrounded by thorns, briers, gorse.

This is when the tough times come into our lives for the express purpose of distracting us from the natural process of maturing and bearing fruit as disciples of Jesus Christ.

If the enemy cannot get you to defect, he is going to do all he can to distract you so that you are not productive in your faith.

The devil has two major tools that he uses to divert our attention away from productive Christianity: the worries of the age and the untrustworthiness of riches.

The “worries of the age” can be big things that affect the entire planet, or they can be things that affect us more directly. They can be global warming, or a high fever. They can be war in the middle east or not getting along with your spouse. They can be anxiety over the next political election, or even worrying about money.

The “untrustworthiness of riches” can be anything that is considered valuable that might serve as a substitute for the lordship of Christ and the pre-eminence of his kingdom. We have to seek his kingdom and his righteousness first. If we put anything else first, it becomes for us the “untrustworthiness of riches.” Even if it is a good thing… in fact, especially if it is a good thing.

  • Tolerance of other people’s world-views is a good thing. But if it keeps you from sharing the gospel with them, it has become your chief distraction.
  • Love of your family is a good thing. But if it keeps you from your commitment to your family of faith then it can become your chief distraction.
  • Desire to provide for your family is a good thing. But if it forces you to focus on making money instead of making disciples, then it becomes greed, and your chief distraction.

Those thorn bushes are going to be there. There is no secret weapon that will eliminate them from the patch of land we happen to be planted on. We have to overcome the distraction in order to be fruitful in our Christian lives.

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I titled today’s message “TOUGH TIMES PROVE OUR IDENTITY.”

But I do not want to give anyone the impression that I am teaching that having troubles is proof that you are not a Christian. Jesus said this to his followers on another occasion:

“Blessed are you who are poor, …

Blessed are you who are hungry …

Blessed are you who weep…

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil…” (Luke 6:20-22 ESV).

That sounds like tough times, and it is actually proof that you are in the sky kingdom, not proof that you aren’t.

If you are a Christian, I want to tell you today that God knows your situation. He is not challenged by your challenges. He has things under control. He does not lack the power to change your circumstances. He may not choose to fix your problems today, and he has every right to make that choice.

But he is the one who planted the seed of the gospel in your life. He knows what you are going through, and he knows that the gospel message inside of you has the power to overcome the obstacles of the day. Those tough times that you are experiencing to not have to lead to defection or distraction. You can still thrive and grow as a Christian. And when you do, the one who planted the gospel in your life will be glorified by your perseverance.