Christians can get life wrong in a lot of ways. They can get loud and mean, greedy and selfish, sexually permissive and promiscuous, hypocritical and judgmental, just to name a few. In the early verses of chapter 4, James seems to have seen some of all of this going on in the people to whom he was writing. He doesn’t mince words confronting their bad behavior.
When we come to our senses again, God’s grace is there to forgive us and pick up the pieces. That leads to a different kind of life. James wants us to understand what that life will look like, a life lived in view of God’s grace. It begins with understanding our place, where we stand in relation to God.
God is not a tool we use to get what we want. He is not a wax nose we can bend and shape to look the way we want. Getting God right starts with understanding that he is on top. “Submit yourselves…to God.” Put yourselves under his will, under his direction, and under his care. Stop fighting him for who is going to be the boss.
He doesn’t force you to do this. How many times in your life have you looked at what God wants, and then decided to do what you wanted to do instead? He didn’t stop you, did he?
But he wants to spare us of the consequences of our foolishness, the damage we do to our families, our friends, our bodies, and ultimately our eternal souls. Since he is a gentleman, he doesn’t tackle us with his power, pin us to the ground, and twist our arm behind our back until we cry uncle. He woos us with his grace. He gives up his only Son to save us. He forgives us without end.
As this love wheedles its way into our hearts, we learn to let go. We learn to trust him, even if too often we still don’t understand him. It’s okay to let him be the boss, to give him the final say, because you know that in the end, he is going to get it right every time. If we are going to live our lives in view of God’s grace, we will submit to God. Under his gracious direction, we come out on top.
Mark 8:32-35 “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
You can’t pay Jesus to save you. There is no admission charge for following him. Salvation and forgiveness and faith are all gifts. He is giving it all away for free.
But once you have the gifts, there are consequences. When you follow someone, there are certain things you are bound to experience. When I was in college, one of my favorite high school teachers celebrated his 25th anniversary in the ministry. Several of my classmates decided to attend the celebration, enough to require two cars. I was the driver of the second car. I was not familiar with the route we were taking, so I followed the first car.
In 1984 we had no GPS, no generic voice telling us where to turn. It turned out that the driver of the first car had a lead foot. If I wanted to follow, I had to go fast, really fast. When we drove through a speed trap, guess which car got pulled over? Not the lead. There were consequences for following my friends in the other car, right around a hundred of them if I remember.
There are consequences for following Jesus, a kind of “cost” if you will. “He must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Clearly, God doesn’t think about our lives the way we do. Is there something you are working for in life, something into which you are pouring your heart and soul?
Maybe it’s the career you have set your sights on. You have your education all mapped out, and you are dropping tens of thousands of dollars on getting there.
Maybe it’s the family you want to have. You are diligently looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right. Or you have been carefully nurturing your marriage, and you have not overlooked a single detail in how you raise your children. You have planned their every experience, so that you have this beautiful, tight-knit family, and everyone turns out a certain way.
Maybe you have poured hundreds of thousands of your hard-earned dollars into your house. You pay thousands more every year to tinker with the landscape, the flooring, the furniture, and the window treatments, because this is your dream home, your sanctuary, your escape.
What if Jesus were to come to you and say, “You know, I am in the business of saving people. Since you are following me, that puts you in the business, too, even if you aren’t a member of the clergy. I can’t explain all the details to you, because how a world of seven billion people all fit together in my plan is a little complex. But there are some people I want to save. For them to hear the gospel there is this chain of events that has to happen. Part of that chain of events involves you having to leave school and give up on your dream. It means that your spouse is going to die young, and you aren’t going to find another one, or one of your children is going to suffer a crippling accident. It means that your dream home is going to disappear into a sink hole, or be torn down so that the new state highway can go through.”
“I’m not trying to be mean. But remember, I am in the business of saving people, and you are following me now. I had to give up everything and die, too. If you are following me, you can expect to go to some of the same places I went along the way.”
Following Jesus through this life can be hard. It can take us places we would rather not go. But in the end, we end up with him. Losing our lives for him and his gospel will save them. No matter what the journey involves, it is worth it.
Mark 8:31-32 “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
As Peter’s reaction reveals, this was not the way the disciples were thinking Jesus’ life should go. Who in their right mind would think this way? Jesus started teaching it here. He would repeat it a half dozen times leading up to the last days of his ministry. Sometimes he spoke as plainly and clearly. Sometimes it was thinly veiled in a parable. But Jesus made it clear that he was going to suffer, he was going to die, and he was going to rise again.
This was no accident. This was the plan, the one and only plan. “The Son of Man must suffer many things…” and be rejected, and die. It was necessary, because it fits the kind of Savior Jesus came to be. That challenged Peter’s thinking. That is still our challenge, because we don’t naturally think like God about the kind of Savior we need.
Jesus did not come to be the political deliverer. He was not there to make Israel a free nation, and bring down the hated Roman empire. As it turns out, the godless, heathen Roman empire actually fit into God’s plans going forward. Israel as a political entity didn’t fit the plan once Jesus finished his work there.
He still isn’t that kind of Savior. Politicians can invoke God and the Bible all they want. Jesus did not come to save us from high taxes or low wages. He did not come to save us from illegal immigration or unregulated gun ownership or environmental destruction. He did not come to make America great, and Christians will realize this when they start to think like God about his life.
There are a few other misconceptions we can chase here. Jesus did not come to save your career, your health, or your perfect family. Take an honest look at the way he lived his life. His closest followers abandoned him and he was literally executed for the work he was doing. He never married. His siblings and mother all misunderstood him, even considered him crazy at one point in time. He died at the age of 33. That’s probably not the career path, the family, or the lifespan we have been dreaming of.
Nor is he the moral activist Savior who came to save society from its vices. That’s not to say that he failed to express himself on the difference between right and wrong. His word is clear, and we ignore it at our peril. Jesus would not oppose people working for a good and just society. But he was bent on changing the individual. The only protest in which he ever participated was not staged in front of a government office or corrupt business. It was in the middle of the temple, at “church,” and it was a one-man show.
What kind of a person, then, needs a Savior who suffers, is rejected, dies, and rises again? People who know their sins. People who know that their sin isn’t a shrug-your-shoulders issue: we can blow it off because it’s normal. We are just like everybody else. No, we need a Savior like Jesus because each of us has created a mountain of spiritual debt that will kill us. There is no monthly installment plan to keep up with the interest and chip away at the principle. There is no bankruptcy court to restructure our sin-debt and make it more manageable. We owe the whole thing. We owe with our blood. We owe for all eternity.
That takes a special kind of Savior, one who has the ability to pay the whole debt we owe. That’s why it is no accident when he suffers, is rejected, dies and rises again. It is the satisfaction of our debt, the promise of our forgiveness. It is a gift, a sacrifice, an idea that only a God who is pure love and bottomless grace could have conceived.
The whole world is, “Hurt me, and I will make you pay.” The God who sent us Jesus, “You hurt me, but I will pay. I will suffer your hell and die your death.” On this day Jesus began to introduce a new way of thinking to his disciples. He was teaching them to think like God about the kind of Savior they needed.
Today he challenges us to think like God about his life, too, and why it had to end, it had to, the way it did.
Deuteronomy 4:9 “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
I know parents who spend tens of thousands of dollars on their children’s sports careers. They get them extra coaching, special lessons, drag them all over the United States for tournaments. They want their children to have a chance to play at a level they never could. A few have even dreamed of a professional career. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do this. Sports can teach valuable lessons: hard work, discipline, and how to work with others. Perhaps best of all it teaches how to deal with losing.
But there is limited value here. Even the best players rarely become professionals. Your chances of winning the lottery, for example, are greater than your chances of playing in the NFL.
I know parents who have done similar things for their children’s musical skills, academic skills, or some other special interest. All of it can produce positive outcomes later in life.
But what if you could give your children training that had the ability to enhance almost everything else they do? What if it could turn them into hard workers, good citizens, and faithful parents? What if it could fill them with love, confidence, and teach them to be content? On top of all that, what if it could rescue them from all their failures, and someday save their lives, not just for now but for all eternity? Wouldn’t that be worth more than all the thousands we spend on their braces, or their school, or their weddings?
I’m not claiming that every kid would “get” the lesson. Some don’t. But you know what I’m talking about. Moses laid it out for the people of Israel. “Look at how the Lord has loved and delivered you. Look at the laws he has given to help you distinguish right from wrong.” This is the same Lord we know. We know the only God who loves us enough to save us, the only God there really is. We know his word, his will, and his ways. Shouldn’t our children and grandchildren know him, too? If we don’t tell them, who will? They need Jesus no less than we do. Make his word a priority in their lives. Pass it on.
Deuteronomy 4:8-9 “What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.”
Moses’s assertion about Israel and its laws has parallels to Christians as a faith community. People outside of Christianity might be tempted to laugh out loud at his assertion. Maybe even we are tempted to back away from such a claim. I mean, aren’t Biblical principles about lifelong marriage (between a man and woman), sexual chastity before marriage, honesty even if it means sacrifice, sobriety, protecting life from conception to final breath, modest dress, greed as a kind of idolatry, keeping your tongue under control–aren’t these things hopelessly out of date? In some cases, aren’t they even bad for us?
No! God’s law is nothing more and nothing less than the instruction manual for how life is supposed to work if it is going to operate properly. Ignore it, defy it, and at some level something isn’t going to work right. I suppose that I could drive a nail with the back end of my electric drill. I might not even break the drill the first time. But do this enough and the drill won’t work and the nail will either be bent or only partially driven. Perhaps we can get along for a while ignoring something in God’s law. But eventually something in life isn’t going to work right. Pursue the wrong path in persistent, open defiance of God, and the mess we make will ruin our eternity.
Note that Moses doesn’t say, “What other nation keeps God’s laws so well…” That wasn’t Israel. It doesn’t describe us either. We struggle. We fail. We deal with the consequences. But at least we have the law that can set us straight. At least we know what needs repenting, or we can learn it. At least God has given us what we need to see our sin, and see our need for a Savior. Then we can turn to the God who is always near us with his forgiving grace. Isn’t that a clear advantage of the Biblical faith? Doesn’t that make God’s laws a gift, together with his gospel?
The clear advantage of knowing God’s help and having his law led Moses to issue a warning: Hold on to these things for yourselves. “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.”
Sometimes it’s good to have a short memory. Painful things happen. It’s good not to remember them. My son had to endure the taking of a bone marrow sample from his hip without anesthesia when he was diagnosed with cancer years ago. You can ask him about it today. He doesn’t remember. Sometimes people do things that offend us. If we keep thinking about it, it keeps us distant. It’s better to let it go.
Sometimes our short memory gets us into trouble. It’s hard to forget a miracle. Can you imagine walking on dry ground between two walls of water where there used to be a sea and forgetting it happened later in life? Only if one suffered from severe dementia, it seems to me.
Moses wasn’t so concerned that Israel would forget the miracles they witnessed. He did not fear that the 10 Commandments would slip from their memory. He was concerned that Israel would stop seeing the significance of the lessons they taught. “Do not…let them slip from your hearts…” He didn’t want them to stop making an impact on the things they believed about God and the way they lived their lives. That’s exactly what had happened over and over during forty years in the desert.
It happens to us. Problems come and we panic, or we despair. It can be as small as the car breaking down or the rent going up. It can be as big as marriages or health falling apart. God got us this far, didn’t he? “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” If God didn’t love us, if he didn’t intend to take care of us, would he have given up his Son? Has his word ever changed? Has it stopped applying to our lives?
Let’s hold on to what we know about his love, his power, and his will. There is nothing else so great for us to live by.
Deuteronomy 4:7 “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?
The future doesn’t look so good for us Christians. You’ve heard the statistics. Churches are shrinking at an alarming rate. It is estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of Christian young adults will leave the church by age 30. For every thriving mega church with 10,000 members there are so many little traditional churches that have closed their doors or hang on by a thread. The big numbers in the one do not nearly equal the numbers lost in the others.
You hear the news. Biblical Christian beliefs about love and marriage are more and more seen as grounds for lawsuits or public demonstrations. Twenty years ago calling a person a “Christian” was similar to calling them a good person in most circles. For more and more people it means, “This is a backwards, judgmental person who stands in the way of progress.”
For forty years in the wilderness, Moses had to keep convincing the people of Israel that it was a good thing to be God’s chosen people, followers of the Lord who brought them out of slavery. Life was not easy for this nation of shepherds. For most of them, their entire life had been a forty year camping trip in a desert.
But Moses helped them to see the clear advantages of being people who belonged to the Lord. The oldest ones listening to him were in their late teens when God dropped ten plagues on Egypt, then made a dry path of escape through the middle of the Red Sea. They saw enough food and water for 2 million people miraculously appear in the desert. They followed the pillar that looked like a cloud during the day and fire at night. Other nations had gods who kept their distance, acted like spoiled children, and occasionally did magic tricks once upon a time in a land far, far away. Israel’s God lived among them. He saved them over and over again. Which faith made sense to follow?
We serve and follow that same God. We may be tempted to think, “Our God doesn’t seem so near or so real today. We haven’t seen miracles like Israel saw.” Perhaps. But has he really grown fuzzy and distant? With Jesus, we have more, not less. We don’t have a mysterious voice thundering from a mountain, or an unapproachable pillar of fire out in a desert. We have God with flesh and bones, a man like us who laughs, and loves, and listens. He isn’t just present in our world. He is a member of our family, a distant relative connected to your very own family tree. It’s true, it’s been two thousand years since he lived and died to save us. But he lives again. An empty tomb just outside the old city of Jerusalem says it’s so. We have the eyewitness accounts of hundreds recorded by a half dozen or so reporters.
And he still shows up. He speaks not with one mouth, but thousands. We hear his voice in the voice of our pastors. He has left us with hundreds and thousands of pages of his love letters–more than dead words on a page, but living and active words, words in which he himself is living by his Spirit, words full of life and of power.
He still meets us personally, bodily, really during those precious moments when we stand before his altar and receive his Supper. There he whispers to our hearts, “I am here. All is forgiven. All is peace. All the blessings of my cross are your very own.” He doesn’t hide in a tent or temple. The same Jesus who walked the streets of Jerusalem now lives in your own heart by faith–not as a collection of historical truths, but as a person who has moved in and made this place his home.
“Still,” we might think, “I would like to see the power. I would like to see the miracles.” Open your eyes, my friends! If at this moment you aren’t in imminent danger of death because some enemy army is hunting you down, no miracle is required. That’s a good thing, right? Do you suppose God’s power isn’t involved in making your life so safe?
If you want more, get to know some of the sober stories from your contemporaries on the front lines of God’s battles today. Talk to someone on a mission field half way around the world. They will tell you about God’s power protecting them or confirming their message in our time.
Right now, we belong to the God who saves us. It doesn’t get any better than that.
John 6:48-51 I am the Bread of Life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
What do you really want out of your religion? Some people want magic. Do you like magic shows? When I was growing up, the big name in magic shows was David Copperfield. When I got a little older, I heard about acts like Penn and Teller. They add humor to the formula and make things more interesting still. It can all be hugely entertaining. But no one is accusing any of those guys of promoting some kind of religion. Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller is an avowed atheist.
Perhaps you know people who want the miracle show on Sunday morning, too. At the least, they want it to be an entertaining experience. Maybe we would like a little more pizzazz as well.
Some people are all about the practicality. They measure a faith by the difference it makes when they go back to work on Monday morning. Is this making me more successful? Is this helping me build better relationships, put food on the table, or live a healthier life?
The people in front of Jesus were looking for some of both, entertainment and practicality. They had seen Jesus do his magic and turn five loaves of bread into a feast for thousands. They had eaten their fill. What could be more practical than free food? Later they challenged Jesus with the example of Moses and 40 years of miraculous free food in the wilderness. Could he top that? Magic and meals–that’s as far as their religion went.
What did this kind of religion get them? “Your forefathers at the manna in the desert, yet they died.” Whether you die of starvation, obesity, or just a ripe old age, the story ends the same. “Yet they died.” Mere magic can distract you from your final fate. It just can’t prevent it. Food and entertainment may be a pleasant way to spend your life. It just can’t give you a life that lasts.
There is no virtue in boring or irrelevant. The faith of the Bible is supremely engaging, saturated with the supernatural, and firmly entrenched in all the practical daily needs and issues of our lives. But there is more. Jesus doesn’t stop at giving us daily bread. He is the bread of life. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever.” He will live forever. The Father has drawn us to Jesus to give us life that lasts…forever.
Life that lasts forever–is that not practical? How many of us are going to run out of earthly life someday? Every hand has to go up. As one of my professors used to say: “The death rate throughout the ages has remained the same-one per person.” (Okay, you can quibble about the handful of people who were raised from the dead and later died a second time, but you get the point). Death is a problem for which Jesus, the Bread of Life, is the solution. Is that not magical, or perhaps we should say, miraculous? All the science, all the medicine, all the nutrition, all the money, all the good behavior in the world can’t keep us alive forever. But one day Jesus will say the word, and all the dead will leave their graves. Those who have fed on the Bread of Life, who have consumed Jesus and his grace by faith, will live the perfected and purified life with him that never ends. That’s not part of the benefit package of any other faith.
For only Jesus can say, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Jesus isn’t an otherworldly life coach advising us on how to behave, then hoping we do it well enough to finish in heaven. Life–the eternal kind–is what he gives. First he gives his life–gives it up. He let all our bad behavior–every self-indulgent lust, every nasty word behind someone else’s back, every little lie, every vindictive scheme, every unreasonable grudge–he let it all crush him and kill him on the cross. His body, his flesh, paid the price for our crimes.
Then he gives us life, life that lasts, not because we earned it, but because he earned it. It’s his gift, a gift he gave for the whole world.
You won’t find that trick in a Las Vegas magic show. You won’t get that kind of practical value out of anything your grocery store has to offer. Eat the Bread Jesus offers, and live forever.
John 6:44-45 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.”
If you believe in Jesus and trust his word, then something very exclusive has happened to you. God the Father has drawn you to faith. That is no small miracle. In fact, Jesus says that it is humanly impossible. Coming to Jesus as his followers, his trusting disciples, is as likely for us as flying home by stepping outside and flapping our arms; or as likely as not needing to open doors anymore because we can walk through the walls; or as likely as growing two feet taller tonight. That’s not going to happen. No one can do any of those things. It would take a miracle.
But here you are, listening to what Jesus says and believing it. Jesus describes that miracle as the Father “drawing” you. It can also be translated “dragging” you. It’s the same word used for dragging a boat out of the water and onto the shore. Ever landed a boat that way? Once you get it part way up the beach, and there is no water under it anymore, it is awkward and heavy. No boat ever landed itself like that. It has to be dragged along.
The word is also used in the Bible for the disciples pulling in the miraculous catch of fish after Easter. No net full of fish ever jumped into the boat itself. Someone has to heave it out of the water and into the boat. In another place the word describes the Apostle Paul being dragged out of town unconscious after his enemies thought they had stoned him to death. Have you ever tried to move the body of a person who is fully unconscious? They offer no cooperation. The weight of loose arms or legs shifts and makes moving the person hard to manage. You and I were that boat, or that net full of fish, or that unconscious body, and God the Father pushed and pulled us to faith in Jesus.
All of this says something about us. It isn’t very complimentary. We could get upset, object that Jesus isn’t being very nice, and go off to nurse our wounded self-image.
Or we can learn a valuable and useful lesson about ourselves. Sin is a bigger problem than almost anyone imagines. Practically everyone will admit that they are sinners in a general way. It’s about the same thing as saying “Nobody’s perfect.” Yes, we break the rules. Yes, sometimes we have hurt other people or acted a little selfishly.
But basically, we are all still good, right? No! Basically we are so corrupt and blind we can’t even recognize the only God there is when he is standing right in front of our face and showing himself to us. Basically, we are all so naturally foolish that our default setting is to reject the truth, to reject what God has to say. Basically, we would all be lost forever if God himself didn’t intervene in a miraculous way.
All of this says something even more outstanding about the Father who sent us Jesus. Basically, his love is so strong, so pure, so faithful and devoted that he intervened in a miraculous way. He didn’t push us away because of our sin. He reached out to take hold of our hearts and minds and dragged us home. He has given us the miracle medicine that draws our blackened hearts to Jesus. “It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.’”
God teaches you in his word. More than that, God is miraculously reaches you in his word. When you hear a sermon, it’s more than an entertaining way to pass the time (or a helpful way to cure your insomnia). The Father is taking you by the heart and drawing you closer to Jesus. When you read your Bible, it is more than “life’s little instruction manual,” useful information to get you through your day. The Father is taking you by the heart, repairing and restoring his relationship with you as you find his grace in Jesus.
That’s an exclusive benefit of the Christian faith. There is no other world faith, no other world religion, that draws you to Jesus as your Savior. There is no other faith in which the heavenly Father has given you his wonder-working word. No other faith reaches deep down, and wins your heart, by opening up the heart of God, and exposing his grace and forgiveness in his only Son.
Only this one draws you to Jesus, because only this one leads you to trust him as the Bread of Life.
2 Timothy 4:17b-18 “And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.”
“The lion’s mouth” is probably less a reference to the later Roman practice of feeding Christians to the lions, and more an allusion to the words of Psalm 22, “Rescue me from the mouths of the lions.” It was a colorful way of saying, “I am not dead yet. My execution has been delayed.”
But it was only a matter of time. Still, Paul understood that even in his death the Lord would rescue him from every evil attack and bring him safely to his heavenly kingdom.
For isn’t death the ultimate deliverance? Martin Luther once warned people not to lose their proper respect for death: “I am not pleased with examples which show how men die gladly. But I am pleased with those who tremble and quake and grow pale before death and yet suffer it. Great saints do not die gladly. Fear is natural because death is punishment. Therefore it is sad.”
But the Savior who never leaves us alone went through death for us to absorb all its punishment. Death’s stinger has been plucked. Jesus’ return to life means that when we go through death, he will be there with us, too. Now life is waiting for us on the other side. The death that looked like danger ends in heaven’s safety.
You see, Paul felt deserted at his first hearing, but the Lord stood by him. Soon, however, his trial would not go so well. The judge would condemn him. The officers of the court would lead him away. The executioner’s sword would swing. His head and body would be separated.
At that very moment the Lord would open an escape hatch between his world and ours. As Paul stepped through that door, he would see that he was not alone. The great cloud of witnesses who surround us, watching us from heaven, would welcome him (Hebrews 12:1). He would see the face of the Lamb who sits on the throne, the Lamb who would spread his tent over him (Revelation 22:4 and 7:15). Paul would be truly safe.
Dear friends, we never face danger alone. Here, the Lord stands by our side. After we die, we will stand at his side, safe at home.