Shadows of the Cross, Part 3: The Yom Kippur Goats (Leviticus 16:1-34)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a drama must be worth a thousand books. And a drama from God must be worth an entire library of divine truth. In Old Testament times, God gave Israel seven dramas to perform each year. They were seven “sacred skits” that—when acted out—powerfully illustrated the love, grace, and holiness of God better than any sermon ever could. They were known as the seven feasts of Israel. 

God gave his people seven “dramatizations of doctrine” to instruct them in his ways. They punctuated the calendar of the Jews in order to penetrate the conscience of the Jews. Shakespeare said it well: “The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Israel had seven opportunities each year to be “caught” by God—seven high and holy moments that caused Israel to push the pause button on life and “take in a show.” A spiritual show. A liturgical show. A show that highlighted the human condition and God’s provision to remedy that condition.

Weaving together biblical and rabbinic sources, this message looks at the feast or drama known as Yom Kippur (“the Day of Atonement”), the most sacred and somber of all the feasts. The other dramas were marked by great rejoicing, but Yom Kippur was marked by great repentance. The others were marked by great feasting, but Yom Kippur was marked by great fasting. In fact, the ancient rabbis said: “Until you have seen a Day of Atonement, you have never seen sorrow.”

In some ways, Yom Kippur was the most important of all seven. It was the one drama that enabled the people to have great joy and celebration during the other six. That’s why, over time, Yom Kippur simply came to be known as Yoma (“the Day”). The ceremony featured a slaughtered goat and a scapegoat. The former had its blood sprinkled on the ark of the covenant inside the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle/temple. The latter was taken outside the camp and led to its death. Central to the ceremony was the work done by the High Priest, whose emergence from the Most Holy Place alive was the indication that God had accepted his sacrifice, and Israel’s sins could be covered for another year.

Ultimately, Yom Kippur was a foreshadowing of the final atonement made by Jesus Christ on the cross. Indeed, he became the Yom Kippur goats on that first Good Friday. As Jesus is deity in human flesh, we can only rejoice that God does not demand our blood for our sin, he offers his own. After making atonement for humanity’s sin, Jesus, the final High Priest, “sat down” (Hebrews 20:12), something no other high priest could do on Yom Kippur. The atoning work of Jesus is finished forever, and we know God accepted his sacrifice because he came out of his tomb alive.

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Shadows of the Cross, Part 2: The Ram in the Thicket (Genesis 22:1-19)

In watching Jesus carry the wood of the cross to the place of execution, Christians naturally think of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God said to the patriarch, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Abraham obeyed God, and Isaac quietly carried the wood up the mountain, preparing to be slaughtered by his own father. 

In many ways, the story is disturbing, repugnant, and infuriating. We want to know what it was that drove Abraham up the mountain to take the life of his beloved son. We want to know why Isaac was so passive and compliant in the whole affair. And we want to know why God intervened at the last possible moment, possibly traumatizing Isaac even further. The entire episode is a bit more comprehensible when we understand that covenants often involved the exchange of firstborn sons. But sending Isaac to live in God’s house would necessitate his death. That’s hard to take.

Yet it was precisely because Isaac’s life was on the line that something even more horrendous than child sacrifice was at issue—namely, the possibility that God could be a liar. After all, Isaac was the child of promise, so if he died, God’s trustworthiness would die with him. Isaac has to live—or be resurrected—if all nations of the earth are to be blessed through his line. Abraham knew this, as the New Testament tells us in Hebrews 11:17. Abraham was convinced that God cannot lie, so he raised the knife. Just then an angel of the Lord called out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you revere God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up, and there in a thicket was a ram caught by its horns. He took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in the place of his son. Amazing.

Genesis 22 is a story about the costly sacrifice of a father, the willing submission of a son, and the gracious provision of the Lord. “He will provide,” said Abraham. “The Lord will see to it.” No wonder Jesus said to his contemporaries, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus was now part of a similar story himself, and Abraham had gotten a preview of it. But what did Abraham see when he was standing on Mount Moriah? What did he hear? What did God show him? Did Abraham see the obedient Son of God bearing the wood of the cross to Golgotha—the Son for whom there would be no substitute this time? Perhaps if Abraham had been standing at the foot of the cross and had seen Jesus die right in front of him, he would have looked up to heaven and spoken God’s words back to him: “Lord! Lord! Now I know that you revere me, for you have not withheld from me your Son, your only Son, Jesus, whom you love.”

This message shows how the hardest thing God could ever ask of us is the very thing he did for us—he gave us his only Son.That Son was a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, and all families of the earth are blessed through him. God kept his word. Again. “What, then, shall we say in response to this? 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?” (Romans 8:31-32). Even more amazing.

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Shadows of the Cross, Part 1: The Carcass in the Garden (Genesis 3:21)

It all started in the garden of Eden. One man—made in the image of God—has the privilege of walking with God, talking with God, and enjoying God. His Hebrew name is Adam, which means “humanity.” He is the fountainhead of the human race, and he represents all of us. In this garden, Adam has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and all will be well, or say “no” to God, and all will be lost. As the story goes, Adam says “no” to God. In effect, he says to him, “Not thy will but mine be done.” As a result, his paradise is blitzed, the ground beneath him is cursed, and humanity is born again backwards into the darkness. Weeds of alienation start springing up everywhere. Humans are alienated from themselves, from each other, from creation, and from God himself. They’re naked and ashamed, hiding in fear.

But it’s a gracious God who seeks them out. Though he was the one dishonored, God pursues Adam and his wife to start repairing the mess they had made. He replaces the fig leaves they made to cover their nakedness, giving them instead garments of skin to wear (Gen 1:21), a more suitable covering than what they had crafted with their hands. But in order for Adam and Eve to wear garments of skin, God had to take the life of one of his own creatures to make it happen. Somewhere in Eden, then, there lies a dead animal carcass so that Adam and Eve can be spared the death sentence for their cosmic treason. As such, we are introduced on the earliest pages of the Bible to the theological concept of substitution—one dying so another can live.

If that weren’t enough, God gives them a word of hope, a prediction. He speaks of a man who will someday come to crush the head of the serpent, the creature that enticed the first couple to say “no” to God in the first place. In the process, the man will suffer a devastating wound. It’s the first hint in Scripture of the sacrificial death of Messiah to come, but God is determined to see human sin atoned permanently. And so, we wait. For thousands of years, we wait until we find ourselves in another garden. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is “the Last Adam” and the fountainhead of a new human race. In this garden, Jesus also has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and humanity will be rescued, or say “no” to God, and humanity will stay ruined. Thankfully, where Adam said, “Not thy will but mine be done,” Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Gethsemane, then, is reversing the misfortunes of Eden, as the next day, Jesus goes to the tree of death to give us back the tree of life. He becomes the carcass in the garden.

But why was the cross of Christ necessary for our salvation? Why did Jesus have to die? Why is forgiveness not by divine decree? If God can say, “Let there be light,” and it was so, why could he not also say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and it was so? Historically, the former statement has been seen as entailing no violation of God’s nature or ways. The latter, however, has been seen as a violation of at least some of his attributes. On the one hand, God’s holiness and justice require the condemnation of sinners. One the other hand, God’s mercy and grace require the forgiveness of sinners. Which will it be? Is there not a “divine dilemma” here demanding resolution? Is there a way for God to separate sinners from their sin so he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all of his attributes perfectly intact? 

In addition to connecting the dots from Eden to Gethsemane, this message explores how the cross is God’s crowbar that separates sinners from their sin, allowing them to be forgiven. Indeed, on the cross, God’s holiness and justice are satisfied (sin is condemned), and God’s mercy and grace are realized (sinners are forgiven). God did not sweep human sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with the adult Son’s permission. On the cross, then, God’s attributes “collide” and find their mutual resolution in the death of Jesus Christ. And the restoration of Eden begins.

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Radiate, Part 7: Crossing Borders (Mark 7:24-37; Matthew 15:22-28)

Christians have never been called to be obnoxious or hostile in society. We’ve been called to be a people of hope, filled with a sweetness of spirit and a gentleness of demeanor (Phil 4:5). As it says in Titus 2:10: we are to “make the teachings of Christ our Savior attractive.” Or, to put it another way, the church of Jesus Christ was never meant to be a cranky little subculture, but a dynamic and joy-filled counterculture—one in which the surprising grace and spontaneous love of God is made known to our neighbors in real and tangible ways. Yes, we gather with like-minded believers to worship God and hear his truth, but then we leave our comfort zones and enter into the world of others to be a blessing to them. To do that means that we have to cross some borders—just like Jesus did. Many borders are geographical in nature, but others are racial, cultural, educational, or social. Crossing them can be difficult.

There’s no greater example of Jesus crossing borders than in Mark 7. It’s the only time the Gospels record for us that Jesus left the nation of Israel as an adult. (He was taken to Egypt as newborn to escape the sword of Herod.) In this passage, Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is northwest of the Sea of Galilee. This is Gentile territory—outside the covenant land—and Jesus goes there on purpose. Still, it’s one of the strangest and most difficult texts in the New Testament. The parallel passage in Matthew 15:22-28 is even more bizarre. It’s the story of the Canaanite woman, whose daughter Jesus sets free from demonic oppression. But before he does so, he engages this woman in a conversation that surprises us. Not only does Jesus come across as cold, dismissive, gruff, and seemingly unconcerned, he likens the poor woman to a puppy! What’s going on here?

Jesus doesn’t usually act like this, and when he does, we want to know why. We almost feel the need to apologize for what he says. We don’t mind when Jesus is rude to the religious leaders of the first century, but when he seems indifferent to the plight of a desperate mother, believers get nervous. In fact, this is one of the stories that convinced the famous atheist Bertrand Russell that Jesus was not a kind and moral person like everyone thinks he is. Was Russell right? Quite the opposite. In the end, Jesus demonstrates that the grace of God cannot be contained within the borders of men. He wants to heal and cleanse all kinds of people so that they are whole and fit to be in God’s presence. But he has to expose prejudice before he can redeem it. And when he does, his border crossings give his followers a larger vision—a vision that assures us that Jesus is genuinely concerned about—and displays great sensitivity toward—those who need his touch. The lesson for believers today is clear: Jesus crossed all kinds of borders with his grace, and he wants his followers to do the same.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Radiate, Part 6: Hospitality & Grace (Hebrews 13:1-14)

Genuine hospitality is one of the tools in our gospel neighboring toolbox. Unfortunately, when we hear the word “hospitality” today, we often think of Martha Stewart, the Cake Boss, or Better Homes & Garden. But those things are a distortion of what the New Testament means by hospitality. The command to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2) literally means to show love to people who are different from us. Sadly in our culture, many people sit around mocking people who are different from them. But that is not to be the case with the followers of Christ. Quite the opposite.

Henri Nouwen once said, “There is a sacramental quality to true hospitality.” What is a sacrament? A sacrament is “common stuff” (e.g., the water of baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the oil of anointing, etc.)—common stuff that, when dedicated to Christ, becomes a vehicle of God’s grace and power to the receiver. So hospitality is common stuff. It’s not “entertaining with perfection.” It’s not a 7-course meal with five-star flourishes. We’re talking about simple soup and salad. Maybe peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Or perhaps a cup of coffee while listening to someone else’s struggles and aspirations—providing hope and encouragement within an atmosphere of cordiality and respect. God works powerfully through conversations like that.

In other words, your gracious hospitality to others is a conduit of God’s grace and power to others. You want the grace of God to come to people who don’t know Christ? Then beat them over the head with the Bible, right? No! Practice authentic hospitality. You want the grace of God to come to people who are destroying the culture? Then get louder and more strident in the culture war, right? No! Try a little authentic hospitality. When we share a common table, we stop—at least for a time—contending against each other. We turn our attention toward rejuvenating our bodies. We lay aside our differences and join together in one of the most basic of human activities. And as we share some common food and drink, we discover the common humanity of the person across the table from us—a person likewise made in the image of God, not a political combatant or a theological sparring partner.

A sinner? Definitely.
A heretic? Possibly.
An unbeliever? Maybe.
An immoral person? Perhaps.

In other words, the kinds of people Jesus ate with! He was friend of tax collectors and sinners. That’s why they called him a drunkard and a glutton. But hospitality breeds friendship and understanding. And disagreements between friends are of an entirely different nature than disagreements between sworn enemies. In the end, hospitality seeks to turn strangers into guests, guests into friends, and friends into brothers and sisters. Hospitality welcomes people that the world excludes. So, let us practice hospitality!

Sermon Resources

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Radiate, Part 5: Turning the Tables (Luke 7:31-35)

Fill in the blank: “The Son of Man came _________.” How would you respond? Teaching and preaching? Healing and forgiving? Loving and restoring? Dying and rising? All good answers, but Luke 7:34 says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” In fact, a major feature of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is usually going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. If you love to eat, Luke is your Gospel. But wait. Does that sound like a holy man to you? More feasting than fasting? More parties than protests? What kind of rabbi is this? The rap on Jesus was that he was “a drunkard and a glutton” (Luke 7:34). Now, Jesus was neither of those things—the Bible says he never sinned—but  he did give his enemies enough ammunition to make the charge stick. And they made it stick not because he was eating and drinking per se, but because of the kinds of people he had at his table—those who were low on the “religious food chain.”

Surprisingly, there’s no indication that such folks ever had to “repent” before they could come eat with Jesus. The fact that they came at all—and enjoyed his welcome—was apparently repentance enough for him. What’s going on here? It’s called grace. And grace is often a threat to the hyper-religious. Tim Chester has said, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus got himself killed because of the way he ate.” That’s hardly an overstatement. Indeed, before Jesus ever picked up the cross, he picked up the fork. When he did, he turned the tables—and everything changed! Significantly, the one person Jesus pictured as being tormented in Hades was a man who kept others from dining at his table (cf. Luke 16:19-31). It’s a sobering thought. Moreover, Paul’s great exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith in the letter to the Galatians is sparked by a meal—by Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles. For Paul, broken table fellowship was a denial of the gospel itself. Why? Because meals are such a central and powerful expression of the reconciling work Jesus came to do. 

In this message, we take a look at the meaning of meals and the potential of meals. Here’s what we discover: Meals remind us that the God who feeds us is hospitable, generous, wise, and good. They demonstrate that we’re not self-sufficient beings but finite creatures dependent on the Creator. Meals also reveal to us the status of our own hearts—who are we willing or unwilling to have at our tables? This is the key issue. Are we trying to protect ourselves and our families from the kinds of people that Jesus wants us to reach? That is not true holiness. The holiest man from eternity ate with the unholiest people in history. Meals, then, enable us to be conduits of God’s common grace to others—to listen to, affirm, encourage, inspire, value, and support other people. They position us to be on mission—to ask questions, share insights, offer challenges, elevate vision, and offer the gospel.

Ultimately, meals remind us of the eschatological meal to come—the Marriage Supper of the Lamb at the restoration of all things. So mark it down: At the center of the Christian life is a meal—with Jesus himself as the main course. In light of these realities, ask yourself the question: Who is at my table and why? Who might God want me to invite to my table in order to share and celebrate grace? We read in 1 John 2:6, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” In light of our theme, we might well say, “Whoever claims to live in him must eat as Jesus ate.” Are you up for the challenge?

Sermon Resources

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Radiate, Part 4: The Man at the Well (John 4:1-42)

We’ve seen in this series that messaging the gospel without neighboring the gospel undercuts the credibility of the gospel. In the famous story of the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), Jesus does both—messaging and neighboring—and the results are eternally significant, both for this woman and for much of her hometown. By looking at Jesus—the man at the well—believers can learn what messaging the gospel and neighboring the gospel look like in action. For starters, Jesus overcomes a racial barrier, a gender barrier, and a moral barrier. He then taps into some of the deepest needs buried inside this woman’s soul.

James Huneker once said, “Life is like an onion. You peel off layer after layer only to discover in the end that there is nothing in it . . . except your own tears.” The Samaritan woman probably would have agreed with that sentiment. As Jesus peels back the layers of her life here in John 4, he exposes a heart that desperately needs him—a heart that’s been a fountain of tears for many years. She’s a loner and an outcast, but Jesus spends a significant amount of time with her. For once in her life, she feels valued. Even Jesus’ disciples are amazed by the encounter, which primes this woman to hear the good news. 

But Jesus does not present the gospel as a stale template or a set of canned talking points. He does so with fluidity, spontaneity, creativity, and respect. It’s personal and relational. It’s pointed yet engaging. He finds a way to tap into her real questions and deepest concerns. He also finds a way to turn the conversation to spiritual things for her benefit without ever watering down the truth. Through it all, the woman discovers that Jesus is much more than a mere man, and what he offers is much more than a new religion. By watching Jesus in action, believers today can discover that gospel neighboring and gospel messaging is a solid path to gospel embracing. 

Sermon Resources

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Radiate, Part 3: “Honor Everyone” (1 Peter 2:9-17)

When believers get serious about neighboring the gospel, we soon discover that not everyone shares our love of Christ and our practice of the Christian faith. We may even encounter civil authorities who seek to oppress us for it. That was certainly the case for much of the church in the 1st century, and it’s increasingly the case for believers around the world in the 21st century. That’s part of what makes this passage so radical. In 1 Peter 2:17, the followers of Christ are given a shocking (and world changing) command—to honor everyone. Peter writes, “Show proper respect to everyone.” In The Message paraphrase, Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “Treat everyone you meet with dignity.” 

That’s hard enough to do when relationships are good, but it’s especially difficult when people are unkind to us, or when they mock us, insult us, persecute us, or try to get us to violate our conscience. Yet that’s the lofty vision to which Christians are called. Moreover, we honor others even if they don’t honor us in return. We honor others by going beyond merely tolerating them. We honor others even if we disapprove of their values, beliefs, or lifestyle choices. We honor others by disagreeing with them “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). The Greek verb to honor here means, “to set a price on,” “to ascribe worth to.” It’s what store clerks do when they put price tags on merchandise. To honor people, then, is to treat them with value, significance, dignity, importance, or respect. “Honor” is not a word of emotion but a word or recognition. The point is that people matter because they’re made in the image of God. That’s where their value comes from.

For believers to do what Peter is calling us to do, we have to make a distinction between people and their deeds. Yes, everyone should be honored for their personhood, but respect for their deeds must be earned. The good news is that everyone can be honored because grace allows us to “unstick” people’s bad deeds from their essential personhood. In that sense, the cross of Christ was a heavenly “crowbar” inserted between us and our sin. Jesus—at great cost to himself—pried the two apart. If that weren’t enough, he took our sin and stuck it on himself. Then he took his own righteousness and stuck it onto us. That’s why Paul could write, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The problem with many believers is that we’re just too “sticky” when it comes to other people. Peter calls us to “unstick” them in our minds, speech, and manner of life.

Sermon Resources

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Radiate, Part 2: Gospel Neighboring (Luke 10:25-37)

Those who follow in the footsteps of Christ seek to align themselves with the mission of Christ. There are two wings on this bird, and both are necessary to fly well: (1) The followers of Christ will practice gospel messaging; and (2) the followers of Christ will practice gospel neighboring. The gospel, or course, is the good news announcement that a new emperor has ascended the throne—Jesus Christ, not Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:8-14; Phil 2:9-11). It’s the declaration of what God has freely done for his people in Christ (1 Cor 15:1-10a). In his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death, and those who believe in him now have their sins forgiven, and they receive a new life—not by righteous things they have done, but because of the finished work of Christ. In other words, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who is making all things new in the restoration of the entire cosmos. That’s the good news, and messaging that news is part of the believer’s mission.

But gospel neighboring is the other wing, and it is vitally important, too. In fact, messaging the gospel without neighboring the gospel undercuts the credibility of the gospel (Jas 2:14-17). It’s empty words and hollow bluster. We become resounding gongs and clanging symbols (1 Cor 13:1). Moreover, Jesus said that next to loving God, loving our neighbor is the greatest commandment we could keep (Matt 22:34-40). To “love” our neighbors does not necessarily mean having warm, fuzzy feelings toward them. To “love” our neighbors means to regard them as valuable and important. However wretched certain people may be—and we all have a certain amount of wretchedness in us—they are still made in the image of God. They therefore have intrinsic worth, value, significance, and dignity, whether they’re living up to their lofty status or not.

Gospel neighboring also means serving those around us, whether they believe the gospel or not (Matt 5:43-47). It’s easy to be kind to those who are like us, but Jesus doesn’t let us get away with finding loopholes in the command to love our neighbor. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) drives home the point. But how well do we actually know our neighbors? Mr. Rogers used to sing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” Do we even know? If so, how well do we know them? Gospel neighboring starts with getting to know the people who providentially surround us. But this challenge raises many questions. What if we don’t like our neighbors? What if our neighbors don’t like us? What if they’re loud, obnoxious, or annoying? What if they’re immoral, violent, or dangerous? What if I’m an introvert? What if I’m already insanely busy? We have many questions about how to do this well, and we’ll look at some of them over the course of this series. For now, we’re simply getting centered on our need to radiate the gospel.

Sermon Resources

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Radiate, Part 1: The Priority of One (Luke 19:1-10)

If you knew you had only two weeks to live, what would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your time? With whom would you spend it? What would be the final experience you give yourself before exiting this life and entering the next? Most people (believers included) would spin out scenarios that focus on their own interests, desires, or pleasures. It’s a natural and understandable impulse. By the time Jesus encounters Zacchaeus in Luke 19, he has less than two weeks to live before dying on the cross, and he knows it. But what do we see him doing? We see him focusing his time on “the priority of one.” And the one that Jesus focuses on is the chief tax collector of Jericho! No one was more despised or vilified than the wealthy Zacchaeus. Matthew was a garden variety tax collector, but Zacchaeus was his boss. He cheated the cheaters! 

So, this famous story isn’t just about a mafia thug, it’s about a mafia don—the godfather of the first century. In fact, the rabbis in that day said, “A tax collector could never be saved. It would take a lifetime of lifetimes for him to repent of all his sins.” Jesus didn’t agree with them on that point, so he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, causing everybody to “mutter” (Luke 19:7). But it was an encounter that changed Zacchaeus’ life. Indeed, Zacchaeus received Jesus into his home, and somewhere during the visit, he received Jesus into his heart, too. The story is rich with insights about: (1) the gospel message (i.e., how the lost can be found); and (2) the gospel mission (i.e., how the found can impact the lost). It’s a story that teaches not only that God can save anybody, but also that God—and the godly—are on the lookout for the lost.

Quite significantly, in the previous chapter, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man doesn’t like Jesus’ answer, so he goes away dejected. His wealth had become an idol to him, and Jesus tells him to smash his idol and follow him. The man won’t do it. So, Jesus declares as the man is walking away, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But those who heard him say it asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Hear the panic in their question! The rich young ruler was a man of status and wealth, so he was assumed by most people to have been unusually blessed by God. If he can’t be saved, then who can be? The shocking truth is that Zacchaeus can be saved. In fact, Zacchaeus is the camel that Jesus got through the eye of the needle! “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Listeners are therefore challenged at the beginning of this new year to pray:

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart,
And love that soul through me;
And may I bravely do my part
To win that soul for Thee.

Sermon Resources

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The Danger of Playing God (James 4:11-17)

The expression “messiah complex” is not a clinical diagnosis, but its symptoms closely resemble those found in individuals suffering from delusions of grandeur. It’s a real and documented condition that many unfortunate individuals have endured over the years. But mentally healthy people can be just as delusional—foolishly living our lives as if we were God himself. We would never come right out and say that, but we sure do act it sometimes. And we do so by granting ourselves powers that only God himself has. According to James 4:11-17, we tend to play God by: (1) claiming to know what’s in other people’s hearts; and (2) claiming to know what’s in our own future. 

Specifically, we recklessly slander and judge other people, says James, and we foolishly practice the illusion of “life control” for ourselves. But James reminds us—and the whole world learned firsthand in the chaotic year that was 2020—that we do not know the future. Rather, we are called to live life and make decisions in line with God’s will. Indeed, James warns us here that playing God is a dangerous game that nobody wins. The idea of “giving God control” of our lives is little more than a delusion. We do well to remember that we never actually had control in the first place. The only thing we can do, then, is give God our fear of his control over our lives. 

Sermon Resources

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“Big Enough to Be Small” (Philippians 2:5-11)

People don’t usually look for ways to get demoted. They try to go up the ladder of success not down. But if the eternal Son of God had a birthday on that first Christmas, it was a voluntary choice for demotion. It was the ultimate pay cut. It was the ultimate story of riches to rags. And he did it willingly. The Creator willingly became part of his creation. The Master Artist willingly became part of his painting. The Eternal One willingly became part history and subject to time. The One who is called in John’s gospel “the Light” took off his robe of light and wrapped himself in skin, winding up in Bethlehem’s manger two thousand years ago. The Apostle Paul’s Carmen Christi (“Hymn to Christ”) in Philippians 2:5-11 describes just how low he went. And then how high. It’s a summary of his full journey. 

The Swiss theologian Emil Bruner was the first to suggest that we can represent this three-fold movement of our Lord’s ministry using the mathematical formula of a parabola (y = x2), a journey from glory to humiliation, and back to glory again. This Christmas Eve sermon focuses on the first part of Jesus’ parabola. “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be?  T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus! He was big enough to be small. Indeed, he made the crucial decision to have a birthday in Bethlehem, leaving the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress. 

After his atoning death on the cross, God the Son rose from the dead to give his people a “new birth” day. “Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.” Indeed, God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. And now he lives inside his people by the Holy Spirit. Lest you think you’re not worthy to have Christ come and live inside of you, consider all the dark and dreadful places he’s already been, all the places he’s already chosen to go: The dark womb of a teenager. The rough manger of Bethlehem. The red-light district of Nazareth. The corrupt temple in Jerusalem. The flogging post of a Roman torture yard. The bloody cross of Mount Calvary. The dark, damp ledge of the garden tomb. Do you think Jesus could be surprised by any dirt or darkness he might find in your in your own heart? No—that dirt and darkness is precisely why he came. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Give him your sin, and he will give you his divine life. Merry Christmas.

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He Is Coming, Part 4: “Be Available” (Luke 1:26-38)

December is a time when many believers remind others that we need to put Christ back into Christmas. O.k., but why stop there? We also need to put Satan back into Christmas. If we take the biblical account seriously, he’s the reason for the mess we’re in today. Things like greed, selfishness, violence, injustice, abuse, alienation, and death can all be laid at his doorstep. That’s why 1 John 3:8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” One of our Christmas carols contains the same idea: “To save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray.” Yes, Satan is real and relentless, but ultimately ruined—precisely because Jesus came. In fact, on that first Christmas, Jesus began undoing what Satan did a long time ago: enticing the human race to walk away from God and his ways. The Lord’s great rescue effort began with a young Jewish virgin named Mary.

Gabriel gives the news of her mission from God in the famous “Annunciation” (Luke 1:26-38), a text loaded with insights about Mary, Mary’s Son, and Mary’s God. Moreover, it does not go unnoticed in Christian theology that Mary is a kind of new Eve. Indeed, the fall began through the false belief of one virgin (Gen 3:4-6), and the restoration began through the true belief of another virgin (Luke 1:38). Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 A.D.) wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” In one sense, then, our salvation hinges on Mary’s obedient response to God’s initiative.

All true, but what emerges from the biblical portrait of Mary is also her ordinariness. She was a normal young girl from a no-account town in Galilee. What made her extraordinary was the fact that she was a true servant of the Lord, totally surrendered to doing God’s will. In this regard, she’s still a model for believers today. It has always been the case that God has a plan to change the world, and ordinary people can be a part of it. That’s why Paul said to ordinary believers in Rome, “God will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). We don’t have to be extraordinary people to engage in serpent crushing. We just have to be available to God.

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He Is Coming, Part 3: “Be Vibrant” (Luke 1:39-56)

Mary’s famous Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) reveals that the young Jewish girl who gave birth to the Messiah knew her Bible well. She weaves together at least 30 echoes, allusions, and citations from the Old Testament into her composition. The resulting scriptural tapestry bears a striking resemblance to the prayer of Hannah, a woman who was barren, yet God miraculously gave a son—the Prophet Samuel—whom she dedicated to the Lord. But it’s more than just Hannah’s prayer that stands behind the Magnificat; it’s myriad other references to the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, too. Her song is saturated and marinated in Scripture. It’s a musical medley that we might consider in our day something akin to a biblical mashup.
 
Mary likely composed the piece in her head on the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Judea, singing it to Elizabeth upon her arrival. She had several days to think about it, and now she cuts loose. It’s also likely that these words became a lullaby sung to Jesus in utero and postpartum. If so, Jesus had sacred words ingrained in him from the very beginning of his earthly life. It’s no wonder, then, that he quotes the Psalms more than once from his cross. It’s even possible he sang those words to the extent he was able—almost like a duet across the years with his mother, who’s standing there at the horrible spectacle of Calvary. He sings back to her now the words she sang to him from infancy. Both their lives are bookended by the Word of God.
 
Some rabbis in Mary’s day said, “Keep the Torah far away from women; they will corrupt it to go near it. If they so much as touch the scroll, you must burn it.” One can be glad Mary and her family didn’t adhere to such a foolish tradition, for Mary’s burst of praise becomes part of sacred Scripture itself—God’s revelation to the world. And Elizabeth is not her only audience; we, are too. In this passage, Mary is “rightly dividing the word of truth” from the Old Testament, pulling it together and describing for us how God is bringing the Messiah into the world, and what he will do when he comes. She teaches us the Scriptures—anticipating the promise in Acts 2:17: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy [i.e., speak forth the Word of God].” Mary leads the way on this declaration. Indeed, she’s an extraordinary reminder that a spiritually vibrant life is marked by Scripture, praise, and humility. While certain traditions overly exalt Mary, others greatly under appreciate her. Neither extreme is warranted. She is truly a model for the ages.

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He Is Coming, Part 2: “Be Repentant” (Mark 1:1-8)

Prior to the writing of the New Testament, the Greek word for “gospel” (euangelion) referred to “the good news announcement” of a military victory on the battlefield, a legal victory in a court of law, or the birth and/or ascension of a new king to the throne. One ancient inscription refers to the birth of Caesar Augustus as “the beginning of the gospel,” the exact phrase Mark uses in the opening line of his account of the life of Christ. Mark actually “hijacks” that reference to Caesar and reassigns it to Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has won the ultimate battle over evil, sin, and death, and rules now from his throne in heaven. What unlocks the “good news” in a person’s life is faith and repentance—making a turn from going in one direction in order to go the other way and follow Jesus. 

Ultimately, “repentance” is a positive word, as God graciously allows his people to leave their path of destruction and avoid disastrous consequences. God’s offer of repentance means there is still hope. It means God hasn’t given up on us. It means there’s still a possibility to participate in his kingdom renewal efforts here on earth. As John Climacus has said, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair. It is not despondency but eager expectation. . . . To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.”

The difficulty for us is letting go of trying to be the boss of our own lives and letting Jesus call the shots instead. A well-known bumper sticker in our day says, “God is my co-pilot,” but the truth is: If God is your co-pilot, switch seats. He wants to be the pilot of our lives. Yes, God sees us as we are and loves us as we are, but by his grace, he does not leave us where we are. Indeed, he is ever ordering our lives in such a way that we can learn to make him our highest treasure.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.