One of the first Scriptural principles that we learn about in Bible Basics OR Catechism is that suffering comes as a result of sin. If Adam and Eve hadn’t brought sin into the world, there wouldn’t be sin today AND there wouldn’t be suffering as a result of sin.
There wouldn’t be hangovers as a result of drinking too much because no one would drink too much.
There wouldn’t be heartache at the loss of a lover because people would get married and stay faithful to their spouse.
It’s easy to see why suffering happens when it's a direct result or natural consequence of sin.
…what about when the one who’s suffering is the one who’s following God?
I. The Godly Reaction to Suffering
Take a look at James 1:2. It says this, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Did you see that word? Pure joy! In the Greek, it says todo xara or all joy. As in, “The only feeling that I have about this situation is joy!” No sadness. No anger. No frustration. Complete joy. This is the kind of feeling you have when you win the new car on the Price is Right or when you get a hefty tax return or when your crush says, “Yes” to the dance.
That’s not uncommon for the Bible to tell us to be joyful. At Christmas “Joy to the world!” At Easter it’s a “Joyful Eastertide.”
But notice when James tells us to have that feeling. It isn’t during a festival. It’s “whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
Here’s what that meant for 1st century Christians. They were facing all kinds of trials. Some of them were thrown in prison. Others had stones thrown at them. Some were attacked by the vicious words of their families. Others were attacked by the vicious claws of the lions. Some were scolded by the teachers of the law. Others were ridiculed by the Roman soldiers. But no matter the trial, James gives them the same guiding principle for how to react to these trials.
Notice it says, “Of many kinds.” Not just 1st century Jewish Christian kinds. That means God wants Christians of all centuries to consider it joy. He wants Christians of the 21st century to consider their trials pure joy.
He wants you to consider your trials of all kinds joy.
Consider it joy…when your phone breaks.
Consider it joy…when you don’ t make the baseball team.
Consider it joy…when you lose your job.
Do a dance…when you can’t pay the rent.
Jump up and down…when you get diagnosed with cancer.
Praise God…when someone calls you an idiot on Facebook.
Is that how you usually react to suffering? Not so much. (I’m not even that nice if I have to suffer through a lukewarm coffee.)
Truth is that if you aren’t responding to suffering with joy, then you’re not responding the way God wants you to.
II. The Reason for Joy
OK, so I have been reacting to my suffering in a sinful manner, pastor! Fine. That’s wrong. But how am I supposed to be joyful? What is there to be joyful about?
Ever gone running before? I don’t think anyone likes to go running. At least not based on the way it makes you feel while you are running. Your lungs starts to burn. Your calves get tired. You get a side ache. It’s hard to breathe. Sweat gets into your eyes and stings your pupils.
Yet there are thousands of people who go running every morning within a one mile radius of this church. It doesn’t fail. Whether it’s early in the morning or later in the evening, I see plenty of people out on the sidewalks running, struggling to get in a workout.
But it isn’t the suffering that causes them to run.
It’s the results.
It’s the same thing with suffering through whatever trial God has given you. Take a look at what the next verse says about it: Consider it pure joy, because…the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
If you quit running, you’ll never be able to run the 5k.
If you quit lifting weights, you’ll never be able to bench press 200 lbs.
If you quit dieting, you’ll never lose the 20 lbs you were hoping for.
If you quit going through the God directed trials that you’re going through, you’ll never learn to persevere.
Read that again.
If you quit going through the God directed trials that you’re going through, you’ll never learn to persevere.
What that means is: If you decide you’d prefer to curse God and do whatever you want… You will not have learned perseverance.
There are other options:
I’ll steal some money so that I don’t have to be poor.
I’ll disown God so my atheist friends won’t make fun of me.
I’ll quit this Christian thing because it hasn’t gotten me any of the earthly blessings I was looking for.
There are other options; but none of them are godly. None of them teach perseverance.
Therefore, 4 “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
If you looked into Ms. Julianna’s office, you’ll see some baby chicks. We’ve had those chicks for three weeks. Hatched them from eggs. Flipping them three times a day. Keeping the make shift ice box incubator at a balmy 100 degrees. Putting in fresh soaked sponges so that the humidity was just right.
As it got closer to a due date, it gets tougher. You want to help the chicks out. You want to help crack the eggs. You want to help them so that they don’t have to go through the pain of being cramped up, surrounded by a heavy membrane and using all of their newborn energy just to break free.
But you can’t. You can’t help them, because your help condemns them. If you help them, they’ll be too weak! They won’t survive in the world. They won’t persevere.
When you are suffering from God’s induced trials, understand – God is teaching you to persevere. That’s what he wants for you! He wants your faith to continue to grow. To come to maturity. To become so strong that it will remain in Him through the next faith threatening trial.
Think of it this way:
If you’ve lost your job before and God kept you safe, why wouldn’t you trust that God would provide for the rent money this month?
If you’ve lost a boyfriend before and God still provided you with fulfillment, isn’t it easier to trust that God will get you through the next break up?
If you’ve gone through a life threatening illness and God pulled you out just fine, then what’s another life threatening illness to you?
And here is God’s ultimate goal: It isn’t to just get you through the weeks without a paycheck. It isn’t just to get you through the pain of a breakup. It isn’t just to get you through a couple more months on this earth.
It’s to get you through life – this sin filled, struggle filled, unfair life -- with faith in Him. It’s this:
12 “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
Immediately, our thoughts go to our Lord. Our Savior Jesus who lost everything! Our Savior who lost his heavenly home. Who lost his earthly family. Who lost all of his friends, all of his supporters, all of his freedom. He was handcuffed, falsely accused, and spat on until he lost all his dignity. He was beaten, punched, and whipped until he lost most of his blood. He was nailed hand and foot to a cross until he lost his life.
But Jesus never stopped the suffering. He never gave up. Why? Because of the crown of Life. Because He wanted to get the crown of life. Only – it wasn’t his crown of life.
It was yours. A crown of life that he won for you. A crown of life that he has given to you.
A crown of life that he doesn’t want you to lose…so badly that …He’s willing to do whatever it takes to help you keep it.
Ever heard the story of Job? Job was a godly man. He worshipped the Lord when others didn’t. He gave God thanks when no one else remembered to. He offered sacrifices to God for his sons and daughters in hopes that God might have mercy on them for their sins!
But the devil couldn’t believe it. He came to God and said, “The only reason Job likes you is because you give him stuff. If you give him any kind of suffering, his faith will fail. He will not follow you.”
So…God took everything away from Job.
Sabeans attacked and stole all of his donkeys.
The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up his sheep and their shepherds.
A group of raiders surrounded his camels and made off with every last one of them.
A tornado-like wind collapsed the house that his children were eating in and all of his children – every last one of them – died.
To top it all off, his body was filled with sickly boils that caused him to spend his weeks in the dust, in the sun, slowly waiting for God to bring relief.
His friends couldn’t handle it: “Curse God and die! You idiot! He doesn’t care for you. Take your life. Give up! Stop acting like God is going to save you. Stop suffering and leave this world.”
But…Job didn’t. Job held on. Job spoke: I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me.
His heart. It yearns?
That’s joy. That’s the crown of life.
God kept Job safe. God used that calamity to strengthen his faith. By the end of the book, Job’s faith is remaining strong and God grants relief.
Question: Do you think there was anything that would ever be able separate him from faith in God? Not so much. He persevered.
Capture the mindset that the Apostle James uses to summarize this section. 17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
Notice it says every gift. Not just the ones that look like good gifts. Not just a new job, a healthy diagnoses, or a new friendship. Give thanks for the lost job, the unhealthy diagnoses, and the broken friendship.
Every gift is good – even the ones that look bad -- because our Heavenly Father is in control. He won’t let anything happen to us that isn’t for our eternal good.
When that becomes your mindset, then suddenly even the trials become pure joy.
Pure joy because God cares.
Pure joy because God loves.
Pure joy because God is strengthening you to persevere.
Pure joy because God has a crown of life in store for you.
We have an interesting board game at our house called What’s Yours Like? Let me tell you how it works. One player is identified as the guesser. The guesser takes turn asking the others playing What’s Yours Like?
The other players answer with one adjective based on what the drawn card for the round says. Here’s the catch. The people will be talking about the same thing, but they’ll all be talking about a different version of the same thing.
For example, imagine the card says, “Hair.” Julianna says, “Beautiful.” Another one of you says, “Curly.” Another says, “Short.” I say, “Thinning.”
It’s kind of fun. You use one adjective to describe your version of the category – all the guesser has to do is identify what category is on the card.
This got me thinking. What if the card that we got was “God.” What’s your God Like? Let’s play the game right now. If you had to come up with one word to describe your God – what would it be?
Big? Powerful? Merciful? Ancient?
I. The Fractured Human Perspective of God’s Greatness
Let’s pretend we’re playing that game with King David. Take a look at his adjective in Psalm 153:3. He writes, “Great is the Lord and most-worthy of praise.”
What do you think? Is that a fair adjective to use? Is God really Great?
I imagine that here at church just about all of your will agree. In part, because we’re surrounded by the great things God has done. Partly because who wants to say in front of the pastor “He’s not all that great.” Great is a “great” adjective to use in church. Later in this very service we’re singing the song “How Great is our God!” Makes sense. You probably believe it, too.
But is that always the adjective you would use?
What about when you are surrounded by a bunch of unbelievers who will ridicule unless you use the adjective “non-existent?”
What about when you are months behind on the rent and the McDonald's buy one get one sundae coupon is all you have for your kid's evening meal?
What about when you sabotaged your relationship, you prayed to God about it and he hasn’t fixed it yet?
What about when you’re in the hospital. You’re sick. You’re dying.
What about when you’ve moved to Raleigh and feel…lost? Alone?
Is great really the adjective you’re using to describe God then?
Or is it more like:
This contrasts David’s words. Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise.
Granted. You might be thinking: Isn’t he kinda God’s boy? Didn’t God help him slay a giant named Goliath? Didn’t God help him become King of Israel? Didn’t God help him with military victory after military victory? If my life was like David’s, sure I’d say God is great.
But it isn’t.
Ever seen Bruce Almighty? It’s a movie starring Jim Carrey. In it, God -- played by Morgan Freeman -- takes a vacation and gives Jim Carey all his powers. What ensues is a bumbling, mistake making, slapstick hilarity. Bruce is a fractured human. He is constantly messing up while being God.
It's easy to think of God like that. A bumbling, stumbling, mistake making, slapstick comedy God. That’s because it’s all we know!
Ever seen the Geico commercial where humans happen to humans? The one human shuts the garage door on the other human's car – the one human accidently clips off another person’s car door as he opens it up. The one human hits the other human's parked card as he’s trying to parallel park.
We’re flawed. The things we do are flawed. Therefore, since it’s all we know – we assume God is flawed.
But TIME OUT! Isn’t the thing that we base the ‘flawness’ of God upon, the very thing that should cause us to question our own perception of God?
In other words – If we’re flawed, how can we trust our flawed interpretation that God is flawed?
Isn’t it, flawed?
II. The Unfathomability of God’s Greatness.
Take a look at what God’s Word says. God’s Word isn’t flawed. It says this: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise.” That’s God’s Word. It’s flawless. It should be enough to settle the argument for us.
But you might be thinking – isn’t that God’s Word? Isn’t that God saying God is great? Our flawed logic will think – why should I trust him? That’s like stopping by for a cup of coffee simply because the sign in the window says “It’s the best cup of coffee.” When you taste that three day old Folgers – you won’t be all that impressed.
1) The Father is Great
Instead of just hearing God says he’s great, listen to the great things it tells us about God. Judge for yourselves. Take a look at 1 John 5:4. "Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”
The world is exactly what we’ve been trying to overcome. It’s the flawed state of our world – it’s the flawed state of ourselves.
It’s sin. Sinful reasoning. Sinful actions. Sinful consequences. Sinful harming of one another. Sinful words leading to sinful decisions leading to sinful results. And ultimately sinful consequences. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death.”
But look at who has the power to overcome the world; its sin and its death. It isn’t us! It’s everyone born of God. Everyone who has God as our Father!
Because this is how great the Father is! He is completely perfect. There isn’t a flaw in his being. He perfectly made a plan to overcome the awful nature of sin and the terrible plans of the devil. He guided history throughout time to lead to our salvation. He hatched an incredible plan that no flawed human would ever be able to engineer, recreate, or bring to completion.
The Father did what we could not do. He saved us from sin and He saved us from death. That’s GREAT!
Let’s keep reading and see why else the Father is so great…
2) The Son is Great
Verse 4 says, “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”
Wait a second. That seems different. I thought we said that those who overcome are the ones who have God as their Father – born of God! This gives the credit to someone else – someone who is called the Son God.
And it’s true! Because it was the Son who fulfilled the Father’s plan. Jesus was born on earth of a virgin mother. He lived a life on this earth without a single flawed decision and without a single flawed action. (He didn’t have any sin!) He lived perfectly – which is a great feat in and of itself – but then he died innocently. In a GREAT EXCHANGE. He took on your imperfections and died for you. By faith in Him, he gives you his perfection – he releases your body from frailty (you will live eternally) and he removes from the Father’s perspective all of your imperfections. (You are forgiven.)
The Father’s greatest and The Son is greatest!?!
But – how can there be two greatests?
3) The Holy Spirit is Great!
Before you get to thinking too hard – Why don’t we let God’s Word throw one more monkey wrench into the question. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.
In other words – we wouldn’t even know who Jesus is NOR would we know God’s plan for us, if the Spirit – the Holy Spirit – wasn’t involved. He’s the Truth. He speaks the Truth.
This means the Holy Spirit is Great, too! He works on our sin deadened hearts and brings them to life. He takes totally sin darkened lives and transforms them for good! He crosses cultural barriers and unites Christians together of all walks of life. He spends time and unites us together with those already in heaven.
The Holy Spirit does great things! It’s not unfair to say He’s the greatest. He’s God.
Is this just a matter of subjective perspective? It’s like trying to pick between Pizza Hut and Papa John’s and Little Caesars. They both come pretty quickly. They both taste fairly meaty. They all offer stuffed crust. Papa John’s gives pepperoncinis; but Pizza Hut has better commercials. But only Little Caesars let’s you walk in and out in less time than it takes to go to the ATM with a Hot N’ Ready to go pizza!
The Father is the great.
The Son is the great.
The Holy Spirit is the great.
But…which do we properly call the Greatest? Whom do we properly call God? Is it the Father, is it the Son, or is it the Holy Spirit?
7 There are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. There’s some interesting ways to interpret that. One interpretation is that this is a reference to the three that we just talked about. The Spirit refers to the Spirit. The water – refers to the flood – something that came from the mind of the Father himself. The Blood? That refers to our Savior Jesus Christ – who came to suffer the law breaking consequences that we deserved.
Notice what is says. All three are in agreement.
But this is about more than just three superbeings being on the same team. This isn’t the Avengers, the Justice League or the Powerpuff Girls.
The Father, the Son and the Spirit are in agreement, because they are one. Three in person. One in being. Triune God. Three-in-One.
This flies in the face of all human reason. I get it. But remember what we talked about earlier? Human logic is flawed. It’s sinful. It’s not God logic. Listen to what it says next: We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God. Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.
It’s the Greatness of our Father – Holy, powerful, Creator and eternal planner; the greatness of the Son – perfect, loving, mercifully and risen; AND the greatness of the Spirit – life giving, faith producing, world changing Counselor ---- all combined into One.
III. WHAT NOW?
1) Make Him Your God.
Make the Triune God yours. Believe him. There are incredible benefits:
1 John 5:11-12 tells us about all those benefits: And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life!
Is that you? Think about this – even though the world may be tough. Even though life may be flawed. Even though things might not always feel great…
…they are great. Great because in our Triune God, you've overcome.
You’ve overcome sin.
You’ve overcome the devil.
You’ve overcome death.
You’ve overcome whatever this world can throw at you.
You’ve overcome, because God – Father, Son and Spirit!
2) Make Your Adjective Clear!
Back to the What’s Yours Like? game. As fun as it is, there is probably not a worse adjective to give than simply “great.” Because what does that really mean? Great like big? Great like awesome? Great like Frosted Flakes? If you want to win, give that adjective. It’ll confuse the guesser. If you want to be fair, make the adjective clear.
Make your adjective for God clear!
Because it's very easy for our adjectives to be unclear to others.
Daddy, you say God is great -- but why isn’t he greater than your pillow on a Sunday morning?
Honey, I know you say God is great -- but why is the sixth episode of Arrested Development on Netflix more important than a Bible study?
Friend, I know you say God is great -- why do you believe that your problems are beyond him?
Make sure that people understand who you think is the Greatest. Because our God is the Greatest – and unfathomably so.
And God? He's given an adjective for you. When the devil comes and asks Him, What's Yours Like? and his crooked, nailed finger is pointing at you...God uses an interesting adjective to describe you:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
A crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
Peter said, “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel," “In the last days, God says, 'I will pour out my Spirit on all people. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ "
I. Back When People were United
Take a look at Genesis 11. This takes place right after the worldwide flood. God had sent this flood to reset the world. There had been thousands of unbelievers – and only 8 – yes, 8 – believers. (If you ever feel alone in your faith right now, think about what it would have been like back then. That’s enough believers to maybe fill up 1 pew here in church).
In flooding the earth, God pressed the reset button. Genesis 10 talks about how that family of believers grew. They had kids and their sons and daughters had kids (and so on and so on). Which means that when you get to Genesis 11 – the people had one awesome, uniting factor. They were of the same family. They had the same lineage.
I don’t where you’re from, but whatever your culture, I imagine you’re proud of it. It’s ok to be proud of your culture. Maybe you enjoy that kind of food that reminds you of your culture. That’s great! I love cheese because of my German roots. You might love sushi because of your Japanese roots or barbecue because of your Southern roots. That fine. It’s good to be proud of your culture.
The problem is when we start setting up our culture as better than another culture. There will be problems. No one likes to hear that their culture is worse than another.
So can you imagine what is what like to not have that be an issue?
"What’s your favorite kind of food? Ancient human food. That’s where my family’s from.” "What!?! Me too! I’m a human too!” "That’s awesome. Let’s get together and eat human food, drink human drinks, and we can set up an ancient human restaurant!"
Besides making for a boring variety in food trucks, you get the drift. They didn’t have to argue about culture. That made them united.
That’s not all they had in common. Take a look at Genesis 11:1. Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. In the Hebrew, that literally means “They had a common lip.” That doesn’t mean they shared the same lip OR even that their lips looked similar. It’s a figure of speech meaning that they had the same language.
Have you ever tried to learn a language? It’s quite, difficult. I’m trying to learn Spanish right now using the DuoLingo app. I’ve been stuck at 53% fluency for about three months – Remembering to do it every day is difficult. It’s why I only know “un poquito Espanol”.
So can you imagine a world in which the Rosetta Stone language learning software did not exist? A world where there weren’t Second Language electives in school? A language in which you didn’t get upset that you couldn’t communicate with tech support from another country OR you went on a trip and didn’t have to carry a pocket dictionary with you just to order “ein Bier.”
What I’m saying is: Not having language barriers must have made for very pleasant communication. It must have really united those early humans.
Then, look at verse 2: “As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” Now Shinar is eastward of where they were originally. Remember – Noah and his family had come down off of Mt. Ararat. It’s not a mountain that we can pinpoint today, but a good guess is that it’s somewhere in the middle east. The Plain of Shinar would be more East than that. A lot of scholar think that this would become Babylon.
This leads to one more commonality among these humans. They all shared the same land.
This means they all wanted the same geographic region to succeed! It was the Plains of Shinar Mets v. the Plains of Shinar Yankees – and everybody was cheering for the team from the Plains of Shinar. All the economic funding, all of their working, all of their prayers, all of their time, all of their effort went towards building up the Plains of Shinar.
In fact, this led to one more thing they all had in common. Check out verse 3-4. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a toward that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
In other words – they shared the same plan.
This wasn’t the idea of some dictator NOR was it a politic thought that was pushed through the media. Notice it says “They said to each other.” Everyone had the same thought. Everyone had the same desire. Everyone had the same goal – let’s build a giant tower so that this city becomes the best city of all time! A memorial to how awesome we are!
So they got to work. Brick material gatherers gathered brick materials. Brick makers made bricks. Oven heaters heated ovens. Bricklayers laid bricks. Architects sipped their coffees and architected. Everyone worked on it. Everyone supported it. Everyone was for it. Everyone was on board with it.
Everyone…except the One they forgot.
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “if as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
Not that God didn’t notice before. God knows all things. He sees all things. He is by all things. But verse 5 describes how God made a concerted examination of the building project; he examined the building & their hearts and he saw a few very ugly things.
1) They were united in their disobedience.
If you go back to when Noah got off the ark, God gave a pretty simple command. He had just saved them from complete destruction on earth by warning Noah and telling him about the flood. Secondly, by wiping out unbelief so that he didn’t lose his people forever in hell. In return, he says to them, “Be fruitful, increase in number & fill the earth.” (9:1)
This is the exact opposite of their reasoning for building the tower. “Let’s build ourselves a city so that we might not be scattered over the face of the earth.”
In fact, when you take a look at their building materials, they decide to bake the bricks (most likely in ovens) rather than let them sundry which was the common way of making bricks at that time. They decided to use tar for mortar – which was different than the common adhesive used at that time.
The result? The bricks were more permanent. The adhesive was more permanent. The building was more permanent.
And so was the people’s disobedience.
2) They were united in their pride.
Did you notice that about their brainstorming session? They said, “Let us make bricks…let us bake thoroughly…let us make a name for ourselves.”
This is entirely different from how the people of God had acted in the past. In Genesis 4:26 it says the people began “to glorify the name of the Lord.” That means they sang songs to the Lord. They built houses to show God’s glory. They grew crops to God’s glory.
Is God’s name anywhere on this building? No. The people didn’t even recognize God. They only thought of themselves. They only wanted their own glory.
It’s like the guy who goes on TV after a star basketball performance and he says, “I earned this. I did great. I’m number one. I want to keep winning so that I can cement my own legacy and get some more glory!”
Your legacy? Your glory? What about the God who created you?
Take a look at what God does. “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
One minute – a guy is asking for a hammer; then next minute he is being told “No lo puedo descubrir.”
One minute – the foreman shouts: “Release the rock on three." The next he’s shouting "eins, zwei, drei!”
One minute everyone understand each other and everyone is getting along. The next minute? They’re confusing each other; arguing each other; and leaving their grand plan.
God scattered them from there over all the earth.
II. Now When People are Divided
But you know…What’s interesting? It wasn’t their new found differences that caused them to abandon their building project. It was the one thing they all had in common.
Pride. Sinful, disgusting, disobedient, pride.
It is the exact same thing that divides people today.
Instead of thinking what another’s culture is like and taking that into consideration, we think of our own and demand they take that into consideration.
Instead of saying, “How are things difficult for you?” we say, “Listen to how things are difficult for me!”
Instead of humbly accepting our failures in whatever culture we’re from, we love to blame others and force them to wear the label we’ve constructed.
Is it any wonder why we, as a people, are so divided? It’s because of what we have in common.
Jerusalem. A couple thousand years later.
The city was bustling. A group of Parthians are arguing with some Medes about the price of a horse. The Parthians are having a hard time understanding why that Arab wears his clothing that way. A Phrygian is having a hard time ordering off the local Hebrew menu and an Egyptian is giving the Roman guards an earful about why he hates their government.
Then, everyone quiets down. They hear something like a tornado wind coming from a small house in the corner of the market. From where they are looking, they see a group of men inside – little flames of fire on the top of their heads – as crowds start to gather, the men come out of the house. They begin speaking.
But not just in Hebrew. Not just in Latin either. In the languages of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Jews, Cappadocians, Pontians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Cretans and Arabs.
While each person is hearing a different language, they are all hearing the same message – You’re sinners. You need a Savior. Jesus, who died and rose again is that Savior.
A few people mock them: “They have had too much wine.”
But one of the men stands up in reaction. He speaks with one voice – one voice heard by all their languages. 2 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[d] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 36 Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
The men looked around. Different faces. Different skin shades. Different cultures. Different headdresses. But they all had the exact same look of concern on their face. “Brothers,” a phrase absent of any cultural bias, “what should we do? How do we defeat our sins? How do we get on God’s good side? How do we return to our God?”
Listen to Peter’s reply if you are wondering the same thing – “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins “
Notice it wasn’t any different for the different people gathered that day. He didn’t tell some to pray. Some to dance. Some to sing and some to chant. Nope. This was no time for culture. This was time to address the One Shared Problem with their One Shared Savior.
Brothers and sisters – this is how God defeats division.
First, He defeats the division between us and God! Jesus lived perfectly when we couldn’t; he died innocently in our place and he rose triumphantly to proclaim us at peace with God.
It means that your selfishness is forgiven. Your racist attitude are forgiven. Your sinful ethnocentric cultural pride is forgiven.
Then, God defeats the division amongst humans.
It’s pretty interesting. The people wanted to build a big old tower – a tower so big that they would be united around their own awesomeness and never be lost. But then sinful pride got in the way and they never completed it.
Now God has something for all of us to unite around. Something else tall. Something else up.
It doesn’t matter if your Persian or Greek, Mede or Roman, Jew or non-Jew. It doesn’t matter if you are European American, African American, Asian American, Latino American, Middle Eastern American or any other kind of American – of if you don’t even consider yourself American at all.
The Cross unites us. Jesus unites us. One Savior. One Ruler. One Lord. One family.
God does all this because the Holy Spirit works through this.
As great as the miracles were that day – a whirlwind sounds without any wind, flames of fire without any burning, languages spoken without any learning – the most incredible miracle of all was thousands united – united to God & united to each other. The Holy Spirit does this in spite of our sinfulness, in spite of our pride, in spite of our misunderstanding, cultural confusions, and the straight up racism of this world.
The Holy Spirit unites us as family in one faith!
May he continue to do so, now and always. Amen.
I was a Senior Vicar – 24 years old and I had been called to the hospital. I was there to visit a woman named Matilda – someone whom I had enjoyed lightly toasted bread and tea with on numerous occasions. We had gotten together to talk about her family, hummel figurines, and the best episodes of the Lucy show.
But now…now there was no Lucy show. No figurines. No lightly toasted bread.
Matilda had just died. Her breathing had stopped.
And my stomach just felt strange. I had just seen someone die. Now…now how could I help?
As I looked at the tear stained eyes of the family members in the room -- I racked my brain. Should I do CPR? Should I run to get a nurse? Should there be some kind of special Pastor trick that I hadn’t learned yet in Pastoral theology that I should be used to return her breath to her...?
I felt helpless. Helpless because…What’s there to do when the breathing stops?
Today we’re finishing up our sermon series called BREATHE and we what Jesus did to prep you for eternal breathing, what he’s currently doing, and what you can do to prep yourself.
I. He’s Preparing Things for You
Take a look at John 14. This happens 43 days before Jesus’ ascension – 40 days before Ascension is Easter. 3 days before Easter is Maundy Thursday. It’s the night Jesus that Jesus is betrayed; the night he’s arrested; the night before he’s beaten, flogged, convicted, crucified, and killed.
And as Jesus was speaking about it, he’s disciples were getting spooked.
If the Pharisees did that to their leader, what would he do to them?
And If Jesus was dead, how could he protect them?
And if he couldn’t protect them, wouldn’t they just run out of breath?
Listen to Jesus’ words of to them:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you so. I am going there to prepare a place for you.
Now note that when Jesus says, “His Father’s house,” he’s not talking about Joseph. That would have been his step-dad’s house in Nazareth. While a carpenter makes a living, I doubt that the house had enough room for 11 disciples to spread out on the living room floor for a nap. Can you imagine what that would have been like? “Peter & Andrew – you’re brothers so you can sleep in this room together. John, you take the floor. And Philip? There’s an old futon out back that you can curl up on.”
Nope. The Father he was talking about was bigger.
And the house He was talking about was bigger too.
In my Father’s house are many rooms.
Ever been to the Biltmore Estate? It has over 250 rooms. 33 bedrooms. 43 bathrooms. 3 kitchens and 65 fireplaces. It’s able to house hundreds of people at the same time. That’s a lot.
Heaven houses a lot more. It has many rooms. Enough rooms for God to fill it with people from every age, every era, every culture, and every race. Scripture talks about thousands upon thousands and ten thousand upon ten thousand. Myriads of people crowding the halls of this divine house, taking up residents in one of its many rooms.
And one of those rooms? It’s for you.
Look at what Jesus says next, I am going there to prepare a place for you. That’s a promise he makes to his disciples. A disciple is a follower of Jesus. Do you follow Jesus? Do you believe in him? Jesus is talking about you.
Jesus isn’t up in heaven laying on a couch flipping through episodes of Fuller House on Netflix. He’s not in heaven sipping martinis by a heavenly poolside and leaving you down here with all your problems, with all your relationship problems, with all your financial struggles, to slowly go through life working your dead-end job, barely making it until you die.
He’s busy. He’s preparing a place for you.
Suddenly you get this picture of Jesus sweeping up the floor, turning the Roomba loose on the carpet, putting flowers in a vase by the bedside table, fluffing pillows, lighting some candles, spraying some Febreeze and folding a towel into one of the little duck like creatures that they make at the Holiday Inn.
Is Jesus actually doing such mundane earthly tasks? Probably not. It’s heaven. It’s not earth. But the point is this: Jesus is that excited to have you in heaven. He’s getting a special spot, preserved and prepared just for you.
If one of the angels comes along and says, “Hey Jesus, is anyone using this room? I want to use it for some divine yoga!”
Jesus will respond, “No! That room is for my beloved. It’s for this 21st century Christian, sitting in row 7, seat 2 at Gethsemane church in Raleigh, NC. I’ve been preparing that spot for them for years. I lived perfectly for them. I died for them. I rose triumphantly for them. All so that they might live in that room – down the hall from me – eternally.”
II. He’s Coming Back to Get you
When your spot is ready – when the time is just right – Jesus is coming back. If I go there and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me.
Did you know that infants are terrible at peekaboo? Infants lack something called “object permanence.” That means they don’t understand that objects generally don’t disappear out of thin air. So, if you are making an infant smile and then throw a blanket over your face, the infant thinks “Help. He’s gone. Don’t know where to either.” The infant is extra surprised to see you again – because he was expecting that you were gone.
Don’t we do the same thing with Jesus?
The way this world is going – things are so awful. Jesus isn’t ever coming back!
Finances are so hard – I imagine God doesn’t care a bit about me.
I’m so lonely – Jesus must have forgotten all about me.
My health is deteriorating fast. Jesus must have checked out!
Nope. He remembers.
When he’s done preparing a place for you, he will come back and take you to be with him.
To a place without the sin and immorality of this world.
To a place without financial burdens.
To a place surrounded by God’s love.
To a place where there is no sickness; no sadness and no pain!
That’s sounds pretty awesome. It would be sad to miss it.
Like Google Calendar. Do you ever use its features? If you ever have a really important event you can set it up shoot off an alarm that way you don’t miss the meeting. Sometimes I have to put a couple of reminders for a really big day – like the Doritos convention – I have reminders 1 week, 3 days, 24 hours, 12 hours, 5 hours, 2 hours, 1 hour & ½ an hour before hand. I don’t want to forget!
Don’t you worry about Jesus. He won’t forget. Don’t think you’ve done too much sin or been too far away for too long that he will forget all about coming to get you.
He will remember you. He will come back for you.
It doesn’t matter where you are:
On the sixth floor of your office surrounded by stacks of paper at work? He will remember you. He will come back for you.
In line to make a rent payment at the fourth apartment you’ve tried out this year? He will remember you. He will come back for you.
On the fourth floor of the sixth building on the gigantic campus of UNC Health Center? He will remember you. He will come back for you.
In the ground, row 18 in the cemetery, plot 37 – He will come back for you.
Lazarus had been buried in a tomb for four days. He had been dead for longer – probably a whole week. His body had begun to deteriorate. The grave had begun to smell like rot. He was dead.
When Jesus got there to see him, his sisters lost it: “You’re too late! You should have been here earlier. You missed him. You could have helped him; you could have saved him; but now he’s dead.”
Jesus? He had them roll the stone away. He peered inside. He called out: “Lazarus!”
Lazarus walked out – alive.
There’s a promise that Jesus made right before doing that to Lazarus. He said, “Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me; will never die!” (Jn. 11:27)
Do you believe in Jesus? That means you will live.
Have cancer? You will live.
Getting older? You will live.
Nervous about terrorist? You will live.
You will be in heaven. You will breathe. Even when you’re breathing stops.
III. What Now?
1. Give the Best Gift a Mom Can Give
Here’s the Mother’s Day connection. We are gonna get it in there somehow. If you are a modern mom, there’s a lot of pressure to be a good mom. Our world is of the opinion that if you want to be a good mom you need to enroll your kid in ballet, take him to swimming, karate, clarinet, science club, make sure he has good grades but get him an iPhone, feed him the most expensive organic food available, but save up enough money for college, make sure he’s disciplined, but not be one of those hard-nosed moms either.
It’s hard. It’s also wrong.
Because if you want to be a good mom, there is one thing needful: Teach your kids about Jesus.
Nothing else is that important. Tell them Bible stories. Read them the Bible. Do family devotions. Bring them to church. Bring them to Sunday School. Have them baptized.
If you want to them in heaven with you, do all you can to teach them about the one, the ONLY ONE, who offers heaven. Jesus!
2. Give the Best Gift a Mom Can Get
Moms – you might be getting a lot of gifts today. A pair of earrings. A flower. A card with “I think it’s a spotted cow” on it. Happy “Mooo—ther’s Day!” Careful how you react! Because if you want to show appreciation for a gift, you take good care of it. You put it in a special spot. You make sure not to throw it away. You keep it for years to come.
It’s the same way with spiritual gifts.
Maybe you have a Christian mom.
Maybe you had a Christian mom.
Maybe you had a grand mom, an aunt, an uncle, a dad, a somebody who loved Jesus and cared give you the gift of your Savior.
Use that gift. Take care of that gift. Keep your faith in Jesus strong. Exercise your spirit in God’s Word – at church, at home, listening to your iPhone as you drive. Whatever it takes to make sure you’re breathing when your breathing ends.
That’s what Matilda had done. She had read her Bible. She sang her hymns. She had listened to the cassette tapes of sermons that past pastors had brought her. She even listened to the CDs of Sundays service that I brought her (after I explained to her how it all worked).
She listened. She heard about her Savior’s last breath on the cross. She heard about her Savior’s first breath in the tomb.
When she took her last breath in that hospital room, immediately, instantly, she segued to her first divine breath.
In her Father’s house.
Ezekiel’s body hit the ground with a thud. The temp was hot. The air was thick. There was a stale odor seeping into his nostrils.
Some road trip.
Moments ago, he had been minding his own business. He had been preparing for another round of preaching, another round of prophesying, another round of warning the Israelites to stop their evil ways. And as he walked by the Babylonian marketplace where he would grab a morning drink, a piece of bread and begin writing his speech for the day, God intercepted him.
Ezekiel had been picked up, moved by the Almighty hand of the Lord, taken from his daily life and routine to…to…this! Wherever this was!
Ezekiel looked up. He was in a valley – what appeared to be the deepest part – with long mountainous crags on all every side. As his eyes followed the pastures ahead, he spotted what appeared to be clumps in the distance. Maybe they were piles. Some kind of bramble.
He took a few steps in that direction, until his sandled foot stubbed against something. He tripped, but kept his balance. Then, he turned around to see what his foot had a struck. In the ground, he saw something small and yellowish brown. He couldn’t quite make out what it was. Curiosity got the best of him so he got down on his knees and brushed the dry dirt away hoping to discover what it was.
When he did, he backed away in horror.
It was a skull. A dead bone.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he realized that this was exactly what the piles in the distance were. Bones. Lots of them. Everywhere.
The Spirit of God led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. (Ezekiel 37:2)
I. A Lesson in the Valley
Ezekiel found himself wandering through the valley. Bones were everywhere he looked. Jawbones to his left. Leg bones to his right. Piles and piles of death – fading reminders of the people who once owned them.
Now…they were motionless. Dead. Lifeless.
It kinda reminded Ezekiel of the Israelites. For years he had been commissioned by God to warn his fellow countrymen about their sins. He had explained that the reason they were captives in Babylon was their sins and their only way out of Babylon was repentance and patience – patience in waiting for the delivering hand of God.
But the people’s response was MEH! They hadn’t seemed to care. They were lifeless. Their faith…was dead.
Ezekiel’s thought process was interrupted by the booming voice of the LORD: He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel looked at the pile nearest him. A shin bone that used to walk. A knee joint that used to bend. A shoulder socket that used to reach for a bottle of wine. They had moved, sure. But death had crippled them. These bones were worthless. Anyone knew that.
…This wasn’t just anyone speaking to him.
God, you are the expert. You are the Creator of heaven and earth. You are the One who formed Adam, the very first man, out of clay! God, You alone know.
God responded, “Prophesy to these bones. Prophesy and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
Wait a second? God, you want me to talk to the bones? The Israelites were one thing, but now you want me to prophesy to these bones? These things aren’t living. They aren’t moving. They can’t hear me. They don’t even have ears!
But…you are God. And…no one is watching so.
I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them…
A foot connected to an ankle bone. A fibula and tibia met up like long lost friends. Ribs flew through the air and forced Ezekiel to duck for his life. Then, little stitches appeared at the joints…like some sort of invisible hand was cross stitching a pattern across them. Muscles formed in clumps at the biceps, the delts, and the quads. A skeleton near Ezekiel’s feet suddenly had a six pack. Then, skin. It draped down like a blanket and covered up all of these insides into one cohesive, identifiable body.
…but there was no breath in them.
And God spoke again.
9 “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”
Ezekiel paused again.
First, bones and now the wind? You want me to preach to the wind? The forces of nature that only you control? You really expect me to get them bring these bones to life? Would it even do that?
Could it even do that?
10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered the bones; a loud noise like a tornado rushed in from all sides. It blew through the newly formed hair on the bodies, moved the loose cartilage of the ears, and entered into the nostrils. Then, the chests moved. The bodies came to life and stood up on their feet-- one after another – a miracle after a miracle -- a vast army.
And Ezekiel? He stood in awe. Had seen the incredible. God had brought breath out of death!
II. A Lesson in North Raleigh
That’s a pretty sweet Bible story, isn’t it? How awesome would it be to see a science room filled of bones come to life and be real people? Because of the bones, it probably doesn’t get told as much in Sunday School as Noah’s ark, but it’s still pretty sweet.
And it’s not without some very real and very important lessons for you and me as we try to do ministry in North Raleigh. Take a look at these few:
1) We Too Were Bags of Bones
In order to get this bone for the kids lesson – I asked one of my friends who teaches elementary science for some help. She got back to me with a message about all the different bones that she could bring. Dog shin bones, goat thigh bones, even a cow skull. She wisely thought the cow skull would totally distract the kids and lead to me using control over the kids during the kids lesson. (I need reviews like that more often).
But it got me to thinking – all these different bones – all these different places – unless your are an A+ college biology student, you might not know what bones goes where, what kinds of animals it’s from and where it goes in the skeleton.
Isn’t it the same with God’s perspective of us? We are all sinners – dead in spirit – dead in faith. God looks down at us and he can’t tell apart the one pornography from the other. It’s easy to get the gossiper confused with the liar. The one God can’t tell if he should label it a racist, an adulteress, a thief or a strange combination of all three!
What I’m trying to say is that apart from Jesus – God sees us all as a pile of good as dead, useless, worthless, sinful bones.
Read it yourself in Ephesians 2:1 – “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.”
Now you might argue:
I’m not so bad. I was pretty good apart from Jesus. I might be a bit better now, but I was no slouch back in the day either.
I’m without him right now and I think I’m doing just fine. I don’t need anyone’s help and I don’t need God’s.
Have you ever downloaded an app before? When you download an app what do you expect it to do? Probably what it says it’s going to do. If you get an app downloaded, and it constantly freezes all the time, if it sends the Angry Birds in the opposite direction of the way you were flinging them OR if you every time you touch the DELIVER PIZZA button on the Pizza Hut app, you get sushi – the app is broken. It’s worthless.
God made you and I to serve him. He made us to devote our lives in love to him. He made us to serve others completely selfless all the time, all the time, all the time.
We haven’t done that. None of us have. There’s nothing we could do to fix that! Apart from Jesus, we were dead in sin.
If you are apart from Jesus, then that’s how God views you – dead. He sees your life as a rotting, deteriorating mess of an experiment – the only thing for which it's good, being an eventual decomposition into the soil where other bones can be buried too.
You were dead in your sins, but God made you alive with Christ.
2) God Brings Breath from Death
Do you know what’s really interesting? The Hebrew word for breath that we read in Ezekiel is RUACH…it’s also the exact same words that we translated as WIND. Two definitions; same word.
But there’s one more definition for RUACH. Do you know what it is?
Suddenly, it makes complete sense as to why the breath brought life from death, because the Holy Spirit was with the breath.
And the Holy Spirit is God.
And God has no problem bringing breath from death.
That’s what he has done to all believers. He worked the RUACH, Spirit worked through the RUACH/Breath of His Word to bring use to life. He breathed forgiveness into our sin burdened lungs. He took our sin rotting heart and gave us a heart of joy in the Lord. He lifted us up to our feet, dusted us off from our sins, and helped us take our first steps for the Lord.
God brought breath from our death.
If he hasn’t yet, that’s my prayer for you. It’s God’ s prayer for you, too.
In fact, that’s why he took on flesh and bone. It’s why he lost his breath on that cross. It’s why he took another breath in the tomb that first Easter morning – because every breath he took, all along the way – was to give you that a breath of FRESH AIR – to bring breath from death!
3) Let the Breeze…Out?
If you’ve got animals, there maybe be times when you need to let him some fresh air. Truth is: animals can stink the joint up. If you don’t have animals, maybe it’s the kids. If you don’t have kids, ladies, it’s probably the husband.
So you let the breeze in! You need fresh air. Glade has spent millions of dollars perfecting outdoor, fresh scents for just that reason.
But…what if the stink isn’t inside? What is the stink is outside?
You watch the news lately? This world stinks. It’s filled with sin and hatred and immorality! It’s filled with racism, selfism, and I’m-better-than-you-ism. Our world wants nothing to do with God and the morality is where it is because that is the case.
So…Let the breeze out!
Remember what God told Ezekiel? He told him to speak to the winds. He told him to say what He, the Lord, had said. He asked him to prophesy – which, in its simplest format – means to share God’s Words.
You’ve got the same power, because you have the same word. When you speak about your Savior to a sin burdened friend, that word of God has the ability to bring life to their souls!
Pray for the opportunities. I had the chance to do that this past week. I went to visit a friend from my assisted living ministry who was in the hospital. I got there and she was tired, sad, and honestly not looking all that good.
What did I do? Not much. I read Psalm 46 – “The Lord is our Refuge and Strength, an ever present help in trouble!” And the Spirit did his thing. Her spirits were lifted. A breath of fresh air in that dank, hospital room. Her spirit was breathing again!
You do the same.
And remember: Ezekiel did that and the winds came from all over from the North and the South; the East and the West.
That’s God’s plan. To fill the earth with the winds that bring breath – with the wind of his Word. From far north of Iceland to the down under of Australia. From the Far East of China to the far west of Arizona. From Durham to Clayton. From Cary to Knightdale. From I-540 to I-440. From Falls of Neuse to Six Forks.
Wherever you’re at. Speak God’s Word. Breathe a breath of fresh air into this world.
And God? He’ll do what he does. He’ll bring breath from death. Amen.