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October 30, 2016 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

According to Matthew 22:23-33 [NLTse]
23 That same day Jesus was approached by some Sadducees—religious leaders who say there is no resurrection from the dead. They posed this question: 24 “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name.’ 25 Well, suppose there were seven brothers. The oldest one married and then died without children, so his brother married the widow. 26 But the second brother also died, and the third brother married her. This continued with all seven of them. 27 Last of all, the woman also died. 28 So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her.”
29 Jesus replied, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. 30 For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in Heaven.
31 “But now, as to whether there will be a resurrection of the dead—haven’t you ever read about this in the Scriptures? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So He is the God of the living, not the dead.”
33 When the crowds heard Him, they were astounded at His teaching.

Sermon
In the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “We would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.” (5:8) In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote, “For me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better… I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me.” (1:21, 23) In the Revelation to John a voice from Heaven cries, “‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!’” (14:13) In these and many other passages of Scripture, the New Testament encourages us to view our own death and the deaths of fellow-believers not with fear or dread but with joy at the prospect of going to be with Christ.
On account of this, sometimes Christians think it shows a lack of faith if they mourn deeply in the face of their own deaths, or if they mourn deeply and experience deep sorrow for fellow-Christians who have died. But the Bible does not support that view. St. Paul did not tell the Thessalonians that they should not grieve concerning their loved ones who had died, but he wrote, “so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.” (4:13) The sorrow we feel in the face of our own deaths and in the face of the deaths of fellow-believers is clearly mingled with hope and joy because of the knowledge that we and they are going to be with the Lord. So, although we may have genuine sorrow when we are going to die or when Christian friends and relatives do die, we also can say with Scripture, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? … But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57)
When unbelievers die, the sorrow we feel is not mingled with the joy of assurance that they have gone to be with the Lord forever. Yet, “people judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart,” (1 Samuel 16:7) so no person can have absolute certainty as to whether or not another has persisted in refusing to trust in Christ all the way to the point of death. The knowledge of one’s impending death, even when it is sudden and a person’s life goes “flashing before their eyes”, will often bring about genuine heart-searching on the part of the dying person, and sometimes words of Scripture or words of Christian testimony that had been heard long ago, are recalled and the person comes to genuine repentance and faith. We do not know. We can-not know. But God knows.
Once a believer has died, though his or her physical body remains on the earth and is buried, at the moment of death the soul (or spirit) of that believer goes immediately into the presence of God with rejoicing. After all, the Lord Jesus said to the thief who was dying on the cross next to Him, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And the author of Hebrews says that when Christians come together to worship they come not only into the presence of God in Heaven, but also into the presence of “the spirits of the righteous ones in Heaven who have now been made perfect.” (12:23)
Yes, we are surrounded this morning by a great cloud of the spirits of the Christ-loving dead! But ours is not a grim spectacle of ghostly horrors like that of unbelievers with their spirits and powers. No. This great cloud of Christ-loving spirits surrounding us this morning are rejoicing in the Lord with us; praising Jesus with us and cheering us on to victory over every temptation and doubt! Ours is a joyful scene! A festival scene, if we could see the heavenly places with perfect clarity!

So, here it is, the day before Halloween. And, if you’ve read the article inside this morning’s Bulletin, you know that Halloween began as a Christian celebration of those who’ve died in Christ; a celebration of our hope in God’s promise of their on-going life and eternal rejoicing in the Lord’s presence in Heaven; and, a celebration of our expectation of glad reunion with them in the resurrection to come. Because our God is a god of the living not of the dead!
So, on this day before Halloween, I’d like us to consider what it’s like to live day-by-day believing that our deceased, Christian loved-ones are separated from us, but alive with Jesus?

It strikes me that a parallel experience might be when our friends or beloved-family members have gone on long trips away from us, but don’t have good cell or Internet service. (I know of one of our families who experience such things because their son-in-law serves on a submarine, and another because their granddaughter is a missionary on a very remote and undeveloped island.)
One thing I know we don’t do during such times of separation is we don’t walk around our homes or schools or workplaces talking to our absent loved-ones, asking their advice or direction. We don’t do that when friends or loved-ones have gone away on trips because we know they can’t hear us; they are far away; that would be silly to do. Likewise, I want to encourage us not to talk to our loved-ones who have died, either. Although they likely can hear us, the Lord Who has saved them and is saving us has told us not to talk to or even try to talk to the dead. Some false teachers would have us believe that we need to talk to the dead so that they can get God’s attention on our behalf. But that assumes that our friends and loved-ones love us and that God may not, which is absurd. No one loves us like the Lord! None of our friends or loved ones have laid down their lives for us as He has. No. If we’re going to pray, let’s pray only to the Lord.
One thing we likely do for friends and loved-ones who are far away is to pray for them: Asking for God’s blessings on them while we are apart and for a quick and happy reunion. But, of course, we wouldn’t pray for those who’ve died because if they trusted in Christ in this life then they are with the Lord and if they did not trust in Christ in this life then they are not with the Lord. And there is nothing we can pray that will ever change that.
So, while we may keep ourselves from praying for them, we can know that they are praying for us and cheering us on. (Which is appropriate for them to do since their prayers can still reach and influence the Lord.) We can rejoice and be comforted and encouraged by their intercessions and their applause.
I think we all tend to wonder what our loved ones are doing when they are away from us on a journey. And the same can be true of our loved ones in death: We can (and perhaps should) think about all the joys the Lord has promised believers when we get to Heaven, and we probably should think about our loved ones enjoying those blessings each day, and that when it’s our time, that we will enjoy those blessings, with our loved ones, too.
If we’ll let ourselves, thinking in these ways about our loved ones who’ve been parted from us by death can bring us to big smiles and great joy as we think about what the Lord has told us and shown us and promised us about life in Heaven during this time when death has been defeated, but not yet destroyed; during this time in-between this current Heaven and Earth and the new Heaven and Earth that Jesus will bring with Him when He returns for us, to make all things new, and when we will alive and with Jesus, and He will be alive and with us, and we will be alive together with all our loved ones who’ve loved and trusted Him, too. And we will be at home in Paradise, and God will be all and in all!



October 23, 2016 A.D, by Pastor Ben Willis

The Gospel According To Matthew 18:1-14 [NLTse]
About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”
2 Jesus called a little child to Him and put the child among them. 3 Then He said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. 4 So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

5 “And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on My behalf is welcoming Me. 6 But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in Me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

7 “What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. 8 So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

10 “Beware that you don’t look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in Heaven their angels are always in the presence of My heavenly Father.

12 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away! 14 In the same way, it is not My heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish.

Sermon
In 2004, NBC debuted a reality TV series called, “The Biggest Loser”. The show features obese or overweight contestants competing to win a cash prize for losing the highest percentage of body weight. Although it’s received a massive amount of criticism from doctors and weight-loss professionals, “The Biggest Loser” has been a hit since it first aired!
That being said, when I think of someone being called “the biggest loser”, I don’t think of weight loss. Do you?

We should not be surprised that Jesus’ disciples asked Him “who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven”. After all, they had just seen Jesus feed 5,000+ people with only five loaves of bread and two fish, walk across a lake, feed 4,000+ more people with just seven loaves of bread and only a few small fish, heal the lame so they could walk, the deaf so they could hear, the mute so they could talk, and the blind so they could see, and Peter, James, and John had just seen transfigured into all His heavenly glory and talking with Moses and Elijah. I say we shouldn’t be surprised that their minds were on who would be the greatest because Simon Peter had just declared Jesus to be the Messiah. And in response, Jesus had seemingly rewarded Peter by saying that Peter would be the foundation for His worldwide, Hell-shattering Church. I can imagine the rest of the disciples thinking, “What about me, Jesus? I think You’re the Messiah, too! What place of honor do you have for me?”

Of course, the way God thinks about things are altogether different from the ways humans think about things and His ways of doing things are altogether different from the ways humans do things. So, in response to their question about “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” the Lord Jesus calls a little kid out of the crowd to stand as an object lesson for them.

Matthew makes clear that this kid was a paidion, a Greek word meaning “very young child”. So, the Lord has maybe a four, five, or six year old standing with Him; a kid who can probably dress himself, find food in a cabinet and eat it himself, talk-talk-talk-talk-and-talk for himself, and lay down and go to sleep by himself (that is, if Mom and Dad chose not to tuck him in), but that’s pretty much it. Such a little one can’t help with chores, can’t work in the family business, can’t protect himself if there’s danger, and can’t take care of himself if he were to be on his own. Paidions are completely dependent upon others for everything.

And the Lord says, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like a needy little paidion, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (“Humble” here translates the Greek word tapeinosei, which most literally means “lowly”.)
So, the Lord Jesus is saying, “You want to be great in God’s Kingdom? Be a nobody like this helpless, needy little child.” You want to be great? Be the biggest loser!

Let me start over.

The Scriptures make absolutely clear that human beings become members of the Kingdom of Heaven by an act of God’s grace: That is, when people trust in Jesus Christ, God grants them citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t earn salvation, it is God’s gift.

Even so, the Scriptures also make clear that “being saved” – that being part of His Kingdom – will change us. (And if we aren’t changed then likely we’re really not saved.) For instance, the apostles Paul and James agree that we are saved by faith alone, and yet, if our faith does not result in any good works then our faith isn’t the kind of faith that saves.
Likewise, the Lord Jesus says that forgiving those who sin against us will become a characteristic of those whom the Father has forgiven. And He says that doing God’s will will become the habit of those who are saved. Jesus charges us: By the fruits of peoples’ lives we will be able to know whether they are in Christ or not.

Here, in Matthew 18, the Lord is revealing that those who are a part of God’s Kingdom will turn from their sins and will truly begin to think of themselves as “nobodies”. After all, God has done all the work to save them, just like Mom and Dad are doing all the caring, providing for, and protecting work in the lives of little children.

In other places around the Scriptures, this idea of thinking of ourselves as being “nobodies” is spoken of as being “humble”, it’s spoken of as “giving others more credit than we take for ourselves”, and such an attitude is shown in other places around the Scripture as “serving others, and doing what we know they would want instead of doing what we want”.
That’s how Jesus describes greatness in the Kingdom of God. [Spread my arms out wide.] Here’s God! [Point at a little speck in the air.] Here’s you and me. We are truly great only when we recognize that He is great and we are not, and yet when we trust that He is loving and good and always with us and always for us, then we are in that place where His greatness – with us and for us – makes us great, too!
….
I want to leave us this morning with an outlandish statement that the Lord Jesus then makes. In verse 5, He says, “When you make those who are “nobody’s” – losers – welcome around the church just because we know I would welcome them,” Jesus says, “it is the same to Me as you making Me welcome.”
I don’t know about you, but I want to make Jesus welcome here at Evangelical Presbyterian Church. So, I want you to think of the biggest loser you know… (Maybe it’s someone who’s a jerk. Maybe it’s someone who’s a bully. Maybe it’s somebody annoying or that person who everybody makes fun of…) Who’s the biggest loser you know?
In the name of Jesus Christ I charge you to invite them to church.

Worship Team, would you come forward to lead us in song?
As they come forward, let us pray…



October 2, 2016 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

Introduction
For those of you reading through the New Testament with me this year, you know we’ve just finished The Revelation and have begun The Gospel of Matthew. I’ve committed to preach from something we’ve read, so, here we are at the end of The Revelation. And John is given, in dreamlike visions and imagery, the long-awaited return of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 19 begins with the heavens singing God’s praises, and the herald-angel calling all to join in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. And, as our reading begins, there is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – transplendent – coming in the clouds of Heaven…

The Revelation to John 19:11-21 [NLTse]
11 Then I saw Heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for He judges fairly and wages a righteous war. 12 His eyes were like flames of fire, and on His head were many crowns. A name was written on Him that no one understood except Himself. 13 He wore a robe dipped in blood, and His title was the Word of God. 14 The armies of Heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed Him on white horses. 15 From His mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. 16 On His robe at His thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords.

17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, shouting to the vultures flying high in the sky: “Come! Gather together for the great banquet God has prepared. 18 Come and eat the flesh of kings, generals, and strong warriors; of horses and their riders; and of all humanity, both free and slave, small and great.”

19 Then I saw the Beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the One sitting on the horse and His army. 20 And the Beast was captured, and with him the False Prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the Beast—miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the Beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the Beast and his False Prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. 21 Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the One riding the white horse. And the vultures all gorged themselves on the dead bodies.

Sermon – “A Tale of Two Banquets”
It will be the best of times. It will be the worst of times. Love like no other will billow in the hearts of many. And dread like no other will weigh down many others.
The return of Jesus Christ will be the rising up of many and the bringing low of many more. Some will be raised up from hardship and obscurity to seats of honor and privilege at the Lord Jesus’ Own wedding table. Others will be brought low from wealth, ease, and influence to places of horror and eternal suffering.
Which banquet are you preparing for?

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about Heaven. Books and films like “Heaven Is For Real” and “90 Minutes In Heaven” have given readers and moviegoers a sneak-peek inside the pearly gates.
But Hell is for real, too.

About seven years ago a fellow reached out to me who had just had a massive heart operation. He’d died on the operating table, but they’d brought him back.
He’d called me, desperate to meet. When I got there he hurried me out of his home and into his car. He turned on the power, and then turned on the radio, though not too loud. And he started whispering to me, telling me he’d had a near-death experience during the time he’d been dead on the operating table. But that he hadn’t gone to Heaven. He’d gone to Hell.
(Anybody here ever read about or had anyone tell you about a near-death experience where the person had gone to Hell? It’s not as popular as the going-to-Heaven-ones.)

I wish I remembered the description he gave of what he saw and heard while he was there. But what has stuck with me in a way I will never forget was his fear and his panic: Whatever the details of what he’d seen and experienced, sitting there in the front seat of his car with the radio droning in the background, he was terrified.
I know he talked about the darkness, and maybe he even described it as being like a charcoal fire: Grey and dark, but with pockets of searing fire scattered throughout… I don’t remember the details.
The Bible confirms his horror and his dread, however. In parables, the Lord Jesus describes Hell as “outer darkness”, a place where people will “weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 25:30). Our Savior calls it “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), so, it’s not a moment’s-worth of suffering and weeping and gnashing. This weeping and gnashing and punishment that goes on forever…
Jesus – “meek and mild” – says that Hell is like one of those horror-story garbage dumps, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). A place of maggots, always smoking, always burning.
Back in Revelation 14 John was given this picture: “Anyone who worships the Beast and his statue or who accepts his mark on the forehead or on the hand must drink the wine of God’s anger. It has been poured full strength into the God’s cup of wrath. And they will be tormented with fire and burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb. The smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever, and they will have no relief day or night, for they have worshiped the Beast and his statue and have accepted the mark of his name.” (9-11)
If it is hard for you to accept the reality of Hell, that’s okay. It should be hard. If the knowledge of such anguish and horrors awaiting family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbors doesn’t sicken us then there is something missing in our spiritual and emotional sensibilities.

Paul, when thinking of his unbelieving kin, the Jews, says, “My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them!” (Romans 9:2-3) And the Father speaks of His Own sorrow at the death of the wicked: “As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?” (Ezekiel 33:11) And we hear the Lord Jesus’ agony as He cries out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let Me. And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.” (Matthew 23:37-38)
God has put in our hearts a portion of His Own love for people, even His love for sinners who rebel against Him. That’s why it’s hard for us to acknowledge the reality of Hell. And yet, too often, His compassion within us gets twisted so that we question His fairness and goodness. But it shouldn’t. If Hell-eternal is the loving and just God’s punishment for sin, that should make us question God, it should make us realize the enormity of the evil that is found in sin and rebellion against God, and the awesome wonder of the holiness and the justice of our God that would call forth such punishment.
No, the reality of Hell should move us to greater boldness in sharing the gospel and letting those around us know about the love and the grace of Jesus Christ.
?
Celebrating the Lord’s Supper
Expectation of a Great Feast on the Last Day began perhaps with this wonderful prophecy from Isaiah:
“In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There He will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against His land and people. The Lord has spoken!” (Isaiah 25:6-8)
You find echoes of this prophecy in the Old Testament and the New, finally being fulfilled in Revelation with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9) and the New Heavens and the New Earth (Revelation 21:4).

“Just as My Father has granted Me a Kingdom,” the Lord Jesus said to His followers in Luke 22, “I now grant you the right to eat and drink at My table in My Kingdom. And you will sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (vv. 29-30)
“People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the Feast in the Kingdom of God,” He said. (Luke 13:29-30; Matthew 8:11)
“He will send out His angels to gather His chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and Heaven.” (Mark 13:27; Matthew 24:31)
“The servants who are ready and waiting for His return will be rewarded. I tell you the truth, He Himself will seat them, put on an apron, and serve them as they sit and eat!” (Luke 12:37)

Revelation culminates with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb:
“Then I heard again what sounded like the shout of a vast crowd or the roar of mighty ocean waves or the crash of loud thunder:
“‘Praise the Lord! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to Him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and His bride has prepared herself. She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear.’ For the fine linen represents the good deeds of God’s holy people.
“And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.’ And he added, ‘These are true words that come from God.’” (19:6-9)

I’m saddened by the many Christians who, for one reason or another, no longer attend church. The church is flawed, they say. Or, they’ve been hurt in the church. Or, the church is filled with hypocrites. Etc… And these things are too often true, but we are not to give up on Christian fellowship.
“Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do,” the writer of Hebrews says, “but encourage one another, especially now that the Day of His return is drawing near.” (10:25)
For in our future is a seat at the Great Banquet with millions of other fellow believers. Isn’t it ironic that we would separate ourselves now from those with whom we’ll share the Feast and an eternity in Heaven? The essence of a banquet — and of the Lord’s Supper — is not food on which to gorge ourselves, but the joyful fellowship of those at the table.
The Lord’s Supper is our reminder that this life isn’t “as good as it gets.” Just as the seal of the Holy Spirit is your guarantee of future glory (Ephesians 1:13; Romans 8:23; 2 Corinthians 1:22), so the piece of bread and your portion of the cup are a token of your ticket to the Great Banquet at the end of the age.
The Lord’s Supper looks backward as a remembrance to the death of Christ for our sins. It looks to the present as a communion with the living Christ, and it looks to the future as a promise of eternal life in the presence of God.
On that day, the promise of Revelation will be realized. Jesus told His disciples that despite various appearances in one form or another, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12), that is, His essential Spirit-nature. But on that Day, the Scripture says,
“They will see His face, and His name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:4-5)

Father: So often our minds are focused on our own needs and problems. From now on, may the Lord’s Supper turn our eyes instead to the Great Banquet and the culmination of all things in You. Maranatha! Come soon, Lord Jesus! Amen.