Sermon Series


May 17, 2015 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

According to Luke 5:1-11 [NLTse]
5:1 One day as Jesus was preaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, great crowds pressed in on him to listen to the word of God. 2 He noticed two empty boats at the water’s edge, for the fishermen had left them and were washing their nets. 3 Stepping into one of the boats, Jesus asked Simon, its owner, to push it out into the water. So he sat in the boat and taught the crowds from there.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”
5 “Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” 6 And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! 7 A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.
8 When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” 9 For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him. 10 His partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were also amazed.
Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” 11 And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Did you know that you can “follow” Jesus on Twitter? (For those of you who don’t what that is, Twitter is a blend of instant-messaging, blogging, and texting where you can send out short messages to all your friends at the same time [and anybody else around the world who tends to find you and your “tweets” interesting.] You can also link a picture or movie to a “tweet”.)

But, did you know that you can “follow” Jesus on Twitter? Yup. (Or at least someone who’s set up an account named “Jesus Christ”.) You can “follow” sports figures on Twitter. You can “follow” Hollywood celebrities. You can “follow” politicians, and your teachers, and your neighbors, or different businesses: Whomever or whatever you might find interesting or curious about at a given moment you can “follow” on Twitter. But, back to “following” Jesus…

When Jesus encountered Peter and Andrew and James and John that day on the shore of the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago, what happened? Let’s look in the Word together, if you have your Bibles open. Looking at v. 8, after the miraculous catch of fish, we see that they recognized Jesus’ holiness – this was not just any other man – and at the same time we see them recognizing their own unworthiness. And then we see the Lord Jesus do this amazing thing: In all His holiness and splendor He calls these unworthy fishermen to join Him and follow Him; and then they left their nets and their boats (and James and John even left their dad), and they went to be with Jesus.

For Jesus and for the Christian disciple, “following” Jesus Christ is being with Him and learning from Him and being like Him. It’s leaving behind what used to be our life in order to make Him our life. We see this across the Gospels and Acts and written about in all the letters and even The Revelation? Disciples – followers of Jesus – are always with Jesus: They listen to His teachings; they watch Him interact with lepers and prostitutes and heal the sick and cast out demons. He teaches them to pray, and how to trust God when they don’t have enough food or don’t have the money to pay their taxes. And the Lord sends them out two-by-two to try it all on their own. And they experience some successes and some failures. And they come back to Him to watch and listen and learn some more.

Notice that for disciples it’s not just the Scriptures that are so helpful to them, but it is Jesus’ personal presence with them – the living Word of God bringing the written Word of God to life within them: Teaching them, guiding them, empowering them by the Holy Spirit. And it’s the same today: The day Jesus ascended into Heaven He said to those who were with Him and following Him, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” And then He ascended to the Father in Heaven and sent us the Holy Spirit to indeed be with us always – teaching us, guiding us, empowering us, Jesus’ spiritual presence with us always – even to the end of the age.

It gets me thinking how trite and trivial reading the Bible can sometimes be. What I mean is that, sometimes we can open up the Scriptures and read about Jesus Christ. We can sit here in our pews Sunday after Sunday and hear about Jesus Christ. And that does sometimes inspire us or make us feel good, but it is not the same as following Jesus, the way He first called Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John to “Come!” and follow Him. And reading about Him and hearing about Him can get us thinking of ourselves as lesser disciples. Afterall, we think that we can’t be with Him to watch Him and listen to Him and learn how to be like Him the way those first disciples could, right? But that’s not true!

The truth is, each one of us has been called by Jesus to “Come!” and follow Him the exact same way that He called those first fishermen to become fishers of people.

When you and I read the Word of God or hear the Word of God read, the Lord is not calling us to digest a variety of new information or facts or a new list of “to do”s or “to don’t”s, He is calling us to be with Him. In the reading, in the hearing, the Lord Jesus is calling us to follow Him: To be there with Him by the Sea or with the leper or before the mockers and to be there to watch Him and listen to Him as we read or hear.

Paul’s and the other apostles’ letters are a little different. In the letters Jesus is calling us to sit at His feet and let Him teach us and correct us and challenge us and rebuke us; to ask Him our questions (by the Holy Spirit) and to listen for His response in prayer or in His words as we continue read or hear.

But we never leave. There’s no leaving Him to get back to work or to get our schoolwork done or to take care of family responsibilities or to watch TV. No. We’re His disciples. And He’s called us to stay with Him throughout our days and nights, joining with Him at school and our workplaces and homes in doing our part among the hurting and the lonely, the sick and the outcast, and responding as we’ve watched and heard Him do when facing those who might make fun of us for our faith.
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John continued to fish (sometimes) as they followed Jesus. The apostle Paul continued his trade as a leather-worker as he followed Jesus. But they were no longer identified by their trade. Now they were known by everyone who knew them as followers of Jesus.

This new life we’ve been given in Christ is not a religion or a philosophy or a teaching or even a crusade. Christianity is following the risen Lord Jesus through the ministry of the Holy Spirit Whom He has given to us. And Jesus is not some celebrity or political leader out there who’s comments and activities are fun to keep track of from afar. No. Jesus is with us and wants us to be with Him, to follow Him.

So, think about your life in Christ: Are you following Jesus from the comfort of your pew or easy chair, learning some more Christian facts and moral directives as you read and study? Or are you up and running and following Jesus by the seashore, and along Broad Street, and into your school and your workplace and as you write your notes and talk with your friends?
Jesus is calling us – Jesus is calling you – to “Come!” to follow Him, and to change the world!

May 3, 2015 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

John 15:1-17 [NLTse]
“I am the true grapevine, and My Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch of Mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and He prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. 3 You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. 4 Remain in Me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in Me.
5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in Me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in Me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. 7 But if you remain in Me and My words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! 8 When you produce much fruit, you are My true disciples. This brings great glory to My Father.
9 “I have loved you even as the Father has loved Me. Remain in My love. 10 When you obey My commandments, you remain in My love, just as I obey My Father’s commandments and remain in His love. 11 I have told you these things so that you will be filled with My joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! 12 This is My commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. 13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are My friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are My friends, since I have told you everything the Father told Me. 16 You didn’t choose Me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using My name. 17 This is My command: Love each other.

Chapter 14 of John ends telling us that Jesus and His disciples have left the “upper room” where they just finished celebrating their “last supper” Passover Seder. I imagine that they have made their way through the pilgrim-crowded streets of Jerusalem, the air heavy with the smell of roasted lamb from all the Passover meals being shared throughout the city.

As they make their way out of Jerusalem and across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives, I think they must have passed through a vineyard with its row after row of grape vines strung out across their arbor-frames. The Lord stops at a vine loaded with branches as His disciples gather around Him. He finds in this plant a symbol of His relation to them. This natural vine is, in His eyes, an image – an earthly copy – of the true, eternal, essential, spiritual vine. And He speaks to them of His future union with them and all His people by directing them to this object that is before all their eyes.

Out in the distance, perhaps, is a great bonfire which Jesus and the disciples know is the hired workers burning the pruned-off worthless-branches to keep warm. And Jesus points there, too, to the fire, to bring home His illustration, as well…

[Pull out and held up a power strip. Advance a slide onto the screen that says, “JESUS”, and point back and forth between the strip and the screen until people get the idea that the power strip is representing Jesus. (Make sure the power strip is already plugged into an outlet.) Then pull out a lamp. Advance onto the screen a slide that says, “YOU & ME & OUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS”, and point back and forth from the lamp to the screen until people understand that the lamp represents us. Then plug the lamp into the power strip. (And the lamp will light up.) Then repeat that process with the other lamps, making sure one of the lamps doesn’t light up. After the last lamp is plugged in, look back at the lamps and make a big deal of noticing the one lamp that isn’t lit. Fool around with the lamp for a bit, and when it doesn’t light, theatrically unplug it and throw it into a trash can, having it make some great big crashing sound. Advance the slideshow to say, “FOR THE BURN BARREL”. Then go and plug another working lamp in its place…]

Jesus is One with His Church: He is the head, we are the Body; He is the husband, we are His Bride; He is the vine, we are the branches; He is the life, and we live that life. And yet I don’t think that most Christians think of themselves as a part of Him, as one with Him. No, we are such selfish creatures that we tend to only be aware of ourselves and our feelings in the light of our experiences: Us the center of all there is!
But the truth is that Jesus – not any of us – is the center of all there is. As Paul sings in the Christ-hymn of Colossians 1: “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through Him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through Him and for Him. He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together. Christ is also the head of the church, which is His body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So He is first in everything. For God in all His fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through Him God reconciled everything to Himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.” (Vv. 15-20)

Jesus Christ is the center of life, the center of the universe: He is the visible image of the invisible God; He is the first to exist and supreme over all creation; He is the creator of everything there is, and everything there is was created specifically for Him, and He holds everything together; He is the first to rise from the dead, and it has been through Jesus’ blood that peace has been established throughout the heavens and across the earth. Yes, Jesus is the center! And Jesus says we are one with Him.

Before Paul had become a Christian, while he was leading the Jewish leadership in persecuting the Church, the Lord Jesus appeared to Paul, asking him, “Why are you persecuting Me?” The Lord made no distinction between Himself and His followers whom Paul was persecuting, between Himself and His Body, between Himself and His bride, between Himself and His Church: “Why are you persecuting Me?” Jesus asked.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes that if you sleep with a prostitute that you are uniting Jesus with that prostitute. Paul doesn’t say that it is like uniting Jesus with a prostitute, he says, “Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never!” (6:15) We are united, we are one, we are a part of Christ!

Which means that when you are going through disappointments and trials, that Jesus is going through them with you, too. When you are feeling alone and betrayed, you are in fact sharing those moments with Jesus Christ. When no one can know how you feel, Jesus knows.
When Jesus says, “Remain in Me” He is using the verb form of the noun for dwelling place. Jesus is saying, “Dwell in Me.” Jesus dwells in us, and He’s chosen us and given us a new life so that we may dwell in Him. And we do dwell in Him when we obey His commandments and when we love one another, laying down our lives for each other.

It is the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ dwelling in us and us dwelling in Him that results in the fruitfulness of our character that Galatians 5:22-23 speaks about, making us more loving and joyful, more peaceful and patient, more kind and good and faithful and gentle and self-controlled. It is the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ dwelling in us and us dwelling in Him that results in the fruitfulness of our ministries and witness, that Jesus says produces crops 30 times, 60 times, 100 times what was planted! (See Matthew 13:23.) It is the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ dwelling in us and us dwelling in Him that results in a fruitfulness that grows us to more often know and do the right thing, and a growing righteousness that results in eternal life.

Even so, like the lamp that didn’t light, we can sometimes look good and like we’re “dwelling in Him” to others, while not truly be dwelling in Jesus at all. Perhaps we have not truly understood Jesus’ message about the Kingdom; or perhaps we are that kind of person who has tended to live for Jesus with great joy, but when life’s troubles or persecution-for-being-a-Christian comes we fall away from Him; or perhaps the worries of life and the attraction of wealth have choked His fruitfulness in our lives? [to THE BURN BARREL!]

The Lord Jesus leads the disciples away from the vineyard and up toward the place they’ll be spending the night on the Mount of Olives saying, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with My joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (V. 11) Notice that the Lord did not say that you and I will have joy like His on account of these things. No. His joy – the Lord Jesus’ Own joy, because we’re a part of Him, His Own joy – will fill us. As He dwells in us and as we dwell in Him, such will be our unity, such will be our fellowship, such will be our communion, that that same joy Jesus Himself has on account of doing all that the Father sent Him to do – His Own joy – as we daily do all that Jesus sends us to do – His Own joy will be ours!
And in that place as the closest and most intimate of friends, He hears and answers our prayers.

April 26, 2015 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

1 John 3:11-24 [NLTse]

11 This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous. 13 So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.

14 If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. 15 Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them.

16 We know what real love is because Jesus gave up His life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

18 Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. 19 Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. 20 Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and He knows everything.

21 Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. 22 And we will receive from Him whatever we ask because we obey Him and do the things that please Him.

23 And this is His commandment: We must believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with Him, and He with them. And we know He lives in us because the Spirit He gave us lives in us.

When asked which was the greatest commandment of all the Lord Jesus answered, “To love God; to love Him with all our hearts and minds; to love Him using everything we have; and, to love Him using all of our influence and talents and time.” But Jesus went on also saying, “And there’s another commandment that’s just as great as loving God: Loving those around you; in all the same ways you love yourself, to love those around you.” And the Son of God underlined what He’d said, saying, “Everything that God has had to say can be summarized to ‘love God’ and ‘love those around you like you love yourself’.”

“What is love?” has been the most searched phrase on Google, according to the company. Our society has answered that question in a variety of ways. Some say that love is “a powerful neurological condition like hunger or thirst, only more permanent.” That love can be viewed as “a survival tool – a mechanism we have evolved to promote long-term relationships, mutual defense, parental support of children, and to promote feelings of safety and security.”

Some say that love depends on where you are in relation to it. “Secure in it, it can feel as mundane and necessary as air – you exist within it, almost unnoticing. Deprived of it, it can feel like an obsession; all consuming, a physical pain.”

Another definition is that love is “perfect, amazing, beautiful, just plain awesome, the tears on your pillow, the outbursts of laughter in the middle of class, friendship set on fire, like a war between your head and your heart, both your enemy and your best friend, what keeps you going back to her [or him], pain and happiness at the same time…” Or, “love is like when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it every day”.

God tells us that love is “patient and kind. That love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. That love does not demand its own way. That love is not irritable, and that love keeps no record of being wronged. Love does not rejoice about injustice, no, love rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up; love never loses faith; love is always hopeful, and love endures through every circumstance.”

Does any of that get you thinking about your “love” relationships? Is your “love” like that?

James Baldwin said that “love is battle; love is war”. And there is surely a battle going on in our culture and our world over love.

Our culture calls a child whose parents never got married a “love child”, and speaks of sexual activity of almost any kind as “making love”, even though God tells men and women to get married before they start being sexual. People say, “I love chocolate.” People say, “I love God” even while they are doing what God has told them not to do; even though Jesus has said that if we truly love Him then we will do what He’s said.

Yes, there’s a big difference between what our culture considers love and what God considers love. And God’s Word, the Bible, says that “God is love.”

Let’s go back to 1 Corinthians 13, the Bible’s “love” chapter. Love is

  • “patient and kind”
  • “not jealous or boastful or proud or rude”
  • “does not demand its own way”
  • “is not irritable”
  • “keeps no record of being wronged”
  • “does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out”
  • “never gives up”
  • “never loses faith”
  • “is always hopeful” and,
  • “endures through every circumstance”.

How does your love for your husband, how does your love for your wife, stand up to that? Much nicer to have “love” just be some warm-fuzzy feeling or some ache or desire, isn’t it? How does your love for your kids or your parents measure up? Nicer just to be able to say, “I love you” and mean something vague and well-meaning, isn’t it? How about your love for God?

Are you patient and kind towards God? Are you jealous or boastful or proud or rude towards God or around God? Do you demand your own way with God? Are you irritable with Him? Do you remember all the times you feel God’s treated you badly or wrong? Have you given up on God? Have you lost faith in God? Do you love God?

In our reading this morning from 1 John 3, the apostle John is writing about love. He compares a love-relationship with Cain and Abel, and that we shouldn’t be surprised how badly non-Christians can sometimes treat us just because we are Christians, because unbelievers see us doing right things while they are doing wicked things, and it makes them jealous and angry and feel judged. And they take that out on us.

All the more reason to love each other, John says. And if you hate a fellow-Christian, he writes, then you’re just acting like an unbeliever, like Cain.

Giving up our lives is what love is all about, the Holy Spirit says through John. Jesus showed His love for us by giving up His life for us, and we show our love for Him and for one another by giving up our lives.

Because God Himself is love it is impossible to truly love another person without God’s help. When we are truly loving others we are showing that God’s Own nature is within us. That’s why we are called “children of God” because only God is love, and so to truly love one must have God’s Spirit within them: The Holy Spirit Who fills our hearts with God’s love.

As a pastor I am very familiar with the height and breadth and depth of God’s love. Many people will give me a hug or send me a card, saying, “I love you, Pastor.” I know they are wanting me to say, “And I love you!” I do that now, but I didn’t used to. Because I know all that love is! I know all that love means! And I know how short I fall. And I don’t want to say hollow words.

But the Lord’s taught me that while I can’t love anyone – that is, truly love anyone – that by Christ in me I can. It is God’s first loving us that moves us to truly love. It is God’s nature growing in us as we trust and obey Holy Spirit more within us that moves us to true love. It is God’s work upon us through the loving teaching, the loving fellowship, and the loving discipline of His church – God’s loving family – that moves us to truly love. Yes, we have to give all we have and are to love God and those around us God’s way, but as we do it is our trusting in that power that raised Jesus from the dead that will grant all of our efforts and work to transform our minds and hearts.

And John tells us that the greatest effort and the greatest work we are called to do is to give up our lives. We are all much more focused on the ways we want others to love us and give up their lives for us! But God doesn’t call us to make sure others are loving us or to make sure that others are giving up their lives for us. No. He calls us to love Him and those around us, and to give up our lives for Him and for them. Giving up our lives so that we might take up God’s life! Laying down our plans and dreams so that we might pursue God’s plans and dreams.

Oswald Chambers said, “We have no right to judge where we should be put or to have preconceived notions as to what God is fitting us for.  God engineers everything; wherever He puts us, our one great aim [must be] to pour out a wholehearted devotion to Him in that particular work.

And whatever those works might be day by day – big and little works, big and little sacrifices, faithfully doing the seemingly world-changing and faithfully doing the seemingly inconsequential – all the things that trusting Him leads us to do – whatever attitudes, words, and actions that believing in Jesus Christ and giving up our lives might lead us to, when we do them, it is Him doing them in us, and it is called love.

Let’s pray for God to help us be like Him, and to fill us with His Spirit, so that we might truly love…

O Father: You tell us in Your Word that You have loved us from the very beginning of the universe, of the world… That the perfect love You have for Yourself Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has multiplied and overflowed, and so You created us – Your covenant-people, Your beloved, Your church – to be the focus of Your love. But we did not love You in return. No, we loved ourselves. And so our love grew twisted, and our ideas about love grew twisted…

But in Jesus, Father, You have shown us what real love looks like again! Forgive us our sinfulness. Restore us to fellowship with You and each other, and teach us about love and how to love. Fill us with Your Holy Spirit and grant us greater and greater surrender to You in us. We love You, Father, and want to truly love You more. We love each other, Father, and we want to truly love each other more.

Lord: You have made Yourself like us. Make us like You. In Jesus’ name…