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Sermon Series

 

April 27, 2014 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

Introduction

Several months ago I shared with you about the critical importance our Lord Jesus places upon confessing our sins. Guilt and shame get in the way of a close relationship with God, and – when we do confess – the Lord promises to take our guilt and shame and put it to death on the cross, giving us His righteousness so we can live our lives according to His Word and Holy Spirit within us.

That message lifted up the Lord Jesus’ concern for us to know His forgiveness and release from death and guilt and shame. This morning we see the Lord Jesus’ concern for the forgiveness and release of those around us…

John 20:19-31 [NLTse]

19 That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” He said. 20 As He spoke, He showed them the wounds in His hands and His side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! 21 Again He said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. 25 They told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in His hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in His side.”

26 Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. “Peace be with you,” He said. 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at My hands. Put your hand into the wound in My side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”

28 “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.

29 Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen Me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing Me.”

30 The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him you will have life by the power of His name.

Sermon

Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

This is a difficult teaching.

Every time I have ever had a discussion about this with someone they have – without exception – told me, “Only God has the power to confess sins.” And, of course, I know that. Yet the Bible tells us that “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” I didn’t do and say this. Jesus did and said this.

It gets me thinking about Jesus’ Own trouble with forgiving sins. Do you remember? He’d been teaching and healing, casting out demons and calling people to repentance and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He was attracting a lot of attention, and so various representatives from the Jewish religious leadership joined the crowds following Him, watching and listening to find out if He was faithful to the Law and Covenant of Moses or if He was a heretic and leading the people astray.

Do you remember when, one day, some people brought to Him a man from the community who couldn’t walk because his legs were paralyzed? And how, when Jesus saw their faith that, He told the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven”? And do you remember that some of those religious leaders decided then that He was a blasphemer and that He must be trouble because everyone know that only God can forgive sins? But, then, knowing what they were thinking, Jesus told them they were evil for thinking such things, and then healed He the man – who then got up and walked! – as proof to them that He had God’s authority to forgive sins? Do you remember that? Well, here – it’s several years later – and Jesus has been sacrificed for our sins and has overcome death, And Jesus is sharing that authority with us.

Maybe you’re thinking (as I believe many people do when they read this passage): “So, I can forgive people’s sins? And if I do then God will forgive them and they’ll go to Heaven? And if I don’t forgive them then they can never be forgiven and they’ll go to Hell?” And, of course, the answer is more complicated than that.

Let’s open our Bibles to 2 Corinthians 5:18c-20… Paul writes:

14 …Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. 15 He died for everyone so that those who receive His new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, Who died and was raised for them.

16 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know Him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

18 …God has given us this task of reconciling people to Him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making His appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”

Do you see? In giving us the authority to forgive others or to keep them in their sins, Jesus is merely giving us specific details about our roles as His ambassadors here. But what is an ambassador?

An ambassador, generally speaking, is a respected official acting as a representative of a nation. Sent to a foreign land, the ambassador’s role is to reflect the official position of the sovereign body that gave him or her authority. What that means for us is that we Christians are God’s ambassadors in that, according to 1 Thessalonians (2:4), “We speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News.” So as we go through this world, we represent another Kingdom – Jesus’ Kingdom that is not of this world (John 18:36) – and it is our responsibility to reflect the “official position” of that Kingdom, the official position of Heaven. You and I are in this world, but not of it, Jesus tells us (John 17:16). And empowered by God the Holy Spirit, we must take the message of our King to the “ends of the Earth” (Acts 1:8), imploring men and women everywhere to be reconciled to God, and helping reconcile them to Him.

So just as the Lord Jesus can say to a paralyzed man, and to you and to me, “Your sins are forgiven,” likewise, led by the Spirit of Christ (that is, the Holy Spirit) we, in the Lord Jesus’ name and as the Lord Jesus’ ambassadors, we can tell each other and others, “Your sins are forgiven!” As Paul wrote, “God is making His appeal through us. We are speaking for Christ.”

James 5:16 comes to my mind, where we are called to “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” But let’s not just read that, let’s picture that together:

Here we have one Christian is telling another Christian – or perhaps several – how sorry they are for their sins. So, do the other Christians respond by asking God to forgive them? Yes. And yet at the same time, we know that 1 John 1:9 commits to us that when we confess our sins to the Lord that “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” So our fellow Christians need to pray for God to forgive us, and yet we’ve also already asked God’s forgiveness ourselves? So what I think James is describing here is the listening Christians not only joining the confessor in asking the Father for His forgiveness, but also speaking to the confessor in Christ’s name the assurance of God’s forgiveness. (Perhaps something like, “Ben, in the name of Jesus Christ, know your sins are forgiven, be healed and know Christ’s peace.”)

After all, isn’t that what I say after you and I have confessed our sins together during various Worship Services? (Of course, sometimes we confess our sins silently, which clearly is not as effective, but many of you confess your sins aloud.) And afterward I tend to say something like, “My brothers and sisters, according to your lives of faith in Jesus Christ, know your sins are forgiven and be at peace.” And isn’t it a blessing to hear it spoken aloud?

That’s being an ambassador. And Christ is sending each of us, not just me but each of us, out to be His ambassadors of forgiveness and reconciliation to our fellow believers, but also to others, it seems, as well.

Because the Lord Jesus does, here, clearly seem to be conveying upon His disciples some level of authority to forgive the sins of even unbelievers, or at least of those who are not yet believers (though there’s no way we can know for sure who such folks are, around us). So it’s a great mystery, and it requires much humility and much faith.

But it’s also clearly true that the sins and guilt and shame of many people weigh them down with a crushing load. King David sang of such things in Psalm 32:

“When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night Your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

“Finally, I confessed all my sins to You and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the LORD.’ And You forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

God is calling people to Himself, and sometimes that call comes through the weight and weariness of sin and fear and guilt and shame. Just like it used to be for us, we are surrounded by neighbors who are wearing out: Being crushed; dying under the load of darkness and death and regret and remorse. And in trying to escape such burdens, oftentimes these folks who are beloved of God only end of sinning all the more and multiplying their weariness and misery.

When we forgive the sins of others we both introduce them to God’s forgiveness in Christ (as we explain to them the authority with which we speak), but we also lighten the person’s load, as David sang about and, as they experience the lighter load, by the Holy Spirit’s work upon them, they get drawn to Christ!

I picture it working something like this: I’ve stayed after school for some activity and I say, “Hi” to a friend, or perhaps it’s just an acquaintance, in the hall. We get chit-chatting, and he or she shares something that they’ve recently done. Somehow the Holy Spirit makes me aware that they are not happy about what they’ve done, so I ask, “Are you happy about that?” And they respond, “No, I can’t believe I did it!” And here I am, Christ’s ambassador, and I say, “Are you sorry for it? I mean, really sorry? Sorry to God?” And here, perhaps, I start to sense some tension between us. Maybe it’s because of where I’ve taken the conversation and I’m feeling self-conscious, or maybe it’s because the devil is feeling threatened and is trying to get me to back off. But I picture my friend then responding, “Yes, I am so sorry!”

So then, trusting that the Holy Spirit has orchestrated this whole beautiful situation, I say, “Well, I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. And I tell you, in the name of Jesus Christ, that your sins are forgiven: Be healed! and be at peace with God.” And maybe the conversation continues or maybe it ends there and I walk away, but I trust the Lord to use what I’ve said to draw them to Himself, and I offer myself to let Him use me by keeping in touch with them as the days go by, as well.

I know this requires boldness: Speaking for Jesus; trusting that He has indeed made us His ambassadors; and, trusting that He does indeed give us His authority, at least to the extent that we accurately represent Him. But I see in our reading today Jesus giving us a soap bucket and scrub brush and calling us to get dirty cleaning people up with Him in His name!

The unrepentant, those who aren’t really sorry for their wickedness need to remain unforgiven and in their sins until they come to repentance, desperate for Christ and His sacrifice. But for all those who are repentant, our brothers and sisters here and across the Tri-States area and to the ends of the Earth, and to all those the Lord Jesus seems to be drawing to repentance and drawing to the Father, let’s forgive them their sins. Jesus promises us and their sins will have been forgiven for His glory and all of our good…



April 20, 2014 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

Sermon

It was a traditional part of Jewish grieving rituals for the nearest of kin to remain home in mourning for seven days. Mourners couldn’t wash, work, have intercourse, or even study the Scriptures during these days! Mary Magdalene, who it seems would have grieved as much as the family, would have likewise remained indoors had it not been necessary to finish the work of preparing Jesus’ body for burial left undone due to His death just hours before the Sabbath.

The first day of the week began at sundown on what we would call Saturday night, so the Sabbath – Friday sundown to Saturday sundown – had ended hours before Mary approaches the tomb.

Sepulchers were often carved into soft stone hillsides. Disk-shaped stones rolled in front of the entrances, often so heavy that they frequently required several men to roll them away.

Some have doubted the empty tomb story simply because Paul does not mention it (though 1 Corinthians 15 presupposes it), but the disciples could not have credibly proclaimed the resurrection in Jerusalem if Jesus’ body were still in the tomb. Ancient Jewish men didn’t accept women as reliable witnesses, and so we see John and Peter moved to look for themselves.

Of course, had robbers stolen the body they would have taken it in its wrappings, and had they left the wrappings they surely would have left them in disarray. Yet, whoever left them left them neatly. The face wrappings separated from the linens is not merely “folded up” (as in our reading and the NIV) but most accurately “rolled up”, which could be an indication of neatness or that it was still rolled the way it had been when it was wrapped around Jesus’ head – that His body had risen straight out of the wrappings and cloth!

Skeptics proposal that Jesus had only appeared to have died and then recovered would not explain how he could have loosed the grave cloths tied around Him or escaped a sealed tomb, but it also ignores the nature of crucifixion: The Jewish historian Josephus had three of his friends taken down alive from a cross, but two of them died despite medical attention because their bodies had been so weakened from the trauma of the cross.

On the other hand, those modern critical scholars who have suggested that the original disciples meant only that they had a powerful spiritual experience but had not intended to claim that Jesus rose bodily read our own modern culture into the New Testament: “Resurrection” meant bodily resurrection and nothing else, and no one would have persecuted the disciples for claiming that they had had merely a spiritual experience. Mere belief in ghosts and apparitions was widespread and would not have gotten them in trouble with anyone.

There are other evidences: Jesus very public execution; a high official securing His grave and yet, despite the guards, it was found to be empty; many people claimed to have seen Him; His apostles were dramatically changed; witnesses to His resurrection were willing to die for their claims; the Jews who became believers changed their day of worship from the Sabbath to the day of resurrection; and, of course, Jesus Christ being raised from the dead and alive today fits the experience of those who trust Him, even today!

So what about you? What questions, what doubts do you have that keep you from believing that Jesus Christ is alive today and even here with us now as we worship Him in this place?

And if you do believe that He’s alive and that He’s here and that He is with you and me always, then what’s keeping you from being even more honest and open about your faith and trust in Him, and letting all of Milford, the Tri-States area, and to the ends of the Earth know that He’s risen?

When He showed Himself to Mary, she must have fallen down before Him and grabbed Him around His feet and legs, because He said to her, “Don’t cling to Me.” (And perhaps even better, “Stop clinging to Me!” – exclamation point.) Because He wants her to release Him to go testify for Him, even though she’s a woman and her testimony will be suspect, even though the news sounds impossible and too good to be true, even though it may lead her into all kinds of trouble it has already led her into her greatest joy where she will never ever be separated from her Rabboni again!

Jesus died for you and lives! Live for Him and never truly die!



April 13, 2014, AD, by Pastor Ben Willis

Luke 19:41-44 [NLTse]

41 But as [Jesus] came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, He began to weep. 42 “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44 They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not accept your opportunity for salvation.”

Sermon

Ours is a faith of mixed emotions: Celebrating the new life we’ve been given in Christ, even as we lament the troubles of this fallen world around us that loves darkness more than light; on the one hand we live at peace with God and enjoy – by His grace – a growing peace with ourselves and those around us, and yet people can suddenly rise up and hate us in an instant and hold us with contempt and disdain, not for anything we’ve done, but merely because we follow Jesus; we can be so excited about the hope we have in the Lord and all His promises to us along with His whole worldwide bride, while at the very same time we can be sad and hurting for the many among our friends and family members who don’t know God nor love Him and who often don’t even seem to want to hear about Him…

Palm Sunday is filled with mixed emotions like that. Jesus is surrounded by waving palm branches and singing, cheering, adoring supporters, while the religious leaders glare-on scoffing and condemning Him and those who shout His praise; and though the Lord seems to be genuinely celebrating along with the waving, adoring, and dancing crowds, clearly His heart is heavy…

1 Timothy 1:15 says that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”; in Mark Jesus proclaimed, “I came, not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (2:17); in Luke He said of Himself, “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (19:10); in Matthew the Lord makes clear that He came, “To give His life, a ransom for many” (20:28); and, in John the Lord Jesus said to Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor), “For this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth” (18:37). We could go on and on, but the reason for God being born the Man Jesus of Nazareth is clear: He came to show all people – but Jews especially – God; He came to speak God’s truth to humankind, but, again, especially to Jews; and, He came for His death to serve as a sacrifice for human sin so that sin would never separate human beings from God ever again.

No wonder He weeps as He drew nearer and nearer to Jerusalem: Sure, many were cheering and praising, celebrating and supporting Him around Him; but Jesus knew how shallow their faith was. They loved Him because He fed them. They followed Him because He healed them. They praised Him because He’d brought Lazarus back from the dead. They sought to make Him their king because surely in Him they had the One Whom God had sent to lead their revolution against the harsh Roman rule and Who would set them free!

But Jesus had not come to hand out to people the goodies of this life. No. He came to give them – to give us all – peace: Peace with God; and so that we might live at peace and harmony with one another.

Jesus is the Way to Peace. But the people had not understood the way to peace, they had rejected Him, and, He says, now peace was hidden from them…

In English we tend to think of peace as merely a lack of conflict: “A state in which there is no war or fighting,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary says; “a state of tranquillity or quiet”; “harmony in personal relations”; and the definition goes on similarly. But here in Luke this English word “peace” translates the Hebrew word shalom, and although includes the ideas of harmony and tranquility and lack of conflict, shalom has a far richer meaning in addition to all this.

In Christ, God’s peace – God’s shalom – is a complete peace: Shalom speaks of contentment and completeness, of wholeness and well-being and inner-harmony; God’s peace – His shalom – includes health and safety, one’s welfare and prosperity, a person’s perfection, their fullness, their soul at rest, the absence of any kind of agitation or discord whatsoever! The noun shalom comes from the root-verb shalom which means to be complete, to be perfect, to be full…

The prophet Isaiah famously prophesied the Lord Jesus to be called “The Prince of Peace”. And the apostle Paul writes, “Christ Himself has brought peace to us – He is our peace. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in His Own body on the cross, He broke down the wall of hostility that separated us,” (Ephesians 2:14) that separated us from one another; that separated us from God.

If you have not yet trusted Jesus Christ of Nazareth to be your Savior – your sin-sacrifice – and if you have not yet committed your life to following Him as your Lord – God’s messiah and Christ – then know that Jesus is weeping for you today. He’s not angry with you, He’s not threatening you; He weeps for you, He loves you. He has good things for you, the very best things. (Of course, the very best of those very best things is He Himself. J)

We all tend to know John 3:16, “For God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life,” but we don’t tend to remember John 3:17 all that well, that “God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him!”

If you’re holding onto some secret or public sin today, know that Jesus weeps for you, as well. Let it go. No matter how much a part of you you think it is or has become, Let it go. Accept His shalom. His peace…