Sermon Series


May 5, 2012 AD, by Pastor Ben Willis

Paul’s Letter To the Ephesians 2:11-22 [NLTse]

11 Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. 12 In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. 13 But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to Him through the blood of Christ.

14 For Christ Himself has brought peace to us. 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 15 that had been brought about by the law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in Himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of His death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.

17 He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from Him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.

19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. 20 Together, we are His House, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus Himself. 21 We are carefully joined together in Him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. 22 Through Him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by His Spirit.

It is unfortunate, this human desire to be in control. It seemed to have caused Eve to believe the Serpent’s trickery (way back in the Garden), and to have led Adam to choose to eat the fruit after her. It caused the Israelite priesthood to make a priority of their self-made rules and commandments over God’s rules and commandments. It caused First Century Christian Jews to try to control those early Gentile Christians, and has caused Gentile Christians to try to control Christian Jews and so many other converts to Christianity ever since.

(Does everybody know that the Old Testament divided all the peoples of the Earth into only two different groups: You were either a Jew or you were not, which made you a Gentile. Having God’s Law and seeking to live by God’s Law made you a Jew; not having God’s Law and living by any other standard made you a Gentile. So…)

Here in his letter to the Ephesians Paul is writing to a congregation of Gentiles who have put their trust in Christ. And Paul is writing to assure these Gentile Christians that they were fully God’s people: Because of their faith in Christ and His finished work on the cross no barrier existed between them and Jews who had put their trust in Christ. Being Gentiles didn’t make them second-class citizens of the Kingdom. They were not a sub-strata of the Commonwealth of Israel. They were not step-children in the Household of God. Being Gentile Christians, they were just as much Christians as their fellow Jewish Christians.

Here in our day you can hear people debating whether or not Jewish people can be Christians, and which of the customs and practices of Judaism do they have to leave behind. But in Paul’s day the concern was whether or not non-Jewish people could be Christians, or if you had to become a Jew first! Finally a meeting that’s come to be called the Jerusalem Council – an assembly of the apostles, Jewish Elders who’d become Christians, Simon Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Jesus’ half-brother, James, and others – decided that since the Father gave the Holy Spirit to Gentiles when they put their trust in Christ the same way He’d given the Holy Spirit to Jews when they believed, that if God made no distinction between Jew and Gentile that the Church shouldn’t either: Whether Jew or Gentile, faith and trust in Christ tears down any barrier caused by Jewish pride, Gentile envy or resentment, and any possible dislike of the other’s customs. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) And as he wrote to those in Rome: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13) Equally saved.

There’s no longer Jew or Gentile. Not here. Not in these walls. Not in this place. Never when we’re together. We’re all one in Christ. There’s no longer male or female. No patriarchal hierarchy, domination, or subjugation here. Not in Christ’s Church. There’s no preference of boss or employee. There’s no superiority of rich over poor. Out there you might have people treat you one way if you’re black and another way if you’re white. But not here. Not in God’s House. We’re all one in Christ. You might be popular out there or you might be unpopular. The world might herd you into techie and gamester or jocks and geeks, but in here we’re a part of each other: One body, needing each other, interdependent, with Christ alone as our head. Educated or illiterate, sophisticated or simple, upper/middle/lower class, in-Christ-a-long-time or brand-new-to-the-faith: Christ has offered us all the same peace with God because we’ve all had the same need for peace with God. And in receiving that peace He’s made us all one new people, one new creation.

It’s OK to cross ourselves, or not; it’s OK to kneel at your pew, or sit; it’s OK to wear a prayer shawl, or not; it’s OK to raise our hands, or not; it’s OK to let an organ lead music, or a Worship Team; it’s OK to stay in our seats to receive the Lord’s Supper, or to come forward; it’s OK to worship on Saturdays, or on Sundays, or on other days; etc. Jesus has earned us the freedom to do all the things we do very differently, if that’s how we do them, as long as we are coming to the same Father through the same Holy Spirit because of the same finished work that the one and only crucified, risen, and coming again Jesus Christ has done for us!

He’s made us all one in Him!

April 21, 2013 AD, by Pastor Ben Willis

Philippians 2:1-11 [NLTse]

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from His love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? 2 Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

3 Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. 4 Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

6 Though He was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7 Instead, He gave up His divine privileges; He took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When He appeared in human form, 8 He humbled Himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God elevated Him to the place of highest honor and gave Him the name above all other names, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in Heaven and on Earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

America has gone through many changes since September 11th, 2001: Bombings, shootings, poisonings, and threats of more; and, to make it all worse, a news industry that brings it all into our living rooms with constant replays and endless commentaries!

If you are struggling with fear right now, it is important to keep a sense of perspective. When things like this happen and every news program is rolling the footage again and again and again we can be tempted to believe that such events are more prevalent and more threatening than they truly are. The fact is, in the real world there is not a bomb on every corner. Thousands of planes take off and land safely every day.

We Christians talk much about the “special grace” God has shown those of us who have been saved through Jesus Christ, but all people – saved and unsaved alike – receive countless blessings from God: The sun rises every day, rain waters the earth and brings forth the crops we eat, children get on buses and go to school and return home at the end of the day, bankers and teachers and check-out clerks and computer technicians go to work every normal day. Kids play ball outside and the worst thing that happens is a scraped knee. Such universal, daily blessings are what’s called the “common grace” of God.

The events of this past week draw our attention and can make us more sensitive to the realities of death and darkness around us, but God’s common grace continues: It drives people to a sense of right and wrong and a need for truth; it provides material blessings to many; it restrains the power and effect of sin in the world… God’s common grace…

With the events of this past week in mind, however, the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians reminds us that “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” (6:12) And these spiritual enemies, along with their physical counterparts, seem to intend for their random acts of violence to not only frighten us, but to harden us and bring us back from life here in God’s Kingdom to their dark domain. So not only must we refuse to give in to fear, but we must refuse to let our hearts be hardened, and we must refuse to respond to these kinds of happenings the way those in the world around us would have us to.

The Lord Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and a Tax-Collector who went one day to the Temple to pray. In Jesus’ parable, the Pharisee prayed, “I thank you, God, that I am not a fanatic or a terrorist. For I don’t plant bombs, I don’t shoot people, and I don’t send dangerous letters around. I’m certainly not like those Russians!” But Jesus taught that God didn’t listen to that man’s prayers. But that the Tax-Collector went away forgiven by God, because he prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, for like all people, I, too, am a sinner.” (See Luke 18:9-14)

We need to keep praying humbly for forgiveness to keep our hearts soft-enough for the Holy Spirit to continue shaping us, to keep us from bitterness, to keep us from vengeance, and to keep us from self-righteousness in the face of other people’s sins.

As far as not responding to such things as the world would have us respond, I think about the “honor” we spoke about last week, and how events like this – but even things far more mundane – can change the ways we interact with our neighbors – those around us – each day:  People are disrespectful towards us, so we’re disrespectful towards them; those around us don’t honor us so we don’t honor them; others prove themselves untrustworthy and so we close ourselves off from them; they don’t love us so we don’t love them.

But, you know, Jesus was Jesus everywhere He went, with whomever He was with: He was the same with Judas when Judas was skimming out of the disciples’ treasury; He was the same when He was before Herod and Pilate when they were telling Him how much power they had; He was the same with sinners and tax-collectors… He was always Who He was. The sinful behaviors of others didn’t change Him.

So we must be respectful towards others no matter how disrespectful they have been towards us! We must honor all people, no matter how dishonorable they are or how dishonorably they treat us. We are going to love our neighbors – all those who come into our sphere of influence – no matter how unloving or how unlovely they are. We are going to be trustworthy, open, and honest no matter how untrustworthy those around are seeming to be. Are you an Elder? Are you a child? Are you a fanatic or a terrorist? I’m going to treat you the way a son of Light, the way a child of the Most High God, the way an ambassador of righteousness, the way the Light of the World would treat you: No matter who you are; no matter how you treat me!

Mother Teresa is reputed to have put it this way:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

Because in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

My brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ: Let us not be overcome by evil but overcome evil by doing good!

April 14, 2013 AD, by Pastor Ben Willis

The Gospel According to John 3:22-36 [NLTse]

22 Then Jesus and His disciples left Jerusalem and went into the Judean countryside. Jesus spent some time with them there, baptizing people.

23 At this time John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water there; and people kept coming to him for baptism. 24 (This was before John was thrown into prison.) 25 A debate broke out between John’s disciples and a certain Jew over ceremonial cleansing.26 So John’s disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to Him instead of coming to us.”

27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from Heaven. 28 You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for Him.’ 29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at His success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.

31 “He has come from above and is greater than anyone else. We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but He has come from Heaven and is greater than anyone else. 32 He testifies about what He has seen and heard, but how few believe what He tells them! 33 Anyone who accepts His testimony can affirm that God is true. 34 For He is sent by God. He speaks God’s words, for God gives Him the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves His Son and has put everything into His hands. 36 And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.”

Our reading begins with John the Baptist baptizing at Aenon. Aenon is a Greek word coming from the Hebrew term “ay-yin”. It means “spring” or “natural fountain”, and was identified as a place near Salem. Its probable location was near the Jordan River in the Wadi Far’ah valley, an area full of springs. ( You can see its likely location here, down the Jordan Rift Valley from Capernaum, and about 20 miles down the Jezreel Valley from Nazareth. Jerusalem would be just a bit off our map to the southwest, here.)

The Gospel makes clear that (of course) this all took place before John was thrown into prison by Herod Antipas. (uuu Not Herod the Great who ruled over all of Judea, but his son, who only ruled over Galilee and the area east of the Jordan, here, called Perea.)

Some of John’s followers have come to him on account of a debate they were having with some religious folks. The discussion has left them concerned that people are leaving John to begin following Jesus. (Whom John himself had baptized, and whom John had plainly proclaimed as being the long-awaited Messiah.)

John replies talking about his relationship with Jesus using a marriage metaphor. “I’m just the best man,” John says, “Jesus the Messiah is the groom. I’m just glad to get to stand near Him and hear what He says. But the great Wedding is all about Him. I need to be seen less and less.”

John goes on to say how, as God’s Son, Jesus has come from Heaven, and so He can speak of heavenly things first-hand! And John ends pointing his followers to go follow Jesus, telling them – and telling us – that only after you have accepted the things that Jesus says, only then will you know that what He’s saying is true. I’ve heard it paraphrased this way: That sometimes you have to first believe to then be able to see.

I am struck, in this passage, by John’s humility and the way in which he honors the Lord Jesus, here. Now you may say, “Duh! Of course John is going to honor Jesus. He’s Jesus!” But faithful people don’t always do the faithful thing. It is extraordinary, I think, that John so boldly puts himself in second place to the Lord, even when he knows that doing so will start losing him his followers and, in losing his followers, lose him his source of support and income.

I think it is so beautiful that John knows who he is and seems so content with that, and that he knows the role he has been called to: The grandeur and greatness of it! (After all, the Lord Jesus Himself said of John, “I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.”) And yet John also seems to have embraced the limitations of his role, too, because Jesus also went on to say, “Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than [John]!” (Matthew 11:11)

Have you ever considered that: You and I are greater than the great John the Baptist! The gifts God has given us by the Holy Spirit, the glory and honor He lavishes on us in Christ: All greater than John the Baptist! And here we see John greatly honoring the Lord Jesus! How well do we – great ones that we are! – how do we honor Jesus? (And while we’re at it, what does it even mean to “honor” someone, anyway?)

In the Old Testament “honor” is translated from the figurative use of the word kavod, which most literally means to be heavy or weighty, but, again, only figuratively, such as a weighty person in society; someone who is honorable, noteworthy, impressive, worthy of respect; a person of high social position or wealth, perhaps; those in positions of responsibility and authority, definitely; one might be “honored” for heroic feats of courage, faithfulness, or other ways of having made a name for themselves. And giving honor to such a one would be to show that person respect, attention, perhaps even obedience. (And I mention obedience because the prophets again and again lament how Israel “honored” God with their words, but how their actions too often showed they truly believed Him to be worthless.)

Which leads us to the New Testament word for “honor”, timeo. And timeo means to price something; to set the value of something. (So the degree to which we honor someone simply shows their value to us: Perhaps we show them they are precious to us; perhaps we show them we find them worthless.)

So, in all of our greatness how well do we honor Jesus? Do our thoughts and our words, does the language we use and the actions we take, do our activities and attitudes show Him and others around us that He is truly weighty to us? That we truly value Him?

1 John 4 says, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, Whom we cannot see?” (v. 20) Which gets me wondering, can we know how well we truly honor Jesus by looking at the ways we honor those who make up His body, our fellow Christians? How is the honor we hold for the Lord Jesus shown in the ways we honor one another?

And I look around this Sanctuary and I see those of you who are very different from me in your abilities and temperaments, and I see people whom I’ve disagreed with, and I see people who hold different beliefs about some of the non-essentials of our faith than I do, and I see those of you who are different parts in Christ’s body than I am, etc. And if honoring Christ means honoring you then that means I have to figure out ways to honor all those differences, and more: Different ways of doing things; different things that you think should be done from what I think should be done; different ways of expressing our faith, of worshiping, of raising our kids…

“How do I honor you so I can show my Savior that I honor Him?” Even as I ask that questions, the Word God brings to my mind is Philippians 2:3-4, “Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”

“Be humble”, the Holy Spirit tells me. C.S. Lewis said that humility was not thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less. So I can humble myself and honor others even by simply setting my mind on their troubles instead of my own, and thinking about what they want instead of just thinking about what I want.

The Holy Spirit tells me, “Think of others as being better than you, Ben.” So even though I think I’m right and you’re wrong, and even though as pastor I probably can get my own way every single time, if I wanted, I might do things your way instead, to honor you and honor Christ. And even if I don’t like you all that much, I might give you a lot more attention and even serve you in ways I might not serve others whom I like more, simply in order to honor you and honor Christ.

Let’s pause for a moment to just look around us here. It can be easy to hear and talk about things like this in abstract terms: Honor people; honor people; honor people; mwah-mwah, mwah-mwah wah… But we’re not just talking about honoring others: We’re talking about honoring those we’re looking at right now as we look around the room; “How can I honor him? How can I honor her?” …

The American dream and American values tend to promote independence: “I’m my own man (or woman),” we’re taught to say. And the American church has bought into that in many ways: “I’m not responsible to anybody; I don’t need to confess my sins to anybody; I don’t even need to go to church; just me and God, that’s all that matters!” But those are all lies.

We’ll honor each other and others more if we’ll acknowledge how much we need each other. After all, the faith we practice today has been built on the lives and study and sacrifices of generations past. Nor are we independent from our fellow Christians, even those that live nations away! We are one inter-dependent Body, and, as Paul says, “The eye can never say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you.’” We need each other. And recognizing that can lead me to honor you, if I will let it, even if I only humble myself and consider you better than me for our Father’s sake Who, just as He’s chosen and adopted me, has chosen and adopted you, to be His very Own…

John said to his disciples that day so long ago: “Anyone who accepts [Jesus’] testimony can affirm that God is true.” (v. 33) Let us accept these things. Let us put them into practice in your lives. Let us honor one another and in doing so honor Christ. And so experience for yourself more and more that God is true.

“Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.” (Revelation 5:13)