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Sermon Series

 

February 3, 2013 AD, by Pastor Ben Willis

The Gospel According to John 1:1-9 [NLTse]

3 There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. 2 After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent You to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with You.”

3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

4 “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

5 Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. 6 Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. 7 So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”

9 “How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked.

Nicodemus should have known Jesus was talking about conversion.

Most literally Jesus speaks here as being born “from above”. In the Lord Jesus’ day, as is sometimes still practiced by Jews and even a few Christians, as a way of demonstrating the holiness of God’s name – hallowed be Thy name, we pray – some good Jews would not use God’s name in their conversation: Not “Lord”, not “Yahweh”, and for some not even saying “God”. And so they developed what are called circumlocutions to help them talk about God and His things without having to refer to Him and use any of His names directly. So “Kingdom of Heaven” is spoken of when referring to the Kingdom of God; and when the High Priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” he says “Son of the Blessed One” instead of saying Son of God. So the Lord is speaking here of being born of God, often spoken about as being “born again”…

That being said, Nicodemus should have known Jesus was talking about conversion. Because when Jewish teachers would speak of Gentile converts to Judaism they would talk about the convert starting a new life, like a “newborn child”. For another reason, in the First Century, those adopted as sons, under Roman law, relinquished all legal status in their former family: Legally-speaking they were not children in their family of origin any longer, they were children of their new family, as though they had died and were born again. Nicodemus should have known the Lord was talking about conversion because baptism was seen, by Jewish leaders, as necessary for cleansing converts to Judaism from their “Gentile impurities”, and was commonly spoken of as saying they’d been “born of water”…

Perhaps Nicodemus didn’t get it because these were all associations used for Gentile converts to Judaism. Perhaps, as a leader of Israel, he couldn’t perceive of the need for someone who’d been born a Jew to need to be cleansed from impurity and start a new life like a “newborn child” and be born again of God and be converted to the true faith of Israel by following the Messiah, Jesus. Perhaps he couldn’t get it even though John the Baptist had preached it, as well, when he said, “Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing.” (Matthew 3:9) No, for neither religious knowledge nor family affiliation nor community ties are sufficient basis for a relationship with God: One must be born into God’s family by the Holy Spirit.

And we need to hear these things in our day because we have people who say, “I’m a Christian because my momma and daddy were Christians.” Or who say, “Of course I’m a Christian. I’ve been attending this church since I was a kid.” Or who say, “Who are you to tell me I don’t have a relationship with God? I went to seminary!”

No, my brothers and sisters and friends: We must be born of God by the inward working of the Holy Spirit, that work that occurs once we’ve seen our need for a new life – our need for someone to save us and rescue us from this life – and we put our trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior and the Lord of all of our lives.

Nicodemus should have gotten it because, as a leader of Israel, the prophetic words of Ezekiel should have echoed in his mind when the prophet uses water to speak symbolically of God’s cleansing work by the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel speaks the Word of God, saying, “For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. 27 And I will put My Spirit in you so that you will follow My decrees and be careful to obey My regulations.” (36:24-27)

And with God’s Word echoing in our minds we can see that the Lord Jesus’ use of the term “born of God” and “born from above” and “born again” speaks of so much more than merely relinquishing legal status in former families, and so much more than merely shifting from one belief, view, or party to another (which is what “conversion” actually means). So very much more!

It is a cleansing, this being born of God, as absolute cleansing from every impurity and all filthiness. It is an absolute cleansing from every wrong and harm and shameful act you have ever done and an absolute cleansing and binding up and healing from every wrong, harmful, and shameful act ever done to you. An absolute cleansing.

And yet there’s more! Ezekiel speaks of so much more! The Lord’s referring to so very much more!

To be born of God / born from above / born again means receiving a new heart. A new heart from God! God has a new heart for you – for us! A new heart not of stone filled with commandments and “you must”, “you must”, “you must”, but a heart of flesh that brings our desires in-line with His desires, so that we might want for others and for ourselves what God wants for them and for us; a new heart to share each other’s lives, so that other’s burdens would be our burdens – joining our hearts with them in prayer and joining our resources with theirs to help support and alleviate their need; a new heart – a heart from God – to replace your weary and despairing heart with a fresh and a hope-filled heart! To replace your jaded and needing-to-protect-yourself heart with a new trusting and free-to-trust-God-to-protect-me heart from God!

And yet being born of God, being born from above, being born again is so much more! Through His Word God has promised, “I will put My Spirit in you so that you will follow My decrees!”

So the born of God / born again life is not you and me trying our best to dig deeper and work harder to have the strength or energy or courage or whatever to accomplish God’s heart and will for us in serving others and sharing Jesus’ good news. And it’s not about trying to be more and do more and trying not to burn out as we do so. No!

It is God’s Own Spirit giving us power to not only do what the Father has called us to but also to succeed in everything He’s called us to do. Whether that’s helping families recover from hurricane Sandy; whether it’s sharing what the Lord’s done in our lives with neighbors, coworkers, or friends, whether it’s helping clean up after Worship or Fellowship Hour; or praying for someone while you’re in Wal-Mart together; or telling your husband or your wife or your roommate or child or parent that you’re sorry… Whatever God is speaking to you to do through the new heart He’s given you, He empowers you to do in giving you the Holy Spirit!

Is your life bad enough that you’d be born again of God through Jesus Christ today? I’m not asking for some emotional response, but for a thoughtful, intentional decision to follow Jesus and start – today – a new life! Are you discontent enough with your present life in this world that you would give yourself to Jesus’ new life today?

Don’t misunderstand, the Lord of Heaven and Earth has not come and borne the sin of the world on the cross of Golgotha to just be one more part of your life. The Almighty God has not overcome death so we could join another community group to help us all be nicer and more moral people. He has come that we would be born again – born of God! – to live a completely new life with a new heart and the Holy Spirit of God within us. Is that you today?

Is God helping you see today that you have merely been being a part of this church, or that you have merely been being a member in a Christian family, or that you have merely been doing good and trying to do your best and please God so that He might be pleased with you and love you?

If God has helped you see that – or something like that – today but today you want to become a son or a daughter of God, trusting God to give you all He’s promised AND MORE THAN WE CAN IMAGINE! Then I invite you to come forward…



January 27, 2013 AD, by Pastor Ben Willis

According to John 2:12-25 [NLTse]

13 It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration, so Jesus went to Jerusalem. 14 In the Temple area He saw merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; He also saw dealers at tables exchanging foreign money. 15 Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple. He drove out the sheep and cattle, scattered the money changers’ coins over the floor, and turned over their tables. 16 Then, going over to the people who sold doves, He told them, “Get these things out of here. Stop turning My Father’s House into a marketplace!”

17 Then His disciples remembered this prophecy from the Scriptures: “Passion for God’s House will consume Me.”

18 But the Jewish leaders demanded, “What are You doing? If God gave You authority to do this, show us a miraculous sign to prove it.”

19 “All right,” Jesus replied. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

20 “What!” they exclaimed. “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and You can rebuild it in three days?” 21 But when Jesus said “this temple,” He meant His Own body. 22 After He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered He had said this, and they believed both the Scriptures and what Jesus had said.

23 Because of the miraculous signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many began to trust in Him. 24 But Jesus didn’t trust them, because He knew human nature. 25 No one needed to tell Him what mankind is really like.

The Passover celebration took place yearly at the Temple in Jerusalem. (Every year at just about Easter time, we might think of it.) Every Jewish male was expected to make a pilgrimage to the Holy City to honor God and worship. (Deut. 16:16) This was a week-long festival: The Passover was one day, and the Festival of Unleavened Bread lasted the rest of the week. The entire week commemorated the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. (Ex. 12:1-13)

The outmost court of the Temple, called the Court of the Gentiles, was always crowded during Passover with thousands of out-of-town visitors. The religious leaders crowded it further by allowing bankers to set up shop there who could exchange foreign and Galilean currencies into the coins used by those selling approved sacrificial animals, and then crowded it even further by allowing those who actually sold the sacrificial animals to be there, as well, with their cages and pens of pre-approved sheep, cattle, and doves. The leaders seemed to rationalize the practice because of the convenience for those Jews who’d come from distant lands to worship and because it was such a good way to make some extra money for Temple upkeep. Yet, as a result, the Court of the Gentiles was often so full of merchants and worshipers-waiting-in-line and pens and stalls and cages, that the non-Jewish “God-fearing Gentiles” (they were called) who came seeking the Lord – who were only allowed in that area, the Court of the Gentiles – would often find it difficult, if not impossible, with all the shouting and bleating and pushing and crowding, to pray and worship. And worship was the main reason they’d come to the Temple!

Add to that the fact that by Jesus’ day the money-changers often were charging exorbitant exchange rates, and that the animal merchants’ could charge higher prices in the Temple than they could get away with elsewhere, and it’s no wonder the Son of God drove all these business people and their wares out! And John tells us that the Lord Jesus did these things, His disciples realized, because the Psalms said Messiah would be zealous – passionate – for God’s House.

After Jesus was raised from the dead those first disciples realized what many of us already know, that one of the reasons Jesus came was to put an end to that faulty and corrupt Temple so He might raise up a new Temple, a living Temple, His Own Body – the Body of Christ – as the new and eternal dwelling place for God’s Spirit among the people of the Earth.

As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the Temple of God, and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this Temple! For God’s temple is holy, and all of you together are that Temple.” (3:16-17) And in 2 Corinthians, “we are the temple of the living God. As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be My people.” (6:16) And to the Ephesians, “Together, we are God’s house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus Himself. We are carefully joined together in Him, becoming a holy Temple for the Lord.” (2:21) And to which the apostle Peter added: “You are coming to Christ, Who is the living cornerstone of God’s Temple. He was rejected by people, but He was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into His spiritual Temple…” (1 Peter 2:5)



January 20, 2013 AD Sermon, by Pastor Ben Willis

According to John 2:1-12 [NLTse]

2 The next day there was a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and His disciples were also invited to the celebration. 3 The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told Him, “They have no more wine.”

4 “Dear woman, that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

5 But His mother told the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”

6 Standing nearby were six stone water jars, used for Jewish ceremonial washing. Each could hold twenty to thirty gallons. 7 Jesus told the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” When the jars had been filled, 8 He said, “Now dip some out, and take it to the master of ceremonies.” So the servants followed His instructions.

9 When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over. 10 “A host always serves the best wine first,” he said. “Then, when everyone has had a lot to drink, he brings out the less expensive wine. But you have kept the best until now!”

11 This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.

12 After the wedding He went to Capernaum for a few days with His mother, His brothers, and His disciples.

My wife, Amy, and I have been married for 22 years; 23 years this-coming October. Here’s our wedding photo: She’s just as lovely as ever; me, well, I’m working on it…

When we got married we both lived in Baltimore, MD downtown in the Inner Harbor area. She was renting a little second-floor 3-room apartment and I was renovating a 3-story brownstone two streets over. After we got married the brownstone was no longer mine: It became hers, too, and we worked on it together. Our first couple of years of marriage were tough: I’d lost my job during the 1990-housing crash and was working for minimum wage doing handyman work around a friend’s rental properties. But Amy was making a lot of money as a Psychiatric Nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital; and because we were married, her income was my income, too!

As I’ve mentioned at different times, my grandfather was a world-renowned scientist: He helped invent the flamethrower and was a part of one of the Manhattan Project work teams that developed the atomic bomb. As my grandparents got older they began giving their children and us grandchildren our inheritance while they were still alive to avoid tax troubles. It wasn’t a million or even hundreds of thousands, but it was a nice little nest-egg to either spend or invest. And because Amy and I were married, all of that became hers, as well.

We both brought debt to our marriage: Some college debt, some credit card debt. And I became responsible for her debt and helped pay it off, and she became responsible for my debt and helped pay it off.

It was no longer, “Hey, there’s Ben Willis!” or “Look, it’s Amy Butterworth!” (Yes, pancake and maple syrup fans, I married Ms. Butterworth). No, we were “Amy and Ben”. Everywhere we went it was, “Here’s Amy and Ben!” Through the covenant of marriage two had become one.

John records in our reading this morning Jesus’ first miraculous sign revealing His glory. I think it is significant that it happened at a wedding: Our Savior changing water – that symbolizes ritual cleansing – into wine – that symbolizes the New Covenant He’s established in His blood.

Looking back into ancient history, when people made covenants – like a marriage or a treaty – the two might exchange cloaks to symbolize that they were each giving their authority to the other. They might exchange weapons as a way of saying, “Your enemies are now my enemies. I’ll fight your fights as if they were my own.” When our Father made a covenant with Abraham, they walked through the blood of slain animals together, promising their loyalty to one another – Abraham and God, promising their loyalty to each other – even to the death…

By entering into a covenant-relationship with us God has given us everything He has and bound Himself to us in a relationship that cannot be dissolved. And with the Lord Jesus’ death it is a “‘Til death do us part” relationship. (And even then He exercises His power to raise Him and us from the dead!)

Notice with me how different the covenant that Jesus established between the Father and us on the cross is from the covenant Moses established between the Father and Israel on Mt. Sinai. Moses went up the mountain and then brought down with him commandments as the condition for the peoples’ faithfulness to the covenant. A complicated sacrificial system was needed and set in place to make atonement for any covenant breaches… On the other hand, Jesus carried a cross up the mountain, let Himself be nailed to it, asked the Father to forgive us, and died to satisfy divine justice for the sin of everyone who would ever believe it.

One covenant was conditional, based upon obedience (even though it lovingly had provisions for every time breaches might be made so the transgressors might be brought back into the covenant again). But the New Covenant was and is unconditional, based on a whole different kind of love: The Lord Jesus died to bring us back into right and intimate relationship with the Father (as God had intended with Adam and Eve in the beginning); and, anyone who believed and trusted in Jesus was (and is) welcome to be a part of it.

The prophet Hosea speaks of this different kind of love, of a day when God’s peoples’ relationship with Him would grow from that of an obedient “servant-master relationship” to that of a loving “husband-wife relationship”. Hosea says, speaking the Word of the Lord: “‘When that day comes,’ says the Lord, ‘you will call Me “my Husband” instead of “my Master”… I will make you My wife forever, showing you righteousness and justice, unfailing love and compassion.’” The Lord said, “When that day comes you will call Me ‘my Husband’ instead of ‘my Master’…”

And yet even in our day where we as a people – His Church – have been invited into this husband-wife relationship with Almighty God, we can see our Betrothed calling us into an even more and more maturing love here as we wait for Him to come and take us home.

Somewhere I read the following description of this “divine marriage” we are a part of, and the growth of love and intimacy that is hoped for us. It went something like this: “In the beginning She was more concerned with Him giving her a happy life. She saw her Betrothed as making Her happy and as a way to being happy for the rest of her life. Jesus called this “immature love” but accepted it, He did not cast Her off. However, His goal was to mature Her love so that He alone – not riches, nor comforts, nor mere happiness, nor even promises of wonders to come, that He alone – would in the end be for Her the goal of Her life…

My brothers and sisters, together with Christians across every continent, speaking every language, with every color of skin and from every known people group, we, together, are the Bride of Jesus Christ, and He our Betrothed, our Husband! Since the beginning the Father has sought to prepare an equally-yoked Bride for His Son. In this New Covenant marriage-relationship He established on the cross, all Jesus has is ours, and all we have He desires we freely give to Him: His name, His authority, His armor and weapons (all ours!); our treasure, time, and talents, our friendships and business contacts; our thoughts, words, and actions (all His!); His righteousness, His healing, His riches in glory, His strength (all ours!); our sin, our sickness, our poverty, our weakness (all His!).

O, if we truly knew our God and Husband! O, if we truly knew how He has been pursuing us our whole lives long, and how He is pursuing us each and every day! O, if we truly knew who we are to Him and how precious we are to Him, His Bride! O what lives of lavish and extravagant thankfulness we might lead in response to His pursuit and love!

Would you pray with me?

Holy, holy, holy One! Grant us the grace to know You and receive You to be our God and our Husband! Grant us all we need to recognize and respond to Your pursuit: The signs of it in our past, and the ongoing expressions of it each day! Help us to comprehend the incomprehensible: That is, all that we are to You, how prized, sought after, sacrificed for, and precious! Fill us with Your Holy Spirit that our self-worth, priorities, words, actions, and relationships might all be transformed out of thanksgiving for You and Your love in our lives… Amen?