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January 29, 2012AD, by Pastor Ben Willis

uuu To the Hebrews 12:14-29 [NLTse]

14 Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. 15 Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. 16 Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. 17 You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s uuublessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.

18 You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. 19 For they heard an awesome trumpet blast and a voice so terrible that they begged God to stop speaking. 20 They staggered back under God’s command: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 Moses uuuhimself was so frightened at the sight that he said, “I am terrified and trembling.”

22 No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. 23 You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in Heaven. You have come to God Himself, Who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in Heaven who have now been made perfect. 24 uuuYou have come to Jesus, the One Who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel.

25 Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One Who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One Who speaks to us from Heaven! 26 When God spoke uuufrom Mount Sinai His voice shook the Earth, but now He makes another promise: “Once again I will shake not only the Earth but the heavens also.” 27 This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain.

28 Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping Him with holy fear and awe. 29 For our God is a devouring fire.

If a careless friend breaks a lamp in my home, I will forgive him. Maybe he will apologize and tell me he’s sorry and offer to replace it, or maybe he’ll tell me it wasn’t his fault and that we shouldn’t have placed the lamp where we did. But either way, I’ll forgive him: I will tell him I forgive him, or perhaps just say, “It’s alright,” and that will be the end of the matter. For him. Because although we have dealt with the penalty – that is, I’ve freed him from any penalty – the damage remains, the lamp is still broken. Who will go shop for another? Who will purchase a replacement? I will. I have forgiven him, and so I will pay the penalty for his carelessness.

When someone has wronged you (sometimes we’ll say they’ve “sinned against you”) it means they owe you, they are indebted to you. uuuForgiveness is to absorb the cost of the debt. You pay the price yourself and you refuse to take the price out of the person who wronged you in any way.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving I talked with you about forgiveness: Because the Lord has forgiven us our sins, how He calls us and enables us to put behind us and let go of all the wrongs done us by others, if we will. Several of you asked if I would talk about forgiveness some more.

In our reading from Hebrews today, uuuthe Holy Spirit tells us, “Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.” (12:15) According to the Mayo Clinic, bitterness is holding on to anger, resentment, and thoughts of revenge after someone you care about hurts you. And the American Psychiatric Association is debating whether or not to include bitterness in its upcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Bitterness is produced by our refusal to forgive. It is not always seen, but as Hebrews describes, uuubitterness it is often hidden, “underground” like a root. And it is dangerous, producing poisonous fruit.

Bitterness produces poisonous fruit in the unforgiver because it keeps him or her trapped in their pain, and chained to the one who caused it. This may sound dramatic, but we’ve all lived it: I remember this guy I used to work with when I was in the building business. He ran the warehouse where we stored our windows and doors and trim material. A nice-enough guy, but he was cocky and full of himself, and because I was also so cocky and full of myself at that time, we used to butt heads all the time. On my way home from work I would replay conversations he and I had had that day, planning what I was going to say the next time so I could really put him in his place. Every time I’d see him I’d stiffen and put a tough-guy look on my face, and then go out of my way not to look at him at all. My memos to him were always curt and short so he’d know how little I thought of him. I remember he was playing shortstop for the other team during a company softball game, and I worked so hard to drill one right at him and take off his head! And I did! uuuBut he caught it…

Our bitterness allows the pain and the person who inflicted it to twist and distort our attitudes and behavior forever, until we forgive. All the strange and different things we say and ways we behave that we ordinarily would not show how much power our unforgiveness gives them over us.

uuuOf course, bitterness poisons the relationships of the unforgiver, too. Hebrews says, bitterness “corrupts many”: As we tell those around us how wronged we’ve been, and try to tear down the person who’s so hurtfully torn us… And it poisons our relationship uuuwith God.

This bitter root of unforgiveness in us poisons all of our fruit, it affects every aspect of our lives. If we have a good, tasty root, the fruit of our lives – our relationships, our ministry, our work, our demeanor – will reflect that goodness and “tastiness”. If we have a bitter, poisonous root, we’ll see that in broken or dysfunctional relationships, too. And we’ll see it in unfruitful ministry, and conflicts at work, and the angry lines on our faces will be more prominent than the happy and content lines.

It’s not difficult to know what kind of root we have inside ourselves. Each of us probably knows the truth of that right here and now. But if you’re not sure you can ask your wife or husband, or you can ask your children or parents, or ask your co-workers or those friends whom you know you can trust to give you an honest answer…

And if you find that you’ve got a bitter root, then what? And if you realize that it’s not just that you have bitterness towards this person or that person, but that you are a bitter person, in general, then what? What can you do about that? How do you change something that is so fundamental to you? (I mean, that’s what a root is, after all, right? Our very foundation!)

When Moses was leading the Israelites through desert-places on the way to Mt. Sinai to meet with the Lord they came upon an oasis where there was water. Now this wasn’t just any oasis, for Moses was travelling with more than 600,000 people. It was huge! But when they went to drink and water their herds, even in their thirst the water was too bitter to drink. And those thousands of Israelites thought they were going to die, and watch their herds and children die. And maybe you’re aware of this bitter root in you, and you think this is the way you are, maybe the way you’ve always been! And that’s the way you’re going to die: A bitter, resentful, angry old man; a bitter, resentful, angry old woman.

Except that God showed Moses a stick (though it may have been a branch or a log or even a trunk or the entire tree) and when Moses threw that wood into the bitter waters, the bitter waters became sweet. And I tell you today that the Lord has wood to throw on your bitterness, to make your bitter root sweet. And I’m talking about the blood-stained cross of Jesus Christ.

You don’t have to work to get to the cross. You don’t have to be good enough or prove yourself worthy. You just have to let Him, to ask Him and let Him throw the cross where Jesus died – where sin died – into the bitter root of your life.

Maybe you’re thinking that you’re too bitter, that the wrongs done to you and the grudges you hold are too old, too big, too strong. But I tell you that when Moses through the wood into those bitter waters that more than 600,000 Israelites drank their fill of the waters-made-sweet, and their flocks and herds drank their fill of the waters-made-sweet. Your root is not too deep. The cross has not lost its power.

If you would give your bitterness to Jesus Christ today, would you stand where you are, please? If you would surrender your unforgiveness and resentment, to let the cross of Christ fall upon it, would you stand, please? Please do not be self-conscious. Please do not miss this opportunity God is giving us to publicly come to Him: What we do in the public places, He does in the secret places. (See Matthew 10:32-33.)



January 8, 2012 AD, sermon preached by Pastor Ben Willis

Mark 1:4-6 [NLTse]
4 …John the Baptist… was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. 5 All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 6 His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.

Won’t you try to picture the scene with me? We’re at a river. Let’s think of something similar to the Delaware River, the way it is right here at Milford Beach, perhaps. There’s an immense crowd gathered, packing the shoreline, some even wading in the shallow water, but because of the slope of the land down to the water even those in the back have a pretty good view of the fellow in the river before them. The air is filled with water sounds (the current’s moving along pretty well), as occasionally someone slips in along the edge as the crowd pushes forward, and because some kids are playing and splashing a bit downstream.
Before you up to his waist in the water is the famous John the Baptist! (John had an immense following; the excitement among the crowd would be like attending your favorite group in-concert or a Billy Graham crusade. John’s all scraggly and unkept-looking: Wild hair; crazy beard; wearing just a rude, camel-hair tunic…

Mark 1:7-8 [NLTse]
7 John announced: “Someone is coming soon Who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of His sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”

So, John’s preaching to the crowds, and they are yelling questions and John is yelling answers back. (You know the way sound carries over water.) And people are walking into the water: Soldiers, business leaders, rabbis, beggars, housewives, government officials; taking off their sandals (if they are wealthy enough to have sandals) and leaving their armor and outer garments on the shore and all coming into the water, just in their shifts, and immersing themselves as John prophesies and quotes Scripture over them.

Mark 1:9-11 [NLTse]
9 One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized Him in the Jordan River. 10 As Jesus came up out of the water, He saw the Heavens burst apart and the Holy Spirit descending on Him like a dove. 11 And a voice from Heaven said, “You are My dearly loved Son, and You bring Me great joy.”

This particular day a Fellow approaches, not so different from the rest (a hired-hand, maybe), and He and John have some words as though John doesn’t want Him to be baptized. (You can’t hear what they’re saying all that well.) John seems to give in and you see the Man go under.
And then all Heaven breaks loose!
The clouds in the sky above you rip apart as though some heavenly being has torn the sky in two! And like a ray of sunshine when it breaks through the clouds, from the tear this bird-like thing – you hear some saying it’s a dove – flies down like it means to land on the Fellow Who’s just come up out of the water. And though the skies had been sunny and pleasant, now ripped in two there comes a quaking of thunder, and yet in the thunder you’re sure you hear, “You are My dearly loved Son, and You bring Me great joy.” And then the dove-thing lands on the Man and it disappears!

Picturing Jesus’ baptism, does it make you think of yours?
It should.
I’m not talking about whether you were baptized in a river or dunked in a tank or sprinkled at a font. Jesus’ baptism portrays what has happened to each and every one of us – according to our faith in Him – whether you were indoors or out, surrounded by those closest to you or by complete strangers.
When you were baptized Heaven was torn open and God the Father claimed you as His son; Heaven was torn open and God claimed you as His daughter!
When you were baptized God the Holy Spirit settled upon you and filled you: To guide you and empower you; to make you new and live within you all your days. And He said to you: “You bring Me great joy!”
(Now, I’m not trying to say that every person who’s ever been baptized was made to be God’s kid in its waters, or filled with the Holy Spirit. Because I’m not talking to everyone or just anyone today. I’m talking to you. And I’m saying that you – if you have trusted in Jesus Christ to forgive you and save you from sin and to lead and rule your life – that you, when you were baptized, God claimed you. God filled you. You bring Him great joy!)
When someone accepts Jesus Christ, Jesus comes into their life in the form of the Holy Spirit, so he or she is born anew! Through the Holy Spirit you become a new creation. And through the Holy Spirit you are anointed and empowered for ministry: To live Jesus’ life in the world today.

But maybe you don’t buy it. Maybe you think that just because something happened to Jesus that it didn’t necessarily have to have happened to you. Fair enough. Except that Jesus doesn’t see it that way.
When the apostle Paul, before He became a Christian, was on his way from Jerusalem to the city of Damascus to imprison the Jews who’d become Christians there, Paul met the risen Lord Jesus on the road. Acts 9 tells us: “As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from Heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting Me?’”
“Who are You, Lord?” Saul asked.
And the Voice replied, “I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting!”
Now, Paul (he went by Saul before He put his trust in Christ) Paul wasn’t persecuting Jesus. Jesus had been killed, raised from the dead, and ascended to the Father years before Paul began persecuting Christians.
He writes to the Colossians: “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of Heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of Heaven, not the things of Earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” (3:1-3) Jesus is in us and we’re in Him. Our life is with Jesus where He is, and Jesus’ life in with us where we are.
Like the prophet Isaiah, so many people cry out, “Oh, that You would burst from the Heavens and come down!” (64:1) But know that the Lord has burst from Heaven and come down upon You!

Have you expected Him to be so intimate with you? Have you been baptized all these years but you’re still bullying others or letting your anger get the best of you or seeking to control people and situations around you or looking for love in all the wrong places or chasing after the world’s priorities or … whatever it is you’re doing, doing it as though you were on your own in the world?
You give our Father much joy, my brothers and sisters! And I don’t call you “brothers” and “sisters” because it’s cutesy, or to be endearing. We are brothers and sisters because we have been adopted – together – into God’s family: We are His sons; you are His daughters! We’re not like a family. We are family in Christ!
Jesus has become so misunderstood out there in the world, and it’s often because we’ve so misunderstood Him first. Our Savior has not come to humanity making demands, “Thou shalt do this! Thou shalt not do that!” No, Jesus comes first offering a gift: “Here, let Me save you.” He has something for us:“Here, come be a part of God’s things with Me.”
It’s only after we’ve accepted and received, only then does He call us to live up to the family name. Because our Father doesn’t call us not to steal, or to be pure until marriage, or to not lie or gossip or covet what others’ have so that He might love us. No. Our Father has already publicly claimed us as His sons, He has already publicly claimed us as His daughters, in our baptisms. And He has already given us the Holy Spirit so we would know it’s all true, so that we would know we’re His kids! So, you and me, we don’t steal, we’re not sexual outside of marriage, we don’t look or listen to impure things, we don’t lie or gossip, we don’t do these things – not because we’re trying to earn God’s love – but because that’s just not what our family – not what God’s family – does!
His Spirit is sufficient to help us stand against peer pressure, fear of failure, … We can do all things through Christ, whatever might come against us! And not so that He’ll love us, but because He already does love us. And He’s shown us that love in Christ.
My brothers and sisters: Living for Christ in this world that loves darkness can be filled with much hardship and many trials. Live for Him anyway. You give our Father much joy!



January 1, 2012 AD; Sermon preached by Pastor Ben Willis

Isaiah 8:1-10 [NLTse]

 1 Then the Lord said to me, “Make a large signboard and clearly write this name on it: Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” 2 I asked Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah, both known as honest men, to witness my doing this.

3 Then I slept with my wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said, “Call him Maher-shalal-hash-baz. 4 For before this child is old enough to say ‘Papa’ or ‘Mama,’ the king of Assyria will carry away both the abundance of Damascus and the riches of Samaria.”

5 Then the Lord spoke to me again and said, 6 “My care for the people of Judah is like the gently flowing waters of Shiloah, but they have rejected it. They are rejoicing over what will happen to King Rezin and King Pekah. 7 Therefore, the Lord will overwhelm them with a mighty flood from the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria and all his glory. This flood will overflow all its channels 8 and sweep into Judah until it is chin deep. It will spread its wings, submerging your land from one end to the other, O Immanuel.

 9 “Huddle together, you nations, and be terrified. Listen, all you distant lands. Prepare for battle, but you will be crushed! Yes, prepare for battle, but you will be crushed! 10 Call your councils of war, but they will be worthless. Develop your strategies, but they will not succeed. For God is with us!”

Message

u King Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king over the nation of Judah, and he ruled for sixteen years. He was the father of Hezekiah. Ahaz was unfaithful to the Lord, following instead the gods of Israel, even sacrificing several of his sons as burnt offerings.

During Ahaz’ reign, the northern nations of Aram and Israel formed an alliance to attack Judah. Ahaz, his nobles, and all of Judah were panic-stricken. So the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to speak His Word to King Ahaz: (This is from Chapter 7, immediately before our reading) “This invasion will never happen; it will never take place; 8 for Syria is no stronger than its capital, Damascus, and Damascus is no stronger than its king, Rezin. As for Israel, within sixty-five years it will be crushed and completely destroyed. 9 Israel is no stronger than its capital, Samaria, and Samaria is no stronger than its king, Pekah son of Remaliah. Unless your faith is firm, I cannot make you stand firm.”

History tells us that Ahaz did not believe God’s Word, and so Aram and Israel had great victories over Judah, taking land, cities, captives, all their valuables, and eventually besieging Jerusalem. In addition to Aram and Israel, on account of Judah’s weakness, Edom and Philistia attacked and plundered regions near to them, as well. (History speaks of it all as the Syro-Ephraimite War.)

And yet Ahaz remained unrepentant. And instead of seeking help from the Lord Ahaz took gold and silver from the Temple and from the Royal Treasury and sent it with emissaries to the king of Assyria, in the hopes of purchasing his aid.

And in our reading today the Lord speaks of these things through the prophet Isaiah: “My care for the people of Judah is like the gently flowing waters of Shiloah, but they have rejected it.” What does that mean? Well, the Gihon Spring is an intermittent spring, one of the world’s major intermittent springs, which means that it doesn’t produce a steady flow, but intermittently gushes water out. And in the case of the Gihon (which means gushing) enough water to satisfy the area’s inhabitants, as well as to irrigate the surrounding lands.

Because water only pours out irregularly, in ancient times a channel was dug directing the water to a catch basin that was calledthe Pool of Shiloah, (in the New Testament, the Pool of Siloam). And the Lord likens His reign over Judah to the gently flowing, intermittent, rippling waters of the Pool.

Quite a contrast to the “mighty floodwaters” of Assyria. The Tigris River was – is – a mighty watercourse, strong and overflowing: A river which could carry ships for trade, travel, and commerce; a river, because of the way they had moated it about their city, provided excellent protection, as well. Ahaz and Judah saw Aram and Assyria as nations going in the right direction: Nations with real leaders, gods winning wars and men and women of influence and prestige. “We ought to be like them,” Ahaz and his nobles were saying.

And in comparison what was Shiloah, that little brook, that intermittent spring filling up that little pool that God had provided. They held the Shiloah in contempt. They held the Lord in contempt. But what they hoped would save them all but overwhelmed them! Because, yes, the Assyrians overran Aram and Israel, but they kept on coming to eventually lay siege to their own capitol, Jerusalem, itself!

And it is likewise with us, the very things so many boast as being able to save them are in reality the very forces that end up drowning them in sorrow and despair. The rich person’s wealth when they look to their wealth for deliverance; the drunkard’s bottle when looking to the bottle for comfort; the self-confident strong-willed person when looking to their strong-will for the strength they are needing – all of it simply dragging them down. Salvation is to be found in the waters of Shiloah which flow softly, graciously, mercifully. Only in the way of grace, through Jesus Christ. That is the only way of salvation. There is none other.

If Christ does not rule us, a mob of tyrants will: Our own passions; our own evil habits; the fascinating sins around us. They soon cease to be the helpers they once seemed, and become oppressing tyrants.

Today is New Year’s Day, a day famous for making resolutions about how we’re going to live our lives differently in the year ahead. And so I ask you, “Who are you today? Whose are you today? Who and what are you living for today?”

Now don’t answer too quickly. We can all lose our way over time. We can find that concern for our retirement has taken the place of our zeal for Christ. We can find that our hobbies have eaten up precious time that could be spent on loving actions to draw people into Christ’s Kingdom.

Here on the first day of the 2012th Year of Jesus’ Reign, are you satisfied with the kind of husband or wife you’ve become? Or with your soul set on Christ, do you know how far you still have to grow?  Are you a parent the way God parents us? Is Christ and being like Him in every way your goal? Or are you content with at least not being as bad as your neighbor? Are you honest at work? Dependable? Giving what you do all you have to give, as though you were working for the Lord God Himself?

Even our faith can suffer from wrong focus: We can be at ease with our salvation now that we’ve believed in Christ: Comfortable because we go to church and attend our studies and serve on our committees. But we can also so these things without “coasting” on them, so aware of how much more the Lord has for us than we’ve received from Him so far: More for our relationships; more for our words and actions; so much more.

Some examples: Are we set on wearing what we like, or do we think the Lord might have us dress a bit differently in 2012? Is our study and prayer life all it could be, or do we think the Lord would have us revitalize our time with Him? Is our Christianity good enough, or are we set here at the start of 2012 to keep following hard after Christ?

The Lord is a gently flowing stream: Sometimes quiet, other times gushing! And we can be wowed by the constantly rushing Rezin’s, and place too much hope in the eye-catching Assyria’s around us. And yet by the power of the Holy Spirit the cross of Christ demonstrates our Father’s absolute authority over even the wrong choices that would overwhelm us!

Will you – with me, today – reject and repent of imitating anyone or anything but Christ? Will you – with me, today – reject and repent from hoping in anyone or anything but Christ to save?