About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

“The Main Thing is the Main Thing” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)

My favorite professor in Bible College was not generally the favorite Bible/theology teacher with most of the other students. He was decent on covering the meat and potatoes of whatever book of the Bible/doctrinal class he was teaching through, and everyone appreciated the basic clarity. But he had a habit of getting really wound up about certain subjects that would take him down one rabbit trail after another of passionate proclamation, replete with screaming and yelling and pounding the lectern. Clearly, he had lived through some debates with people of a variant theological persuasion, and he was fully convinced that he was correct and that they were in error. I agreed with him, as I continue to do so to this day.

These rants were totally awesome and full of fantastic information. But most students were frustrated by them and would drop their pens (yes, long before computers were invented) and wait for it to pass and for him to return to the subject at hand. Frankly, the best stuff he delivered and the most important teachings I came to understand were in the rants … and they tied into the subject at hand in important ways that were not immediately obvious.

I really loved this guy so much, and a large part of my desire to ultimately attend Dallas Theological Seminary was because that is where he had gone to grad school. If you made an effort to get to know him, he was actually a wonderfully kind person that was not at all like the lectern-pounding prof that most merely knew in that way.

Diana and I had him perform our wedding nearly 42 years ago. I’ve often said, “I’m of McGahey.”  (His last name)

There was another professor who was much-loved because of the organization of his materials. He would pass out notes that were very clear, and then he would teach through them in a methodical and likeable way. You never got lost. It was predictable. If you failed his tests, it really was your own fault. And though I liked this prof and his teaching just fine, and while there was much commendable about it, I found it to also be a bit mechanical. But many students would identify themselves as “I am of Showers.”  (His last name)

Yet another theology professor was very deep, and, very old. He certainly knew the Scriptures and had apparently been at the college even before the Apostle Paul was saved on the road to Damascus (or so it seemed). Every student was required upon entrance in the college to purchase two large notebooks of his Bible and theology notes – whether you were going to be in his classes or not. He talked like he personally knew every theologian since Martin Luther (and looked like he might well have).

Not a particularly cheerful fellow (think of Bernie Sanders as a theology teacher – yes, that’s a stretch), he was rather intimidating in class. He would randomly call upon some student to pray, which was a terrifying experience – that is because he would critique your prayer when you were done. He might say something like, “Don’t pray like that ever again and stop telling God over and over who he is; HE KNOWS WHO HE IS!”

Yet some students especially liked this professor because of his deep roots into the history of the school and the history of American theological education. And they could say, “I am of Mason.”  (His last name)

So, who was correct of those students?  Who was the best professor to follow?  Well, the answer would be, of course, that each of these professors brought different perspectives and variant strengths to the classroom. It was not so much that one was better than another; they each had a role to play in making the Bible/theology department excellent. There were fantastic things to be learned from the passions of all three (and a collection of other instructors not included in this already-extended illustration).

But that is not how the Corinthian church appreciated their varied leaders. Instead of seeing diverse strengths and shades of gray, they only saw their leaders in complete black and white, right and wrong, strong and weak. And they also wrote off people who would not follow and join their assessments and viewpoints.

In 1 Corinthians 1 and 3, Paul addresses the first of a host of problems in the church – confronting the various divisions that arose in the church community. Imagine that! Divisions in a church!  Yes, churches old and new can be known to have such challenges. And so much of the problem is that we have divisions because we have diversity; and we allow the diversity to be seen as a weakness, when in fact it is a strength!

Paul writes …

1 Cor. 1:10 – I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

When Paul makes his appeal here that they “agree with one another,” the original wording has the literal sense that they all speak the same thing.

And when he writes of his desire that they be “perfectly united,” this has the literal Greek meaning of restoring something to its proper condition. It was the word used in Matthew 4:21 when Jesus came upon James and John “mending” their nets. So picture a tangle of ropes needing to be sorted out. And that is what the Corinthians needed to do about this division in their midst.

The story that had filtered to Paul was that they were essentially divided into four camps around four teachers/viewpoints … Paul, Apollos, Cephas/Peter, Christ. We’ll speculate in chapter 3 about how they may have perceived these teachers and divided in this way. But Paul goes on to say …

1:13 – Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Paul asks a series of three rather ridiculous questions… to which the answer for each was “of course not!”  Christ is not divided; Paul didn’t die on the cross for the Corinthians; baptism is not in the name of Paul (or any other mere preacher).

The further remarks that Paul writes might seem to indicate that some of these faction followers aligned themselves particularly around who had baptized them. And Paul says he was glad that he himself had not done that much baptizing. To show that this was not the big thing, he tells them that he couldn’t really remember who he had baptized (I can relate to that forgetfulness!).  The big issue was their salvation from darkness to light by the power of the gospel, and that was accomplished only by Christ – the same fact for ALL of them. This is the big common denominator.

Paul finished this section by affirming that the calling to preach the gospel is not a call to the best eloquence and (alleged) wisdom. This does not diminish the value for excellence in style and communication, but the real issue is the substance. You don’t have to click around the radio or TV dial long to find preachers with great style, but little substance!  And the Corinthians were too focused upon style, personalities, diversity … all rather than on the gospel message.

It is inevitable that we may all like one preacher or style of presentation over another. That’s rather human. But forming alliances around one or another would be wrong and a focus upon the wrong value. And we’ve thankfully never had much of this sort of thing at TSF, even while being the unusual church that features a variety of speakers. The primary teaching here is the reminder that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing = the gospel message.

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“Christian Privilege” (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)

Over time, words morph in their precise meaning and usage. We might observe such over the course of a lifetime, even seeing words take on an entirely different connotation.

It is interesting to see how the word “privilege” has morphed in the last decade.

The most basic meaning has to do with having an experience that is special or unique, like, “It was a great privilege to meet the Queen.”

Some time ago, the word began to be used of people who were elitist, especially economically. “People of privilege” were those who lived in that one wealthy section that most every town has – where wealth was accumulated, displayed, and passed down to next generations. So to have this sort of “privilege” was to have a descriptive identification that had a bit of a smear associated with it, sort of like being called a “spoiled brat.”

More recently, “privilege” has come into use in racial discussion, often in the context of identification as having “white privilege.”  This is confusing to many people, especially those who don’t really see themselves as coming from especially unique or affluent backgrounds. But the word is still directed at a wide swath of white culture, in that this racial identification gave people a head start privilege in every way – especially true in what was handed down over generations of American history and the opportunities presented.

Whereas this “white privilege” designation can be unfairly overplayed and too broadly applied, it is true that many of the historically predominant race in this country are oblivious to the abundance of their blessings, remaining also detached from the complications of being generationally a minority.

I think it is a general truth that most people underestimate their blessings and their privilege. This is especially true when one has grown up around abundance that was not personally earned, but rather inherited in the pervasive environment. Even people who have known a poorer time of life may tend to forget the full extent of the good fortune currently experienced.

As Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians, he reminds his readers of their privilege, while also reminding them of the grace through which this abundance has come to them. The Corinthians were really blessed in a big way, particularly in light of the darkness of the surrounding culture; they were a totally new and different people as a result of being called out of the world by God’s grace. The word for “church” (ekklesia) means to be “called out” … referencing a group of people who are called out to be together.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 … Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Did you see the two components in this opening greeting?  Paul is telling them that they are richly blessed in wonderful ways, while reminding them also that this is the wonderful gift of what Christ has done for them and given to them. Yes, it is great stuff with a wonderful future, but it is all by the initiative of God. He is telling them that they are people of privilege.

And yes, we too are people of privilege, coming from God’s grace. It is Christian privilege. It should be something of pleasure in which we revel, yet also fully with the knowledge that is has been a great gift. There should be no pride in it, rather, great humility and a sense of gratitude. Beyond that, it gives us no high ground of judgment, that is, beyond a high understanding of truth. Yet that also should lead us to share the truth humbly with others. We’re merely beggars who were granted knowledge of an unlimited source of food; and now we tell other beggars where it might be found.

“Background of the 1 Corinthians Letter”

When Paul’s 18 months of personal ministry in Corinth came to an end, he moved on from there with Priscilla and Aquila, leaving them in Ephesus as he continued to Jerusalem. In time, Paul would write letters to the Corinthians – two of which are in the Scriptures and the focus of our study through Easter. Actually, there were at least two other letters from Paul to the Corinthians that we know of. It is all rather confusing, but let me list Paul’s Corinthian visits and letters for you here …

  • First visit of Paul to Corinth (Acts 18:1-17)
  • A letter written to them (lost to us) that they misunderstood (see 1 Cor. 5:9-11)
  • A second letter – known to us as 1 Corinthians – to address a list of problems
  • Second visit of Paul to Corinth – described in 2 Cor. 2:1 as a “painful” visit
  • A third letter – lost to us – it was disciplinary in nature (2 Cor. 7:8-9) and grieved Paul to have to write it (2 Cor. 2:3-4)
  • A fourth letter – the text of 2 Corinthians.
  • Third visit – mentioned in Acts 20:2

Of course, what we are interested in is the inspired Word of God in the two letters we know as 1+2 Corinthians, but this whole summary shows the intimate nature of Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth. It was not like he was just in and out of the town as a travelling missionary; he really knew and loved these people, even with their many faults.

The letter of 1 Corinthians is written to address of number of problems that Paul was aware of in the church of that city. Beyond that, he also is addressing a number of questions raised by the church in order to have clarification of a proper understanding of truth.

Among issues that Paul will address (and that we’ll cover as well over the weeks ahead) …

  • Divisions, squabbling, fighting among themselves … Paul had received reports about how they had divided into camps around their favorite teachers …
  • This behavior of division demonstrated their immaturity …
  • Failure to consistently live holy lives and deal with sin … The practices of the surrounding world were too often a part of life within the church community – not confronted, with insufficient challenges toward living a different life. This therefore led also to Paul needing to answer a variety of issues concerning marriage.
  • They were insensitive regarding Christian liberties …
  • Their focus on spiritual gifts was wrong, reveling in grandiose personal expressions, rather than seeing the gifts as given to serve others …
  • Some denied the resurrection, while many others undervalued the central teaching of this doctrine …

We might tend to look back at these Corinthians and wonder how these folks could be so clueless and entirely messed up. But remember, this is still very early in the church era. They didn’t even yet have the gospels to reference, along with the writings of Paul, etc.  We’ve already referenced their geographical and cultural setting. They had been Christians for only a very short time and had no models around them of people who had walked with Christ for decades.

This is not making excuses, as Paul himself said they should have been more mature in faith; but these factors do help to give some explanation for the complications unique to this church. It is certainly true in our era that we have far fewer excuses for not growing in faith.

“The Beginnings of a Church in Corinth” (Acts 18:1-17)

When looking that the letters and epistles of the New Testament, we are always driven back to the book of Acts for primary information on the expanse of the gospel in various locations, involving also various characters. And to do this for the Corinthians, we go back to the account in Acts chapter 18.

There may well have been some followers of Jesus in the city before Paul arrived, though it is highly unlikely that they were formed together into anything resembling a church. More likely, they were struggling to maintain some footing within the synagogue in Corinth. Likely also surrounding the activities of the synagogue were Gentile peoples who may have been turned off by the licentious behaviors in this pagan city, being attracted to the monotheism of the Jewish faith. However, the pathway forward was complicated and strewn with identity obstacles.

Paul was likely interested in getting a gospel foothold in this uniquely secular city, knowing of the great need for this truth. And beyond that, with the coming and goings of people in and out of this center of trade, the gospel message would also be heard and forwarded elsewhere.

As Paul arrives, he is coming off a very difficult recent season of ministry. The response to the preaching of Christ in Athens was rather tepid, and great difficulties and conflicts in Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) with the hostile Jewish element were not far past.

As Paul arrives in Corinth we see that he meets and stays with a Jewish couple – Aquila and Priscilla.

Acts 18:1 – After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

We don’t know if they all knew each other previously, if this couple had become Christians in the past, or if their salvation was through this association with Paul. Perhaps they merely came into partnership because of the common trade of tent making (leather working). This likely also indicates that Paul needed to make some money for personal sustenance. But when Silas and Timothy arrive, they bring an offering that thereby set Paul free to concentrate on preaching.

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. 6 But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.

Ugh! It happens again – Jewish opposition. You can’t blame Paul for being very disgusted and exclaiming how he would focus now on Gentile ministry.

Acts 18:7 – Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8 Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.

There is a humorous component to this story, in that Paul ends up teaching immediately next door to the synagogue, along with Crispus (the former synagogue leader) coming to faith. Surely it was a daily irritation for the stubborn and intransigent Jews to see the life of the growing church immediately next door, including their former leader! And I could imagine how this difficulty would add to the many other wearying elements in Paul’s life. And the Lord gives Paul a timely word of encouragement …

Acts 18:9 – One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11 So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

I’ve never had a vision in the night, but I have had a couple of incidents in ministry where the weariness, discouragement and opposition brought me to a point of nearly quitting it all … and God intervened with a timely and unexpected encouragement from some person or circumstance to keep me going.

But the main point I want us to remember from this passage, along with just the background to inform our understanding throughout this series, is the specific revelation from the Lord that: I have many people in this city. Isn’t God’s grace the greatest thing!!  Corinth! Many people chosen by God!

While in this unique place of ministry, Paul gets the encouragement of a positive outcome in court, seeing his opponents disgraced and driven away…

Acts 17:12 – While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. 13 “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” 14 Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15 But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” 16 So he drove them off. 17 Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.

So the new synagogue leader takes a beating – this event probably also revealing some anti-Semitic sentiment in this secular city. It also set a legal precedent that this Jesus teaching was (in Roman eyes) just a dispute within Judaism rather than an illegal new religion.

Just keep on talking and preaching the Word – that was the encouragement from the Lord to Paul. Out of Paul’s talking in these 18 months in Corinth would come the effective discipling of Aquila and Priscilla. As well, many in the church at Corinth would be discipled toward the growth of a substantial body of believers.

Likewise for us, we should not be discouraged but continue to keep on speaking truth. Someone said in the Scriptures to “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  Oh … wait … Paul said that!  (Galatians 6:9)

Meet the Corinthians

As we enter into 16-week study on Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians, let me repeat for you here the sermon series description overview, just in the event that you did not read it on the home page or see it on the print brochure at church.

“I’m OK, You’re OK” was the name of a best-selling, pop psychology book published 50 years ago. Sounds good, but it’s lousy theology. A better title that truly describes the human condition would be, “I’m a Mess, You’re a Mess.”  And when we think of Christians who were renowned to be a mess, the “exhibit A” that first comes to mind is the church in Corinth. At a crossroads of travel on the isthmus of Greece, it was 50 miles west of the Greek capital of Athens. And in Hagerstown, we’re an hour west of another capital, also located at a travel crossroads of interstates – for better or worse. Are we a modern Corinth?  Let’s talk!  Yes, We Got Issues, but we’ll also see that we’ve got answers!

A major component of biblical study is to understand both the original audience being written to, as well as the author. So let’s review for a moment some of what we know about the city of Corinth and the Corinthian people.

Greece is shaped somewhat like an hour-glass, the two sections held together by a mere sliver of land. The mainland of Greece (which included Macedonia) was connected to the large peninsula area known as Achaia. It is easy to imagine how this narrow place where Corinth was located became a crossroads of both land and sea commerce. You can see how land traffic would flow back and forth from the southwest Greek peninsula to the northeast. And sea merchants would rather off-load and re-load cargo across the isthmus than risk the treacherous voyage around the peninsula. Smaller ships were even dragged across the land bridge.

Destroyed originally by the Romans in 146 B.C., it was rebuilt about a century later as a Roman colony. Populated first by Romans, there were Greeks as well; and varied peoples from all over the empire became a part of this very cosmopolitan and multi-cultural place not far west of Athens. This included Jews, and hence there was a synagogue.

In the same way we in America often look at Vegas as “sin city,” Corinth had something of a similar reputation in the ancient world. In Plato’s classic work “Republic,” when making reference to a prostitute, he used the expression “Corinthian girl.”  Indeed, much of the wealth and depravity in the city was due to the thousand temple prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite. There was a phrase at that time – “to Corinthianize someone” – and it meant to lead them fully into the ways of the devil.

So Paul’s motivation to go to Corinth would certainly be to bring the gospel to this unique place of special darkness and spiritual need. Yet also, fruits of the gospel here would have the benefit of spreading from this place to regions beyond.

It was likely rather early for most of us in our growth of knowing the Scriptures that we became aware that the Corinthians are most often regarded as the most carnal and immature of the early churches in the New Testament.

You might right now be thinking, “Now hold on Pastor Randy. When I hear you saying that ‘We are Corinth; Corinth is Us, that doesn’t feel so good. You do that and then, yes, ‘we got issues.’  You’re not getting us off to a very good start here in 2019!”

Hey, I see what you’re saying. And no, I’m not saying that we compare poorly with all other churches as the worst and most problematic – as the Corinthians did relative to most of the other New Testament churches. That certainly is not true of us; quite the opposite is the situation. When I’m with pastors and we “talk shop,” I always come away from those sessions thinking I’ve got a pretty sweet deal in being at TSF.

What I’m saying is that we do, and always will, have some “issues” by the mere nature of being sinful people in a sinful world. We’re not perfect, and we’re going to have to work through some church life and personal complications at times, even as we seek to be the very best family of God that we can be.

And, speaking of family, we can’t disown the Corinthians as blood relatives in every way. And we need to recognize our same capacities for problems, especially given the reality of some surrounding, cultural similarities that are more abundant than may at first be evident. And, as we’ll conclude regularly through this series, we are well-resourced to deal with these occasional difficulties.

So, yes, we’ll admit to having some issues. But the greater truth is that we have answers.

Living the Wonder: The Breathtaking Destiny of Christ’s Love

(Randy writing)  This final of four Christmas devotionals is by our dear church friend Bill Kesecker. We thank him for these deep insights upon Scripture that dig into our souls. It is such a blessing for a church to have such wonderful servants as Bill — a guy who would be your top draft pick on your Bible trivia team, but who also humbly serves well with children and teens. Do thank him when you see him.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

You probably noticed that I switched “deep” with “high.”  I have followed John Stott’s reflections on what these four words mean in the context of Paul’s prayer, or considered whether they simply express the sweeping vastness of the love of Christ by building noun upon noun.  I think both are true; either/or just doesn’t really account for the big Gospel that Paul sees in Jesus Christ.  I think that Stott saw the flow of deep and high fitting his reasoning and sensibilities, for, if the love of Christ reaches the depths for a degraded sinner, so also the love of Christ exalts to the heights that sinner who is declared righteous in Jesus and who will be glorified for all eternity.  Well, let’s dive once more into the wonder of the love of Christ.

That’s an interesting word, glorify!  Glorification is “the final step in the application of redemption” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology:  An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 829).  What’s particularly interesting is the grammar of Romans 8:29-30:  “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”  Every one of the verbs bolded is in the aorist, or past, tense in the Greek New Testament.  But clearly, if “glorified” is the FINAL step in the application of redemption, is it not yet future?  And, the answer is “Yes.”  So, how can Paul speak of a future event as past completed?!  Paul did not fail Greek class.  He knew what he was asserting.

Paul was affirming to the believers at Rome and to us that the salvation we have in Jesus Christ rests on God’s plan and work, not ours.  God can guarantee that the work that he has accomplished in Jesus could be completed, would be completed, was completed, has been completed, and will be completed.  Paul can speak of that work of salvation in us who trust in Jesus as totally completed.  Salvation rests one hundred percent on the finished, sufficient, and accomplished work of Jesus Christ!  God does go deep to find a sinner and will go high to exalt him to his very presence now and forever.

I would like to make an observation here about sinners.  I know that I have referred to the degraded sinner in these devotions.  I want to take care to note that the Gospel of Jesus puts me in every list of sins in the Bible.  It doesn’t make any difference what your or my perceptions may be about how good I am.  Bill Kesecker is not good enough to be accepted by God as righteous.  My hope is in Jesus Christ alone.  My heavenly welcome will be the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ whom I trust as my Savior and only Righteousness.  If you are measuring your life by me or by some other man or woman, STOP IT!  The comparison is empty, futile, and worthless.  Find your hope in Jesus Christ!  And, he’s looking for you right now, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 NIV).

Frederick M. Lehman penned “The Love of God” in 1917, capturing something of Paul’s vision of the love of Christ Jesus.

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled
And pardoned from his sin.

O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure—The saints’ and angels’ song.

Let me give William Cowper one more word.  Scriptures tell us, “It is written:  ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4 NIV).  In his terrible struggles in life, Cowper learned the fragility and unfaithfulness of human needs, senses, and emotions.  Hear his advice:

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; he plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines, of never-failing skill; he fashions up his bright designs, and works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds that you much dread, are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.

–“God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” by William Cowper

Well, Friends, we’re on a journey if we are following Jesus.  It’s long, sometimes hard.  We need prayer, and this week we have looked at one of the most extraordinary prayers ever:  “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Remarkable!

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”

Living the Wonder: The Deep Dive of Christ’s Love

This devotional today is the third of four written by Bill Kesecker for this Christmas season …

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

Well, the plans for going to the Grand Canyon are taking shape.  A reservation is in.  Fees have been paid.  No guarantees that I’ll be accepted for the trip, but I’m moving ahead!  God willing, I’m going down deep into the Grand Canyon!

Last summer I broke my left kneecap, after a very aggressive and tough fought round of miniature golf with two other fierce competitors.  How in the world do you break your kneecap playing miniature golf?!  You wouldn’t even make that up!  It felt embarrassing to explain!  On my next to the last visit, after the doctor had finished looking at the X-rays, I told him about my plans and asked, “Will I be able still to go to the Grand Canyon, and hike in and out?”  His words were polite; his look told more, like, “You’re OLD, you’re CRAZY.”   His eyes spoke expressively and LOUDLY!  But, his voice replied, “Yes, you should be able to do this.”  Then, he said something to the effect, “But, did you know there are 3000’ drop offs?”  I don’t know exactly why he threw that in.  I mean as long as I am not what is “dropping off” it shouldn’t really matter, should it?

But we’re talking about “deep,” aren’t we?  To grasp the depths of God’s love in Christ?  To dive in the experience a wonder, Yes?  Paul is praying for us to have power to grasp the depth of the love of Christ.  The love of Christ has a wide embrace of all kinds of people, and the love of Christ is as long as eternity to be expressed and experienced by his beloved.  The late John Stott suggested that the depth of the love of Christ would reach the most degraded sinner.  Paul would have understood that.  He had been a religious fanatic and a great sinner in the words of Don Samdahl (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:12-17), but the apostle did not revel in his degradation, but rather in the grace and calling that God placed on his life to serve him in the love of Christ, in which he did revel.

John Newton was a “degraded sinner.”  Newton, born to a Puritan mother, was a former slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace.”  An article in Christianity Today states, “Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the “uncertain continuance of life.”  He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.”  He converted during [a] storm, though he admitted later, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”

Nevertheless, Newton’s faith in Christ grew.  He led Bible studies in his Liverpool home after he left the sea in 1755, was ordained in the Anglican ministry, and took a parish in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England in 1764.  At the Olney parish Newton partnered with William Cowper who together collected three volumes that became known as the Olney Hymns.  “The Hidden Life” demonstrates Newton’s growth as the grace of God sought him, filled him, and enveloped him in the love of Christ.

To tell the Saviour all my wants, / How pleasing is the task!

Nor less to praise him when he grants / Beyond what I can ask.

My lab’ring spirit vainly seeks / To tell but half the joy;

With how much tenderness he speaks, / And helps me to reply.

Now were it wise, nor should I choose, / Such secrets to declare;

Like precious wines, their taste they lose, / Expos’d to open air.

But this, with boldness, I proclaim, / Nor care if thousands hear,

Sweet is the ointment of his name, / Not life is half so dear.

And can you frown, my former friends, / Who know what once I was,

And blame the song that thus commends / The Man who bore the cross?

Trust me, I draw the likeness true, / And not as fancy paints;

Such honour may he give to you, / For such have all his saints.

–“The Hidden Life,” by John Newton

“In 1787 Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade to help William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the practice—‘a business at which my heart now shudders,’ he wrote. Recollection of that chapter in his life never left him, and in his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, ‘I cannot stop.  What?  Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak (Christianity Today)?’”

John Newton knew who he was in himself.  But, John learned who he was becoming in the love of Christ.  It was not an easy journey.  It was not a clean journey of steady upward progress.  Christ doesn’t change a man as a programmer writes a code.  The walk with Christ in his love covers rough terrain with often slow and laborious progress.  We are sinners indeed, but we also hear the winsome call of Jesus, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV).

I am coming to see the Holy Spirit in messy lives.  Mine for one!  Yes, all of us!  I see Him working, empowering, rooting, establishing, making sense out of a love that escapes words, that knocks the air out of me and brings me to my knees.  I see Him more in a friend of mine.  I am a fixer, a compulsive, fallible, foolish fixer.  It’s so hard to stop!  But I must.  Being God isn’t my job in life!  Needing Jesus, though, is and must be my air and heartbeat.

I hurt my friend with all my “fixing” advice.  But I still see the Holy Spirit in him.  When you see love and patience during crushing trial and searing disappointment, and painful frustration, you know God is present.  I need to be reverent and see and often be silent.  I need to weep and mourn when he does.  To laugh and take joy when he does.  To think about and mull over the uncertainties when he does.  To pray for Light and Truth when we both need a love beyond what we have.  I need the love of Christ because he does.  So,

Amidst the roaring of the sea, / My soul still hangs her hope on thee,

Thy constant love, thy faithful care, / Is all that saves me from despair.

–“Temptation,” by William Cowper

“Dear Father of the Christ Jesus of Christmas, the depths of your love plunge deeper than our need.  You are there, though sometimes we are not certain.  I look inward too far at the emotions that seem far unlike your Son, and outward too much at the waves and turmoil of doubt and uncertainty.  Please send your Spirit to sound Jesus’ Name to me, to salve me with Jesus’ love and grace.  Empower me to grasp who I am in truth and by grace.  By faith I praise you that I am not what I was, and I trust you for what you are creating me to be through your Son Jesus.  I pray in His name, Amen.”

Living the Wonder: The Grace Base of Christ’s Love

This devotional today is the second of four written by Bill Kesecker…

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

Paul’s vision of the love of Christ is massive, compared to that of which we are accustomed.  I mean he prays that God will strengthen believers with power through God’s Spirit so that Christ may dwell in believers by faith.  He prays that we may grow and be founded in love and have enough power even to grasp the nature of the love of Christ and to know his love that surpasses the accumulation of knowledge that would help us to see its shape and dimensions.  Paul doesn’t want us to “think” it, but to know intimately and personally the love of Christ and be filled full forever with Jesus and his love!

Jesus showed his disciples and the Syro-Phoenician woman that love was wide enough to bring Jew and Gentile together as one people under the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus.  John’s Gospel gives us one of, if not, the best definition of God’s love when he declares, “For God loved the world in this way:  he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16, modified to reflect the Greek text).  John doesn’t present the love of God in terms of emotion, but of action: “he gave his one and only Son.”  This kind of love surpasses knowledge.  It is something more that what you think or reason about.  We can massively mount up vocabulary and polysyllables to capture the essence.  But, bottom line, God gave his Son for sinners.  You and me kind of sinners.  Nice ones, polite ones, likeable ones, pretty ones, lying ones, profane ones, multiple offender ones, hypocrite ones, religious ones, pagan ones, pious ones, humble ones, disturbed ones.  The list of descriptors could never end!  And God loves us in Jesus.  And we don’t even get any credit for being appealing enough to capture his attention.

“He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.  This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:9-10 NIV).

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV).

If the love of Christ is wide enough to embrace Jew and Gentile and make them one holy people, fellow citizens, and members of his household (Ephesians 2:14-22 NIV), the Gospel of Jesus declares the love of Christ long enough to reach back into eternity past to purpose to treat us graciously and to stretch out completely for all eternity present and future to fill us to the measure of all the fullness of God.

William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”), a contemporary of John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame, would have despaired of those words, however, being consumed with paralyzing bouts of depression throughout his lifetime.  Reflecting on Isaiah 57:15, Cowper penned,

The Lord will happiness divine / On contrite hearts bestow;

Then tell me, gracious God, is mine / A contrite heart or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain, / Insensible as steel;

If aught is felt, ’tis only pain, / To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined / To love Thee if I could;

But often feel another mind, / Averse to all that’s good.

My best desires are faint and few, / I fain would strive for more;

But when I cry, “My strength renew!” / Seem weaker than before.

–“The Contrite Heart”

Cowper’s despair derived from the mountainous burden to generate such a love and to silence the loud fears of enough.  Is my heart contrite enough?  Is my spirit lowly enough?  How can we factor such intangibles that even the Lord will not lay on his sons and daughters?

Not all of us despair, however, but we may just back off a few or more steps from Christ, when we think of such love as a commitment we should, or must, or have to keep.  But, is Paul’s love of Christ the effort of a super Christian?  How in the world can I love with an eternity-spanning love that has only once been seen manifested in the whole of human history, and that in Jesus Christ himself?  Where do I, by myself, come up with that mammoth perfection of loving actions, every time, every moment, every day, all my life?  I’m exhausted!  Flat out exhausted by the thought!

“Give me some help, Paul!  Come on!  Are they just words, Paul?!  Just beautiful, calligraphic words with scrolls and flourishes, beautiful to behold; death-giving to attempt!”

“Wait, Bill!  Look at Ephesians again!  ‘For this reason I kneel’ (3:1, thought interrupted and picked up again at 3:14a NIV).”

“Bill, relax, rest in Jesus, son!  Ask, ask gently and humbly, ask in faith, ask your Father, knowing he loves that prayer for you, even ask for the strength and will to ask, and ask again!  God didn’t save you because you had potential to live the Christian life all by yourself.  Remember?  “While. . .still sinners. . . .”

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16-17a NIV, emphasis added).

I believe Mary, mother of Jesus, gives us a sense of the balance here:  not my intense exertion, Lord, but “I am the Lord’s servant. . . .  May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38 NIV).

“Dear Father, for your mercy and forgiveness I come by faith in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.  You see, Lord, how I fall short of the love of your Son Jesus in my actions and thoughts and words and attitudes.  I am not worthy of your love, and I fail to live out the  love of Christ.  I don’t even know how to try sometimes.  And at other times I don’t even want to try.  But, Lord God, I trust you!  I bow my knees to you like Paul did.  I ask you to supply what I don’t have and can never give.  I offer myself to you.  I love you, though I feel ashamed to say it.  I love you by faith, Father.  May you make true in me what you are as my Father.  By your Son’s intercession and your Spirit’s power may Christ’s life and love dwell in me now and forevermore.  In Jesus’ name, I come to you.  Amen.”

Living the Wonder: The Broad Embrace of Christ’s Love

This devotional today and for the next three days are especially given for us by our dear TSF friend Bill Kesecker.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

I’m making plans to go to the Grand Canyon in 2019.  The Canyon is a chasm 277 miles long and 18 miles wide.  Its depth plunges over a mile (6,000 feet), and the Grand Canyon is home to 70 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, 25 types of reptiles (Oh, my!), and 5 species of amphibians (not really planning to meet any of these “friendly” critters!).  The stats are impressive, but kind of meaningless!  I mean, we’re talking numbers!  But, that’s NOT the Grand Canyon.

Just a view of some of the photographs I’ve seen is the breathtaking story (just the way a friend described to me when she and her husband saw the Grand Canyon for the first time on their tenth wedding anniversary!).  The vast, stretching, plunging vistas, the gorgeous red-bronze rock faces bathed in the setting sun, the golden river slicing its way through mountains of rock, lighting strikes piercing the atmosphere over and into the Canyon, and millions of sparkling, starry globes piercing the black velvet sky.  That’s the Grand Canyon.  That’s what I want to see!  That’s what moves me to adventure.  I can stay home to peruse statistics.  However, I must dive in to experience a wonder!

In his letter to the Ephesians the apostle Paul is on his knees, begging God to equip the young Christians at Ephesus to dive in to experience the most miraculous, multi-dimensional wonders the world has ever known!  Paul pleads with him that they may know the love of Christ!  Not know about it!  Not facts, not statistics, not theological statements and definitions, not creeds and catechisms!

Know the love of Christ!  Better, know the Christ who loves!  Know the man, know what He said, know how he said it, know his rebukes to the proud and religious, know his tender pursuit of the scorned and the unrighteous who knew full well they didn’t belong, had never belonged, and couldn’t even figure out how to belong to anyone like this man.

Mark’s Gospel tells a great story of a conversation Jesus had that, frankly, he didn’t want to have.  He was in the area of Tyre, just outside where the Jews lived.  Jesus was tired, desperately tired.  He didn’t want one more conversation, not one more request, nothing but silence, prayer, sleep.  But here she comes!  A woman rushes in.  Greek-speaking.  Born in Syrian Phoenicia.  A woman.

She pushes into the room and falls onto her knees before him.  She blurts out her plea as only a desperate mother could, begging Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.  The woman had heard of what Jesus was doing in the region.  She had heard countless stories.  Her passion grew with each as his fame spread, “Jesus, please, I beg you, help us, Jesus!”

“First let the children eat all they want.”  Probably a common saying known to all in the countryside, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  His eyes fixed on her, staring intently.  Looking for a twitch, a wince, a flash of anger, some kind of response.  How had she taken his words?  What opinion of her did he hold?  Silent, Jesus watched and waited.

“Lord,” she said in even, measured, determined, sustained tones, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  The woman was not prepared to go anywhere until Jesus heard her plea.

The parable showed that Jesus’ mission was first to the covenant people of God, the Jews.  The woman had no place in that assembly.  She was a Gentile, she didn’t belong, she couldn’t make herself belong.  But her daughter needed a miracle, she had to have a word from Jesus.  There was no other place to go.  None whatsoever.  And still on her knees, she wondered, “Was he Lord of the Jews only?  Or could the unworthy, unprepared, irreligious partake of the crumbs tumbling from the table of those feasting?”

The silence screamed like a horrifying storm for what seemed forever.

Was that a twitch at the corners of his mouth?  Was a knowing smile breaking on his lips?  No, not sure?  “For such a reply, you may go.”

“No, Lord, please, don’t send me away, please, No. . .,” trembling, she thought.

“The demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon had gone (see Mark 7:24-30 NIV).

Is this the love that Paul knew and wanted these young Gentile believers to know, too?  Is this what he wanted them to grasp, to take hold of, and to cling to for dear life?  How wide, and long, and high, and deep is the love of Christ?  He wanted them to know it so fervently that he was on his knees begging God to root them in this love as seeds sprouting deep into the soil, not letting go, reaching downward and outward, and possessing and owning the ground that fed them and growing more and more fruitful in that exhaustless love.  As a foundation, level, firm, stable, and sturdy that will take the full weight and expanse of a magnificent structure of glorious and enduring purpose that will not ever fail to fulfill its mission.  Christians, come on; dive in to experience a wonder!

Merry Christmas, dear ones!  We celebrate today the coming of Jesus, the love of God on display!  “O, Come, let us adore Him!”

“Dear Father, please answer Paul’s ancient prayer for us today, that we will not only grasp, but be possessed by the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge, but not grace!  Grant that we may know Jesus today and experience his love forevermore and be granted the grace to give His love to others, without distinction in full measure.  In the name of your Son Jesus, Amen.”

John the Baptist: Wild Thing!

If you missed church yesterday, you really blew it!  Instead of a video to precede the message, the worship team went into a riff session on the old rock and roll song “Wild Thing.”  But, I started by saying that, no, I’m not the Wild Thing. In fact, I’m rather domesticated. I often say that I’m the most boring person I know or that you know. I often go many consecutive months at a time without ever leaving the Washington/Franklin Counties area.

No, the song was an introduction to our character of the day, John the Baptist. He really was a “wild thing.”

In the most recent edition of Christianity Today magazine, there was a very good article by a writer named Fleming Rutledge. She writes:

It would be hard to say which is more alien to our contemporary ideas of getting ready for Christmas, the season of Advent or the figure of John the Baptist—the man who greeted the Pharisees and Sadducees by calling them a “brood of vipers.” How would you like to get that on a Christmas card?

This unlovable figure is very much out of sync with our times, yet he is one of the foremost figures of Advent … Like John the Baptist, Advent is out of phase with its time, with our time. It encroaches upon us in an uncomfortable way, making us feel somewhat uneasy with its stubborn resistance to Christmas cheer. To be sure, we have done a pretty good job of domesticating Advent, and I am by no means above this sort of thing myself. Every year, I used to buy Advent calendars for my children with cute little doors that open and show cute little pictures. I have yet to find an Advent calendar that has a picture of John the Baptist. We really don’t know exactly what to do with him; he doesn’t fit into anything.

So what are we to make of this eccentric character?  Why is the guy so weird? Why is he such a Wild Thing?

We should first review his background and birth story. As with our other characters of this seasonal series, it is a bit unusual. He was born to godly parents Zachariah and Elizabeth who were at an advanced age, having had no children. Zachariah was a priest, and upon the once-in-a-lifetime occasion of his duty to light the incense in the Temple, he is confronted there by the angel Gabriel. There he receives news of the coming birth of a son to be named John, who will serve God in the spirit of Elijah. Struggling to believe this, Zachariah is stricken with an inability to talk until the child comes. Upon exiting the Holy Place, the people immediately see that something unusual has happened. He likely was not only not able to talk, but also not able to hear (as people were making signs TO him). Ultimately, John was born.

This incredible birth to these folks was more than just a … “Wow, I guess they weren’t too old for children after all.”  No, that a baby boy came into this home was nothing less than a miracle that was recognized by everyone in a tight-knit community.

The tradition of that time was for a son to be named after the father, so it was a great surprise to the people in the community that Elizabeth said the baby’s name was to be John. The people did not believe her, likely because she was a mere woman in that time and culture. But Zechariah affirmed the name in obedience to God. Immediately he was able to talk, and he breaks out in praise of God.

In our central text today in Matthew’s gospel, we recall that this gospel account was written primarily for a Jewish audience, proving to them that Jesus was the promised messianic king. Thus, we immediately see a list of genealogies that affirm his rights to this position. It is followed by the story of Joseph, the wise men, the anger of Herod, and the escape to Egypt for a season.

And then, turning from chapter 2 to chapter 3, a period of 25 years or more has elapsed. And Matthew dives into the preaching of John the Baptist. In fact, though only two of the gospels give details of the story of the incarnation, all four gospels give great detail and prominence to the coming and the ministry of John …

MT 3:1-3 … In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ “

This is a quote from Isaiah 40:1-3 … a passage that would be familiar to scripturally-attuned Jews of that time… Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God…”

The preaching of John the Baptist should also have aroused in their thinking another prophetic passage from some four centuries before their time. Malachi 3:1 … “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

What is the primary verb you hear in these passages?  It is “prepare.”  Let me tell give you an illustration from where I grew up in northwest New Jersey and in the Lehigh Valley.

We are very familiar with speed strips / rumble strips, as they are common now on many highways—often on the edges and center lines, if not completely crossing the roadway. I remember the first place I ever experienced them as a youngster.

As you would go east through the Lehigh Valley on Route 22, going from Allentown and through Bethlehem and approaching Easton, just before getting to the Delaware River there was a very sharp turn in the highway. It went a complete 180 degrees and was called by locals “Cemetery Curve.”  (This was a dual meaning. It curled around a cemetery and through a series of hills, though named also for the many accidents that occurred there.) After miles of high-speed straight-aways, this curve would catch people by surprise – especially truckers whose loads would shift – and there were regular accidents not unlike what we see about every 15 minutes now on 81.

Multitudinous warning signs prior to the curve proved to be insufficient. Finally, to provide a warning, rumble strips of grooved pavement were used. I remember the first time going over them. It made a terribly frightening sound, causing you to ease up immediately. They were there as a preparation for what was to come – to educate you that there was an appropriate way to negotiate that turn.

Likewise, the Old Testament was full of signs and information that a coming Messiah would be arriving upon the scene someday. Preceding this momentous time would be someone, who, in the spirit of Elijah, would prepare the way for the coming of Israel’s king. This person was John the Baptist.

The idea of “preparation” is a major teaching point of Matthew chapter 3. But, prepared in what way?

The message of John was of repentance and baptism (identification) – it was a message of spiritual preparation. It was a message saying – “You’re not okay with God simply because of who you are (the Jewish people – the Sons of Abraham). To be okay with God, there needs to be a repentance from sin and an identification with God’s truth and God’s program (an identification evidenced by baptism).

What is repentance? By definition, it means to agree with God about the nature of sin (to see it from the same perspective He sees it) and a commitment to walk in the opposite direction (which is the proof, or fruit of a genuine repentance).

You know of the most famous Peanuts comic strip, the ongoing saga of Lucy and Charlie Brown practicing football. Lucy would hold the ball for Charlie’s placekicking and then Charlie would attempt to kick the ball. But every time Lucy had ever held the ball for Charlie, he would approach the ball and kick with all his might. At the precise moment of the point of no return, Lucy would pick up the ball and Charlie’s momentum would send him through the air and land him on his back.

One of these comic stories had Lucy holding the ball, but Charlie Brown would not run up and kick it. Lucy begged him to kick the ball. But Charlie Brown said, “Every time I try to kick the ball you remove it and I fall on my back.” They went back and forth for the longest time and finally Lucy broke down in tears and admitted, “Charlie Brown, I have been so terrible to you over the years, picking up the football like I have. I have played so many cruel tricks on you, but I’ve seen the error of my ways! I’ve seen the hurt look in your eyes when I’ve deceived you. I’ve been wrong, so wrong. Won’t you give a poor, penitent girl another chance?”

Charlie Brown was moved by her display of grief and responded to her, “Of course, I’ll give you another chance.” He stepped back as she held the ball, and he ran. At the last moment, Lucy picked up the ball and Charlie Brown fell flat on his back. Lucy’s last words were, “Recognizing your faults and actually changing your ways are two different things, Charlie Brown!”

The change part is the hard part, but the necessary part. Saying you are sorry is one thing, but living a different way is another. My favorite college professor Dr. McGahey always said, “Nobody was ever saved being just sorry for their sins.”

Repentance leads to change because of a new heart condition.

And John’s message was one of repentance AND baptism.

As always, when we talk about baptism, the key word is “identification.”

We choose identification all the time. Perhaps in our culture it is an identification with a sports team, a school, a club or organization. Sometimes, the things we identify with may be counter-cultural. In fact, identifying with Christ is exactly that. In a world that is going the wrong way and is under the control of the kingdom of darkness, identifying with God – with Jesus Christ – is always going to be counter-cultural.

It was that way for the Jewish people before the coming of Christ. It is that way for Vice President Pence, or Tim Tebow. It is true where you work out in the world … or go to school. It has always been this way, and always will be, until the day God makes all things new upon the return of Jesus Christ.

Going back to our primary text in Matthew 3, look at verse 4 … John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.

My question for the title today: Why is this guy so weird and such a wild thing?  Along with the power of his words, it is because even his appearance was a “rumble strip” pointer to Christ. For anyone who had a heart to know the truth, and who knew the Scriptures of the O.T., they would be led to understand that this man was the prophesied forerunner – the one who would point to the Messiah. For example, look at this passage that begins the book of 2 Kings …

2KI 1:1 – After Ahab’s death, Moab rebelled against Israel. 2 Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.”

2KI 1:3 – But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, `Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ 4 Therefore this is what the LORD says: `You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’ ” So Elijah went.

2KI 1:5 – When the messengers returned to the king, he asked them, “Why have you come back?”

2KI 1:6 – “A man came to meet us,” they replied. “And he said to us, `Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, “This is what the LORD says: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending men to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” ‘ “

2KI 1:7 – The king asked them, “What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?”

2KI 1:8 – They replied, “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.”  The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”

And indeed, many people in Israel did find John to be an interesting character, with characteristics that were a throwback to Elijah. They would not have understood precisely who he was and what his mission entailed, but it says in Matthew 3:5-6 … People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

There absolutely was a messianic hope and expectation at this time of history. With Roman rule, many in Israel longed for a messiah, and varied characters claimed to be such. But John’s message was unique in that it was a spiritual one, rather than mere political zealotry or governmentally subversive rants. His message was popular with the common folk, and he drew the attention of the religious leadership who also went out to check out this wilderness eccentric, not that they had any interest in a spiritual message …

Matthew 3:7 – But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

You can imagine that this preaching did not make him popular with the leadership. And again, though we see the advent season as a time of joy and peace, the work of Christ – though bringing peace and restoration of a lost race back to the heavenly Father – was a work that would cause great upset to the systems of the world.

Matthew 3:11 – “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

But the ministry of John was not to draw attention to himself. He was the rumble strip to point away to another to come after him, and that is Jesus, who comes to be baptized by John …

MT 3:13 – Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

MT 3:15 – Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

MT 3:16 – As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

So what do we take away from this story of the Wild Thing – John the Baptist?

First, we see the primacy of the story of the coming of Christ and the centrality of the incarnation in the larger context of Scripture. It reminds us of the great plan of God, and of the great blessing we have to be a part of this grace – coming to us in a second-hand fashion through the ultimate rejection of Christ by the Jewish nation, the postponement of the earthly kingdom, and the subsequent spread of the Gospel to all peoples and nations.

And most importantly, we also take away these same timeless truths: of preparation by repentance / identification … being mindful of another coming of the same Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a tendency to not be prepared, to be impressed with the wrong things – the busy things of this material world. And there is no other season where this is more fully evident than the advent season.

In the midst of our abundance, it is easy to be distracted by the pursuits of joy and happiness in the material world. We embrace our comforts. We have “First-World Problems” … like complaining this Christmas (seen all over the news) that the tips on Hershey Kisses are missing!  And in the busy distraction of this sort of abundance, we might fail to look back at the coming of an infant Savior. And even more, in our comforts, we might fail to look forward to the next coming of that risen Savior.

It is incredibly easy to forget Christ’s next coming and the need for his arrival to set straight a terribly fallen world. Even with a partial government shut-down and crashing equities markets, we have comfortable lives in the big picture of things.

It is not so comforting in many other places. China, this last week, has cracked down on churches in that country in a big way. One of our own partner ministries in Central Asia is facing the hostilities of governmental intervention and ridiculous demands. Around the world, Christians are persecuted, some even enslaved by the most evil people on the planet. I suspect that these brothers and sisters in the Lord are more anxiously anticipating a coming of Christ than are we in America.

Indeed, the New Testament has “rumble strips” that foretell another coming and encourage preparation and identification. For example, to a persecuted and oppressed people of the first century, Peter wrote his first letter … 1PE 1:3 – Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  

1PE 1:13 – Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Do you see the big ideas there in Peter’s exhortation?  He is speaking of repentance through holy living, enduring in faith through identification with Christ. And this remains our need in the same church age as Peter, though 2,000 years later. We demonstrate our preparation through repentance and identification …

REPENTANCE – seeing our sin, our human condition, as God sees it … and doing what the Scriptures say to do … to confess our sins and be right with God and with others.

IDENTIFICATION – We wear our team uniform, even in the context of rejection and being despised. This Christmas thing / Jesus thing / faith thing / church thing, it is not just an accoutrement of life – something that is an add-on for a Sunday here and there, or even once per week, every Sunday. It is rather the 24/7 defining thing about who we are – our identification.

And when we are identified with Christ, we might have a bit of an “eccentric John the Baptist, weird, wild thing” look to the world around us. Well, so be it!  And I call you to it!  There is nothing more significant that you can do with your life and your family’s lives than to be fully invested in the work of Jesus Christ through His body, the Church. It is why Jesus came, and why he will come again. This is the essence of life and light. This is the application of the Christmas season!