Yesterday I preached a sermon called “Sonship and Suffering” at Followers of Jesus Church of Thomaston, Georgia, as part of our pulpit exchange. The sermon texts came from Hebrews 2 and 12.
My sermon notes this time were in the form of slides, so I will share them here. Most of the key sermon points will be self-evident from the slides. (The sermon was not recorded.)
I began the Scripture exposition by reviewing the importance of the title “Son” for the author of Hebrews. It is this title that he uses to emphasize that Jesus is greater than both the angels and Moses.
Yet this exalted Son—“the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3)—“had to” suffer (Heb. 2:17, 10). He had to suffer in order to become like us and complete his mission of “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10).
Did you catch that? “Sons!” Yes, the very word used to exalt the exalted Jesus is also used by God of all who belong to Jesus.
Later the preacher of Hebrews asks us this: “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?” (Heb. 12:5). Yes, as sons. When you suffer, “God is treating you as sons” (Heb. 12:7). Now that gives us a life-changing new lens through which to view all our suffering!
If you want to ponder sonship and suffering more, check out the slides in the link below. Bonus: You will also find a very simple outline of Hebrews that shows its remarkable mirrored structure—which explains why yesterday’s sermon had two texts.
Postscript: We decided to name our house church here in Atlanta “Followers of Jesus Atlanta Church.” In doing so, we were influenced by our former church, “Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church” in Brooklyn, NY. We actually cleared our name with the lead pastor there, my good friend and former co-pastor Richard Schwartz. Then we learned that the little church in Thomaston, Georgia—whose pastor Gary Kauffman has agreed to be a counselor for us and Smuckers here in Atlanta—has also chosen the name “Followers of Jesus.” No, none of us are formally affiliated with each other (besides our relationship with Gary and our agreement to share pulpits every few months). But I think I sense a common theme, and I like it! Now may we live up to our names.
Now that it is summer, I spend my Saturdays at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market, selling baked goods for my brother-in-law with Mast Family Farm. The best part of market is interacting with customers. I hope we bless them, though I am not always sure we do.
This past Saturday a frequent customer walked up to me at the pie stand. As he approached, I noticed that his shirt was bulging out over his belt. He patted this bulge rather tenderly as he neared the stand, and immediately Paul’s words flashed through my mind: “Whose god is their belly” (Phil. 3:19 NKJV).
I know, my mind isn’t always kind. But that’s the way it sometimes works. And the way the customer patted his stomach did indeed look like he was expressing devotion to his god. More importantly, the way he bought two pies and deliberated about a third suggested that his god has grown because he as been feeding it. (If you struggle with weight gain despite valiant self-control, as many do, please know you have my sympathy, not my condemnation.)
I don’t enjoy selling pies at such moments. As I said, I hope we bless most of our customers.
“Whose god is their belly.” I thought of these words again this morning in Sunday School class, when we were talking about Paul’s example of contentment. Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11).
The Sunday School quarterly suggested that the kind of contentment that Paul was writing about was the kind where we “limit our desires or actions.” I think I understand what the quarterly writer meant, but I’m not sure that definition of contentment captures the full picture of Paul’s testimony.
What enabled Paul to be content in all circumstances? How did he “learn” contentment? Did he simply learn to limit his desires? Was Paul a closet Hindu, believing that the key to escaping suffering is to escape desire? I don’t think so.
I think the real secret of Paul’s contentment is found in the fact that he was devoted to the right God. In the first chapter of Philippians Paul recounts how he is in prison, and how some envious rivals are taking advantage of his imprisonment by doing some preaching of their own, hoping in their selfish ambition to add to Paul’s misery. But Paul doesn’t mind, as long as they are preaching Christ. “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (Phil 1:18, emphasis added).
Christ was Paul’s God, and as long as Christ was being exalted, Paul was content. As long as Christ was being exalted, Paul rejoiced. “Yes, and I will rejoice,” Paul continued, “for… it is my eager expectation and hope that… now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:18-21, emphasis added).
“Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul told the Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” And again: “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (Phil. 3:1; 4:4, 10-11, emphasis added).
How did Paul learn contentment? I think one way he learned contentment was through suffering. Each time Paul suffered—and he suffered a great deal indeed—each time he suffered, he grew even closer to his Lord, the one who had born the cross for him. Suffering for his Lord drew him closer to his Lord, causing him to rejoice ever more deeply and exclusively in his Lord.
Paul was not content to remain in his current state of spiritual maturity. He was pressing on to share more fully in the cross of his Lord, in order that he might also share in the resurrection of his Lord (Phil. 3:7-16). But Paul was content with his God—content with and eagerly anticipating the appearing of his Lord Jesus Christ:
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil. 3:17-21, emphasis added).
When your mind is on autopilot, do you think of earthly things or heavenly things? When your hands reach out for something to pat, what god do they serve?
If you want real contentment, don’t focus on renouncing your desires. Get a real God. Rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ.
PS: For similar thoughts on how good desires are the key to overcoming evil desires, you might enjoy reading an old essay by Thomas Chalmers entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” See here.
Two days ago I was privileged to speak at the memorial service of my father-in-law, Albert Mast. This was a great honor, and a wonderful opportunity to ponder the life that is ours in Christ Jesus–resurrection already and resurrection not yet!
This post will be a bit of a tossed salad, so here’s an ingredient list to help you proceed:
Audio of Sermon and “So What?” Thoughts about Resurrection
Thanks to each of you who prayed for me regarding this sermon! I felt God’s strength and zeal as I spoke, and I sensed people were listening. Our primary texts were Romans 6:11 and 1 Peter 1:13, and my primary goal was to help people rejoice in the blessings of Christ’s resurrection and long for his return.
After the sermon, a friend who had read my recent post about resurrection to come (What is the Christian’s True Hope in Death?) and who heard me share similar thoughts in the sermon asked me a question: Why does it matter? Why is it important for us to fix our hopes on Christ’s return and our resurrection then, rather than merely anticipating dying and going to heaven? My friend agreed with what I had shared, but wasn’t sure what difference it made.
Good question! I shared with my friend an illustration that I didn’t have time to share during the sermon. I’d like to share it here, too.
Imagine, if you can, that you agree with me that the “good guys” in the American Rebellion–er, the American Revolutionary War, that is–were the British, and not the American colonists. (I’m speaking here as my adolescent Canadian self, not my adult kingdom-of-God self.) Now imagine that you and I are both British soldiers, returned from the war. Imagine I come up to you after the war is over and say something like this:
“Isn’t it great how we won the war! We had wonderful campaigns in the king’s colonies. We really knocked those rebellious colonists around in some good fights. Sure, we lost some battles, but look at how those Loyalists escaped to Canada! And just when things looked the worst, wasn’t it wonderful to get on our ships and sail safely home to England? Now those colonists can never touch us. Yes, isn’t it great how we won the war?”
How would you respond? I suspect you’d knock me about the head a time or two to bring me to my senses and shout, “But what about the kingdom? What about the king’s colonies? How can you say we won the war when the king lost his kingdom?”
(If that illustration is too difficult for your imagination, then use the American invasion of Iraq instead.)
Now imagine a similar conversation, this time between you and me as we discuss our Christian war against sin and Satan. Imagine if I say something like this:
“Isn’t it great how we’ll win this war! Saints in the past have engaged in quite the battles with Satan, and there have been wonderful victories. Think of Noah, and Abraham, Moses, and David–a long list of heroes of the faith that have stood firm against the forces of darkness. Sure, the nation of Israel eventually fell away from God and was sent into exile, but then God started a whole new campaign with his Church! Peter, John, Paul, then Augustine, Saint Francis, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Felix Manz, Menno Simons, William Carey, Billy Graham, and countless more [edit the list as you wish]–what a list of victors! Each one of them, at his death, escaped safely to heaven. And now, just as the war is raging at its fiercest, and the Church is being reduced to a tiny remnant band, we have this wonderful confidence: God is going to call us home and we’ll all go sailing off safely into heaven! Isn’t it wonderful how we’re going to win the war!”
Now, what would be a proper response to such an outburst? I suggest the following: Hopefully you’d knock me about the head a bit (metaphorically, of course) and sober me up with these words: “But what about the kingdom? What about God’s original purposes for the wonderful world that he created? How can you say we will win the war if the King will loose his kingdom?”
When God created the world (Gen. 1-2), he created it perfect but incomplete. It possessed the perfection of an immature child. God put humans into his world to steward it and to bring about his creative purposes for his world. But Satan and sin hijacked God’s original intent. More accurately, God foreknew sin’s entrance, and planned all along to work through it. However we word it, this fact remains: God’s purposes for his world remained incomplete at the time when sin entered. If this is true, then salvation alone–the removal of sin from human hearts or even from the cosmos–is not the sum total of God’s purposes for his creation. No, after sin is removed God will want to get on with his other plans for his creation.
Ask a cook, “What do you want to do with these dishes?” and he might answer, “I want them washed.” Ask a 16-year-old what he plans to do with his car and he might say, “I plan to give it a wash and a wax.” But no cook would be satisfied washing dishes without ever getting to cook with them, and it is a rare teen who would be content working at a car wash all day and never driving a car! To reduce God’s purposes for his world to his “plan of salvation” is like reducing a cook’s purposes for dishes to his plan for washing them.
So what difference does it make if we focus on dying and going to heaven rather than on Christ’s return and our final resurrection? I think it is the difference between being satisfied with human salvation or rejoicing in God’s victory. Is it enough for me that I win? Or do I care about God winning? Do I imagine a grand conclusion where Satan succeeds, kamikaze-style, in demolishing God’s good creation? Where Satan, like Samson, dies while bringing down God’s house? Where God wins the war but looses half his kingdom? Or do I grasp God’s vision for creating “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13)? Do I remember that my own eternal glory is bound up in his, and that the Bible hints at things like us reigning with Christ (2 Tim. 2:12) and judging angels (1 Cor. 6:3)–things seemingly timed to happen only long after my death, when Christ returns?
More could be said, but hopefully that begins to answer the “so what” question that my friend raised. There is much I don’t understand yet about God’s purposes for his creation. God still has some big secrets up his sleeve. But this much I do understand: God’s purposes matter, and they will be fulfilled! Through Christ God will “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20).
If you want to read more, the book that has shaped my thinking as much as any other (besides Scripture) is on sale on Kindle right now: Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright.
“On the Resurrection Morning” — A Gospel Song that “Gets” Life After Death
In my sermon I quoted an old gospel song by Sabine Baring-Gould that I a friend shared with me just a few days ago. Here are two of its eight stanzas. Notice especially the lines I’ve emboldened. How often do you hear such ideas in a gospel song? I think this author understood our Christian hope well.
For a while the wearied body
Lies with feet toward the morn;
Till the last and brightest Easter
Day be born.
But the soul in contemplation, Utters earnest prayer and strong,
Bursting at the resurrection
If our sights are to be fixed on our final resurrection and not merely on going to heaven, then how should we bury our loved ones? During the sermon I answered this question by quoting from an article written by my mother (Elaine Gingrich). Mom wrote this article over 20 years ago, after death touched my life significantly for the first time by claiming the lives of five young friends in a car accident.
Here is the article: Burial Ground(By the way, I discovered just now that in my sermon I misquoted a Tozer quote that Mom uses in this article: It should be “It is hard to imagine anything less hopeful than the sight of a burial”–not “more hopeful.” But sorry, Tozer; I think I like my version at least as well.)
“How Firm A Foundation” — How a Hymn Helped Strengthen Albert’s Faith
At Albert’s memorial service his “little” brother Glen Mast told a story that few of us knew. Five or six years ago, when Albert’s pain was at its worst, he experienced a severe trial of his faith. One time when Glen was visiting, Albert confessed that he felt “worthless.” Worse still, Albert was troubled by this question: What if someday he would stand before God and hear these terrible words: “I never knew you, depart from me.”
Glen reassured Albert, reminding him that, while each of us is unworthy, none of us are worthless. God paid a dear price for us! Glen also explained that when Jesus foretold those terrible words, “I never knew you,” he was warning religious leaders who felt no need for Jesus. Albert, on the other hand, had relied from his youth on the grace of God given through Christ (Eph. 2:8-10). God knew his name! (I might add that Jesus was describing false prophets who seemed more interested in wielding the power of God than in doing the will of God.)
Then Glen showed Albert and Katie (my mother-in-law) a video of a presentation by David Powlison, called “Christ’s Grace and Your Sufferings.” (Click the link for audio and video options. Or go to page 145 of this free PDF book for a transcript.) Powlison shapes his talk around the grand old hymn, “How Firm a Foundation“–a hymn which, unlike most hymns, has God speaking directly to us for most of its verses. (When re-enacting this story at Albert’s memorial, Glen had us turn and face each other while singing verse one, then turn our hands palms-up toward God while singing the rest of the song.)
Glen’s words, Powlison’s presentation, and the words of this hymn were used by God to renew Albert’s faith. Perhaps they will renew the faith of someone reading this blog, too.
Albert Mast’s Obituary
Finally, here is Albert Mast’s obituary:
Albert Mast was born on May 2, 1943 in Thomas, Oklahoma, the son of Joas and Katie Mast. He was married to Katie Stoltzfus on November 10, 1973. Later that year, they moved to Leon, Iowa, where they farmed and eventually established the family baking business, Mast Family Farm.
From a young age, Albert faced many challenges related to what was eventually diagnosed as dystonia. Though some of those challenges shook him at times, he held fast to his faith in Christ, and lived a vibrant testimony of joy in the midst of pain.He was known for his determination, his smile in spite of his pain, his care for others who were hurting, and for planting straight rows. Some of Albert’s favorite quotes: “I may be crippled, but I am NOT handicapped.” “If you can do it, so can I.” One of his life verses was Philippians 4:13.
Albert was released from his body on December 15, 2014.Albert is survived by his dedicated wife, Katie, and their children Zonya (Dwight) Gingrich, Albert L. Mast, and Joy (Craig) Miller; Grandchildren Priya, Shani, and Ayla Gingrich, and Dexter Miller; Siblings Susie Joy Mast, Moses (Sadie) Mast, William (Betty) Mast, Lydia Mae (the late Virgil) Wagler, John (Esther) Mast, Harry (Flo) Mast, Glen (Ellen) Mast, and many nieces and nephews. Albert was preceded in death by his parents, and his daughter Angela.