Sermon notes for April 14, 1996. Preached at the Marbury Church of God.
The focus is on the future. Most peoples of the earth are identified by their past: human descent, bloodlines, political and cultural and social history. Each of us has physical parentage, a political and cultural heritage, and a social setting that has to some extent shaped us. But the people of God are identified not by history but by promise, not by the past but by the future, and this is what gives us our common life.
This was true for Abraham. He was unique in his generation not for what he had accomplished, but for what God promised him… for the future that was given to him. His defining human characteristic was faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as “the substance of things hoped for.” Now just as all children of faith are children of Abraham, we become people of promise and a new covenant just exactly when we align ourselves with what God has set before us as a future, and let that define who we are, what our relationships are, and how we behave in the world. Like T.H. White’s Merlin, we are unlike all the people around us in that we live “backwards in time.” We “remember” the future, because the future is God’s promise and is more sure than our present circumstances and even more sure than our past, from which we are set free by grace. Look what happens to the defining moments of our past: “So far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper [heb., shalom] you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future…” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)
“This one thing I do, forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” ( Philippians 3:13-14)
Our future is established by Jesus Christ, who is the Pioneer and Finisher of faith (Hebrews 12:2), and our “forerunner” (Heb. 6:20) into the holiest place. The message of Easter is one of hope for our future… Christ has been raised from the dead, not as a curiosity of history, but as “the firstfruits of them that sleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
Let’s look at some things about our future that impact the present very directly.
Our personal future is full salvation. “Therefore he is able to save completely them who come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” Heb. 7:25.
The future of the church is that of a holy community, without spot or blemish, comprised of “every people, nation, and language”. It is one in which distinctions of race, sex, nationality, social status, and religious background have no impact whatsoever, “but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
But in the plan of God, what is future is already present. John the Baptist, and Jesus, both testified that the “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, and Jesus instructed his disciples when he sent them out two by two to inform those who would reject their preaching that “the Kingdom of God has come near to you.” Accordingly, we read in, for example, James chapter 2 of the practical application of this fact in the way the local assembly is to conduct itself.
The kingdom of God, which consists in “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit,” according to Paul, is put on display (manifested) in the church. The rules that govern the world, where the strong rule and the eldest get the most respect, are turned on their head in the community of Jesus, to whom he says, “Not so with you; for he that is greatest among you shall be as the youngest; and the one who rules like the one who serves”. The church is a daily laboratory for working out and living out Kingdom principles.
What are these kingdom principles? They are principles which arise out of the character of God himself, in contrast to the principles often characteristic of those who are without God. In God’s holy community, Love takes precedence over hatred, revenge, or even indifference; healing wins out over sickness and infirmity; mutual support overrides distinctions of social status; giving takes higher precedence than accumulation of wealth; and forgiveness does away with sin. These are the principles that are to be operative in the church, as the social laboratory for God’s kingdom. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” This is our future and our calling.
Because our future is secure, our journey forward is a joyful one. This is true even when that journey brings us face to face with all kinds of trouble and adversity, the testing ground of our faith. I like the way this was illustrated in the old (maroon) Hymnal of the Church of God. As you know, in the back of the hymnal, as there is in most hymnals, was a topical index, where you could look up songs by subject matter under a topical heading. To save space, some topical headings are cross-referenced to others; for example, in this particular hymnal, if you looked for the topic “Christ”, it would say, “see Jesus Christ”, and if you looked up Comfort, it said, see Consolation. Well, the folks who put this hymnal together knew their gospel well. Under the topic, “Conflict,” you will find a cross reference: “see Victory.”
That sums it up rather well. We have a high calling, and a certain future, if only we “hold fast to the beginning of our confidence firmly to the end” as the writer of Hebrews puts it. I like that, too. Sometimes we get so tangled in the complexities of our lives that we lose sight of “the beginning of our confidence”, which is Jesus Christ, crucified for us, risen from the dead, offering repentance and forgiveness of sin to all who will believe on him. It may be years since we came to Christ, and had our sins forgiven; but this simple fact, the confession of our need of Him and his gracious reaching out to us, is still where our confidence begins. Out of that grows our own self-respect, our love for our families, and for the church, and our ability to expand that love beyond our immediate circle to include those to whom the same offer is made, but have not yet received it. From this simple beginning flows all sorts of ministry: prayer and Bible study so that we can draw closer to the One who has so marvelously saved us, and come to a fuller understanding of the scope of his love (length and breadth and depth and height (Eph. 3:14-19); from this flows our desire to “walk worthy” of him, because He has made us worthy by His own blood; from this flows all sorts of labors of love — hospitals and schools; day care centers and orphanages; universities, mission work, programs to feed the hungry and clothe the poor, and most importantly to bring the good news of grace and forgiveness to whoever will by any means receive it.
When God called Abraham, he promised both to bless him and to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth. That promise shaped his future and his character, because he believed that God was able to do what he had promised. In the same way we are called for the purpose of receiving and transmitting a blessing. We receive the blessing by faith, which comes to us in hearing the word of God. We receive this blessing in the person of the Holy Spirit, the seal and sign of our salvation; we transmit it through the word of the gospel and through the fruit the Holy Spirit bears in our lives, fruit that benefits all around us: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, faithfulness, and self-control.
The prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus: press on to the future!