English service - March 20, 2022
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
Unwitting Actors in God’s Story
To those joining us online and those here today at Open Door Chapel, it’s good to be with you again. Once more, I would like to share with you out of my own learning of God’s word what I sense I hear Him saying to us at this time. I pray that these teachings I believe I am receiving will be helpful to you as I pass them on—hopefully faithfully and clearly. My prayer is that they will enlighten and encourage you in following Christ in deeper faith and love.
As I read through the gospel presentations of Christ’s life, I notice the writers coming back again and again to various themes. One of them is how certain events in Jesus’ life are fulfillments of prophecies. These often sound a little strange to our ears as people living in modern times. But to the original readers of the Bible’s writings, they were very important. And they actually have great meaning to us, too, though because we view them through the lenses of the particular cultures and times in which we live, we often fail to realize it.
We can tend to read the stories of Jesus’ time on this earth as we would a history textbook or an old newspaper. An easy mistake to make is forgetting that they were written to be gospels. Their authors are trying to tell us the good news that we need to be saved, to have the life that is now available to us in relationship with Jesus, the Messiah. In order to tell the truth, but also to make their message convincing to their original readers, they focus on certain things that they believe demonstrate the truth that Jesus of Nazareth is actually the Christ, the Savior God has promised throughout the centuries to send His people.
One of them is Christ’s teachings. Key among them is that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man. As we learned together at Christmas worship last year, He was chosen and sent by God into this world to save it. Presenting all of Jesus’ message, again and again in a variety of ways, the gospel evangelists show us that Jesus is telling us the truth. He is not coming along and trying to get us to believe something in conflict with what God has taught throughout the centuries. No, His instruction matches the understanding of God, His world, and our lives that the Bible has always given us. Because of this, He is reliable, worthy of our trust.
Besides Christ’s words, there are His works, and the gospel evangelists want us to know that they also are special. They are marks that Jesus has not just dreamed up some cool plans that He is carrying out to become very popular or powerful politically or socially or something. He is Almighty God’s chosen one, His only Son, and that of course comes with great power. So the writers tell us many stories of how Jesus performs miraculous works. Miracles are there to help. A key characteristic of the miracle stories in the gospels is that behind them are actual people with real needs whom the God of love reaches out through His Son to help in specific ways, restoring them to health and to their communities. Miracles are also there to teach. One purpose is to show us what our future home in heaven is going to be like.
But another reason God does miracles is to convince us of Christ’s unique place in His work of bringing peace, justice, wholeness—of bringing salvation—into this world. Christ in the Bible lived in a very religious age, and there were various people from time to time who claimed to be the Messiah, have miraculous powers, and so on. How could an honest person tell the difference between a fake and the real thing? To help us see that, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John write not abstract ideas about Jesus’ actions but detailed and specific stories of particular people who met Him and were healed. These writers want us to see that Jesus Christ was doing things that do not make any sense unless He is the One He claims to be—God’s own Son. They are arguing that Jesus is telling the truth when He says (John 6:27), “God the Father has put his seal of approval on him.” It’s like the JAS seal of quality that we see labeled on items here in Japan—but with far greater meaning and authority.
Yet it does not end there. Beyond even His words and works, certain events that take place in Christ’s life demonstrate that God Himself is at work behind the scenes, directing and managing the things that happen, in order to bring the results that only God Himself could produce. The things that people in Jesus’ time choose to do end up fulfilling a prophesy that has been there for a long time. Some do this consciously and willingly, but others do not even know they are doing it. The gospel writers will often stop narrating their stories to point this out, so we won’t miss it. They’ll say things like “This happened so that Scripture would come true” (John 19:24). These are what I want to focus on with you in today’s message, and hopefully others to follow.
Today’s Bible reading in Luke 18 is one of a number of stories in which Jesus tells His followers ahead of time that He is going to be killed, yet that will lead to His coming to life again. God often repeats certain things in the Bible to show how certain it is that they will happen and to show they have special importance. We see that here, too. Jesus tells His disciples that His death and resurrection are not just random events that are going to occur. They are things that “the prophets wrote about the Son of Man” (v. 31).
What will happen in particular?
He will be handed over to people who are not Jews. They will make fun of him. They will laugh at him and spit on him. They will whip him and kill him. On the third day, he will rise from the dead! (vv. 32-33)
Luke in this story does not tell us exactly which Old Testament prophets have said these things will happen. But there are vivid examples. One is in Isaiah 53:3-5.
Describing the person God will send to save His people, he paints a picture of someone different from the powerful warrior-king with a sword in his hand, as most people were expecting. We can imagine that man killing many enemies, then entering His capital on a white horse. But Isaiah says something different:
Men looked down on him. They didn't accept him. He knew all about sorrow and suffering. He was like someone people turn their faces away from. We looked down on him. We didn't have any respect for him. He suffered the things we should have suffered. He took on himself the pain that should have been ours. But we thought God was punishing him. We thought God was wounding him and making him suffer. But the servant was pierced because we had sinned. He was crushed because we had done what was evil. He was punished to make us whole again. His wounds have healed us.
The suffering that this Messiah goes through does not come from natural disasters, illnesses, or accidents. It is put on Him intentionally. He does not deserve it, but He receives it anyway. It’s not fair or right that He would be “pierced” or “crushed” (Isaiah) for us, but when Jesus is laughed at, spit on, whipped, and killed, that’s what happens. This is evil. Yet He chooses to endure it because God uses it as the way to bring about the salvation the world’s people need. This is how He pays the price of our sin. When the Isaiah prophecies “come true” (Luke 18:31), they demonstrate that God loves us enough to suffer with us and for us. You may be feeling alone, unappreciated, or misunderstood. You may have suffered in other ways. But the Bible’s God invites you to meet Him in the middle of our suffering. Whether it is the suffering that is just part of life as a human being in this world, or if it is injustice brought about directly by people’s sin, that is where we can encounter God. In His wise plans, that is often where we find Him and sense His presence the strongest.
In addition to His love, the events of the cross show the Lord’s power in an amazing way. For this prophecy to be fulfilled, do you see what God chooses to use? It’s the hatefulness and cruelty of the people who put Jesus on the cross to die. And they have no idea that they are playing a role in the divine drama that unfolds. But they are part of God’s salvation story. The people who laugh at, spit on, whip, and kill Him appear to think that they are winning. The religious leaders apply political and social pressure at just the right time, and the government leaders use their legal and military power to get what they want. In the process, the innocent Son of God is killed in the greatest act of injustice ever.
Yet what looks like the tragic end of the story turns out to be a joyous beginning of another. The death of Christ becomes the occasion of the life of Christ and, through that, of all who accept the gift that He offered us on the cross. The eternal truth that comes into focus here is that God is in control, even in the face of deep, profound evil. He rules as King, no matter what injustice and cruelty may confront Him and His people. Our God is sovereign. He reigns. That is the good news I bring to you again today.
There is a lot of evil in our world today, isn’t there. Hearing day after day about Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine and civilians being murdered there forces us to see this, doesn’t it. We know that there is never really an extended period of time when there is no war in our world. People made in the image of God and deeply loved by Him have been killed in recent days in Yemen, Syria, and Nigeria, just to name a few examples. Seeing these horrible events more clearly than in the past due to the 24-7-365 (hours per day, days per week, days per year) news cycle makes them harder to ignore. We may care about them more if they are likely to impact our lives in visible ways. Some of this may be natural because we have a limited capacity to think about many problems at once. But some may also be our narrowness of mind and lack of compassion toward people because they are different from us. God forgive us when that is true.
Even if there is not a “hot war” in our countries, many of us feel disappointed or profoundly discouraged—sometimes outraged or filled with other negative emotions—about the way things are going back home. The effects of “Corona fatigue” seem to be everywhere all the time now. On whichever side of the political divides we may be, many people are feeling upset about what seems to be a loss of freedom, safety, and even hope for a better future. For one example, there are some reasons to be concerned that religious freedom is under attack in many countries around the world, even ones where faith used to be a powerful unifying force in culture. We may be tempted to give in to resentment and fear and allow ourselves to live in them every day.
In a world that is depressingly full of cruelty, let’s again hear the good news: God is in control. Nothing happens without His either choosing to allow it or actively causing it. And He is in the habit of using the worst situations and truly evil actions of human beings to do His most meaningful work. He always has been like this since sin entered human life. In the story of Joseph in Egypt, when his brothers’ selling him as a slave seems to have ruined his life, he comes to see that God is with him and has a good plan for his life, even in slavery, even in prison. As he develops the habit of putting his life in God’s hands, he eventually comes to the point where he faces his brothers and says to them, “You planned to harm me. But God planned it for good. He planned to do what is now being done. He wanted to save many lives. So then, don't be afraid” (Genesis 50:20-21a).
When we get to the time for Jesus to be born, we see in the Christmas stories several examples of God’s fulfilling prophecies—keeping His promises. We may look at this more later on this year, but here’s one example. In Matthew 2:16-18, we read:
Herod realized that the Wise Men had tricked him. So he became very angry. He gave orders concerning Bethlehem and the area around it. All the boys two years old and under were to be killed. This agreed with the time when the Wise Men had seen the star. In this way, the words the prophet Jeremiah spoke came true. He had said, “A voice is heard in Ramah. It's the sound of crying and deep sadness. Rachel is crying over her children. She refuses to be comforted, because they are gone” (Jeremiah 31:15).
Not only despite but specifically through almost unspeakable evil, God finds a way to bring the Savior into the world.
Then when Jesus is an adult and out teaching in His public ministry, He talks about His unjust, violent death but sees it as a key part of God’s chosen means of doing His will in our world (John 10:17-18):
The reason my Father loves me is that I give up my life. But I will take it back again. No one takes it from me. I give it up myself. I have the authority to give it up. And I have the authority to take it back again. I received this command from my Father.
Even in the face of shame and humiliation, God uses them to keep His promise and do His good work in our world.
And when He is about to be condemned to death, Jesus does not try to escape, even though He knows He does not deserve it (John 19:10-11).
“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don't you understand? I have the power to set you free or to nail you to a cross.” Jesus answered, “You were given power from heaven. If you weren't, you would have no power over me.”
Here again, as throughout His life, Jesus chooses His words and actions based on His deeply held belief that God is in control. He has promised to help His people when we let Him have the choice of how He will do that. Christ trusts Him with His future and finds the greatest possible victory and blessing by going the way His loving Father directs.
If that is how our Lord and Savior handles the injustice and suffering in His life, then as His followers, how are we to react when our lives are not pleasant and people don’t treat us as they should? For one thing, if we are learning to be like Him, we are gaining the habit of not running away from bad situations but going into and through them with His help. How might God be sending us into the injustice of this world? Could it be through finding a relief project for war refugees in another country—or the one person or few people around us here in Japan whom we are in a position to help most? I feel the need for consistency in giving directly to service projects (volunteer work, for instance) rather than jumping around from one to another. The school building construction at Commission Baptist Institute in Liberia is one activity which I feel God leading us to continue to support. The service to which you feel the Lord directing you may be this particular one or another opportunity. But in any case, let’s pray about how we can step out on faith to serve at our Father’s direction, empowered by the Holy Spirit living in us, with the message Christ taught us.
God who rules over all, especially in these trouble-filled times, help us to walk closely by your side through each day, with its challenges and dangers and opportunities. Help us to meet you in the middle of the suffering and injustice around us and come to know you more fully through that encounter. Enable us to know more deeply you and your ability to turn around the bad things that happen in our lives. And help us to go in your name to the people to whom you send us and serve them effectively and compassionately, in the power of your Spirit. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.