Archive for February, 2016

Of Soldiers, Athletes, and Farmers! #1

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 0831

Sermon Notes (Sunday February 21st, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

Of Soldiers, Athletes, and Farmers! #1

1 Samuel 30:1-6; 2 Timothy 2:1-7

 

Why would anyone willingly embrace suffering? In our text this morning, the apostle Paul wants Timothy (and us) to join him in suffering hardship for the gospel. I tell you the truth that’s a tough sell in our comfort-oriented culture! How can we encourage each other to embrace suffering hardship for the gospel in such a culture? If you want to see how comfort-oriented our culture has become, examine what you and I do every day. Most of us try to park as close as we can to the store, so we don’t have to walk more than a few yards; drive a block rather than walk; sit in our recliner with the remote in hand, watching all of those crazy guys on TV run all over the field. Sometimes our exercise for the day is to walk to the kitchen for more chips and drinks. And you want me to embrace hardship for the gospel?

 

Although I chose to preach on 2 Timothy 2:1-7 before heading to Egypt, what we’ve seen there reinforced my thought. What I would like to do is to spend today and the next three Sundays working on 2 Timothy 2. I will warn you in advance, this is a very convicting text! How many of us, myself included, willingly embrace hardship for the sake of the gospel? That is to say, how many of us are willing to suffer just because of our Christian principles or way of living?

 

To use the language of the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 2, how many of us keep ourselves unentangled from the affairs of everyday life so that we may please our Commander-in-Chief? How many of us discipline ourselves as athletes for the kingdom so that we may win the prize? How many of us toil in the unglamorous task of farming God’s fields so that we may enjoy the crops? These are the illustrations that Paul uses to make the point: To be a fruitful Christian, you must willingly suffer hardship for the gospel now in view of future rewards. This text assumes that as a Christian, you desire to be fruitful for Jesus Christ. As we look together to this passage, please allow me to underscore two short yet two important thoughts:

 

First: Seek First His Kingdom and His Righteousness

Underlying Paul’s command to suffer hardship for the sake of following our Christian way of living is Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:33 “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Did you notice that it is a command, not a nice suggestion? “All these things” refers to the things that unbelievers eagerly seek: food, clothing, a nice place to live, and other material possessions. Jesus’ command applies to every believer. Likewise, Paul’s command certainly applies to every soldier in Christ’s army, which is to say, to every believer.

 

The key and convicting word in Jesus’ command is, first. If He had only said, “Seek the kingdom of God,” we could have added that to our list of things to do. That would be somewhat manageable. But to seek it first means that we must bump it up to the top of the list. It has to control everything else! Many Christians view the kingdom of God as a nice slice of life. It makes them feel good to go to church on Sunday and to have a spiritual element in their lives. But God’s kingdom is not at the center. It’s not the driving force of their lives. So they dabble at the kingdom of God, but they don’t seek it first. This is a dangerous trap for many believers.

 

To sell us on this difficult command, Paul uses three illustrations and then he urges us to consider what he says. First, he points us to the soldier, then to the athlete, and finally to the farmer. The three analogies are similar in that each case the job comes first. The soldier must be focused and avoid entanglement to please his commander. The athlete must be disciplined to compete according to the rules to win the prize. The farmer must work hard to enjoy the first fruits of the harvest. Each endures hardship for the sake of future rewards. I will say more about these three illustrations in the next few weeks.

 

Second: The Source of our Strength

I guess the question many in the sanctuary this morning might ask is where can we find the strength we need to stand our ground and willingly embrace suffering for the sake of the gospel? In 2 Timothy 2:1 we read, “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” “Be strong” ~ the Greek verb comes as a present passive imperative and could be translated “keep on or continue being strong and being empowered in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

 

The connotation here is similar to Ephesians 6:10: “Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might.” Timothy was not to be strong in his own strength but in God’s. He was to receive God’s power and allow it to flow through him. It is this kind of strength that comes from outside of ourselves. Friends, this is a call to endurance. It is a call for all of us to continue in that which we had already begun. We come to Christ by grace to be saved, trusting in Him and resting upon His merit. But grace doesn’t stop at the cross. It only begins there. In the same way that we came by grace, so also now we are to continue in grace.

 

Friends, are we willing to embrace suffering for the sake of the gospel? Over the last two weeks during our Mission Trip in Egypt, Paul and I saw Christians who embrace suffering for the sake of the gospel. They have the courage to stand their ground and swim against the current. Athanasius of Alexandria (298-373 A.D.) was a great 4th century Egyptian Christian Theologian and the Bishop of Alexandria who defended the Doctrine of the Trinity against Arianism. Because of his position, he faced a lot of opposition. When faced with people saying to him, “The world is against you, Athanasius!” Athanasius replied, “Then I am against the whole world.” Where did Athanasius and so many other faithful Christians through the ages get this courage as they stood for what is right? It is the grace of God. “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” In 1 Samuel 30, King David found himself in a difficult situation. Where did he find the strength to endure opposition? In 1 Samuel 30:6 we read, “David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.” May you and I today find our strength in the Lord our God and His grace so richly given to us in the Person and presence of Jesus! Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Amen!

“Who Do People Say I Am?”#2

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Sunday January 31st, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

Who Do People Say I Am?”#2

Isaiah 54:15-17; Matthew 16:13-20

 

The story is told about a young man who wanted to join the membership of a local church.  The Elders of the church met with him to examine his life and his faith.  An Elder asked the candidate, “Tell us what do you believe?”  The young man answered, “I believe what the church believes.”  Frustrated with his answer, another Elder asked, “So what does the church believe?”  The young man thought for a moment and replied, “Basically my beliefs and the church’s are almost the same.”

 

Today we continue our meditations on Matthew chapter 16. Unlike this young man who wanted to join the church, Jesus wants us to make sure we are not confusing His identity. So, He asked His disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Who do you say I am?” Friends, we are often tempted to create our own version of Jesus who will comfortably fit into our own lifestyle. Two Sunday ago I highlighted two things: (1) Jesus’ question must be answered and (2) half convictions are never really enough. As we dig deeper into Matthew 16, please allow me this morning to highlight two more important observations:

 

First: The District of Caesarea Philippi

In order to better understand the importance of Jesus’ discussion in Matthew 16, we should consider the location in which Peter made his confession, Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a pagan Roman city about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, just at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon. The city was given its name by King Herod the Great’s son, Phillip, when he came to power. So it was named after: Caesar Phillip.

 

Two temples stood in Caesarea Philippi: one to honor and worship Caesar, the great leader of the Roman Empire, and the other to honor and worship Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks. This city was basically considered the Sin City of its day, and most Jews would have completely avoided going there. So, as you can see, this is not the place you might expect Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi who was said to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to take His disciples to and ask them to confess whom He really is. We might think that the Jerusalem Temple or at least one of the synagogues would have been a better place.

 

And yet, it is quite intentional that Jesus took His disciples to Caesarea Philippi to reveal His identity to them. In the Roman Empire, people were often forced to worship the emperor or the gods of the empire. Many of the leaders were even given titles such as “Savior,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.” Moreover, in Caesarea Philippi, there was a cave where Pan was worshipped with a spring that flowed from it. The spring was thought to flow from underground – a place the Greeks referred to as Hades, and where the gods would spend their winters. And the source of the spring was called the “Gates of Hades,” the same phrase Jesus speaks of in our text.

 

Caesarea Philippi, therefore, is the intentional place for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. It is here in the midst of this imperial and pagan center, where Jesus asks His disciples who they say He is, and Peter answers that it is Jesus – not the Caesar or Pan – who is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! It is this Jesus Christ, who will be the ONE who saves the people who are suffering from this oppressive empire and who is worthy of worship. And not even Rome, or Pan, or Jupiter, or any other gods or imperial worldly powers will be able to prevail against Him!

 

Second: Jesus Renames Simon Son of Jonah

In Matthew 16:16-18, we read “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Jesus renames Simon. His Greek name is Petros which in English means “rock.” Simon is now a “Rock.” Whenever we re-center our lives on Christ we become a new person. Every time the lines of our lives converge on Christ we become rock-like. We become the foundation, the rock, on which rests the church, the new ark that holds and reveals the presence and glory of God. With all its frailties Jesus chooses human life and relationships to be the rock on which He builds His church. Jesus’ words, “You are rock and on this rock I will build my church,” are words of life. They were for Peter and they are for us here at the Elmer Presbyterian Church today.

 

The more we re-center our lives on Christ, the more effective we become in our communities and in the world. Re-centering is our life’s work and it is not easy work. It means we must continually let go of what we thought centered our lives and move to our true center; the Messiah, the Son of God, the living one.

 

The opportunity for re-centering is hidden within the ups and downs of our life. It is something we do over and over and we don’t always get it right. Look at Peter. He is the one of little faith sinking in the water. He doesn’t understand the parables. He argues with Jesus and ends up being called Satan. He falls asleep when he is supposed to be praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He denies knowing Jesus. Through it all, he was being shaped, formed, molded into the rock Jesus knew him to be. Ultimately Peter was crucified for re-centering, following, and loving Jesus.

 

When we keep re-centering our lives on Christ, bringing Christ into the core of our lives, Christ keeps building up His Church. As we live up the fullness of our faith, “the gates of Hades will not overcome us.” I believe expanding our missions to a far land, to the land of Egypt, is actually a victory to the Kingdom of God over the gates of Hades. In Isaiah 54:17, Isaiah writes, “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the Lord.”

 

Friends, Jesus is always pushing us to go deeper, to look within and discover who or what our life is centered on, and then to re-center. “Who do you say that I am?” Don’t just answer Jesus’ question. Go live the answer. Discover the “rockness” that Jesus knows you to be. Live with hope in the midst of despair. Love your neighbor as yourself. Though the gates of death open to you, know that they cannot prevail. Care for the poor, feed the hungry, and defend the oppressed. Offer forgiveness despite your anger. Pray when you are too busy to pray. Love your enemies despite your fear. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him. Practice generosity in a declining economy. Re-center even when it feels like you cannot stand up. Do these. Be the rock. Be the rock on which Jesus’ church stands before the world. In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!