We’re going to read from the Bible in Luke’s gospel, chapter 1—page 724 in the church Bibles, if you would like to use them. If I can assign the homework for you, it would be to go back and read the entire first chapter of Luke’s gospel; it will help you. I read it in the first hour, and it took up a considerable amount of time, and that’s why some of you were anxiously waiting for the beginning of this service. It couldn’t possibly be that I was speaking for too long. 724 is the page number. Verse 67 is the verse at which we’re going to begin: “His father Zechariah—” that is the father of John the Baptist—“was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’ And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.”
This is the word of the Lord. And if we were in an Anglican church, you would say, “Thanks be to God for his word.” It’s not actually a bad thing to do. We’ll just try that, shall we? This is the word of the Lord. (Congregation: Thanks be to God for his word.) That’s pretty good. All right. Let’s pray.
Father, with our Bibles open before us, we humbly ask that we might think properly, believe unerringly, and obey without compromise and reservation. We need your help in speaking and in listening, and it is to you alone we look, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I go to a new city, I like to take the bus tour. I know there isn’t a bus tour in every city, but in the major cities there are usually bus tours. Most recently I did it in San Francisco. I’ve been there many times but no one would let me take the bus tour—that is my family said, “Oh, no, not the bus tour again—” and sometimes I’ve had to go on my own. And this dates to a memorable occasion when we had flown transatlantically, arrived in London early in the morning, took the fast train into the city, left our bags in the railway station for our onward journey, and then, by my leadership, I convinced Sue and the kids that it would be a fantastic thing to take the bus tour of London. It was probably about 8:00 in the morning after the overnight flight, and we got on the bus—it was actually quite sunny; it was summer—and we all got the earphones given to us. The children were small at the time and they duly put the earphones on, as did Sue, and then promptly we took off; and somewhere around the Houses of Parliament, as I was exulting in the sight of the Houses of Parliament and in the great statue of Winston Churchill, I turned to see how well the family were enjoying this, only to discover that they were all sound asleep—and had pretty well chucked the thing some time prior to that—and really were not interested. It was very bad timing on my part—I admit that—but it was poor form on their part (and they have never been prepared to admit that), and consequently they have an aversion to these bus tours.
But I’m a great fan of the bus tours, because you get a general layout. You get an overall view of the city, both geographically and historically, allowing you then when you return to particular places and points of interest, to better understand what it is you are seeing and experiencing. I mention that because in many ways we need, if we’re going to come to terms with the Bible, to take the bus tour of the Bible. We will find that we benefit far less from select and individual passages of the Bible if we have not taken the tour; if we do not have a grasp of the big picture of the overall perspective of the scheme of things that is represented to us in the Bible.
So, for example, we’ve just read this passage. I wonder: what did you make of verse 69? Here you are as a dweller at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and it says, “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” If you’re not very familiar with the Bible—and even if you are—you might find yourself saying, “I’m not sure that this had got any possible relevance for me at all.” Or even verse 73: what is this oath that he swore to our father Abraham? And whose father is he? “Probably not my father,” you find yourself saying. “I’m not sure just what this means.”
Now this will give us an indication of what I mean, and there is a long introduction to a fairly short study this morning. I know that now from having done it once. It wasn’t my plan but I think it’s going to be the way it was. And I would like you for a moment to turn to the end of Luke’s gospel to chapter 24, so that we can understand this essential point. The Old Testament is a story in search of, or in anticipation of, an ending; the Old Testament is anticipating the ending. And when we read of the event in Luke 24, where Jesus has now risen from the dead, and he meets with a couple of individuals who find that their hopes have been dashed, they had been hoping, they say to Jesus—not knowing that it is Jesus, and you’ll see this in verse 21—“That we had hoped,” they said to Jesus, “that He” (that is, Jesus) “was the one who is going to redeem Israel.” They’d had all these expectations, and they had all come to a crashing halt—not realizing that it is the risen Jesus with whom they’re speaking, and eventually Jesus says to them in verse 25, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” In other words, haven’t you read your Bibles? Haven’t you read the Old Testament? “Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things and then [to] enter His glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
He gives them just this gigantic Bible study. He takes them back over, if you like, the high points of the Old Testament’s story, and he explains that the only way you can understand the Psalms, the only way you can understand, the books of Moses, the only way you can understand the prophetic writings is if you see them in relationship to the Messiah. And in verse 44, subsequently, “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that was written about me”—written about me—“in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’ [And] then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”
May I just say, in beginning, what I want to say at the end, and it is simply this: that the Bible makes it clear to us that we cannot understand the Bible unless he opens our minds. No amount of perspiration on my part, or pleading on my part, or explication on my part will be able to convince anybody from a purely rational perspective, from an intellectual perspective, of the truth of the Bible. So if you’ve come here thinking perhaps that will be the case, I want you to know that it is impossible; I won’t be able to do it. But I can tell you that you will understand the Bible if God opens your heart. Of course, you’ll need to be humble enough to acknowledge that you need God to do that.
Well, let’s just put it in a sentence, shall we? The good news of Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible. The good news of Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible. And when we move from the Old Testament into the New, when we move from the things that are foreshadowed, when we think in terms in their fulfillment from the original and the literal on into the person of Jesus, we often discover that although it is customary for people to talk about believing in the Bible being fulfilled literally, when we move from the Old Testament into the New, we discover that more often than not it is fulfilled Christologically rather than literally. So, for example, all of the promises concerning the temple and how the temple would be and what it would represent, finally find their fulfillment when Jesus says, “You can destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it again,” and in that moment, he moves the understanding forward significantly for those who can understand. And Luke uses the Old Testament as a frame of reference for understanding Christ, and he introduces us to Christ as the interpretive key for understanding the Old Testament. I want to say that to you again, because this is very important: Luke uses the Old Testament as a frame of reference for understanding who Jesus is and what he has done, and he introduces us to Jesus as the interpretive key for understanding the Old Testament.
Now this is quite striking when you realize that of the four gospel writers, only one of them is a Gentile, and it is Luke; and here the Gentile writer does not set aside the emphasis and the central features of the Old Testament story, but rather he brings them to the fore. We might have expected that he could have said, “Well, I’m a Gentile and many of the people that will read my gospel will be Gentiles, so why don’t I just leave out some of this Hebraic stuff.” No, he doesn’t do so. Why? Because we can’t really understand Christ without the Old Testament, and we can’t understand the Old Testament without Christ. I’m going to say that to you again as well: We cannot really understand Christ without the Old Testament, and we can’t understand the Old Testament without Christ.
Now let me just pause and point this out to you. This is why the Christmas story for many people seems so unbelievably trivial, if not horribly sentimental, and if not almost entirely irrelevant: because they drop down into the gospel narratives concerning the birth of Jesus without any point of reference at all. It would be like arriving and not taking the bus tour and arriving at Churchill’s war place—you know the underground place that he was—and you drop people in there and they’d say, “Well what is this about? What do you mean these documents are of interest? Why would they be of interest?” Well, it’s because of Winston Churchill. “Who’s Winston Churchill? Where did he come from?”
Well, you have to stand far back and put the whole thing in perspective. And what happens is that people come in at Christmastime and very often the pastor, wanting to placate the people—because after all, it was so nice that they showed up for, you know, a Sunday out of the year, you don’t really want to offend them because there’s a chance they might increase it to two Sundays a year—and so you descend to the level of the lowest common denominator, and you tell them about the baby and the manger, and they leave with thoughts of camels sticking their heads into troughs and all kinds of things. And they’re no further forward than when they came in, and they just say to one another, “Well, that’s exactly why I haven’t gone for the other fifty-one weeks! What in the world was that all about?” And I understand that, and I appreciate that entirely, and that’s why this is a very long introduction to a very short sermon.
Because I believe that if you get something of this, if you are a genuine, honest seeker after truth, if you will begin to consider this, and apply your heart and mind to it with a humble heart, then you may make great progress. And you will be helped, I think, by what my Sunday School teachers taught me—and what I have tried to teach the congregation here—in reminding ourselves that the Bible is a book about Jesus, and when we take our eyes off Jesus, we lose our way around the Bible. So that, in the Old Testament, Jesus is predicted; in the gospels, Jesus is revealed; in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is preached; in the Epistles, Jesus is explained; and in the Book of Revelation, Jesus is expected. So, when you stand far enough back from it all, it’s a bit like if you take a globe of the world and you focus on just a tiny part of it. Let’s say you go and you find Ireland on it—a tiny little smidgen of stuff—and then you need to spin out a little from the globe and realize where that fits in relationship to everything else. So in the same way, when you come to this song of Zechariah, it is imperative that somebody helps us to stand far enough back from it to understand why it is that Zechariah sings as he sings, and it is because of all of the history that precedes this song.
We don’t have time to go through it all this morning, but there are number of high points that help us get the picture. For example, if we know anything of the Old Testament, we know that there was a man called Moses, and that the people were all stuck in Egypt, and that somehow or another, this man Moses was used to get the people out of Egypt—“Oh, Pharaoh, let my people go!”—and we’ve heard something about that. We don’t really know how it fits or what it means, but nevertheless they were in bondage in Egypt and they got out, they crossed the Red Sea, and it was just a wonderful, terrific experience. We say to ourselves, “But what is the story? If it’s a story of redemption—what possible significance does it have?” We come into the New Testament, and as I will point out to you, it points forward to the wonder of redemption that is provided in Jesus.
The people come out and live in the Promised Land, but when they get into the Promised Land they make a hash of things. They disobey God. They begin to doubt His Word. Everything begins to collapse from the inside. God can’t tolerate that. He has to bring judgment to bear. He has to execute his love upon his people, and so judgment and mercy are interwoven.
The Babylonians come in and snatch them up and take away their sons and daughters and bury the people in exile for a long time. And during that time in exile, the people hang their harps on the willow trees and they say, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” That’s the old song from probably 30 years ago now: “By the Rivers of Babylon”—that was a big hit by a Zoroastrian band—“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept. How could we sing the song of Zion in a foreign land?” And God, overseeing the events of history, raises up Cyrus, the Persian.
He comes in, topples the Babylonian Empire, and Cyrus begins a program of repatriation. And he begins to say to the people of God, “You can actually go back up to Jerusalem, and you can begin to repair the destruction that is represented there.” And that is exactly what happens, and that’s what you find in the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the walls and so on. And in that period of time, the people of God were still looking for the great fulfillment of his promises in terms of a kingdom, and they were thinking in kingdom terms—with a real live king who would overturn the Medo-Persian Empire as well—but that didn’t happen. And what they discovered was that there had been enough of a restoration or a reestablishment to realize that God was still in control of their history—that he hadn’t forgotten them—but they were aware of the fact that whatever the fulfillment of his word to them was, it wasn’t represented in what they were finding there. They had if you like, the structure, but they didn’t have the substance. And when you read these little books—they’re called the Minor Prophets, because they are shorter, not because they’re any less important: Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—those prophecies are written to the postexilic people of God, reminding them that they still have to look forward.
God is active in history, but God will come and “You can look forward,” said the prophets, “to a brighter day when the rising sun will come to us from heaven,” and if you still have your Bible open in front of you, I want you to notice that that is exactly what is said here in verse 78. “Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven,” so they were looking forward to that.
But by the fourth century BC, it was now the turn for the Greeks. And Alexander the Great comes in, overturns the Persian Empire, and the Jews now live for a long period under the domination of a culture that is still alien to them. It is Greek in its religion, in its cultural expressions, and it challenges entirely God’s peoples’ trust in God’s promise.
You can understand why it would be, that given all of the promises that were represented to them, they now find themselves in this period of time in which everything seems to be against them. Everybody believes something different than they do. Their children go about their business, aliens and strangers from the surrounding world, and still they hang on to the hope that God will come and redeem His people Israel.
Somehow or another, this Messiah will come. Somehow or another, this person, this forerunner that is mentioned in Malachi, will appear on the stage of history. But they would have said to one another, “How long will it go on like this?” Hence the song we sing, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Hence the carol, “Come and ransom your captive people Israel.” That’s what they’re saying.
And in 63 BC, then it is the turn of the Romans and Pompey comes in, vanquishes the situation and once again the people of God find themselves living as aliens in another province under the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire. And they get up, and they have their cereal, and they go to work, and they come home, and they go to bed … and the priests of God and the readers of the Old Testament say to the remnant people of God, “Hang on. He is mindful. He is merciful. He is mighty.” And they say to one another as they’re walking to work, “Well, I know it says that, but I can’t see it. It looks a lot to me like he has forgotten us entirely.”
And then into that darkness, a light shines. Into that shadowland, there is the penetrating impact that is recorded for us here in Luke 1, as the supernatural breaks into the natural, and as the angelic messenger of God comes first in this way, and in speaking both to Mary and to Elizabeth, declares that the prophetic expectations are now finding their fulfillment. And it is in that context that Zechariah then responds to the angelic visitation, which I need to leave for you to read for yourself, and when on the eighth day—the circumcision day of their boy John—his tongue is loosed; as soon as his tongue is loosed he sings, he blesses God, and verse 67 tells us that “filled with the Holy Spirit, he then prophesied.” And what you have, then, is this declaration of the coming of the Lord’s salvation foreshadowed in the birth of John.
That’s really what this whole song is. It’s a declaration of the Lord’s salvation that is foreshadowed in the birth of John, the son of Zechariah. It is, if you come from an Anglican background, what you know from your prayer book as the Benedictus. Because in the same way as Magnificat is the first word of the song of Mary in the Latin translation, Benedictus is the first word in the Latin translation of the song of Zechariah—Benedictus es tu dominus Deus Israelis—that is exactly what it is: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Now let me pause and then we’ll come to this and then it will be over. When I grew up trying to understand the Old Testament, in light of the New and vice versa, the people who tried to help me did so by way of tying individual verses in the Old Testament to individual verses in the New Testament. Now, there is nothing wrong with that, and it was helpful to me to a point. But what I discovered was that, a bit like the challenges of algebra and geometry for me, once I got removed from my cheat sheet, I didn’t know where I was. So once you got me away from to wherever else you wanted to take me to, I was completely at sea, because even to this day I can never remember which is the circumference and which is the area. And in the same way, I listen to people explaining the New Testament in light of the Old Testament, and they say, “Well if you look at this verse and you look at that verse … ” and the person says, “Well that doesn’t seem to make much sense to me,” and the person who’s pointing it out says to themselves inside their heads, they go, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much sense to me either,” and now we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Because you see the issue is the comprehensive nature of things. It is having a large enough, a big enough grasp of what God is doing throughout all of history as it involves both secular history and redemptive history, and at many points the two things are fused.
Now when, during the week, I heard just a little bit of the radio, I was staggered to find myself preaching from Luke 1 and Zechariah’s song. I didn’t listen to it for very long—it wasn’t much good—and I think it was mainly emphasizing verses 76–79, and so given that that was the case, I want to make sure I stay as far away from that as I can, and I want to give you just an outline, which will then be the basis for your further study if you even care to think these things out. We have a wonderful bookstore through there. There are wonderful books and commentaries and references, and they are there, and you can do no better than to begin to build a library for yourself and for your children and for your children’s children as a result of your own thinking these things out. So that when you take your children and your grandchildren upon your lap, you’re not simply stuck with the trivialities of a sentimental Christmas, nor are you going to be so profoundly distressing to them that they say, “Grandpa, I haven’t a clue what you’re on about.” But that you are able just simply to say, “Listen, Honey, do you realize all the things that God did in order to make it possible for Jesus to come? Do you realize how much God controlled in the whole universe? Do you realize how wonderfully in charge he is of things? And do you know that this God knows you and made you and made you for a relationship with himself? And do you know that in Jesus you can know him and meet him?”
Zechariah sings out of the fullness—not only of the spiritual filling which he enjoys—but out of the fullness of his grasp of the comprehensive purposes of God. And essentially what he’s doing in 68 or 69 through 75, in the words of our song from last Sunday, he’s saying, “See now what God has done, sending His only son.”
Now, I wrote down three words. The first word is redeemed, and I put that next to verses 69 to 71; 69–71: redeemed. You say, “Well, what is that about?” Well, it’s about the fact that he is referencing, in a way that is pointing forward, the wonder of God’s work in the past. So in other words, he has in mind the exodus from Egypt.
Now you say, “Well how in the world are we supposed to understand that?” Well, remember what we said—that in the Epistles, Jesus is explained. So we would look to the Epistles to understand in part the work of the Exodus in the Old Testament—and that’s exactly what we discover. So here we have Peter writing to the scattered believers of his day and he says to them, “you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Just as the people of God were redeemed from the enslavement of Egypt, so it is the experience of those who have come to trust in Jesus that they too have understood redemption in a way that is even far more fulfilling, that it is a redemption from the futility and meaninglessness of life without God.
Life is futile and meaningless without God—not just without any god, but without the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so the picture that is here for us in Zechariah’s song, which points on the one hand back into the Old Testament and forward into the Epistles, is there in order for us to grasp it. And when he speaks of David, and the house of his servant David, once again he’s doing the same. He’s reaching back into the Old Testament where the promise of God is given to David in 2 Samuel 7—if you get a concordance, you can do this as easily as I can—and the promise of God is given to David in 2 Samuel 7: that you will have someone who comes through your lineage who will be a king who will out king all the kings. You will have someone who will establish a kingdom that will never end. You will have someone who comes from your lineage, who will reign on the throne of the Davidic dynasty as it were, and this will be the establishment of that which will never come to an end—and so the people look forward for that.
And even when the disciples began to try and put the pieces of the puzzle together, they were getting it wrong as well, weren’t they? At the end of Luke: “We thought that he was the one who was going to redeem the people Israel. We thought he was going to establish the kingdom. We thought he would now finally put his palace in the middle of Jerusalem, kick the Romans out, and make sure that nationalistically, politically, and in every other way, we had nothing to worry about.” But they hadn’t been listening to Jesus. Remember Jesus said to them, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were my followers would fight.” You see, but they didn’t want that kind of king, any more than you and I want that kind of king. I listen to people talk here in America. They want a king—though not a king–king, because we don’t do kings—but they want somebody who will come and take care of everything. Take care of the politics, take care of the justice, take care of all of the things that are unraveling before us. Let’s have some great figure to do this!
Well, what about your unraveling life and mine? What about your rebellious heart and mine? Don’t you feel the need for a king to come and suppress your rebellion? For a king who will come and rule and deal with your futility and meaninglessness? You say, “Well, no, that’s not what I had I mind. I really don’t want that kind of personal interference. But I am very happy for some kind of intervention. I just don’t…. I’m interested in redemption, but not in a personal way.”
Verses 72 and 73—I wrote the word against them—the word, remembered. Remembered. It’s like mindful from last week, I understand: “To show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham.” We don’t have time to unpack this, but this is again the recurring theme: God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, and all of the covenant promises of God which run through the Old Testament, finally find their fulfillment in Jesus. And until we understand that, until we come to terms with that, then the events which surround both the birth of John the Baptist and the coming of Jesus, are inexplicable. Aren’t they? I mean, what are you going to make of this? It’s like coming into a house, finding a coffee table with a whole bunch of pieces of jigsaw on it—no box with a picture on the front, no indication of what’s going on, none of the corners in place—just bits everywhere. You say, “Well, it must make sense somehow, but it sure doesn’t make sense to me.” And the coming of John, the arrival of Jesus, are inexplicable apart from God’s eternal purpose—the eternal purpose of God that is revealed in the history of Israel and that finds its fulfillment in the coming of Jesus. You see, the work of God’s mercy as it is referenced here—“to show mercy to our fathers”—his display of mercy throughout all of history and ultimately in Jesus, wasn’t an afterthought because of sin, but the mercy of God was his eternal purpose.
I listen to people again talk and they have this kind of view and this is how it goes: “God had a plan. He started this plan off. It went dreadfully wrong and so he started another plan.” No. The ultimate fulfillment of God’s mercy in Jesus is not something that is supplied in time to correct a default in the system, but it is something that he has planned from all of eternity. And the hymn writer gets it in the little phrase,
O the love that drew salvation’s plan
O the grace that brought it down to man.
O the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary.
And “mercy there was great and grace was free.” That’s what he’s saying. He’s saying, “You can’t understand the promises of God, the covenant promises of God, unless you understand what he has done in Jesus, because all of these promises point forward to Jesus.” Here is his mercy in a person. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Here is the answer to your futility. Here is the answer to your meaninglessness. Here is the answer to your rebellion, you see.
We can’t sidestep, we daren’t sidestep Christmas with a sort of nativity scene and a how-d’you-do and a couple of gifts and on with your way. No, that would be to make so little of it. Don’t you realize that it is God’s kindness, his mercy that would bring you to repentance? It’s his kindness that would bring you to repentance? How would God’s kindness bring you to repentance? The way my dad used to make me cry. How did he make me cry? By his kindness. When I knew what I deserved, and when he didn’t give me what I deserved, then I realized I didn’t get what I deserved. That hurt me far more than a hiding. And the story of the gospel is that on account of God’s covenant mercy in Christ, we do not get what we deserve, because what we deserve has been borne by Christ who did not deserve what we deserve, so that we might enjoy all the benefits and blessings that become ours in Jesus, which are expressions of his mercy and grace.
Why is it that Jewish people don’t get this if there is so much of this Jewish part in the Bible? Why is it? Well, I’ll tell you why it is, and I’m going to my last point and then we’ll be through. And this is from 2 Corinthians 3:12: “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” He’s talking about the hope of the new covenant. “We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read.” The same veil remains when the old covenant is read.
In other words, there is a scrim over their eyes. It is actually a scrim, a shadow over our hearts, when the old covenant is read. It is not removed. It hasn’t been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Only in Christ is it taken away. Only in the Messiah do the Old Testament promises finally make sense. And that is why most of my Jewish friends have given up on a Messiah, have no interest in an afterlife. I don’t say that of them, they tell me that. “We’re not particularly interested in an afterlife. We’re more interested in being philanthropic and being kind and doing things now.” That is no surprise to me. Because they don’t have an end to the story. And the few Orthodox people that I have met are still rummaging around in the Old Testament trying somehow or another to squeeze out of it a messiah other than the Messiah who has come to redeem his people Israel. “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts, but whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” When anyone ever turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
That brings me to my final word, which is the word revolutionized. Redeemed, remembered, and revolutionized. God’s goal for his people, in every generation, is that having rescued them, they might serve him without fear in holiness and in justice. So you go back to the story of the Exodus and what do you find? God says to Moses, “Get my people out of Egypt. Go to Pharaoh and say let my people go in order that they might worship me.” In other words, “I’m not getting them out of Egypt so that they can just have a hullabaloo in the wilderness. I’m not getting them out of Egypt so they can go around and say, ‘Oh milk and honey is really good. We enjoy this.’ I am redeeming them from the bondage of Egypt in order that they might devote the totality of their existence to me, in order that they might stand out in the midst of all of the generations as those who have been redeemed by an outstretched hand.”
If the Epistles explain it, where do we go? Romans chapter 12. Paul, who understood all of the Judaism, now having given the story of the gospel, finally gets to the point of application and he says, “Therefore, I beseech you brothers and sisters, by the”—note—“mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, for that is your only reasonable sensible spiritual worship.” In other words, that’s the whole reason that God has done what He’s done. He hasn’t done this in order that our problems would be fixed. There is a sense in which the story of the Bible is the story of God fixing his problem, not fixing our problems. For what is God’s problem? God’s problem, if we might put it that way, is how he, in his absolute perfection and holiness, can allow sinners into his heaven.
How can God allow sinners into heaven if he is of purer eyes to behold iniquity? How can he do this? Well, he’s already figured it out, if we might say so reverently, and the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in eternity entered into a covenant of redemption, which the Father planned, which the Son procured, and which the Holy Spirit applies, and suddenly the lights go on for a person when they get this, and they are revolutionized. But until then, it’s like water on a corrugated roof, rain on a roof. That’s why some of you are in the same position you are in with one Sunday to go before the end of the year: because there is a veil over your eyes.
It’s not self-evident to you, is it? If it was self-evident, you would have already believed in Jesus. You would be out evangelizing the world. You’d be telling, “Jesus is the expression of God’s mercy. He’s the fulfillment of God’s promises. He’s the answer to my futility and my meaninglessness. He dealt with the guilt of my sin. He’s forgiven me. He’s made me a brand new person.” But you’re not saying that. The reason you’re not saying that is because you don’t believe that, and the reason you don’t believe it—I’ll tell you why it is—that the only way you can ever say that, the only way a man or a woman can ever say that, is the same way that Zechariah said what he said, that “he was filled with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, it was an expression of the work of God within the life of Zechariah that enabled him to speak as he did.
And so we today are hindered by our sin. I’m not going to go through the whole Bible again, but when you go back to the Garden of Eden, Adam rejects God’s word to him, the very word which explains human existence, and which explains the world. Adam rejects it, and we, in the line of Adam, share in that. We shouldn’t balk at the notion, because we know ourselves to be rebels, and we actually suppress the truth within us when our conscience rises and accuses us or commends things to us. We suppress the truth within us and we reject God’s word that comes to us from outside of us. And only God’s grace, in the saving work of Jesus, can cause us to accept the truth.
Only God’s grace in the saving work of Jesus can cause us to accept the truth. You see, through the gospel we are made God’s children. God accepts us as his children through the gospel that he has provided in Christ—the only answer to our predicament—and through the work of the Holy Spirit, which the gospel wins for us, a man or woman is then enabled to accept Christ as his Savior and to know God as a Father. But it is God’s Spirit who conquers our rebellious wills. It is God’s Spirit who lifts the self-imposed hatred and rejection of God from our hearts. Only God’s Spirit.
Now do you see that salvation is all of God? If it were self-evident, then people would just say okay. It isn’t. It’s not hidden. It’s disclosed, but there is a veil and only in Christ is that veil taken away. The hymn writer says, “I know not how the Spirit moves convincing men of sin, revealing Jesus through the Word, creating faith in him,” and I could have written that verse as well, because I don’t know either. But when I take the letters of this past year that have come via Truth For Life, and I listen as I read to the unheard voice of the writers, I am totally convinced of what I’ve just said to you: that God by his Spirit has come to a life and done something for that life and in that life, that that individual could never in a million years do for themselves. And that is why the true believer always magnifies the grace of God. That’s why the true Christian always says,
how sweet the sound that saved a bum like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found.
I was blind but now I can see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.
Today if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts. I went last evening to visit one of my friends on the west side—actually, the man who provided all these poinsettias for us here. He’s one of a family of about twelve, mainly brothers. And I went to see him because I had a text message to say that one of his older brothers had been killed on Friday evening in North Carolina, shepherding some people after his company party on a four-wheeler back to their cars, and in the ice and the snow they ran into difficulties. The people were pitched from the four-wheeler; they are fine. He went down, smashed his head on the concrete, and the four-wheeler rolled on top of him and in an instant, he was in eternity. Sixty-three years old. I knew him—a fine and a nice man—gone. And as I drove home from Oberlin last night, I said to myself, you know, I know these people think that I’m sort of monocausal. I’m sure they’ll say when I’m dead, “Golly, he kept saying the same thing all the time.” And you know what? You’re dead right. Because life is short, death is certain, judgment is a reality and I hold before you the way of life in Christ. Today if you hear his voice, take him at his word. All you have to do is believe. To believe. Believe.
Gracious God, we want to hear your voice beyond the voice of a man. We want to hear from you as we read our Bibles for ourselves. We pray for your help and that we might be revolutionized by you, as we realize that you remember us. What a thought, that the God of the universe remembers us! What a thought, that the God of the universe redeems us in Christ!
Oh, perfect redemption, the purchase of blood
to every believer the promise of God.
The vilest offender who truly believes,
that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
Help us then, O God, we pray. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Luke 24:26–27 (NIV 1984).
 John 2:19 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 137:4 (paraphrased).
 Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, “By the Rivers of Babylon,” (Kingston: Beverley’s Records, 1970) (paraphrased).
 Charles Wesley, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” (1744), Public Domain.
 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Traditional hymn (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 1:18 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 24:19–20 (paraphrased).
 John 18:36 (paraphrased).
 Luke 1:54–55 (paraphrased).
 William R. Newell, “At Calvary,” (Public Domain, 1895).
 2 Corinthians 3:16 (NIV 1984).
 Exodus 7:16 (paraphrased).
 Romans 12:1 (paraphrased).
 D. W. Whittle, “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace,” (Public Domain, 1883).
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” (Public Domain, 1779; paraphrased).
 Fanny Crosby and William Howard Doane, “To God Be the Glory” in Brightest and Best (Chicago: Biglow & Main, 1875).