Stepping Into the Promised Land
“Now then, you and all the people, get ready to cross the Jordan River.” Joshua 1:2
Another Year Over, So What Have You Done?
I have always felt that of all the Sundays in a church year, this one today is the most significant one in the life of a church.
This is the Sunday in between. It is in between the old year that is coming to a close and a new year that is dawning. Once Christmas is over, the year winds down and when we gather next we will be in the New Year. This is the Sunday in between!
I know that God in heaven must be scratching his head trying to figure out our fascination with all things ‘time’. In a world where a day is like a thousand of our years, time has a different concept in heaven.
I’m not saying there is no time; just that it’s different there. But for us earthlings time is pretty important. We don’t want time to slip through our fingers, nor do we want to waste our time.
And so this fascination with the measurement of time by years is actually an incredibly important system of setting up markers.
As John Lennon immortalized in the words of his song “Happy Christmas”, “So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The years serve as markers with the question of: “so what have you done? Another year over and a new just begun.”
Thus, this time of year gives us the opportunity of looking up long enough from the fray of every life to ask the question of “so what have you done?”
The Promise of the Promised Land
At Scott St. it means asking where are we this morning? Another year over, so what have we done?
It’s not just taking stock of the last year but actually looking up far enough to see where we have come from in our 70 plus years of ministry and seeing what is up ahead.
If somebody could elevate you up somehow, what would we see?
Would we see the wilderness trailing behind us and the dawn of the Promised Land stretching out in front of us?
Would we see us already in the Promised Land or still looping through the desert once again?
Would we see us camped at the Jordan River getting ready to cross over, or maybe too fearful of the crossing and the adventure beyond?
After all, sometimes life in a known desert is more comfortable than the unknown of a promised land. Better the devil you know then the devil you don’t, right?
So where are we this morning? Where should we be putting our marker in?
If this sounds a little familiar to some of you it’s because we asked the very same set of questions last year at this precise moment in a sermon entitled “The Children of Israel at the Jordan River”.
In fact, that sermon was so good I am going to preach it over again (kidding).
But I do want to come back again to this idea of the people of God and the promise of the Promised Land, which was not just a promise to one group of people at one particular time in history but has been the promise of God to all his people through the ages.
For each child of God there is the promise of the Promised Land as is the case for every people of God.
We here at Scott St Church are a people of God. We are not the only people of God; there are many people of God but we are definitely one of these people of God.
For us there is the promise of the Promised Land. The question is what is that land for us?
I always found it interesting that for Israel first up in the Promised Land was the ancient city of Jericho. After the crossing and the spiritual circumcision at Gilgal, the first thing in their crosshair was the great city of Jericho.
I would suggest to us this morning that Jericho becomes our Promised Land. So what was Jericho?
Jericho was teeming with life. For their standards with most everyone living a nomadic existence, Jericho represented a major urban center comparable to the great cities of our days. It was an urban oasis teeming with life.
Jericho is still our Promised Land. We are not looking to settle into a countryside somewhere. This is not about amassing assets in the comfort of our quiet labor.
Our Promised Land is our city of Jericho and not for its architecture, culture nor history but for one thing and one thing only and that is its population.
The Great Cities of our World
In fact, let me tell you that God has always noticed the cities of our world and they were always on his mind and in his heart.
Right from the beginning when Cain became a builder of cities, God noticed cities.
He noticed when Babel was built. He noticed Sodom and Gomorrah. He noticed Nineveh and Jericho not to mention Jerusalem itself.
It was no different in the New Testament, be it Antioch, Ephesus, Caesarea, Corinth or event Rome itself.
It was no coincidence that Abraham was “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10) anymore than it was a coincidence that when Jesus “approached Jerusalem and saw the city he wept over it.” (Luke 19:14).
It was no coincidence that Paul’s strategy always centered on the cities of his day – places such as Iconium, Lystra, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus and Rome.
It was no coincidence that the letters written to the seven churches in Revelation were located in cities such as Smyrna, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
It was no coincidence that Abraham interceded for Sodom, that Jonah was destined to evangelize Nineveh, that Israel conquered Jericho, or that Paul’s life long ambition was to go to Rome.
Every one of them had the Spirit of God upon them who placed into their hearts God’s burden for the great cities of the world.
It was the Lord who told Paul in a vision to go to the city of Philippi and who made it clear to Jonah that he was to go to Nineveh. And it was the Lord who told Joshua, “Shout for the Lord has given you the city.” Josh. 6:16
I would suggest in the spirit of this that our Promised Land consists of our Jericho and that our Jericho is that which surrounds us, and that which is teeming with life.
God’s interest in cities is clearly focused upon the people. It’s neither the size nor the beauty nor is it the hustle and bustle of city life.
The only reason God has his eye on cities is because of the people. A city by definition is a space full of people and God loves people! Therefore, the more people in one place, the more that place has God’s attention.
It was said the only reason why Jerusalem was the apple of God’s eye was because it was teeming with life. “Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it.” Zachariah 2:4
If Jerusalem was the apple of God’s eye because of the great number of people, then surely any other place with a great number of people has also become the apple of His eye.
I want to tell you this morning that the city of St. Catharines with its 130,000 inhabitants and the Niagara Region with its 430,000 people certainly has caught the eye of God.
Folks, it’s not the natural beauty, the fertile fields and a local history that has God enamored (not even Niagara Falls) but it’s the fact that there are 130,000 people right around us most of whom do not know that God loves them and has a plan for their lives.
This is our Jericho and this is where God is leading us. There are 130,000 reasons that make St. Catharines our Promised Land. In fact, there are 430,000 reasons that make Niagara Region our Promised Land.
The Lostness of Our City
You get a glimpse into the longing of God for lost humanity when you hear Jesus’ cry of the heart:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Luke 13:34
You can hear his anguish, can’t you? You can almost feel the hot tears of Jesus as he weeps over the lostness of humanity in our cities.
It doesn’t take much to see the lostness of humanity. St Catharines and Niagara remain strongholds of godlessness and sin. People continue to be in bondage and darkness heading toward a Christless eternity.
And if you don’t think God hasn’t noticed then you don’t know the heart of God.
He walks the corridors of our jails and institutions. He passes by the bedside of the sick and the dying. He’s in the homes of neglect, dysfunction and abuse.
He’s seen the drunken foolishness of our bars and the bullying at our schools and workplaces.
He sees the loneliness of seniors living in isolation and the cry of the marginalized immigrants trying to eke out a living on minimum wage.
What God said of Sodom and Gomorrah He says of every city of our world: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.” Genesis 18:20, 21
Even though the things we remember about Sodom and Gomorrah are the terrible judgments of God which point to a great judgment coming upon unbelievers in the age to come, what I want you to notice this morning is the incredible patience and tenderness of God toward these two lost cities.
How God not only invited Abraham to stand in the gap in intercession but also almost pleaded with him to give him a reason not to send his terrible judgment upon the city.
Friends, if you think it God’s pleasure to destroy our cities then you don’t know God. God’s pleasure is to save our cities.
Jonah was so far from the heart of God in that he thought God wanted to destroy Nineveh when God’s heart was to save the city from judgment.
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Jonah 3:10
Oh Jonah, you who were more concerned about your creature comforts and ease of living under that big leafy tree of yours, never did understand the heart of God for that great city of Nineveh.
Oh Abraham, had you interceded only a little more those two cities would not have burned to the ground.
Oh friends of Scott St, had you only crossed that river and left behind that desert, who would have seen the walls of St Catharines fall and the many of its inhabitants come to know Jesus.
May this not be said of us. May this not be our Ebenezer Scrooge’s version of the “Spirit of Christmas to Come” pointing to a doomed future.
May we not be among those who have shut their doors because they have not opened their hearts toward the lost of our great city.
The heart of God for our city is the cry of Jesus for Jerusalem:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Luke 13:34
As heart wrenching as that cry is at least Jerusalem had its prophets as did Nineveh, Rome and Athens.
Scott St. Church, will you be Niagara’s prophet? God is looking for someone like a Jonah to go to Nineveh, someone like an Abraham who will plead for Sodom and Gomorrah and someone like a Paul who will answer the Macedonian Call.
Scott St. Church, will you be that someone?
Here Am I, Sent Me!
God has a plan for this city but he needs Scott St. Church’s willingness to cross that Jordan and leave behind that wretched desert and circumcise their heart at Gilgal so that our Jericho – our beloved St. Cathaines/Niagara – can become the Kingdom of our Lord.
God’s plan for St Catharines/Niagara is not to revitalize the downtown, develop Port Dalhousie nor to diversify the economy, but to save our people from their sins.
For that to happen God needs Scott St. Church along with the other good churches in our region. We hold the key to the city and not the mayor.
In the spirit of Isaiah 6:8, do you hear the “the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” and will you say, “Here am I. Send me!”
Send me to my neighbors, my school, my streets and to my workplace.
What God needs are his evangelists and tesitifiers. Will you be among them?
May it never be said of Scott St. Church as it was said of Jonah: “He made himself a shelter and sat in its shade.” Jonah 4:5
May our hearts never be for our vines and our shelters but always for the lostness of our cities.
If our hearts are for our vines only, then those vines will wither and die and the doors to our churches will close as surely as they did for Jonah.
In fact, let me read you the account in Jonah 4:
“5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
Here am I, Lord, sent me to my city! Where do I begin? Right where you are. In your home, your building and your neighborhood.
For us it means seeing the kids and their families across the street going to the school and asking how can we be a blessing there? It means seeing the families at Old Pine Trail and asking the same question. It means seeing the many people who live lonely lives in the apartment buildings around our church with that same question.
It means seeing those in your world through a fresh set of eyes namely the eyes of God.
It begins right here at Ground Zero and moves outward from this place.
Where Are We Today?
So where are we today? We are a people in motion much like a caravan or a herd. We are a people who have lived in a desert far too long.
We are a people that have come upon the river that divides desert from Promised Land, a river that needs to be crossed.
“Now then, you and all the people, get ready to cross the Jordan River.” Joshua 1:2
We are a people who have been given a glimpse of what’s on the other side:
“I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.”
In fact, some of us have been to the other side already and we can only tell you that you’ve got to see this for yourself.
“We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.” Num. 13:27
This year will be the year where we cross over. The year where we will shed the remnants of our desert years and its way of thinking.
The year where we will engage our neighbors in a focus this spring called Awake Niagara followed by outdoor summer Services and our September Open Doors event.
The year where will go on the airwaves with the preaching that happens here most Sunday mornings.
The year when will create a dynamic seniors ministry called Seniors First for the wider community around us.
The year when we will engage the children of Old Pine Trails and Lincoln Centennial Public School not to mention our Kids Club kids and their families.
The year where we will cross the Jordan and enter into our destiny.
Are you ready to come along? There is no alternative. The alternative is to die in this wretched desert with doors closing and windows being shuddered.
“Here am I, send me.”
But not before one final act that each one had to do:
“Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.” Jonah 3:5
To consecrate means to prepare, to separate, to devote and to dedicate.
May this be our greatest deed today. To stand before God in consecration and dedication and say, “Lord, use me.”
Gallery of Christmas Portraits: A Dying Savior
Saying No to Death at Christmas!
What if I were to tell you that I wanted to talk about death this morning, what would you think of me?
Would you call me Ebenezer Scrooge, as someone who never could stand the merrymaking of Christmas and was more wrapped up in ghosts of yesterday, today and tomorrow?
Or would you call me the Grinch who stole Christmas with a heart two sizes too small?
Who wants to talk about death days before Christmas? Death-talk should be banned during the month of December, right?
We want to talk about lights, birth, joy, peace, hope and love, but not about death.
If truth be known, we never want to talk about death and it doesn’t matter which month.
The topic of death is far too morbid a thought. We’re way too busy living our lives, enjoying all that life has to bring, that the thought of death never enters our mind.
But if we must, we now have professionals who take care of all things death, right?
Gone are the days of families washing the bodies of deceased loved ones. Gone are the days of wakes being held in people’s homes.
Gone are the days of loved ones digging holes and placing simple coffins into the ground, and then grabbing a shovel to fill it back in.
All of it is removed from us and placed into the hands of professionals, in whose hands the dead look better than when they were alive, right?
Steven Mosley in talking about the sanitizing trends of death of our modern times wrote:
“It had always had a cosmetic covering… An elderly lady, bent and withered from decades of hard labor had passed away. In the elegant coffin she looked almost better then in real life. The mortician had added color to her cheeks, straightened her limbs a bid and simulated a properly peaceful countenance”
The point is that the last thing we want to talk about is death.
So why on earth would I want to bring this up days before Christmas?
Why? Because for one reason death doesn’t take December off.
Death doesn’t look to make an appointment with us nor does it come at a convenient time any more than it waits until we are ready for it.
If I had any control, I would say that death should always come in November. It’s dreary, drizzly, with barren trees and winds howling. It’s a perfect month for death to show up, right?
But death doesn’t think so. It comes when it comes – in the lazy days of summer, in the beauty of early fall, in the promise of spring. It will even come at Christmas.
When you read the obituaries right after Christmas you will be astonished at the fact that people even die on December 24th and 25th .
I have buried people just before Christmas and during the Christmas week. I even buried a gentleman once on Christmas Eve!
In fact, the day we buried this man I was struck by the irony of how on the same day we commemorated both birth and death.
That to me is one of life’s great ironies. Birth and death go hand in hand.
Hints of Death at His Birth
Yet why would birth and death in the same day have irony? Look no further than the birth of Jesus to find hints of death nearby even then.
It’s morbid, I know. A birth is all about life. It’s about freshness, new beginnings and the potential of a life unfolding. It’s absolutely beautiful, which I know from first hand experience.
But at the birth of Jesus were whispers and rumors of death.
It was soon after his birth, during the time when the three Wise Men from the east came to pay homage, that whispers of death first surfaced.
It was during this time that King Herod made plans to kill the baby Jesus.
Not only were the Wise Men directed to take a different path home so as to avoid Herod, but Joseph was also directed by an angel to flee to Egypt with these instructions: “Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Of course, we know the rest of the story of how when Herod couldn’t find Jesus he “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” Matt. 2:16.
Estimates place the number of dead babies at 20 that day. It was a great tragedy at the hand of a mad man that devastated many families. 20 babies died. How very sad.
So death was never far away from the birth of Jesus. Not only the present danger of death if Herod would have had his way, but also the hint of his eventual death in the gifts given by these Wise Men.
“They opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” Matt. 2:11
These were not just random gifts nor were they typical gifts purchased in the first century equivalency of the modern day shopping mall or retail outlet.
Each gift was carefully chosen for its meaning and significance.
Gold was fit for a king, to signal that Jesus would eventually be the King of Kings and also the king of our hearts.
Frankincense, the gift of priests, was the sweet perfume used as worship incense that rose up to heaven; pointing to Jesus as our High Priest who makes intercession or makes things right between us and our Maker.
Both gifts were pointing to the child’s destiny as King and Priest.
The last gift is the most troublesome of the three, for the gift of myrrh was always associated with death. It was the spice used to embalm the dead.
In fact, years later Nicodemus along with Joseph of Arimathea would embalm the body of Jesus using myrrh.
“Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.” John 19:39-40
Not only upon his death was myrrh used but also while he was left dying on the cross: “They offered him wine mixed with myrrh.” Mark 15:23
This was the myrrh given at his birth. The hints of death were everywhere.
The Shadow of Death
One of the most startling images of Jesus captured by an artist was the Shadow of Death by the artist Holman Hunt.
Painted in the late 19th Century and displayed at the Manchester City Art Gallery, it depicts a young Jesus working in his father’s carpenter shop, stretching after presumably bent over the wooden trestle to do his carpentry work.
I love Ralph West’s interpretation of the portrait:
“He lifts His eyes toward heaven, and the look on His face is one of pain, ecstasy or both. He stretches, raising both arms above His head. As He does so, the evening sunlight streaming through the open door casts a dark shadow in the form of a cross on the wall behind Him, where His tool rack looks like a horizontal bar on which His hands have been crucified. The tools remind us of the fateful hammer and nails. In the left background, a woman kneels among the wood chippings, her hands resting on the chest in which the rich gifts of the Magi are kept. We cannot see her face because she has averted it, but we know it is Mary. She looks startled at her son's cross-like shadow on the wall.”
A strong foreshadow of what was to come out of the days in his father’s carpenter’s shop.
No denials or attempts to sanitize it. The shadow of death followed him from his birth through to his formative years in his father’s woodshop, all the way into his public ministry.
John’s Death Portrait
Of all the Gospel accounts that traced his life and ministry, it was John’s Gospel where this portrait of the Shadow of Death becomes most prominent.
John is the one who quotes Jesus the most as talking about his own hour or time of death, and in doing so emerges as the gospel writer that paints Jesus’ death portrait.
So he quotes Jesus saying things such as:
“My time has not yet come.” (2:1)
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (12:23)
“Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world.” (13:1)
In fact, for anyone who had any doubt as to what he meant by his time has come, John quotes him as saying: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (10:11)
John was the one who not only painted the portrait of Jesus’ awareness of his own coming death but also the portrait of death’s relentless pursuit of Jesus: “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him.” (5:18)
Of course, we know how many attempts on his life were made during the course of his ministry.
This is John’s death portrait of Jesus. Yet the fascinating thing is that John’s death portrait paints the image of death’s inability to conquer Jesus until such a time as being permitted to.
“They tried to seize him but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come.” (7:30)
“Some wanted to seize him but no one laid a hand on him.” (7:44)
In fact, so incapable was death’s ability to conquer Jesus without permission from God that when it’s messengers tried to arrest Jesus, John reports that “they drew back and fell to the ground.” (18:6)
The portrait of Jesus that emerges is one of his own mortality, death’s relentless pursuit of him from the days of his birth onward, and also death’s inability to conquer Jesus until the fullness of time had arrived and God had said so.
From Advent to Lent
The point of all this is not to be morbid nor to be Ebenezer Scrooge but simply to be true to who the biblical Jesus really was.
Popular culture has no problem with a cute baby in a manger but a suffering Savior dying violently on a cross is a completely different story.
Many find his death offensive; so people either sanitize his death or ignore it all together.
This propensity toward sanitization or minimization can affect even us.
In fact, I would say to you our tendency to spend more time in the advent season then in the lent season and the prominence of advent over lent should give us a reason for concern.
It is far easier to coo over a baby than it is to kneel down at the foot of a bloody cross.
Time and distance isn’t in our favor either. The years removed and the annual rituals of remembrance can actually have a numbing affect on us.
“We are of course removed some distance from Golgotha and its horrors. From our vantage point there’s always a danger of ornamenting Christ’s death into mere abstraction. We give earnest assent to the idea of his passing but rarely see or feel its drama. The cross is such a dissected, familiar theological category. We celebrate it in the comfortable and dignified confines of a sanctuary. It’s hard to really touch the brutality of that event.” Steven Mosley
It becomes a pageant and a seasonal event that gets tucked into Easter and is soon forgotten with the warmth of spring coming.
It’s time we lift Jesus out of the manger and embrace once again the notion of the suffering Savior who in a most vicious way yielded his life to death so that we could live.
May we never downplay Golgotha nor sanitize Calvary into anything other than a bloody spectacle that secured our salvation without which we would have no hope.
May we be as adamant as Paul was who declared boldly and strongly:
“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Cor. 3:23-24
His Death for Our Success
Make no mistake about it; his death is absolutely critical to our success, without which you and I would not be what we are.
I want to finish this Christmas series in which we attempted to paint four different portraits of Jesus that better reflect who he really was by reminding us of the benefits of Jesus as the Dying Savior.
He not only makes us the apple of his eye nor the one who loves you enough to intrude into the messes of our lives nor even the compassionate friend who never leaves us, but He’s also the Savior who by his death and resurrection takes our sin away.
In many ways, that’s how I would like us to remember Jesus the most.
You may recall last Easter us talking about the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. Let me close this morning by reminding you of those benefits.
1. His death was an act of substitution whereby Jesus died on that cross in our place
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Cor. 5:21
It should have been our death, should have been our penalty but he took it upon himself so that we would enjoy sins forgiven.
Through his death our sins are forgiven. Aren’t you glad for his death, this morning?
2. His death was an act of redemption whereby Jesus died to pay the ransom so as to set us free from Satan’s claim
“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 ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ.” 1 Peter 1:18, 19
The blood of Jesus paid your freedom from the chains and prison of sin.
His blood has bought your spiritual freedom! Aren’t you glad for his death, this morning?
3. His death was an act of reconciliation that took away the enmity between us and God
“We were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”
As the carol writer said: “God and sinners reconciled!” Our sin brought about a great estrangement between God and us, which was settled once and for all when Jesus died for our sins!
His death brought about this great reconciliation. Aren’t you glad for his death, this morning?
4. His death was an act that turned away the wrath of God from us. We call that propitiation.
“God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin through faith in his blood.” Rom. 3:25
Not only did our sin cause us to be estranged from God, it also offended him so profoundly that it triggered his wrath, which Jesus took fully upon him in his death.
His wrath toward you is no more. Aren’t you glad for his death, this morning?
The True Gifts of Christmas
Substitution, redemption, reconciliation and propitiation. These are the true gifts of Christmas.
Come to the foot not of the Christmas tree but of Calvary’s tree and take for yourself heaven’s gifts bought with the death of Jesus.
Take substitution by letting Jesus die in your stead.
Take redemption by letting Jesus buy your freedom from sin.
Take reconciliation by letting Jesus bring you back to the Father.
Take propitiation by letting Jesus take on him the wrath of God.
If you do nothing else this Christmas, receive heaven’s gifts brought to you by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Here you can find several messages. Feel free to write your thoughts or questions in the comment section.