Note: This is Part 2 of a series of sermons based on Pastor J.D. Greear’s study, Gospel Revolutions.
Part 1, Gospel Change
Part 2, Gospel Discovery
Part 3, Gospel Acceptance
Part 4, Gospel Approval
Part 5, Gospel Response
Part 6, Gospel Faith (Coming March 11, 2012)
Part 7, Substitute Gospels (Coming March 18, 2012)
Part 8, Gospel Depth (Coming March 25, 2012)
Text: Matthew 17:1-8
We are continuing this week our look at the Gospel and what it means for us as believers. Last week, we talked about how the Gospel seeks to change us. Too often, we try to get people to look like they are Christians in an effort to make them Christians, but that’s not how the Gospel works. The Gospel is not an outside-in effort. The Gospel changes us by working from the inside-out. God works in the Gospel by starting with our hearts. Once the transformation is accomplished there, the rest flows out as a result.
Today, we are talking about Gospel Discovery. When I was growing up, my mom’s parents built a second home on the side of a mountain in Ashe County in northwestern North Carolina. We spent a number of our summer vacation trips traveling from our home in New Orleans area up to this mountain retreat. The front porch of their home was a wide, covered place with a number of rocking chairs and a swing. The scenery was gorgeous, with a view of three other mountains. We spent much of our time relaxing there, morning, noon, and night.
At nightfall, however, we would always have a number of uninvited guests: bugs of various sizes, all of them of tremendous annoyance. So my grandfather put in some of those bug zappers. You know the ones. They had glowing blue lights. The bugs would fly around them and, eventually, they would fly too close to the light and the device would audibly zap them. Inevitably, the bugs were so attracted by the blue light that they completely ignored us. This was exactly what my grandfather hoped to accomplish.
You see, those bugs were captivated and entranced by the blue light that drew them in, ultimately to their peril. We, too, can be captivated by many things. A good movie, our favorite song, when we fall in love, a project we engross ourselves in. Some of the things that captivate us are fine. Others are as perilous to us as the blue light was to those bugs.
I imagine Peter, James, and John, the inner circle of three that repeatedly were taken by Jesus to special and unique experiences, stood captivated and transfixed when they awoke from their slumbering stupor – when they were supposed to have been praying – to find Jesus glowing, wearing dazzling clothes, and speaking to two men who had not come with them up the mountain. The sight they beheld was astounding. It captivated them and froze them in their place. They did not move or speak until, as Luke’s account records it, “the men were parting from him.”
Even when Peter did finally find his mouth, he bumbled along, crazily suggesting that he might erect for them tents or booths with the implication being that such booths would be appropriate places where they might properly receive their due worship. Then the cloud came down and overshadowed them, and it was at that point that things really got terrifying. After the cloud arrived, the voice of God the Father spoke from the cloud declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to Him!” It was just as it had been when the voice had boomed from heaven after the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove when He came up out of the waters of baptism in the Jordan.
Peter, James, and John were right to be terrified when that cloud came over them and enveloped them. We first read of the cloud of God’s presence in the book of Exodus. It is the cloud of God’s presence that guides the people out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, and then from Mt. Sinai on to the Promised Land. At Mt. Sinai, the cloud settled on the mountain. Listen to the description from Exodus 19:
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
Eventually, Moses returned to the top of the mountain with Joshua, and the two remained there for 40 days and 40 nights while receiving the law from God. During this period, the people so feared for the life of Moses that they presumed him dead and took matters of worship into their own hands with the Golden Calf. That’s how terrifying this cloud was to people who had seen God’s wondrous works on their behalf.
After descending from the mountain and dealing with the Golden Calf disaster, Moses instructed the people on the building of the tabernacle. During this time, Moses would meet with God in the Tent of Meeting outside the camp of the Israelites, and God’s presence would descend on the tent when God was meeting with Moses.
Finally, at the end of the book of Exodus, we read
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
Like I said, Peter, James, and John were right to be terrified by the cloud that came up and enveloped them on the mount of transfiguration. They were very familiar with Exodus. They knew what – or, more appropriately, Who – this cloud was. And they knew the condemnation on those who drew too close to it.
What’s the right response of someone enveloped in the cloud of God? Ashamed of their nakedness, Adam and Eve hid in the Garden when God came to take His customary walk in the cool of the day. Faced with the terrible disasters that had struck him and decimated his family, and with the prompting of his friends around him, Job lashed out at God with all kinds of questions about the justness of God’s actions. In Job 38:1, we read, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind.” In the middle of the next four chapters of God’s responses to him, Job answered God again in Job 40:4-5, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”
When God has finished His challenges to Job, Job gives a final answer:
I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
Isaiah also had a close experience in the throne room of God. In response to his vision, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” And in 2 Samuel 6, in an effort to steady the improperly-carried Ark of the Covenant, Uzzah reached out his hand. “And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.” A gruesome end is promised to anyone who does not properly adhere to protocols and respect the presence of God, something Uzzah should have recognized in the Ark.
In his vision of the apocalypse, John reported seeing God’s throne surrounded by twenty-four elders and four living creatures. The creatures continuously cry out night and day, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” John goes on to report that the elders would then respond to this worship of the creatures by casting their crowns before the throne and saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” He later sees a crowd of untold number from every people, tribe, and nation who cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
It is things such as these that are proper responses to an encounter with the living and holy God. Fear, overwhelming remorse at sin, an uncontrollable urge to burst out in continuous worship in awe of the God who sits on the throne and of His Lamb. Adam, Eve, Job, and Isaiah were all right in the estimation of their position before God. Silence and humility should be the order of the day. Respect for God, for His holiness, for His purity, for His righteousness, for His justice, for His astounding love, these things should dominate our thoughts and all that we do when we stand in the presence of God.
We must remember that, as those untold numbers stand before God because of the white robes washed in the blood of the lamb, so we can only approach God with white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. As those crowds will stand before God’s throne in awesome wonder at the salvation that He has accomplished, so we come to His throne and His presence in awesome wonder of the salvation that He has accomplished on our behalf.
It is as we discover God and all that He is that we come to understand the Gospel, that we discover it. That we come to understand its power and its provision. When Peter, James, and John were given a brief glimpse at the full glory of Jesus in all of His divine perfection, they were left speechless and terrified. So, too, should we be. When Job finally heard from God, he realized his utter smallness before such a great God. So we need to remember our finiteness before the infinitude that is our omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator and Lord. When Isaiah brought his righteous deeds to stand in God’s presence, he recognized them for the dirty rags that they were. So, too, do we need to remember that there is nothing we can bring to God that would deem us worthy of His throne room. Nothing.
As we encounter the Gospel, we discover God for all that God is. We finally come to terms with holiness and all that it means. With righteousness and all that we lack. With love and our complete failure to honor it. And the more we discover, the more we grasp our desperate need for God to act graciously with us. There is nothing we deserve from Him. Nothing we can demand of Him. Nothing we have earned from Him. It is all grace upon grace that is to our benefit.
This is the gospel that we discover. That God is so gracious to us, not on account of us, but on account of Him. The Gospel is a discovery of God. It is standing in awesome wonder, in stunned silence, in full dread fear. That is the Gospel. Let’s live in our discovery of it and be captivated by it. Let it be our all-encompassing blue light from which nothing can distract us. And may we find as we approach it that what zaps us does not kill us, but draws us more fully in. Further up and further in was Lewis’ cry in The Last Battle, when all of the characters of Narnia finally come to Aslan and His kingdom.
Further up and further in, let this be our cry. Let us discover the Gospel of God and let the discovery take us wherever it will.