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Toil and Strive


Today is the second of two messages based on things we can do to keep our relationship with Jesus growing. Things to do during what is sometimes called ordinary times. Times such as this, when we are between big holidays, in this case, between Christmas and Easter. Times when things may not be as bright and as cheery as they are during holidays, but times we can still grow in our faith.

In last week’s message, the challenge was that we use this ordinary time, as it is taught by the apostle Paul in his New Testament Book of Philippians, to rejoice, be forbearing or patient with one another, pray, supplicate, be thankful, and concentrate our thoughts on things that are good. Things that are true, honorable, and just, pure, lovely, and gracious, excellent and worthy of praise.

In today’s message, two more challenges from Paul will be highlighted. One is in the Book of Colossians. The other is in the Book of I Timothy.

First, Colossians 1:21-23. And actually, before we get to those verses, let me mention how Paul introduces himself in verse 1 of the letter. He wrote, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” 

Apostle. That was someone who had been in direct contact with Jesus, which, for Paul, did not happen during the Lord’s earthly ministry. In fact, Paul fought against followers of Jesus. That was especially the case after the Lord’s death and resurrection. Paul himself took part in finding Christians, arresting them, then sending them to prisons where they would either turn away from their faith in Jesus or be put to death. 

However, one day, as Paul was on his way to the city of Damascus to hunt Christians there, he was confronted by the resurrected Jesus. What a supernatural, miraculous event that was. 

Simply put, Jesus convinced Paul he should change his ways and start serving rather than fighting against the Lord. The challenge to do that, Paul obeyed.

What a remarkable change in Paul’s life. One he attributed, in his introduction to the Book of Colossians, to Jesus and to the will of God. A change so complete that other times at the start of other New Testament letters he authored, Paul used the phrase “servant of the Lord” to describe himself, that phrase meaning he was under the authority of Jesus, committed to doing and saying what the Lord told him to do and say.

I mention that, I guess, because similar wording has been part of my praying recently. I certainly do not put myself in Paul’s category. Do not that meaning to my words. But I want to be able to be described as a servant of Jesus, doing and saying what He wants. I, too, want to be completely under the control of Jesus.

Paul, an apostle and servant of Jesus, in Colossians 1:21-23 gives an important challenge. One that begins with a description of what the Christians in Colossae used to be like before they had accepted Jesus as Savior.

Verse 21. “And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds…”

I looked at a few references and could not find a list of bad things that were done by the Colossian Christians before they were Christians, but I did find the importance of the word “estranged,” which means to be away from a right relationship. In this case, to be away from a right relationship with God. An alienation caused by hostility of mind. Hostility toward God and His teachings. Hostility that included doing evil deeds, such as selfishness, immorality, slander, lieing. Things like that.

At one time, the believers in Colossae - before they believed - were not right with God. They were known, at least locally and, just like every other citizen of the city, for the bad things they did.

But the Christians in Colossae did not stay that way. They did not continue their hostility toward God. They did not continue to do bad things. They changed when they ended their estrangement from God. Their relationship with God improved when they accepted God’s Son Jesus as their Savior.

The result? Verse 22. They were, upon their acceptance of Jesus, “reconciled to God.” A reconciliation made possible by Jesus’ death.

We know, of course, how important Christmas is, which reminds us each year of God’s willingness to send His Son to us and Jesus’ willingness to be with us. But the holidays that are coming are equally important as we will celebrate that Jesus, on what we know as Good Friday, willingly gave His body as the perfect sacrifice for our sins and then, on what we know as Easter morning, rose from the grave to prove He has victory over death. 

It is because Jesus came and died and rose again that the Colossian Christians were reconciled to God. It is because of what Jesus did that we still can be reconciled and that those who accept Jesus - that those of us who are Christians - have been reconciled to God.

Which was Jesus’ goal when He came and died and was resurrected. Still verse 22. Jesus did what He did in order to present you - to present us - to present those who believe in Him - “holy, blameless, and irreproachable.” 

Holy. Different. As in different from non-Christians, who continue to be separated from God. Different from those who continue to be hostile toward the Lord, shown by evil deeds. 

That is not to say every non-believer is a bad person, but non-Christians are more susceptible to evil actions.

Holy. Set aside for a special purpose. The purpose of doing God’s work, of showing His love and mercy and grace to others, of knowing and doing God’s will rather than our own.

Blameless. Free from blame. Without fault. Innocent. Guiltless.

Wait. Does not the Bible, in another place, claim that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God? Yes, it does, and yes, that claim is correct. There is not a one of us who does not have something, at least in our past, that can be counted as sin. Which makes the word “blameless” in Colossians 1:22 absolutely fantastic. That word means that for all who accept Jesus as Savior from sin, our sins are completely covered over, which means we are no longer held accountable for them. Jesus took the penalty for them.

And no, that does not mean we have been or even now are perfect, but we who are Christians are perfect in the eyes of God. What a wonderful gift. A gift we receive simply by accepting Jesus.

Irreproachable is also defined as being without fault. Being beyond criticism. Which again is not possible except through the sacrifice of Jesus.

What a wonderful transformation comes to all who believe in Jesus. A transformation from being estranged from God, from being hostile toward God, from being prone to doing evil deeds to others. A transformation to being reconciled to God and being seen, in God’s eyes, as holy, blameless, irreproachable.

A transformation that will go on provided… Now we get to verse 23, which brings us to the point of this message, which is to use this ordinary time between Christmas and Easter to continue our spiritual growth. 

The transformation brought about by the decision to accept Jesus as Savior will go on, provided that you - and I - “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the Gospel which you heard, both in nature and from [Paul].”

Continue in the faith. That teaching is found other places, in other passages written by Paul and passages spoken by Jesus.

For instance, later in this letter, Paul would write, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.” In other words, if you claim to be a Christian - if you are a Christian - prove it by seeking Heavenly things - spiritual things that are worthy of the Lord.

Matthew records Jesus teaching that if anyone would follow Him, which is what Paul encouraged the Colossians to keep doing, “Let him deny himself and take up his cross.” 

Continue in the faith. That is what the Colossian Christians were to do. That is what we who are Christians today are to do. That is necessary for us to continue to be regarded, in the eyes of God, as holy, blameless, irreproachable. 

In addition, be stable and steadfast. Stable refers to having a sure, strong foundation, like being a house built on rock. Steadfast refers to persistently and consistently remaining on - clinging to and being attached to - that foundation, which is Jesus. 

That was an important teaching for Paul to give the Colossian Christians because there were many false teachers who had arisen, claiming there were other, better foundations than Jesus. 

Even today there are false teachers who claim Jesus is not the only way to Heaven. 

Those teachers were wrong then. Such teachers are wrong now. Jesus is the only way to Heaven. He is the only sure foundation. The only way we can be secure is to remain on Him.

Continue in the Christian faith. Be stable and steadfast. Do not shift from the hope of the Gospel which you heard, both in nature and from Paul.

In those last few words, what a reminder that nature speaks of God. I am thinking of the wonder of creation, including how the snow of winter can represent purity, how spring can teach us about new life, how summer can represent the warmth of God’s love, how fall winds can remind us of God’s power.

What a reminder Paul gives that nature speaks of God and what a reminder that the Bible speaks of God, including in the writings of Paul that teach us about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about how to live with God and with others.

Continue in the faith, be stable and steadfast, and do not shift from our Christian hope. That is what we are to do all the time, including during this ordinary time. May we not take time off in our spiritual lives. Let’s use even this time to continue to develop and grow our faith in Jesus so that we can continue to be seen by God as holy, blameless, and irreproachable, not because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus did for us.

Do we need an example of the discipline required to accomplish that? For a moment, before a couple stories, one for each of today’s passages, let’s think about what Paul wrote in I Timothy 4.

Beginning in verse 7 of I Timothy 4, Paul gave a challenge to Timothy, a young pastor. A man who had become a pastor because Paul selected him for that role. Of course, it was God who called Timothy, but Paul is the one who helped him get started. 

Beginning in verse 7, Paul challenged Timothy, like he challenged others, including us, to have nothing to do with “godless and silly myths.” As that relates to today’s first passage, Timothy was to avoid anything other than the foundation of Jesus and His teachings.

Timothy was also to “train” himself in godliness. Training indicates an ongoing activity. As that relates to the first passage, the call was for Timothy to continue in the Christian faith.

Paul then, in verse 10, presented himself as an example. He wrote, “For to this end, we [he and his fellow Christian leaders] toil and strive.” Why? “We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”

*      *      *      *      *

Paul continued in the faith. He remained stable and steadfast. He did not shift from the hope of the Gospel of Jesus. That is what he encouraged Timothy to do as well. That is what he encouraged Timothy to command and teach others to do. 

That is what we are to do. What we are to teach. As Paul continued, we are to be examples for others in what we say and what we do. In how we live.

Story #1.

There is something called the Ardabil Carpet that pictures a garden of paradise through floral patterns and geometric shapes. It is regarded by experts as one of the two greatest Persian rugs ever woven. 

Dating back to the 1500’s, it was woven in the city of `, which was in what it is today Iran. It is believed to have been ordered by an official supervising a team of weavers. It consists of 35 million knots, which is  an amazing 800 knots per square inch over the measurements of 23 feet in length and 13 feet wide.

The carpet began with just some thread. The threads were transformed into a work of art.

Applying that to us, Christ’s work - the work of the master weaver - begins with us, at first, as described by Paul in Colossians, estranged from God, hostile to God, guilty of evil deeds. But Jesus has taken us - our hearts and the hearts of all who accept Him - and transformed us into spiritual works of art. Art work that shows holiness, blamelessness, irreproachability, that coming, not because of the thread we are, but by the one doing the spiritual weaving, that being Jesus.

What a wonderful work of art we are because of Jesus. What wonder spiritual art we will remain, provided we continue in our faith and provided we remain stable and steadfast. 

Which leads us to story #2. A story that reminds us we do need to work at staying stable and steadfast as we continue to grow in our faith.

As a man sat in front of his TV, watching a downhill ski race, he began thinking how it would be fun to ski like the guys in the race.

No sooner did that thought enter his mind than an ad came on the TV, in which the announcer asked, “Would you like to ski like the experts ski? These miraculous, proven new skis will enable you to ski like a champion! Just put them on, point them down the steepest slope you can find, and you will experience the thrill previously known only to Olympic skiers! Only $499! Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back!”

The man realized, as he worded it, that if he was dumb enough to fall for such an ad, he would deserve the accident that would await him if he bought the skis and put them on and found a steep hill and headed down it. 

As he added, we all know there is no effortless, easy way to become a champion skier. Racers have spent countless hours both on and off the slopes disciplining themselves for the goal of winning. Any promise of some miraculous way to do what they do apart from the years of training and hard work would clearly be false.

It is the same with our Christian experience, which is why Paul encourages us to look, not for an easy fix to whatever holds us back from continuing in the faith, but instead to keep toiling and striving. There is no way to godliness except through discipline.

Be reconciled to God if that is your need. Do that by accepting Jesus as your Savior.

For all of us who have been reconciled, let’s toil and strive to continue in our faith. Let’s be both stable and steadfast in our faith. Let’s do that ourselves. Let’s teach each other to do that. Let’s encourage each other to do that. 

The reward? Being seen in God’s eyes as holy, blameless, and irreproachable.

The closing song for today will be our prayer that we will allow the Lord to have His way with us, to make sure we have been transformed, to help us continue in our faith in Him, to have the strength to toil and strive.

Let’s sing the song as a prayer. It is Have Thine Own Way, Lord.

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!

Thou art the potter, I am the clay!

Mold me and make me after Thy will,

While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!

Search me and try me, Master, today!

Cleanse me from sin, Lord, wash me just now,

As in Thy presence humbly I bow.

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!

Wounded and weary, help me, I pray!

Power - all power - surely is Thine!

Touch me and heal me, Savior divine!

have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!

Hold o’er my being absolute sway!

Fill with Thy Spirit ’til all shall see

Christ only, always, living in me!

Have you ever heard someone say that whenever he or she feels like exercising, they go lie down until the feeling goes away?

Exercise is discipline and discipline is hard work. But whether we like it or not, discipline is essential for staying physically healthy.

Spiritual exercise is essential for spiritual health. There are no shortcuts. No easy or effortless ways to godliness. Instead, we must continue in our faith. We must be stable and steadfast in our faith. We must toil and strive to stay healthy.

Let’s do that always, including during this ordinary time. That can be done as we rely on our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

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