2 Peter 3:18
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen (NIV)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, spring is in the air. The fragrance of a few early lilacs delights our sense of smell. Green grass brings pleasure to our eyes. And leaves bursting forth from buds reminds us that indeed spring is in the air.
Spring, it's a time for things to come back to life. It's time to plant new bushes. It's a time for growth. We look forward to this season every year. After our long Minnesota winters, we look forward to the growth of spring and summer. How disappointed we would be if things did not come back to life. Perhaps you had a few bushes that did not make it through the winter. I know we did around here. There are several that look quite dead. It's disappointed We invested much effort in planting those bushes. We gave them some water. We dug around them. We had hoped that they would grow. But they did not.
At this time of year we look for growth. God looks for growth too. Oh I do not mean that God is intently watching to see if the trees and bushes will grow. No, God is rather watching to see if we, his people, will grow. One of the reasons that the Lord established his church was to provide an environment in which growth would occur.
God's people gather for growth, that is our theme for today. The sort of growth that we will discuss is not numerical, but rather spiritual growth. God looks for his people to mature. He looks for his people to move on from infancy in the faith, to childhood and then on to maturity. But what exactly is spiritual growth and how does it happen? Those are thoughts we will consider today. Let's turn our attention now to the topic of God's people gathered for growth.
Peter wrote this letter to a group of Christians who lived in Asia Minor, that is modern day Turkey. These believers were for the most part Gentiles who had been converted to Christianity. They had now learned the basics of the faith. They had been taught about the Lord's thirty year life of perfection. The apostles had spoken to them about the Lord's crucifixion and death. They had rejoiced in the good news of Easter morning. They had been baptized. All the basics of the faith had been communicated. The recipients of this letter were true believers in Jesus. But that was not to be the end. They were not cut short their learning. They were not to play the part of graduates who pack away their text books and say "enough of that."
There was of course that danger. People, even God's people, have always been tempted by the graduation syndrome "I know enough. We talked about that already. This is just a review." We can almost hear the early believers saying words such as these. But Peter reminds the people to continue to grow in the knowledge of Jesus.
How would they grow in such knowledge? By gathering together for study of the word. The early believers had the Old Testament Scriptures to study. A wealth of material to study could be found there. Just think of Jesus teaching the disciples in our gospel reading. There it said that he opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures. The scriptures Jesus taught from were the words of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms, in other words the Old Testament.
As the disciples gathered around him, Jesus opened their minds so that they could understand all the things that had been written about him. As the disciples listened they grew. They were able to see how the scriptures spoke in great detail about their Savior and how God lovingly fulfilled all those words in the person of Jesus. As the disciples studied with Jesus they also began to learn more and more about God, who he is, what he is like, what his plan was. Through study of the word understanding came to the disciples.
Through study of the word understanding came to the believers in Asia Minor as well. No doubt they had all kinds of questions. Not just about the basics, but about other issues as well. Perhaps they were like Asaph the writer of our Psalm. Maybe they asked "why do the wicked prosper?" Or remember that these folks lived during a time of persecution. Maybe they asked, "Why Lord, why if you are a loving God and an all powerful God, why are these things happening to us?" Perhaps the believers had different questions all together.
No matter what their questions were, the answer was found in God's word. To grow in their understanding of Jesus and things spiritual, the believers would have to study the scriptures. That was one of the major reasons they got together. The early church gathered to discuss the word. They searched the scriptures. They asked questions, such as "What does this passage tell me about God? What does it tell me about myself? What does it tell me about my relationship with God or others?" These and other questions occupied the minds of the early believers. As they devoted themselves t~o the word both the Old Testament and the New Testament, they grew. The people grew in knowledge.
Have you been growing in your knowledge of Jesus? Do you understand more about Jesus now than you did one year ago? Have you committed to memory more of his word? Do you now have a clear~r grasp of God's plan for your life? Do things spiritual now make more sense to you? If so, praise the Lord. He has opened your mind to understand his word. If however you have not grown, why not?
One reason that people do not grow is that they do not gather regularly to study the word. Sermons, Bible classes, confirmation class, Sunday school these are some of the gatherings available to us, gatherings where the word will be explored. Have you filled your schedule with such gatherings? That is what it will take if we are looking for growth.
Another reason people fail to grow is that they ignore the difficult topics Topics where the word of Jesus comes face to face with our lives or with an issue that puzzles us, these sensitive topics are difficult to address. No doubt Asaph in our Psalm agonized over what he perceived to be injustice. But it was not until he entered the house of the Lord, it was not until he pondered the message of God and applied it to life, that he grew. So it will be with us. As we ponder what the word has to say regarding the issues of our lives, then we will grow. That growth may not take place as quickly as we would hope. That growth may not be as steady as we would like. A graph of our growth may look like a graph of the Dow Jones industrial average. It goes up and then levels off. It retreats a bit only to rise some more. That may well be the graph of our growth. The reason of course is not that God gives grow and then takes it away. The cause is our sinful nature. Nevertheless, growth will come. As we gather together to study the word we can be sure that he will cause us to understand more and more.
Not only will we understand more but we will be better able to apply it to our lives. The second part of growth deals with application. If the first part is beliefs, then the second part is behavior. Have you ever stopped to consider how much of the Bible addresses behavior? It is an amazing amount.
In this second letter of Peter the behavioral issues of goodness, self-control kindness, sexual purity, slander, greed, boasting and a host of others are discussed. Yes there is also a wealth of information on pure doctrine or correct beliefs, but it is balanced by or overwhelmed by the discussion about behavior.
You see Peter wanted the people to know that Christianity was more than talk. It was not just fine sounding words. It was action. The believers were to put their faith into action by living holy lives. How would they do so? How would they grow in their holiness? Only by God's grace. This is why Peter urges them to grow in grace. For as brother Paul wrote to Titus the grace of God teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passion and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.
God's grace is the enabling factor. God's grace, his undeserved love fo; us, this is what fuels the engine of holy living. As the early Christians gathered to focus on the love of God for them, they would be empowered to say "no" to sin. What a powerful thing those gatherings of believers were.
What a powerful thing our gathers are. Friends when you and I come together what is it we expect? As we sit down to listen to the word what do we think will happen? We hope God will give us understanding. We also hope that God will change our lives. Is that not true? We hope, no we expect, that God will make some changes in our lives.
You see God's word is living and active. God's word is powerful. We believe that when it comes to conversion. The proclamation of the word produces faith. You and I believe that. Well God's word is also the agent for changed behavior. There are two major things that the word does. First it points out sin. God's law comes and exposes the sin in our lives. God's word says you may not do that. You may not think that. You may not say that. The word points out sin. By ourselves we would miss some sin. Oh certainly we would catch some of it. Most people in the world recognize that stealing is wrong. Most people agree that murder is wrong. God has implanted a certain sense of morality within each one of us. However there are many other sins that would escape our notice unless God's word points them out for us.
You and I know that the word of God functions in such a manner. It shows sin for sin. But then what? It's one thing to recognize sin. It's fine to have such knowledge, how do we overcome the sin? That is the question. The answer is grace. When we go to the cross with our load of sin, Jesus gladly accepts it. He says "here let me take that. You cannot carry it. The load will crush you. Give that sin to me." Jesus takes our sin. We are free from it. The eternal consequences will never come our way. What wondrous love is this. What amazing grace, that God should love such a one as I.
When you and I focus on that truth we are filled with joy. We think to ourselves "God has been so good to me. I want to live my life for him." This is the gospel at work dear friends. This is the empowering nature of grace. It actually moves us to want to respond by changing our behavior.
Dear friends when you and I gather, when the church gathers, we expect to be connected with life changing power. God's grace is that power. Nothing else will help us, not threats of punishment, not psychological behavior modification techniques, not shame or intimidation, only God's grace can bring about lasting and joyful changes to our behavior.
When God's people gather there will be growth. People will mature in their faith. Instead of looking like the brown bushes near our entryway, we will be like trees planted near a water supply, we will be like bushes bursting out with spring growth. God's people grow. They mature. What is Christian maturity? It is having correct beliefs and it is displaying godly behavior. Such growth will be ours as we gather around God's words. Amen.