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20 November 2016

THE BLANK PAGE -- Chris's last sermon

Written by Chris Bloom, posted by Lora Bloom

Good morning, y'all. If you would, please turn to the very end of the Old Testament and the very beginning of the New one. It's either about three-quarters of the way in or a quarter of the way back, depending on what end you start from.

There should be a page there between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew. It may have "The New Testament" printed on it in big bold letters, but other then that it's probably completely blank.

When you find it, take a good look at it. Look at it, front and back. Pick it up between your fingers. That's what 400 years feels like.

Before we go any further, let's pray.

Lord, thank you for your word, and that you hear us and speak to us today. Thank you especially for sending your son to die for our sins and to reveal your heart to us. May each of us be truly thankful and truly open to what you have to teach us, and may not a word be spoken that doesn't come from you. We ask all this in Christ's name. Amen.

First of all, I want to say how honored and grateful I am to have my words read up here. It's always a privilege to speak God's word, and I've said before that to do it here is like coming home. I'll try be worthy of the trust that's been placed on me.

Second let's get started. Hopefully everyone's found that page. Today is a little more unusual in that there's no text to read. There's no chapter in verse to hang onto.

There's nothing but silence. That page represents 400 years of silence from God. Even though they're right next to each other in the Bible, it's extremely unlikely that Malachi and Matthew would have lived at the same time. That page separates the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, and the Israelite law and Christian faith.

There are three things you should think about when you see that page. The first thing we should think about is just how long 400 years is. The second is that this was a time when there was absolutely no communication from God to man. The third third thing to remember is the way it ended.

Just think how long 400 years is. 400 years is about how long the Israelites spent in Egypt. The whole New Testament was written in a few decades. 400 years ago was 1616. The world as we know it didn't even exist back then. I think only Bro. Russ was around in 1616. 

If a generation is about 20 years, that's 20 generations that never heard from God. For a nation that was used to hearing from God, that's a really long time. That's why we don't accept the books of the Apocrypha. They all appeared during those 400 years.

Think about living toward the end of that time. Not only would you have never had a prayer answered, but neither would your parents. Neither would your grandparents. No one could remember the last time God spoke to anyone.

You have to wonder what they were doing in the temple. All the sacrifices God had instituted just became empty rituals. This is when the people stopped being Israelites and became Jews. Talmuds, targums, and midrashes became more important than the Torah they explained, which was considered too sacred to even touch. Judaism increasingly became more about itself and less about God. 

The priests never meant to do this. The experts in the law didn't set out to put the words of man above the word of God. That was never anyone's intention. But when the son of God came they were prepared to kill him to protect their interpretation of the law.

The ones who should have known better may not have meant to do what they did, but when you do things just because they've always been done for a long time the traditions eventually take on a life of their own. They become more important than the God who inspired them.

That's what happened to the nation of Israel during these 400 years. They started out doing things out of love for God. But God never seemed to notice. So they just kept doing them because God had commanded it and hopefully he would pay attention if they were just faithful enough.

Then their sons grew up and became priests. They remembered God acting when they were children but never knew him the way their fathers had and so never came to love God the way their fathers had. They may have been dutiful, but they didn't really expect God to show up.

Then their sons became priests, and now there was a generation serving God who had never seen him act or heard his voice. They had only their fathers’ and grandfathers’ stories to prove it had ever happened. It had been two generations since anyone had had any personal experience with God.

Now extend that out 100 years, or 200. By that time, God himself had become just a legend. People did things because they were written on dusty old scrolls, not because the Maker and Sustainer of the Universe. It was religion about itself, a cult for its own sake, and it was not what God founded.

The second thing to remember when we see this blank page is that this was a time when there was absolute silence from God, and the Hebrews were accustomed to hearing from God. I'm not saying that they constantly walked around hearing the voice of God, but things like prophecy were not unheard-of among them. They knew that their history had been miraculous, and they weren't inclined to just shrug off the supernatural the way we are.

At the same time they weren't stupid, or gullible, or overly credulous. They knew how to tell when God was speaking — or at least they thought they did — and they’d been told how to recognize a false prophet when they heard one. 

These were not people who believed everything they were told, but they weren't people who didn't believe anything no matter what, either. They had a healthily critical attitude toward divine revelation.

It was all wasted, though, because there was nothing to have a healthily critical attitude to. By the time there was, they weren't healthy anymore.

When God didn't meet their expectations, they were ready to kill him for it. Having run God off with their sin, they just invented one to take his place. When the real thing showed up, it turned out they liked the one they make up better. Either God or their own ideas had to go, and when it came down to it they preferred their own ideas.

And so they killed God in the name of God.

It wasn't because they were just evil people or had an overdeveloped sense of irony. They were good religious people, but they learned the wrong lesson from God leaving them. Instead of seeing that it was their own sin that it drove God away and repenting, they just turned inward and learned to get along without him.

There's one big problem with that, though. Though God will always take a returning child back, and will even leave the flock to find the one lamb that's strayed, he won't do it forever. If you keep turning your back on him, he'll eventually turn his back on you. He will not save someone against his will.

That's what happened to the Hebrews. When they drove God away with their sin, the lesson he wanted them to learn was to stop sinning. Instead, what they learned was to try to be independent, to replace God with rituals.

The third thing we should remember when we see that page is how that 400 years ended. When God finally spoke to Israel again, it was through John the Baptist, and the essence of his message was, “Repent and be baptized, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Jesus said that no one was greater than John the Baptist, and it's worth noting that he didn't bring some new and different teaching. He just told them to repent. 

This wasn't some new message. God hadn't suddenly changed his mind. “Repent” was was what the prophets had said all those centuries before. Some of them had seen visions and foretold the future, but the message was always implicit: if you repent, these bad things won't happen to you.

This is clear in the Book of Jonah. The prophet is sent to the city of Nineveh to deliver a message of God’s judgment on the city because of its wickedness. While I'm sure fear played a role in his reluctance to go, the main reason — and the one he gave God — was that he knew that if they repented of their sin then God would forgive them.

That's all John was telling them. If they just repented — if they just stopped doing what they were doing — God would forgive them. If they turned away from sin, they would find God waiting for them.

After all those silent centuries, that's what God wanted to tell them. Repent, turn from your sin, and come back to God. There was no condemnation, no litany of sins. There was only an offer of forgiveness. Repent, turn from sin. Be baptized, confess your faith publicly. For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, this offer won't last forever, and you don't know when it will end.

So now we come to the big question we should ask every sermon. So what? If all this is true, and I believe it is, then what does it mean for us? That page represents 400 years, four silent centuries that ended with a plea for repentance. So what could it possibly mean for us?

It's been a lot longer than 400 years since Jesus was born. We've counted 2016 years since then. He may wait another 2016 years, or he may come before the end of this sentence. But whether it's one second or 100,000 years, it doesn't change the fact that he promised to come back, and he always keeps his promises.

We also need to consider what it would have been like living back in that time. Imagine offering a sacrifice knowing no one would ever receive it, or saying a prayer knowing that it would never be answered with either a “yes” or a “no”. What if you spent your entire life just doing things because you were supposed to?

What if you're doing it right now?

The solution is the same one that God offered through John the Baptist 2000 years ago. Repent. Stop doing what you're doing. Confess it and determine not to do it anymore. Promise not to do it and keep your promise.

Yes, it will take effort on your part, but it's not something you can do on your own. It's something that God, because of his infinite grace and love, is willing to do for you.

Just stop fighting him. Admit you can't do it on your own and apologize for even trying. And stop acting like God is just waiting for you to trip up and break a rule so he can send you to Hell. He's not looking for a reason to condemn you. He's looking for a reason to save you.

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