Monday, January 18, 2021

"A More Excellent Sacrifice" - Henry Knapp

The Spiral of Death

On my fiftieth birthday (fading away in the rear view mirror) my family took me on a whirlwind weekend getaway. We spent one day at an amusement park (where I watched everyone else enjoy the rides), one day on a long bike trip (which my bottom still remembers), and one day at a water park (took me days to dry out). I think I most enjoyed the water park ride where you come down a slide and are dumped into a huge funnel. After spinning around and around you get dropped through the bottom into a pool. A lot of the fun is to see how many times you can spin around before you end up getting dumped. But, one thing is for sure, no matter how many swirls you do, in the end, you will for sure get dumped. 

When we began our study of Genesis, Doug made the point that nearly all the key teachings of the Bible find their “genesis” in Genesis; the root of so many spiritual truths are found in the opening chapters of the Scripture. This is certainly true of the biblical teaching about the nature and extent of sin. 

The Bible’s portrayal of sin is brutal—it describes sin in stark terms, giving examples of rebellion, wickedness, and rejection. We see sin dominating King David, overtaking Moses, infecting Abraham, poisoning God’s people at every step. And, of course, the ultimate expression of the power and influence of sin is the cost God Himself had to pay to conquer its consequences. Jesus’ death on the cross manifests the depth of our sin. 

Theologians often capture this essence of sin with the phrase “Total Depravity”. “Depravity” describes so well the destruction, the loss, the wrongness of sin; “total”, not in terms of “as-bad-as-possible”, but meaning, “distorting every part of the human being”. If you are at all self-reflective, you’ll recognize these characteristics in your own life—and in the lives of those around you. But, how did we get this way? OK, Genesis 3 shows the entrance of sin into the world, but how do we go from eating forbidden fruit to Total Depravity? 

Sin, like the water park slide, is a death-spiral—eventually, it leads us all to the bottom. It doesn’t always seem that way as you start, sometimes it’s even hard to imagine things ending as poorly as they do. But the downward spiral accompanies sin at every turn. And Genesis 4 shows exactly that downward fall. Chapter 3 has forbidden fruit. Chapter 4 begins with anger, moves through murder, and ends with the threat of unrestrained genocide. Sin is not a passive thing. It is not a simplistic thing. It is not an easy thing. Sin “crouches at the door”; sin “desires to have you”; sin “casts us out of God’s Presence”. This is the devolution of sin into “total depravity” that is marked by Genesis 4. 

But (and, as always with our God, there is a “but”), but Genesis 4 does not end there. The story of sin’s downward spiral into death does not end with our getting dumped into Hell. Genesis 4 ends with the birth of Seth, the ancestor of Abraham, the ancestor of David, the ancestor of Jesus… the Gift of Grace.  

As you prepare for worship this week, read Genesis 4. 

1. How do you explain Eve’s comments after giving birth to Cain? Just saying that God helped her through the delivery? What more might she be saying?

2. Why was Cain’s offering rejected and Abel’s accepted? What is it about the offerings, or the individuals, that leads to this different reaction?

3. Why is Cain angry once his offering is rejected? Who might he be angry at, and why?

4. What different ways might you understand the phrase “if you do well…” in verse 7?

5. How is sin pictured here in verse 7? What images are conjured up? What does that tell you about our interactions with sin?

6. What is the expected answer to Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” What answer does Cain expect? What answer might God expect?

7. How does the story of Lamech magnify the story of sin earlier in the chapter?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

"Forbidden Fruit" - Doug Rehberg

For 2 days, 2 hours, and 10 minutes in August 2006 a Croatian named Veljko Rogosic swam, without stopping, 139.8 miles across the Adriatic Sea from Grado, Italy, to Riccione. It was the longest distance ever swum without flippers in the open sea. When he finished they gave him an appropriate nickname, “King of Cold Water”.

Years ago, before I left my 40s, I played basketball every Thursday night at a local elementary school. For 3 years, every week, I was known as Doug. I had total anonymity beyond the basketball court. Then it happened. One night one guy said to another, “You know who he is? He’s the senior pastor of Hebron Church.” However, by that time, my identity as “one of the guys” was finally fixed, so there was no shunning or raised eyebrows. But I did begin noticing some minor differences.

One night, a guy came into the gym having just heard of an arrest in the upper Midwest. The news reported that the authorities had been tracking the killer for months. They had suspected him of a series of murders, but when they arrested him they were shocked to find more victims than they had previously suspected. Under the floorboards of his house, were a number of mutilated bodies wrapped in plastic bags.

As my fellow hoopster was putting on his sneakers, he looked at me and said, “How could such a thing ever happen? What would cause a guy to do something like that?” The continuity of his stare made it clear that these weren’t rhetorical questions. He wanted an answer. So I said to him, “Are you shocked by this news?” He said, “You bet I am. I can’t believe someone could do this!” I said, “Well, frankly, I’m surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.” He was stunned. “What are you talking about?” he said. I said, “The human heart is deceitful and corrupt beyond all things, to the point that none of us can ever really know what’s in our hearts. The truth is, without the grace of God, any one of us is capable of everything that guy did and more. That’s why Jesus says, ‘It’s not what goes into a man that corrupts him, but what comes out of his heart.’ You see, without God’s grace, common and particular, every one of us could be that guy. I know I could.” As I spoke he just stared at me. When I finished he said, “That’s deep, man, really deep.” I said, “It’s true, man, really true.”

Now why could I say that? On what grounds could I turn the tables on him, saying, in effect, your surprise is misplaced? Genesis 3. We live in a world that assumes grace. We live in a world that believes that everybody’s good, except for a few bad actors. Nothing could be further from the truth and Genesis 3 tells us so. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 3:

            “None is righteous, no, not one;

No one understands;

            No one seeks for God.

            All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

            No one does good,

Not even one.”

Where does he get that? Genesis 3. You see, the problem we have is our standard of judgment. We like to compare ourselves to others, especially those we believe are inferior to us. But the Bible never allows that. God’s measure is not horizontal, it’s vertical. The difference in the condition of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3 is day and night.

Think of it. If Mr. Rogosic, the “King of Cold Water”, was dropped off in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and told to swim to safety, he could clearly go a lot further than you, but never far enough. He could never save himself. Neither can you. The testimony of Genesis 3 is that unless God does all the saving, from beginning to end, we’re sunk. Where do we see that for the first time? Genesis 3.

This Sunday, in a message entitled, “Forbidden Fruit”, we are going to dig in to all of this. In preparation you may wish to consider the following:

1. What is the heart of the serpent’s challenge in verse 1?

2. What does Eve affirm in verses 2 & 3?

3. What is the ground of the temptation in verses 4 & 5?

4. What did Eve’s heart tell her in verse 6?

5. What was it that they discovered in verse 7 that they didn’t know before that?

6. Why the fig leaves?

7. Why is their reaction to their condition the same as ours?

8. What do verses 15 and 21 tell us about our ability to undo what sin has done?

9. How is our sin like Satan’s sin? (See Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:12-19)

10. How is Genesis 3 the heart of the Gospel?

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

"The Mark of a Man" - Doug Rehberg

I was 17 and over 600 miles from home when I saw them. It was my first day on campus, and they were hanging out the windows of dorms all around the quad. I turned to a guy I had just met and asked, “What’s with all the flags?” There was a Norwegian flag, a Swedish flag, an Italian flag, a German, among others. He frowned and said, “They’re making a statement. They want everyone to know who they are.” I said, “How about their name, isn’t that sufficient?” He said, “Don’t you care who you are?” I said, “Sure I do. I’m Doug. I’m an American just like them.”  

Years ago, a friend of mine was in China on a university campus giving a lecture. After he was finished, he was asked to stay for a question-and-answer session. When he agreed, hands shot up all over the lecture hall. It seemed that more than a thousand Chinese students had questions. They all wanted to know the differences between Americans and Chinese. It was all about the differences in food, in tastes, in culture. Finally, after fielding more than a half dozen questions Ken said, “All you’ve asked me about are the differences between us. Let me tell you about the similarities. Every one of us in this room has two basic needs: to love and be loved, and to have a sense of worth. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or the color of your skin. Deep down we are all alike.” And from there he pointed to Jesus. 


In 1782 the Great Seal of the United States was approved by an Act of Congress. In addition to the words, “annuit coeptis”, Latin for “he approves the undertaking”, are the words E pluribus unum, Latin for, “Out of many, one”. The meaning of this last phrase originates from the concept that out of the union of the original thirteen colonies emerged a single nation. It’s emblazoned across the scroll and clenched in the eagle’s beak on the front seal of the United States. At the same time the metaphor of a “melting pot” was used to describe the fusion of different nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures into a cohesive union. That was the dream America offered to the world. “Here”, wrote John de Crevecoeur, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” Crevecoeur was quite prescient, for the changes wrought by the United States over the past 200 years have caused world-wide changes. 


But today we live at a time of identity politics when the opposite ethic is being propounded. Today the image of “melting pot” has been called outdated, even dangerous. Assimilation is seen as a threat to one’s identity and that of his/her group. Instead of E pluribus unum there is rising pressure to go the other way, toward the many, rather than the one. In 2016 David Victor Hansen wrote an article entitled, “America: History’s Exception". His last sentence reads: “We should remember that diversity is an ornament, but unity is our strength.” 


So, what is our primary evidence of unity? What guide do we have in answering the question, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” Unlike so many modern-day sources, the Bible addresses that very topic in its first and second chapters. This Sunday, under the title, “The Mark of a Man”, we will examine Genesis 1:24-27 and 2:18-23 and get some answers. 


In preparation for Sunday you may wish to consider the following: 


1. Someone has said, “The root of all my struggles in life is knowing who I am.” Do you agree? 


2. What is an identity crisis? 


3. What are the more common ways of discovering one’s identity? 


4. What is the image of God? 

5. What does it mean to have been created in it? 


6. How do you explain the pleural pronouns in 1:26? 


7. What’s the difference between “image” and “likeness” in verse 26? 


8. What does “dominion” mean? 


9. What’s the significance of linking the image of God to gender in verse 27? 


10. How does Jesus’ post-resurrection act in John 20:22, 23 relate to all of this? 


See you Sunday! 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

"Getting It All Started" - Doug Rehberg

It’s one of my favorite stories. If you have been at Hebron for ten years or more, you’ve most likely heard it.

Nearly 70 years ago, Dr. Robert Lamont was living in Pittsburgh and preaching at The First Presbyterian Church downtown, as their 10th senior pastor. It was during the early years of his tenure when he and his wife were expecting their first child and Lamont had invited Barnhouse to come and preach for the week.

Every night it was the same routine. There’d be fifteen minutes of singing and prayer, then Lamont would come and introduce Barnhouse; and for the next 45 minutes this nationally acclaimed Bible teacher would come and teach. But one night Lamont was missing. So, Barnhouse got up, introduced himself, and began to teach. About 30 minutes into his message the big back doors of the church opened and in walked Lamont. He tried to be inconspicuous, but as soon as he entered the sanctuary Barnhouse stopped and stared at him. Everyone began to laugh. They all knew where he had been, but no one said anything. When Lamont took his seat, Barnhouse simply continued his message. When it was over, Lamont hurried to his side and said, “Dr. Barnhouse, can I see you in my office right away?”

Now normally at the end of the service, they’d both stand at the front of the sanctuary, but this night the elders handled those duties. Lamont closed his office door and said, “Donald, I’ve just come from the hospital. My wife has given birth to a mongoloid son. (Today it’s called Down Syndrome.) “They’ve taken the infant away. They won’t let us see him. My wife is crying and she wants answers. What should I tell her?” And Barnhouse said, “Tell her this is of the Lord.” And instantly Lamont said, “I can’t tell her that! Where did you get that?” Dr. Barnhouse opened his Bible to Exodus 4 where Moses is telling the Lord why he can’t go to Pharaoh. He says, “I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to me, but I am slow to speech and of tongue.” And then the Lord said to him, “Who made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” And with that Lamont left his office and headed to the hospital. When he entered the room his wife was crying, “Where’s my baby? Why won’t they let me see our baby?” And Lamont said, “Honey, I don’t understand it all, but the Lord has blessed us with a mongoloid child.” She was shocked and through tears said, “Where’d you get that?” Lamont opened his Bible and read it to her. Now there was a telephone operator at the hospital who was an agnostic at best. She knew that given the right set of circumstances any Christian would go to pieces the same way anyone else would. So, she decided to listen in to the phone call Mrs. Lamont placed to her mother. She said, “Mom, we don’t understand it right now but God has blessed us with a mongoloid son.” There were no tears. There was no anguish, just quiet surrender, and the operator couldn’t believe it. The news spread like wildfire all over the hospital. And the following Sunday night, when Dr. Lamont had finished preaching, he stood at the front of the sanctuary ready to pray with anyone who might have come forward to receive Christ. When he opened his eyes, there in front of him stood 24 nurses and the telephone operator.

Now think of it. A week earlier when Barnhouse was asked, “What shall I tell my wife?” do you think for one minute he knew that that baby would be the one God would use to bring 24 nurses and a telephone operator to Christ? Not on your life. The only thing he knew was how to apply the Word of God to Lamont’s situation.

One Christmas a family received an elaborate wooden puzzle. It had over 500 finely cut and pointed pieces. As the father of the house walked through the family room, he noticed that his two older sons were working on putting the pieces together while their 3-year-old sister was off to the side with a few pieces.

As soon as he walked into the room the little girl shouted excitedly, “Daddy, come here and see how I’ve put the puzzle together!” When he walked over she held up a red piece and said, “This is an apple.” She had about 20 random pieces that she had set all over the table, and to her it qualified as putting the puzzle together. Now, as she was showing her father her discoveries, her two older brothers shook their heads. They knew that she didn’t have a clue, but to a 3-year-old that was all there was to it.

And that’s how it is with interpreting the Bible. You can read it sequentially. You can memorize the words. You can quote them chapter and verse, and gain a certain amount of understanding. But it’s not until you seek to put the puzzle together by drawing in all the other scripture that bears on a particular text or theme that the puzzle comes together.

That’s what we are going to seek to do throughout 2021 as we dig into the Book of Genesis. It is the place where every major Christian theme and doctrine has its roots. We will see that time and time again, throughout our study.

In preparation for our first message: “Getting It All Started” from Genesis 1:1-3, you may wish to consider the following:

1. What does verse 1 of chapter 1 tell us about God?

2. What does it tell us about time?

3. What did St. Augustine mean when he said, “I cannot show you my God, not because there is no God to show, but because you have no eyes to see Him.”?

4. Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” How is he right? How is he wrong?

5. How important is the period after verse 1?

6. What does it mean that the Spirit of God “was hovering over the face of the waters”?

7. How do we see the Triune God in verses 1-3?

8. Where’s the Gospel in verse 3?

9. What doctrines can you identify in verses 1-3?

See you Sunday!

Monday, December 21, 2020

"The Benediction of Peace" - Henry Knapp

Ending on a High Note… Launching Into the Future 

The problem with a good illustration is that sometimes it can be taken by people to “illustrate” the wrong thing! 

In the 1920s and 30s, it was popular to end a public musical performance with a musician or singer hitting a particularly difficult high note, rousing the crowd in admiration. The idea was, after a pleasing concert or show, the audience would be left with a powerful, moving finale to go home on, thus extending the joy post-performance as one would reflect back on that final moment. 

Now, I need to be careful here… in worship the congregation is NOT, repeat, NOT an audience! We all are the participants who direct our worship toward God, the rightful “Audience”. The illustration above is not to parallel the congregation and a crowd passively listening, but to emphasize the power and impact of “ending on a high note”. In worship, that “ending” is the benediction. 

If you have been worshipping at Hebron for some time, you will note that we end each and every worship service with a benediction. That is not simply some ritual or action that we do “just because”. A benediction is an important part of a worship service—it both ends the service on a “high note” and it launches the worshipper into their week. 

“Benediction” is Latin for “good word” or “good speaking”. So, when the pastor speaks a benediction, he is blessing the congregation with a final “good word”: a good word intended to wrap up all that has been happening during the worship service, and a good word which should spur us on to godliness, service, and adoration throughout the week. The benediction of a Hebron worship service is sometimes a summary statement of the Scripture, sometimes a charge and/or encouragement, sometimes a passage from the Bible. 

The classic benediction in Scripture is in Numbers 6:22-27 where Moses is explicitly commanded by God to bless God’s people with words you might be familiar with: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” The essence of this benediction is the announcement of God’s blessing, His grace and peace—all wrapped up with the promise of His very Presence with His people. 

Just as a benediction is to “end with a high note”, to wrap up the worship experience with God’s Presence, and to send us into the world with His blessings; so this week in worship we will give a “benediction” to this past year and look forward to the one coming. For many of us, thinking of the past year in terms of blessing will not be too easy—it certainly has been a challenge! But, as we attend to the Word in Scripture, we will, I trust, hear God’s blessings, and be able to carry them into the future. 

Join us, online, for worship this Sunday as we explore a marvelous scriptural benediction, Hebrews 13:20-21.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

"Anticipating Joy" - Doug Rehberg

The word for this 4th Sunday of Advent is “joy”. What a perfect word to describe the essence of Christmas!

According to Webster a truism is, “a statement that’s obviously true and says nothing new or interesting.” Here’s an example: “You get what you pay for.”

When you read the Bible you find one of the greatest truisms:

The only thing that stands between you and joy is you!

Eight years ago a friend and mentor of mine wrote a book that we’ve used in some Groves over the years. In it he tells of the time he was speaking at a national gathering of his denomination (PCA) where he said some controversial things. After his talk he was confronted by a serious young man in a three-piece-suit with a concerned look on his face. Here’s his description of their encounter.

“Dr. Brown,” he said, “what you said today grieved my heart!”

“Grieved your heart?” I responded. “There was nothing big enough here to grieve your heart. We’re one of the smallest denominations in America, and I’m a peon. Find something bigger to grieve your heart!”

“You don’t want to hear,” he said quietly and with a godly patience, “what a fellow pastor says?”

I thought about it for a moment and said, “No, not really, but if you want to say something and be honest about it, I’ll listen…at least awhile.”

“I think,” he said, his voice rising for the first time (really spiritual people don’t shout, but he was close) “that you are arrogant, rude, and prideful.”

Do you know what I said? I said: “Bingo! You have read me well, but I’m better than I was. Your heart would have been even more grieved five years ago, and it would be even more grieved if you knew the whole truth about me now.”

We ended up talking for over an hour, and he eventually loosened his tie. All things considered, it was a rather honest and good discussion, but that’s not the point. The point is how I felt when I said, “Bingo!” Once I said that, I had an incredibly wonderful feeling of freedom and joy.

Generally, I would have defended myself. (I’m quite good at doing that.) I would have engaged him in a debate and “eaten his lunch”. (I have a glib tongue and know how to use it.) I may have worked to belittle him and his judgmental spirit. (Any preacher can do that well.) I didn’t. I just told him that he had read me well.

Do you know what I experienced with that one word, “Bingo!”? I felt free and powerful. In fact, it felt so good I’ve decided to do it more. I call it the “Bingo Retort.”

You’re wrong!

Bingo! I’ve been wrong at least 50 percent of the time.

You’re selfish.

Bingo! My mother said the same thing, and my wife knows it too.

You’re not living up to your potential.

Bingo! If it’s okay with you, I’m not going to live up to my potential awhile longer.

You’re not fit to be a Christian.

Bingo! That’s why Christ died for me.

You’re a preacher? You’re certainly not spiritually qualified to be a preacher.

Bingo! I’ve often said the same thing to God.

How can you be a Christian and say/do that?

Bingo! I sometimes wonder that myself.

I am follically challenged (“bald” for the slower among us). It didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t just look in the mirror one morning to discover that my hair was missing. It was incremental and slow.

I did what every bald guy tried to do at the beginning…hide the baldness. I moved hair around to those places where growth was sparse. But trying to hide baldness is sort of like self-righteousness. One doesn’t even know it or admit it or think that anybody else notices it until a good wind destroys the ruse and everybody sees the truth. It starts with lowering the part of one’s hair and eventually it comes to growing the hair long where it will grow and brushing it to cover the places where it won’t. There were even times when I refused to take speaking engagements—I can’t believe I’m telling you this!—because I wouldn’t have time to “fix” my hair and cover my baldness.

It was my atheist friend who messed up the gig. “Can I ask you a question?” he said.

“Of course.”

“You’re a preacher?”

“You know I am.”

“How the h___ can you be a preacher who is into honesty and stuff like that and be that dishonest with your hair? Frankly, it’s not only dishonest, it looks silly. Don’t you know that everybody knows it and that they laugh behind your back?

I don’t remember what I said to him, but I do remember what I did that evening. I stood in the mirror and gave up. I cut off the long hairs I used to cover my bald head with and brushed what was left straight back. I was kind of surprised. I didn’t look handsome exactly, but there was something to be said for joining the ranks of Yul Brynner, Patrick Stewart, Telly Savalas, and Michael Jordan. And I slept better that night, better than I had in a very long time. I was even able to sleep late because I didn’t have to get up so early to “fix” my hair.

“Free at last! Thank God Almighty! Free at last!”

That experience was not dissimilar to the experience I had when I finally accepted the true grace of God given to me in Jesus Christ…You see, self-righteousness isn’t the only thing that’s addictive. Repentance is too!

That’s what we see in our primary text this week: Luke 1: 26-46 and our secondary one: Philippians 2:5-11. Both Mary and Paul prove that, for the Christian, the only thing that stands between you and joy is you.

In preparation for Sunday’s message, “Anticipating Joy” you may wish to consider the following:

1. What similarities are there in the circumstances of Mary and Paul in these texts?

2. To whom is joy attributed in Luke chapter one?

3. What similarities are there between these three?

4. We are going to show that joy, for Mary, is a 4-step process. Can you identify each of them?

5. Why does Mary go to see Elizabeth after receiving the news the angel reports in verses 28-37?

6. What do we see in Elizabeth that propels Mary’s joy?

7. What do we see in Mary’s song of praise that indicates her knowledge of God’s character?

8. How similar is Paul’s response in Roman custody?

9. How true is our suggested truism?

10. How contingent is our joy on the finished work of Christ?

See you Sunday!

Monday, December 7, 2020

"Anticipation: Love" - Doug Rehberg

It’s been called, “A Masterpiece in Acting” — The Two Popes. Have you seen this film yet? It’s available on Netflix, and it’s worth your time.

Written by Anthony McCarten, the writer of “Darkest Hour”, and directed by Fernando Meirelles, the director of “City of God”, The Two Popes is inspired by true events that occurred inside the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church in the last decade. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is the soon-to-be elected Pope Francis to replace the aging Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins). The ideological and temperamental differences, and the theological debates that spring from them, drive the movie’s action as the leaders spar over the future of the 21st century Roman Catholic Church. And though much of the movie is fictional, those real debates have consequences far beyond the cloistered enclave of the Vatican. They even have direct relevance to our sermon topic this Sunday!

Pope Francis, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, is portrayed in the film as a strong-willed progressive, a man more comfortable with giving open-air sermons and working on projects for the poor than participating in the solemn rituals of the Vatican. This depiction is not far off. As a Jesuit priest in Argentina, Bergoglio rose rapidly through the ranks of the Catholic order. In 1973, at age 36, he became head of all the Jesuits in Argentina and neighboring Uruguay.

In 1990, after a dispute within the Jesuit order, he was stripped of his leadership responsibilities and exiled to Cordoba, in central Argentina, where he spent two years in what he later described as, “a time of great interior crisis”. When he emerged, it was as a changed leader, with a new perspective gleaned from his interactions with the city’s poor.

Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Rateinger, who served as Pope from 2005 to 2013, is portrayed in an equally life-like manner. He is shown as a rigid, uncompromising leader who sees a return to doctrinal purity as the best course for a Roman Catholic Church struggling with 21st century problems. Like Pryce’s portrayal of Francis, the film’s characterization of Benedict XVI is not far off the mark.

In the film the two meet under unprecedented circumstances. Bergoglio travels to Rome to request permission to retire. Immediately he’s met by Pope Benedict XVI who tells him that he will not accept his resignation, in part, because he is about to step down from the papacy.

As the film plays out, it offers a fascinating window into the debate between the two ideologically opposed religious leaders. The literal veracity of these conversations and the situation that created them, are mostly imagined by McCarten. But it’s an imagination solidly founded in the stated positions of each expressed in their speeches and writings over the years.

It’s in one of these heated conversations, in the confines of the Sistine Chapel, that some remarkable transparency occurs. The future Pope Francis says to Pope Benedict XVI words with which Benedict is familiar. He wrote them years earlier!

Angrily Benedict says to Bergoglio, “Without truth, love degenerates into sentimentality.” Without skipping a beat Bergoglio replies, “Yes, ‘Truth may be vital, but without love it is unbearable.’” These are the same words Joseph Ratzinger had written years before. Bergoglio is simply reminding him of this greatest truth.

Do you know where Ratzinger got that truth? From the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. That’s why the Apostle John describes the incarnation and the crucifixion the way he does in I John 4:7-12. In the Old Testament there are glimpses of the loving essence of God, but in Jesus we get the full picture of it. The sad truth is that even with the full picture our wicked hearts propel us to forget that God is Love and all that that means. Being reminded of it changes everything, even for a pope!

In preparation for Sunday’s message, “Anticipation: Love” you may wish to consider the following:

1. Read the following brief Old Testament texts to get a glimpse of the power of God’s loving essence: Exodus 33:12-23; Hosea 14:1-4; Malachi 3:1-6.

2. In R.C. Sprouls’ book The Holiness of God he points out that the angels’ description of God in Isaiah 6:3 as the only attribute of God raised to the third power, or repeated three times in quick succession. This implies that holiness is the paramount attribute, the central essence of God. Do you agree?

3. In the New Testament God is described four times by the words: “God is _____.” What are the four words that fill in the blank?

4. Why is truth unbearable without love?

5. How does the Gospel perfectly answer that question?

6. John 1:14-18 speaks of the fullness of God being seen in Jesus. How does he describe that fullness? (see verses 16 & 17)

7. How is the reality of the Trinity a perfect picture of God’s essence as love?

8. Charles Spurgeon once said, “The wheel of providence revolves, but its axis is eternal love.” Would you agree?

9. Why do you think Paul tells the Corinthians that love is greater than faith and hope? Would you agree?

10. Is it by truth or love that we best reflect God?

See you Sunday!