Christopher Schultz loved being a father. (http://www.startribune.com/father-drowns-saturday-night-in-detroit-lakes-after-trying-to-rescue-his-child/511374841/) His heart beat solely to please his four young sons. Crawling on hands and knees, stalking the boys, leaping, tackling, tickling. Building Lego towers higher and higher until the heights toppled over. Chasing each one out in the yard, being chased himself. Working under the car, little hands handle wrenches and pound away on stuck bolts. Listening carefully to adventurous tales of dragons and dinosaurs. Bringing home stickers and markers. Christopher loved his sons dearly.
On a cool June evening (the evening before Father’s Day), Christopher and his three-year-old son, Ashton, went walking. Christopher pointed at towering oak trees and maple leaves, brown squirrels and Blue Jays. Little Ashton’s eyes lit up and a smile ‘ooed’ and ‘awwed’ at every fascination. The two reached ‘Long Bridge’ where they stopped and stared into the swift-flowing river. Christopher spotted fish, Ashton chucked stones. Just as they turned to leave, little Ashton stumbled. His tiny legs sped forward as he tried to catch his balance, but those little feet would not stop. Ashton fell right off the bridge and into the current below. How the Father’s heart broke!
He watches the son he loves choking, flailing, thrashing against the waters sweeping over his head! The Lord looks down from heaven as the Babylonian army steamrolls ever closer to Israel. None of this happens by chance, no. This terrifying war-machine marches out to capture a nation that had drifted from its God. The glistening, golden temple, once filled with vibrant songs of praise stands empty. Many now direct their prayers to trees and stones. Once-flourishing markets now exist as a gauntlet of greedy merchants cheating the innocent. The palace, once a symbol of power, integrity, and justice, stands as a symbol of corruption and spiritual filth. The Lord looks down from heaven and sees his sons drowning in the results of sin.
Do you see? ‘Sin’ is ‘lawlessness’ (1 John 3:4). Actions that war against God’s law! God commands his kings: ‘Trust me with all your heart, mind, and soul’ (Matthew 22:37) and Israel’s kings say, ‘No! We will rely on earthly kings with their money and firepower.’ God commands his priests: ‘Call on me in trouble and I will deliver you’ (Psalm 50:15) and Israel’s priests say, ‘No! We tried that and you did not answer the way we want!’ God commands his people: ‘Impress my words in your mind and heart’ (Deuteronomy 6:7) and Israel says, ‘No! Those words do not let us do whatever we crave.’ ‘Sin’ is not some silly joke. ‘Sin’ is not an accidental flaw that can be repaired. ‘Sin’ is not another name for ‘harmless fun.’ ‘Sin’ rebels against God Most High. ‘Sin’ severs the bond of love between humanity and the Father. ‘Sin’ stands opposed to God, on the other side of vast canyon, content with the span in between. ‘Sin’ gets what it wants: Life without God forever.
That spiritual corruption wreaks havoc in every aspect of life. It wars against everything God calls ‘good.’ Relationships strain because human hearts still tug against the Word! A spouse lets worldly advice influence her; he refuses to hear God’s marriage instruction. Your son embraces his God-less lifestyle more than trying to reconnect with God. Your best-friend had a moment where she pursued her interests, leaving you hurt, unwanted, rejected. The sin inside of us damages the relationships we have with others, and the sin inside of others damages the relationships they have with us!
God never created death; he did not intend for us to die. Still, death comes because hearts wander. We live with that tragically unwanted reality! A cellphone contact no longer works because grandma sinned. The house gets quieter because a spouse sinned. A miscarriage preaches that parents pass sin down to their children. Strength dwindles as we get older. Sometimes hobbies and abilities change. Disease reminds us all that no one is immortal— and you are powerless to add years to life. You cannot wish cancer away. You cannot remove it by thinking real hard. Even with the medicines and doctors and surgeries we have today, health does not always come back. Mortality is a painful reminder of that terrible truth— that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
For us it can feel as though we flail and choke under wave after wave of misery. Challenges pile so high that it is difficult to see God. Difficulties toss us into despair, feeling as though God does not care. All these troubles press down, leaving us feeling as though you must be god; you must rely on yourself to conquer all these troubles.
Destruction barrels towards Israel and still Isaiah says: I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. Here’s a truth: Even though trouble appears so often in life, God remains. He remains with his faithful love.
Israel’s entire history lists evidence after evidence of the Father’s constant love! He reached down from heaven and tore off the shackles of slavery; he pounded Pharaoh into submission. He ripped open the Red Sea, took Israel by the hand, and led them out of Egypt. Then he closed those watery walls on the most-feared army of its day. For forty years he led his sons through a barren wasteland. He provided morning bread and dinnertime meat. Water flowed freely. Clothes never became threadbare, shoes never wore out. He removed any need for battle strategies. He handed the keys to a brand new land, fertile and lush, comfortable and satisfying! His Fatherly heart sought only Israel’s best.
Understand, the Lord did not save Israel because they are a superior race. He did not rescue them because they could trust God better than any other nation. In fact, Israel did not choose to belong to God, but it is God who chooses them! God decided to promise Abraham: ‘All peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Genesis 12:2). That is compassion. That is love gushing from your heart, seeking the only best for others. For [the Lord] said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior.
A ‘Savior,’ someone who does the act of saving. Someone who must step in because you cannot rescue yourself. Christopher Schultz watched his three-year-old son Ashton gagging, choking, drowning. Compassionate love for his son pushed Christopher to jump into the current. Instantly the waters washed over his head. Heavy clothing weighed him down. Currents pulled and tugged him. Still, he reached his helpless child and grabbed him. With son in arm, Christopher fought towards shore. He literally held his son over his head so that his son could breathe, even though it meant waters covered his own head.
In all their affliction he was afflicted… Jesus never stood in heaven, looking down at you (and me) gagging on the sin that leads to death. He jumped into your world. He took on flesh— and with it, he shouldered the perfect commandments of God. He stood immersed in images of disease and deformity, death and decay. His heart went out to the spiritually lost who wandered like sheep without a Shepherd— and he became their Savior. With you in arm, Jesus holds you up as our guilt washed over his head, as our sin chokes out his life. The punishment meant for us is transferred to Jesus and drags him down further and further into death.
Look at the manger. What do you find? Not a baby who guarantees that Christians will never ever have trouble in this world. That you will never get sick. That you will never encounter financial limits. That you will never have a sad, stressful day of your life. You do not need a Savior who makes sure you have a good life on earth. That is not the Savior the Israelites need. The Savior needed is the One who removes deceit from the heart. That’s the Savior you need.
That is the Savior you have. He redeems you as his own. [T]he angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them. A ‘redeemer’ pays off debt for someone else so that the individual may keep his property. Jesus paid our overwhelming debt. He hands over a faultless life. He signs off on our debt with his innocent blood— and the Father has accepted that payment. Nothing more is required. Jesus has satisfied the entire debt! His resurrection proves that God is pleased with Jesus! Understand, Jesus redeems you (and me); he buys us back from a hellish death. Yet, he does not set you free from guilt so that you live however you want. He actually buys you (and me) for himself; he owns us.
Here’s how that ownership looks: [H]e lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. No abuse. No neglect. None of that. A toddler might run up to you, arms stretched up. You reach down and pick that little one up. Jesus carries you with complete constant, protecting care— just like a perfect father cherishes his child.
Friends, you gather here today as proof of that. You may look over the past year and see troubles littering your past. God carried you through them all. He did not allow death to overwhelm you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: Whoever believes in me will never die (John 11:25). He did not allow relationships to paralyze you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: Be kind and compassionate forgiving one another just as I forgave you (Ephesians 4:32). He did not allow broken promises to crush you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: In all things, God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). You are here today. You are not dead; you are not without God. You are here because your God carried you.
This week starts a new year. That can be frightening. So much lies unknown. Will it be good or bad? Will you get through it with strength or not? Will you succeed or struggle? I do not know. Honestly, you do not either. So often we struggle with carrying burdens that we cannot carry. We cannot control span of life and death. We cannot control the emotions of others. We cannot control the economy and government. We cannot control the future. We control so little. What we can control is relying on God to carry us.
Look back, Recall Your Father’s Faithful Love. Even though your heart (and mine) so often races away from God, God is faithful. He points to the cross as a pledge of his forgiveness. He redeemed us and keeps us under his care. He carries us. Do not worry about the matters you cannot control. Handle the thing you can control. (1) Read these promises. (2) Let them sink into your mind and heart. (3) Go to God in prayer. (4) Remain focused on the eternity God prepared for you. Let God handle the rest— just as he always has. Recall Your Father’s Faithful Love. He sends the Savior you need. He redeems you as his own.
Politicians are elected to serve the interests of a group of people. So, this group of people expect their elected official to bring unique community needs before a larger assembly, and then together, with other politicians, craft laws for their benefit. That is expected.
Expectations can bring frustration. Your needs might not always be met. Your congressman might vote impeaching the President (of the United States), but you do not want that. Maybe you did want the President impeached and your congressman did not. Your representative may fight for a gas tax that you did not want. Perhaps you did want a gas tax, but your representative did not push for it. A senator could endorse universal health care, but you do not want higher taxes. Perhaps you do want healthcare for all, but your senator does not. Politicians promise advocating for you. They guarantee taking your concerns and suggestions and putting them into law. Yet, that does not always happen. A politician might chase his own self-interests. She may act for her constituents, but your interests are not the majority’s concerns. The reality that your individually unique needs are not always addressed can ignite frustration. When you feel ignored, you feel insignificant. That fuels the pressure to rely on yourself.
That’s what makes Christmas Day special. God Most High, King of the universe, leaves his majestic throne room in heaven and comes to earth to be with us. God does not ignore your greatest need; he works for your interest in order to be with you forever. So rejoice! Because God Is With Us! How do you know? His name assures us. Can you be sure? Yes! His actions prove it.
Listen to God’s assurance in Matthew 1:22-23. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
There it is! A guarantee that God will keep your interests on his mind. God says he will be ‘with you.’ He will stand in flesh (with a body!) and experiences the same troubles of flesh! He will grieve at a funeral (John 11:35). He will see crippled limbs and heart-wrenching disease. He will observe fear in the eyes of the poor. He will watch the mighty abuse power. Yet, your God does not isolate himself from the world’s problems behind the ivory towers of a King’s mansion. He lives in the world and deals with the world. He will identify fear and handle it. He will understand anxiety and end it. He will recognize struggles and fix them. God promises to be with you!
What a promise that is! God will make all things well and whole! God will restore a bond of love! For hundreds of years people longed to see what you see, to celebrate what you celebrate! God had the prophet Isaiah share this promise seven-hundred years before the first Christmas! (That is three-times longer than the existence of our nation!) Millions of Christians over hundreds of years look ahead to that moment, but never see it. So many left wondering if God would make his intention happen.
You are [probably] not that anxious. We live on the other side of that promise. We can point at the record of God keeping his Word. [W]hen the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (Galatians 4:4-5). Christmas reveals that God did what he said he would do.
When you think about it, a promise really has no value. It simply exists as mere words strung together— words that may or may not bring an action into reality. That can make it difficult to rely on those words. You are not sure what you will receive. (1) God promises to be with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Still, life hurts. Grandpa dies; that’s not fun. A friend manipulates you, abuses your kindness. Where was God to stop that? Is he really with you? (2) God promises to deliver you from trouble, so rely on him! (Psalm 50:15) Yet, a loved one only grows sicker and weaker. The marriage is not improving. Recovery is slow. Is God listening? Is really here? (3) God promises to will make your path straight, so trust him—in good and in bad! (Proverbs 3:5-6) Yet, you found the perfect job opening, and with your skill-set, you should get it. You make plans and they seem pretty definite. Right now, life feels fine, you are content. Where does God fit in when life feels under your control?
Promises do not always fill us with comforting peace. A promise should be a guarantee of future action, but so often promises are so often changed, forgotten, or broken— and we cannot rely on them. Even though God promises to be ‘with us,’ we may struggle with feelings of fear and anxiety. How does that happen? Our humans drag God down to a human level. We hear his promises, but receive them as equal to promises from faulty human mouths. We can treat God like some politician who does not always have our interests in mind. A politician who serves the interests of others. Really, our human heart can call God a ‘liar.’
That’s why God does Christmas. Christmas Day took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” Do you realize how awesome that is?! The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans worshipped a plethora of deities— and not one [so-called] god cared for his people. If enemies invaded the land, you frantically bargained for their attention. Sacrifice money, animals, people— and hope that was enough. Then there always remained the heart-stopping possibility that the gods simply did not care.
God does not send another prophet. He does not send a king. He sends himself. ‘Immanuel’ is a Hebrew word; it means: IM= with. MANU= us. EL= God. ‘God with us!’ That little baby Mary cradles in her arms, the little baby locking eyes with you, that little baby by his simple presence alone is ‘Immanuel,’ God-with-us!
Do you wonder if God truly cares about your needs? Do you worry that God might have more pressing matters on his mind? Do you think that with over 7-billion people in the world, God cannot possibly deal with your [seemingly] insignificant fear? End that anxiety here. God Is With Us. How do you know? His name assures us. Even more, His actions prove it.
You realize that behind certain names lie certain responsibilities. A politician carries more than just a title. A ‘President’ must lead or a ‘congressman’ crafts bills. ‘Immanuel,’ God-with-us, is not simply the name of God on earth. ‘Immanuel’ does work!
In that little baby lies the might to do what we cannot. He grows up and stands up against every attractive temptation. The devil, who so often leads us into doubt, cannot get Jesus to doubt God’s providing care. Those fears which tug on us to question God’s reasoning cannot get Jesus to challenge God. Self-reliance leads us to think we are God, life’s ultimate handler. Yet, Jesus bows under God’s control. Jesus does what we cannot. He withstands temptation. He stumbles not once. In him is life.
Jesus, Immanuel, is with us as he brings every single promise of God to complete fulfillment. The Son of David is pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). The Son of God towers over death by his own resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). What does this have to do with you? Everything Jesus does on earth is done to bring you into God’s favor. At your baptism, God said: I have summoned you by name; you are mine (Isaiah 43:1). God binds himself to you. God Is With Us.
God Is With Us to this very day. The first Christmas occurred over 2,000 years ago. Jesus ascends into heaven a little under 2,000 years ago. Although off the earth, God remains with us for our comfort. I mean, what accusations can Satan launch at you? He will call you ‘not perfect,’ not good enough for God. He will point out your wickedness and negligence. He will claim that that one secret sin is unforgiveable. How do you remove guilt and shame? Jesus steps up to you and covers you in his innocent life. God does not see filth, he sees purity. God Is With Us to silence those accusations. God is With Us and we can stand before him without fear.
Even more God Is With Us in his Word. If I sent you a letter, you receive my thoughts and my intentions. (You might even hear my voice in your head.) When you read the Bible you see God’s heart and hear what’s on his mind. He makes it pretty clear: [N]either death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). How do you know that? Jesus came to connect you to God; his actions prove that God Is With Us! The troubles you face will only make you stronger because you do not rely on your abilities, you rely God’s powerful might. The funerals you attend will only reinforce the splendid truth that heaven is life’s ultimate home. The good times you enjoy only lead you to thank God for that rest and enjoyment. God’s Word shapes our response to life in this world. We know God Is With Us because his actions prove it.
That’s what makes Christmas Day special. God Most High, King of the universe, leaves his majestic throne room in heaven and comes to earth to be with us. Yet, God is not an elected politician serving the interests of some, or working only for the majority. He does not make promises that are broken or changed. God works for your interest in order to be with you forever. So rejoice! Because God Is With Us! How do you know? His name assures us. Can you be sure? Yes! His actions prove it.
‘Chuck’ is not his real name, but I met ‘Chuck’ at his lakehouse. Now, when Chuck was younger, his family spent weekends up north. Those were good times. Times soaking in the sun’s warmth. Times mindlessly staring into a crackling fire. Times single-mindedly focused on jumping and splashing and floating in the lake. Times with no stomach-churning anxiety. Times with no tightening vice-grip of stress. Times with no fear that the life you cobbled together could possibly crumble down.
Good memories brought Chuck back to the area— because much of his adult life was anything but good. His first marriage lasted about 20-years. By the time he reached out for counseling, the divorce papers were already in the mail. The second marriage fizzled out in months and so did half of his bank account. His two sons basically grew up without him. One sometimes visits, the other wants no contact. Chuck found himself retired, a two-time ex-husband still fighting alimony claims, with only one child who does not make much time for him. So, enter the lakehouse. Chuck moved to the old family vacation-grounds hoping that he can bring back the peaceful life he once had.
If that sounds foolish, then recall how companies have spent all month bombarding you with images of peace. Commercials showcase cheery, gleeful families gathering together. Gifts under the tree promise real fulfillment. Even food companies paint cozy cottages and warm fires with their products in hand. You (and I) might not buy a lakehouse, but do you buy into the notion that with the right items in the right settings under the right circumstances, you will finally live satisfied?
For just a moment look behind the Christmas decorations. Look behind the lights, the trees, the greenery, the white snow and cozy fires. Look behind the presents, behind the preparations, behind the smiles and hugs. What do you see? Because if you are like me, you realize life is far from perfect. No one wants to sit in a chair in the hospital room beside a loved one. She hurts, but you cannot take away the hurt. He groans, but you cannot provide comfort. Lungs gasp and seize, and very soon he will be ripped out of your life— and you cannot stop it. Can presents under the tree really fill the void that comes from knowing you cannot control health? You plan enjoying the family Christmas, but you hesitate a little. You know it will only be a matter of time before your sister stirs up some needless drama or your parents criticize your efforts or your brother makes it clear that he would rather be somewhere else. Does that smiling and dancing commercial-family even come remotely close to identifying with your family? Can a Christmas tree actually give you the strength and health of a twenty-year-old? Can snow actually hide your fears about moving out on your own? Do you think dressing up and singing Christmas carols will strengthen your marriage and end tensions with your child or repair the bond with your dad? Will politicians work together just because you ate ham? Of course not! We would never expect that (even though we might wish it were true).
Maybe that’s what is so captivating about these festive images. That perhaps at least for just a day, we can travel back to a simpler time. A time before a spouse’s death. A time before the family broke down. A time before worrying if you will have enough money for the future. A time before hearing politicians bickering, a time before needless violence. A time before age slowed you down. A time before children disappointing you or parents bearing down on you. A time when life felt happy and carefree.
Perhaps Chuck truly realizes that a lakehouse can never turn back the hands of time, but it’s not supposed to. Maybe he just wants this lakehouse to cover up a pain-riddled past.
Call it is mask, if you wish. A mask tries to cover up the real issue. A mask tries to sidestep the real issue. Chuck’s problems do not stem from his ex-wives only; he admits that he is the problem too. His sons do not prioritize him because he did not prioritize them. Plugging ears to reality or ignoring trouble does not make it go away. Relationships involve two people; tension is not the fault of one person only. Shattered dreams do not happen by chance. Emptiness and frustration are not feelings that you must expect. Cover up your troubles with a mask if you wish; sidestep the real problem at hand. Still you will not find peace. The real reason life can feel so unsatisfying is that we are not perfect.
Admitting that is not really something we want to do. By nature we want to boast of our perfection and everyone else’s imperfection. So, God has to make it clear: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… He pictures you and me every single person in the world living as though the sun (and household lights) never existed! It’s dark! You cannot see the hand in front of your face. You cannot find a safe path on which to walk. You cannot see your stubbornness fueling bitterness. You cannot see your selfishness fraying relationships. You cannot see your ambitions stripping away real hope. Even worse, you cannot see that life was never meant without God.
So, God has to shine that light. God makes clear the realization of the only place where true peace is found. He sets a Light in this little town of Bethlehem. The Child in the manger is no ordinary child who will grow up to please his parents and (sometimes) disappoint his parents. He will not get a job, make money, save money, spend money, and then die. No. [T]o us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. This Child comes down from heaven and holds final say over all things in the world!
You see, God does not ignore the troubles in our lives; he does not plug his ears to them. He deals with them. In the manger lies God’s complete seriousness to give you peace. Two parents and shepherds see it. Tonight we hear their testimony. Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. He exposes the pain we try to cover up and the heartache we try to avoid. Still, as Mighty God he can powerfully remove that shame. As a perfect father he has unending compassion on us. Just like that, haunting failures erased. Regrets over arguments pardoned. The lack of peace which comes by our own hands has not been hidden, it has been eliminated.
This evening you do not hear some Christmas-time story created to numb pain. We do not spend the night putting off the troubles that will come back in a few days. Instead, you hear words about a King who brings real peace to your heart. How? Because, of course, this world is far from perfect. You may expect to attend future funerals. You may expect arguments. You may expect others to disappoint you and you to disappoint them. You may expect doctors to scare you. You may expect teachers to frustrate you. That will not bring much peace. You will feel angry, frustrated, unhappy. Here’s what does give you peace: Jesus addresses those matters.
Jesus is born to purge away my selfishness. He is born to tell of peace between God and I. He is born so that I turn to him in every frustration, every fear, every trouble. He is born so that I might take his guiding Word to heart— a Word that shapes my words with others, a Word that strengthens me to forgive others, a Word that increases my reliance in his ability. Jesus is not one option among many. He remains the only place in this world where you will discover real peace.
I am certain ‘Chuck’ will form new memories in his lakehouse. Presents around the tree, family gatherings, festivities will offer peace. Yet, I guarantee, all the pleasantries will end. I guarantee that by the end of this month you will confront stress that leaves you frustrated. So, God sends peace. Peace meant for the world, but peace meant especially for you. A place for your heart to find rest. A place for anxieties to dissipate. A place for you to live under the words and actions of your capable God. The Prince of Peace Is Your Peace.
Her frizzy hair made it look as though she had just rolled out of bed. Her plain tan dress blended into the background. The lack of makeup, her yellowed teeth, her unrefined speech suggested a lack of education. This middle-aged, past-her-prime-woman from a cluster of tiny villages stood on the stage of Britain’s largest talent show and shared her dream of becoming a professional singer (compared to the likes of Celine Dion).
Laughter exploded from the audience. Judges rolled their eyes, preparing to expose the silliness of her pipe dream. The hosts stood backstage, mockingly mimicking her hand-waving, her confidence, her mannerisms. Many expected her to last no more than ten seconds before getting laughed off stage.
Very soon, a stringed orchestra started playing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from the famous musical Les Miserales. She took a breath and opened her mouth— and instantly everyone’s eyes opened. Judges raised eyebrows. Clapping erupted from the audience. The hosts stood frozen, attentions locked on her. This frizzy-haired, unspectacular middle-aged woman from the middle of nowhere unleashed a voice that sat at the top of the 2009 Music Billboards and later created the top-selling album of 2009. Susan Boyle looked so unassumingly plain, but revealed a spectacular ability. Appearances can be deceiving. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jca_p_3FcWA)
The prophet Isaiah holds up another image that can be deceiving. He touches on life in this world, but presents two very contrasting features: a desert and oasis. In a world that appears only to hand us unending frustrations, The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life. He overwhelms every withering fear. He crowns every heart with joy.
Just like God intended. For just a moment, picture the Eden God created (Genesis 1). What do you see? What do you hear? Songbirds tweeting sweet melodies from lush, leafy bushes. Water trickles from a babbling brook, thriving trees offer ripe fruit. Cows graze while wolves harmlessly trot by. No sweltering heat, no stifling humidity; the climate holds just right. What paradise! You do not see animals growling and snarling, fighting and killing. You do not see trees falling and rotting, plants withering and dying. You do not see conflict, resentment, criticism. You see wholeness, completeness— absolute contentment in your relationships and in your desires.
Where does Isaiah take you? A desert. A dry, arid landscape stuffed with heaping piles of dust so starved of water that no plant can grow. Bone-white trees stick out of the ground like toothpicks; scraggly, prickly bushes offer no drink, no shade. Parched riverbeds crack open. The scorching sun bakes you dry. You see no strength. You see no relief. You see no life.
Isaiah holds up two contrasting worlds. A paradise promising no pain and a desert sucking away all fulfilling satisfaction. Which picture best describes your world?
Honestly, we want complete soul-satisfying pleasure, but so often encounter shattered promises. We plan pleasant futures. You crave the perfect, conflict-free family gathering, but somehow that one touchy topic forces people into corners. Sides are taken, tension mounts, arguments erupt, family divides. You map out goals, but money sifts through your fingers, an accident pushes back the timeframe, a spouse dies— and those goals fizzle out, leaving you sullen. Half-empty churches have you wondering if you are doing something wrong or if the community simply finds no need for God. No matter how hard we try to line up life just right, someone (or something) interferes and brings those lofty expectations crashing down. Then what about those expectations you carry? You promise self-control, you want to change, but then you stumble— again. And you feel so disgusted that you are too weak to choose the right. Terrible, self-centered choices hurt those you love most and nothing you do today can change the past. You must always drag around that shameful regret. Then that guilt presses you: ‘Have you sinned one too many times?’ ‘Will God really forgive you? …. even after you come to him again for the umpteenth-millionth time?’ ‘Can God really forgive someone like you for the hidden wickedness he sees?’ No wonder Isaiah sets you (and me) in this wilderness! This is life cut off from God! You see the paradise God creates; he never intended us to find purpose without him. He creates Eden for us to live with him— in his presence, in open communication, in the complete satisfaction of finding delight in obeying his Word.
This wasteland breaks out because we brought it into the world. This wilderness exists because of sin, because of turning away from what God expects. So we battle conflicts because our hearts find no satisfaction in taking God’s guiding Word to heart. Goals crumble because we try to find joy in this world rather than joy in God the Giver. We carry regret by no fault of God, but because we deliberately disobey in the hope of finding real pleasure. Isaiah shows you (and I) what we have earned for ourselves. Life that turns from God is dry, fruitless, dead.
So, God steps into our wilderness— and Isaiah sees it. Isaiah stares 700-years into the future and sees God come with a vengeance, with divine retribution; He comes and saves you. He saves you by hanging Jesus on a cross and steamrolling him with his vengeance. The One who opened the eyes of the blind is the One struck for our spiritual blindness that refused to see God as God. The One who cleanses filthy skin is the One covered in our filthy crimes. The One who raises the dead is the One struck dead because that is the punishment we deserved.
Jesus steps into this wilderness, a wilderness separated from God— and endures the full brunt of that way of life. On the cross his life dries up. He is tossed into the dust of death, left lifeless— and saves you. In Jesus is life. Not just any life, but that perfect Eden-life. A life that does not remain dead. A life that rises! A life that goes on and on. A life he puts on you.
The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life by overwhelming every withering fear. Because Jesus came, your guilt has been removed. Because Jesus came, God no longer remembers your regrets. Because Jesus came, you hold the certain announcement of sin forgiven. Your God has come with a vengeance (as promised!) and saved you.
That will impact life. Isaiah holds up that desert image, but you do not see a dry desert, do you? You see a former picture revitalized into a gushing oasis. [A] highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness… Living in central Michigan, you have experienced both shoddy roads and reconstructed roads. After all the roadwork completed this summer, you have safe, trouble-free access to destinations. God keeps his sleeves rolled up and paves a highway— a straight, smooth path.
[T]he unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; wicked fools will not wander onto it. Did you grasp the sheer wonder of those words? God reveals who can walk this road. You probably realize that it’s you. Yet, do you see the words used to describe you? ‘Not unclean.’ ‘Not a fool.’ God sees you as you truly are: forgiven, fault-free, innocent. I know, you may laugh at that thought, but God does not. God does not ask if you emotionally *feel* forgiven; he tells you that you are. Baptism washed you and gave you second birth into a new life— a life connected to God (Titus 3:4-7). The Lord’s Supper assures you that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies you from all uncleanness (1 John 1:7-9). God reveals you as you truly are: People made to belong on that road to heaven.
Appearances can be deceiving. That is why God has to tell you (and me) the way things truly are. Life might feel as though you walk in a grueling desert. Yet, Jesus has linked you to that perfect paradise. That ‘Way of Holiness’ leads somewhere. The ransomed of the Lord (again, that’s you!) shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Just like God intended; the Garden of Eden recreated. No growling and snarling, fighting and killing. No rotting and decaying, withering and dying. No conflict, resentment, criticism. You see wholeness, completeness— absolute contentment in your relationships and your desires. You walk towards Zion, God’s name for heaven.
You live another day closer to that destination and you remain safe through this wilderness. Be sure, you (and I) will confront ravenous troubles. Still God promises to protect you. He does that with his Word. You might still be recovering from that flu-bug and patience is running thin. The recovery from surgery might be a little slower than expected. Still, God protects your faith, your trust in him as God. His Word teaches you to rely on him. His Word teaches that he provides the ability to get up each day. He allows family and friends to cheer you. He allows you to cheer family and friends. Life’s ailments are seen in a different light! Or, there might be an empty seat at home for Christmas; the first Christmas without that loved one. Yet, that spouse already walked into Zion. God’s Word tells you that. You see that perfect paradise and are comforted. Since you walk there too, soon there will be a joyful reunion. Or, arguments will always beg you to choose a side, and you may feel as though you stand against someone you like. Yet, God’s Word teaches patient love— a patient love you can show to others.
So much in this life can drag us down. So much can feel fruitless or pointless. That’s why Christmas teaches: The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life. He crowns every heart with joy.
Appearances can be deceiving, can’t they? Susan Boyle appeared to be nothing more than a frizzy-haired, unspectacular middle-aged woman from nowhere with nothing to offer. Now she is seen differently. Although still plain-looking, people see her voice.
The world in which we live is broken. Poor choices can haunt us. Pain lingers. You (and I) can feel completely hopeless. Yet, appearances are deceiving. Look at life through Christ. See what he accomplishes. The coming Christ overwhelms our greatest fears. He ends death. He nullifies guilt. He makes you clean. All the fears we face are overwhelmed by him. He revitalizes life. That means, we live with true hope, true peace, true joy. God does not keep it a secret as to how he sees you. He sets you on the path leading to life. He sets you on a path that sees life.
Look past the seen and see life as it truly is. See every withering fear overwhelm by Christ. See every heart crowned with joy by Christ. See The Coming Christ Revitalize Life.
Stephen Fry is a British actor [probably better] known (to us) for his roles in the television crimes series ‘Bones’ and acting in ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy. Aside from acting, Stephen Fry is also an atheist. He claims no god exists.
In a 2015 interview, Stephen Fry was asked this question: “Suppose it’s all true and you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him?” Well, this is what Stephen Fry would say:
“I would say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault! It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious [unpredictable], mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”
So, the interviewed asked: “And you think you’re going to get in?”
“No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They’re wrong. Now if I die and if it was ‘the Twelve Greek gods’ then I would have less trouble with it because the Greeks did not pretend not to be human in their unreasonableness. They did not present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-beneficent. Because the God who created this universe, if he was a good God, is quite clearly, a maniac. Utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of God would do that?! Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life-cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that did not exist. It is simply not acceptable. …So, [we ask] if there is a God, what kind of God is he? It’s perfectly apparent: He’s monstrous, utterly monstrous. He deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living— in my opinion.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suvkwNYSQo)
Stephen Fry calls his judgments of God an ‘opinion.’ We can call it as God does: ‘Darkness.’
In Colossians 1:13 God identifies the existence of two realms. The first is the domain of darkness. Darkness! The absence of light. The inability of making out shapes. The absolute failure of grasping information and forming correct conclusions. Darkness prevents anyone from seeing the truth of what lies around you! Yet, God is not describing vision problems. He calls this ‘darkness’ a ‘domain.’ A vice grip no one can escape. A darkness that blinds hearts and minds from seeing life as it truly exists. Simply put, you, I, the entire world start life cut off from God!
Spiritual darkness wraps us so tightly that we do not even recognize that we are blind! If you have ever played ‘Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey,’ then you know how deceiving darkness is. The blindfold blocks out all light and sight. One hand holds the donkey tail, the other hand gropes for direction. You inch forward, one foot after the another, you touch something, stick the tail, rip off the blindfold, only to see that the tail hangs nowhere close to the donkey. Of course, you thought you were right, that’s why you took the steps you did. Although blind, you consider your actions ‘correct.’ So when the interviewer asked: “You think you’re going to get in?” Stephen Fry says, “No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms.” The entire world starts life spiritually blind. Unable to recognize God as Judge and Savior! That blind heart believes humanity is morally pure and God morally evil.
That’s a darkness even our hearts combat. God says, ‘Love me with all your heart.’ (Matthew 22:37) and still we keep the Bible shut. We block his Words from memory. We care little if our behavior lines up with his expectations. God says, ‘Parents, raise your children with the Word.’ (Ephesians 6:4). Still, we ignore the kids. We do not discipline them as God wants. We do not try to correct the wrong we see. Then, there are those other times when the heart pushes back against what God says. I can look at simple water and say, ‘This creates faith? Nope. That sounds silly.’ ‘This bread and wine is Jesus’ body and blood? Impossible! I cannot understand it so it cannot be.’ I can look at God’s promises and say, ‘No, God, you don’t really care about my sadness!’ ‘No, God, I got this money by my own smarts.’ ‘No, God, success comes because I try.’ I can look at a wandering soul and think, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what he believes.’ ‘She will be in heaven.’ If you are like me, you can shatter God’s commands without flinching; I do not even flinch because I expect God to condone my actions. In that way I make it quite clear: ‘God, I will not live on your terms! You accept my terms.’ That is the darkest, most blind lie the human mind has ever concocted: The notion that that you outrank God.
As clever as Stephen Fry sounds, his logic contains one critical flaw: he fails to take ‘sin’ into account. He completely ignores the fact that God did create a perfect world and the reason pains exists is not because of God. God is not to blame when our words destroy relationships and our addictions shorten life and our greed never satisfies. The problem comes because Adam and Eve (as well as the rest of us) turned our backs from God Almighty! God exposes that truth with light— and not just any light, but the Light.
God sent his Son who is the image of the invisible God. See Jesus, see God. Not a prophet. Not a good teacher, but God in flesh. [Jesus is] the firstborn of all creation. ‘Firstborn’ does not mean ‘the first one created,’ but ‘first in line.’ Just like the oldest son received the family inheritance, God hands Jesus the reins of the universe. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Jesus anchored the land and he carved out the oceans. He put earth in its orbit and pulls it around the sun. He formed man and allows him to govern. Jesus exists before all things— including you (and me). Do you think you possess the right, the equal standing to demand that God condone disobedience? He is the One who already sits in the paradise we want!
Yet, the Maker of governments stands silent by as a corrupt government condemns him, an innocent man. The Designer of nature is fastened to wood meant to help life, not to take life. The King of the Universe suffers the death-sentence his rebellious subjects earned. All those times we shook an angry fist at God, barking out: ‘Not on your terms!’ Jesus lives on God’s terms. He comes to obey God’s want and will. Then, he offers—not forces—but offers his life in exchange for yours.
What right do you have to that claim? None. Yet, the King of the Universe has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. Jesus obliterates darkened thinking. He makes clear what he has done for you (and me). When he rose, he transferred you (and me) from the column marked ‘death’ into the column marked ‘life!’ He stepped into his heavenly kingdom, sits on his glorious throne, and reigns over all things. Now. At this moment. Today… and always. He ushers in eternal peace.
[H]e is the head of the body, the church. Now, that word ‘church’ does not describe buildings of wood and brick with people gathering inside. The Bible uses the word ‘church’ to describe all believers everywhere. The woman in South Africa who believes in Jesus as Savior. The Detroit factory-worker who knows Jesus died for him. The businessman in China who cherishes the news of a Savior. People all over the globe are united into one common faith, and God sees each individual gathered into one realm before his one throne.
Friends, you are part of that ‘church.’ Baptism created faith in Jesus as Savior (Acts 2:38-29; Galatians 3:26-27). That faith grew bigger and stronger as it heard God’s Word. In fact, you gather in this building today not to listen to a random man’s opinions, but rather to hear the words God gave you to apply to life. You live in this body of Christ.
Christ exists as the head of the body. The head controls. It tells you where to go, how to speak and act. Not just that, nothing outranks the head. Christ remains in charge. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might [have the supremacy]. Jesus already reigns in heaven with all things under his feet. No atheist actor can tell God how to act. Governments cannot eradicate the Word off the face of the earth. No world leader can keep Jesus locked up in heaven forever. Even the devil cannot stop eternity. Jesus is the first to rise from the dead and remain living. He guarantees he will not be the last. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Christ points you to the future. Jesus will use the power he possesses as God and bring all things to an end. He will purge sin out of all things. He will create a new heavens and new earth, one free from death and mourning and tears. He will bring you to gather around his throne (Revelation 7:14-17).
Will that really happen? Yes. Because Christ kept his Word. He rescued you (and me) from a domain of darkness. He transferred us into his kingdom of light. He already paid the debt owed to God. The payment has already been accepted. He already rose, breaking the stranglehold of death. He already reigns in heaven. Nothing will undo his guarantee. Jesus, who has brought us into his kingdom, ushers in eternal peace.
Christ Reigns Supreme! It does not matter what Stephen Fry would say to him. It does not matter what darkened hearts think is ‘right’ and ‘fair.’ It does not matter the excuses people will lay before the throne. Only the Word of Christ is final. That word obliterates darkened thinking. With that Word, Christ reveals guilt removed and us transferred into his kingdom. As Christ continues ruling your hearts, we have peace. We know what is to come and we know it will never be taken away. Christ Reigns Supreme!
Many of you know I fought a head cold last week. So, after worship, I just wanted rest. Got home and melted into the couch. The kids had brought out all these board games and were playing them. Very soon Clara asked me to play Chutes ‘n Ladders. I did not to play; I wanted rest. So, I said, “We’ll play after supper, ok?” She agreed and went back to playing.
Supper came. Ate. Finished. Sunk into the La-z-Boy. Felt a pretty good nap coming on. Suddenly out of nowhere, Clara’s standing right in front of me, board game in hand. “Do you want to play?” “No, not now. I’m tired.” What she said next was probably the wisest and the most hurtful of words, the kind of words that just nail parents. “But you said you would play after supper.”
She’s right. I said those words. I had every intention playing the game, but I broke my word. She told me that. She reminded me to do what I said I would do. She even came back with my word in hand. She wanted to play, so she persistently asked. She relied on my promise. She trusted that in the future my actions would match my words. I proved myself unreliable.
If I, like so many, cannot keep my word, then what a privilege you (and I) have in approaching an always-reliable God for anything, anytime, anywhere. Do you? God invites you (and me) to Wrestle with God in Prayer! As you do, you uncover three key truths: You (1) Confront your own limitations. You discover what you are and are not capable of doing. You (2) Take hold of God’s powerful might and see what God is capable of doing. This wrestling match always produces good results. You will (3) Prevail with God’s blessings.
Consider how that wrestling match changes Jacob’s confidence. Here stands a man who always schemes to get what he wants. His older brother, Esau, stood first in line for the family birthright. (That ‘birthright’ is the line of Jesus; God would come through this person’s family tree and be the blessing for the world! [Genesis 12:1-3]). Yet, Jacob wants the birthright. So, he schemes. He watches Esau take off hunting— off into the wilderness, without much food or water, shelter or safety. Jacob knows that. So he cooks this thick, hearty stew. When Esau barges in exhausted, hungry, he demands a helping. Jacob gives some— only if Esau trades his birthright first. Esau quickly agrees and Jacob remembers (Genesis 25:29-34). When his blind, elderly father, Isaac, prepares to pass down the birthright, Jacob goes back to work. While Esau works out in the fields, Jacob steals his identity. He puts on Esau’s smelly clothes. Hair covers Esau and so Jacob wears animal pelts. He even brings Esau’s signature stew to Isaac— and Isaac buys the lie! Jacob tricks his handicapped father! (27:1-30) It finally looks like Jacob meets his match in his uncle Laban. Laban lets Jacob work for him in exchange for his daughter. Jacob completes his service; Laban marries off his daughter— the wrong one. So, Laban agrees to marry away the right daughter if Jacob works longer. So Jacob works— and schemes. He works this time, not for women, but for sheep. Laban would keep the solid-colored and Jacob the spotted. Since Jacob worked the flocks, he only bred the spotted— and not Laban’s flock. Jacob’s herd flourishes and Laban’s struggles. Before Laban could catch the trick, Jacob runs away (30:31-43).
For his entire life Jacob could scheme his way out of any situation— except this one here: Esau found Jacob. He marches with 400-men (32:7). Jacob’s trapped. No sly, smooth-talking can get him out of this dilemma. He cannot flee under the cover of dark. Every passing second hammers home the dreadful reality that he cannot escape. So, he took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. Jacob was left alone, confronting his own limitations. He stands absolutely powerless to control Esau, to mold the future, to guarantee personal safety.
That is not a truth we care to admit. You (and I) tend to think we control many aspects of life, but we do not. You cannot make someone love you. You can buy her flowers, you can make him food, you can be nice to the group, but you cannot force hearts to love you. You cannot puppeteer the future. You cannot make that university accept you. You cannot make classmates worship you. You cannot make co-workers be kind to you or receive that dollar-figure salary on the perfect day each month. You cannot even control you. You have a body, but you cannot flush the flu away. You cannot cure cancer by thinking real hard. You cannot even hold back a cough or a sneeze. When you (and I) reflect on relationships, finances and health, goals and dreams, you realize how little you do control.
That leaves an impact. You (and I) get stressed because you cannot solve financial woes like you want; you cannot pour money into your bank account by thinking about it. That is why you get scared— because you cannot stop the gunman from appearing in a school or make your cancer shrink away. That is why you grow nervous for the future— because you cannot guarantee retirement, you cannot make politicians enact every single idea in your mind, you cannot force the teacher to give you ‘As.’ So we worry. We worry because we do not control what we think we control. We worry because we cannot control what we want to control. We worry because we confront our limitations— and we care little to admit that.
For a moment, ponder what that fear says about your God. Worry says that God will not keep his promises. Worry says that I have more power to control life than the almighty God. Instead of wrestling with God, we wrestle against him. We either demand God to give us what we want (because we think this is the tool we need for successful living) or we try to handle life cares and concerns on our own.
For a man who tries controlling so much, one simple touch demonstrates just how little control he has. A man wrestled with [Jacob] him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Even though Jacob could still wrestle, he realized this Mystery Man was mighty powerful.
In fact, this Man is so powerful that two thousand years after this wrestling match, he would wrestle again. This time not against Jacob, but against the penalty we brought on ourselves. God had draped on Jesus your self-reliance (and mine). The arrogant self-reliance that thinks we can hold the power to handle any trouble in life. The arrogant self-reliance that thinks we know better than God. The arrogant self-reliance that thinks God does not care what we confront. As Jesus kneels in the Garden of Gethsemane, he confronts the hellish consequence for our self-reliance.
What does he do? He Wrestles with God in Prayer. He cries out three times: “God, if possible, please take this suffering from me. Do not do what I want. Do your will” (Matthew 26:36-43). God’s will is that Jesus be our Substitute. That Jesus stands under God’s wrathful waterfall against self-reliance. Do you see how God punishes the self-reliant heart? He lets it have its wish! God leaves Jesus alone. The self-reliant heart considers itself so reliable to rescue and deliver itself from any trouble— except it cannot. This is the best it can do: fall before God.
Jesus, the One who wrestled against Jacob so long ago (read Hosea 12:2-5), takes on flesh again to wrestle self-reliance, struggle against its punishment, and win. Yes, Jesus conquers our greatest foe: death itself. Even if we could handle all of life’s worries, stresses, and accidents, we could never add another day to life. Jesus can and he does. He extends your life forever.
The man said to Jacob, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” This wrestling match teaches us that God can do what we cannot! Jacob does not try to defeat this man, but looks to this man for help. He Takes hold of God’s powerful might and prevails with God’s mighty blessings.
[The man] said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” God did not forget Jacob’s name; God has Jacob think about his name. He had always schemed, but now no more. [H]e said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” From now on, any time ‘Israel’ rings out, Jacob would remember God his Rescuer. Anytime ‘Israel’ wrote his name, he wrote down God’s protection. Anytime ‘Israel’ saw his name, he would see God’s blessings of property, family, and faith. The name change brought blessing; it re-centered Jacob’s reliance in God alone. That’s how this wrestling match ends— prevailing with God’s blessing!
Maybe prayer feels much like a wrestling match. Asking, pleading, struggling, crying, day and night— but never receiving. Where is the blessing in that? How does this benefit you?
God makes clear: Wrestle with Him in Prayer and prevail with His blessing. That blessing may be (1) increased awareness of God’s will. Yes, the heart aches for your spouse. You miss the companionship. You miss the activities, but they’re gone. Why didn’t God heal them? Remember what you (and I) admit as true: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.’ Heaven is our final stop, not earth. A spouse leaves for heaven because God promises heaven to every believer. That is their final stop and soon, you (and I) will arrive there too. You (and I) might think that we will benefit if God just grants our request. A few more dollars will provide contentment. A little more healing allows you to volunteer … to babysit …to worship— and those are good things! Doesn’t God see the benefits of giving what you ask? God also knows no earthly wish completely satisfies the heart. If you get, you can worship the object. If you get, you only want more. If you get, you can forget the Giver. Going to God again and again and again leads you to revisit his promises and rely on his Word. ‘Cast your anxiety on me for I care for you.’ (1 Peter 5:7). ‘Call on me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you and you will honor me’ (Psalm 50:15). ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). Wrestle with God in Prayer and prevail with God’s mighty blessings of peace.
Wrestling with God in Prayer gives a chance to reflect on your real need. You may not need the cruise; you may instead appreciate the quiet day off. You may not need the smartphone; you may instead appreciate talking to friends. You may not need the car; you may instead appreciate the friend God put into your life to drive you. Jacob did not need escape, he needed God’s protection. Prevail with God’s blessing of living under God’s powerful might.
The next morning, Jacob did meet his brother. For the first time in twenty years they hugged (Genesis 33:1-17). As each went his own way, God kept protecting Jacob— just as promised.
Because God is not me—a parent who says and then breaks his promises. God does not let you down. God does not forget you. You (and I) will confront limitations. We cannot handle so many troubles. God can. Take hold of God’s powerful might and Prevail with God’s blessings. Anything, anytime, anywhere Wrestle with God in Prayer!
One word keeps appearing throughout United States history. One word that seizes your attention. One word that anchors your emotions to a cause. One word that demands action. ‘Remember!’ Remember the Alamo! Think back to the hundreds of Americans fighting for Texas independence. Envision ruthless Santa Ana slaughtering these innocent men. Put yourself into that setting. Feel their fear. Feel their helplessness. Let rage drive you to grab your weapon and get justice! Remember the Maine! The American warship innocently sitting in Cuba’s port— until Spain blew it up! So many sailors crying. Shrieking. Drowning. Remember the needless violence and let emotions move you to act! Remember Pearl Harbor! Hear the wailing warplanes unleash their explosive loads on unsuspecting sailors. Picture the trapped burning and drowning! Let anger drive you to act! Remember September 11th! Replay the horrific images of hijacked planes and burning towers. Think about the frightened Americans and heroic firefighters sacrificing their lives. Recall the terrible aggression thrust on so many unsuspecting and take action! ‘Remember!’
That powerful word drives purpose. You recall an event. You identify its impact on life. You respond with action. So no wonder that same word appears in our reading from 2 Timothy: Remember Jesus Christ! That resounding theme calls you (and me) to action. The struggles we confront, the depression we endure, the frustrations we carry can blind us from life’s ultimate goal. So, remember! Remember Jesus Christ! and you will (1) Remain focused on your eternal goal. You will (2) Receive strength from his trustworthy promises.
So bring to mind the greatest life-changing event in the history of the world. Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. Keep those two key truths firmly planted in mind. See Jesus and see someone raised from the dead— which means, he once was dead. Heart stopped, no blood pressure. Breath gone, no oxygen to the brain. No twitching muscles, no talking, no hearing. Just wrapped in a burial cloth, placed in a tomb, grave sealed. Jesus died— but now lives! Heart beats! Lungs gasp, oxygen flows! Legs stand! Ears hear! Eyes twitch! Burial cloths removed, grave broke open—and never again in it! See Jesus and see someone descended from David. He has parents— just like you (and I). He has flesh and blood. Ten holy commandments rest on his shoulders (Galatians 4:4-5). He constantly confronts temptation. See Jesus live in your same difficult world. Remember these two tremendous truths about your Savior. Remember Jesus Christ, (1) raised from the dead, (2) descended from David.
Why? Out of God’s many uplifting promises, why remember this simple statement? Paul the apostle writes these words. At the time, he suffer[s] even to the point of being chained like a criminal. Understand, Paul does not sit in some musty, damp castle dungeon. He’s not behind bars watching the sheriff polish his six-shooter. No, soldiers drop him into a cistern and then leave. No windows. No doors. The only light trickling in comes through the hole in the ceiling. No sight of guards. No visitors. Paul basically sits chained up inside a big septic tank. Why? Because he taught Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David and people wanted that teaching silenced.
That does not sound fair, does it? I mean, what danger does that message bring? It is not violent. It does not kill. It does not bully. Still, some want God’s teaching silenced. Their rejection will make your life uncomfortable. Your government will not consult the Bible when crafting laws. So, leaders may label your ‘Man/Woman-Only Marriage’ ‘Hate Speech.’ You could be fined, shut down, jailed, or killed. Many refuse to admit that life begins at conception. So, you will have teachers and professors who label the unborn ‘a mass of cells’ that can be aborted. Others let the pursuit of pleasure steer life. Friends may pressure you to abuse your body, to sleep around, to divorce and move on, to believe what you think is ‘right’ and ‘fair,’ to let greed guide your decision-making. Still others treasure time outdoors instead of time with God on Sunday mornings. People will oppose your Christian faith.
How does that make you feel? Ashamed to speak up for what God calls ‘right’? Embarrassed to repeat God’s teachings? Afraid of insults? …jail? …injury? You (and I) may not be tossed into a prison-hole, but expect opposition because that Word is in your heart and spoken with your mouth and seen in your actions and many do not want to confront it.
That’s where even our hearts can grow hostile to God. You (and I) confront God’s ‘right,’ but the world’s ‘wrong’ feels so much better. You could make the effort to repair strained relationships, but you want to be selfish. An unmarried child lives as though married, but it’s easier to say nothing so that no one gets angry. If you change [so-called] offensive Bible teachings, then no one would hate you. You see, sometimes others will make life miserable because they reject the Word. Sometimes we feel miserable because our hearts push against the Word. Do you see the common denominator? Your God. It may feel as though you will be happier, more popular, and less at odds with yourself if you only dump God from your heart. If you stop speaking up. If only you stop believing everything the Bible says. If only you push the Word out of your heart— and then what? Live without God and how will you enter heaven?
That is why Paul says: Remember Jesus Christ! That powerful word drives purpose. Remember the purpose for clinging to Jesus. Your Jesus, descended from David, stood in your world. He exposes the world’s absolute inability to please God— but few wanted to hear that. Massive crowds literally dwindle down to just a handful of disciples (John 6:66). Many call Jesus ‘demon-possessed,’ ‘Satan’s helper,’ a ‘fraud’ (Mark 3:22). Even Judas, one of the twelve, trades Jesus for money. The world so desperately wants God’s convicting Word silenced that they kill Jesus. Understand, as David’s descendant, Jesus is tempted too (read Matthew 4:1-11). He is tempted to change parts of the Bible people do not want to hear. He could stop correcting sin. He could just say nothing— but then, he would be as sinful as you (and I). His crucifixion would be meaningless.
Jesus clings to the Word because only obedience to God’s teachings brings life! So, Remember Jesus Christ, tempted like you, but never stumbling. The world throws him away, but God raised [him] from the dead. God makes Jesus alive again! He does that because he is pleased with Jesus’ life, with his behavior! (Romans 4:25) You who have heard this wonderful news, you who know that Jesus has filled you with his complete adherence to the Word have obtain[ed] the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.
Remember Jesus Christ! Call that marvelous truth to mind! Remember the purpose for clinging to the Word even when facing discomfort! You cling to the One who has opened heaven! Remember Jesus Christ and you will (1) Remain focused on your eternal goal. Remember Jesus Christ and you will (2) Receive strength from his trustworthy promises.
Here is a trustworthy saying… Completely reliable. Absolutely unable to be broken. God will not lie (Numbers 23:19). If we died with him, we will also live with him… Notice the tense of that first verb? If we died… Past tense, action happening in a previous time. God points you back to your baptism, where water covered your head, covered your love for status and love for worldly pleasures. Just as Jesus died covered in our guilt, but rose again guilt-less, you (and I) also come out of that water without guilt (Romans 6:2-11). Rotting in prison because you repeated God’s expectations may leave you feeling as though God abandoned you. He has not. He cannot. You died with him and therefore you will live with him. [I]f we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us… You (and I) will face pressure to act first and then use the Bible to justify behavior. Cover up divorce by saying, ‘God wants me to be happy.’ Say nothing to the child who has not worshipped for a long time. We will face the temptation to change the Word to conform to what we want to hear. Maybe we disown God by shaking a fist at him. Assume God has forsaken you. After all, you prayed and you have not seen an answer. You shape your life according to the Word, but people still mock you. It might be easier to join the unbelieving group. God makes it clear: if you consider him too much a burden and dump him, he will let you have your way. He will let you have life forever without him.
Even if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself. God keeps his Word; he will punish those who turn from him. He threatens punishment when we challenge his care for us. He threatens punishment the instant we deliberately set aside God’s commandments for the opinions of the heart. He threatens punishment when we plug our ears to his saving Word. He will do what he guarantees: punish the stubborn and forgive the sorry (Exodus 34:6-7)— including you (and me). Jesus points us back to our baptism, back to his promise of making us his children (Isaiah 43:1; Galatians 3:26-27). He guarantees: ‘You are mine.’ Even when we stumble, God faithfully forgives. Remember Jesus Christ and Receive strength from his trustworthy promises.
It might not be fair when the world labels you a ‘threat.’ It might not be fair when leaders teach ungodly stances on life and marriage and refuse to present God’s teachings. It might not be fair when you share Jesus with your son only to receive resistance. It might not feel fair that you fight to restore a relationship, but the other person does not try. For Paul, it is not fair that he rots in prison because of a harmless teaching. Yet, our reading does not say: ‘Gripe! Complain! Even the score!’ No! It says: Remember Jesus Christ!
That powerful word drives purpose. Recall an event. Remember Jesus who suffered. Identify its impact on life. Jesus suffers because people hate his Word. Jesus suffers because we resist the Word. Jesus suffers so that will suffer forever. Respond with action. Your Jesus lives exalted. Myriads of angels shower him with endless praise. No worldly outranks him. He even hands this status to you—and what a title it is!
The struggles we confront, the depression we endure, the frustrations we carry can blind us from life’s ultimate goal. So, remember! Remember Jesus Christ! and you will (1) Remain focused on your eternal goal. You will (2) Receive strength from his trustworthy promises.