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.
Ten men stand covered with festering boils oozing yellowed pus. Stained bandages wrap and bind peeling skin. Chunks missing from ears and noses because, well, those chunks fell off. Ten men suffering from incurable leprosy. Ten men too contagious to live in a large community. Ten men completely cut off from hope.
No wonder they cry out: ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’ (Luke 17:13). No doubt they heard of this great Healer ministering throughout Galilee. Since they could not travel, hearts must have burned and yearned just for this man to come near. And when he did, how those hearts must have leapt at his healing instructions: ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ Only the priests can declare the leprous: Cleansed! Ten men heard exactly that. ‘Clean!’ Just like that death slinked back into the shadows. Skin mended and healed. Freedom restored to touch friends and hug family. Ten men received so much from God. Yet, only one returns. Where did the others go?
Smoke drifts from the smoldering rubble. Underneath the tons of concrete and twisted metal lies crushed ambulances, fire trucks, police cars— and 3,000 bodies. The metallic skeleton of a burned out Boeing 767 jet-engine lies in a desolate city street. Rescuers scramble towards the scene; a nation stands still, mouths gaping, minds slowly grasping this disaster. Nineteen men brought the most powerful nation in the world to its knees. Everyday havens transformed into potential threats. Many saw unsuspecting people as suspects of terror. September 11th preached how little control man holds.
No wonder church attendance spiked! People turn for comfort in the Almighty God who holds supreme control. Hearts pour out, pleading for protection, strength, and security. All received such comfort. Yet, in the following weeks church attendance shriveled up. Where did all those people go?
I mean, is that all God is? A safe harbor when life spins wildly out of your control, but Someone unneeded when all appears manageable? God does not hold office hours as some grief counselor. He does not exist only for the next crisis. Whether storms rage or peace reigns, Find Rest in God Alone. Every achievement fades away, but Only God delivers rock-solid security.
That is really what those lepers and Americans craved, right? Security. The absence of fear and anxiety. The sense of control over life-matters. You watch ten men who have no way of improving health. So, to whom do they turn? To the great Physician! You watch Americans tremble because they cannot guarantee personal safety. So, where do they turn? To the Almighty! The heart craves security because security brings a sense of ease and stability.
Security will help fuel your thanks tomorrow. You will look at the things in your house and consider how those objects affect you. A house gives shelter and holds heat. Steady income fills physical needs. A savings account prepares for the unexpected. Good health feels good, strength allows you to get up and move. You may even gather with friends and family. And that allows an opportunity to consider how they impact your life. A grandchild gives you the chance to pass down knowledge, to influence behavior, to shape personalities. That grandchild could even be a source of pride. You may cherish a friend because of her advice or because of his support. A brother who respects you makes you feel wanted, a sister who asks for guidance benefits from your help. Yes, you will think about all the objects, all the people that hold some value in life. You will consider the joys you receive from them. You will think about the protection they offer you. You will be thankful for the fears they take away.
As you reflect on these many, many blessings, God adds a word of caution: Yes, the sons of Adam are only a breath. The sons of man are a delusion. On a scale they weigh nothing. They are nothing but air. Do not trust in extortion. Do not put empty confidence in stolen goods. If your wealth grows, do not set your heart on it.
Did you catch the name God sticks to all these worldly items? Breath! The air pushed out of your lungs. How long does that breath stay inside you? How long does it last outside of you? How many breaths do you take? Do you even remember that you breathe? The air we breathe lasts only seconds inside us, and out of the thousands of breaths you take each day, you probably only remember the ones taken right now (because I’m discussing it). God points at wealth and at people and says: ‘A breath has more value!’ Breath has more value than money because money (and the things you can buy with it) can vanish in an instant. The economy’s heartless hand can wipe out your savings in minutes. Bills can devour your wealth. Thieves can hack accounts and steal your earnings. Breath has more value than people because people can (and will) fail you! A friend might attack your reputation and that friendship is over. A child can disappoint you, robbing you of any parenting pride. You may think you receive special privileges because of who you know, but time passes and people forget who you are. Even the best of friends cannot even stop your death. You could be best friends with mega-billionaires Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett, but they will still die and so will you (and I). Your heirs will handle your finances and divvy up the possessions you worked so hard to accumulate. [Maybe worse?] Your name will fade away with time. You realize Every achievement fades away.
Since worldly objects fade away, any security they offer will fade away too. Put another way, wealth and people only offer false security. They promise to make life happier, but cannot guarantee it. If you (and I) find comfort in the prestige of our possessions and reputation, then we will be forever disappointed. Every achievement fades away and cannot bring you eternal rest.
That’s why God says what he does. In fact, God writes his warning down so that we can read it, so that it can sink in. God even guides our trust by (1) giving a warning and (2) presenting a reliable security. (1) If your wealth grows, do not set your heart on it. Instead, (2) rest quietly in God alone, for my hope comes from him.
That might sound strange. God offers you hope? Like ‘something not certain,’ ‘something that might not be there’? No. The Bible uses ‘hope’ to describe ‘a reality waiting in the future.’ Keep focused on God, find hope. Not just any ‘hope,’ but the capital-‘H’ Hope. Inside of Jesus shimmers this priceless life. A life that does not chase after crowns and thrones. A life that does not rob the temple treasury or ask his disciples for big purchases. Rather, a life content in living on the daily bread his Father provides and with the simple clothing on his body. Although the Son of God, Jesus does not seek worldly status and praise from the nation. He does not come for fame. He comes to give you rest.
He puts the heart at rest by suffering real death. Death—the end of life and separation from God. How worldly wealth could not spare him that! How friends deserted him, leaving him alone! Trust in worldly comforts earn this: life cut off from God— and Jesus absorbs it all.
Jesus rises in order to bring your heart (and mine) real security. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress. I will not be disturbed. Picture that. A thick, rocky mountain with a little cave carved out. God sets you in that thick mountainous fortress. What can penetrate those walls and harm you? Be sure, the devil will fire flaming darts meant to hurt. Yet, no matter what accusations he shoots, they all bounce off! Your reliance in wealth? Well, Jesus took the dart. Your proud regrets? They ricochet. Your shame for falling into false security again? God forgives. He keeps you covered in Jesus’ life. Accusation after accusation bounces off that rocky wall. You Find Rest from guilt in God Alone.
You will encounter troubles in this world (read John 16:33); that’s no secret. Trade wars make for an uncertain future. A weakened economy stirs up retirement fears. Government may make you unsure of the future. One phone-call can change life. These troubles can take things away from you. You may lose freedom. You may lose your car, house, and retirement. You may lose loved ones. You may lose life. Still, you Find Rest in God Alone. God strengthens you to stand strong in these troubles. He has always seen fit to provide you with house and home. He has always seen fit to give you both food and savings. He has always led through even the most difficult of situations. Unlike money and people, God can actually keep his guarantee that all works for your good (Romans 8:28).
Then, you experience times of peace. Maybe this was a year of plenty for you— a good year, a year when you had no financial need, you took vacations, and bought new cars, more property, or you just stashed more away in your savings. If so, then good. That is what a stronghold does; it keeps you safe. Do you see? The reason you have security is because God gives you security. My salvation and my honor depend on God, my strong rock. My refuge is in God. The Giver puts your heart at rest. He keeps trouble for overwhelming you.
So, trust in him at all times, you people. Pour out your hearts before him. God is a refuge for us. As someone who lives in this stronghold, live like someone who lives in a stronghold. Live fearless. Live without anxiety because your heart relies on God’s providing. Live certain of control in life. You may not have power over all the things that enter, but the Almighty God does—and who better to control life? Even when scared, rely on God in time of need. Plead in times of distress. Turn your mind to him in every situation in life. Run to him first, well before you ever think about what you can do to deliver yourself. As you Find Rest in God Alone, your thanksgiving is enriched. You gain the benefits of less anxiety, less need of control (which you really do not have), and greater peace because you live as children under a parent’s loving care. As attentions focus on this truth, you will always have rest be it in good or bad. Find Rest in God Alone because Only God delivers rock-solid security.
One leper grasped that truth. His incurable disease prevented him from living with his family. Unless something changed, he had no hope.
So, no wonder he cries: ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’ (Luke 17:13). He heard of this great Healer ministering throughout Galilee. His heart leapt at the healing instructions: ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ Only the priests can declare the leprous: Cleansed! He heard exactly that. ‘Clean!’ Just like that death slinked back into the shadows. Skin mended and healed. Freedom restored to touch friends and hug family. As fantastic as these blessings are, he found rest in the One who cured his life forever.
A safe harbor when life spins wildly out of your control, but Someone unneeded when all appears manageable? No. God does not hold office hours as some grief counselor. He does not exist only for the next crisis. Whether storms rage or peace reigns, Find Rest in God Alone. Every achievement fades away, but Only God delivers rock-solid security.
Four years ago, a camera team roamed around Michigan State University, asking random students one question: ‘Do you think you’re going to heaven?’ The video posted 15 responses. Here’s a few:
Do you think those students sound confident? No, not really. Upon what did everyone place their hope? Every single response mentioned: ‘doing good,’ ‘church membership,’ and ‘being a good guy.’ Did those answers provide much comfort? By my count, the words: ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I think,’ ‘I hope,’ appear 23-times. So, upon what do these students place their hope for heaven? (1) Individual effort and (2) personal opinion— and neither provide any comfort!
Do you think you’re going to heaven? That question might weigh heavy on your mind, and maybe you worry that your response is not good enough. Chase away worry by grasping a sure Word. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that every effort fails to obtain God’s favor. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that Jesus freely gives us God’s righteousness.
Let’s gain certainty from Romans chapter 3. Starting with verse 19, we read: Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law… Stop there for just a moment. Remember God’s ‘law?’ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39). God etched those commands onto two tablets of stone (Exodus 20:1-17). He even took that law and carved it on every single heart— yours and mine included (Romans 2:14-15). That means, you, I, the entire world are obligated to obey and conform to those commands.
Have you? If God replayed your entire life on a big-screen, what would find? What would he see you do at the bar? What would God discover on your browser history? What would God learn from you about his gift of marriage? Do you want to repeat the words you use to describe the leaders he has placed in authority over you? (read Romans 13:1) Would you be proud standing before God, looking him straight in the eye, and declaring: ‘God, I loved you so much that my life is perfect picture of your law!’ No. That searing guilt, the restless shame that keeps you (and me) awake at night, the stomach-churning regrets only showcase our blemished hearts.
No wonder people have difficulty answering that question: ‘Do you think you’re going to heaven?’ Because that shameful filth clings to us; it never leaves! And you hear that haunting reality in every response. Those students make up and try to enforce rules about a heaven they do not own! If you own heaven, then you can create the standards for entering heaven. (For example, if you own a restaurant, you can make a dress code. You can exclude those who do not meet the dress code.) But you (and I) do not own heaven. That means we must meet the standards of the One who does. When the standard is: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48) we fail.
God’s expectations do not make you (and me) look good, they expose our wickedness before God! Every mouth is stopped… you (and I) have no acceptable excuse. [T]he whole world [is] held accountable to God.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified [that is, ‘be acquitted,’ ‘be declared innocent’] in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. That means, scrounging for comfort in your own self-made rules only leads to a dead-end! (If arcades still exist), you play games, make the right moves, win tickets, and turn those tickets in for prizes. You get something for your effort. You cannot step up to God, hold up your life, and say, “Here you go, God! That should get me something!” God clearly says that his righteous verdict does not come from obtaining enough tickets. For by works of the law no human being will be justified. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that every effort fails to obtain God’s favor.
How does that make you feel? Probably not too comfortable. That’s the point. God crushes the heart so that you might cry out, ‘Oh no! Now what?’ Because God wants you (and me) to stop looking at our hearts. To stop looking at our faulty actions. To stop digging through our flawed thinking. God wants you (and me) to stop looking at you (and me).
When you cry out, ‘Oh no! Now what?’ do not look at your flawed word, look at God’s Word. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that every effort fails to obtain God’s favor. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that Jesus freely gives us God’s righteousness.
Listen again to verse 21: But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it… There it is! God’s ‘righteousness’— that precious announcement of innocence! Where does God tell you how to obtain it? He does not point at your opinions or feelings or wishes or expectations. God reveals his righteous verdict in the Bible.
There, in the Bible, God clearly says: [T]he righteousness of God [comes] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. God sets his righteous verdict on you through faith. Think about that for a moment. That ‘faith’ (God speaks of) is ‘trust in Jesus as Savior.’ God the Holy Spirit put into your heart the conviction, the certainty that Jesus has completely satisfied God’s anger. That’s why you call Jesus ‘Savior.’ You did not save your life, you did not help even one bit. Jesus alone rescued you from consequences.
God wrote this down in the Bible for you to confront. For there is no distinction, all (you! me! the world!) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and [you and I] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God declares you (and me) ‘not guilty’ in his sight free of charge. No strings attached. No repayment expected. God drops the charges against you.
You know that, but can you be sure? Is God really serious? That you owe nothing? Sounds too good to be true! It’s not! God’s not asking what you think about his actions, he is telling his actions. You see that God did not ignore your offenses, he actually punishes them. God put [Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. That word, ‘propitiation’ means: ‘atonement.’ God used Jesus to make you ‘at-one’ with God.
This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins… God did not sentence you (or me) or Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, or anyone immediately to hell. Even though we fell short of reaching God’s high standard, even though we stood under God’s judgment, God patiently waited. Yes, he still held people accountable, but transferred the consequence from you (and me) onto Jesus. Because God is just. He cannot let evil go by unpunished. That would be unjust, corrupt. So, a just, fair God punishes Jesus for your failures (and mine). He holds Jesus accountable for our crimes. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Since Jesus made the payment for our crimes, God is fair to declare us ‘innocent,’ ‘not guilty.’ That means God justifies you— you who are still haunted by your harsh words and overbearing presence. God penalized Jesus for your past. That means God declares you ‘not guilty’ — you who still struggle keeping your life free from drunken nights, indecent thoughts, and drugs. God sentenced Jesus to death in your place. That means God declares you ‘innocent’— you who feel ashamed that you hurt mom, that you yelled at dad, that your greedy, grubby fingers love stuff more than loving to help people. God made Jesus suffer shame. Then, God raised Jesus on Easter because Jesus is more than enough to serve and complete our death-sentence! (Romans 4:25).
Dear friends, God’s Word Makes Us Sure that Jesus freely gives us God’s righteousness. This word does not come from my mind. It does not come from your opinion. It comes straight from the mouth of God. If Jesus wins for you what you could never merit, why look at yourself? If your past haunts you, if you feel so undeserving of heaven, if you are not sure if you will enter heaven, look to Jesus. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Can you be sure? Well, how do you know if your spouse loves you? How do you know if your children love you (or your parents love you)? How do you know if your heart is healthy? How do you know what the weather will be like tomorrow? Do you wait for a disembodied voice to whisper in your ear: “Your spouse and children love you?” Do you sit on the edge of your hospital bed waiting for a warm sensation in your chest— a feeling confirming that your heart is indeed healthy? Will you drive home, hop out of your car, rake your yard, prune your bushes, trim the trees, supposing that your actions will produce a warm, sunny day tomorrow? Of course not! That would be absurd! When you want a sure answer, you look to a qualified source. You listen and understand the plain meaning of their words. You see actions reinforcing those words.
Your spouse and your children are qualified people to say: “I love you” and then show their love in their action. A heart specialist is qualified to read your heart tests and say: “You are healthy.” The meteorologist, who reads weather patterns for a living, can point at the picture of a sun over your city (on your television screen) and say: “It will be sunny tomorrow!” These qualified people can give you sure answers. They can give you assurance.
So, ‘Do you think you’re going to heaven?’ It really does not matter what ‘I think.’ It matters what God says. And God’s sure Word reveals his sure announcement: ‘You are forgiven!’ Chase away worry by grasping a sure Word. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that every effort fails to obtain God’s favor. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that Jesus freely gives us God’s righteousness.
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.
The same four words appear on every single American coin and every single American dollar. Four words that reveal a conviction. Four words that confess a truth. Four words that identify a belief. Do you know those four words? ‘In God We Trust.’
That motto first appeared in 1863, right in the thick of the American Civil War. Half of America faced extinction! Ideas and people could be lost! So, a concerned American requested the phrase: ‘In God We Trust’ be stamped onto American coins. Should civilization crumble and return to sand and timber, archaeologists and historians could find these coins. They could read the inscription and conclude that America was not full of godless heathens (https://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx). That motto made headlines again in 1957, just as the Cold War got colder. The Soviet Union outlawed religion and promoted atheism [a belief that no God exists]. So, the motto ‘In God We Trust’ appeared on dollar bills. It implied that God favored American morals and would lend his divine support. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_God_We_Trust). That phrase: ‘In God We Trust’ clearly confesses that only God can grant real security.
So, how ironic that a confession of God’s protection is found on an object in which many want to find protection! Ponder that for just a moment. Money is capable of bringing pleasure into your life. It is. It can buy vacations and cars, houses and outdoor toys, clothes and shoes. Money provides for you. Still, stamped on American money is the confession: ‘In God We Trust.’ Only God grants real security. So which one is it? Which one do you expect to provide for you? God or Money? In Whom Do You Trust?
Calamity has a way of exposing the heart’s security. You have an object of trust. When troubles rage, you flee rely on it. In that moment you then determine if that object could keep you safe or not.
Just look at our reading. Calamity barrels towards the leaders in Zion (that’s southern Israel) and against those on Mount Samaria (which is northern Israel). God guarantees punishment. Northern Israel chiseled out figures in stone; they have carved wooden statues. Israelites leave their homes and trot out to a shrine filled with prostitutes. They hope sharing bodies will make for a good financial year. Farmers trust the cow-god Baal, relying on him to make a good growing season. Masses flock to deities that do not exist, shamefully shatter God’s commands— and the leaders do not care. Governors do not shut down these pagan temples. They do not elevate worship of the true God who rescued them from Egypt and gifted this land to them! So, God guarantees: You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god— which you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus (Amos 5:26-27).
Go to Calneh and look at it; go from there to great Hamath, and then go down to Gath in Philistia. Each city once stood equal to northern and southern Israel. They had the same amount of land, the same level of safety, the same economies. Now, it’s all gone! Tiny Calneh destroyed by superpower Assyria! Hamath conquered by northern Israel and Gath held captive by Zion! God warns: Are they better off than your two kingdoms? Is their land larger than yours? No! ‘What happened to them will happen to you! You will be destroyed.’
That warning meant to alert sleepy hearts. ‘Wake up!’ Instead, Israel’s leaders lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on couches. [They] dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. [They] strum away on harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. [They] drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, [no one] grieves over the ruin of Joseph. No one cares about the threat of exile because… well… nothing bad has happened. No armies threaten their borders, and therefore no fear of captivity. Economies flourish; money passes through hands, and therefore no worry of food shortages or home foreclosures. Peace reigns in the region, and therefore no concern that you could lose a familiar landscape or friends or freedom. So, hearts wallow in every pleasure money offers. Getting drunk makes this negatives news of destruction go away. Money spent on choice meat could still be used to hire more armies and better defenses. Little musical fantasies drown out God’s warning. In Whom Do They Trust? They love what pleasure money can purchase. They love how money can make them feel safe. They trust money’s ability to provide everything needed for life.
God has this to say: You put off the evil day and [you] bring near a reign of terror. ‘You worship temporal pleasures and let your spiritual life rot.’ Money can bring satisfaction to every area of life except one. Money cannot save your soul.
Calamity erupted just like God promised. The Assyrian powerhouse that steamrolled Calneh obliterated northern Israel. Governors turned to wealth. They thought it could buy weapons. They thought it could buy armies. They thought it could buy peace. It did not. Even worse, those who placed trust in wealth over God died spiritually bankrupt. Money could not buy their way into heaven.
What a reminder, then, those four words on money serve for us! ‘In God We Trust.’ Do you still pay attention to those words? Do you remember they are even there? Maybe we only care when some group wants to erase it! Yet, the heart does a fine job of erasing it on its own! Do you think that a new house will solve a sore relationship? Or that new a car will finally satisfy you and you will never anything else again? Perhaps you think more income will finally take away every fear— no more restless nights, no more stress about bills, or no more counting every cent you spend. Maybe you find security in a large savings account— relying on this cushion to make you feel happy and secure. Maybe that’s why we can easily forget those four words found on money: ‘In God We Trust.’ We can look at the green paper and shiny coin and think this object will give us the happiness we crave. This object will solve any tension, any struggle, any aching worry. This object will save me.
If that is where your trust lies, then God has this to say: ‘Woe to you!’ You will leave this earthly life and your wealth will not come with you. You will stand before God naked and penniless. If money remains an object of trust, then Calamity (we could say ‘death’) exposes the heart’s security. It exposes money’s inability to provide real peace.
God makes that point pretty clear on a mount called ‘Calvary.’ There, Jesus hangs naked and penniless. Attached to him is your (and my) trust in everything money could buy. He hates the sight of it so much that he rains down punishment on Jesus. The punishment meant for you (and me).
Calamity exposes the heart’s security— and when you look at the heart of Jesus, you do not find reliance in wealth. You find a pure trust in God to provide! He does! God provides Jesus with life! God provides you (and me) with Jesus’ life! That you now carry Jesus’ innocence. Something money can never buy! Something that allows you to stand before God, completely confident that he cares for you. That he provides for you. That he opens heaven for you.
In Whom Do You Trust? Calamity exposes the heart’s security. When troubles rip into life, you will turn to an object. Money might address physical shortfalls, but it will never satisfy you completely. Only Jesus fills you with real peace. The real peace of forgiveness. The real peace that comes from knowing that God still provides all things in this life. ‘In God We Trust.’ That becomes apparent by the way we use money.
Believers in the Old Testament had an opportunity to give a ‘firstfruits’ offering. They set aside about 10-percent of the crops coming off field first and gave that to God. Now, if you farm, you realize that giving your first crops can be a little nerve-wracking. After all, the previous year’s reserves run low. You could use that corn and hay. Still, God says, “Give me your firstfruits” (Deuteronomy 26:1-15).
People did. They willingly give that offering; you give the first of your resources confident that God will give you more cuttings of hay and more corn. Giving demonstrate a trust in God to provide. A trust that drowned out personal fear. Actions reveal a trust in God’s promise.
What do your actions say? You (and I) are able to evaluate our income and consider what we may set aside. Maybe that means we set aside an amount for offering before we pay bills. You set a portion and then spend what is left over. Maybe that means we determine key bills first and then set aside an offering. If we do not have enough to be at McDonald’s every day, we thank God for still feeding us. Or, if we cannot buy five new outfits this month, we thank God for still clothing us. Setting aside a portion of income for an offering allows us to rely on God to keep providing for us.
We can look at the money in our hand and see those words ‘In God We Trust,’ we can use it confidently. If you’re not sure, then for one month (that’s four Sundays), see what you are able to give. Be bold. Trust big. You offering may increase price of a hamburger spread out over four weeks. That amount might not look like much, but it is much. It comes from heart that trusts God to provide. Maybe your giving increases by the cost of a tank of gas each week. Even that generosity demonstrates a reliance on God. You are not worried that you will need that amount back later. Our act of giving reveals our certainty in God to do what he promises; that he will give what we need.
That phrase: ‘In God We Trust’ clearly confesses that only God can grant real security. So, how ironic that a confession of God’s protection is found on an object in which many want to find protection! Ponder that for just a moment. Money is capable of bringing pleasure into your life. It can buy vacations and cars, houses and outdoor toys, clothes and shoes. Money provides for you. Still, stamped on American money is the confession: ‘In God We Trust.’ Only God grants real security. Which one is it? Which one do you expect to provide for you? God or Money? In Whom Do You Trust?
His little head rises higher and higher. Soon, his hazel eyes stand level with the glowing burner radiating heat. Ever-so-slowly that tiny hand creeps toward that red ring… “Don’t touch!” warns mom. He freezes— and his mind instantly begins dissecting that warning. The orange glow does not appear harmful— after all, the heat feels like summer heat and orange is a pretty color. The circle element kind of looks like a toy-ring. He weighs mom’s warning against his observations and reaches a conclusion: Mom is wrong! Disregard the warning! So, those tiny fingers continue their journey closer and closer to the glowing element. The fingers descend on their goal, and… INSTANTLY pain shoots up his fingers, through his hand, and down his arm. Fingertips turn fleshy red. His hand burns. Tears stream down his face. This young child did not expect the searing results he received.
We have a word for a person who acts like that: a ‘know-it-all,’ someone who behaves as if he knows everything (https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/know%20it%20all). That behavior not only affects little children (and your bossy siblings), it can infiltrate your heart too. Thinking that you already know every Bible teaching and application, warning and encouragement, promise and guarantee leads you to think that God has nothing left to teach you.
A ‘know-it-all’ doesn’t describe you, does it?
This morning, Ponder Wisdom’s Two Questions. (1) What is wisdom? And, (2) Are you wise?
Maybe you find it difficult to define ‘wisdom.’ If you are like me, it’s easier to describe ‘wisdom’ not with a definition, but with an application. You identify ‘wisdom’ when you see it. Perhaps you consider ‘wisdom’ as avoiding harmful choices and selecting beneficial choices. Maybe you equate ‘wisdom’ with experience. You perform some action and gain results. Then you evaluate the results in order to shape future decisions. You realize that we tend to define wisdom as this cause-and-effect notion.
Yet, in Proverbs 9:10, God does not leave us fumbling for a concrete definition of wisdom. Instead, he explains (1) what wisdom is and (2) how wisdom functions. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. So, God links two items together. (1) ‘Fear’ and ‘Wisdom,’ (2) ‘Knowledge of Holy One’ and ‘Understanding.’ Have fear, you have wisdom.
That’s where wisdom begins? With ‘fear?’ That sounds strange. I mean, in our English language, if you “fear” someone that usually means you are scared of that person. So, being “scared” of the Lord is how you become wise? In a way, yes! He is the Almighty God who stretched a measuring line across our universe, who shut the sea behind doors, clothed the skies with clouds, and brings out the sun every morning (Job 38). Your God is the Holy One who lives in heaven, far above all rule and authority, a place reserved only for the perfect! That is scary, that is terrifying because I am not God and God is not me. I fail people; I deliberately choose to do evil. God never fails people; God never does evil (James 1:13). I do not compare to him. In fact, I fall short.
That takes ‘fear’ to admit that. Yes, to be afraid that you (and I) fall under God’s punishment for failure. Yet, ‘fear’ also means something else; it means, ‘to respect.’ It takes ‘fear’ (or ‘respect’) to admit that God judges over me and I stand judged by God.
So, that wisdom places me at a starting point. Real wisdom recognizes two truths: (1) It recognizes the deadly consequences of sin and (2) sees Jesus as the antidote to those consequences. The fear of the Lord… that is, respecting God’s position over me… is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
That ‘Holy One’ is none other than Jesus Christ. Just look at him! He is holy! Morally faultless! The sick crowd around him and he does not prescribe treatments for a better life on earth. No! He points people to a healing for their soul. When he preaches, he points to the Bible—and not what he thinks. Even though he has no savings account, no permanent home, no bed, Jesus still confidently relies on God to provide. Jesus ‘fears’ the Lord; he ‘respects’ God’s impact in his life and proves it by shaping his entire being around God’s commands.
You know that; you know Jesus is the Holy One. You also know just what God thinks about human wisdom: He hates it. The Holy One hangs on the cross, groaning under God’s righteous frown. God finds your (and my) ‘know-it-all’ attitude on Jesus and cannot stand to look at it. So, he turns his back and leaves. He does not rescue Jesus. He answers no cry for help. He forsakes his Son and our worldly wisdom with him—and then he buries it. He buries our wisdom with his Son in the ground. Three days later Jesus comes out of the ground. He comes out without our wisdom and with his message of wisdom: ‘Cleansed! Purified! Pardoned!’
So, What is wisdom? The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Quite simply: (1) You recognize the deadly consequences of sin and (2) trust Jesus as the only antidote to those consequences.
That leads to our second question: (2) Are you wise? Wisdom is not a mere definition, but also application. Think back to that little child. He holds a warning about the hot stovetop, but did not put it into practice. Holding God’s Word in high regard brings eternal life. Still, those are not lifeless words. For you, the Christian, those words are put into action. So, Are you wise?
Do you apply wisdom? Verse 8 says: Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you… A mocker is a proud person, a ‘know-it-all.’ He thinks he knows everything there is to know about everything. The worst trait about that attitude is that he refuses to take God’s truth to heart. He refuses to admit that his lifestyle clearly contradicts God’s clear commands. He refuses to admit that his life needs changing. Really, he is pushing God out of his heart—which is foolish because only God brings life. [R]ebuke a wise man— someone who humbly admits that God and his Word carries authority over him-- and he will love you. So the question is: Are you wise?
Today marks the beginning of our Christian education year. Think about many opportunities to grow in God’s Word. Sunday School teaches Bible accounts of God’s love. Catechism class studies God’s teachings for life. Bible class examines life’s questions under the microscope of God’s Word. An online class puts a book of the Bible into simple words and simple application. God presents teachings to guide decisions and form answers, comfort and console, and most of all, keep your heart close to him.
That is why the devil works on you. He tries to make you into a fool. He will tell you that you are too busy to read your Bible. He will tell you that you already know every Bible story, every Bible topic, every discussion any class will have. He will tell you that you have another day, another time to be in the Word. I know he does that because he tries to convince me of the same things. “You’re a Pastor. You already studied all this.” “You instruct people. You do not need instruction.” “You’re so busy today. Study tomorrow …Start again next week …next anniversary.” Do you know why Satan whispers these excuses? He knows that if he can just get you to put the Bible down, to stop using it so often, you will begin forgetting God’s promises. You will forget God’s commands. You will start creating Bible-sounding sayings. You will begin clinging to made-up statements about the Bible. You will rely on what you think you know— and you will never figure how wrong you are until God exposes how distant you stand from him!
Let’s find wisdom in verse 9. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning. Did you catch that? ‘Instructing’ always leaves a positive impact! (read also Isaiah 55:10-11). You will always have room to learn more information, better identify God’s promises, and grow in applying the Word to life. After all, life changes, right? Like, a 4-year-old just wants loving care. The 14-year-old worries about acceptance by friends and classmates. The 24-year-old worries about getting a job and starting “life.” The 40-year-old worries about retirement. The 84-year-old worries about health in later years. Throughout life certain things change. What does not change is the instruction God teaches. A 4-year-old knows the Good Shepherd lovingly cares for him. The 14-year-old knows the Good Shepherd accepts him as a dear friend. The 24-year-old sees the Good Shepherd satisfy fear by providing education and job, spouse and income. The 40-year-old sees the Good Shepherd provide for both life on earth and in heaven. The 84-year-old knows the Good Shepherd will lead her through death’s dark valley and into heaven. Just this one timeless psalm provides a myriad of application for every age!
That is the reason these education opportunities exist. That is why your congregation encourages using these many Bible opportunities. That is why your Pastor prepares to ‘instruct’ you, the ‘wise man.’ So that you become wiser still.
After all, you are not a ‘know-it-all,’ are you? May God forbid it! Thinking that you already know every Bible teaching and application, warning and encouragement, promise and guarantee leads you to think that God has nothing left to teach you. That does not benefit you. Instead, a ‘know-it-all’ attitude actually stunts your life with God!
Maybe a better phrase to stick in mind is: ‘Don’t be a know-it-all; be a learn-it-all.’ (https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2017/05/dont-be-a-know-it-all-be-a-learn-it-all/). That happens when our hearts remember that real wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. Cherishing the fact that only Jesus stands us right before God! That, dear friends, changes life. That dismantles excuses. What joy we have to keep pondering the wisdom we have received from God! Jesus cures us from death. That Word continues guiding life.
They call it: ‘The Hill.’ A sandy trail winding two-and-a-half miles uphill. Yes, a continually gradual incline of two-and-a-half miles. Yet, ‘The Hill’ looks pretty unspectacular. It does not have deadly drop-offs, cliffs and pits, or some lake of fire to leap over; it’s just a plain hill— but one man had trouble reaching the top. ‘The Hill’ was just was too steep; he was too tired. So, he ran ‘The Hill’ again the next day… and the next day …and the day after that. He ran ‘The Hill’ every single day for over twenty years. The more he ran, the faster he got. (In fact, he sprinted, not jogged, sprinted that two-and-a-half mile incline in just under 16-minutes!) He became stronger. He could endure more. He gained more resolve to push through struggle. By the end of his 20-year football career, legendary San Francisco 49er, Jerry Rice, held the all-time records for most touchdowns, most receiving yards, and most receptions. In fact, he set the bar so high that even the best players reaching the end of their lengthy careers would need to play an additional 5-7 seasons just to threaten those records! Jerry Rice ran ‘The Hill’ because, in his own words, ‘he did not want to get into a mode of quitting.’ His single-minded goal was to finish so that “In that fourth quarter, even if I was tired, I was able to fight through it to make that winning catch for that touchdown.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3zfNlmEHr0)
Can you persevere like that? You may feel exhausted trusting promises God has made. You may want to quit believing that God blesses you because you just do not see the blessing. You may feel overwhelmed by the burdens you carry. Where do you find the strength, the motivation, the certainty that trust in God is valuable? How do you persevere? Fix Your Eyes on Jesus for aim at life’s truest goal and for strength to persevere under all discipline.
That’s how athletes train. A clear objective hangs before their eyes— an accomplishment, a championship, or glory. If they lose sight of that objective, they will never claim the prize. So the entire body fights to reach the goal.
Christians who lived millennia before Jesus locked eyes onto the guarantee that Jesus would come. That Jesus would pay sin’s penalty. That Jesus would rescue them into heaven. That is life’s ultimate goal; heaven is life’s finish line. Those ancient Christians yearned to reach that goal— and God’s guarantee was their focus.
Remaining focused is challenging. Just last week, you watched Abraham wait for a son that never seems to come. At a moment like that, you reach a serious crossroads. Either (1) You trust that God will give as promised or (2) You doubt that God will give as promised. Either (1) You take God at his Word or (2) You push his Word out of your heart.
That tension is called ‘the cross.’ The cross is everything that you suffer because you are connected to Christ. On the one hand you love God, you cling to his Word, you rely on his promises— you are connected to him! On the other hand so much in this life creates doubt, fear, and resentment— and that tension pulls on you, tugging and trying to divide your allegiance from your God. I mean, sudden loss rips into your life. Instantly the questions appear: ‘God, why? She was so young.’ ‘God, I loved him. Why a cancer-caused death?’ ‘God, why the memory loss?’ ‘God, the pain makes it hard to love you.’ Those losses tug at us, and you hit that crossroads: (1) Trust God even when you do not see love or (2) Quit because you do not see love. Or, the future is never clear. You know God gives all you need for life, but at this moment, you rely more on your clever financial footwork to navigate through trade wars and recession-leaning markets. You know God loves you, but at this moment, school’s about to start and you have career choices to make and, well, you know God will not boom some answer from heaven: ‘Choose accounting!’ or ‘Take the desk job!’ Decisions tug at us. We again hit that crossroads: (1) Rely on God’s promises or (2) Toss the promises aside and rely on yourself! Or, you ponder the ministry of your church. You know God wants you around his Word; that is the main reason you are here. At the same, you cannot forget those who moved downstate or moved into heaven. You hit that crossroads: (1) Trust that God will keep creating faith and strengthening faith or (2) Despair that more will leave, no one will come, your doors will shut, and you will not have the comfort of worshipping here.
It is hard to take God at his Word. So much of what is seen tries to convince you that God is nowhere present— and it is so easy to quit running. Because you’re tired. You’re exhausted. You’re scared. You encounter that crossroads: (1) Stop trusting God, leave his promises, shut his Word out of your heart and life. Then what happens? You would gain hell. What’s the other road? (2) Fix Your Eyes on Jesus— even in trouble.
Listen again to our reading: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [those ancient Christian examples— Hebrews 11:1-40], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles… Have you ever watched Olympic runners? They wear light clothing. Layers of sweatshirts will weigh them down and long jeans constrict movement. So, sprinters wear light clothing. Here, God says, ‘Take all those struggles you face, all those impulses to turn from the Word, all those temptations to lash out at me and throw them off.’ Those temptations hinder us! Cursing God, blaming God, doubting God will never let us reach the goal of heaven. Throw off that despair and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. How? You’re so tired! How do you persevere? Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith… Gain motivation to rely on God because Jesus is both Motivator and motivation!
Fix Your Eyes on Jesus… who for the joy set before him… because of his goal to bring you (and me) into heaven… [he] endured the cross, [he was not afraid of] its shame. Think of who Jesus is. The eternal God who calms wind and wave with a word. The One who forces demons into hell with a command. The One who raises the dead. Jesus is all-powerful God— and not just that, but he is faultless. No one can accuse Jesus of name-calling. No one ever witnessed him brushing off the needy. No one watches him deliberately doing wrong. No one saw it because it never happened. Still, Jesus is treated as a criminal. The lowest-of-the-low criminals sentenced to death. How is that fair? On the cross, Jesus hangs naked. Bleeding. Groaning. Helpless. Meanwhile, people taunt him. They laugh. They mock. He does not deserve this! Even worse, God holds him accountable for our anger at God’s justice! Still, it is Jesus who dies. Why? Jesus dies on a cross in order to remove the penalty for sin. That is the only way you (and I) would enter heaven.
Because of you (and I) will. Jesus rose from the dead— and even higher than that: [he] sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus will never ever suffer again. He reigns over every power, every authority, every person forever and ever.
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Have you ever done that— considered the opposition Jesus endures? Jesus could have said, ‘No cross’— but then, how would payment be made? He could have snapped fingers and thundered into heaven, but you (and I) would still be stuck in sin. He could have raged against every smug, worldly leader, but then he would have sinned and become imperfect like us. Jesus willingly suffers death— death in our place!— so that you (and I) will not suffer in hell, so that you (and I) will join him in heaven.
Do you see life’s truest goal? Do you see the value of your faith? You walk behind Jesus, the Victor who already claimed victory! A victory for you. When struggling, Fix Your Eyes on Jesus and see him live for life’s truest goal. Keep Fixing Your Eyes on Jesus for strength to persevere under all discipline.
Listen again to verses 5-6: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Parents, why do you discipline your child? You put an end to wrong behavior. That allows room for good behavior to flourish. Really, discipline builds character.
God knows that you (and I) need pruning. If that sounds repulsive, then it only proves that you need pruning. Much of what we consider ‘suffering’ is really an attachment to something that can drag us from God. Right? You suffer insults because of what you believe, and you may really just want to be popular. You dread funerals because you love earth more than heaven— at least, for the moment. I mean, what we call ‘suffering’ can really mask love for worldly things.
So, God, in love, uses his Word to divide love for the world away from our love for God. Right now, we enjoy the ability to walk and eat and move. If illness or age takes that ability away, it allows the opportunity to look up and realize God controls our life. God manages our days. We thank God for the life we have now and thank him for the perfect life he has prepared! When tensions rise in marriage, we may want the other person to conform to our expectations. Yet, when tensions rise, it allows the opportunity to see where God tells us to change. We love family; we cherish friends. Yet, when they leave this life we remember that heaven is our real home, not earth. We may want a fuller-church, more children, even more activities. Yet, God lets us look around and remember that the true reason for gathering here is not for community praise, but to feed our souls. Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. That is the reason for discipline: to share in God’s holiness. God removes all that can drag us away from him so that we never will leave him. The suffering, the heartache, the pain we endure now allows the opportunity to refocus on life’s truest goal, to return to God’s Word, and to continue clinging to that Word. Fix Your Eyes on Jesus for strength to persevere under all discipline.
So much pulls and tugs on our hearts. You may feel like you’re running up ‘The Hill.’ You may feel exhausted trusting promises God has made. You may want to quit believing that God blesses you because you just do not see the blessing. You may feel overwhelmed by the burdens you carry. You just want to quit trusting God. Quit loving him so much.
Yet, quit and you lose life. Persevere and you gain life. Fix Your Eyes on Jesus. See the purpose of his death. See the results of his resurrection. Know that because he died, you will live. Know that because he sits in heaven, you too will sit in heaven. Keep your eyes locked on the one thing life is all about: knowing God now in order to know him for all eternity. Fix Your Eyes on Jesus for aim at life’s truest goal and for strength to persevere under all discipline.