I’m not sure if life could have gotten any worse for Paul Gerhardt. The enemy encircling his hometown promised retreat in exchange for a small fortune. When the townspeople handed the money over, the army still set fire to hundreds of buildings anyways— including Gerhardt’s house. Later that same year, plague swept through his village, leaving over three hundred dead. Somehow Gerhardt still managed to graduate from the seminary, but received no parish. For fifteen years he scraped by as a tutor and hymn-writer. When he did receive his first Call, he was quickly fired because he refused to preach state-ordered false teaching. During unemployment, his wife died. Four of his five children died, leaving him a poor single father with a six-year-old son. Life promised more when he was assigned to a new church— but this calloused, overbearing congregation treated him harshly for the next seven years until he died. I’m really not sure if life could have gotten any worse for Paul Gerhardt.
That’s how life is often viewed, isn’t it? It’s as though a scale hangs inside the heart and we place items on both ends in order to determine their value (or, importance). You sit stuck in traffic, but the other lane is moving. So, you weigh the question: Do I have time to wait or should I switch lanes in the hope of moving ahead? You ache inside. So, you weigh the question: Is this pain worth a doctor-bill or can I treat myself? Your phone pings and you weigh the question: Is the time spent with friends more valuable than resting at home? This one life encounters a myriad of quandaries, leaving you (and I) to weigh what might be the best choice forward.
In most cases, decisions come easy (or, without serious consequence). Yet, when suffering appears, you feel a real tension inside: Is it worth suffering with Christ?
Before you reach an answer, our reading has a question for you: Are Your Expectations of Christ Balanced?
On one end of the scale we find our connection to Christ. Romans chapter eight makes it abundantly clear. God made Jesus our sin offering and condemned him in our place. No longer do you (and I) stand condemned to death in hell. Instead, we are set free! The Holy Spirit has swung open the cell door and led you (and I) out by the hand and into the camp of God. Resting on that scale sits your new identity: Child of God. Heir of eternal life. Co-heir of heaven (Read Romans 8:1-17).
With those titles still ringing in the ears, you hear this: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. Would you agree?
You see what hangs on the other side of the scale. ‘Suffering’— a heaping pile of real, legitimate suffering. Struggling stock markets, stale social security checks, and a fragile economy stokes stress over if you will have enough. Your relationship strains as communication keeps breaking down. The mere flashback of the casket (or urn) front and center in church still brings tears. Christianity shrinking in America means an increase of un-Christian laws and conversations and topics.
But it’s not necessarily these kinds of suffering that hurt, is it? After all, everyone in the world confronts discouragement and decay and disease and death; you are not alone. No, what makes suffering more painful is the fact that so often suffering comes because of your connection to God!
You stand up for what God’s calls ‘right’ and you suffer consequences. Cancer continues its unstoppable spread despite your many prayers. You do not participate with a corrupt boss, but it is you who loses the job while he still makes money. You stand firm on God’s design for marriage, but your beloved child cuts off communication. You make clear trust in God, but the friend treats you like an idiot. You invite the neighbor to worship, but he just laughs. You obey God, but he does not rescue you. You obey God, but the world still hates you. You obey God, but life does not suddenly become carefree without any inkling trace of trouble.
You feel that balance-scale teetering in the heart. ‘Christ’ sits on one end and ‘suffering’ on the other. You are left weighing: Is it worth suffering with Jesus, or is it better to throw him in the dust and move on without his Word ruling your life? The reason why such a thought could even come up in the first place is because our sinful heart thinks that Christ should reward us for following him.
Might our expectations actually contribute to suffering? I mean, you do realize that God never shies away from the reality that you (and I) can suffer as Christians, right? After all, our reading made it pretty clear: I consider that our present sufferings… those unpleasantries exist! And why? [T]he creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Death and decay were never part of God’s intentions; life and immortality were! Yet, Adam and Eve shattered the one simple command God gave: ‘Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.’ As a result, sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12). Why do hurricanes rip into cities and floods wash away towns? Why do water levels rise and why does water dry up? Why do people oppose Christianity? Why do bodies get sick and break down? Not because God left us! But because sin festers in this world! And a consequence, a wage of that sin is death! (Romans 6:23)
Have you weighed that? Are Your Expectations of Christ Balanced? If we overlook the existence of sin in this world, if we forget to take into account that sin affects all creation, if we fail to grasp that sin without Christ brings death, then we will fail to see what Christ has accomplished for us.
Jesus does not sit at one end of the scale, unwilling to touch the sufferings in this world. Instead, he came into the world and neutralized them one by one. If we think that God has no idea what suffering is, then look at the cross. See the One who shouldered the load of hell itself so that you will never know what it’s like to suffer eternally. See the One who snapped the neck of death itself so that you will never die eternally. See the One who stomped on Satan’s filthy head so that he could silence those slimy lies eternally.
Christ now sits at one end of the scale, but how overwhelming he is! Able to raise every believer— including your cremated husband and your wife who died from cancer. Able to swallow up guilt so that God finds no spot on you. Able to bring all things to a close by his own powerful might and authority.
When you weigh suffering, Are Your Expectations of Christ Balanced? Weigh the cause for discouragement. See Christ conquer that cause, that sin. Persevere in this life with patient eagerness.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. ‘Nature’ is pictured as a spectator standing in the crowd outside the Doherty Hotel during the [Clare’s] St. Patty’s parade. She strains her neck and stands on her tip-toes to see— not floats— but you wrapped in God’s glory.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. A woman in labor is usually not smiling. There’s usually shouting and yelling and sweating and pain. But then!— you hear a baby cry and pain suddenly transforms into joy! In childbirth things go from ‘bad’ to ‘better,’ not ‘bad’ to ‘worse.’
Even in creation, you see ‘bad’ knowing there is ‘better.’ Drought and famine is not perfect. Viruses and tumors are not perfect. Down trees and contaminated lakes is not perfect. Diseased deer and invasive species is not perfect. You see these things— but do not dwell on them. Let them be powerful reminders that God will bring all things from ‘bad’ to ‘perfect!’
Not only does creation yearn for Jesus to return, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Because you know what’s coming. You have the firstfruits of the Spirit. The Israelite gladly gave the very first cuttings of his harvest as an offering to God. He did not worry that he gave too much or go without later. Instead, he gave in the confidence that God would provide more. A pastor put it this way: ‘The firstfruit offering was a pledge, a token, God’s down payment, assuring that God would give them the rest of the harvest also’ (from The People’s Bible: Romans, 136).
God has deposited the Holy Spirit in you when you were baptized. Holy Scripture clearly says: Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Your baptism is God’s pledge of more to come. You will be wrapped in glory, in pure splendid greatness, forever.
There’s no question about it. God has already adopted you. Jesus signed the legal papers with his blood. The Father has put his seal of approval on that document. And now, God leaves the office and walks down the hallway. We patiently sit in the cafeteria, waiting for his appearing. Because soon the unseen promised will be reality seen.
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. Patience is difficult— especially today. High-speed internet and on-demand streaming teach us to expect things now. Medicines and hospital offers to remove discomfort now. Cell phones and text messages demand instant response. Our own two feet can take us away from a toxic situation. We live in a world of ‘quick-fix’ solutions to the troubles we face, but God’s many promises in the Bible set our sights on the best yet to come. Not only do unseen promises encourage us, but the actions God has already done prove his seriousness in keeping his Word.
God’s Word anchored Paul Gerhardt through life. I’m really not sure if life could have gotten any worse. What I do know is that Paul Gerhardt wrote some of the most prolific hymns perfectly tying together the Christian’s hope in the face of suffering. Hymns like “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me,” “Jesus, Your Boundless Love to Me,” and “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow” sound so strange given what you know about his life. For a man who lost so much he makes clear that he really lost nothing.
Christ dying and rising again has so overwhelmed all suffering that your future is only one of glory. You may be experiencing suffering now. Yet, God’s Word lifts your eyes to what lies ahead and assures you of victory even this present suffering.
Are Your Expectations of Christ Balanced? Weigh the cause for discouragement. Persevere with patient eagerness.
It might just be the most heart-wrenching, eye-drooping, shoulder-slumping, stomach-groaning, head-dropping thing someone you love can ever say: ‘But you promised!’
Ah! You did! But you forgot! And now you are too swamped to make good on your word. With the grocery shopping done you bee line home so that you can get the ice cream into the freezer before it melts and dinner on the table before bed. ‘But mom, you promised we would go swimming!’ You have only a few hours left to get the freshly sharpened blade on the chainsaw and clear those dead trees before the sun sets and the monsoon rains roll in. ‘But dad, you promised that we would play catch!’ You sink right into the La-Z-Boy at the end of another exhausting day. Just as silence sets in, you discover a very annoyed-looking spouse standing in the doorway. ‘But you promised a night out!’
So many promises made! So many promises not kept! So, those words ‘I promise,’ can kind of fall to the ground and slide right out the door because you cannot rely on people. A promise may seem to offer no guarantee and, as a result, no rest.
Perhaps that’s what you crave at this moment: Rest. When exasperated over racial tensions and 2020 elections, when edgy about health and stressed about your future, when so much makes so little sense, The Lord Gives You Rest by speaking a Word of promise and by keeping a Word of promise.
In listening to Moses this morning, you find that’s what he really wants— rest! Moses has just spent forty days on Mount Sinai. There, God hands him commands that carve out Old Testament Israel as unique, special, set apart from all other nations. When others see Israel, they would know beyond doubt that this people belong to God. So, how heart-wrenching, eye-drooping, shoulder-slumping, stomach-groaning, head-dropping to watch the Israelites now. In the short span of forty days, the high priest crafted a knobby-kneed, feeble cow-calf out of gold. He urges and encourages a worship service for this new god. The celebration quickly spirals so out of control that this people— remember, set apart for God(!)— sink into a raging orgy (Exodus 32:1-8). This mess gives no rest. Instead, it brings some very well-deserved consequences. About three thousand are put to death for their calloused unbelief (32:27-29). The remainder suffer a plague (32:35). The worst consequence is what God says next: Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey, but I will not go with you (33:3).
Can you just feel the blood drain? No longer will God be visibly, physically present. No more leading as a pillar of cloud by day, no more presence of fire at night. No more purifying bitter water with a finger or wiping away enemies with a hand. No more sitting at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, where Moses could listen and ask. From this point forward Moses would lead millions alone. Developing his own war strategies. Relying on his own wisdom. Hoping for the best. No rest. Just stress and anxiety and burden and fear.
Know the feeling? How come [do you know it]? Why is it that we long for peaceful rest in the first place? You battle anxiety because that one person is going to show up at the Fourth of July get-together. You feel overwhelmed by the phone-call that shared some very life-changing news, almost too much think through at one time. The blood-pressure rises when that Facebook post pops up or when the television camera pans the scene of protests or when listening to the other side talk. Fear ripples through the body when holding that college letter or the monthly bill. Blood boils the instant you discover how someone exploited and abused your trust. What is it that robs us of the restful peace we so desperately crave? Well, what prevented the Lord from leading Moses and the Israelites into the Promised Land? It is the proud, stubborn refusal to admit that the Lord is most worthy of praise. Simply put, it’s sin!
Yes, we can point finger at the crooked criminal, the stubborn sibling, the proud parent, the arrogant arguer who trounce all over God’s commandments and unleash torrents of pain on us. Yet, it’s not just others who bring unrest into life, is it? We carry that same sin-infested heart that also trounces over a holy God.
Do you see that? You (and I) can easily identify how worldly troubles impact us, and yet those worldly troubles are just symptoms of a much deeper problem. The sinful heart within us is hostile to God (Romans 8:7).It does not listen to him. It does not want to pray in trouble. It does not want to love our enemies. It does not want to forgive those who wrong us. It does not want to trust in God’s protection and wisdom. The sinful heart within wants to treat God like another flawed human being who makes a bunch of promises with no intention of actually keeping them. As a result, that sinful heart declares independence from its Maker. It claims that you can handle all of life’s problems on your own because you are just as powerful and perfect as God. The reason we stress out and get anxious and frustrated and cheat and manipulate— the reason we do these things is because we are not God. If that proud, self-reliant attitude rules our heart, then we will never have eternal rest.
Moses could have tried leading millions by his own wit and wisdom, but he would have failed. That’s why Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” When so much makes so little sense, where does Moses turn? To the Lord
He even uses that heart-wrenching, eye-drooping, shoulder-slumping, stomach-groaning, head-dropping thing loved ones say. ‘But God, you said!’ Understand God did not forget his promise to remain with Moses and lead Israel into a new land. Instead, Moses takes hold of God’s own Word and holds him to it! He knows God cannot break a promise. By just speaking a Word of promise, The Lord Gives Moses Rest.
There is no question as to what God will do. In fact, the Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest… I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Why does God do the very things Moses asks? Maybe we point at those words: I am pleased with you and I know you by name. It sounds like Moses behaved so well that God has no choice but to bless him— but that’s not true. God does not respond only when you work hard enough. God does not rescue you because of good behavior. God does not answer because you sweet-talk him. God answers because he is pleased with Moses. Put another way, God in rich, undeserved love delights to give Moses his promise.
If I printed out this selection from Exodus for you, you would see the ‘Lord’ spelled in all capitals. I’ve said it before, that spelling is not a typo; it’s intentional. The ‘Lord’ in all capitals tells you two things about your God. He is (1) serious to punish and (2) even more serious to forgive (Exodus 34:6-7). That becomes crystal-clear in Jesus.
Your Lord not only speaks a word of promise, but he actually keeps his word of promise. He is so serious to put an end to the unrest caused by sin that he puts his one and only Son into your world. Your Jesus lets God’s undeserved love lift him above sibling rivalry and family squabbling. Your Jesus lets God’s mighty power steady his heart in the midst of tragedy and death. Your Jesus lets God’s providing remove any worry for clothing and food. In all the things that cause us stress, Jesus relies on God’s perfect commands so that his heart remains untainted for you. You yourself cannot bring real rest to your weary heart, but Jesus can— and he does.
Do you want rest? Do you want relief from the shame that haunts you so often and keeps you awake at night? Do you want peace from the violent, abusive anger that has [seemingly] become all too common? Do you want certainty in world where so many proudly turn their back on their Maker? Then find rest in Jesus. Find rest in the One who died and rose again, so that he could go before you into heaven, not to leave, but to prepare your eternal room (John 14:2-3). The Lord Gives You Rest by keeping a Word of promise.
So, what does that mean for you? Well, child of God, take hold of the Word. Hold it up before God’s face and say, ‘But God, you promised!’‘Call on me in the day of trouble, you will deliver me’ (Psalm 50:15). ‘Cast your anxiety on me, I care of you’ (1 Peter 5:7).‘All authority in heaven and earth belongs to me’ ‘Surely I am with you always’ (Matthew 28:18, 20). ‘The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those crushed in spirit’ (Psalm 34:18).
Know that these are not just empty words that kind of fall to the ground and slide right out the door. Go back to the cross and see that God has kept his promises. He has rescued your soul from trouble, an anxiety-filled demise, has healed your broken heart and restored you. What he has done then, he will continue doing— in his perfect timing, in his pleasure. (After all, he has shown you that he is serious about his Word.)
Heart-wrenching, eye-drooping, shoulder-slumping, stomach-groaning, head-dropping thing someone you love can ever say. No. When exasperated over racial tensions and 2020 elections, when edgy about health and stressed about your future, when wrestling with guilt and wondering if God truly loves you, when so much makes so little sense, The Lord Gives You Rest by speaking a Word of promise and by keeping a Word of promise.
The resolute voice of the Supreme Commander crackled over the radio. In a matter of hours, over 7,000 vessels would storm heavily fortified beachheads. Some 3,500 aircraft would soar over enemy lines. One-hundred-fifty-six thousand [156,000] soldiers armed and ready for battle leaned in to hear their commander’s encouraging voice.
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
…In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.
But… [t]he United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats… Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength… Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons… and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory! (http://www.kansasheritage.org/abilene/ikespeech.html)
How do those words strike you? What tone do you pick up? You hear confidence. Positivity. Determination. Yet, did you also catch the unwelcome truth not hidden? Tucked within the message itself is a dose of reality. ‘Your task will not be easy.’
Why say something like that— especially moments before the largest invasion in world history?! Because it is the truth! Combat will be fierce. Opponents powerful. Tactics aggressive. The fight will not be easy. But making expectations known is not meant to frighten. It is meant to remove fear!
Jesus has some very sobering words for those who bring Christ to a world without Christ. ‘Officers might arrest you. Soldiers flog you. Courts condemn you. All will hate you because of me’ (Matthew 10:14-23). How terrifying! That’s enough to keep faith to yourself! Yet, Christ prepares you to bring that message. Christ defends you as you live it. Hear Jesus treat hardship after hardship so that you can Confess Christ with Courage.
Just last week you watched Jesus hand the disciples a delightful task. ‘Go to the lost sheep of Israel and proclaim that the long-promised Savior has come!’ (10:5-7) What wonderful words! Words that lift crushing guilt off of heavy hearts. Words that cheer those who mourn and ache over the brokenness sin caused. Words that proclaim peace with God now and forever! The message of a Savior reunites the world with their God!
Not everyone welcomes it, do they? You stand firm on Scripture’s clear definition of marriage: one biological man and one biological woman committed to one another until death (Genesis 2:24). Still, that puts you at odds with a loved one, and how that hurts! A child avoids you and will not listen to Scripture. Instead, you absorb insults: ‘old-fashioned,’ ‘bigoted,’ ‘intolerant. You champion honest work and honest leaders, but a bribe covers over crime. The guilty go unpunished. You, the innocent one, suffer loss, the lack of a fair trial, a lack of justice. You bring the Word of Life so that the world might have life! Yet, so many seem comfortable in their mortality. The daughter will follow her own made-up fantasies of God (as though her opinions make personal beliefs true). Your brother really just does not seem to care what happens when he dies. Your neighbor chirps at you for suggesting that he might go to hell. You thank God for your food, but at the restaurant, you wonder what people might think of you if they watch you pray. After all, your breakfast friends always have something snarky to say about God. The Word of God pressed into your heart, the Word you carry out into the world is not always embraced.
Do you feel that impulse inside? Yes, there’s the desire to simply hide the Words the Holy Spirit has placed on your heart and on your lips. Do not correct the erring child or the spiritually lost neighbor or the flat-out wrong friend. But, that’s not necessarily the impulse I’m describing. Rather, have you ever griped that life would be so much easier if you just change Scripture to say whatever the world wants to hear? Stop holding up Jesus as the exclusive Way into heaven. Stop insisting that we cling to all of the Word. Then opposition would go away.
In verse 24, Jesus has this to say: A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. The teacher teaches and the student benefits from him. The master pays and the servant benefits from him. The message does not belong to you; you did not create it. It is not yours to change. Nor did you start the task of proclaiming Jesus to the nations! It is Jesus who sends you out with his Word. The reason why we feel that tension inside is because the heart veers towards loving the things of this life more than the One who gives us life.
Throughout these difficult verses Jesus underscores this intimate connection you have with him. He prepares you for the challenges of living a Christian life in world without Christ. Yet, he does not do this to frighten, but rather to remove fear. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!
Do not be surprised if the world rejects you for the message you carry. They rejected Jesus too! Israel’s Teacher (Matthew 23:8) carries out his task: He exposes a heart divorced from God, in serious need of reconciliation. Yet, the religious pupils gladly tailor God’s commands to meet their worldly agenda for power and prestige. The Master of creation allow his creation to serve him! Yet, the servants consider the Master’s commands burdensome and rebel (Matthew 21:33-46). The Holy One of God wrapped in flesh wins hearts by driving away Satan. Yet, the majority call him: ‘Beelzebub!’ ‘Lord of the flies!’— another name for ‘Satan’! (Mark 3:20-28)
Your Jesus is attacked too— for the same Word that you hold so dearly! Through it all, he remains unafraid. He stands unafraid before Roman Governor Pilate. He stands unafraid when crowds chant: ‘Crucify! Away with him!’ He remains unafraid as soldiers set his cross in place (Matthew 27:11-26). Wicked men were able to kill the body— but no one could kill his blameless soul.
Instead, God raises him from death! The risen Teacher returns to his pupils that Easter morning with words peace. ‘Peace’— the end of all hostility between you (and God). ‘Peace’ for the times we failed to speak up. ‘Peace’ for our love of this world. ‘Peace’ of a restored connection to God.
What is there to fear, dear friends? Jesus died and rose again in order to remove the greatest fear of all time: The fear of dying in hell. Nothing else even comes close to that frightening, dreadful place!
Friends, Jesus knows the tension of holding to the Word in world that resists it. He knows the weight your heart will carry. He makes those realities known— not to frighten you, but to prepare you. He makes known his victory so that you are not scared. Confess Christ with Courage because Christ defends you.
Listen again to his encouraging voice: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Let’s get one thing straight. ‘The One who can destroy both body and soul in hell’ is not the devil. The Bible makes clear: (1) The days of your life rests in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15) and (2) it is God who damns the nonbeliever, but welcomes the believer into heaven (Matthew 25:31-46). The devil does not have that job— or even that ability.
Yes, the world could kill you because they hate message you bring. A message that stresses a need for the Savior! Do you know how many of Jesus’ Twelve disciples died a natural death? Just one. Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Simon, crucified. James, Judas (not Iscariot), and Matthias, stoned. Bartholomew beaten. James and Paul, beheaded. Matthew and Thomas, speared. Only John, the writer of the Gospel, the three letters, and Revelation, lived to an old age— but even then, he died exiled from his homeland!
There may come a time when people barge through these doors, arrest you, and imprison you. There may come a time when someone beats you up or stabs you or throws a rock at your head because of the words coming out of your mouth. Still, Jesus says: Do not be afraid of them. Do not fear the wicked because they cannot stop God. They cannot stop God from calling you ‘Child.’ They cannot stop him from raising you out of the dust of death. They cannot stop him from welcoming you into heaven and putting a ring on your finger and crown on your head. Humanity lacks that power. Christ defends your life for all time!
Yet, what about now? …your life in world rapidly redefining gender and marriage? where many debate the beginning of life and the end of life? …where laws are passed about what words can and cannot come out of your mouth? Well, listen to Jesus’ response: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Did you catch that? God cares about sparrows and hair! Do you? Honestly, so many sparrows exist that you can replace one with another. And hair? You might worry only if it’s leaving! If Jesus cares about forgettable things, then be sure, your life— worth more than a measly bird or strand of hair— will not be forgotten!
In fact, Jesus promises: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. Those who find Christ inconvenient, those who plug his Word from ears and chase it out of their hearts, those do not want Christ will get their wish. They will not be with him in heaven.
As for you, Christ has put his Word in your heart. Each Sunday you literally confess: ‘I believe in the Father, Maker of all things… I believe in Jesus, the Savior… I believe in the Holy Spirit, the One who creates and strengthens faith…’ You, together with like-minded believers, confess a belief and trust in our Triune God. Even though this world seems to be harnessing Christianity, you are free to gather here, to confess your faith out loud, to sing and encourage, to listen and be strengthened. Your God feeds you with Words that he does not feed sparrows because he cares about you.
How’s that for a speech? You realize that moving forward with confidence does not happen by removing all reference to danger. Remove a solid dose of reality and run the risk of falling into despair. Make expectations known and remove fear!
Jesus has some very sobering words for you who bring Christ to a world without Christ. ‘All will hate you because of me’ (Matthew 10:14-23). Yet, he equips you to Confess Christ with Courage. Christ prepares you. He makes known his supreme victory over death, the devil (and his empty lies), and a nonbelieving world. He wins. Period. Now, Christ defends you. He applies forgiveness to you. You will never overwhelmed. You will never lose. You will march into victory. What a reason to live, to Confess Christ with Courage.
The popular saying goes: ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ You have experienced history. A global pandemic. A mysterious virus that threatens life. A complete shutdown of hospitals and school systems and factories and businesses. Children at home. Care facilities locked down. Supply shortages. Perhaps some history book will treat this subject in greater detail. Regardless of your age or health, regardless of your job status or school status, this virus has left its mark on you. You will always remember how it affected life. You have experienced history— and, as the popular saying goes, ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ So, the question is: What have you learned?
That is an important question seeking an equally important answer. Because whether you recognize or not, you did learn something.
For just a moment, think back to the sights and sounds and emotions of the past three months. Empty shelves meant panic shopping and frantic hoarding. Many believed that if they just stockpiled meat and cleaning supplies and toilet paper, they could safeguard personal health. Somehow the lowly facemask became a lightning rod. If you wore one, you wholesaled yourself into paranoia. If you did not wear a facemask, you did not care about the lives of others. (It’s like wearing a facemask only served as some political statement.) Then national and state and global leadership send mixed messages among reopening efforts. Some predict a catastrophic second wave, but others advise venturing out among local business. One organization said that coronavirus transmission was rare, but later claimed transmission is common.
The only reason these headlines appear is because the coronavirus shoved mortality right in your face. Everyone stared at death a little closer than they ever had done before. It brought home the reality that life (or the lives of those near you) had a risk of ending. So, over the past few months you have watched how people respond to crisis; you have witnessed hearts laid bare. What have you learned? In crisis, the heart will reveal its object of trust.
So tell me, in what did many place their trust? Perhaps a television commercial best sums it up. The Pfizer drug company ran this ad: ‘In a time when things are most uncertain, we turn to the most certain thing there is…’ God’s faithful promises, right? Nope. ‘[We turn to] science.’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xl0tEfLve1U) The two saviors foisted high were (1) science and (2) government. Scientists must create vaccines. Health organizations must draft guidelines. Government must enforce guidelines. If everyone does their job, then I will survive, my life will not end. Understand, medicine and leadership are tremendous blessings, but science and government cannot stop you from dying.
Is it any wonder you witnessed hysterical fear and explosive anger? Is it any wonder people assumed the worst of others? Is it any wonder some are still edgy, paralyzed for a second wave? Mortality still lingers in your face— and we still have no surefire answer to avoid it. What have you learned? Panic erupts when the heart tries taking the place of God.
Dear friends, what you have seen is a world without Christ offering answers without Christ. Pointing fingers is easy to do, but what about you? What have you (personally) learned through this pandemic?
It really depends your reaction. You may have taken appropriate precautions to protect health (good!), but did fear try convincing you that it was not enough? Did panic flare up because you were afraid of going without food? Did personal views jade your opinions of others? That you automatically assumed the worst? That you wanted nothing to do with that individual? No sports, no school, no graduation, no work. Did you hold these objects up so high that you felt empty when they suddenly vanished? Did rising case numbers and dismal news cause you to sink into hopelessness? Are you pinning all your hope for safety to a vaccine? What have you learned from your handling of this crisis?
Maybe you, like me, learned how much a Christ-less world can influence us. How the world convinced you (and me) that our times rest in our hands. …that those who think differently only want to destroy our health. …that only government and science can provide real rest and real security. A Christ-less world daily bombards us with the notion that Christ is unnecessary.
That is a lie replayed throughout all of history. This faulty idea that weak mortal man can stand toe-to-toe with the almighty immortal God! For forty-plus years, the Israelites journey to a land freely gifted them, under the hand of a God who daily showers the nation with food and wipes away every enemy! For forty-plus years, the eyes of all could look up to God and delight in his constant care, his perfect leading, his unquestionable wisdom. For forty-plus years, hearts could rest in God. He had everything under control.
How quickly that trust shriveled! For forty-plus years, the Israelites experience real trouble. A water shortage (Exodus 17:3). Overwhelming enemy forces (Numbers 14:1-4). Harmful propaganda (Numbers 25:1-9). Poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). Rebellious cliques (Numbers 16). When those troubles flared up, so many sunk into self-trust. Alliances with the enemy. Angry rioting. The notion of giving up.
Time and time again, God did what no one else in the world ever could; he saved his people from a hellish death. God makes it clear: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding’ (Proverbs 3:5). The instant the heart sets what God promises off to the side, we have sinned. We have broken a crystal clear command. At that point, God could wash his hands of us and let the curse of death bury us. Instead, God let the curse of death bury Jesus. He shoveled doubt and panic and fear and hysteria and self-reliance and despair onto Jesus until it killed him. And Jesus left our every weakness behind in the grave.
Dear friends, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. Are you learning? We have constant need of God’s Word. Constant. Not only one hour each Sunday morning. Not only for a few minutes after breakfast or before bed. Not only when we think about it. We have constant need of God’s Word— because we confront constant trouble, constant temptation, and a constant need for God’s deliverance.
Listen to our reading from Deuteronomy, chapter 11. God says: Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Take God’s teachings about his constant care, his promises to work all things for your benefit and stamp them into your heart that it leaves a visible impression.
Actually, God has already left his mark on you. At one time, the Pastor made the sign of the cross on your head and on your heart, marking you as God’s child. The water touching your head presses that cross on you. You carry the completed work of Jesus. He washed away spotty trust. He wraps you in his forgiveness.
What confidence you have for today! If you outlive this virus, then God has graciously extended your time on earth. If you do not survive this virus, then what have you lost? You step into eternity’s paradise, free from all disease and decay (Philippians 1:21-24). Have you learned that truth? You can live every single day staring death in the face without flinching!
That’s good news— good news to share. Teach them [these words] to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Every newborn infant is born with a sinful nature. The devil will work on that sweet, little baby. He will try convincing that child how God is unnecessary, unloving, uncaring. He will try leading that child to think that God has no impact on life.
Parents and parent-figures, godparents and grandparents, God is using you. He uses your experience with the sinful nature, your knowledge of Scripture, your language to speak answers that the world will never have. So, write [these words] on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many…
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. How many stayed locked up at home absolutely terrified that they could die? How many know-it-alls unleashed words that cannot be taken back? How much gray hair is caused from the stress of trying to control life? No matter how hard the world tries, it will never have an answer for death. To the world, death is the end of all good. So, life is lived clinging to the minutest control you think you hold. What a curse! What a curse to come when a Christ-less world will live forever without Christ!
What blessing to live under God’s answers! When that child asks: ‘What’s this virus?’ you do not have to lie a good picture. The world thinks kids cannot handle death. (I’m not convinced that is true.) What is the point of Sunday School? …home devotions? …you bringing them here [to worship]? …you praying with them? They can handle death because Jesus handled death. Keep pointing that child to Jesus and watch them live under the blessing of his care.
So, dear friends, what have you learned? Did the thought of death drive you into prayer and fill you with the peace of eternal life in heaven (if God desired to call you home)? Did you counter thoughts of shortage by looking at the birds outside and remembering that God cares for you better than they? Sports, graduations, activities, and vacations went away, but did you feel no loss because your true identity is found as a child of God? …a child who rejoices in saving faith? …a child who uses abilities, not for self-praise, but for others to praise God? …a child who can use abilities to serve others? Did the many political approaches to the virus cause you to pray that much more for your leaders— regardless of your political affiliation? Friends, what have you learned?
I learned that I still have lots of room to grow. The devil, a Christ-less world, and my own sinful self will keep tugging me to consider God unnecessary. No matter the amount of years I have had in the Word (I have a four-year Masters of Divinity and have additional credits from continuing education), I will never be at a point where I can go without God’s comforting Word. Until I see God’s face, the ‘Evil-3’ will do all they can to separate me from my loving God. The history of Old Testament Israel teaches me this. How others handled the virus teaches me this. The history of my own poor choices teach me this.
So, dear friends, what have you learned? I pray that through this challenging time you have learned how much life depends on God. I pray that your commitment to hearing, reading, and studying God’s Word has grown. I pray that your desire to regularly gather in worship has increased. I pray that you have identified areas in life where you can grow closer to God and that you will be faithful in acting on those changes. I pray that you Impress These Words on Your Heart.
This morning I brought a copy of the famous painting, ‘Le Bateau’ [‘The Boat’]. In 1961 this prized piece hung on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Over the course of 47-days some 116,000 guests visited the exhibit— which, by most standards, is a success. But!— there was just one problem: The piece was hung upside-down. (https://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/theater-arts/moma-hangs-matisse-le-bateau-upside-1961-article-1.2455442)
Each day for forty. seven. days. professional curators studied the stripes and squiggles, discussed depth and detail, proudly and confidently handled any question. No inkling or hint or whiff of error ever crossed their mind! That is, until art enthusiast Mrs. Genevieve Habert opened up her art catalogue to reveal the right way to hang the painting (see for yourself). Even the painter’s son confirmed that Mrs. Habert was correct.
A painting so many called a masterpiece was not seen the way it was meant to be seen. Even though you might never have seen this painting before in your life, you will never be able to look at it the same way again. (If I flip upside down now, you would realize it’s upside down.) When you compare the wrong to the correct, the wrong more noticeable.
Keeping that concept in mind may help when trying to make sense of all the troubles in this world. Have the wrong perspective, and you get the wrong answers to the real problem. (You can even get the wrong outlook on life.) Genesis chapter one acts much like a painter’s catalogue, revealing God’s original creation and constant care so that we can make sense of life in this world. Only then can you Find Rest, Restless Heart in God’s perfect care, in God’s restoring plan, and in God’s complete rest.
The book of Genesis opens like a blank slate. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). Then, like adding colors to a canvas, God adds majestic twenty-four-hour stroke after majestic twenty-four-hour stroke. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God said, ‘Let there be sky and water,’ and there was sky and water. God said, ‘Let there be land, seas, and vegetation,’ and there was land, sea, and vegetation. God said, ‘Let there be sun, moon, and stars,’ and there was sun, moon, and stars. God said, ‘Let there be birds and sea animals and land animals,’ and there were animals (1:3-25).
Unlike paintings of random stripes and shapes, spots and splotches, God’s painting has order. His masterpiece works harmoniously together— land and water for plants, lights for growth, plants for food. And each day ends with the same judgment: God saw it was good. Now, understand, ‘good’ does not suggest God did the best he could or that his efforts are better than most. ‘Good’ means ‘perfect.’
In this perfect paradise God saves his best creation for last. [He] said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” With one final stroke, God paints you (and me) as crown of his creation. All land, all waters, all animals are for your wise use and daily needs.
As if that is not enough, God takes even greater care in setting you (and me) apart from the rest of creation. God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. That ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ is not that we look like God (for God is spirit [John 4:24]) or that we have unique critical thinking skills. The image of God means that our will stands perfectly in line with God’s will. God says, ‘Here is food for you,’ and Adam and Eve say, ‘Yes, God, without question you care!’ God says, ‘Love me with all your heart, mind, and soul,’ and they say, ‘That is no burden at all!’ Everything God commands, they want to do.
At the end of the sixth and final day, God amps up the assessment of his finished masterpiece: It was very good. The most perfect-est of perfect. Step back and take in this splendid portrait and what do you see? God’s perfect care.
What happened? Compare this original painting to what you see today. Pain and sorrow, floods and sickness, unrest and injustice, death and mourning— all these things that afflict and affect— were never in God’s picture! This perfect paradise has been turned upside down! And why? Because we lost the image of God. Instead of hearts bent to God’s wants, hearts often bend to self-wants.
So, we can live as though we were meant for an upside-down world. That this world could morph into paradise if only … I had more money, I would finally feel secure. …if only I have that house, then marriage will be better. …if only I put my adversary in her right place, then I could feel more important and have more respect. …if only those politicians catered to my specific needs in my specific community, then I could feel satisfied.
The conflict we so often feel inside does not come because we need to try harder (to make the world better). The conflict comes when our hearts find greater worth in the creation more than the Creator! That leaves us with the wrong perspective looking for the answers to all the wrong problems!
We would be forever stuck with this distorted perspective if it were not for God, in his perfect care. He straightens his masterpiece.
When Adam and Eve sat stuck in an upside-world, God made a promise to set the world right-side up. For the centuries to follow, God repeated and re-stressed and rekindled his promise of a Savior so that the whole world could see life the way it was meant to be. [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). Understand, Jesus does not come to make a heaven on earth. Frankly, removing conflict now does not prepare you for eternity.
Jesus comes to restore that corrupted image by living life we did not. Never does he consider money to be the answer to life’s needs. Instead, he thanks God for even the little he has. Jesus’ heart finds real, lasting wealth in having God on his side. Yes, Jesus certainly teaches you (and me) to ask God for daily bread, but keeps underscoring a resilient trust in the Giver. Never does he exalt himself with harsh arguments. Instead, he allows leaders to insult him. Jesus lives to restore the image of God in you (and me). That becomes crystal clear on Calvary. God sees in Jesus our corrupted image, our self-centeredness, our cravings for the passing pleasures of this world— and he hands Jesus the death penalty. He peels off Jesus’ perfect image and sticks it on you.
Your risen and living Lord makes clear that he has set you straight with God. In fact, right before he ascends, Jesus points to that restored image. You heard the words moments ago: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’ How do you (and I) enter this family of God? Jesus tells you. By baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).
Your baptism might not seem like much. A splash of water done long ago, some words spoken. Ah, but not any plain words— but God’s power-packed Word. You were buried with Jesus through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:4). A new life! Not a life where selfish wants are foisted on top of God’s desires for us. Rather, baptism works in you (and me) the desire to want to obey God. As you hear or read (or recall) God’s Word, your heart is changed to be more Christ-like. And, when you (like me) see a trail of selfish devastation, return to your baptism. See how God has washed off all crooked desires. How he drowns the past forever. How he still calls you his child!
That’s a picture set straight. In God’s restoring plan you can see things the way they truly are. In that way, you gain rest in God’s complete rest.
Let’s look at the end of our reading: By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. God did not get tired, much like you (and I) might after a long, busy workweek. God simply stopped working— and when you stop working, you rest. There is nothing more to be done.
Like life now. Nothing more to be done. Nothing more needed to save you. Nothing more needed to make God love you. Yesterday, today, always, you live in this intimate communion with God. Simple truth, something you hear each week (or revisit in your daily devotions). Yet, lose sight of this important reality— and life goes awry. (Which is really the reason so much unrest erupts.)
‘So Pastor, what’s the answer?’ How can schools manage a fall semester and restaurants safely serve customers and hundreds reassemble in one hall? How can violent protests deescalate and respect touch all people of all races and all careers? How can my life return to normal(-ish)? …my graduation parties? …my getaway? …my shopping, exercising, trip to the barber? How can everything become better? What’s the answer? I don’t know— at least, I don’t know how to handle all the logistics of social, political, and economical issues.
Yet, here is one thing I do know. When those troubles rip into my heart, when I feel sore and hurt from sights seen. When I sit at the end of another day and recount the many ways my criticisms pushed away those close to me, when I see that my prejudice did not care for others as I should. When I feel sadness because my well-intentioned hopes and dreams did not flourish as I had hoped, when I pout because my panicked hysteria did not provide comfort. When I feel all this loss, it shoves this upside-down world in front of my eyes. This pain I feel comes through my own fault. It comes through the fault of other sinful people. It teaches that imperfect people will never make a perfect world.
That realization grabs my attention and sets it squarely on God. I again see the blessings drawn from the Word. The blessings of the Holy Spirit, who leads me each to admit my flaws. The blessing of a forgiving Father, who never brings up my past. The blessing of Jesus, who restores the image of God in me. Yes, on earth, that new man inside me will struggle (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10) but in heaven I will be seen as I truly am. Your Triune God, through his Word, lifts your attentions off of the challenges and conflict in this world so that you see him strengthen you, rescue you, answer you, and save you.
That, dear friends, gives rest. No, not just a break where you do not hear negative news for a while. Rather, real rest. The rest of knowing that you can hear bad and know that God handles it all. You just get to live under that care.
Does that help make sense of all the troubles in this world? Genesis chapter one acts much like a painter’s catalogue, revealing God’s original creation and constant care. What we so often see is turned upside-down. So, God sets the picture straight. Keep focused on your God, who leads your hearts into rest and will make that rest permanent soon. Find Rest, Restless Heart in God’s perfect care, in God’s restoring plan, and in God’s complete rest.
A fiery orange light lit up the car’s instrument panel. A glowing ring encircled this tiny engine block with a little fan. Is that the shape of the engine? And why the circle? Wouldn’t the shape of an engine be enough? Why is the light orange? Why not a red light? …or green? …or blue? !!Bang!! Smoke billowed from under the hood as the car clunked and clanged to a sputtering stop.
The vibrant yellow sandwich-board stuck out against the floor. A plain-looking stickman floated horizontally with legs and arms flailing wildly. What a funny picture! Who thought of that? Is that how people fall? And those languages! Obviously one is Spanish, but what’s the other one? French? Italian? !!Slip!! !!Screech!! !!Crash!!
Dark, stormy clouds swirled overhead. Somewhere in the distance a shrill siren shrieked. The weather radio flashed lights and played its own scratchy, screechy tune. How do you produce a tone like that? An orchestra? Or do you use a really out-of-tune keyboard? Could they maybe make something a little more pleasant sounding? !!Thwack!! !!Thud!!
Signs are important, but what a sign draws attention to is even more important. A ‘Check Engine Light’ indicates engine trouble. A ‘Wet-Floor Sign’ identifies a slippery and hazardous area. A tornado siren cries out to take shelter immediately. Signs are important, but what a sign points out is even more important. If you fixate on the sign itself, you fail taking appropriate action. You can suffer catastrophe.
We find signs today. Signs many see and hear. Signs pointing to a more important matter. Signs calling for action. The sights and sounds of Pentecost capture our attentions, but do not ignore their important impact. What Do These Sights and Sounds Mean? And what do they mean for us today? We live in the final days and We have work to do.
Envision the events of that first Pentecost. (Just a refresher: ‘Pentecost’ means ‘fifty.’ The day of Pentecost marks fifty-days after Easter.) 1 When the day of Pentecost came, the [disciples] were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs— we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
The sights and sounds have their intended effect. Crowds from Italy to North Africa, from Turkey to Syria— crowds from all over the Mediterranean world pour into Jerusalem to celebrate an important Jewish festival. Sunday morning, noise jolts thousands awake. The roaring sound of rushing wind calls people into the streets. The strange sight of flame flickering over the heads of a handful of men piques curiosity. The extraordinary spectacle of men who share a common language, now clearly communicating in another known language, with clear words and a clear topic captures attentions! Masses swarm, eager to make sense of sights and sounds!
So, 14 Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people.’ Scan this sight of flame and preaching and the sound of wind and language. This is no random coincidence of nature or a bunch of babbling buffoons. No, God predicted this event. On Pentecost God gave the disciples the ability to speak in known languages so that they could clearly communicate the good news of Jesus as Savior.
But! — do not rush past those opening words: ‘In the last days,’ God says[.] The Bible does not use that phrase as a reference to the final seconds before you see Jesus. The ‘last days’ simply refer to all the days between Jesus’ ascension and his final return. Because Jesus can return; he completed his mission. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried. He descended into hell, rose again the third day. He ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. What’s left to do? He will come to judge the living and the dead. So, What Do These Sights and Sounds of Pentecost Mean? We live in the last days. Jesus can return at any moment.
Does that help you understand what you have seen and heard? Floodwaters gushed through Gladwin and Midland. Your families were affected. Your friends lost businesses. Even our fellow Christians suffered! An invisible virus lingers. Some get sick, some die. Politicians stand divided on proper guidance. Tensions increase over state restrictions— are they too stringent or are they just right? You hear of wars and rumors of wars. Famines and earthquakes ravage various lands. Masses are turning from the Christian faith in droves. Wickedness increases; the love of most grows cold (Matthew 24:4-12). These sights and sounds can leave you wondering: ‘What in the world is going on?’
Dear friends, signs are important, but what a sign points out is even more important. We can very easily fixate on troubles and try to answer: ‘Why is this happening?’ (as though God will answer from heaven). When those puzzled Pentecost people wondered what the sound of wind and sight of speaking meant, where did they find the answer? In the Word of God.
Peter’s Pentecost sermon points our attentions to the Word of God— specifically, to the good news of Jesus as Savior. He points to the One who washed away your sins (and mine)— the real reason to be afraid. He points to the One who stepped foot outside the tomb by his own power. He points to the One who tells the terrified disciples on Easter: ‘Peace be with you’ (John 20:19). What Do These Sights and Sounds Mean? Beginning with that first Pentecost some 2,000 years ago, God makes clear: We live in the final days.
When what you see and hear troubles you, when you wonder what God is telling you, then turn to his Word. Remember: We live in the final days. That’s alright! At the perfect time he will bring you to be with him forever (John 14:2-3). There is no fear over that. You spend eternity with God paradise not because you are a good person, but because Jesus is perfect for you. Because Jesus has done everything needed to save you.
That’s good news. That’s important news. That’s news the world needs to hear. What Do These Sights and Sounds of Pentecost Mean? We have work to do.
Listen again to those words from Joel: 17 ‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. Now, before Jesus is born, God selected certain people to be prophets. He gave them a message through a vision (Isaiah 6) or a dream (Daniel 7) or conversation (Exodus 3). The prophet would then share this message with an audience.
Joel looks ahead to a time when God will send out more prophets, but these would not be your Old Testament prophets. He uses the word: ‘prophesy’ in a broader definition, meaning: ‘to proclaim.’ Those who heard Peter’s sermon could take that good news home with them and share it with their family, friends, and neighbors. Those individuals could share the good news with other family, friends, and neighbors— and so on. God unleashes his Word to the entire world! What Do These Sights and Sounds of Pentecost Mean? That God has given you (and me) his Word to hear and to share.
I preach this morning! I am telling you about Jesus, the Savior of the world, just like God intended (and promised) so long ago. At this moment, I am doing this through video. Just two months ago, the message you heard was mainly shared within the walls of the church. Now you can hear the good news on any (internet-connected) device. Think about that for a moment. This coronavirus-shutdown has drastically changed life, but do you see what it has good has come from it? So many churches were forced into digital arenas. God is blasting his Word (again) throughout the world. Platforms like YouTube and Facebook can be accessed by the billions spread out across the world! It has become that much easier to be in the Word. What Do These Sights and Sounds of Pentecost Mean? That God has given you (and me) his Word to hear and to share.
About a week ago, I stood in line at shop. Two employees were discussing the flooding in Midland, all the rain we had. You could tell they were trying to make sense of it. Why did this happen? What is going on? Their best answer was: ‘Mother Nature is trying to tell us something.’ That’s it! Their answer is the same as their question! They stare at the signs, but not to what the signs point out.
God says, 19 I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. Many see the same troubles you do. The flooding. The virus-restrictions. The unrest. The increase of wickedness. Love growing cold. Signs abound, but what they point to is even more important. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
Jesus is coming soon. Does your brother think he can negotiate his way into heaven? Does your daughter think she can keep ‘taking a break from church?’ Does your neighbor think eternity is no big matter? Is your friend scared about everything going on? Do you see people at the grocery snap? (Really, because they are afraid of dying?) What Do These Sights and Sounds of Pentecost Mean? That God has given you (and me) his Word to hear and to share. 21 [E]veryone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ We have work to do.
Signs are important, but what a sign draws attention to is even more important. A ‘Check Engine Light’ indicates engine trouble. A ‘Wet-Floor Sign’ identifies a slippery and hazardous area. A tornado siren cries out to take shelter immediately. If you fixate on the sign itself, you fail taking appropriate action. You can suffer catastrophe.
We find signs today. Signs many see and hear. Signs pointing to a more important matter. Signs calling for action. The sights and sounds of Pentecost capture our attentions, but do not ignore their important impact. What Do These Sights and Sounds Mean? And what do they mean for us today? We live in the final days and We have work to do.
We just want to be sure. Does a fabric facemask truly prevent spreading the coronavirus or is a fabric facemask virtually worthless? Should the economy reopen or should it remain closed? Can a reopening economy keep life safe or does a reopening economy threaten life? Will a second wave be worse or manageable or nonexistent? Will school meet online or in smaller class sizes or as normal? Will a vaccine come out in summer or fall or winter or longer? Are children dying from a covid-caused illness or from a completely unrelated syndrome? Perhaps now, more than ever before, we want clear answers for life. We want assurance that our decisions will not put our lives or the lives of others at risk.
The truth is we lack definite, tested answers for some very legitimate questions. The lack of knowledge fosters fear. And fear shoves two very unwelcome facts in your face, facts we try so hard to stifle: (1) You do not know everything and (2) You cannot control everything. Since you do not have every answer to every question, it means a decision could be wrong. Since you cannot control everything, it means that you might experience unpleasant results. That means, especially in these coronavirus days, we grapple with uncertainty— or do we?
If you and I and the rest of the world do not have unlimited knowledge and unlimited power, then the assurance we want will not be found in people. We need a more certain Source. A Source that knows all things. A Source that controls all things. A Source that provides real answers for life— and we have that Source. In a world chocked full of the unknown, Get a Grip on God! Turn from misguided ignorance and turn to certain proof.
In Acts chapter 17, you find proof— proof that the city of Athens lived completely oblivious to the most important answer for life’s most important question. That much is clear just by walking through the city. You find shrines and monuments and temples everywhere. A thick, imposing structure houses Zeus, father of all Greek gods. A petite, ornate shrine holds Aphrodite, goddess of love. You can pay tribute to the grain god, Demeter, or to the god of metalworkers, Hephaestus, or to Poseidon, god of the seas. Crowning the city itself is the (still-standing) Parthenon, a house built for Athena, goddess of war and wisdom.
It’s no secret, the people of Athens are in every way very religious. They love debating spiritual ideas and discussing new philosophies. To them religion was like collecting baseball cards— you aim to get the complete set. Just to make sure they did not miss any god or goddess, they even [built] an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.
You can almost see their smug smirks for being so clever. They cover all their bases! In reality, despite all the gods and goddesses honored, the Athenians reveal just how uncertain they are. You see, the very fact that you have an altar made out ‘to an unknown god’ reveals a fear that you (1) missed a deity and (2) can expect trouble from a snubbed deity. So, to counter that fear, where do you look? The natural response? You! To what (1) you know and what (2) you control!
The Athenians know this: (1) people like acts of kindness and (2) you can perform acts of kindness. So, their entire way of worship revolves around doing something good for the gods in the hopes of receiving something good from the gods. I mean, have you ever wondered why the ancients sacrificed the virgin to the volcano gods? A volcano erupts. People think the mighty deity controlling the volcano is angry. So, toss the young virgin into the volcano and maybe the god will turn it off. Sounds ridiculous, right?
Then how do you describe what you see today? A store owner gladly donated unsold groceries to the Lutheran Seminary pantry because (in his words): ‘In case God is angry with my Catholic beliefs then I can point out how I helped the Lutherans.’ The wife discovered his flirty text messages. The husband, who spent age-zero to age-sixteen in church, promised to return. ‘I need to get straight with God,’ he said. ‘I need to bring my daughter too. I’ll be there Sunday.’ He never came. Why? Because his marriage got fixed before Sunday! The self-professed spiritual, but unchurched man lived by his favorite Bible passage: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ (Disclaimer: That is not found in the Bible. This man did not read the Bible enough to know that.) Each one knew they stood accountable to God— but they had no solid answers. Their best guesses boiled down to: doing good, being kind to others, and live a good life. Even worse— they were content living this way! Like the Athenians, they were content making up beliefs and then living by them!
Do you know what that attitude is called? Ignorance! Acting in a wrong way due to the lack of information. Not having the right information does not suddenly make your beliefs correct. I believe my muck clothes are appropriate evening attire for a five-star Michelin restaurant. When I arrive, I am refused service because I do not meet the dress code. My made-up beliefs do not make me right. It makes me ignorant, a fool who failed to measure up to their standards!
No wonder we wrestle with nervous uncertainty! Our hearts dabble with treating God with made-up human standards! The fear of entering public places paralyzes you. Why? Because we treat God like limited, mortal man! If I cannot keep myself safe from a virus, then maybe God cannot either. If I cannot guarantee a cure, then maybe God cannot either. If I die, I cannot bring me into heaven, and maybe God cannot either. You promised to give up swearing, but covid-19 still here. You promised to pray more, but God does not let you be with people yet. You promised to read the Bible more, but your marriage is still difficult. You did your part, why doesn’t God do his?
If you feel overwhelmed by the unknown, it’s because you (and I) are drifting into ignorance. We are treating God not as he reveals himself, but as we think he operates! Put another way, you making up beliefs about God! You are placing trust in what you make up! You are circling back to yourself! You are placing trust in you! That is called ‘superstition.’ What ignorance!
God does not instantly morph into my wants. It is God who morphs me to see him. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth… The Almighty God breathed into existence the entire universe and all the wood and stone in it. He created all things— and since he did, he does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything… If God brought all things into existence and rules over his creation, then why would he suddenly depend on humanity’s help? [B]ecause he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. Not just that, the God who stands in control over all things is the One who controls even kingdoms rising and falling. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. He did all this so that men would seek him.
Do you grasp the implications of this? You are able to know the true God with certainty. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. Understand, ignorance is not innocence. God is patient. He did not wipe the arrogant, godless Athenians away, but provided another opportunity to Get a Grip on God by turning from misguided ignorance.
Get a Grip on God by turning to certain proof. In Acts chapter 17, you do find proof. In fact, you confront one undeniable reality that affects all people everywhere regardless of gender, race, age, income, education, family makeup, whatever— every single person in the entire world faces their last day. [H]e has set a day when he will judge the world with justice… How do you execute justice? According to a law. God examines and exposes your life (and mine) according to his perfect standards. As he stretches you (and me) out against that ruler of perfection, he says: ‘Not enough.’
Yet, there is one man who was enough. A man who never made up fantasies about God. A man who held his mind and heart captive to the Word— meaning, whatever God spoke in Scripture, he treated as truth. Call on God in the day of trouble (Psalm 50:15), and so Jesus prays in Gethsemane for God’s help (Mark 14:32-42). God sits on a just throne of judgment (Psalm 9:4), and so Jesus does not open his mouth when soldiers mock him and enemies insult him (1 Peter 2:23-24). God willed to crush his Son and cause him to suffer (Isaiah 53:10), and so Jesus suffers the punishment reserved for us (1 Peter 2:21).
God measured Jesus against his ruler of perfection and says: ‘Enough!’ He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Yes, Easter preaches three profound promises. (1) Jesus is the Son of God (Romans 1:4). (2) God accepted Jesus’ perfect life for us (Romans 4:25). (3) Because Jesus lives, we will live (John 14:19). The Word from God’s own mouth provides certain proof in world full of the unknown.
The One raised, the who re-ascended his throne, the One who sits with earth as his footstool is not far from us. You do not have to wander through Michigan’s northwoods or stare at Lake Michigan’s gentle, rolling waves and hope that you figure out God’s plan for your life. You do not have to do more good than bad in the hopes that you have actually tipped the scale in your eternal favor. You do not have to scrounge through the local paper and find someone who committed worse crimes than you. When guilt overwhelms, the answer is not found in your knowledge or your ability. Point to the cross. Hear— not God’s opinions— but Jesus crucified and risen for your eternal advantage. Get a Grip on God by turning to certain proof.
Keep that Grip on God by clinging to certain proof. The truth is our world will always be chocked full of the unknown. You (and I) simply (1) do not know everything and (2) cannot control everything. That’s fine! If we could have that ability, then God would grant us that ability! But he has granted us something better. He gives you his Word.
The Word of God keeps yanking attention off of ourselves and puts attention on Jesus. Only Jesus has unlimited knowledge and unlimited power. Only Jesus has proven that every promise he makes, he keeps. Only Jesus makes us acceptable before God. Keep hearing and reading the Word. Take its promises to heart. Write passages down if you wish. Memorize them. As you step out into the unknown you will not be overwhelmed. You will have a Grip on God, clinging to certain proof that he handles everything.
In these coronavirus days we still lack definite, tested answers for some very legitimate questions. It will remain that way for some time. The world would want you to panic. The devil would want you to despair. Your own self panders to self-trust. Yet, answers will never be found in you. That’s because are not the source of all answers!
We already have Source that knows all things. A Source that controls all things. A Source that provides real answers for life. In a world chocked full of the unknown, Get a Grip on God! Live confidently fearless by turn from misguided ignorance and by turning to certain proof.
Tucked away in the archives of the National Museum of American History is the Jefferson Bible. Have you heard of it? (The Jefferson Bible, that is.) Do you know what it is?
Around [the year] 1820, Thomas Jefferson set out to gather what he felt were the authentic teachings of Jesus. You see, Thomas Jefferson believed that Christians for centuries misunderstood the core content of Jesus’ message and gradually inserted made-up fairy tales about the person of Jesus. So, in order to unearth the ‘real,’ he had to remove whatever he thought ‘unreal.’ With razor blade in hand, he carefully sliced away every supernatural event. Any reference to angels, including the birth announcement of Jesus, gone. Miracles like changing water into wine, curing the diseased, feeding thousands, walking on water, removed. (And if the miracle occurred in the middle of a sermon, it was crudely carved out.) He even cut out Jesus’ Easter-day resurrection. The Jefferson Bible actually ends with these words:
"Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre [the tomb], wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed."
Whatever tidbits did remain Jefferson pasted together. Again, he believed the four gospel-writers got their stories mixed up. So, he took verses from the four gospels and zippered them into a single narrative. (https://www.monticelloshop.org/the-jefferson-bible-smithsonian-edition/) The finished product was book Jefferson considered accurate, authentic, and reliable.
If you flip through this “bible,” you realize that it has the right name: The Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson so heavily revised Scripture that he completely changed God’s message. He had reduced Christianity down to three core teachings: (1) love God, (2) love each other, and (3) live sincere. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jefferson_Bible) He removed any mention of Jesus, the Savior the world needs. What Jefferson actually created was his own set of beliefs.
You see, Thomas Jefferson felt stupid for treating the extraordinary supernatural as real events. So, he foisted science and reason over God Almighty. There remains this ever-present attitude to make God conform to our desires, to handle God’s teachings in any way without consequence. Yet, if you change God’s Word, then whose word are you actually following? Really, On What Does Your Eternity Rest? Carefully examine your foundation of faith and then joyfully live the calling you received.
In our lesson from 1 Peter [2:4-10] one word keeps appearing: ‘cornerstone.’ See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who believes in him will certainly not be put to shame.
Now, in modern construction practice, a cornerstone functions as more of a decorative marker. You find cornerstones set in special buildings, usually on the outside wall either near the main entrance or at the base of a unique feature on the building. The name of the organization and completion date of construction are stamped into that stone. The cornerstone also may serve as a hollowed out time capsule holding important documents or mementos. In ancient construction, the cornerstone served a vital purpose. Miners cut out this large rock. Stonemasons would then make it square, smoothing out bumps and cavities, setting each angle at 90-degrees, so that what you finished with was a perfectly square block. Builders laid the stone at the corner of the building footprint. They took stones for the wall and measured each one against the cornerstone, smoothing out every bump and leveling off every cavity. You did this for each stone so that by the end of your row you had a straight wall, and as you built higher the wall stood firm. Without that cornerstone the entire structure would fail.
God calls Jesus a cornerstone, a square block used for accurate building. Still, Jesus is no ordinary cornerstone. God uses two words to describe him: ‘chosen’ and ‘precious.’ God set Jesus aside for a special purpose: to fill our lives with God’s pardon (Isaiah 42:1) At his baptism God makes clear Jesus is the Chosen One. People watch as the Holy Spirit rests on Jesus. God the Father stamps a seal of approval: ‘This is my Son (Matthew 3:13:17). This is the One God wants!
That makes Jesus precious. Gold is worth thousands-of-dollars an ounce. As valuable as that is, Jesus is worth more because he is morally pure. Out of the billions who have lived, will live, or now live no one has ever lived the perfect life Jesus has, the perfect life God requires. That makes Jesus one-of-kind.
Now, if Jesus is the stone (1) pleasing to God and (2) valuable for eternity and (3) no one else in the history of the world has ever received such accolades, then what does that mean for you? Jesus is the stone God laid to align our beliefs, our hearts with him.
That sounds acceptable, that is, until God’s Word dose strike home. Jesus says: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). Now, just like builders, crowds hold Jesus in their hands. They study his teachings, consider what changes must be made in life, what vices to give up. After careful examination, they throw him away like a flawed, unwanted stone. After all, the Jewish nation just wanted a powerful politician, not a humble teacher. Non-Jews wanted a wise sage who presents methods for a better life, not a preacher who exposes the need for a Savior. Jesus makes clear: those who reject him as Savior will not be in heaven. Does that offend you?
Jesus also teaches, Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16). The spouse thinks he will go to heaven because he tries hard to be a good person. The friend does not need church because she is content with her own views of religion. The child (confirmed a long time ago) makes it clear that he does not believe the ‘church-stuff’ anymore. The generous neighbor has no idea who Jesus is. Still, Jesus makes clear: Those who reject his saving work will not be in heaven. Does that offend you?
Honestly, a little part of me does not think God will carry out his Word. That’s based on what? Me telling God! Me assuming my word, my opinions, my sense ‘fair’ and ‘equal’ stands and God’s Word crumbles away!
You see, the human heart thinks God desires your input (and mine). That God begs for your opinion and comments, and then automatically conforms to you! In the end, where does that set you? It puts you in the position of cornerstone and demands Jesus align with you!
What foolish thinking! Rejecting Jesus does not actually remove him from his position of power. I mean, what happens when you toss aside a big, lumpy stone at the worksite? You trip over it! It doesn’t go away, it stays in the way! [For] those who do not believe: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and, ‘a stone over which they stumble and a rock over which they fall.’ Because they continue to disobey the word, they stumble over it. And that is the consequence appointed for them.
Dear friends, carefully examine your foundation of faith. Telling God what you expect of him does not bring you closer to him. It does not make you right. Like Thomas Jefferson, you begin creating your own beliefs— beliefs that God rejects.
God laid Jesus as the cornerstone to align our beliefs, our hearts with him. As the Word of God strikes your ears and heart, you may feel cutting and sanding and chiseling. That’s good! That Word is removing the pride that threatens to pull us off from Christ, the Cornerstone! That Word shows how crooked our opinions, but how perfect Jesus conforms to the Father’s will. That Word exposes how our demands fall short of God’s expectations, but how completely Jesus matches God’s desires. That Word reveals that if we stubbornly follow our wants, we will step off from Christ, but that Word shows how Jesus willingly followed the path to the cross in order to chisel off our every flaw and make us God-pleasing stones.
God raised Jesus to be the only foundation of faith. [T]he one who believes in him will certainly not be put to shame. That makes Jesus the choicest, most precious object in the universe. Which means, his Words are the choicest, most valuable words for life. Words that really shape your life.
Recently I heard a Pastor describe this ‘Stay-Home’ order as a once-in-a-lifetime do-over. His point is that so much seems so important that it takes our attentions off from God and his Word.
A little while ago I heard a journalist paint a silver lining for this virus. He explained that he would be home more. His college-aged son would be home more. His young-adult daughter would work from home. His wife would be home. His point is that the family would be home without much activity— something that had not happened for years! This journalist reached an [almost] earth-shattering revelation: he could use this time to get closer to his family! He had completely brushed aside the privilege God handed him of being a parent!
For the state of Michigan, it appears that much will be shut down until after Memorial Day. You know the sights. Campers, motor-homes, boats, side-by-sides, ATVs— all these toys. What truly pulls the heart is watching them drive home Sunday morning. How many put personal relaxation ahead of worship? How many used vacations as a poor excuse as to why there was never time for church? How many (of us) found more satisfaction in activity than worship?
If anything, perhaps three months ago you felt pretty invincible. The strong economy promised wealth and security. Humming health systems gave a sense of control. The year ahead held all the plans you expected to put into action. If you were like me, you felt untouchable. That God had a place in your life, but maybe not first place. You love his Word, but maybe reflected on it only when you had time. You cherish his promises, but perhaps never relied on them. When life goes well, we rely a little more on our word— and expect God to accept us on our terms. Needless to say, this coronavirus shut-down has really challenged what we assumed was true. That we are in charge and God just tags along with us.
The Bible teaches that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). This virus will be used for good. Christ the cornerstone keeps cutting away bumps of arrogance and sanding down pride and chiseling away self-reliance. He keeps teaching you (and me) to focus a little more on God’s Word, to take a little more to heart, to bend and find more satisfaction under the pleasing life God arranged for us.
What then remains is a clearer picture of God’s role in your life. Or, a more accurate way of saying: your activity as a living stone. [Y]ou are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, the people who are God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. At one time you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. At one time you were not shown mercy, but now you have been shown mercy.
Make no question about it, God clearly reveals our place in his family. Not a place where we challenge God. Rather, God has aligned us to himself. Carefully examine the foundation of faith. See how God keeps using that Word to shape us so that we remain in his house forever.
There’s nothing offensive about that. This is the Word that brings life, the Word that equips you (and I) to joyfully live the calling you received.
That message needs no revision. Instead, that message revised our lives, so that now you live shaped by the God who saved us. The God who makes Your Eternity Rest on Christ.
Why does Psalm 23 stand out as one of the most beloved psalms of all time? I mean, enter any Christian bookstore, any Hobby Lobby, any Wal-Mart and you will find artwork of sheep and a shepherd. Surf through Amazon’s marketplace and you will find these words etched on bookmarks, collectible plates, and Bible covers. Enter any Hallmark store and you are sure to find these words in a greeting card. What is it about Psalm 23 that makes it so endearing, so captivating? Is it the picture of a man whose face is worn rugged, who is beaten by the weather, living in the dry, desolate wilderness for the sole purpose of caring for sheep? Is it the deep-seated delight as you watch him retrace a wandering path just to find one lost sheep? Do you marvel at his determined, fearless resolve to fight a savage wolf with nothing but a shepherd’s staff? What is it about the twenty-third psalm that strikes the heartstrings?
The instant reaction might be to focus on how it makes you feel. You feel at peace because Someone great protects you. You feel satisfied because Someone great fills your soul. You feel confident because Someone great leads you. We can emphasize results (and that’s good)— but might I offer a different cause? The real underlying reason why these words resonate with us? Psalm 23 delights— not because of how it makes us feel, but because of what the Shepherd does. When you study his work and his ability, you realize this is the Shepherd we need.
That realization comes into focus with just the opening words. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Can you imagine the scene? The shimmering sun peeks over the horizon, its brilliant beams chase away shadows, its radiance illuminates the sprawling landscape. High overhead birds soar. Mist hovers over still water. Dewdrops sparkle on crisp, lush grass. Look around and what do you see? Peace! In fact, that ‘peace’ is amplified by what is not present. No enemy barreling towards you. No crushing heartbreak. No disappointment. No burden. No pressing responsibility. They do not exist here! Stop— and you hear silence. No sirens, no alarms. No calls for your attention. No shouting. No drama. No conflict. Stress is completely wiped out, forever removed!
You find a pasture of paradise— something not seen in this life. No, what we often see is frustration as plans fall apart. The dream does not strengthen marriage, it just creates more arguments, more conflict. It seems like everyone on your social media feed has a better life than you, they have reached significant goals. Fear always lingers. No matter how long you stare at the bank account, it does not make money appear. The news media tends to create problems and never solves them. The worst-case scenario constantly plays out in your mind. You just want to know for sure that the future will be okay. Then, there remains those relationships that paralyze us. You want the grudge over, but the brain creates another excuse why the phone call can wait another day. The sister always cries for help, but she never actually takes your advice to heart. She’ll burden you with the same problem again next week. Bundle up the challenges you (and I) carry and we feel so exhausted, so worn, so overwhelmed, so hurt, so broken. Psalm 23 captivates our attention because you find peace, security, safety.
Still, what makes us yearn for rest from every mental, physical, emotional struggle? (Of course, apart from the benefits of a peace-filled life.) What draws us into this serene pasture? Realizing that you (and I) fail to bring peace into life.
Do you remember how the psalm begins? ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ Who does the leading? The Lord. The Lord speaks, we follow. The Lord speaks, we respond accordingly. Yet, how often our foolish hearts ignore his Word! Proud hearts can grow so confident in your (and my) ability, thinking that our decisions, our choices can bring meaningful security and unlock peace among relationships. So, with chest puffed out, we lay the Bible aside and chase whatever fantasies seem pleasant at the moment, thinking this kind of living will bring us real happiness.
In reality, the opposite is true! I mean, God did not say, ‘Go hold a grudge.’ He does say, ‘Forgive, as I have forgiven you’ (Colossians 3:13). No wonder we get tied up inside! Pride does not want to listen to those words. As a result, it invites heart-decaying consequences. God says, ‘Trust in me with all your heart, mind, and soul,’ (Proverbs 3:56). Still, pride wrestles for control. No wonder we worry! We try to do God’s job! Worry happens because we confront our own limitations; we lack the power make everything work out just the way we want. God promises: ‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because…Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). A little part of us shoves those words aside, considering them unnecessary. That God is too overbearing. Yet, what does greed do? Greed never has enough. Greed is a chronic wasting disease. No wonder we feel no satisfaction when greed saturates the heart!
The point is this: Self-reliance feels no need for God. No need for God watching over you. No need to follow God’s Word. A proud heart relies on you! How foolish! What guarantee can you make for real rest? Even worse, the further we wander from the Word of our God the further we wander from our God! The further we wander from him, we do not find peace. We find misery. We walk a road that will only bring everlasting heartbreak.
So, no wonder Psalm 23 draws us in! Yes, we gain many blessings from Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Yet, do not overlook the obvious. Who is a better shepherd? You— who cannot enter paradise? Or, Jesus, the Shepherd who has the ability to create this rest and then lead you into that rest?
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. The Good Shepherd gladly carried every commandment of God on his heart. He found complete joy in doing his Father’s will (Hebrews 10:7-9). Never once did he brush the Word of God off to the side. Instead, that Word filled his heart— and he used the Word to remove want. Disciples who set the burden on themselves to feed five-thousand mouths, Jesus teaches to bring requests to him. A woman who no doctor could heal finds healing in the Son of God. A prostitute who carries her own shame, a prostitute so many consider too far gone to be forgiven, hears forgiveness from the mouth of Jesus. The Good Shepherd spent his earthly life gathering hearts with his Word. He led those hearts to see his payment on the cross as the payment that brings real peace to a starved soul.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want— and you lack nothing. The living Lord still comes to you with his Word. A Word that penetrates your heart. A Word that does not express a wish, but a reality. What God actually does. So, when Jesus says, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (John 20:21-23), there is no doubt, but the ongoing, solid reality that God no longer holds our faults against us. He does not lock us out of heaven. He does not hold a grudge. He restores weary hearts and souls.
Jesus is the Shepherd we need. Only he holds the power to remove stress and anxiety, fear and nerves. With his Word in our ears and hearts, he proves to be the Shepherd we have.
That truth draws us in to this psalm. Jesus remains the Shepherd we have— even now! Sometimes you encounter this wrong notion. The idea that once you become a Christian, life becomes perfect. You have health. You have wealth. Your children become perfectly obedient. You never get stressed out at work. Never experience accidents or tragedy. All your friends leave a positive impact. That life just becomes completely easy. That’s not true. The Bible never makes such a claim. Even this psalm admits that you (and I) will have trouble. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You (and I) can walk through challenges— financial stress, disappointments brought on by children, even the thought of a covid-19-caused death. We can stand in the overwhelming presence of death— and all its overpowering torments. Still you (and I) need not fear. Why? [Y]ou are with me. Jesus, the Good Shepherd stands bigger than our challenges. His ‘rod’ and ‘staff’ are not two different objects, but really one. The Word of God gives strength in difficulty. You (and I) can press on even in the face of death because God’s Word does not make wishes, but guarantees.
God has kept those promises, hasn’t he? He sent his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). He has provided you another day with food, clothing, and shelter— and even more, the delight of knowing that it all comes from him (Psalm 37:25). Even in the face of death, you do not stare down the dark abyss, but rather see heaven opened! The heart clings to these promises and keep moving ahead by those promises.
With the Shepherd leading, you triumph over all your foes. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Imagine walking into a five-star restaurant. The Lord receives you as his honored guest. He seats you at the finest candlelit table. You turn to look out the window and you see your enemies outside. Death’s icy grip. Satan’s life-wrecking temptations. The world’s empty promises. Their hands press against the window, aching to rush in— but they cannot. The Risen Christ has cast them outside forever. They are conquered; they can never afflict you ever again!
You turn to the feast spread before you. The finest cuts of meat. The fresh-picked vegetables. The still-warm breads. The most expensive of wines— things you may not be able to afford in this life. Imagine the emotional, mental, and physical delights of feasting! Every need is so fully, so perfectly met. The Good Shepherd grants such satisfaction with his Word—a Word that proclaims his Easter victory and a word that guarantees your share in victory! Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
So, why does Psalm 23 stand out as one of the most beloved psalms of all time? What is it about Psalm 23 that makes it so endearing, so captivating? What is it about the twenty-third psalm that strikes the heartstrings? Is it the picture of a man whose face is worn rugged, who is beaten by the weather, living in the dry, desolate wilderness for the sole purpose of caring for sheep? Is it the deep-seated delight as you watch him retrace a wandering path just to find one lost sheep? Do you marvel at his determined, fearless resolve to fight a savage wolf with nothing but a shepherd’s staff? Yes, we can ponder what the Good Shepherd does.
Yet, stop and study yourself, your ability, your efforts—and no wonder we fear! What limits we have! When we stop to study the work and ability of the Good Shepherd, you realize this is the Shepherd we need. He is the Shepherd we have. The Lord is My Shepherd.
A single microscopic germ stripped away everything from her. Work and work responsibilities, appointments and meetings, errands and exercise, outings and dinner dates— all gone. For two weeks journalist Brooke Baldwin fought the coronavirus [covid-19]. Her body gorged on 12 hours of sleep each day. Cold sweats soaked bed sheets. Dull aches throbbed. Leaving bed took all her strength. Appetite vanished— and when it did show up, no taste. Stubborn independence quickly gave way to cries for dependence. The virus broke her down piece-by-piece, leaving her without a sense of purpose.
In that stillness, Baldwin could focus on important matters in life; she gained clarity. In her reflection she writes:
In our normal lives, we're faced with a barrage of distractions— events on a calendar, expectations of ourselves. But during this time of Covid-induced isolation— whether you're sick or just socially distancing in your home— we've been forced to sit still [without] distraction.…
When I was sick and my body came to a screeching halt… I found myself thinking about joy… about my work [goals]… about my mother… and about the beautiful interdependence of my marriage. …In the quiet of my quarantine, I was able to more purely isolate my gratitude and my values. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/19/health/coronavirus-diary-sickness-brooke-baldwin/index.html)
This morning God peels away earthly distraction so that you gain clarity. He does not want you to lose sight of an event longer-lasting than covid-19. An event carving out a deeper impact. An event that has changed the course of your life for all time. Easter prepares you for eternal glory! A priceless Life made you different. A priceless Life gives you hope. So, Live Your Life as a Stranger Here.
Listen to our reading from 1 Peter chapter one, starting with verse 17: Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. That describes you, doesn’t it? You call on God by name. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, breaking down the barrier once separating you (and me) from God. The Holy Spirit gives you access to approach God confidently just like a child fearlessly approaches her father.
Even though God is our tender Father, he is also Judge. That means, God is not some unconcerned grandfather who sits idly by as his little grand-brats trounce all over his word. God enforces his commands; he judges each heart individually— and he does not cut deals.
That’s why he says: live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. You (and I) live on planet earth, and lots of objects are in it: money, tech toys, outdoor toys, play-toys, houses, cars, clothes— all these material items society considers valuable. You (and I) also hear many voices in this world with their many opinions. That you should put your needs first. That you should live in whatever way makes you happy. That everyone— husband, wife, child, boss, neighbor— should respect you. This worldly way of living starts pushing God’s desires out of your heart so that you no longer live under his care, but live for your self-interests.
God does not want his children to fall under judgment. So, he reminds you (and me): ‘You call [me] Father’— because you are his child; you belong to him. That makes you different.
God’s Word peels away worldly distractions so that we see this truth more clearly. If you’re like me, that paring down is painful. Painful— because the heart can attach to the world. We burn with anger over seemingly-needless government restrictions or seemingly-needless protesting because ‘those people’ take worldly treasures away from me. We get upset about losing vacation because we set our hopes in finding peace and rest in luxury. We gripe and complain that a child cannot be recognized for achievements because we over-emphasize (and over-exalt) status. Trembling at the sight mortality means we lost sight of our triumphant Lord, who— as you heard two weeks ago— conquered death.
The pleasures and challenges in this world can blind us from our identity as children of God— children not investing in the passing pleasures of the world, but children who see God at the center of everything in life. If it feels as though you have suffered a loss of purpose, then today is the day to revisit what God has done for you.
God has not set you in this world to latch onto this world. He has redeemed you. He has paid the price to make you different. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. That puts worldly ambition into proper perspective, doesn’t it? God does not love you because you raised your kids to work hard, respect others, and stay out of jail. God does pardon guilt because you sit in a church building and put money in the offering plate and attend Bible class and volunteer. You will not go to heaven because you tried your hardest to live a good life, be a good person, and help others. Gold and silver are valuable, kindness is treasured, but it all stands empty before God. That way of living cannot buy forgiveness because forgiveness costs astronomically more.
God brushes every single distraction aside so that you (and I) can see the most priceless object in the history of universe: Jesus. What makes him so valuable is his unblemished life. Picture that for a moment. Not one trace of greed. Not one inkling of self-righteous pride. Not one harsh word or lustful thought. No unwillingness or doubt. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for 33-years Jesus lives absolutely flawless! That is the life God wants.
Jesus does not hoard what he has. He transfers that priceless life in your (and my) spiritually bankrupt account. Hearts blemished with a carnal love for stuff are covered over with Jesus’ unblemished blood. Every spot of pride washed away. His blood fills you up to stand spiritual rich before God.
This is who you are. Now. In this world. A priceless Life made you different. Life’s ultimate goal is not to store up worldly achievements. It is not to find peace in those achievements. You (and I) are different because A priceless Life gives you hope.
[Jesus] was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. Do you know what ‘hope’ is? If you think ‘hope’ means ‘something that might happen,’ then you are wrong. God does not use the word ‘hope’ to suggest an event that may or may not happen. Instead, ‘hope’ means ‘expecting fulfillment with confidence,’ as in, ‘trusting a future event that will occur.’
You know, checking over my calendar, no one has a birthday today— but one specific day does celebrate your birth. That special day might not be today, it’s off in the future— but it is coming. No doubt about it. Every year you fully expect with confidence to celebrate. Easter makes your future certain. God raised Jesus from the dead. For forty days, Jesus appeared to well over 500-believers (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). What do you think he talked about? How to manage your 401K? How to unleash fuller joy in a broken world? Of course not! Making earth into heaven was never the purpose for Jesus to come. Instead, Jesus rises to bring you the most awesome news ever: Because I live, you also will live (John 14:19). Your future is changed. Your attention is lifted up. A priceless life gives you hope— absolute certainty of life with God forever.
What makes this coronavirus unsettling is that it shoves death in your face. Either (1) a real threat of death hovered over your head (because you stand ‘at-risk’) or (2) you wrestled with the awful thought, ‘Maybe I’m not so invincible. Maybe this virus does gets me (or a family member).’ And you might not have been ready to deal with ‘death.’ Maybe you never thought this day would actually come. The simple fact that death even crept into focus will leave a mark. You will not return to a point in time when these events did not occur. From here you can only go forward. The question is: How will your life be different?
This pandemic has allowed much time for self-reflection. Fear preaches (quite loudly) that all the creature comforts of home cannot fill you with the peace you want. You might have scrounged for facemasks not out of caution, but because you were scared. You learned that death still frightens you. That you still have room to grow. Yes, you know you’re going to heaven, but maybe you do well to take God’s Word more to heart. You can cast all your anxieties at any time on God (1 Peter 5:7). You can read your Bible (or devotion) and know that God does not make empty promises, but rather gives guarantees, a solid rock on which to stand (Numbers 23:19).
Rest from the onslaught of weekend sports and school schedules and endless graduation festivities and work obligations demonstrates that you can still live without these events— and so can your family. There is more to life than worldly achievements. How you and your family are responding to these unsettling times can reveal where you might grow closer to God.
You (and I) can recapture our role as [grand]parents and connect our [grand]children closer to the promises of God. Faith in Jesus as Savior is the most priceless object in the world— and sharing that truth is the greatest investment you can ever make. Do not squander the time given now. Do not hope that your child might stumble into church one day. Do not think it is up to the Pastor alone to preach Jesus. Today is another day where you can take what is seen and heard and remind yourself (and others): You are a stranger here. Life does not depend on what you own. Life rests and finds peace in God’s forgiveness. That forgiveness comes through Jesus. A priceless Life gives you that hope.
God-willing, we will have another chance to return to our work and work responsibilities, appointments and meetings, errands and exercise, outings and dinner dates— all these fabulous blessings. You heard that right: blessings.
God peels away earthly distractions so that you gain clarity. He does not want you to lose sight of Easter. The priceless Life of Jesus made you different. Jesus is the only Way into heaven—and you benefit from that life. He exalted you into the family of God. As a result, His priceless Life gives you hope. When your world shakes and trembles, when so much seems lost, remember: You have lost nothing—because your hope is not anchored to this life. You are a Stranger Here, and a full-fledged citizen of God’s kingdom.