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.
Hiroo Onoda was a second Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army. On December 26, 1944 he assumed his post in the Philippine mountains. His orders were simple: hinder American advancement by targeting airstrips and ports. Under no circumstances was he to surrender. Yet, American forces crept further and further inland, forcing Onoda deeper and deeper into the mountains. He carved out a new position and, all on his own, continued repelling police forces and local resistance. Onoda never surrendered. There was just one problem: the War was over. In fact, the War had been over for 29-years.
Can you imagine carrying on your life as though war still rages all around you, when in reality, it does not? Can you imagine living in constant fear of the unknown? …will the enemy overwhelm you? …will you live to see another day? Can you imagine the stress? …your responsibility of making snap decisions? …always standing alert for sudden danger? Can you imagine the sheer frustration? …why no one ever comes to help you? …why no one ever shares updates about the ‘big picture’ of the war effort? …why this war never ends? …is this war really worth fighting anymore? Hiroo Onoda lived in a completely unnecessary way. The War was over! He could enjoy peace and prosperity! The good news never sunk in.
The war is over! (And I’m not talking about World War II.) Jesus lives!— snapping the stranglehold of death. Jesus lives!— holding in his hands the spoils of new life. Easter blazoned an incredibly enormous change for life, but we can lose sight of the victory. We can live as though nothing changed. So, go back to the empty tomb. Peer inside. Listen to the angels. Recall the events. As you do, Easter Makes Life Make Sense. You Hear God’s purpose for Jesus and you can Apply the facts for life.
In Acts chapter two you find this smattering of people from all over the known world gather in Jerusalem to celebrate the annual thanksgiving festival. Not terribly spectacular, right? Except they gather fifty-days after Easter and still wait for God to send his Son into the world. They live completely oblivious to what Jesus already accomplished for them!
So, [the disciple] Peter stands up, raises his voice, and speaks loudly and clearly to them: Men of Israel, hear these words! Jesus the Nazarene was a man recommended to you… Well, that name rings a bell. Some watched this ‘Jesus the Nazarene’ teach; others heard the fantastic events attached to this Man. Yet, what the crowds associate most with the [the name] ‘Jesus’ is ‘crucified,’ ‘died,’ ‘buried.’ Just another man who met his end and can be visited in the cemetery. Their attentions have moved on from his ministry!
Peter says, ‘Stop! Think back to Jesus. [He] was a man recommended to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know. Do not overlook the obvious: miracles, wonders and signs are visible, you see those sights with the eye. What is seen does not require interpretation. Either you blow out the birthday candles or do not. Either you drive the car or not. Either you get up from the chair or not. You cannot debate if an action happened or not. Many eyes saw mighty acts. Jesus strengthens the crippled, cures the diseased, multiplies food, and raises the dead. No one could debate if those acts happened or not. On top of that, no one could deny these mighty acts surpassed human ability. The point is this: You cannot simply disregard what is seen. Miracles make you wonder (1) who this Man is and (2) for what reason he does these things. Peter says these signs point to something definite: Jesus is recommended by God, which means, God sent Jesus for a specific purpose. You cannot dismiss the One God sent without consequence. You would be opposing God.
But that is precisely what happened! This man, who was handed over by God’s set plan and foreknowledge, you killed by having lawless men nail him to a cross. Some of those standing in front Peter were the ones who chanted: ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ (Luke 23:20-21) Others gave silent approval as they watched the Romans nail Jesus to the cross. Whatever the participation this much clear: The crowds rejected the only Savior God sent. They completely ignored God’s purpose for Jesus.
In spite of rejection God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. God Almighty, the One who knows all things, also knew that Jesus would die. After all, this is the purpose for Christmas, right? The sinless Son of God is delivered to the world. This is the purpose for Jesus’ circumcision and baptism, right? He shoulders the responsibility of obeying God’s commandments (Galatians 4:4-5). God marks Jesus as his sacrificial Lamb. A Lamb not for some, but for the whole world. A Lamb needed because something is morally and mortally wrong with us. A Lamb God sends for a purpose: to save us!
One thousand years before Easter Sunday King David revealed God’s purpose for Jesus. He said: I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon my life to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence. Yet, David is not describing himself. That much Peter makes clear. Gentlemen, brothers, I can speak confidently to you about the patriarch David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day… For all his accomplishments and success, David still could not grasp victory over death. He died— and his tomb remains. Since he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath that he would seat one of his descendants on his throne [that is, Jesus], he saw what was coming and spoke about the resurrection of Christ, saying that he was neither abandoned to the grave nor did his flesh see decay.
These many Jews gathering in Jerusalem acted as though Jesus the Nazarene impacted their lives in no way! That Jesus’ ministry flamed out and could be forgotten. Friends, Hear God’s purpose for Jesus. Go back to the empty tomb. Peer inside. Listen to the angels. Recall the events. Apply the facts for life.
You know, throughout this entire pandemic one phrase keeps repeating like a broken record. A phrase smeared on commercials, the media, and governor reports. The phrase? ‘We’ll get through this.’ Says who? Have you thought about that? Who can make good on that promise: ‘We’ll get through this’? We have no guarantee that we will [automatically] conquer this virus. Yes, we hear terrific news that the [virus] curve is flattening (and slowing), but we have no guarantee that a second “wave” does not strike. We have no guarantee that a new disease does not erupt next year. We have no guarantee that the economy instantly recovers or that grocery store shelves are always stocked or the virus just fizzles out. Yes, it stands highly likely the virus goes away— but because of what reason? Because human beings are so smart and we will triumph by our own ability? (We were the ones who could not prevent this whole mess in the first place!) You see, the human heart places an incredible amount of trust in its own abilities. It grows over-confident in what it can manage and control that it thrusts God off the side!
That does not bring any peace, does it? Thoughts of death overwhelm us because you (and I) cannot stop life from ending. Panicked hysteria ripples through your body (and mine) because we cannot make all things work for our good. Feelings of despair keep us awake at night because cling to our own behavior— our helpful actions or kind generosity, thinking this is what God wants from us. Self-reliance treats Jesus as some impotent man who lived, died, and remains dead. Completely unable to help you! That Easter is this onetime celebration stuck in the past. That it remains up to you to obtain real peace.
That kind of living fails to apply Easter to life. Hiroo Onoda hid in the mountains, lived off the land, and fought locals. He was living a war that had been over for decades! He was living in one way of life that was completely unnecessary. He did receive whispers of a new change of life. General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army dropped leaflets announcing Japan’s surrender, but Onoda did not believe the news. His own family dropped pictures from the sky, pleading for his return, but he thought it was a trick. Finally, his commanding officer, Yoshimi Taniguchi, flew to the mountains and ordered Onoda to surrender. He did. Onoda could finally live under the results of peace that had already been in place for 29-years.
Peter shares God’s declaration peace so that you may live under the completed work for the risen and living Christ! This Jesus is the one God has raised up. We are all witnesses of that. The miracles, wonders, and signs testify that Jesus is the God-approved Son sent for the world. Sent to live in your place (and mine). Sent to carry our fears. Sent to confront our self-reliance. Sent to give us new life. Never once does Jesus question God’s care for him. Even has he hangs on the cross, he commits his life into hands of heavenly Father because he trusts with this unshakable trust that he will not see decay. His body will not lay in a tomb and get stinky and break down. He knows the Father would restore his perfect life as promised— and the Father does!
Apply the facts of the resurrection to life! Jesus has won the victory!— and you get to live under the results. Not cowering in fear over guilt, but certain of God’s forgiveness. Not facing conflict alone, but relying on a God who watches, guards, protects, and keeps you in his hands. Never afraid to confront death alone, but certain that God will open your grave and you will see his face.
The war is over! Jesus lives!— snapping the stranglehold of death. Jesus lives!— holding in his hands the spoils of new life. Easter blazoned an incredibly enormous change for life, a change that remains in effect today.
Easter will continue getting further and further behind us. Yet, go back to the empty tomb. Peer inside. Listen to the angels. Recall the events. Hear God’s purpose for Jesus. The Man crucified now lives! Lives to brings you peace in this life and the life to come now and always. Apply the facts for life. Open your eyes to results Christ wins for you. Easter Makes Life Make Sense.
Do you feel like rejoicing and being glad today? It’s Easter Sunday, but it really does not feel like it, does it? At this moment, you are confined inside, either reading these words off a couple pieces of paper or watching service on a screen. (Probably not your normal Easter habit.) You do not sit in sanctuary beautifully adorned with fragrant lilies and blazing white linens. You cannot feel the piano pound its sweet songs. You probably are not dressed in your snazziest, prettiest, newest outfits. You will not enjoy the classic Easter brunch at church with all those familiar faces and glowing conversations. You will not rejoice with your friends in the presence of your God. The celebration just seems to lack fullness, doesn’t it?
Then, you have those timeless traditions that always happened after worship. Easter dinner with family. Easter egg hunts. Easter basket presents. Those festivities will not take place. This year is different. Instead of creating light-hearted memories of happiness, you may just feel without cheer.
So much has been taken away so quickly. Over the course of just one month, we have gone from no Irish Parade to cancelled sports to cancelled school days to cancelled schoolyear to limited gatherings to no gatherings to no going out (unless necessary) to wiping down your groceries and wearing a facemask. That’s a lot to process in a very short amount of time. All this massive adjustment— on top of everything else you already had going on. The strained relationship. The financial stress and retirement planning. The upcoming wedding. The graduation festivities. Moving out on your own and the empty nesting. The first Easter without a loved one. Yes, there will be brighter days in the future, happier days, days that present a reason to rejoice and be glad, but maybe just not today. To rejoice and be glad feels too difficult when there are so many challenges in the world at this moment.
Much like that first Easter, right? You do not see Mary Magdalene and the other women skipping on over to the tomb. No one relishes the fresh morning dew and fragrant lilies. No singing. No brunch. No cheer. That first Easter is dominated by loss. So much has been taken away so quickly.
One sight changes everything: Jesus lives! Just like that, joy! Excitement! Worship! Still, the world in which those women and disciples find themselves has not changed one bit. Jesus lives!— and Jewish leaders still want Christianity snuffed out. Jesus lives!— and the Romans will do anything just to stop hearing the name ‘Jesus’ (Matthew 27:62-66). Jesus lives!— and life is still threatened (John 20:19). That first Easter audience does not rejoice and live glad because their every single struggle suddenly vanishes. They rejoice and are glad because Easter changes the very foundation of life. Despair No More! The Lord lifts you up from depths of death. The Lord anchors you to his salvation.
One man experiences those words firsthand. Today, Easter Sunday, the day when Jesus Christ breaks out of the prison-hold of death, we focus on Jonah. You probably best know him as the guy swallowed by a great fish. Remember how he gets into that situation?
God hand-selected Jonah for a special mission: ‘Preach against the great city of Nineveh so that they might turn to me’ (Jonah 1:1-2).That’s a problem. Nineveh is the capital city of Assyria, and Assyria is the capital enemy of Israel! In no way whatsoever would Jonah ever want to help enemy number one. The mission is so repulsive that Jonah literally runs away from God. Instead of heading east to Assyria, he boards a ship sailing due west, travelling in the complete opposite direction. Jonah has absolutely no desire to set his mind on the things of God. He acts only to satisfy self-interest.
For a moment, Jonah gets what he wants! Until a storm rips away his control. Billowing waves heave, rain pelts, whipping winds gust. The sailors strain for shore, but make absolutely no headway. They dump heavy cargo, but the swells swamp the ship. Certain death confronts the crew. Jonah finally admits: ‘I am running away from the God of heaven, who made the [now-storming] sea and the land… Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm.’ … Then the sailors took Jonah and threw him overboard (1:9-15).
How does Jonah find himself inside a fish? He disobeyed God. God spoke and Jonah literally ran away. That behavior comes from a rebellious heart. Spiritually speaking, Jonah did not want to hear God. He did not want to obey God. He wants God gone. So God grants his wish. Jonah is banished from God’s sight! He plunges into the heart of the sea, sinking lower and lower, the sheer weight of water presses down on him, squeezing him tight, crushing him. His fate is sealed: He would sink into the open jaws of his grave.
That’s nothing to rejoice about, is it? Death is no friend. Perhaps that truth has taken on fuller meaning. This coronavirus puts people at risk of death. There remains a possibility that you can infect loved ones with a life-threatening illness. There remains a possibility that you yourself could become sick and even die. Today’s medical technology has made incredible, but doctors still cannot guarantee to automatically save life. That’s unsettling. At this moment in time you (and I) are getting a close-up view of the grave.
What makes it even more unsettling is that all the comforts which we considered so important are not delivering us. (1) How often sports took priority over Sunday worship. Cheering on a child from the sideline or letting your mind drift onto the big game while at church. Our hearts considered a simple score so important that it attaches value to that activity. (2) How often jam-packed schedules shove time with God (either in prayer or devotion) off to the side! Your prayer-life shriveled up because the television show came first. Your children do not know what happens when a person dies because you did not think it important to teach them. (3) How often self-worth is invested in money and fading milestones. I mean, just one month ago you could list what you considered important, but the whole list is almost wiped out. All those things our hearts consider so important that it sacrificed God— they’re all gone and you (and I) are still here. What good do those priorities serve you now?
Is it any wonder you witness fear and hysteria and panic? Run from God and face eternal death alone.
If you find it difficult to rejoice and be glad this morning, then reset your focus. Listen to Jonah speak: To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. Jonah’s actions tossed him into death, but God, in his infinite mercy did not let Jonah get what he deserved. Instead, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights (1:17).
Do you realize from where Jonah prays? Inside the fish! He does not mourn, he gives thanks. The Lord lifts him up from depths of death. He has done the same for you!
Jesus has stepped into Jonah’s life, into your life (and mine). He is sent to preach to the world— including to those who hate him and would kill. He is tempted to cherish the treasures of this world, to elevate wealth and status and power. He sees disease and deformity and death. Never does he run away from God. Instead, he comes to do his will (Hebrews 10:5-7).
God’s will set Jesus on the Good Friday cross. There, Jesus marches after your heart that had wandered into death, after my heart that had wandered. He sinks into the pit of death. His life stops. God makes Jesus pay for our despair. Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man [was] three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40).
Early Sunday morning, the stone rolls away from the tomb and out steps Jesus— fully alive! He holds your life brought back from death. ‘Because I live,’ he says, ‘you also will live’ (John 14:19).
Despair No More! The empty tomb means the Lord lifts you up from depths of death. Christ has risen! Risen to bring us from death to life! With that good news the Lord anchors you to his salvation.
That word ‘salvation’ means ‘deliverance.’ When applied to God it describes the only deliverance that truly matters (or the best deliverance there is): ‘deliverance from death in hell.’ When you (and I) hear: ‘The Lord anchors you to his salvation,’ it means, God ‘delivers you from death in hell.’
This where you stand today, you stand delivered from death in hell. That’s why Jonah sings: But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation [eternal deliverance] comes from the Lord.
Does it feel like it? Christ rose, but the world is far from perfect. You hear about disease and sickness, death and despair. Even in the past, you heard war and unrest, financial collapse and frayed relationships. Christ rose, but struggles did not suddenly vanish. Not to mention all the personal challenges you face. The upcoming wedding. Moving out on your own and the empty nesting. The first Easter without a loved one. Christ rose, but these significant milestones still exist.
So does Easter. The fact that Jesus leaves his tomb means your guilt before God has been wiped away (Romans 4:25). A room is prepared for you in heaven (John 14:2-3). At the right time, God’s angels will carry you to your heavenly home (Luke 16:22). Your future changed. Christ rose and that means you will live forever on high.
That reality is fixed. Firm. Steady. Constant. It never changes. The Lord anchors you to his salvation (his saving work). That means, even in tears you have a firm footing. Your husband who died trusting in Jesus as Savior spends this Easter with his triumphant Lord. One day you will too will gather around the triumphant Savior! Not just that, nothing will stop Jesus from raising you (and me) from the dead. Jesus himself makes clear: A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out… those who have done evil will rise to be condemned… and those who have done good [those who believe] will rise to live (John 5:28-29).
The Lord anchors you to his salvation (his saving work). That means, even when all these activities are stripped away, you really have lost nothing. Parents, God has handed you the opportunity to teach your children about the God who holds the keys of life! No child fears knowing that Jesus will bring them to heaven. Even with older children you can connect the victory of life more closely to today’s settings. Much is taken away, but that allows you (and me) to focus on what is truly important in this world. Prioritizing life with God!
The Lord anchors you to his salvation (his saving work). That means, you hold open access to approach the Almighty for anything, anytime. The God who gave his very own Son into death for our eternal benefit, why would stop caring about you now? I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Despair No More! ‘The Lord anchors you to his salvation.’
Just like that, joy! Excitement! Worship! Still, the world in which generations of those celebrating Easter has not changed one bit. Jesus lives!— and you still encounter challenges. Jesus lives!— and you still confront death. Jesus.’ Jesus lives!— and life is still threatened. We do not rejoice and live glad because every single struggle suddenly vanishes. We rejoice and are glad because Christ defeated every single fear, every single enemy once and for all time. He hands you that victory! Despair No More! The Lord lifts you up from depths of death. The Lord anchors you to his salvation.
No one knew what lay there. Some of those pre-1940s Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons sketched a map of the world. Over the continent of Africa sat a black blob with the words: ‘Dark Africa.’ (No, that is not a derogatory reference to the skin color of Africans.) [https://www.reference.com/geography/africa-referred-dark-continent-39aa8499dafe9e5a] ‘Dark’ simply meant: ‘unknown.’ Few ventured into the central regions of Africa and those who did, did not provide a clear picture of its landscape. No one knew where rivers cut or if a lake covered the entire area or if central Africa was all desert. People knew that something was there, but they did not know what. The area was ‘dark.’ Chocked full of the unknown.
Maybe that best describes life at the moment. Dark. Unknown. Coronavirus, Presidential primaries, a November election, sagging markets block out a clear path. You feel uncertain where you will stand months from now. You want certain security, but it feels out of reach. Can You Make Sense of Life?
Events seen and sounds heard seem confusing at the moment. Mighty Babylon tromps towards Israel’s borders— stomping feet, rumbling siege towers, clanging swords, shields, and spears— and Israel cannot stop it. Be sure, they are trying. The national army assembles, but stands overwhelmingly outmatched. King rushes from ally to ally hoping to muster enough war support, but despite his efforts he still needs more help. People pray, but Babylon never turns around. Take in all that is seen with the eyes and many conclude: There is no escape. Just complete and utter catastrophe. Israel sees nothing.
That’s why God’s prophet, Isaiah, cries out: Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see! Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the Lord? Israel is God’s servant, and the nation had seen God in action. Families watch him split the Red Sea and crush Pharaoh’s chariot army. They see God send in manna and quail for each morning and evening meal. They witness God hand victory after victory against all their enemies. So many see these powerful acts with their own eyes! These incredible accounts trickle down through generations.
All Israel in Isaiah’s day had heard what God had accomplished. Ears could absorb these words— and not merely pick out tones, but respond appropriately! The past (1) details God’s promises kept and (2) guarantees God’s repeated results! What impact does that leave? Trust! Trust that God will always hold you!
Yet, Israel is blind and deaf. Yes, the people physically see, but spiritually refuse to see God in action. Yes, the people physically hear, but spiritually, refuse to absorb God’s Word.
Spiritual blindness prevents making sense of life. They could not see that the reason for their demise, their soon-to-be national deportation, their exile in Babylon happens because they turn away from God. [T]hey trust in carved idols, [and] say to metal images, “You are our gods.” That’s why they panic. That’s why they battle feelings of hopelessness. They fail to see God as Savior!
Is it any wonder then, you see what you do today? The coronavirus has crept into our state. The news only seems to report people infected and dying… how the government’s delay is failing you… how more will contract the virus… how the virus most likely will linger until April (or longer)… how everyone stands at risk of catastrophic demise. Oh, the doom and gloom! Who can rescue us? I mean, do you know why people are stockpiling toilet paper? To feel control. (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/11/heres-why-people-are-panic-buying-and-stockpiling-toilet-paper.html). The virus lies outside of your control— you might contract the illness, get sick, and die (and that’s pretty scary). You cannot control personal health, but you can control personal hygiene. So, people hoard large packages of toilet paper so that they can feel as though they have control over the situation. They crave feelings security and protection.
If that sounds humorous, then ask: ‘Why the fear in the first place?’ Failure to see God as Savior! You Cannot Make Sense of Life because you do not see God at work. You do not see him hold authority over heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18). You do not see him protecting (Isaiah 41:10). You do not see him stand constant alert (Psalm 121:3-4). Failure to see is called ‘blindness!’
The blind stumble into familiar dead ends. That’s what happens: Lose sight of God as Savior and you keep stumbling into dead ends! That familiar dead end? Staring your at your beautiful reflection in the mirror and saying, ‘You are my god. You can save me from all trouble.’
You think you can gain security, but you never do! All you gain is a greater feeling of helplessness! You nervously worry about a virus you cannot control because you fail to call on God in the day of trouble! (Psalm 50:15) You fret about primaries and elections because you fail to remember that God still works through the government and in spite of the government (Romans 13:4). You sink when the markets sink because you fail to see God’s care for you surpass his care for birds! (Matthew 6:25-34) The blind stumble into familiar dead ends. Chasing solution after solution in the hope of finding peace. The truth is: Lose sight of God and you will never have peace, because you are treating yourself as God. You prove yourself blind.
Can You Make Sense of Life? To make sense, you need ‘sense’— and I’m not talking about critical thinking. I’m talking about sight and hearing. Spiritual blindness fails to see God as Savior. That’s why the blind stumble into familiar dead ends. To see God in the midst of trial and trouble we need light. The Light opens eyes to find true safety.
That’s what light does, it reveals reality. Listen to what God says in verse 16: I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them.
God has lit up a path so foreign to our thinking that no one in the history of the world would have ever imagined it: He sends Jesus. Literally, [the name] ‘Jesus’ means ‘he saves’ (Matthew 1:21). Anytime a bystander called out, ‘Hey, Jesus!’ that person uses a name meant for his own benefit. A man born blind can now see. When asked how this happened, he simply relied, ‘The man they call Jesus put mud on my eyes and I washed. Now I see’ (John 9:10-11). At first, ‘Jesus’ probably sounded like any other name. Yet, the more this once-blind man ponders the miracle, the more he studies Jesus. He gained physical sight, something no doctor could do. With physical sight, he could spiritually see Jesus as he truly is— not a mere man, but God.
That powerful miracle is meant for us to see. Yes, to study with our physical eyes, but also to see Jesus as someone more than just another man. To treat him with greater respect, with greater trust. To see Jesus as Savior. Jesus is The Light who opens eyes to find true safety.
You find safety as you see Jesus hang from a cross under Calvary’s dark sky. As you see Jesus suffer. Yes, suffer. To fully grasp that he suffers because there is something wrong with us. To understand that Jesus suffers because hearts doubt God’s promises. To understand that Jesus suffers because hearts rely on self. To see the sheer ugliness of sin, to see this is what God thinks of sin. That he punishes it to death.
With his Word, God leads you (and me) down the strange path leading to the tomb. Yet, we do not see what we are so used to seeing. The tomb stands empty! God leads us further down the strange path, to his throne where he unleashes a sentence unexpected: ‘Forgiven.’
Do you see this? Look at the cross and see Jesus tend to your greatest need— a need far more pressing than health, a need far more important than presidential elections, a need far more important than wealth. Jesus takes care of that great big need of purifying a filthy heart! See Jesus and The Light opens eyes to find true safety.
Maybe it bears stating the obvious. Pay attention to your news. Ask yourself why it stokes fear. Scroll through Facebook. Why are people so panicked about primaries and elections? Why is everyone sharing whatever gossip they heard about virus? Look at stock market reports. Why the nerve-wracking fear of recession? Because many do not see God as Savior. So many hope matters will work out, but no one knows for sure because so many trust self. Stare at people and You will Never Make Sense of Life!
Friends, think of all those still groping in darkness. Many drive by this church building and have no idea what waits on the other side of the grave. The thought of a Savior-God is a foreign thought. Some are your friends. Some are your family. Some are classmates. Others dabble in darkness. That’s your fellow believers who are slow to worship. Those familiar faces might create reasons to defend spiritual wandering. At the end, excuses remain just that: Excuses— excuses God does not accept.
At this moment, God has set before you an opportunity to shine a light so that all Can Make Sense of Life! God provided eternal safety. Yes, we tend to think of ‘eternity’ as ‘in the future,’ ‘after we die.’ Eternity started when the eyes of faith saw God. That means, God provides safety today. Jesus The Light opens eyes to find true safety.
Over the course of time, ‘Dark Africa’ became known. Explorers charted rivers and mountains and lakes and deserts. Now you can study maps of Africa and clearly see its landscape. You can also prepare to tackle its landscape.
Life can feel dark and unknown. Coronavirus, Presidential primaries, a November election, sagging markets block out a clear path. Even after these matters pass, you can sure: Life will hurt again. You can sink into fear again. You feel uncertain where you will stand months from now. You want certain security, but it feels out of reach. Can You Make Sense of Life?
Yes, you can! God has given spiritual senses of sight and hearing! He reveals the Savior who rescues body and soul from hell. He takes care of the greatest need to which the entire world stood blind. If God so carefully tended to that need, will he not also care now? Of course he does!
You know that. You see that. You hear that. His Word keeps The blind from stumbling into familiar dead ends. His Word is The Light opening eyes to find true safety. Friends, do not lose sight. Remain focused on Jesus, relying on promises kept and promises to be kept. With eyes and hears full of the Word, You Can Make Sense of Life.
Today I brought… a light bulb! Pretty helpful invention, right? A light bulb emits light; I can see objects and obstacles once hidden. During these short days and long nights, a light bulb extends daylight long after sunset. A light bulb outside illuminates the front of your house, chasing away shadows (and any burglars lurking in those shadows). A light bulb can be quite useful.
Yet, this light bulb (in my hand) offers no help. It has no power source! Without power, it cannot push darkness away. It cannot reveal the unknown. It cannot chase away evil. A light bulb must have a power source to emit light. Disconnected from power a light bulb offers nothing.
Jesus makes the same point when he says: ‘You are the light of the world… Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:14, 16). Jesus calls you (and me) light bulbs— and not just light existing for its own benefit, but light showcasing God’s Word in action. Our faith shines only when connected to the right power-source. So, Does Your Light Shine?
In Isaiah chapter 58, the Israelite nation does reveal an attitude. You find them fasting (they stop eating food) and they wear sackcloth— this scratchy, burlap-sack-kind-of-clothing.
Now, fasting had a purpose. It expresses sorrow. For example, King David committed adultery. Guilt crushed him. Shame ripped him up. His crime ate away at him. He sinned against God! (Psalm 32, 51) His soul hungered for God’s soul-quenching, heart-satisfying pardon. He craves spiritual relief. Or, when the nation sinned against God, the king might exchange cushy royal robes for grungy, scratchy sackcloth. That clothing expresses contrition (or remorse). The king visibly demonstrates his standing underneath God and that the nation depends on God. Every itch and scratch only yearned for the relief of God’s forgiveness, his love, his favor.
You realize these outward actions of fasting and sackcloth flow from a broken heart. A reason stands behind each action.
The Israelites go through these motions. That is it. They give no thought to the change of heart God wants. Instead, they expect God satisfied by a mere mindless routine, as though they deserve a reward for fulfilling a requirement (Isaiah 58:3).
God is not fooled! His eyes penetrate the motives of the heart! He sees through the farce! God exposes empty-minded actions. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
What answer do you think God expects? Not action without care. God craves actions flowing from a changed heart— and not just any action, but action shaped by his Word.
Yes, some worship Christmas and Easter only. Others think if you worship on Sunday, then you will have a week free from accident and frustration. Still others think they will go heaven if their name is in a church record-book. Even others treat baptism like a good luck charm and refuse to feed that newly-created faith. Is that what God wants? A habit? A routine? A felt obligation? No!
Before we point fingers at others, dig into your own heart. When confessing your sins do specific wrongs reappear, or do you mindlessly rattle off those words? How long does the sermon stick with you? Five days?… Two days?… Eight hours? … The end of service? … Do you ponder exactly what you ask in the Lord’s Prayer, or do those words just tumble out of the mouth?
It may seem like that behavior carries no consequence, but if you do not take God’s Word in, then your actions will show it!
What do your actions reveal? Does God’s boundless forgiveness steer you away from revenge? That you choose your words carefully?… That you avoid unnecessary tense situations? Get angry last week? Did you lash out because your brother cursed God and your mom mocked Jesus? Or, was it because someone interfered with your pursuit for pleasure? As a congregation, we want people to know Jesus, right? Like God, we want no one in hell, but all to have eternal life (1 Timothy 2:3-4). So, did you reach out to those who have not worshipped for a while? Before we say, ‘Well, they still believe in Jesus,’ remember: actions reveal the attitude of the heart. Those who love God love hearing his Word. In fact, God makes a Commandment about worship (Exodus 20:8-11). Jesus himself worships each week (Luke 4:16). The Bible says: ‘Let us not give up meeting together’ (Hebrews 10:25). Do you take those words to heart? Do you reach out to the spiritual stray, or do you just let them stray out of your mind?
You know, Israel thinks God somehow depends on their existence. That God needs their obedience. That without people, God shrivels away. That God is honored by their action. That is sheer, utter arrogance. Thinking that God has no choice but to love us because of a ritual, a tradition, a church membership book is arrogant. Thinking that God does not care about the words spilling from our mouths is arrogant. It claims that you are so special that God needs you. God saves you because of your behavior, your character.
God exposes that corrupt heart. He says, ‘I do not want that!’ In fact, he looks down and sees the Israelites lying scattered across the desert floor like mere light bulbs. No power. No light. No life. Nothing and no one could change that awful reality— except for God. It takes God to energize fruitful living.
He sets the Light of the world into our world. Jesus chases away the darkened thinking that God somehow exists for us. For three years he hammers that truth home. Worship exists for weary hearts to find rest, not as a checkmark on the spiritual scorecard (Mark 2:27). People may speak and sing, but if done with an empty mind, then God only sees a whitewashed tomb— pleasing to look at, but contains something stinky (Matthew 23:27). Jesus lights up this truth: ‘You(!) follow me(!) and live!’ (John 8:12)
Jesus shines so brightly that we cannot help but notice him. We see Someone whose heart is pure. We see Someone who gives so much. Look at the cross and what do you see? [Y]our light [shall] break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily… Jesus’ selfless life heals our self-centered arrogance. His full and complete pardon cheers us just like sunshine cheers us up!
God promises: [Y]our righteousness shall go before you… Understand, that is not your righteousness (as though you did something morally pleasing). God says, ‘Jesus, the One who lived morally right, clothes you in his righteousness’ (read Jeremiah 23:6). When you approach God, that is the first thing he sees: Hearts completely dedicated to him. You stand so wrapped in Jesus’ life that the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. When the Israelites left Egypt and walked ahead to a new land, God not only led them, but also protected their rear. Jesus keeps any past guilt from overwhelming you. How? [Y]ou shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ Yes, you regret the argument last week. Failing to speak up haunts us. We shudder how the heart became so loveless. The devil will poke the past and screech: ‘But God, he is not perfect! She failed!’ The Lord will answer: ‘But Jesus paid for that crime.’ His payment became yours in baptism.
Do you see? God takes you, this light bulb, and connects you to himself. He gives you a new identity: ‘Light!’ He gives you a new purpose: ‘Shine!’ God energizes fruitful living.
That’s where Christian living starts: Focusing on what God has done for you. The reason you (and I) want to demonstrate compassion is not because someone deserves it or because we stand to benefit. We love, because Christ first loved us (1 John 4:19). We love Jesus, which means we also love his teachings. We love putting those teachings into practice (2 John 1:6).
That’s why God says: [L]oose the bonds of wickedness… Conduct fair trials, let the innocent go free, avoid lawsuits! [U]ndo the straps of the yoke. [L]et the oppressed go free, [b]reak every yoke[.] If a friend repays a loan with work, release him when the debt is repaid. Untie him from the obligation! Yes, families, children, parents are tremendous blessings, but they can pierce your heart. How can you move past that blow-up? He took advantage of your generosity. She never calls or cares! How can you let that wrong go free? How do you forgive when everything seems so unforgiveable? Start with Christ.
Start with Christ. What has he done for you? When we took his blessings for granted, when we treated him like some genie, when we argued with his Word, Jesus cancelled the debt we owed. He changed our future! No longer do we wallow as distant from God, but live as God’s children now! Once you were darkness— but now you’re different; you are light! (Ephesians 5:8) A lights connected to the source of love, you shine that love.
Do not dwell on the past. Holding onto the past will not change your future. If you want peace, then aim for peace by leaving the past in the past and by looking forward to the future. [S]hare your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and [do] not to hide yourself from your own [family]. Do not hide from the family of believers. Connect with them! Write cards. Give a call. Stop by the house. No, not because Jesus will love you less. Because Jesus died for your soul. He suffered for that soul. Because Jesus wants that soul in heaven, and wants to keep feeding that heart with the peace of his forgiveness. Like God, we want no one to perish.
The life we live now is drastically different! God’s love impacts behavior. The love he has for you will be seen through you. Like a light bulb powered by a source. You cannot help, but shine his Word through your actions.
That is why Jesus calls us ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14). You (and I) are light bulbs— and light bulbs have a purpose. They reveal the unknown. They chase away evil. They fulfill their purpose when connected to power.
God illuminates our purpose. In fact, God exposes empty-minded actions. He teaches our dependence on him. He connected us to his forgiving love. His Word inside our hearts will shape our actions for others to see. God energizes fruitful living.
So, think about it. What you hear today. What you spoke earlier. What you will pray in a few minutes. What forgiving love God has again assured you of. How he has changed your heart. How he has changed your actions. Does Your Light Shine?
Josie Laures and Antoine Senni sat in darkness. Not just darkness, but deep in the belly of a cave. The two did not huddle together. They sat far apart, each in their own cave alone, in sheer silence. No lights. No windows. No friends. The experiment tested the effects of isolation, loneliness, and darkness on the human body. Josie lasted 88 days; Antoine stayed 126 days. (http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/isolation-dark-drives-humans-brink-insanity-studies-find)
The study reveals how darkness affects the human body. For starters, Josie and Antoine physically adjusted to the darkness that when they walked out into beaming sun, they needed dark goggles to protect their eyes. Maybe more astounding is that they lost all track of time. Since neither knew when the sun rose and when it set, they did not know when one day ended and another started. What Antoine thought a ‘quick nap’ was actually a straight thirty-hour marathon of sleep. Josie left the cave March 12th, but she felt it was February 25th. Antoine came out April 5th, but thought it was February 4th. Time was months off. Then, feeling forsaken, both smeared jelly all over the floor, hoping to attract mice for pets.
Can you imagine living in completely isolated in absolute darkness? Cut off from care and communication? Completely clueless to the length of life, to what happens to your life? To feel forsaken, forgotten? Darkness prevents seeing life as it truly is.
Even though you (and I) live above ground under the sun’s brilliant light, darkness can enter— and it can keep us from seeing life as God intends it to be. So, God shines through the unknown. His brilliant word eradicates questions and fears. He makes clear constant care. The Light has Dawned shining on those in darkness and rejuvenating burdened hearts.
After all, that is what light does, right? Rejuvenates! The sun does not shine much during winter. Clouds block out dazzling sunbeams, leaving this whitish-gray landscape of nature’s dormant death. When the sunbeams break through the clouds, you whip open the curtains, pull a chair up to the window, and sit in that light sucking in energy and cheer.
That’s what people in Isaiah’s day needed. In the two verses right before our reading, Isaiah describe dreary state of northern Israel: Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness (Isaiah 8:21-22).
Not really a heart-warming picture, is it? Israel’s northern tribes are collapsing. The Assyrian Empire camps just outside the northern tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. This Empire dominates the ancient world. Assyrian generals marched troops right up to the city wall. Those soldiers piled up earth, making this enormous ramp. The, they wheeled massive towers up that earth-ramp. Archers on the top shot down at people on the other side of the wall. The middle of that tower had a battering-ramp. So, while archers shoot at you, you hear a *thud,* *thud,* *thud* — the enemy will soon break in (https://www.ancient.eu/Assyrian_Warfare/).
So the name ‘Assyrian’ ignites heart-stopping, stomach-dropping fear. (Ready for the grizzly reason why?) The Assyrians had a reputation for impaling captives— like, stick a pole up through you and out your mouth and plant that pole into the ground. If done right, you would die— days later. They also could skin you— and so perfected the technique that they could keep you alive to the end. That’s pretty horrifying. Now that terrifying army stands just outside your city wall— and you know your puny army cannot stop them.
Are you beginning to understand why Isaiah uses words like ‘gloom’ and ‘distress’ and ‘darkness?’ Stand in darkness and you cannot see danger or obstacles or even a path out of that room. Darkness robs the known. Israel’s future is unknown. How can you stop an unstoppable force? How can you escape such horrifying torture? How can you stay safe? You do not know.
Where do they turn? To darkness. Assyria marches closer and Israel turns to its gods. Not ‘God’ but ‘gods.’ Some pray to stones. Others bow down to telephone [Asherah] poles. Still others take their toddlers to a furnace, drop them in, and hope for protection, safety, and peace (2 Kings 17:16-17). The Israelites do not know how to escape destruction, but they also did not see that sticks and stones and fires cannot save them! The people God rescue from Egypt, the people he led through a desert and into this Promised Land, the people who could see God fill the temple with his presence turned away. Hearts refused to see God’s mighty power.
Do you wander in that same darkness? Do you know what ‘worry’ is? Doubting God’s ability to act. You worry about Christianity’s future because you question God’s power to change hearts. Sadness relies on inspirational sayings instead of memorizing a Bible verse and keeping it close to the heart. How often you do feel ‘empty’ and ‘unfulfilled’ because you search for lasting happiness in all the things that fade away and die? How much heartache do you suffer because you digest the world’s selfish advice? ‘Hold grudges! Don’t forgive!’ ‘You deserve money! Don’t give it away!’ ‘Make yourself happy! Don’t listen to what you Pastor (or Bible) says! Do what you want!’ That’s darkness! Complete, utter darkness! The heart can wander away from what please God, supposing that somehow all will be better! The truth is, it is not! Listening to the world’s godless advice might put a smile on your face, but it will not put a smile on God’s face— and it certainly cannot keep the smile on your face. Trusting yourself gets you nowhere because you (and I) are not all-powerful; we have limitations. A darkened claims that you can live without God.
If that sounds harmless, then study closely what happens to northern Israel. The Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence (2 Kings 17:18). Spiritual darkness cut us off from God’s care and communication. Spiritual darkness makes us completely clueless to what happens to your life. Spiritual makes leaves us forsaken. Spiritual darkness prevents us from seeing life as it truly is.
So God takes action. That darkness is so dark that we can never find God. We do not sense a need for a Savior, we do not figure out how to accept God (read Ephesians 2:1-8; Romans 3:9-24). In the thick, gloomy darkest darkness of unbelief blasts a piercing light. The people [walking] in darkness have seen a great light; those [living] in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Did you catch that? People walking, but a light ignites! People living, but a light shines! People do nothing! No one asks for light. No one chooses light. The light chooses to shine.
In world of pain and shattered dreams God blasts a beam onto Bethlehem. God’s glorious angels shine in a brilliant song: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy… in the town of David a Savior has been born to you’ (Luke 2:10-11). God’s radiant star leads wise men to an even greater Star (Matthew 2:1-12). God shatters darkness by sending Jesus. Just like the beaming sun brightens gloomy hearts, Jesus cheers gloomy hearts. The very first words he ever preaches echo throughout Zebulun and Naphtali. Lands once decimated, seemingly forgotten hear God’s good news of restoration (Matthew 4:15-16).
God kept the promise Isaiah told. The Light has Dawned and it shines on those in darkness. Light has an effect. Light rejuvenates burdened hearts.
Jesus does not arrive as some rally-figure. Remember, he is ‘anointed,’ ‘set aside’ for a purpose, to complete a mission. Isaiah reveals that mission: You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
People rejoice just like they rejoice when God dominated Midian. Centuries before the Assyrians, the Midianites plopped down in central Israel. They camp in your backyard. Their cattle eat your crops, leaving you nothing. They push you away from water, your roads, your property. No one can stop them! God used Gideon and 300-fighting men to rout that smothering army (Judges 6-7). God brought victory. He restored freedom— and the Israelites rejoiced.
Jesus breaks the stranglehold sin had on us. Self-reliance condemned us. Like a heavy yoke set put on your back, judgment crushes body and soul. Turning from God reaps eternal punishment. Like a short rod, regret strikes us. Guilt hits us. Failure preaches death. Yet, Jesus lifts that burdensome yoke of guilt and regret and frustration and sets it on his shoulders. He allows God’s judgment crush his body and soul. God’s rod strikes Jesus dead. Jesus marches into the darkness of our grave, into our death, and out with our new life. Easter Sunday shines with this awesome truth: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12).
That’s what you have: life. Life with God forever in heaven. Life with God now— him beside you. The Light has Dawned to rejuvenate burdened hearts. That is why we confess our sins right at the beginning of each worship service. Any fear that God turns from us vanishes with God’s burden-shattering words: ‘I forgive you.’ What a gem you carry: The certainty of God pardoning guilt! Those words prepare you for what comes next. You can listen to Scripture knowing God speaks comfort to you. You can hear a sermon that does not condemn you, but reveals the Savior. You can sing hymns, thanking God for sticking his Word to your life. The Light has Dawned to rejuvenate burdened hearts.
With that light, life becomes clearer. Just last week the news mentioned impeachment rules and trial, and Second Amendment Gun Rights. Prince Harry (can we legally call him that?) and Meghan targeted the nagging paparazzi. Every single headline tries to draw you in, get your opinion, and then suggests that your opinion can change things for the better. Maybe you can stop harsh words and protect rights— but it will not end those things for good. Many still wander in sin’s darkness.
You see the life as God makes it to be. A life where you forgive others, even those do not ask forgiveness, because God forgave you (Ephesians 4:32). A life where you cling to God’s promises, because unlike the world, God actually keeps his word. A life where you find comfort and strength because Jesus conquered death, because Jesus works in you patience and wisdom in conflict (Romans 8:31-39). The Light has Dawned and Jesus (and his Word) shines in you. Jesus rejuvenate burdened hearts.
Even scientific studies reveal the harsh effects of darkness. God’s Word reveals the deadly effects of spiritual darkness. So, God shines through the unknown. His brilliant word eradicates questions and fears. He makes clear constant care. The Light has Dawned shining on those in darkness and rejuvenating burdened hearts.
Juan Ponce de León dedicated his entire life for one goal. A goal greater than when he discovered new islands throughout the Caribbean sea. A goal far more impressive than when he accompanied Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the Americas. A goal far more lasting than planting some of America’s oldest settlements. For all that Juan Ponce de León accomplished, one goal sat at the very top: Finding the Fountain of Youth.
Immortality was life’s greatest treasure. Juan Ponce de León so desperately wanted to turn back the hands of time. To remove every ache and stiff joint. To strengthen weak eyes and saggy muscles. To feel better, to be younger. So, he sailed and searched and hiked and hunted—but he never found his treasure. All the while Juan Ponce de León grew older and older. He grew so old that he died. He never found immortality.
Call it a misplaced priority or willful ignorance, but you find Juan Ponce de León never found immortality because he did not want the immortality God offers. The flawed heart can elevate worldly matters over the true peace God sends. So, John the Baptist has a question for you: What Do You Seek in Jesus? Opinions abound regarding the work of Jesus. Many cling to those flawed opinions. Yet, only one answer stands acceptable to God.
So, John tells you exactly what he finds in Jesus. God promised the Savior. He spoke through Isaiah: I will also make you [=Jesus] a light for the Gentiles, that you [=Jesus]may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6). God even promised John: ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ God makes no secret about it; the long-promised Savior will shine on earth.
John sees it! Jesus leaves Galilee for the Jordan River to be baptized by John. The instant John pours water over Jesus, [t]he Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17). John takes God’s promise, connects it to this awesome sight, and says: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.’ Everything happened just like God said it would! If the events God promised unfold before your very eyes, then you can determine: I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.
Do you grasp the sheer weight of those words? I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God. John points at this one man. The thirty-year-old, bearded, olive-skinned, carpenter’s son from the backwoods town of Nazareth, this man named ‘Jesus.’ That man— not his brother James, not his father Joseph— but this man Jesus is God. He exists before the creation of the world. He knits the universe together. He speaks to Abraham, wrestles with Jacob. He wipes out enemy nations. He watches generation after generation prepare for his arrival— and now he is here. Jesus, the Son of God. All-powerful. All-perfect. Speaks truth no one can deny. Exposes hidden motives. This One outranks every single person who has been (or ever will be) born.
When John saw Jesus coming toward him [he] said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” That man, Jesus— who is also the Son of God— is the Lamb God sent. A Lamb sent for a purpose.
Now, the image of a lamb carries a strong connection to the Old Testament. For centuries the Israelites offer sacrifices. An Israelite would lead his unblemished, healthy lamb to the temple. He would lay his hands on that lamb, transferring his guilt, shame, and rebellion onto that substitute. Then, he would slit that lamb’s throat. The lamb died. Yes, it was bloody. Yes, it is gruesome. That is what sin deserved: an ugly, gruesome consequence. Left untreated this is what each soul faces. So, this animal suffered the consequences in the place of that Israelite. Still, that animal did not have the power to actually scrub clean the heart. Every single animal pointed to Jesus, the One capable of purifying every heart. So John cries: ‘Look! The final sacrifice! The Substitute who can actually make your heart clean! Behold the Lamb of God!’
What Do You Seek in Jesus? I imagine the heart leaps at hearing forgiveness, but perhaps it dreads confronting its need for forgiveness. Jesus’ teachings sound appealing as long as those teachings do not condemn you (or me). My argument with the spouse— well, I do not want to hear that I am wrong. I want God to defend my money-spending habits and tell her to respect me! I want God to defend my flirting and tell him to give me space! But never, ever do I want the Word to suggest that I might be wrong. I do not want Jesus to expose my love for this world. I want God to accept the fact that my ballgame will come first Sunday morning. I want God to understand that I will find greater delight in freetime than finding real rest from his control. I want God to expect that I will determine what is morally ‘right.’ That I might embrace the world’s view of living without marriage. That I might tolerate same-sex marriage because it seems harmless. That I might call other religions ‘right’ because, well, at least Muslims worship something. But never, ever do I want the Word to suggest that I need to put God above my opinions. Instead, Jesus’ teachings can condemn others. Like my in-laws who fight all the time— they need these words. Those politicians need to hear this— but not me. Do you ever stop to listen to What Your Heart Seeks In Jesus?
Understand, if Jesus is the Lamb God sends, then that means God sends something the world needs. If Jesus is needed, then it means you (and I) need him. If I need him, then it means something is wrong with me. If something is wrong with me, then it means, God will never accept me without Jesus.
So John cries: ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ He does not point out one way among many for eternal life. He does not identify just another great teacher. Here is the Lamb anointed—‘set aside’— by the Holy Spirit to be our sacrifice. The Lamb declared unblemished by God Almighty. The Word applies to him, but it does not condemn him. When Jesus compares his life to God’s Commandments, the match is perfect! That Lamb shines with such brilliance; the tacky stain of guilt never sticks to him! God transfers our guilt onto him. Jesus carries up our love-for-self and is slaughtered. Nailed to a cross, thorns slicing his head, spear piercing his side. Life seeping from his veins. Life leaving and ending— all to purify and cleanse you (and me). Behold the Lamb of God.
Behold the Lamb of God— approved and accepted. God raises Jesus from death in order make it clear that his sacrifice is enough. He brings Jesus out of the grave without guilt. If that life is offered in your (and my) place, then what does God find on you? No shame. No guilt. Nothing. Because Jesus lifted it off and obliterated it once and for all time (Hebrews 10:10).
What do You Find in Jesus? Behold the Lamb of God! The sacrifice needed. The sacrifice given. The sacrifice received. Do not stop there. Find the Christ.
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” Many wanted something from him. Some wanted a warrior to purge Rome out of Jewish territory. Others wanted a teacher who condones already-created teachings. Still others want a bread-King, a social leader who fills bellies and brings happiness for the rest of life. Most did not want the Lamb. Yet, these two said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher).
These disciples see in Jesus not a mere man, but a rabbi— and not just a rabbi, but the Rabbi. They ask, “Where are you staying? Because we will go with you to that place, sit down, and learn.’ They will see Jesus heal. They will hear him speak with authority. They will watch miracles pour out. Every incredible sight pieces together a bigger picture: Jesus is the Christ, the One set aside so that they live at peace with God.
These two see Jesus for who he truly is: the Christ. Andrew scrambles to brother Peter: We have found him! That is such a little phrase, but tremendous words. Andrew does not tell Peter that he found what he wanted to find. Rather, he found the Jesus God promised.
You find the same thing. God kept his promise. He sent the Christ. That might sound plain at first, but think about that again. God kept his promise. A vibrant promise passed from generation to generation, century to century. Even though some thought God forgot what he promised, even though others believed God had broken his Word, God had every intention bringing Jesus into your world. He did!
God kept this ancient promise; so what promise will he break? Christ came for you, he makes you God’s child. So, will God suddenly forget you in the operating room? Will your tight finances go unnoticed? What about your fear about the future— will God not address those? You are concerned about the poor choices your children make, you wonder if you will enter heaven, you do not know the future of Christianity. Does God just not care about those fears? Will God let your prayers for rescue and strength go unanswered? Of course not!
You know God cares. You know God addresses your fears and restlessness. You know this because God sent Jesus. He sent the One who establishes a bond of peace between God and you. Since he accomplished this mission, you know God will never leave you. When you fret and worry, when you wrestle with guilt and shame washes over you, go to the Word. Say: ‘God said I am his. Since God said this is so and since he does not break his Word, this will be so.’ Find the Christ God promised. Not the Leader people demand, but the Savior the world needs.
That’s what Andrew, Peter, and so many others found in Jesus. The flawed heart can elevate worldly matters. Juan Ponce de León wanted immortality, but searched for it outside of the Bible. Even today, many set family and success as life’s all-consuming goal. Others hear Jesus speak, but refuse to admit these words apply to them. What do they find? Happiness now, but not forever.
So John the Baptist asks: What Do You Seek in Jesus? Behold the Lamb of God. The Lamb who speaks to your heart, condemning its faulty priorities. The Lamb who takes away sin. Find the Christ, the One sent from God with words of life. Find the One who reigns at the top of every priority. See Jesus as the all-important One to follow and find peace.