January always brings change. After all, it kicks off a new year. You get to throw out the old calendar and hang the new. Yet, January does more than mark a new month, it (1) changes your routine. Depending on your Christmas spending habits, how many you shop for, and the number of Christmas lights strung around your house, your expenses might be higher than normal. The winter season changes from cool to cooler and dark to darker. The family which has been migrating from house to house will soon return to their downstate responsibilities. January alters your routine. Not just that, January might (2) introduce a year of firsts. First anniversary not celebrated. First birthday without a spouse. First vacation not taken. First summer without the house. First year away. Even bigger events might occur; January may (3) start new life-changes. You will graduate. You will start college. You will be Mr./Mrs. You might move and have new neighbors and friends, as well as a new routine. Even if nothing life-altering lies ahead, January brings at least one change: (4) your birthday. You will be another year older and another year closer to some significant life-change, be it a new school, a new child, retirement, or Social Security [benefits]. January ushers in so many possibilities, so many adjustments.
That can be an unsettling truth. Change happens by force. You cannot stop time; you cannot control what events enter your life or how those events will impact your life. Change rolls on— either with you or dragging you. That’s not always a pleasant feeling.
So, how do you enter a New Year with confidence? How can you chase away those fleeting fears and anxieties? Look to your God. The Lord Does Not Change-- even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same.
Grace brought (the nation of) Judah home. ‘Grace’— that is, ‘undeserved love from God.’ For 70-years Judah lives locked inside the Babylonian empire. That’s 70-years of not working your fields, not running down the street to your hometown grocery store, not playing in your acreage. Every familiar comfort is gone. Your grandparents are the last ones whose eyes marveled at Solomon’s breathtaking temple. The king does not consider your Jewish interests; your culture just melts away. That was then, this is now. Now, 50,000 Jews stand in southern Israel (Nehemiah 7:66-69). Now, city walls are rebuilt (2:11-20). God’s temple stands reconstructed now (Ezra 3:7-13). Jewish leaders govern. All this— because God made it happen.
For Judah it was not good enough. Yes, life trended better, but it was not like it was in the past. The new temple was not splendid enough. National boundaries are not large enough. Leaders are not spectacular enough. Life was not as good as it was before captivity. It looked like God changed his blessings, that God chose to hold back the good life from Judah.
Know the feeling? Relationships change. Children tend to grow older. That means, your daughter will get a driver’s license and hang out with friends. Your [grand]kid will trek off to school. Your son will move away for a job. Your daughter may leave father and mother and be united to her husband and become one flesh (Matthew 19:5). That brings adjustment. Your daughter may not be able to stop her chores (like she used to do), leave her family, and appear on your doorstep every single time you call. Your [grand]son who lived at your house (when younger) will probably spend more time at his house. That adjustment is not always welcome. It becomes easy to complain how life was not as good as it once was. It becomes easy to complain that your family does not meet unrealistic expectations. To accuse your own child of no longer caring about you. You (and I) can act as though God has taken away a blessing.
Comfort levels change. Life may still feel nonstop busy. The calendar is littered with practice times and game days. Work calls for longer hours and extra days. School heaps only more work and deadlines. Maybe it feels as though every friend took turns inviting you to their house, to some restaurant, to their holiday party. Just when you finished one job, another three jobs popped up— in the rain, in the kitchen, at your brother’s. No matter how hard you tried, you just never could get ahead. That activity brings adjustment. You cannot sit and relax as you might wish. Schedules create stress. Responsibilities get postponed. You feel sapped. You feel overwhelmed. You (and I) can grow even tired just relying on ourselves. We can act as though God is no longer present to hear our cry or carry our burden.
Life changes. Another year brings age-related events. You love her, but she still dies. You exercise and eat well, but you must still downsize. You live a Christian life, but people still hate you. That brings adjustment. You try to control life, but your best-intended wishes fizzle out. You might think God either (1) cannot work things for your good or (2) choose not to work for your good (read Romans 8:28).
You see, worry erupts because we think God has left us. That God is not for us, but against us (consider Romans 8:31). That God does not have authority over heaven and earth (consider Matthew 28:18). That God does not hold us in his righteous right hand (consider Isaiah 41:10). Worry declares that God has changed and does not keep his Word. And if God has changed, then you (and I) can no longer rely on him.
Dear friends, do not confuse God’s changelessness with our change. Put this way: We change, and so we think God changes too! But, The Lord Does Not Change. Even in a changing world, God’s grace remains the same.
God himself says that: I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. He does not merely say this; he proves it.
Judah had every reason to be wiped off the earth. Before their 70-year exile, God exposes their wickedness, pleads with them to turn, and promises to protect them. Yet, no one treasures that Word. Then, even after exile, Judah sees how wicked they can become! Parishioners drag blind and diseased animals into God’s temple for an offering— animals not even fit for a king (1:8). Christian men marry women who worship false gods. That marriage introduces strange beliefs in Christian homes (2:11-12) and priests do not care enough to correct it (2:8).
Worshippers are afraid to give God too much money (3:8-12). God saves them and they respond by turning away! Yet, God keeps his promise—a promise to send Jesus through Judah (Genesis 49:10). That is ‘grace,’ undeserved love from God.
Even though Judah’s love changed, God’s love remains the same. He proves that by bringing his Son into the world. He proves that by sending his Son to the cross. He proves that by holding Jesus accountable for our lack of trust. He proves that by raising his Holy One out of death. He proves that by declaring you “Not guilty!”—and repeating those words each week. Each day he leads you to the foot of the cross and says, “My Son died for you.” The Lord Does Not Change. God’s grace— the love God richly lavishes on you-- remains the same.
That undeserved love affects our lives in tremendous ways. A new year is upon us, but you do not enter it alone. You live each moment under the protecting hand of a God who never changes his promises.
Think about how this looks in a changing world. Your congregation might have changed from the first time you started worshipping here. And it will— because time passes! Time adds age. That means people get older. When we get older, our situations change. We become adults and leaders, parents and grandparents, active and retired. Time brings change to appearance— and we may not like that change because it takes us out of our comfort zone.
Even though change happens by force, God has not changed. And if God has not changed, then his Word of promise remains the same. God will always point you to peace in Jesus. Regardless of how many people are here. Regardless of what the future holds for your congregation. Regardless if church is full today and empty tomorrow. God still speaks peace in this place, to you. That makes your future certain. What is there to worry about?
God’s Word will still work in the heart. That means, you do not need to worry about how long your congregation will remain. Ten-, Twenty-, Thirty-years? Longer? The Lord Does Not Change. That means, [F]aith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). God has not made it your job to create faith. It is not your job to bring people in, fill your church, make it big, and make the community notice it. Nope. God simply hands us the job of remaining faithful to his Word. In this New Year, you will have opportunities to do just that. To grasp it. To share it. To preach it.
God’s grace remains the same. Not only is its message unchanged, but God still deals with you (and me) in grace. God, in undeserved love, still hears your prayers. Whenever you have anxiety, cast it on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Even if your concern appears so insignificant, call on him in the day of trouble. He will deliver you and you will honor him (Psalm 50:15). How do you know? Because your unchanging God has promised: The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry (Psalm 34:15). The reliance on self shrinks. The reliance on God grows.
Your God gives you strength for whatever might come this new year. If you must say good-bye to a fellow Christian, be confident that person is in heaven. God’s grace remains the same. Jesus says that: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). If someone ill recovers, then rejoice! Appreciate the blessings God will still give through that person. If you feel completely overwhelmed, then Be still and know that One God remains in control (Psalm 46:10).
God spells it out quite clearly so that you (and I) have no reason to fear. The Lord Does Not Change. God’s grace remains the same.
What good news for a new year! All I know is that January brings change. A (1) change to routine, a (2) year of firsts, a (3) new life-changes, and, if anything, (4) another birthday. This year will undoubtedly require adjustments, but you need not worry. The Lord Does Not Change-- even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same. Because of that, you can be sure God’s every promise to bless you, carry you, and strengthen you will follow you always.
Enter this new year with confidence. You do not need to know the future because you already know the present. Your Lord Does Not Change— even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same.
What is your ‘escape?’ You know, that sanctuary where you drown all your anxieties, fears, and stress? … that haven which helps soothe stinging memories? …that refuge you enter when hopes and dreams crumble away? Do you have an ‘escape?’
My garden is my escape. When my attention fixates on problems that cannot be solved, the garden redirects my attention onto the things that can be solved, like weeds that must be pulled and branches that need pruning. When my eyes replay the pictures of dear friends now gone, the garden pulls my eyes to search for cucumbers and tomatoes hiding under leaves. When the mental work calendar demands more hours than there are in a day, the garden rolls out the transplanting and the landscaping that can be planned now and done later. Anxiety and stress, sadness and frustration melts away in my garden-escape.
Yet, my ‘escape’ has one major shortcoming: it cannot end trouble. My ‘escape’ cannot erase [delete] painful heartache. It cannot free up a busy schedule. At best, an ‘escape’ distracts you from life’s troubles, but you must return to those overwhelming challenges. How can you ever do that?
You need a better escape. Some place that ends anxiety and stress, that wipes away tears rolling down your cheeks, that builds you up when frustration leaves you mangled. And you have that rock-solid place of rest. When troubles press into you and you do not know where to turn, remember this: God’s Word Strengthens Weary Hearts. When you feel pressed down, feast on God’s promises.
Picture it. Elijah stands high on a mountain, looking down on a city he loves so dearly, on a people wandering from their God. Most of those citizens now flock around this scene on the mountain. Four-hundred-fifty priests are piecing together an altar to this god called: ‘Baal.’ A god considered active in nature; he sends the rain and allows crops to grow and produce. A god so many trust.
Elijah watches priests dance circles around the altar, arms stretched out to the heavens, heads thrown back, howling at their god to receive their sacrifice. Someone pulls out a sword, another brings out a spear, and they begin slicing into each other, hoping the sight of blood would move Baal to have compassion and take action. From sunrise until sunset they shout, plead, beg: “Baal, answer! Baal, act!”—and nothing happens.
While the priests ramble on, Elijah constructs an altar out of twelve stones. He digs out a trench around it. Then, he lays kindling on top and arranges his sacrifice. He commands: Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood (1 Kings 18:33). He does that again… and again… and again— four times total! His sacrifice is sopping wet. Kindling, stones drip. Water pools in the trench. Standing before the altar, Elijah prays: O LORD… let it be known today that you are God in Israel… (18:36-37). Fire instantly spills from heaven, devouring the meat, incinerating stone and wood, vaporizing the water.
Elijah turns from the smoldering altar. “This is your God, Israel! Follow him!” points Elijah. Masses chant: “Yes, the Lord— he is God! We will leave Baal! The Lord—he is God!” (18:39).
This is it! God proves his existence in the most spectacular of ways! Everyone knows God is real! In fact, God’s blazing fire should ripple throughout the country, toppling down idol worship once for all. Everyone would worship him! In the greatest of successes comes the lowest of threats from the king’s wicked wife: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of [the slaughtered priests of Baal]” (1 Kings 19:2).
Just like that Elijah’s confidence deflates. [He] was afraid and ran for his life, scrambling out to a desolate area. There, he finds his ‘escape:’ a scraggly broom tree and [he] sat down… No servant pesters him. Queen Jezebel’s threat is a distant thought. Now he can unload his thoughts, his burdens, his deep-seated emotion. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
Prophet after prophet after prophet pointed to God, and Israel only plunges ever deeper into unbelief! You live as God’s light in the world, but the world chews up your Christian living and spits it right out. As Elijah wallows in the dust, he’s confronted with an undeniable truth: He controls very little. And that absolutely crushes him.
Know the feeling? You love God oh so dearly. People see you as a ‘Christ-follower.’ You imitate Christ in your living— not to be better than others, but to shine Christ to others. Still, the world chews up your Christian living and spits it right out. It leaves you questioning the value of a Christian life in an increasingly Christ-less society. “The world is changing! I cannot stand against it! I must change my social beliefs to blend with it!”… “No one cares to listen anymore! I must change the “offensive” parts of the Bible so that others may listen!”…“Oh, so few worship now. Why am I here? I don’t want to be one of the last ones! I don’t want to be stamped: ‘Failure.’” And it’s not always the world that afflicts, is it? Personal suffering threatens to overwhelm you. You feel crushed and weighed down because you have no answers for cancer. You feel lost after an untimely [early] death. Questions surge after a painful accident. You missed the life-goals of: having a good job, earning enough money, having the perfect family. Friends hurt you and you feel so sad. All these troubles pile up and leave you struggling with your own faith, wondering: “Does God really cares about you?”
Just like Elijah, you (and I) feel pressed down. Why? Because you are trying to fix things that you cannot fix and to control that which you cannot control. When you realize how little control you have, you get angry with God because you (and I) think we can order him to fulfill all our demands.
Self-reliance pushes the head right into the heart. You stare at yourself. You trust yourself. Yet, the greater your self-reliance, the harder you fall. The harder you fall, the greater opportunity you have to look up to Jesus.
As Elijah sinks to his lowest low, God’s angel knelt beside his head. He touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” Shaking himself alert, Elijah looks around and sees a cake of bread over a little fire and a jar of water. Yes, the angel feeds him, but how does bread and water help? His troubles had not gone away; he’s still a wanted man! Spiritual decay still ravages the hearts of so many Israelites.
The angel of the Lord came back a second time This time he does not just feed Elijah with bread and water, he feeds him with the Word. “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” Can you see the gears grinding in Elijah’s mind? He relied so heavily on himself, imagining that he is the crucial mechanism to solving Israel’s spiritual decay! Yet, God puts his ministry in its only correct perspective: “Elijah, that’s more than you’re capable of handling on your own.”
The angel of the Lord is a special person. You see, that angel is not from the Lord; he is the Lord. That Lord reminds you: “The journey of life is too hard for you to handle on your own, but it is not too hard for me to handle.” When you feel pressed down, look up to heaven!
Jesus speaks—and does everything he promises! No one stands in his way. Even when it appears the Jewish leaders succeed, Roman soldiers crucify, and the cross kills, Jesus still triumphs. He loads your (and my) self-reliance onto his back and removes it. Jesus plants his heel into Satan’s head. His unblemished blood spills before God and shows his innocence. His empty grave reveals the Father is pleased with Jesus. Then, the Word reaches your ears: “Peace be with you!”
And what peace you have! Dear friends, when you are tempted to rely on yourself, look up to Jesus. There you see the One who has crushed Satan’s head so that you will never, ever fear death in hell. See Jesus, who rises into heaven so that he can return to [his] Father and your Father, to [his] God and your God (John 20:17). See your God, the One enthroned in heaven, reigning from his high throne, keeping his watchful eye on you, making sure to work all things for your good (Romans 8:28). Weary hearts receive strength from God’s Word—because in the Word, God promises your forgiveness. He promises to handle your burdens. He promises to remain with you always. Yes, God’s Word Strengthens Weary Hearts. Feast on his promises!
The promises of Jesus speak in such a way to the human heart that only Jesus could bring real peace. Eyes fill up with tears at funerals when you hear the Bible read. No, not out of sorrow or sadness. Rather, tears flow because God reveals the sight of blissful paradise— the paradise Jesus gave to that loved one, the paradise your loved one enjoys now. Anxiety melts away when you hear Jesus promise to provide all things better than he already does the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Matthew 6:25-34). Hearts flutter when they see the Holy One enthroned in heaven scoffing on the trivial works of man (Psalm 2). You grasp peace because God the Holy Spirit is working in your heart. He wraps your heart’s fingers around God’s promises tighter and tighter. He increases your confidence of knowing God remains in control no matter what. When the storms of life may gather, you may run into God’s promises, your rock of refuge.
God’s Word Strengthens Weary Hearts. Sometimes, it makes you stronger by removing that which makes you weak. The Holy Spirit cuts away the frightful clutter of your (and my) human heart. Yes, the clutter. God’s Word purges pride— and reminds you (and me) that you are not in control; God is. It clears out self-reliance and returns you to Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
God’s Word clears out Elijah’s self-reliance. He prays, weeping that he is the only believer left. And God answers his prayer. No, not by taking Elijah’s life. He answers it better. In fact, he increases Elijah’s trust over time. Do you realize it takes 40 days and 40 nights for God answer Elijah? At Mount Sinai [Horeb] he says: I reserve seven thousand in Israel— all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him (1 Kings 19:18). “Elijah, you’re not the last Christian.”
The time in responding allowed Elijah to reflect on God’s Word. Do you think, that after day 10, he realizes he had not eaten for some time? Do you think after day 20 he realized God has some strength? Do you think after day 37 he realized God has control to carry out his plans? For forty days and forty nights God re-centered Elijah’s attention and heart back onto his promises. God’s unbreakable, unchanging Word strengthened Elijah for life in an ever-changing, always breaking world.
Little by little, God re-centers your (and my) heart back onto his promises. He teaches us patience as we wait for his answers. Some answers have come. Others are coming. Still others will continue to come. God’s Word Strengthens Weary Hearts as you feast on God’s promises.
Elijah’s death threat never disappears. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel always stew in anger, but Elijah has strength to stand up to them. How? The Almighty King of the universe is on his side— and no one can stand against Him.
And that’s the perfect ‘escape’ the world will ever have. In fact, it is better than an ‘escape.’ God does not distract you from troubles; he deals with troubles. Feast on his promises and satisfy your anxious mind, you stressed out heart, and confused-twisted emotions. When you feel pressed down remember this: God’s Word Strengthens Weary Hearts.
(from our midweek Lenten service)
A thick, solid oak door stares back, locked and shut. Two security guards stand stationed at each doorpost. Behind that door is the Oval Office. The President of the United States sits at his intricately carved, but imposing Resolute Desk. Red phone sits on desktop off to one side; the pen signing any bill into law rests on the other side. Here sits arguably the most powerful man in the world. Able to consider your concerns. Able to react appropriately to them. Able to make your wants happen. Yet, on the door hangs a sign:
DO NOT ENTER.
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Try to barge into the room and you will be stopped by security. Flash your driver’s license, show your birth certificate, prove your United States citizenship, but those documents do not authorize you to enter. Even if you could break into that room someway, somehow, the President would have no idea as to why he should consider your requests; he does not know you. You simply do not have the qualifications, the privilege, or the right to enter. That door and that sign stand as a barrier, a reminder of your inability to approach the President freely and confidently. It leaves you feeling inadequate.
That same feeling can flare up when you approach God. You pray, but it appears he does not listen. You worship, but he feels distant. You trust his eternal presence, but you question if he tends to more pressing matters. It leaves you wondering: Can you really approach the Almighty God freely and confidently?
Feelings of inadequacy disappear as you focus on the work of Jesus Christ your Great High Priest. Jesus Our Great High Priest Makes Us Priests! Now, We approach God through Jesus and We approach God with confidence.
That is a radical new truth for these Jewish Christians. You see, these Hebrews are familiar with Old Testament worship practices. Their relatives painted visual portraits of the [Old Testament] Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle is the ornate tent that served as a house of worship. It could be packed up and moved as Israel traveled through the desert. When set up, it was about 45-feet long by 15-feet wide (about the size of our present-day worship space). Inside, a large, thick curtain divides the space into two sections. One section is the Holy Place, where any priest would offer incense, keep the lampstand lit, and the sacred bread stocked. The other section is the Most Holy Place. The Ark of the Covenant rests there. To approach the Ark is to approach God Almighty.
Only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place. Yet, he could not enter whenever he liked; he could only approach one day each year (see Leviticus 16). Before he entered, he had to offer a sacrifice as payment for his own disobedience first. Stand in the Tabernacle facing the Most Holy Place and listen to the imposing curtain preach: sinners cannot enter.
On Good Friday, Jesus split that curtain in two. You can now look into the Most Holy Place; you could walk through the curtain and into the presence of God! [W]e have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus… Jesus has sprinkled his blood as a sacrifice, a payment, that removes the stain of sin. He has dressed you in the robes of perfection. His life, death, and resurrection has made you right and blameless before God. Jesus Christ our Great High Priest Makes You a Priest. Because Jesus died and rose again, We can approach God through Jesus. Jesus is a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.
You know this; more than that, you believe this. Your baptism has brought this truth into your heart and life.
And so, why that nervousness in approaching God? Why the worry that God does not pay attention to your prayers, that he might not be listening? Why the fearful dread that you are all alone to confront life’s challenges? Why the lingering doubts that even after you pray, even after worship, God might not answer you? Why does the question still appear in our minds: Can I really approach the Almighty God freely and confidently?
That is a fear that often flares up, does it not? Sometimes it feels as though you stand before God only to see the sign hanging on heaven’s gate:
DO NOT ENTER.
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Do you want to know why that feeling rises up? Because you are not seeing Jesus, the only and living way to the Father. You are trying to approach God on your own merits, as though God must listen to you because of who you are and what you are able to accomplish. It is as though you (and I) approach God thumping your chest, flashing your self-worth:“But God, it’s me! I go to church! I give money! Pay attention!”
If think God only cares about you because of your behavior or your merits, then you will always be nervous in approaching him. You will never be confident that God will listen and respond. When you stare at yourself, you realize how inadequate you truly are. And you feel so unworthy to approach him. And you feel that God will not listen to someone who has done the things you have done. And you fear that the lack of an answer means God is angry with you and is either (1) ignoring you or (2) handing you trouble. And you tremble as though you walk through this life blind and alone.
Remember, the high priest could not enter the Most Holy Place by himself. He needed a sacrifice for his own sins first. Without Jesus, you can never approach God with confidence. The thick curtain of sin separates you from him.
Listen again as to why you can approach God at all. [W]e have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus. That little word “by” points to the tool (or instrument) used to approach Jesus. Just like you cross a river by means of a bridge, so also you approach God by the work Jesus completed for you on the cross. That means your confidence is not found in your efforts, but rather on what Jesus did for you.
As you look at the cross, watch Jesus use his body to rip down the curtain of our sin. Just like the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place after offering a sacrifice for sin, so also you (and I) can approach God because Jesus is our sacrifice for sin. Jesus Our Great High Priest Makes Us Priests! We approach God through Jesus. Since Jesus is our way to the Father, We approach God with confidence.
[L]et us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith… You approach God with confidence, without fear or apprehension or nervousness. Rather, you approach him in prayer trusting that he hears. You gather in worship, confessing your sins and trusting those sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west. You approach not doubting, but firmly confident that you now stand before God.
This is bold, but it is Jesus who makes you bold to approach God at all. He points you to two great acts he has accomplished once and for all time. (1) [H]aving our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience… Look to the cross. Remember he did die as a sacrifice for your sin. His life has been applied to yours. His innocence wiped out your debt. (2) [H]aving our bodies washed with pure water… Remember your baptism. Why? You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:26-27).
You are God’s child, people who have God’s ear. A good father pays attention the needs of his child. He considers your concerns. He can react appropriately to them. He can make your wants happen. And yes, sometimes earthly fathers fail us. So, how much more confident can you be in approaching God!
Just like a child asks her father, knowing that he will pay attention to her needs, Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. When life’s challenges press you down, when failing health makes it feel as though God is distant, when life feels as though God has turned his back and plugged his ears, remember that God is faithful. The devil will always tempt us to despair and question God’s care. Yet, God is not a man that he would lie (Numbers 23:19). Access to him is open because he says it is open. You may approach him now on earth and live confident that you will walk before him in heaven.
As if that is not enough reason to approach God with confidence, God hands you more encouragement. [L]et us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. As you gather for worship, you will grow closer to God. You will memorize his promises. You will continue squashing doubts. God will fill you with confidence to persevere in your Christian life. You will grow closer to God as you grow closer together. You join a group of people in worship public who confess the same faith you have. You receive spiritual encouragement from those who may struggle with the same feelings of inadequacy. You are energized to continue pressing on to your heavenly hope.
All this because Jesus Our Great High Priest Makes Us Priests! We approach God with confidence.
Jesus has ripped down the sign:
DO NOT ENTER.
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
By his death on the cross Jesus is the new and ever-present way to approach God. Jesus, your Great High Priest, ministers to your great spiritual needs by making you a priest. Sins removed. Access granted. Confidence to approach God any time, any place, for anything granted.
Feelings of inadequacy disappear as you focus your attention on the work of Jesus Christ your Great High Priest. Jesus Our Great High Priest Makes Us Priests! We approach God through Jesus and We approach God with confidence.
(from our midweek Lenten service)
Jesus needs to work on motivational speaking. Now, he does not appear to have much difficulty gaining disciples. He finds Peter and Andrew, James and John in their fishing boats, and simply says: “Come, follow me,” and they follow him! (John 1:39-41) He travels throughout Galilee, preaching and teaching, and large crowds listen to him! (Matthew 4:23)
But then, he reveals what believers can expect from the world because they put his teachings to work in their lives:
You feel this pressure inside, almost like a tug-of-war raging inside of you. On the one hand, you feel this desire to follow Jesus without shame. You prepare to endure insults and name-calling and ridicule and any other unfavorable things that could come your way. After all, you do love Jesus; he has called you to faith. Still, as much as you love him, you wish your confidence could be a little stronger. You do not know if you would stand up in a hostile room and openly admit that your life reflects the teachings of Jesus. You are not so sure if you would confess your faith if it meant losing your life.
So, how can you possibly cling to your faith in the face of ridicule? Remember this: Jesus Our Great High Priest Serves at a Great Altar He bore our disgrace so that We may offer sacrifices of praise.
These Hebrew [Jewish] Christians needed the same reminder. Remember, they face intense pressure to give up their Christian faith. Many who share their flesh and blood [their ethnicity] practice Judaism. That means mom and dad still worship in the synagogue and read only the Torah (first five-books of the Bible). Their neighbors elevate the teachings of Moses and Elijah the prophet, treasuring these words more than the words of Jesus. Friends and co-workers do not share the belief that Jesus is the Savior of the world. Instead, they’re still looking for the coming Messiah.
To further complicate matters, these Jews live in the Roman Empire during a time when Christianity is not embraced. The Roman Emperors are ramping up persecutions against Christians. Some lose their property because they worship Jesus. Others get arrested. Still others stare down the sword. There’s immense pressure to give up on Christianity and to return to Christ-less beliefs.
Do you know that feeling? The United States government will not arrest you because you are here tonight. They will not confiscate your property. They will not beat you, imprison you, or kill you. Yet, your government has passed laws that contradict your Christian beliefs and politicians may pressure you to change your beliefs to fit their wants.
You no longer can expect to call same-sex marriage “wrong,” without hearing insults flung back at you. Pro-choicers will accuse you of standing against healthcare if you label abortion as “murder.” Un-Christian ideas may not only be introduced into schools, but forced upon children to memorize. You know such worldly teachings are wrong— but when actually confronted with the reality to stand up against it, you may opt to tolerate un-Christian ideas so that you do not face trouble (or punishment).
Or, following Jesus can put you at odds with those nearest to you. You explain to your friend: Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16).Yet, she argues that all people will be saved— regardless of what people believe or if they believe. She even calls you “narrow-minded” and “elitist” for saying such things.
God’s Word is in your heart, and so you remind your [grand]child to honor the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4). Yet, your [grand]child rejects you. He calls the Bible “outdated.” She points to her friends with the excuses: “Well, no one gets married anymore.” “We’re just trying things out.” “Yes, we have a child together (and are legally bound to that child for 18-years), but we just don’t want to commit quite yet.”
You tell the grocery-store clerk that you go to church— and she just stares at you as if something is wrong with you. And you feel ashamed. People will treat you differently because of your connection to Jesus. Family may hate you because God’s Word exposes their behavior as “wrong.” You may face prosecution, jail time, or death— because you obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
It is difficult to live this way because it means you will not always feel happy. You may lose friends. You may lose popularity. You may lose your life.
Do you know how to make all the shame go away? Ignore Jesus’ teachings. Change Jesus’ teachings. Ask the world what you should believe. And you will be happy— at least, for a while. You will have success, fame, and popularity on earth, but one day life will reach its end. Then you will stand before a perfect Judge and he will see that you loved this world more than you loved obeying him.
We need encouragement to persevere in our life of faith, just like these Jewish Christians did. So, the writer of Hebrews reminds you: We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. (The tabernacle is temporary place of worship before the temple is built). In the Old Testament the High Priest carrie[d] the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering… Life is found in the blood; without blood you cannot live (Leviticus 17:11). Once a year the high priest slaughtered, not a sinner, but a goat. He sprinkled the blood on the Ark of the Covenant, handing over a life as payment for the lives of people (see Leviticus 16). Then the bodies are burned outside the camp, symbolizing the removal of sin.
Yet, this great Day of Atonement pointed Old Testament worshippers to the work of Jesus Christ. We have a new altar— and this altar is a cross.
On the altar of the cross, Jesus also suffered… Think about that! Jesus also suffered— for what? He has done nothing wrong! Instead, the Jewish nation to whom a Savior is promised, rejects their Savior. Religious leaders call the teachings of Jesus, “Wrong.” They arrest the Son of God, put him on trial, and falsely accuse [God!] of evil. The disciples are so ashamed of him they flee. Even a dying thief scoffs at him! Then, the government, established by God himself, abuse innocent life. Whips rip his back open. Roman soldiers nail Jesus to a cross and then taunt him: “Come down if you are the Son of God!”
Do you realize Jesus could have avoided the cross? The moment he sees Judas the betrayer coming, he could have ran away. He could have given the answers the high priests expected. He could have called down legions upon legions of angels to fight for his freedom. Yet, if Jesus abandoned the cross, then how would you be saved?
So, Jesus, our perfect sacrifice, also suffered outside the city gate. He carried our sins on his back. Our feelings of embarrassment for following him. Our desire to tolerate Christ-less beliefs. Our pursuit for worldly pleasure. Our thoughts of quitting our faith. He carries them outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.
That is what you are now. Holy. Innocent. Without fault or guilt. Forgiven. Jesus Our Great High Priest Serves at a Great Altar. He bore our disgrace so that We may offer sacrifices of praise.
As you look at the cross of Jesus, you are confronted with this inescapable truth: (1) Cling to Jesus, expect the world to ridicule and insult you, endure some trouble in this life, but gain heaven. Or, (2) Ignore Jesus’ teachings, condone the world’s god-less ways, feel content that you blend into a Christ-less society, but spend eternity in hell.
You see, Jesus endures disgrace, but gloriously rises above disgrace forever and ever! He has made the same promise to you. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. You will stand out in this world because you put Jesus first in your life. But you will stand out in this world because you love Jesus— the One who gives you eternal life.
Faith focuses you attention on what you are living for. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
So, what more is there for a Christian to have? You already have it all! You have heaven! So, what value does money have? You spend it today, but it does not follow you into heaven! What value does popularity have? It’s here today for jobs, relationships, and friendships, but popularity leaves when you leave this earth. What value is health? We preserve it as we remain stewards of God’s gift of bodies, but we will have perfect health in heaven! You realize there is nothing more valuable, nothing more important than the perfect life given for you on the cross. Everything else in this world pales in comparison. There is nothing more to gain. We already have it all! So, you are free to give all!
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. You give God sacrifices of praise. You already do that! You sing songs which retell God’s promises and hymns which express your confidence that God will keep his promises. You may not sing, but you openly give God credit. You confess to the world around you, “Thank God!” “I prayed to God!” “God is good!” You give God credit for what his power in your life. The words out of your mouth leads others to respect God, or at least notice what God has done. You offer sacrifices of praise.
Following Jesus in faith sounds daunting— at first. Persecution? Hatred? Family rejecting and opposing your beliefs? Yes, all those things may happen, and they may hurt. Yet, you are following Jesus by the way of the cross. Those little pains you feel, remind you to lift up your eyes and remember why you suffer: because Jesus suffered for you.
Jesus suffered to set you free from sins. You believe this. You hold it dear in your heart. You make sure nothing rips it out of your life. Yes, when the cross presses into you, lift your eyes up to Jesus, and gladly follow him because you are traveling to your enduring city and your Almighty God.
So, how can you possibly cling to your faith in the face of ridicule? Remember this: Jesus Our Great High Priest Serves at a Great Altar He bore our disgrace. We offer sacrifices of praise.
The Ironman Triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. It must be completed in under 17-hours. Each segment has its own time limits. You have 2-hours, 20-minutes to finish your swim. Eight-hours to finish biking. Six-hours to run across the finish line. So, seventeen hours to cross about 140-miles of terrain! Could you do it?
You know, I wonder what kinds of thoughts float through the competitors’ minds during that race. Can you just imagine the mental strength needed to press on? You will get tired when swimming. The brain will try to convince you that if you are tired now (so early on), you will never complete the race. So, just quit. Your energy will drain as you bike. Halfway through your 112-mile bike ride, the brain will argue that the race too difficult; you just are not equipped to finish. Your legs will be beat exhausted as you run. The brain will praise you for the race you have run and will tell you that an unfinished race is just as good as completing the race.
I’m not sure what is more difficult about the Ironman Triathlon: actually competing or overcoming your doubts. The race is grueling, but surrendering forfeits victory. Push through the pain and the mental agony you can boast in complete victory.
Your Christian life may sometimes feel like you are competing in something more grueling than an ironman. You experience wonderful blessings with God, but the suffering in your Christian life grinds you down. Your mind may even tempt you to wonder if suffering is really worth continuing your race of faith.
This morning God encourages you to Rejoice under the Cross! God’s grace does not fail you and so You persevere to your eternal hope.
This morning we are discussing the Christian cross. You might have heard someone say once before: “Well, that’s my cross to bear in life.” Yet, let’s take a moment and define what the “cross” is. The Christian cross is all suffering that comes because you follow Jesus— because you listen to him, because you obey his Word.
So, the “cross” may be (1) the suffering which comes because you believe in Jesus. You become a target for those who reject Jesus. Politicians label your beliefs as “dangerous,” “narrow-minded,” and “outdated”— and your reputation suffers from ridicule. Friends call your God a ‘mythical-fairytale”— and you hurt because someone mocks the God you love. Your own child, who was raised to know Jesus, may admit that he “just does not believe that stuff anymore”— and you ache watching a child reject his need for a Savior. You agonize under the insults, the shame, the ridicule, the laughter others heap on you all because you follow Jesus.
The “cross” may be (2) suffering from a personal affliction. Your health is failing and despite your many prayers for healing, you just do not get better. You lose a loved one unexpectedly. He was so young, so healthy, so needed. You trip, fall, and break a bone. The timing of this particular accident makes no sense. Now you are confined to a house, tied up with restrictions and can do very little and travel nowhere. When your body hurts, when you suffer unexplainable tragedy, you still trust God, but you also feel the push to give up on him because you do not receive the answers you want.
The Christian cross is all suffering that comes because you follow Jesus. It might be others harming you for your beliefs; it may be you trusting God, but also wanting to let go of God.
When a cross presses down on you, it becomes easy to lose sight of who you suffer for. When a cross presses down, your (and my) eyes want to look down at yourself. When that happens, you begin trying to determine if (1) you have earned this suffering or (2) if you are worthy of this suffering. You look at cancer, puzzled. “I exercised. I ate well. I am a moral person. Why is this happening to me? I committed no wrong to deserve this.” A loved one leaves life too early. You begin reflecting on their life. She was an excellent [grand]mother, making each of her [grand]children feel uniquely special. He had friends and always helped out, everyone loved him. They committed no crime; they did not anger dangerous thugs— and yet they still died. Why? You love God and therefore obey him; you live an honest, patient, humble, life of service. Yet, your neighbor still laughs at your beliefs, shaking his head because he pities you. Professors not only reject God, but even call you “dumb” for believing in the unexplainable. You are left looking at yourself, wondering why you suffer for living the way God wants.
If your (and my) eyes are locked on yourself, then you will determine that you have done nothing to deserve this suffering. Instead, you discover that much of life’s unpleasantries come because you are connected to God. The easiest way to end personal suffering is to end your connection to God. If you stop clinging to a Savior, then no one will insult your beliefs. If you stop trusting the promises of God, then you no longer have to wait for him to act (or try to make sense of trouble). Throw down the cross, quit the faith, leave Jesus, end the race, and life appears to be better.
That’s true— kind of. Throw down your cross and you may have pleasant days on earth, but throw down your cross and you will suffer forever.
My friends, the Christian cross does not come because of who you are, but rather because of who you are connected to! When you hold to God’s promises, your (and my) sinful nature tells you to quit following Jesus. The godless world insults you so that you may quit following Jesus. The devil pokes your pain so that you quit following Jesus. The devil, the world, and our sinful nature try to drive a wedge in between you and God in order to split you from him forever.
And so, when the Christian cross presses into you and the temptation remains to fixate on yourself, God lifts your (and my) eyes up to the cross of Jesus. Why do we focus on Jesus’ suffering instead of ours? Because God is telling something very important: we have been justified through faith.
“Justified,” means to “declare someone ‘not guilty.’” God sets you free from suffering his anger and wrath. Yes, you heard that right; you (and I) do deserve God’s anger. Your (and my) very nature is ungodly. You are sinful from birth, sinful from the time your mother conceived you (Psalm 51:5). You are born dead in sin— not able to bring yourself to spiritual life (Ephesians 2:1). You are an enemy of God— someone who fights against him, behaving the exact opposite of what he commands (Romans 8:7). You (and I) once stood completely helpless to change that status.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. When you (and I) suffer, God points you to Jesus’ cross. Why does Jesus suffer? Why is he rejected, crucified, and killed? Jesus suffers because he would not forsake God. Jesus suffers because you (and I) have forsaken God by our disobedience. Jesus suffers your (and my) sentence for that crime. Christ died for us.
By his suffering on a cross, you (and I) have the guarantee of glory. You see, if Jesus had never suffered the cross, you (and I) would still be accountable for your guilt. Since Jesus suffered the cross, you hold the certainty that you also will share in his glory.
When the cross presses into you, lift your eyes and rejoice! Rejoice that you are not suffering because of who you are, your reputation or behavior. Rejoice that you suffer because you believe in a God who wipes away sin and gives you eternal life.
A personal cross may try to blind you from seeing God’s grace. You may be tempted to despair. So, God strengthens you to press on through your earthly race.
Look again at verse 1: we have been justified. “We”— that is personal, that means you (and me), the work of Jesus is done for your benefit! Neither does not say: “We have justified ourselves,” rather, we have been justified. Someone else did all the work and it all depends on what that person has done. The moment Jesus cried out on the cross: “It is finished!” God slammed down his gavel and declared you: “Not guilty!”—once and for all time.
Now you live reconcile to him through the death of his Son. “Reconcile”— you know what that word means, right? Reconciling is bringing two opposing parties together as friends. Your status was once that of “enemy,” but now Jesus has changed it to that of “friend.” Since you are reconciled to God, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only did Jesus cancel out the debt of your sin, but he will bring you into heaven; it is impossible to think otherwise! That is “grace,” God’s undeserved love.
The Christian cross make tempt you to believe that God does not love you. Yet, God’s grace does not fail you. He demonstrates his love by sending Jesus to make your eternity secure. With God continually pointing you to Jesus in order to remind you of his love, you persevere to enter your eternal hope.
Be sure, the devil will try to convince to quit running your race. Yet, you may also rejoice in [y]our afflictions. That sounds odd. Why Rejoice under the Cross? Rejoicing does not mean you walk around with a great big smile plastered on your face under the cross. It does not mean you must force yourself to be happy at a funeral. It does not mean you must smile when hearing tragic news. It does not mean you skip and jump for joy when some insults your faith. Rejoicing means you can take pride in your suffering. You can take pride because you know where to turn in suffering; you turn to Jesus. (1) You know God loved you to wipe away your sin. (2) You know God has opened heaven. (3) You know you may run to your Father for strength, comfort, and peace. This the how suffering produces perseverance. You persevere through troubles to enter your eternal hope.
As a result, your character grows. Have you ever faced a stressful situation that you never knew how you could conquer? Yet, when you finish the test, you recognize that you have grown. You are capable of managing your time better, you can learn many facts, or you increase personal strength to push through recovery. As you persevere through affliction, your Christian character grows. You stop relying on yourself and rely on the promises of God more. You pray more, bringing your stress and anxiety to God. You lift up your eyes to your heavenly hope, knowing this is the end-goal of your faith—this is what life is all about. And— like you heard last week, your perspective on life is properly adjusted.
Some of you are carrying a cross right now, and it feels excruciatingly heavy. You still feel raw after a funeral. You grieve over the fact life will not be as it once was. You struggle to come to grips with illness. You wonder if you can remain Christian in a society growing “Christ”-less. Yet, you are looking at the cross. You daily remember that God demonstrated his love for you by sending a Savior. You remember eternity is set. You press on through challenges with God at your side, strengthening you, comforting you, and still blessing you. You persevere to reach your eternal hope.
I’m not sure what is more difficult about the Ironman Triathlon: actually competing or overcoming your doubts. Your Christian life may sometimes feel like you are competing in something more grueling than an ironman. You experience wonderful blessings with God, but the suffering that comes as a Christians grinds you down. Your mind may even tempt you to wonder if suffering is really worth continuing your race of faith.
When the cross presses into you, look up at the cross. There see the One who suffered shame but now sits in glory. See the One who suffered for you so that you may join him in unending glory. This is the reason you may Rejoice under the Cross! God’s grace does not fail you. Persevere to enter your eternal hope.
On Saturday, January 13th, approximately 1.5million Hawaiians and hundreds of thousands of travelers to Hawaii woke up to their smartphones buzzing with this text message:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII.
SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Hawaii had 14 minutes to find shelter. In just 14 minutes homes would be demolished. Cars and boats, outdoor pools and lounges gone. Schools, stadiums, stores— all those comforts of life— would be unrecognizable. Just 14 minutes to grab personal treasures before leaving everything else behind. That means people had just 14 minutes to weigh what was valuable and what was not.
Forty agonizing minutes passed before another alert went out: < THIS IS ONLY A TEST >. For 40 minutes a false threat was considered a reality. Millions believed a real missile was on its way. Millions had just minutes to decide what items were most important to them.
[Speaking with all respect] I wonder how many have adjusted the way they live as a result of that test. Do they still recognize what objects are important and which ones they can live without? Or, have many returned to loving perishable things? Do they better grasp just how quickly life can end? Are churches a little more full? Have more turned their attention to the forgiveness God offers? Or, have people put off eternal matters for another day?
A test has a way of prioritizing the treasures of your heart. When you must determine what holds the number-one spot of your heart, you recognize that you cannot love every aspect of life with the same intensity. You heart can only love one thing the most; it can love only one thing at a time.
In order to make sure that your heart remains anchored on your imperishable treasure of eternal life with God, God Tests You (and me). God Tests You so that you can Purge personal idols and for you to Grasp God’s unchanging promises.
In Genesis 22:1 you read: Some time later God tested Abraham. Let’s understand one chief matter: God tested Abraham; he did not tempt him. Tempting a person is to entice them into improper behavior (definition of the Greek word, πειράζω). God does not daggle juicy, attractive situations in front of you, hoping that you will wander away from him. Rather, the Bible clearly says: When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone (James 1:13).
Instead, God tests Abraham. Testing a person is: to refine the character of a person so that he may walk more closely in God’s ways (definition of the Hebrew word: נָסָה). The purpose of a test is to refine a person. To purge away everything that interferes [stymies] your trusting in God. To make sure God remains the top priority of your entire life.
God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering…” God cuts right to Abraham’s heart. “Abraham, take your son, oh yeah, that’s right, your only son, and in case you forgot, it’s Isaac, and yes, this is the son you love.” This test presents Abraham with two choices: (1) Obediently submit to God’s instruction at the risk of losing your dearly loved child or (2) Reject God’s command because you love something else more.
If this feels offensive— that God is doing something wrong— again, I urge you, please, remember the purpose of a test. A test is to refine the character of a person so that he may walk more closely in God’s ways.
Testing sometimes hurts, not God is at fault, but because we have grown a little too much in love with our world. If God approached you today and said: “Leave everything—your home, car, hobbies, video games, life-comforts, abandon them all and live in a hotel room for the rest of your life,” could you do it? It would be difficult, right? If you’re like me, the instant reaction is to start negotiating with God. “God, you can’t be serious!” “God, no! I need these things!” “God, why can’t I have these comforts?” What’s the purpose of those negotiations? It’s the heart’s way of saying, “God I love my stuff more than I love obeying you.”
Thankfully God has not demanded that you sacrifice those significant blessings, has he? He often instructs you to sacrifice smaller ones (in comparison). God instructs: On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income…
(1 Corinthians 16:2). He says, “Consider how you have lacked nothing. Give a portion of portion of what I have given you back to me, demonstrating your undivided love for me.”
That’s his instruction. What does the heart want to say? “God, I can’t give that much to you. I need food, I need entertainment, I need gas. My kids have sports. I need recreation: my hunting, my gardening, my traveling. God, I’ll give you my leftovers, but not my firsts because I just don’t have it.” In reality, the heart is admitting: “God, I love my money more than I love you.”
The purpose of a test is to refine the character of a person so that he may walk more closely in God’s ways. Another way of saying that is: God Tests You for the purpose of purging personal idols. An idol is an object the heart worships. It does not have to be a little golden statue to which you bow down, sing, and pray. An idol can be any object you worship. Your status/popularity, your self-reliance, your pride. If you love these objects, you will worship them. You will trust them. You will make sure no one steals away your time with them— even if that person is God. Left unchecked, the idols of the heart can drag you away from God.
God knows that. So, He Tests You (and me) so that you (and I) do not turn our backs on him. A test has a way of prioritizing the treasures of your heart. With a test, God cuts out a misguided love that will kill. With a test God purges away personal idols.
Yet, testing is not always to drive an idol out; testing may involve strengthening our grasp on God’s unchanging promises. Scripture never implies that Abraham loved Isaac more than God, and God had to intervene. Abraham already trusted the promises of God. With a test, his trust in God’s promises would grow stronger.
Watch Abraham grow by the way he responds. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham trusts that he and Isaac will return from Mount Moriah—someway, somehow. Isaac asks: “[W]here is the lamb for the burnt offering?” and Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Abraham even goes so far as to lay Isaac on the altar and take the knife to slay his son. How does he have the strength to do such a thing?! Abraham grasped God’s unchanging promises.
You see, a year before Isaac is born, God promised: My covenant I will establish with Isaac (Genesis 17:21). First, God names Isaac before he is even born! Second, God promised to bring Jesus through Abraham’s son.
This test is one of those moments when what we see cannot fathom how God will keep his promise. Either (1) Abraham will kill Isaac and the line of Jesus will die out and God will prove himself a liar, or (2) God will keep his promise, let Isaac live, and Jesus will enter the world. That’s really what the test boils down to and Abraham grasps God’s unchanging promises.
The book of Hebrews says: Abraham [even] reasoned that God could raise the dead (11:19). Even if Isaac died, Abraham was so sure God would keep his promise of a Savior that God would have to raise Isaac from the dead [in order to keep it].
God kept his promise. “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants numerous… and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Abraham and Isaac walked down Mount Moriah alive. Later on, Isaac had two boys— Esau and Jacob. Jacob had 12 sons. Those 12 sons had 70 sons. Those 70 sons had many children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, (etc.). God allowed Abraham’s physical descendants to be as numerous as sand on the seashore—but that does not compare to God’s greater promise. The Bible says: Those who believe are children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7; Romans 9:7). Think of all the believers who have ever lived— from Abraham to now— the billions and billions of Christians, people who shared Abraham’s faith; they stand as numerous as the stars in the sky. God kept his Word: Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.
Abraham and Isaac’s great Descendant, Jesus, is your (and my) eternal blessing. A blessing because does what we could not. He fights Satan and wins.
For forty days and nights the devil launched one temptation after another against Jesus—trying to convince him that God does not have his best interests in mind. “Look, Jesus, you’re starving. God will not help you.” “Jump off the temple. See if God will really save you.” “Jesus, worship me, and you can have all the wealth and fame in the world— the kind of life your Father should already be giving you.” Satan repeatedly tempts Jesus, trying to get him to stumble and fall. And Jesus destroys each temptation with one short statement: “It is written” (Matthew 4:1-11).
Jesus grasps God’s unchanging promises, considering them as good as kept. Yes, even he is laid on the altar of the cross. Even when he is slain and life pours out of his veins. Even when his life is sacrificed in place of yours (and mine). Jesus grasps God’s unchanging promise on Calvary: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16:10-11).
Jesus faces pressure to turn away from God’s saving plan. Each test tempts him to believe that God does not care. Yet, he grasps God’s unchanging promises, knowing that his Father does not lie (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18). So, he marches through each trial and temptation in order to break the devil’s hold on you (and me). He crushes Satan so that you no longer believe his lies. So that you may grasp God’s unchanging promises of a new life with him.
Perhaps you are being tested right now. Illness makes you question God’s care. Loss of a loved one makes you feel alone. The frustrations in life make you wonder if God really blesses you. The devil will twist your troubles in the hopes of convincing you that God does not care. The devil will always try to persuade you to doubt God’s presence in life so that you can fall into unbelief and join him in hell.
Look to the cross and see God’s promise kept. Be strengthened knowing that God is for us, no one can be against us. God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all— how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32).
Fight the devil with the same words Jesus did: It is written! God is beside you because he has sworn by himself to be there. So God Tests You that your faith in him might become like the most rugged, hardened steel. When the day of trouble comes, you will not despair. You will tell the devil: “Go away! God has sworn by himself to be with me— and he will not change his Word.
I really do wonder how many have adjusted the way they live after that Hawaiian false alarm. Have more turned their attention to the forgiveness God offers? Or, have people put off eternal matters for another day? Do they still recognize what objects are important and which ones they can live without? Or, have many returned to loving perishable things? A test has a way of prioritizing the treasures of your heart.
So, God Tests You—not out of spite or anger— he tests you in order to purge away personal idols. To rid your (and my) heart of anything that might interfere with our trust in God. You do continue holding God’s blessings of family, relaxation, and possessions. Yet, you do so with eyes lifted up to your God, thanking him for carrying out his promises. You do so with a stronger grasp on God’s unchanging promises.
obviously holding something back. Your children are a little distant. Even your friends giggle and whisper every time you walk past them. Why? You do not know the specific reasons. So, your mind starts creating a story. Your husband must love someone else. Your children must no longer be able to relate to you. Your friends must hate you. Your mind creates this elaborate story based on this one little suspicion.
Then, one day, when you arrive home after running errands, you swing open the front door and hear: “Surprise!” Balloons hug the ceiling. Confetti flitters through the air. A cake loaded with candles appears in front of you. Somewhere a chorus sings: Happy birthday to you… Your husband, kids, and friends were not conspiring against you, like you thought; they were planning your surprise birthday party!
Your mind took little pieces of known information and filled in gaps to create an elaborate tale. But that’s just it: a tale. A story. Something that may or may not be true.
When it comes to what it is you know about your Savior, your mind can still create the most fantastic of stories. It can take little pieces of what you have heard in Sunday School or catechism class or in your Bible reading, add some extra details, and create the believable of stories. But that’s just it: a story. A tale. Something that may or may not be true.
That’s why We Need an Epiphany! We need to find the real Christ so that we are motivated for thankful living.
How does God choose to reveal Jesus? Well, look at our reading from Matthew, chapter 2. After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem… “Magi,” or, maybe as you better know them: “wise men.” “Magi” is a job title like pastor, bank teller, contractor, or electrician. These “wise men” are not old sages filled with timeless advice. No, they are scholars and university professors and astrologers (people who study the stars, planets, and heavenly bodies).
They are studying the skies like always had, but then something special happens: they see a star— a star unlike any other star they had ever seen. No one really knows what makes this one unique star stand out. Scripture simply just does not tell you. [Many Bible teachers and Christian scientists have tried to re-chart planetary movements to identify this star— if it is a planet or a unique star— but, most theories fall short.] But, do you need to know? The point in our reading is not to identify this special star, but rather to identify who was associated with this special star. The wise men do not approach Herod and say: “Hey! We noticed this star acting out of the ordinary and want to know more about it.” Instead, they ask: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
God gives the wise men an epiphany. He uses a star to “reveal” an important someone. Yet, that star did not reveal the real Christ; it simply led the way to him. God gives something greater for you and me to learn about Christ: His Word [the Bible].
No one knows for sure how these wise men ever heard about Jesus in the first place. Remember, these are men from the east, from Babylon. God sent prophets to the Jews, not to the Babylonians. God gave temple blueprints to the Jewish nation, not to other nations. God appointed priests and leaders for the Jews— not for the non-Jews [Gentiles]. Still, these wise men look forward to meeting the Savior.
Most likely the good news of Jesus was passed down from their fathers, who heard it from their father, who heard it from Daniel. Yes, the man thrown into the lions’ den. The man who was dragged away to Babylon about 500 years before Jesus’ birth. Daniel is placed in charge of Babylon’s wise men (Daniel 2:48)— and not only that, but you watch him openly share his faith. Undoubtedly Daniel treasured a prophecy God had made: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17).
Without that star, without Scripture, those wise men would never find the real Christ. At best, they could only create story of who God might be and how they might enter eternal bliss—but that’s all they would be left with, a story. A tale. Something that may or may not be true.
We Need an Epiphany to find the real Christ. We need God to hand us his Word so that our minds do not create a new Savior. When you stop gaining your beliefs of Christ from the Bible, you will create new beliefs.
Years ago, I ran into someone who was confirmed in my congregation. He had not been in worship for quite some time, but was interested in becoming more active in his worship life. So, I asked: “How do you know you are right with God?” He answered: “Follow the Ten Commandments and do good; show God that you’re trying— trying to be the best you can be.”
Scripture does not teach that. The Bible explicitly says: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). The purpose of Jesus’ is to do everything needed to hand you eternal life. Because this gentlemen did not read the Bible to get his beliefs, he took bits of information he learned over the years, filled in the gaps, and created a story. A tale. Something that is not true. He did not let the Word of God tell him: “You are saved by grace—this is a gift.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). He did not let the Word of God tell him: “God credits the Life of Jesus to you.” (Romans 4:22-25) He did not let the Word of God warn: “All who rely on obeying the Law for eternal life are under a curse because they cannot obey good enough to earn eternal life” (Galatians 3:10).
The same thing that happened to this gentlemen is the same thing that can happen to you (and me) when your attention drifts from what God reveals. You will create new beliefs. When guilt wracks your mind, your heart urges one of two things: (1) do something good to be sure of going to heaven and/or (2) feel in your heart that you have faith (and are saved). Your heart automatically stresses: you must do something.
If you do not live a moral life, if your behavior is corrupt, if you have horrible thoughts, then you must do something to remove those thoughts. If you ask yourself: “Will I go to heaven?” and you do not feel so sure, then you must gain that certainty. Scrub away indecent thoughts. Come to church every week. Give generous amounts of money. Be nice to your kids. Buy things for your spouse. Do something to convince yourself that God must love you.
Those personal beliefs just feel right— just like it feels your friends and family hate you—and could not possibly be planning your birthday party.
If you stop grounding your faith in the revealed Word of God, you will eventually start (1) believing and (2) following something your mind made up. And, as God’s Proverb warns: There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (16:25).
We Need an Epiphany. We need God to reveal the real Christ to us—not a Christ our minds make up. Rather the Christ who accomplishes what God has set him apart to do.
Look at verse 6. See what God reveals about Christ. But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.
In the small, insignificant town of Bethlehem someone significant is born—and wise people go out to worship him. That baby born in Bethlehem does not sit on a throne, but rather on a cross. He does not hold a scepter in his hand, but rather nails. He does not bark out new orders, but rather shouts: It is finished! (John 19:30).
In the Bible, God reveals the real Christ. When you look to the Bible, you will find the real Christ. When you feel crushed by sin, do not consider how you might make up your wrong, look at the One who is born for the sole purpose of removing your wrong. When you worry that you will not go to heaven because you do not feel it in your heart, look in the Bible and hear your Risen Lord say: Peace be with you! Because I live, you also will live (John 14:19; 20:19).
We Need an Epiphany! We need God to reveal the real Christ so that our hearts may find peace and comfort. We need God to reveal our Good Shepherd who leads us through the uncertainties of life with his Word. We Need an Epiphany so that we may spend the rest of our days motivated for thankful living.
The wise men knew Jesus had come for their benefit. Because of Jesus, there is no more fear of death or worry in an uncertain world. So, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. Not just overjoyed, but literally: rejoiced an extremely very great joy (personal Greek translation). Do you know that kind of feeling you get in your stomach on the way to friend’s house or your grandparent’s house? As you get closer, your feet start dancing, your heart pounds a little more. You mind races through everything you are about to do: hug grandma, game all night with your best friend, go wild at Cedar Point. That excitement builds up inside of you… and then you arrive!
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They worship Jesus. Yes eighteen-month(?) twelve-month(?) eight-month(?)-old Jesus. Grown adults, educated scholars, well-to-do men who spent weeks traveling over 700miles bow down to a baby! With the eyes of faith, those wise men kneel in front of God.
No wonder they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. How could they not? God did not keep Jesus a secret. He included them in this birth announcement, just like God included you.
My dear friends, the season of Epiphany is meant for you. God has chosen to reveal the good news of a Savior to you. He hands you the Bible so that you may live certain that Jesus (and only Jesus) has removed you from the slavish, hellish bondage of sin. He hands you the Bible so that you may read it, grow in your knowledge, and grow in your appreciation of the fact that Jesus has done everything necessary to set you free for life.
As you focus more on the work Jesus has done, you will be motivated in thankful living. Maybe not giving gifts of gold, but giving honest and heart-felt offerings to your God. Presenting him your finest because he has given you his finest. Maybe you do not offer up incense, but you offer up your prayers—prayers that thank him for his many blessings. Maybe you do not open up a box of fine-smelling myrrh, but you offer your hands, head, and heart to serving others just has God served you.
We Need an Epiphany! We need God to reveal Jesus to us—and not just for one time, but constantly. Because your mind can create fantastic stories, tales— things that are not true.
God does not leave you fumbling around in spiritual uncertainty. He does not leave you guessing about the work Jesus comes to do. He reveals the real Christ so that you may live in peace and joy under the care of a Good Shepherd. What motivation for thankful living! What joy you share with those wise men in returning to Bethlehem to worship your King.
That’s what I get to do today— hang my new calendar. You know what’s so awesome about that? Nothing is written on my new one. No appointments, no conferences, no family obligations. In fact, I get to start with the month of ‘January.’ It means I can’t flip back and be reminded about all the things that happened. Instead, I only can flip forward and see what I can do— and with all that blank space, boy, what time I have! During winter: woodworking. During spring: gardening. During summer: vacation. During fall: soccer, football, and school. So much potential awaits.
This old calendar, well, it conjures memories of where I’ve been— and it has been quite a year. Birthdays and anniversaries are marked. I see doctor appointments and conferences. The kids had sports and library dates. A vacation is scheduled in there. I remember some enjoyable days, but there are other days I did not like. I had funerals to attend— yes, funerals to conduct as a pastor, but funerals where I had to say goodbye to someone too. My vacation triggers memories of stress, deadlines, and conflict. The months were busy— and it made summer (my most favorite time of the year) zip by. Yes, today I can throw out the old calendar, with all of its stress, obligations, and pain, and hang up a fresh clean slate.
Still, I can’t shake one feeling: Is 2018 going to be better? Did that thought descend into your mind as you watched the ball drop? Did you wake up wondering if life would be drastically different today? You know many enjoyable days lie ahead; past experience teaches you that. You know there will be challenging days— because past experience teaches you that. By the end of 2018, will you have more good days than bad?
I can’t answer the question— I wish I could, but I don’t know the future. Yet, I can tell you one thing— and it’s the same truth God teaches you today: Cast Your Anxiety on God! Grasp his care for you and Humbly live under his power.
Listen to our reading from 1 Peter 5:6-7: Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
What words for sore ears! God invites you, encourages you, no— he commands you— Cast All Your Anxiety on Him! That’s why we memorize this Bible verse— so we never forget it! In fact, this verse is put to a beloved song:
What a Friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry Ev’rything to God in prayer!...
(Christian Worship Hymnal #411, verses 1).
Music ties words to memory. Memorizing Bibles passages keeps God’s Word on your lips and heart. So, the very instant anxiety flutters into your heart you can fly off to God! Right?
Well, maybe. I can’t speak for you; I can only speak for myself. As I flip through last year’s calendar, I see anxiety streaking across every month, every week, every day. I can still visualize the heart-wrenching sobs at funerals. My heart ached when I heard about marriage tensions. I kept wondering: “What can I say to set things back to normal?” Doctor appointments are scribbled down; a nebulizer was needed; steroids ordered for a kid. It brings back memories of the “worst-case-scenario.” What if the littlest cold leads to the worst of conditions? (Believe me, I’ve seen illness become something worse). I see “Election Day” circled. In its aftermath I wonder: “Boy, how are foreign negotiations going to look now? … or my little nest egg? … or my children’s future?” Pastor conferences shared statistics and articles about the growing epidemic of people staying out of church (and worship). Stress creeps up, whispering: “So, what are you going to do to turn things around? How can you do God’s job and bring people to faith?”
Maybe your calendar replays similar tears and stress, nervousness and fear. You recall your anxiety; it weighed heavy on you. You stayed awake at night wondering how to solve conflict. You barely got through one day without asking the “What if”-question. You did not know what to do when you listened to FoxNews or CNN or scrolled through Facebook. That anxiety flares up so often and stays so long, doesn’t it? Let me ask: When you grew anxious, where did you cast that anxiety? Did you live 2017 stress-free because you brought every trouble to God?
You know, the verse: “Cast all your anxiety on him…” doesn’t stand on its own, like some catch-all truth. It goes together with verse 6. Peter actually says in the Greek: “Be humble, therefore, under the powerful hand of God, so that he may raise you up in time, [live humble] by casting all your anxiety upon him.” (personal translation) In order to Cast Your Anxiety on God, you have to first understand that stress is something you cannot handle on your own. That’s something that rubs against our very nature.
By nature we are self-reliant; we have this feeling we can do what God does. A part of your hearts would actually have you believe that you can control life-events that feel small and insignificant. So, you look up to heaven and say: “God, I can handle this on my own. It’s just a standard hospital stay… It’s just a little argument… It’s just a birth of a child… It’s just a little bad habit… I can fix this all by myself.” Yet, if you ever felt anxiety or stress, then it means you cannot fix those issues. To puff up your self-reliance only pushes God further out of the number-spot in your heart— the spot where he must be. Your heart will try to finish what we want by nature: to be God… to call the shots… to live life on our terms.
That’s why God speaks these words today. We are not God—but God is God. We cannot solve every problem or cure all our anxiety—but God can. So, Cast Your Anxiety on God! Why? …because he cares for you.
God himself says that. God himself reveals it. Just last week you traveled to the manger and saw God-in-flesh. Jesus trades his throne in heaven for a feedbox on earth. He leaves glorious angels for faulty human beings. He exchanges a domain of singing and enters a sphere of sorrow and tears, anger and frustration. The simple fact that Jesus even entered your world (in the first place) shows just how much he cares for you.
Still, Jesus reveals his care even more. He knows what it is like to sense anxiety. He weeps when John the Baptist is murdered (Matthew 14:1-13). His heart goes out to those led astray by false teaching (Matthew 9:35-36). He has compassion on the sick. He begs forgiveness for angry men who nail him to the cross (Luke 23:34). All through life, Jesus takes one concern after another to God in prayer.
Then on the cross, Jesus unveils the greatest depth of care for you. Jesus had done nothing wrong! Yes— he is innocent of any crime, but it goes more than that. Jesus never doubted God the Father’s care for him! He never once said: “I’ve got this God, I can make this bread and fish feed 5,000 people all by myself (Matthew 14:13-21)… I can use my own efforts to open this man’s ears (Mark 7:31-36)… I can suffer the sins of the world by my own power” (Matthew 26:36-46). No! Jesus Casts His Anxiety on God.
When you see Jesus on the cross, he’s not there for himself; he’s there for you. He removes your self-reliance and suffers. He loses life so that you can have eternal life! God cares for you so much that he uses Jesus to wrap you in perfection!
Cast Your Anxiety on God! because he cares for you. You know God cares for you because Jesus rose from the dead. Easter Sunday declares the guarantee of eternal life!
Maybe we have difficulty tying the resurrection to our current circumstances. We know Jesus rose again for us, but we have lived in world of anxiety for so long. So, how does Easter comfort us?
Have you found yourself stranded for help? A car battery won’t start… A ladder is needed… Food is needed… something? You needed help and someone came to help. A battery is jumped. A ladder is loaned. Food is given. This individual helped you in your need. So, the next time you have a need… the car battery dies again… the garage door is stuck … the light bill is due, who are you going to turn? To yourself? To a stranger? No! You would ask the person who freely helped once before!
In the same way, look at Easter and continually tell yourself: “For me! Jesus did this for me!” If Jesus took such great lengths to free you from death in hell, why would he not help you now? Why would he let you be crushed under trouble’s weight? Why would he not answer you? The devil tempts us to think he does not care for us. Nothing could be further from the truth! God so clearly says: I care for you. Not “for people.” Not “for the world.” He personalizes it: for you!
That is why you Cast Your Anxiety on God! You grasp his care. Here’s how you continue Casting Your Anxiety on God: live humbly under God’s power.
To live humbly under God’s power simply means to trust God will do the things he says he can do. On own, it sounds frightening to trust. It sounds like we have to muster the courage. But that’s not how it works. You trust grows because God strengthens your trust.
Read your Bible. See how powerful God’s hand truly is. It creates—makes something more than a house or dinner— it makes living trees and millions of unique kinds of fish and forms fiery stars. It enforces— unleashing plagues frogs, gnats, locusts on the Egyptians. It draws the shade of darkness. It stops the sun, adding more time to the day. It provides— raining manna-bread down in the desert, transforming two fish and five loaves of bread into a meal for thousands. That is what your God is capable of doing. Can you match that? Can you begin to match it? What joy to know this powerful hand rests over you— not in fear— but in love!
So, you live humbly under God’s power—putting every concern on him and trusting he is fully capable of handling it. That’s why Peter zeroes in on the things that keep you awake at night. He points at every little financial concern— the times your bills go up, the times when your social security stays flat. Peter drags up your every tension about school, high school, and college. He exposes all fear about how your children will grow up, who they will be, what they will do. He highlights any concern you have about your diagnosis and cure. He tells you: “Take them all, package them into a little ball, and throw it on God.”
There is nothing too big or too insignificant for God to handle. If God had limits, would he not tell you? Instead, God holds nothing back: All your cares, cast on him. When you cast those concerns, they no longer are your concern. The word “cast” is that of “throwing” like a stick or stone. As you walk along a river, you bend down, grab a small rock, and throw it into the water. It will not return to you. You will not go after it. That rock is gone. It’s out of mind. You are not worried about it. Cast Your Anxiety on God! Humbly live under his power
Take a moment and look through your old calendar today. Thank God for the joys God has given you. Thank God for standing beside you during challenging times. Even though anxiety may have overwhelmed you, God still saw fit to bring you into this new year.
Look through your new calendar today. Do it with confidence. I don’t know what the new year will bring. I can’t answer the question— I wish I could, but I don’t know the future. Yet, I can tell you one thing— and God teaches you this truth today: Cast Your Anxiety on God! Humbly live under his power and Grasp his care for you.