Christopher Schultz loved being a father. (http://www.startribune.com/father-drowns-saturday-night-in-detroit-lakes-after-trying-to-rescue-his-child/511374841/) His heart beat solely to please his four young sons. Crawling on hands and knees, stalking the boys, leaping, tackling, tickling. Building Lego towers higher and higher until the heights toppled over. Chasing each one out in the yard, being chased himself. Working under the car, little hands handle wrenches and pound away on stuck bolts. Listening carefully to adventurous tales of dragons and dinosaurs. Bringing home stickers and markers. Christopher loved his sons dearly.
On a cool June evening (the evening before Father’s Day), Christopher and his three-year-old son, Ashton, went walking. Christopher pointed at towering oak trees and maple leaves, brown squirrels and Blue Jays. Little Ashton’s eyes lit up and a smile ‘ooed’ and ‘awwed’ at every fascination. The two reached ‘Long Bridge’ where they stopped and stared into the swift-flowing river. Christopher spotted fish, Ashton chucked stones. Just as they turned to leave, little Ashton stumbled. His tiny legs sped forward as he tried to catch his balance, but those little feet would not stop. Ashton fell right off the bridge and into the current below. How the Father’s heart broke!
He watches the son he loves choking, flailing, thrashing against the waters sweeping over his head! The Lord looks down from heaven as the Babylonian army steamrolls ever closer to Israel. None of this happens by chance, no. This terrifying war-machine marches out to capture a nation that had drifted from its God. The glistening, golden temple, once filled with vibrant songs of praise stands empty. Many now direct their prayers to trees and stones. Once-flourishing markets now exist as a gauntlet of greedy merchants cheating the innocent. The palace, once a symbol of power, integrity, and justice, stands as a symbol of corruption and spiritual filth. The Lord looks down from heaven and sees his sons drowning in the results of sin.
Do you see? ‘Sin’ is ‘lawlessness’ (1 John 3:4). Actions that war against God’s law! God commands his kings: ‘Trust me with all your heart, mind, and soul’ (Matthew 22:37) and Israel’s kings say, ‘No! We will rely on earthly kings with their money and firepower.’ God commands his priests: ‘Call on me in trouble and I will deliver you’ (Psalm 50:15) and Israel’s priests say, ‘No! We tried that and you did not answer the way we want!’ God commands his people: ‘Impress my words in your mind and heart’ (Deuteronomy 6:7) and Israel says, ‘No! Those words do not let us do whatever we crave.’ ‘Sin’ is not some silly joke. ‘Sin’ is not an accidental flaw that can be repaired. ‘Sin’ is not another name for ‘harmless fun.’ ‘Sin’ rebels against God Most High. ‘Sin’ severs the bond of love between humanity and the Father. ‘Sin’ stands opposed to God, on the other side of vast canyon, content with the span in between. ‘Sin’ gets what it wants: Life without God forever.
That spiritual corruption wreaks havoc in every aspect of life. It wars against everything God calls ‘good.’ Relationships strain because human hearts still tug against the Word! A spouse lets worldly advice influence her; he refuses to hear God’s marriage instruction. Your son embraces his God-less lifestyle more than trying to reconnect with God. Your best-friend had a moment where she pursued her interests, leaving you hurt, unwanted, rejected. The sin inside of us damages the relationships we have with others, and the sin inside of others damages the relationships they have with us!
God never created death; he did not intend for us to die. Still, death comes because hearts wander. We live with that tragically unwanted reality! A cellphone contact no longer works because grandma sinned. The house gets quieter because a spouse sinned. A miscarriage preaches that parents pass sin down to their children. Strength dwindles as we get older. Sometimes hobbies and abilities change. Disease reminds us all that no one is immortal— and you are powerless to add years to life. You cannot wish cancer away. You cannot remove it by thinking real hard. Even with the medicines and doctors and surgeries we have today, health does not always come back. Mortality is a painful reminder of that terrible truth— that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
For us it can feel as though we flail and choke under wave after wave of misery. Challenges pile so high that it is difficult to see God. Difficulties toss us into despair, feeling as though God does not care. All these troubles press down, leaving us feeling as though you must be god; you must rely on yourself to conquer all these troubles.
Destruction barrels towards Israel and still Isaiah says: I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. Here’s a truth: Even though trouble appears so often in life, God remains. He remains with his faithful love.
Israel’s entire history lists evidence after evidence of the Father’s constant love! He reached down from heaven and tore off the shackles of slavery; he pounded Pharaoh into submission. He ripped open the Red Sea, took Israel by the hand, and led them out of Egypt. Then he closed those watery walls on the most-feared army of its day. For forty years he led his sons through a barren wasteland. He provided morning bread and dinnertime meat. Water flowed freely. Clothes never became threadbare, shoes never wore out. He removed any need for battle strategies. He handed the keys to a brand new land, fertile and lush, comfortable and satisfying! His Fatherly heart sought only Israel’s best.
Understand, the Lord did not save Israel because they are a superior race. He did not rescue them because they could trust God better than any other nation. In fact, Israel did not choose to belong to God, but it is God who chooses them! God decided to promise Abraham: ‘All peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Genesis 12:2). That is compassion. That is love gushing from your heart, seeking the only best for others. For [the Lord] said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior.
A ‘Savior,’ someone who does the act of saving. Someone who must step in because you cannot rescue yourself. Christopher Schultz watched his three-year-old son Ashton gagging, choking, drowning. Compassionate love for his son pushed Christopher to jump into the current. Instantly the waters washed over his head. Heavy clothing weighed him down. Currents pulled and tugged him. Still, he reached his helpless child and grabbed him. With son in arm, Christopher fought towards shore. He literally held his son over his head so that his son could breathe, even though it meant waters covered his own head.
In all their affliction he was afflicted… Jesus never stood in heaven, looking down at you (and me) gagging on the sin that leads to death. He jumped into your world. He took on flesh— and with it, he shouldered the perfect commandments of God. He stood immersed in images of disease and deformity, death and decay. His heart went out to the spiritually lost who wandered like sheep without a Shepherd— and he became their Savior. With you in arm, Jesus holds you up as our guilt washed over his head, as our sin chokes out his life. The punishment meant for us is transferred to Jesus and drags him down further and further into death.
Look at the manger. What do you find? Not a baby who guarantees that Christians will never ever have trouble in this world. That you will never get sick. That you will never encounter financial limits. That you will never have a sad, stressful day of your life. You do not need a Savior who makes sure you have a good life on earth. That is not the Savior the Israelites need. The Savior needed is the One who removes deceit from the heart. That’s the Savior you need.
That is the Savior you have. He redeems you as his own. [T]he angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them. A ‘redeemer’ pays off debt for someone else so that the individual may keep his property. Jesus paid our overwhelming debt. He hands over a faultless life. He signs off on our debt with his innocent blood— and the Father has accepted that payment. Nothing more is required. Jesus has satisfied the entire debt! His resurrection proves that God is pleased with Jesus! Understand, Jesus redeems you (and me); he buys us back from a hellish death. Yet, he does not set you free from guilt so that you live however you want. He actually buys you (and me) for himself; he owns us.
Here’s how that ownership looks: [H]e lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. No abuse. No neglect. None of that. A toddler might run up to you, arms stretched up. You reach down and pick that little one up. Jesus carries you with complete constant, protecting care— just like a perfect father cherishes his child.
Friends, you gather here today as proof of that. You may look over the past year and see troubles littering your past. God carried you through them all. He did not allow death to overwhelm you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: Whoever believes in me will never die (John 11:25). He did not allow relationships to paralyze you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: Be kind and compassionate forgiving one another just as I forgave you (Ephesians 4:32). He did not allow broken promises to crush you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: In all things, God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). You are here today. You are not dead; you are not without God. You are here because your God carried you.
This week starts a new year. That can be frightening. So much lies unknown. Will it be good or bad? Will you get through it with strength or not? Will you succeed or struggle? I do not know. Honestly, you do not either. So often we struggle with carrying burdens that we cannot carry. We cannot control span of life and death. We cannot control the emotions of others. We cannot control the economy and government. We cannot control the future. We control so little. What we can control is relying on God to carry us.
Look back, Recall Your Father’s Faithful Love. Even though your heart (and mine) so often races away from God, God is faithful. He points to the cross as a pledge of his forgiveness. He redeemed us and keeps us under his care. He carries us. Do not worry about the matters you cannot control. Handle the thing you can control. (1) Read these promises. (2) Let them sink into your mind and heart. (3) Go to God in prayer. (4) Remain focused on the eternity God prepared for you. Let God handle the rest— just as he always has. Recall Your Father’s Faithful Love. He sends the Savior you need. He redeems you as his own.
‘Chuck’ is not his real name, but I met ‘Chuck’ at his lakehouse. Now, when Chuck was younger, his family spent weekends up north. Those were good times. Times soaking in the sun’s warmth. Times mindlessly staring into a crackling fire. Times single-mindedly focused on jumping and splashing and floating in the lake. Times with no stomach-churning anxiety. Times with no tightening vice-grip of stress. Times with no fear that the life you cobbled together could possibly crumble down.
Good memories brought Chuck back to the area— because much of his adult life was anything but good. His first marriage lasted about 20-years. By the time he reached out for counseling, the divorce papers were already in the mail. The second marriage fizzled out in months and so did half of his bank account. His two sons basically grew up without him. One sometimes visits, the other wants no contact. Chuck found himself retired, a two-time ex-husband still fighting alimony claims, with only one child who does not make much time for him. So, enter the lakehouse. Chuck moved to the old family vacation-grounds hoping that he can bring back the peaceful life he once had.
If that sounds foolish, then recall how companies have spent all month bombarding you with images of peace. Commercials showcase cheery, gleeful families gathering together. Gifts under the tree promise real fulfillment. Even food companies paint cozy cottages and warm fires with their products in hand. You (and I) might not buy a lakehouse, but do you buy into the notion that with the right items in the right settings under the right circumstances, you will finally live satisfied?
For just a moment look behind the Christmas decorations. Look behind the lights, the trees, the greenery, the white snow and cozy fires. Look behind the presents, behind the preparations, behind the smiles and hugs. What do you see? Because if you are like me, you realize life is far from perfect. No one wants to sit in a chair in the hospital room beside a loved one. She hurts, but you cannot take away the hurt. He groans, but you cannot provide comfort. Lungs gasp and seize, and very soon he will be ripped out of your life— and you cannot stop it. Can presents under the tree really fill the void that comes from knowing you cannot control health? You plan enjoying the family Christmas, but you hesitate a little. You know it will only be a matter of time before your sister stirs up some needless drama or your parents criticize your efforts or your brother makes it clear that he would rather be somewhere else. Does that smiling and dancing commercial-family even come remotely close to identifying with your family? Can a Christmas tree actually give you the strength and health of a twenty-year-old? Can snow actually hide your fears about moving out on your own? Do you think dressing up and singing Christmas carols will strengthen your marriage and end tensions with your child or repair the bond with your dad? Will politicians work together just because you ate ham? Of course not! We would never expect that (even though we might wish it were true).
Maybe that’s what is so captivating about these festive images. That perhaps at least for just a day, we can travel back to a simpler time. A time before a spouse’s death. A time before the family broke down. A time before worrying if you will have enough money for the future. A time before hearing politicians bickering, a time before needless violence. A time before age slowed you down. A time before children disappointing you or parents bearing down on you. A time when life felt happy and carefree.
Perhaps Chuck truly realizes that a lakehouse can never turn back the hands of time, but it’s not supposed to. Maybe he just wants this lakehouse to cover up a pain-riddled past.
Call it is mask, if you wish. A mask tries to cover up the real issue. A mask tries to sidestep the real issue. Chuck’s problems do not stem from his ex-wives only; he admits that he is the problem too. His sons do not prioritize him because he did not prioritize them. Plugging ears to reality or ignoring trouble does not make it go away. Relationships involve two people; tension is not the fault of one person only. Shattered dreams do not happen by chance. Emptiness and frustration are not feelings that you must expect. Cover up your troubles with a mask if you wish; sidestep the real problem at hand. Still you will not find peace. The real reason life can feel so unsatisfying is that we are not perfect.
Admitting that is not really something we want to do. By nature we want to boast of our perfection and everyone else’s imperfection. So, God has to make it clear: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… He pictures you and me every single person in the world living as though the sun (and household lights) never existed! It’s dark! You cannot see the hand in front of your face. You cannot find a safe path on which to walk. You cannot see your stubbornness fueling bitterness. You cannot see your selfishness fraying relationships. You cannot see your ambitions stripping away real hope. Even worse, you cannot see that life was never meant without God.
So, God has to shine that light. God makes clear the realization of the only place where true peace is found. He sets a Light in this little town of Bethlehem. The Child in the manger is no ordinary child who will grow up to please his parents and (sometimes) disappoint his parents. He will not get a job, make money, save money, spend money, and then die. No. [T]o us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. This Child comes down from heaven and holds final say over all things in the world!
You see, God does not ignore the troubles in our lives; he does not plug his ears to them. He deals with them. In the manger lies God’s complete seriousness to give you peace. Two parents and shepherds see it. Tonight we hear their testimony. Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. He exposes the pain we try to cover up and the heartache we try to avoid. Still, as Mighty God he can powerfully remove that shame. As a perfect father he has unending compassion on us. Just like that, haunting failures erased. Regrets over arguments pardoned. The lack of peace which comes by our own hands has not been hidden, it has been eliminated.
This evening you do not hear some Christmas-time story created to numb pain. We do not spend the night putting off the troubles that will come back in a few days. Instead, you hear words about a King who brings real peace to your heart. How? Because, of course, this world is far from perfect. You may expect to attend future funerals. You may expect arguments. You may expect others to disappoint you and you to disappoint them. You may expect doctors to scare you. You may expect teachers to frustrate you. That will not bring much peace. You will feel angry, frustrated, unhappy. Here’s what does give you peace: Jesus addresses those matters.
Jesus is born to purge away my selfishness. He is born to tell of peace between God and I. He is born so that I turn to him in every frustration, every fear, every trouble. He is born so that I might take his guiding Word to heart— a Word that shapes my words with others, a Word that strengthens me to forgive others, a Word that increases my reliance in his ability. Jesus is not one option among many. He remains the only place in this world where you will discover real peace.
I am certain ‘Chuck’ will form new memories in his lakehouse. Presents around the tree, family gatherings, festivities will offer peace. Yet, I guarantee, all the pleasantries will end. I guarantee that by the end of this month you will confront stress that leaves you frustrated. So, God sends peace. Peace meant for the world, but peace meant especially for you. A place for your heart to find rest. A place for anxieties to dissipate. A place for you to live under the words and actions of your capable God. The Prince of Peace Is Your Peace.
Her frizzy hair made it look as though she had just rolled out of bed. Her plain tan dress blended into the background. The lack of makeup, her yellowed teeth, her unrefined speech suggested a lack of education. This middle-aged, past-her-prime-woman from a cluster of tiny villages stood on the stage of Britain’s largest talent show and shared her dream of becoming a professional singer (compared to the likes of Celine Dion).
Laughter exploded from the audience. Judges rolled their eyes, preparing to expose the silliness of her pipe dream. The hosts stood backstage, mockingly mimicking her hand-waving, her confidence, her mannerisms. Many expected her to last no more than ten seconds before getting laughed off stage.
Very soon, a stringed orchestra started playing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from the famous musical Les Miserales. She took a breath and opened her mouth— and instantly everyone’s eyes opened. Judges raised eyebrows. Clapping erupted from the audience. The hosts stood frozen, attentions locked on her. This frizzy-haired, unspectacular middle-aged woman from the middle of nowhere unleashed a voice that sat at the top of the 2009 Music Billboards and later created the top-selling album of 2009. Susan Boyle looked so unassumingly plain, but revealed a spectacular ability. Appearances can be deceiving. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jca_p_3FcWA)
The prophet Isaiah holds up another image that can be deceiving. He touches on life in this world, but presents two very contrasting features: a desert and oasis. In a world that appears only to hand us unending frustrations, The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life. He overwhelms every withering fear. He crowns every heart with joy.
Just like God intended. For just a moment, picture the Eden God created (Genesis 1). What do you see? What do you hear? Songbirds tweeting sweet melodies from lush, leafy bushes. Water trickles from a babbling brook, thriving trees offer ripe fruit. Cows graze while wolves harmlessly trot by. No sweltering heat, no stifling humidity; the climate holds just right. What paradise! You do not see animals growling and snarling, fighting and killing. You do not see trees falling and rotting, plants withering and dying. You do not see conflict, resentment, criticism. You see wholeness, completeness— absolute contentment in your relationships and in your desires.
Where does Isaiah take you? A desert. A dry, arid landscape stuffed with heaping piles of dust so starved of water that no plant can grow. Bone-white trees stick out of the ground like toothpicks; scraggly, prickly bushes offer no drink, no shade. Parched riverbeds crack open. The scorching sun bakes you dry. You see no strength. You see no relief. You see no life.
Isaiah holds up two contrasting worlds. A paradise promising no pain and a desert sucking away all fulfilling satisfaction. Which picture best describes your world?
Honestly, we want complete soul-satisfying pleasure, but so often encounter shattered promises. We plan pleasant futures. You crave the perfect, conflict-free family gathering, but somehow that one touchy topic forces people into corners. Sides are taken, tension mounts, arguments erupt, family divides. You map out goals, but money sifts through your fingers, an accident pushes back the timeframe, a spouse dies— and those goals fizzle out, leaving you sullen. Half-empty churches have you wondering if you are doing something wrong or if the community simply finds no need for God. No matter how hard we try to line up life just right, someone (or something) interferes and brings those lofty expectations crashing down. Then what about those expectations you carry? You promise self-control, you want to change, but then you stumble— again. And you feel so disgusted that you are too weak to choose the right. Terrible, self-centered choices hurt those you love most and nothing you do today can change the past. You must always drag around that shameful regret. Then that guilt presses you: ‘Have you sinned one too many times?’ ‘Will God really forgive you? …. even after you come to him again for the umpteenth-millionth time?’ ‘Can God really forgive someone like you for the hidden wickedness he sees?’ No wonder Isaiah sets you (and me) in this wilderness! This is life cut off from God! You see the paradise God creates; he never intended us to find purpose without him. He creates Eden for us to live with him— in his presence, in open communication, in the complete satisfaction of finding delight in obeying his Word.
This wasteland breaks out because we brought it into the world. This wilderness exists because of sin, because of turning away from what God expects. So we battle conflicts because our hearts find no satisfaction in taking God’s guiding Word to heart. Goals crumble because we try to find joy in this world rather than joy in God the Giver. We carry regret by no fault of God, but because we deliberately disobey in the hope of finding real pleasure. Isaiah shows you (and I) what we have earned for ourselves. Life that turns from God is dry, fruitless, dead.
So, God steps into our wilderness— and Isaiah sees it. Isaiah stares 700-years into the future and sees God come with a vengeance, with divine retribution; He comes and saves you. He saves you by hanging Jesus on a cross and steamrolling him with his vengeance. The One who opened the eyes of the blind is the One struck for our spiritual blindness that refused to see God as God. The One who cleanses filthy skin is the One covered in our filthy crimes. The One who raises the dead is the One struck dead because that is the punishment we deserved.
Jesus steps into this wilderness, a wilderness separated from God— and endures the full brunt of that way of life. On the cross his life dries up. He is tossed into the dust of death, left lifeless— and saves you. In Jesus is life. Not just any life, but that perfect Eden-life. A life that does not remain dead. A life that rises! A life that goes on and on. A life he puts on you.
The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life by overwhelming every withering fear. Because Jesus came, your guilt has been removed. Because Jesus came, God no longer remembers your regrets. Because Jesus came, you hold the certain announcement of sin forgiven. Your God has come with a vengeance (as promised!) and saved you.
That will impact life. Isaiah holds up that desert image, but you do not see a dry desert, do you? You see a former picture revitalized into a gushing oasis. [A] highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness… Living in central Michigan, you have experienced both shoddy roads and reconstructed roads. After all the roadwork completed this summer, you have safe, trouble-free access to destinations. God keeps his sleeves rolled up and paves a highway— a straight, smooth path.
[T]he unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; wicked fools will not wander onto it. Did you grasp the sheer wonder of those words? God reveals who can walk this road. You probably realize that it’s you. Yet, do you see the words used to describe you? ‘Not unclean.’ ‘Not a fool.’ God sees you as you truly are: forgiven, fault-free, innocent. I know, you may laugh at that thought, but God does not. God does not ask if you emotionally *feel* forgiven; he tells you that you are. Baptism washed you and gave you second birth into a new life— a life connected to God (Titus 3:4-7). The Lord’s Supper assures you that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies you from all uncleanness (1 John 1:7-9). God reveals you as you truly are: People made to belong on that road to heaven.
Appearances can be deceiving. That is why God has to tell you (and me) the way things truly are. Life might feel as though you walk in a grueling desert. Yet, Jesus has linked you to that perfect paradise. That ‘Way of Holiness’ leads somewhere. The ransomed of the Lord (again, that’s you!) shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Just like God intended; the Garden of Eden recreated. No growling and snarling, fighting and killing. No rotting and decaying, withering and dying. No conflict, resentment, criticism. You see wholeness, completeness— absolute contentment in your relationships and your desires. You walk towards Zion, God’s name for heaven.
You live another day closer to that destination and you remain safe through this wilderness. Be sure, you (and I) will confront ravenous troubles. Still God promises to protect you. He does that with his Word. You might still be recovering from that flu-bug and patience is running thin. The recovery from surgery might be a little slower than expected. Still, God protects your faith, your trust in him as God. His Word teaches you to rely on him. His Word teaches that he provides the ability to get up each day. He allows family and friends to cheer you. He allows you to cheer family and friends. Life’s ailments are seen in a different light! Or, there might be an empty seat at home for Christmas; the first Christmas without that loved one. Yet, that spouse already walked into Zion. God’s Word tells you that. You see that perfect paradise and are comforted. Since you walk there too, soon there will be a joyful reunion. Or, arguments will always beg you to choose a side, and you may feel as though you stand against someone you like. Yet, God’s Word teaches patient love— a patient love you can show to others.
So much in this life can drag us down. So much can feel fruitless or pointless. That’s why Christmas teaches: The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life. He crowns every heart with joy.
Appearances can be deceiving, can’t they? Susan Boyle appeared to be nothing more than a frizzy-haired, unspectacular middle-aged woman from nowhere with nothing to offer. Now she is seen differently. Although still plain-looking, people see her voice.
The world in which we live is broken. Poor choices can haunt us. Pain lingers. You (and I) can feel completely hopeless. Yet, appearances are deceiving. Look at life through Christ. See what he accomplishes. The coming Christ overwhelms our greatest fears. He ends death. He nullifies guilt. He makes you clean. All the fears we face are overwhelmed by him. He revitalizes life. That means, we live with true hope, true peace, true joy. God does not keep it a secret as to how he sees you. He sets you on the path leading to life. He sets you on a path that sees life.
Look past the seen and see life as it truly is. See every withering fear overwhelm by Christ. See every heart crowned with joy by Christ. See The Coming Christ Revitalize Life.
The best word to describe the scene? ‘Sudden.’ A small car had raced past me as I drove through the rolling slopes of Rochester, Minnesota. Thought nothing of it until I saw those drivers again. This time, instead of driving, they stood on shoulder of the freeway. Their car had slid off the road and down a fifty-foot slope. My eyes turned from that sight to the sight of a car from the other side of the freeway careening through the median and wiping out the van twenty-feet in front of me. Thank God no one got hurt.
In a matter of seconds freezing drizzle coated the entire freeway. I stepped out of my car to look back and saw half-dozen cars in ditches, first-responder lights flashing. I helped the driver push his little car off the road. I will not forget what he said. ‘I should have gotten new tires.’ The tires on his car were bald, no traction whatsoever. It begged the question: ‘If he knew tires were a problem, why didn’t he fix it?’ He was completely unprepared for the weather— the same snowy weather that strikes Minnesota every single year.
That driver felt no pressing need to prepare for what comes each year. When the weather grew bad and his car was wrecked, it was too late to prepare. His laziness cost him. God does not want laziness costing you. He makes so clearly known this truth: The Son of Man is Coming! So, prepare! Get ready so that you may step into that day with joy! Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! (1) Stay alert against indifference and (2) Warn against carelessness.
Jesus made it no secret that after his resurrection, he would enter heaven. He would not live there forever and ever. He has every intention of returning (Matthew 24:2-3).
When? No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Let’s get that straight. Jesus does not suggest someone could possibly pinpoint ‘that day’ …if only a Pastor adds up numbers in the Bible together… or if a teacher studies the alignment of stars and planets. Jesus makes clear: No one knows and there will never be a person who holds the precise moment of Jesus’ coming. The angels standing before God in heaven do not have the date. Even Jesus does not have specific information about his coming. Only the Father knows.
I know, that’s not a very satisfying answer. Curiosity wants to know when Jesus will come. Yet, pinpointing the world’s final nanosecond does not prepare you for Jesus’ coming. For example, knowing when your tire will go flat does not help; you are still stranded. Having tools for a flat tire does help you. So Jesus tells you what is important: Jesus will return! So, Keep Watch!
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away… Jesus’ return will be sudden, just like floodwaters suddenly swallowed earth. Yet, ‘sudden’ does not mean ‘a never-before-expected-surprise.’ The truth is, people in Noah’s time did know something big was happening. Noah’s ark is roughly the size of Jay’s Sporting Goods and General Jim’s Surplus. If you drove by that lot (before Jay’s was built), you saw lumber and metal and builders; you know something was happening. (1) You could not miss such a large structure going up. (2) That largeness would press you to ask the owners or workers or neighbors the reason for this construction.
People walked past piles of lumber and pitch; the work-site sticks out! Noah does not work in a shipyard. He does build on these massive hydraulic lifts that will launch the ark into a river. He builds an enormous barge that holds more than his eight-member family, in the middle of a field, in a somewhat flood-free area. For 120-years people watch this mysterious construction, but no one cares about the purpose for this ship-building. Husbands and wives planned families, built homes, ate dinner, saved money, fixated on work— just like they had done for decades. Everyone woke up, assuming the sun would rise each morning and set each night. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Just like people in Noah’s time had no concern for the future, so also many will have no concern for the future even though Jesus can return in a moment.
You have heard that before, right? ‘Jesus can return at any moment!’— but he has not returned yet. Maybe you (and I) have not verbalized that doubt, but what do your actions say?
Do you allow worry to choke out trust in God? Do you think humanity alone holds supreme power over your happiness? Only the government provides wealth? Only military keeps you safe? Have you forgotten God the Almighty?
Are life’s goals blinding you from life’s true purpose? Do you think life is about making money, stashing money, spending money? Do you worship the kids, thinking that providing them with sports and clubs gives real purpose? Do you just assume you will always have a ‘tomorrow?’
Has the world’s view of pleasure polluted your heart? Do you forget that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) Do you forget God calls you to live sober-minded? (Ephesians 5:15-20). Do you forget God does care what you believe? (John 3:16). Do you think you are spiritually safe because you belong to a church?
Do you know the real problem at Noah’s time? Indifference. A lack of concern. Even if Noah preached how God hated disobedience, the people felt they could change wickedness later. Even though Jesus says: ‘No one knows the day or hour,’ even our hearts are tempted to say, ‘Well, I know you’re not coming soon! I will always have time to clean up my spiritual life!’ Those in Noah’s day woke up, ate breakfast, went to school, went to work, completed those every-day tasks when torrents ripped out of the earth. Waterfalls gushed from the heavens. Oceans swallowed up homes and farms and toys and scenery and people. Noah and his family floated higher and higher into safety. So many sunk lower and lower into death. No do-overs. No second chances. Time ran out. They never stood in God’s favor (2 Peter 2:4-10). Spiritual indifference brought hellish consequences.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. For thousands of years God spoke through his prophets the good news of a Savior. While many looked forward to Jesus, very few expected him. In fact, Gabriel had to inform Mary that her Lord would come in nine months. Angels had to inform shepherds that their Lord had come. God put a star in the sky to inform wise men that their Lord had come.
Jesus came once before— and he makes sure we know that. He makes sure so that you (and I) know he is the Almighty Lord. Yes, the devil uses hunger, hoping for Jesus to curse God. He throws wealth and power at Jesus. He even asks Jesus if God really keeps his promises. Each sneaky attack is meant to draw Jesus further away from the Word, a little more into a ungodly life, a little further away from God. Yet, Jesus stands alert against each devilish temptation. He lets nothing sidetrack him from reaching his goal to be your Lord. To be the One who has a completely whole spiritual life. To be the One who reaches down to pull you (and I) out of spiritual death. To be the One who rises— and raises us above death forever! That is for whom we keep watch! Jesus our Lord! The One who has rescued us from indifference and shows the purpose of life is meant for heaven.
So, Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! Stay alert against indifference. In these final days, warn against carelessness.
[U]nderstand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. Normally we do not call the thief and ask for his schedule. Just because we do not expect a thief, it does not mean we are unprepared for a thief. This house-owner does not prepare. He failed to lock his doors and windows. He failed to set the alarm and turn on the outside lights. He did not stay in the house with the phone nearby. All that preparation was laid aside. He lost everything.
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. The funeral home across the street tells me that. Forty-year olds leave life suddenly. Just a month ago, an 18-year-old died in a car crash. The elderly enter the hospital for routine care, but never wake up. You do not know when you will leave life. The time to deal with spiritual matters is not later, but now. If your heart is drifting a little too close to love of stuff, then refuel you love in Jesus. If you place self-worth in parenting, then put worth back into Jesus. If you would not be proud to tell me about your actions last night, then remember your calling as members of Christ. Warn against carelessness.
Keep warning in these days leading up to Christmas. You may have a child who does not worship often. Still he says, ‘I believe in God.’ I am not sure what that phrase means. Do you realize the devil believes in God? (James 2:19) He believes God exists. He believes that God is divine, all-powerful, all-perfect. He believes all of that— but the one thing he does not believe: That his rebellion deserves hell and a Savior must rescue him. The child who claims a belief in God would wants to cherish their Savior. Since Jesus can return anytime, take the time to warn against spiritual carelessness.
You may have grandchildren who do not go to church because their parents do not bring them. What can you do? Speak the importance of your faith with the parents. ‘One day I will leave this world and stand before God. Jesus makes me ready for that day.’ Carve out extra time in the morning to pick that grandchild up for worship. If those grandkids are grand‘adults,’ then share your wisdom with them. Your special connection with them may present an opportunity where they will be more honest with you than a parent (or a pastor). You may have the chance to discuss the impact God has on life. Keep warning against carelessness.
The Son of Man is Coming! Just in case that sounds cliché, remember this: Companies are pouring in huge sums of money to ‘warn’ you about Christmas. Television commercials list ‘hot items’ for sale. Society is literally warning people for Christmas day so that people are not caught unprepared.
God does not want you caught unprepared either. He clearly says: The Son of Man is Coming! So, prepare! You have. You are prepared because you know Jesus died and rose to forgive you. That day of his coming will be one of joy. We look forward to that great moment. Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! (1) Stay alert against indifference and (2) Warn against carelessness.
Stephen Fry is a British actor [probably better] known (to us) for his roles in the television crimes series ‘Bones’ and acting in ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy. Aside from acting, Stephen Fry is also an atheist. He claims no god exists.
In a 2015 interview, Stephen Fry was asked this question: “Suppose it’s all true and you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him?” Well, this is what Stephen Fry would say:
“I would say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault! It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious [unpredictable], mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”
So, the interviewed asked: “And you think you’re going to get in?”
“No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They’re wrong. Now if I die and if it was ‘the Twelve Greek gods’ then I would have less trouble with it because the Greeks did not pretend not to be human in their unreasonableness. They did not present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-beneficent. Because the God who created this universe, if he was a good God, is quite clearly, a maniac. Utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of God would do that?! Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life-cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that did not exist. It is simply not acceptable. …So, [we ask] if there is a God, what kind of God is he? It’s perfectly apparent: He’s monstrous, utterly monstrous. He deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living— in my opinion.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suvkwNYSQo)
Stephen Fry calls his judgments of God an ‘opinion.’ We can call it as God does: ‘Darkness.’
In Colossians 1:13 God identifies the existence of two realms. The first is the domain of darkness. Darkness! The absence of light. The inability of making out shapes. The absolute failure of grasping information and forming correct conclusions. Darkness prevents anyone from seeing the truth of what lies around you! Yet, God is not describing vision problems. He calls this ‘darkness’ a ‘domain.’ A vice grip no one can escape. A darkness that blinds hearts and minds from seeing life as it truly exists. Simply put, you, I, the entire world start life cut off from God!
Spiritual darkness wraps us so tightly that we do not even recognize that we are blind! If you have ever played ‘Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey,’ then you know how deceiving darkness is. The blindfold blocks out all light and sight. One hand holds the donkey tail, the other hand gropes for direction. You inch forward, one foot after the another, you touch something, stick the tail, rip off the blindfold, only to see that the tail hangs nowhere close to the donkey. Of course, you thought you were right, that’s why you took the steps you did. Although blind, you consider your actions ‘correct.’ So when the interviewer asked: “You think you’re going to get in?” Stephen Fry says, “No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms.” The entire world starts life spiritually blind. Unable to recognize God as Judge and Savior! That blind heart believes humanity is morally pure and God morally evil.
That’s a darkness even our hearts combat. God says, ‘Love me with all your heart.’ (Matthew 22:37) and still we keep the Bible shut. We block his Words from memory. We care little if our behavior lines up with his expectations. God says, ‘Parents, raise your children with the Word.’ (Ephesians 6:4). Still, we ignore the kids. We do not discipline them as God wants. We do not try to correct the wrong we see. Then, there are those other times when the heart pushes back against what God says. I can look at simple water and say, ‘This creates faith? Nope. That sounds silly.’ ‘This bread and wine is Jesus’ body and blood? Impossible! I cannot understand it so it cannot be.’ I can look at God’s promises and say, ‘No, God, you don’t really care about my sadness!’ ‘No, God, I got this money by my own smarts.’ ‘No, God, success comes because I try.’ I can look at a wandering soul and think, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what he believes.’ ‘She will be in heaven.’ If you are like me, you can shatter God’s commands without flinching; I do not even flinch because I expect God to condone my actions. In that way I make it quite clear: ‘God, I will not live on your terms! You accept my terms.’ That is the darkest, most blind lie the human mind has ever concocted: The notion that that you outrank God.
As clever as Stephen Fry sounds, his logic contains one critical flaw: he fails to take ‘sin’ into account. He completely ignores the fact that God did create a perfect world and the reason pains exists is not because of God. God is not to blame when our words destroy relationships and our addictions shorten life and our greed never satisfies. The problem comes because Adam and Eve (as well as the rest of us) turned our backs from God Almighty! God exposes that truth with light— and not just any light, but the Light.
God sent his Son who is the image of the invisible God. See Jesus, see God. Not a prophet. Not a good teacher, but God in flesh. [Jesus is] the firstborn of all creation. ‘Firstborn’ does not mean ‘the first one created,’ but ‘first in line.’ Just like the oldest son received the family inheritance, God hands Jesus the reins of the universe. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Jesus anchored the land and he carved out the oceans. He put earth in its orbit and pulls it around the sun. He formed man and allows him to govern. Jesus exists before all things— including you (and me). Do you think you possess the right, the equal standing to demand that God condone disobedience? He is the One who already sits in the paradise we want!
Yet, the Maker of governments stands silent by as a corrupt government condemns him, an innocent man. The Designer of nature is fastened to wood meant to help life, not to take life. The King of the Universe suffers the death-sentence his rebellious subjects earned. All those times we shook an angry fist at God, barking out: ‘Not on your terms!’ Jesus lives on God’s terms. He comes to obey God’s want and will. Then, he offers—not forces—but offers his life in exchange for yours.
What right do you have to that claim? None. Yet, the King of the Universe has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. Jesus obliterates darkened thinking. He makes clear what he has done for you (and me). When he rose, he transferred you (and me) from the column marked ‘death’ into the column marked ‘life!’ He stepped into his heavenly kingdom, sits on his glorious throne, and reigns over all things. Now. At this moment. Today… and always. He ushers in eternal peace.
[H]e is the head of the body, the church. Now, that word ‘church’ does not describe buildings of wood and brick with people gathering inside. The Bible uses the word ‘church’ to describe all believers everywhere. The woman in South Africa who believes in Jesus as Savior. The Detroit factory-worker who knows Jesus died for him. The businessman in China who cherishes the news of a Savior. People all over the globe are united into one common faith, and God sees each individual gathered into one realm before his one throne.
Friends, you are part of that ‘church.’ Baptism created faith in Jesus as Savior (Acts 2:38-29; Galatians 3:26-27). That faith grew bigger and stronger as it heard God’s Word. In fact, you gather in this building today not to listen to a random man’s opinions, but rather to hear the words God gave you to apply to life. You live in this body of Christ.
Christ exists as the head of the body. The head controls. It tells you where to go, how to speak and act. Not just that, nothing outranks the head. Christ remains in charge. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might [have the supremacy]. Jesus already reigns in heaven with all things under his feet. No atheist actor can tell God how to act. Governments cannot eradicate the Word off the face of the earth. No world leader can keep Jesus locked up in heaven forever. Even the devil cannot stop eternity. Jesus is the first to rise from the dead and remain living. He guarantees he will not be the last. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Christ points you to the future. Jesus will use the power he possesses as God and bring all things to an end. He will purge sin out of all things. He will create a new heavens and new earth, one free from death and mourning and tears. He will bring you to gather around his throne (Revelation 7:14-17).
Will that really happen? Yes. Because Christ kept his Word. He rescued you (and me) from a domain of darkness. He transferred us into his kingdom of light. He already paid the debt owed to God. The payment has already been accepted. He already rose, breaking the stranglehold of death. He already reigns in heaven. Nothing will undo his guarantee. Jesus, who has brought us into his kingdom, ushers in eternal peace.
Christ Reigns Supreme! It does not matter what Stephen Fry would say to him. It does not matter what darkened hearts think is ‘right’ and ‘fair.’ It does not matter the excuses people will lay before the throne. Only the Word of Christ is final. That word obliterates darkened thinking. With that Word, Christ reveals guilt removed and us transferred into his kingdom. As Christ continues ruling your hearts, we have peace. We know what is to come and we know it will never be taken away. Christ Reigns Supreme!
Chuck handed his Pastor the keys to a brand new John Deere X739 Signature Series Lawn Tractor. The V-Twin, liquid-cooled iTorque power system with electronic fuel injection puts out twenty-six horses. The 60-inch Edge High-Capacity mower deck with MulchControl effortlessly chews through the thickest grass and soggiest leaf piles. The hydrostatic four-wheel drive with TwinTouch control pedals powers this mower uphill, downhill, and side-hill, through swampy low-spots and over dried out ruts. The 20-bushel Click-N-Go Material Collection System can devour every leaf on the 4-acre church property and spit out the waste at the touch of a button. Make no mistake about it, this beast would keep the outside of God’s house immaculate.
Everyone saw the advantage. Actually, they had no choice. Chuck stood at the front doors of the church just beaming. As worshippers filed through those doors Sunday morning, Chuck made to point out the new tractor. “I spent $20,000 on that for the church.”
Impressed? Probably not. You can see past the object given and pinpoint the motivation for that generosity. Chuck did not care if God received the honor, respect, and praise owed him. That thought never enters the mind. No, Chuck bought expensive equipment in order to buy praise for himself.
The heart’s endless quest for attention hinders Christian service. That is why God asks you today: ‘What is your motivation for serving?’ Because Christian service has only one starting point: God’s grace. The reason we serve is because God’s Grace Motivates Christian Service. We are unworthy servants. So, We only do our duty.
You could summarize Luke 17:1-10 with those words: ‘Christian service.’ In fact, that single thread connects each verse together. Jesus said to his disciples: Temptations to sin are sure to come… Temptation, that is, a desire to do what God forbids— and you (and I) encounter no shortage of temptation. Think about the powerful craving to get revenge when that careless driver cuts you off. Or revisit the strong, greedy impulses to hold back money from God. Temptations surround you (and me), hoping to drag our attention and hearts away from the Word of God! (Revelation 12:9)
Understand, being tempted is not wrong. Telling the devil, ‘No! I will not do evil. Go away!’ is not sinful. Jesus makes it clear: [W]oe to the one through whom they come! Acting on temptation is wrong. So, Pay attention to yourselves! Temptation can suddenly seize you and steal you away from serving God with your life.
Do you see where temptation can appear? Jesus highlights two areas in life. Two areas where you (and I) are called to serve each other, but can serve for the wrong reasons. If your brother sins, rebuke him… Serve by approaching him out of heartfelt care and concern. Identify how this action drags him away from God and closer to death. Identify the evil so that he turns away from it and turns to life! [I]f he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” If he keeps trespassing on your property and he keeps coming to you, tears in eyes, heart torn, pleading: ‘I am so sorry, forgive me!’ then forgive. Release him from guilt. Assure him of a restored standing between you and him. If she keeps trashing your reputation you and keeps returning saying, ‘I am so sorry! I am trying hard to speak nice. Please forgive me!’ then forgive. Do not hold a grudge; do not seek revenge. Put the offense in the past; consider it: ‘Paid in full.’ You serve by bringing the forgiveness of Christ into life.
Is that something you want to do? To be honest, If [my] brother sins, [I will] rebuke him. I can point out faults. “Hey! You cussed! Don’t do that! …And you— you hit your sister! Stop that! …And you think no one saw your car at home last Sunday morning? I did on the way back from church.” I love rebuking people because pointing out someone else’s failures makes me look superior— like I’m a better Christian than my fellow believers! And forgiving— well, that’s a little more difficult. After all, that no-good, trespassing neighbor keeps spooking away my deer and I have to deal with it. I have no deer for deer season, and he will still have something to hunt. It hurts when my friend does not appreciate my help. It makes me feel unimportant. Her attacks are not showers of heaping praise I want to hear. The sister who always argues? Well, why forgive her? She needs me, I do not need her. So, let her taste what life is like without my kind advice, my help, my encouragement. Let her suffer.
Do you see it? Right beside selfless service stands the temptation for pride. I rebuke the sinner, not to protect a soul, but to exalt my moral superiority! I refuse to forgive because I consider that weakness and my pride will suffer. People will consider me ‘a push over’ and think that I can absorb abuse. I do not want pain, I want praise. Even when I put the encouragement of Christ into action I am tempted to gloat! “I forgave the bully! I am so strong!... I still speak to my brother and he drives me nuts. I am so loving!... I brought back that member who has not been in church for a while!... Look at me! I am such a great Christian!” If you think your Christian living is one great big gift to God, then you have fallen into pride.
Do you know what Jesus gives pride? A nice pillow-sized stone. It would be better… if a millstone were hung around [the] neck and cast into the sea so that no one else imitates your self-centered living!
Which makes it quite strange that God does do that. God does not hang your pride around your neck and watch you sink straight into the depths of hell. Instead, he takes your pride, ties it around Jesus’ neck, and lets it drag his own Son into death.
You see, Jesus stands in Luke 17 not as a Teacher or a Taskmaster. He stands a servant. He deserves all praise because he withstands temptation (Matthew 4:1-11). He deserves all praise because he forgives sin (Mark 2:9-12). He deserves all praise because he literally comes to rebuke the sin that was killing us (Luke 19:10). Yet, instead of praise, he receives insults. He receives an untruthful death-sentence. He receives our punishment. Jesus comes not to be served, not to stoke his pride, but to set aside his crown as King and fill you with his innocent life! (Mark 10:45).
That is called ‘grace.’ Love not deserved, but love God chooses to shower on you (and me)! Just think: do you deserve God punished for your pride? Are you so awesome, so wonderful that God desperately needed to trade Jesus for you? By no means! You (and I) deserve death, but God gives us life! Jesus lives to give you (and me) the greatest title of all: a servant in the household of the almighty God!
God’s Grace Motivates Christian Service. What makes us even want to care about someone else? God’s Grace. God has changed you from a death-row rebel into unworthy servants. Servants who seek no self-praise. Rather, servants who ponder this gift of love and see only opportunities to do our duty.
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? Obviously, we do not have slaves, but we do expect people to carry out the responsibilities associated with their jobs. Do teachers thank students for doing their homework? No! A student is expected to do his work. That is part of learning, that is literally what a student does; he learns. Do you thank your [grand]children when they finish their chores or brush their teeth? No! If you command a [grand]child to clean her room, that child (who lives under you authority) is expected to obey you. Do you praise parents for staying up all night with an infant and then going to work tired and later cleaning the house and running errands? No! Parents have a responsibility to raise a child at any cost! We do not give credit to someone who merely does their job. Those with a title are expected to complete the responsibilities of that title.
In the same way, God has prepared you (and me) for Christian service (Ephesians 2:10). ‘Christian’— because the Holy Spirit has put Christ in our hearts. ‘Service’— because your (and my) actions address needs. If you (and I) belong to the household of God, then God expects us to live as people who are part of the household of God. God will not shower you with bonus points because you approached your son about living with his girlfriend outside of marriage. You will not earn extra credit because you forgave a stubborn father. God does not fist-pump the air because you made it to worship today. You already belong to God. You are not doing him favors. You are not earning extra slices of heaven. You only do your duty; you live as God expects a Christian to live.
That might be difficult to do. Perhaps you find it difficult to forgive. She accused you of some horrible things, when, in reality, you gave her money, spoke up for her, and helped her. Maybe you wrestle with pride; you really want self-praise for sharing faith in public or giving $5.00 to the homeless on the corner. I mean, you did something no one else did. So, where do you turn to keep pride in check? The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Here’s the point: God gives strength to do difficult tasks.
How does he give strength? You focus on him. You do not see a stubborn sister or homeless man. You see Jesus. You see Jesus forgive you—even though you approached him seven times for the same act. He never brings up that shame again. That’s what you see in front of you. So, you can say: ‘I forgive you. I forgive because I have been forgiven much more free of charge.’ You see Jesus on the street-corner. You look at the money that is always there because God always makes sure that it’s there. So, you give. You lose nothing; you give because God has given you much more than $5.00. You give to the financial needs of your church. You give prayers for those far from God. You only do your duty because God has adopted you into his household.
The heart’s endless quest for attention hinders Christian service. That is why God asks you today: ‘What is your motivation for serving?’ Because Christian service has only one starting point: God’s grace. The reason we serve is because God’s Grace Motivates Christian Service. So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
The same four words appear on every single American coin and every single American dollar. Four words that reveal a conviction. Four words that confess a truth. Four words that identify a belief. Do you know those four words? ‘In God We Trust.’
That motto first appeared in 1863, right in the thick of the American Civil War. Half of America faced extinction! Ideas and people could be lost! So, a concerned American requested the phrase: ‘In God We Trust’ be stamped onto American coins. Should civilization crumble and return to sand and timber, archaeologists and historians could find these coins. They could read the inscription and conclude that America was not full of godless heathens (https://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx). That motto made headlines again in 1957, just as the Cold War got colder. The Soviet Union outlawed religion and promoted atheism [a belief that no God exists]. So, the motto ‘In God We Trust’ appeared on dollar bills. It implied that God favored American morals and would lend his divine support. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_God_We_Trust). That phrase: ‘In God We Trust’ clearly confesses that only God can grant real security.
So, how ironic that a confession of God’s protection is found on an object in which many want to find protection! Ponder that for just a moment. Money is capable of bringing pleasure into your life. It is. It can buy vacations and cars, houses and outdoor toys, clothes and shoes. Money provides for you. Still, stamped on American money is the confession: ‘In God We Trust.’ Only God grants real security. So which one is it? Which one do you expect to provide for you? God or Money? In Whom Do You Trust?
Calamity has a way of exposing the heart’s security. You have an object of trust. When troubles rage, you flee rely on it. In that moment you then determine if that object could keep you safe or not.
Just look at our reading. Calamity barrels towards the leaders in Zion (that’s southern Israel) and against those on Mount Samaria (which is northern Israel). God guarantees punishment. Northern Israel chiseled out figures in stone; they have carved wooden statues. Israelites leave their homes and trot out to a shrine filled with prostitutes. They hope sharing bodies will make for a good financial year. Farmers trust the cow-god Baal, relying on him to make a good growing season. Masses flock to deities that do not exist, shamefully shatter God’s commands— and the leaders do not care. Governors do not shut down these pagan temples. They do not elevate worship of the true God who rescued them from Egypt and gifted this land to them! So, God guarantees: You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god— which you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus (Amos 5:26-27).
Go to Calneh and look at it; go from there to great Hamath, and then go down to Gath in Philistia. Each city once stood equal to northern and southern Israel. They had the same amount of land, the same level of safety, the same economies. Now, it’s all gone! Tiny Calneh destroyed by superpower Assyria! Hamath conquered by northern Israel and Gath held captive by Zion! God warns: Are they better off than your two kingdoms? Is their land larger than yours? No! ‘What happened to them will happen to you! You will be destroyed.’
That warning meant to alert sleepy hearts. ‘Wake up!’ Instead, Israel’s leaders lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on couches. [They] dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. [They] strum away on harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. [They] drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, [no one] grieves over the ruin of Joseph. No one cares about the threat of exile because… well… nothing bad has happened. No armies threaten their borders, and therefore no fear of captivity. Economies flourish; money passes through hands, and therefore no worry of food shortages or home foreclosures. Peace reigns in the region, and therefore no concern that you could lose a familiar landscape or friends or freedom. So, hearts wallow in every pleasure money offers. Getting drunk makes this negatives news of destruction go away. Money spent on choice meat could still be used to hire more armies and better defenses. Little musical fantasies drown out God’s warning. In Whom Do They Trust? They love what pleasure money can purchase. They love how money can make them feel safe. They trust money’s ability to provide everything needed for life.
God has this to say: You put off the evil day and [you] bring near a reign of terror. ‘You worship temporal pleasures and let your spiritual life rot.’ Money can bring satisfaction to every area of life except one. Money cannot save your soul.
Calamity erupted just like God promised. The Assyrian powerhouse that steamrolled Calneh obliterated northern Israel. Governors turned to wealth. They thought it could buy weapons. They thought it could buy armies. They thought it could buy peace. It did not. Even worse, those who placed trust in wealth over God died spiritually bankrupt. Money could not buy their way into heaven.
What a reminder, then, those four words on money serve for us! ‘In God We Trust.’ Do you still pay attention to those words? Do you remember they are even there? Maybe we only care when some group wants to erase it! Yet, the heart does a fine job of erasing it on its own! Do you think that a new house will solve a sore relationship? Or that new a car will finally satisfy you and you will never anything else again? Perhaps you think more income will finally take away every fear— no more restless nights, no more stress about bills, or no more counting every cent you spend. Maybe you find security in a large savings account— relying on this cushion to make you feel happy and secure. Maybe that’s why we can easily forget those four words found on money: ‘In God We Trust.’ We can look at the green paper and shiny coin and think this object will give us the happiness we crave. This object will solve any tension, any struggle, any aching worry. This object will save me.
If that is where your trust lies, then God has this to say: ‘Woe to you!’ You will leave this earthly life and your wealth will not come with you. You will stand before God naked and penniless. If money remains an object of trust, then Calamity (we could say ‘death’) exposes the heart’s security. It exposes money’s inability to provide real peace.
God makes that point pretty clear on a mount called ‘Calvary.’ There, Jesus hangs naked and penniless. Attached to him is your (and my) trust in everything money could buy. He hates the sight of it so much that he rains down punishment on Jesus. The punishment meant for you (and me).
Calamity exposes the heart’s security— and when you look at the heart of Jesus, you do not find reliance in wealth. You find a pure trust in God to provide! He does! God provides Jesus with life! God provides you (and me) with Jesus’ life! That you now carry Jesus’ innocence. Something money can never buy! Something that allows you to stand before God, completely confident that he cares for you. That he provides for you. That he opens heaven for you.
In Whom Do You Trust? Calamity exposes the heart’s security. When troubles rip into life, you will turn to an object. Money might address physical shortfalls, but it will never satisfy you completely. Only Jesus fills you with real peace. The real peace of forgiveness. The real peace that comes from knowing that God still provides all things in this life. ‘In God We Trust.’ That becomes apparent by the way we use money.
Believers in the Old Testament had an opportunity to give a ‘firstfruits’ offering. They set aside about 10-percent of the crops coming off field first and gave that to God. Now, if you farm, you realize that giving your first crops can be a little nerve-wracking. After all, the previous year’s reserves run low. You could use that corn and hay. Still, God says, “Give me your firstfruits” (Deuteronomy 26:1-15).
People did. They willingly give that offering; you give the first of your resources confident that God will give you more cuttings of hay and more corn. Giving demonstrate a trust in God to provide. A trust that drowned out personal fear. Actions reveal a trust in God’s promise.
What do your actions say? You (and I) are able to evaluate our income and consider what we may set aside. Maybe that means we set aside an amount for offering before we pay bills. You set a portion and then spend what is left over. Maybe that means we determine key bills first and then set aside an offering. If we do not have enough to be at McDonald’s every day, we thank God for still feeding us. Or, if we cannot buy five new outfits this month, we thank God for still clothing us. Setting aside a portion of income for an offering allows us to rely on God to keep providing for us.
We can look at the money in our hand and see those words ‘In God We Trust,’ we can use it confidently. If you’re not sure, then for one month (that’s four Sundays), see what you are able to give. Be bold. Trust big. You offering may increase price of a hamburger spread out over four weeks. That amount might not look like much, but it is much. It comes from heart that trusts God to provide. Maybe your giving increases by the cost of a tank of gas each week. Even that generosity demonstrates a reliance on God. You are not worried that you will need that amount back later. Our act of giving reveals our certainty in God to do what he promises; that he will give what we need.
That phrase: ‘In God We Trust’ clearly confesses that only God can grant real security. So, how ironic that a confession of God’s protection is found on an object in which many want to find protection! Ponder that for just a moment. Money is capable of bringing pleasure into your life. It can buy vacations and cars, houses and outdoor toys, clothes and shoes. Money provides for you. Still, stamped on American money is the confession: ‘In God We Trust.’ Only God grants real security. Which one is it? Which one do you expect to provide for you? God or Money? In Whom Do You Trust?
This is an Equal-Arm Beam scale. (You have probably seen one of these before; it’s a pretty common scale.) As you can see, the main beam balances and pivots in its exact center. Each end of the beam is an equal distance from that center pivot. So, you can add weight to each end and study how the beam balances. A heavy object will cause one side of the beam to drop and the other to rise. To balance the beam, you must add weight to the light arm until the beam levels. Then can you conclude the two objects have equal weight.
Scales perform wonderfully in comparing weight. In fact, scales do not care about the value of an object— whether you weight gold and rocks or food and dirt. The scale simply reveals which object is heaviest.
This morning God uses a scale to reveal what has top value in your heart. Out of all the objects in this worldly life, only one holds eternal value. So, Keep Balanced the Scales of Your Heart! Worldly wealth never satisfies, but God’s mercy always overflows.
In our Old Testament selection you see scales at work. In fact, you see them as they are most commonly used: in business. Ancient coins did not have a number-value attached to them. For example, today’s money has a value stamped on it. So, the same-sized scrap of green paper can be worth different amounts simply due to the number printed on it. Yet, ancient coins (like the shekel) had value based on weight. Two shekels could weight different amounts. So you needed a scale. If loaf of bread cost two shekels, the merchant would hang a two-shekel weight on one side of the scale and you would weigh out shekel-coins until the scale balances. That balanced scale allows the merchant to receive and you to pay the right shekel-weight.
A scale makes transactions fair. So, some tweaked it. Merchants made the ephah small and the shekel great[.] An ‘ephah’ measures about a half-bushel… but the merchants adjusted those measurements. If you are selling grain, they pull out a slightly larger basket and you give away more grain than needed. If you are buying grain, they break out a slightly smaller basket and you receive less than desired. Or, if a loaf of bread costs two shekels, the merchant would hang a weight heavier than two-shekels on one side. You shelled out more coins and the merchant gained more wealth! Yet, they do not stop there; they hoard more by giving less. No one lowers food prices for the elderly and disabled, those between jobs and those honestly trying to get by. After all, donating is money given away! The merchants would sell— not give— but sell a measly peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for 8-hours of labor. And if your bare feet needed a pair of cheap, two-dollar-sandals, they made you scrounge for two dollars first. They even swept up the grain kernels and husks, leaves and stems, pack it into a bag, and sell it. Those sneaky merchants do all they can to suck a little extra money from you.
Let’s be clear: God does not condemn gaining money. It is not wrong to be rich. It is not wrong to make six-digits. It is not wrong to buy a big house or new car. God does not condemn an individual person. He does not say: “Listen up you merchants and business-owners!” No, he condemns those who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end. That can refer to any person: rich or poor, business or customer. Simply put: God condemns an attitude.
Here’s how that attitude appears. On one side [of the scale] hangs God. On the other side hangs money. Greed consumes more attention than God. Greed says, “When will the New Moon be over[…] and the Sabbath be ended?” Weekly worship allows people to leave work, leave business behind, and reflect on the spiritual rest the God provides. People worshipped, but not because they wanted to. Instead, they sit in the pew and stare out the window wondering: ‘When will church be over so that we may market wheat [and] that we may sell grain?’ Those with much want more. Those with little want more. Greed has no limits; it will only consume more and more of the heart. Worldly wealth never satisfies.
You (and I) live in the wealthiest nation in the world (https://fortune.com/2015/09/30/america-wealth-inequality/). And I’m not talking about the ‘Top 1%;’ this is you (and me), middle class. You (and I) are able to select a day and retire. You receive so much extra money that you can literally stop working and still get paid from retirement accounts. I have known people whose retirement lasted longer than their working years. The prices at McDonald’s goes up and we complain, but we still go there. In fact, we can afford the menu and maintain our standard of living. Social Security received a raise last year (after having six flat years!) and you still hear: ‘Well, it’s still not enough.’ You have already been living without that raise! You had food and shelter, clothing and transportation. What necessity did you go without that Social Security must cover? You learn the financial needs of your congregation and can still say, ‘Well, if I had more, then I could give more.’ If you find those words coming out of your mouth, then it appears the problem is not with a lack of money, but with the priority of money. That starts with the attitude of the heart.
That’s what a scale reveals. When money becomes an object worshipped, it demands more and more time devoted to it. That keeps us from wanting to let it go. God keeps filling your pockets for daily bread and still comes the complaint that it is just not enough. We make excuses as to why we cannot even consider giving more to God. We create reasons as to why cannot even give food to the needy or blame a struggling neighbor for his poverty. When money becomes a priority, it has become your god. The object consuming your heart, mind, and soul. You cannot serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Luke 16:13). When the scale of your heart (and mine) tips in favor of money, The Lord [swears]: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
You know what? God has not forgotten the greed that exists in your heart (and mine). That name, ‘Lord,’ is capitalized for a reason. That name: ‘Lord’ tells you that God is (1) absolutely serious to punish greedy hearts and he is (2) absolutely serious to forgive greedy hearts. In fact, God is so serious that he swears by the ‘Pride of Jacob.’ That ‘Pride’ is himself. He promised Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, to send Jesus. Nations would rejoice in that forgiveness and Jacob’s family tree could rejoice in their great Descendant. God kept his oath. He sent Jesus.
Look at the scales of Jesus’ heart. The Jews offer him crown and throne; every physical need would be forever met! Yet, Jesus does not come to accumulate wealth (John 6:15). He comes to give. He gives bread and fish to thousands. He gives taxes to Caesar. He gives life to the lifeless without charge. Jesus comes into contact with money, but it never becomes his god. And that is what makes Jesus life’s most priceless treasure. Out of the billions of people who have lived, currently live, and will live, Jesus is the only Person who received God’s seal of approval (Matthew 3:17). And he gives that priceless seal to you.
God is so serious about greed that he condemns Jesus for our greed. He takes away help and rescue. He takes away life. That is what greed deserves— and Jesus made that payment. Now you stand ‘Not Guilty!’ Look at the cross. See Jesus pour his pure life into your spiritual account (and mine). See Jesus fill you with his perfection, his unblemished life, his innocence. See how Jesus has paid your complete price for heaven. Money will never satisfy that eternal debt. Yet, God’s mercy always overflows.
God has straightened out our bent hearts. Now our hearts look like this: Jesus’ payment for sin is far more valuable than money. Do you see what happened? The scales shifted. Money is not life’s most valuable item. If the heart does not consider Money ‘god,’ then it becomes something less than God. It becomes a ‘tool,’ an object used.
Have you ever thought of money like that? Money is received so that you can use to address your needs! The money you receive is used to satisfy hunger. The money you receive is used for home and heat so that you remain warm and safe. The money you receive is used for time off so you can relax. You save up money and use it when your body cannot handle work, when you need nursing home care, when you need to cover funeral expenses. Do you see what role money has in life? You use it, not hoard it!
That gives you the ability use money like a tool. You can use it for an offering. You actually give away something the world considers ‘valuable.’ Yet, giving an offering admits that your love for God trumps love for possessions. Giving an offering also allows God’s house to be maintained. To have lights and heat on. To enhance gathering places and maintain worship space. To support a Pastor who brings God’s Word to your heart each Sunday, in the hospital, at your house. To support a Pastor who teaches your children about God’s love and equips them for heaven. Your wealth (and mine) is a tool used to share God’s life-giving Word.
Prices will always rise. Healthcare expenses will always rise. Same with groceries and utilities and maintenance and college. Thank God that you have had enough. You have always had enough food for each day. You have not neglected your body because of cost. You may need equipment, but God provides a new furnace or used car. You may not attend university, but still get education in college. When you look and see needs met, you can thank God for giving us what we need.
Because money is a tool An object used. That’s why it does not carry a heavy place in the heart. We do not worship the object, but the One who gives! Money always leaves us and we thank God that he never does!
So, what has top value in your heart? Out of all the objects in this worldly life, only one holds eternal value. Fix your eyes on Jesus and you will Keep Balanced the Scales of Your Heart! You will see Worldly wealth never satisfies, but God’s mercy always overflows.
His little head rises higher and higher. Soon, his hazel eyes stand level with the glowing burner radiating heat. Ever-so-slowly that tiny hand creeps toward that red ring… “Don’t touch!” warns mom. He freezes— and his mind instantly begins dissecting that warning. The orange glow does not appear harmful— after all, the heat feels like summer heat and orange is a pretty color. The circle element kind of looks like a toy-ring. He weighs mom’s warning against his observations and reaches a conclusion: Mom is wrong! Disregard the warning! So, those tiny fingers continue their journey closer and closer to the glowing element. The fingers descend on their goal, and… INSTANTLY pain shoots up his fingers, through his hand, and down his arm. Fingertips turn fleshy red. His hand burns. Tears stream down his face. This young child did not expect the searing results he received.
We have a word for a person who acts like that: a ‘know-it-all,’ someone who behaves as if he knows everything (https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/know%20it%20all). That behavior not only affects little children (and your bossy siblings), it can infiltrate your heart too. Thinking that you already know every Bible teaching and application, warning and encouragement, promise and guarantee leads you to think that God has nothing left to teach you.
A ‘know-it-all’ doesn’t describe you, does it?
This morning, Ponder Wisdom’s Two Questions. (1) What is wisdom? And, (2) Are you wise?
Maybe you find it difficult to define ‘wisdom.’ If you are like me, it’s easier to describe ‘wisdom’ not with a definition, but with an application. You identify ‘wisdom’ when you see it. Perhaps you consider ‘wisdom’ as avoiding harmful choices and selecting beneficial choices. Maybe you equate ‘wisdom’ with experience. You perform some action and gain results. Then you evaluate the results in order to shape future decisions. You realize that we tend to define wisdom as this cause-and-effect notion.
Yet, in Proverbs 9:10, God does not leave us fumbling for a concrete definition of wisdom. Instead, he explains (1) what wisdom is and (2) how wisdom functions. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. So, God links two items together. (1) ‘Fear’ and ‘Wisdom,’ (2) ‘Knowledge of Holy One’ and ‘Understanding.’ Have fear, you have wisdom.
That’s where wisdom begins? With ‘fear?’ That sounds strange. I mean, in our English language, if you “fear” someone that usually means you are scared of that person. So, being “scared” of the Lord is how you become wise? In a way, yes! He is the Almighty God who stretched a measuring line across our universe, who shut the sea behind doors, clothed the skies with clouds, and brings out the sun every morning (Job 38). Your God is the Holy One who lives in heaven, far above all rule and authority, a place reserved only for the perfect! That is scary, that is terrifying because I am not God and God is not me. I fail people; I deliberately choose to do evil. God never fails people; God never does evil (James 1:13). I do not compare to him. In fact, I fall short.
That takes ‘fear’ to admit that. Yes, to be afraid that you (and I) fall under God’s punishment for failure. Yet, ‘fear’ also means something else; it means, ‘to respect.’ It takes ‘fear’ (or ‘respect’) to admit that God judges over me and I stand judged by God.
So, that wisdom places me at a starting point. Real wisdom recognizes two truths: (1) It recognizes the deadly consequences of sin and (2) sees Jesus as the antidote to those consequences. The fear of the Lord… that is, respecting God’s position over me… is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
That ‘Holy One’ is none other than Jesus Christ. Just look at him! He is holy! Morally faultless! The sick crowd around him and he does not prescribe treatments for a better life on earth. No! He points people to a healing for their soul. When he preaches, he points to the Bible—and not what he thinks. Even though he has no savings account, no permanent home, no bed, Jesus still confidently relies on God to provide. Jesus ‘fears’ the Lord; he ‘respects’ God’s impact in his life and proves it by shaping his entire being around God’s commands.
You know that; you know Jesus is the Holy One. You also know just what God thinks about human wisdom: He hates it. The Holy One hangs on the cross, groaning under God’s righteous frown. God finds your (and my) ‘know-it-all’ attitude on Jesus and cannot stand to look at it. So, he turns his back and leaves. He does not rescue Jesus. He answers no cry for help. He forsakes his Son and our worldly wisdom with him—and then he buries it. He buries our wisdom with his Son in the ground. Three days later Jesus comes out of the ground. He comes out without our wisdom and with his message of wisdom: ‘Cleansed! Purified! Pardoned!’
So, What is wisdom? The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Quite simply: (1) You recognize the deadly consequences of sin and (2) trust Jesus as the only antidote to those consequences.
That leads to our second question: (2) Are you wise? Wisdom is not a mere definition, but also application. Think back to that little child. He holds a warning about the hot stovetop, but did not put it into practice. Holding God’s Word in high regard brings eternal life. Still, those are not lifeless words. For you, the Christian, those words are put into action. So, Are you wise?
Do you apply wisdom? Verse 8 says: Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you… A mocker is a proud person, a ‘know-it-all.’ He thinks he knows everything there is to know about everything. The worst trait about that attitude is that he refuses to take God’s truth to heart. He refuses to admit that his lifestyle clearly contradicts God’s clear commands. He refuses to admit that his life needs changing. Really, he is pushing God out of his heart—which is foolish because only God brings life. [R]ebuke a wise man— someone who humbly admits that God and his Word carries authority over him-- and he will love you. So the question is: Are you wise?
Today marks the beginning of our Christian education year. Think about many opportunities to grow in God’s Word. Sunday School teaches Bible accounts of God’s love. Catechism class studies God’s teachings for life. Bible class examines life’s questions under the microscope of God’s Word. An online class puts a book of the Bible into simple words and simple application. God presents teachings to guide decisions and form answers, comfort and console, and most of all, keep your heart close to him.
That is why the devil works on you. He tries to make you into a fool. He will tell you that you are too busy to read your Bible. He will tell you that you already know every Bible story, every Bible topic, every discussion any class will have. He will tell you that you have another day, another time to be in the Word. I know he does that because he tries to convince me of the same things. “You’re a Pastor. You already studied all this.” “You instruct people. You do not need instruction.” “You’re so busy today. Study tomorrow …Start again next week …next anniversary.” Do you know why Satan whispers these excuses? He knows that if he can just get you to put the Bible down, to stop using it so often, you will begin forgetting God’s promises. You will forget God’s commands. You will start creating Bible-sounding sayings. You will begin clinging to made-up statements about the Bible. You will rely on what you think you know— and you will never figure how wrong you are until God exposes how distant you stand from him!
Let’s find wisdom in verse 9. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning. Did you catch that? ‘Instructing’ always leaves a positive impact! (read also Isaiah 55:10-11). You will always have room to learn more information, better identify God’s promises, and grow in applying the Word to life. After all, life changes, right? Like, a 4-year-old just wants loving care. The 14-year-old worries about acceptance by friends and classmates. The 24-year-old worries about getting a job and starting “life.” The 40-year-old worries about retirement. The 84-year-old worries about health in later years. Throughout life certain things change. What does not change is the instruction God teaches. A 4-year-old knows the Good Shepherd lovingly cares for him. The 14-year-old knows the Good Shepherd accepts him as a dear friend. The 24-year-old sees the Good Shepherd satisfy fear by providing education and job, spouse and income. The 40-year-old sees the Good Shepherd provide for both life on earth and in heaven. The 84-year-old knows the Good Shepherd will lead her through death’s dark valley and into heaven. Just this one timeless psalm provides a myriad of application for every age!
That is the reason these education opportunities exist. That is why your congregation encourages using these many Bible opportunities. That is why your Pastor prepares to ‘instruct’ you, the ‘wise man.’ So that you become wiser still.
After all, you are not a ‘know-it-all,’ are you? May God forbid it! Thinking that you already know every Bible teaching and application, warning and encouragement, promise and guarantee leads you to think that God has nothing left to teach you. That does not benefit you. Instead, a ‘know-it-all’ attitude actually stunts your life with God!
Maybe a better phrase to stick in mind is: ‘Don’t be a know-it-all; be a learn-it-all.’ (https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2017/05/dont-be-a-know-it-all-be-a-learn-it-all/). That happens when our hearts remember that real wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. Cherishing the fact that only Jesus stands us right before God! That, dear friends, changes life. That dismantles excuses. What joy we have to keep pondering the wisdom we have received from God! Jesus cures us from death. That Word continues guiding life.
They call it: ‘The Hill.’ A sandy trail winding two-and-a-half miles uphill. Yes, a continually gradual incline of two-and-a-half miles. Yet, ‘The Hill’ looks pretty unspectacular. It does not have deadly drop-offs, cliffs and pits, or some lake of fire to leap over; it’s just a plain hill— but one man had trouble reaching the top. ‘The Hill’ was just was too steep; he was too tired. So, he ran ‘The Hill’ again the next day… and the next day …and the day after that. He ran ‘The Hill’ every single day for over twenty years. The more he ran, the faster he got. (In fact, he sprinted, not jogged, sprinted that two-and-a-half mile incline in just under 16-minutes!) He became stronger. He could endure more. He gained more resolve to push through struggle. By the end of his 20-year football career, legendary San Francisco 49er, Jerry Rice, held the all-time records for most touchdowns, most receiving yards, and most receptions. In fact, he set the bar so high that even the best players reaching the end of their lengthy careers would need to play an additional 5-7 seasons just to threaten those records! Jerry Rice ran ‘The Hill’ because, in his own words, ‘he did not want to get into a mode of quitting.’ His single-minded goal was to finish so that “In that fourth quarter, even if I was tired, I was able to fight through it to make that winning catch for that touchdown.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3zfNlmEHr0)
Can you persevere like that? You may feel exhausted trusting promises God has made. You may want to quit believing that God blesses you because you just do not see the blessing. You may feel overwhelmed by the burdens you carry. Where do you find the strength, the motivation, the certainty that trust in God is valuable? How do you persevere? Fix Your Eyes on Jesus for aim at life’s truest goal and for strength to persevere under all discipline.
That’s how athletes train. A clear objective hangs before their eyes— an accomplishment, a championship, or glory. If they lose sight of that objective, they will never claim the prize. So the entire body fights to reach the goal.
Christians who lived millennia before Jesus locked eyes onto the guarantee that Jesus would come. That Jesus would pay sin’s penalty. That Jesus would rescue them into heaven. That is life’s ultimate goal; heaven is life’s finish line. Those ancient Christians yearned to reach that goal— and God’s guarantee was their focus.
Remaining focused is challenging. Just last week, you watched Abraham wait for a son that never seems to come. At a moment like that, you reach a serious crossroads. Either (1) You trust that God will give as promised or (2) You doubt that God will give as promised. Either (1) You take God at his Word or (2) You push his Word out of your heart.
That tension is called ‘the cross.’ The cross is everything that you suffer because you are connected to Christ. On the one hand you love God, you cling to his Word, you rely on his promises— you are connected to him! On the other hand so much in this life creates doubt, fear, and resentment— and that tension pulls on you, tugging and trying to divide your allegiance from your God. I mean, sudden loss rips into your life. Instantly the questions appear: ‘God, why? She was so young.’ ‘God, I loved him. Why a cancer-caused death?’ ‘God, why the memory loss?’ ‘God, the pain makes it hard to love you.’ Those losses tug at us, and you hit that crossroads: (1) Trust God even when you do not see love or (2) Quit because you do not see love. Or, the future is never clear. You know God gives all you need for life, but at this moment, you rely more on your clever financial footwork to navigate through trade wars and recession-leaning markets. You know God loves you, but at this moment, school’s about to start and you have career choices to make and, well, you know God will not boom some answer from heaven: ‘Choose accounting!’ or ‘Take the desk job!’ Decisions tug at us. We again hit that crossroads: (1) Rely on God’s promises or (2) Toss the promises aside and rely on yourself! Or, you ponder the ministry of your church. You know God wants you around his Word; that is the main reason you are here. At the same, you cannot forget those who moved downstate or moved into heaven. You hit that crossroads: (1) Trust that God will keep creating faith and strengthening faith or (2) Despair that more will leave, no one will come, your doors will shut, and you will not have the comfort of worshipping here.
It is hard to take God at his Word. So much of what is seen tries to convince you that God is nowhere present— and it is so easy to quit running. Because you’re tired. You’re exhausted. You’re scared. You encounter that crossroads: (1) Stop trusting God, leave his promises, shut his Word out of your heart and life. Then what happens? You would gain hell. What’s the other road? (2) Fix Your Eyes on Jesus— even in trouble.
Listen again to our reading: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [those ancient Christian examples— Hebrews 11:1-40], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles… Have you ever watched Olympic runners? They wear light clothing. Layers of sweatshirts will weigh them down and long jeans constrict movement. So, sprinters wear light clothing. Here, God says, ‘Take all those struggles you face, all those impulses to turn from the Word, all those temptations to lash out at me and throw them off.’ Those temptations hinder us! Cursing God, blaming God, doubting God will never let us reach the goal of heaven. Throw off that despair and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. How? You’re so tired! How do you persevere? Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith… Gain motivation to rely on God because Jesus is both Motivator and motivation!
Fix Your Eyes on Jesus… who for the joy set before him… because of his goal to bring you (and me) into heaven… [he] endured the cross, [he was not afraid of] its shame. Think of who Jesus is. The eternal God who calms wind and wave with a word. The One who forces demons into hell with a command. The One who raises the dead. Jesus is all-powerful God— and not just that, but he is faultless. No one can accuse Jesus of name-calling. No one ever witnessed him brushing off the needy. No one watches him deliberately doing wrong. No one saw it because it never happened. Still, Jesus is treated as a criminal. The lowest-of-the-low criminals sentenced to death. How is that fair? On the cross, Jesus hangs naked. Bleeding. Groaning. Helpless. Meanwhile, people taunt him. They laugh. They mock. He does not deserve this! Even worse, God holds him accountable for our anger at God’s justice! Still, it is Jesus who dies. Why? Jesus dies on a cross in order to remove the penalty for sin. That is the only way you (and I) would enter heaven.
Because of you (and I) will. Jesus rose from the dead— and even higher than that: [he] sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus will never ever suffer again. He reigns over every power, every authority, every person forever and ever.
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Have you ever done that— considered the opposition Jesus endures? Jesus could have said, ‘No cross’— but then, how would payment be made? He could have snapped fingers and thundered into heaven, but you (and I) would still be stuck in sin. He could have raged against every smug, worldly leader, but then he would have sinned and become imperfect like us. Jesus willingly suffers death— death in our place!— so that you (and I) will not suffer in hell, so that you (and I) will join him in heaven.
Do you see life’s truest goal? Do you see the value of your faith? You walk behind Jesus, the Victor who already claimed victory! A victory for you. When struggling, Fix Your Eyes on Jesus and see him live for life’s truest goal. Keep Fixing Your Eyes on Jesus for strength to persevere under all discipline.
Listen again to verses 5-6: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Parents, why do you discipline your child? You put an end to wrong behavior. That allows room for good behavior to flourish. Really, discipline builds character.
God knows that you (and I) need pruning. If that sounds repulsive, then it only proves that you need pruning. Much of what we consider ‘suffering’ is really an attachment to something that can drag us from God. Right? You suffer insults because of what you believe, and you may really just want to be popular. You dread funerals because you love earth more than heaven— at least, for the moment. I mean, what we call ‘suffering’ can really mask love for worldly things.
So, God, in love, uses his Word to divide love for the world away from our love for God. Right now, we enjoy the ability to walk and eat and move. If illness or age takes that ability away, it allows the opportunity to look up and realize God controls our life. God manages our days. We thank God for the life we have now and thank him for the perfect life he has prepared! When tensions rise in marriage, we may want the other person to conform to our expectations. Yet, when tensions rise, it allows the opportunity to see where God tells us to change. We love family; we cherish friends. Yet, when they leave this life we remember that heaven is our real home, not earth. We may want a fuller-church, more children, even more activities. Yet, God lets us look around and remember that the true reason for gathering here is not for community praise, but to feed our souls. Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. That is the reason for discipline: to share in God’s holiness. God removes all that can drag us away from him so that we never will leave him. The suffering, the heartache, the pain we endure now allows the opportunity to refocus on life’s truest goal, to return to God’s Word, and to continue clinging to that Word. Fix Your Eyes on Jesus for strength to persevere under all discipline.
So much pulls and tugs on our hearts. You may feel like you’re running up ‘The Hill.’ You may feel exhausted trusting promises God has made. You may want to quit believing that God blesses you because you just do not see the blessing. You may feel overwhelmed by the burdens you carry. You just want to quit trusting God. Quit loving him so much.
Yet, quit and you lose life. Persevere and you gain life. Fix Your Eyes on Jesus. See the purpose of his death. See the results of his resurrection. Know that because he died, you will live. Know that because he sits in heaven, you too will sit in heaven. Keep your eyes locked on the one thing life is all about: knowing God now in order to know him for all eternity. Fix Your Eyes on Jesus for aim at life’s truest goal and for strength to persevere under all discipline.