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Withdraw to Desolate Places (Caring For Your Heart, Soul, Mind & Body in Difficult Times)

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Please open up to Luke 5:16. We’re going to concentrate our efforts on one verse today and use it as a jumping-off point for something that I believe is important for us during this difficult time.

Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”

The NIV translates that “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” The New American Standard Bible says, “But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”

The question I want to answer today is “Why did Jesus do that?”

The Humanity of Christ

It’s astonishing when you stop to think about it, what Jesus gave up in the incarnation. Jesus, the Son of God, existed before time began, equal to and in perfect relation with the Father. He lived in perfect love, perfect holiness, perfect strength. Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent. Worshipped by angels, able to create the universe with a thought.

And then, in an act of divine grace and mercy, as John 1:14 puts it, the Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, the Son of God, “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled” among us. The fullness of God within the confines of a human man. Not to get too technical, but Theologians call this the Hypostatic Union. Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, possessing all of the Creators attributes, but also the son of Mary (Gal 4:4-5). He had a human nature that had everything that makes us human, including a human mind, soul, and body.[1] These two natures were perfectly united, without any confusion or division.

He did this to save us because humanity couldn’t save itself. We needed a human representative to stand before the Father, but that representative couldn’t be under the curse of sin. Only a perfect being can stand before God. And so God sent His one and only Son to live a perfect life, and then offer Himself to the Father as the final sacrificial blood offering that the Mosaic Law required. God accepts the death of His Son in exchange for anyone who would believe in Him. And, since Jesus hadn’t sinned, death could not hold him, the grave could not keep him, and He was raised from the dead. As we just read in Acts 2:24, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

It’s really important that we understand the implications of that Hypostatic Union – the perfect divinity and perfect humanity of Jesus. Philippians 2:5–8 says it this way, “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

In His “emptying”, Jesus didn’t lose or subtract His divinity, but added humanity to His nature. Jesus chose to be born, to live as a servant, to be in the likeness of men, in human form, obedient to all that meant, obedient to the Father, as limited and frail as any human being.[2]

The Bible records the limitations of his human body many times. He was born (Luke 2:7). He grew up (Luke 2:40, 52). He got tired (John 4:6) and thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). At times we see him become physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26).

Jesus also had human emotions. “When Jesus heard the centurion’s words of faith, ‘he marveled’ (Matthew 8:10). Matthew 26:38 says that his ‘soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ In John 11:33–35, Jesus is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled,” and even weeps. In John 12:27 Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled,” and in John 13:21, he is “troubled in his spirit.” The author to the Hebrews writes that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).” [3]

Jesus had a human mind. In Luke 2:52 it tells us that as Jesus grew up into adulthood he, “increased in wisdom and in stature”. At times we see Jesus’ showing a limitation in what he knows, but other times demonstrates supernatural knowledge – but that connected to His spirit rather than his mind.

One way that we see Jesus’ incarnation in action is that when He performs a miracle or does something supernatural, we often read that He did it “by the Spirit of God” (Matt 12:28, Mk 2:8, Luke 4:1 ). This means that part of the limitation Jesus put on Himself would be that He wouldn’t manifest His own power by Himself, but that, like any other human, would be utterly dependant on the Spirit of God, and a connection to His Father. As our perfect example, Jesus knew that He needed to demonstrate how humanity, His followers, was meant to function. And that meant that His power didn’t come from Himself, but from His connection to the Father through the Spirit of God.

This is why, at the beginning of His ministry Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4:18) This is why we read in Acts 10:38 that…  “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” This isn’t a statement saying that Jesus was some regular, sinful guy that God gave special powers to… it is a declaration that, while Jesus was fully divine, He chose to require that which humans require – the anointing and blessing of God for the power to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.

Our Weakness

Now, why am I tell you all this? Because it’s critical that you see that Jesus was fully human before we get to our passage today. Why? Because you’re human too.

There’s a passage I think a lot about these days. It’s from Mark 12:28–32, and you can turn there if you like.

It says, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” …”

The description of holistic spirituality is captured in this very short verse, which is a quote from God in Deuteronomy 6:5. The first and most important law for humanity, the only way we can experience eternal life, is to love God with everything we are and to show that love to others. I would argue – and I think most pastors, theologians, and counselors would agree with me – that one comes before the other. We must love the Lord and experience His love before we will be able to love our neighbour.

But look at how it’s divided: Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. I think those divisions are so critical for us to meditate on. Humans aren’t merely bodies. I don’t care how atheistic or naturalistic you are, you cannot deny that humanity is merely a mechanized concoction of chemicals and matter. You know, inherently, that humans are more than just meat creatures.

In the beginning, when God created humanity, He made us special. He made us in His image. He created our physical bodies, but that’s not all. In order to be God’s image in this world, to be His people, able to be intimately, relationally connected to Him, we needed to be more than merely physical. We needed to be a union of body, intellect, emotion, and spirit.

And so God imbued this physical body with a heart, or emotions, desires, affections. He gave us a soul, or psyche, or consciousness, our being, what makes us unique individuals. And He gave us a mind, or intellect, intelligence. It is the fusion of these four things – heart, soul, mind, and strength that makes a person.

We just covered how these divisions were represented in Christ. And it is in turning all of these areas of our lives over to God that we will experience what it means to be truly human, to know real love, to be able to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.

Our Need

With all this as our background, I want to turn back to our verse today, Luke 5:16. Let’s read it in context starting in verse 12, “While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but ‘go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.’ But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”

This was a bit of a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. We read in 4:40 that Jesus would sometimes already stay up all night teaching and healing people, and that He was already growing in popularity as he went from synagogue to synagogue, but after this event, His popularity skyrocketed.

He commanded the leper not to tell anyone because He wanted to avoid crowds of people who would come for physical healing but wouldn’t care about listening to the Gospel message about all that healing symbolized. Throngs of sick and demon-possessed that would come just for a miracle – and then walk away without turning to Jesus as Lord – would lose out on the reason Jesus came in the first place. He didn’t come to merely heal bodies, but to make a way for us to get back into a right relationship with God.

So Jesus tells this man to do what Moses commands but to keep it quiet. The man disobeys – maybe wanting to help Jesus by spreading the news – and all it does is make things more complicated for Jesus and His disciples. Now, instead of Jesus having the freedom to come into towns and preach in synagogues, verse 15 says that the news about Jesus’ power spread like wildfire and huge crowds would gather every time they heard Jesus was around. This is why we read about Jesus, running away, escaping, and taking off on boats and stuff.

What I want to zoom in on right now is Jesus’ response to this newfound stress and opportunity.

Let’s consider ourselves in that position, which shouldn’t be much of a stretch. You’ve got a life going. You’re doing pretty well. Things are going along pretty steadily, with only an occasional blip of frustration or difficulty, but you’re generally able to do what you need to do every day.

Then something happens. Whether it’s a great success or a great failure, a new opportunity or a huge catastrophe, something changes. Maybe it’s a new job, maybe it’s the loss of one. Maybe you come into some money, maybe you or someone you love gets cancer. Maybe it’s becoming part of a new social group, or maybe it’s a global pandemic. Whatever the case, something lobs a grenade into your life and things change.

New stress, new decisions, new fears and worries, new challenges, new relationships, new costs – all growing beyond your capacity to understand and navigate.

Heart, soul, mind, and strength are all getting tapped. Your emotions are becoming frayed, out of control anger, deep valleys of depression, anxiety starting to drive your decisions.

Your mind is running out of resources. There’s too much data to process, too many opinions and ideas to sift through. You have to remember too many things all at once. Now you’re starting to forget things, to push away new ideas, overusing entertainment because you just don’t want to think anymore.

Your body is getting tired. Stress hormones are causing you to have headaches, your joints are sore, your stomach hurts, you can’t sleep and can’t wake up. Starving yourself has made you weaker, and your comfort foods are making you lethargic.

And your spirit is wearing thin. You’re wracked with self-doubt, regrets from the past, fear of the future. You’re having an identity crisis as you try to figure out who you are in all this. All your bad habits have started to show and you feel guilt and shame. You are stretched beyond your giftings and are starting to drop the ball on important stuff. You don’t show kindness like you used to. You don’t want to be generous anymore because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t feel peace like you used to because so many things have been dropped in your lap.

What do you do? What do people usually do?

In truth, they usually blow up their lives. How many people do you know, personally, who went through a time of stress – loss of a loved one, financial crisis, personal sickness, a sudden move, a new career – who seemed like they were doing ok for a while, but then a huge part of their life exploded?

Out of nowhere, they cheat on their spouse.

Out of nowhere, they get caught doing something illegal.

Out of nowhere, they crash their car while drunk driving or end up overdosing and in drug-rehab.

Out of nowhere, they get divorced.

Out of nowhere, you find them covered in scars from self-harm.

Out of nowhere, they lose our gain a huge amount of weight.

Out of nowhere, they drop out of all of their hobbies, interests, teams, stop answering their phone, and go dark online.

Out of nowhere, you find that they’re suddenly interested in weird conspiracy stuff, cults, extremist groups.

That wasn’t “out of nowhere”. This is a person who was stretched beyond the capacity of their heart, soul, mind, and strength – and was stretched so far that something snapped. Maybe you’ve felt it. Maybe you’ve had something snap in you – or someone you know snapped.

It’s all too common and I know more than a few stories. I’m sure you do too. This huge thing didn’t come “out of nowhere” – it was something that built and built and built, and then that sudden change became the catalyst for their life blowing up.

I don’t want that for you. “Oh, it can’t happen to me!” I hear you say. I can introduce you to at least half-a-dozen people who thought the same thing. 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Ephesians 4: 27 says, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (NIV)

The devil, your adversary, is prowling around waiting for you to get tired, weak, to do something stupid. Like an expert climber, he’s looking for that little foothold, that little crack, that opportunity, to grab hold of part of your life… because once he gets into that little crack he can start to wedge in deeper and deeper.

How do we keep from that? How did Jesus keep from that? He had the same weaknesses we do but never sinned, never gave the devil the foothold, never succumbed. The Bible says He was tempted in every way possible (Heb 4:15), that Satan literally got in Jesus’ face on multiple occasions. But He stood firm. How?

Jesus Withdrew

Look back at today’s verse, Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” That’s how. Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus run away, retreat, sneak away, to make time to pray. He prayed when he was baptized (3:21), prayed when things got busy (5:16), prayed when he was confronted (Mt 11:25-26), prayed before choosing the disciples (6:12), prayed before he walked on water (Mt 14:23), prayed when he was transfigured (9:29), and prayed on the cross (23:46).

The answer to the question, “How did the fully human man, Jesus Christ, not utterly crumble under the weight of His mission, the disappointment of his followers, the ignorance of the crowds, the brutality of his enemies, and the scope of the plan that would become the pinnacle and fulcrum of history and eternity?” is “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray”. The verb tense in this sentence emphasizes that this was Jesus’ regular practice – which is why some translations put the word “often” in there. Jesus would “often withdraw” to pray.

So I ask you today this simple, yet critical question: “Do you think you are stronger than Jesus?” I know, that’s a brutal, heavy-handed question, but just sit in it for a second.

“If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt in power and perfection – absolutely needed to get away and pray – then don’t you think you do to?” The answer is of course, “Yes, you do.” You are nowhere near as spiritually, emotionally, and mentally strong as Jesus Christ – and yet, even in the middle of work, in the morning, at night, before and after big and small events – took off to pray. Shouldn’t you?

Let me read Mark 1:35-37. After a long night of healing, casting out demons, preaching, folks finally start to go home. What does Jesus do? He gets a little sleep and then takes off. Mark 1:35–37: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’”

I wonder how many times that scene played out during Jesus’ earthly ministry. How many times did the disciples turn around and Jesus just wasn’t there? How many times did they wake up in the morning and have to go find Jesus? How many times were throngs of expectant crowds disappointed because Jesus had completely taken off on them? How many people, expecting to be healed, came to where Jesus was, but He had already snuck away and was now miles from where they were? I bet it was often.

Let’s break this sentence down a bit and really dig into it because I think it’s critical we see what Jesus did.

I think the three most important words are “withdraw”, “desolate” and “pray”. That’s our formula. How do we keep our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, focused on God? How do we ensure that the Holy Spirit has full reign in our hearts, that God has full reign over our souls, that we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), and give proper, God-given Sabbath rest to our bodies?

We need to “often withdraw”. The word there can also be translated “slip away”. Escape. It means that we leave work on the table. It means we leave people hanging. It means we let the calls go to voicemail. It means we leave the chores undone. It means we don’t watch the show with everyone. It means we won’t be able to accomplish everything on our lists because we have run away to occupy our time with greater things.

This goes against a lot of people’s natural instincts. Most of us feel like we’re letting God down if we aren’t always available to people, or if we don’t finish our daily list. It’s not true. What “lets God down” is when we make ourselves available to people, get our daily list done, but at no point in that day spent any time with Him. It’s not that we’re really “letting God down” though… He doesn’t need us… but He desires us.

He doesn’t want your list of things to do. He doesn’t want your religious activity. He doesn’t want you for your job, your hobby, your social platform, your skills, your abilities, talents, your ideas. He wants you.

He’s a good father that wants to spend time with His kids. Think of it this way: How do you know someone is your friend? Is it when they give you something? No. That’s charity. Is it when they do some work for you? Not really. Is it when they talk about you when you’re not there? Is it when they sit down and read your biography? No.

How do you know they’re your friend? Because they want to spend time with you and do it as often as they can. That’s what God wants. And more than that, it’s what humans need. We are not designed to do anything for a long time. God built physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual limitations in us so we might realize our need for Him.

That’s the first one – you need to “withdraw” – and the second is that you need to go to “desolate places”. The word there is for wilderness, deserts, open pastures, secluded spots. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray, right? Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

How do you know someone is your friend? Because they want to spend time with you. How do you know that they are a close friend, a best friend, or even closer? Because you want to spend more and more time with them alone. If you want an intimate relationship with God, a deep relationship with Jesus, a strong connection to the Holy Spirit – it happens when you are alone and free from distractions.

I don’t need to tell you how to get alone. You know your own life. What I’m trying to say is that if you neglect withdrawing to be alone with God, you are doing harm to your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You are setting yourself up for failure. You are lighting the fuse, however long it is, that leads to you blowing up your life – and hurting yourself and others. You need God’s voice, God’s presence, and God isn’t loud – it’s quiet, soft, and can best be heard when you are alone, quiet, and open.

Conclusion

Let me close with this: You need God. Just as Jesus needed a consistent connection to the Father, so do you. But it won’t just happen. You will never find the time. You must make the time. You must run away from things, escape from things, say no to things, drop out of things, disappoint people, delete the app, unplug the tv or computer, let go of your need for accomplishment, and stop finding your value in how much work you can do.

That is the only way you are going to be able to connect to God. And it’s urgent. It’s a huge deal. The devil is prowling and you are not equipped to resist Him if you are not connected to God. The devil has a foothold in your life and you are not wise enough to see it if you aren’t hearing the voice of God. The enemy wants to cripple your heart, soul, mind, and strength – and he will succeed if you do not “withdraw to desolate places and pray”.

[1] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/the-omnipresent-son-of-god/

[2] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-incarnation/

[3] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/jesus-is-fully-human

Stay in the Word (God Speaks to You Personally Through the Bible)

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A Living and Active Word

Most of you know the passages I read at the beginning of service – the Call to Worship and the weekly Scripture Reading – are chosen long before I read them on Sunday mornings. Around the beginning of December each year I usually take a day to sit down with what’s called a “Lectionary of Daily Readings” – which itself was written a long time ago and is based on a Liturgical calendar from centuries ago – and I go through and read and choose each of the Sunday passages for the year.

I do this from a Lectionary mostly because it is designed to give an overview of Christian theology and important passages throughout the year – and there’s no way I would be able to come up with something better than they would. The difficult part is that each Sunday actually has 4 readings – one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament Letters, one from the Gospels, and another passage chosen based on what day of the Liturgical calendar it is.

For example, today is the “Sixth Sunday of Easter”, of “Year A” in the 3-year rotation, and the readings are from Acts 17, Psalm 66, 1 Peter 3, and John 14. But since the tradition at our church is to have only two scripture readings, I try to rotate between the bunch so our church gets a balanced diet of Old, New, Psalm, and Letters.

But what amazes me almost every week is that even though these passages are chosen long ago, and based on calendars from even longer ago – they are so often exactly what our church needs to hear that day.

God, in His wisdom and grace, has given us a book where the words don’t just stay on the page, but is (as Hebrews 4:12 says) “the word of God… living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

The Bible isn’t merely a book. It is the main and usual means by which God speaks to us today, by His Holy Spirit making the words of the Bible come alive to us, speaking exactly what we need to hear, like God was writing specifically to us. All we need to do us submit ourselves to reading it, humbling ourselves before it, and being open to what God wants to say – and then listen to what God says when He does speak!

Sometimes He speaks messages of encouragement, other times conviction – but His Word and His Spirit work together in a humble heart to tell us exactly what we need to hear.

When Suffering Comes

Turn with me to 2 Timothy 3:10 and listen to the words of Paul to his protégé Timothy. These are the words of an older servant of God who is in prison, facing his final days on earth, preparing to be sentenced to death at any moment for the sake of the gospel. And listen to what He says to Timothy:

“You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.”

Young Timothy’s job was to try to combat the false teachers who had taken over some of the churches that he and Paul had been planting. But Timothy was a very different person than Paul. Timothy was younger, meeker, more tender-hearted. Paul was a rock – Timothy was more easily bruised. Not that Timothy wasn’t courageous and wise – he was just younger. But he’s been following Paul’s example – obeying Jesus, stepping up to speak and serve as a pastor to the church in Ephesus – and then suffering just like Paul did, just like Jesus did. And Paul says, “You’ve been following in my footsteps – and those footsteps often lead to suffering.”

And he continues in verse 12,

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

“This is the usual way of things, Timothy.” Jesus promised that everyone who tries to live like Him will face what He faced – difficult times, persecution, evil people, fake people, and liars. Obedient Christianity is not an easy road. Paul knew this. Timothy knew this.

But now, Timothy was all alone. Paul was locked up in a Roman prison hundreds of miles away. Timothy couldn’t just hide behind Paul whenever he had a problem. He couldn’t ask Paul whenever there was a tough question. When the fake people, the deceivers were spreading rumours and lies about him, and Paul, and Jesus, and God, and how salvation worked, and were successfully convincing good Christians to do wrong things, He couldn’t just get Paul to refute them. Timothy was alone.

And so Paul, who himself was very lonely in his prison cell, wrote to tell Timothy what to do.

And I think that’s where a parallel comes in for us today, right? A lot of you who are listening to me right now are alone. Either you are alone because there’s no one around you – or you are alone in your faith because you’re the only believer in your family – or you’re alone because God has called you to do something difficult that people don’t really understand – or you’re alone because your work has forced you to live behind walls, barriers, masks, and gloves – or maybe you are surrounded by family, but you feel alone because there is tension in the house, arguing and hurt feelings, and you find yourself sitting by yourself a lot.

Loneliness is a huge issue right now. Despite the bit of good news recently about reopening a few places, we’re still under “social isolation” rules and many people are feeling a “wave of loneliness”[1] hitting them as COVID-19 continues to be a present reality. I don’t need to recount all the things that have been going on because you know them – but I’m sure it won’t surprise you that the mental health crisis we were already having has only gotten worse. Depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse, panic attacks, suicides, are on the rise. Things weren’t great before and they’re worse now.

In our church, I’m amazed at how well folks are holding up. If my numbers are correct, about half of our church has lost their jobs, and most are negatively financially impacted by what’s going on – and yet, when we talk, even though there are concerns and some discouragement, I mostly hear stories full of positivity, hope, and faith.

But we’re not immune to the effects of this pandemic, are we? We’re not immune to loneliness, isolation, stress, and fear. I don’t want to speak for you, but I wonder if a lot of us feel like Timothy might have. We have faith. We know God has the big-picture under control. We’re not worried about our souls because Jesus is our gracious Saviour. But moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, we are presented with questions we don’t have answers to, people that frustrate us, fears that we can’t shake, and moments of discouragement.

Maybe it’s right after we watch the news or see some article go by on social media. Maybe it’s after a conversation with someone that didn’t go the way you thought it would. Maybe it’s when you’re standing in the grocery store surrounded by people in masks and visors and surgical gloves, where you’re thinking about every single little thing you’re touching and reminding yourself not to touch your face – and the anxiety rises. Maybe it’s when you get to the till and you wonder if there’s enough money in the bank, or for how long the money will last. Maybe it’s the quiet moments, right after you turn off the tv or the tablet, right before you go to sleep, that things start to sink in, the worries creep in, the guilt, the bitterness, the anger…

Christians aren’t immune. Timothy was a wonderful man of God, trained by the greatest missionary ever, given charge over what was, at the time, the most important missionary church in the world – but Timothy wasn’t immune to the fears, stresses, and the emotional toll.

Keep in mind that the emperor at the time was Nero, one of the most terrible people in history! We might complain that the government is being unfair to churches now, but Nero was literally feeding Christians to the lions, and lighting Christians on fire, for entertainment. That’s the environment Timothy was in.

Stay In The Word

So what does Paul say to Timothy? Paul is writing what he thinks could be the last letter he will ever write, to someone he deeply loves. What does the greatest missionary of all time, the author of the letters of the New Testament, the man who had unparalleled revelations from God, who perhaps suffered more for the gospel than any other person ever – what does Paul write in the final paragraphs of his final letter to this stressed out young man who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders?

Look at verse 14:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

What does Paul say? Stay in the Word of God. Root yourself in the Bible. Eat, sleep and breathe the scriptures.

Timothy was raised by a Christian mother and grandmother and grew up in the faith. He’s been hearing bible stories and reading the prophets since he was little. Today, we would say that Timothy went to Sunday School, went to Youth Group, went to AWANA, took catechism, grew up in church, had active Christian role-models. The Bible, which we would call the Old Testament, was a huge part of Timothy’s Christian upbringing.

And then, when God told Paul to mentor Timothy and take him on his journeys, his family and his church laid hands on him, prayed over him, and commissioned him for ministry. Then, as the Apostles wrote more scriptures, and they were being copied and sent around, Timothy would have been part of collecting them and keeping them. He would likely have copies of the gospel of Luke and Acts, the book of James, and Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Corinthians, and even Romans – and of course the two personal letters to himself.

When Timothy got stressed out, confused, overwhelmed, tired, sick, afraid, and attacked – what did Paul say to do? Turn to the scriptures. Read. Pray. Listen to God’s Spirit speak to you directly through the words of the Proverbs, Psalms, Prophets, the Law, and the Apostles. He told Timothy – when the difficulties come – remember what you already know, what you’ve already learned, the parts you’ve memorized and studied, all of the scriptures you’ve hidden in your heart, all the stories your grandma told you, all the songs your mother sang to you, all the stories about Jesus you’ve heard and read – bring them all to mind, Timothy!

Timothy, your faith in Jesus Christ is fed and fueled by your attention to and humility before the Word of God. They’ll connect you to Jesus Christ, increase your faith, remind you of your hope and salvation, and make you wise.

Do you need to connect to the Spirit of God? The scriptures were breathed out by Him. They have the power and presence of God in them.

Do you feel inadequate to interpret these times, confused by the slick false-teachers and need some instruction? Do you feel confused about the big questions of life, meaning, eternity… the scriptures are a spring of knowledge that will never run dry.

Do you sense that you are being lied to or that you believe lies? Do you feel like the darkness is starting to seep into your soul? The scriptures only tell the truth and are valuable for reproof, or rebuking, bringing light and clarity to and light in the darkness of this world.

Do you wonder if you’re going the right way? Wonder what needs to change in your life? Do you see someone in sin and not know what to do? The Scriptures are the best way you can correct yourself or someone else. They present the straight and narrow path, show you the walls on either side, and is the compass that will guide you to true north.

You don’t need to have the right words to say when you see someone in trouble – the Bible has them. You don’t need to wonder about your life plan – the scripture will tell you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – 95% of what humans spend so much time trying to figure out, the most important things every human wants to know, has already been answered in the Bible! The Word of God will train you up, show you the right way, help you grow in maturity, and give you the equipment you need to do good in this world.

One of my commentaries says it this way,

“If Timothy would nurture his spiritual life in the Scriptures that he would use in his ministry, he would be fully qualified and prepared to undertake whatever tasks God put before him. What a tragedy for any Christian to be labelled as spiritually unprepared for a task when the means of instruction and preparation are readily at hand!”[2]

Sunday School

I’ve always felt a sense of kinship with Timothy. I also grew up in the church. I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I have more bible stories, hymns, songs, and sermons in my brain than almost anything else. I’ve served in some form of ministry since I was asked to be a puppeteer in the Sunday School at age 13.

When I was called into ministry, I really connected with Timothy. He was a young pastor, stretched way beyond his comfort zone, taken far from his home and comforts, and dropped into a difficult church with no idea what to do. That was me in my first and second churches!

People stopped telling me how “young I am for being a pastor” about 5 years ago, but it hasn’t been that long since I felt like I was living a very Timothy-esque life. That often meant not knowing what to do, what to say, or how to help. It meant many hours of loneliness, heartache, fear, and confusion as people within the church lied to, betrayed, and hurt me and my family. There were some wonderful, beautiful times, and some amazing people too – but it also meant shedding a lot of tears.

And when I did, I would read Paul’s letters to Timothy and know that they were also God’s letters to me. Jesus spoke to me through them. When I turned to scripture, Jesus would comfort me, teach me, correct me, train me, and equip me for what I needed to do. Often hymns and scripture songs would come to my mind that I sung during church, Sunday School, or one of the Bible programs or VBS’s I went to. And they would be like a healing balm to my soul. A personal message from God, like He was singing to me personally.

I’m so glad I grew up in church and I know that some of you have had the same experiences. I’m so thankful for the Sunday School teachers I had, the AWANA leaders, the people that ran the Vacation Bible Schools, the pastors and song leaders that put the time in day after day, week after week, trying to get some little bit of light, some nugget of truth, some bit of Godly wisdom, drilling bible verses into my thick, distracted, little skull. Because those little bits of light were what God used to bring me out of some very dark times.

Sometimes, even as a pastor, I didn’t feel like reading my Bible. I got down, felt hurt, felt like God tricked me into taking a job that only made my life miserable. And I didn’t want to talk to God. I didn’t want to read something else about perseverance, or patience, or because I wanted to quit.

And in those moments, so very often, a bible song would come to my mind, an old hymn that was rich in scripture. And it wouldn’t be convicting or challenging or harsh. God didn’t send a criticism or some spur to kick me into gear. He sent me light, comfort, joy.

♫“For I am convinced, that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers. Nor life, nor death, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ♫

That’s Romans 8:38-30.

Or

♫ “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. The mountains are His, the valleys are His, the stars are his handiwork too. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.” ♫

That’s basically Psalm 8, 66, 147, and Isaiah 40 all wrapped up into one verse.

 

Conclusion

My message today has one point – stay in God’s word. Keep reading in 2 Timothy and you’ll see why I preach how I do.

But the Bible isn’t just for preachers. It’s not just for missionaries, teachers, and youth workers. The Bible was written in a common language, for common people, to bring everyone to God. It is not merely for studying and arguing about.

I can’t tell you how special it was when I went from studying God’s word, memorizing it, learning about it like a textbook – to reading it like it is God’s personal letter to me. When I finally realized that the “living and active” word of God wasn’t just big ideas and grandiose concepts meant to guide our lives – but that if I listened, if I asked, if I prayed, that God would actually talk to me, individually, through His Holy Spirit making the word come alive and speak to me about exactly what I’m going through, showing me something about God or myself or the world that I needed to see that day.

And that’s true for everyone. God still speaks through His Spirit and His Word today, to anyone who is willing to humble themselves and listen.

Now of course, I have to give the warning that not everything you think is correct, right? Like, that old joke where the man was desperate to know the will of God so he decided he would open up the bible to a random page and whatever it said he would do. So he opened up to Matthew 27:5 and it said, “Judas hanged himself.” Startled, the man quickly closed the bible and reopened it with his finger landing on Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise”. Now, a lot more worried, the man tried one more time, with his finger landing on John 13:27, “What you are about to do, do quickly!”

You know that’s not how it works, right? You know you need context, study, meditation, to tell others what you think God is saying, and to get guidance from Christian friends, elders and pastors.

So what am I saying? I’m saying that during a time like we are having now. When loneliness, anxiety, worry, and stress, are starting max out, take over, become their own epidemic – that it’s critical that you commit yourself to reading the Bible, singing the Bible, sharing the Bible, posting the Bible on your fridge and phone and computer.

But most of all, when you get alone with God, when you’ve made the time to read His Word – to read with anticipation that God is present and willing to speak! To read knowing and trusting that if you have given your life to God, if you are saved by Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, that God’s Holy Spirit will speak to you through His Word.

To come to His Word the way you come for your first meal of the day – hungry and expecting it to feed your soul, fill you up, energize you for the day, and keep you alive – knowing that if you don’t get it in you, if you starve yourself, you are going to be weak and unable to function. Come to God’s Word anticipating, expecting, longing for it to feed your soul for the day.

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/radio/frontburner/covid-19-unlocks-wave-of-loneliness-1.5568625

[2] Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (1992). 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Vol. 34, pp. 237–238). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

The Persistent Love of God (A Mother’s Day Sermon)

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“Before I was a Mom”

By Suzana Haertzen

Before I was a Mom…I made and ate hot meals. I had unstained clothing. I had quiet conversations on the phone.

Before I was a Mom… I slept as late as I wanted and never worried about how late I got into bed. I brushed my hair and my teeth every day.

Before I was a Mom… I cleaned my house each day. I never tripped over toys or forgot words to lullabies.

Before I was a Mom… I didn’t worry whether or not my plants were poisonous. I never thought about Immunizations.

Before I was a Mom… I had never been puked on, pooped on, spit on, chewed on, peed on or pinched by tiny fingers. I had complete control of my mind, my thoughts, and my body. I slept all night.

Before I was a Mom… I never held down a screaming child so that doctors could do tests or give shots. I never looked into teary eyes and cried. I never got gloriously happy over a simple grin. I never sat up late hours at night watching a baby sleep.

Before I was a Mom… I never held a sleeping baby just because I didn’t want to put it down. I never felt my heart break into a million pieces when I couldn’t stop the hurt. I never knew that something so small could affect my life so much. I never knew that I could love someone so much. I never knew I would love being a Mom.

Before I was a Mom… I didn’t know the feeling of having my heart outside my body. I didn’t know how special it could feel to feed a hungry baby. I didn’t know that bond between a mother and her child. I didn’t know that something so small could make me feel so important.

Before I was a Mom… I had never gotten up in the middle of the night every 10 minutes to make sure all was okay. I had never known the warmth, the joy, the love, the heartache, the wonderment, or the satisfaction of being a Mom. I didn’t know I was capable of feeling so much before I was a Mom

I like that poem because it reminds me of the persistence of mothers. There are many words that we can use to describe moms. Words like loving, patient, compassionate… but I think the word “persistent” is one that works the best. Movies and books are replete with stories about good guys who credit their mothers for how they turned out so good – and bad guys who could always count on their mother loving them. Regardless of the outcome of the child’s life, one thing that remains is the persistent love of their Mother.

The Persistent Love of God

The untiring love of a mother actually serves to point us to One that is greater – to God’s love. That’s what I want to talk about today: God’s persistent love.

I believe that the perpetual, stubborn love a mother has for their child is part of how God designed them to be – and is meant to reflect and teach us something about God’s love for us. In scripture, God is presented as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the one in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-29; Psalm 104) . He is persistently ensuring the existence of all things.

When Jesus was challenged about healing on the Sabbath, he looked at the Jews and said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 7:15) meaning that even though God invented the Sabbath by resting on the seventh day, God was still upholding the universe – if He were to stop, everything would cease to exist.

God doesn’t quit. Think of the nation of Israel who did everything they possibly could to offend and reject God, trying to thwart everything He was trying to do for them. They worshipped demons, killed the prophets, and turned their backs on His Word. At more than one point they were so far gone that they even forgot about their miraculous deliverance from Egypt (Judges 2) and even lost the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22).

Yet, as much disrespect as God suffered, He continued to treat them with special care and persistent love. When one generation didn’t respond, He’d come back to the next generation and try again. When they went on their trip through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, just like little kids in the car (back before iPads), they whined about everything. It was like the world’s worst car trip! God’s taking them to Disneyworld and they spend the entire time complaining about the food, water, directions, view, signs, all the while kicking the driver’s seat.

Yet, God continuously and persistently provided what they needed and even more. A prophet would ask for a sign and God would give them one. A king would go into a foolhardy, selfish battle, and God would allow him to succeed. When the nation of Israel couldn’t get over their worship of idols, God treated them as children and sent them to their room – a whole generation into Babylonian captivity as a discipline – and then rescued them so they could be with Him again. God showed persistent devotion to His people.

Our Lack of Persistence

Most of us are lousy at being persistent. The divorce rate, even among Christians, hovers around 40%, and many today aren’t even getting married in the first place – and more and more couples are refusing to have children.[1] That makes moms very special.

But it’s not just marriages and families, people are also dropping out of high-school and college at alarming rates – especially young men.[2]

Most people don’t even keep the same job for more than a few years. According to one report I read, half of people stay in their job for under 2 years, and only 30% stay at one job for over four. The average Canadian will have roughly 15 careers in their lifetime. The average new, small business will last less than five years. And it’s not because of the financial crisis. 75% of the time it’s because they end up with too many personal problems that get in the way, so they have to shut down their successful small business.[3]

I could go on, but I think that most of know – especially these days when so many of our excuses have been taken away – that all of us have a problem with persistence, and the problem is getting worse. Do you ever sit at home these days and wonder why you can’t just keep a consistent schedule? A consistent attitude? A consistent diet? Why every day – even though for most of us, our schedules have been almost completely cleared – we struggle to remain consistent.

The Persistent Love of Jesus

As in all things, we would do well to look at Jesus, who was doggedly persistent. Consider how He treated His disciples! They argued with Him, ignored Him, denied Him, sold Him out, and fled the Garden of Gethsemane, cowering in the dark as He died on the cross, but He always loved them, forgave them, restored them, and continued to work with them. They kept asking the same dumb questions, doing the same dumb things, and Jesus kept forgiving them, repeating Himself, teaching them, loving them, serving them, and sacrificing for them.

Our salvation was brought by Jesus’ deep desire to win us back to His Father. He marched to the cross of His own will, despite the pain, clueless disciples, and abusive religious authorities. He had the power to quit anytime – but He obeyed His Father in the face of great temptation, so He could finish the work of salvation for our sakes. He stood firm on the promises and the power of God – and marched forward out of love for you and me.

The persistent love of a good mother points us to the greater love we see in Jesus. Those who had a good mom, who had a mom that loved them despite their foolishness, are more able to understand what it means that God won’t quit on them.

God Makes Strange Selections

For a lot of us, we think that God’s love is dependent on how worthy we are. “But”, we say, “I’m not like Peter, or Paul, or John, or Moses, or Elijah, or any of the other heroes of the Bible! Of course, God loved them, of course, Jesus loved them. They had special powers and great faith. I can’t even read the Bible and every day – those guys were amazing! They were easy for God to love! I can’t see how God can love someone as inconsistent and sinful as me!”

Actually, you might be more like those “heroes” guys you know. What is awesome about the love of God is that He shows it most often in the strangest places, and to the weirdest people. Most often He doesn’t go for the best and brightest, the most loveable, but instead chooses the small, weak, dumb, pitiable, faltering, failing, down and out, unlovable people that no one would pick.

Did you ever play dodge-ball as a kid? By the way, did you know that many schools have outlawed dodge-ball? One expert I read said, “We take the position that [dodgeball] is not an appropriate instructional activity because it eliminates children and it does not respect the needs of less-skilled children.” That guy sure wasn’t around when I was growing up! I was definitely one of the “less-skilled” children and had absolutely none of my “needs respected” during dodge-ball!

I absolutely remember what it was like when the teacher would yell out “DODGEBALL!” Fear immediately gripped my tiny heart. Except for a few of the girls, I was easily the smallest kid in my class. And we would always line up against the walls, the teacher would pick two “Captains” and then they would pick teams. Anyone else go through this?

They would go through the whole class and take turns picking the big kids, fast kids, kids that threw hard, the popular kids… and there would be me, the fat kid, the kid that got asthma attacks, and a couple other “losers”, standing against the wall as the kids fight over who had to take us. I hated that feeling – but I knew why: I wasn’t big, or strong, or fast, or popular.

Here’s my point: If God was picking the dodgeball team, He would do it differently. He would have picked me, the littlest girls, the fattest kid, and the kid with asthma first, and then shown how He could win the game with us. To God be the glory!

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 is something I read often and it says,

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Isn’t that awesome?! God shows His persistent love by loving those who need it most. He chooses the weak things of the world on purpose to show His glory. For all our faults and failings, God loves us even more – because it’s when we realize our weakness and our utter dependence on God that He can finally show His strength through us.

Why?

God’s Overwhelming Optimism

I think it’s because God, like a good mother, has an overwhelming amount of optimism about what His children are capable of if they were just listening to Him.

That’s what a good mom does right? No matter how much we screw up, mom says, “You have such potential! You’re so smart! So handsome! So pretty! You have so much potential! You have a light inside you! It’s just that you keep making dumb decisions, hang out with dumb people, and need some serious help.” How many of us got that speech?

I think God feels something similar. Not because of how great we are and what we can do for Him, but because He knows what He can do through us! He knows what we’re like. It’s not like we can fool Him into believing we are better than we are. We can’t pad our resume before God. God knows how utterly messed up we really are – but He still has an overwhelming optimism that when He chooses us to do something, that we can do it.

When He picks us, introduces us to Jesus, saves us from Hell, gives us the gift of His Spirit, and then gives us a mission in this world, He actually believes we can do it! Is it a strange thought to believe that God has faith that you can overcome temptation, overcome your addiction, overcome bitterness, overcome fear, and grow into a better image of Jesus? God knows what He can do, and so He knows that when you are depending on Him, you can do anything!

In Philippians 4:13 Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul asks God to make him stronger by getting rid of a terrible malady he is facing, and God simply tells him “no”. Why? God says, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And Paul’s response was,

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10)

J Oswald Sanders once said,

“There is an optimism in God which discerns the hidden possibilities in the unpromising character. He has a keen eye for hidden elements of nobility and promise in an unprepossessing life. He is the God of the difficult temperament, the God of the warped personality, the God of the misfit.”

We look at ourselves and that’s what we see: “the difficult temperament… the warped personality… the misfit.” We don’t see a person God could use – let alone doggedly pursue with persistent love. We see our sin and addictions and feel defeated all the time. We see our hang-ups and fears, and all the hidden things in our lives and minds that we think prevent us from being loved and used by God. We see our lack of ability, lack of holiness, lack of understanding, lack of courage – we are too afraid, too young, too old, too uneducated, too different, not different enough.

What I want to tell you this morning is that the persistent love of God covers that. God believes in You because He believes in Himself – and when you feel weak, all He requires is that you lean harder into Him. A life turned over to God will be imbued, infused, permeated, saturated with His amazing power and love.

God’s Relentless Pursuit

God believes in you because it is God Himself that is working through you, even despite your weakness and flaws. Just as a mother can’t forget her love for her child, but continues to love them no matter what they have done, even more-so does God relentlessly, persistently, love His children. He can’t forget His love for us.

We have a book at home called “I Love You Stinky Face” which is about a child trying to see how far his mother’s love will go, coming up with all manner of terrible ways he thinks could make his mother not love him.

“But Mama, but mama! What if I were a big, scary ape? Would you still love me then?:

“But Mama, but Mama, what if I were a swamp creature with slimy, smelly seaweed hanging from my body, and I couldn’t ever leave the swamp or I would die? Will you still love me then?”

“But Mama, But Mama, what if I were a super smelly skink, and I smelled so bad that my name was Stinky Face?”

And the mother always sweetly responds, reassuring her child that she will love him no matter what. She replies, “Then I would give you a bath and sprinkle you with sweet-smelling powder…  And if you still smelled bad, I wouldn’t mind, and I would hug you tight and whisper in your ear, ‘I love you Stinky Face’. ”

I think Psalm 23 is like that. Let’s close by reading it:

Consider as I read: Who is the active person in this relationship?

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

We are sheep. We get tired and He makes us lie down. We get thirsty and he takes us to a drink. We get sick and He restores. We pursue sin and he puts us on the righteous path. We wander into the valley of the shadow of death, God pursues us, protects us, comforts us. We surround ourselves with enemies and strife, and Jesus does all the work to save us – and proceeds to make us a celebration dinner and crown us as victors! Then, for our whole life, he follows us, follows us, follows us – until we finally take our rest in His House forever.

Do you see how much God loves you? Pursues you? Acts on your behalf?

The reminder of God being the one that pursues us with relentless love is found all over scripture. He stubbornly, tenaciously pursues us, inviting us over and over to turn more and more of our life over to Him because He knows that if we give our life to Him fully that we will finally know peace, joy, and purpose.

While you might quit on yourself. God will never quit on you.

“But God, But God, What if I continuously work myself into a frenzy, anxious about almost everything in my life? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and I will lie you down in green pastures, beside still waters.”)

“But God, but God, what if I destroy my soul with sin, harden my heart with bitterness, and corrupt my spirit with lusts of the eye and the flesh? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and then I will restore your soul, and I will lead you down the paths of righteousness.”)

“But God, but God, what if I go through a depression so bad that it’s like walking through a valley of the shadow of death? One so dark that I can’t even see you? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and I will walk with you, and comfort and protect you every step of the way – even if you don’t know I’m there or thank me.”)

It is the devil preaches the message of despair. He’s the one that whispers in your ear that God doesn’t care about you, God has forgotten you, that you are beyond His grace and forgiveness, that you’ve finally gone too far, that you’ve reached the end of His patience, that you should just quit praying because He’s not listening, that God gave up on you, that God’s punishing you, that everything is too scary and God’s no longer helping you… That’s the voice of Satan lying to you, not God.

God will never quit on you, and will always love you. A long as you are still taking breaths in this world, if you have given your life to Jesus, if you are one of His children, who has accepted Him as your Lord and Savior – no matter how far you’ve backslidden – you will always be loved and always given the chance to come to Him – because He’s not just waiting on you, He is constantly, and relentlessly pursuing you with His love. All you need to do is turn around – and you’ll see Him right there.

 

[1] (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/domestic-dream-of-2-5-children-per-woman-long-gone-as-fertility-rate-declines-for-third-year-in-row)

[2] (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-004-x/2008001/article/10561-eng.htm)

[3] (http://www.workopolis.com/content/advice/article/how-many-jobs-do-canadians-hold-in-a-lifetime/)

Revealing & Refining Fire (How Tough Times Help You Grow)

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To say it’s a strange time is an understatement. As this pandemic looms, and the lockdown enters its second month, it’s very interesting to see how people are reacting. While some sit at home bored, others, like front-line and emergency workers, are being run off their feet. The educated professionals that are used to having “important jobs” have been told they are “non-essential” while the service and retail workers who they used to look down on are now treated as vital “essential workers” who put their life on the line every day serving the public.

I’m 100% sympathetic to how difficult it must be these days to be a doctor, nurse, or other medical workers – but as a former Wal-Mart stock-boy and cashier, I have a special spot in my heart for the people at the grocery and department stores whose lives are all now far more complicated, much scarier, and way more difficult. Imagine for a moment being a 16-year-old grocery store cashier. It’s your first job and you just started a couple months ago. It seemed pretty straightforward. The main parts of the job were to know where stuff is, get the money right, and be polite to people.

How must they feel now? All of a sudden they are given surgical masks and gloves, are stuck in a Plexiglas cage, and have a dozen new rules to follow. The public is panicking and the management doesn’t know exactly what to do. And, they’re told that if they don’t get it right they could be held responsible for spreading a deadly virus. What must it be like as a parent to send your teen off to work these days while you are forced to stay at home?

Coping with Stress

No matter who you are – everyone in every arena of life has been affected by this. And, as the internet churns out more information, the government makes more announcements, the 24-hour-news-cycle generates more stories to grab your attention, and the weeks continue to wear on and on — everyone having to deal with more stress, anxiety, fear, confusion, loneliness, and worry.

How are people coping? I saw an interesting graphic this week put out by Stats Canada[i] talking about what Canadians are doing to deal with the challenges the COVID-19 situation has brought. As it turns out they’re watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games, surfing a lot of internet, and drinking a lot of alcohol. I would imagine that if Stats Canada dug a little deeper they would find that Canadians are dealing in a whole lot of other self-destructive ways too.

Consider your own life over the past few weeks. How have you reacted to increased stress, decreased accountability, more time on your hands, or more responsibility dumped in your lap? What have you been doing to “cope” with your stress? More arguing and controlling? More alcohol or food? More pornography and non-stop media? Or are you sleeping more, avoiding life, zoning out? What have your interactions online looked like during this time? God honouring, faith-producing, helpful posts that point to truth and hope – or are you spreading fear, argument, and gossip?

Trial by Fire

Stressful times, and not just during global pandemics, bring out the best and the worst in people. The Bible talks about times like this being like going through a “fire” that either causes you to be refined like gold in a furnace, showing and helping you remove the negative dross in your life – or causing your whole life to burn down as you realize that everything from your foundation up was just made of matchsticks.

And I’m not talking about just the difference between believers and non-believers – though that is certainly the case too. I’m talking about Christians.

Turn with me and consider 1 Peter 1:3–7:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Peter is talking to Christians here who were going through a very difficult time of persecution and trial. He reminds them that their salvation is because of God’s “mercy” – meaning that He didn’t have to save them, but chose to anyway. He reminds them of what their present faith is in – the God who gives them a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Then, like the verse we read last week in Romans 8 that says nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Jesus Christ, Peter then reminds them that because of God’s mercy, and the finished work of Jesus Christ, nothing can ever take away that hope because it is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”.

He tells them that it is in remembering those things – the love of God, the salvation of Jesus Christ, their security in Heaven – all the things we talked about last week – that, as the meditate on their salvation in Jesus, they will find the strength and desire to pray, worship, trust, serve, and “rejoice”, even in the midst of their “various trials”.

But look at verse 6 again where Peter says that their rejoicing will be mingled and mixed with grief. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…” Christianity doesn’t say that as soon as we get saved all our earthly problems are solved. That’s a false gospel. If anyone has ever told you that the reason that you are going through a bad time – grieving, suffering, hurting, sadness – is because you don’t believe in God hard enough – they are not telling you the gospel. That’s not Biblical truth.

Think about John chapters 13-17, the discourse in the Upper Room. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, He told the disciples a lot of important things about what was coming and how they should respond. He washed their feet and then told them to serve one another in love. He told them that their faith in Him would let them see and experience the presence of God. He told them how to pray and that if they need something they only need to ask in His name. He told them of the importance of obedience and how the presence of the Holy Spirit would help them to know Him, follow Him, and would connect them to Him in the most intimate way imaginable.

And He gave warnings, telling them to stay connected to Him or their life would be weak and meaningless. He said,

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Then He warned them that living like that would make the world hate them, just as it hated Him. But, no matter what, He would never, ever leave them alone – and would always comfort and help them.

Then He warned again them about his imminent death, and the great sorrow they would feel – but that, after He rose again, their sorrow would turn to joy, and that joy would be greater than they had ever experienced before.

And then, after talking for hours, right before He prayed for them – and us – in His “High Priestly Prayer”… as He was rising to leave to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to face that death, He said this:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

That’s the gospel. In this world you will have trouble and trials and struggle and difficulty. This world is still affected by sin. As Peter said, “For a little while” meaning, in this life, we will be “grieved by various trials” – but “but take heart; [Jesus has] overcome the world”.

Testing the Genuineness of Your Faith

That’s what the next verses in 1 Peter 1:6–7 basically say: “…now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

These trials and difficulties, all the frustrations we are facing, the worry that has come over us – whether it’s the death of a loved one, our own sickness, a financial or job loss, dealing with loneliness, or having our work become harder, more complicated, and have more risk – are part of what Peter means when he says “various trials”.

What do these do? He says they “test” the “genuineness of your faith”. In other words, these times force you to see whether or not you really believe what you say you believe. At the same time, while it tests the strength of your faith – the strength of your convictions – it also shows you what your faith is actually in.

God uses trials like this to refine and reveal. He refines your faith, strengthens your faith, purifies your faith, by forcing you to see and remove what is weakening it – and it reveals things in your life, showing you things about yourself and others, that you didn’t even know were there.

Bear the Fruit of Repentance

Turn with me to Luke 3:1–20. I want to share something that I think God was telling me this week about myself, and that might help you:

This is the introduction to the ministry of John the Baptist, a man sent by God – the final Old Testament style prophet – who was meant to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”

So there’s the general tone of John the Baptist’s message: “The Messiah is coming to begin the final work of salvation, so get yourselves ready for it.” Remember a couple weeks ago I preached the “Epic” sermon about the various phases of God’s plan of salvation? Here’s the announcement of God’s final and greatest phase: The Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the Judge of All Mankind, is coming into the world – with an axe in one hand, a winnowing fork in the other, and the refining fires of the Holy Spirit to purify the world before God’s wrath, God’s refining fire, sweeps through the whole world burning away the fruitless trees and worthless chaff.

He preached this with power and conviction and as he said, “Get ready” he would invite people to repent. To repent means to change your life, turn around and go the other way, acknowledge you are wrong and start doing right. And to show that repentance he invited them to be baptized – an external washing to show their desire to be clean on the inside.

But, some were coming for baptism that only wanted the outer sign, not to change their ways. But John wasn’t interested in numbers – he wanted people to really change and get ready for the coming of Jesus. He wanted the hard soil of their hearts to be tilled up, made soft, and made ready for the seeds of the gospel that Jesus would be coming to preach.

But some people just wanted to go through the motions. They wanted to say they had been baptised, but they didn’t actually want to repent. For whatever reason – out of fear, peer-pressure, religious devotion, or misunderstanding – when they came to John they didn’t want to change their hearts and prepare themselves for Jesus – they didn’t care about their sin – they just wanted to get wet.

John hated that hypocrisy because it was the same hypocrisy that completely dominated the whole Jewish religion at that point. So He looked at the crowds who were all excited to be baptized and said, “You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? I see your motives and I know that you’re not here to give your hearts to God and submit to the Messiah – you’re here for your own selfish, stupid reasons. You make excuses for your sin and think you’re going to escape God’s wrath because of your religious traditions or because you’re going through some religious motions. That won’t work! Religious devotion, devoid of repentance, devoid of hatred of sin and submission to God, will still lead you to hell.”

And when Jesus came, and the religious people saw Him and heard his message of repentance and submission to Him, they didn’t repent – they hated what He said and murdered Him so they could keep being religious hypocrites. The presence of Jesus was the fire, the trial that revealed their sin –and showed everyone how evil they really were.

The crowds, seeing how serious John was about making sure their hearts were right with God before they participated in any sort of external sign, said in verse 10, “Ok, then what shall we do?” If we’re not supposed to be just doing religious stuff – getting wet, singing the songs, saying the prayers, doing the sacrifices, bringing the tithe – if none of that actually matters to God, then what are we supposed to be doing? We’re here to get baptized because you told us to get baptized or God will be mad at us… so what are we supposed to do?

John’s answer was the one that we saw in verse 8. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”. In other words, make your life show that your repentance is real – that you sin and want to be godly. Real repentance will require changed life, changed behaviour, different priorities, and different ethics. It reminds me of the famous passage in Micah 6:6-8,

“’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

That’s basically what John was saying, right? “If you’ve got extra, share. If you’re in a position of power, be kind and fair and honest. Show God you love Him, that your repentance is real, that your faith is real, that you want Jesus in your life and trust His way is the best way – by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly as a servant of God.”

Conclusion

Herod the tetrarch didn’t like this message. He was caught in a bunch of public sins that went against God’s commandments, and John called him out on it. What was Herod’s response? Arrest John and lock him in a room where he couldn’t hear him anymore.

That’s my conclusion today: During this time you are going to be faced with all kinds of temptations. Some in your home, others at work. Some online, others face to face. There will be temptations to overuse things that bring you comfort, to overindulge in addictions, waste your time, and use self-destructive behaviour. Some of you will face the temptation to live in fear and to be a fear monger, spreading bitterness and paranoia. Others will be tempted to be selfish and greedy or to make personal gain on the back of the suffering. Some will take their fear out on convenient people that don’t deserve it. Some will face emotional struggles worries rise up. Others will face spiritual struggles as they neglect prayer times, study times, and fellowship opportunities. Some will be tempted toward hopelessness while others will try to live in denial.

The list of temptations is endless – but what I want you to see is that this strange time that we are going through is also an opportunity for God to refine your faith and reveal your weaknesses and strengths.

When it happens, and God shows you your sin, feel the guilt and shame – but don’t be overwhelmed by it – just turn that sin over to Jesus, accept that He died for that sin too, accept His forgiveness – and then repent. Change the behaviour, put up a wall between you and the sin, tell someone else about your struggle, do the opposite of it, and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Then, if you choose to humbly reflect on your life, admit that you need a lot of help, listen to the voice of God, and allow Him to make some changes, God will refine you and you will be a stronger, more faithful, more joyful, person on the other side of this.

Or, you can respond like Herod. When God’s Spirit convicts you, when He shows you your sin – tell Him to shut up, lock that voice away, pretend you didn’t hear it, and persist in your sin – and then come out the other side of this time more addicted, more afraid, more bitter, more controlling, and more hurtful than when you went in.

I don’t want that for any of you. Please, submit to God. Listen to His voice. Cut out the things that are hurting your soul. And bear fruits in keeping with repentance.

[i] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2020029-eng.htm

How Have You Been? (Radical Honesty During Difficult Times)

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How have you been this week? I know asking that right now is weird. I’m standing alone in a room full of empty pews, addressing myself to an iPhone strapped to a camera – you’re sitting at home in front of a laptop or tablet or tv watching this. You can’t respond and I can’t hear you.

But still – I ask the question: “How have you been this week?” Take a minute to think about it. If I were in the same room as you, what would you say? Would you smile and tell me how wonderfully you’ve been doing, recounting a story from this week of how you’ve seen blessing? Would you give me a quick “I’m fine.” and then ask how I am? Would you sigh and say it’s been a little difficult, but then quickly change the subject in hopes I don’t pry further?

So, how have you been?

I’ll be honest with you; this has been a really tough week for me. Now, I know that some of you have told me that you don’t want to hear stuff like this on a Sunday morning. Some of you have told me that I’m not supposed to talk about having a rough week, that I’m supposed to keep things positive and upbeat on Sunday mornings, that me sharing my more difficult feelings makes you uncomfortable – and you think it makes everyone else uncomfortable – and you warn me that if I don’t stay positive and upbeat, that people won’t listen to the sermons, people will stop coming to church, and that you, yourself, will stop – because – as you’ve told me – when you come to church you want to hear “things that inspire you”, that give you a “positive worship experience”, that make you “feel better when you leave”.

Well, I might not be able to do that today, because, honestly – I had a really rough week. I was emotionally depressed, spiritually dry, mentally wiped-out, and physically exhausted. Most of the days this week I felt like a worthless pile of junk and everything I did took 10-times the effort it should have. It was, by almost all accounts, a bad week.

I had a Psalm 6 type week. Turn there if you want. It begins,

“O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long?

Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.”

It was a rough week. How was your week? Honestly, how was it?

From my limited perspective, I felt like a lot of people turned an emotional corner this week and were down in the dumps. We’ve been doing this social isolation thing for a while now, and it’s not really good for us. But what makes it worse is the constant stream of news and policies and updates that keep coming all the time. I don’t know about you, but it sometimes feels like we’re all locked in our rooms on a boat being bashed by an unpredictable storm. Our room doesn’t have a window, the wind and waves keep changing direction, and the command crew – the people in charge – seem to have a lot more confidence than they have skill at sailing.

And I think that the emotional toll of being stuck in our little windowless cabins is catching up to more and more people. I know it caught up to me this week.

The Danger of Echo Chambers

I guess one advantage of doing this as a livestream over social media, isn’t that you can just turn me off, right? If you’re one of the people that just can’t handle hearing lament, you can just search up whatever message or song or speaker you want.

What a dangerous temptation that is. To just turn off people and messages that don’t tell you what you want to hear the way you want to hear it. To be able to ignore voices in your life that don’t tell you what you think you want to hear.

While I love how amazing it is to be able to google whatever we want and YouTube up some of the greatest Christian speakers in the world at any time – it is also very spiritually dangerous. Sure, we can learn about a topic of interest, but it can also cause us to live in an echo chamber. This sort of technology allows us to disconnect ourselves from the reality around us, the people nearest to us, the church family around us, to exit our own context and only hear what we want to hear, from the people we want to hear it from, in the style we prefer best. It’s a wonderful gift – but it’s also dangerous too. It’s dangerous to think we are the ones best able to decide what we need. It’s arrogant, self-deceiving, and only serves to make the blind-spots in our lives more pronounced.

And when we live in that echo chamber, one of the temptations that comes along with it is to lie when we are asked “How have you been?” In the first, you lie to yourself – in the second, you lie to others. But that lie usually comes from the same place. Fear.

Consider: When I or someone else asks you, “How have you been?” some of you are and become immediately flooded with fear, and to deal with that fear, you lie. And I’m not just talking about when we’re at church. This happens in marriage. It happens between parents and children. It happens at work and among your friends. Many people, maybe most people, live in fear of honestly answering the question “How have you been?”

Be honest. How many of you have someone in your life that you can tell anything – literally anything to – and you know for certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they will not only listen to you but that there is a zero percent chance they will ever use it against you? Not many of us have that sort of person in our life. Many of you don’t have that even among members of your family. Not with your spouse, parents, or even friends. Some of you see professional counsellors – and pay good money to talk to them – but you still lie to them.

Why? Because you are too afraid to even attempt that sort of relationship. You have already decided in your heart, with no one around, in the silence of your mind, that there are some things that are just no-go-zones for any conversation.

There’s a thought that rumbles through your head, a temptation that is always at hand – but no one will ever know – no one. Do you do that? Do you have scary, or disturbing, or violent, or intensely sad thought, that you have decided in advance that no one will ever know about? Not your spouse, your friend, your mentor, your pastor, not even God? Thoughts you won’t even give voice to in your secret prayer place, not in your journal or even allow to form as a full thought in your mind, because you don’t know what will happen if you do?

What are you afraid of? You are afraid that if you do let that thought out – you’ll collapse. You spend so much time ignoring the difficult things inside you that you are basically a façade. Or, you’re afraid that if you actually tell someone what’s really going on in your life, how you really feel, what you’ve really been doing with your time, the sorts of thoughts that pervade your mind whenever the TV stops or as you lie in your bed before falling to sleep – that they will hate you, reject you, judge you, get angry with you, call you faithless, give some trite answer, compete with you, or even punish you. And that’s the last thing you want. You don’t feel good, and you figure the last thing you need is to tell someone what’s going on and have them make you feel worse.

What a terrible thing it is to have these two temptations dominating your life. On one hand you have yourself as master with no room for anyone else’s teaching, opinions, direction, guidance, or conviction – which leaves you alone, stuck in the muck and mire, unable to grow beyond yourself. And on the other hand, whenever someone tries to break through that armour, to dip their hand into the muck to help you, to take a peek behind your well-manufactured curtain, to shed light in your dark places, you are suddenly full of fear and end up lying to them – which only reinforces the wall between you and the truth. That’s fear and it’s keeping you trapped in a cycle of misery.

Before any conversation is ever had – whether it’s your spouse, parent, friend, pastor, counsellor, or God – you’ve already pre-decided that the person will hurt you – or at least that there’s a chance they might hurt you so it’s not worth the risk. All they’re going to do is dredge up things a bunch of things you don’t want to deal with, give you zero answers, and then pat you on the back, tell you “it’ll be ok” and then leave – so you put up another layer of brick between you and them, you and the world, you and God. Then because that interaction caused discomfort, because you were forced just by the words “How are you doing?” to look at the lockbox full of scary stuff you keep in your heart, you run back to the people and voices that you like to hear, that reinforce what you already think, believe, that makes you feel how you want to feel. Your self-deception reinforced by your echo chamber.

Manipulated by Agreement

Can you see the danger in that?

It’s a risk, isn’t it? Telling the truth, sharing your feelings, opening your heart to someone else and letting them see what’s really going on in there is a terrible risk, isn’t it? Sitting through a sermon or talk, or reading a book, or sitting with a person, that forces you to examine yourself, your beliefs, your preconceptions, your worldview, is dangerous and uncomfortable. That’s why a lot of people avoid it. And when you avoid it – you open yourself up to all kinds of dangers. For example, tribalism.

I’m going to describe something and I want you to consider if you have ever experienced this or watched someone else go through this.

It begins on a successful social media site. You’re not feeling very good about yourself, you don’t like something about yourself, and you want some distraction, something to make you feel better – so you log in to see what’s going on.

The first things you see make you feel more miserable because it’s just a stream of people that are smarter, better looking, more successful, more clever, more popular, more talented, with cleaner homes, nicer stuff, happier relationships, and greener grass than you. And you think, “Wow, that’s not me. Now I feel bad. But wait… I have an idea. I’ll find people like me – same age, same thoughts, same interests, same problems. People who like what I like, who don’t care about what I don’t care about, who have the same quality of life as me…” And when you find this group you feel better. “Ah… my people.”, you think. And it’s nice.

But then, in a short period of time, the posts go from championing how great you and “your people” are to talking about how bad the “other people” are.

You joined the “I like green grass” group, and half the posts are about how lazy and stupid people are who don’t have green grass. Or you joined the “I don’t care about my grass” group and half the posts are about how pretentious the green grass people are, how bad their marriages are, how broke they must be…

You joined the “diet and exercise” group, and half the posts are mocking overweight people and people who don’t know how to use gym equipment. Or, you joined the “body positive” group and half the posts are about how shallow and stupid people who go to the gym are.

It doesn’t matter what group you join. Seniors are pit against teens, teens against seniors. Moms against professional women. Men against women. Sports fans against book readers.

Then come the posts about how no one understands except the people in your echo chamber. No one except you and them knows where to get the good stuff. No one except you and they know the truth. No one except you and they knows what’s funny or smart or accurate. And anyone who isn’t following what your tribe is following, saying what they’re saying, doing what they’re doing… isn’t just wrong… their evil.

It’s not just “pro us”, it’s “anti-them”. You’re good they’re bad. You’re smart they’re dumb. Your appetites are good and right and anyone who says differently is wrong and bad. Your opinions are good and right and everyone else is stupid and wrong.

Then comes the pressure from within the group to not only conform further – and to hate the other guys more – but to believe that every other opinion outside that group is not only wrong but dangerous.

Introverts can’t learn anything from extroverts. Baptists can’t learn anything from Pentecostals. Homeschoolers can’t learn anything from formal education. Christians can’t learn anything from evolutionists. Everyone else is bad and wrong and evil except us – and if you even think of listening any other group, you run the risk of your own people turning on you.

Congratulations, you just joined a cult. Does it sound like I’m exaggerating? Maybe a bit, but that’s how cults work. It’s also how social media echo chambers and tribalism works.

Those echo chambers – which can be found all sorts of places – from who you follow on Instagram, to your favourite e-mail chain, to the TV shows, podcasts and videos you subscribe to – have the danger of reinforcing the barriers between you and what you actually need to hear, what you actually need to experience, what you actually need to feel, what you actually need to share, what you actually need to experience.

Truth Sets You Free

I want you to turn with me to James 1:19-26. This passage speaks a lot about self-deception and the danger of avoiding the truth by surrounding yourself with voices that only tell you what you want to hear.

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

This passage is speaking to the one that God is trying to break through to, who needs to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit, needs to humble themselves to the voice of God, but can’t because they are so constantly deceiving themselves. It’s about breaking down those self-imposed walls that keep us from experiencing what God wants us to experience, from hearing what God wants us to hear.

These are words that I need to hear as much as you do.

It begins in verse 19 telling you to close your mouth and open your ears. To stop letting your emotions drive your decisions, but to just listen.

When someone asks, “How have you been?” our emotions flare-up. Fear, anger, sadness, whatever – and that emotion says, “Shut it down. Lie. If you don’t there will be trouble.” This passage says that listening to that emotion, acting on that emotion, is not going to produce what God wants. What will… engaging in that moment with what God is doing. Stop, listen to what the other person is saying, is asking, is wanting from you, is trying to do for you… and then speak slowly and carefully and honestly.

In your relationship with others, maybe that means you need to not throw out the “I’m fine” so fast without actually listening. Sometimes that person is offering an olive branch. They’re trying to comfort you, to get to know you, to show you love – but you are so used to letting the emotions rule and speaking quickly that you don’t even see how sincere they are. Slowing down and listening to what they’re saying will help. “What do you mean? Do you really want to know? Are you serious? Do you want me to share with you? I’ve got a lot going on… do you really want to know?”

This goes for your relationship with God too. It means that you don’t just jump into the bible verse, prayer book, prayer list, or whatever. Stop. Listen. Wait. Be slow to speak. “God, do you want to say something? Do you really want to listen to me? I know you see what’s going on inside – will you help me get it out? I’m not sure I can… can you give me the words? Let me hear what you want to say about what’s going on inside me.”

Next, in verse 21 we see the importance of repentance. It says, “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls”. In other words, God has already planted a seed in you… but your filthiness and wickedness, your sin… has made it so that the seed won’t grow. You are dry, your soil is polluted, and you need purity. First, you wait, listening to God – then God always follows it up with, “Ok, now repent. See your sin. Acknowledge your sin. Hate your sin. Give your sin to Jesus. Let Jesus die for that sin. Accept forgiveness.” As long as you continue in your sin, you will never be able to hear what God wants to say, because the sin won’t let the implanted seed of God’s word grow!

Next, verses 22-25 speak of ridding yourself of your self-deception. You stop and listen, asking God to speak. God says, “Repent from your sin.”. Then, immediately, fear rises up. “Ok… I’m going to confess some of them – but there’s some stuff in the basement I’m not bringing up.”

These verses say, “You’re not fooling God, you’re only deceiving yourself! God already knows what’s in the basement! You’re the one who denies what they really look like. You’re the one who sees their deepest sins reflected back by the scriptures and then choose to pretend like they don’t exist. God already knows! So He invites you to tell the truth, live in the truth, and to persevere through that truth.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this. It happens in mere moments, microseconds even. God, either in your spirit or through another person says, “How are you doing? Let’s talk. I need to do some heart-work in you”. You want to speak quickly and lie. But this time you don’t. You listen, accept their love and desire to help, and are ready to speak.

But then, before your mouth opens, you realize what you are about to say. It’s not going to be “nice”. It’s going to be “real” and that scares you. What does God say in that moment? “It’s ok. Tell me. We’ll get rid of the garbage together. Just tell me all of it. Share it all. Let me see everything. Then I can make that seed grow.”

But you’re so used to pretending that it’s almost habit to make yourself forget. You want to say how you’re doing, and you’re ready to repent, but you’re afraid and you want to turn away and pretend the conversation isn’t even happening. Shut it down. Walk away.

What does God say? “Look in the mirror. I see you and I want you to know that I see you too — and I want you to see what I see. This is the only way you’re going to be free. I need you to look at my word, listen to my Spirit, and have the courage to say outloud the things that you are too afraid to admit — and then see that I love you. Tell me the sins I already know you commit. Tell me the terrible thoughts I already know you have. Tell me about the fear I already know that dwells within you. I can handle it because I already see it. But I need you to see it, you to acknowledge it, you to drag it into the light, and give it to me so that I can finally let you be free of it. Don’t just say you want my help – actually accept it. I’m standing right here. I see everything. Just be honest.”

This can happen in prayer – or it can happen when you’re talking to a fellow Christian. Remember, James 5:16 says,

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

The healing comes by Christians confessing and praying together.

Finally, look at verse 26. I think this is written to the religious hypocrites who think that they need to pretend for the sake of looking like a good Christian, or to not bring shame to Jesus, or because it might make them or the church look bad. I think it says here, in effect, “The religion that makes you pretend to be good and deny reality is fake – real religion is the one that tells the truth to God, others, and themselves – regardless of how it makes them look.” Because if you lie with your tongue and lie to your own heart – God says your religion is worthless.

Conclusion

What’s my conclusion today? Well, this little series here is about “Building Faith in Difficult Times” and I think the foundation of that is going to be honesty with yourself and with others.

This week, I was not “fine”. I was sad, tired, and made some bad decisions. It does me absolutely no good to hide that from you. Likewise, it doesn’t do any of you any good to hide what’s really going on inside you from God or the people that love you.

Am I saying you should dump your emotional truck on the next cashier who asks you “How are you doing today?” No. What I am saying is that the only way you are going to be able to grow into an emotionally and spiritually strong person, with a robust faith that can withstand difficult times like these – is to be honest with yourself and with others, even if it is risky.

Will everyone react perfectly? No.

But the benefit of living an honest and open life far outweighs the dangers of living in an echo chamber of self-denial and dishonesty.

So, what I want you to do this week is to commit twofold:

First, tell God what’s really going on inside you. Use words you’ve never used before. Say the things you’ve been refusing to say, that you’ve been pretending aren’t inside you, that you are too afraid to voice to even God. Dump it all on Jesus – and then accept that not only can He handle it, but that He still loves you, still forgives you, and will never leave you.

Second, after you’ve talked to God, I want you to commit to finding and telling one person who you trust, someone who you already have a relationship with, what’s really going on in your heart. Whether it’s your sibling, your parent, your Christian friend, your spouse, or your counsellor – tell yourself that, in obedience to God, you are going to confess all the horrible stuff, the scary stuff, the dangerous stuff, the stuff that you never wanted to voice, but that bounces around like a ping-pong ball in your head.

And to those who are about to have this person open up to them – James 1:19–20, “…be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Shut up and listen. Don’t judge. Just listen. Don’t give advice. Just listen. Don’t try to solve the problem. Just listen. “I hear you. I love you. I’ll pray for you. I’m here for you.” That’s it.

EPIC 2020

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It’s been sort of my tradition to take time on Palm Sunday to tell the story of the history of the world, the story of salvation, from beginning to end, because I think it’s important – maybe especially during times like these – that we remember that the moment we are living in and the events we are looking at are part of a larger story, a metanarrative, that has been going on for a very long time.

Chapter 1: The Beginning

Our story begins in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there ever were heavens or an earth.

So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance – it was “Created”. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.

And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them, life unlike any other creature had: Physical and Spiritual Life. And then He formed the woman from a part of the Man, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divinity with us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.

And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease was unheard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.

 Chapter 2: The Fall

Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, and satisfying. There was only one bad option.

Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show whether or not one believes God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between Creator and creation, rejection had to be an option.

Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that something they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.

Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden

The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of good, they wanted the knowledge of evil too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “goodness” and “life”… but after they fell, they knew “good and evil and death”.

And since God is good, perfect and holy, He can’t be in relationship with evil. He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of their decision to sin.

As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that creation was tainted, marred, effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.

Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. And, as God had promised, they would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.

Now, that’s all bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope– the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). That, though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.

Chapter 4: Noah

Now, even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.

Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.

The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.

But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved – He was a sinner too. It was that Noah was the only one willing to listen to the message of salvation.

After the flood, God started overusing Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we will even want to get right with God.

And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.

Chapter 5: Abraham

Right around the death of Noah a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but what made him special was, again, like Noah, he was willing to listen to God and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.

God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.

This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.

Chapter 6: Joseph

Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save Jacob’s family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.

His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God raised Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.

Chapter 7: Moses

Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a couple hundred years, until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation of Israel to become the slaves of the Egyptians. They were in slavery for a very long time, generations of suffering, but still having many children.

One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.

Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.

But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.

God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin and start worshipping a golden calf of their own design, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, how to care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world.

He said things like: “I am the only God, worship me alone. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.

But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God, sort of like they did in the Garden of Eden. Except, this would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb like during the Passover in Egypt, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year, where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sin of the nation onto an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is always death. God has the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness, so they could be in a right relationship with Him – and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.

All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before the Fall.

So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just like the flood didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.

The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so they wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned away from the Law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even praying to and making sacrifices to wooden and stone statues of their own making.

Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more saving work that needed to be done.

Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.

The next chapter in history is a sort of in-between time which you can call “Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat”, and it lasted 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened but it was really just an endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.

As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.

But there was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even participated in child sacrifice. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!

For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law-giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that He picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.

Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred of sin, warn them of the dangers of sin, and show them the path of repentance – but most would be ignored or even attacked.

Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. A man who would finally obey God perfectly. The One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would represent mankind, but have the power to conquer evil, forgive sin and even destroy death. The coming of Jesus is spoken about in every book of the Old Testament.

This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God continued to prepare the world for Jesus, raising up nations, setting the stage, showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.

Humanity was in a miserable state and needed One who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would speak only truth, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.

Chapter 9: The Messiah

God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built roads and laws and a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift – but He surprised everyone by how He did it.

Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.

He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.

No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) were looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.

His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?

Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of Jesus’ life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of life for the Son of God.

Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as God’s Anointed One, the person to whom they should submit, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.

I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge, and spread the good news that God had sent the Messiah!

Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)

Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love, and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. God comes to save us – and we murdered God.

One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?

For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…

Chapter 10: The Resurrection

But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story.

Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!

God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than one who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.

The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire, it isn’t sickness or sadness… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.

If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where God’s forgiveness and love and grace is not present – where and sin and death and wrath reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.

Not sickness, not poverty, not gluttony or lust or abuse – not political corruption or corporate greed. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.

And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement on Jesus. We will never fully understand the suffering Jesus went through for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement­, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God. He offers to exchange our sin for His righteousness.

But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires choice. So God offers a choice.

God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through His Law and our consciences. He shows us His plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation with us personally. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law, taking God’s wrath, and dying for our sins. Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, bled for it, and then rose from the dead to show His victory over it – and then extends His nail-scarred hands to offer freedom to anyone who would believe. He makes each of us an offer.

Will you accept the risen Jesus as your only Saviour? As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

Chapter 11: The Denouement

Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. Yes, we still see the effects of sin, because the story isn’t quite over yet. This pandemic is a reminder that the consequences of sin are terrible and lead to corruption and death. It’s a reminder that, as Romans 8 says, creation is groaning along with us, waiting to be finally freed from its bondage to corruption, eagerly awaiting our final destination and the redemption of our bodies. But, Christians know, that times like this also remind us of the hope we have in Jesus – that as wonderful as they may be, there is no politician, no doctor, no scientist, no person, that can deal with our real problem – the weight of sin in our souls. We talked about that last week.

This Epic is the greatest message that can be known, and I want you to internalize it: It tells you that you were personally designed by a loving creator who offers you hope, and purpose, and a secure future no matter what happens in this world. It reminds you that life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and career. It tells you that your instinct towards justice and your deep desire for hope and peace and joy and freedom can be fulfilled, but only in Jesus. It tells you that your decisions today have eternal consequences. And reminds you that you do not need to fear death because death has lost its sting. – and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into the greatest of victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.

This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bible, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.

Fear Leaves Scars (How to Fight Fear)

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The song I played earlier is called “The Voice of Truth” and it’s by a Christian band called “Casting Crowns”. It’s a song that has meant a lot to me over the years – especially in my first years of being a pastor.

You see, when I was in high school I never thought in a million years that I would be a preacher. I grew up loving computers and Star Trek. I was a nerd before nerds were cool. From the moment my dad bought the family that Tandy 1000 and I got that first MS-DOS manual, I was hooked. Put it this way, when I was in high school and the library computer wasn’t working properly, I was the one who got called out of class to come and take a look at it – and only sometimes because I was the one who had broken it in the first place.

So, when God called me to ministry it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. My call came during my first year of Bible College. I had just flunked out of computer school and needed to be registered somewhere in order to be a Summer Student at the Pulp Mill in my home town, so I registered at the Bible College my pastor went to. I only signed up for one year because I definitely wasn’t going to need a Bible degree, but within the first 3 months, once I had given my life back to Jesus and He had done some work in my heart, He told me one thing: “Stay here”.

So, I signed up for the 4 year Bachelor’s Degree program, still having no idea what I was supposed to do with my life – only knowing one thing: I won’t be a preacher. I took courses to work for a missionary organization, or be a counsellor, but nothing for preaching or teaching.

Then, after 4 years, with a Certificate, a Diploma, and a bunch of ministry experience, under my belt, I still didn’t know what to do. I asked my denominational leader, and he told me to go back to school. So I signed up for a 3 Year Master’s of Divinity Degree – still having no idea what I’d be when I grew up.

Fast forward to the last semester of my third year. I had picked my own classes, found my own mentors, volunteered and worked for the churches I wanted to, even created a new job at a big church called “media minister” where I organized the sound, video, and print ministries of the church. I’d done everything in my power to avoid preaching. Everything I did was behind the scenes. I took lots of courses for everything other than preaching… sure that my future was in ministry, but not in the pulpit. But by the last semester, I still didn’t know what God wanted me to do.

Until one day when I just gave up trying to control my future. I gave up on guiding my own way and guessing what my future would look like. Instead, I prayed a very dangerous prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m educated beyond my intelligence and abilities, and have no idea what you want. So, from this moment on, I’m just going to say ‘yes’ to everything everyone asks me to do. You’d better put some people in my way because I’m just going to say ‘yes’.”

Now, I don’t necessarily recommend that prayer, but I’ll tell you what happened. Three days later the Academic Vice President of the school called me out of the blue and said, “Al, I want you to preach at a little church that just lost their pastor.” If I hadn’t told God that I would say ‘yes’ to everything, I would have laughed him off the phone, said “No thank you, sir.” and hung up. But I committed to saying ‘yes’.

So I took the one and only sermon I had ever had to write, for the one and only class I was forced to take to pass my degree, and I preached it at that little church. I was petrified. But, they asked me back. I’m guessing they were desperate because the sermon was not good.

Then, another church called and wanted me to preach there. And I said “yes” and went. Then a little church in the middle of nowhere, a full hour away from where my family was living in Edmonton, in a little town named Gwynne Alberta, called me to be their weekly preacher. And, scared as I was… I still said “yes”.

Then I graduated, and another little church – this time in Cleveland, Ohio called me to be their full-time pastor. I didn’t want to go to the US. I didn’t want to be a solo pastor. I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to serve behind the scenes, help other pastors and preachers be good at what they do – but no, God said, “No. I’m taking you out of your comfort zone, Al. I’m taking you from your churches of 1000 people and I’m putting you in a church of 25. I’m taking you out of Canada. I’m taking you from being surrounded by technology to a place where they still use an overhead projector, slides and a hymnal. And most of all, I’m taking you away from the comfort of hiding in the back, and I’m going to make you stand up and preach my word.”

And, I said yes. And here’s something a lot of people don’t know – and why that song “Voice of Truth” is so meaningful to me. I was terrified every week for over 10 years. Every week for over a decade, 50 weeks out of the year, right before service, I would be in the bathroom sick, on my knees in front of a toilet, begging God to help me. I’ve been preaching for about 16 years now, and for well over half of it – and still sometimes to this day – I’m often still so scared that I end up on my knees in the bathroom before service.

There were a lot of times I wanted to run away, quit, do something to disqualify myself so I wouldn’t be allowed to preach anymore. There were a lot of times well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people said something that devastated me for days after the sermon. There have been times I would sit before my computer, blank cursor blinking away, fighting back tears because I didn’t know where I was going to get the strength to write one more message.

The voices in my head would say the very same things that the lyrics to the song said. The first verse is about when Peter was standing in the boat, looking out at Jesus walking on the water, wanting to walk out to Him, and then taking that step off the boat… It says, “Oh what I would do to have the kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I’m in, onto the crashing waves. To step out of my comfort zone into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is and He’s holding out His hand. But the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me reminding me of all the times I’ve tried before and failed. The waves they keep on telling me, time and time again. ‘Boy, you’ll never win! You’ll never win!’”

I’ve heard that voice many times. I’m sure you have too.

Negative Voices

These are trying times we are living in right now. So much fear, confusion, anguish, and uncertainty. The enemy the world is trying to fight right now isn’t some rogue nation, or terrorist organization, its invisible – a virus. It’s not happening somewhere over there in a foreign land – it’s happening right here, in our towns and cities, to people we know.

There’s literally panic in the streets as people hoard food and essentials, not knowing what will happen next. People are being told to stay in their homes, to be wary of one another, to fear strangers, to always be on guard, to change their whole lives. People are being sent home from work and are afraid of what that means for their finances because most people in Canada simply don’t have anything in their savings. Others are being forced to work in places where they can become infected – but the protective equipment is becoming scarce, their hands are dry and painfully cracking from constantly using hand-sanitizer, and the customers they serve are getting more upset, more impatient, and won’t abide by the rules.

The politicians and media and bloggers and podcasters are all in a frenzy right now, spitting out new information, ideas, numbers, explanations, guesses, and theories. The helpful ideas and statistics we hear one day end up being completely altered the next. Information and misinformation are passed along with equal authority by news agencies and well-meaning citizens, and it’s hard to know what the truth is, and how we’re really supposed to be responding.

And I’m not talking about “social distancing”, “washing your hands”, and not buying all the toilet paper at the store. I’m talking about how to respond in our hearts, our minds, our souls. We’re so worried about our bodies these days that it’s easy to forget that humans are far more than just flesh. The damage that can be done to us during this time is not merely physical. Yes, it would be bad to get COVID19, and we should take precautions – but that’s not the only thing that will cause us harm.

We are also intelligent creatures, emotional creatures, and spiritual creatures. It’s entirely possible for us to get through this pandemic without ever getting the Coronavirus, and yet still have permanent scars.

Fear Scars

Fear can cause spiritual sickness and leave permanent scars too. Anyone who has ever experienced trauma, abuse, or has a phobia knows this. The scars aren’t external, but internal. It is easy to be afraid these days – and to let that fear dictate our lives – and for that fear to make permanent changes inside of us. It’s easy to look at the crashing waves before us, to see the upheaval in the land, have our hearts melt within us, and to form beliefs that will cripple us for a long time.

The frustration and anger we have against those who were first diagnosed, with those who spread it, with those who refused to self-isolate, who hoard and steal supplies, who are mismanaging the crisis and causing us to lose work and money, or putting people we love in danger – that anger – can start to fester, to spread to the people around you, and that bitterness can infect the people around you causing them to get bitter too. That anger can start to manifest in more permanent scars like divorce, abuse, broken friendships, racism, sexism, ageism – that don’t go away, but stick with us.

Another scar that fear creates is paranoia. You start to believe the world is out of control. The invisible virus is everywhere, and there’s no way to know who has it. The government starts cracking down with harsher controls and penalties, and it starts to feel more and more oligarchical, more oppressive. The media hypes to the max, blogs and websites start to write more conspiracies and talk more about superstition than actual healthcare. The stores shut down, work shuts down, construction shuts down, and you start to be afraid for your financial future too. Your neighbour or family member doesn’t believe it’s serious and tries to leave the house or come over for a visit… and you get scared for them, for you, for everyone.

That fear isn’t something that will go away when the pandemic subsides. That fear will stay with you, because it was there before and it’s deep-seated, firmly established inside you. All the things you were secretly thinking before starting to become reality – and you convince yourself that this pandemic isn’t the problem – it’s just the surface of all the other terrible things that need to be worried about. And it’s crippling.

Then you end up being the one on your knees in the bathroom, sick to your stomach, with a thousand voices telling you how terrible it will be, how no one can be trusted, how everything is against you, how the systems will fail, how no one is watching, no one understands, and no one cares…

Have you felt that fear? Have you felt racism and prejudice rise up in you? Anger and bitterness? Paranoia, desperation, and superstition? I’m sure you have. What can be done? How do we combat that level of fear?

The song gives us a clue. I want to read the chorus to you, “But the voice of truth tells me a different story. The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”. The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”. Out of all the voices calling out to me, I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”

The greatest weapons we have against fear are Truth and Faith. When the voices come barreling into our head, log-jamming our mind with fear, what are we to do? Seek Truth and hold fast to Faith.

I think of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – turn with me there. It says,

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”

The whole world is trying to find and use tools to fix this pandemic. Scientists and doctors are pulling out all the stops to try to end the devastating effects of COVID19. But how do we destroy the effects of fear, the stronghold that fear can take in our lives? What weapons do we have at our disposal? They are not “fleshly” weapons. Washing our hands, social distancing, cleaning the house, having a good schedule, working out, eating well, is not going to demolish the stronghold of fear in our hearts. There is not enough money, power, and political might out there to solve the problem of fear. We keep trying to put our faith in these things, but it never works. There’s always something they miss, something they didn’t see coming.

So many people sat in their homes and jobs thinking our modern society is way beyond ever having a “plague” again. Our scientists are too smart for that. Our medicine to amazing to allow for it. Our laws too well thought out. Our economy too strong to fall apart, our political leaders too experienced to ever let the whole world shut down like it did a century ago. And yet, here we are.

I’m all for science and technology. I love living in a world of medicine and antibiotics and MRI machines. I’m glad we have economists and police officers and politicians. But we have to remember that our greatest weapons against fear are not these people, their money, their systems, or their clever ideas. Our greatest weapons are Truth and Faith.

When we face all the “arguments” and “lofty opinions” out there that tell the dozens of reasons to be afraid – what can we do? We do as verse 5 says, we “take every thought captive to obey Christ”. What does that mean?

It means that when we are faced with something to be afraid of, with a news article, blog post, podcast, family member or friend, or even a thought in our head – that causes us to be afraid, to worry, to want to panic, to hide, to lash out, to take control, to get bitter – to do whatever it is you do when you’re angry. You stop, you take that thought captive, and you hold it up to the truth of Christ, and you say, “Lord Jesus, is this thought true? Does it line up with reality and logic and your Word? Does it obey you?” As Jesus said, “the Truth will set you free…” (John 8:21-32)

Psalm 46

Turn with me to Psalm 46.

Literally, when I was writing this script, I got an emergency message on my phone. You know the one complete with lights and horns and scary noises and yellow exclamation marks that freak you out in the middle of the night? I got one of those that read, “You are at high risk of spreading COVID 19. You are required by law to self-isolate. DO NOT visit stores, family or friends.” I thought, “Dang! How does my phone know if I got it!?! What app did I download? What government spy software is on there?!” Turns out it was for “Travellers Returning to Ontario”, but I missed that part. It kind of freaked me out for a second.

What do we do when our mind says the world is out of control, no one knows what to do, terrible things are on the horizon, it’s too much for me, but no one else can do anything about it either? What do we do? Look at Psalm 46:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”

God is not weak, God is not distant. This Psalm says, “Remember who God really is, what God really wants, and remember His strength. Nothing is out of His control. He is All-Knowing, Ever-Present, and All-Powerful. He sees everything and everything works within his constraints and abides by His plans. Be Still, my heart, know that God – the God of hosts, the God of angel armies, is with us. He is the fortress we run to because He is strong.”

But our mind says, “But how can any of this be for the good? Maybe God is all powerful, but maybe He doesn’t care.”

Then we read the words of Romans 5:1–8. Turn there.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

We read this and remind ourselves: “I know I am loved because God actually traded His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, for me on the cross. While I was His enemy, dead in my sins, unable to do anything of value, a child of hell, God sent His Son to save me – to die for me – to take the cross for me. I don’t need to ever doubt His love.”

Plus, God promises that all the current suffering will work out for God’s glory and our good. All this suffering is building endurance and character. It’s a trial to go through, a refining fire, where, if we are wise, obedient, and faithful, we will come out the other side more hopeful, more loving, more godly than before. What is happening in the world is bad – but it’s not all bad – there is much opportunity for good! I think of the words of Mr. Rogers who reminded us that when bad things happen and we’re scared when watching the news, to “look for the helpers.”

Jesus suffered for the sins of the world, and asks believers to follow in His footsteps. So, as His followers, we don’t fear suffering, we face it knowing God is good, God is with us, and God can do amazing things with faithful people who are willing to be obedient to Him.

What got me off the floor of the bathroom each and every Sunday was not the strength of my own character or will. It wasn’t any strength I had inside me. It was because God had brought me to a place where I was utterly dependant on Him – and so I had to trust that He would allow me to do what He wanted done. If you’re a Christian today, I’m sure you can relate to God doing something similar with you. This pandemic is a way to show us how weak we are, how finite we are, and should cause us to become more dependant on Him. The only weapons we have when fear starts to take over are Truth and Faith. What’s true? And is God still God?

“God called me to preach. God’s Word has Power. It will not return void. God has given me something to say. He will give me the strength to say it. He won’t abandon me. He will be with me every step of the way. Now, all I have to do is get up and do what He has already told me to, and trust the I can because He will do it.”

Conclusion

Let me close with two more verses to keep in mind.

The first is 1 John 1:18,

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

One reason you might feel fear is because you think God is punishing you – or the world – and you’re worried that the only way you can fix it is to live perfectly. That’s impossible – and it’s a trap.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that you are an imperfect sinner, born into sin, who loves their sin, and cannot escape it because it is woven into your DNA like a curse. Even all the good deeds you do to try to impress God end up working against you because they’re not even good deeds for their own sake – but driven by fear and selfishness. But, you are right to fear punishment, because God is wrathful against sinners and anyone who has broken His law. If you’ve ever violated any part of the Bible or any part of your conscience, you are a sinner doomed to face the wrath of God. And just like if you broke the laws of Canada, you can’t just tell the judge what a great person you are most of the time and ask him to let you go. There’s no amount of good you can do to cancel out your sin.

The only way to be saved, to be free from the fear of judgement, is to believe that you are a desperate sinner in need of a great saviour. That you are utterly unable to save yourself, and that you need Jesus to take all the punishment for you. To trust in the love of God, the “perfect love” of God, that accepts you as you are, and if you ask, will place all your guilt, shame, and sin onto Jesus, so He can take the punishment for you.

Then, the moment you believe, you are saved and utterly clean and totally free. As Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then, when the thought comes that God is punishing you or your family for doing something bad, you can say, “Nope. God placed all my punishment on Jesus, who took it gladly for my sake, and there is no condemnation for me anymore. This bad thing that is happening not because God is mad at me, or because I’m supposed to be punished – it’s a bad thing because there is sin in the world, and the effects of sin are evil. I’m not in heaven yet. But, I trust that God will do something good through this, so I will remain faithful to Him.”

Truth and Faith.

And the final verse I want to leave you with is one that I’ve had in mind for a couple weeks now. It’s Isaiah 26:3–4, which says,

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”

Do you want peace at this time? Stand steadfastly in Faith on the Word of God and the Person of Jesus. Let God’s Word and the presence of Jesus Christ, be the everlasting rock beneath your feet. Turn to those spiritual weapons – prayer, reading the Bible, sharing your fears with other believers, listening to testimonies of God’s faith from biographies and online videos. Fill your mind with Truth and practice Faith – and you will break those strongholds and come out of this time stronger and more hopeful than when you went in.