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. 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.
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).” 
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.
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.
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?
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.
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”.
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” 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!”
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.
♫ “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.
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.
 Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (1992). 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Vol. 34, pp. 237–238). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Imagine following in the footsteps of Moses – how huge a task that would be. Moses is probably the most important person in the Old Testament. It was through Moses that the nation of Israel was delivered from Egypt. It was Moses that led and judged the people for decades. It was Moses that climbed Mount Sinai to meet with God, and Moses who shone with the Shekinah glory, terrifying the people by his closeness to God. It through Moses that God gave Israel the Law, the Priesthood, the Tabernacle, and the Pentateuch. He wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and most of Deuteronomy.
Just for a moment, turn back a page to Deuteronomy 34:10–12,
“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
Those are big shoes to fill. Now, turn back to the first lines of the book of Joshua:
“After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory.”
Now there’s a big job, right? It’s no understatement to say that the people of Israel are a tough group to try to lead – and now Joshua not only has to deal with the daily problems of the nation but actually lead them in countless battles to conquer the entire Promised Land.
And Joshua has seen how this goes. He’s been Moses’ right-hand man since they left Egypt. He was there as Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and he saw Israel worshipping the Golden Calf when they came down. Joshua was one of the twelve spies Moses sent to explore the Promised Land and knew how strong the armies and how fortified the cities were. He watched as the courage of Israel fell, was there as they turned on Moses and Aaron, and saw the heartbreak in Moses’ face as the people lost faith in God. He saw that over and over. God makes a promise, the people break faith almost instantly, they blame or even try to kill the leader, and the nation suffers. I can’t imagine how trepidatious he must have been when Moses laid his hands on him, telling him he would be the next leader of Israel – and how difficult it must have been to see Moses die.
Tough for Everyone
What Joshua was feeling is something that all Christians can relate to. Like Israel and Joshua, someone enters our life to tell us God’s plan of deliverance, we then experience God’s power-saving us from our slavery to sin, and then we enter a new reality where we now live in relationship with God. And in that new reality, we are sometimes like Israel – rebellious, short-sighted, faithless, foolish – but eventually, we come around to God’s plan. And we are sometimes like Joshua – blessed to have a mentor who is close to God, get commissioned for some kind of ministry, and are released to go forth to win victories in God’s name.
But all along the way, like both Israel and Joshua, even though we have experienced God’s promise and power, it often seems unnecessarily difficult. People let us down – or we let ourselves down. The enemy sends temptations and lies that we fall for. We face a challenge – or series of challenges that look so daunting that we wonder how we could ever go through them. Whether it’s the ministry God has given you, the struggles of raising a family, or just your own, individual troubles, I’m sure you know how Joshua might have felt.
And I’m sure you wonder, as I have, just as Joshua and Israel did as they stood on the edge of the Jordan looking out over land full of enemies – how am I going to get through this? Have you asked that question? That’s not a question that God is unprepared for. God knows what’s going on in your heart, just as He knew what was going on in Joshua’s. God knew Joshua needed a message of hope and strength beyond himself, and so God, in His grace, gave him the recipe for success. And I believe it’s the same recipe for us today. It’s the same recipe I’ve been introducing for the past couple weeks as we’ve been covering the ascension of Christ.
I’ve been holding off going through the actual questions of the Heidelberg because I wanted to do some introductory stuff, but I think now’s the time to bring them in because, if you’ve been following the last two sermons they’ll make a lot more sense.
So, question 46 is,
“What do you confess when you say, he ascended into heaven?”
and the answer is,
“That Christ, before the eyes of his disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven, and that he is there for our benefit until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.”
We’ve already covered a lot of that. Jesus, in His resurrected body, ascended into Heaven in view of many witnesses, is there “for our benefit”, and will come back again.
Question 47 comes next saying,
“Is Christ, then, not with us until the end of the world, as he has promised us?”
And the answer is,
“Christ is true man and true God. With respect to his human nature he is no longer on earth, but with respect to his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent from us.”
That’s what we covered last week, right? Jesus is in heaven, but within the mystery of the Trinity, because of the Holy Spirit, He is also with us.
Brief Excurses: The Hypostatic Union
Question 48 follows up with a technical question,
“But are the two natures in Christ not separated from each other if his human nature is not present wherever his divinity is?”
In other words, if Jesus has a human body in heaven, isn’t it impossible for him to be two places, or a million places, all at once? The answer given here is,
“Not at all, for his divinity has no limits and is present everywhere. So it must follow that his divinity is indeed beyond the human nature which he has taken on and nevertheless is within this human nature and remains personally united with it.”
If you’ve been around me for the past couple weeks you know I’ve been dropping the term “hypostatic union” into conversations lately. That’s what this is all about. “Hypostatic union” is the complex term for how theologians describe that Jesus can have two natures at the same time – fully God and fully man. It’s not that we can really understand it, but that we accept it because it’s what the scripture teaches.
Keep your thumb in Joshua, but turn with me to Hebrews 1:1-4 which begins by explaining the hypostatic union saying, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
That term, “nature” is the Greek word HUPOSTASIS, where we get Hypostatic. Jesus, the man, has the same, exact nature as God. Jesus was born fully human, died a human death, had a bodily resurrection, and still has that resurrected, glorified body right now – the same kind of body we will get when Jesus comes back. His humanity takes nothing away from His godliness – meaning in adding flesh He never subtracted from His Godliness. And His godliness takes nothing away from His humanity – meaning that His life, temptations, pain, and death were the same as any human faces. One creed says it this way: that Jesus’ two natures are perfectly unified “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”.Hence the term: Hypostatic Union. This is a critical part of understanding who Jesus is.
Three Benefits of Christ’s Ascension
But now we come to question 49, which is the kind of question we’ve seen all along,
“How does Christ’s ascension into heaven benefit us?”
In other words, “So what?” Ok, so Jesus ascended into heaven and a bunch of stuffy theologians come up with a weird, complex term to explain something nobody really understands. So what?
Well, the answer is what we’ve been talking about for the past few weeks. It says that the reason Jesus’ ascension is a benefit to us is that,
“First, he is our Advocate in heaven before his Father. Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, our Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, he sends us his Spirit as a counter-pledge, by whose power we seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, and not the things that are on earth.”
So first, it says that Jesus is our Advocate before the Father. If you recall, I’ve brought up the image of Jesus as a lawyer a few times lately. That’s what an advocate is. Jesus, as our Advocate defends us before the Judge of the universe (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1). If it were not for Jesus as our Advocate, we could never approach God – not even in prayer.
Listen to 1 John 2:1,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
When you blow it as a Christian, who stands up for you? Jesus does.
Listen to Romans 8:34,
“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
When Satan accuses you, shames you, makes you feel guilty, and says you deserve condemnation, who supports you, advocates for you, defends you, and stands with you between Satan and God? Jesus does.
If your still in Hebrews, turn to Hebrews 4:14–16,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
When you are afraid, tempted, weak, in need, who makes it so you can come near to the throne of God and receive the grace you need? Jesus, the Son of God. The One who can sympathize with you, who has compassion on you, because He lived a human life and faced everything you’ve faced, but can also stand before God because He is without sin. If you are a Christian today, one who has asked forgiveness for their sins in the name of Jesus, then Jesus isn’t up there judging you, angry with you, disappointed in you – He’s advocating for you.
The second benefit we’ve already covered a lot, that what happened to Jesus shows what will also happen to all those who follow Him. He died and rose again, so will we. But look at the third benefit of Christ’s ascension: That Jesus “sends us his Spirit as a counter-pledge, by whose power we seek the things that are above…”.
We’ve talked about that a lot too – that Jesus had to leave so the Helper would come (John 16:7) and what I want to close on today is how that works.
Life With/By the Spirit
If Jesus is up there advocating for us and has sent the Holy Spirit to be our Helper, how do we tap into that power? How do we get that help? How do we face all the trials and temptations and pain and battles and disappointments that are going to inevitably come – and do it in a way that we know that God is at work? How do we tap into the supernatural power and promises that God has said He would provide?
This is something I’ve been chewing on for a while now and the answer is far simpler than you might think. And the answer is to live by, or walk with, or keep in step with the Spirit of God. Now, what does that mean?
For that I want you to keep your thumb in Joshua, but turn with me to Galatians 5:16-26. It begins,
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
There’s the problem, right? Our flesh, our sinful side, our former self, has desires that go against what God wants. Our bodies, which are still affected by sin, still have to deal with addiction, stress, fear, anxiety, depression, hunger, thirst, lust, and all the rest, and it is always pulling us in the wrong direction. Our spirits want to connect to God and live His way – to be kind, patient, self-controlled, joyful, temperate, loving – but our flesh fights against us. It wants to fulfil our desires in bad ways. Our fear fights with our faith. Our depression fights with our desire to worship. Our lusts fight with our desire for purity. Our willpower fails, we lose self-control, and we go for immediate gratification – even if it makes us sick.
So how can we win more battles than we lose? It says in verse 16, by “walking with the spirit”. That answer hasn’t changed for thousands of years. It’s the same answer that God gave Joshua. Look back at what God says to Joshua in 1:5. He was about to face a lot of enemies and was surrounded by a lot of weak, sinful, difficult people. He had his own weaknesses too.
So what was the recipe?
“No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’”
Over and over God tells Joshua to be “strong and courageous”. In our culture that might sound like God is telling Joshua to “suck it up”, “get tough”, “try hard”, “workout”, “do it right”. But that’s not what it means. God gives Joshua lots of promises. That He will always be with Joshua, that God will secure the victories, God will make sure they get what He promised them, God will make him prosperous and successful.
But how can Joshua make sure that he gets those promises? How can he be strong enough and courageous enough to do what God is calling him to do without blowing it? By walking with, walking by, living by the Word of God. Look at verse 7,
“Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
The promises weren’t something Joshua and Israel would gain through their obedience – they were something they would lose by their disobedience. We often get that backwards. We think that if we do good things God will reward us. That’s not how it goes. It’s the opposite. All of God’s promises are already available to His people. The Armor of God, the Fruit of the Spirit, freedom from condemnation, the peace that passes understanding, answers to prayer and spiritual and temporal blessings are all ours already because they are promised to us – and God never breaks His promises. God secured those promises in Jesus Christ. That’s what the Lord’s Supper is about. But… but… God leaves it to us to access those promises. God told Joshua to eat, sleep and breathe His word – to read the Law over and over, to meditate on it, to remember everything that God had said – or Joshua would forget and turn away.
Now, turn back to Galatians 5 and notice how similar it sounds. Joshua wants to know how to conquer the Promised Land. God says, “Walk with me. Do things my way.” We want to know how to escape the works of the flesh, the sinful desires that keep us so messed up, and be able to live by the fruit of the spirit. God says, “Walk with me. Do things my way.”
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
Look back at that list in verses 19-21 and take a moment to see yourself in there. I’m sure you’ve asked yourself. How do I get rid of this fleshly desire for sexual immorality? How do I rid myself of all the addictions I run to when I get worried or stressed out? How do I stop being so angry, argumentative, and bitter? How do I get rid of my penchants for superstition? How do I stop being jealous of people? You’ve been a Christian for a while, but these things still plague you. They’re almost automatic – your body seems to jump at the chance whenever it can – almost before you can even decide to. How do you deal with that?
Now, look at the list of the fruit of the Spirit. I’m sure you’ve prayed, “Lord, how do I experience real love? How do I find real peace? How can I become more patient and kind? How do I start doing good things instead of the bad things I keep doing? How do I become gentle? Where do I get some actual self-control, because my willpower just isn’t doing the trick?”
It comes by “walking by the Spirit”. What does that mean? It means the same thing it meant to Joshua. Joshua was told that the victories are already won. Just walk in and take the land. God is with you. God will fight for you. God will make sure it happens.
What did Joshua have to do? Cross the Jordan, walk with God, and remind Himself every single day that God is with Him. I’m sure there were times he said to himself “I don’t have to be terrified. I don’t have to be dismayed. The Lord my God is with me wherever I go. I don’t have to be terrified. I don’t have to be dismayed. The Lord my God is with me wherever I go.”
In the same way, Christians can say, “I don’t have to sin. I don’t have to be discouraged. I don’t have to be afraid. Christ Jesus has crucified my flesh with its passions and desires and I have new life by the Spirit. All I have to do is believe it, ask Jesus for help, and walk where He tells me to go.”
Ordinary Means of Grace
You see, it’s not about trying harder, going through a Bible in a Year program, pulling up your socks, and white-knuckling your way into becoming more patient, kind, self-controlled. It’s about reminding yourself that God has already won those victories in your life and invites you to simply take them. These promises are available – but they do not come to those who do not ask.
In Joshua 7 we see Israel blow it big-time. After the huge success of the fall of Jericho, Joshua and the people of Israel are feeling pretty confident. So confident they forget to ask God what to do next, someone breaks God’s law, and when they head off to their next battle they get utterly wrecked. Why? Because they stopped obeying God’s word and depending on God for their victory.
God was happy to give them victory – right up until they forgot about Him and started thinking that the victory was their own. Right up until someone decided to go against His word and do what they shouldn’t. Then they lost the blessing – until they dealt with the sin. That’s how it goes, and that’s how it always will go. God will give you the victory over that sin you want to kill. He will demonstrate great power in your life – but only if He gets the credit for doing it.
But let’s get practical. How do we walk in step with the Spirit? What does that look like? What did it look like for Joshua and Israel? What did it look like for Moses and Elijah? What did it look like for Peter and Paul? What did it look like for Jesus? Same answer.
Through what Christians have called the ordinary means of grace. If the question is, “How do I, as a believer, get access to all the Grace the Lord wants to give me for all the needs I have? How do I walk in step with the Spirit? How do I find Jesus every day? How do I hear His voice, find His wisdom, feel His presence, get His protection, sense His correction when I’m going wrong, and know His comfort when things are hard?”
The answer is so very simple and has been the same one forever: It is the simple, daily obedience of talking to God in prayer every day, regularly reading and sitting under the teaching of God’s word, participating in the life of the community of believers, and reminding ourselves of what God has done through the ordinances He provided.
That’s how it worked for Israel, for Jesus, for Peter, and how it works for us. Sure, there are special times when God shows up in a unique way, but God isn’t playing a game of “catch me if you can” where we have to go looking for Him. God makes Himself available everyday all day, and is interested in every part of our life, and has given us these ordinary ways to connect with Him regularly. Talking to God every day, sitting under the teaching of God’s Word regularly, participate in a community of believers, and follow the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
That sounds too simple, too easy – there must be something more complicated that God wants, something that specifically targets my own sin, my own issue, my own fears – some special book or discipline or exercise – but ask yourself how easy is it really?
How hard do you find it to read God’s Word and pray every day? How hard is it to attend church once per week, 52 weeks in a row? How hard is it to fully participate in a worship service? How hard is it to commit yourself to serve in even the most simple ministry? How hard is it to fully participate in the Lord’s Supper with repentance, reverence, and celebration? How hard is it (or was it) to submit to baptism and attend someone else’s? How hard is it to have other Christians over for a meal? Or, how hard is it to ask other Christians to pray for you?
It’s actually very hard, isn’t it? Those ordinary means of grace sometimes feel almost impossible! They should be easy! There are a dozen things we do every day without even breaking a sweat. So why is reading God’s word and praying every day so hard? Why is Sunday morning such a struggle? Because the enemy knows that these simple things, prayer, studying God’s word, and being here together, are the single greatest weapon we have to defeat him.
If the enemy can get you distracted with 1000 good things – but keep you from your devos, you’re an easy target for temptation and lies. If he can get you bitter against just one person at church, and keep you from attending or being able to pay attention – you’re an easy target for temptation and lies – and then he can use you to divide the church and wreck it for everyone.
That’s why Sunday morning is such a battle, why prayer is such a battle, because the ordinary means of grace are so incredibly potent that they can dismantle the works of the enemy in our lives. They are what keep us in step with the Spirit. They are what help us bear fruit in our lives. They are what allow us to hear the voice of God. And they are the ways by which we are able to conquer sin.
My encouragement to you is to commit to these ordinary means so you can walk in the Spirit, walk with Jesus, and let Him destroy those sins and strongholds in your life.
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.
I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.
One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.
I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.
I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.
The Perils of Youth
We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.
It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.
Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.
But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)
But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.
We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.
So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”
And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.
I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.
My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.
All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.
How does God refine the impurities out of his people?
Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.
Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.
To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:
“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)
God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.
We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.
And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.
- Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
- Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
- Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
- Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
- Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
- You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
- Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
- You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
- Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,
Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.
Road to Emmaus
Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”
Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”
Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?
“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”
Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.
So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”
Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”
“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”
And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.
This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.
You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.
Look back to Psalm 119: it says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”
“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.
“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”
The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.
Look at the next part:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)
How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.
“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.
The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.
Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.
Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.
Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.
And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.
And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.
I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.
The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.
How long will all of you attack a man to batter him, like a leaning wall, a tottering fence? They only plan to thrust him down from his high position. They take pleasure in falsehood. They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath. Put no trust in extortion; set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.”
(Psalm 62 ESV)
What is Your Foundation
This psalm is all about, as verse 10 says, where we put our “hope” and “trust”; on what foundation our “heart is set upon” when we are, as verse 3 says, “attacked”, “battered”, and “tottering”.
One of the amazing things about being part of a church is the diversity of experience we find among the people who come. There are some people who have had a blessed week and others who had one that felt like they were in battle every moment of every day. There are some who have had a seemingly blessed life where they grew up in a home with both a mom and a dad, warm and well fed, felt loved, safe, and secure – while others grew up orphans or children of divorce, abused, neglected, and afraid. And yet we all come and sit together, sing together, worshipping the same God, reading the same Bible, as one church. That’s no accident. We need each other and we need each other’s differences.
I don’t know what your week was like but I’m sure it had its ups and downs. There were times when you felt you had it all together and other times when you felt like it was all you could do to keep your whole life from flying apart. Some here had a week of temptation where there were so many good things happening you almost forgot that you needed God at all, while others had such a miserable week that you felt that God had abandoned you – or was actively against you. Some had a fairly normal week where nothing out of the ordinary happened, while others felt like someone stuck their schedule in the blender and hit frappe! And yet we all come here and sit together to sing the same songs and listen to the same message.
I heard a wonderful story from someone over the past few weeks where they came to me and said, “You know, Pastor Al, the more people I get to know at our church the more I see that everyone is struggling with something. I mean, there are a lot of problems in our church! And it crossed my mind that maybe I should leave this church and try to find one where people don’t have so many issues. But then I realized that I have problems too and I would much rather be in a church full of people who admit that they have problems and are trying to work it out together than a church that pretends they are perfect and expects me to pretend too.”
That was a hugely mature thing to share. And it’s true. We all have problems. I don’t know a single person here who doesn’t have some kind of big issue in their life. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational issues abound at our church. But we are not special – that’s literally everywhere. We just happen to have a group of people that, for the most part, are willing to admit it!
So, whatever your upbringing or week was like I believe that Psalm 62 has an important message for us. Whether you feel “attacked”, “battered” and “tottering” right now or not, the truth is that Jesus has promised that at some point in our life, “the rain will fall and the floods will come and the winds will blow and beat against our house” (Matthew 7:27ish) and the security and foundation of our life will be tested. That’s abundantly clear. It’s not about if bad times will come but when. And the only way that we will weather these times will be if our lives our built on the right foundation. Christians know this – we repeat it all the time. David knew this too.
In context, this is a psalm of David, who is surrounded by enemies who seek to not only kill him but to discredit and destroy him. Look at verse 3-4. He’s been attacked for so long that he feels like a wall that has taken so much punishment that it’s about to fall down or a fence that only has one post standing before it falls down altogether. This isn’t a one-time attack, but a consistent barrage of assaults from all sides. And what’s worse, is that the attack seems to be coming from people that he trusted. It says, “they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.” This psalm could be about the time when his son Absalom revolted against him (2 Sam 15-16) and many people whom he trusted were either lying to him, manipulating him with false information, or trying to stab him in the back.
I’m sure some of you have felt like that. I know I have. Let down by people close to you. The whole world flips over. It’s like black has turned to white, up is down, friends are enemies. But it doesn’t have to be personal, the attacks can come from anywhere or anyone – the person hurting you doesn’t even have to be human, it can be a spiritual attack. Even so, the point of the psalm still stands: When the earth shakes beneath you, and the foes surround, where do you run for refuge? David boldly proclaims that even though his entire world is shaking, his family, friends and supporters have become his enemies, and he’s gone from sitting on the throne in Jerusalem to being on the run again – just as in the days he was fleeing Saul – until he even has to go to war and kill his own son… He will still trust in God.
Jumping to the Ask
One commentary I read said,
“There is scarcely another psalm that reveals such an absolute and undisturbed peace, in which confidence in God is so completely unshaken, and in which assurance is so strong that not even a single petition is voiced throughout the psalm.” (An Expositional Commentary on Psalms, Vol 2, Pg 509. Boice)
That’s an interesting point – there are not petitions in this psalm. He doesn’t ask for anything. This is a worship psalm coming from a man who is in terrible distress. We often jump straight to the ask, don’t we. Something bad happens and we cry out to God, “God, make it stop! Fix the problem! And here’s how I want you to do it!” That’s not how this psalm works – and that’s not really how prayer works either.
Look to the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). How does it start? Does it start with “give us our daily bread, forgive us our sin, deliver us from evil”? No, it doesn’t start with the ask. It starts by putting our heart in the right place.
It starts with reminding us of our relationship: “Our Father in Heaven”. We’re not merely crying out to an impersonal force, but to our loving Father. As Paul said in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” “Abba” is the childish term “Daddy”. “My Daddy in heaven”.
Then it moves on to humbling us by reminding us of our place in the universe: “hallowed be your name.” “Hallowed” means “honoured” or “holy” or “greatly respected”. As we’ve talked about before, it’s not about you and me, everything is about Jesus. Colossians 1:16, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Or 1 Corinthians 8:6 which we studied a few weeks ago, “…for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
Then we are taught to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a resignation that God’s glory and God’s plan are more important than we are. This is a statement of our hope and trust in Him. “God, you are my King and I am your citizen. Your will is more important than mine. Your plan is better than mine. Your way is better than my way. I trust you to do what is best.”
And then, after we have set our hearts aright, knowing we are talking to our Father who loves us like a daddy, but is also to be respected and honoured. After we have placed our wills beneath His and declared that we trust him… do our petitions start: “Give us this day our daily bread… forgive our sins… deliver us from evil.”
This Psalm shows that David’s heart was so right with God, even while he was being “attacked”, “battered”, and “tottering” from the storms around him, that he still trusted God as his firm foundation.
Verses 5-7 really sum up the rest of the psalm well, and is an echo of verses 1-2, so let’s concentrate our study on them and pull out some application.
The first thing I want you to notice is that David takes some time to talk to himself, preach to Himself, sing to Himself. Remember, this is a psalm that is meant to be sung publically. David may have composed this while on the run and sang it to the people who followed him into exile. He starts in verses 1-2 with a general declaration of his trust in God to all who would listen. Then in verses 3-4 he states the problem by publically addressing his enemies and God. But then in verse 5 he talks to himself: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.”
Why does he do this? Because he was tempted to go elsewhere, to fortify his strengths by other means. David was king and was feeling terribly weak, emotionally low, spiritually oppressed, betrayed, and very alone. The people around him, driven from their homes to follow him, must have been crying out, “What shall we do? What will you do to fix this, King David?” and his advisers were no doubt coming up with all manner of plans: “Make a pact with a neighbouring country. Hire mercenaries to fight with us. Attack the people around us and take food and weapons from them. C’mon David, we need to do something!”
And the battle was raging inside him too. He was a man of deep passions. Remember, this was a guy that almost wiped out a man’s entire household because he refused to share some food (1 Sam 25). He pretended to be insane by smashing his head against walls and foaming at the mouth to get out of a tight spot (1 Sam 21). He saw a beautiful woman and killed her husband to be with her (1 Sam 11). He was cunning enough to live in enemy territory for years, even fighting against them from within their own borders, without being detected. I have no doubt that there were a thousand plans flying through his mind as to what he wanted to do.
I’m sure you’ve felt this way too. All hell breaks loose around you and within you. You flail, grasping for something to hold onto to steady yourself. Something to make you feel stronger, in control, or at least to distract you from the pain and confusion that overwhelm you. You reach for a bottle, some food, your phone, Netflix, a razor blade, to calm the storm within for only a moment – but it never makes anything better, does it? Now instead you have your problems and guilt, scars, and sickness. You grab a weapon so you can force the situation in another direction – but it only escalates things. You reach for your wallet because your strength is in your money – but it never really fixes, it does it? You grab onto a counsellor or friend or spouse and beg them to fix everything, to give you the answer, to stabilize your life, and when they inevitably fail you, you reject them. You throw up a series of requests to God, but He doesn’t answer “yes” fast enough, so you turn away from your Bible and your church.
The situation you find yourself in, the storm that is beating against you, the earthquake that is happening within you has a very important purpose – to show you where you run to for hope and help, and then to test the strength of your foundation.
A while back, actually on Ethan’s 8th birthday, a tornado hit Ottawa. It was quite an experience as the wind destroyed a lot of places around town. After it died down we took a walk around our neighbourhood and it was incredible. There were lots of trees down all over the place, and broken phone polls, but the one place that really impacted me was the bus stop. A bus stop is a nice place for shelter when it’s raining – but isn’t much good in a tornado. The walls collapsed, the foundation moved, and it was utterly destroyed.
A lot of the destructive things we turn to during times of crisis seem fine to us – that’s why we don’t deal with them. They’re like the bus shelter. Lust, gluttony, addiction, violence, money – all seem to work fine when there’s a bit of rain – but when the storm really hits, they utterly fail us. I fact, when the storm hits, that refuge becomes dangerous. It no longer works for us, giving us a momentary high, but works against us, corrupting our souls, hurting our bodies, ruining our relationships, separating us from God, and damaging our lives. Many of you know what I’m talking about. Imagine taking shelter from the tornado in this bus shelter. What would have happened to you? That’s what you’re doing when you keep going back to whatever it is you run to in crisis… and it’s dangerous… and potentially spiritually and physically lethal.
So what does David do here? He does what you should do during those times of crisis. He stops himself, preaches to himself, and asks the question, “Ok, I know I have a thousand places I want to turn to and a hundred plans in my mind – but STOP…” and he speaks to himself… “Ok, David, ok, my Soul… where does my hope come from? Who is stronger, my enemies, myself, or my God? Who is going to save me? Where should I run?” And his answer to himself was, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress…”
You’ve tried all these other things and they have all failed you. From where does your salvation come? The word “only” or “alone” occurs 5 times in this psalm. God only. God alone. “My King Daddy in Heaven knows what is happening. I will run to Him. “On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.” (vs 7)
Wait in Silence
But there is one other part I want you to notice. In fact, he says it twice in verse 1 and 5. He says, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence…”.
Do you remember what Pastor Willie said about Romans 1-3? That it was meant to tell people to “shut up” – to decimate their excuses and force them to realize that they are sinners in need of a saviour? There are a lot of “shut up” passages like that in the Bible, and this is one of them. When the storm is raging, the earthquake shaking, when you feel like “a leaning wall”, “a tottering fence”, about to fall over, the best thing you can do is to withdraw into silence and wait. You actually need to be doing this every day, not just during times of crisis, because it prepares you for the storms to come – but if you haven’t been doing that, then this is something you must do.
The only way you will be able to preach to yourself and to reset your faith, to run to God for refuge, is if you “wait in silence”. That means you need to get away from people, get away from TV, from the internet, from the cell phone, from work, from play, and put away all the distractions and temptations that are trying to pull you towards them – and stop and wait for God.
Did you know the Canadian Government has an official pamphlet detailing what we should do during an earthquake? I didn’t. But here’s what they tell you to do during a major earthquake – and it’s exactly what every other country says. They tell you to make sure you prepare your home before hand – which none of us do – but this is what we’re supposed to do when the big one hits: “Drop, Cover and Hold On!” Go sit under a heavy piece of furniture like a table, desk or bed, tuck in all the parts of your body, and hold on tight to whatever you are under so you will move when the furniture does. And then stay there until the earthquake stops!
Why? Because during that time you need a refuge that is stronger than you and protection from things you can’t see. That’s what this psalm is about. It’s David’s song to a group of people who are facing a terribly difficult time in their life, and a reminder to himself, to stop, be quiet, and trust in God’s strength.
Can you imagine someone going through a big earthquake, looking at their oak table and thinking, “Hmmm… that’s a good spot, but before I get under there, I really need to grab a snack, my phone, a couple friends… no way! Can you imagine them standing in the middle of a store, with things falling all around them, and them saying, “I’m in an earthquake, surrounded by glass smashing all around me, but it’s ok. I’ve got my stress ball, anti-anxiety pills, and I’m trying to think positive about it.” Or can you imagine someone calling you in the middle of an earthquake and asking for advice about what to do? What’s your answer: “Have you tried yoga? I can forward you a really uplifting email I got today. Let me text you a YouTube link to a song that I play during those times…”
No way! You tell them to Drop, Cover and Hold On! Stop talking, get away from the dangerous stuff in your life, drop to your knees, crawl to Jesus and hold on with everything you have! Songs are great, fidget toys are fine, medication is ok, exercise is helpful – but when your life is falling apart, you need to run to a secure foundation and hold on! Jesus only, Jesus alone.
Great Fear, Great Calm
One day Jesus and the disciples were in a boat crossing the sea when a great storm came out of nowhere. The boat was crashing against the waves, it started to fill with water, things look dangerous and the disciples were scared. Where was Jesus? Asleep on a cushion. Jesus wasn’t afraid. He knew that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that would stop Him from crossing that sea, and certainly nothing that could take His life. He was so totally secure, totally trusting in His Father that He slept. But the disciples shook Him awake yelling, “Master, Master, save us! We’re all going to die! Don’t you care that we’re all going to die?” What was His response? “Why are you afraid, o you of little faith? Where is your faith?” And Jesus stood up, rebuked the storm, told it to be still, and then there was a “great calm”.
A lot of Christians are like this. They have Jesus in their boat. They know Him, they say they trust Him – right up until the wind and waves start to hit. Then they accuse Him. “Don’t you care? I’m dying! I’m going to drown! My whole family is going under!”
And what does Jesus say, “Do you really think that I’m not in control of this situation? Do you really think that I don’t care? Do you think I’d let you down? Do you think My Father is absent? That He doesn’t see? That there is no purpose for this? Do you think this storm is an accident? This storm is here to show you something…”
Mark says something really interesting in his telling of this story. It says, “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:39-41)
They thought they were afraid of the storm, afraid of drowning in the middle of a sea. But the moment Jesus showed His power, “they were filled with a great fear”. Of who? Jesus. From that moment the experience of going through the storm meant something completely different. It became the moment that they started to fully understand who Jesus really is, the extent of His power, and what it means to have Jesus in your boat. The fear of the storm were gone. All that was left was “great calm” and “great fear” – as they stood in the presence of Jesus full of awe at what He is capable of.
I believe this is the message of this psalm, and one we need to hear today. I know you have storms, but allow those storms to drive you to Jesus. Let it be the means by which you learn to let Jesus be your only refuge, strength and salvation. Get quiet before Him. Trust He will protect you. Ask Him to calm the storm – and then wait to see how He will save you.
Nehemiah So Far
If you don’t know Nehemiah’s story, I highly recommend you give it a read, but let me give you a summary of what is going on up until this point. Nehemiah was a Jewish man who had risen to prominence in the Persian Empire to become one of the most trusted men in King Artexerxes’ inner circle. He had already allowed the people of Israel to return to their land after the 70 year Babylonian exile, but things weren’t going very well for those who had returned.
If you recall, Jerusalem was basically leveled by Nebuchadnezzar, but under Ezra, they had come back and rebuilt the temple and re-established the Jewish feast and sacrifices. They had wanted to rebuild the huge wall that protected Jerusalem, but after some opposition, the people gave up and left it in ruins.
By the time we get to Nehemiah, Ezra is the leading priest in Jerusalem, the temple is built, but the walls and buildings of the city are still in shambles, they are ruled by greedy landlords, and the hope and religious life of the people is falling apart.
The story of Nehemiah kicks off with his brother Hanani coming and telling Nehemiah about the problems in Jerusalem, especially about the walls. The problem had been around for about 50 years, but but the news hit Nehemiah in a new away, broke his heart, and he began to pray about it. As he prayed he sensed that God was calling him to be the one to come and rebuild the broken city.
One day he came before King Artexerxes, as he had many other times, but this time he looked very sad. This was a problem because it was incredibly dangerous to look sad in front of a Persian king. His presence should be so delightful to you that if you don’t look happy to see him, he could kill you! But Nehemiah’s heart is so broken he can’t hold it in any longer and the king asks what’s wrong. Nehemiah feels great fear, says a quick prayer, and then makes his
“big ask” to have some time off to go and rebuild Jerusalem.
This was an outlandish request that came out of nowhere! He wanted to leave his position as royal cupbearer to become Governer of Judah, his home nation, and rebuild the defensive walls of a city that had been conquered. This could have easily been interpreted as the precursor treason and even war – but God was with him and the king decided to help. He gave Nehemiah his position, letters of passage, soldiers to protect him, and all the lumber they would need for the project. God was clearly answering prayers!
When he arrived in Jerusalem he took a quick three-day break to rest, think and pray, and then took a secret night tour of the damage so no one could see him – especially his enemies. After seeing what needed to be done he called a meeting with the whole city and surrounding area and then told them what God had laid on his heart. He told them the plan, that God had already done miracles to provide for them, and that because of God’s help it would be a success. The people agreed and they all set to work.
As soon as Nehemiah went public, the opposition kicked into high geer. Three men named Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem lobbed their first volley. They accused him of rebellion, sedition, and implied that if they didn’t quit rebuilding that they would tell the king who would come and wipe them all out. Nehemiah wanted Jerusalem to be strong and secure, to be in a deep relationship with God, and know He is their strength. But the enemies wanted Jerusalem afraid, weak and dependent, able to be manipulated and easily threatened, and a strong governor building a new city of people with a strong faith, behind a huge, stone wall would be a problem.
Practically, this hurt the enemies pocket books too. If the city started living by Mosaic Law, then they would start keeping the Sabbath, not charging interest, taking care of the poor, sharing their goods, and generally being more content – which was really bad for business. They would lose their financial grip on the city. The moment the people started to get into a healthy relationship with God and one another the enemies became very active.
Have you ever experienced this? If you have been a Christian for any length of time, then you probably have. You feel a tug at your heart, discover something that causes you to weep, something that you know needs changing – in your life, your family, or your community – and you feel a distinct call from God to do something. God starts to provide, and things start to look like they are going the right way. You feel like you’ve found your purpose. You are working, God is active, people’s lives are changing for the better – it’s all good.
And then WHAM! out of nowhere comes opposition to your work. Your relationships get more difficult, finances start to get strained, people start to treat you unfairly, the rules seem to be against you, people seem to misunderstand you, and your helpers abandon you.
Here’s what’s happening. Maybe you’ve been told that whenever you are in God’s will things will be easy, but that’s not usually the case. Most often, when anyone attempts to do God’s work, God’s way, for God’s glory and the good of those around them, there will be opposition. I’ve faced a lot of trouble in my time, as have many of you, but never so much as when I’m working on a God ordained project. Actually, that’s one of the ways that we can know we’re on the right path – by the level of opposition. I’m pretty sure that’s why a lot of us are facing some of the struggles we are these days – because we are trying to follow God’s will and our spiritual enemies are stirring up trouble against us.
And this isn’t just for people in ministry like pastors, missionaries, elders, deacons and teachers. This is for all of us who are trying to follow God’s will for our lives – whether he called you to be a mother, husband, parent, encourager, administrator, counsellor, reconciler, worker, artist, musician, or any other kind of servant. When you find the groove God has carved for you most often, the enemy will rise up to try to discourage you and stop you.
What I want to do today is take a look at some of the ways that the enemy tried to discourage Nehemiah and Jerusalem as they tried to do the very practical work of rebuilding the walls, and draw out some points to help us know how to respond when the enemy rises up against us and our own projects.
So, take a moment to consider what God has been asking you to do lately, or what you know your spiritual gifts or mission in life is. As you’ve been praying, reading your Bible, and talking to fellow Christians, what has God been impressing upon you to do? And then let’s take a look at what Nehemiah faced and how He responded.
“Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?’ Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, ‘Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!’” (Nehemiah 4:1-3)
Here’s the first attach, and it’s the easiest to spot and most relatable. As soon as we claim to be followers of Jesus, or especially when we say something like, “God’s word is true, He has given men a mission, and I’m going to do what He says.” That makes people crazy these days. So their natural response is ridicule.
If you’ve ever shared your faith or been obvious about your belief in Jesus, then you’ve probably faced ridicule. The internet and media are full of people mocking Christianity.
This is standard operating procedure for the enemy. Joseph was mocked by his brothers. Moses was mocked by all sorts of people. Goliath mocked David. Pharisees mocked Jesus. This is the first thing the enemy does. He uses ridicule and insults to hurt our feelings. Anyone who is known for having amazing faith in God has faced abuse for it.
They start by mocking their strength: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves?… Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?… if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” They were a broken people in a broken city; a bunch of farmers who were mostly poor and starving. They wern’t professional wall builders. They weren’t warriors or strong men. They didn’t even have good materials! They’re trying to use broken, burned, brittle rocks to build a strong wall. It’s impossible! What a joke!
What was the enemy saying? “You’ll never be able to do it. You’re too weak, too stupid, too unskilled, too tired, too broken. You’re not the kind of people that do this kind of thing. You should quit while you’re ahead. You think God is going to magically make you a success? That’s not how it works in the real world! There’s no way God called you to that mission. You don’t have the ‘right stuff’? You’re too sinful, too ignorant, too weak.”
Were they weak? Yes! But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? As we said last week – it is when we are weak when we are strong, because it is then that God can do all the work so He can get all the glory!
You’ve probably heard this kind of thing before. I know I’ve heard it many times with the churches I’ve pastored. “We don’t have the budget. We don’t have the people. Preaching the Bible is boring and irrelevant. No one wants to listen to that anymore. No one can sit through a sermon anymore. If we don’t have the best music, a great sound system, awesome visuals, and a big church with lots of ministries, then we shouldn’t even try.”
What’s the implication? Everything is wrong with this project. All the materials are wrong. We should just give up.
Have you heard that kind of thing for your own ministry and life mission? “No one stays at home and cares for the children anymore. The job that you love doesn’t make enough money, you should quit. Families don’t just hang out anymore, you need to be busier. The people you are trying to help are a lost cause. You are too young, too old, too inexperienced, too nervous. You are the wrong stuff, and you should just quit.”
I’m sure you have heard this. We’ve all faced the insults and mocking of the enemy when we try to do what God asks us to do.
Nehemiah’s Response: Prayer
What was Nehemiah’s response? First, it was prayer. Look at verse 4-5:
“Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.”
He turns the problem over the only One who can do something about it. We can’t shut the mouths of our enemies. We are not to return evil for evil. We’re supposed to be like Jesus. As 1 Peter 2:23 says,
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Romans 12:17-21 says,
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is how a person who has faith in God responds to people who ridicule, mock and persecute them. They trust that God will deal with them. In other words, don’t worry about punishing those who are causing you problems, God will take care of them. Turn the problem over to Him and He’ll see that it’s taken care of properly. God has promised to protect and defend you (2 Thess 3:3; Deut 31:6; Psalm 23, 46:1; 2 Cor 4:8-9). Your job is to do what God has asked you to do.
Nehemiah’s Response: Back to Work
Which leads us to Nehemiah and the people’s second response. They got back to work. Look at verse 6, “So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” They turned their problems and anger over to God and got back to work. They didn’t sit and stew, didn’t fall apart, didn’t get caught up in a big debate. They just got back to work and worked even harder. They ignored the enemy who was saying they couldn’t do it and proved that God was going to give them victory.
And now, the wall was half done and things were going well right? Their success shut up the enemies, right? Sadly, no. Look at verse 7-8, “But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.”
Does their success cause their enemies to back off? No. It causes them to work together! Jerusalem and Nehemiah weren’t just rebuilding a wall – they were rebuilding their relationship with God and each other – and Satan and their enemies hate that.
How does Nehemiah respond? Same as before! Verse 9, “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” Pray and get back to work – this time with security guards! When the enemy is coming against us, we are to pray and get back to work. When the enemy redoubles their efforts, we are to pray and do what is necessary to protect ourselves – both physically and spiritually.
What does this mean practically? Well, whatever your mission is, it means you need to bathe the mission, yourself, and your mission field (whether that’s your family, your community, or your job) in prayer – and keep working. And when the enemy steps up their game – you step up yours too.
Prayer shows that you trust God to deal with your enemies. It also says that you intend to do things His way. That means that you allow God to fight for you – but that doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. Jesus says in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Get stronger locks. Buy a better firewall for the network. Take a long, hard look at your schedule and lock in the time you need to pray, prepare, serve, worship, eat and rest. Do the important things that make sure that the enemy doesn’t get a foothold in your life.
Let’s end with one more place that the enemy attacks. Look at verse 10-11,
“In Judah it was said, ‘The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.’ And our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.’”
What do we see here? Discouragement and Intimidation. This is “in Judah”. All of the battles, ridicule, late nights, and stress of the work caused a huge amount of emotional fatigue and depression. They were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. They say, “There is too much rubble. [We’re] By ourselves…” Was there any more rubble on the ground than when they stared? No. It’s not like they were going out and importing more rubble to spread around. In fact, there would have been less since they were using it to build the wall. Were they alone? No! What had changed? They were tired. After so much fight and frustration, they were starting to get pessimistic, depressed and worn down. It happens to all of us.
The enemy capitalized on this by spreading rumors: “We’ll come and kill you and you won’t even see us coming!” Did they have a wall? More than half of one, yes! Did they have security guards? Yes! Was God on their side? Yes! Had He ever let them down? No!
What had happened? Some of the workers had taken their eyes off God and were only seeing the problems. They stopped looking up and only saw the mess, the enemies, and the junk surrounding them. It looked too hard and they got discouraged.
And something else was happening too. We learn in chapter 6 (6:17-19) that there were some people among them who were actually working for the enemy. Instead of being encouragers they were discouragers who were sowing seeds of discontent. They didn’t think God was going to do the work, so they kept telling people how hard the work was, how there wasn’t enough help, that the enemy was too big, that Nehemiah was a bad leader, that they were too hungry and too tired and that no one cared. They told the people around them to forget about working together and to think of themselves more. Proverbs 6:19 says that God literally hates these kinds of people.
I’m sure you’ve felt this too. Things go great for a while. Decent successes, the enemy thwarted. Sure, there’s hard work, but you are full of faith. But after a time – a few hours, a few days, a week, a month, a year – the rubble around you doesn’t get smaller, but starts to look like it’s growing, the problems seem endless, the work seems harder. People around you, who you thought were supporters, start to get tired, wander off, or fill your ears with complaints. They drag you down and you start to get disheartened. Now, instead of worship songs and thanksgiving prayers, you start to pray like David in Psalm 13:1-2), “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” This is taking forever, God. How long is this going to take? Where are you?
Discouragement is one of Satan’s favourite weapons. If he can’t knock you down with one punch, he’ll wear you down over time. If he can get your eyes off of God, away from those who are trying to encourage you, away from the worship songs that remind you of God, away from your times of prayer – and get you to skip small group, skip church, skip your quiet time, stay up too late, eat poorly, and ignore your friends – then he doesn’t have to stop us with anything huge because discouragement will take over and we’ll just quit.
He’ll wear us down until we don’t have the strength to take even a little punch. Where we would never have thought we would do that really bad thing – get drunk, do drugs, be violent, cheat on our spouse – now, after wearing us down with ridicule and mocking and rumours and constant grumbling about how hard things are – all it takes is a little push. You’ve probably experienced this.
Nehemiah’s Response: Reminders
So how did Nehemiah respond to this discouragement? What can we do when discouragement starts to take over and we feel like the job is too much? He reminded them of the truth. Look at verses 13-14:
“So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, ‘Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.’”
Who does Nehemiah turn to? God. “I know you are discouraged and afraid. I know you are losing heart. But you need to remember the Lord, who is great and awesome! Think of what He has already done and what He has promised to do. He has brought us back from captivity, rebuilt the temple, restored the priesthood, restored the feasts, and helped us to build more than half the wall… don’t get discouraged yet! God has the resources to do this and He has proven He is on our side! Get your eyes off of the enemy, off of the rubble, and raise your eyes towards heaven. Shot your ears to the lies, insults and fear; to all those who say we are going to lose. Walk by faith, not by sight, and know that God has already declared this victory. It is our job to keep stacking stones.”
What else does Nehemiah do? He reminds them why what they are doing is so important. Why they can’t quit. Because this isn’t just about them.
The mission God has given us in this world isn’t just about our own growth and contentment. Our pain and struggles and fear isn’t just about us. Our life is not about us, but about God and those around us. We can’t quit because there are people that depend on us. “Remember the Lord”, and remember why you need to keep on fighting, keep on building, keep on striving, sword in one hand, trowel in the other: for your family.
Your life isn’t just about you. It’s about your mother and father, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, your church, and all those who will follow in your legacy. You don’t just fight for you – you fight for them. Your faith and obedience will ripple for generations – as will your sin. If you give up it will affect more people than you realize. You and I are not fighting merely for a prize we get to keep, but for everyone around us too.
The individualism that has overtaken our culture – where my choices, my behaviours, my beliefs, my decisions are mine alone – is not how the world works. We are part of a family, community, and what we do or don’t do ripples out and touches everyone.
Whether you’re going into High School, College, University or Post-Grad, Pastor Al gives some important reminders to students returning to school this semester.
1. Guard your reputation.
2. Remember why you’re there.
3. Find a good church.
4. Keep your devos going.
5. Try to find balance.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Record a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page! (We love this the most!)
5. Buy some cool stuff from our new Merch Store! (And check out our friend Kim’s amazing art while you’re there!)
Why is prayer so difficult sometimes and what are some practical ways to become better at it? Our first episode of Season 3 kicks off with one of the most important topics we could think of: prayer.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Record a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page! (We love this the most!)
5. Buy some cool stuff from our new Merch Store! (And check out our friend Kim’s amazing art while you’re there!)
If you’re on YouTube, then you’ve probably seen the “Try Not To Laugh” challenges where someone puts together a bunch of funny clips and you’re supposed to watch them with a friend and see who laughs first.
Well, I was watching some YouTube videos the other day and came across one where the people were doing the “Cringe Challenge”. This was a bunch of clips of really awkward, embarrassing and cringe-worthy moments that were happening to other people, that were meant to invoke empathy for that poor person. It worked.
The first was a video of a guy on a talk show trying to do a back-flip off a couch. It didn’t work and he full face-planted on the carpet. That wasn’t too bad. There were a couple others I got through without flinching, but the one that got me was the man at the outdoor concert who walked past a TV reporter over to a trough he thought was for washing hands – but it wasn’t. We all watched as he grabbed the urinal cake like it was soap, scrubbed up, dipped his hands in the pee, and started looking around for the tap… it wasn’t there. That got me.
There are a lot of things in this world that cause us to cringe – to get that inward feeling of embarrassment or disgust that ends up taking over a part of our body. Oftentimes it’s not something that physically happens to us, but something that happens around us that causes us to wrinkle our nose, clench our teeth, cross our arms, and take a step back. Even though nothing is physically touching us, we feel it nonetheless.
That’s how I feel about bad theology. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, “I take great comfort in good theology.” I can’t remember if I heard that somewhere or if I came up with it myself, but for me, it’s a very true statement. I take great comfort in good theology. I could even switch it around to “good theology brings great comfort”. When I’m feeling sad, angry, confused, ashamed, prideful, or whatever, the thing that makes me feel better, or gives me answers, or guides me back to sanity, is good theology.
And actually, the opposite is true too. I am discomforted when presented with bad theology. It makes me cringe. Chances are, if you’ve been around me for any length of time, you’ve probably seen me cringe when someone goes off the theological rails. I can’t help it.
I was at a funeral a while ago where the speaker gave a message that almost put me into fits. It was full of wrong thinking, false assumptions, and unbiblical claims, and it made me really uncomfortable – to the point where Anita had to lean over and tell me to get control of myself. The words that were meant to bring comfort to the mourners were actually causing me pain. Why? Because they were false (or at least terribly misunderstood) claims about God.
I can’t remember exactly what they are – I may have blacked out at some point – but they said things like,
- “They’re looking down on you from heaven today.” – which has absolutely no biblical basis.
- Or “God needed another angel in heaven so He took them away.” – which is really, really bad theology.
- Or “They had accomplished all they were sent to do.” – which is probably not true.
- Or “Everyone here will see them again when they meet in Heaven.” – which was also probably not true. Each one of these phrases made me cringe.
Why? Because, as John Piper once said, “Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness.” It hurts people and dishonours God – and the worse the theology, the more the hurt and dishonour. Lying to people about sin, salvation, worship, and eternity doesn’t ultimately bring anyone comfort. Instead, it puts words in God’s mouth and causes people to put their hope in the wrong place.
Here’s the thing. Bad theology sounds comforting, but it isn’t – instead it leads to confusion and despair. Why? Because “Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness.” Let me add one more quote from JI Packer:
“Evangelical theology is precise and sharp, honed as a result of centuries of controversy reflecting the conviction that where truth fails, life will fail, too.”
Christians believe it’s important that we work hard to get what we say about God right! We have worked hard for hundreds of years, and spilt much blood, sweat, and tears, fighting for that “precise and sharp” theology, “honed” to reflect the truth, because we know that when we get it wrong, bad things can happen.
In case you’re wondering where we are in our Corinthians study, we haven’t left the passage we did last week – 2:9-12. If you remember, I said that God’s plan is a “revealed” one. Paul said to the Corinthians,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him – these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
I’m still stuck on that word, “revealed”. That’s a critically important word and one I don’t want us to miss.
I’ve had a few conversations recently about why good theology is so important.
Some have talked about how divided Christians are and wondered if we really needed to split up over these issues.
- Others have asked about Catholics and Evangelicals, wondering if their Roman Catholic friends and relatives are part of the Christian family, and whether they need to evangelize them or not.
- Others have mentioned how meaningful they have found certain teachers, how much they’ve touched their lives, and wondered if them being different in a few areas is such a big deal.
- As a leadership team, we’ve had discussions about the theological direction of our own denomination and the liberalization of the churches within it, and wondered what we should do.
- We’ve talked same-sex marriage, race issues, Hollywood films, fallen celebrity pastors, the charismatic movement, the pope, women pastors, natural disasters, and more…
Each of these issues has deeply theological implications. And to even begin talking about them as Christians, we have to ask the same basic question: What does God say about this? What has God revealed about this? That’s what theology really is: it simply means to “Study God”. Biology is the study of living organisms. Archaeology is the study of ancient cultures. Bacteriology is the study of bacteria. Theology, is the study of THEOS, which is the Greek word for God.
When we are doing theology, we are studying God. It is our attempt to understand who God really is and what He wants. Yes, we will ultimately fall short, since our human capacities cannot possibly explain an infinite God, but it’s still our responsibility and privilege to try. He has given us His Word and access to the Holy Spirit and that is more than enough to understand everything He wants us to know about Himself and what He wants from us. We don’t have to make things up.
I want to park on this word “revealed” for a moment because I think it’s so critical for us to get this concept deep into our minds. Too often, when it comes to our thoughts about God, the church, human relationships, politics, religion, or any number of other things humans argue about, we tend to trust our feelings and our ability to comprehend the situation. Last week I warned about the dangers of pursuing human wisdom and trusting our own feelings, and I’m sort of continuing that thought, but adding that when we are confronted with this, we need to pursue what God has revealed.
Last week I emphasized the importance of humbling ourselves before God, getting on our knees, and allowing God to reveal His truth to us. This week, I want to reemphasize how important it is to realize that we don’t have the right to think whatever we want about God, and assume it’s right. In other words, we don’t get to make up our own ideas about what God is like, how His plan of salvation works, how His church operates, or how we relate to Him and His creation. Instead, as Christians, we come under the Lordship of Christ, and allow Him to reorient our thinking to His revealed truth.
Allow me to drive home this idea with some scriptures:
We’ve already seen in 1st Corinthians that God’s plan for our lives can’t be figured out without Him. (1 Cor 2:10, Eph 3:5), but I also want you to see that when Jesus talks about who can know God, He says in Luke 10:22,
“…no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
We require Jesus to intervene before we can know God.
When Paul talks about the core of the Gospel in in Romans 1:16-18, he says,
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
We can’t know the righteousness of God or the wrath of God or the salvation that God offers (which is really the whole message of the Bible) unless God reveals it to us. We can’t understand what He expects of us, or what condemns us, or how to become free from condemnation unless He tells us first – through our conscience and the scriptures. Our sin causes us to suppress the truth, even when we are presented with it.
That’s why this is such a big deal. We’re dealing with massively important things here, and we want to get it right.
RC Sproul wrote a book a while back which was cleverly called, “Everyone’s a Theologian”. His point was that everyone has some ideas about God. Everyone has put some thought into it. C.S. Lewis put it this way,
“If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones.”
Remember that JI Packer quote? It said: “Evangelical theology is precise and sharp, honed as a result of centuries of controversy reflecting the conviction that where truth fails, life will fail, too.” God is the giver of life and truth. Sin leads to death and Satan is the father of lies. We work hard as Christians to study what God has said about things because when we get it wrong, when “truth fails”, when we teach “wrong ideas”, we point people towards death. That may sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not!
Examples of Dangerous Theology
I said before that I take great comfort in good theology, and that bad theology causes people harm – and worse than that, it dishonours God.
Let me give you a couple examples:
I’ll start with my funeral example. I heard a preacher say once, “I’ve never been to a funeral where the person in the casket went to hell.” What he meant was that it is really hard as a pastor to stand in front of a group of people at a funeral and know that the person in the casket had no discernable faith, showed no repentance, and gave no testimony of being a believer, and is likely in hell now. It’s tempting to avoid the subject of eternity, or even try to whitewash the situation by implying that maybe they were saved, or outright stating that God lets everyone into heaven because He’s so loving, or because as a religious official you have the power to save them by saying the right holy words.
But is that really the most comforting? It’s not what God says, not what scripture declares, and God is very serious about not being a false teacher, and the danger that comes to those who listen to them. Is it better for everyone in the room to believe God saves everyone no matter what? Is it more comforting for a victim to walk away believing that there is no such thing as divine justice – that wrong will never be punished? Is it kind to lie to someone about their eternal destination, and have them live their lives thinking their beliefs and actions don’t matter? Is it better to make everyone in the room put off the question, “What will happen to me after I die?”? I don’t think so.
In the 15th century, the Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and William Tyndale worked against centuries of bad theology that had crept into the Catholic church as it got more political and corrupt.
- They had lost the understanding of how God saves people.
- They presented God’s grace as something that could be bought for money, or had to be earned through rituals and rites.
- They added books to the Bible.
- They told people that they didn’t have the right or ability to read the Bible, even keeping their own priests in the dark about what they were saying.
- They told people to say their prayers to dead people instead of Jesus, and that they would be heard better if they also paid some money for their prayer.
- They said that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough and that God wouldn’t forgive them until they did penance, or suffered for their sin.
- They invented a whole new state after death called “purgatory” where Christians would have to go to be purged and punished for their sins, for thousands of years, before they could go to heaven, because Jesus’ death wasn’t enough – unless they or their relatives gave money to the church.
- They even refused to give Communion to believers because they taught that the elements were too special for common folk to handle.
These beliefs haven’t gone away, and cause millions of people to be not only confused, but abused by the church, and terribly worried about the state of their soul, every day.
Is it more loving for an evangelical to sweep all this under the rug? Is it right to pretend that all none of this matters and allow people to continue to believe lies about God, salvation, grace, prayer, and the Bible? Would it honour God most for us to ignore it and try to get along? I don’t believe so.
One last example, though there are many more, this one is fresh. I recently watched a “prayer” that was given by “Methodist” “Pastor” at the Democratic National Convention.He asked everyone to join hands, and then with eyes open, gesturing to the crowd the whole time, he prayed a prayer so skillfully vague that you could almost interpret it however you wanted. However, when you listen with discernment, and realize his context, you can see that it could never be addressed to the God of the Bible.
He asked everyone to join hands, and then with eyes open, gesturing to the crowd the whole time, he prayed a prayer so skillfully vague that you could almost interpret it however you wanted. However, when you listen with discernment and realize his context, you can see that it could never be addressed to the God of the Bible.
There was no mention of Jesus, of course, but instead he prayed to “the god of many names”, at least implying that all religions pray to the same God – which isn’t true.
He spoke of how he wanted God to allow love to overcome fear so we can work together with people “no matter their race, creed, sexual orientation, or colour”. He prayed that God might help humanity “end discrimination in all its forms.” which could be a prayer against racism and prejudice, but does he really think God wants people to stop discriminating altogether? To discriminate simply means to know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. Was he asking God to get rid of all forms right and wrong?
In the worst part of his “prayer”, he claimed that God’s prophets and teachers taught us to build bridges to other faiths and not demonize them. And yet, all through scripture we are taught that there is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism and One God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:5), and that it is the work of Satan and the demons to try to draw people away from that one faith (1 Tim 4). We are told that there are false teachers and demonic spirits in the world that will tell lies and lead people astray, and that we are to be discerning as to who we listen to (1 John 4:1). Jesus condemns false religious as dangerous, worthless, and a rejection of God (Mark 7:7-9), and warns that there will be many false Christ’s and false prophets that will lead people astray (Mark 13:22-23). In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 we are told that those who present themselves as false apostles and prophets are literally serving Satan.
We are warned specifically not to tear down the walls that divide us from those who teach false things, who promote bad theology, or who worship God’s enemy! Now, we aren’t to take up the sword and harm people who don’t believe like us, but are to love them as much as we can – just as Jesus did – but we are certainly not to put aside our beliefs and join them.
In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 we are commanded explicitly:
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’”
Let’s conclude with this: the whole point of this message is that God is very, very clear that He doesn’t want us messing around with what He says about Himself, or His Son, His Spirit, His Word, His Worship, His People, or anything else He’s revealed. He calls us out from the world to be His people, revealing to us a portion of Himself, and then fills us with the desire to know Him better.
But there are voices all around us, and within us, that tempt us towards taking an easier, more politically correct, more socially acceptable, more personally understandable, view of God. They tempt us to compromise and change what God has said so that faith is easier. They tempt us to alter God’s truth in an attempt to bring people unity and comfort. But it doesn’t.
Listen to the words of Galatians 1:6-10. Paul says to this church,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Who are we trying to please when we bend theological truths, ignore what God has said, and try to comfort people with falsehoods and misinformation? We’re trying to please man, which means we are not serving Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5:20 it says,
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
Ambassadors aren’t allowed to change the message! If God is “making His appeal through us”, then we had better get the message right! And to get the message right means that we need to realize and accept that sometimes what our hearts tell us is simply wrong. Sometimes what we think is right and best isn’t how it’s supposed to go. It means humbling ourselves before God and allowing Him to tell us how things go. It means admitting that sometimes we don’t know what we’re talking about and that we let our emotions and prejudices get in the way.
- How does He want to be worshiped?
- How does He want to be talked about?
- How did He design the church?
- What does He want us to do and not want us to do?
- How does He want us confront sin or comfort people?
God’s truth is a revealed truth. God is a God who reveals Himself. There is great comfort in good theology, and so I invite you to humble yourself and allow God’s Word and God’s Spirit to shape your thinking, instead of allowing the feelings within you and the voices around you to do it.
 A Godward Life Volume Two, pg. 377
 Keep in Step with The Spirit, pg. 173
I was given the opportunity to be a special speaker this week and as I was preparing my sermon, I ended up stopping and thinking: “You know what, the talk I just wrote for this other group really lines up to what we’re talking about in 1st Corinthians. Maybe I should just share this on Sunday.” So that’s what I’m doing today.
The next passage we are going to look at in our 1st Corinthians series is all about the importance of being united to each other because we are united in Christ. That phrase, “in Christ” is all over the New Testament, and used many times in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. It’s an important phrase which speaks to how we are saved, why we are kept as God’s people even after we sin again, and why God accepts us to be with Him forever. It’s because we are “in Christ”. The phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord” occurs 20 more times in this letter alone!
- If we are “in Christ”, then we are a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).
- If we are “in Christ” we are “sons of God” (Gal 3:26).
- The grace given to us was grace given “in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:9).
- My favourite passage of scripture says that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
- It is “in Christ” that we have forgiveness (Eph 1:7).
- And remember when we started studying this letter, Paul said, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:2).
When Jesus was talking to His disciples during the Last Supper before He would be arrested and crucified, he used this phrase over and over. Turn to John 15:1-7 and let’s look at it together. Jesus said:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 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. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
One big problem in the Corinthian church was that they had stepped away from being “in Jesus” and were seeking to live in their own wisdom, their own strength, their own ability, their own knowledge, and use the gifts God had given them for their own reasons. It’s not that they had lost their salvation, but had, by their disobedience, stopped abiding in Jesus. The rest of this letter is meant to call them back to living life as people who are in Jesus – to gain all they need from “the vine” and not separate themselves from the source of life.
Where’s the Fruit?
That concept, of choosing to remain, or abide, or live in Christ, holds an important key to understanding life as a busy Christian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them or referenced these verses in sermons, but more and more I’m finding that I have to explain them because a lot of folks don’t really grasp what it means.
At first glance, they seem to say that life with Jesus is a life where our worries are minimized, our joy is maximized, and where we are constantly “bearing much fruit”. They seem to say that life “in Christ” is always effective and joyful, overflowing with abundance.
But that’s not the way it seems to work out does it? And sometimes people grab onto these verses, and instead of them bringing peace, they actually bring guilt and shame. They look at their house, their kids, their marriage, their jobs, their failed plans, their church, and wonder why God’s promises aren’t coming true. The house is in disarray, the kids are in rebellion, the parents aren’t getting along, family life is distant, work is joyless, and worship is stagnant. The one word they would not use to describe their life is “fruitful”, and they wonder what’s wrong.
Maybe they misunderstood God’s calling on their life? Maybe their faith is too small. Maybe the married the wrong person. Maybe they’re just not strong enough to do what is necessary for God to bless them. They feel that either something is wrong with them or something is wrong with God… both of which are terrifying and depressing thoughts.
So, our question today is this: Why is it that so many feel that no matter how hard we try (whether it’s parenting, school, dieting, spiritual things, or whatever)… why do we still feel so ineffective and joyless? If we have the Holy Spirit inside of us, the God of the universe as our Father, and are saved by the amazing love of Jesus Christ, are surrounded by Christian brothers and sisters, and are trying to do what God has asked us to do, then why do we struggle with being content, happy, and at peace? Why is it so hard?
We love to quote the words of Jesus in John 10:10 to each other, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” “But, Really?”, some of us will say. “Sure, my life is full… but it’s full of problems, full of frustrating situations, difficult people, money issues, time crunches, failure and fatigue. I’m full — of problems.
Dealing with the Dichotomy
It’s times like those when it’s helpful to turn to the Bible and read it carefully.
Romans 8:31-37 helps us deal with this seeming contradiction between the promise of joy and the reality of how we feel. It begins,
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
That’s what we’re counting on, right? That’s a great verse to sew on a pillow and stick to the fridge. If God was so loving and gracious to send His Son to die for us, and is willing to forgive our sins, restore us as sons and daughters, and give us eternal life – all because of the shed blood of His Son – then He’s already proven that there is no limit to the good He will do for us out of His love!
Christians believe that is true… but how can it be when our life is full of problems? It still doesn’t answer the question as to why our life isn’t overflowing with fruit and joy? In fact, it can make it worse. If can cause us to question our faith, or even the goodness of God. If it’s true that we are overwhelmingly loved by a God who has infinite resources, then why is life so hard?
The Apostle Paul lived this dichotomy. Skip to verse 35,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
How did Paul reconcile these things? How could he hold the love of God in one hand, and difficult life he was living in the other and say he was being consistent?
First he says “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, and then lists some of the bad things that are happening to him… trouble, famine, nakedness, danger, swords, and death all day long. How can both be true?
The answer is in verse 37:
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
There’s a super critical word in there that you need to see.
That little word that we don’t want to hear, but is in there anyway; the word “in”.
“In all these things…”.
That’s the answer to the question: How can I go through hardship, while still experiencing joy? Because having joy is about being able to experience the presence of God in the circumstance, not trying to find our joy because of the circumstance. Do you see the difference? If your joy is found in God, then even as the world collapses around you, the source of your joy never changes – and therefore you will always have a source of abundant joy.
So, what I want to do for the remainder of our time is show you a picture of how I believe this works practically – at least from my perspective. I’m going to give you an illustration of why you need to keep your relationship with God as your source, remain “in Christ”, and not fall into the trap of seeking joy and fruitfulness in other areas. I’m not saying it’s a perfect illustration, but it helps me remember how life works and how to keep my priorities straight.
I call it “Mind Your Buckets” and it has everything to do with being filled by God… and not having your happiness dependant on circumstance. Ready?
So here’s the first picture. Let’s start with the source: God. God is the source of life. There is life in no other. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life…” Genesis 2:7 says that when God created humanity He breathed into him the breath of life that made him a living being. There is no life outside of that which God gives. If He withdraws His Spirit, we will cease to exist. So He goes at the top as the Source of Life.
Next comes “Me”. The bucket where I store my “life juice”, or the source of my strength, joy, peace, happiness, energy, etc. It comes from God, and goes to me.
Next comes “Priority Hill”. We all know that water runs downhill, and it’s the same with our life. There are things that need to go on top of the hill, and things that go on the bottom, and if your priorities out of order, then you won’t give enough “life juice” to the most important things in your life because it’ll be spent on other things.
So what are our priorities? They come next. Next comes the buckets that we fill up with the life-juice that comes out of us. The things that need our life, energy, emotions, physical health, time, money and skills…and they are labelled “Key Relationships”, “Life Purpose”, “Work” or “Things I Have To Do”, and then “Hobbies” or “Things I Want To Do”.
These are our priorities, in order. Our whole life, arranged as a series of 4 buckets. And this is their proper priority order. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time discussing why they are in this order, we can discuss that later, if you like.
After your relationship with God, your next most important priority are your Key Relationships – your spouse, your immediate family and those closest to you.
The next most important priority is your Life Purpose, or why you exist – God’s chosen purpose for you. Some people would put Work as their second most important priority, but that’s not the way God set the world up. God won’t judge you for how much work you did, but whether you lived out His will for your life. Everyone is designed with gifts, talents and a purpose. We know from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents that we are each given different amounts of skills, aptitude, and abilities, and we are expected to use them. Yes, we can use our gifts at work, and if we are very blessed, even get paid to work out of our life’s purpose, but our work and our purpose are not necessarily synonymous.
The gifts and abilities God gave us are not given to use only for ourselves, to make money, or just to take care of our family. God has given us each something that we are supposed to do to bless this world. Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That’s not talking about our work, but our life’s purpose. If you’ve done any reading about spiritual gifts then you know 1 Corinthians 12:7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” “The common good” means God expects us to use our gifts for not only our family but our church, our neighbourhood, and the world.
The third priority is Work, or Things I Have To Do. We have to work in order to eat. That’s life. We have to change the diapers, mow the grass, learn the multiplication tables, take our medicine, correct the grammar assignment, buy the groceries, make supper, fix the car, and brush our teeth. We don’t necessarily want to do these things, but we have to… and it certainly does cost us some of our “life juice”. And we know that when life becomes all about Work, or doing the Things I Have To Do… it literally sucks the life out of you.
Our Fourth priority is our Hobbies, or Things I Want to Do. Yes, unfortunately, Things I Want To Do comes after Things I Have To Do. When we switch those two around, that’s called procrastinating, and it gets us into trouble. Things like doing crafts, playing games, practicing guitar, taking a fun class, photography, computers, checking Facebook, shopping, baking, hunting, fishing, etc. They aren’t work, they aren’t our life’s purpose. They don’t really build our Key-Relationships, but they are good things we like to do, so they get a bucket too.
So now that we have our buckets… it’s time for the pipes. Out of the “Me” bucket comes the pipes that lead to each priority bucket, and one that goes nowhere… that’s the Waste pipe. Because not only does life flow from God to you, but also from you to others. And each pipe has a valve. And your life is all about constantly adjusting those little, yellow valves to make sure things are getting enough of your “life juice”.
Now, before I discuss that more, there are two more pipes I need to put in there… the return pipes. There are pipes that come back from your Key Relationships and your Life Purpose. Believe it or not, you gain some life back into your “Me” tank if you pour your life into those things. As you show love to those closest to you, and practice your gifts, you’ll feel more filled up. And as you serve others in the area that you are gifted in, that will fill you up with life too! But here’s the problem… those pipes leak!
Because people are imperfect and sinful, they can never give back to you in a perfect way. If you were to close off your relationship with God and only work on your relationships with those closest to you, and pour yourself into your life’s purpose… you would eventually run out of “life juice” because sin makes the pipes leaky. As much as you love them, people still drain you.
This is something that I think a lot of busy parents get wrong when they forget to take time to develop themselves spiritually. They think that if they keep pouring their life into their spouse, children and kids – and living out their purpose as a mom (or a dad) – then they should have all the joy and energy they need. They’re doing what God built them to do, and they’re doing it for people they love, so they should be able to do it forever, right?
But what happens? They get tired, grumpy, frustrated, sad, depressed, competitive, distracted, and resentful. They start to question whether they should have even had kids at all! They question their marriage! They fanaticize about quitting everything. Why? Because they’re life-juice is gone. They haven’t been going to God for a refilling of their tank. They’re not living in His sustaining power. They topped up a while back, and maybe got a bit during that hour at church, and maybe they do family devos, but they don’t spend time in private prayer and bible reading and aren’t connecting to God personally. – which means they run out of juice.
Why? Because they have put their family where God should be. They’re asking from their children and spouse, something that can only come from God.
The Overflow Pipes
Now take a look at the pipes that join the buckets together.… life also flows from one bucket to the next. If you do this right and get your priorities straight, then the placement of your buckets actually help you out… but if you get this wrong, they work against you. ** This is a big idea, so stay with me! **
As you keep the top priorities filled up, they actually pour into the other buckets. This is absolute truth. If you are pouring your life into your Key Relationships, then putting time and effort into your life’s purpose gets easier. If you’re using the life God gives you to work on your marriage, love your kids, make time for your friends and church, and doing the good works God has prepared for you to do, then your work – even when it’s no fun – is actually easier.
BUT if you stop pouring life into your Key Relationships by taking your spouse for granted, neglecting your kids, friends, and church… then doing what God wants you to do gets harder because you’re not with the ones you love, you’re not as encouraged or supported. Then your work gets harder because you feel lonely and distracted, and wonder why you have to do this stuff anyway since nobody cares about you…. Even your hobbies become less fun because you don’t have people to share them with, and you feel guilty because you know you haven’t been doing what you’re supposed to do. Do you see what I mean?
If you get your priorities straight, life works better. When you get your priorities out of whack, your life goes out of whack too. If you spend your time pouring your life into your hobby – you will lose your job, and probably your key relationships too. If you spend all your time at work, then you will not fulfil your Life’s Purpose, and you will harm your Key Relationships. And if you stop connecting to God’s unlimited resources, then you will be running off of a limited amount of life-juice that will eventually dry-up. I’ve been there – it’s not pretty.
The final pipe is the Waste pipe. The Waste My Time pipe – it’s red and doesn’t even get a bucket. Nothing is accomplished, no relationships are built, no ministry is done, no work is done, and nothing is created. This is where we are just being totally self-indulgent and pouring our life out onto the ground. We wasting time on the internet, or stare at another glowing box, or spend time at the mall, or some other pointless thing. Endlessly scrolling Facebook or newsfeeds or Pinterest, not even stopping to read. Shopping for nothing in particular. Binge-watching Netflix. Sleeping more than we need.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes what we call “me time” is just a waste of time. We’ve bought into believing that somehow, wasting our life is going to fill up our tank… but it’s not true. Now, I’m not talking about solitude and time with God, or taking a purposeful Sabbath rest – that’s different. I’m talking about where we turn off the valve to our Key Relationships and go away from everyone, turn off the valve to our Life Purpose and serve no one, turn off the valve at Work and do nothing… and just pour our life-juice on the ground. We’ve been sold this idea somehow wasting time will fill our buckets up… but it doesn’t really work, does it?
The Drain Gremlin & “Balance”
So here’s our buckets, our pipes and our valves. But there’s still two missing things. So let’s put that next one in. The final set of valves go right here at the bottom of the tanks. They are the release valves. The drains. And there’s a little gremlin out there that keeps messing with your levels. You’ve probably met him.
How many times have you heard, or even said, that all your life needs is “balance”? We think that if we finally get the right balance in our life that everything will run smoothly. We say it all the time… what we need is “balance”.
We are all seeking this perfected world where it’s possible to get our priorities perfectly straight, our valves set, our life on track, our calendar perfect, our budget exactly right… and then we’ll have no problems. We’ll have balance. Have you told yourself that? Have you believed it?
But the problem is that this world is out of balance because of sin and error. And our enemy, the Devil, is constantly trying to mess up our buckets! We will never be able to just set the valves at the right place and then walk away knowing the system is secure forever because there’s always something that will mess it up.
Something will happen in one of your Key Relationships… someone gets hurt, or dies, or needs help, or gets depressed, or moves out, or gets born… and it’s like someone took that drain and cranked it wide open! All our life juice is flowing straight into that Key Relationship, and it’s taking a lot more of our energy, time, emotions and life than before. Everything else starts to suffer because one of our Key Relationships is more of a draw than before. Perhaps it’s a sick spouse or a broken relationship with a family member or friend – it becomes a drain on us because we have to put more effort and energy into that relationship.
Or your life’s purpose gets hard. People won’t join in your group, the finances aren’t working out, it’s a lot harder than it used to be, there are too many things going on. Or Satan ramps up his attacks on you and even though you know you’re doing the right thing, and working in your area of giftedness, it’s a serious drain on you.
Or there’s a huge project at Work, or something goes crazy at the office, or the computer crashes, or the car blows up, or supper gets burned, or there’s more bills than usual, or there’s a huge snow-storm or cold snap, or there’s a giant fire that burns down a third of your city… totally beyond your control. Sometimes the Things I Have to Do gets harder and the drain is pulling more than usual. It’s not our fault, but it happens and it effects everything else.
Dealing with the Drain
So what do we do when that happens? Well, people generally have a few responses. Maybe you’ll see yourself here:
Some people’s response is to turn off the other valves and just pour our life into the one place that needs us most. If it’s a Key Relationship that needs more, then we shut off the valve going to our Life’s Purpose, Our Work, and Hobbies… and just concentrate on that one. If it’s Work that needs more, then we shut out our Key Relationships and stop doing what God put us on earth to do and spend our time at work fixing it. It makes sense to some people, right?
The problem with that is you can’t really do that. You can’t tell everyone you love to go away for an indefinite period of time. There will always be work that needs to get done. And you still have to keep your ministry commitments and do good deeds. And sometimes even your hobbies are such that you have to keep a drop or two going that way. So you can’t really just shut off the rest of your life. It’s not a good option or you’ll do more damage than what you’re trying to fix.
The next option is to shut off that problem valve and just let it run dry. If it’s a Key Relationship, just forget that person, or those people, even exist and pour your life in to our Work and Hobbies. Give your spouse the cold shoulder, stick the kids in school and programs, block that person’s posts and don’t take their calls… pretend that relationship doesn’t exist.
Or, if it’s another issue… then quit your ministry, leave the church, stop putting in effort at your job, burn your hobby. Just shut off everything in your life that needs attention.
I know many who have tried this method, and it also doesn’t really work. The people who deal with their problems by cutting off relationships and pulling the parachute become lonely, bitter, and sad people. We are built for relationships, for doing good works, for work and for enjoying this world, and shutting them off when these things get difficult doesn’t make us more joyful, but instead causes serious problems later. That’s where we lose our marriage, our kids, our friends, our parents, our jobs, and our joy. God didn’t build us to shut out our problems, but as our verse said – we are to exist and become conquers in them. We need to stay in.
The “Me” Level Check and Shut Off Valve
But, that bucket is still pouring out like crazy, right? What should we do? We can’t just let our Me tank run dry, can we? Let me introduce our two pieces…our level check and our shut off valve.
The Level Check is located on our “Me” tank and it’s linked to a valve right at the bottom — and this is an automatic valve. If your Me level gets too low, then it shuts down the flow to everywhere else, and we just shut down. This is our life-saver valve. It makes sure we don’t run out of life juice and die. It keeps a little in the tank, just for us to exist on. I know this valve exists, because I’ve tripped the Level Check before and I’ve felt this valve snap shut.
It’s kind of like one of those teapots that whistle when the water boils. It starts out quiet, but gets louder. You can hear this system, and also feel this system, and even see this system. Your body starts to ache. Your stomach is tied in knots. Your head hurts, your ears ring. Tears come easily. You hear yourself yelling more. It’s harder to get up in the morning, and you can’t go to sleep at night. You find yourself eating way too much and gaining weight, or not eating at all and losing it. You get canker sores, and get sick easier. This is your life-saver system sending signals that your “Me” bucket is really low and you’re about to shut down.
This all happened to me in December 2009. I had a bunch of these symptoms, and my whistle had been going off for the whole year, but I was stubborn, didn’t listen to my body or my spirit, and I was almost out of life-juice. And then one day, my valve snapped shut and I was gone. Zombified. Total protection mode. Nothing else in my life got anything. I couldn’t make any decisions. I pushed everyone away. I was constantly exhausted. I was just running on auto-pilot. I was there only in body, doing the bare minimum – but Al was gone. You could have done anything to me and I wouldn’t have cared. The whole of my conversational ability was down to one word: “Whatever.”
At the time, I was getting it on all ends. My Key Relationship valve was wide open. Anita was very sick and the kids had weird problems happening, I had issues with my parents, and a bunch of other stuff.
My Ministry was really draining too. While some in the church were verbally abusing me, the leadership boards felt they needed to vote a couple times about whether to fire me or not. This necessitated dozens of very difficult meetings, some lasting until midnight.
The Things I Have To Do valve was wide open too as life got more complicated.
And, of course, I had turned my Waste Valve open because I just wanted to get away from everything and escape. So I watched movies, surfed the net, read lots of books, and just wasted time.
And then, my system crashed. I ran out of juice and shut down. Since then, I’ve taken a lot of time to ask myself why that happened. What brought me to that point? What was I doing wrong, and what should I have been doing instead?
The answer is pretty obvious, actually. If this was a water system, and it’s running out of water, then what needs to be done? Add more water!
Pouring Sugar in the System
That’s what I wasn’t doing. But it’s is the only solution. When the buckets are draining and life is pouring out of you, you can’t just shut things down. You can adjust for a period of time… give a bit more to Work when it needs it, a bit more to the Family when it gets low… but that’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul – it doesn’t add to the system.
What I needed, and still need, and what we all need, is more life in the “Me” tank. I needed to go to God and ask for more water for the system. It’s not about turning off all of the tanks and running away. It’s not about Wasting it in an attempt to feel better. It’s not about just keeping one bucket going and hoping for the best. It’s about going to the Source of Life, connecting to the Vine, seeking first His Kingdom and His Righteousness… trusting and knowing that everything you need will be given as He fulfills His promise to pour more life into you.
It’s almost counter-intuitive to our sinful nature. We want to control the valves, and think we can handle it, and somehow don’t want to impose on God for more. Or, in a perverse thought, we start to think that it is God who is draining the life from us. We get bitter with Him, complaining that He’s not giving us enough to get by, so we try to find other sources, and other gods to get life from… like pornography and sex, or substances like food or alcohol, or doubling down on our willpower and trying to control the situation, or we throw money at the problem and hope that will solve it, or we try to boost our popularity and do things to make people look at us so we feel better, or we try religious moralism, or whatever… but they don’t provide life, they only mask the problem and harm the system. Doing those things is like pouring sugar in the tank. It feels like we’re filling it, but instead we are destroying ourselves and end up feeling emptier and emptier. Our system gets more and more messed up. Satan offers those quick fixes so that we will damage ourselves. God promises that He came to give life – and offers it freely to those who would come to Him.
Connecting to the Source of Life
Scripture says that the life God wants to give us is rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 8 reminds us that there is nothing that can disconnect us from our source – no amount of trouble, or distress, or famine, or danger, or death or demons, or time, or height or depth, or any other created thing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is only we who can choose to move further from our source. We can choose to disconnect from the vine, to seek things other than His Kingdom and His righteousness. He leaves that option open to us. Just like in the Garden of Eden, God leaves the option open for his children to seek other forms of knowledge and strength. But God promises that He will give more when we need it. Look at Philippians 4:19, “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” There it is again! Remaining in Jesus.
A Few Practical Suggestions
Let me close with a couple practical suggestions for how to connect to our source and meet God afresh. Maybe one reason you feel stagnant and drained is because your relationship with Him has become commonplace, more drudgery than refreshing.
Of course, you know by now that you need to read scripture, have time in prayer every day and go to church every week. Doing those things are like getting your regular meals. They’re not optional. But what about reading scripture and praying in a new place. Go to a coffee shop, sit on the patio, find a park bench, or just go to a different room in the house. The other day I changed the direction that I sit in my office and found a bit more energy in my devotional. Same thing with prayer. Pull a “War Room” and go sit in the closet. Put on a short tv episode for the kids and go to the backyard and sit in a lawn chair. Take a walk during lunch instead of going where you’d normally go.
Another way to meet God is to spend time with mature Christian friends. Make a point to have some strong believers over to your house and talk to them for a while. Not merely good friends you like to hang out with or new believers who share your struggles, but mature believers who will listen to you and speak Godly wisdom into your life.
Another way is to turn on worship music and have it playing in the house. Or, if you’re into it, find a sermon online and play it in your headphones after you go to bed.
Go for a walk and experience God’s presence in nature.
Write a list of things you are thankful for.
How about this: Tell your pastor or leadership team that you want to spend the next month connecting to God instead of serving in your church. Tell them that you are going to step away for the next four weeks and work hard to be proactive and present in the church service. Go to bed early Saturday night. Wake up on Sunday and prepare your heart. Pay attention to all the words of the songs you sing. Read and reread the bible passages used that week when you go home. Learn and sing the songs and hymns during the week. Choose to fully engage so you can meet God in a special way at church.
The whole idea is simply to connect with God in a way you never have before.
That’s what I have learned about myself and God. When things get hard, more and more I’m choosing not to shut people out or shut myself down, but instead to go to God and ask for more life.
More life to deal with what I have to deal with, minister to those He has given me to minister to, take care of my family, do the things that I have to do, forgive those I need to forgive, find joy in tough circumstances, and have my bucket overflow into others. He’s promised to be my source and make me a conqueror over all the difficult things that come at me in this life. He’s promised to give me what I need to do what I need to do. And I promise that He does each and every time I come to Him.
When crisis hits – whether it happens to us, our family, our friends, or we just hear about it on the news – our first instinct is to ask a lot of questions. Why did it happen to me/us? What will happen next? Is it over now or will it get worse? How far do the effects reach? Who is going to fix it? What needs to be done? How can I make sure this never happens again?
If you live with a Christian worldview, then the questions go even deeper. Was this a spiritual attack or simply the result of living in a fallen world? What is God trying to show me here? What does the Bible say about this? How have believers dealt with this in the past? What is my responsibility here? Who should I tell this too, and who should I not?
I think part of the reason that crisis brings questions is because humans have an instinct to try to understand and control everything around us. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. When God first created us He told us to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over [it].” God is the Creator and Owner of the universe, and He has made us managers of it. Implicit in that divine command is the need to understand our world and exert our energies to control what’s going on. So it’s not a bad thing that when something bad happens we want to understand as much as we can and then try to deal with it. Doing so is our God-given nature.
However, when sin came into the world it corrupted everything – including our God-given our curiosity and management duties, now, instead of working with God to discover more about His nature as it is found in creation, and then partnering with Him to accomplish His will, we believe that we can know everything there is to know without His input and can solve all our problems by ourselves.
This is why, though problems abound and questions flood our minds, many of us do not pray. Our inherent sin has told us that we are alone, that we can’t trust God, that we don’t need God, and that we can do a better job of fixing our problems without him.
The book of Habakkuk is all about a man of faith asking questions and seeking solutions during a time of crisis. Like some of us here today, Habakkuk looked at his nation and saw some hugely troubling issues. The number of faithful people was shrinking and paganism was taking over the land. The people weren’t working together for a greater good, but instead were more divided than ever. Violence ruled the streets
He looked to the religious leaders to do something, but they seemed both powerless and corrupt – and any of the good ones were ignored. He looked to the politicians, judges and lawmakers to do something, but they only cared about keeping their own power and lining their pockets. If a good person finally did stand up and challenge the system, it wouldn’t be long until the bad guys would corrupt him or eliminate him. Habakkuk was losing hope that his people would ever find a way back to living good lives of Godly peace and prosperity.
Habakkuk was getting angry and had had enough. But, instead of doing what so many of us do, where we start trying to find a way to control and fix the problem, Habakkuk started to pray.
The book of Habakkuk is a record of Habakkuk’s prayers and God’s answer to them. Habakkuk asked some huge questions, the main ones being: Why is this happening to us and what are You going to do about it, God?
God’s answer was that He had been at work raising up the Chaldeans, later called the Babylonian Empire, to be His weapon against evil in the land. They would come in, decimate the nation, wipe out almost everyone, and drag the rest off as slaves. This would be how God would discipline His people and force them to re-evaluate their lives.
Habakkuk’s follow-up question was to ask how that could be fair? Why would God allow a much worse, pagan nation to conquer His chosen people? God’s answer was that no one would be getting away with anything. The corruption in Israel would be rebuked, punished and then the people would be restored – and later the Babylonians themselves would be destroyed.
What happens next in chapter 3 is remarkable, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Habakkuk has just asked some huge questions, and God has been good enough to answer him – but the answers were not what he expected. No doubt, Habakkuk wanted God to work some miracles, change people’s hearts, send the Messiah to replace the corrupt leaders, or just zap all the bad guys with bolts of lightning. God’s answer wasn’t what He expected at all, but involved an evil nation, the death of his countrymen, the destruction of God’s temple, the loss of everything He owned, and the requirement to be dragged off into slavery for 70 years. He would die well before any Israelite would come home.
How Do You React?
How would you react? Or, more accurately, how do you react? I ask that way because this isn’t a theoretical question – you’re all living this right now. You currently live in a world where you are surrounded by bad news, and on occasion, that bad news hits you directly. You know that this world is full of poverty, corruption, violence, death, misery, starvation, and evil – but it’s not too hard to pretend it doesn’t exist as long as you stay pretty healthy, keep paying your bills, talk to your friends, and watch the occasional funny movie or video on YouTube. It’s easy to pretend that it’s all someone else’s problem, until it suddenly isn’t.
All of a sudden you’re the one who is in pain, facing financial struggles, is treated unfairly, has been a victim of violence, comes face to face with mortality, or has been touched by evil in some way. Suddenly it’s not just on the news, but it’s at your work, in your home, in your bedroom, in your body.
So, how do you react? Of course, as I just said, our first, instinctual reaction, is to ask a bunch of questions. And a Christian turns to God for answers to those questions, and we believe Scripture reveals to us many answers to these questions: Where did evil come from? How should we respond to crisis? What is God doing about the problem of sin? How can we live through it and come out better on the other side?
The whole series has been answering those questions, but we’re not done yet. The next questions is this: How are you going to react to God’s answer? .
A favourite atheist reaction is to use the misery of the world as a proof that God doesn’t exist or to question His goodness. After all, if God is good and wise and holy and loving, then how can bone cancer and tsunamis and ticks exist? Or, as Habakkuk asked, “God, if you are good and wise and holy and loving, then how can evil Israelites and evil Chaldeans and Babylonians exist?” Or as we ask today, “God, if You are good and wise and holy and loving, then why do that bad thing happen?”
A Christian reaction is to bring these questions to God, read His answers in the Bible, and then listen to His answers as He speaks to our spirit. My intention right now is not to rehash the last nine sermons and try to convince you to bring these questions to God, but instead to get you to ask yourself how you react when God answers your prayers in ways you don’t expect.
Habakkuk’s Relenting Prayer
Habakkuk gets it right. He hits his knees, asks some questions, and then waits for some answers. When God shows up and tells Him what’s going to happen, it’s not even close to what he expected, but what does he do next? He relents to God’s will and continues to pray.
Let’s read his prayer together and then we’ll take it apart a bit, but first I want you to notice one thing… this is a song meant to be sung by God’s people year after year. The words “according to Shigionoth” and “Selah”, and the comment at the end about instrumentality tell us that this isn’t a one-time prayer for one man during a crisis, this is a prayer given by God to His people to remember and sing for ages to come. This isn’t just a historical song, there is something here for us today.
“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.
O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.
God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. (Selah) His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels. He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways.
I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was your wrath against the rivers, O LORD? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation? You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. (Selah) You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger.
You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. (Selah) You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.
I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” (Habakkuk 3 ESV)
I Have Heard and Remember
This prayer has only one theme: Habakkuk’s relenting to God and His plan.
The first section is an introductory phrase where Habakkuk turns the whole problem over to God. Do you remember the very first verses of Habakkuk? He asks these opening questions: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” At the very beginning of his final prayer we see that Habakkuk has received his answer. God has heard, God is at work, and God is not idle.
The implicit accusation behind “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” is that God is seeing all the evil going on around him, but not doing anything. And now, after hearing from God, Habakkuk’s prayer begins… and I much prefer the NIV’s translation here:
“LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.”
Habakkuk, as he prays, is remembering and talking to God about what He has learned about how God does things. He’s processing how God operates in this world, the reminder that God is patient and kind, but also has a great wrath against sin. And while that knowledge blossoms, he’s recalling some of the times that God has chosen, because of his wrath against sin, to put his people through difficult times, and then later, restore them with acts of His great power. After talking to God and hearing His answer, He’s now convinced that God has been doing exactly what He’s always done – being patient, offering salvation, and then judging evil. This is Habakkuk’s prayer, relenting to God’s plan.
He has gained wisdom. He no longer believes, as some do, that God’s perfect will must always be happiness and comfort for everyone, but sometimes – as we’ve learned in Pilgrim’s Progress – that He sends His people through the Slough of Despond, and requires them to face the fiery darts, before they reach the Hill of the Cross. Wisdom knows that the straight and narrow path a pilgrim must follow always leads over the Hill of Difficulty, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, across the streets of Vanity Fair, and past the Giant Despair before they can reach their rest in the Celestial City.
Habakkuk now knows this, and has decided not to fight it – and as He does, the stories of scripture come flooding into his mind:
- He remembers the fear and awe that came upon the people as the earthquakes and lightning and smoke poured out of the mountain, as God descended during the giving of the Law. (3:3)
- He remembers the pestilence and plagues that came upon both their Egyptian enemies and upon Israel when they broke God’s law. (3:5)
- He remembers how great nations feared the people of God because He was with them. (3:6)
- He remembers how God used His power even over nature – turning the Nile to blood, crushing the perusing armies in the Red Sea, and making a dry path through the Jordan River for his people to come to the Promised Land. (3:8)
- He remembers how, though they have been at war for so long, that when they have been faithful, God has always defended them in miraculous ways; even stopping the sun in the sky – but has brought terrible justice and wrath upon the whole earth; from global floods to plagues to enemy armies – when His people broke their covenant with Him. (3:11, 15)
Habakkuk says in verse 16, “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.”
He’s not denying his disappointment, nor his fear, at what is coming. He’s not looking forward to seeing God’s wrath come upon His people, and he knows that it’s going to be a terribly hard road. BUT, he says, “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.” In other words, “God, I trust you. I know how you operate. I know that you don’t always do things that are comfortable for me. But I also know that you are just and good and that in the end, all evil will be repaid. I may not look forward to the immediate future, and I know it’s going to be hard, but I look forward to your end game, where all of Your enemies are brought to justice.”
Palm Sunday Application
The application, or rather, the final question today is this: Can you pray that prayer with Habakkuk? All through this study we’ve read how the Bible makes the case for the importance of bringing our questions and fears to God in prayer. We’ve seen how God’s plan of salvation often leads through difficult times, and how our response needs to be to run to God, not away from Him. And we’ve even had God explain how His long-term plan is to bring salvation to believers, wrath against evil, and glory to Himself.
But, are you willing to relent to God and have Him save you His way?
Today is Palm Sunday. It is on this day that Jesus came into town, riding on a donkey, fulfilling Messianic prophecy and declaring to all of Jerusalem that He is the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Saviour. That’s why they called out “Hosanna! Save us!” They knew what Jesus was doing.
But within five days the citizens of this same city would be shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” What changed? Part of the reason was that He refused to save them the way they wanted to be saved. He was supposed to come in and use His divine power to overthrow the Romans, set up a new kingdom, and distribute their wealth to the Jews. But He didn’t.
Instead, He came and preached against the Jews! He preached against the religious elites of the day, pronouncing woes upon them and calling them blind guides. He preached against the hypocritical worshippers who had turned the temple into a shopping mall. He taught that they were supposed to pay taxes to Caesar! He said that God doesn’t prefer the rich and happy, but the poor, the humble and the outcast! He said that Jerusalem would be encircled by armies and then destroyed. He said it was never His intention to create a worldly kingdom, but a spiritual one – and everyone who followed Him would be persecuted and hated. He said the only way for anyone to be saved would be to believe that He, the Son of God, had to die on an accursed Roman cross, taking the punishment for their sins.
That wasn’t what they wanted. They didn’t want to admit they had a sin problem. They didn’t want a suffering saviour. They wanted worldly comfort, not spiritual salvation. Jesus wouldn’t save them the way they wanted to be saved – and so they turned from laying palm branches before Him and shouting “Hosanna in the Highest” to trading him for the terrorist Barabbas and shouting “Crucify Him!”.
The Final Prayer
Let’s close by re-reading the final part of Habakkuk’s prayer, but as you read it, I want you to ask yourself: “Can I pray this prayer honestly?”
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”
If you can pray that prayer, then praise God, because that’s an uncommon faith.
But if you are struggling to pray that prayer today – knowing honestly that you would prefer God save you on your terms rather than His – then let me encourage you to do a few things so you can grow in your faith and trust in God’s plan:
- Start praying that God would increase your faith, teach you to trust Him, and show you how He provides for you in ways you’ve never seen or expected.
- Get into your Bible so you can know what He has done in the past and let that inform for you how He works.
- Surround yourself with people that will help you grow in your confidence in God. Get into a good church, join a small group, find a study group.