Preaching a message people don’t want to hear
Isaiah 22: Don’t tell me it’s going to be all right. These people are doomed. It’s not all right.
Have you ever been to a hurricane party? The tamer version of it is that, with the storm knocking out all power, people dig into their freezers and have a feast of all the ice cream, etc. that won’t survive the power outage. A few years ago, when we fled a hurricane supposedly aimed for our area we took steaks we’d been saving and had a big cookout as we awaited the bad weather. We might as well enjoy the food; otherwise it’ll be lost when the electricity goes off. I wonder if that’s the thinking in this portion of Isaiah. The nation is in trouble, and no victory has been won, but Isaiah complains about the party atmosphere he sees. Apparently, someone has told him to lighten up, that things will be all right. His response is that things aren’t going to be all right. They live in a doomed nation and everything’s about to fall apart. Sometimes our message to our society isn’t the message it wants to hear. Sometimes, it isn’t going to be all right. In fact, when we look at things from the largest point of view we know that the world isn’t going to just go on and on as it is. A day’s coming with everything we know is going to melt away. While we can’t just live there, in doom and gloom, we Christians need to take a good look at the people around us. Outside of Christ, to use Isaiah’s words, “these people are doomed.” Ours is a message of hope, but it’s also the only hope of a world that’s doomed.
Take Away: Our message is one of hope, but we need to remember it’s the only hope of an otherwise doomed humanity.
Isaiah 15: A Message concerning Moab.
Lest it appear that Isaiah has it in only for Babylon, we must note that a quick journey through this portion of Isaiah’s prophecy brings to light God’s displeasure with several other groups. There’s Philistia, Moab, Ethiopia, Egypt, Tyre and others. In other words, not only have God’s people gotten themselves in trouble with the Lord for their sin, they’re surrounded by sinful nations that would like nothing better than to wipe Israel off the map. (Somehow that sounds familiar — oh yes, we heard something like this on the news this morning!) Across the centuries God’s people have survived only by the grace of God. Their own failures have brought judgment and their enemies have posed a very real threat to their existence. Today, that’s still true for all of God’s people. We Christians believe we’ve been “grafted in” and are, by faith, children of Abraham. As his people, God holds us to a high standard and we must not forget that. Also, as did they, we live in hostile territory. For some believers, this is literally true and for all believers it’s spiritually true. We’re surrounded by that which would destroy our life in the Lord. Israel’s only hope is to reconnect with God. Today, our remaining “in Christ” is also our only hope.
Take Away: Our journey through life takes us through some dangerous territory, our only security is in the Lord.
Moment of truth
Isaiah 6: Every word I’ve ever spoken is tainted…words that corrupt and desecrate.
Isaiah’s first reaction to seeing the holiness of God isn’t reverence or ecstasy. Rather, it’s horror. In view of a holy God he realizes his own lack of holiness. When compared to his fellow citizens, Isaiah’s a good man, even a righteous man. However, when he finds himself in the presence of God he sees himself as he really is, and that vision brings him to his knees. Isaiah’s words are deeply personal and my reaction to this passage, if it’s honest, starts with me and not with what I perceive to be failure in others. Jesus touches on this in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Also, I note that Isaiah doesn’t announce that he’s now going to commence a self-improvement campaign. Instead, it’s honest recognition of his sinful ways and deep sadness as he realizes just how broken his life is. Isaiah, in just a few words, says it all: “I’m doomed because everything about me, even my words, is unclean and unholy. Now that I’ve seen God I realize the depth of my lostness. In myself I see no hope whatsoever.” The hope of Isaiah isn’t found within himself. He knows it, and the Lord knows it.
Take Away: It’s only as we’re honest with ourselves and with the Lord that the Lord can begin transforming our lives.
No reboot necessary
Isaiah 1: If your sins are blood-red, they’ll be snow-white.
If I have the idea that the prophets are all about denunciation and condemnation I need to spend some time with this passage. Yes, God is fed up with their religious charades; their going-through-the-motions spirituality; their under-the-table shady deals. The Lord says he’s going to put a stop to it. However, it doesn’t have to be with defeat, misery, and destruction. “Let’s be reasonable about this,” the Almighty says, “we can fix this, and when I’m finished things will be better than before.” All it takes is their being sensible and cooperating with God. This isn’t about having a sword hanging over their necks. It’s about grace and mercy, not justice. It’s still true today. If God wants to do away with us it’s his right and it’s just what we deserve. However, rather than hitting the “delete button” on humanity he offers restoration. This passage is filled with sunlight and hope. Plus that, it’s a genuine offer from Heaven’s Throne to each of us. Come on; let’s be reasonable about this…God can fix things, making them right between us and Him. It’s too good an offer to refuse.
Take Away: Rather than a re-start of humanity the Lord wants to restore us. That’s grace.
Trust in trial
Psalm 94: God will never walk away from his people.
A friend, who’s in the middle of about five disasters, including a couple of big physical problems of her own, bravely says to me, “I know the Bible says that God won’t let us face more than we can bear.” The unstated side of that is, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take!” In this psalm, a person who trusts in God questions the seeming unending flow of painful events in life. He sees all that’s happening and asks God, “How long will you let this go on?” Then the song writer begins to answer his own question reminding us that surely the “Ear-Maker” hears what’s being said and the “Eye-Maker” sees what’s going on. He states, “God will never walk away from his people.” There are times in life when we’re left with nothing but our trust in God’s love. We believe that he hears our prayers, sees what’s happening, and that he loves us with a never-ending love. At times like that it’s perfectly acceptable for us, on one hand, to proclaim, “I know it’ll be okay because the Lord’s on my side” while, on the other hand to cry out, “Lord, how much longer before you act on my behalf?”
Take Away: It doesn’t offend the Lord when his people cry out to him in painful, dark days.
No wonder we’re so happy!
Psalm 16: I’m happy from the inside out.
David’s testimony in Psalm 16 is absolutely inspiring. He makes the decision to run to God, making him Lord of his life and when he does this all the puzzle pieces of his life fall into place. Because of his trust in God he’s drawn to the best friends he could ever have. As he chooses the Lord he’s pleasantly surprised that before he ever picked God that God picked him! Now, day and night, his life confirms his decision and, when the end comes, he knows that his decision to serve the Lord will go with him into the world to come. It sounds almost too good to be true. Know what? It is true: every word of it. It’s no wonder David has a smile on his face! I guess that’s the reason Christians are so joyful too. After all, our story is every bit as victorious as is David’s. In fact, we know more about it than he does. We have (in Paul Harvey’s words) “the rest of the story.” We know about the Incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection. What’s that? You don’t think Christians are all that joyful? Well, shame on them…on us…on me!
Take Away: The people of the Lord have every reason to rejoice.
Psalm 7: I’m feeling so fit, so safe: made right, kept right.
Don’t you just love those “safe days”? What a blessing to look inward and see a heart made right and kept right. How pleasant it is to think serene thoughts, imagining soft, easy-going days in which I relax in the assurance of God’s pleasure with my life. It’s too bad that that’s not the message of this Psalm at all. David is under attack and he’s running for his life. He’s been accused of all kinds of failure, including spiritual failure. If his enemies get their hands on him he’s finished. This isn’t a day at the beach. This is war. And it’s in the middle of this war that David looks to God for help and vindication. As some of his life’s most difficult days rage all around him, he looks upward and finds hope. He looks inward and finds peace. While I really do love soft “safe days” I know that the real test of God’s work in my life is out on the battle field. If I can sense his pleasure with me and find inner peace there, well, I can find it anywhere.
Take Away: Life isn’t always easy but the Lord is with us and in us even on hard days.
Nehemiah 9: In your great compassion you heard and helped them again.
One result of the reading and study of God’s Word is a powerful reconnection by the returned exiles to their history. Nehemiah 9 is made up mostly of a song written to tell this story. In it, God’s grace and mercy is highlighted. The Lord is good to them, from Abram of Ur to the day when they occupied the Promised Land. However, there’s great spiritual failure as their ancestors reject God and his Law. There’s a lot of repentance in this song, but there’s also great hope. God is still their God and they rely on him to deliver them from their enemies and re-establish them in this place that was promised to Abraham so long ago. This song is not only a song of history but is a hymn of invitation as well. As it ends, the heads of the families are challenged to come forward to sign a binding pledge. From this moment forward they’ll be a faithful people of God. They’re sure of God’s grace, now they commit themselves to that grace. It’s a powerful moment. Without it, the story of Nehemiah is just about rebuilding a wall. With it, we have a story about God rebuilding a people.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his patient, merciful, transforming grace.
Nehemiah 8: This is a day holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!
Many of those listening to Ezra read and explain the Scripture this day left the land of their birth to return to this land of their ancestors. They left family and friends, security and comfort to go to an unsecured city that wasn’t a city at all; rather, it was a pile of rubble. They made the hazardous journey to Jerusalem and then braved real opposition as they labored to rebuild the wall and prepared to re-occupy the City of David. As this task is completed, a holy event is planned. Governor Nehemiah and Priest Ezra organize an event centered on the Word of the Lord. However, something unexpected happens as Ezra reads and explains the Scripture to them. These good people begin to weep and wail. The sense of celebration is replaced with a feeling of failure and fear. The leaders have to act quickly or this holy day will turn in to a day of mourning. Why is it that the people react as they do? I think it’s because they begin to grasp the enormity of their sins and that of their forefathers. Generations earlier, King Josiah responds in the same way when the Book of God is found in the Temple. As he hears it read he’s alarmed and responds in humble fear of God. There’s a place for this kind of response to God’s Word. In fact, I need to be fearful and heartbroken when I realize my sin. However, the story must never end here. The Word of God is not intended to condemn me. Instead, it’s to be for me a wonderful message of hope. I’ve failed God and should stand condemned but God is gracious and offers me hope. The bad news is that I’ve sinned against God. The good news is that he’s the God of Second Chances graciously offering me and you hope and restoration.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
The End…well, not quite
2 Chronicles 36: …he wanted to give them every chance possible. But they wouldn’t listen.
The intended audience of the Chronicles is the descendants of those in the story that’s told here. The original readers live in exile, hundreds of miles from Jerusalem. These people have never seen the City of David and are in danger of becoming disconnected from their rich heritage. However, there’s more. These books tell why they are where they are. The passage before us gives the final word. God had warned their ancestors again and again that if they continued down the road they were traveling it would end in destruction. The mercy and grace of God in reaching out to them was disregarded. His repeated overtures to them were rejected and because of that rebellion God gave up on them and all was lost. Now both Israel and Judah are gone and the holy city of Jerusalem is destroyed. The End. However, the Chronicles author can’t let it end like that. After writing the obituary of Judah he ties the old story to their current lives. The God who gave up on their ancestors is now reaching out to them. There’s the possibility of rebuilding the Temple they’ve read about in this story. The God of Second Chances is still at work even in their lives. This story tells us a lot about the descendants of Abraham but it tells us even more about God.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.