Be Strong, Do Not Fear

Isaiah 35:3 “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear;’”

Real life was beating up on many of God’s people around 700 B.C. Things weren’t right in their daily life. This little nation of Judah wasn’t a superpower anymore, the way it had been when David and Solomon ruled. It was a little doormat of a nation that kept getting run over by its neighbors. It could be demoralizing. It was leading to “feeble hands,” “buckling knees,” and “fearful hearts,” according to the prophet Isaiah.

For a smaller little group in Judah, the spiritual condition of the nation had a similar effect. People who took the word of God seriously were a dying breed. Some stopped going to the temple to worship. Those who did go were often just hypocrites going through the motions. The little remnant, the little minority of true believers felt weak and fearful as they watched their nation slip farther and farther away from their God.

Feeble hands, knees that give way, fearful hearts–sound like anyone you have ever known? I hear otherwise faithful Christians comment on the political situation in our country. Sometimes you would think God had resigned or retired from ruling the universe. The corruption of our politicians, or their incompetence, leaves ordinary citizens, even Christian ones, thinking that there will be no future for themselves or their children. Some give up on their responsibilities as citizens. Others are eaten up with worry.

I hear otherwise faithful Christians talk about the economy as though God had taken back his promise to give us our daily bread. I don’t want to deny the real hardship many families experience, but doesn’t God still promise to take care of me, even if my financial fortunes change?

I hear otherwise faithful Christians voice their disappointment over the way things have gone in their personal lives: a difficult marriage, goof-off children who make nothing of their opportunities, unreasonable parents, the difficulty of finding someone who is marriage material. They speak as though we had no loving Father in heaven who adopted us as his own children, no Savior who came and claimed us as his dear bride, no spiritual family to which God has attached us. It robs us of all our strength to keep working with the family and friends God has given us when we despair about a future we believe is doomed to misery.

I hear otherwise Bible-believing and faithful Christians comment on the cold and callous condition of contemporary Christianity. It is true that churches in many places are shrinking. False religions like radical Islam are spreading and growing. Our own church struggles on so many different levels. But withdrawing, giving up in disgust, and doing nothing solves nothing and serves no one. It just makes us weak and fearful.

I don’t want to deny that the situations I have described call for our urgent attention. They can be painful, even scary. But does God exist, or doesn’t he? Are we just going to let life turn us all into cowards? If the United States of America is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, shouldn’t the people who make up the church of God be doubly so–the home of the brave?

Isaiah says, “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear;’” These words don’t merely confront us, or mostly confront us. They are meant as an encouragement. But they do confront us too, don’t they? “You believe in an almighty God who loved you all the way to cross and death? Good. That is right. But then act like it!” Practice what you preach, so to speak.

The Apostle Paul once criticized the Christians in Corinth for acting like mere men. If that is all we were, just human beings and nothing more, then there would be a good excuse for weakness and fear. But we serve and worship the only God who really exists. All power in heaven and on earth belongs to him. He loves us unconditionally and sought us out to make us his children. He actually takes up residence inside our hearts where he now lives full time by faith. So what are we doing giving up, rolling up in a ball, surrendering the fight, going down in defeat like weak and fearful people who have no hope? God hasn’t changed. He still invites our trust. He still promises to act on behalf of his people.

All the Time

Matthew 28:20b “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

In the Greek of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus literally says that he is with us “all the days,” but that is a little awkward way to say it in English. So even as far back as the King James Version we have simply said “always” in English.

It’s always less scary to face new challenges and big challenges if we are not alone. Through the years we sent our children to a Lutheran high school a thousand miles from home. One by one, we dropped them off and left them there while we returned home. At times it was a tearful experience, but we trusted daily exposure to God’s Word through high school was the best way to secure their faith and prepare them for Christian adulthood. It was always a little easier to leave them at school when they had an older brother or sister attending at the same time. They were not alone, and that gave us comfort.

As we go and tell the world the good news about Jesus, he promises he is right here with us. He does more than cheer for us from heaven. Of course, as the very Son of God he is present everywhere all the time. But more than that, he is with us in his Word and Sacraments– the very things we use to make disciples as we spread the gospel. Closer still, he lives in our hearts by faith. He is not merely a memory or idea. He is really and truly present inside of us wherever we go. With his presence all the time, we have all we need to introduce others to their Savior and his love.

So let’s go! Let’s not wait for them to come to us. Let’s find people, start a conversation, and give an invitation. Let’s get the gospel outside of our homes and churches into the neighborhoods and far distant countries. And let’s teach them what we know! Unleash the power of Jesus’ word on the lives of anyone willing to listen. He will be with us in this all the time, until he brings time itself to an end.  

All Jesus Commands

Matthew 28:20a “And teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Jesus hasn’t sent us to win popularity contests. He has sent us to go and teach all his commands. If we do that faithfully we can expect that we are going to step on people’s toes. We may not be the most popular or fastest growing church in town. If we do that faithfully we can expect his commands to step on our own toes on a regular basis. If his commands don’t do that, how will we see our need to repent, or our need for a Savior? If his commands don’t do that, how can we grow beyond the baby steps in faith and life that we are already taking?

But not everything Jesus has commanded is full of law and condemnation. Sometimes even the gospel, God’s gracious call to turn to him for grace and faith, comes in the outward form of a command. After Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and he was knocked off his horse and struck with blindness, the prophet Ananias came to him and said, “And now, what are you waiting for? Get up (command), be baptized (command), and wash your sins away (command), calling on his name.”

When Jesus wanted to leave us with the most personal and intimate way to receive and remember his saving grace, what did he say? “Take and drink (command), this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”

When the disciples preached the way of salvation to the jailor at Philippi, the gospel came out this way: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (command) and you will be saved.”

You get it, don’t you? None of these are really laws that we keep. They are not paths for us to follow to save ourselves. They are more like a sweet invitation, an offer of almost unbelievable generosity, that stirs us, and draws us, and even changes us. “Miraculous” is not too strong a word to use to describe their effect on our hearts and on the hearts of those who hear us. Certainly rejecting these “commands” would be spiritually fatal, but everything about them is more like a promise of God’s love, and the granting of a gift. With them our Savior is not adding to our labors, piling on our work load, but bringing us rest for our souls.

At any rate, this is the content of our message–all that Jesus’ commands. With it Jesus has given us all we need to tell others the good news.

All Nations

Matthew 28:19 “Therefore (In other words, since I have all power) go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The gospel is for everyone. Jesus has taken all the work out of trying to determine who our target audience should be. If they are breathing, we have a candidate. That person holding the cardboard sign at the stoplight asking for money? I don’t know in every case if we should be giving him a couple bucks, but I know he’s part of all nations and a candidate for hearing the gospel. The person who ran the red light, plowed into your car, and just now is getting out to trade insurance information with you? It may not be the first thing on your mind at the moment, but I know that more than they need the name and number of your Allstate agent, they need the name of your Lord and Savior. The men who re-roofed your house but don’t speak any English, the olive skinned lady at Walmart with the scarf wrapped around her head and the dress that touches the floor? All nations. All nations.

Hasn’t each of us been blessed by this part of Jesus’ assignment ourselves? Why should my family have received the gospel? Why did I get to hear the good news? The gospel wasn’t invented in Northern Europe, where my ancestors came from. It certainly wasn’t invented in the United States of America. But you and I are part of the “all nations” for whom Jesus died. Our sins went to the cross along with everyone else’s. We are part of the all nations that Jesus seeks for himself and desires to have as his own children. And that is what he has made us.

Could one little congregation have a global outreach? You know, after Jesus rose from the dead, it seems that he had about 500 followers. That’s bigger than the church to which I belong, but still not so many compared to the world in which they lived. Our small size doesn’t rule out the possibility.

Already we can reach around the world through technology. The internet allows any of us to publish for the whole world to see. I started this blog to reach people in Central Oklahoma. But it has been read by people on every continent except Antarctica. In a typical week people from a half dozen or so other countries log on and read.

About ten years ago I first heard about Lincoln Heights Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa. This little Lutheran church with less than 200 members started reaching out to refugees from the Sudan who lived in their neighborhood. As a result, not only is a sizeable percentage of their congregation Sudanese today, but there are also 17 congregations in the nation of Sudan named Lincoln Heights Lutheran Church as a result of the connections they have made.

We don’t have to go so far. All nations start on the other side of our front doors. Maybe it’s time to start that conversation with your next door neighbor. Maybe it’s time for your church to plant another one in the growing parts of your city. We have already been given the commission, because Jesus has sent us to all nations.

All the Backing We Need

Matthew 28:18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

It is easy for us Christians to think and act like we are on the losing side. There are the moral trends. It’s not just that the world around us rejects Biblical right and wrong. It’s that more and more we find ourselves sliding in their direction. We laugh at the escapades of the gay character in some sitcom. We empathize with the adulterous couple in a romantic movie. We even get a little teary when their ungodly relationship hits a rough spot. We are no more content with the stuff that clutters our homes and garages than our neighbors. We have turned shopping into a past time, a recreational activity, because heaven knows we don’t need all the stuff we are buying. We are so desensitized and apathetic after nearly fifty years of abortion on demand that 54 million dead American babies don’t even shock us. Former Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was right. “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is only a statistic.”

            We see Christian churches in decline. A generation is slipping through our fingers. We taught them the importance of everything that makes life good, things like the value of a good education or practicing healthy habits. We taught them how to get jobs that pay well, how to enjoy a high standard of living, and how to cheer for our favorite team. But we failed to teach them the importance of Jesus.

            So what’s the point of trying? What’s the point of investing ourselves in spreading the gospel, if it is all a losing effort anyway? Americans don’t like to support a loser.

            But wait a minute. There is more to all this than meets the eye. Jesus is hardly a loser. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” If his story ended with his death on the cross, then we might have reason to give up and go home. Even the Apostle Paul once said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless. You are still in your sins.” But Jesus death on the cross was not the end of his story.

            It is the risen Christ who is speaking to his disciples in these words from Matthew 28. It’s not a tape-recorded message he left behind for those mourning his death. It’s not merely the kind of thing he would say if he were still alive. Jesus really, bodily lives again. That means his death wasn’t a tragedy. It was the atoning sacrifice for our sins. It is the source of our forgiveness, the salvation of the world.

            That gives us confidence for the mission he has given us to do. We have hope and optimism as we go. The living Jesus conquered death and walked out of his grave. Now he holds all authority, all power, in heaven and on earth. We couldn’t be in a better position if we were backed by the financial resources of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet combined. We couldn’t be better backed if we had the firepower of the entire U.S. military at our disposal.

Paul draws the grand conclusion at the end of his great celebration of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

The Preacher’s Temptation

2 Timothy 4:3-5“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around themselves a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardships, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

Who are these people with “itching ears”? It is tempting for us to see them only in those churches which have most obviously caved into the sinful culture in which we live. We think of the liberal churches, which have publicly changed God’s teaching about godly morals to avoid offending anybody. Maybe we think these are the people in the big and popular churches, which haven’t necessarily changed their teachings. They just don’t talk much about the unpopular ones so that they can concentrate on topics people consider “relevant.” They don’t “change” the sound doctrine. They simply hide it. That way they can tell people what they want to hear.

Can Bible-believing, conservative Christians also be guilty of itching ears? I don’t like change so much the older I get. It makes me tired. Does it really make things better? Look at all the examples of bad changes we can identify. Maybe we can make some rules and policies that prevent change. Maybe we can find other people in the church who agree with us. Maybe we can convince the pastor we are right, or find another one who will take our side.

You see where this is going. Before long we are adding our rules to God’s. We make a law where God gave freedom. We do it all to suit our own personal tastes. It is another variation on gathering “a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Legalism is an attack on the gospel, as much as immorality. Preachers and laypeople have a solemn duty to oppose them both.

In contrast to modifying the message to make us feel comfortable, Paul urges: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

A preacher’s work is not just about the things he says. It is also about the way he lives his life. God expects calm, steady, self-control. “Keep your head.” When things aren’t going well for a congregation, it won’t do to have the pastor in a panic. He, of all people, needs to live by faith and trust that God has it under control. If others are opposing him, it won’t work to have him explode in anger. And if things are humming along the way they should, who wants a cocky pastor?

Paul is also realistic about the kind of life to expect. “Endure hardship.” That’s not to say that ministry is all hardship. There are many pleasant things, many blessings that come to those who serve God’s people. But if a man’s ministry is only about making life comfortable for himself and his family, or doing what is popular, or taking the easy road, something isn’t right. You can’t parent that way. You can’t expect any other calling in life to work that way. Of all people, the pastor needs to carry the cross that comes with the work God has called him to do.

But the heart of God’s expectation is in the phrase, “Do the work of an evangelist.” Don’t think of a person who serves on a committee that visits people in your neighborhood. Paul is calling on Timothy to do his work in an evangelical way. The gospel–the good news about Jesus’ saving work, the love of God in his grace and forgiveness, the seeking of souls and the building of faith–this flavors the ministry that is fulfilling the solemn duty God has given. All preaching and teaching, visiting and confronting, pleading and counseling wants to lead us back to the gospel. There we see that our sins are all pardoned, God is our Father, and heaven is our home.

            That is what our ears need to hear.

The Preacher’s Task

2 Timothy 4:2 “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.”

The word “preach” describes a very specific method for delivering the message. Let me try to illustrate what it says about the preacher’s task. If this matter of preaching were part of an earthly business, then your pastor would not be in management, making the decisions. He would not be in research and development, trying and creating new products. He would not really be in production, putting the product together, or even marketing, trying to make the product appealing. Your pastor would be the guy driving the UPS truck. He would simply be in delivery. You don’t want the delivery man manufacturing your product, or opening the package and messing with it. You want him to deliver it faithfully to your door.

What he delivers is the Word, the message. Paul give us an indication of its two parts. First, “Be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke.” Correct and rebuke are the law. It’s no one’s favorite part of the message, not even your pastor6. I knew a pastor who used to joke, “My people love the law, and I love to preach it to them,” but not when it’s made personal. Not when it is being used to rebuke us.

We need that law to rebuke us, though. We need it to break us down and expose our weak spots. We need to feel the pain. It’s a little like weight lifting. You have heard the fitness experts recite their creed, “No pain, no gain.” Unless our exercise is actually tearing our muscle fibers apart (within reason, of course), our bodies don’t go through the process of repairing and rebuilding them, which is how we get stronger. Unless the law gets a chance to tear us down where we have sinned, the gospel doesn’t come in and apply God’s grace: building our faith, repairing our life, and making us stronger.

 The gospel is where the real strength lies. Paul brings it here, too. “Correct, rebuke, and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.” I suppose that the word “encourage” doesn’t so much describe the gospel’s content as it describes its function: it comes along side of us like a friend to comfort us and hold us up and make us brave again.

What does the preacher say to make this happen? If you are feeling guilty about your sin, it’s about Jesus’ loving sacrifice at the cross. “If anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense: Jesus Christ the Righteous One. And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Or “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

If you are suffering for some reason, if you are under attack or live with some great need, it is about Jesus’ loving sacrifice at the cross. “What, then, shall we say in response to all 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?”

If you are looking for the power and motivation to live the Christian life, it is about Jesus’ loving sacrifice at the cross, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died, and he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

You get the idea. There are trendy and faddish things churches may do with their preaching. Not all of them are all bad. But as you consider your pastor’s task, remember what God has sent him to do: “Preach the Word…correct, rebuke, and encourage.” May God give you a man who faithfully delivers the message to your door.

Your Shield

Proverbs 30:5 “Every word of God is flawless. He is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”

We mostly see the kinds of shields mentioned here in museums. Old wood and metal shields aren’t much good against modern weapons of war. They can’t stop bullets, grenades, and rockets. But we get the idea. An old neighbor of mine had two sheets of metal wrapped around his pecan tree. It was a shield to keep the squirrels from getting all the nuts. Our cars have windshields because it is hard to see where you are driving with a sustained wind of 70 miles an hour in your face. At that speed even a little bug hitting you in the face could cause injury, and it would be kind of gross.

So God is our shield, our protection, to keep the things that hurt us away. When we sin we can try to pretend it didn’t happen. We can justify and defend ourselves by making excuses for our behavior. We can try to make up for it with our sad attempts at community service or restitution. But none of those things will get us off the hook in God’s court of law.

We can also take refuge in God by repenting and confessing our sins, and letting his grace and forgiveness take over. Then Jesus’ cross will shield us from the justice we deserved. Then we will be free from our guilt and changed by his love. Then we will find safety and security for our souls behind the shield of God’s grace.

Beyond this, who knows how many times each day God has been our shield from physical danger and we didn’t even know it? Because you left for work a little early or a little late one morning, you weren’t going through some intersection at the moment a distracted driver was texting, ran the red light, and t-boned the car that had the right-of-way.

You have probably never heard of Elise O’Kane. She was a United Airlines flight attendant who tried to sign up to work Flight 175 the day it was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center in New York. While bidding for the flight she entered a wrong code. It scheduled her to work a flight between Boston and Denver instead. Computer problems kept her from correcting her mistake. Who knows how many times you or I have been saved from tragedy on a smaller scale because the God who is our refuge has been directing our lives and protecting us from harm.

None of us have been entirely immune to tragedy, either. There, too, God’s power and promise work for our protection. From his prison cell in Rome the Apostle Paul once wrote the Philippians, “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly…I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” Which is just what it did.

            Do you long to be secure? Run to the God who is your refuge. His power and promise will shield our body and soul.

Flawless

Proverbs 30:5a “Every word of God is flawless.”

There is a picture behind the promise here. If you look at the inside rim of my wedding ring, there is tiny little print that says, among other things, “14 K.” “Fourteen karat gold” means that it is fourteen parts gold and ten parts other metals. If it were “twenty-four karat gold,” then it would be pure gold, at last as pure as is humanly possible.

Before they could add the other metals to the gold in my wedding ring, they had to get the impurities out of it. It had to be refined in order to remove the other minerals in and around it. Chemicals and super-heated furnaces were used to purify the gold.

This is the picture behind the word “flawless.” God’s word is twenty-four karat pure truth. There are no impurities or additives. Do you see why this is important for you to know? I haven’t read all the other “holy” books of other religions, but from what I have read I know that the Bible is particularly careful to make this claim. God was anticipating the false criticism that was going to be leveled at his word. I heard it once from a relative who wasn’t very interested in the Bible’s claims. “The Bible is just a book written by men.” In other words, it is possible that it contains mistakes and errors just like any other human book. Truth be told, you wouldn’t make a statement like that if you didn’t think you already had found some there.

What does that do to our trust in the promises our Lord records for us? Now it is up to us to figure out which promises we can trust and which ones are nothing but an illusion. And what is the standard by which we will judge–our own feelings? Our own opinions? Our limited experience? The findings of science and research? Only people who are unaware of the history of scientific investigation can believe that so-called “science” has given us consistently accurate explanations for why things are the way they are (not that it has gotten everything wrong). Each generation has to throw out large portions of the science of the generation before. Then it must start over with new ideas about how to explain our world.            

God hasn’t put us on such shaky ground with his promises. They are twenty-four karat gold for certainty. There is an empty tomb in Jerusalem to prove it. There are thousands of years of prophecies fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to make us sure. The power of the gospel has exerted itself on our own hearts. It has given us the faith that convinces us, “These words aren’t just a collection of nice thoughts about God.” They are the real history of how he intervened in our world, the real description of who he is and what he is like. Trust his promises. Not a single word contains a flaw.