The Christian Optimist

Isaiah 35:3-4 “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”

Does the world sometimes seem like a scary place? Chances are you either find climate change a little frightening, or you find the measures world leaders intend to take to combat it a little frightening. Either you are worried about what will happen if the candidate from one party gets elected, or you are worried if the candidate from the other party gets elected. Could I be a victim in a mass shooting? Or will they take my 2nd Amendment rights away?

For God’s people, there has always been a greater spiritual fear about what is going to happen to my faith. How much longer will my faith be tolerated in a world that thinks my beliefs are foolish at best, dangerous and hurtful at worst? The details may have been different, but Isaiah’s people dealt with this, too. How much longer will I have anyone else who shares my faith? With all the challenges, how much longer can I hold onto my faith myself? It’s enough to give people weak hands, shaky knees, and fearful hearts, to borrow Isaiah’s picture.

Christ’s coming fills us with optimism, because Isaiah says: “your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Now if we wanted Jesus to come just because he was going to make our enemies pay–that irritating ex-spouse who continues to be a thorn in the flesh, or the teacher who decided he didn’t like me from the moment I stepped into his classroom, or the bully at school or the obnoxious coworker or the inconsiderate next-door neighbor– then we have a sub-Christian attitude. The prophet isn’t encouraging us to be bloodthirsty people bent on revenge. That kind of sinful attitude should make us fear Christ’s coming rather than welcome it.

At the same time, salvation and condemnation, judgment and deliverance are always flip sides of the same coin. In order to save his people God has to defeat their enemies. It is a perfectly Christian thing for us to want God’s enemies to lose. Look at the great rescue stories of the Bible. Saving his people meant that God sent plagues on Egypt and drowned their army in the Red Sea, let David kill Goliath, let Daniel’s enemies be eaten by the same lions that took a pass on eating Daniel, and enabled queen Esther to arrange for wicked Haman to be hanged before he could carry out his genocidal plot against the Jews.

When Christ came the first time, saving his people meant that God dealt vengeance and retribution to the whole human race for its sins, but he let that death and hell fall on Jesus on the cross, in our place. It meant that God crushed the Devil and destroyed his power, so that we his people could go free.

When Christ came to you personally, individually, to call you to faith in the waters of your baptism, or in the preaching of his word, there was a part of you and me that died under God’s judgment so that we could be saved. Like Paul writes to the Romans: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin–because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Now we wait for Christ to come one last time, and once again he is coming to save us. We should expect that his methods aren’t going to change. The enemies of the gospel can declare that we live in a “post-Christian” era, Christianity isn’t relevant anymore, and Christians need to leave their faith behind in the public square. They can look the other way when Christians in other parts of the world are murdered and raped, their churches burned, and their children sold as slaves. We still face the future with an optimism that borders on irrationality. God has allowed us to take a peek at the last chapter of human history. We have skipped ahead, and we know how the story ends. Christ is coming to judge the world, and that means he is coming to save his people. We have reason to face the future with hope.

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