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.

Rend the Heavens and Come Down!

Isaiah 64:1-2 “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes fire to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!”

There were two kinds of enemies Isaiah had in mind, but only one of them really looked the part. First, there were those on the outside. By Isaiah’s time, the nation of Judah had become the skinny, nerdy kid on the block in the Middle East. They kept getting run over by big bullies on every side. Most recently the Assyrians had bloodied their nose and stolen their lunch money. The Babylonians were waiting in the wings for their turn to shake them down.

The bigger problem was the enemy on the inside. God’s own people had lost their sense of need for God. It almost seemed to the prophet as if the Lord wanted it this way: “Why, O Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?” He asks near the end of the previous chapter. “Why do you make us put out the unwelcome mat?” Isaiah could look around at many of his fellow Israelites, who had stopped going to the temple, who had adopted sinful and selfish lifestyles, and wonder, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

He also knew where to turn. “Rend the heavens and come down.” He doesn’t ask the Lord to make a sneak attack. He isn’t looking for God to do his thing in the background. He wants him to tear through the wall that separates his world from ours. He wants more than a demonstration of God’s power. He wants a supernatural demonstration of God’s power, the kind that will silence the Bible deniers and the Bible skeptics.

You see, the utter materialist, who believes the only things that are real are the things you can touch and see, isn’t a recent development. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” David writes in the psalms. They had them thousands of years ago, too.

Nor are we immune to their way of thinking. When God delays, when he doesn’t come to fix things, we wonder. When the people with all the power, all the money, and all the success seem to be the people with no religion, we entertain secret thoughts, “Maybe we’ve got it wrong, and they’ve got it right. Maybe I’m just wasting my time with Christianity and religion. If you can’t beat them, join them!”

But if God would make a dramatic entrance, if he would come crashing through the barrier that keeps us from seeing the spiritual world and spiritual forces all around us, that would silence the mockers and the skeptics and the persecutors, and it would help to settle our own doubts, too.

That would change things, and do it quickly. “As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you.” You see what Isaiah is asking for? He wants God to set off earthquakes with his entrance, and he wants the enemies of God’s people to quake as well. He wants the Lord to make his name known to his enemies, names like The Almighty, the Holy One of Israel, the Judge of heaven and earth. In Isaiah’s day the enemies would have been nations such as Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Edom and Moab. In our day the enemy might be professors on hundreds of college campuses who make no secret of their agenda to destroy the faith of incoming students, or the purveyors of filth, obscenity, and immorality in what we loosely refer to as the entertainment industry. “Make them shake, Lord,” Isaiah prays. “Come, and make your name known to your enemies.”

Is that a godly prayer? Is it wrong to want this, much less ask for it? If all we care about is settling a score; if all that concerns us is that they made us suffer, so they should suffer, too, then we don’t have a prayer here. We have a temper tantrum. It is something short of a godly desire. It is an attitude for which we need to repent.

But we can’t want the enemies of God to win! The Lord is a just God, which means that he is against sin in all its forms. If he weren’t, if he tolerated sin and just let it go, he would not be good. He would be a god whom we could neither trust nor respect.

It is only right that the Lord come and put a stop to those who murder the bodies of his people, and even more so those whose messages murder their souls. It is not mere selfishness and vengefulness that leads God’s people to want the Lord to come down and execute justice, to make his name known to his enemies. It is a desire to defend and protect God’s faithful children, so we join with Isaiah in making this our urgent prayer: “Come!”

Give Thanks

Psalm 136:1 “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.”

This is an invitation to give our own historical review of the kindness the Lord has shown to us. It gives our thanksgiving something of a testimonial flavor. If you read the rest of Psalm 136 you will see that this is exactly what the author of the psalm does. He thanks God for his work of creating us, and delivering his people from Egypt, and taking care of them in the wilderness.

But our personal thanksgivings don’t have to be about such grand events. I read a missionary story about a woman in Africa who was eager to have her entire congregation join her in thanking God for giving her a simple pair of shoes. She couldn’t get over how good God had been to her. In our land of plenty, you and I probably aren’t filled with such a sense of appreciation and gratitude over a pair of shoes. That is not because our shoes are any less an undeserved gift from him, or because we owe him any less appreciation for them.

What we pray this Thanksgiving Day, then, involves our own remembering of what God has done for us. That begins with what we call him in our prayer. We give thanks to the Lord. There are many names we could call him, but “the LORD” is the name that reminds us his gracious care for us is free and faithful. He doesn’t let our own behavior stop him.

We are inclined to forget that that is just what our own behavior should lead him to do. We are masters at rationalizing our behavior and downplaying our sin. I once spoke to a man on an evangelism visit who insisted that he was okay with God because, even though he had committed sins, God knew his heart. He was right about the last part. God did know his heart. God knows my heart. That is just the frightening thing, if we are honest. God knows.

And yet, he hasn’t let that change anything. He hasn’t let me turn him away. In Jesus, he has loved and forgiven me anyway. He is the LORD, the God who freely chooses to love us and then faithfully loves us in spite of ourselves. Remembering who God is, the Lord who doesn’t treat me as I deserve, is part of what we pray this Thanksgiving Day.

Our prayer goes on to thank God for his goodness. “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good…” That is blunt and to the point. It may also seem a bit wide open. My Hebrew dictionaries suggests a number of different nuances of the word “good” that we can apply to the Lord. Some of them remind us of reasons for thanking him today.

Good can mean “beneficial.” This is “good” as in, “Eat your vegetables. They’re good for you.” Or “Lady bugs eat aphids. They are good for the garden.” No one or nothing has done more good for us than our Lord. Psalm 103 summarizes them nicely: “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits — who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” Forgiveness of sins and physical health, more things than we need to enjoy life and strength for that life–these are just a few illustrations of the fact that the Lord is good– a God whose goodness benefits us in every way.

Good can also mean “attractive” or “pleasant.” We enjoy reading a “good” book. When the sun is shining, the air is dry, and the temperatures are warm, we consider it “good” weather. When we like the way something looks or how it makes us feel, it is a “good” one.

Haven’t we all experienced the goodness of God in this way, too? “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” Psalm 34 urges us. If you have ever felt the relief of your guilt lifted, if you have ever known the comfort that God was holding you up in troubled times, if you have ever experienced the joy of God answering your prayers or blessing your efforts with success, if you have ever been filled with the hope for the future and the longing for heaven God’s promises inspire, then you have tasted and you have seen that the Lord is good. This, too, belongs to our reasons for giving thanks this Thanksgiving Day.

Be Merciful

Jude 1:22-23 “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others, show mercy, mixed with fear–hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”

A seminary professor of mine once said to our class, “When your seminary has to establish a chair, a department head, for missions and evangelism, you know that the end is near for your school, and maybe your church.” Why? Isn’t it a good thing to put an emphasis on mission work and outreach?

His point was that every class at the seminary is already about the missionary work of the church – every doctrine class, every New Testament class, every Old Testament class, every practical class. If learning the gospel doesn’t teach us, “Share this good news with others,” what will? Did the shepherds need classes to teach them to tell Bethlehem about the Savior in the manger? If we know God’s love and believe God’s love, do we need to be told, “Maybe you could share this with someone else”?

Jude urges a gospel concern for the souls of others here. “Be merciful to those who doubt.” This isn’t being kind in a physical way–feeding the hungry, taking care of the sick and the poor, though those are good, biblical things to do as well. This is the mercy that helps them get over their doubts and put their trust in Jesus.

People have not changed so much since Jude wrote this letter nearly 2000 years ago. We still run into skeptics who think the Bible is unreasonable. Their numbers are growing. Some of them are hardcore. A man I visited on an evangelism call once told me at the door, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science.”

Others simply have unspoken questions that bother them and get in the way of faith. It is not our job to answer all their questions. Frankly, some things about God and grace are more than we can understand. But God never asked us to figure him out. He invites us to trust him. And for that, people need to hear about the love that sacrificed everything to save us from our sins.

With some people, our gospel sharing takes on a special urgency: “snatch others from the fire and save them.” Maybe they are old or sick, and time is running out. Maybe they are living a particularly self-destructive life, and they need us to intervene before they do something foolish and it is too late. Maybe this is a chance meeting, an opportunity we will never have with this person again. Seize the opportunity before it’s too late.

As we show mercy to those who still need to meet Jesus, Jude wants us to realize the hazards of our work: “…to others show mercy, mixed with fear–hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.” The arguments of the skeptics may sound compelling and reasonable to us. The kinds of sins that promise pleasure almost certainly will sound appealing to us. That doesn’t mean we should withhold mercy, avoid the people who are spiritually dying in a sinful lifestyle, and keep our mouths shut. It means that we need to have a healthy fear for the power of temptation to infect our own faith and life. It’s like a contagious disease we can even catch from contact with a sick person’s clothes. Have you ever visited someone in the hospital so contagious you had to put on a paper gown and mask before you entered the room? Do you remember how careful medical staff had to be during the COVID outbreak? Frontline hospital workers often ended up fighting the disease themselves.

With the sin-sick, it is still our task and privilege to come to the rescue. But don’t end up a victim of the sin that makes them sick. We need a proper sense of respect for the temptation sin presents to us as well.            

Help is coming. Jesus’ mercy will soon bring us home. Don’t wait to pass his mercy along.

Keep Yourselves in God’s Love

Jude 1:20-21 “ But you, dear friends, build yourself up in you most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you eternal life.”

Keep yourselves in God’s love. I won’t bore you with the fine points of Greek grammar behind Jude’s words, but I will point out that the Greek makes “Keep yourselves in God’s love” the main idea here, the point of both the building and the praying. Here is the central secret to spiritual survival as we wait for Jesus to bring us to eternal life.

It’s not so much about what we do: some kind of discipline that we practice or a set of activities we follow. It is more about “where you are,” and “what you have,” and “what you experience.” It is showing up for the free give away. God’s love is an established fact and can’t be changed. He gave us our existence. He gave us our world. He gives us each breath. When we became sinners he gave us his Son. He gave up his life so that he could give us salvation. He gives us forgiveness. He gives us immortality. He gives us heaven. As we have already said, he gives us faith. And that gives us hope and gives us joy, and gives us peace. If you want to explore it further, the list of gifts God gives us in his love goes on and on. There are new discoveries to be made every day.

On the Friday after thanksgiving, millions of Americans will flock to malls and stores for “gifts” they have to pay for–a cheap flat screen TV, or the latest “I-something” gadget. “Keeping yourselves in God’s love” does not involve camping out in the cold, a competition to be first in line, and forking over your money for the privilege of taking it home. It is as simple as finding yourself in the places where God’s love is being given.

We find it when we gather for worship, where we sing about his gifts, read and preach about them, or find them hidden in a handful of water, and wrapped in a wafer of bread and sip of wine. We find it at Bible study, where we get to go deeper into the word, and comments and insights of our fellow students take us further into the meaning of his love. We find it in the quiet moments when we are reading our Bibles at home, in our private meditation and devotion on God’s word.

In such places God fills, not just our hands, but our heads and our hearts with his love. In these places, not so much we, but he tends to our faith as we wait for Jesus’ mercy, the same mercy that will deliver us from this spoiled and broken world to eternal life with him.

Maintaining Faith

Jude 1:20 “But you, dear friends, build yourself up in you most holy faith…”

Faith involves a constant building process. The structure itself has been set in place. God constructed faith in us when our parents brought us to baptism, or when the gospel message finally broke through our ignorance or skepticism and changed our hearts. If you are a believer, then the building is in place, put together by God himself.

But just like any house or structure, there is always a need for more construction. First, there is the issue of maintenance. Gravity, weather, and constant use wear on a building. If you don’t keep up with the maintenance, it is only a matter of time before the structure fails. This past week my house got a new roof because of hail damage from last spring. It hadn’t started leaking yet, but left alone it would eventually. Our house is only eight years old, but we have already replaced all the flooring and the roof twice. There are cupboard doors with loose hinges, dry wall that needs patching, and enough other honey-do projects to keep me out of trouble on my day off. If you have ever owned a home, you know how this works. I once heard a handy-man with a radio call-in show suggest that you can plan on spending 5% of the value of your home every year if you want to keep it properly maintained.

Your faith needs similar attention. Sometimes Christians get the idea that faith is a one-time event in your life. I’m baptized, so I don’t have to think about it anymore. Or I was confirmed, so I don’t have to think about it anymore. Or I had a powerful emotional experience when I was converted, and I can give you the time and the date, so I don’t have to think about it anymore.

It doesn’t work that way. Paul warned Timothy that false teachings can shipwreck your faith, and that greed can lead you away from the faith. Jesus uses the picture of seed growing in shallow, rocky ground to warn that unless we get the roots of our faith down deep, we can fall away when faith is tested in some way. Faith needs maintenance as we wait for Jesus to return. Hearing about God’s grace, digging deeper into his unconditional love, learning how better to identify the sin that still lurks within us and regularly turning to his promise of forgiveness all serve to strengthen and repair our faith.

Sometimes, faith needs expansion, an addition, a new wing. The original owners of my house added a tornado shelter after it was built. I live in Oklahoma, so it’s not hard to understand why. Our back patio used to be a little concrete pad not big enough to seat my whole family. We built a deck over it to make our outdoor living space bigger. When I was about ten my dad made the house in which I grew up half again as big because the little two-bedroom house was cramped for our family of six.

Sometimes we can anticipate the challenges to our faith and the shortcomings in our faith and build an addition that makes us ready before it happens. Sometimes we have to hurry to play catch up because a situation is upon us before we are ready. Either way, our faith can be expanded in many directions, and then it can do a better job of serving us and keeping us safe as we wait for Jesus’ mercy to bring us eternal life.

Stand By Me

Revelation 1:12-18 “I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands and among the lampstands was someone ‘like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

Have you ever walked around the mall in Washington D.C.– the Washington Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the various war memorials? All these dead heroes performed great services for our country, and it is a privilege to remember them. But they aren’t much use now for repairing the divisions that afflict our country, or fixing our economy, or dealing with war and violence in the Middle East. They won’t be making any more speeches in Congress or formulating any policies or shouldering a rifle and hunting down the Taliban. They are dead, and we are left to deal with these issues ourselves.

In John’s Revelation, Jesus is the One who was dead, but he has left us with more than a memorial, more than a legacy. His very death lit the lamp of the gospel shining from our pulpits and classrooms. “I was dead” means “God has made every sacrifice necessary for your salvation.” “I was dead” means, “There is nothing left for you to pay in order to be reconciled to God.” “I was dead” means, “Every last one of your sins has been forgiven, and you are free.”

Even more, “I was dead” means, “I’m not dead anymore.” He is the Living One, the one who is alive for ever and ever. And the living Jesus who is present with his churches, including the one you attend, and with his pastors, including the one who preaches to you, is not the humble and despised man the Apostle John saw go to the cross. He is the glorified Jesus who rules the world from his throne in heaven. He has taken back his divine power and uses it to support and assist his little churches wherever they may be. See the light and glory that ooze from every pore of his body–everything about him from head to toe is white and shining.

Do you see what his presence means for you? In the Disney movie Aladdin, when Aladdin first meets the Genie, the Genie explains the difference his presence makes in the song “You Aint Never Had A Friend Like Me”: “You got some power in your corner now, some ammunition in your camp. You’ve got some punch, pizzaz, yahoo, and how, all you gotta do is rub that lamp.”

What you have, Christian, is not a minor spirit from some mythological world. You have the Lord of glory, the King of heaven and earth, living and moving among you invisibly, using his power and glory on your behalf. You don’t have to rub his lamp. He is the light in yours as he stands among us. We do not serve and witness alone, because Jesus himself stands among his churches.

Where to Locate True Treasure

Amos 8:4 “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?’”

Out of love for his people, God made sure they had a day to rejuvenate their bodies and continue to grow spiritually.  That was the Sabbath. The New Moon festivals were another day the Israelites took off voluntarily.  Once a month it gave them rest and time in God’s word.

Amos was talking to people whose priorities were out of line.  They weren’t so concerned about whether they were growing spiritually.  They didn’t care whether their faith got any stronger.  They didn’t care whom they ran over in their headlong rush to make a buck. They went through the motions of keeping the Sabbath, but their heart wasn’t in it.  All they cared about was making money.  These days off started to look like a nuisance.  “When will they be over?” they asked.  They sound like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol complaining about how much money he was losing by giving Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off with pay and closing the shop.

We are not so different from the people in Amos’s day.  We live in Christian freedom about the specific time we choose to rest our bodies and souls. But money is a concern each of us has. No matter how much of it we have, it is hard to convince ourselves it’s enough.  It’s easy to let money concerns crowd God’s word out of our lives, too.

The issue isn’t just “going to church.” It is being concerned about our spiritual growth.  Do we cheat ourselves out of daily time in God’s word because we are too busy making money?  Do we pass up opportunities to study God’s word in Bible classes because we are too busy making money?  Do we refuse to offer the Lord time to serve him because we are too busy making money?  Not everyone has to be at every worship service or Bible class offered.  But God wants a stronger and deeper faith to be more important than a stronger and deeper pocketbook.

This overdeveloped urge to make money has plagued believers through the ages.  In the sermon on the mount Jesus warned against worrying about “What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear?”  Martin Luther once overheard a member of his church say after the service, “What do we care about heaven?  What we need is flour!”  To such concerns Jesus replies, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Rather than focusing life on making money, look at the spiritual wealth and riches we already have. Having the kingdom of heaven is like finding a treasure, or a priceless pearl, Jesus says.  Can you put a value on a soul?  The Bible says the cost of a soul exceeds all human payment.  Yet Jesus purchased each of our souls by his blood. Then he gave them back to us forever.  Paul regards this a treasure, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, that you, through his poverty might become rich.”  Our riches are all the wealth of eternal life and heaven.

And God is giving it all away in the next Bible class, the next Sunday service, the next quiet time you have with a Bible or devotional book. Make plans now to attend.

God Gives More

1 Kings 17:15-16 “She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.”

By one measure, the widow’s gift was small. I can buy flour at Walmart for less than fifty cents per pound. That puts a very generous handful around ten cents. It doesn’t take much oil to bake a loaf of bread, just a few tablespoons. Again we are talking about 10 or 15 cents worth of your better olive oil. So, the woman gave up a quarter. Even if we assume that food prices were hugely inflated due to the drought, the value of her gift seems unremarkable.

By another measure, the widow’s gift was huge. She gave up all she had to live on for Elijah. Her trust in God’s promises led her to give, not her excess, but her all. And every day, God kept his promise by making sure there was enough food for Elijah, and this woman, and her son.

Sometimes when people talk about giving to church, you will hear them mention “ten percent.” That is not a bad guideline to follow. But you certainly notice that God was not asking the widow to give to church, just to Elijah. The Lord is looking for more than a cut of what we have. He wants it all.

When my wife wants a little taste of something on one of our children’s plates, she declares “Momma tax” and then takes a bite. God doesn’t declare “Pappa tax” on us. He doesn’t tax us. He owns us. He doesn’t want a bite. He wants it all—all our stuff, all your time, our whole self and whole life. They all come from him in the first place. How can we go wrong when we give to the one who gives us everything in the first place?

That doesn’t mean we don’t still have decisions to make about how much to give to church, or charities, or for groceries, rent, or mortgage. But when we remember where it all comes from in the first place, “daring to give” won’t feel very daring. And we won’t be concerned about how much excess we have to give. We can’t outgive the one who gives us everything.