His Ways and Our Walk

Boy Jesus

Isaiah 2:3 “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The Law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

When we hear that God will teach us his ways, the prophet does not mean the ways the Lord wants us to act. His ways are the ways that he acts. His ways are the things he has done for us. Here we have the heart and core of the loving change our Savior came to work in us.

We live in a world divided by sin. We can have peace with each other and live a life of love only when we have peace with God. And we can have peace with God only because Jesus has made that possible. Jesus came first to remove the sin that made God angry with us. He stepped between us and an angry God. He bore the punishment that brings us peace (Isaiah 53:5). God’s way was to sacrifice his own Son for our sins. God’s way was to raise that Son from the dead as proof that sin has lost its power. God’s way was to love us enough to take care of our problem for us. He gave us life and salvation as a free gift. When he gathers many peoples from many nations together, this is the way of peace that he teaches us.

And only then can we “walk in his paths.” Only when my Savior has gathered me to himself and taken my sin, only when he has come to live in me himself, will I walk in his paths.  Only then will I treat my brother or sister in the faith the way he would treat them.  Only then will I reach out to others who don’t know God’s peace and extend that peace to them as well.

Perhaps it should be obvious, but we know this because from his house our Lord has taught us his word: “The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Sometimes people get the idea that the church is nothing more than a dead institution. In individual congregations or church bodies, that may be true. But far from a dead institution, the Holy Christian Church, God’s Zion, his gathering of believers, is something the Lord himself has raised up and preserves to share his word. As the Lord gathers the nations there, as he gathers us there, we hear his word and learn his ways.

That word, in turn, changes hearts. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes according to the Apostle Paul. God’s word takes the heart captive. It makes him our ruler: a good and gentle king who rules there with his grace and love. It makes us his agents: ambassadors of God’s peace and love to a world that desperately needs them.

God’s High Mountain

Mountain

Isaiah 2:2-3a “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.”

The last days is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the period from Jesus’ birth to the end of the world. It is the time in which we now live. During these last days, God promises a new glory for Zion and his temple. It would not merely be restored to its former glory. It would become chief of all the mountains. It would be raised up on high for all to see.

If you go to Jerusalem today, Mount Zion is still there. It isn’t any higher than it ever was.  The temple is gone. It isn’t even a pile of rubble. Nothing but the foundation walls are left. In order to understand this prophecy, we need to recognize where God has located his temple in the New Testament, and what he means by “Zion.”

The Apostle Paul says that each one of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Peter says that we are like living stones being built into a spiritual house, built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. Together with all believers, we are part of God’s Zion, God’s temple, which is the Holy Christian Church. Wherever you have believers, you have God’s temple, God’s Zion in plain sight for everyone to see.

This is how our Savior establishes peace on earth. He does not work through political policies or treaties or human diplomacy. He does it by raising up his Church, his Zion, his Temple. He does it by making the people who belong to him a force to be reckoned with. They are a safe haven all the world can see. As he gathers his people together and the Church grows, it is lifted higher and higher and the nations come streaming in.

Those people, Isaiah promises, come from all the nations of the world. “Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.'”  When Isaiah wrote these words, God’s people weren’t from many nations. They were from one nation–the Jews. Relatively few Christians have Jewish ancestry. But we have the privilege of living after the Savior has come, and the Gospel has spread to all nations, so that we can be included as God’s children, too. Every Christian believer is part of those many nations Isaiah sees streaming to God’s temple and asking to go up to God’s house.

Don’t these words give us a sense of optimism as we work to bring our Savior’s peace to more and more people?  It can become easy for us to get a discouraged by what we see going on in our own churches. We may go for years without numerical. Internal controversies and battles afflict our congregations. Christianity seems to teeter on the edge of defeat.

But here God promises that the nations come streaming into it. People will come flooding in like a river. They are eager to come to the house of the Lord. And that is what is going on all around the world. Remember that God’s Church is more than just the little gathering with whom we meet each Sunday. It includes every believer around the world and throughout time. More Christians today live south of the equator than live north of it, and in many places the Christian faith is growing exponentially. Even if our own congregations have less worshipers today, those faithful members who have gone home to heaven haven’t been lost to us. They are secure in heaven. And each child we baptize, every adult we bring into the fold, only adds to the stream of people flowing into God’s house.

Our Lord is still gathering a Church for himself. We are part of the many peoples streaming to him. We are also part of the way he lifts his temple high. Our love, our life, our witness help the world find God’s house.

The Safe Way Home to Joy

Highway Home

Isaiah 35:8-10 “And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads.  Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

We can travel this highway safely. We can tell just by looking around at our fellow travelers. Isaiah says none of them are unclean. None of them are wicked fools. Only those who have had their sins washed away in Jesus blood travel this road. Only those who place their faith in him, who walk in that Way, will make this journey. This highway of faith leads in only one direction, and everyone on it is going the right way. We travel in good company.

Nor do we have to worry about any obstacles along the way. Isaiah assures us that no lion or other wild beast can attack us on this road. When we are walking the walk of faith, we are walking in the only safe way to heaven. Some people try to get there by a way of their own making. They won’t go even a step before sin has stopped them in their tracks.

But when we cling to our Savior in faith, then the entire way to heaven has been cleared for us. We could even say that the entire way to heaven has been traveled for us. No sin can stop us while we are in the faith. Satan can’t accuse us. When we follow our Savior, when Jesus himself is carrying us along, the way ahead is always clear.

We don’t travel this highway of faith just for the sake of travel. Our destination is what gives us joy. Our Savior is leading his redeemed to their home, a home Isaiah calls Zion. “But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

When the Old Testament Jews heard of Zion, they thought of Jerusalem and the temple. When the prophets mention the future Zion, they often had in mind something more. In part, they were writing about the New Testament Church in which we live today. And in part, Isaiah’s description here fits the Church as we experience it. When God called us to faith, he started us on this walk, and he led us into his Church. It is a spiritual home for us in this world. In it we enjoy forgiveness and spiritual growth. In it we already possess eternal life.

But ultimately, coming to this Zion means joining with all believers across the great span of time in heaven. That is where “everlasting joy” will crown our heads. That is where sorrow and sighing will flee away. When we have reached that Zion, we can truly say our Savior has led us home.

As we approach Christmas this Advent season, remember: Christmas isn’t a deadline. It’s our Savior’s birthday. It is the beginning of his saving story. Keep your eyes fixed on him in faith, and let him lead you home to joy.

Jesus Our Strength

Superman

Isaiah 35:3-6 “Strengthen the feeble hands, and steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy.”

It’s not only Americans getting ready for Christmas who become depressed and discouraged.  Isaiah’s people felt that way, too. The remnant of believers in Israel no longer enjoyed the respect of the rest of the people. They were a minority. And when the time came for the nation to be taken away into exile, the believers had to leave their homes and property behind just like everyone else.

We all face obstacles that make our hands feeble and our knees give way. The story is different for each of us. Is it the responsibility you don’t feel entirely qualified for? Is it the person at work or in the neighborhood who seems like a constant thorn in the side? Is it a physical problem that has changed your life? We all know that living the Christian life also means bearing a cross. Whatever your own story is, the Lord keeps many things like these in our lives as constant reminders and consequences of our sinfulness. It goes back to the garden of Eden and the curses laid upon Adam and Eve for their sin. We are no better, just as much under God’s judgement as they were.

But the Lord does not want us to live in a constant state of fear and discouragement because we are sinful people living in a sinful world. Our Savior comes with a message of strength.  His encouragement takes away our fears. He gives reason to make those feeble hands strong and those wobbly knees steady: “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he comes to save you.”

We may not feel comfortable desiring vengeance. We generally don’t consider it a Christian attitude. It’s true that God warns us against seeking vengeance ourselves. He is not looking for bloodthirsty mob of followers. But he does promise vengeance as one of the ways he supports his people. Our Savior comes as judge of the world. He will destroy all the enemies of his church and his people.  When God says “vengeance is mine, I will repay,” that is no idle threat.  We are the ones who benefit from this work. Our Savior comes to defeat all the enemies of our faith and take them out of the way. That is a legitimate reason for his people to renew their inner strength.

More important still are the positive things Jesus came to do for his people. Isaiah looks to his ministry of miracles: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy.”

An old Sunday School teacher once mused about why we don’t simply enjoy the miracle accounts from Jesus’ life more. We don’t have to tear them apart to find their meaning. Each one is a simple confirmation that Jesus really is the Son of God. He is the promised Savior of the world. He genuinely has the power to pay for my sins, raise me from the dead, and take me to heaven. When John the Baptist sent his disciples to find out if Jesus was the Christ, Jesus told them, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

Did our Savior have Isaiah 35 in mind? Both he and the prophet understood that every miracle he performed is good news. These strengthen our spirits, because they assure us Jesus really is the Savior.

On Our Way Home

Skyline

Hebrews 11:13 “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.”

Death is scary for most people. Some years ago I watched congressional hearings on the use of stem cells from fetal tissue for research. Among those testifying were celebrities who suffered from conditions for which there was some hope to discover a cure through such research. I detected a certain sense of desperation in their pleas. I suspect their diseases made death a little more real, a little more frightening than it is for most. They were clinging to hope for this life as they made their case.

Past heroes of the faith like those referenced in Hebrews 11 may have feared death the closer it came, too. But they shared a different perspective. By faith they recognized this world is not our final home. We are like foreigners passing through—“aliens and strangers.” They demonstrated almost an eagerness as they looked ahead to the eternal future God had promised them. They welcomed what they saw. They offered a willing farewell to this life and embrace of the one to come.

It was clear to them that the life to come was far superior. “People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead they were longing for a better country– a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:14-16).

Most of us like to reminisce about the place where we grew up. Sentimental memories wash over us as we contemplate the good old days. Perhaps Abraham also had fond memories of the countries he had left: growing up in Ur of the Chaldees, or spending his middle years in Haran, where he buried his father.

But Abraham realized, as did his believing children after him, that he could no more find real happiness in his old haunts than in Canaan where he now lived. For him there was no plot of ground any place on the globe that could give him what he really longed for: the settled security of finally arriving home in heaven.

By faith we share Abraham’s perspective. It’s not this life that is worth straining to hold onto. This is not the place to invest all the best that we have. Our hearts belong to the heavenly home to come. There we can leave behind the foolishness that has marred our time here. There we will find a God who is not ashamed to be called our God. There he will throw his arm around us like a proud Father and boast, “That’s my son or daughter, and I’m his or her Dad.”

Home: by faith we know what it looks like. By faith we understand we haven’t reached it yet. By faith God will guide us until we are safely there.

Just Passing Through

Tents

Hebrews 11:9-10 “By faith (Abraham) made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

When God finally told Abraham, “OK, Abraham, we’re here. This land is your new home,” Abraham didn’t live like he was at home. He didn’t buy a farm or choose a city and build a comfortable house for himself. Though he was a wealthy man, he continued to live in tents as though he was merely passing through. Can you imagine living out of a suitcase for the rest of your life?

You may also remember Abraham’s nephew Lot. He was traveling with Abraham. He made himself right at home when they reached the promised land. He chose some of the nicest territory for grazing his sheep, found himself a nice home in the city of Sodom, and fit in with the locals as well as he could, though he didn’t share in all their vices. He settled down for a comfortable life.

Abraham’s way was the way of faith. Faith leads us to live a different kind of life from the world around us. Like Lot, we may prefer to blend right in to our surroundings. When we are in school we want to dress like everyone else, listen to the same kind of music, and use the same trendy jargon the rest are using. When we get to be adults we want to make as much money as our neighbors, enroll our children in the same sorts of activities they enjoy, and drive a vehicle as nice as the next guy’s. In and of themselves, these things are harmless.

But the more we try to become like our world, the more worldly we become. Should that come as a surprise? Then some of the not so harmless features of our world rub off on us. Lot wasn’t buried as deep in the lifestyle of Sodom as his neighbors. The Lord rescued him before he destroyed the city. But Lot’s faith and morals were seriously weakened by the years he lived in the city.

We may not adopt all the ungodly beliefs our own neighbors have adopted, but Twenty-first Century Christians also grow weak from their exposure to the values of this world. We feather our nests as though this was our true home. We let the needs of our neighbor or God’s kingdom go begging.

By faith God has broken our attachments to this place and made us citizens of another. All by himself our Savior fought a war of independence to free us from the world’s claim on us. Faith takes hold of the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection has provided something far greater, far grander, than our small, sad existence here. We may have no choice but to eat, and sleep, and work on the dirty little ball we call earth. But faith can lead us, like Abraham, to live our lives as though we are just passing through.

Faith’s Unseen Journey

Map of World

Hebrews 11:8 “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.”

I don’t believe I have ever met anyone who enjoyed moving. A person I know once remarked that never ending packing and moving, and packing and moving, would be a punishment suitable for hell. We can work up some excitement over the prospect of arriving at a new home, but moving itself is drudgery.

When God called Abraham to move, he didn’t even tell him where he was going. The book of Genesis describes his call this way, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” God was as much as saying, “Abraham, I want you to pack up everything you own and start traveling. You can head in a more or less southwesterly direction. When you get there I’ll let you know.” This was before interstate highways, Atlas Van Lines or even U-Haul. Making this move didn’t make a great deal of sense for Abraham’s career. It did not serve his family in some obvious way. But since Abraham trusted God, since he had faith, he went.

Faith still leads us to follow God even when we can’t see or understand where he is leading. That conflicts with our natural sense of how to live our lives. We don’t want to start something without knowing exactly what it’s going cost. We want to know the price we will pay in time, money, and effort. We don’t want to follow a course when we can’t see exactly where it leads. We expect reasonable assurance that we like where it is going. We don’t want to be satisfied with a promise that God will supply all the strength we need for the journey along the way, and when we get there we will be where he wants us to be.

This gets us into all sorts of sinful trouble. In a sense, our lives all look a little like Abraham’s. We all have our callings. The Lord has put us into our various stations in life in our families, our careers, or our church. As we travel we have to exert a huge effort as we interact with other people and fulfill our duties. But sometimes it is hard to see where this marriage, this job, this office, this life is going. When following our Lord calls for us to make some sacrifices, and we don’t know what we’re going to get in return, we are tempted to stop moving forward. “That’s enough Lord. I’m not going any farther. I’m not going to put anything more into this relationship or this program unless you show me that it’s all going to work.”

Faith has a different perspective. And it’s not as though God expects us to work on a completely blind faith. Even before faith considers where God is asking us to go for him, it sees where he has gone for us. Our Lord saw exactly where saving us would take him. He went anyway. It led him on a pilgrimage from the joys of heaven to the hardships of our world. It led him to give up the beauty of his holiness to be clothed with the filth of our sins. It led him to embrace horrors of death on a cross and the punishment of hell in our place. He traveled this road so that we would never have to. He provided us with the shortcut to heaven. Now faith knows it is safe to follow wherever God asks us to go…even if I don’t understand the outcome.

Praise Him for Your Harvest

Hay bale

Psalm 67:6-7 “Then the land will yield its harvest, and God, our God, will bless us. God will bless us, and all the ends of the earth will fear him.”

This passage shares the focus of our national Day of Thanksgiving. “The land will yield its harvest, and God will bless us.” Whether this year’s harvest for you came in the form of cash in the bank or stock options, whether it came in the form of a new job or a steady job, whether it resulted in a great surplus or just enough to cover the bills, the Lord has faithfully blessed us once again with all that we need for our body and life. This Thanksgiving holiday we have feasted to draw attention again to how richly our God provides.

“But wait a minute,” you might say. “What does this have to do with all the spiritual blessings God gives his people? Doesn’t the Lord give the necessities of life to people regardless of their faith? Aren’t their pagans whose harvest has been richer and whose feast will be far bigger than anything we enjoy?” And it is true, as Jesus says, that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

But listen again to the words of the Psalm, “Then the land will yield its harvest, and God, our God will bless us.” Many an unbeliever looks at the turkey on the table and sees only something to satisfy his stomach. But God has opened our eyes by faith. We see God blessing us there. Here is a tangible token of that love which is endlessly involved in giving us gifts and providing our every earthly and spiritual need. “May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the people’s praise you”–for your rich harvest of love.

Praise Him for His Rule

Crown-Royal

Psalm 67:3-4 “May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth.”

It is not our natural condition to be excited about God ruling. Many prefer to be free of him. British atheist Julian Huxley once spoke of the “enormous relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God.” Such thinking makes them think they are free to do as they please, but they are only deceiving themselves.

The psalmist doesn’t pray here that someday God might rule the peoples. He states his rule as a simple fact. To deny God’s rule is to participate in the same rebellion by which Adam and Eve dragged us all into sin in the first place. This is not freedom. It’s slavery to sin.

God’s children, however, recognize God’s rule for the wonderful thing that it is. Our God does not glower over us like some terrible tyrant. He does not drive us lovelessly or bully us into his service. He has set himself up as Lord of our hearts by the gospel of peace. He has courted and won us by his unparalleled, unstoppable, and unfathomable love, by the supreme sacrifice of his Son to save us.

This is no self-serving Sovereign, selfishly saying, “You go right ahead. I’ll be right here behind you.” He is more than a brave hero or champion, leading the troops into battle. As our King he faced the enemy alone. He laid down his life to make us victors. That is leadership. When the psalmist says, “You rule the peoples justly,” he is not referring first to the fact that God has the power to make all things bend to his will. He is referring to this unique way in which he used his authority and position to serve us.

We sometimes refer to those who govern us as “public servants.” The behavior of our politicians has made many cynical. They doubt whether “service” really ever enters the minds of those who hold high offices in our land. But “service” is exactly what our God gives us as he rules the peoples justly and guides the nations of the earth. “May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you”–for your rule.