This Is Going to Hurt

doctor pain

Jeremiah 26:8-9 “But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets, and all the people seized him and said, ‘You must die! Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that this house will be like Shiloh and this city will be desolate and deserted?’ And all the people crowded around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord.”

The people to whom Jeremiah preached God’s law objected that the prophet was wrong to preach it to them. They were living in denial about their sins. What they needed was an honest diagnosis. That is what Jeremiah had just given them. He scatters a list of their sins across his book: oppressing the poor, having the innocent put to death and seizing their possessions, fraud and dishonesty, illicit and perverted sex, mixing the worship of the true God with false religions. All of these were symptoms of the core problem the Lord sent Jeremiah to confront on this day: “You do not listen to me and follow my law… and you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets…” (26:4-5).

The symptoms haven’t changed all that much, have they? You hear that even Christians fail to practice proper sexual values often enough. Whether TV and the internet are major contributors to the problem or merely reflect it, the problem still lies with us. Materialism makes us willing to walk all over other people for the sake of a buck, and it has been doing so for at least a century in our country. I once read an article by one of the fathers of our church, August Pieper, in which he complains that people in our country seem to assume that the purpose of life is to make as much money as you can. The article was from the 1910’s. According to one survey, the average person lies about twice each day. Over half of those seeking jobs lie on their resumes. Yet people of every political bent raise red flags about “fake news,” as though it is something we shouldn’t expect. The day is coming when no one will be able to trust anyone anymore.

These are all still symptoms of ears that don’t want to listen to God and hearts that don’t trust him. The people to whom Jeremiah preached would not have denied many of the things Jeremiah accused them of. Yes, they thought differently about sex than their prudish ancestors. Yes, they were more open minded and tolerant about religion and didn’t see anything wrong with participating in the ceremonies at other places of worship. They didn’t have anything against poor people, but business was business, and you didn’t expect them to take a loss for such a bunch of no-names, did you? They wouldn’t deny that they did these things. They just didn’t see what was wrong with them.

That’s why they objected to Jeremiah’s prognosis. “Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that this house will be like Shiloh and this city will be desolate and ruined?” Shiloh was the place where God had lived with his people about 400 years earlier. There he took up a special, gracious presence with them. About 400 years before Jeremiah, God abandoned that place.

You don’t want God to cut off his gracious presence and blessing like that. It is a foretaste of hell. When we embrace our sins, defend them, and will not repent, eventually God says, “If you don’t want me and my ways, then go your own. But don’t expect me to come along. I will leave you alone, just as you asked.”

When we live in denial about the reality of our sins and the seriousness of their consequences, we are choosing to live in a fantasy world with an illusion of personal goodness and eternal security. When God’s law shatters those illusions of goodness, it hurts. But then we are ready to receive the real thing.

Not everything about Jeremiah’s message that day was negative. “Then Jeremiah said to all the officials and all the people: ‘The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the things you have heard. Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God. Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you’” (vs. 12-13).

The Lord did not want to abandon these people, destroy their city, or lose them eternally. He does not want to drive us further away. He wants to wake his people up. Tough love isn’t a modern invention of Christian psychotherapy or the recovery movement. God was practicing it with his Old Testament people in 600 B.C.

That is because the Lord wanted to relent and see his people prosper. He still does. He takes no morbid pleasure in seeing people suffer. He won’t promise us cross-free life. Sometimes we need our burdens, and he doesn’t want us to mistake earth for heaven. But he does want us to know the peace and security of his forgiving grace. As forgiven people he wants us to find his abundant supply. As people of faith he wants us to trust his angelic protection. He doesn’t want us to miss the benefits that come to those whose hurts have been healed by his love.

Sometimes the doctor warns, “This is going to hurt,” before he proceeds to address my problem. But I usually feel better after I go to him. A few moments of pain lead to long term relief. We feel better when God has cut us deeply with his law so that his healing grace can penetrate deeply into our souls and fortify our faith. God give us ears that hear and hearts that believe, even when his message hurts.

Thank God for the Thorns

thorn and flower

2 Corinthians 12:7-9 “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”

Pride, conceit, arrogance–no matter what you call this sin, it is always with us, ready to take a thousand different situations in life and turn them into an excuse for believing that we are better than others. The Apostle Paul had spent long years savoring an inflated self-image as a Pharisee.

That temptation to see himself as superior because of his heritage or life did not come to a complete and sudden end when Paul became a Christian. That sense of pride he had so cultivated years ago could easily take the new, spiritual, Christian Paul and blow him up into some sort of little god at whose feet everyone should fall down in worship and respect. Paul needed something to keep him humble.

If we dig into our own lives, we find that pride is just as capable of taking any quality we have and using it to convince us that we are so much better than everyone else. You can become conceited because you look pretty, because you’re smart, because you’re a good athlete, because you make a lot of money, because you drive a cool car, because you make friends easily, or because you take great care of your body. Or you can become conceited because you go to church every Sunday, because you work hard, because you sacrifice yourself to take care of others, because you read your Bible and pray for hours, or because you accept people who are different than you. You can become prideful in the fact that you are conservative or progressive, open-minded or unbending, contemporary or traditional. The possibilities for our pride are endless. No sin is more spiritually deadly than pride.

So God confronted Paul’s potential for pride with a unique preaching of his law. God gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know exactly what this was. Some people have suggested that he might have had an eye-problem, or suffered from recurring malaria, or struggled with a speech impediment.

What we do know is that everything about this thorn in the flesh seemed wrong, even evil to Paul. He calls it a “messenger of Satan.” That’s not just a colorful way to talk. The Lord might well have allowed Satan to make life miserable for Paul with this thorn. Of course, Satan meant it only as a temptation. No doubt Satan was whispering in his ear, “You see, God doesn’t really love you.” But the Lord was using this for Paul’s good to battle his pride. So we see that even Satan himself must serve God for our good.

Every once in a while, when talking about someone whose life is a mess, I or someone else will comment, “He really needs Jesus.” Of course, that’s true of everyone one of us. I really need Jesus. We really need Jesus. Paul really needed Jesus.

And that was God’s answer for Paul. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:9). He didn’t make the problem go away. He gave him a Savior. The Lord set his heart upon Paul, laid down his life for him, forgave all his sins, preached the gospel to him, brought him to faith, made him a dear member of his own family, gave him a new life, reserved a place in heaven for him, and guaranteed him an eternity of endless joy. In short, he made Paul the object of his grace–his unending, unequaled, unconditional love. And that was enough.

Note what the Lord is saying. He didn’t say, “My grace is sufficient to solve your problems and take away your pain.” He said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s grace is the big thing, the one great need we have. We become so obsessed with our lives in this world that we tend to overlook God’s grace. We take it for granted. We don’t value it as highly as we value our cheap junk.

Often, it is not until God sweeps all our cheap junk away and pokes us with thorns that we appreciate his grace. Then we realize it is the one, substantial, priceless gift we need. Everything else about our lives is trash by comparison. “God’s grace is sufficient for you” is something of an understatement. In reality, it far exceeds every need. Its value far surpasses all else. This is a hard lesson to learn. Asaph, the author of Psalm 73, dealt with his own thorny problems before he came to the conclusion: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

If the problems we suffer help us to see God’s grace for what it is–the single, sufficient gift of God for our lives–then thank God for the thorns!

A New Life of Privilege

diverse team

Ephesians 2:19 “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…”

When we travel overseas, we immediately recognize some disadvantages of being in a foreign country. It is hard to understand what is going on around us because we don’t speak the language.  Some of the laws and customs are different than what we are used to. As foreigners we don’t have the same rights the citizens do. The natives may treat us well, but we always know that we aren’t at home.

That is what the Gentiles in Ephesus experienced before Christ was preached to them. That is what it is like for anyone who doesn’t know Jesus as their Savior yet. There is this language of God’s Kingdom which is hard to understand–words like repentance, justification, sanctification. There is a way of life that doesn’t make sense to people who are used to living only for themselves. There is a fear of God instead of the right to come before him confidently. Unbelievers don’t feel at home when they have to think about God or they are confronted with his word.

But the peace which makes us people of God changes all that. We have the privilege of being close to God. We are no longer foreigners and aliens. We have the privilege of being fellow citizens.  The language, and the way of life, start to make sense. The rights that we have to full forgiveness for all sins,  eternal life in heaven, the strength to live a Christian life, and answers to our prayers are privileges of citizenship we especially appreciate.

In fact, this closeness goes beyond citizenship. We are a part of God’s own family, members of his household. We enjoy a personal, intimate relationship with him in which he listens to all our concerns, and takes care of all our needs right down to the smallest detail. He knows everything about us and uses what he knows only to love us and care for us. The peace we have with God assures us that in his Kingdom we have finally found our home.

Because It Tells You He Loves You

bible heart

Deuteronomy 5:15 “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

If you wanted to assure someone God loves us deeply and unconditionally, what historical event would you point to? If you longed for that assurance yourself, where could you best find it? At Jesus’ death on the cross, right? Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins is the greatest evidence of God’s love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…”

But if you lived when God first gave us the commandment about the Sabbath day, that event was still a hazy promise for the distant future. The historical event that best proved God’s love for the people of that time was the Exodus from Egypt. In it God rescued the nation of Israel from death and set them free from their slavery. Time after time Old Testament psalmists and prophets refer to that event to remind the people of God’s love for them. This was food for their faith. This was God’s “I love you.” It fostered a stronger relationship with his people.

This was something for God’s people to remember on the day they gave God for worship. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Why should we give God a day? Because God has given us no less evidence of his love for us to remember. It runs through our Sunday worship. Early in the service the pastor assures you, “God our heavenly Father has been merciful to us, and has given his only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” There God is whispering, “I love you” in your ear. A little later we confess the creed together: how Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. Again God is demonstrating how dear you are to him. Peppered throughout the sermon are reminders that you mean more than the world to him. He considers you so precious that he was willing to sacrifice the life of his Son for you.

And do you note that he asks you to remember more than words or statements, but events from real life? Just a couple of years after I arrived at my first congregation, I celebrated my golden birthday. When I came to the office that day I found that the faculty had arranged for themselves and all the children to wear gold in recognition of the day. A couple of years later, when we had to rush our son Nathan to the hospital in the middle of the night, members of the congregation got up at 2 a.m. to watch our other children so that we could take him for help. When cancer struck our family, we were overwhelmed with the outpouring of cards and gifts and food and visits and prayers and offers of help fellow Christians showed to us. When I received my call to serve the church, one of the last statements on the document read, “We will receive, honor, and love you as our pastor.” I believed it at the time. But it was the expressions of love from the members, genuine gifts and acts of service, that left no doubt in my mind that it was true.

Likewise, on the day we give God for worship each week, we are remembering more than words written in a book. We are remembering the story, the real life story, of how he loved us so much that he came to save us. We are remembering events and gifts and acts of service he has shown each of us personally. This is quality time, quality time with Jesus, and it leaves no doubt in our minds that, when he says “I love you and forgive you,” it is really so.

Because Everybody Needs the Rest

tired cafe

Deuteronomy 5:14 “On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey, or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.”

From time to time I run into people who seem to believe the Lord must have had the biblically ignorant in mind when he gave the command to rest on the Sabbath. To them, church going is for small children who need to learn morals, or those few people who find worship and Bible study interesting for some unknown reason. The Lord himself disagrees. He impresses upon us that giving God a day is for all.

Giving God a day is for you, whoever you are. You are at the very top of God’s list of the kind of person who needs to take time off to pay attention to God. So am I. No matter how old we get, no matter how much we know, no matter how much we believe that we have it all together, this will never change: we will always be the kind of people God has in mind when he tells us to get some rest and go to worship.

So is everyone else we know. This is command is for your son or daughter. Now, convincing them of the “no work” part may not be much of a problem, at least when it comes to work around home. But whether they are little toddlers who scream like you were torturing them when you try to get them into Sunday clothes, and flop around like a fish out of water when you try to get them to sit still in the pew; or whether they are teenagers who cross their arms, roll their eyes, and “humph” at you when you insist that they come to church with you, God wants them in church on Sunday, too. Don’t relent parents. Don’t resist, kids. I know of no biblical exemptions for being too little, too cool, or too ornery.

God even expresses a concern for our neighbor. Servants and foreigners were to observe this day just like everyone else. It’s possible some cold-hearted soul might have reasoned that he could keep the commandment personally by not working, but avoid losing a day’s revenue by forcing his servants to do his work for him instead. Maybe he could get some foreigner to keep things going while he was taking his day off and going to the synagogue.

But don’t servants need rest and time to worship God as much as anyone else? Don’t those who are foreigners to the true faith need all the encouragements possible to find God at church? What was good for the master was good for the servant. What is good for the employer is good for the employee.

Many of you are aware that the founder of Chik-Fil-A® restaurants had this principle in mind when he decided none of his establishments would be open on Sunday. Few of us may believe that we are in a position to have a similar influence on a world that never wants to take a day off. Maybe we don’t have the power of a CEO of a major corporation. But what is preventing us from talking to our employers about the importance of having time off for God? What keeps us from using our influence with other Christian parents to confront the practice of scheduling our children’s athletics on Sunday mornings (in competition with worship, a practice that has spread like a cancer in our culture today)?

Giving God the attention due him is not for a select few “super saints.” Giving God a day is for all.

Because You Need the Rest

tires woman

Deuteronomy 5:12-14 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…”

Does it seem incredible that God would find it necessary to give us a commandment telling us to take a day off and get some rest? Who doesn’t want to do that? And yet, we struggle to keep our work in its proper place in life. Sometimes we forget that work itself is good. We get tired of doing the same old thing in our dead-end job. We look for ways to get out of as many responsibilities as we can. Get-rich-quick schemes with their promise that we can be independently wealthy and never work another day in our lives begin to sound good to us. God’s good gift of work seems like a drag.

On the other hand, sometimes we give work too large a role in our lives. We become blinded by our thirst for success. It steadily climbs our life’s priority list, past our friends, past our children, past our spouse, and finally, past our God. We worship at the altar of the Almighty Career. We become irritated by other things and other people who demand our time, or we simply ignore them.

At other times, work may be merely the slave-driving archangel in service to other false gods in our lives. We become slaves to our work because we worship a false god called “Higher Standard of Living.” We won’t take time off because we are haunted by a frightening demon named, “Don’t Trust God to Provide.” We sacrifice our time to appease these gods and demons, and in the process sacrifice our relationships, our health, and ultimately our souls.

This is why God must confront us with a commandment. “Stop it!” he says. “Stop rushing through life like I don’t even exist. Give me a day. Put your work aside. Take some time for some rest.”

Of course, you and I don’t literally keep the Sabbath like God asked the Old Testament people to do. The Sabbath day was Saturday. After Jesus came, the Apostle Paul tells us the Sabbath days were like Jesus’ shadow, a long shadow when the sun is low in the sky, stretching way out ahead of him, telling us that Jesus was coming. Now that we can see Jesus himself, we don’t concentrate on his shadow anymore.  We are free to worship him on the day of our choosing, and the vast majority of Christians have chosen to make that day Sunday. If circumstances warranted, we could even choose a different day if we wanted.

But though the day has changed, God’s intent for us behind the Sabbath has not. We need time for rest. Your body takes quite a beating out there, with all the long hours of work it puts in, all the long years of stress and strain it has endured both on the job and at home. It needs some time to recover.

More importantly, our souls need a rest. We can pile up a large load of guilt in the course of a week. Every day your faith is put to the test in some way or another. Maybe one little frustration doesn’t shake your trust in God’s promises too severely, but the steady grind of bad news, failed plans, and painful losses wears on our trust in God. It strains the limits of our faith. We need Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

And so, while giving God a day is a commandment, something we do, at the end of this commandment God has hidden his gospel promise. We will always need forgiveness for our attitudes about giving God the time he deserves and we need, but God intends to use that time to give us just that forgiveness, and make this a day of rest for our souls.

Jesus’ Unfailing Brand of Justice

jesus victor

Isaiah 42:3-4 “In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”

Why should Jesus be our only Savior? Simply put, he never fails. His brand of justice isn’t just a dream. It’s here. He has brought it forth. He has established it. Forgiveness of sins is real. God’s gracious acquittal of guilt has been secured by Jesus’ perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection. It has all been accomplished with a certainty and finality that gives us confidence in all his other promises as well.

We even find ourselves mentioned in the words of this prophecy, “In his law the islands will put their hope.” The islands refer to those distant locations on earth which had no knowledge of God or his word in Isaiah’s day. Unless you have Jewish background, they refer to places where our ancestors lived–without hope, and without faith in God.

But the words of Jesus came to them, and they have come to us. They give us hope. Even when our life is at its worst, and the most miserable, they give us hope. Some people say that it does no good to preach to people about forgiveness and life while they suffer from hunger, or earthly injustice, or illness. But if we understand the gospel correctly, we know that it is just these people for whom it is intended. It gives us hope and sets us free in the midst of our hunger, and disease, and pain.

Just like his promises, Jesus’ justice never fails.

Jesus’ Gentle Brand of Justice

smoldering wick

Isaiah 42:1-3 “I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

If Jesus has come to bring justice to the nations, that might leave us a little bit concerned. You know as well as I do what a messed up world we live in. It seems as though the Middle East, the part of the world Jesus called home, will never experience peace. We consider our own system of government the best available, and yet lately it seems that even American democracy has become a hopeless mess.

The context of Isaiah helps us to understand that Jesus did not come to establish the kind of justice maintained by earthly governments. He did not come to give us better laws or enforce them more consistently.

Rather, Jesus came to bring the gracious rule of God’s kingdom to earth. He came to bring God’s brand of justice to all nations, justice in which every human being is condemned to death as a sinner, but then pardoned and set free because Jesus himself has served their death sentence with his own death on the cross. He has come to establish the kind of rule and order in the hearts of those who believe this. It doesn’t work by scaring them into obedience. It changes them from within, and sets them free, so that they want to do what is right. This is not the way any earthly justice system operates.

Jesus did all this, he does all this, without making himself a celebrity in the crude sense of the word. “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” This is not to say that he did not teach or preach in public. But he refrained from making a public spectacle of himself. Though he performed miracles, so often he worked in private and asked others not to tell anyone. Instead of attending rallies and getting involved in protests and marches, he went to church and taught. He walked along the seashore and taught. He sat down on the hillside and taught.

You see, his message, and our message, is not about hype and show and making political statements. It’s not bullying others into behaving themselves. It’s about patiently teaching people the self-sacrificing love that Jesus has demonstrated for them. That can win their hearts to faith and make a lasting change in their lives.

Jesus’ gentle approach is highlighted in the verse which follows. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” It is not hard for us to understand who the bruised reed or who the smoldering wick is. These are the people whose faith is fading fast. Morally, their life is becoming a mess. Spiritually, they are almost gone.

I don’t believe I am speaking only for myself when I say that we are tempted to think of such people as irritants. Maybe we would even like to get rid of them. Sometimes we would like to just get rid of We have no time for all the half-committed and fake Christians, those who don’t seem to care about God’s Kingdom or his word, who have wrapped their lives up in worldly things.

But Jesus doesn’t want to get rid of them. He wants to win them. That doesn’t mean he will let them live in their sins. But once their sin is confronted and they repent, he will share the promise of forgiveness. That heals the bruised reed and turns the smoldering wick into a blazing light once again. And that is a comfort for each one of us personally, because our own lights aren’t always shining so brightly, either.

Our Savior’s Impeccable References

foot wash glass

Isaiah 42:1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.”

Do you know who is really speaking here? Isaiah wrote the words, but he was writing for God the Father in heaven. If you were a servant, you couldn’t ask for a better reference. And the servant to whom he is referring is Jesus.

That Jesus is a servant may not sound impressive to our modern ears. Servants are at the low end of the scale in both pay and prestige. In our culture not many people have the title “Servant,” but we may think of people in the “service” economy: the people who wait on us at restaurants or bag our groceries, the people who make minimum wage. Many regard such people as being at the lower end of society. For some, the idea of being someone else’s servant or slave even sounds belittling.

We are also inclined to skepticism about others serving us. When someone suddenly does something especially kind for you or me, we become suspicious. What do they want? What are they expecting in return? We have trouble believing that they don’t have some ulterior motive for doing us a favor.

But in the mouth of God the Father, the title “Servant” is both the highest compliment and an absolute certainty. One does not please God by trying to impress him with what an important and powerful person I am. God values humble submission. And Jesus came to do just that, not just to God the Father, but even to you and me. There were no ulterior motives. He genuinely loved us so much that made himself our servant, and he has served all of us in the humblest of ways—trading heavenly home for a corrupt creation, heavenly glory for earthly humanity, and heavenly throne for an uncomfortable cross.

For his service, no one has ever gained God’s approval the way Jesus has. The Lord describes him as “my chosen one in whom I delight.” You know that God the

Father has impossibly high standards when it comes to gaining his approval. Nothing less than sheer perfection qualifies. A single mistake, a single misstep, a single sin, and all is lost. As he says in the book of James, “Whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles at just one point, is guilty of breaking all of it.”

Yet God the Father finds nothing but delight in his Son Jesus Christ. We hear him repeat it at Jesus’ baptism, and later at his transfiguration, “This is my Son, whom I love, in whom I am well pleased.” This goes far beyond toleration or acceptance. You know the difference between those gifts you merely accepted this holiday season, and those that really got you excited and filled you with delight. God the Father looks at Jesus’ life of service, and it tickles him.  He is filled with delight by the pure, perfect love of Jesus’ ministry.

A more powerful reference cannot be requested by those who are looking for someone to fulfill the task of Savior.