A Servant’s Justice

Isaiah 42:1-3 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold…He will not shout or 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. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.”

Jesus lived and died as a servant. There are religious leaders, even founders of world religions, who live, lead, and teach as though everything revolves around their own happiness. Did you know that almost 85 percent of Americans and almost 70 percent of Christians believe that the highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible? No wonder we fall so easily for religion that promises more for me.

Jesus is a servant. He lived and died as one. He served his Father, and he did so by serving us. That doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy life, too, but that was not his priority. That’s not how he lived, led, and taught.

If serving us meant sacrificing himself, he did so without complaint. He tolerated the constant criticism and persecution from the establishment of his day. He suffered with dull disciples who came from sketchy backgrounds. He welcomed the miserable masses and their never ending demand for help and healing even if he had to skip meals and miss sleep and cut a vacation short to do so. He loved them, he loved them all, and so he served. He served until they were done with him, and they crucified him, and in death he offered the ultimate service to us all by dying for our crimes and paying the penalty our sins deserved. Here is God’s Servant. Here is your Servant.

His service accomplishes great things for us. “I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or 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. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice…”

There is a word that repeats here. Do you see it? “He will bring justice…He will bring forth justice.” In all our experience, justice is something that comes with force, even violence. Someone commits a violent crime. Law enforcement hunts him down and brings him to justice. Four college students are murdered in Idaho. Police and the FBI track him down in Pennsylvania and bring him back to Idaho to stand trial. If convicted, he faces life in prison, or even death.

Outside of law enforcement there are people who agitate for “social justice.” Some minority or another suffers unequal treatment, and private citizens or organizations advocate to change this. This rarely happens quietly. They are loud and angry. It is not uncommon for the whole process to involve riots and destruction of property.

That wasn’t Jesus’ style. “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” Jesus didn’t hunt down and arrest the sinners and the criminals. He called them to repentance. He invited them to a new and restored relationship in God’s family. Jesus didn’t attack the abusers of power like the Pharisees and priests and lead a popular rebellion. He taught them, or at least he tried. He accepted their invitations and attended their dinners. His successes with them were few, but he stuck to his quiet methods.

Jesus came to bring a different kind of justice, a whole new twist on the idea. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.” Jesus didn’t bring people to justice by making them pay. He didn’t bring people to justice by forcing them to change. He brings justice by making people forgiven.  He brings them to justice by wooing them to faith.

The forgiven man or woman has no charges for which to answer anymore. That has all disappeared. They are “just.” The believing man or woman may not be good, wholesome, and fair in all they say or do. Like the reed that is bent and bruised, it may not be possible to make them completely whole, at least not in this life.

But Jesus doesn’t break them off as the enemy. He already counts them as his friends and family. By faith in him they are just. And then he goes to work healing and mending their spiritual wounds. More and more his love makes them look, act, and love like he does. That’s how justice works when Jesus is serving it.

Good References

Isaiah 42:1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”

Before I let someone work on my house, my car, or my body, I like to get some good references first. I don’t let just anyone mess with the most valuable things I have. Before you can get a job somewhere, they may ask to see a list of references. Even the most menial tasks can have a profound effect on the business. Do you want a person with questionable integrity running the cash register? Would you want someone with a habit of making offensive comments interacting with your customers? That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Should we let just anyone be responsible for the care and maintenance of our eternal souls? I know that the politically correct position today is to put all religions and all their takes on God on more or less the same footing. Actor Morgan Freeman hosted a six-week series for National Geographic Channel called The Story of God. It explored the answers that major world religions and several different Christian denominations give to searching spiritual questions. The take away seems to be, according to Freeman, that “all religions and beliefs share remarkable similarities.” “We should celebrate them rather than let them cause rifts between us.”

I think we can agree with Mr. Freeman that there are large areas of similar beliefs about morals within the various religions. If only the followers of those religions, including our own, would take putting them into practice more seriously. We can also agree that people of every faith, or no faith at all, should be treated with dignity and kindness. Different beliefs do not justify violence. Jesus went so far as to tell us, “Love your enemies.”

But we would be sadly mistaken to conclude that we can thus pick out a faith with our eyes blindfolded, and it won’t make any meaningful difference–they are all essentially the same. The pediatricians my wife and I fired and the one we kept may have been 90 percent, 95 percent, 98 percent the same in their training, medical knowledge, and skills. But we didn’t think for a moment that anything less than the good health, even the life, of our children hung in the balance in seeking to make the right choice. Infinitely more is at stake with the care of our souls.

Here is a good reference. You may want to pay close attention. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” Does the first line sound vaguely familiar? Remember these words from Jesus’ baptism? “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The first set of words, the ones from Isaiah, were spoken by God the Father about 700 B.C. The second set, from the book of Matthew, were spoken by God the Father 730 years later at Jesus’ baptism.

It is an outstanding reference from the highest and most trustworthy source. In each case the Lord and God of heaven is claiming this person as his very own, “my servant,” “my chosen one,” “my Son.” Anyone can recommend a guy. I’m less interested in the person someone heard about, “I hear that so-and-so is pretty good.” I am more interested in the person you know and use yourself. Jesus is the Servant, the Chosen One, the Son of God the Father claims as his very own.            

He gives him a five star rating: “My chosen one in whom I delight.” “My Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” The reviews from heaven are in. Jesus satisfies his Father’s demands in every way. He is his Father’s delight. That’s the Leader whose faith I want to follow. That’s the Savior I want to take care of my soul.

The Lord’s “Win-Win” Proposition

Philippians 1:21-23 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am going to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two. I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”

To die is gain. More and more people seem to agree with that statement. Terrorists routinely kill themselves along with their victims. Every few months some angry father or mother in a custody battle murders the children and then takes their own life. Death doesn’t seem to hold people in the fear it once did.

So long as they aren’t suffering intensely, life is going well, or there is the potential for it to get better, most people still prefer life. But for those coping with pain that can’t be relieved, or facing a future they fear, death seems to offer escape or relief.

A Christian has been given a unique take on life and death. Escape and relief are not what Paul means by “to die is gain.” Death doesn’t lead to nothing. It leads to something. It doesn’t just end something terrible. It begins something wonderful.

That may seem strange in light of the fact that God originally imposed death as part of the ultimate punishment for our sin. Its original purpose was not to give us something. It was to put us out of God’s presence forever.

Jesus changed all of that by dying instead of us. As our Savior, he was dying for us, in our place, when he gave up his life on the cross. His death served out the death penalty for our sins. It satisfied God’s justice and wiped our record completely clean–not only the felonies, but the misdemeanors and petty sins as well. As a result, God has nothing for which to be angry at us anymore, not even mildly irritated, and we have been reconciled.

Since death has been emptied of its original purpose, Jesus has invested it with a new one–it is the doorway to eternal life. His own resurrection from the dead assures us that death is not the end of life. It is the beginning of a new life. To die is gain. Death is not a bad choice when Jesus chooses it for me.

Author and motivational speaker Stephen Covey says that one of the secrets to success is to think “win-win.” It appears Paul thought of this long before. “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Ever Safe

Deuteronomy 33:27 “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

Our God’s unique reliability is found in those terms “eternal” and “everlasting.” Two different words are used in the Hebrew, each with its own emphasis. The first one looks deep into the past. The eternal God is the God who existed before all things. He goes back before sin entered the world, before there even was a world, before there was even such a thing as time. He has always existed. And the steady march of time since the beginning has not weakened or changed him. He has been constant, dependable, faithful, tried and true.

It is this eternal God whom Moses says is our “refuge.” We have his protection in the fights we face. Now, when you hear the word “refuge,” do you think of something temporary? When I hear “refuge” I tend to think of a place to which to run when there is trouble. I picture thick, gray, cold stone walls. It is unusually strong, well-fortified, maybe hard to access, and since the emphasis is on protection rather than comfort it is somewhat austere. It’s not the kind of place one would live on a full time basis.

That’s not the kind of refuge Moses is holding before us here. This is a place to call home. It offers all of the security and protection mentioned above, but it also has the warmth and permanency of the place you call home. This is the kind of refuge that the eternal God is for you and me. For thousands of years he has been this rock solid yet comfortable place in which his people could live all their days.

The other word which highlights our God’s reliability, “everlasting,” doesn’t look back but ahead. He is literally ever-lasting, he lasts forever, he goes on and on into eternity. His power, his love, his faithfulness, his very being, will never end.

The picture of God that Moses associates with “everlasting” are his everlasting arms beneath us. Do you know what that promises us? It doesn’t say that we will never have troubles. God will allow a certain number of things to test your faith. He will permit you to struggle with other people, perhaps struggle to make a living, or struggle with temptation.

But you will never be alone in those struggles and challenges. If you stumble, falter, or fall, he is not going to let you fall to your doom. His everlasting arms will always be under you.

I remember following my children around when they were just taking their first steps. There my wife or I were with hands and arms right underneath their bottom sides, ready to catch them when they took their first misstep. God’s own everlasting arms are always present underneath his wobbly-kneed, unsteady children, ready to catch them and hold them if ever they slip or fall along the way. He never fails. You can count on it.

Doesn’t that offer us courage for the challenges we face? Our souls are safe when we make our home with him. A look back at God’s perfect track record assures us that victory is always on his side. He will not let us be pushed down and trampled to death in the battles and fights that lie ahead. His arms will always be beneath us to catch us and prevent us from splattering ourselves on life’s jagged rocks. His reliability never fails.

Jesus Gives You More Than Rules

John 1:17 “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

A popular misconception people have about Jesus and Christianity is that Jesus came primarily to tell us what to do. His primary purpose was behavior modification on a gigantic scale. I know a young man who faithfully read our church’s devotional magazine, Meditations. With each devotion he tried to find the “moral of the story,” the lesson meant to change your behavior. It was something of a revelation to him that, when God speaks, he isn’t always trying to change your behavior. He may want nothing more than to tell you something about himself. John is telling us something similar about Jesus here. He came to give you more than rules.

Everyone knows the name of the most famous movie about Moses, the one starring Charleton Heston: The Ten Commandments. It’s no surprise, then, that John says the law was given through Moses. If you read the first five books of the Bible, the ones written by Moses, you find that God gave Moses more than ten commands. There were hundreds. They covered every facet of life. He gave laws to govern what you ate, what kind of clothes you wore, how you worshiped, whom you married, how you conducted business, how you farmed, how you schooled your children, how you practiced good hygiene, and even where and how you used the restroom. Hardly a moment went by in the lives of Old Testament believers when they weren’t consciously carrying out some rule, some instruction God had given them through Moses.

The world didn’t need Jesus to come and bring more rules. It had more than it needed from Moses. Jesus’ coming actually rolled back many of the rules given by Moses. He fulfilled them for us. That is why you don’t even feel a little bit guilty eating your Christmas ham, or worshiping on Sunday instead of Saturday.

But didn’t Jesus give us new commandments about love, like “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself”? No that was Moses, too, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus just brought them to people’s attention again. Didn’t Jesus give us something new when he taught us, “Love your enemies”? No, that’s in Moses, too, (Exodus 12:49) if you read the context of what he says about the commandments. Jesus clarified things for a generation that had lost its way.

So why does John make a point of this? People have a tendency to think this way about religion, “Don’t bother me with theory and theology. Just get to the practical part. Just tell me what I’m supposed to do.” It so happens that the “theory and the theology” (which really involves no theory at all, but is all based on unchangeable facts God has revealed. More about that in a moment.) is the main part. Without it, none of the practical stuff works. You can no more follow God’s rules and live a Christian life without understanding God and his love, than a doctor can perform surgery without studying anatomy, or a mechanic can fix your car without knowing how an internal combustion engine works.

It’s not that Jesus is unconcerned about the rules, but he knows, better than we do, how miserably we fail to keep them. That is why he comes to give us something more than rules: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Didn’t grace also exist before Jesus came? Didn’t the Lord describe himself this way to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin”?

Yes he did. But God never joined us in our world as a man before Jesus. God never fulfilled all the law’s demands as our substitute before Jesus. God never died in our place to pay for all our sins before Jesus. It wasn’t until Jesus came that we had the basis for our freedom from sin, and guilt, and fear, and legalism, and Satan, and death. These gifts, this grace and truth, came through Jesus Christ. They are so much more than another set of rules.

Jesus Gives You More

John 1:16 “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.”

Allyson attended Catholic schools for 14 years. Today she is a “none.” She is part of the growing number of Americans who claim no religion. She tells people that she went to Christian schools for 14 years to learn that she has no faith in organized religion. She regards religion as “death insurance,” and she isn’t willing to pay the premiums. Like many younger people, she believes that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, gives you less not more. It makes demands on your time, your money, your behavior and lifestyle. And for what?

In contrast to Allyson, there are the preachers who would like to convince you that Christianity will give you more right now. They host their own TV shows. They preach to tens of thousands in stadium-sized churches. They tell you that if you follow the right Bible principles, you can be wealthier, healthier, more popular and more powerful today. The only thing standing between you and a fabulous life is a big enough faith and a big enough donation to the preacher’s ministry.

The Apostle John assures us Jesus has something very valuable to offer, in spite of what people like Allyson believe. But it isn’t necessarily the “fabulous” life offered by the preachers on TV. “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” “One blessing after another” is literally “grace upon grace.” Grace is God’s gift-love. The picture is that grace just keeps piling up. One gift comes right after another in a stream of gifts that never ends.

What do these gifts look like? Let’s unpackage a few of them. The foundational gift is God’s love itself. Jesus preached it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” He lived it. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9). He finally gave up his life for it. “No greater love has anyone than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Isn’t this the one gift almost everyone wants most of all–to be loved? And isn’t this one of the hardest things for us to believe–that we are loved, just as we are, imperfections and all? How much sinful behavior doesn’t come from our insecurities about being loved and lovable? Young people become promiscuous because they want to create an illusion that someone loves them. But sex isn’t love.

We pile up more possessions, more stuff, than anyone can reasonably use. We shop without control, because we are trying to fill some hole in our heart. But things aren’t love.

We smoke something, or drink something, or pop something, or inject something to numb our emotional pain and forget our emptiness. But being buzzed or wasted isn’t being loved.

We criticize others and pick at their faults to feel better about ourselves. But pride and self-righteousness may cut us off from love more than all the rest.

Jesus gives us more than substitutes, counterfeits, and distractions. He gives us the genuine artifact. He gives us grace, the gift of love from God that we don’t have to deserve or earn. And from that gift, we receive so many more.

Because God loves us he forgives all our sins, and Jesus paid the supreme price to make it so. Because God forgives us, our fear and doubt are replaced by faith. Because we trust God and know that our sins are forgiven, we have peace in our lives. Because our hearts are at peace and God loves us, we can experience real joy, even when our outward circumstances aren’t so positive. When God’s love leads us to faith, the Holy Spirit comes and lives in our hearts. In addition to love, peace, and joy, he starts producing “kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

That’s more than death insurance. It’s part of a mighty river of gifts that never stop flowing over us from the spring of divine grace. And every one of them traces its origin back to Christ, who has come to give you more.

Courage for the Year to Come

Joshua 1:9 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Like most little boys, I wanted to be more like my dad when I got big. That meant I wanted to be tall. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be skilled at making things and fixing things. Tall, strong, “handy”–those are all fine features, fine abilities and characteristics to have. But I don’t think that we would call them “virtues.” No one may be shooting for short, weak, and clumsy, but we don’t accuse people of indecency or godlessness if they turn out that way.

What about “brave”? What about “courage”? Does that make your list of virtues? If God commands it, can it be anything else? God’s words for Joshua as he entered the Promised Land were, “Be strong and courageous.” Was Joshua afraid? The Bible never says it in so many words, but three times in four verses the Lord gives this command. The third time he adds, “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged…” It seems something was going on inside the man.

Looking ahead, Joshua faced a mine field of big challenges and serious dangers. He was leading his nation into a foreign land as unwelcome guests. For the next 20 or 30 years he and his people were going to be at war. On Joshua’s side, the people lived in tents. They had limited weapons and military training. They were fewer in number. On the other side the people lived in walled cities and had regular armies. Joshua needed God’s encouragement for all the dangers and uncertainties that lay ahead of him.

We have just crossed the border into a new year. What frightens you as you march forward? You don’t have to be a soldier anymore to be concerned about bombs and bullets. The war in Ukraine concerns us, but terrorist attacks are everywhere, and school shootings are common in our own country. We are still getting over the horrible loss of life at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX last May. Is it safe to go outside? Is it even safe to stay inside? “Be strong and courageous,” the Lord says. “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged…”

Our financial security seems so fragile at the year’s end. Inflation continues to rise. The stock market is stagnant at best. Many warn of recession and an economic crash in the hear to come. Some predict 2023 will bring a return to normal. Many more believe we are primed for more financial pain. Which will it be? “Be strong and courageous,” the Lord says. “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged…”

Why? “For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

You see, this “Be strong and courageous” issue is a moral issue and a faith issue, not just a psychological or emotional one. What are we saying about God and his promises when we trade “strong and courageous” for “weak and fearful”? Are we not, in effect, saying, “I don’t think you are really all that powerful. I don’t think you are really all that faithful about keeping your promises.”

Still God is here to bolster our strength and courage with his presence. At no time are we ever alone. Until I was three years old I dragged a little blanket with me wherever I went. One day I went to my parents and said, “Here, I’m big now. I don’t need this anymore.” Of course, the blanket never actually provided me any protections. It was just a comfortable feeling. You have more than an otherworldly security blanket or pacifier in God’s promise. Whether awake or asleep, healthy or sick, in danger or secure, we live every moment in the immediate presence of the Lord God who made our universe, gave us life, and is even now writing all the details of the story we are living. His presence provides more than a nice feeling of security. It is a real reason to be strong and courageous for whatever is waiting in the year ahead.

He is, after all, the Lord “your God.” Those are his words, not ours. He has promised himself to us in love and faithfulness. He is not going to rain his terrible judgements down on you like he did Israel’s enemies because he is the Lord your God. He gave up the life of his one and only Son to atone for the sins of the world. He has removed our every sin and cancelled all our debts to him. By giving us his word and revealing his love to you and me, he has called us to faith and adopted us as his own children. Now he is simply waiting for the day when he will bring each of his children home. “Be strong and courageous,” for the God who goes with you is on your side in every way.

This Child Gives Us Glory

2 Corinthians 4:4-6 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

By outward appearances, glory may seem like the last thing one would associate with Jesus Christ. At his birth, except for the brief appearance of the angels to the shepherds, his circumstances seem anything but glorious.

It doesn’t get better as he gets older. He grew up to be a plain man, and a poor man. He was rejected by so many of the “right kind” of people. He was embraced mostly by “sinners,” the “wrong kind” of people.  He died passively, submissively, not like a glorious hero, but a common criminal. As Paul points out, many cannot see the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”

But when Christ came, God was hiding himself in this human body. He did so that we might know him better. As we look at Jesus, God’s glory is shining on us, shining into our hearts. But we can see and know that glory only by faith.

 “The glory of God in the face of Christ” lights up our worship at his birth. It is the glory of a God who loves us so much he came here himself to save us from our sins. We believe this with all our hearts.

And one day we will not only see that glory fully with our eyes, we will live in it and share it in eternity. With Paul, this glory makes us servants to each other today as Christ’s glory shines in our hearts. With Paul, we will shine with Jesus in heaven’s light, for this Child gives us glory.

This Child Gives Us Peace

Luke 2:8-14 “And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”

Since the civil war ended in 1865, no significant land battles been waged on American soil. Most of us would have to trace our family trees back far beyond the time of our grandparents to find a time when homes and property were threatened by invading armies. The pax americana, or “American peace,” some have called it. We can simply count it a great blessing from God.

And yet, everyone reading these words has known the hardship and agony of war from the time they were born. From the moment we first arrived, we have participated in a war waged since almost the beginning of time.

This is not the conflict and the violence we see each night on the evening news, though we have seen plenty of that. This is the war of which the Apostle Paul is speaking when he says, “The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s will, nor can it do so.” This is the war the apostle references when he states, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men…”

This is the war which began in the Garden of Eden and has been waged in our own flesh. Each of us has a part in it, because we are by nature objects of wrath on account of our sin.

At Jesus’ birth God declares, “The war is over.” The peace of Christmas is not just a mood. It is more than a utopian goal for the dysfunctional family of mankind. The hush and the silence of Christmas night reflect a deeper and heavenly peace: A Savior has been born to you! He is Christ the Lord.

His life and death appeases his Father’s anger at sin. They win human hearts to faith, for, as the angels remind us, this Child gives us peace.