Acts chapter sixteen gives the account of Paul and Silas having been put in jail in Philippi. They had been arrested for preaching the Gospel and accused of causing a disturbance. They were stripped, beaten with rods, thrown into a dungeon, and had their feet put in stocks. A terrible experience for anyone. One would expect them to be angry, to be looking at their wounds, and concerned about what their fate would be in the morning. Instead, the text tells us that “about midnight (they) were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”(vs.25) You can read the account to see the outcome, but my point here is what they were focusing on. Of course they were hurting and uncomfortable, and their fate uncertain, but they chose to focus their attention, and their hope, upon the Lord. Instead of allowing themselves to be consumed with their situation they focused upon the Lord with prayer and song. They looked to the Lord who is our strength in all situations.
New Years celebrations are important. Many people make a big deal out of celebrating on January first, the beginning of the calendar year. Actually it’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen the New Year in. I usually sleep through it. But there are other New Year celebrations. The Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the Fall. The Chinese have a Spring New Years festival, and the Muslims also have a date in the Fall for the beginning of their year. For Christians the New Year begins this coming Sunday with the First Sunday in Advent. The year is geared to the Scriptural accounts of all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The year begins by looking back at the astounding wonder of the Incarnation, Almighty God coming among us in the Baby born in Bethlehem. But it also looks forward to the time of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return. The calendar New Year is a time for revelry. The Christian New Year infuses us with hope, knowing all that God has done for us in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ, and in the certainty of the fulfillment of His promises to bring all things to their right conclusion.
In a six foot span of my desk top there are at least a dozen separate pieces of paper, each with a purpose, and each needing some kind of action. It looks like chaos, but I really do know the purpose of each, and the action to be taken (even if I put it off!). Some items are waiting for further information before I can do anything, but none are forgotten. I think about our Lord looking at the chaos of this world, infinitely greater than my desktop. Yet He knows every part. Nothing escapes His concern or His ultimate action. Perhaps He has to allow other things to take place first before He acts, but He will act in His good and perfect will. David looked at the chaos that surrounded Him, and cried out, “How long. O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” But, after several verses of lament, he concludes saying, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.”(Ps.13) There really is hope in the midst of the chaos of life.
The leaves are beginning to change color. We saw one tree yesterday that three different colors in it. My Father made that for me to enjoy. My fingers are moving to type these letters. The mechanics of how our hands function is absolutely amazing. My Father designed them and gave them to me. We can look around at a thousand of other things in everyday life, things we take fore granted, but which are absolutely wonderful gifts from our Heavenly Father. My Father and your Father gave them to us. I will be at the hospital today with a cancer patient’s family. We weep time and again over this terrible disease, and the many other ills that face our world. Yet we can thank our Father that He has given many people the skills and desire to help and to heal. Look around today at the gifts your Father has given you. Rejoice, give thanks, and love Him.
Sometimes it is difficult to know what to say in a very broken world. One looks at the world where sabers are being loudly rattled to the point of serious conflicts. I talked with a policeman from one of our cities who gave a very bad assessment of inner city condition. Many western nations have pushed aside the Christian foundation upon which they were built. And the list goes on. All things out of my control that I can do nothing about. Certainly we pray for our nation and world. Yet, even that can feel like a rather hopeless effort. But I do have a family who depends upon me. I have a neighbor who is having difficulty and needs my support. I do have those close by who need prayer, and encouragement. I have clerks and attendants in places of business I patronize that need a smile and greeting by name. There are lots of things in this world I can do nothing about, but there are also a lot that are much closer at hand where I can provide some positive good. I will pray and weep before the Lord over the bigger things, but I will love and serve those who are close at hand. That will at least mend some of the brokenness.
Psalm 121 asks and then answers a question. “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth.”(vss.1-2) This is one of the so called Songs of Ascent. The city of Jerusalem is situated on a high hill, and pilgrims would sing these palms as they were going up to worship at the Temple. It was a rocky path, but their eyes were fixed on the Temple and the Lord they would worship there. There eyes were looking up. They knew their help came from the Lord. Is this not a song for life as we make our ascent through the various paths before us? Our tendency is to keep our eyes down, only seeing the four walls in which we live, or the uncertainties of the days ahead, but God has reached out to us. He has called us to come to His Temple. He has verified His call by many acts of grace. Lift up our eyes. Our help does come from the Lord who made heaven and earth.
One heresy of the Christian Church that has been around since ancient times, and still persists in some ways today says that Jesus was God, but He only looked like a man. He really didn’t suffer or truly feel the pain that we experience. Yet the writer of Hebrews assures us that Jesus is “one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are…”(4:15) In Matthew 14 it is striking to see the range of human pressure and burdens our Lord experienced. It begins with His cousin being beheaded by King Herod, the loss of a family member and the evil that would cause this. Then the demands of the multitude, the dullness and slowness of His disciples to believe, and seeing fear where there should have been faith, Jesus felt it all deeply. Twice in this 14th chapter it indicated that Jesus needed to get alone to pray. His burden was greater than we can imagine. But by His carrying that burden, and ultimately that of our sins to the cross, we have the assurance that He knows and cares about our individual needs and hurts. He has been there, and just as He reached out His hand to save Peter from drowning (14:31) He reaches out to us each day. His strength and grace are sufficient.
Paul was a man who suffered more for the Gospel than most of us can imagine. While imprisoned in Rome he would write to the Philippian Christians, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am 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; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”(1:21-24) I sometimes think of this phrase “to depart and be with Christ which is far better.” As a pastor I see the hurt and pain of this broken world that touches so many that I know and love. I hear of another death, or severe illness, or one who is in serious trouble because of a wrong path in life, and I am helpless. There is nothing I can do about it. I just want to burden of this sinful life to be over for all of us. Yet, it is not the Lord’s time, and we are to remain doing what is “more necessary” for those we can reach. My recently ordained son-in-law said that he sees his task as helping those he meets to move one step closer to the Lord. We don’t know when the Lord will choose to end the burdens of this world, but that is the task for all of us, to help each one we meet move a step closer to the Lord. All the rest is in the hands of our gracious God.
Yesterday I wrote about anger and the lack of civility being the tone of our country in recent years. Jesus used the illustration of a tree bearing good or bad fruit, and said , ”For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”(Luke 6:45) What our current times are showing us is the truth the Church has been preaching since its beginning, that the heart is corrupt and in need of a change.(Jeremiah 17:9) All of our advanced medicines, our psychologies, and our self-help books cannot change the heart. The only One who can is the Lord who gave His life in order to exchange His righteousness for our sin. Only Jesus can change a heart. Unfortunately, as a people, we have moved further and further away from that One who gives new life. We see the result of bad fruit in our world. Even so, the Good News is that God doesn’t abandon us. His Spirit is still reaching out to any heart that is open to Him. And for those whose hearts have been touched by Jesus they are called to use their actions and their words to show that there is a different and better way of life.
This morning we are attending a memorial service for a man in our community. He died very suddenly last weekend from a heart attack. He was not a close friend, but someone we have known for many years. We are again confronted with the shortness and uncertainty of life. We all know death is real and will come to each of us. The Bible calls death an enemy. This doesn’t mean that we have to live in fear. We take reasonable precautions, but we do not have to seek every means to hold death off for as long as possible. Jesus said that life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Or, we might add, the latest pharmaceutical offering. The source of all life is in Jesus Christ. We rest and find our peace in Him. We share together and comfort one another in a time of loss. But above all we know that true life is far more than a beating heart. When the time come of us or someone close to step over the boundary we call death we rely on the life we have in Christ which has no end.