Better Days Are Here!

Posted: January 1, 2013 in sermons, Uncategorized
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Looking forward to the New Year, I present to you the text of the message I delivered this week. I hope and pray that you receive the same encouragement; and, rather than “happiness”, which is fleeting and quickly fades, you find blessings instead, which endure in spite of circumstances.

Well, well, well…we’ve come to the end of another year; and what a year 2012 has been, amen? We have seen the entire range of human experience in twelve months, from the sublime to the ridiculous: around the world we saw Olympic glory and royal weddings; we also saw regime changes, and the infamous “Arab Spring”, fueled and fostered in large part for the first time by the vastly interconnected world of social media. America has seen a President re-elected; one war brought to an end, and a timeline for ending another; while we spent untold billions of dollars landing a robot go-kart on Mars. We’ve seen uncertain economies cause unrest across Europe, Asia, and America alike, while dumbfounded citizens in more nations than I care to list wonder what exactly their elected leaders are doing about it. That is, those that are paying attention at all: Internet sites have set unbelievable records for the most traffic ever – the “Gangham Style” music video has passed one billion views on YouTube, while Facebook is viewed well over 550 billion times per month, more than the next 99 sites on the list combined. Those include Twitter at #15, Amazon at #24, and eBay at #26; even the weather comes in at #63. (Sadly, there is not a Christian website, or any other religion, for that matter, anywhere in the top 1000… and we wonder at the condition of the world today.)

Here closer to home, new babies have been born, while old friends and loved ones have gone on to glory; new brothers and sisters have joined us in serving the Lord, while others have been called to serve in other ways and other places. The end of the year is always a time to reflect, remember the good and the bad, and hope that the future will be better than the past. This hope takes many forms, and expresses itself in many ways – many of us will make or have made our list of resolutions for the New Year. I am no exception…those of you who read my blog already know; for those who don’t, I have decided that this is the time to finally walk away from the ball-and-chain I’ve been dragging behind me for thirty years… and give up cigarettes. (And if you thought I was talking about my wife Karen, shame on you!) I covet your prayers for success and God’s peace during the struggle.

Now, I’m not going into this half-hearted or blindly…I have done some research, and have learned that the people who succeed best are those who find a good substitute for the habits they want to break, something to take the place of what they are giving up – to take their minds off of it, and avoid the sense of being deprived of something. I have chosen to take up running as my substitute, and it’s not as crazy as it might sound…at my job, I work – long days of hard, physical labor that has kept me in fairly decent shape in spite of myself; I can still sprint up four floors of stairs and speak in complete sentences at the top! To help me achieve this resolution, I found a reasonable, safe, well-recommended training plan that can take you from the couch to a 5K race in ten weeks, and I’m starting tomorrow! My long term goal is to enter…and finish…the Chevron Houston Marathon in January 2014, one year from now, so please continue me in prayer for this, and from time to time, ask me how I’m doing! The accountability will be good for me, and I will be happy to do the same for you, to help you with keeping your resolutions, whatever they may be. (Shameless self-promotional note: Follow my other blog for updates on race preparations!)

This idea of giving up bad things and putting something better in their place is an echo of the words that God gave to Jeremiah, which we heard just a few minutes ago. (Jeremiah 31:27-34) The people had turned away from God, and broken His first covenant, the one He made when He brought them out of captivity, gave them the Ten Commandments, and declared Himself to be “the LORD your God”. The people had failed their end of the deal, though, and had fallen away; they had allowed their hearts to become filled with pride, with selfishness and greed, with lust and desire for the habits and practices of the other nations around them, and they were a mess. But God is faithful, even when His people are not, and so He made them a new promise, you could say He made a resolution – He would break their bad habits, and give them new ones in their place. Instead of the law written on stone tablets, He would write it on their hearts; instead of emptiness and despair, He would fill them with His Spirit. Instead of His righteous wrath in judgment, He would substitute forgiveness, and remember their sins no more. He did not expect them to repent in a vacuum… He would provide a means to accomplish all this by His own grace and love. That is the kind of resolution you can believe in: when God says He will do it, take that to the bank! And that assurance is what leads me to title today’s message, “Better Days Are Here”…because we know that what is future for us, God has already seen; we can take is as current fact, even while it’s in the process. God is not waiting for things to happen, He has already done it, the victory is already won, we are just watching the dust settle!

I have shown you the resolution that God has made, and we know that He keeps His word, praise be His name for that. We can know this because He has spoken through other prophets, and shown us that He has a plan that He is using to make it happen. Where do you think I got the inspiration to find a plan to help me keep my resolutions? I know who I am…I remember all the times I have tried to make changes on a whim, and I remember when it got hard, all the reasons excuses I made up for myself to get off the hook, and allow myself to fall back into the very habits I so desperately wanted to give up. No, to succeed I needed a plan, a way to ensure that I could persevere through the difficulty, and find victory on the other side. My anchor text for today is just one of those revelations, one example where the Lord explains how His plan will surely succeed, and what that will look like once it happens. He does this to encourage us, so that when we see it happening, we will be able to endure until the plan comes to its conclusion, and not lose hope before we get there. Today I want to examine how we can use this knowledge of God’s plan to help us realize our own resolutions…what steps can we take to be active participants with Him. Turn with me, if you will, to the book of Isaiah, in chapter 62. To provide some context: Isaiah’s prophesies cover both the period of Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the later exile of both Israel and Judah into Babylon. The last half of Isaiah is known as the “Book of Comfort”, where Isaiah looks beyond the current events and into the coming redemption of God’s people, the second time He brings them out of captivity, using the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and accomplish His purposes; Chapter 62 is subtitled “Zion’s Restoration and Glory”. Let’s read together, as God speaks through Isaiah – we will read the entire chapter, and then go back and look at it more slowly. I’m reading from the English Standard version, so if yours is different, you can follow along on the screen, so you don’t get lost…this translation doesn’t give the Hebrew, only the translated names, so it will seem very different if yours does…it doesn’t change the meaning, this is just easier to read.

(Isaiah 62, ESV)

May we be blessed by the hearing of the Word of God. So, let’s step through the text, and see what we can discern. In verse 1, Isaiah proclaims his commitment to the plan. Look at his words, “I will not keep silent…I will not be quiet.” The words of a true prophet were usually not well received in the Old Testament, were they? Jewish tradition tells us that Isaiah was killed by being sawn in half, because he would not stop proclaiming the Word of God. People generally don’t like to hear what is good for them, even if they are unhappy in their current situation; often because it means they must admit they are in the wrong and need to make a change if they wish to improve. We see both these themes echoed in the New Testament, when the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4 –

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” 

See Paul stressing the dedication that Timothy (or any other Christ-follower) must have; now for the resistance:

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Isaiah is saying he will stick to the plan – to keep on doing what God has commanded him to do, to keep on proclaiming the truth of the coming Savior, and calling for the people to have faith that God will do all that He has promised. The people probably had a pretty hard time believing him, you must admit – after all, Israel had already been taken over by Assyria, and Judah was only spared that by making a “deal with the devil”…problem is, he eventually collects on the bargain, doesn’t he? Judah later fell to Babylon and suffered greatly, because they were in cahoots with Assyria over their brothers in the North; the “short cut to salvation” they sought after took them the long way around instead. They weren’t committed to the plan, and took off on their own direction, instead of staying the course; and in the end, that lack of commitment was the cause of much greater harm.

Now we are going to jump around in this passage a bit, and look at the next two parts of how we can use God’s truth to make our resolutions into reality – there is a need for community and consistency in the plan. Look with me at verses 6-7:

“On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.”

The prophet here demonstrates what we already know – we cannot do it alone. There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians, at last not very good ones, I would say. Humans are created for community, because we are created in God’s image and likeness, and He exists in perfect community among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Genesis, after the creation is complete, God declares it all “very good”, until we get to 2:18, where He says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Isaiah demonstrates his understanding of this when he announces that he has helpers…he calls them watchmen…who are there to assist him. And look at what they are charged to do – to pray to God day and night, without ceasing, taking no rest and giving God no rest. Now, that’s a bold thing, isn’t it, to give God no rest? Have you ever felt that you had prayed so much about something that were beginning to feel you were annoying God? Like a pestering child tugging at your belt, “Please, please, please,pleasepleasepleeeeeeease…” trying to wear you down until they get what they want? This passage tells us that God wants us to be persistent, He wants us to keep asking, He wants us to stay consistent in our petitions…that is, if we are praying for His plan, not ours; if we are praying for the fulfillment of His promises, not the satisfaction of our own desires. The begging child is not after you what you want for them, they only care for their own satisfaction. Then notice, Isaiah says You who put the Lord in remembrance”…that means all of us, not just the preachers and pastors and Sunday school teachers and TV evangelists. It is our job to keep God in the minds and hearts of the world, it is our job to proclaim His glory and righteous, it is our job to encourage others to believe He will do all that He has said. James 5:16 says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Imagine how that works when multiplied by the number of men and women doing the praying! There’s a whole lot of availing, that’s available to us!

So, we have commitment to the plan, added to community in the plan, with consistency through the plan…what’s left? The best part of having a plan is what’s left – the wonderful consequences of the plan. The rest of this chapter is devoted to describing what will come about, the reward we shall receive once the plan is completed…which, remember, I said God has already seen the end, so He is the absolute best position to tell us what the outcome will be. Look with me at the end of the chapter, verses 11-12, which sums it all up and gives us hope to cling to –

“Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your Salvation comes; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” ‘ And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”

Our Salvation has come, and His name is Jesus. Do you want to know how we fit into this? Let me tell you: WE are His reward, brothers and sisters…WE are His recompense, the work that He came to do; the reason God sent Him to the earth. WE are called the Holy People, set apart for God. WE have been redeemed by His blood, shed on the cross. WE have been sought out, WE have not been forsaken. THIS is the outcome of God’s plan, THIS is what God has resolved to do. So I ask you, brothers and sisters, as we stand and worship…how will you respond today? Do you have a resolution you need to make? Do you have a burden you need to be freed from? Have you been living apart from the Lord, and need to return to Him? Have you never made a decision to follow Him, and today you want to change that? If any of that fits you, come on down, let us pray for you and with you; let us stand beside you as we give God no rest, until all that He has planned comes true…come on down, and surrender all to the King of kings, the Lord of lords, to Jesus Christ…won’t you come?

 

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