I remember reading in my Perspectives Class on world mission a phenomenon called “power encounters” whereby a missionary would directly confront the idols of the day in some bombastic way to show the futility of such idols. For example, tearing down a totem pole or cutting down a tree (if these were the items of worship) in an area. While the confrontationalist in me loves the idea, I wonder how much was missed in these opportunities to really get to the heart of idolatry–namely, through teaching that idols are nothing (1Cor 8.4). Yet for those who worship an idol, it is very much a real thing.

I am currently reading Roland Allen’s formative text on mission, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, and have been immensely helped (in tandem with Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret). Regarding the moral and social condition in which Paul preached, Allen makes this side comment:

Incidentally I should like to remark that in heathen lands it might still perhaps be the wiser course to preach constantly the supremacy of Christ over all things spiritual and material, than to deny or deride the very notion of these spirits. Some of our missionaries know, and it were well for others if they did know, that it is much easier to make a man hide from us his belief in devils than it is to eradicate the belief from his heart. By denying their existence or by scoffing at those who believe in them we do not help our converts to overcome them, but only to conceal their fears from us. By preaching the supremacy of Christ we give them a real antidote, we take them a real Saviour who helps them in their dark hours” (pp.28-29)

Allen brings balance. Too often preachers can assume they are preaching the supremacy of Christ, but they never pinpoint what exactly he is supreme over. Put another way, we preachers can preach rather generically. “Jesus is Lord over all!” We declare full throttle. Yet those listening have not been helped.

What is he supreme over?

He is supreme over your doubts of salvation. Your incessant anger. Your slavery to lust and pornography. Your boring and romantic-less marriage. Your bad parenting. Your disobedient children. Your greed. Your self-doubt. Your self-aggrandizement. Your obedient children. Your good parenting. Your healthy marriage. Your pure eyes. Your self-control.

He owns you. Therefore, the world doesn’t revolve around you anymore. Instead, he sets you free to think of others. Even more, he empowers you by his Spirit to think of other more highly than yourself. Your fears that you will be passed over for the job promotion. Your self-righteousness toward your unbelieving neighbor is set under his lordship in such a way that you no longer possess the answers, but are possessed by One who does. You cannot gloat that you understand the world en esse. Rather, you are saddened by the way the world actually is.

So, Christian, we need a modern-day power encounter. Not where we smash totems. But by understanding the world around us and helping others see our need for a Savior. We limp forward together. We bind up wounds together. We use the splint our arm is wrapped in to bind our neighbors’ arms. Thereby we see that instead of hiding the idol in shame, our neighbor is free to admit the idol and know that he will not be condemned but helped.

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Blessed is the One Who Comes in the Name of the Lord – Isaiah 50.4-9

 

You and I are in great danger this morning. Comforts and Confronts. Cuts and Heals.

If you’re anything like me, you like comfort. You like pleasure. You like things to go your way and get a little hot when they don’t. Too often we choose to go with the flow rather than to swim upstream.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know deep down inside that’s not where life happens. As we’ve been talking about for the last four weeks, we are called to die so that our lives might expand and grow and become more than a mere seed. If we’re honest with ourselves, the most alive we have felt is when we have taken risks or stepped into the unknown. When we didn’t have it all figured out.

As one mentor of mine has said, “Comfort zones are where dreams go to die.”

If we opt for comfort, then the big dreams God has placed in our hearts. The fully alive human beings that he created us to be will be lost forever. By saving our lives, we lose them. By giving them up, we gain them.

Our passage this morning is often called the Third of Four Servant Songs in the prophet Isaiah’s message to us. This morning as we walk through this passage, I want us to consider, “Why would this Servant do the things he does in this passage?”

Isaiah 50.4-9

4 The Lord GOD has given me

the tongue of those who are taught,

that I may know how to sustain with a word

him who is weary.

Morning by morning he awakens;

he awakens my ear

to hear as those who are taught.

5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious;

I turned not backward.

6 I gave my back to those who strike,

and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;

I hid not my face

from disgrace and spitting.

7    But the Lord GOD helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

8 He who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who is my adversary?

Let him come near to me.

9 Behold, the Lord GOD helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

As I said, we are in great danger this morning. The New Testament makes it clear that this Suffering Servant finds its fulfillment in the life and death of Jesus. If the Christian life is one of more and more conformity into the image and life of Jesus, then we must be prepared for pain and suffering. We are intended to grow and become more than what we are. More accurately, we are to become all that God intended us to be.

When we look to Jesus, his life is not just outside of us. Something done in one time and place. But his work must also be done inside of us. In the very fabric of our lives.

So our roads to Calvary are modeled after the Perfect One who suffered on our behalf. And this suffering is not an altogether horrible thing. It is the friction that happens in life when we live in light of a different King.

The life we see in the Suffering Servant is one that he received from the hands of God. There are three times the covenant-keeping God is mentioned in this passage.

Verse 4: The LORD God has given me teaching. The calling he received was just that…received. It wasn’t contrived or made up as he saw fit. The Servant was taught by God himself.

Verse 5: The Lord God opened my ear. What does this mean? It is the action God takes to give us an understanding mind to what is being taught. This is a gift of grace. Unlike the ones the prophets indicted for ever hearing yet never perceiving, the Servant is marked by both sitting under the teaching of God and receiving it as his way of living.

Verse 7: The Lord God helps me. This is more than a pat on the back. The activity of God has gone from that of speaking and opening ears to coming alongside. Put your finger there. We’re going to come back to this concept in a moment.

What was the purpose of this teaching he received? To serve the needs of others. To sustain the one who is weary. The life he offers up as a spiritual act of worship is one of receiving first from God and then giving to others. This is the tenor of all four of the Servant Songs. His life is that of a Servant. He serves others on God’s behalf.

We saw this at the beginning of Advent in the First Servant Song—Isaiah 42.1: He will bring forth justice for the nations. As we saw last week, this Servant was never intended merely to save a certain ethnicity. Yes, he came from the Jews, but he was meant for all peoples.

As Isaiah continues to teach, we find that the way this Servant will bring about this justice will be by giving himself up as the substitute for the guilty—pre-eminently seen in the Last Servant Song in Isaiah 53 (bruised for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

We get a glimpse of it here, though. Verse 6: I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheek to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. Why are these horrible things done to the one who serves others? This is what it takes to bring forth justice. 

But there is a fourth place that the LORD God appears. Verse 9: Behold, the LORD God helps me. Yes, this is the same word in Verse 7. And this is more than an encouraging word.

This is the same word to describe Israel’s cries for a Deliverer to help them (Exodus 2.23). But this is a theme throughout Isaiah’s prophecy. The word first appears in Isaiah 10.3: “To whom will you flee for help in day of reckoning?” The word shows up a second time in Isaiah 20.6. After judgment has come and Israel is scattered around, they say: “Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered.”

This is a theme throughout the time right before Israel’s Exile. They had trusted in princes and chariots and the mighty and forsaken their confidence in the Lord. They had opted for protection from Egypt and Assyria. And they found that they were cruel deliverers indeed!

This is the same option Jesus was given so many times before his crucifixion. Jewish Leaders. Caiaphas. King Herod. Pontius Pilate. The crowds. Why would he not entrust himself to them?

The word “help” shows up a third time in 30.5: “Everyone comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace. Egypt’s help is worthless and empty.” Isa 31.1: Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel.

This is our human default position. We see the strong and the mighty and we run to them. We are easily deceived by what seems to be strength. This reminds me of the Charmin commercials from some time ago where the little boy would take a whole lot of toilet paper and stuff his shirt with it and look very big…stronger than he was. We can laugh because of the humor in it. Of course he’s not strong. Yet, we still find ourselves leaning on those who appear strong and forsake the One who made the strongmen.

This is the fundamental difference between the Servant and us. He puts all of his trust in the LORD God. He doesn’t hedge his bets. He places his complete trust and confidence in him. This is the life he wants to free us to live as well. When this kind of confidence in God marks us we begin to understand how the Servant can be disgraced (V.6) but not be disgraced (V.7). How his cheeks can be chipped away at (V.6) but still remain as hard as flint (V.7).

Yes, the Servant suffers shame and is beaten, but his vindication comes from One who stands over all the peoples who mete out this punishment (V.8). He knows that this pain is temporary and will pass away like a garment eaten by a moth (V.9). 

This is the full life that Christ offers to all of us. As he enters into Jerusalem, as he is lifted up this morning, we are challenged with what we believe is sure and steady and real. We find that our confidence must be grounded in a higher ground. The earth surely gives way. Those things we put confidence in on this earth will fail us. They will use us. They will disappoint us.

The Servant frees us from the mirage of comfort in anything or anyone else other than the LORD God. This is not an easy path. This is a path of invisibility. Of walking by faith and not by sight. Much like the the Charmin boy. We can try to stuff ourselves with things outside of us…but God is about refining and strengthening the very substance of who we are. He wants to firm up our resolve and resilience to the moth-eaten promises.

This concept of help is a rich and dangerous feast if we will take it. Let me leave you with what the LORD God says in the chapter 41 right before the First Servant Song:

Fear not, for I am with you;

be not dismayed, for I am your God;

I will strengthen you, I will help you,

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Redeeming the Serpent

 

 

Israel found itself in the wilderness complaining against God for his ways of redeeming them. For the mundane activities he had them take part in (i.e., walking around in circles).

Side note: If you and I were led in the wilderness for 40 years we would be murmuring as well. We get in a tizzy when we have to do anything mundane for more than an hour typically.

So Israel complains and God sends serpents to bite them in judgment (see Numbers 21 for the full account). This act of judgment reminds us of the serpent in the Garden who is ever present with us. He tempts us to murmur and blame others rather than confessing and growing and trusting. These serpents become a vivid reminder of what each of our little speakings of our minds are really saying. That is, when we speak out against a circumstance or a person, we are setting ourselves up as the arbiter of right and wrong. Of truth. We are the ones to whom others ought to ask for permission.

But the act of healing did not come by taking a potion or jumping in a river or screaming out loud, “I’m sorry” followed by self-flagellation. The act of redemption came in the simple form of looking. Looking. Not reaching out. Not even crying out. Merely looking away from the self and to Another. There is no strength required. A mere acknowledgment of something outside of ourselves that needs to redeem.

What is fascinating further about this act of redemption is the object to which Israel was to look. They were to look to…a serpent. The Act of Rebellion against their Maker that started in the Garden is turned on its head. The Serpent is powerless to hold sway the delights of rebellion. He becomes the tool in God’s hands of redemption.

God doesn’t just say, “Stay away from serpents.” He doesn’t rid the earth of what would be deemed evil. Surely, the Adversary is not redeemer. That is not what we see in the text! Rather, we see that those things connected with and that can easily be lumped in with the hopeless, in this case a serpent, God redeems this seemingly hopeless object. He doesn’t merely get rid of the evil, he redeems the evil.

This is scandalous and you might find yourself saying, “Matt, you go too far!”

Do I? I venture to say that you have not entirely grasped who you are. You were an object of wrath. You were children of the Adversary. You delighted in your own desires and your universe orbited around your wants. God, being rich in mercy, took you out of that darkness. He didn’t merely remove you from the filth. He transferred you into the kingdom of his Beloved Son. The One he loved from before the foundation of the world. He not only transferred you into that kingdom. He has given you all the privileges of that kingdom. He has made you a son and daughter!

God is not in the business of just getting rid of his adversaries, but to those who will merely look to the Son who was also lifted up, he will give you the inheritance of his Beloved Son. No more to be destroyed. No more to be reviled and written off as hopeless. He gives you all that he has and all that he is.

“Life From the Serpent and Through the Son” John 3.14-21

For the last three weeks of this season of Lent, we have been focusing on the need to reflect and repent in our lives. I have to admit, it has been a little difficult for me to walk through these very difficult passages of dying to self and Jesus’ challenge to the kind of Savior we want and the need to repent. Unfortunately this focus of the Christian life can easily slip into a self-congratulatory or self-justifying event. Consider the tendency throughout church history where believers needed to perform ornate expressions of devotion. I am thinking of the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where people crawl on their hands and knees. Hear one pilgrim’s account:

Some crawled for miles on their bleeding hands and knees. Others dragged cinderblocks and stones along the asphalt. Many arrived at the chapel exhausted and bleeding after excruciating treks barefoot, on their knees, or even dragging themselves along the ground. Many wore the traditional sackcloth of penitence.

Too often when we speak about repentance for our sin, we forget the beautiful motivating aspect of salvation. It’s repentance and faith. Faith is the motivating force for repentance. It’s the selling of all we have for the priceless treasure hidden in the field. It is the pearl of great price worth the price of great sacrifice.

Today in the midst of all this darkness and sadness and brokenness we ought to feel for our sin and rebellion, we see a bright ray of light. A piercing light that divides the dark. That provides hope to the powerless and strength to the hopeless. My plan is to highlight several aspects of our passage today and to trust the Holy Spirit to let various emphases land on your heart and change your life as a result.

As such, I am going to forego the translation we have in the bulletin and am going to offer my  own translation to hopefully draw out aspects of the text for us this morning.

Just as Moses also lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary that the Son of Man to be lifted up. In order that all those believing on him may not be destroyed, but that they may have life eternal. For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only-begotten Son in order that all those believing on him may not be destroyed, but that they may have life eternal. For God did not send his Son into the world in order to condemn the world but in order that the world would be saved through him. The ones believing on him are not condemned. But the ones not believing are already condemned, because they have not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.

And this is the condemnation: That the light has come into the world, and the people loved the darkness more than the light, for their works were evil. For the one who does evil works hates the light, and he does not come toward the light so that his works will not be exposed. And the one who does the truth comes toward the light so that his works will be revealed because they are worked out in God.

As you think about some of our favorite love stories, what are some common threads? Romeo and Juliet loved each other to the point of death. Bonnie and Clyde were fully devoted to each other. Leonardo DiCaprio or Bradley Cooper or Matthew McConaughey…in anything they ever played are generous, self-sacrificing, committed in spite of circumstances or difficulties. Every story of love is a glimpse, a shadow of the love that God has displayed in his Son Jesus. Indeed, whenever we get the feeling of love, it is meant to lift our eyes to a more perfect love. Because eventually the credits to these stories roll and the script is finished and these amazing stories end. The Honeymoon always ends and we are aways let with sinners who say I Do.

I am convinced that if you and I were more convinced and sure of the love of God for us our lives would be dramatically affected everyday. Every interaction we have. Every thought we have. Every word we speak would be saturated with grace and humility and a pointing away from our self-sufficiency and magnifying the worth of God.

Let’s start at the most well-known verse in the Bible, v. 16: For this is the way that God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son. God loved the world. He loves the world, without measure because he is infinite and without boundary. This is the word kosmos, which is where we get our word for “cosmos”. Consider the vastness of the entire creation.

We went to the Roper Mountain Planetarium a couple weeks ago. They had a telescope that could see out over 1,000 lightyears. 1 lightyear = 5.9 trillion miles. The most powerful telescope is able to see 13.2 billion lightyears away…and that’s just what we are able to see now. Let that consume your mind. The love of God is vast. You’re standing on the edge of the ocean and yet the love of God is more consuming. Were you to sail out a 100 miles and be dropped in the ocean and be surrounded and drowned in it. The love of God is deeper still.

God is not scowling. He is not in a perpetual rage. He is not constantly fuming with anger. As he pleaded with wicked Nineveh. As he pleaded with his own people who did not receive his Son but beckoned them to come under the shelter of his wing for comfort and protection. As he fed and watered a people who grumbled and complained about his grace.

Who does Scripture say that God loved?

Consider for a moment the “just as” Jesus references in v.14 from Numbers 21, the account that we just heard. “Just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes on him may have life eternal.” Why was the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness? Because Israel had murmured and complained against God. They had despised his salvation. They had hated his way of healing them. While were yet murmurers, Christ died for us.

While we were yet sinners, while we were still weak, while we were in darkness…at that moment Christ died for us.

How does Scripture say he loved us? 

By giving. He did not merely give a gift. He loved his Son with an eternal love. A pure and holy love. My love for my children is a shadow of the reality of God’s perfect love for his Son. I have often said that part of me would die if I lost any one of my children. I can’t imagine life without one of them. I would die. Before the creation of the vast galaxies that cannot be measured by our greatest instruments. Before this, God the Father was delighting in an relishing the Son of glory. In this Trinitarian dance, the Father and the Son and the Spirit were in perfect and sweet communion.

Yet, God, in his grace. In his love. Sent his beloved and one and only Son…not merely to be an example for us, but even more to lay down his life for us. For the unlovely. For the ungodly. He gave us God. He gave us his very life.

Notice to whom this offer is made.

All those believing on him. Anyone. Any person that bows their knee can be saved.

Are you discouraged by your sin? Are you without hope that the one you love the most is beyond the reach of God? Remember your own state in which God found you. He didn’t just make you a better version of your already good self. By confessing and acknowledging your wretchedness, God would remind you that he is able and willing to save anyone.

Our passage from Ephesians 2: But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.

It is only by one’s own pride that he will not come to this All-Sufficient Savior. Before Christ came to us, we loved the darkness more than the light. Our deeds. Our thoughts. Our words. The very orientation of our lives was crooked and small.

It is only by relying on our own ability to save ourselves that we will remain in destructive condemnation.

You were not saved by your strength. You were not saved by your works. You were saved in spite of yourself. You were saved. Saved.

Notice how this salvation is made real. 

All those believing on him. Belief. It is not the amount of belief we have. Jesus himself said that faith as small as a mustard seed could move a mountain. It is not the faith, but the one upon whom we place our faith. Are you downcast from something you said this morning. From something you did last night. Something you thought this week.

In the same way that Israel merely looked up to the bronze serpent to be saved, so also God is calling you to merely look away from yourself and look up to the Sufficient One who can cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Look to him. There is no strength you need to bring. You just need to look to him.

Look to the one who took the initiative in this cosmic redemption. Be overwhelmed by his deep affection for you. He did not wait for you to come to him. He sent his Son. He did not send him to condemn you. He sent him to draw you out of the miry clay out of the deep waters and save you.

It is not merely that God wants you to merely look to the Lifted up Son on the Cross. He’s not an unwilling king—as though you look to him and he extends his scepter because he is bound by some law outside himself. The love for you wells up from his own heart. For when you look to him, you are born again. You are made new. Your works go from serving your own wants and desires to being exploded and expanded to magnify the strength and beauty of the One who loved you and gave himself up for you.

Your evil deeds are converted into works done in God. v.21! He doesn’t hold his nose when you enter the room. He doesn’t turn his face away. He looks you full in the face and says, “I. Love. You.” He raises us with our Perfect King and seats us with him. We share all that Christ has with him.

By the power of the Spirit, God promises to make you who he intended you to be from the foundation of the world. From before the cosmos was made in all its expanse and immensity and gravity, God planned to come to you. To save you. To redeem you even today, if you will but come to the Light. If you will allow his saving grace to consume your darkness. To shine light on your deeds and convert them to Christ.

Are you burdened by your sin? Come to the light this morning. It wasn’t intended for you only when you walked down the aisle so many years ago. He bids you to come to the light. To receive the fullness of life. Of eternal and ever-full life.

Are you lacking courage this morning? He loves you. He traversed the expanse of the universe, the even greater distance between our sinfulness and his infinite purity. The light of his Star that shines even brighter than the Sun. He traveled such a distance that God became man to be near you. To love you. How can you not leap a wall of whatever fortress you have built around yourself? How can you not take up the feet of a deer and spring to the heights?

Are you lacking faith for the one you love? Know that all who believe on him, he will not cast out. He will not shrink from. He will embrace. Whatever station of life. Will you not draw near to that one and love them with the love of Christ?

Questions to Consider

  1. How easy or difficult for you to accept the proposition that God loves you?
  2. What is your view of God? Do you often see him as a distant king or one who draws near to you?
  3. How does courage and joy relate to understanding God’s love for us?