Oh Lord, Make Yourself Known

Oh Lord, make yourself known to our nation. That was Isaiah’s prayer for his people. As we enter the Advent Season, it is the Christian’s prayer for our nation.

We have celebrated Thanksgiving and entered the Advent Season, the four Sundays which prepare us for the coming of the Christ child. While millions of people in our nation know Christ and hear his voice as he speaks through the Word, we pray for millions of others as we pray, “Oh Lord, in this Advent Season make yourself known.”

Isaiah the prophet spoke to Judah and Jerusalem around the year 700 BC. But he had grown weary. When he preached to the people, many of them paid little or no attention to his message. He presented the following verses to God.

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and made us waste away because of our sins.”

In earlier days God had made himself known in miraculous ways. The people recalled the stories told to them about God dividing the Red Sea. The Israelites had crossed the sea on dry land but when the Egyptians pursued them, God let the water go back and the Egyptians were swept into the sea. This was a sign that the people could see with their own eyes, and they believed God was leading them.

On another occasion the Israelites complained to Moses saying, “We are hungry. In Egypt we were slaves but we had plenty to eat. Why did you bring us out here to die?” Moses told God what they were saying, and God fed them giving them bread in the morning and meat in the evening. Again, many believed God was watching over them.

When Moses complained that they had not heard from God in these miraculous ways for a long time, he prayed that God would do something to let them know He was on the throne and watching over them.

Then came the day when God revealed himself by coming to this world as the God-man. It was the incarnation. God became man in the person of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem’s manger, on Calvary’s cross, and through the empty tomb. This Savior grew up and proclaimed that, through faith in him, we could have eternal life.

God reveals himself in many ways, but the greatest way is in Christ. It was Jesus himself who said, “I and the Father are one.” Sometimes Jesus makes himself very personal to us. Let me tell you a story.

It was a Saturday morning early in October when I received a telephone call from the head coach of a university here in the Midwest. He told that he had received word that very morning that his daughter had been in an automobile accident. Her car had been broadsided and rolled over landing on its top. The coach rushed to his daughter’s side and found out that, except for a badly broken arm, she was not hurt. But her first words to her dad were, “Jesus was with me. He was sitting right by my side. He turned and protected me as the car was rolling over.”

Two days later she said to her father, “Dad, I don’t think you got the full meaning of what I told you, that Jesus was with me. He was right by my side.”

Later the coach had a chance to read the police report. In it the patrolman had written that the man who hit the coach’s daughter’s car asked, “What happened to the man who was sitting beside her?” Jesus had revealed himself personally to this young lady.

Thrilled with this testimony, I said to the coach, “You have taught her well.”

He replied, “We have a good church and pastor, and we want the children to know the way. But I want you to know that my life has never been the same since that day when I received Jesus as my Savior in your study.”

After my conversation with the coach, he recruited an early morning Bible class of about twenty men. This must be twenty years ago and the class continues today, even though the people in the class have mostly changed.

If you are a Christian, I believe you have had those days when Jesus revealed himself to you in a very personal way. It is not that Jesus is a hidden God. Rather it is that we are often not sensitive to his presence.

We have now celebrated Thanksgiving Day, and it is only twenty-eight days until Christmas. We need to pray that God will speak to us through these Advent stories.

Mary and Joseph received the message that she would give birth to the Son, who would be the God-man, conceived by the Holy Spirit. We have the account of that birth in Bethlehem’s manger Ð the incarnation. All of these happened because God loved us so much that he gave us his Son.

As we live close to that Son in his Word every day, he will reveal to us some mighty experiences that Jesus is with us.

Finishing Strong

A certain man was a rising star in church circles. He was creative, skilled in the pulpit, energetic, hard working, and had lots of charisma. His church, which he had started in the suburbs, was growing in leaps and bounds.

Years later, however, things had changed. This man, once considered a spiritual dynamo and who had been on fire for Christ’s cause, was now struggling. He was even thinking of leaving the ministry. His church, which had plateaued in growth, was doing alright, but he certainly wasn’t. People who knew him intimately just scratched their heads and wondered what happened. He started so strong, but he seems to be finishing so poorly. His ministry is in crisis.

A certain young lady was on fire for Jesus. She gave her life to Christ at a Young Life camp, committed herself to following him the rest of her life. She was enthusiastically involved in her church and talked often about her faith.

But, years later, you’d never recognize her. She had grown lukewarm about her faith, was not connected to a church community, was living with a guy, and was not sure who she was any-more or what she really believed. She started so strong, but now . . . What happened?

These stories of strong starts and poor finishes are not uncommon in the life of the Christian church. We read in the New Testament of this being addressed to the Hebrew church. People in this church were passionate and on fire for the Lord Jesus. But, from what we read in the letter, they had slackened a bit and grown weary in their faith life. Their old love for Christ Jesus had cooled.

How do these things happen? As we study the book of Hebrews, we find the answer. Although they started strong, they stopped growing in their faith walk. As you read through this letter, you find they were still babies in the faith and they did not really seem to care about learning and maturing in their discipleship walk with Christ.

A few years ago, a leadership expert and author, Robert Clinton, wrote a book in which he listed six reasons why leaders in this world start strong but often don’t finish well. He pointed to pride, abusive power, abuse of finances, sexual failures, problems in the social base, and plateauing. They had stopped growing in their lives.

Scripture consistently tells us that God intended for Christ’s followers to grow and mature in their relationship with Jesus. When we don’t, it can lead to some spiritual disasters in our lives. The writer of the book of Hebrews is attempting to get the people moving again. He is encouraging, admonishing, exhorting them, much like a coach would do. Come on, Come on, keep at it. Let us do this. Don’t quit; there’s more to be done. In today’s reading, he even tries to inspire them by using an athletic image to describe their life of faith with Jesus. It’s like running a race. Let’s keep at it; let’s finish!

So how do we grow so that we can finish well? First, the writer points out to people of faith who ran their race and finished well Ð like Moses, Abraham, and Sarah. He encourages the people to hold them up and remember their stories. Let their stories of how God used them and took care of them inspire you.

The writer then goes on to say that, having this as our background, let’s keep running our race. And the first thing we need to think about doing is losing the weight. When Olympic runners in those days ran in the marathons, they traveled lightly; in fact, they didn’t carry anything at all.

In our race of faith, we must travel lightly in order to run a good race, stay strong, and grow. “Lay aside every weight,” he says. Things in life clamor for our attention. These things, though they may not be sinful in themselves, distract us and drain our energies and time when we give them top priority in our lives. What are those things that need to be let go or looked at from a different perspective in the light of your relationship with God? Let us lay aside those things, put them in their proper place, and run the race lightly.

We also need to let go of the sin that clings to us and entangles our lives. Take an inventory and find what it is that is messing you up. Is it drinking, pride, a lack of self control? Do these priorities take the place of God? Lose the weight and travel lightly.

The second bit of instruction he gives is to run with perseverance. The word literally means with endurance. He’s talking about running with an attitude of endurance and patience that bears up even under tough challenges. It’s like the marathon runner who’s running a long course. He knows he is going to hit some hills, but he’s determined to complete the race. The race of faith Ð following Jesus Christ Ð is not a sprint. It’s more like a marathon requiring the sustained effort of a long-distance runner who keeps on with great determination over the long course of time.

In one of John Piper’s books, he writes, “We need to be coronary Christians, not adrenal Christians. Not that adrenaline is bad. “It gets me through lots of Sundays, but it lets you down on Mondays. The heart is another kind of friend. It just keeps on serving through good days and bad days, happy and sad, high and low, appreciated and unappreciated. It never lets me down. It never says, ÔI don’t like your attitude, Piper; I’m taking a day off.’ It just keeps humbly lubb-dubbing along.

“Coronary Christians are like the heart in the causes they serve. Adrenal Christians are like adrenaline, a spurt of energy and then fatigue. What we need in the cause of racial injustice and justice for the unborn are coronary Christians. Marathoners, not just sprinters. People who find the pace to finish the race.”

Finally, the Hebrews writer tells them to not only travel lightly and with a spirit of perseverance and endurance, but also to keep looking to Jesus as we run, the pioneer and perfecter of our race (the original runner,) who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross, disregarding the shame and went the whole distance for us.

We look to Jesus, first of all, for inspiration. Fix your eyes on the Lord Jesus. We look at what he went through and how he handled it with faith. We remember how God then raised Jesus on Easter and now sits exalted at the right hand of God in power. The same God who took care of His Son will lift you up to be exalted as a Child of God to be raised to be with him in eternity.

Look to Jesus for strength. As you look at the cross, consider what Jesus Christ endured in order to make you, a sinner, his own. Paul writes in the book of Romans, “God is for us. He who did not hold back his own Son, will he not also with him give us everything else?” We turn to that Son, Jesus, look at that cross and say, My how he loves me! I am loved. We find strength in that love and grace.

Finally, we look to Jesus for help. We remember that he’s the Risen One, that he’s with us, and that we can look to him as dependent children look to a loving father or mother, and call upon his name.

In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, a runner from Great Britain, Derrick Redman, was in the 400 meter race. He had trained hard to win this race and get that gold medal. He was running a good race and it looked like he was going to realize his dreams. Then, as he entered the back stretch of that race, Derrick Redman was sent sprawling across the pavement by the gripping pain of a torn hamstring muscle. By an act of sheer will, he struggled to his feet in his pain and began hopping toward the finish line. Suddenly a figure came out of the crowd, broke past the security guards, and ran onto the track. It was Derrick Redman’s father. In a voice choked with emotion, he threw his arms around his son and whispered, “Come on, let’s finish this together.” The crowd cheered and wept as they watched this father half carrying his wounded son jerkily down the stretch and across the finish line.

That is a picture for us: Jesus Christ as the one who comes alongside. As we finish this race, let us finish it together as we call upon him.

To fix our eyes on Jesus is to call upon him in prayer. To fix our eyes on Jesus is to get to know him as we read those narratives over and over and over again. As I tell my congregation, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Ð get to know Him there!” You’ll be amazed at how close you’ll get to feel toward Jesus.

Keep using your mind to imagine that finish line, and the One at the center of the crowd of witnesses waiting to greet you there Ð Jesus Ð saying at the end, “Good run, good and faithful servant.” The writer then finishes his thought by saying, as you run lightly, as you run with perseverance, as you look to Jesus, you will not lose heart, you will not grow weary, you will finish well.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, may you finish well by traveling lightly, running with perseverance, and keeping your eyes fixed on our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Evaluating Your Congregation

Someone once said, “Man is not an island unto himself.”

God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

We are social beings.

Taking this thought a bit further, Peter makes it very clear that Christians need one another. Therefore, we unite into congregations. In our text Peter writes, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.”

Who are these shepherds? We think of our pastors who are the called leaders of congregations to be our spiritual leaders. It would also include Presidents or Bishops. But I believe in our day there are many non-ordained people who are shepherds of the flock. They are overseers in the congregation serving as teachers, counselors, musicians, youth workers, business administrators.

These people serve not because they must, but because they are willing. “They are not eager for money. They do not lord it over those entrusted to them but are examples to the flock.” These leaders of all ages, young and old, are using their talents to be witnesses of God’s love in Christ.

But congregations also need the fellowship of other congregations and so they form synods, districts, presbyters or dioceses. People, being people, sometimes bring error into the organization. Therefore, it makes sense to evaluate the congregation, synod or diocese to learn how we present ourselves to God.

Here are examples of questions that will help us in evaluating our congregations.

1. Do we take the Bible seriously believing that it is God’s inspired word and our only authority in the matters of faith and life?

2. Is the way of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ found in every sermon?

3. Is the congregation faithful to the confessional statements taught by the denomination to which it belongs? Are the denominational leaders faithful to these confessions?

4. Jesus gave His Church the great commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Are we supporting world missions and do we have an effective evangelism program, teaching all in the congregation who trust Christ as Savior and Lord and how to share Christ?

History teaches us that the Church can go astray from Biblical teachings. The Reformation in the 16th century is a good example. Therefore, every part of the Church needs an ongoing evaluation.

When did your congregation have its last evaluation?

The Devil Made Me Do It

Have you heard the story of the woman who was entertaining a group of friends in her home? Her five-year-old daughter was making it difficult. She whined and cried, and pulled at her mother’s legs until it became embarrassing. Finally, in desperation her mother took her into the bedroom, shook her and asked, “What is wrong with you? Those women will think you are a spoiled child.”

The little girl looked at her mother and said, “The devil made me do it.” The mother was taken back with the child’s answer and told her to be nice or she would have to stay in her bedroom.

The little girl’s answer held both a human and a theological truth. Whoever taught her about the devil had left the impression that the devil would make her do bad things, and that was biblically true.

It also showed that she believed in a personal devil. Do you? Jesus does. So did Peter. Listen to our text: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

The Bible does not give us a clear definition in chapter and verse of the devil. It simple tells us that he was here from the beginning. Joseph Stump, a prominent theologian, has written, “Satan is not an evil principle in man tempting him to sin. Satan is a person, a wicked spirit. He was not created evil, but was once a good angel. But he sinned against God and became a bad angel, a devil. The Bible does not expressly state what the sin was that he committed, but it probably was a desire to be equal to God. His aim is to ruin people’s souls and thus frustrate God’s gracious purpose of saving them.”

Who did the devil tempt?

Our first parents in the Garden of Eden knew what it was to be tempted by Satan. God had only given Adam and Eve one law: “ÔYou must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also some to her husband, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”

Then God confronted them with their sin and banished them from the Garden to work the ground from which they had been taken (Genesis 3).

You recall in Matthew 4 where Jesus was led by Satna into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Three times He was tempted, and three times He resisted Satan. Then it is recorded that “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11).

Satan uses the same approach when he tempts us. “He roams around like a prowling lion seeking someone to desire.” Satan seldom reveals his purpose when he tempts us. He is exceedingly subtle.

Our only defense against Satan is Jesus Christ. We have no strength to battle him alone. When we fall into temptation, Christ has promised not only to forgive us, but he also empowers us to resist the temptations that come our way.

Back to the introduction of this sermon. Remember the little girl who said, “The devil made me do it”? When her mother forgave her, she also assisted her in helping the little girl to be obedient and helpful. Not a bad picture of God coming to our assistance when we sin.

Satan can destroy us, but Christ can make us new people when we abide with him in his Word.