Grace Changes Everything (Isaiah 12:1-6)

In that day [to come] you will say:

“I will praise you, Lord.
    Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
    and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation.

In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done,
    and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” (New International Version)

The Bad News

The reason prophecies are made about better times ahead is because the times now are not so good. That was true of Isaiah’s day, and still remains true today.

It’s easy to identify what’s wrong in this world, especially during a political election cycle! It’s not so easy to recognize the ways we keep ourselves as Christians in bad times. A big reason why, and I unabashedly state it, even though I say it much to my chagrin:

Christianity in our day has mostly failed at spiritual transformation because we have not identified and named the real evils we face, thus leaving us largely irrelevant to a world desperately in need of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, speaking to religious folk who should have known better, said:

“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24, NIV)

The tragedy of our age, which was the same tragedy of Isaiah’s age, is that there are so many godless followers of God. They fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious matters. Many Christians’ faith is not much more than conforming to cultural Christian norms while mostly ignoring the realities in front of their faces.

We say we need God but then turn to Google for answers and solutions.

We bemoan the lack of righteousness in the nation, then obnoxiously argue with others and create unnecessary relational wedges.

We decry the injustice of our cities and our world, then do nothing to address the problems and change it.

We talk about the need for others to change rather than first looking in the mirror. Yet, even when we do that, we walk away and forget what we look like.

“For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)

The Good News

However, judgment is not the last word. Even though the prophecy of Isaiah is thick with it, and I started out with less than uplifting words, there is one word that transcends every word: grace.

The grace of God is remarkable! The Lord made promises to Israel in Isaiah’s day not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radical and scandalous grace. It wasn’t a matter of playing Let’s Make a Deal, with God saying, “If you get your act together, then I will be good to you.” No, before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be merciful.

I am absolutely convinced with the firmest conviction possible that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are all about God and God’s own unbounded, unfettered, free, crazy, illogical, and wildly wonderful grace.

Because God is Love, the Lord constantly goes out of the way to be gracious so that we can live up to being the sort of people our dogs think we are already.

If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation – because only grace can save us. Without grace, we are lost. Today’s Old Testament lesson is full of praise because it’s a response to the undeserved grace which God freely gives. 

If grace isn’t the answer, we aren’t asking the right question. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is wildly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace never demands – it only gives. 

Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. 

That is what God did for Israel… and for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, our hearts become bubblers of praise.

The Bible is an extended drama of redemption; and Isaiah’s prophecy is an adventure of God’s steadfast love toward unlovable people – which is why Isaiah is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace. 

Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and our demands to be respected. 

Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort of justifying and validating ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of grace, we are forever undone by God’s mercy.

Grace leads us to praise God

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us… In love he predestined us… to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, NIV)

Grace causes us to trust God

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31, NIV)

Grace results in our comfort and satisfaction in God

Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
    And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17, NIV)

Grace creates in us thanksgiving to God

“We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15, NIV)

The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you. And if that isn’t something that gets you expressing gratitude to God, then you have failed to see God in your dog. We make known among the nations what God has done because God has really done something in our lives worth babbling our thanksgiving over to everyone. And grace helps us to do it.

Grace causes us to sing together to God

When grace takes hold of a congregation, there is no mumbling of songs – there are loud shouts and singing for joy because God is good! We need times of both silence and contemplative worship and times of becoming unhinged with some noisy worship to the God who has saved us and given us something to sing about. 

Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
For He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory. (Psalm 98:1, NKJV)

Conclusion

The world mostly ignores God. Some Christians take God’s grace for granted. The greatest sin of all is the sheer absence of grace – because where there is no grace, there is no God. God is the expert in transforming apathetic people into caring, compassionate, and concerned citizens of the kingdom who raise their voices and declare the works of the Lord.

Isaiah’s entire prophecy is about returning to the Lord. And the upcoming season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness.

Let us, then, return to the Lord… be captivated by grace… renew our love for Jesus… lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us.

Let us worship Christ the King and proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything and everyone.

Gracious God, we come with nothing but ourselves and our baggage of sin. Forgive, cleanse, renew, revive, refresh, and reform us according to the ways of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your undeserved grace. We give you praise for the lengths you went to secure our forgiveness. With a joy too deep for words, we humbly offer to you our lives so that the name of Jesus will be exalted through us, to your glory and honor. Amen.

God Is Doing a New Thing

Welcome, friends! We are to honor the past, without getting stuck in it. God is presently working now, today, to accomplish good purposes in the church and the world through change. Click the videos below to explore further!…

Pastor Tim Ehrhardt, Isaiah 43:16-21

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be confident knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us. Amen.

Isaiah 43:16-21 – God Is Doing a New Thing

This is what the Lord says—
    he who made a way through the sea,
    a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
    the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
    extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honor me,

    the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
    the people I formed for myself
    that they may proclaim my praise. (New International Version)

Judgment and Ruin

The prophecy of Isaiah spans sixty-six chapters; it is a large book portraying a large God who is in control of the nations and holds them accountable for their decisions and actions. Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah contain a lot of scathing judgments. God is pictured as the one true Judge who is not only grieved over the sins of the pagan nations, but especially over the sin of God’s people, Israel. 

As a result of Israel’s refusal to recognize their errant ways and turn to the Lord, God sent the Babylonians to Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar tore down the city wall, took all the implements from the temple, and carried off the youngest and brightest people into exile to Babylon. 

Grace and Mercy

Israel was ruined. But that is not the end of the story. In chapters 40-66 of Isaiah, rather than judgment dominating the prophecy, grace and mercy are liberally spoken. Although Israel deserved their exile, God would step in and return them back to the land.

The Lord will bring them back to Jerusalem, yet it will not be easy. The long journey home will be full of obstacles to overcome and deserts to cross. They will need to walk in a caravan stretching over five-hundred miles (like walking from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Lincoln, Nebraska). That’s about four months of walking over harsh terrain, desert, and dangers from thieves and wild animals. 

Yet, God will care for them, making a way through the desert, providing water, commanding animals to keep away, and causing growth to spring up from the desert for their pack animals to eat.

God Was Doing Something New

No longer could Israel only rely on looking back to the exodus out of Egypt. They had been doing that for a thousand years. Now, they have to deal with God in the present moment and take a walk of faith filled with uncertainty and hazards. 

The Israelites would be vulnerable in their walk to Jerusalem. It was a scary prospect for them. God was telling his people to forget the “good old days” of the exodus because he is doing a work right now in the present that requires their faith and action.

Isaiah insisted that the people must commit their ways to the God who is calling them to a new journey. They are to be present and mindful to what God is doing now. God is doing a new thing, so forget clinging to the familiar past and strive to live in the here and now.

If we believe there is a better tomorrow, we can bear a hardship today.

It’s easy for people to get stuck in the past. One of the reasons we get stuck is that we do not lament our losses. Being present to God does not mean refusing to deal with what happened in the past; it means lamenting our losses in the present so that the past does not control us. 

You and I are not the same people we were twenty years ago. The institutions we care about are not the same. Some of the people we have cared the most about in our lives are not here anymore. Only you and I are here, now, in this present moment. There is no alternate reality or some multiverse in which things are different. That means we must deal with today.

The Good Old Days

The Israelites did not grieve well. They kept looking back to a golden age when they came out of Egypt and entered the Promised Land.  And when things began to break down in Israel and in Judah, they kept looking back instead of dealing with God in the present. 

Rather than lamenting their losses, they just wished things were different. Whenever anyone or any group fails to grieve a significant loss or change, then the ghosts of the past roam everywhere. No one can effectively move into the future unless they confront the stark reality that things have changed; we cannot turn the clock back to halcyon days.

Things can be better. But that will not happen apart from doing the hard work of identifying denial of the way things presently are, confronting the anger, stopping the bargaining with God, addressing the depression, and coming out the other side coping in a healthy way with the new reality. 

The Israelites were in exile. It was not their new normal. It was their present station of history. God was ready to take them back to Jerusalem. Yet, they were stuck in depression.  Jerusalem would never be the same city again. The people had to resolve their inner spiritual tension in order to accept it. Acceptance is not cheap; it takes a difficult journey to get to that point.

A healthy way of viewing the past is to see ancient miracles, like the exodus, re-enacted in fresh ways for the present. I know a guy who asked his newlywed wife a question after they got married, “What are we going to talk about for the rest of our lives?”  The thought of living together for decades had him curious and a bit scared. 

The man’s wife wisely replied, “I think we will talk about whatever happens each day.”  Ah, there is the truth about relationships: They happen in the present. Good relationships are built on daily experiences. The newness of each day keeps the relationship alive and exciting.  Couples that don’t continue to experience each other in fresh new ways lose the joy and enthusiasm of their relationship.

When folk no longer experience God in creative, new, and fresh ways in the present, they are limited by their memories of what God once did, back there, in the past. 

God Is Alive Today

A God who is hermetically sealed in the past becomes an interesting person to be theologically studied and learned about, like any character from history. However, today, God is alive! Now, in the present, God wants to do a new thing! We need present-tense stories of God so that others know the relevance of the Lord in the here and now.

God is most definitely changeless in character and attributes. Yet, that does not mean God is averse to change and new things. In fact, God’s work is to effect transformation in the lives of people who need redemption and new life. The God I serve is anything but boring, lifeless, careless, or uninteresting. 

The proof that something is alive is that it grows, develops, changes, and matures. The new plants in our gardens and fields are undergoing astonishing growth and development.  What they are like now is quite different than what they will look like in August and even different than October.

New, different, creative, and exciting things need to happen in the church and in the world today, in the present. Whenever those things do not happen, people will believe that God is dead, does not care, or does not exist. Because God is alive and works in the present, the Church is to be alive with spiritual momentum, biblical drive, and Christian proactive love.

Showing Others What God Is Like

People everywhere need an accurate picture of God portrayed for them. That is why the church exists – to show people what God is really like, what he looks like here in the present.  Here is a question I often ask people, both Christian and non-Christian: “What is your picture of God?  What is God like?” 

I have gotten all kinds of answers to those questions. And I have discovered that many people picture God as a harsh Judge who is stern and always unhappy about something.  I have found that many picture God as distant, boring, and unsympathetic with the problems of this world.

Many people generally disdain any organized religion, viewing the church as distorting God, and caring more about buildings, budgets, and butts in the pew, rather than the poor, the disadvantaged, and the pressing issues of our day.

Jesus As the Picture of God

            If people are continually underwhelmed by Church, they will not be overwhelmed by God. Looking at Jesus, we get a picture of God. We see a Savior who walks on water, raises the dead, and amazes the crowds. Christ’s unpredictability led many to have a new and more accurate picture of God.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:8-14, NIV)

            Jesus revealed to us a God who is compelling, powerful, relevant, passionate, unpredictable, exciting, personal and present to people right now, this very day. The Church everywhere has been given the assignment to reveal God to the world. 

The Church is supposed to be a place of change and reform that wakes the dead and raises them to new life, right now, in the mighty Name of Jesus. 

God is the Creator of the universe. God is creative. We are in his image. We are creative.  God is fresh, does new things, and wants people to do the same without always getting stuck.

A problem which happens over and over again is called a pattern. Avoidance of conflict, or being impulsive, or allergic to risk, or distracted and bored, or overcommitted, or afraid of authority, or a people-pleaser, or resistant to making hard decisions, or a fear of failure, are not just problems, but patterns that prevent us from allowing God to be present to us today. 

And today, we need to embrace the new life God is trying to accomplish in us. God will make a way where there seems to be no way.

Help us, Lord, to have hope for the future. In the face of change, help us to set fear aside and recognize our potential for problem-solving. Help us develop a reasonable optimism when confronted by new things and to guard against our own defensiveness. Be with us as we remember and celebrate former times and keep us from unreasonable yearning for them. Work your will in us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Job 1:1-22 – A Better Way Through Impossible Suffering

Satan Going Forth from the Presence of the Lord by William Blake, 1825

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would arrange for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them, and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (New International Version)

Much of life is a mystery. We simply do not know why some things happen. And it’s likely we won’t have answers to many of our vexing questions, this side of heaven. From our limited human perspective, **** happens, and that’s about all we can say about it. 

There are times in Holy Scripture, however, when the veil between heaven and earth is peeled back long enough for us to catch a glimpse of mystery. Today’s Old Testament lesson is such a story. 

Job was a wealthy man and had everything this earthly life could offer. What’s more, he was a pious godly person of faith. It was commonly understood that those two things always went together. So, when we see behind the curtain and are privy to a conversation between God and Satan, the devil himself points this out – that Job only praises God because of how good he has it.  Even with this understanding of what was behind Job’s misery, we still see the mysterious God allowing Satan to operate with only God-knows reasons why.

Whenever calamity strikes, or bad news causes us to slump in our chairs, or adversity hits unexpectedly, or trouble smacks us upside our life like a sledgehammer, it’s only human to begin wondering what we did wrong or what we did to bring on such a terrible set of circumstances. 

But the truth is this: We just don’t always know. 

Yes, I fully understand that statement is hard to swallow; it even sucks. For example, no amount of understanding why my grandson has a rare form of epilepsy will make the pain go away. All my wonderings about his future isn’t going to help my daughter. It’s an impossible emotional place to be. It’s sad and it’s frustrating.

Yet, there is a better way.

Although there is so much we don’t know, we do know Job’s inconceivable response to the mystery of God. He made an incredible confession of faith, despite the most awful of circumstances. Job made the affirmation:

“When I was born into this world,
    I was naked and had nothing.
When I die and leave this world,
    I will be naked and have nothing.
The Lord gives,
    and the Lord takes away.
Praise the name of the Lord!”

Job 1:21, ERV

Rather than spending all of our emotional energy trying to figure out an answer to our “why” questions, perhaps the more sage response is to confess our faith in a radical trust of God. 

Using these actual words from Job can be a necessary start to navigating the troubled waters of evil which swirl around us, even if we have to say them over and over again to believe them.

I know I do.

Almighty God, every good thing I have in my life comes from you. It is your prerogative whether I continue to have those things, or not. Whatever happens, whether it causes heartbreak or happiness, is completely known to you. I trust that you know what you are doing, and I completely throw myself upon your mercy through Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.