Isaiah 49:5-15 – Restoration

Even before I was born,
    the Lord God chose me
to serve him and to lead back
    the people of Israel.
So the Lord has honored me
    and made me strong.

Now the Lord says to me,
“It isn’t enough for you
    to be merely my servant.
You must do more than lead back
survivors
from the tribes
    of Israel.
I have placed you here as a light
    for other nations;
you must take my saving power
    to everyone on earth.

Israel, I am the holy Lord God,
    the one who rescues you.
You are slaves of rulers
and of a nation
    who despises you.
Now this is what I promise:
Kings and rulers will honor you
    by kneeling at your feet.
You can trust me! I am your Lord,
the holy God of Israel,
    and you are my chosen ones.”

This is what the Lord says:
    “I will answer your prayers
because I have set a time
when I will help
    by coming to save you.
I have chosen you
to take my promise of hope
    to other nations.
You will rebuild the country
    from its ruins,
then people will come
    and settle there.
You will set prisoners free
from dark dungeons
    to see the light of day.

On their way home,
they will find plenty to eat,
    even on barren hills.
They won’t go hungry
    or get thirsty;
they won’t be bothered
by the scorching sun
    or hot desert winds.
I will be merciful
while leading them along
    to streams of water.
I will level the mountains
    and make roads.
Then my people will return
    from distant lands
in the north and the west
    and from the city of Syene.

Tell the heavens and the earth
    to celebrate and sing;
command every mountain
    to join in the song.”
The Lord’s people have suffered,
but he has shown mercy
    and given them comfort.

The people of Zion said,
“The Lord has turned away
    and forgotten us.”

The Lord answered,
“Could a mother forget a child
    who nurses at her breast?
Could she fail to love an infant
    who came from her own body?
Even if a mother could forget,
    I will never forget you.” (CEV)

Restoration is a major theme in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In today’s lesson, God speaks of bringing Israel back to her original calling and purpose. This would be accomplished through the nation of Israel and focused upon God’s Servant, the Lord’s Messiah. The scope and vision of what the Savior would do is enunciated by God: rescue people, lead them home, and show unending mercy. The Servant of the Lord is made a light for the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Messiah is more than a Jewish thing. The Christian tradition discerns Jesus as the Servant, the Savior of both Jews, and Gentiles – Christ is given to reach the entire planet. The incarnation of Christ was meant for more than gathering Israel together, as if it were some sort of Bill Gaither Homecoming tour. Rather, Messiah’s place and power is so significant that it is to be shared with everyone in the world.  Although Israel was to be a holy entity and separate from the surrounding culture, their mandate had always been to be a light to the nations.

This has great import for Christ’s Church and every individual believer in Jesus. The church is much more than a country club which only caters to club functions and members. The church is a missional community with an outward focus, as well. It has always been God’s vision to reach the nations. The Lord wants more than one group of people; God wants everyone. Along with caring for its own, the church is designed as a missionary enterprise which puts significant resources into shining the light of Christ to every nook and cranny of creation.

However, we are a wounded people living in a culture whose first response to differing voices is to accuse, attack, and injure. Our hurts are carried by all of us collectively and personally, and it gives rise to bitterness, isolation, and resentment. When our hope runs dry, we become marked by cynicism, apathy, and escapism.

The vision of Isaiah gives us an alternative approach. Reflection on God’s mercy, salvation, and loving guidance leads to repentance; repentance of our unholy thoughts, words, and deeds leads to a restoration of our true calling as missionaries of faith, hope, and love to the broken world around us. Restoration brings healing of the stresses and anxieties that plague our planet, and ourselves. 

Since God has a missionary heart, all of God’s people are missionaries to the world. It behooves each believer, then, to be taught, trained, and led into God’s restorative mission to the nations. Let us build caring relationships and extend loving actions both to those within the church and toward those outside of Christian fellowship so that God’s intentions are carried out. For we know that not one person on planet earth is forgotten by God.

Restoring God, you bring us back to close relation and fellowship so that we might extend your gracious purposes throughout the world.  Revive us again, God, so that we can hear your call to the nations through our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Luke 22:39-46

            It’s easy to believe that we are people of prayer, that is, until we contrast ourselves with Jesus.  One of the problems we often run into when thinking about ourselves is that we make comparisons with the wrong people.  Compared to others, we look pretty good.  After all, I pray more than the next guy, right!?  But consider how Jesus prayed when faced with enduring the ignominy of the cross:  “Jesus was in great pain and prayed so sincerely that his sweat fell to the ground like drops of blood.”
 
            Even Jesus, the Son of God, felt the intense need to watch and pray so that he could face his time of suffering and humiliation on behalf of humanity.  I would conjecture that even your most incredible time of prayer probably doesn’t compare to the experience of Jesus in prayer.  That isn’t meant to be a source of guilt, to try and somehow twist our collective arm to be more sincere and focused.  Rather, it is meant to show us that there is much more room to grow in this business of prayer than we ever thought.
 
            Perhaps there is so little church renewal, so puny personal revival, and such a paucity of revitalization and reformation among so many Christians because our prayers are so small and so far in between each other.  Jesus prayed because he needed it.  I pray because without God I am hopelessly lost.  I pray because I desperately need Jesus.  I pray because only the Holy Spirit can bring the empowerment to face the rigors of ministry in front of me.  I pray because I sincerely believe that humanity’s hope rests with the blessed Holy Trinity, the God whom I serve.
 

 

            Gracious Lord Jesus, I am eternally grateful for what you did on my behalf by enduring the shame of the cross.  I have much to learn in praying sincerely, earnestly, and effectively.  Teach me, Lord, so that I might be like you in all I do and say.  Amen.

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19

            Of the 250,000 Protestant churches in America, 200,000 are either stagnant (with no growth) or declining. That is 80% of the churches in America and maybe the one you attend, if you attend at all.  4,000 churches close their doors every single year.  There is less than half of the number of churches today than there were only 100 years ago.  3,500 people leave the church every single day.
 
            These sobering statistics make today’s psalm even more prescient.  Although the psalm speaks of Israel, likened as a vine which is withering away, it sounds like the cry of many American churches.  They scratch their heads wondering why in the world they are dying.  They are perplexed by the precipitous decline of their congregations.  Like Israel, they keep looking to outside forces as the reason for their loss of members instead of looking inward to their own lack of fruitfulness. 
 
            At least the psalmist cries out to God:  “God All Powerful, please do something!… make us strong again!  Smile on us and save us!”  Far too many churches do not even think to cry out to God, but have bought into the magical thinking that some tweak of the worship service, some program alteration, or maybe a new pastor will solve their woes.  But God is not looking for superficial changes; He is looking for wholehearted repentance.  Until we begin with our own hearts within our own congregations, our lamentations will fall flat before the Lord.  Revival starts with you and me.
 

 

            Mighty God, you planted thousands of churches throughout this country and the world in order to bear fruit and produce abundance.  Yet, we are withering before you because of our own stubbornness and blindness.  Search my heart and know me, O Lord; see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting for the sake of Jesus, my Savior.  Amen.

Renewal

 
 
In this time of year, there are many who do not have to think twice about purchasing and giving gifts for Christmas.  We have blessings, both material and spiritual.  And we can always identify those persons who are in much more need than we are.  We may even believe that those in need are in that position because of their own unwise individual choices.  But we must recognize that the maladies of ourhearts are very real. 
 
There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like all kinds of other people. 
 
            Being a vital part of a local church does not automatically immune one from having serious needs.  We must not suppress those realities and those needs, but name the conditions which are packed away in a closet of our heart deep inside us:  the love of things and money; severed relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; and, hatred. 
 
Outward smiles and small talk conversations may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide ourselves from a God for whom everything is laid bare.
 
            The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs.  The gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom so that we can pass on that very real good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick.  There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help.  But we will not have eyes to see them or have hearts to help if we are ourselves stuffing burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.
 
            Far too many church-going Christians have become expert emotion and need stuffers.  We might think that other people, “those people,” need ministries of justice and help.  But the truth is that many of us are either one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, one bad decision away from being one of “those people” – the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want living next door to us.
 
            We just may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation and so we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty.  What should we do?  We should turn from the things that have caused us to be in poverty and be prisoners (not just secretly!) and delight greatly in the LORD by focusing on his grace, mercy, and justice (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11).  Our souls ought to rejoice in our God because he will make a sprout come up.  God will cause us to grow. 
 
God will rebuild our ruined souls.  God will restore the places of our lives that have been devastated.  God will even renew the places that have not seen renewal for generations. 
 
But it must begin with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us.  God cannot bring comfort to those who do not mourn; he cannot turn grief into joy if there is no acknowledgment of a dire situation.  If we want to be an oak of righteousness there must be in existence a confession of despair and an allowance of the justice of God through Jesus Christ to work its way completely through us.
 
            What is your true situation?  What are the realities of your life that need to be named?  Where will you go to address those needs and truths?  Will you keep stuffing them, or will you become able to voice your inner personal needs?  Will you be vulnerable enough to allow the church to minister grace to your needy soul?
 

 

            Let us have a vision of Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty.  Let us picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace our stinky clothes of grumbling.  Let us allow our lives to display the grace of God in Christ because we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God.  Let us herald the coming of the Christ child as the hope of us all.