Isaiah 12:2-6 – Grace Changes Us

The Prophet Isaiah by Marc Chagall, 1968

“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 large Old Testament book of Isaiah is thick with a message of judgment for both Israel and the surrounding nations. The sins of ancient Israel, seven-hundred years before the birth of Christ, were many. The primary offenses were injustice toward the needy; the have’s taking advantage of the have-not’s; and empty worship rituals toward God.

Social and spiritual corruption was rampant. God pleaded with the people through the prophets to stop doing wrong and start doing right by encouraging the oppressed and defending the powerless. (Isaiah 1:10-17)

Although God’s judgment was imminent, via the powerful Assyrian Empire, God would not annihilate the people. God promised a Righteous Branch would grow from the seemingly dead stump of Israel. A child will be born, a Messiah given. There will be hope in Israel. Heartfelt praise, and proclamation of God’s great name, will again fill the air.

For me, what is so remarkable about all this is the grace of God. The Lord made promises to Israel not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radically free love. This 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 will be together and enjoy our divine/human relationship.

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. 

Any Christian preacher worth their salt is a preacher of grace. Grace is the very thing that is distinctive about Christianity. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is recklessly 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 prophecy of Isaiah is an adventure of God’s reckless love toward unlovable people, which is why it 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 to justify and validate ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of it, we are forever undone by its mercy.

Grace causes us to praise God.

There was once a pastor who had a three-year old daughter who was going around the house singing the chorus “We Exalt Thee” except that she kept mispronouncing one of the words: “I exhaust thee, I exhaust thee, I exhaust thee, O Lord!” Perhaps she was right. Maybe too many folks are exhausting God with folded arms instead of hands raised in praise and worship.

Grace causes us to trust God.

Grace alleviates our fears. For, if God is for us, who can be against us? God takes care of us despite our weaknesses and failures. 

Grace causes us to have joy in God.

With joy we draw water from the wells of salvation. Jesus is the Living Water we can continually draw from and drink. Grace keeps giving without an end in sight. We get to keep coming to God with an inexhaustible supply of fresh grace.

Grace causes us to give thanks to God in prayer.

Gratitude to God ought to characterize our corporate gatherings. Expressing thanks is more than for the individual in their prayer closet – it is to be offered in the gathered assembly of believers. Grace eliminates self-consciousness altogether because there is nothing to be self-conscious about with God. The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you.

What’s more, we need not be self-conscious about appearing ignorant, looking silly, or not having all the answers in making known among the nations what God has done. If we are influenced by grace, then we can freely speak of God to all kinds of people we encounter. 

“God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.”

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

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! God wants some noisy worship! 

Grace brings such gladness that we don’t care how we appear to other people; we are going to shout, sing, and express our joy! Yes, there is an important place for contemplative, reverent, and reflective worship. And there is also a place for letting go, becoming unhinged, and dancing before Jesus!

The world mostly ignores God. Even some Christians take God’s grace for granted.  Israel’s greatest sin was assuming everything was fine. But it wasn’t. There was no grace. And with no grace there is no God. Eventually, Israel found joy in the most unlikely of places – in exile. God’s grace would transform a terrible time of trouble into raising of voices in song.

Isaiah’s prophecy is about returning to the Lord. The 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. Let us be captivated by grace. Let us renew our love for Jesus. Let us lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us. Let us worship Christ the King. Let us proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything.

Great God of grace, be merciful to us as we limp to you with all of our wounds and brokenness. We have made such a mess of our lives with our bad attitudes, ugly words, selfish actions, and our ignoring of you through it all. So, we come to you with nothing but ourselves in all of our sin. Forgive us, cleanse us, renew us, revive us, refresh us, 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 in us individually and corporately. Amen.

Psalm 128 – Blessed

The Lord will bless you 
    if you respect him 
    and obey his laws. 
Your fields will produce, 
    and you will be happy 
    and all will go well. 
Your wife will be as fruitful 
    as a grapevine, 
and just as an olive tree 
    is rich with olives, 
    your home will be rich 
    with healthy children. 
That is how the Lord will bless 
    everyone who respects him. 

I pray that the Lord 
    will bless you from Zion 
    and let Jerusalem prosper 
    as long as you live. 
May you live long enough 
    to see your grandchildren. 
    Let’s pray for peace in Israel! (CEV) 

There is a consistent connection between obedience and blessing. That is, in observing God’s ways, one will typically enjoy divine favor and approval.  

Keep in mind, however, this is not a math equation. Like 2+2=4 there are folks who expect a neat linear connection between their obedience and their blessing. In math theology, when a woman is unable to have children, or a child goes astray from their heritage, the parent concludes that they themselves must have been unfaithful to God’s law or are being punished. Conversely, with children who grow to be good citizens and respectful persons, the parents might conclude it was because of their superior observance to the spiritual life. 

In both cases, parents take too much credit, either for a child’s wandering or success. As for kids going astray, even God had prodigal children, so cut ourselves some slack. As for children who maintain faithfulness, a lot of factors went into who they are. I suppose it is only natural to quickly assume we have far more control of than we really do. 

This all cuts to the heart of biblical interpretation. If all Scripture is read literally, then we will likely see the Bible as a math equation where doing and saying the right things gets a predictable result of blessing. Yet, this mistakenly views promise and proverb as the same thing, and divine work with one person or group will be precisely the same for another. The wisdom literature of Scripture, which includes the psalms, were never designed as prescriptive decree but rather as the sage approach for work, worship, and family. 

Today’s psalm communicates the path of happiness coming through love and respect for God. It neither promises lots of kids, ensures money, nor guarantees smooth sailing. Rather, when one lives each day being cognizant and observant to center everything around the divine, then blessing and happiness will tend to follow. 

Blessings and benedictions are given to sustain us in hope and confidence. The best things in life usually come through faith and family. So, when we choose to walk with God and travel down the ethical road, then life becomes full of peace and prosperity – perhaps not always in the manner we expect, yet blessing, nonetheless. 

Humanity is hard-wired for blessing, for a steady diet of encouragement, acceptance, and approval from God and others. When this is withheld from us, unhappiness, even despair begins to settle. Giving and receiving blessing is at the heart of being fully human and alive. Our work and family life will likely be miserable if blessing is absent. Yet, with blessing, we have a sustainable form of happiness and enjoyment. 

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed, guide, strengthen, and bless us through your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

John 5:39-47 – Against Vainglory

Christ and Pharisee by Russian artist Ivan Filichev, 1993

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.

“I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. If another came, acting self-important, you would welcome him with open arms. How do you expect to get anywhere with God when you spend all your time jockeying for position with each other, ranking your rivals and ignoring God?

“But don’t think I’m going to accuse you before my Father. Moses, in whom you put so much stock, is your accuser. If you believed, really believed, what Moses said, you would believe me. He wrote of me. If you won’t take seriously what he wrote, how can I expect you to take seriously what I speak?” (MSG)

I like kids, even Junior High kids. They have not yet learned how to mask their honesty (like Senior High kids). Have a conversation with any early adolescent (other than your own kid) and you will likely get an unfiltered and unvarnished take on whatever topic you are discussing together. If the subject of celebrities comes up, they can quickly rattle off their favorites. There is a reason for that; they are very much in touch with wanting to be impressive, to stand out, even to be famous someday.

I have long contended that if you want to gauge a society’s true values, talk to a young adolescent. They just happen to have an emerging awareness of the world but not yet the sophistication to hide their true thoughts from others. Junior High age kids pretty much reflect what most adults are thinking but would never dare say out loud. After all, why lose prestige in the eyes of others who think I am wonderful? Better not to rock the boat, we reason.

“Vainglory” is an old out-of-style word which few people use anymore, yet perfectly captures exactly what Jesus was talking about when it came to people being unable to discern his divinity. Wherever and whenever you find an inordinate focus on wanting attention, seeking to impress others, and desiring celebrity status, there you will see vainglory digging its talons into a society.

Vainglory is just what it sounds like: an almost narcissistic self-absorption into one’s need for importance and attention so that the personal vanity blocks being able to see others right in front of them. In placing so much energy into becoming a celebrity among peers, the vainglorious person’s vanity fogs them from reality and the truth of another.

Conversely, we are to seek the glory which comes from God. Since so many are programmed to seek honor from others, it can be quite the undertaking to turn the hunt into finding our identity and fame as persons in the image of God. Our Gospel lesson today says our reorientation program begins with faith in Jesus Christ. It is the first step toward the unmasking of egomania and soliciting God’s favor.

The sixteenth-century Reformer, John Calvin, said that “a person is only prepared to obey the heavenly teaching when he is convinced that the chief thing to be sought in all of life is God’s approval.”

Thus, the appropriate response to vainglory is to fly like a bat of hell to the heavenly mercy of God. There is no shame in wanting honor; its just a matter of where we go looking for it. Faith is crippled when we keep trying to discern which way the wind is blowing. Both our identity and our sanity will eventually blow away. However, if we cease prioritizing worldly recognition and cancel our membership in the mutual admiration club, then our conscience clears enough to let divine grace fill our souls with the love of God in Christ.

Give me Jesus and that will be enough, thank you very much. As for recognition and attention, to be adored by the Savior is all I really need. Because at the end of the day, after the hurt of being ignored, overlooked, and forgotten, Jesus is standing at the door knocking, eager to come into the house and grace me with the gift of acceptance, approval, and admiration.

O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our God, give me the love which never ceases, that will light my soul with divine grace so that I might be satisfied in you and lessen the darkness of the world. Lord Jesus, I seek your presence and glory. May I see you, desire you, look on you in love, and long after you, for your sake. Amen.

Matthew 11:16-19, 20-25 – Following Jesus

Welcome, friends! Click the video below and let us consider the words of Jesus together.

You may also view this video on TimEhrhardtYouTube

Click Behold the Lamb (Communion Hymn) by Keith and Kristyn Getty, the song mentioned in the video.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you, today and always. Amen.