Sunday, May 9, 2010

Change


I have been surprised to hear some say that people don’t change. And at times it’s good church-going folk who have said such things. Fortunately, Jesus disagrees. In fact, He has come for the express purpose of bringing change. That’s what the Gospel is all about – change. And because of this we can be very optimistic. My goals for this sermon are simple. I want to encourage you with this hope of change and to help you to see a bit more clearly how Jesus brings change into your life so that you can be prepared for it.

I’m going to read this week’s chapter in Isaiah by sections. Here’s the first section, verses 1-4.

The sense of change is obvious here. Isaiah is telling the people of a time to come when a new king is going to arise, a new king who will do what is right. During his reign the people will be cared for. Isaiah uses apt images to convey this, ‘a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land’. Bear in mind that the desolation of the desert, ‘the wilderness’, was familiar to these folk. Isaiah takes that and uses it to picture how the people will be lifted up from the hardships that they face. He is probably referring to a good king to come who will replace someone like King Ahaz whom we have met. He might be referring to King Josiah who has not yet arrived on the scene. Regardless which Judean king Isaiah was pointing to, ultimately this is about Jesus. Some of Jesus’ miracles – healing eyes, ears and tongues – point back to this passage, a hint to the perceptive of His day. Jesus is the King who will reign in righteousness. He will change things and provide justice and safety. He will lift the people up.

Now listen to the next section, verses 5-8.

There is more change here, but it’s not about lifting people up. No, it is about bringing them down. All too often fools and scoundrels rule the roost. And many, out of fear and in hope of some benefit, praise these deceivers. So, they are called noble and honorable. And life gets worse. Part of the change the Gospel brings about is exposing these scoundrels for what they really are so that they might be brought down. The Gospel reveals evil so that it might be wiped out and replaced with what is good. That’s why we have the last verse of this section where good is praised, ‘But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands.’ The second section is also about change.

Now, the first two sections set up the third section. This is where both aspects of change, lifting up and bringing down, come together. Listen to verses 9-20.

The first half of this section is a call to repentance. Isaiah speaks directly to some of the women of his day. He confronts the evil that they are giving themselves to. They are at ease and complacent. Reading a little between the lines, it seems that these women were aware of the evil of their day, or should have been, but they were quite content to ignore it all and focus on the pleasures that they were able to enjoy. Isaiah calls them to repent of their sin. And to stir them on in this he speaks of the destruction that Jesus is bringing upon the nation. These women will be brought low by what they will suffer. But then comes a key word, ‘until’. ‘… until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high…’ And what follows? Tremendous blessing. It is pictured in agricultural terms, which makes sense in that society. As a result of this powerful work of the Spirit the saints will flourish. Isaiah again uses the language of quietness, trust, peace, security. So, in the first part of this last section Isaiah pictures a people being brought low. But that being brought low continues ‘until’. That being brought low is changed to being lifted up. Under the blessing of the Spirit, this being brought low leads to being lifted up. It is this dynamic that I want to focus on.

This theme of being brought low and then lifted up runs throughout the Scripture. Let me show you some examples of it. [Keep in mind where we’re going. My goal is to help you to see a bit more clearly how Jesus brings change into your life.] So, the first example is Joseph, Jacob’s son. What happened to him? He was his father’s favorite. Jesus sent him to Egypt and there he was brought low – until the Spirit acted and he was lifted up to become Egypt’s prime minister. Next example: David was anointed king by Samuel. What happened after that? He had to hide in the desert, spending years in fear of losing his life. But having been brought low, he was then lifted up to take his throne and rule the people of God, becoming a man after God’s own heart. Another example is Peter. Brash, impetuous Peter. He always took the lead among the Twelve, even to the point of bragging about his devotion to Jesus. ‘Even though they all fall away, I will not.’ And then, when the tests came he failed all three times. Peter was brought low and his bitter weeping is the evidence. But Jesus lifted him up and he became a leader in the Church. The best example of this is, of course, Jesus Himself. He was brought low. You would think that taking the form of a man, the Incarnation, would be enough of a step down, but it wasn’t. Jesus was brought further down when He submitted to the Cross. But then what happened? How does Paul put it? ‘… God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name…’ Do you see the pattern? Brought low and then lifted up. It’s throughout the Scriptures. It’s also in our chapter.

Let me pull some of this together. Here’s the first thing that I want you to see. You are destined for change, amazing change. Jesus has sent His Spirit to perform this work of change in your lives and to bring it to its completion. The Spirit is at work so that you might become beautiful people, that you might become reflections of the beauty of Jesus Himself. You are going to be lifted up. I’ve told you this before. None of it is news. But what I say next might be. The way that the Spirit normally does this work of lifting you up is by first bringing you down. The theme of our text applies to you. He brings you down so that He can lift you up.

This is important because it speaks to our expectations of life. For most folk, expectations are not usually conscious, but they are there nonetheless. I think that it is fair to say that most people like us start out with unstated but optimistic expectations of life. So, if we were to chart our early expectations of life on a piece of graph paper, it would be a gentle slope moving upward. Some folk are more aggressive and expect the line to shoot up quickly. Others only expect a downward line. But not most of us. A gentle slope moving upward. Look back to the days of your youth. What did you expect? How many of us thought that our lives would be a waste? To be sure, there would be bumps in the road, little dips in the graph line, but these are to be relatively few and they won’t significantly affect the graph. Overall it would still be a gentle slope moving upward. But then, time moves on. People get a little older. As a result, there are many who realize that expectations need to be adjusted a bit. That gentle upward slope needs to be set aside. But what replaces it? Too many settle for a graph that has a line that is basically flat. There are some serious dips, but the line comes back to the level it was at before. And there are some high points, but after a while life settles again to where it was. Life, if graphed, becomes a fairly level line that ends about as high as it began. Life is fairly static with not a lot of change.

Jesus opinion of this is clear. He says its bunk – at least for His disciples. He is not content for you to have a life that is fairly static. In fact, He isn’t even content with that gently upward slope idea. His plan for you is that your life break through the top of the graph. His plan is for the Spirit to do such a work in you so that your life becomes so much more than what you once expected. How did Isaiah picture it? ‘… until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.’ You were the wilderness, that is, the desert, that is becoming not just a fruitful field but then a magnificent forest. Your life is to be the epitome of fruitfulness. Your heritage includes peace, quietness, trust. That’s what Isaiah is talking about. That is what the Spirit intends to do in you. I would hate to see you settle for what everyone else is settling for. I would hate to see you settle for less. Jesus intends great things for you. My desire is for you to have tremendous expectations of Spirit.

Now, we’re ready to talk about how these great things will come about in your life. Here, you need to remember the pattern. The way that you will be lifted up to the heights is by being brought low to the depths. So, Peter writes, ‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may lift you up…’ The people to whom Peter was writing had been brought low. Now, they could accept that humbly as from God or they could fight it. If they accepted it, they would be lifted up. Peter is simply applying the pattern that I have pointed out in Isaiah and elsewhere. Before a Christian is lifted up, he will be brought low.

Now let me get a bit more specific. What does this look like? Sometimes it looks like a call to repentance. That’s what was going on in our chapter in Isaiah as he preached to the women. There are times when repentance will be profoundly humbling. It will bring you low as you see yourself in a new light. Seeing how sinful we really are is very humbling. But the promise of Scripture is that if you do submit to this being brought low by the Spirit, that same Spirit will lift you up. The great things that Jesus has in store for you will become yours. Don’t fight the Spirit when He points out your sin.

However, it needs to be said, and said with some vigor, there will be many times when you will be brought low though you have done absolutely nothing wrong. I want to stress this because too many of you just assume that you’ve done something terrible when life gets hard. Your thoughts quickly turn to notions of punishment and the like. But being brought low may have nothing to do with the need to repent. The best example, of course, is Jesus. He was brought so very low but clearly not because He needed to repent. Consider those words of Peter about humbling yourself under the mighty hand of God I just read to you. They were written to a church that was suffering greatly. They were brought very low. But they were not suffering because of their sin. Quite the contrary. They were suffering because they were being faithful. Read 1 Peter. So, there will be times when you will be brought very low but not because of some sin.

My next thought is one that our culture just does not understand. It’s one that fills out what I’ve just said. Jesus will bring some serious suffering into your lives, but He does it to do you good. There is something to be said for having all of the trivial distractions of life removed and being forced to focus on just a few essentials. It is in these times that important questions confront us and have to be grappled with. People who wrestle with these kinds of questions and come out of the fray still believing are changed in profound ways. Jesus brings us low, into the valley of the shadow of death, so that He may lift us up to new heights of confidence, power, boldness and peace. Now, it doesn’t have to be profound existential moments of deep suffering. Lots of everyday life is really hard. But my point is that there will be times when life gets to be a bit much, times when Jesus will bring us low. But He does that so that He can lift us high to experience the power of the Spirit in new and startling ways.

The key, of course, is to remember all of this when life gets hard. So, the next time you tell yourself, ‘This isn’t fun anymore. I don’t want to deal with all of this’, take a deep breath and then remind yourself that Jesus brings us low so that He can lift us up. Let me say that it’s good to pray about this kind of situation before it happens. Pray that you will remember the pattern and entrust yourself to Jesus.

And since we are all affected by the impatience of our world, let me remind you that change takes time. It’s a process. Listen again to verse 15: ‘…until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.’ You don’t jump from being a wilderness, that is, a desert, to being a forest. There are steps and stages. It’s a process, and it takes a lifetime.

Today’s sermon has been all about expectations. What do you expect of your life? Jesus says that you should expect a life that is so much better, grander, more glorious than you can imagine. He has amazing plans for you. All I want to say is, ‘Don’t settle for less!’ To gain such a life, you’re going to have to endure some hard times. Let me encourage you not to be afraid of this. Yes, it will be hard and hard in different ways. But always bear this in mind: ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.’ Jesus will never desert you. Never! There will be times when He thinks you need to walk in the valley for a bit, but He will be there, with you, every step of the way. Learn, now, how to lean on Him, how to sense His presence with you. And keep clearly in mind that, at the end of the valley, He will lift you up. At the end of the valley, you will be changed. And what you thought would be a great life will be left in the dust as you enjoy something so much better.

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