Sunday, September 5, 2010

Do Not Fear!

Some of you have read this chapter before. I can’t help but think that you have been moved by the promises that it holds out to believers. Those promises are quite striking because of how they help us live in this very broken world. It really is a very impressive chapter. It’s my desire that the Spirit would take what’s here and touch your hearts with it so that your lives are tweaked just a bit more and that out of that would come more assurance, more joy and more love for Jesus. While there is much here that is worthy of your attention, I am going to focus on the first part of the chapter and then the very end.

Listen as I read Isaiah 43.

Let’s start with this. To whom is Jesus speaking here? He is speaking to you, His Church. And while He speaks to the group, He is, at the same time, speaking to each individual within the group. So, what each of you needs to see from the very beginning is that Jesus is speaking personally to you. You are not a faceless part of the whole. Jesus is speaking to you, individually. Jesus is expressing His love to you. He is doing that right now as you hear Him say, ‘… you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you…’ The relationship that Jesus has with each of His saints is not some formal, ‘religious’ thing. It is intimate and close. And so He says, ‘I have called you by name, you are Mine.’ Jesus loves you!

This love of Jesus is not some vague thing that floats in the air. It is a down to earth reality. His love has moved Him to action and that in very concrete ways. And so He says, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you.’ Now, understand what Jesus is doing here. He is pointing to the Cross. That is the climax of His redeeming you. Jesus saw you in your need and responded to it. He saw you in your sinfulness and your alienation from the Father, and He took upon Himself the agony of hell you deserve so that you might be restored to God. He redeemed you, and He did that because you are precious to Him.

But His love is not simply a matter of dealing with problems of the past. ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ He is realistic about this life. There will be times when it will get hard, sometimes very hard. But, because of His love, He promises you that you will not face those difficulties alone. ‘I will be with you.’ Immanuel. And because of that, because of His presence with you, you will be able to endure each difficulty and emerge safe and sound on the other side, and better for it. So, He says, ‘Do not fear, for I am with you.’

There is something beautiful and powerful here. To be loved in this way is so comforting and reassuring. It gives hope and confidence. We have been blessed with a Savior whose love is simply astounding. Resting in this love provides great peace, a needed peace as we live in this very broken world.

And that’s why we need to take a very careful look at the last part of this chapter. Let me read it again. Jesus is speaking. ‘Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel! You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense. You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities.’ This does not look good. Once again, our sin takes center stage. And while the specific sins change with each differing era of the Church, this fact stays the same. Jesus has been good to us, tremendously good to us. And how do we respond? We sin, and that in some horrible ways. The specific sins in our text are all about worship. It’s about being weary of Jesus and as a result failing to give Him the worship He deserves. And that becomes especially striking when you remember that worship is not just what happens on Sundays. Worship is about how we live each day. So, Jesus responds to our sense of being burdened and wearied by Him and says, ‘…you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities.’ Or to put it a little differently, ‘Your sins wear me out!’ Is it any wonder, then, that the next thing He says is, ‘I will deliver Jacob to utter destruction’? ‘Utter destruction.’ These are words of coming doom. They certainly seem to be an apt response to our sin.

I have gone through all of this so that I can describe where too many of you are. You see the first part of our text and the beauty of those words of love and the comfort and assurance that they give. What a joy to be able to say, ‘Jesus loves me’ and to say it with all the detail that Jesus intends. But then, you think about your sin. You think about the horrible things that you do or think or even just feel. And your thoughts go to things that the last part of our text is talking about. ‘I will deliver Jacob to utter destruction.’ You’re sure that, at some point after sinning it up again, that fate, that promised doom, will be yours. You just know you’re going to fail. And then, it’s all over. Utter destruction. So, you tell yourself, ‘Yes, Jesus wants to love me, but if I screw it up one time too many it’s all over. I’ll be doomed because of my sin.’ That sounds so right, so biblical even, but it’s so very wrong.

I don’t usually give you raw doctrine, but today I’m going to. I’m going to talk to you about something that lies at the heart of the Gospel. I’m going to talk about justification by faith. That’s the shorthand. Let’s say it fully: justification by grace alone received through faith alone in Christ alone. Okay, now let me take that apart, bit by bit.

‘Justification’ is the Father’s declaration to any and all that you are considered to be perfect by Him. He declares that you have been given Jesus’ perfection. As a result, you are totally accepted by the Father. And why not? Jesus’ perfection is yours. You can’t get any better than that.

‘By grace alone’ simply means that this acceptance by the Father is yours just because He likes you. What you deserve is hell, but what you get is heaven – just because the Father likes you.

‘Received through faith alone in Christ alone’ means that you stop your trying. You just stop. Your best shot in all your trying is not even close to adequate. Actually, all of your trying to get the Father to like you has ended up in Him getting angrier because your trying is just so much more sin. Your trying just makes matters worse. So, ironically, becoming a Christian is all about not trying to get the Father to like you. That’s what faith is about. You stop all this trying.

And you can stop trying because it is ‘faith alone in Christ alone’. You stop your trying because Jesus has said that He will do all that is necessary – all that is necessary – so that you will be completely acceptable to the Father. So, you stop your trying and start trusting Jesus to keep His promise. You trust Him to do all that is necessary. This last part is so hard for people to get. So, let me use an illustration that I’ve used before. Consider this imaginary situation. There you are at heaven’s gate and the Father asks you rather important question. ‘Why should I let you in to My heaven.’ It seems a good thing to ask. The Father, after all, has standards. Heaven is for the holy. So, how do you answer the question? What do you say to the Father so that your home is heaven and not hell? You say nothing. Now, that may seem weird, but remember what Jesus promises to do. He promises to do all that is necessary. And after all, what could you say to convince the Father that you are good enough? Have you even believed well enough to impress Him? Nothing that you can say or do will make the difference. So, when you hear the question what you do is say nothing and just look at Jesus – remember He is with you – and wait for Him to do whatever is necessary. He deals with the Father’s question. He gets you into heaven.

That’s justification by grace alone received by faith alone in Christ alone. He does all that is necessary so that you are accepted by the Father. And all this happens just because He likes you.

I’ve gone through all of this because some of you are afraid. You are so very afraid that you’re going to screw things up. You are so very afraid that you will do something that will disqualify so that you are no longer accepted by the Father. You are afraid of that ‘utter destruction’. I understand this fear. There’s a reason for it: You have not believed the Gospel as fully as you might. I’m not saying you’re not Christians. But I am saying that you aren’t enjoying what it means to be a Christian as fully as you might. It’s all tied to this teaching of the Bible: justification by grace alone received through faith alone in Christ alone. You believe something slightly different. You believe that you are justified, that is, the Father will accept you, if you have faith in Jesus and if you don’t screw up too badly. Why else would you be afraid of screwing up one time too many? So, what you actually believe is that it’s really up to you. Jesus has done His part to save you. He died on the Cross. Now, it’s up to you to do whatever else needs to get done, like not screwing up too much. And so, when you boil it all down, from here on out you have to save yourself. Nobody here would ever say it that way. But there are times when it feels like that, when you are so afraid that you’re going to blow it. And so, you tell yourself that you need to try harder. You have to get it right. Your prayers reflect this. ‘Please Father, I have to get this right. Help me so that I can do it. Help me not to screw it up.’ You tell yourself that God will help, but it’s up to you to finish what’s left to be done. And so, there is a part of you that is deathly afraid that you won’t be able to do it.

Let me tell you some things that you need to hear. The first comes from outside of our text and the others are from within. Paul wrote, ‘The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….’ If you’re going to understand Paul here you need to see that a sinner is by definition someone who cannot save himself. Can’t! Jesus came into the world to save people who cannot save themselves. So, you need a little reality. If even the smallest part of salvation is left up to you, then there is no hope. If that’s where you’re really at, you might as well give up now and live like a pagan. You can’t save yourself – not even a little. But what does the Gospel say? Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners! Not those people who are making enough progress at not screwing up too much, but sinners who cannot save themselves. You need to stop your trying and simply take Jesus at His word. He will do all that is necessary.

That was from Paul. This is from our text. First, when I re-read those verses at the end of the chapter about your sin and about the coming doom, I left out a verse. In the middle[!] of all of that about your sinfulness, Jesus says this, ‘I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.’ Even in the middle of talking about well-deserved ‘utter destruction’, there is grace. This is just another way of saying that Jesus knows all about your sin, and He loves you anyway. And because He loves you He ‘blots out your transgressions’. We don’t use the language of ‘blots out’, but think of it this way. Jesus drops a nuclear bomb on your sins. Obliteration. There’s nothing left. That’s His kind of forgiveness. Some may say, ‘Sure the sins are gone but they are not forgotten.’ Well, you may remember them, but Jesus doesn’t. ‘I will not remember your sins.’ They are really gone.

So, for those of you who think that you might screw it up by that one too many sin, here’s the Gospel. You can’t screw it up. Jesus came to save sinners. Jesus came to save you. You can’t screw it up. Do you really think that you can frustrate Jesus once He has decided to love you? Bear in mind that when He decided to love you, you were sinner. Does the fact that you still are a sinner change anything?

So, to pull this all together let me go back to the beginning of the chapter where Jesus says, ‘Fear not, for I am with you.’ You’ve probably thought of that in terms of some future crisis hitting you or facing some huge issue or other such things. And that’s fine. But let’s add this to the list of things not to be afraid of: your sin. Do not be afraid that your sin will ruin things. Do not be afraid that your sin will screw things up. Do not be afraid that your sin will win. That won’t happen. It can’t. Jesus promises. He is with you to make sure that nothing in all the universe, including your sin, will get in the way of you enjoying the Father, now and forever. All you have to do is stop your trying and simply trust Jesus to do all that is necessary.

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