Sunday, September 12, 2010

Renewed by the Spirit

This week’s chapter begins very much like last week’s did. Once again Jesus is responding to a fear of His people. And instead of describing that fear in some literal way, Jesus offers an image. It’s the image of a dry and thirsty land. That is where I’ll be focusing my attention this morning. And the reason I want to focus on this is that there are times when you feel like a dry and thirsty land. I want to help you to understand what you are feeling and to be able to respond well to it. As I do that, we’ll also touch on what Isaiah has to say about idols.

Please listen as I read Isaiah 44.

The picture of the dry and thirsty land is not about some desert somewhere. It’s about your soul. And that’s clear because the solution is the coming of the Spirit who is pictured, as He often is, as refreshing water. Jesus speaks to His Church, and He tells us that the Spirit will come to renew us so that the Spiritual dryness that we feel will be done away with. This isn’t a once for all kind of thing. The Spirit has renewed the Church repeatedly through the centuries. And there have been some especially striking times of renewal. So, for one example, the Reformation was a renewal of the Church by the Spirit. And there have been many other times that the Spirit has come to do His work of renewing His people. Isaiah’s immediate audience is being told that renewal will come. Parched souls will be refreshed. And once the rains come, the desert will become a lush garden.

This whole idea of renewal by the Spirit is tied to the basic dynamics of the Gospel. It’s summarized in a familiar verse. ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ The Gospel is all about life and death. The life Jesus offers is eternal life, that is, the life of the age to come, a very different kind of life. The only alternative to this is death. It’s black and white. There is no grey. A person is either alive with Jesus’ life or completely dead.

Adam and Eve had life, the fullness of this life. And then they lost it. Do you remember what God said about the fruit? ‘In the day that you eat of it you shall surly die.’ This promised death is a broad category. It includes laborious work by the sweat of the brow, the pain of childbirth, conflict within marriage, being abandoned by God and more. The curse of death began its ugly work on the day that they ate. But some of the implications of that death took time to be seen. It would be years before Adam breathed his last. And in the interim there were all the different emotional responses like weariness and discouragement and even despair. All of that – and lots more – is included in this ‘death’.

Let’s fast forward from the Garden to Jesus’ ministry. What did He offer to His hearers? There are lots of right answers to this, but let’s focus on this one. ‘I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.’ Jesus has come so that you might enjoy what Adam and Eve had and lost in the Garden. Jesus has come to give you life. It’s now, of course, that I’m supposed to give you a definition of this term ‘life’ so that you will understand what I’m saying. And that definition will boil down to a list of traits with theological implications. But I’m not going to do that. There are lots of people who know the definitions but have no clue about the reality. So, while there is a place for definitions, there isn’t going to be one in this sermon. And that’s because life, the life that Jesus offers, is something that you experience. And you know what it is, at least in some general sense, because you feel it. You feel alive. It’s kind of like falling in love. You know it because you feel it. And just as love is about that one special person, being alive is all about one special person. Being alive is all about Jesus. If someone really does have the life that Jesus offers, then he’ll feel it. Jesus will make sure that he feels it.

Jesus has come to give you life. But you don’t get it all at once. Your experience of this life is something that grows. It’s like a seed planted in the ground and then watered. Over time it sprouts and then develops into a beautiful tree that reaches up to the heavens. And as your experience of life grows, your experience of death fades. That’s the process of Christian maturity.

The problem, of course, is that Christian maturity is not uninterrupted growth. Lots of trees have scars and broken limbs and evidence of disease. Going from death in its ugliness to life in all of its beauty is not an easy process. And sometimes it feels as if you’re planted in some dry ground or in a thirsty land. Your soul is parched. What you need more than anything is a bit of water. What you need is for the Spirit to be poured upon you once again so that you might feel more of the life of Jesus and make some progress in becoming that beautiful tree. This is exactly where Isaiah’s hearers were. Spiritual dryness. Parched souls. And fear. ‘Is this the way it’s going to be? Will we shrivel up and die?’ And that is why Jesus says, ‘Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.’ Renewal by the Spirit.

You noticed, I’m sure, that Isaiah also talks about idols in our chapter. They are not unrelated to our topic. People, by nature, can tell when something isn’t right. They can tell when they don’t feel alive. But if they refuse to come to Jesus, then what can they do? How can they deal with that sense of not feeling alive? If they won’t look to Jesus as He offers life, then they look to a counterfeit that makes the same offer. That’s what an idol is to them: something that will give them life, something about which they say, ‘This will make me feel alive.’ And, let’s face it, the popular idols of our day can make a person feel something very different from the drab grey of his daily existence. Having power over people and institutions can dramatically change a person’s sense of being. And those who have money so that they can buy whatever and feel the thrill of some new toy every other day – well, that feels good too. And do I have to say that sex can take what’s grey and change it into a rainbow? Idols are idols because they work. They make life work. And that’s why people look to them.

But Isaiah also writes this: ‘All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame.’ Shame is another key theme in the Scriptures. In Isaiah’s day a person would be shamed when the god in which he trusted failed him. And that is exactly what Isaiah is predicting. Idols will work for a while, sometimes for a long while, but sooner or later they will fail. And then comes shame. So, Isaiah warns the Church about idols. They will work for a time, but only for a time. Idols will always fail and the realization of that failure can be devastating. Real renewal of the soul only comes by the Spirit.

Let me pause here to draw out some implications of what I’ve just said. I want to warn you about two things. First, don’t settle. Jesus has not come so that you would endure an existence of drab grey. He has come so that you might have life and have it abundantly. So, don’t settle for what so many settle for. Your expectations need to be formed by the Gospel. Jesus is all about life, life of the age to come. So, don’t settle for less than Jesus promises. I say this because I fear that some of you might be settling. Don’t. Believe Jesus all the way. ‘I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.’ That’s the Gospel. Believe it. Second, when you’re feeling thirsty, when you don’t see the colors and your life does, in fact, feel awfully grey, don’t opt for an idol. Idols provide color also, but at a tremendous cost. The fact of the matter is that we, all of us, already have idols. And we appeal to them from time to time. And we all have found, or at some point in the future will find, that idols fail. Our idols fail us. And that can be devastating. Our hope is in Jesus and not some idol. He never fails. So, to quote the Apostle John, ‘Keep yourselves from idols.’

Now, let me finish up by asking two questions. Here’s the first. What do you do when you feel the grey? How are you to respond when your soul is dry and that sense of life that Jesus promises is faded? The answer is clear. You need to pray. But let me be specific here. First, you need to pray about not settling for less than the Gospel. You need to pray about keeping your heart from idols. Ask the Spirit to act so that you would take Jesus at His word and expect life, the life that He promised. But then, you need to go further. You need to ask the Father why you are feeling this drabness. If the Gospel is all about life, why aren’t you feeling it as deeply as you might? It’s here that something from our Confession of Faith fits:

The most wise, righteous, and gracious God often leaves his own children, for a time, to manifold temptations and to the corruption of their own hearts. He does this to chastise them for their past sins, to humble them by making them aware of the hidden strength of the corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, and then to raise them to a closer, more constant dependence upon himself for their support, to make them more watchful against all future occasions for sinning, and to fulfill various other just and holy purposes.

There are times when our good Father lets us taste the dryness of the desert, times when it doesn’t feel like abundant life. The Confession gives several reasons that summarize the Scriptures. The Father does this to chastise for sin, or to use more familiar language, to discipline us; to humble us; to develop in us a greater dependence on Himself; to make us more careful when it comes to sin.

I’m not going to develop this. But there is some solid wisdom here. You might do well to consider these on your own. My point is simply to tell you that there can be lots of reasons why your soul may feel dry. This is something for you to discuss with the Father. And what will urge you on to discover the reason and solution for your dryness is the promise of the Gospel. Jesus has come to give you life.

And now for that other question. How do you know if you’re on the right track as you deal with these things? Having sensed the dryness, you’ve discussed the situation with the Father, discerned what was going on and dealt with it. Now it seems that the Spirit is doing His work in you, renewing your experience of life. Or is He? Are you on track, or have you been fooled by some idol? How do you know? Jesus tells us how to know. He says this in the context of His comments about those idols. ‘Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are My witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.’ Did you hear the questions Jesus asks of His people? ‘Who is the real God? Who has been a Rock for you? Who has come through for you when the chips were down? Hasn’t it been Me? You are My witnesses!’ It’s that last part about being a witness that is so helpful. A witness is someone who has seen or heard something and speaks about it. He speaks out of his own experience. Just think about a witness in a courtroom. He speaks about what he has seen or heard; nothing more, nothing less. Jesus here is telling His people that they have seen and heard. They have experienced some things. They have seen Him in action and have experienced the life that He has promised. They know that He has come through for them, and so, they speak about it. This is what David did in one of the Psalms. ‘Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul.’ David experienced Jesus and then he spoke about it. He was a witness. You know that you are on the right track when you fulfill the role of a witness, when you speak about what you have experienced, Jesus’ promised life.

Now, be careful of a couple of things. Please note that Jesus is not saying, ‘You ought to be My witnesses.’ That makes no sense. You cannot speak about what you have not experienced. But if you have experienced the life of Jesus then you will speak about it. You will be a witness. It naturally follows. Jesus is not uttering a command. He’s simply making a statement of fact. ‘You are My witnesses!’ The other thing to be careful about is this. This being a witness is not simply another word for doing evangelism. That’s a mistake. Christians are witnesses at the dinner table when they mention to their family some way in which Jesus has been good to them, some way that they have experienced life. They are witnesses after worship as they talk to other Christians about something that the Spirit has been doing with them. And, yes, Christians are witnesses when they talk about their experiences of Jesus’ gift of life to people who aren’t Christians. But that’s an application of the word and not a definition. You know that you are on the right track when you find yourself talking about what you have experienced. You know that you are on the right track when you find yourself being a witness to what Jesus has done in you.

Jesus has come so that you might have life. And this life starts now.

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