Sunday, May 22, 2016

God's Favor

I was reading from the book of Ezra recently. Ezra was a priest whom God sent to Jerusalem to reform and revive religious life there. He needed a Levite to assist him. This is what I read.

And by the good hand of our God on us, they brought us a man of discretion … namely Sherebiah.

This is someone worth noticing. A man of discretion, that is, someone with insight. That made me think of another noteworthy person, the woman of Proverbs 31. So, I looked that up. And this is what I read.

Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

These two stood out as very attractive people. They are like other such people generously sprinkled throughout the Scriptures, men of discretion and insight, and women of strength and wisdom. These are people whom God uses to make a difference.

Noah was another example of this kind of person. Moses wrote something about him that will help us to understand him and people like him. Before I read that to you, I want to tell you my goal for this morning. I want each of you to see how you can be someone like this, men of discretion and insight, and women of strength and wisdom - very attractive people, people whom God uses. I am convinced that there is no reason why that can't be. And I want all of you to be convinced also.

Now, listen to what Moses wrote.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Genesis 6.5-8

God is looking at His creation. And what does He see? He sees how bad things have gotten. He sees the wickedness that was running rampant, and it pains Him. But God also sees an exception, Noah. He was different. So, as Moses tells us, God looked on this man with favor.

Here's the big question that I would like to explore. What's this 'favor' and how did Noah come to gain it? Once I answer that question, we'll look at how you can gain this same favor.

Let's start, of course, with a definition. God's favor, what's that? It's God acting favorably toward someone. It's Him doing someone good. It might help to know that both in the Old Testament as well as in the New the word translated 'favor' can also be translated 'grace'.

There are two aspects to this favor of God that you need to know. First, as you already know, God has acted favorably to you and He did that without you fulfilling any conditions. That's the familiar aspect of the word 'grace'. This is what we are talking about when we say that we are saved by grace alone. This is how we become one of His children. We do nothing. God does everything.

But then, there is this other aspect of this word 'favor'. In this second sense, God acts favorably to you in response to something you have done. This is what Moses is talking about when he wrote, 'But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord'. God is responding to something Noah did. This fits with something else Moses wrote about him.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 

So, first, God was favorable to Noah without Noah doing anything. God saved him by grace. But after that, Noah lived well. He was a righteous man, a blameless man, someone who walked with God. And God noticed and responded. He acted favorably to Noah. He did that because Noah met some conditions. He found favor in the eyes of God because of what he did.

For the rest of the sermon I want to talk about the second aspect, this conditional aspect of God's favor. I want to talk about how God sees His saints living well and responds to them so that they also find favor in His eyes. I want to talk about that because I want all of you to see that you can also find God's favor just like Noah.

The idea of God responding to His saints with favor because they meet some conditions might sound odd. But it's not actually all that strange. Think about Psalm 1. How does it start?

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Why is this man blessed? Why does God act favorably to him? It's because of what he does and doesn't do. He doesn't imitate the wicked, the sinners or the scoffers. Instead, he delights in God's instruction about how to live well, and he ponders those instructions. This man found favor in the sight of God. He has met certain conditions, and God responds with His blessing.

Proverbs is filled with this sort of conditional blessing. Here's just one example.

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So[!] you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.

These are only two places in the Scriptures that offer God's favor to those who meet His conditions. There are many other places, many of which you already know.

Now, again, let me remind you that there are two aspects of this word. When God decides to rescue someone from sin and death to enjoy the life of eternity, there are no conditions for that person to meet. But don't let that aspect of the word overwhelm the other. God speaks to His people and tells us that if we meet certain conditions - and only if we meet those conditions - we will receive certain blessings. We will find favor in His sight.

Let me tell you what I am responding to. There are too many believers who think only in terms of the first aspect of this word. They tell themselves, 'My relationship with God is without condition. There's nothing that I have to do to enjoy His grace, His favor.' Well, yes and no. 'Yes' if we're talking about becoming a Christian. But it's a big 'No' if we're talking about flourishing as a person after you become a Christian. If you want to flourish by enjoying God's favor, then there are conditions you need to meet. And understanding that makes a really big difference in how you live.

Now, you can look at that as some difficult rule that needs to be obeyed, or as a very encouraging promise to be enjoyed. I'm going for the second option. God is saying you can be that man of discretion and insight. You can be that woman of strength and wisdom. You can be like Noah, someone who found favor in the sight of God. Do you want that? God promises that you can be that person. It's just that there are some things you have to do.

Now, for the practical question. What do you do? What are the conditions to be met? I have two in mind. Here's the first, and it's a very familiar idea. Believe the Gospel. Believe the part of the Gospel that promises that those who meet God's conditions will gain His favor. If you don't believe it, then you won't even try to meet the conditions. Why would you? But if you do believe that promise, you will do whatever is necessary to enjoy it. If you are convinced that the offer is real, that you can be granted God's favor, then you will work to enjoy that favor. The first thing is to believe the Gospel about the favor of God offered to you.

The second thing is also a familiar idea. You need to follow Jesus. There are two parts to doing that. For one thing you need to know what He says about how to live life well. And that's all in the Bible. But the Bible isn't a book of how to's: 'Do this and then do that and then do the other.' No, the Bible presents principles, commands, examples, warnings and promises. And none of those is presented in the context of your life. We read those principles and all the rest in the context of Abraham's life or the lives of the saints in Corinth or Noah's life. So, you need to know these principles. But then you need to know how that principle found, say, in Abraham's life applies in your life.

And that leads to the second thing you need to do here. You need to listen as Jesus tells you which principle or command or whatever to apply in some situation you are dealing with and how to apply it there. Remember, He is still doing and teaching. You need to listen to what He is telling you, to what He is teaching you. Now, you may not hear a voice telling you how to deal with your boss or a difficult family relationship or something else. But Jesus will make sure that you get the message. How He does that is His problem. Your concern is to be ready to listen and obey. And maybe the place to start is simply to pray, 'Lord, I'm not sure how to hear from You. Help me to know when it's You. And help me to obey You when You speak'.

So, two conditions: believe the promise of the Gospel and listen to Jesus as He guides you.

Now, a why question. Why would a Christian want God to act favorably to him or her? Why bother with trying to find favor? Two thoughts: It's the Christian who enjoys God's favor who is able to live well and it's only such a Christian who lives well. Let's face it. There are just a ton of Christians who simply aren't living well. Their family relationships aren't all that good. Parents and children bicker about this and that. Marriages are only so-so, and too many aren't even that. And most of the time Jesus feels like a distant relative living in another country. It's not good. But it's different for Christians who find favor in the sight of God. Life isn't perfect, but there's movement, progress. These saints are learning how to live well. That's one very good reason to bother with trying to find favor in God's sight.

But then there's the second thought. The point of our lives, of doing things like gaining God's favor, isn't about our lives. All that we do and all that we are is about making our God look as good as He really is. A life that is working, a life where God's favor is enjoyed, is a life that reveals something of the wonder of who God actually is. Consider all those Christians whose lives aren't really working, who aren't flourishing. They’re getting by but not much more than that. What kind of message does that present to the world? What does it say about the God whom we worship when Christians' lives aren't all that different from the lives of the rest of the world? But then there is the life of a saint who is working for and enjoying God's favor. It's a life that looks different and makes a difference. And this is why a Christian will invest the effort to fulfill those conditions and gain God's favor.

Last thought. You can be men of discretion and insight, and women of strength and wisdom. You really can. But it's so easy just to settle, to tell yourself that nothing that good could ever happen to you. Why would you think that? God promises to grant more and more of His favor to those who desire it so that their lives would work well. He promises. The only question is whether you believe Him.

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