Category: Isaiah (page 1 of 10)

Eyes Off the Hills!

Lots of Christians believe that once they repent and confess Jesus as Lord and begin living in the righteousness of God, nothing bad should ever happen to them again. Christians should not have accidents or arguments with spouses, they should not be misunderstood at work or talked back to by their children. No problems, no pains, no setbacks, no sins, no issues.

Even Christians who don’t believe that sometimes talk like they do. Too blessed to be stressed!

So, when something does go wrong, some Christians don’t handle it very well. Maybe a doubt creeps into your head. Maybe a loneliness moves into your soul. An illness puts you in the hospital or an argument lands you in the doghouse. A misunderstanding leads to anger and pain.  A person walking in the way of faith gets into trouble and starts looking for help.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills — where does my help come from?” ~Psalm 121:1

What does this person see on the hills? What’s happening on the hills?

The pagan religions were practiced on the hills. That’s where the pagan gods were worshiped. The high places on the hills are where the nations built their altars to Ba’al and erected their shrines to Asherah. People went to the hills to engage in acts of idol worship they believed would ensure their safety or fix whatever is wrong. You worshiped the pagan gods on the hills to enhance the fertility of your livestock and crops. The pagan rituals would keep you safe from invading armies. The religious formulas and good luck charms would make you wealthy and wise. It would protect you from evil.

Where do your eyes go when things get a little shaky? Who do you look to? Where do you put your trust when things go bad? There are all kinds of things we can look to for help besides God. And all those things are idols.

In the Bible, the hills are where the idols are worshiped. Hosea 4:12-13 and Ezekiel 6:13 are two of dozens of biblical references. 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles describe the high places where God’s people set up sacred stones and Asherah poles “on every high hill.” Think about the altars of Ba’al on the hills of Mount Carmel. Think about King Rehoboam who built his altar on the high place at Dan. Think about the hills of Caesarea Philippi where the temples and shrines were built to Pan and Ba’al and Asherah and where they worshiped Roman Emperors and sacred goats.

When you run into trouble or when something goes wrong, you holler help. And if you look to the hills, there it is! All kinds of help! Instant help!

Except for one thing: it doesn’t work. It’s an illusion. Nobody is ever really helped by what’s happening in the hills.

“We will come to you, for you are the Lord our God. Surely the idolatrous commotion on the hills and mountains is a deception.” ~ Jeremiah 3:23

If you think the next election is going to fix things, you’re looking to the hills. If you believe the next scientific breakthrough is going to heal things, you’re eyes are on the hills. If you think your next promotion or pay raise is going to put you over the top and fill the hole in your soul, you’re looking to the hills.

When you look to science, technology, or politics for help, you’re going to be disappointed. When you put your faith in the economy or your family, your education goals or your career plan, you’re going to be let down. When you try to ignore your pain or distract from your troubles with pills or drinks or vacations or sports or some kind of busyness, it just leads to more pain and more trouble.

“My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” ~Psalm 121:2

Your help comes from the Lord, not from what’s in the hills. You don’t need any supplemental insurance from what’s going on in the hills. When your loving Father is the Maker and Sustainer of the Universe, you don’t need your safety or security to come from the hills.

“The Lord will keep you from all evil — he will watch over your life.” ~Psalm 121:7

That doesn’t mean you’re never going to stub your toe. No one gets out of this life without the experience of pain. The promise is that no injury or accident, no illness or distress, no tragedy, nothing that can ever happen to you will have evil power over you. Nothing can ever happen to you that can separate you from God’s purpose for you.

That’s the Lord’s Prayer. That’s the expectation. “Deliver us from evil.” That prayer is answered for you every day. Sometimes several times a day.

Take your eyes off the hills and place them directly on the God of Heaven and Earth who says, “I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who says, “In this world you will have trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world!”

Peace,

Allan

You Are Blessed By God

You are blessed by God. This is first and it’s foundational and it’s forever. You are blessed by God. This goes all the way back to the very first chapter of the Bible, the very beginning. The very day God created the first man and woman.

“God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them…” ~Genesis 1:27-28

God blessed them. The very first words God ever spoke to people at creation is blessing. Before God gives any command or any law, before he gives out jobs or guidelines for behavior, God gives his blessing. God’s blessing is not based on performance or on meeting some expectations. God’s blessings are based solely on the fact that you are created in his holy image, you bear his likeness, he made you and put himself into you. You belong to God and your are loved by God and God is very pleased with you because you are his child.

That is your identity. First and foremost and forever. That’s not just what you are, it’s who you are: blessed by God. And God speaks that blessing over and over and over to you, from that first day of creation glory to this very moment right now while you’re reading these words.

“This is what the Lord says — he who created you, he who formed you, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine… Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.'” ~Isaiah 43

“I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands!” ~Isaiah 49

Jesus says there’s not one little bird in the sky that goes down without the Father being aware of it. What about you? You’re worth more to God than all the little birds in the world! God knows the exact number of hairs on your head!

Jesus says you know how to give good gifts to your children, and you’re not even that good yourself. How much more does your Father in heaven give to his children! How much more grace does he have for those who belong to him!

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” ~ 1 John 3:1

Over and over and over again, every page of Holy Scripture reminds you of the blessing.

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?… [Nothing} in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!” ~Romans 8

You are blessed by God. And it’s not based on your performance. It’s not founded on what you do or how well you do it. God loves you because you are his child. God commits to you and publicly accepts you and approves of you because you are his child. You are blessed by God.

And that’s exactly where the devil attacks you.

Man, this is so important.

Ephesians 6 tells us to take our stand against the devil’s schemes. 1 Timothy 3 warns us not to fall into the devil’s trap. And we know what it is. The devil attacks the blessing. The devil wants to undermine your confidence in Christ, he wants you to doubt your identity as a beloved child of God, he wants you to lose your assurance — your certainty — as saved by Jesus Christ and sealed forever by God’s Holy Spirit.

I believe the devil wants to keep you from believing that Jesus really is the Son of God and the Savior of the World. Maybe Jesus was just a really wise and moral teacher. Maybe Jesus wasn’t really physically raised from the dead — those are just stories. Maybe there are other ways to get to heaven. I think the devil starts there. But his most subtle, most dangerous, and most effective attacks are on your blessing from God, your status as a beloved child who belongs to God.

If the devil can get your brain to believe that God loves you, but your heart to feel like God only loves you if you’re good enough — that’s his goal. If the devil can get your brain to believe that Christ’s death takes care of all your sins, but your heart to feel like that won’t cover the super big sins or the sins you can’t shake — that’s what he wants. If the devil can get your brain to accept that you are saved by God’s grace, but your heart to feel like you haven’t done enough…

The Bible calls the devil the tempter, and he certainly is that. But much more than that, the Bible calls the devil the accuser, the liar, the father of lies. Jesus says lying is the devil’s native tongue.

I’m convinced that most of the trouble in my world and in your world — whatever trouble you find in your heart and your soul, whatever’s not good inside you — is a result of knowing and believing in God’s love for you in your brain, and confessing his mercy and grace for you with your lips, but feeling something different in your heart.

All the research shows that when you ask Christians how they believe God thinks about them — “When God thinks about you, how does he feel? — more than two-thirds of Christians say “disappointed.” God is disappointed with me. Not “I belong to God.” Not “God loves me.” Not “God is well pleased with me.” We don’t feel what the Bible says about God and me, we feel what the devil says about God and me!

Brilliant, huh? And evil.

Peace,

Allan

The Devil’s Scheme

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment, heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'” ~Matthew 3:16-17

Jesus is a 30-year-old man making his first independent appearance in the Gospel at the Jordan River. He’s being baptized. In Matthew, this is the very first thing Jesus does. And right out of the gate, right out of the water, God blesses Jesus. Jesus is blessed by God.

Jesus hasn’t healed anybody, he hasn’t fed anybody, he hasn’t taught anybody, and he hasn’t raised anybody from the dead. Jesus hasn’t preached a single sermon, hugged a single child, or rebuked a single Pharisee. As far as we can tell, Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. But he is blessed by God.

This is my Son. He belongs to me. He is part of me.
I love him. I am committed to him. I cherish him.
I am proud of him. I’m happy with him. I approve of him.

Jesus is blessed by God before he can do anything to earn it or deserve it. God’s blessing is not predicated on Jesus’ performance or on Jesus’ abilities to live a good life or on Jesus’ works on behalf of the Kingdom. God blessed Jesus because he is his Son. God loves Jesus because he is his Son. He commits to Jesus and he publicly affirms Jesus because he is his Son.

“This is my Son, whom I love” is a quote from Psalm 2, which is about God’s messianic King who’s going to put down all rebellion in the world and destroy all evil. “With him I am well pleased” is from Isaiah 53, which is about God’s suffering servant, the one who will die for the sins of the people. God gives Jesus his great blessing, he declares his eternal love and his deep approval of Jesus before Jesus does any of this. God’s love for Jesus and Jesus’ identity as God’s precious child is not tied to what Jesus does or accomplishes. Jesus is first and foremost blessed by God.

And the devil attacks that blessing.

In the very next verse, the opening of Matthew 4, Jesus is dripping wet from his baptism and led by the Spirit into the desert for a face-to-face meeting with the devil. And the very first words out of the devil’s mouth are, “IF you are the Son of God…”

He says it in verse three and he repeats it in verse six: “IF you are the Son of God…”

IF you are really loved by God… IF you really belong to God… IF you are really who God says you are… IF God is really pleased with you…

This is how the devil operates. This is his strategy.

God has just assured Jesus that he is God’s beloved child. God has just promised Jesus that he loves him and that he accepts him. And the devil immediately and directly attacks Jesus at that very spot.

Turn these stones to bread! Let’s see if you REALLY belong to God!
Jump off this building! Let’s see if God REALLY loves you!

The devil is asking Jesus to make God prove he really loves him and he’s really pleased with him. But you don’t need to ask God for demonstrations or proof unless you doubt. And that is the devil’s main goal. He wants Jesus to doubt the certainty of God’s unconditional love. He wants Jesus to lose the assurance of God’s eternal blessing and his approval. He wants Jesus to question it.

Do you see how the devil works?

It’s brilliant. And evil.

Peace,

Allan

Preaching: Act of Faith

“God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” ~1 Corinthians 1:21-25

Preaching is an act of faith because on the surface it doesn’t make sense. What’s preached is foolishness. It takes faith.

Think about it. We take ordinary everyday water and we speak God’s Word. We tell the story of how God has used the water at creation, at the Red Sea, in the womb of a virgin, at the crossing of the Jordan, in the rescue of Noah’s family — and we get baptism, a sacrament for how God saves us.

We take ordinary table bread — just a loaf of bread — and we speak God’s Word. We tell the stories about God feeding his children in the wilderness and Jesus breaking bread with sinners and feeding multitudes on the mountain and God preparing a meal to share with all the saved on that day of glory — and we get the Lord’s Supper, a sacrament for how God takes care of us.

We’ve heard the Word of God preached so much it’s easy for us to forget the power, the wonder, the holiness of that moment when the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit, opens his Bible, clears his throat, takes a deep breath, and dares to speak for God. It’s not a cat video or an epic fail or an advertisement for another new and improved, faster-acting, better-smelling, lifetime-guaranteed product you’ve just gotta have. Preaching is the Word of God, proclaimed to the people of God, as an act of faith in God. It’s a miracle.

I believe it works like the sacraments. Not exactly, but kinda. You know, during the communion meal, the bread is still a plain cracker and the grape juice is still Welch’s grape juice. Or Great Value, I really don’t know. Even after the prayers, it remains crackers and juice. But by faith, God uses the meal to convey to us the reality of our unity and acceptance and fellowship with him and each other.

In the same way, I think that human words spoken by human, sinful, fallen preachers are still human words, even after all the prayer and study and meditation. But by faith, God uses the words to communicate the realities of his eternal love and grace for us. It’s divine speech. It’s an act of faith.

Preaching is not a lecture, it’s not a book report, it’s not somebody telling you what to do, and it’s not new information — after two-thousand years of preaching, what’s new? No, it’s an exercise in faith.

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my Word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” ~Isaiah 55:10-11

I’ve been preaching full time for almost thirteen years. When I first started, my sermons were not very good. My preaching was not great. Those poor people in Marble Falls and the mid-cities of northeast Tarrant County burned off years of purgatory listening to those sermons. Those folks are going to be escorted straight to heaven!

But, let me tell you, even today, the sermons are hardly ever as good as I want them to be. I’m almost always disappointed. Almost always. I take comfort in the words of Augustine. He’s one of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church. And he wrote this over 1,600 years ago:

“My own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words; and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”

I don’t think I’m committing homiletical homicide every week. I’m just not as good as I want to be at finding the right words and putting them in the right order to communicate the powerful things the Lord puts in my heart. It’s disappointing. But I believe with all my soul God is using every single word I say — the best ones and the ones I’d like to have back — to do exactly what he wants done.

I know what you want. You want inspiring sermons, sermons that soar, sermons that rise to the lofty heights of our God and his eternal love and his matchless grace; you want sermons that challenge and convict and compel you to action. I do, too. I really, really do. And sometimes it happens. Sometimes it works. The preaching sometimes gives you something you need to hear, it comforts you or encourages you at exactly the right moment, it opens your eyes to an everlasting truth that changes everything for you. We go to church wanting that, expecting that. And when it happens, we know it’s the Lord. That’s our God at work.

Our Father is in charge of our sermons, not our preachers. He alone inspires, he alone speaks, he alone puts his Word exactly where it needs to go, when it needs to go there, and he alone causes it to grow and bear Kingdom fruit to his eternal glory and praise.

I have no idea what’s happening in our preaching. And no control. I don’t know where the words are going, but they are going somewhere. I trust that. I know that. Our God will never allow his words to return to him empty. If I didn’t trust that God was in charge of the preaching, I wouldn’t do it. And you wouldn’t sit through it. Preaching is an act of faith for all of us.

Peace,

Allan

To Us a Son is Given

If you’re a baseball fan, you must read this piece in the current Texas Monthly on Houston’s World Series Championship written from John Nova Lomax’s perspective as a long-suffering, life-long fan of the Astros. He discusses the dread, the curse, and the cosmic forces that conspired against the ‘Stros for 55-years but then aligned perfectly this season to deliver the long-awaited title. Lomax covers all the excruciating history from the Killer B’s, the Astrodome, and dramatic playoff failures to the sale of the team, the last place finishes, and the humiliating move to the junior circuit: “The indignity of indignities — being frog-marched, kicking and screaming, to the American League!” This is a great read. It’s tough if you’re a Rangers fan. But it provides some hope for us, too.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
~Isaiah 9:2

The light comes from another place to heal us and save us. The great light from heaven allows us to see more clearly what God is doing in this world. The light gives us what we do not have: righteousness, holiness, and peace. The light does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. How can this light become ours? How do I get access to this salvation light?

“To us a child is born, to us a son is given.” ~Isaiah 9:6

It’s a gift. The righteousness, holiness, and peace is a gift. The forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life can only be yours as a gift. Isaiah talks about this in terms of a battle or a war. This is like a fight. The oppressor in verse four has to be defeated, the yoke must be broken, the bar has to be shattered. But…

“Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.” ~Isaiah 9:5

The great victory over evil does not require your strength. You don’t need to wear combat boots. You don’t need a spear or a sword. Melt them down! Burn them up! Someone else is winning the victory for you! To quote the apostle Paul: “Thanks be to God! He GIVES us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

This great salvation, this light from heaven that flashes with all its life and beauty and truth, comes to us as a gift. Again, Paul says “The GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!” The only way you can have it is to receive it as a free gift.

For a lot of people, that’s harder than it sounds. Receiving forgiveness and eternal salvation and everlasting life as a free gift — maybe that’s difficult. Some gifts are hard to receive. Some gifts require that you swallow your pride in order to receive them.

What if on Christmas morning you open up a present from your spouse and it’s a three volume set of books on dieting. Then you open up a gift from your daughter and it’s a three DVD set entitled “Overcoming Selfishness.” If you say, “Thank you so much for these gifts,” you’re admitting, “Yes, I’m fat and obnoxious.”

Some gifts are hard to receive because you have to admit you have flaws and weaknesses and you need help.

Maybe one time you were in a financial bind. You didn’t ask for any help, but a good friend of yours knew what was happening and gave you enough money to make a mortgage payment. He gave you enough to make a car payment or to buy Christmas presents for your kids. If that’s ever happened to you, you know that to receive a gift like that means you have to swallow your pride. You have to admit you need help.

The true heart of Christmas means that you are so lost, you are so broken, you are so unable to save yourself, that nothing less than the death of the Son of God can save you. That means you are not somebody who can pull yourself together and live a good enough life. You’re not capable. None of us is.

To accept the true gift of Christmas is to admit and even embrace that you are a sinner. You need to be saved. You need to give up control of your life and say “yes” to the Lordship of Jesus.

“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the GIFT of God!” ~Ephesians 2:8

Peace,

Allan

The Heart of Christmas

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” ~Isaiah 9:2

This is a very well-known Christmas text, a famous Christmas text that speaks to the coming of the Christ. And it describes the condition the Christ is coming into as darkness. People are walking in darkness. People are living in the land of darkness. We read this a lot at Christmas, but we don’t ever read the verses right before it. The end of the previous chapter actually tells us why the world is so plunged in darkness:

“When people tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God?… If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn… They will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” ~Isaiah 8:19-22

People are looking toward the earth for help. Men and women are looking toward themselves for wisdom and salvation.

Yes, we’re living in darkness; yes, things are really messed up; but we can fix it ourselves! There’s poverty and hunger, greed and lust; but if we’ll just all look out for each other and learn how to give more, we can change it! There’s broken lives, broken hearts, and broken relationships; there’s twisted bodies and warped minds and institutional vileness and moral evil all around us; but if we just vote for the right people, if we just pass the right laws, if we just use the right technology, if we just invest in the right companies, we can overcome it!

Listen, the message from the Hallmark holiday movies and the holiday music and the Coke commercials and emails and billboards is that we have it within us. The love and goodwill that exists in each of us is enough to create a world of unity and peace. In other words, we have the light inside us. And if we just work together, we can eradicate the darkness of the world. If we’ll all come together, we can overcome poverty and injustice, violence and evil. With what’s inside us, we can build a world of love and joy and peace.

Really? Can we?

We can’t save ourselves. Have you noticed?

We’ve been trying for centuries. We are completely unable to save ourselves. In fact, believing that we can save ourselves — that education or politics or hard work or some system or ideology  can save us — has only led to more darkness!

See, the Christmas message gives us a very realistic way of looking at life. At it’s core, Christmas is very unsentimental. It’s not mushy or fantasy. Christmas is not, “Cheer up! If we all pull together, we can make the world a better place!” Christmas is not optimistic thinking like, “We can fix the whole world if we try really hard.” And Christmas is not pessimistic doom, either, like, “Things are awful and they’re getting worse and nothing’s ever going to change.”

The heart of Christmas is this: Things really are terrible and we cannot heal or save ourselves. Things really are this dark. Everywhere. But, there is great hope.

On those living in deep darkness, a light has dawned.

It’s not, “A great light has sprung up from the world” or “The light has come from the people.” It’s ON the people, a light has dawned. ON the world, a light has come. The light has come from outside us. The hope has come to us from outside the world. Christ Jesus is that salvation light. That light is the Holy Son of God.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not conquered it… The true light that gives life to all people was coming into the world.” ~John 1:4-9

The true light was coming. The eternal light that gives life to all people has come. The one light that shines in the darkness and overcomes the darkness — the light from above, the light from outside us has come!

And we celebrate that light at Christmas. But that’s not really the right word. We stare at it dumbstruck. We’re lost in wonder at it. We fall down on our knees in awe of it. God himself comes to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ to provide for us what we simply do not possess, to do for us what we could never do ourselves. He brings to us from outside of us holiness and righteousness and peace.

Peace,

Allan

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