Monday, November 18, 2013

Sermon: Faith in Fearful Times - Isaiah 65 & Luke 21

Faith in Fearful Times
Isaiah 65:24   Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.

One of the most remarkable and largely unreported events which took place a couple of days before the terrible typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, was in the ordering of US and British warships into the region. Before a home had been destroyed or a person killed, both the US and British Navies changed courses of their Pacific fleets and headed towards the soon-to-be devastated regions. It took almost a week to get there, but precious lives are now being saved simply because our leaders in both the US and Britain gave commands to re-direct aircraft carriers and warships on an international rescue mission. Before calls from the Philippine government and people were given, their plight was already known and what they needed was already put into motion. Instead of going to war, our navies and marines were going to help. Instead of using our vessels and service people for defense, our navy personnel are now actively involved in one the world’s greatest rescue missions. It’s a wonderful sight to behold and I wish that we would stop warring against one another, so that all of these splendid resources could be used for winning human lives.

Holding on to hope and having faith in fearful times is what this international rescue mission can accomplish. Today’s passages from scripture are about those important things too. In the first passage from Isaiah, the old prophet is giving his people words of encouragement and inspiration. They have suffered for a whole generation. They have lost everything and become slaves of the most powerful nation on the planet at that time. Their hopes and dreams have all been destroyed, especially after the Holy Temple was smashed to pieces and turned into rubble. Their faith is tenuous and their grasp of God is very weak. All around them, they see gigantic statues and murals of the Babylonian deities, so they are at a point where they are questioning God’s own power to save them.

Isaiah gives them reassuring words of hope: before they call on God, He is already answering them; as they are complaining, venting, crying, and speaking, He is listening to them.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, full of my own hopes and dreams, my family were devastated by my mother’s insanity. I don’t know how my brothers, sisters and I ever survived the horror of those fearful days, and we still carry some emotional scars forty years later. Things got so bad one night, that I just fell apart and sank to my knees weeping and crying out, “God, why don’t You help us? How long must this go on? Why aren’t You doing something to fix this?” It was a cry of desperation and fear; it was a moment of helplessness and hopelessness that brought me to my knees.

And here I am, a preacher for God, ministering to people who have their own stories of hurts and disappointments, struggles and suffering. I didn’t realize it then, but I think I understand it now: even before I called out and wept, God was already answering me; just as I cried aloud with hot tears scalding my cheeks, God was already listening.

Luke 21:8 He replied: "Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and, 'The time is near.' Do not follow them.

In the New Testament passage, we come across Jesus and His disciples walking outside of Herod’s Temple. The building is about forty years old, so it is relatively new to the city of Jerusalem. To these good ol’ boys from Galilee, it must have been the greatest wonder in their world. They are so impressed with the building that they point out many things about it and express their delight to Jesus.

But Jesus has other things on His mind because He will be arrested, put on trial, and executed within a couple of days. Rather dismissively, He effectively replies to the disciples: “You see all of those beautiful stones and immense walls, decorative edifices and great architecture? Not one of them will be left standing. All of it will be destroyed and become rubble.”

Wow! Talk about a party pooper! The disciples thought that Jesus would have been the last person to condemn the holy place where God dwelt. They cannot fully comprehend what He saying to them. How could this relatively new and magnificent building be destroyed? And more to the point, when would all of this occur?

Jesus then reveals that there will come a time of deception when false messiahs will appear and God’s people will be led astray. Even some of His own disciples will be deceived, especially if they do not give heed to His words and ways. False prophets and preachers will claim to do things and say things in Christ’s Name, but they will be totally deceiving the people in fearful times. When the Second Temple is destroyed, the people will panic and their faith will fail, just like it did in the prophet Isaiah’s time, seven hundred years earlier when the Solomon’s Temple was destroyed.

The disciples truly did not understand this at the time, but the first readers of Luke’s Gospel were perfectly aware of what Jesus was saying. You see, at the time that Luke’s Gospel was first published and spread across the Mediterranean, Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans and was reduced to rubble. Christ’s words of warning which were first spoken to His disciples took on a new meaning to the first and second generation Christians. They understood that they were living in those fearful times and that they had to remain loyal to Christ in order to survive. False prophets, teachers, and messiahs arose in their communities just before and after the temple was destroyed. Luke’s Gospel was written in order to help those young Christian communities survive by remaining true to Christ’s teaching and living their lives according to His words.

Luke 21:11     There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

But all of those events occurred centuries ago, so what have they got to do with us as Christians living in a 21st century world? Well think about it, since the turn of the century, we have had many disasters and fearful events across the entire globe.

In 2001, we suffered the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City and elsewhere.
We went to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq and are still in the region.

Hurricane Katrina wiped out many homes and places all along the Gulf Coast.

The Stock Market crashed in 2007/2008.

Major Earthquakes occurred in Mexico, Chile, China, and Iran.

Tornadoes and hail storms wreaked havoc across the United States.

Bush fires on the West coast and across Australia destroyed many homes.

Just over a year ago, Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey and smashed up most of the East coast.

And now Typhoon Haiyan hits the Philippines with thousands killed and millions displaced across South East Asia.

The point that I am making is this: life on this planet is perilous and we are always living in fearful times. The remarkable fact about humanity is this: no matter how hard we fall, we always seem to get back on our feet and start again. Natural disasters and catastrophic events have been happening on this planet since the day it was created. Our ability to survive these events is a wonderful thing to experience and see.

When Jesus was giving His warnings to the disciples, He wasn’t only speaking to them; He was talking to all future generations of Christians, including our own. Life’s traumatic events can cause all of us to doubt and be deceived, to stumble in our faith, and to fall into fear. In the worst moments of our lives, Jesus is asking us to hold on because He is holding on to us. Just like Isaiah said, “Before we call, Jesus is already answering us; when we pray, He is already listening.”

There’s an old song that one of Evelyn and I’s dearest of friends used to beautifully sing straight from her heart in Scotland and its words are still wonderfully effective today:

I don't know about tomorrow; 
I just live from day to day.
I don't borrow from its sunshine
For its skies may turn to grey.
I don't worry o'er the future,
For I know what Jesus said.
And today I'll walk beside Him,
For He knows what is ahead.

Every step is getting brighter 
As the golden stairs I climb;
Every burden's getting lighter,
Every cloud is silver-lined.
There the sun is always shining,
There no tear will dim the eye;
At the ending of the rainbow
Where the mountains touch the sky.

I don't know about tomorrow; 
It may bring me poverty.
But the one who feeds the sparrow,
Is the one who stands by me.
And the path that is my portion
May be through the flame or flood;
But His presence goes before me
And I'm covered with His blood.

Many things about tomorrow 
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.

Prayer. Amen.

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