Sunday, 21 May 2017

Looking to the Lord (Psalm 34:5)

It is the case in the Bible that whenever God’s people found themselves in a situation of difficulty the answer was usually connected to Jesus. This is true in both the Old and New Testaments. Obviously in the Old Testament he appeared in ways that were different from how he appeared when he became a man and lived on earth. But that should not be too surprising for us because we know, as Christians, that Jesus looks different today than he did when he was on earth because today he is glorified.

For individuals
I will mentions first two occasions in the Old Testament when a sight of the Son of God brought real help to people. The first is the well-known incident recorded in Isaiah 6. Isaiah was probably disturbed that the king had died. What he needed was a vision of a greater King and he tells us in that chapter that he saw the Lord of hosts. When we turn to John 12:41 we discover that the divine person Isaiah saw was Jesus before he became a man. Because Isaiah had this encounter with the Son of God, he was able to continue in his difficult situation.

The second occasion was very different from that of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prince and he had his encounter in the magnificent temple erected by Solomon. Hagar was a runaway slave and she met her Comforter in the desert. The story is told in Genesis. She had run away from the camp of Abraham because she was being cruelly treated. There the angel of the Lord found her by a well and spoke kindly to her. When we put together all the mentions of this angel we find that his name is actually a reference to a divine person, the second person of the Trinity. Hagar realised that he was divine because she called him the God who sees her. Because she had this encounter with the Son of God, she was able to continue in her difficult situation.

When we turn to the New Testament it is the same story. Here are a couple of examples. The apostle Paul had what he calls a thorn in the flesh. We don’t really know what the thorn was – some say it was a physical illness, others say that it was a difficult, hostile person. Whatever it was, he took the thorn to Jesus and asked him to remove it. The reply he received from Jesus was that the thorn would remain, but that he would be given grace to cope with it. Jesus said to him, ‘My grace is made complete in your weakness.’ Because of his encounter with the Son of God, Paul was able to continue in his difficult situation.

We can go to the last book of the Bible and its human author. John was the last of the apostles and an old man, probably in his nineties. After years of serving Jesus, he found himself affected by a fierce outbreak of persecution that led to him being exiled to the island of Patmos. There Jesus came and revealed his glory to his servant. We have a description of Jesus in Revelation 1 and it portrays one who is marked by glory and power. When John sees him, he crumples. The response of Jesus reveals that his glory is gentle glory because he bends down and touches his friend and says to him, ‘Fear not.’ Jesus had a role for John even though he was exiled and that was to provide the Book of Revelation for his people. Because of this encounter with the Son of God, John was able to continue in his difficult situation. 

For the world
We all know that Jesus is the answer for the world today. Yet we have to remember that he has always been the answer. If we go back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve had sinned, things looked very bleak. Had God’s plan for having a family composed of his creatures failed? Although that seemed to be the case, God appeared there with an amazing announcement that one would yet come and destroy the havoc caused by the devil when he led Adam and Eve into sin. When that One would come, he would win an incredible victory on behalf of the human race. The victory would involve him being scarred, but yet he would triumph, which is a prediction of what took place on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was the answer for the world even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.

We move on in the biblical account and we come to a man in a pagan city called Ur. Suddenly, God appears to him and tells him to move to an unknown country. He is an old man, nevertheless the divine visit was so powerful that he obeyed and went. Later on, Abraham had repeated visits from God as described in the Book of Genesis. In one of those visits, God informed Abraham that he would have a son and from that family line One would be born that would be a blessing to all the nations. The promised person was Jesus. Jesus tells us that Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Jesus because it would be a day of worldwide blessing. Yet when he was given the promise, there was not much evidence, if any, that this would happen. Jesus was the answer for the world in Abraham’s time even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.

We can move on to the time of the prophet Isaiah, whom we have already mentioned because of his personal encounter with God. Isaiah lived before the captivity in Babylon. As we can imagine, that captivity was a time of national crisis because it looked as if God had so punished his people that they had no future. Yet Isaiah was given by God wonderful messages about Jesus being the answer for the situation regarding Israel and regarding the whole world. We are familiar with the incredible descriptions of the suffering of Jesus in Isaiah 53. Often, we turn to that chapter when we have the Lord’s Supper. Yet the chapter is not only about the sufferings of Jesus. It is also a prophecy of worldwide blessing. Indeed, that is the focus with which the prophetic message at the close of Isaiah 52 begins. Isaiah lived in a difficult time, yet he was told that Jesus was the answer for the world even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.

For the church
Jesus is the Answer we know, most of the New Testament letters were written to churches facing difficulties. Some of the problems were the consequences of persecution, as we can see in 1 Peter. Others were affected by wrong teachings about Jesus, as we can see in Paul’s short letter to the Colossians. And others, such as in 1 Corinthians, were written to churches facing lots of internal problems. What was the answer that was given by the biblical writers? The answer was to focus on Jesus.

We can consider what Paul said to the church in Corinth. We know that it had a range of problems. Yet we find him saying at the end of chapter 15 these words: ‘Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.’ He tells them that they are a family of beloved brothers, a reminder that they belong to one another. He tells them that they should work hard for the Lord, and that they can do so even although they had had faced difficulties. And he tells them that what they do for Jesus is not done in vain. In their difficult situation, serving Jesus together was the answer.

In contrast to the urban city-church in Corinth, Colosse was a village church. What was Paul’s advice to the church in Colosse? Read Colossians 3:1: ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’ Paul encourages the Colossians to go to Jesus and obtain spiritual blessings from him. Even although things had not been what they should have been in Colosse, Jesus was still the gracious Saviour who would provide for their spiritual needs. This was a tremendous encouragement to the believers there. Jesus would forgive them and continue to help them. In their difficult situation, serving Jesus together was the answer.

The last church we can consider is one whose location we do not know, although we know what race they were. An unknown author wrote a letter to Christian Jews who were struggling in their faith. They were facing strong opposition from the civil authorities and also from their own countrymen for abandoning the Jewish faith. What encouragement did the author have for his readers? He mentions a variety of features that belonged to the religious practices of the Jews and point out that with regard to each of them Jesus is far better. Jesus has given to his people a better sacrifice, a better homeland, a better hope. He reminds them that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. In their difficult situation of persecution and bewilderment at times, serving Jesus together was the answer.

Ourselves today
Here we are today living in our circumstances. We have seen in our meditation that Jesus is the answer to individuals and their problems, to the world and its spiritual problems, and to churches with its problems. Jesus is the answer to every Christian congregation today, although they all face different circumstances. As we close, I would mention briefly three unchangeable realities.

First, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus. Listen to Paul’s words at the end of Romans 8: ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Second, the promises of God remain sure. Listen to what Paul said to the church in Corinth: ‘For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]’ (1 Cor. 1:8). Whatever else that means, it means that we can ask God to keep his great and precious promises, promises that Peter says have been given to us (1 Pet. 1:12).

Third, while the past and present are important, we are to look ahead to the day of glory. The end day is the important day and we are to live for that day. We are even to anticipate what Peter says about it, which is that grace will be given to us on that day (1 Pet. 1:13). We look ahead to it and see all of God’s people glorified and perfect. That is what is going to happen to them together. Whenever we interact with them now, we do so with the knowledge that one day they and us will all be like Jesus. On that day, we will discover in a wonderful way that Jesus is the answer.

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