Help is on the Way

As a preacher of the Gospel, I am a speaker.  But I find myself becoming a listener as much as a speaker.  As a matter of fact, I find myself doing more and more listening, listening to the heartbreaking situations in which many people exist.  I use the word “exist” because “live” seems to be an exaggeration.  The two emotions that most of these people express are “hopelessness” and “helplessness.” Their situation seems hopeless and they are helpless to do anything about it.   I’ve been there myself, haven’t you?

But as always, the Bible has something to say about this.  The truth is, when we consider God in the equation of our existence, nothing is either “hopeless” or “helpless.”  There is HOPE because there is HELP.

Listen to these words in Isaiah 64:4,5:  “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who ACTS ON BEHALF OF THOSE WAIT FOR HIM.  YOU COME TO THE HELP OF THOSE WHO GLADLY DO RIGHT, WHO REMEMBER YOUR WAYS.  (New International Version).

If you go back and read verses 1-4, you will find that this is a prayer for divine intervention.  The things for which Isaiah prays are things that only God can do.  This is often God’s strategy  — to allow things to get so bad we realize only God can help.

I. God Works on Our Behalf.  “ He works for those who wait for Him.”

Isaiah is overwhelmed by this—who has ever seen a God like You? he asks.  This is one of the distinctive and unique qualities of our God: He works for us.

The characteristic of pagan Gods is that we work for them.  This is how to tell a false God from the true God.  This is what Luther discovered as he was climbing the steps of the tower of the church on his knees, trying to win forgiveness of his sins.  In the 46th chapter, Isaiah describes these false god:  “Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low (Bel and Nebo were the gods of Babylon);  their idols are borne by beasts of burden.  The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary.  They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves   go off into captivity.” The scene is of an army invading Babylon.  The first thing you must do is SAVE YOUR GODS.  They can’t do for themselves, so others must work for them.  But they are too heavy for the beasts that bare them, and they themselves are captured and carried off into captivity.

Now listen to the prophets sharp contrast beginning in verse 3:  “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, YOU WHOM I HAVE UPHELD SINCE YOU WERE CONCEIVED, AND HAVE CARRIED SINCE YOUR BIRTH.

“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you.  I HAVE MADE YOU AND I WILL CARRY YOU; I WILL SUSTAIN YOU AND I WILL RESCUE YOU.”

Then Isaiah throws a fatal punch at the false gods:  “They lift it to their shoulders and carry it;  they set it up in its place, and there it stands.  From that spot it cannot move.  Though one cries out to it, it does not answer; IT CANNOT SAVE HIM FROM HIS TROUBLES” (verse 7).

A false God is one YOU have to carry; the true God carries you.

II. God Works For Those Who Wait On Him.

Waiting is an act of worship.    It is the attitude of stillness in the presence of God. It is recognizing our inability and a determination to do nothing  till we hear from Him.

Waiting on God means that we adjust our lives to Him; our time schedule to Him.  We set our hope on Him and look to Him rather than to our own efforts or ingenuity.

When a situation gets desperate what is needed is not more effort on our part, but a deepening of our communion with Him, a more intense concentration of worship and fellowship.

III. God Works for Those Who Work Righteousness and Remember His Ways.

God acts on behalf of those who “gladly do right,” those whose heart’s delight is to obey Him and constantly call to remembrance all the wonderful things He has done for them in the past.

Remembering what God has done in the past will encourage us to believe He will not abandon us in the future.  Remembering His goodness impels us to gladly obey His will.  This is the kind of person on whose behalf God works.

In the Darkness, His Presence

An article written after Ron’s dad died:

This week I am preaching in a small town in western Oklahoma. The young pastor is a good friend, his people are good listeners, and the church is beautiful.

But the landscape which seems bleak and windblown is depressingly desolate to me and punctuates my loneliness. I don’t want to be here.
I want to be back in Arkansas, in Room 558 of the hospital where Dad is dying of cancer. My wife is there, my brother is there, the entire family is there–except me.

Grief has a way of isolating a person. Joseph Conrad said that we suffer just as we dream–alone. We become the sole inhabitant of the earth. I am no stranger to this exile of mourning. I felt it when Mom died, and I felt it especially when my wife and I lost our older son. And I am feeling it now, that familiar and unwelcome intruder that makes me the loneliest person in the world.

We are having noon services this week, meeting in the fellowship hall. I am speaking on prayer. This morning, before the luncheon began, I was suddenly overcome with grief. I escaped to the sanctuary. It looked dark and empty, the blackness relieved only by the dim, red glow of the exit sign. I felt my way to a pew and sat down. Resting my head on the back of the pew in front of me, I let the tears flow. I prayed without words.

After a few moments I sat up and opened my eyes. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I discovered that I was not alone in the sanctuary. In the room were three or four others, praying in the darkness. The darkness had deceived me. I was not alone.

And then he was there. The presence, his presence, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, God’s Gift to every believer. Of course, he had been there all the time. But I had let the darkness convince me that I was alone.

The Spirit reminded me of the words of Jesus: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever;…I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Another Helper, just like Jesus; that is the promise. Another Helper to do for us all that Jesus would do if he were physically present. And better! Because if Jesus were still present in the flesh, present with me in this darkened sanctuary, he could not be with you right now in your darkness.

“What though his holy footsteps/Linger no longer here?/ Still through his Spirit’s presence,/ Jesus is ever near./ What though your heart be lonely,/ What though your friends be few,/ He will not leave you orphans,/ Jesus will come to you.”

Out of the Depths

“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.”
Psalm 130:1

The Spanish philosopher, Miguel Unamuno, once said:  If we ever got honest enough to go out into the streets and uncover our common grief, we would discover that we are all grieving for the self-same thing.”  His words call to mind the words of Paul in 1Corinthians 10:13: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is COMMON to man…” The word “common” means “not unprecedented.”  However peculiar we may think our trials are to us, they are just common.  There is one thing we all have in common, and that is trials—and they are all common.  Just as Peter said in I Peter 4:12: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which to try to, as though some strange (foreign) thing happened unto you.”

All of us can identify with the words of the Psalmist—“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.”  We are all familiar with the depths.  The Hebrew word here for “depths” is used of a man caught in deep and dangerous water.  The Psalmist doesn’t identify what his specific problem was—he simply used the nonspecific “depths.”  If he had identified the “depths” we would have limited the words of Psalm 130 to that particular problem.  But as it is, the word, “depths,” is like the socks I’m wearing—one size fits all.

And so, whatever our particular “depths” may be, the Psalmist tells us what to do when we are going down for the third time.

I. Cry Out To The Lord.  The Psalmist says literally, “I have cried and still cry…”  Evidently his situation was still going on when he wrote these words.  This puts an immediacy, a “right now”, to his words.  The author is not writing history here, nor is he just postulating a theology theory.  This is something that is going on right now in his life.  He is writing out of the “right now” experience.

Very often these “depths”in which we find ourselves have been wrought by the providential hand of God to teach us to know ourselves before the Lord and learn of His grace and forgiveness.  Donald Grey Barnhouse once said, “Sometimes we think we have fallen out of grace, only to find that we have fallen INTO grace.”  And Alexander McLaren said, “If out of the depths we cry, we will cry ourselves out of the depths.”

1.   In crying to the Lord, we take our mind off the depths and put it on the Rock that is higher than I.

2.   In crying out of the depths, we discover what kind of God we’re dealing with—Verses 3 and 4.

II. Wait For the Lord, verse 5& 6.   “I wait for the Lord to act,” is the idea here.  In verse 6, he says that those who wait for the Lord are like those who wait for the morning.  Now there are two important things to remember about waiting for the sunrise.

1.   You can’t rush it.  Often we want to.   But setting our watches ahead doesn’t fool the sun.  It’s going to rise when it’s going rise.  And so the same with the Lord.  You cannot rush Him.  With God, timing is more important than time, and God’s timing is always perfect.

2.   The sun DOES rise.  Those who waiting for the morning, do not wait in vain, because the morning always comes.  And  those who wait for the Lord, do not wait in vain.  He will come, He will act, He will deliver.  Time spent waiting for the Lord is never time wasted.

III. Hope in the Lord.  Verse 7: “Let Israel hope in the Lord.”  As you know, the biblical idea of “hope,” is not “hope so.”   It is confidence and trust that God will keep His Word.  And we really can’t wait for the Lord if we don’t have confidence in Him.  To the Psalmist, this confidence is based on two things:

1.   God’s Goodness.  In verse 7, we read “…for with the Lord there is mercy (steadfast love).”
2.   God’s Greatness.  “And with Him is plenteous redemption.”  The New English Bible, reads:  “Great is His power to set men free.” As sure as the morning comes, God and God alone, will redeem His people.

Do you fill as if you’re drowning in trouble, going down for the third time?  Try the Psalmist’s suggestions.  What do you have to lose?

One More Year

I’ve been ill since April — deep, persistent pains in the chest and extreme difficulty in breathing and a tenacious weariness. They thought at first it was my heart but after a zillion tests concluded that it was not. I ended up in the hospital three or four more times, leaving each time with conflicting diagnoses.  Then a month ago while in a meeting in Albany, Georgia, I once again found myself in the hospital. But this time I had a determined set of doctors who pledged to find out what was wrong.

I stayed there for four weeks. After numerous tests, they said I either had cancer or pneumonia.  I opted for pneumonia.  And pneumonia it was. But it won’t go away, so I’m still going to the doctor and taking tests.

Two things about this deal disturbed me. One, I had to cancel a number of meetings; two, the “c” word. Cancer. They said that my cat-scans were so bad that if I had had bacterial pneumonia or TB I would already be dead. Well, already being dead would not be so bad, but facing death of cancer was another matter. The chilling thought that I might die in the near future (chilling, not because of the destination, but of the process) reminded me forcefully of the uncertainty of our existence. I thought about all the things I still wanted to accomplish — had I made “full proof”, as Paul calls it, of my ministry?

Then I recalled a passage in Luke 13, where God is disgusted with a fig tree and gives it “one more year” to bear fruit, then He will cut it down.     “And He began telling this parable: ‘ A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any.    “And he said to the vineyard keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down!  Why does it even use up the ground?’      “And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer;      “And if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not cut it down.'” (Luke 13:6-9).

I thought about how many years I have put off some of the things I felt God wanted me to do — after all, I am a very busy guy. And the idea began to nag me — what if I have only one more year?

I’m afraid many of us are like that fruitless fig tree — we’re just taking up space and have no idea that God is about to cut us down.   The fans of the Baylor University football team have, through years of defeat, developed a motto: “Wait til next year!” How many of us have said the same thing: “wait till next year.”  But we may have only one more year to do what God expects from us.

1. Notice the Prerogative of God: He demands fruit from His trees.  That is His right because (1) we are His, (2) He created us to bear fruit, (3) that’s all a fig tree is good for. If it doesn’t bare fruit, it is worthless and is only taking up valuable space.
2. Note the Patience of God: Three years He has been expecting fruit, always disappointed, but gives it one last chance to produce.
3. Note the Promise of God: If it bears fruit, fine, but if not, He will cut it down. I don’t know what this means, but I don’t like the sound of it.

Right now I believe I have many more years left, but I’m going to live as if He has said, “One more year.”

The God Who is Present

“Where can I go from Your Spirit. Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol,behold, You are there (Psalm 139:7,8).”

During the months (coming up on five), I have been ill, about the only thing constructive, apart from praying, I’ve been able to do is, read. I found a new joy in reading and studying the Bible, as well as other things. One of the books that has been a special blessing is St Augustine’s CONFESSIONS. Augustine, born in North Africa in 354 AD,is considered by most scholars to be the greatest theologian since the apostle Paul. He was the Bishop of Hippo from 396 till his death in 430.

What is distinctive about THE CONFESSIONS is that he records his efforts to explain to himself the significance of his conversion to Christ, and to do so in terms that would persuade others this was the one true faith.  It is his fierce self-analysis and emotional intensity that has given  this work its lasting appeal.

In Part 4 of Book One, these words captured my attention:  “You are the most hidden from us and yet the most present amongst us.”  Present yet Hidden:  What an apt description of our God.  At least it was in my present situation. I knew that God was present, because they Bible said so and my own experience echoed it. When my trouble started and they were talking about cancer, God gave my wife, Kaye, a promise from Psalm 91:14-16:     “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.    He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.    WITH LONG LIFE WILL I SATISFY HIM and show him my salvation.”

We both accepted this as a promise from God. I have to admit, though, one night when I was at my worst and weakest, I faltered. My brother was
going to stay with me that night so Kaye could get a good night’s rest (I had been in the hospital three weeks; our daughter was in ICU in another hospital across town following a car wreck that might possibly mean the loss of her foot.  So Kaye was going between two hospitals and was exhausted), but I knew I was going to die during the night and I asked her to stay with me or I would never see her face again. She agreed and came to my bed and whispered God’s promise to us again.  I nodded my head halfheartedly. But within an hour the peace of God had so moved upon my heart, that I knew I would not die. He was present but hidden.

For an evangelist to cancel five months of meetings with no other income was a scary thing. But God gave us assurance that He would meet every need.  We could not begin to see how He would do this. But once again, while He was hidden, He was present, and to this day continues to meet every need through ravens sent by many means that I would have believed impossible before.

When they moved me to a new floor after three weeks, I was so weak I could hardly lift my head.  I no longer doubted that I would live, but would that life be as an invalid? Would I ever be what I had been before? Of course, when you have visitors (in spite of the No Visitors sign) who walk in and the first words they say are, “My husband died in this room,” it really helps the old spirit. I had two main nurses, both from India, and whom I assumed were Hindu. But my first day there they let me know without a doubt that they were Christians. The care they gave me was above and beyond their call. When I would mention this, they would smile and say, “It is an honor for us to serve a Man of God.”   Hidden but present. I had one of the books I had written with me and when they saw it, they asked for a copy. I don’t know how many copies I finally gave away, but it was a great blessing for other workers on the floor who came asking for a book.  God was present.

When I was sent home after six weeks, I was still so weak, I fell trying to walk up one step. I admit there were times when I despaired of ever walking on my own again.  It been three months since I’d had a haircut, so Kaye called someone who would come to the house.  We didn’t know her at all, but as she cut my hair, she began to tell of her conversion experience, and before she left, she asked if she could pray for us. God was present.

What I want to say is there are many times and situations in which it looks as though God has abandoned us, or at least, misplaced us. We have probably all felt this way. But even though God may be visibly hidden from us, we must remember that He is always present.