Advent 2020: Promise
A couple years ago a friend of mine who was a part of my ministry in Dallas before I became a pastor reached out via drunk text. He had moved on in life and had clearly stopped following Jesus and now was back to where he once was. He was antagonistic and satirical. He was over trying to pretend to fit into the Christian bubble and wanted me to know how silly my faith was. I appreciated the honesty, but wondered what happened that caused him to drift so far and so...angry. A couple years later after barrages of political texts back and forth I felt we were at a place where I could ask him, “what happened?” He had been poster child of what outreach should look like. He had gone from a life of despair to hope. He had been baptized. He had been involved in community groups. He did all the things that Christians are supposed to do.
This week I asked him point blank, why did you fall away? What prayer wasn’t answered? What circumstance caused you to give up on Jesus? After the jokes about how there is no God, and there was nothing to fall away from, he led me to the place where I think many of us go. It wasn’t a theological premise that he couldn’t hold. It wasn’t a prayer that wasn’t answered. It is why most people leave the church that haven’t experienced real inward heart change. He said he didn’t give up on the church, the church gave up on him. Of all the people that he had known in that season of his life, I was the only one that was still in contact with him, and that because I just answered his barrage of angry texts where most others just ignored them. The problem for my friend and perhaps the problem for many of us, is that our hope is tethered to people and not to Christ.
What I want my friend to realize is that God’s promises are faithful. Everyone of them we can trust. But if we are honest, a lot of us may simply virtue signal our Christian faith and don’t put our trust in God’s promises because we haven’t seen God’s promises fulfilled in our life. We haven’t seen the “I will never leave you nor forsake you” thing pan out. We prayed for something and felt like God promised us something on earth and didn’t happen. Or maybe we are confused or ignorant of what God’s promises actually are. We have let our time with the Lord move from something that was exciting to more drudgery. Or perhaps we have felt less than because we have not lived up to what we felt our end of the deal was with God. In a sense, we say, “God you saved me when I didn’t deserve it, but I have not held up my end of the deal and I don’t deserve to be in your presence, so I will remove myself from being your burden.”
In Luke 1, after Mary headed back to Nazareth to face her husband and to face that she was found to be with child (Matthew 1:18). Elizabeth has the baby and there is some confusion over what the name would be. Elizabeth said the name should be John. The problem with this is that usually when someone was named something, there was some level of family influence and keeping names of family members felt like their legacy lived on. But that didn’t happen. She named him John. Clearly she was on her own agenda and then motioned to the muted Zechariah what his name should be. Zechariah wrote the name John and immediately his faith was rewarded by speech.
Zechariah broke out into prophecy. He blessed God for his active work in saving God’s people. But what was interesting is that God first got Zechariah’s attention by leaving his prayer unanswered for 50 years or so. Think about that. Zechariah had every reason to give up on God. He had been taught to pray. He had prayed with other people and seen their prayers answered. But his prayer...his prayer lay dormant. I wonder how many others have lost hope in God’s salvation and God’s plan because they never saw God work in their own lives. And perhaps they had prayers answered, but they forgot they prayed, they forgot God heard, and they gave up.
But also look at this. Zechariah isn’t prophesying initially about his own son. He isn’t prophesying about his own kid. His focus is on God. And perhaps that’s what God was always after: his heart. I think there is a risk in all of us that if God gives us what we want in the wrong timing we may focus on the gift and not the giver. But Zechariah who has received the very thing he prayed so long for, is now focused not on his gift of a son, but on the giver and what he is wanting to do to save the world.
This can happen in my world as pastor. I can get so focused on doing ministry. Exercising the gifts God gave me to preach, to counsel, to lead others, and then do well at that. And then not do the thing that gave me that opportunity, namely, spending time with God, praying, reading His Word and doing the spiritual disciplines which developed in me a passion for God’s Word, His church, and the world. You don’t have to be a pastor to have this happen. You pray for the job. You get the job. You stop praying. You pray for the relationship. You get into the relationship. You disengage from church or any activity that has anything to do with church, until you break up or get married...and usually when the marriage is struggling.
But when we see our prayer answered in light of what God is doing in eternity it feels more powerful. The gift draws you closer to God and you understand that it is not just about the gift, but the giver. You see this when Jesus fills Peter’s boat with fish. He has the power of all business. He could be a gazillionaire and corner the fishing market. But God isn’t in this for fish. You see this when Jesus turned water into wine. That family was about to lose its reputation. Yet Jesus comes in and saves the day. Jesus could have started a wedding venue and made sure every wedding was a success. But God wasn’t in this for weddings. Jesus took a couple loaves of bread and a few fish and fed thousands. Jesus could have ended world hunger. But Jesus didn’t come to end physical hunger. He came to satisfy the soul. The problem with unending fish, wine, or food is that it may solve a temporary problem, but it leaves us facing our ultimate end...death. When you realize that Jesus solves that problem, it makes all our problems seem trivial in comparison.
Zechariah was able to see clearly all that God was doing because hidden in the recesses of an old priest’s heart were the promises of God’s Word. Over the centuries God had laid out a plan through various prophets at different times. But it’s funny how what you were trained with, comes out of your mouth when stress or struggle arrive. Oddly my dad had a saying that he said on repeat and verbatim. “I’d rather be lucky than good.” It was always said in a joking manner, but a joke said enough times becomes doctrine. And I think for my sweet dad, he started to believe that business, relationships, and most of life was about just being at the right place at the right time. Obviously that isn’t a Biblical principle and he paid for that by him being unlucky. And his skill and great talent didn’t go to its best use as he lived by a motto that probably started as a joke. On the flip side, my mom has a saying that she put on repeat in my life. “Always have reserves.” And as you would expect, I have a pretty stout savings plan. When the refrigerator went out, when the AC went out in the summer, our family wasn’t done for, because I kept my mom’s word close to my heart and it stuck.
Now watch, when we keep God’s promises close to our heart, the same thing is true. But we have to keep reading his promises. We have to keep working on his promises. We have to keep believing and teaching His promises.
Kevin Reese went into surgery this week for a kidney transplant. The day before he went in he asked me to pray with him. He wanted to make sure that Jesus would be with him when he went into that operating room. I said, good news, Kevin. Jesus promised “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Deut 31:6-8, hebrews 13:5)
2) I will protect you ( Deut 20:4 , Psalm 34:6)
3) I will be your strength (Is 40:31, 1 cor 10:13 )
4) I will provide for you (Matt 6:33, Philippians 4:19)
5) I will give you peace ( Philippians 4:6-7, John 16:33)
6) I will always love you (John 17:23, John 3:16)
7) I will finish the work I started in you. (Philippians 1:6, 2 corinthians 5:17)
Although the story involved us. The story involved Zaccheus. The story of Christian faith is all about Christ and what he came to do. Jesus was willing to come. He left heaven’s throne to come. He left Heaven’s throne to take on the issue of sin plaguing humanity. He came to receive the hell he had been dishing out. He’s not a God who can dish pain, but not take it. He took it all. And that is why we have hope. God wins. The darkness loses. His promises more importantly are about God and who we are placing our trust. One’s word is only as good as the person can be at fulfilling it. Look at God’s promises to us about Himself.
- I am unchanging. (Malachi 3.6, Hebrews 13:8)
- I am all powerful. (Hebrews 1:3, Luke 1:37)
- I am all knowing. (I John 3:20, Proverbs 15:3, Jeremiah 23:24)
- I am all loving. (I John 4:7-8, 19, Romans 5:8)
- I am all good. (Nahum 1:7, Psalm 145:9)
- I am in control. (Matthew 10:29-31, Colossians 1:16-17)
- I am patient. (II Peter 3:4, Psalm 103:8)
He can make a baby come from an old woman. He can bring fish and food from nothing. He can turn water into wine. He can meet any physical need. But he doesn’t always do that, because he wants us to trust Him beyond this physical life. So when we realize how powerful and good God is, it helps us to loosen our grip on the steering wheel and let God lead our lives, knowing that when we do what He is calling us to do, we are making the best decisions in spite of what circumstances may dictate.
And that is what God is doing now. After Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to live in us. That means that He is forever partnered with us. Paul wrote to Timothy a trustworthy statement, that even when we are faithless, he is faithful, because he cannot disown himself. We are forever linked to God’s promise to Himself and His promise to us. We are going to be a part of God’s redemptive plan to bring light to the darkness. To lean into the darkness and push it back. That is our hope.
So as advent turns to Christmas and the frustrations mount of dealing with DNA linked people, put your hope not in Christmas turning out right for once, but put it in Christ. He is our hope. He has given us his Word and His promise is always good. And for those of us who at one point enjoyed the blessing of God, but disappointments turned your heart cold, turn your heart anew for what God is wanting to do through you.