February 4, 2018
When Julie and I moved to town 3½ years ago now, I had to eliminate a lot of stuff I'd accumulated living on the farm. We threw away a lot of useless junk I thought I might need “someday”. And I gave away a lot of tools to the boys, and one thing I gave away was my mounted grinder. That turns out to have been significant because my tools were no longer getting sharpened; my hoe, my hatchet, but especially my ax. Oh, I still used it to cut out shrubs and such...but as time passed, it seemed that either I was getting a lot weaker or the ax was getting a lot duller. One Saturday last fall, I took a bunch of tools over to Barb's and used Roger's grinder to sharpen them. Went home and cut out the stump of a bush. Turns out I wasn't getting weaker, my ax was definitely too dull. Sharpening changed the job immensely.
Now if you have read my article in this month's newsletter, you probably recognize where I am going. If our axes grow dull, we chop less wood. If our spiritual lives grow dull, we drift away from God. How do we keep our spiritual life sharp? By being intentional about spending time with God; being with God in prayer and in study.
Our desire, our goal in life should be to know God better so that our relationship with him in Christ is continually growing. And we know God better only by spending time with him.
Our Old Testament lesson this morning has some familiar verses in it. The message Isaiah is giving is not about bible reading or prayer, but it is about knowing God. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth.” This is God Isaiah is talking about. Have you not known; have you not heard? Paul in Romans tells us the critical nature of hearing God's word, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” We are called to know the living God and we know God by the hearing of God's word. Of course, not just hearing, but reading God's word. It may be that our Christianity in this country has become so easy, so comfortable, so safe, that we aren't aware of the great gift we have here. Most every household has a bible. That's not to say it is read in every household. I have lots of bibles, a quick look around my office I count 8 bibles. I have at least three more at home. I really only read one of them though, and much of my work on sermons is done using an on-line bible resource. In lands where the Christian faith is not so free and safe, there is danger in even owning a single bible. And so its' importance is magnified. The persecuted, the secret Christian, the one without God's word in their hand, has a much higher desire for the bible than we seem to have here.
I want to share a story I heard from Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist who travels the world sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. In his travels, he has spent a lot of time in countries that are hostile to his message. While working in Vietnam, he and his interpreter Hien Pham became good friends. Zacharias returned to his home in Canada, wondering if their paths would ever cross again. He tells us, “Seventeen years later, I received a telephone call. 'Brother Ravi?' the man asked. “Immediately I recognized Hien's voice, and he told me his story.”
Hien was put in prison after the fall of South Vietnam--for helping the Americans. His jailers worked to change his views on democracy and Christianity. His reading was restricted to communist propaganda papers written in French or Vietnamese. After some time, they began to make him question his faith. “Maybe,” he thought, “I have been lied to. Maybe God does not exist. Maybe the West has deceived me.” One lonely night, he determined that he would not pray anymore.
The very next morning, he was assigned the dreaded chore of cleaning the prison latrines. As he cleaned out a tin can overflowing with toilet paper, his eye caught what seemed to be English printed on one piece of paper. He hurriedly grabbed it, washed it, and read the words, “Romans Chapter 8”. Trembling now, he read on, “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced 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.”
Hien broke down in tears. He knew his bible well enough to recognize this passage as a central message for one on the verge of losing his faith. He cried out to God, asking forgiveness for giving up. He discovered that God had other plans for him.
Imagine that, what his jailers were using for toilet paper was treasured by Hien. And so the next day he volunteered to clean the latrines every day. Each day he picked up portions of scripture and added them to his collection.
What measures would you be willing to take to spend time reading God's word? Risk your home and possessions to read it? Cross through enemy fire? Clean a latrine? How about crossing your living room, finding your bible, and opening it up? That is the sacrifice we need to make to read God's word. And we don't do it. Hien discovered how important God's word was when it was no longer available. And Hien learned that without that constant good news, the doubts grow and the Lord seems less real and our faith can be lost. Wow, it shames me to think that I take God's word so for granted. We are blessed to have the freedoms we have, but if those freedoms make us lazy, if we lose our desire to seek after God actively, then that freedom is making us slaves to apathy.
So I ask you to examine where God's word is in your priority list? My stated goal this year is to get us all more involved in God's word. Why? What does reading God's word teach us? First, it teaches us about God...and God's son Jesus Christ who we have declared our Savior and Lord. It gives us guidance in how we ought to live. It teaches us the path to salvation. It is the life story of Jesus. It gives us words to praise God. It draws us nearer to God.
If you haven't read the bible for yourselves before, I would definitely recommend that you focus on the Gospels to start. Pray for guidance as you read. And join us in a bible study. But just making God's word a priority allows the Holy Spirit to work more strongly in your life. And you cannot help but to learn more about your Savior when you read his life story in the gospels. And that is to be the priority in your life. To know and to grow in relationship and in love with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In our gospel reading today, Jesus left the village to go to other small towns to, as he explained, “to spread the Good News... This is why I have come.” He came to spread the good news, we have it readily available...read it and learn why Jesus came.
I want to get back to our reading from Isaiah. It is kind of unique in that it is not a story, but a lesson about God. It seems the people of Isaiah's time needed a reminder of just how important God was in their lives. They been told many times, but it seems they hadn't really heard.
Isaiah asks them, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” They have not known the true nature of God. Then Isaiah teaches them; teaches us. “The Holy one says, “Lift up your eyes on high and see. Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary.” God is creator. God does not have any equal in heaven or on earth. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present... and that can be overwhelming to us mere mortals. This is from the Old Covenant, but Jesus demonstrated for us what Isaiah taught, “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” You see, the scriptures also have many promises for believers to claim. We miss out on blessings that can be ours because we are just not making ourselves available. We are too busy with other things to connect with God.
Spending time with God is how we keep our axes sharp. Spending time in God's word and prayer helps us sharpen our senses for recognizing the things of God, for recognizing God's hand in our lives. My metaphor for the year is hungering for God. From David Jeremiah: “Spiritual hunger works the exact opposite of physical hunger. With physical hunger, you get hungry when you don't eat. With spiritual hunger, the more you eat, the hungrier you get.” If you are not pursuing things of the spirit, your spiritual growth will cease. We need spiritual food to grow spiritually. If you are not investing in time with God, you are dying in your Christian growth.
I am making another assignment for this week. Once again it is to read a chapter from your bible. I know I suggested the gospels, but read those on your own. Psalm 119 is a psalm that speaks to the importance and power of God's word for us and to us. A couple verses, and please note that it is God's word the psalmist writes of “I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.” “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.” “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Almost every verse in Psalm 119 includes an allusion to God's word. If you peek at your bulletin, I've listed the more common terms in the Psalm that refer to scripture. A note here, Psalm 119 is the longest book of the bible! But I'm not asking you to memorize it, read it with an eye for what God's word brings to us. Our assignment is to sharpen the understanding of the importance of God's word by reading what the psalmist shares. And our desire for the thing of God will grow when we spend special time with God. And then our appetite for the things of God will grow and grow and grow. Amen.
Standing on the Promises 225 HLC