Faithful Yet Fruitless

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Isaiah was an interesting character to say the least. Like other prophets of the era, particularly Jeremiah and Ezekiel, his ministry included some rather outlandish–at least by our standards–actions. For example, Isaiah 20 tells us that he preached naked and barefoot for three years. Wow! That took more courage than I have, and that is just the beginning. The absolutely most fascinating thing about Isaiah, the thing about him that required the most courage, was that he preached for about 60 years* even though he knew from the beginning that it would be a ministry without visible, quantifiable results. In these days of a numbers-obsessed church Isaiah’s fruitless ministry is more unimaginable than preaching naked and barefoot. Would we do what Isaiah did? Would we faithfully continue to preach the gospel of Christ knowing the message would fall on deaf ears and hard hearts? Probably not. Furthermore, how many churches would tolerate such a ministry? Not many. The contemporary church cans “fruitless” pastors faster than Jerry Jones replaces football coaches with a losing record.

So, just how did Isaiah do what he did, and how did he do it so well? What kept him going for 60 years—his lifetime—when he knew his message would not be heeded? How did he overcome the futility of it all? How did he continue to minister in such a hopeless situation? How did he maintain his great faith in God even though he could not see what good he had done? The Scripture answers that question, and not just for Isaiah, but for everyone who heeds the call, “Follow me.”

The key is in the call. Isaiah 6 tells of God’s call of Isaiah. While Isaiah was in the temple to worship he had an extraordinary vision of God in all his glory. He saw the Lord “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” That glory filled the temple, and the cherubim were there praising God for all they were worth. Naturally, upon seeing the Lord Isaiah saw his own sinfulness and received a blessed cleansing from the Holy One of Israel. It was truly a magnificent spiritual experience. Truly, that wonderful vision of God is worthy of careful contemplation, but that would take more time than I have here in this article. So, let me focus on just God’s call to Isaiah.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. (Isaiah 6:8-12)

God was very open with Isaiah. God acknowledged from the beginning that those who heard Isaiah’s prophecy would have dull hearts, heavy ears, blind eyes, and hearts without understanding. God hid nothing from him. He simply presented Isaiah with a proposition and Isaiah responded. There are two elements to this call that are crucial in our understanding of Isaiah’s strength across 60 years of ministry.

First, Isaiah was obviously a man of great faith. While God did tell Isaiah that his ministry would not bear visible results, he did not explain why he wanted Isaiah to preach to such a hard-hearted people. God did not reveal his reasoning to Isaiah. He did not reveal all of his underlying plan of redemption. He simply issued a call and made sure Isaiah knew the cost of following that call. Isaiah, then, simply followed that call. He trusted that God knew what he was doing and that God was both omniscient and sovereign. Toward the end of his ministry, Isaiah explained it in these words:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Second, Isaiah was sustained in his ministry by his vision of God in all his glory. Seeing God for who he really was changed Isaiah in every way. What had been important to Isaiah, which was pretty much what would be important to us, was no longer important. His emotional or psychological need for success became insignificant in light of the glory of the holy, sovereign, redeeming God of creation. Seeing God’s glory changed Isaiah’s way of thinking. It changed his worldview from one which was principally self-focused to one which only had eyes for the Holy One. In that same passage toward the end of his ministry, Isaiah said:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Isaiah’s strength was the glory of God, and that was sufficient. Because Isaiah had everything he needed in the glory of God he was satisfied. He did not require visible, countable results. He was able to proclaim the glory of God to a world that did not want to hear it simply because God in his sovereign wisdom deemed it necessary.. What about us? Can we do what Isaiah did? Will we? Are we willing or able to proclaim the gospel of Christ on God’s terms, even if it appears that our labor is in vain? The answer to that question depend entirely upon whether we have seen the glory of God or not.

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* He began in the year King Uzziah died, 740 B.C., and prophesied at least until the death of Sennacherib in 681 B.C., a period of at least 59 years.

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Time

Blue Licks GraveCome now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (James 4:13-14 ESV)

Time. At times so trivial. At times so crucial. Where does it go? What does it mean? Does it appear I am having a mid-life crisis? It seems so. Several of those milestones of time have ganged up on me all at once recently. We recently celebrated a new year. Next month I will celebrate my 54th birthday as well as 25 years of ministry at Iglesia Betania. Today I contemplate life both with and without Diana, my late wife who died eight years ago today. Unfortunately, contemplating time and its affects seems to be an activity of the middle-aged and elderly, and such contemplation too often involves regrets about how our vaporous allotment of time was spent. I have to admit that as I contemplate my upcoming birthday and anniversary as a pastor my thoughts run toward what could have been or should have been. Time that would have been better spent 25 years ago.

Time. At times our greatest resource. At times our greatest need. Life is driven by time. Nearly all activities in life are dependent on time. The fruit of our lives to a large degree depends upon how we use our finite allotment of time. Nearly all New Year’s resolutions involve the use of our time. Yesterday I posted a short article on the fear of truly seeking spiritual truth in which I said that we generally make the decision to not seek truth passively rather than actively. By determining to seek God later, we decide to not seek God at all; we determine to be willfully ignorant rather than spiritually wise. Isaiah knew the danger of that use of time:

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
    a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
    and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near
;
let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

“For you shall go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall break forth into singing,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
    an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55 ESV)

A few years ago I began to pray, “Lord, may I live to be 100 and may I glorify you each day until I be with you.” Time. In our old age may it be our consolation rather than our regret.

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Afraid to Seek

Primitive Baptist Church of Brookfield, New YorkI only made one resolution for 2014–to do more writing, even if it be just some short, simple articles for the blog. Here it is almost a week into the new year and I have not written anything except for my sermon notes, and since those are for my eyes only they do not count toward fulfillment of my resolution. So, I am going to cheat a bit and write about something someone else wrote.

As part of my study for a short series of sermons, I consulted John R. W. Stott’s classic work Basic Christianity. Stott is one of my favorite biblical expositors. I highly recommend all he wrote. This short excerpt is an example of why.

This, then, is the spirit in which our search [for spiritual truth] must be conducted. We must set aside apathy, pride, prejudice and sin, and seek God–no matter the consequences. Of all these hindrances to the search for truth the last two are the hardest to overcome: intellectual prejudice and moral self-will. The reason is that both are expressions of fear–and fear is the greatest enemy of the truth. Fear paralyzes our search. It isn’t long before we realize that to find God and accept Jesus Christ is a very inconvenient experience for most people. It would involve our rethinking our whole outlook on life and lead to major changes to the way we live. Such a combination of intellectual and moral cowardice makes us hesitate. We do not find because we do not seek. And the truth is that we do not seek because we do not really want to find. And the best way to be certain we won’t find is to decide against looking in the first place. (1)

How true. What he doesn’t mention here is that we generally decide against looking for truth through a passive decision rather than an active one. We don’t openly refuse to seek God; we simply put it off until later. But no matter the process of arriving at the decision, it is ultimately the same decision with the same consequences.

(1) John R. W. Stott. Basic Christianity (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2008), p. 27.

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Hope

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Today is Thanksgiving Day, 2012. I have long thought that our sincere expression of thanksgiving is one of the significant measures of our spiritual maturity. Those who truly know God are thankful. As I meditate on my blessings this year, the one that comes most clearly to mind is hope. Paul says it well.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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. (Romans 8:28-39)

I am truly thankful for hope.

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True Religion

Henry Scougal died a very young man, only 28 years old. Yet, the depth of his spiritual understanding was that of a much older man. In light of the current situation in our culture his words from his book The Life of God in the Soul of Man, which was written to a friend to explain the true faith in Christ are relevant. (Language has changed some in the 330 or so years since Scougal wrote this. To better understand his words you might want to substitute the word ‘faith’ for ‘religion’.)

I cannot speak of religion, but I must lament, that among so many pretenders to it, so few understand what it means: some placing it in the understanding, in orthodox notions and opinions; and all the account they can give of their religion is, that they are of this and the other persuasion, and have joined themselves to one of those many sects whereinto Christendom is most unhappily divided. Others place it in the outward man, in a constant course of external duties, and a model of performances. If they live peaceably with their neighbours, keep a temperate diet, observe the returns of worship, frequenting the church, or their closet, and sometimes extend their hands to the relief of the poor, they think they have sufficiently acquitted themselves. Others again put all religion in the affections, in rapturous hearts, and ecstatic devotion; and all they aim at is, to pray with passion, and think of heaven with pleasure, and to be affected with those kind and melting expressions wherewith they court their Saviour, till they persuade themselves they are mightily in love with him, and from thence assume a great confidence of their salvation, which they esteem the chief of Christian graces. Thus are these things which have any resemblance of piety, and at the best are but means of obtaining it, or particular exercises of it, frequently mistaken for the whole of religion: nay, sometimes wickedness and vice pretend to that name. I speak not now of those gross impieties wherewith the Heathens were wont to worship their gods. There are but too many Christians who would consecrate their vices, and follow their corrupt affections, whose ragged humour and sullen pride must pass for Christian severity; whose fierce wrath, and bitter rage against their enemies, must be called holy zeal; whose petulancy towards their superiors, or rebellion against their governors, must have the name of Christian courage and resolution.

But certainly religion is quite another thing, and they who are acquainted with it will entertain far different thoughts, and disdain all those shadows and false imitations of it. They know by experience that true religion is a union of the soul with God, a real participation of the divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or, in the apostle’s phrase, “It is Christ formed within us.”

Well and sufficiently said.

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Sermons to Myself: Just Open the Door

John_Alden_and_Priscilla_Alden_grave_in_Miles_Standish_Burial_Ground_in_Duxbury_MAThe soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (Proverbs 13:4 ESV)”

While waiting in my doctor’s office I read an article in a magazine about the Seven Deadly Sins. While I have always been aware of this list, I had never given it much thought, having always associated it with the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity. In the evangelical world all sin is deadly, not just wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.  The article was interesting and a bit convicting. I must confess, I am guilty of all of them. The portion of the article on sloth, however, was the most convicting of all. I had never thought of sloth as the article presented it, so I decided to do a bit of study. The Bible speaks of sloth, or laziness in contemporary language, several times in Proverbs and a few other passages. We generally associate laziness with physical laziness, and that is certainly one aspect. The spiritual aspect, however, is more important, and rightly earns sloth a place in the list of deadly sins. Because of that association, we often fail to identify the spiritual aspect which we usually call  ‘indifference’.

We all struggle at times with our spiritual lives. We struggle to balance the demands of the world—work, household responsibilities, and the like—with the spiritual disciples of prayer, scripture, fasting, worship, and service. That is simply part of living in a fallen, sinful world. Some, however, have given up the struggle and become indifferent to the spiritual disciplines. We know we should be diligent in the spiritual disciplines, but we are not. Furthermore, aside from feeling guilty, we do little to change that. We may make well intended resolutions that usually begin with the words  ‘starting tomorrow’, but tomorrow never comes and our indifference only grows. I know this to be true, because I have been there.

In my curiosity motivated study on sloth, which is called ‘acedia’ in the theological world, I ran across an article by Rebecca DeYoung, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The key statement in her article is this:

At its core, acedia is aversion to our relationship to God because of the transforming demands of his love. God wants to kick the whole door to our hearts down and flood us with his life; we want to keep the door partway shut so that a few lingering treasures remain untouched, hidden in the shadows . . . Those with acedia object to not being able to stay the way they are. Something must die in order for the new self to be born, and it might be an old self to which we are very attached. (Read the entire article here: Resistance To the Demands of Love.)

I had never thought about sloth in those terms, but I must say she is correct. This is consistent with Jesus’ own words. He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34 ESV)” Our indifference is our way of resisting God’s sanctification and our own self-denial. Those sins we cherish may be small and personal, but they are sin all the same. Being free of those sins requires spiritual discipline and self-denial, so instead of wrestling with them we simply ignore them, hoping they will go away. The result is indifference and resistance to God’s love and redemptive work. We would rather settle for an inadequate relationship with our Savior than do what is necessary to eradicate our sin, and John Owen is correct in his assessment of this spiritual condition. In his book, Mortification of Sin in Believers, he says “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

Spiritual indifference is deadly. Jesus makes that plain in his letter to the Church of Laodicea in Revelation 3. Laodicea was a church that had a great deal of material wealth, but Jesus described them as “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:17 ESV)” Furthermore, Laodicea is the only church for which Jesus speaks no words of commendation. In spite of any good they may have done, because of their indifference, ultimately they were doing nothing right. The situation Jesus describes is not only sad, it is almost hopeless. What begins as indifference to the spiritual disciplines leads to an hypocritical indifference to our own holiness, the spiritual conditions of those around us, and even to Christ himself. We often ask why our society is as sinful as it is. Here is the answer. Through indifference, the salt of God’s people has lost its savor and has become worthless. (Matthew 5:13)

The spiritual condition of a person or church that is suffering from sloth may be almost hopeless, but that word  ‘almost’ is important. Jesus said to the Church at Laodicea, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:20-22 ESV)” There is hope. In spite of our indifference Jesus comes looking for us, knocking on our doors. Those guilty feelings are just that, Jesus knocking at our hearts. He desperately wants to come in and commune with us as he did with Mary, Martha’s sister. About her, Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:42 ESV)” What a great promise of redemption. To those of us who suffer from sloth, Jesus is knocking. May we just open the door.

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Sermons to Myself: No Recriminations

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This article is the second verse to my previous article. In that article I said that in spite of the fact that God knew about our spiritual failures, he calls us anyway, and that is a great hope and comfort to all of us. This article is about the restoration of God following those great failures. The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the most well-known stories in the Scripture. It is also one of the most important. (See Luke 15:11-32.)

The story is easy to understand. A man had two sons. The younger asked for his inheritance early, took the money and wasted it on a sinful lifestyle. The older son stayed with the father and worked diligently while the younger son played and ultimately lost everything. When the younger son hit rock-bottom he remembered how good life was in his father’s home where even the lowest of the servants had plenty to eat. So, he determined in his heart to return to his father and ask to be accepted as one of those lowly servants. As the younger son approached his childhood home, his father, who had been hopefully watching all those years, ran to his son, embraced him, and immediately reinstated him as his son. Later, when the older son heard the rejoicing he became angry and jealous because he had been faithful all those years and the father had never thrown a party for him.

We might wonder why the younger son would leave home in the first place? He left home for the same reason young people have left home from the beginning of time and continue to do so in our day – love of the world. He loved the world more than he loved his family, so he left home in search of what he loved. And, he found it. He found all he was looking for, but sadly he also found that while he might love the world, the world did not love him in return. The world only used him for what they could get from him. When he had nothing left to give, the world left him homeless, penniless, and hungry. So, he decided to go home. He even composed a speech to express his repentance and contrition. It is amazing how clearly one can think about profound issues on an empty stomach.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the father never stopped loving his wayward and wasteful son. The father saw the son approaching from a distance and ran to him and embraced him. The father had been longing for this reunion since the day the son had left. Jesus clearly indicates that the father’s only thoughts were thoughts of joy. After the son had recited—and no doubt sincerely recited—his speech of repentance and contrition the father told the servants to bring him a robe, a ring, some shoes, and to kill a calf for a celebration. These words to the servants were wonderful words of joy and each held great significance for the son. More important than what the father said, however, was what he did not say. He did not say, “I told you so.” He did not say with raised eyebrows, “Well, well, the prodigal has returned.” Not one single word of recrimination was to be found in the father’s heart nor on his lips. The younger son was just that, his son, and that is all that mattered.

It’s too bad we cannot say the same thing for the older brother. The only words in his heart were words of recrimination. He was so full of malice that he could not even rejoice with his father. He was angry. He was jealous. He was worldly. Yes, the older son also loved the world, and he too found what he was looking for. He had not left home. He had remained on the farm and worked hard for the father, but he had found the same world the younger son had found all the same. His heart was in exactly the same condition as the younger son’s when he left home. Sadly, the older son lacked that profound spiritual clarity that a bit of affliction and an empty belly bring. He had lived at home all his life, but ultimately he failed to understand two important truths. First, all he had was his not because he was a faithful servant, but simply because he was a son of the father. Second, all of that faithful service did not make him more of a son than he was, and the younger son’s lack of service did not make him less of a son. They were both sons, and that is all that mattered. I am sure that the younger son struggled with just this issue as he was in the far off land feeding pigs. Surely he felt he was undeserving and that his father would be angry. Doubtlessly he expected at least a stern lecture about the evils of this world before he was shuffled off to his duties as a mere servant in the house. What’s more, had the older son been in charge of the household that or worse is exactly what would have happened.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is timeless. Not only can we be thankful that the older son was not in charge of the household, we can be thankful that the church is not currently in charge because to a large degree the church more closely resembles the older son than the father. God, the Father, is patiently and longingly waiting for his children to leave the world and come home to him. He is waiting with open arms, a joyous heart, and not a single word of recrimination on his holy lips. Unfortunately, some who would come back never really do because they fear the older brother’s joyless heart and hypocritical words. This is truly a tragedy. The concept of a loving father who seeks his own and longs for their return from the world is an important one. Luke 15 relates three parables dealing specifically with this great spiritual hope. In addition to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke relates the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. The point of all three is that God desperately and deliberately seeks his children and when that which was lost is again found, there is great rejoicing and absolutely no recriminations.

This parable reminds me of Don Francisco’s song, “I Don’t Care Where You’ve Been Sleeping”. The older brothers of this world will probably object to his manner of expression, but the truth is there all the same.

I loved you long before the time your eyes first saw the day,
And everything I’ve done has been to help you on the way,
But you took all that you wanted then at last you took your leave,
And traded off a Kingdom for the lies that you believed.

And although you’ve chosen darkness with its miseries and fears,
Although you’ve gone so far from Me and wasted all those years;
Even though my name’s been spattered by the mire in which you lie,
I’d take you back this instant if you’d turn to Me and cry.

I don’t care where you’ve been sleeping, I don’t who’s made your bed,
I’ve already gave My life to set you free;
There’s no sin you could imagine that is stronger than my love,
And it’s all yours if you’ll come home again to Me.

When you come back to your senses and you see who’s been to blame,
Remember all the good things that were yours with just My name;
Then don’t waste another thought before you change the way you’re bound,
I’ll be running out to meet you if you’ll only turn around.

I don’t care where you’ve been sleeping, I don’t who’s made your bed.
I’ve already gave My life to set you free;
There’s no sin you could imagine that is stronger than my love,
And it’s all yours if you’ll come home again to Me.

The Father has a very simple way of looking at this. As he said to the older son, “‘It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ (Luke 15:32)” Wow! Even for the older son the father had no words of recrimination. His only words have always been and always will be, “Welcome home, my child. Welcome home.”

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