Saturday, January 24, 2009

Reflection for the New Year

The following is a text of a reflection which I gave at the Troy Christian Chapel WatchNight service on December 31, 2008. I hope you find it useful to your walk in Christ.

New Years’s Day Reflection – December 31, 2008
Isaiah 43:1-7 NIV

1 But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. 4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life. 5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.' Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth- 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."

The start of a new year is often a time for reflecting on the year which has just gone by and forming some resolutions about things to do (or not do) in the new year. As each of us looks back at 2008, we remember that there are a number of significant things which have happened in each of our lives. The current state of the economy is probably among the biggest things which has influenced our lives as Americans. There have been other events which have influenced our lives as a community, as a church, as families and individuals, too many to mention here in detail.

There were a number of such events in my life during 2008. My mother died in January and it does seem unusual that she is still not here among us. My mother in law was hospitalized twice and required intestinal surgery only a week ago. However, there is one event in particular which I would like to reflect on and hope that the lessons which I learned will be of benefit to you in this New Year, the Year of Our Lord 2009.

Back in October, I was listening to an audio recording of an evangelist named Leonard Ravenhill. Some of you may recognize the name. His ministry of encouraging prayer and revival spanned at least five decades of the 20th century. In the audio, Ravenhill was preaching a sermon called “How Much Can You Lose Without Losing Your Faith?” In the last two minutes of the sermon, Ravenhill asked his audience: “Tell me honestly. Do you believe that you are precious in the sight of the Lord?” I was busy with some task at work while I was listening. I silently answered his question with a quick reply.”No”. I didn’t believe that I am precious in the sight of the Lord.

I knew what the answer was supposed to be. Yet, if I were being honest, I had to say “No”. I asked myself why I had responded like this. First, I needed to make sure that Ravenhill was basing his question upon the Bible and not something that sounds nice but has no basis in the Scriptures. While riding the People Mover in downtown Detroit heading back to my car that evening, I started searching through the Bible to find the verse which I thought Ravenhill might have been using. I found the passage and it is within the text which I read at the start of this reflection, namely Isaiah 43:4. The text was there in the Bible, but did it apply to me personally?

This caused me to do some real soul-searching. Please keep in mind that I am not a novice to the Christian faith. I came to faith in Christ in 1984. Also, I am not untrained in the faith. I do have a Masters Degree in Theology. What I believed about not being precious in the sight of God did not come from a lack of experience or formal training. Over the next few nights, I reflected on this disconnect. I knew what God’s Word says. Yet, I searched for my reason for answering Ravenhill’s question the way I did. To be brutally honest, I know my own sinfulness better than just about anybody. I did not deny that God loves me. Yet, I thought that the love on God’s part was merely one of putting up with me. I know that God loves my wife Julie, and my sons Zack and Rocky. Yet, I believed that God showed me favor merely to be a means of human blessing to my family, and not because I was precious in His sight. The comparison which I recorded in my journal at this time was that of a “weird uncle” or someone similar in most families. The “weird uncle” is often included in family events because of merely being family. Yet, in a one-on-one situation, no one would be friends with him on his own.

I looked for some commentary, book or article which would address my disconnect on this issue. In my searching, I came across the texts of two sermons preached by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th century British minister who is often called “the prince of preachers.” Spurgeon preached on this Isaiah passage in sermons dating to 1870 and 1882. As I read through these sermons, I would have thought that somehow Spurgeon had come into the future and followed me around and interviewed me before preparing his sermons. He perfectly laid out my reasons for not believing that I was not precious in God’s sight. He then dismantled them using God’s Word as his basis. Through these sermons, God was kind enough to show me and have me believe that I personally am precious in His sight. What I thought was too good to be possible turned out to be very good, very possible and very true.

From his 1882 sermon, Spurgeon wrote:

Could it be that Jesus could speak thus in His infinite love to me? I needed to remember the power of the washing in His blood, and the power of His cleansing Spirit, and the power of His justifying righteousness before I could understand how He could say such a word to me? Do you not feel staggered as you hear this word, “You are precious in My sight”? Does not unbelief prompt you to say, “Lord, that love-word is meant for somebody else! It cannot mean me.” And yet, if you believe that Jesus is the Christ, you are born of God, and it is to you that this text is spoken, “You are precious in My sight.”

Spurgeon brought the point back to Christ and His work in each of His redeemed. That is what makes us precious in His sight.

Words cannot describe the tremendous and wonderful impact this has had on my life. This has been like an opening of the gates of heaven to me.

What I had believed before stemmed from a false humility. In common usage, when we speak of false humility, we think of someone who seems humble on the outside but is very prideful and egotistical on the inside.

Yet, there is a different kind of false humility. It is a humility, sincerely held, but is a humility based on falsehood. It is founded on a lie. During my first 24 years of life as a Christian, I clung to what I thought was a humble and honest view of myself and how God managed to love me in a way that was just merely putting up with me. I thought that that was blessing enough. Yet, this “humility” was built on a lie which failed to take into account the person and work of Christ on my behalf.

As this new year of 2009 begins, I urge you to reflect on your life and your view of God. Please, for your sake and the sake of those closest to you, put away false humility. It can take several forms. I’ve elaborated about one of those already.

Another type of false humility can be found in the realm of forgiveness. If we are believers in Christ and have confessed our sin, we are told in 1 John 1:9-10 that Christ is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Yet, are there times in which we might think it a holy and humble exercise to remind ourselves so much of our past sin that the one person in this life we fail to forgive is ourselves. Think with me about this. If we fail to forgive ourselves even though God has, are we not holding ourselves to a standard higher even than God’s? We fail to trust the promise of God for forgiveness by not thinking and acting as one who is forgiven. We remain unforgiven, not in God’s sight but in our own. We might think it impossible to let go of the guilt of some sin. We might think that failing to forgive ourselves is really some type of a pious humility. However, such an attitude is not really holy humility at all. Rather, it is idolatry, for we adopt our own standards as a law higher than that of God Himself.

Lastly, as we enter 2009, we will have a number of challenges before us. Life might be getting more difficult. Our culture will mourn that our nation’s material prosperity is diminishing. Don’t mourn as the world mourns. The troubles we face are an opportunity for our faith to grow and to glorify God. Verse 2 of the text brings this out so well. It says:”When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. The text indicates WHEN we face these trials, not IF. God is with us.

Genuine revivals have begun in times like those we are in now. The revival of 1857 which got its’ start in New York City and spread to cities around the English speaking world, including Detroit, started during a financial crisis in America which included a stock market crash. In the light of all the challenges we will face, don’t think that being a dour and sour Christian is somehow being more spiritual and more humble. Scripture tells us that it is the joy of the Lord which is our strength. It is a true joy which those in our culture are starving for. Let’s model it for them.

Our world is being turned upside down. Yet, while the world may be panicky as we enter into 2009, this should be a time of anticipation for us. Please do not get me wrong. I am not na├»ve. Believers are suffering in our current economic woes as well as unbelievers. Yet, this is a time of unprecedented spiritual opportunity as the myth of the material “good life” is slowly being seen for the fakery that it is. Spiritually, our culture is coming to the end of its’ rope. What better time to introduce them to Jesus Christ.

May the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, bless your endeavors as you seek Him joyfully in 2009 knowing that you are truly forgiven by Him and that He loves you, and you are personally precious in His sight.