Holding On To Hope

Holding On To Hope

Isaiah 61:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

We cannot live without hope. That’s not just a sentiment, but a proven fact.

The American Psychological Association has found that people who have positive views on aging live 7.6 years longer than those who have negative views.

Depression is fast becoming the second-leading cause of death in America.

Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and insightful psychologist, observed in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning:

The prisoner who had lost faith in the future–his future–was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment…Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick-bay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up.

Have you given up on true joy in your marriage or with your parents or kids? Have you given up on a significant and joyful career and are settling for as much money as you can make? Have you given up on a friend or colleague or family member? Do you have hope that things will ever be better in your life than they are now? If you need some hope, you’ve come to the right season of the year.

I know it doesn’t seem that way. We are entering the busiest time of the year, with hassles and hurries, toys and trees, presents and preparations, decorations and dinners and all Christmas has become. How can this be a season of true hope?

“Advent” comes from Latin words meaning “to arrive.” On Christmas Day, hope arrived. Hope for the world and hope for your heart. How can this hope be real for your soul today? There’s only one way. Let’s discover it together.

The Messiah we wanted

The Jews of Isaiah 61 were an enslaved people, and had been for centuries. They had exchanged the Egyptians for the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians. Still to come would be the Greeks and then the Romans. Now they were exiled slaves in the pagan nation of Babylon, hundreds of miles from home with no future and no hope. Or so it seemed.

But through all the centuries of their occupations and tribulations, the nation had found hope in a single word: “Messiah.” The Hebrew word means “anointed one,” the person who would be chosen and empowered by God to rescue his suffering people.

Some thought the Messiah would be a great prophet or preacher. Some expected a great and wonderful priest, or a miracle worker.

But most expected a military conqueror, a warrior who would destroy their enemies and lead their nation into global dominance. He would be a ruler like David, one who would reestablish the throne of the nation and lead the people forever.

God had promised his greatest king: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).

Isaiah had earlier prophesied: Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:7).

One of the most popular non-biblical books in ancient Judaism was 1 Enoch. It offered this promise to the people of God:

The word of his mouth shall destroy all the sinners and all the ungodly, who shall perish at his presence…All the kings, the princes, the exalted, and those who rule over all the earth, shall fall down on their faces before him, and shall worship him. They shall fix their hopes on this Son of man, shall pray to him, and petition him for mercy…Then the sword of the Lord of spirits shall be drunk with their [enemies’] blood; but the saints and elect shall be safe in that day (1 Enoch 61:3-4, 12-13, 15).

Isn’t it tempting to seek such military, political, materialistic hope? To wait for God to defeat the insurgency in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the terrorists around the world? To wait in expectancy for him to heal your wife’s cancer or get your son through rehab or make your job succeed? To make God a means to our end, expecting him to do what we want and need because we come to church and pray and give and serve?

No wonder the Jews were disappointed in the Messiah they got. They wanted a king on a throne for Christmas–they got a baby in a feed trough. They wanted a ruler to overthrow their enemies–they got a rabbi who taught them to love their enemies. They wanted a military conqueror to rule the world–they got a crucified carpenter who died for the world.

They got nothing they wanted, but everything they needed. So did we.

The Messiah we received

Isaiah predicted a military Messiah, One who would be a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). These predictions will be fulfilled completely on the day Jesus returns to our planet, on the day when he comes as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, on the day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

In the meanwhile, Isaiah gave us a second Messianic theme: the Suffering Servant. The Messiah who would suffer for his people as he served their God.

Isaiah 42:1-4 declared: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”


Playing Marbles with the World

Playing Marbles with the World

John 9:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

The alien movie Men In Black ends with the camera pulling back from Earth until our planet fades into the blackness of the universe. We fly back as the Solar System recedes, then the Milky Way. Then the universe itself becomes a black marble. Then two aliens play with that marble, flicking it back and forth. Is that the way it is? Or does God have a plan and a purpose for this fallen planet and our problems and pain?

In our series we have learned that Jesus will turn water into wine, heal a nobleman’s son, and feed 5,000 families. We have learned why we should take God at his word, and what happens when we do.

Now we must ask a hard question: why do we live in a world where such miracles are needed at all? Why does the wine run out in our lives? Why do our children get sick? Why do we get hungry?

As good as it is to know that Jesus can feed the hungry and heal the sick, wouldn’t it be better to live in a world where no families ever faced hunger and no eyes were ever born blind? Wouldn’t that be the better miracle?

The question brings our series to the place where most of us live. Maybe your grandfather lived to an elderly age; mine died as a young man because doctors mismatched his blood after an appendix operation. Maybe your father was healed miraculously of his heart disease; mine wasn’t. Maybe your son or daughter was protected from a tragic accident; I know several in our church family who still grieve for lost children. Maybe your job was preserved, or your financial needs miraculously met; I can name several friends whose families are hurting today.

Why do we live in a world where miracles are needed? Why does God permit people to be born blind? Why does he allow your blindness today? What does he want to do about it this morning?

Why some are born blind

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'” (vs. 1-2).

In the ancient world, illness was always a sign of divine judgment. If the man had incurred his blindness as an adult, there would be no question: the sin was his own. Since he was born with it, the disciples wondered whose sin had caused it. But it was a given that all suffering comes from sin. All pain is someone’s fault.

In a sense that’s true. In the Garden of Eden the man would have full eyesight; your children would be well; my father and grandfather would be alive. When mankind fell into sin, the world fell with us. Now we experience diseases and disasters which were not part of God’s created paradise.

And much of our present suffering is our personal fault as well. God gave us freedom of will so we could choose to worship him. When we misuse that freedom, the consequences are not God’s fault but ours. Haman was hanged on the gallows he intended for innocent Mordecai; the men who wanted Daniel thrown to the lions met them instead. Saddam Hussein obviously deserves the fate he has been sentenced to receive.

In the disciples’ theology, all pain is our fault and God is off the hook. Our question is answered. Why must God do miracles in our fallen world rather than make a world which doesn’t need them? Because of our sin.

Except that’s not how Jesus answered the question: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (v. 3). This happened so that God might do his work through this man’s life and suffering. How? In what way?

God works miracles for our greatest good. In this case, so the man could be healed by the divine power of a miracle-working God. His eyesight would always be more precious to him than mine is to me or yours is to you. He would be a character in the divine story of redemption. His life would be immeasurably more significant because he was born blind and healed than if he had never been born blind at all.

Scripture is clear: “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God meets all our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). He longs to be gracious to us and rises to show us compassion (Isaiah 30:18). He is a Father, waiting to give us our daily bread. God works miracles for the present good of his children. We may not understand that fact at the time, but his word says that it’s so.

God works miracles for the eternal glory of his Kingdom. He turned the water into wine and “thus revealed his glory” (John 2:11). He fed 5,000 families so they would know that he was their Prophet and King. God’s word says that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Scripture promises that “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5).

And God works miracles for our greatest growth. Jesus’ opened the man’s physical eyes so he could open the man’s spiritual eyes, with this result: “‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” (v. 38).

He worked this miracle for the spiritual growth of those who observed it as well. The man became my favorite witness in Scripture: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (v. 25). And all who saw the miracle were confronted with an opportunity to trust the One who worked it.


When You Cannot See His Hand, Trust His Heart

When You Cannot See His Hand, Trust His Heart

John 11:1-45

Dr. Jim Denison

I hate to fly. I don’t just dislike flying, with all the security hassles, long waits, and cramped seats. I actually don’t mind all of that so much. The part of flying I hate is flying–that moment when the bus packed like sardines and weighing a gazillion tons leaves the ground. I sit on the aisle, as though four feet from the fuselage will help. I read a book, as though not thinking about my plight will make it disappear. And I stay in denial until the wheels touch the ground again.

You see, I don’t really understand heavier-than-air flight. If I had been one of the Wright brothers, we’d all be grounded today. I don’t see how something that weighs more than this building can fly when I can’t. When I was a young boy I wanted nothing more than to be Superman, flying up there in clouds. So one day I tried. I cut out some cardboard wings, strapped them to my arms, climbed to the roof our house, and jumped. With predictable results. I haven’t liked flying since.

The hardest part for me is turbulence. When the airplane starts to shake, I grip the armrests instinctively. I don’t have any idea why. I know that my armrests will not help much if we plummet 30,000 feet to the ground. But I can’t help it.

The only thing that helps me is hearing the pilot in his soothing voice telling me I have nothing to worry about. If he’s on the same plane and he’s not worried, I am less worried. Or so I tell myself.

Where has your airplane encountered turbulence today? Where is there unresolved guilt in your past or fear for your future? Who needs your forgiveness? Whose forgiveness do you need? What pain in your marriage or family or relationships is hurting your heart this morning? You can grip your pew hard, but it won’t help much. Trusting your captain is the only way to make it through the flight. But it’s hard to do that when he’s the one who flew your plane into this storm.

Let’s talk about that issue today. If Jesus could raise Lazarus, there’s nothing he cannot do. But he didn’t do what you want and need him to do. He didn’t answer your prayer the way you wanted. He has flown your airplane directly into a storm. In such turbulence, how can you trust your pilot today?

Believe that God has a plan (vs. 1-16)

Apart from the crucifixion accounts, this is the longest continuous narrative in all the gospels. The story comes just days before Jesus’ last Passover and his crucifixion. He has returned to Judea, where his enemies tried earlier to take his life (John 10:39). His actions will lead to the authorities’ plot to kill him (John 11:45-53). Mary and Martha have no way to know that Jesus’ timing regarding their brother’s illness will directly affect his atoning mission. There is always more to God’s plan than we can see.

Our story begins: “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha” (John 11.1). “Lazarus” means “God is my help.” His name would be fulfilled in this remarkable miracle.

His hometown was located about two miles east of Jerusalem, situated on the southeastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. It was Jesus’ home whenever he traveled to Jerusalem or Judea, and became his headquarters for the last week of his life.

Jesus had no closer friends on earth than Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. So the sisters sent word about their brother to Jesus: “Lord, the one you love is sick” (v. 3). They did not ask him to come–they assumed that he would. As he had turned water into wine, healed a nobleman’s son, fed 5,000 families and opened blind eyes, surely he would heal his man whose family had been his family.

But he did not. His reply was strange indeed: “When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it'” (v. 4).

Jesus’ timing was not theirs. He saw Lazarus’ sickness as an opportunity to glorify the Father. He sees every storm we encounter in the same way–as a chance to bring glory to the Lord. And so, even though he loved Lazarus and his sisters (v. 5), “when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (v. 6).

It seems that Jesus received the news that Lazarus was sick, had time to travel to Bethany to heal him, but chose not to do so. But this is not true. By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days (v. 39). Jesus was in Perea, a day’s travel from Bethany. The messenger left when Lazarus was alive and traveled a day. Jesus waited two days; then he traveled a day to find Lazarus dead for four days. Doing the math, we can determine that Lazarus died when the messenger was on his way. If Jesus had left immediately, he would have found his friend dead for two days already.

But why wait the additional two days? Because people in the ancient world believed that the soul hovers around its body for three days, hoping to be reunited with its flesh. And so they mourned for those three days with the loudest and most emotional tears and cries, in case the soul of the deceased was watching their grief. This is the reason Jesus delayed his return for two days: by the time he came to Lazarus, his friend was “really” dead. There was no possibility of his resuscitation. No one could claim that the man had been merely comatose, or pretending his death. Four days without food or water, wrapped in air-tight burial clothing, would have resulted in anyone’s death.