In October, we’re going to be participating in an initiative called Pray31. The men who’ve launched this are hoping to get one million Christians in this country to pray together methodically for the US every day in October. They aren’t asking for a major time commitment; the guide for this initiative is what they’ve called the “US Prayer Atlas,” which gives two simple prayer requests per day. These requests are laid out through the month to get all of us praying for every US state and territory, for our national system and institutions, for the church in this country, and for revival in the land. I’ve ordered copies of the Prayer Atlas for everyone, and I hope everyone in the church will use theirs daily next month as we pray together for our nation.
Now, I think this is an admirable project, and I’m glad to have our church join with churches across America in prayer for this country, but I do have one criticism: I think the vision of the men doing this is too small. Their materials seem primarily concerned with public moral standards and whether the US is being governed according to biblical principles, and I suspect that if suddenly this nation looked a lot more like it did in the ’50s, they’d figure their prayers had been answered. Certainly, back then there were many more people in church, the mainline denominations were still planting lots of churches, and there was public respect for Christian faith which is now going if not gone. On the other hand, I had a colleague in Colorado who pastored one of those 1950s church plants; I remember her saying that when she got there, the church knew nothing about Jesus, because their previous pastors had never talked about him.
Donald Grey Barnhouse, who was then the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, read the signs of the times clearly. As Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary California tells the story,
Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia, all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached.
I think he was right. The Devil would as soon damn people through religion as debauchery, through morality as immorality; after all, people who are immoral and debauched are just likely to hit bottom and realize they need God. Moral, upstanding citizens are likely to think they already have him, whether they have any actual relationship with him or not.Read more→
I got this sermon from Solomon Dickey. (Well, from Solomon Dickey and the Holy Spirit.) To many of you, that statement seems strange because you don’t recognize the man’s name; to old Winona hands, it seems even stranger, because Solomon Dickey has been dead for quite a long time. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, the Rev. Dr. Solomon Dickey was the Presbyterian minister who founded the Winona Assembly in 1894; this church developed out of that in 1905, with the town of Winona Lake formally coming into existence in 1913. Dr. Dickey is, in a sense, my ultimate predecessor in this congregation.
Obviously, then, I’ve never spoken to him directly; but the dead do still bear witness, in various ways. In Dr. Dickey’s case, there’s his bust down on Park Avenue across from the Post Office. Beneath the bust is a plaque; on the plaque is Psalm 125:1. One day last year when I was down to the Post Office for something, I saw that and thought, “If you have faith and do not doubt, you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”
Now, it’s not certain these two verses are talking about the same mountain. Scholars are evenly split, as far as I can tell, between those who think Jesus is talking about Mount Zion, on which Jerusalem and the Temple were built, and those who think he was talking about the Mount of Olives. The Gospels don’t tell us for sure. But even if Jesus and his disciples were walking along the slope of the Mount of Olives at this point, they were on their way to Jerusalem, looking toward Mount Zion. The focus of this whole section of Matthew is on Jerusalem and the Temple. It seems most natural to me, then, that Jesus was referring to the mountain ahead of them, which though not a particularly tall peak, stood at the heart of the nation.
A word on the fig tree here, because it’s easy to read this passage and think Jesus is being wildly unreasonable. The fact is, while it was not yet fig season, Jesus actually had good reason for what he did. Let me quote you here from a couple of the commentators on Matthew. First, here’s R. T. France:
At Passover time in Jerusalem (March-April) fig trees are beginning to come into leaf, but there is not yet a full covering of leaves. Once the leaves are fully developed, it is time to look for the early fruit . . . This “single fig tree” . . . apparently stood out as having an unusually full coverage of leaves for Passover season, which encouraged the hope of early fruit even though, as Mark conscientiously reminds us, “It was not the season for figs.”
At this time of year, such fig trees contained only green early figs . . . which ripen around June but often fall off before that time, leaving only green leaves on the tree. Because of their unpalatable taste, these early figs rarely were eaten; but someone too hungry to care about the taste would eat them anyway, as some do today. A leafy tree lacking such early figs, however, would bear no figs at all that year.
In other words, this fig tree had a fine display of leaves, but the leaves weren’t leading to any fruit and weren’t going to lead to any fruit. The tree was putting all its effort into itself and offering nothing for anyone else. As France concludes, “it offered promise without fulfillment.”
To that Jesus says, in effect, “If that’s the way you want it, that’s the way you’re going to get it. You have all these leaves but you’re not bearing any fruit—fine: you’ll never bear fruit again.” And with that, the tree begins to die from the roots up. Don’t take that “immediately” too seriously, by the way—it’s the same word translated “quickly” in verse 20. There’s a Greek word that means “immediately,” and it occurs about four thousand times in the Gospel of Mark, but that’s not the word here. Matthew isn’t saying the tree magically withered before their eyes, or that verses 19-20 happened in the same moment. He puts the story together like this to make it clear that nothing natural killed this tree, but only the word of Christ.
The disciples certainly got that point, because they’re astounded; they want to know how that could possibly have happened. Jesus responds by telling them, “If you have faith and don’t doubt, you’ll do much greater things than this. You see Mount Zion up ahead there? The psalmist said it can’t be shaken but endures forever. Micah said that in the last days, it will be established as the greatest of the mountains. But you, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can tell it to go throw itself in the sea, and it will be done. What cannot even be shaken, you can uproot, if you pray and believe.”
Now, to our Western minds this seems to say, “You’ll get whatever you want as long as you’re completely convinced God will give it to you”; and unfortunately, that’s how a lot of preachers and teachers present this passage and others like it. Equally unfortunately, a great many others react in the opposite direction and dismiss Jesus’ teaching altogether. Both groups make the same mistake: they think the faith is the point. They think Jesus is saying that the power is in our faith, that it’s our belief that makes things happen. This is completely wrong. There was a song called “Faith” that was big on Christian radio 25 or 30 years ago that declared,
Faith can move the highest mountain,
Turn deserts into fountains,
And part the mighty waters of the deepest sea.
Faith can make a broken heart mend,
Bring the rain from heaven;
Faith can even change the course of history.
That’s popular theology, but it’s pure malarkey, 200 proof. Faithdoes nothing itself; without works, it’s dead. God does everything.
So when Jesus says, “If you have faith and don’t doubt,” or, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer,” if he doesn’t mean that faith lets us call the shots, what does he mean? Well, when the Bible talks about faith, faith is inGod alone, faith is about God alone, faith is from God alone. If your belief comes from you, it doesn’t matter how passionately you hold it or how utterly convinced you are about it, it isn’t faith, it’s just wishful thinking. Biblically, if you have faith and don’t doubt, that can only be because God is calling you and God is commanding you to act. It’s not a matter of dictating to God, but of obeying him.
If Ezekiel had taken it on himself to prophesy to a carpet of dry bones, he could have preached himself hoarse, and they would have just lain there. When the Lord called him to prophesy to those bones that God was going to restore them to life, he went out and preached, and they stood up before his eyes. Jesus was humanly inconceivable, but God told Mary what he was going to do, and she said, “I will obey,” and then she conceived him. Jesus didn’t tell any of his disciples to command Mount Zion to throw itself into the sea, because that wasn’t in his plan; but even that, if they had done it at his word, would have happened. And though it didn’t happen literally, the disciples did see it happen metaphorically in 70 AD, when the Roman army overthrew Jerusalem and tore down the Temple, leaving not one stone on another.
Nothing God commands is impossible, no matter how implausible or unbelievable we might think it to be. Nothing God prevents is possible, no matter how easy or obvious it might seem. The only thing that defines reality and sets the limits of the possible is the will of God. If God calls you to prophesy to a field of bones that he’s going to restore them to life, then go out and preach, and they will stand up before your eyes. If he tells you to command the immovable to move, then give the order, and you will see it done.
One of the key words in our passage from John is the word translated “Advocate.” The Greek word here is parakletos, which has been turned into the English word “paraclete”; some of you may have heard that word at some point. It’s not really a translation, and if you try to use it, people usually think you’re weird. Either that, or they ask, “Didn’t you mean to say ‘parakeet’?” So just trying to use an English version of the Greek word doesn’t work very well, but I understand why some people do it, because this is another one of those words that doesn’t really have a good English translation. Our Bible versions try words like “Helper,” “Advocate,” and “Counselor,” and of course the King James Version used “Comforter,” but none of them really does the job.
In fact, the King James translation has been rather unhelpful over the years, not because it’s inadequate—like I said, every translation is inadequate—but because it has pointed the mind of the English-speaking church in the wrong direction. When we think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, we think of him as being primarily for us, given to us for our benefit. That’s clearly part of the Spirit’s ministry, but it isn’t the main part, as John 14-16 makes clear. First and foremost, the Holy Spirit has come to us to work in and through us for the sake of the world. The Spirit comforts and consoles us because God loves us, but part of that is that he comforts us so that we will be strong to carry out God’s purpose for us, which is: wherever you go, make disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit is working in us to empower and equip us for outreach—making connections and building relationships with people who don’t believe in Jesus—to lay the groundwork for evangelism—communicating the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God—so that people will come to faith in Christ and become his disciples, who will then begin to do the same thing wherever they go. To that end, the Holy Spirit is our Helper/Counselor/Advocate/Comforter/Encourager/Strengthener/Guide, and so on. If “Inspirer” were a word, we could call him that too. He is the one who is with us to testify to us, and to testify through us to the world, about who Jesus is and what he has done and why it all matters.
Note, one, what this means for our mission as Christians and as the church: our first priority, if we go where Jesus sends us and the Spirit leads us, is out into the world to seek and save the lost. Ahead of worship, and of taking care of each other? Yes. The latter is certainly important, which is why the apostles raised up the first deacons in Acts 6, but even there we see it wasn’t first on the list. As for worship, that isn’t part of our mission, it’s the source of our mission. True worship focuses our eyes, our minds, our hearts, and our trust on God, and thus opens us up to the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and where the Spirit points us first is out into the world. It was easy for the church in America to lose sight of that when the world around us looked pretty Christian, but those days are gone. We have a mission field just beyond our front door.
Two, while the mainstream American church in recent years has tended to think of evangelism in terms of attracting people with a certain sort of church experience and focusing on their felt needs, Jesus is talking about something quite different. This isn’t about being seeker-sensitive; it’s more a matter of challenging people to seek Jesus in the first place. The Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus by putting the world to shame about sin and justice and judgment. He brings conviction, not as a prosecutor seeking a legal verdict, but but in our minds and hearts. You’ll note, by the way, that the NIV has “righteousness” rather than “justice”; we’ve seen before that while these are two separate words in Hebrew, the Greek has one word for both. This world calls good evil and evil good, and it has sought to redefine justice and corrupt judgment to feed its own desires; the Spirit confronts it with its guilt in a way that cannot simply be ignored.
Jesus in his ministry on Earth drove people to commitment—either for him or against him. No one ever looked at Jesus and said, “Meh. He’s OK, I guess.” With all due apologies to the Doobie Brothers, no one who knew him ever said, “Jesus is just alright with me.” He didn’t intend to allow anyone the safety of that response. He told people the truth so purely and relentlessly that either they threw away their pride, repented of their sin, and gave him their lives, or else they tried to kill him. No other stance was possible, because he presented the human ego with a rival with which it simply could not peacefully coexist. The Holy Spirit speaks to us, and through us, whatever he hears from Jesus, and so he carries on that same work.
As noted a minute ago, Jesus says three specific things. First, the Holy Spirit puts the world to shame for its sin in refusing to believe in Jesus. As New Testament scholar D. A. Carson puts it,
The world’s unbelief not only ensures that it will not receive life, it ensures that it cannot perceive that it walks in death and needs life. The Holy Spirit presses home the world’s sin despite the world’s unbelief; he convicts the world of sin becausethey do not believe in Jesus. This convicting work . . . is designed to bring men and women of the world to recognize their need, and so turn to Jesus.
Some listen. Others refuse that recognition, unwilling to admit they’re wrong, and either turn and run from Jesus, or else choose to attack.
Second, the Holy Spirit puts the world to shame by revealing that its understanding of what is right and just is false, corrupt, and pitifully inadequate. To quote Carson again, “One of Jesus’ most startling roles . . . was to show up the emptiness of [the world’s] pretensions, to expose by his light the darkness of the world for what it is.” Because Jesus has left this world and is no longer here to do that, the Spirit carries on that work in us, empowering us to live as Jesus lived so that his light shines through us to expose the darkness of the world around us and the emptiness of its claims of justice.
Third, the Holy Spirit puts the world to shame by proving that it’s bowing down to a false judge, for the prince of this world is a liar from the beginning. At his command, the world judged God himself, who is perfectly good and perfectly innocent, to be the worst of sinners, and put him to death. By his resurrection, Jesus proved that judgment to be utterly wrong, the maximum possible error. By that error, the prince of this world stands judged and condemned, and the judgment of the world which follows him is shown to be “profoundly wrong and morally perverse.”
When we think about evangelism, then, we need to realize that our good news for the world doesn’t begin with “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” The American journalist and cynic H. L. Mencken once said, “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones is alive”; similarly, many modern American approaches to evangelism consist in saying “Jesus died for your sins” to people who never knew they had any, and have no real idea what Jesus dying has to do with anything anyway. The message of Jesus is only good news to people who’ve accepted the bad news. That’s why prostitutes liked him better than Pharisees did—the bad news wasn’t news to them—and it’s why the bad news is where the Spirit begins.
I’ve been encouraging you to be praying for four non-believers, and asking God to open up opportunities for you to share your faith with at least one of them. Sean Johnston has added to that the suggestion that at least one of those four be an enemy of yours. I want you to have an eye toward inviting one of those for whom you’re praying to come with you to our Christmas Eve service. But as you’re praying, be open to the Spirit of God and asking him to tell you what to say, and remember this passage from John; be aware that before you can share the good news of new life in Christ, the Spirit may first call you to be the bearer of bad news about sin and justice and judgment.
We saw last week, looking at Ezekiel 37, that the bones of Israel were dry and lifeless, but they did have one thing going for them: they knew they were dead. This world believes it’s alive and doing just fine, even as it stands under the sway of the prince of death. The work of revival in any of our hearts begins with opening our eyes to see through its illusion of life to recognize our need for true life, which can only be found in Jesus Christ; this is the work the Spirit seeks to do through us for others. May we be people who love others enough to speak this inconvenient truth.
The call of God is a blessing, but it isn’t always anything the world would recognize as a blessing. We see that in the lives of a number of people in the Bible, but perhaps in no one more than the prophet Ezekiel. He was a young Jewish priest dragged off to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar and his armies during the Babylonian conquest of the kingdom of Judah. He’d been trained for a position of spiritual leadership, and he clearly took that responsibility seriously. However, while he may have been fine with being a priest, it seems clear he didn’t want to be a prophet. He fought God and tried to rebel, but the Spirit of God overwhelmed him and drove him to proclaim the word of the Lord to his people.
Looking back, you can’t blame him; maybe he had some sense of what the prophetic ministry would cost him. None of God’s prophets had it easy, for most of them were charged with proclaiming the grief and wrath of God at the unfaithfulness of his people, but Ezekiel bore that far more heavily than most of them. As the Old Testament scholar Daniel Block writes, “While prophets were known often to act and speak erratically for rhetorical purposes, Ezekiel is in a class of his own. The concentration of so many bizarre features in one individual is without precedent: his muteness; lying bound and naked; digging holes in the walls of houses; emotional paralysis in the face of his wife’s death; ‘spiritual’ travels; images of strange creatures, of eyes, and of creeping things; hearing voices and the sounds of water; . . . and the list goes on. . . . What other prophets spoke of, Ezekiel suffers. . . . [He carries] in his body the oracles he proclaims and [redefines] the adage, ‘The medium is the message.’”
Chapter 37 is all of a piece with that. The Lord reaches down and abruptly pulls Ezekiel into a vision—a horrible vision. He’s set down in the middle of a valley he appears to know well, though he doesn’t name it, and sees the ground covered with dry bones, bleached white by the Mediterranean sun. Clearly, the valley has been the site of a vast human slaughter; to make matters worse, the bodies had been denied proper burial and left out for the buzzards. That was the sort of treatment given to the cursed, to traitors and false allies and those who broke their covenant oaths—such as faithless Israel, whom God had sent into exile for their evil deeds. The prophet is amazed at the vast number of bones, and astonished at how dry they are. There’s no life in them at all, and hasn’t been for a very long time.
As Ezekiel already knew, these bones do indeed represent the people of Israel. As we saw some weeks ago, they’re a dead nation; they’ve been wiped off the map, and by all the normal rules, they’ll never be seen or heard from again. There were many individuals alive, but as a people, they had no present and even less future. And then the Lord turned to his prophet and asked, “Son of man”—mortal, human being, Earthling—“can these bones live?” Well, are yougoing to tell the Lord of the universe no? And yet, no other answer is conceivable. So Ezekiel does the reasonable thing: he ducks the question. “Lord, only you can answer that one.”
God doesn’t let him get away with it; if Ezekiel won’t give an answer, he will become the answer. “Prophesy to the bones,” the Lord commands—just as if dry bones could hear and understand. “Tell them, ‘Listen to the word of the Lord. The Lord God declares, “Look! I will put breath into you and bring you back to life. I will reconnect you with tendons and ligaments, I will restore your flesh, and I will cover you with skin; I will put breath into you and bring you back to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”’” Ezekiel does as he’s told, and the response is so rapid and so strong that while he’s still speaking, the bones rearrange themselves—so quickly that they knock against each other on the way—and bodies regrow around them.
And yet, despite God’s promise, they’re still dead. In fact, verse 9—the NIV softens this a bit—refers to them as “slain corpses,” the dead fallen in some enormous battle. The Lord again commands Ezekiel to prophesy, and at this point we need to step back for just a moment. In Hebrew, “breath,” “spirit,” and “wind” are all the same word, ruaḥ. The Spirit of the Lord, the breath God promises to restore to the bones, the four winds from which the breath is to come, are all the same word. This wordplay running through this passage emphasizes the point that all life is from God, and that he does what he will. For him, to carry off Ezekiel in a vision and bring human beings back to life when there’s nothing left of them but dead, dry bones is as simple as making the wind blow.
And so Ezekiel prophesies, and so the Lord does, breathing the breath of life—breathing the spirit of life—into this vast field of the dead just as he did into the first human being back in Genesis 2. Then beginning in verse 11, God gives his prophet the interpretation of his vision. The bones represent the entire nation of Israel—not just the southern part, the kingdom of Judah, recently conquered by the Babylonians, but also the northern part, which Assyria had conquered and hauled into exile over 130 years before. They had been conquered, everything that had made them a nation among the nations was gone, and they had no hope. A house had fallen on them, and they were really most sincerely dead; as Miracle Max would put it, there was nothing left to do but go through their clothes and look for loose change. They were in despair, feeling themselves even beyond God’s power to save them.
To this, the Lord says, “No. I will raise you from your graves, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. I will fill you with my Spirit and you will come to life. You will stand on your own ground, and you will know that I am the Lord. I have spoken, and I will do it.” And he does, and he did. He brought in the Persians to conquer Babylon, and inspired their king to send the people of Israel back to their homeland; and then, at the right time, he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to fill them with his Spirit and bring them fully to life. When Jesus came, their leaders forgot all the lessons of their history and treated him just like the prophets whom God had sent them throughout the years before—but they couldn’t overcome him. In fact, their efforts to destroy him only fulfilled his plan to save the whole world.
Jesus allowed his own people to kill him. Though he was perfectly innocent, he let them execute him as the worst of criminals, and by his death, he fulfilled the sentence due to all of us for all our sin. And then he proved that the Jewish leaders hadn’t been reading Ezekiel, because on the third day, he got up from the dead, fully alive again. He spent some time preparing his disciples, and then he left, returning in the body to the throne room of God. In his place, he sent his Holy Spirit to fill all of his people with his life and power—to make us his living body on this planet. With his Spirit, he gave us his ministry: the ministry of revival.
Don’t take that as a metaphor, either, because it isn’t. Jesus came to this world, and he filled us with his Holy Spirit, to raise the dead—and not just the merely dead, either, where you can still see a glimmer of life and hope. He came to make even the dry bones dance for joy in his life. Dead people—spiritually, and even physically—dead relationships—even dead churches and denominations; for all that has gone wrong with the PC(USA), and is only going wronger, he’s fully capable of bringing them back to their first love if he should choose to do so. Shame on us if we look at any challenge and decide it’s impossible. We dismiss things as inconceivable, and God just looks at us and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” No, we shouldn’t try to do the impossible just because it’s impossible; that by itself is far from a guarantee of God’s calling. But we should remember this: what human beings call impossible or even inconceivable is merely an opportunity for God to show his power and glory and goodness, that all may know that he is the Lord.
It’s a proverb among pastors that the Seven Last Words of the Church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” The corollary is: the only truly universal creed of the church is “This is the way we’ve always done it.” A similar idea was expressed more sardonically by Montana pastor Chuck Westermann, writing under the pseudonym Karl Beck: “At your average church, it’s easier to introduce a fourth person into the Trinity than to introduce a new carpet pattern into the nave.” These are the sort of jokes pastors tell each other.
Obviously, this isn’t equally true of every church—but believe it or not, to some degree, it’s true of every church. I learned that in Bellingham. The church where I interned was only seven years old when we started attending; we were 25 and 23 at the time, and we weren’t the youngest couple there. You’d assume from those facts that it was flexible and open to change, but it was actually quite the opposite. When the founding pastor started experimenting with some different ways of doing things, “the way we’ve always done it” fought back with a vengeance, never mind that “always” covered less than a decade. One group of people, including some of the leaders, drew up sides; nobody else was choosing sides, but as far as they were concerned, anyone who disagreed with them was against them. Not long after we left there, the pastor chose to jump ship; in his hurry to jump before he was pushed, he and his wife didn’t look before they leaped. Five years later, that church was dead; five years after that, so was he.
Every church has this attitude to one degree or another, because this mindset comes from running the church according to the principles and practices of this world—and every church does that in its day-to-day operations. We’re human beings and the church is a human organization; it’s inevitable. We see ourselves doing the work of the church, we see our work producing or failing to produce the growth of the church, and so we understand the church as the product of our work, and thus as something that belongs to us. The people who don’t support the way things are done, leave; the ones who stay are the ones who do. When you find something you like, something you’re comfortable with, of course you want to keep it going, and not let it end.
The more we think this way, the more we believe (whatever we might say) that we’re the ones who build the church, and we have the right to decide how we build it and what we want to build it into. The more we think this way, the more wedded we become to the way we’ve been doing things, both because that way is familiar and comfortable to us, and because it’s proven. We can put our faith in it and feel confident that we’ll get results that we like. What we end up with is a church that may talk about God, but that has no real place for him in its decision-making or its day-to-day life, and no sense that it actually needs him for anything.
What about living by faith in God? Well, we pay lip service to the idea. We’re all for it, until it gets to the point of actually living by faith. Suggest anything that drastic, and we start talking about this person we knew who refused any medical treatment because they were sure that if they had enough faith, God would heal their cancer. Around here, folks will bring up the Glory Barn. Clearly, since these people claimed to be living by faith in God and they were wrong, the whole idea is ridiculous, right? Well, maybe not. Actually, what examples like that show us is the importance of living by faith in Godrather than in our ability to make God do what we want. It’s an easy mistake to make, because we tend to associate faith with results—we have faith that God will do something, and our faith is validated or not by whether or not God does it. To have faith in God whether he does what we want or not—to be able to say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I praise him”—that’s a much harder thing.
To do that, each of us has to set aside the natural idea that the church is here for me, to meet my needs and give me what I want and be what I want it to be. Yes, the church is here for you and for me and for each of us, but not for any of us in particular; it’s here for each of us the same way it’s here for everybody else, including a whole lot of people who aren’t here yet. It isn’t aboutany of us, it doesn’t belong to any of us, and it doesn’t exist to serve our purposes; it belongs to God alone, it’s about him alone, and it exists for his purposes alone. That includes providing for us and taking care of us—but on his terms, not ours. Even there, it’s not about what we think we need or deserve, but about what God knows we need and is going to give us.
Now, nothing I’ve said to this point is unique to the church; Israel was a lot worse. That’s what Isaiah is dealing with here. Earlier in chapter 43, God calls his people to bear witness to all the ways in which he has blessed them—and in so doing, perhaps to see his blessings for themselves for the first time, and actually begin to understand themselves as the people of God. They haven’t forgotten that God did all these things, but they have no sense that what he did in the past means anything to them; they don’t see it as connected to their lives. No doubt they believe God had delivered their ancestors from Egypt; what they don’t believe is that that has anything to do with their lives and circumstances. They believe God had saved, but not that he will save—and that makes all the difference. It’s not that hard to believe that God has done miracles in the past—but that he’s still in the miracle business now? That’s another matter.
We’ve seen in this series so far that the work of the people of God is the work of revival, and that the work of revival is the work of the world made new, because that’s what God is on about; and we’ve seen that we’re completely dependent on him to make this happen, because it isn’t something we can do by our own effort and our own methods. The problem is, it’s easier to put our faith and trust in things we can see than in God whom we cannot see; it’s easier to put our trust in methods and programs and strategies, and it lets us take credit for the work, and claim ownership. As a consequence, we’re constantly being tempted into idolatry, and God’s work has to begin with the reconversion of his people to faith in him.
That’s what we see in Isaiah 43. In verses 16-17, the prophet gives Israel a vivid reminder that the Lord is the one who led the Egyptian army out to their destruction in the sea so that his people could escape; we don’t see this in the NIV, but these verses are mostly in present tense. This isn’t just something God did in the past, it’s something he’s still doing. Then in verses 18-19, the Lord says, “But never mind how I did it. Don’t get hung up on the way I’ve done things before. I’m doing a new thing. I’m still your deliverer, but I don’t need to do anything the same way twice.” God isn’t bound by the way he’s done things before, or the way we’ve done them before; when he moves in power in his people, for his people, through his people, he does a new thing in a new way, so that we can’t fool ourselves into thinking it’s our work—and so that we see that this isn’t just stuff that happens in the Bible.
Too many of us have this nice little box labeled “God” full of all sorts of things God did a while ago, and it really doesn’t have a lot to do with how we live our daily lives. We pray, though maybe not that much, and we read our Bibles, at least a little, but when it comes to the issues we face and the choices we have to make, a lot of us are functional atheists—we do things just like the world does. Not only do we not ask God to guide us, a lot of the time, we don’t even take him into account—we base our decisions solely on “practical” considerations, things we can see and touch and quantify. And that’s not how God wants us to live. He wants us to remember, in everything we do, that we are children of the Lord of the Universe, that he loves us, and that he’s working for our good—including in ways we can’t predict, or see coming. He wants us to walk by faith, not by sight. He wants us to hear him saying, “See, I’m doing a new thing—it’s springing up right before your eyes. Don’t you see it? I’m making a way in the desert, and streams in the wasteland. Can’t you see? Look. Open your eyes. See.”
Micah 6 is a court scene: God, through his prophet, is putting his people on trial. In the first five verses, he calls them into court and declares his indictment against them. He reminds them of the covenant he made with them, which he has faithfully kept and they have dishonored. The only appropriate response would be to repent of their sin and recommit themselves to honor the covenant as faithfully as God has. Instead, in verses 6-7, we see someone speak for Israel who wants to reduce the covenant to a contract. A covenant is a 100% commitment on both sides—when you make a covenant, you’re all in, heart and soul. A contract is 50/50: meet the minimum requirements, and you can do what you like with the rest of your time. Here we see Israel bargaining with God, haggling over the minimum requirements so they can get him off their back.
I like the way Bruce Waltke describes the speaker here and his attitude:
Blinded to God’s goodness and character, he reasons within his own depraved frame of reference. He need not change; God must change. He compounds his sin of refusing to repent by suggesting that God, like man, can be bought. His willingness to raise the price does not reflect his generosity but veils a complaint that God demands too much; the reverse side of his bargaining is that he hopes to buy God off as cheaply as possible.
Micah responds to the fake religiosity of the speaker by saying, in essence, “Don’t you play games with me. You know what the Lord wants from you; he’s told you many times.” He could stop there, but he still goes on to summarize the Lord’s requirements, giving them one last chance to listen and obey.
The landing point in verse 8 is the last line: “to walk humbly with your God.” The primal human temptation is to live proudly toward God—to declare, in the words of the poet William Henley, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Or if you prefer, you could channel Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way.” It’s the insistence that I don’t care what God wants, I want my own way, I deserve to get what I want, and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get it. What does the Lord require of you? Set that aside, and bend your stiff neck; accept that he’s the boss, not you, that your life belongs to him, not to you, and that he has the right to control everything, not you. Live your life for him, not for yourself, and for his approval, not for your own satisfaction.
The character of such a life is revealed in the next-to-last line of verse 8, which combines two of the most loaded words in the Old Testament. “Mercy” is the word ḥesed, which we talked about several weeks ago; it’s the unrelenting, unfailing love and faithfulness of God toward his people with whom he has made his covenant, to whom he has made his promises. You might have wondered at the time why we translate it “mercy,” but there’s good reason. Human beings may show mercy for a lot of reasons which aren’t particularly noble; what we call mercy is often just indifference, or fear, or an attempt to promote our own agenda. It’s easy to act as if we’re merciful when we don’t really care all that much about justice. God, however, is absolutely and fiercely just. He shows us mercy not because he doesn’t think our sins matter that much, but because he loves us even more, and his faithfulness is even fiercer.
Having said that, we need to understand what God means by “justice,” which is the other loaded word in this verse; the Hebrew word is mishpat. Old Testament scholar Paul Hanson defines mishpat as “the order of compassionate justice that God has created and upon which the wholeness of the universe depends.” Actions in keeping with mishpat are those which advance the restoration of the original created order of the universe, when everything was right—just, and whole—in accordance with God’s perfect will.
So then, the life of those who walk humbly with God is a life characterized by the justice and mercy of God; but note how. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love mercy. We turn that around. We want, first, to love justice. That sounds like a noble thing, and we’re able to tell ourselves it is; but whether quickly or slowly, those who love justice come in the end to love justice as they define it. This is because we instinctively believe that justice is something which is owed to us and to the people we care about: justice means we get what we think we deserve. As the missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin observed, “Each of us overestimates what is due to him as compared with what is due to his neighbor,” and we use the language of justice to try to enforce that overestimation.
Second—no, we don’t want to do mercy, it’s not that easy a swap—but we want mercy done to us. We want justice only to be for us, not against us; for ourselves, even when we admit we deserve justice, we want mercy instead. After all, whatever anyone else might think, we know we had good reason for everything we did; if maybe we went a bit too far or shouldn’t have handled things the way we did, it wasn’t actually that big a deal. Maybe technically we should be judged, but really, we ought to be cut some slack. We ought to be let off lightly, or maybe even let off the hook altogether.
We naturally see justice and mercy as things we should receive from others. Micah turns us around: justice and mercy are what God calls us to give others. He tells us to do justice—to treat those around us in ways which are consistent with the character and nature of God and obedient to his will—and there are no exceptions here, and no escape clauses. When others don’t do justice to us, we come hard up against the next command: love mercy. Like the God whom we serve, we’re to keep treating those around us with his love and grace even when they obviously don’t deserve it. We’re called to do justly to others, but not demand that for ourselves; we’re called to love God’s mercy and extend it to others, but not insist on it for ourselves.
From a worldly point of view, this is a good way to lose out. The world is with the proud. The world honors those who demand justice—until someone comes along with a more convincing demand. The world even honors some who call for mercy, as it’s busy changing its idea of justice. The world respects those who go after everything they want, especially if they manage to get it. That’s the way to succeed in this world. Walking humbly with God just doesn’t get the job done.
But the world isn’t all it thinks it is. Its success doesn’t last, and its powers don’t endure; the Lord blows on them, and they wither and fade. To those who walk humbly with him, he gives this promise: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” The world is with the proud, but the Lord is with the humble; and it is the Lord who is always faithful, and the Lord who never fails.
In order to understand what’s going on in Isaiah 64, we need to understand more about the book as a whole. The driving concern all through Isaiah’s ministry is the contrast between what Israel is called to be—namely, God’s servant among the nations, through whom he will draw all the nations to himself—and what Israel actually is—their idolatry, their injustice, and their insistence on putting their trust in themselves and their military power (such as it was) instead of in their God.
The first five chapters set out the broad themes of the book; chapter 6 tells the story of God calling Isaiah as a prophet. Chapters 7-39 are the first main section of the book, showing us Isaiah’s prophetic ministry. When the kingdom of David and Solomon split, the ten northern tribes took the name “Israel” with them; the south became known as “Judah” after its dominant tribe. Isaiah was a prophet in Judah, beginning under the reign of King Ahaz. At that time, the main threats Ahaz worried about were Israel and Syria. Isaiah went to Ahaz and told him, “This is what God says: Israel and Syria are plotting to invade you, but just trust me—they won’t do it, because I’m going to stop them. Ask me for a sign—anything—and I’ll give it to you to confirm this.” Ahaz refused, because he had already decided to ally himself with the Assyrian empire and use them to take care of Syria and Israel.
Now, that was like calling in a lion to drive out a stray cat. It made God angry that his people would rather trust their bloodthirsty enemy than him, and he gave Ahaz a message through Isaiah: because of the king’s refusal to put his trust in God, Assyria would bring disaster on the nation. Judah would be saved from being conquered, but only by the skin of their teeth. Over the course of time, that’s exactly what happened. At the worst, which we see in Isaiah 36, the Assyrian armies held every city in Judah except for Jerusalem. By this time, however, Hezekiah was king. Unlike his father Ahaz, Hezekiah put his trust in God, and God drove out the Assyrians and delivered the nation.
And then came disaster. All through his ministry, Isaiah had been telling the king and the people that the real threat to them wasn’t the Assyrians but the empire coming along behind them, the Babylonians. In Isaiah 39, Hezekiah made a critical mistake. When envoys came from the king of Babylon, Hezekiah did everything he could to make an ally of them. He made the same mistake Ahaz did, choosing to put his trust in his enemy rather than in God—God whom he had already seen deliver his nation from the power of Assyria. In response, the word of judgment comes: Babylon will conquer Judah, and your people and treasures will be carried off into exile.
With that, the book of Isaiah leaves historical account behind. The prophet has seen the worst; now he has to deal with it. The story of the people of God couldn’t end there, or it would invalidate everything God had ever said about himself. For God to be faithful, he would have to bring his people back from exile—but how? On what basis? What will God do with this people who refuse to be the servant people he called and created them to be? Will they respond to their exile by repenting and changing their ways, or will God’s work have to go forward some other way?
Beginning in chapter 40, Isaiah receives a series of messages from God which deal with those questions. He’s given words of comfort and hope, such as we saw two weeks ago in Jeremiah 31, which is written a little later on. He’s also given hints that God’s people will not respond in their exile as they should, as we saw last week in reading Daniel 9. Most of all, he’s given the promise of God’s anointed Servant who will carry on his work, to redeem not only Judah but the nations. Isaiah is standing before the catastrophe to come, looking ahead to both disaster and deliverance, and seeing the sin of his people persist through all of it. He’s seeing the unworthiness and faithfulness of Israel, and the unyielding faithfulness and mercy of God. The contrast moves him to anguish, and at the end of chapter 63 he cries out, “God, we can’t break our pattern of sinning because you aren’t helping! Why not? Why do you let us live as if we’d never known you?”
That’s where chapter 64 begins. Our English translations give the wrong impression, because this is actually past tense, not future; the language of the first three verses is disjointed, full of powerful emotions. “O, that you had torn open the heavens and come down, your presence shaking the mountains—like fire burning the brush and boiling water—revealing your nature to your enemies, your presence shaking the nations, doing awe-inspiring things we could never have imagined—had you come down, your presence shaking the mountains . . . No one has heard of a God like you, no one has ever seen such a God, who acts for those who are waiting for him!”
The gods of this world claim the power to split the heavens and shake the mountains—whether we turn to the god called Ba’al, or the one called Technology—but they’re just copying your power; and yet they impress people, and the nations follow after them. They can’t be trusted, they aren’t faithful. God, you alone are faithful; you can be trusted! Why don’t you come down and show the world the real thing that we keep trying to fake?
Two things need to be said here. One, God doesn’t act for anyone who calls out to him once, but for those who wait for him. As John Oswalt writes, “‘to wait’ is to manifest the kind of trust that is willing to commit itself to God over the long haul. It is to continue to believe and expect when all others have given up. It is to believe that it is better for something to happen in God’s time than for it to happen on my initiative in my time.” It refers to those who live by faith in God even when it seems to be pointless.
What does that look like? We see that in verse 5. First, the one who waits for God is one who does what is right out of joy in the Lord, and finds his joy in doing what is right. Second, the one who waits for God is one who is devoted to God, who is pursuing God himself, nothing else. To quote Oswalt again, “to wait for the Lord is . . . to commit the future into God’s hands by means of living a daily life that shows that we know his ways of integrity, honesty, faithfulness, simplicity, mercy, generosity, and self-denial.” It is to do so not to impress others or to win any worldly advantages, but simply out of the desire to know God and to please him. These are the people for whom God acts; they are the ones whom God meets, and often when he’s least expected.
Now, you might say, “People who live like that—it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and they get eaten. That’s just not a reasonable expectation to put on people.” You know what? I won’t argue with you. That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in, that Isaiah describes in verses 5-7—a lament that’s probably as true in our own mouths as in Isaiah’s. That’s why Isaiah cries out as he does in the beginning of this chapter, because we have no other hope. If we put our trust in ourselves, as King Ahaz did, then even our most righteous acts—even the ones where we’re most trying to please God—are just filthy rags. If we’re trying to make things happen our way in our own time, even the best of it is filthy rags, nothing more.
We need to wait for God, knowing that if he doesn’t meet us here and he doesn’t act for us, then yeah, we’re going to get eaten. That’s the place of faith. In faith, we need to cry out to God that he will do as Isaiah wished he had done: that he will show up in power, his glory tearing open the heavens and his presence shaking the earth. And as we wait, and as we pray, we need to call others to join us, both within the church and without. We need to call our fellow Christians so that the joy of the Lord in us will refresh and renew the church; we need to call out to those who aren’t so that the joy the Lord has given us will freshen their spirits for the first time. I encouraged you some time ago to be praying for four non-believers, and asking God to give you opportunities to share the gospel with them; I hope you’re still doing it, for the sake of their souls, and for the sake of your own.
The first thing that needs to be said this morning is that 2 Chronicles 7:14 doesn’t mean what we often use it to mean. It does not read, “If American Christians humble themselves and pray . . . then I will heal America.” This is God’s promise to Solomon for his nation, and it’s a specific response to the king’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, which takes up most of chapter 6. What God promises in 7:13-15 is a summary of what Solomon asks for in 6:18-31, 36-40. Verse 14 isn’t a generic promise to anyone who reads it, it’s God honoring his servant’s request, and it’s specific to its context: the worship and sacrifices of the whole nation of God at his temple.
Israel was a nation composed of one people which God had created as his chosen people, and organized around the worship of God. Even the king was in some ways under the authority of the priests; he didn’t appoint them or control them in any way, and he had to go to them to offer sacrifices for his sin just the same as anyone else in Israel. What’s in view in verse 14 isn’t God’s people within a given nation—God’s people are the nation. If the nation as a whole repents, God promises to heal them. As such, we can’t take this to mean that if Christians in America pray, God will certainly heal this country—especially if we insist on our own idea of what that healing would look like.
Now, am I saying that this promise has no relevance to us at all? No. As the British Old Testament scholar Martin Selman observes, “the fact that spiritual restoration is offered to one nation also makes it available in principle to any other nation. . . . The spiritual health of each nation is something in which God has a direct interest.” Further, “How far the corporate life of one’s own nation shows evidence of spiritual decline or progress depends to a significant extent on the prayers of Christian people.” We can’t just apply 2 Chronicles 7:14 to ourselves, but we can certainly learn from it.
First, note that God’s promise in chapter 7 answers the prayers of one man in chapter 6—but not one man praying on his own behalf. That one man was the king, God’s anointed leader of his people, praying on behalf of the whole nation as they dedicated the new temple for the worship of God. If we would pray for the healing of the nation, we need to stand for the nation and pray on its behalf, not as “them” but as “us.”
Second, consider what 7:14 requires: humble repentance, in prayer and action, from our wicked ways. If we would see God move to change our nation, we must begin by giving up and letting him change us. We need to begin by admitting that we’re sinners—and not just in some generic “everybody sins” kind of way, because none of us are generic sinners. We’re all very specific sinners. We are proud, we are lazy, we are liars, we are self-righteous, we are manipulative, we are greedy, we are lustful, we are gossips, we are self-indulgent, we are judgmental, we are wrathful, and whatever else we might be. It’s not enough to say, “God, I’m a sinner”; we need to confess, “I am this sinner,” and be honest with him and ourselves about the details. This means allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal our hearts to us, with all the things we’d rather not see—and it means listening when he does so by speaking to us through other people. It means being humble enough to know that sometimes we deserve correction and rebuke from those around us.
Third, put these two things together, and look at the example of Daniel. Daniel was reading the prophecies of Jeremiah, and the Spirit of God showed him that the appointed time for the Jews to return from exile to Jerusalem was drawing near. You might have expected him to rejoice at that, but instead he responds with grief, because he recognizes that his people are still deep in their sin against God. He knows that Israel deserved God’s judgment; he also knows that their continued unfaithfulness to God should earn them only more judgment, not an end to judgment. They aren’t confessing their sins to God, and they aren’t repentant; so he identifies himself with his people and stands in their place to confess their sins and repent on their behalf, and to ask God for mercy. He doesn’t say, “They have sinned,” though he himself is as close to blameless as anyone ever is; he says, “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled.”
This seems strange to our ears, being the products of a highly individualistic culture; we tend to see sin and guilt and salvation as purely individual things. Your sin is your problem, not mine, and your salvation is between you and Jesus. Biblically, though, we’re a lot more closely connected than that, and our selfish individualism is an aspect of the sin of Cain. We don’t actually exist as isolated individuals, but in webs of relationships—families, friends, colleagues and co-workers, communities, and so on. As the great preacher and poet John Donne wrote, meditating on the sound of the funeral bell,
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were . . . : any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
What my family does, what my church does, what my denomination does, what my nation does—I am part of them, and therefore I’m involved in each of those actions, even if I never chose them. The same goes for each of us.
Before we can follow Daniel’s example, we need to humble ourselves to confess our own sins; we need to acknowledge and begin to turn away from our own wicked ways. We have no right to confess “their” sins for “them,” as if we somehow stood apart from the sins of humanity; we have every right to stand with and for the people of this nation and confess our collective sins for the sake of those who have not yet come to repentance.
Jeremiah 31 gives us one of the great biblical pictures of revival. We could have read the whole chapter, but it would have been too much to absorb all at once, let alone to address in one sermon. There’s powerful imagery here, building off the previous chapter with its promises of restoration and reminders of judgment. Look at verse 2: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” The Lord brought the sword down on his people for their rebellious ways; it was his hand, wielding the conquering armies of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, that drove them into the wilderness. At that point, they were a dead nation. Of the conquered nations of the ancient world, there were some few who survived through cultural conquest—their culture was so great, it overcame that of their conquerors; think China or Greece. A few survived in name only; we still have nations called Syria and Egypt, but they have nothing else in common with their ancient namesakes. All the rest disappeared into the sands of time.
Except for Israel. They were a dead nation walking, but after God drove them into the wilderness, there he showed them grace, and reaffirmed his covenant faithfulness, the faithfulness of his promise, to them. He has razed them to the ground; now he promises a day when he will build them up again, bringing them back to life as a people. They are devastated, as a consequence of their own sin, but he promises them abundance and prosperity. They are scattered to the four winds; he will gather them home, tenderly care for them on the way, and then guard them as their shepherd. They are mourning now, but they will rejoice, because the Lord who sold them into slavery to the nations for their disobedience has now redeemed them—has bought them back for himself. Even the children who were lost will be found, and brought home from the land of the enemy.
Why will this happen? Is it because the people of God finally came to their senses and turned back to him? Is God responding to a new spirit of faithfulness in Israel? No. There is some evidence of repentance in verses 18-19, but it’s not much more than, “You punished me, I’m sorry, please stop punishing me.” Beyond that, nothing. This chapter doesn’t begin with anything people do, it begins with what God is doing, and almost all of it is about what he’s doing and what he’s going to do. This is God’s initiative and God’s work from beginning to end.
As far as I know, there has never been a revival born out of an organized political or social movement to improve the world. There’s never been one that started with the rich, the powerful, and the influential. If you want to talk about social reform movements, the Pharisees are an absolutely classic one, and what did they do about the revival that was born through Jesus and burst out in the early church? They fought it at every turn and did their level best to kill it. You will not bring revival by demanding your rights, campaigning for politicians, or fighting in court. You may hinder it, though, if you’re not careful.
Revivals don’t come through demonstrations of human power, but through admissions of human weakness, and dependence on God. They don’t come through money; in fact, money doesn’t seem to have much to do with them at all. They may come through people who happen to be rich, or powerful, or wise, but only if they heed the words of God in Jeremiah 9: “Let not the wise boast in their wisdom, let not the powerful boast in their power, let not the rich boast in their riches, but if anyone would boast, let them boast in this: that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord who practices covenant love and mercy, justice, and righteousness in the earth.” That’s hard, which is why revival more often comes through people on the margins of society. They’re the ones who know they need it. The greatest enemy of revival is self-satisfaction.
If revival won’t come through human power and human efforts to be righteous, then how and why will it come? Jeremiah is ruthlessly clear on this: only by the mercy of God. I’ve talked about this before, that the Hebrew word we translate “mercy” is the word ḥesed; there’s only a couple Hebrew words you need to know, and this is first among them. Sally Lloyd-Jones in her wonderful Jesus Storybook Bible describes it as God’s “Never Stopping, Never Giving up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love,” and that captures it as well as anything. It is the relentless faithfulness of God to his people, to keep the promises he has made, and the love that absolutely refuses to stop loving us, or even to love us any less. Thus he declares, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”
God’s work is drastic. Jeremiah and Paul both know this. God doesn’t save us because we’ve done anything right at all. He does it according to his own mercy, because he loves us despite ourselves. And when he saves us, he doesn’t just give us a list of rules and tell us to go out and behave ourselves better. That’s what we do with our kids, not what God does with us. He’s not on about giving us some life skills and some tools and principles for self-improvement. Lifehacker is a useful website, but it’s not a model for Christlike living.
God is on about making us new the way he’s making the heavens and the earth new. We’ll still be ourselves, because we’ll be ourselves as we’re supposed to be—which means we’ll be very, very different from who we are now. In Jesus, we’re born all over again, brand new from the inside out, made new by the Holy Spirit, “whom God poured out on us richly, abundantly, overflowing, through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Laws? Where we’re going, we won’t needlaws—not when God gets done with us. Our hearts will beat with his law, and the knowledge of God will be the marrow of our bones.
Of course, we don’t see this fully now, and we won’t until all the world is judged; but remember, the work of revival is the work of the new Jerusalem, the power of the kingdom of God breaking in to this world order. What we see in Jeremiah is what God is doing with this world, it’s what he’s doing in us and through us and with us, and what every part and every moment of our lives is for. This is what the church is for, and what we’re about: this is the gospel—not just the gospel of salvation, but the gospel of the kingdom. It’s the promise that the covenant faithfulness and mercy of God is overcoming and will overcome the faithlessness and false justice of this world.
This is why I had Kaleb sing “The Great Storm Is Over” two weeks ago. I wanted him to sing it while we were in Revelation because that’s the main source of the imagery of the song; I was hoping it would stick in some of your minds, attach itself to the biblical text, and just keep humming there in the back. The Book of Revelation is the soil from which that song grows; here this morning is the application. Our message to the world isn’t, “You need to live better.” It isn’t, “You’d better shape up—or else.” It isn’t, “We’re going to pass a bunch of laws to make you behave.” We’ve been given a promise of hope to those who know they’re weak and vulnerable in the face of the storm of life: One is coming who will calm the storm. In fact, he already has—we just haven’t gotten to that point in the story yet.
Our message is, “Be at peace—let go of your fear. Your Father in heaven loves his own, and his faithful mercy is more sure than this world’s faithless justice.” No, we don’t see our heavenly Father with us, but we do have a spiritual mother here: the bride of Christ, the church. We have been given a song to sing in the night, a song of peace and love and hope, a song of the mercy of God; and whatever else we do and whatever may come, we’ll keep singing it until our Lord returns.
“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” I’m not sure there’s a more beautiful line in all of Scripture than that. Obviously there are many beautiful verses in the Bible; just as obviously, this one would be meaningless without all the rest of them. But I think this one, coming at the climax, may be the best of them all.
Maybe you think I’m making too much of this, but follow me here. I said last week that I don’t believe in immortal souls that live in a spiritual realm called heaven, because what the Bible promises us is the resurrection of the dead into the new heavens and the new earth. More than that, though, this idea that our spirits are immortal and separate things from these bodies that we just happen to wear is completely unbiblical. If you start with that idea, it chops up everything that God is doing. You end up with this division between body and soul, between this world and heaven, between this life and eternal life, and ultimately the idea that this life and this world are only here to determine who’s going to heaven and who isn’t. That’s wrong. The life of the world to come will still be the same life and the same world, even as it will be made completely new.
Look at the picture John gives us. At the center of the city stands the throne of God. No longer will he rule from on high, far above and beyond us, but from right in the center of his people. From his throne—from his authority, from his lordship, from his unchallenged rule—flows the river of the water of life. We’ve talked about this before, that in a hot, dry climate without our modern technology, it was water that determined whether there would be life. If there was clear, flowing fresh water, plants could grow, and animals and people could live. If not, then not.
Here, the city has its own river, which flows right down the middle of its main street—right at the heart of all its business and traffic. Our cities are creators of culture, but they’re consumers of life. They can’t produce the food to feed those who live there, or the raw materials to feed their factories and supply their stores. The culture of our cities consumes the life of our fields and forests. In the new earth, that will no longer be the case. Life will flow from the city of God, for the city will be the place from which he rules the world. His reign will be the source of its life, and the center of its activity.
On either side of the river stands the tree of life. Don’t imagine some great mutant tree here; the point is rather that there won’t be just one tree of life anymore, but a whole double row of them. It won’t just bear one kind of fruit, either, but twelve: one crop for each month, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, one for each of the twelve apostles. Our first ancestors had one chance at the tree of life, and lost it when they chose to disobey God; in the new Jerusalem, the new city, the life of God will be abundantly available to all.
And here’s the key: that life covers and fills and revives everything in this world and every part of our existence. What are the nations? Just as the city is the highest point of human achievement, so the nation is the highest point of human identity. Ethnicity, culture, history, land, belonging, loyalty, home, all these things are tied up and bound together in and by our nations. The enduring temptation to divide the world into “us” and “them” and define ourselves by who we’re not is all tied in there too, and has been a driving force behind some of our most horrific wars. And of course, we give the nations lordship, accepting the authority of our various governments over our lives and bowing to their demands. Having rebelled against the God to whom we belong and who is the one true Lord over all creation, we had to come up with some kind of replacement to give structure to human life and keep it all together. The nations are what we came up with.
And just as God redeemed the city, so he redeemed the nations. All of our culture, as we saw last week; all of our history, all of our land with its beauty and brokenness and all we’ve done to it, all of our sense of home and belonging, all the things that make us “us” and not “them”—all our rivalries, all our conflicts, all the walls that divide us—he took all of it and bought it with the blood of the cross and gave it new life. None of it that is true will be abolished or wiped away, but it will all be made right. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
And yes, I said God redeemedthe nations—past tense, already done. We don’t fully experience that now, but the work is already accomplished, in God’s time; and it has already begun, in ours. The world has not yet been born again, but we have. The new Jerusalem has not yet come down from heaven, but the work of the city is already here, and has been given to us to do. It is our privilege and our honor to do it; it’s a blessing from God to give us a part in his work.
This is why and how we need to think and talk about revival, and pray for it to happen. Revivals are part of God’s work of healing the nations. That means, in the first place, they’re nothing we can control or make happen. As the Rev. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote,
A revival is a miracle. It is a miraculous, exceptional phenomenon. It is the hand of the Lord, and it is mighty. A revival, in other words, is something that can only be explained as the direct action and intervention of God. It was God alone who could divide the Red Sea. It was God alone who could divide the waters of the river of Jordan. These were miracles. Hence the reminder of God’s unique action, of the mighty acts of God. And revivals belong to that category. . . . These events belong to the order of things that men cannot produce. Men can produce evangelistic campaigns, but they cannot and never have produced a revival.
Second, this means we cannot be tied down to the way we’ve done things in the past. What we’ve done that has worked before may not be what we should be doing now; God doesn’t tend to reuse his methods, lest we put our trust in the method rather than the Maker. What we’ve tried to no apparent effect may be exactly what we’re called to do in this time, as what God is doing now isn’t the same as he was doing then. And just because we try something and it doesn’t seem to work doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing. When it comes to human effort, it’s well said that “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.” When it comes to following God, though, all bets are off. Often, the faith he uses is the faith that persists in praying and doing his will even when it seems to be pointless and a failure. How long did Noah live with the jeers of his neighbors while he was building the ark?
Third, revival is the only hope for the healing of the nations, including ours. As we look out, we see America swinging away from any respect for Christian faith, and that swing is accelerating. Whole sections of the church think they can hold on to that respect by riding the swing and conforming themselves to what the elite culture demands, but they won’t. The root of the matter is, the rich, the powerful and the influential increasingly want us all to believe that we’re gods to ourselves—because then they’re the biggest gods on the scene, with predictable results—and in the end, the only way the church can conform to that is by committing suicide.
We can’t stop this by writing new laws, because they’ll be interpreted and enforced as it suits those in power. We can’t stop it by electing new politicians, because as they join the elite, many will be corrupted—not all, but far too many. We can’t stop it through the courts, because the courts are part of the problem. As Psalm 146 says, “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.” Rather, our only hope is in the name of the Lord our God, who made the heavens and the earth, and who will make them all new. America doesn’t need to be taken back, it needs to be healed. It doesn’t need to be reprogrammed, it needs to be revived.
If we would restore the ancient foundations that are crumbling before our eyes, don’t pray for electoral victories, or for the government or the courts to protect Christians from opposition, oppression, and persecution; pray for revival. Pray for God to do a mighty work in all our hearts by his Holy Spirit. It’s our only hope.