The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 15, 2019
In 1957, 82% of Americans said that having religious faith helps people deal with almost all of their problems. Today barely half say that. Back then, only 7% said that having faith is irrelevant to solving our problems. Today over a third say that, and 10% on top of that aren’t sure one way or the other.
A perennial human problem is that life always ends up, at some time or another, full of problems. What are we to do to handle the challenge of such adversity?
The Bible says, and many of us testify, that walking with God helps us deal with problems, not by eliminating them from our life, but by making them serve our character development, behavioral improvement, clarification of priorities, and growth in inner power, peace and happiness. Why, many of us have thanked God for our problems because they bettered our life.
The Bible shows us a God who day in and day out leads those who trust and obey Him on a fantastic journey and who makes every step of that journey fantastic in itself. God’s faithful followers find that the tough stretches of the journey bring blessings in disguise, even foretastes of their end-point. They experience the participation of their future destination in their present tribulation. That’s why Teresa of Avila exclaimed, “All the way to heaven can be a bit of heaven itself.”
Tony Snow, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, was a follower of Jesus Christ. In 2008, at the age of 53, he died from colon cancer after a dauntingly difficult battle against the disease. Yet, through his struggle and ultimate defeat, Snow felt uplifted and he shined with the light of the Lord.
Shortly before he died, someone asked him what spiritual lessons he’d learned in the desolate desert of his disease. He replied, “We want lives of simple, predictable ease – smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “But God likes to go off-road.” Snow could say that with a genuine smile, because he had experienced how God takes us off-road for our good and makes the off-road the best road for guiding us to a place of satisfaction and joy. Snow saw firsthand in his own life how the faithful gain gladness of heart in times of sorrow, strength in times of weakness, and peace in times of trouble.
The previous chapter of the book of Isaiah depicts dark, dire days. This 35th chapter turns from that bleak vision and focuses on a bright one, though the audience is still of people passing through deserts of difficulty.
Isaiah here declares with happy exultation that things are going to get better, a lot better! The desert shall “rejoice and blossom” and its lush fields of flowers shall reveal the glory of God. The dry lands shall break forth with streams, and the burning sand shall flood with water. For God shall come and save His people. He shall give courage to the fearful, open the eyes of the blind, and cause the speechless to sing for joy. He shall make what looked like a dead-end in the desert a highway, the Holy Way, the Happy Way, bringing people to Zion and life at its best.
On that highway God shall protect His travelers against the lion and ravenous beast, and lead them by it to a place of perfect rest and endless gladness. And on the way there, He shall make sure that His redeemed shall, ahead of time, experience – always in part but always more and more – the presence of the future toward which they are heading – and something of its power and fulfillment. The difficulties of their journey shall not defeat them; the difficulties shall in fact elevate their character and uplift the quality of their life.
Dr. James Clark, a geologist and a Christian, travelled to the Soviet Union after the fall of Communism there to serve as a lay preacher. One night he addressed a Russian Baptist congregation that had suffered years of persecution. Many of its members had been imprisoned, tortured and even executed for their faith. Clark shared with them an encouraging illustration from geology.
Clay is composed of countless microscopic mineral crystals. Under pressure, the crystals are not crushed or made smaller. Rather, they are changed into bigger biotype grains. With even more pressure, they become bigger still. With that enlargement, some are transformed into garnets, semi-precious gems – and some into what are called straurolites, which means in Greek “stone crosses”. These minerals have been shaped into stunning replicas of the instrument of death on which Christ proved God’s love.
Clark told those persecuted people that pressure and suffering can reshape a believer’s life into a beautiful representation of God’s great grace.
Clark says that he will never forget how those Russian listeners looked as they took in the illustration. It seemed, he says, as if the whole congregation started to sparkle. People’s eyes, often shining with tears, gleamed bright. They reflected the divine glory that their problems had pressed into their souls.
We may feel that our trials and troubles make us more of a mess than a glory. For we typically cannot see the subterranean work of God deep in our souls. Often we need each other to be given the eyes to see it. Often we need the support and encouragement of others to help us believe, hope and gain heart. That’s why the one commandment of this passage is that we “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear.’” Those journeying through the desert stretches of life need the blessing of seeing and feeling the hope-inducing grace of God from us.
Acclaimed artist Benjamin West loved painting from his earliest childhood. Once, when he was but a little boy and his mother had left the house to run a short errand, he pulled out his oils and started to work on his next “masterpiece”. Before long, he was so caught up in the wonder of artistic creativity that he didn’t notice all the paint he was spilling and the big mess he was making. When he finally became aware of the disaster he had brought around him and glanced at the clock, he panicked for fear of his life. His mother would return any second, and he had no time to clean up.
His heart stopped when, with his next breath, he heard his mother walk into the house. What she did next astounded him. She picked up his painting, admired it with a growing smile, and exclaimed, “What a lovely work of art!” Then she gave him a kiss on the cheek and turned to enter the kitchen. With that kiss, West says, he became a painter.
Every believer is meant to paint a picture of the presence of the future, of how God both holds the promise of a perfect tomorrow before our eyes and gives us His perfect help today. Through the difficult, messy process of getting to Zion, we don’t need scolding. We need kisses of encouragement that give us the daring to dream big and set our sights high.
So let us believe in the God who makes for a Holy and Happy Way through all the deserts and all the messes, and let us support one another with the encouragement that will enable us to trust Him on the journey and at each step of it know something of the joyous presence of the future. Let us pray.