Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon - Seek the Lord While He May Be Found

“Come, everyone who thirsts,  come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LordFor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lordan everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” - Isaiah 55

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here.

I want us to do something together. We have already passed the peace this morning, but I want to lead us in another liturgical moment, another call and response that many Christians share every Sunday. As we focus today on the presence of God, I want us to reassure each other of that presence, so I will say “The Lord is with you,” and I would like you to respond, “and also with you.”
The Lord is with you. And also with you.
It is one of those fundamentals – the presence of God. If we seek God, we will find Him.
Psalm 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Psalm 23:4 reads, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
It is Jeremiah 29:13 that says, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”
Matthew 1:23 quotes from Isaiah in telling us: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Immanuel (which means God with us.)”
God with us. Finding God when we seek. Thou art with me.
You know, don’t you, that many on both sides of the culture wars miss the boat on this one.
On one side, the world that does not really understand why we gather here anyway shakes its collective head and feels sorry for us when we start talking about the presence of God. After all, God cannot be seen. On top of that, how can we say that God is with us when this world of His is such a mess? 49 innocent New Zealanders are shot by a maniac. Hundreds of Christians are massacred in Nigeria. Eleven Christians a day are killed somewhere on earth, and many will tell you those killings are directly related to their faith. Wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen have each taken at least 10,000 lives in the last year alone. Wars in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Iraq, and Sudan – all ongoing – have resulted in more than a million and a quarter deaths. Homicide, rape, torture, terrorism… the list goes on.  And that is before we start talking about other classes of awful characteristics of our world – discouragement, disease, divorce, betrayal, heartbreak, loss. No, these folks think, how can we possibly suggest that some invisible, loving God is present?
On the other side are some who portray the presence of God as a formula, a too-easy recipe that will send holy shivers up our spine and turn our frown upside down if we just say the right words and go through the right motions. I want to quote from an article I read recently. I do not know the author and am not sitting in judgment of her; but, time and again, words like these ring hollow to me:
When you audibly speak God's inspired Word, you will sense its power and His presence…. When you start praising Him, regardless of where you are, you'll sense His presence, probably because you're no longer focused on yourself, but on Him.… Say His name aloud – as the Answer to all you seek, as the Source to calm your soul, as the One whose presence you long for and you will sense the power of His presence…. Center your mind on Him and start to breathe deeply. Try it. Exhale the distracting thoughts. Inhale a desire to sense His presence. Exhale your pre-occupation with self. Inhale a desire to know Him more completely. Exhale the worries of the moment. Inhale His peace. Now, don't you feel better already? Can you begin to sense that you're in His arms? [“7 Ways to Seek God’s Presence,”  https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/women/seven-ways-to-sense-god-s-presence. html]

                We all know, or believe we know, or hope we know from where those words and sentiments arise. They emanate, we trust, from the heart of one who knows Jesus and is trying to help others know Him, from one who is honestly trying to lead others to a sense of the presence of God. Many people are hungry for quick answers to their search for God. That is why articles with titles like “Seven Ways to Seek God’s Presence” get published.
And too, if I am honest, all those words are correct sometimes. There are times when speaking the name of Jesus or a Bible verse is enough to make His presence clearer. Most of us would say that the reason we gather in a room that looks like this and sing hymns together is in an effort – one that some might call ritual – to experience God’s presence. I suspect we all can point back to particular worship services – whether in a tent revival or on a youth retreat or in a grand sanctuary or in a small country churchhouse – where the presence of God was undeniably real. The fact is that most of us cling to our memories of the reality of those moments.
Oftentimes, however, things don’t work out that way. We can sing a praise song or call out the name of Jesus or worship for weeks in the holiest liturgy we can find and feel no closer to God than we did when we started.  Pastor Loren Seibold says:
Are you expecting the Holy Spirit to come to you with visions and flashes of light from heaven? That sometimes happens. But not always. Are you waiting for powerful spiritual emotions to overwhelm you? Sometimes the Holy Spirit does that. But not always. Perhaps you have been praying for a feeling of holiness: a sense of awe and wonder and deep assurance. The Holy Spirit may do that as well. But not always. Are you looking for instant deliverance from your grief and pain and problems? Yes, there are times when the Holy Spirit provides powerful comfort and instant guidance. But not always! [Loren Seibold, http://www.signstimes.com/?p=article&a=40007200324.739]

When our search for God is based on feelings that do not materialize and on our expectation of supernatural spectacular pyrotechnics that never happen, we can quickly lose hope of knowing the presence of God. That is why many who grew up in church fall away so quickly – they equate their experiences with God to highly emotional youth retreat or mission trip or BSU or college life group experiences, and when the emotions don’t stay, they decide that God has left too, or worse, perhaps was never there.
          It is not just youth, of course. How many adults are swept up in the message that the presence of God promises them their best life now, a promise that singing the right songs and attending the right services and just wanting to do the right things will result in a cascade of blessings and a permanent feeling of the presence of God alongside in a tangible sense?
          I am a witness that that is frequently not true.
          Jesus talks to us about abiding in Him and He in us. He said that at the Last Supper. As He was heading to death, He promised not to leave us alone. He was not promising that evil would have no more victory or that everything was coming up roses. He clearly did not feel like going to the cross. Abiding in Him has nothing to do with how we feel.
          Over these last six weeks, while seeking the healing presence of the Lord, I have not “felt” God any differently. I have not had a great mountaintop experience. I have not awakened with a smile on my face and a clear sense of guardian angels. I have not even been particularly happy. If my understanding of the presence of God were based on what I feel or on whether I am hearing a holy soundtrack in the background of life as I go about my business, I would be in a real mess.
          The Bible includes stories that seem to make some people stumble here. Moses got a burning bush and Balaam got a talking donkey. Daniel got handwriting on the wall, and lions with closed mouths, and the first-hand story of his friends who escaped the fiery furnace. Jeremiah and Hosea and Amos and Haggai heard the voice of God. John and Peter and Bartholomew and Mary Magdalene got to spend three years with Jesus and witness miracles and resurrection in person. Zechariah and Mary got angels. Paul got a Damascus Road. I have never experienced any of that. I have never heard God speak in an audible voice. I have never been favored with an unmistakable angelic visit. If none of those things has happened to us, we can decide that we have never really been in the presence of God.
          That decision is a common but unfortunate misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches. We don’t get talking donkeys because we have what Balaam did not – the collected canon of inspired scripture on which we can rely and the indwelling Holy Spirit of God.
          The Bible teaches us some basic ways for Christians to experience the presence of God. Those include prayer, reading the Bible, repentance, and worship. Most sermons on this topic – most preachers interpreting the 55th chapter of Isaiah and its call to seek the Lord – tend to focus on those four things. We should pray in order to talk with God on a personal level. We should read scripture, the written word of the Lord, to understand God’s will and nature. We should repent and forsake sin, because unconfessed and ongoing sin will continue to build a barrier between us and God. And we should formalize our regular worship of God as a disciplined means of entering God’s presence.
          All of that is true. Prayer and Bible study and repentance and worship are the building blocks of our relationship with God. If you are not a Christian, then salvation is the first step, inviting Jesus into your heart where He will abide with you, making the presence of God real in your life.
Yes, all of those things are true, but that is not my focus today.
What happens when the crisis comes, and we, who are already saved Christians, do all of that – we pray and we read the Bible and we repent and we worship – and we do not sense any change… we don’t feel any different… we don’t hear God’s voice… we don’t reexperience that mountaintop feeling we knew as a younger, more enthusiastic Christian… we don’t notice any variation at all? How do we interpret the presence of God when we can’t see Him, can’t hear Him, can’t feel Him, and can’t sense that He is making any difference in our circumstances?
          This is a tipping point for so many, especially for so many who grew up in church and just don’t see the point anymore.
          Let’s look together at Isaiah 55.
          This wonderful chapter starts with the invitation: If you are thirsty, come to the waters. You who have no money, come buy and eat. Incline your ear and hear the Lord. These first five verses seem to fit into that pattern I was just describing – a formulaic method for finding God. If you are like me – process-oriented to a fault – then this is what you are looking for. Just show me how to connect the dots to make the trains run on time, and I am happy.
          But that is not what Isaiah is saying. He does not write that we will be filled if we say the right words. He is inviting us to alter our aim, to direct our desires and our hungers to God. If you are thirsty, come to God’s waters. If you are hungry, put your money away and come to the table of the Lord. There is no promise here of immediate ecstasy or of technicolor phenomena that will forever convince you of the presence of God; no, the promise here is a covenant of love. Look at verse 3. This is more than a churched-up version of “don’t worry, be happy.” This is the essence of the presence of God.
          Isaiah does not stop there. We get to the meat of our scripture, verses 6-9:
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I know that is Old Testament, but that is gospel. Note that that formulaic Sunday School stuff is in there.  Pray – “Call upon His name.” Repent – “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts and return to the Lord.” The covenant of love is explained further – God has “compassion” on us and “abundantly pardons.” Perhaps those Sunday School teachers knew what they were talking about all along.
Note also what this scripture tells us about sensing the presence of God – nothing. It tells us to seek God. And it tells us that God may be found. But it does not tell us how to know we have found Him, what God will look like or sound like or feel like.
In fact, Isaiah assures us that we will not understand. God’s ways are not our ways, not because He is playing some holy trick on us but because God is higher, greater than we. “Immortal, invisible, in light inaccessible. The angels adore Thee while veiling their sight. O help us to see ‘tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee”. [Walter Chalmers Smith, “Immoral, Invisible, God Only Wise,” 1867] God lives in a dimension so far beyond us that we cannot comprehend.
And that is ultimately the answer. We need to quit trying to put God into a box, to force the Almighty to take a form we can understand, to capture God in a description that makes sense to us. As odd as it is to us, a talking donkey is something we can imagine. A God who is located in a burning bush at least is within the physics of our world. Those are manifestations that early, primitive humans who did not have either the Bible or the Holy Spirit inside them could hear and see. But Isaiah relates to us God’s message that we need to quit trying to limit God that way, for He cannot be limited, and His revelation of Himself has progressed far beyond what was given to Balaam and Moses in ancient times. God’s ways are not our ways. Just because I would prefer to “feel” a certain something or hear voices or see an angelic creature flapping some wings really matters very little to what the presence of God actually is.
The end of the chapter, verses 10-13, tells us that if we have sought God while He may be found, there are two indicators of God’s presence on which we can count, two ways we can always identify God in our world.
First, God’s work is done.
Notice, I am not saying that God’s work is the presence of God. They are separate; but the work is, according to Isaiah, proof that God is accomplishing God’s purpose among us.
You are evidencing the presence of God when you are doing the will of God, whether you feel Him or not. God works through you, just as God is present to you when God works through others to help you. The Seventeenth Century French monk Brother Lawrence wrote a famous work called The Practice of the Presence of God in which he says: “The most excellent method of going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of God.” [Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, compiled 17th Century, Fourth Conversation, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/lawrence/practice.iii.iv.html]  It is not a matter of feeling ooey-gooey emotions; it is a matter of working step-by-step to please – and display the love of – God. Henry Blackaby writes that the way to experience God is to find where He is working in the world and to join Him there. [https://www.azquotes.com/author/38492-Henry_Blackaby]
God’s word does not return void. As the rain and snow accomplish their objective of watering the earth, so too shall the word of God accomplish God’s purpose. Look around you, those who thirst for the presence of God. Is God accomplishing God’s will? Despite humanity’s warring ways, despite disease, despite what is offered to us on cable news and social media, despite our sinful betrayal and failure, did the sun come up this morning? Did you hear the birds sing as you walked along, desperate for a sign of the presence of God? Is the Word of God speaking to sinners who need salvation? Is the love of God reaching the orphan and the poor, despite the best efforts of so many? Is spring once again overtaking the slumber of winter? Did you capture yet another breath?
The facts that evil has its day and disease continues do not mean that God is not present. They mean that God has chosen to allow us the consequences of our free will. That is why those wars continue. That is why I fail in my most basic obligations. That is why we all sin.
When you do not feel the presence of God, remember who it was who moved. Do you recall God’s calling out, “Adam, where are you?” after the first sin? God was not the one hiding in the bushes.
The world has moved a long way since then. We left our Garden far behind centuries ago. To expect to commune with God in the same way now is a little elementary.
God has found different ways to be present in our world, despite the barriers we have built and chasms we have created. One way, of course, was through the person of Jesus Christ, God made flesh, who walked our paths and breathed our air and died our death. Now, God is present through the Holy Spirit, indwelling those who invite Him and carrying through at a spiritual level what even His closest followers cannot fully grasp. And God can be found in nature, through friends, song, memory, prayer and Bible study, and maybe even a sermon.
We have such a small view of God. That is what I mean by trying to capture God in a box. We have decided what it is supposed to look like and feel like to experience God. And we really have very little idea. If you step back – you will see that God’s word does not return to Him empty. God’s ongoing work is the first indicator of God’s presence.
So what is that second indicator of God’s presence from Isaiah 55?  It is joy. You shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Don’t confuse joy with happiness. I am surprised by how many popular Christian writers disagree on this point, and I know that there are certainly times when these English words are interchangeable. But in the context of Isaiah 55 and much of the Bible, joy is neither an emotion nor a feeling. Happiness is both. My life right now is a testament to the fact that we can be exceedingly unhappy and joyful at the same time. Pastor Jack Wellman says:
Even though joy and happiness have a lot in common, one thing that they don’t have in common is: one is permanent while the other is fleeting. One is from God and one is from us. One can come and go but the other will remain. [https://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2015/08/22/what-is-the-difference-between-joy-and-happiness-in-the-bible/]

Joy is that underlying knowledge that comes from having read to the end of the book, from the assurance that everything is going to be all right. Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. [Hebrews 12:2] Suffering was a cause for joy for the apostles [Acts 5:41] and is a cause for joy for believers now. [1 Peter 4:13-14] Joy comes from the certainty of salvation [Luke 10:20] and from our fellowship with Jesus. [John 15-17] Jim has reminded us that joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit. [Galatians 5:22] Nehemiah tells us that the joy of the Lord is our strength. [Nehemiah 8:10]
We know that God is present with us because we are led forth in joy. Over these last weeks, I have said repeatedly that I am not worried about the long term. My faith means nothing if I cannot rest in it to know that everything is going to be OK, in spite of my own failures and in spite of what has happened to me. That is joy. When Isaiah talks of the mountains and the hills breaking forth into singing, I am reminded of the end of the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth … when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” [Job 38:4, 7]
God’s point is not to belittle Job but to get him to start looking out of the box, to quit trying to find the formula and start exploring God’s higher ways. Here we are, in a world where the morning stars are singing and the trees of the field are clapping, and we are hung up because we don’t “feel” the presence of God. How sad. Like the figure in the sculpture pictured on the front of our order of worship, we stand in the palm of God’s hand and look around us and do not see.
There are certainly signs of Immanuel, God with us. Paul tells us in scripture we read responsively that they are evident all around so that we are without excuse. [Romans 1:20] The Psalmist tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God. [Psalm 19:1] Paul said that even in the time of Moses, God’s people were infiltrated by the presence of Christ, nourishing and leading them, whether they recognized Him or not. [1 Corinthians 10:1-4]
I have spent a lot of time by myself over the last few weeks. I have taken long walks and found myself waiting expectantly for the hand of God to touch me physically on the shoulder, for an audible voice to speak, for my mood to lighten and my feelings to begin miraculously to transform into happiness. You see, I can be just as liable as anyone else to try to put God in that box.
The presence of God can be elusive, even to the faithful.
But it is faith. It is trust in the evidence of things not seen. It is the step out of the boat onto the stormy sea with eyes fixed on where Jesus is, even when we cannot see Him. It is joy – the assurance that everything will be all right. For I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able.
And let me tell you a secret. There are times where we “feel” the presence of God. There are glimpses, aha moments where we taste glory divine. There are what Celtic Christians called “thin places,” where the veil between heaven and earth is narrowed enough that it shimmers with a transparency allowing us, for an instant, to peek through. God grants His children occasions like that. You remember them – worship services or junctures in nature or long talks with a close friend or songs or instances of prayer or times reading the Bible or … I don’t know all the ways they may have come to you. But they are unpredictable, and they cannot be summoned when we feel like it. Just because Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy found Narnia through a wardrobe once does not mean that every time they open the wardrobe, they are back there; most of the time, they just find coats and a hard back wall, to the point that they begin to wonder if their whole experience in Narnia had been nothing more than a dream.
But it was real, and they find their way back to Narnia; and it is real for us, as God shows Himself to each of us in different ways, in His time, at His pleasure. Sometimes, He comes walking on the water in the midst of the storm, saying, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.” [Matthew 14:27] That is how He works sometimes… but not always.
In the meanwhile, let me encourage all of us to join Brother Lawrence in being about the practice of the presence of God by serving our neighbors and going about our daily business – a month ago I called it putting one foot in front of the other – purely for the love of God. Let me encourage all of us to follow those straightforward Biblical steps of prayer, Bible study, repentance, and worship. Love God and love one another.
Take your walks. See the sunrise. Hear the birds sing. Do what you can about the wars and the betrayal and the disappointments of the world: do not contribute to them, and be a source of comfort and even solution where there is opportunity.
Go out in joy. Be led forth in peace. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.
The Lord is with you.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
They have become famous, these words of a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when there’s no one there. I believe in God, even when He is silent.” [https://sairyd.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/a-poem-of-belief-by-a-jewish-prisoner-in-a-nazi-concentration-camp/]
You will not likely get a talking donkey or a cherubic visitor. But God’s work is done, God’s word does not return void, and we go out with joy and are led forth in peace. Be still know and know that God is God. Take courage. It is He. Seek the Lord while He may be found.
When all is said and done, I know God is present because He walks with me and talks with me, just like the hymn says. Because of my own human limitations and sins, I do not always sense that presence, but that does not mean He is not there. It means I need to trust in Him with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding. Because I often do not understand.  
Behold, He stands at the door and knocks.