I talked to a doctor this week who said that millions and millions of Americans are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, even though they haven't been directly affected by the events that have taken place in recent weeks. He said the terrorist attacks are taking their emotional toll on all Americans in all parts of the country, and we cannot afford to neglect dealing with it. This doesn't mean that we should all be on Lithium, but it does mean that we cannot pretend that we are unaffected by the recent tragedy.
This is why we're addressing this topic in a series called "How To Beat the Blues." You will, most likely, struggle with feelings of depression, sadness, anger, frustration, and pessimism during the coming months. Though most Americans are confident that this is a war we will win, we are also beginning to get a grasp of how long it will take...it could be years.
So, how do we deal with the blues? Different people deal with it in different, sometimes opposite, ways. For example, NBC reported that alcohol sales have gone up, but so has attendance in AA meetings. More people are eating so-called "comfort foods" such as donuts, ice cream, and cake, but the weeks after 9-11 also saw a surge in health club memberships. Another significant trend is that many people are turning to God—some after years of neglect, some for the first time in their lives. Hopefully, our church will be there for these people, to show them that the God they turn to in the time of trouble has the power to sustain them through all the events of life—good or bad.
Needless to say, some strategies for dealing with the blues work better than others. In this series, we're looking at the Biblical model for feeling better about life. Of course, our relationship with God, our hope, our security, or our faith is not based on our feelings. These things are based on the solid rock of Jesus Christ. Regardless of how you feel, he remains faithful. He has not forgotten you, he has not forgotten us, and he never will. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the way we feel; we have to be honest with ourselves and with God about our emotions so that we can deal with them.
Last week we talked about repentance being an important part of this process. Nothing in the world feels better than being in a right relationship with God. Today, we'll look at another step in the process of feeling good about life: Holiness. Now, let me say that we have euphemistically named this series "How To Beat the Blues"...and some of you might say, "I'm way past having the blues. I'm in the midst of full-scale panic. I'm afraid to go to work, to go shopping, to open my mail, to send my children to school...what am I supposed to do?"
Regardless of the level of your emotional turmoil, God can give you the strength to endure...and, in fact, more than just endure—he can give you the strength to overcome. If you have your Bible with you, turn to Isaiah 1; let's look at a few verses.
The book of Isaiah is my favorite book of the Old Testament. Its central theme is the spiritual and moral condition of Jerusalem. Isaiah talks a lot about sin, but he talks more about forgiveness. He talks a lot about judgment, but he talks more about mercy. He addresses the social wrongs that were prevalent in his day, and contrasts them with God's ultimate plan of justice for all.
In chapter 1, Isaiah doesn't pull any punches. He paints a rather gloomy picture, but not a hopeless one. And though he accuses the people of Judah of sin, he reminds them that forgiveness is available, and that holiness is possible. In the early part of the chapter Isaiah says (quoting the Word of God),
(v. 7) Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
And yet, toward the end of this passage states,
(v. 18-19) Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow...If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land.
Just about every week since September 11 I have emphasized the fact that God is not the instigator of these terrorist attacks. They are being done by evil people who are not doing God's will. And yet, an even greater tragedy for our nation would be to endure these attacks of terrorism without re-evaluating our lives and our priorities. As I said last week, all of life is a call to repentance—the good events as well as the bad events. He is always calling us into a closer walk with him. So, in the midst of this tragedy, let's seize this opportunity to draw closer to Jesus, to follow him in obedience.
Folks, America needs to repent and turn to God. This is an obvious statement and we all know that it's true. However, here's the mistake we often make. When a preacher says, "America needs to repent," the congregation often hears a loud, "Amen"—and in the back of their mind they're thinking, "That's right. Those people in Hollywood who are making movies that corrupt the moral fiber of our society...they need to repent. Those people who 'play the guitar on the MTV' and show all those vulgar videos...they need to repent. Those liberal politicians in Washington DC who are trying to legislate God out of public life...they need to repent." Now, all of the above may be true, but the fact is that those people aren't here today, and none of us have any control over whether they repent or not. So listen to me very closely. I'm not calling for the entire nation to repent and turn to God, because the entire nation is not listening to me this morning. But you are. I'm challenging you to hear the words of Isaiah and apply them to your life. You have no control over what anyone else does...but you can control what you do. Even if the rest of the world rejects God, you can walk with him obedience, and his promises will apply to you.
In Isaiah 1:10-18, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, calling the people of Judah to live holy, obedient lives. God's standards for holiness haven't changed; his words apply to us today. Here's what we need to do:
1. Start with your heart.
(v. 11) "The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?" says the Lord. "I have more than enough of burnt offering, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing me meaningless offerings!"
I want you to realize that the offerings and sacrifices God is referring to in Isaiah are the very same offerings and sacrifices he commanded through Moses for the people of Israel to make. He hadn't changed his mind; it wasn't the offerings themselves he objected to, but the attitude in which they were made. God never intended for Judaism—or Christianity either, for that matter—to be a religion of rituals and formalities. Though rituals were a significant part of Jewish worship, they were intended to be an outward expression of an inward attitude of the heart. This has always been God's intention. Listen to these words from the book Deuteronomy:
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul...Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. (Deuteronomy 10:12,16).
Like all churches, we have some rituals that we follow week after week—our prayers, our order of worship, the songs we sing, and so on. We may not be as ritualistic as the Orthodox churches in the East, but we do have some rituals that we follow. At the very least, church attendance itself is a ritual. Isaiah makes it clear: it's not the rituals that are wrong, it's our attitude in doing them. If our actions are not a reflection of the attitude of our heart, then we wasting our time by going through the motions.
Living holy is first and foremost a matter of the heart. Though holiness is reflected in our actions, as we will see in a moment, those actions aren't enough by themselves. They must come from a pure heart.
2. Get serious about sin.
Ok. Maybe I should be more specific. Get serious about eradicating sin from your life. Isaiah says,
(v. 16) Wash and make yourselves clean. Take you evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!
Of course, we cannot cleanse ourselves from sin. The only way to be cleansed is through the blood of Christ, who died on the cross for us. But there is a sense in which we can cleanse ourselves—in that we can take responsibility for seeking to be cleansed.
If you commit a sin and you ask God for forgiveness, he forgives you. Period. End of Story. As the hymn says, Your sins are washed away. They are gone, trampled under God's feet, separated from him as far as the east is from the west, and dropped into his sea of forgetfulness.
That's part one of how God wants to deal with your sin. Part two is that he wants to eradicate it from your life. He wants to eliminate it once and for all. For example, when you lose your temper he forgives you, and he will forgive you each and every time you ask for forgiveness, but his ultimate goal is to give you the strength to conquer your temper so that you no longer fly off the handle.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, you never have to worry about God deciding someday that he is no longer willing to forgive you. You can't exhaust his mercy; it is available in an unlimited supply. However, don't make the mistake of thinking that God isn't serious about holiness. He wants his people to behave a certain way; he wants us to be like him. And he will not rest until the job is done.
I once had a pastor who was fond of saying, "God will make you holy even if he has to drag you there kicking and screaming all the way." There's some truth to that statement. Listen to what he said in Isaiah:
(v. 25)I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities...Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness.
God won't give up on you easily. He's committed to you, committed to making you into a holy person.
I know a father who is struggling with a disobedient son. This father said to his son, "I will not give up on you. I will be on your back, watching your every move, until you start acting right."
The son said, "Dad, I'm really trying. It seems like one day I want to do right, the next day I want to do wrong."
The dad said, "Then you're in luck. Because on those off days, I'll be there behind you, helping you do right."
God wants you to get serious about holiness, but he wants you to know that you don't have to go it alone...you don't have to do it in your own strength. He is there to help you.
Notice that Isaiah uses the word "learn" to do right. Holiness is a process of learning. Do you know how to fish? Were you a master fisherman the first time you cast the line into the water? If you're like me, the first time you tried to cast your line into the water, it ended up in a tree. But the more you work at it, the better you become. The principle here is that no one becomes good at fishing unless they make a concerted effort. And after years of practice, sometimes the best fisherman still make blunders. But, if they really want to fish, they keep trying.
The same principle applies to holiness. Get serious about it. Get serious about the sin in your life, and do everything you can to get rid of it.
3. Cultivate compassion.
The Bible teaches that holiness is best expressed in the way that we treat others. Isaiah said,
(v. 17) Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
Do you want to be holy? Then help someone who needs to be helped. It's as simple as that.
I was speaking to a children's group at a friend's church a while back, and I asked the kids what are some things they can do that make God happy. I was surprised by the answers. They said things like, "Come to church. Pray. Sing. Lift your hands. Go to the altar." (Can you guess the theological bent of this particular congregation?)
Afterwards my friend, the pastor, said to me, "Is that what we're teaching our children, that the Christian life is just about raising your hands in the air?" Of course, there's nothing wrong with raising your hands when you worship—that's not the point. The point is that everything the kids said about pleasing God are things that take place on Sunday morning. The real act of holiness—the real act of making God happy—takes place between Sundays. It involves treating other with compassion. You've heard me say this before: Every time you encounter someone, you have the opportunity to practice holiness. How will treat them? With love? Kindness? Generosity? Mercy? Compassion? That is what God is looking for.
4. It's a matter of choice.
(v. 18) "Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow."
In Isaiah's time, scarlet was the color of a deep-red permanent dye that was virtually impossible to remove from clothing. God is saying, "The stain of sin, which may seem permanent to you, can be removed forever. I will make you clean."
And, then, he gives us a choice.
(v. 19-20) If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.
Our choice is to enjoy his blessings and prosperity in life, or to suffer the consequences of sin.
Near the end of Joshua's life, he stood before all the tribes of Israel and said,
Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)
There are approximately 250 million people living in America today. You can't control whether or not the rest of the nation follows God, but you control what happens in your own life. You have a choice to make.
A commitment to holiness is one of your best weapons against the blues. Why? Because you can't get serious about holiness - Biblical holiness - without getting serious about God. When you focus on the attitude of your heart, when you strive to abandon sin, when you make an effort to treat others with compassion, God becomes more to you than just a minor character in your religious life—he becomes the very focus of your life. In his presence there is joy—joy in knowing him, and joy in serving him. It is a joy that has the power to overcome any sense of fear or uncertainty you may have about the future. In the words of Nehemiah,
Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)
You can experience his joy and his strength in your life; commit yourself to holiness.