I remember talking to a girl here in this church two or three years ago. She said, "Jill, I've lost my joy, I've lost my peace, and I want it back." "Where did you lose it?" I asked. "That has nothing to do with this," she replied. "Help me to get it back." "But where did you lose it?" "I don't want to talk about that." But eventually she did talk about it. She lost it when she moved in with her boyfriend. That'll do it.
Israel had disregarded God's rules. You lose your joy if you do that. They doubted the Lord's goodness, his Godhood. They doubted if he was the Only One, the Mighty One, the Holy One, the Caring One. And the faith of this whole nation had faltered. They had lost their distinctiveness. When Moses got the people to build the tabernacle, when it was finished, the glory cloud came down; the shekinah glory, the sense and the visible presence of God, filled the place. Moses couldn't even go in; Joshua couldn't go in there. When Solomon built the temple, the same thing happened. The glory cloud came down and filled the temple, and the priests couldn't even stand to minister. And the people couldn't even come in without this searing experience of the presence of God. Later, when Ezekiel looked at how God's people had become halfhearted, he saw the cloud, God's visible presence, rise from the temple and move away. He looked inside the temple, and he saw the priests and the people doing what they always did. And they didn't even know the glory had gone.
That can describe us. We can come to Elmbrook, and we can teach Sunday school, and we can sing in the choir. But the glory is gone. And we can do that for the rest of our lives—ritual without reality, without the richness of what God has for us. Yet God invites us to be renewed. It begins when we come close enough to be forgiven. Forgiven for what, Jill? Forgiven for not caring. A Catholic priest was called to the scene of an accident. The man had been hit on his bicycle; he was dying. The priest said to him, "You know you're going into eternity in a minute, and you and I know the sort of life you've lived. You need to be sorry. Are you sorry?" The man said, "No Father, I'm not sorry." So the priest talked to him a little bit more and then said, "Are you sorry you're not sorry?" The man said, "Yes, Father. I'm sorry I'm not sorry."
You begin, if you have to, by saying, "I'm sorry I'm not sorry." And that'll do. He'll hear that prayer. He'll move heaven to come and meet you and renew you because God is a God of living life. All the universe testifies to that. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He has no pleasure in the death of anything. Yet the result of Israel's disastrous distance from God was they became victims of a war and ethnic cleansing. They were carried off as prisoners into a foreign land. And if you want to know what they were feeling like, read Psalm 137.
We can hang our harps on the grief tree
That's the context of this passage in Isaiah 40. When Isaiah preached his message, he preached it to those people sitting by the rivers of Babylon. They needed comfort; they needed revival. Above all, they had lost their joy. They sat in spiritual nostalgia, thinking about the good old days. They were harpless harpists; they'd hung up their harps on a weeping willow tree. There was nothing to sing about. The Babylonians demanded a song from them; the world judges us by how we handle suffering. If we cannot sing a song in a foreign land, who can? Is the unbeliever going to sing a song that says God is big and strong and great enough to cope, to be all that we need him to be when we need him to be all that we need? Are they going to do it? No.
When Stuart and I were at the Luasanne Conference some years ago, we heard a Chinese pastor who had been taken to jail for his faith. And he began to sing a song in a foreign land. People began to get converted in the jail. Some of the Communist captors got converted, so they decided to punish him by giving him a horrible job: they made him stir the human excrement in the camp cesspool, starting at seven in the morning, finishing late at night. Sometimes he was in it up to his neck. As this man told his story, he said, "The cesspool was terrible. But it was wonderful that I was there, for I was alone. Nobody wanted to come near. It's very hard in China ever to get alone anywhere! I could sing, and I wouldn't be tortured for it. And I'd sing at the top of my voice!" He celebrated God, reveled in him, and sang to the Babylonians. Even more of them got converted. They had to move him to another camp. He did not hang up his harp on the grief tree.
A pastor's wife in Canada said to me, "My daughter had an abortion. I was going to be a grandmother. Now I feel I've had one too." She'd hung up her harp. An elder in a church in Holland said, "My daughter has fallen in love with a girl. They moved in together three months ago. I've cried until I can cry no more. I'm worn out with grief." He'd hung up his harp. And yet, when I met those people again, they had taken their harps off that weeping willow tree and waited on the Lord, and God had given them a song. And if we wait on him, he'll do it for us. The breath of the Spirit will be the wind in our wings. You'll sing, oh yes—even if your children are in trouble, even if your husband or wife has left you.
We can hang our harps on the gripe tree
If you don't hang up your harp on the grief tree, maybe it's the gripe tree. You're just complaining about everything: "When we remembered Zion, how can we sing a song?" They griped about God, who had let them get into this mess. They put the spiritual malaise on him, which is what we often do when we're out of touch with the Lord. They said, "We're weary, so he must be weary of us. Why doesn't he use his power to do something?" When he didn't, they were confirmed in their assessment that he was too weak.
God says to Isaiah, "Will you tell those people that I'm the sort of God who doesn't wear out or decay? I'm the everlasting God who lasts. I'm the Powerful One who's never powerless. I'm the Changeless One who doesn't, and the Unwearied One, who isn't wearied by weariness. And those that wait upon me gain new strength. They can have my strength, which never runs out." The first thing he'll do is change your mind about God, about his character. You'll begin to get in line again with what you believe about him. God is eternal, God is powerful, God is changeless. And he'll give you images in the Scriptures as you hang your heart over the Word of God, like this one in Isaiah 40 about the shepherd, who takes the lambs in his arms and holds them against his breast and carries them home.
A young man came up to me Saturday night and said, "I don't believe a word of it. I would rather be into existentialism; that's where I am. I'm into Bertrand Russell. You have nothing to offer me with your God and your Christianity." And this is a young man who has been brought up in a Christian family, who professed to believe. But he's far, far away from God. I told him he needed to reaffirm what he believed the Bible revealed about God, and I challenged him to study God as the Bible describes him. That'll do it. The Word is like a seed. It will grow life. Some of us need to get back to basics. We don't need to learn anything new here today; we need to reaffirm what we know already. And there is nothing in Isaiah 40 that the children of Israel didn't know already. They needed to reaffirm it.
We can hang our harps on the grudge tree
The problem was, they wanted renewal without repentance. There's no mention of their misdeeds in Psalm 137. They weren't like David, saying, "O Lord, I have sinned." They couldn't see that they were into vengeance. They had hung up their harp on the grudge tree. "Get those Edomites, God," they said. "Get those Babylonians! O Babylon, wait till you get yours and God does to you what you did to us."
There's a spirit of revenge there, and if there's a spirit of revenge in our hearts, if we haven't forgiven somebody today—our wife, our ex-wife, somebody at work, somebody in our family—then we'll lose our joy. It isn't what people from the outside do to you; it's especially what your family does to you. It wouldn't have felt so bad, would it, if it hadn't been your brother or your sister or your mother or your father or your wife or your husband? You hung up your harp on the grudge tree a long time ago. You don't have a song to sing. Can God lift you above that sort of attitude? Yes! If you'll wait on him, if you'll give him a chance to get his hands on you.
We can hang our harps on the wishing tree
Maybe you've hung up your harp on the wishing tree, the wishing willow tree: "Oh, when I remember Zion!" They were homesick people. There was this nostalgia, and I understand that. In this country, where people move around so much, I often meet people who say, "Why did we move? If we hadn't moved, perhaps this wouldn't have happened. We made an ill-advised step, and we are homesick for Alabama." I get homesick. Coming back from England, I'm sort of homesick today. I want to see a red bus go by and sit and have scones and cream. I want to read about the queen and see the field of golden daffodils dancing in the breeze. I get homesick. Just occasionally I say, "Why did we come?" when I remember Zion, when I remember England. In fact, there was a dark day in my life when I said to a friend, "If only I had never come to America!" Maybe some of you are like that, and you lost your joy. You don't have a song to sing.
One of our missionary kids was at boarding school, far away from her parents. She was a fifth grader, Heidi by name. And she wrote home to her parents: "My two first-grade roommates are fine. They gave me the biggest bear hug tonight. But I will explain one of my very hard nights. I'm homesick, Mom. I was woken up by loud laughing. Julie was laughing really hard; she'd flooded the bed. Aunt Janice changed the sheets. I'd just gone to sleep when Esther woke me up. "She was homesick. I got her to sleep finally. Then Julie woke me up, homesick, and I got her to sleep. And drifting off, I heard Julie crying again. She'd thrown up, and Aunt Janice was asleep, so I woke her up, and she had to turn on the light and change the sheets. I finally got to sleep. "Last night somebody woke me up so homesick that I crept into bed, and we held each other. Even though it's a pain sometimes, I like to be known as the comforter." Little Heidi, fifth grader, sang that little girl to sleep. She sang her a song because she knows what it is in fifth grade to wait on the Lord, the great Music Maker, who can give us a song to sing and the power and the will and the joy to sing it.
We can hang our harps on the worry tree
Maybe you've hung your harp upon the worry willow tree. Maybe you're suffering "mother guilt." This is Mothers' Day, after all. I'm a worrier. I'm the world's worst worrier. And I've often thought if I'd been a better parent, if I'd been a better mom, if I could be a better grandmom, this or that wouldn't have happened. Sometimes we bear false guilt and sometimes we bear real guilt, but it all belongs at the foot of the Cross. We can never be the mother or the grandmother or the father or the grandfather that we should be. We can never be that person that God wants us to be, unless we put our guilt where it belongs. He will save us from the guilt and power of sin. From the guilt of it, from all my mother guilt, all my mother sins he died for. And I can be forgiven. There's a higher realm into which we rise.
Let me give you a little acrostic on the word wait. W—wait. Wait means waiting on the Lord. It also means waiting on everything else that will have to wait so you can wait—waiting on the laundry, waiting on the ironing, waiting on the cleaning, waiting on the business, waiting on the phone, waiting on the deal. Wait on the Lord. A—admit you're worried. Confess it because worry is a sin. That's really helped me. I know what to do with sin. I can repent of it. I can say I'm sorry. I can say, "God, change me." I can admit it. Just the other day, I was going through my litany of worry all over again, the same thing I've worried about for 35 years. I don't have any new worries, it's just the old ones that live with me. I waited on the Lord to renew me in this area of my spiritual need. And I picked up Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, The message; I read Philippians 4:4: "Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice." And this is what I understood as I waited on the Lord: "Celebrate God, Jill, all day, every day; revel in him. Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let your petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers." I began to take my worries one by one and shape them into prayers and bring them to him. It's amazing what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
I—imagine. You think, you meditate, you hang your heart over Scripture, you talk to the text and let the text talk to you. You begin to renew. T—throw all your care on him. In the verse that says, "Cast all your care on him," the word cast can mean "hurl." Have you spent time today hurling? When I was praying once, somebody came in and asked what I had been doing. I said, "Hurling." "Hurling? Is that a sport?" "No, it's what I need to do every day. Hurl it, give it, roll it off." What are you keeping it for? Worry is a form of immorality.
I like this little poem:
Well, I'm done, my nerves were on the rack,
I've laid them down today.
It was the last straw broke the camel's back,
I've laid that down today.
And I'll not fuel or fret or fuss or fight.
I walk by faith a bit and not by sight.
I think the universe will work all right.
I've laid it down today.
So here and now, the overweight, the worry,
I lay it down today,
The all-too-anxious heart, the tearing hurry,
I lay those down today,
Zero eager hands, Zero feet so prone to run.
I think that he who made the stars and sun
Can mind the things you've had to leave undone.
I'll lay it down tonight.
We can hang our harps on the wimp tree
There's one last tree: the wimp tree. Because, if the truth be told, we're scared of the Babylonians. Babylonians—they're a wild bunch. If you are a Christian today living in Mexico, a thousand of you would be evicted from your homes just because you don't believe what everybody else believes. If you were an Algerian and you wanted to go to Bible studies, you would have to walk probably nine miles in the rain, but not before someone had knocked at your door and said, "If you put a step out of this door, then you're going to be killed." If you're a Sudanese today living in south Sudan, along with 1.8 million people, you'd be facing the prospect of possible crucifixion for believing in Jesus.
We say, "I'm glad I'm an American; I'm glad I live here." But you cannot wait on God, the God of this world, and not feel the weight of this world that God feels. You can't do it. And despite yourself, you begin to want to reach them, to want them, to love them. That's the miracle. Just imagine if Jesus came to our world and said, "I don't do feet." He didn't say that. He got down in the muck, and he touched the leper and the eyes of the blind man. And he lifted stinky, wet, dirty, disease-ridden children in his arms. You say, "That's the problem, Jill. That's why I'm not singing a song to the Babylonians. I don't want to get involved in this mission stuff. I don't think I'm for that." But if you do get involved, you'll begin to resemble him, and you'll begin to do feet, and you'll begin to make a difference if you wait on the Lord.
Stuart and I have just come back from an incredible conference. The man leading the conference many years ago said to his roommate, "Why don't we sell everything we've got, just keep the clothes we're wearing, and buy Bibles with the money. Then let's go to Mexico in my car—I think it'll just about make it there—and give out all the Bibles." And so he and his roommate did this. Then he went to a church, and he said, "I have a dream that by the year 2000, every man and woman and boy and girl will have heard the name of Jesus once." Crazy, you say? Right, and God loves crazy men like George Verwer. If there's one phrase that hits this mission, it's this: They wait on the Lord. And they dream dreams, and they have visions. And the Holy Spirit puts wings in their wings. And they do it. They went to this little church, and George Verwer preached his heart out about the lost. And a man who'd just made it in business asked them back for lunch. And George Verwer said, "Would you be on my board?" This British man said, "I don't know, young man. I'll have to wait on the Lord." Later he said, "All night, I waited on the Lord. I said, 'What do you want me to do, Lord? I'm secure; my kids are in school.'" And when this man came down in the morning, he said to George, "It's better if I go under than if Operation Mobilization goes under." He mortgaged his house, and they bought five old, battered vehicles that wouldn't make it to the end of England—never mind India. They bought Bibles and literature and filled those old battered vehicles, and George Verwer and those young men drove them to India. That was just the beginning. Now they have 2,000 missionaries. And they're praying for 2,000 more before the year 2000. I believe they'll get them because God wants every person on Earth to hear the gospel by the century's end.
Which tree did you lose it on? Which tree—the grief tree, the gripe tree, the growth tree, the grudge tree, or the guilt tree? Are you sorry you're not even sorry? Do you want to come back? Do you want him to renew you; do you want him to touch you? Do you want to celebrate God and revel in him again? Will you wait on him? Will you admit what's wrong? Will you apply this Scripture? Come close enough to be forgiven, right now. And then stay close enough to be strengthened. If you'll do that, you'll mount up with wings as the eagle; you'll run and you'll not be weary; you'll walk and you won't faint. You'll be like him, and you'll do feet. And you'll make a difference until he comes.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Jill Briscoe is executive editor of Just Between Us, serves on the boards of World Relief and Christianity Today International, and is a minister-at-large with her husband at Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin.