Monday, August 22, 2016

Sunday's Sermon – Good Advice for Hard Times

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 21, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia and Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


Isaiah 58:9b-14

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Good Advice for Hard Times

As I started writing this sermon yesterday, given some of the stuff that’s happened around here the last month or so, it hit me that a better title for this sermon would be “Good Advice for Hot Times,” because I’ve got to tell you it’s pretty hot in here this morning. Of course, that’s something you’d expect to hear from that Captain Obvious in those Hotels.com commercials, but what you may not know is that right after the unit that supplies the second floor of the education building was replaced, the compressor on the air conditioner that supplies the sanctuary went bad. And even though they replaced that on Friday, the fan for the cooling tower fried. But regardless of the reasons, let’s face it, we’re having a hot time in the old church this morning, but not the good kind. What I want you to remember, though, is this: Hell is hotter, but less humid.

But whether the sermon title is “hot” or “hard”, I think most of us know what it means, because we’ve all faced situations that we could classify as difficult or trying or, well, hard. Of course, the cause may differ from person to person and from time to time. For example, sometimes the issue is centered around either our health or the health of someone we know and love. I think we’ve all seen what happens when a person is going through cancer or Alzheimer’s or depression. Those are certainly hard times. And sometimes this is the result of some change in our circumstances, you know, like seeing the company for which you worked and your father worked and your grandfather worked suddenly go out of business. I think some of y’all know exactly what that’s like. And sometimes, these hard times are traumatic, and I’m talking about saying good-bye to a person you loved or a marriage you assumed would last forever or a relationship you may not have appreciated as much as you should have, that is, until it was gone. Do you see what I mean? What we call “hard times” can be brought on by all kinds of stuff.

But I’ll tell you, regardless of the cause, I think the results are usually the same. I mean, whether you’re talking about a sudden change in health or circumstance or maybe some trauma, this kind of business can really hammer us physically, maybe making us feel sick too. And it can certainly impact us emotionally, reshaping both our attitudes and our outlook. And as anyone who’s gone through really hard and challenging times will tell you, it can affect us spiritually, sometimes putting so much stress and strain our faith that it breaks. No, hard times can really mess us up on a lot of levels.

But of course, none of this is actually new and exciting. People have always faced situations that move their stress meters into the red. In fact, we have a perfect example of that in the passage we just read from Isaiah. Now, before we go any farther, there’s something y’all need to know. The book of Isaiah probably isn’t one book by one author. Rather it’s more-likely-than-not three books, written by three different people, at three different times, with the first book, chapters one through thirty-nine, written to the people before Judah was conquered by the Babylonians; the second book, chapters forty through fifty-five, intended to give hope to the people who were in captivity after the conquest; and the third book, chapters fifty-six to sixty-six, directed to those who returned to their devastated country after the Persians had defeated the Babylonians.

And so our passage comes from that third book of Isaiah; therefore, it was offered to folks who knew first hand what hard times were all about. I mean, they’d been in captivity and away from their home for seventy years. Man, that’s a long time. And when some of them got back, it really wasn’t anything like it had been before. Good night nurse, it was full of foreign people that the Babylonians had shipped in. Economically, it was a basket case. And to make matter even worse, the walls of their capital city, Jerusalem, had been torn down and the Temple itself had been burned up. Now this is what these returnees were facing. And given all that, I think they were physically exhausted and emotionally wiped out and spiritually drained, not unlike us when we’re going through tough times.

And I think that’s something God must have understood, because in these verses we read a little while ago, I believe he gave them some pretty good advice about how they might endure and maybe even overcome what they were facing. And I’ll tell you, it all came down to them doing two things: two things that they were all capable doing and that could strengthen them physically and emotionally and spiritually, because it would shift their attention from what was wrong to how they might respond. I mean, first, God told them to start showing love to others. Again, listen to what he said: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” And then he talked about how, with God’s help, they’d be able to restore both the land and themselves to what they were. And that would happen when they decided to show love to others.

And then, second, they needed to start offering praise to God. This is what he said, “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob...” Now I love that, “if you call the sabbath a delight...” I’m telling you, in the midst all this stuff they were facing, if they would stop grumbling and complaining and finger pointing and if they would stop demanding their own way on a day that belonged to God not them and if they could view the sabbath, this wonderful gift of God, as a delight, then their whole attitude would change. And even though the situations they faced may be the same, they’d be able to face them with energy and with optimism and with joy knowing that they weren’t facing this alone. Love others and praise God, that was his advice to his people when they were dealing with hard times.

And you know, because it’s written right here in a book that we also use, brothers and sisters, I believe that this is his advice to us, right here and right now. And since this is called the “good news,” I think we can consider his advice pretty good, too. In other words, as we deal with all the stuff that just makes us feel as though we’ve been ridden hard and put away wet, we can do exactly what God told his people to do and, we can, first, shift our focus from ourselves and start loving others. And I think it’s really cool that, as he was showing them and us how to do that, he starts by telling us to stop pointing the finger and to stop speaking evil about other folks. Of course, he doesn’t really say which finger he was talking about, but that doesn’t matter. The point is the same; we shouldn’t be running around, judging and scolding and putting down one another. And we certainly shouldn’t be saying evil things, you know, talking about folks behind their backs. Man, we all know that’s not right. But if we still do it, don’t you think we should stop? As my daughter says to me, “Just saying.” But you know, loving others isn’t just about not hurting them, it’s also about helping them, you know, like Jesus said, it’s about feeding the hungry and giving something to drink to the thirsty. That’s love, too. And doing that kind of stuff, it’s going to shift our attention from us to others, from gloom to light, from grey clouds to silver linings, from politics in America to almost anything else. Personally, I think some real physical and emotional and spiritual satisfaction comes when I decide it’s not all about me and what I think and what I want, but it’s really about both us as well as the guy on the other side of the world, you know, the one that really needs what I have to share. You see, following God’s advice, we can make it through hard times by showing love to others. That’s one thing we can do.

And second, right now, right here, we can decide that we are going to offer praise to God, and I’m not talking about that lukewarm stuff that nearly always frustrates folks who may come to experience the presence and power of God. I’m talking about real, honest-to-goodness praise. And this will happen when we do some of the same kind of stuff we talked about with loving others. I mean, I can recognize that worship isn’t about me and it’s not about you; it’s about all of us approaching God. And it’s not about grumbling if I don’t get my way, it’s about coming together to celebrate the Father who loved us before he lay the foundation of the earth and the Son who lived and died, was raised and ascended for all the people whom God loves and the Spirit that is opening our eyes so we can see and our minds so we can understand and our hearts so that we can trust. And I’ll tell you right here and now, it’s not about us sort of hiding behind stained glass so we can keep what we have; it’s about, at the very least, us going out into the real world and saying to our friends and neighbors, “come and see” while at the same time, building the kind of community where folks can come and see the Lord Jesus Christ reflected through us and our worship. I mean, just imagine if every person in this congregation could “call the sabbath a delight”? Then, we really will be delighting in the Lord. And I’ve got to believe that delight, man, it’s going to be contagious. Again, following God’s advice, we can make it through hard times by offering praise to him. That’s the second thing we can do.

No going back to the beginning, we’ll get the air conditioning fixed and next Sunday we’ll all be as cool as the other side of the pillow. But even though that’s going to happen, I’m sure all kinds of new situations will arise, and I’m talking about stuff that’s going to hit us physically and emotionally and spiritually. As a matter of fact, those things may hit us every bit as hard as what those Jews who returned from exile experienced when they reentered the land. And for that reason, I believe the words that God had for them are also important for us. You see, right now, we can decide that we’re going to love others and we’re going to praise God. Because, frankly, I believe that’s really good advice for hard times.

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