Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 29, 2019
By Pastor John Nunes, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Jeremiah 23:24
Our text is Jeremiah 23:24. "'Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them,' says the Lord. 'Do I not fill heaven and earth?' says the Lord."
As we turn our calendars forward from 2019 into 2020, I invite you to flip backward in time with me, more than 2,600 years ago to a world hauntingly similar to our own social situation today. Like Jeremiah, we have false teachers in our midst. Like him, we suffer from the idolatry of leaders who maximize their profit margins while minimizing how they treat people living on the margins or in poverty. Now, like then, we have people in power who are so ethically bankrupt, so morally devoid of truth that they hate God's Word. As Jeremiah said, "From the least to the greatest of these, every one of you is greedy for unjust gain and from the prophet to the priest, everyone deals falsely."
Jeremiah's life was located in the midst of trouble and loaded with struggle. From the time he was set apart by God before his birth, his life knew nothing but trouble. But despite unpopularity, antipathy, and death threats, Jeremiah had an iron man reputation, standing strong with prophetic fortitude through his 40-year career. Like a burning fire shut up in his bones, Jeremiah refused to tip toe around the truth. His sermons were chock full of challenging words that got in the face and under the skin of the religious establishment. "Unless you turn around," he warned them, "You will be like human corpses, falling like dung upon the open field." Certainly not the kind of words that wins friends, influences people, or satisfies the status quo.
Jeremiah sometimes reminds me of a howling backwoods blues singer, his harmonica wailing, his guitar strumming his pain with his fingers. Listen to these lyrics from 8:18 of his song book. "My joy is gone. Grief is upon me. My heart is sick. Is there no balm in Gilead?" Jeremiah was stressed, distressed, fatigued, and fed up with what was going on around him. Have you ever felt drained and down in the dumps by how tough it is to be alive? By how tough it is to be a believer? "I have become a laughingstock," Jeremiah cried out, "All day long everyone mocks me." Sisters and brothers, that's the same world you and I inhabit. And God has also set us apart in the church with the promise, "'Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them,' says the Lord. 'Do I not fill heaven and earth?' says the Lord." No matter what people think, there is a God who sits on high and yet looks low on those dwelling in the valleys of the shadow of death, smarter than the smartest artificial intelligence.
This God knows human suffering. This God is both aware of what is unfair and cares about injustice. The good news is if you're suffering today, there is no pain that God does not feel. The bad news is if you think you're getting away with what you're doing today, you are not. There is no place you can hide from God. Almost 50 years ago, Arthur Carl Piepkorn wrote these timeless words, "In our era and in our culture with its drift towards the demonic, it's flight from integrity toward disintegration, and a centrifugal thrust toward undisguised nihilism, we need as the church to be able to affirm that our whole universe hangs together in Christ. In Christ alone we stand strong."
Like Jeremiah. We can become exhausted by the circumstances of life, but I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life who will fill our brokenness with wholeness, will fill our regretfulness with forgiveness, fill our sorrowfulness with the joyfulness of Jesus, fill our feelings of hopelessness with seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Has sin left you with spiritual indebtedness? God has the perfect righteousness, earned by Jesus, with your name on it. "The Lord is our righteousness." Jeremiah declares. The same Jesus who was filled with the fullness of God in turn fills you and me with that same fullness so that we are no longer full of ourselves, no longer filling up on the rubbish of this world, but we are full of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, our Lord. As my friend David Scaer puts it. "Whereas baptism places believers into Christ, the Eucharist places Christ into believers and now that they're in Christ with Christ in them, these believers can't help but extend mercy to the Christ in the least of those around them."
You see, we are set apart by Christ from our sandboxes of selfishness. We are set free for lives of selfless service. We may feel depleted and drained, but God is replete with power to fill you, overflowing in three splashes of water, you are baptized. You have the same promise God gave to Jeremiah. "I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless." You have been yanked from death to life, delivered by the Father, redeemed by the Son and kept by the Spirit, no matter what you're going through. I have two friends as I speak these words who are in hospice care. They may well have transitioned by the time you hear this. One is black, one is white, one is a clergyman, the other is a lay woman. Both worked for the Lutheran church for decades.
Both are filled to the brim with faith in ways that led me to ask them the reason for their joy despite their diagnosis of death. Both share that they see the hand of God keeping them through this. One texted me these words, quote, "I feel that God is directing even these things and has not abandoned me. In fact, God shows up many times during the day, in a helpful nurse, a caring doctor, messages and visits from friends." In the words of Jean Vanier, "God is good, and whatever happens, it will be the best." Because of sin, we all have a diagnosis of death, but Psalm 16:11 promises us, in God's presence, there is fullness of joy.
In this Christmas season, we find the epicenter of joy, it's located in Bethlehem, when eternal love for you and me became flesh just like you and me. When the Son of God was born in a simple shed to a humble woman. I'm sure St. Mary often felt alone. God's chosen ones can feel like voices crying in the wilderness, unheard, out of step, uncool, all alone. If that's the way you sometimes feel, you are in good company. Martin Luther once said that true prophets often feel truly alone. Moses was alone in the Exodus. Elijah was alone in King Ahab's day. Isaiah was alone in Jerusalem, Hosea alone in Israel, Jeremiah alone in Judea, Ezekiel alone in Babylon. And many of us feel alone as we face this world. When we face our own worlds of personal financial crises, of diseases that we can't tell anybody about and nobody has a cure for, of dreams that have crumbled to dust in the palm of our hands, of ailing and failing parents, of leaders who disappoint us bitterly, of super-complicated relationships, of families that seem to be fracturing, of desperate prayers that seem to go nowhere.
We could add that Jesus must've felt alone in that most God-forsaken place of His execution. But this Jesus is the location of lavish love, bloodied and beaten indeed, but with the fullness of God dwelling bodily. Listener, please know that you are loved beyond what your brain can contain, loved by a lover whose unlimited love hung on the cross for you. And in this crucified and resurrected Jesus, all things hold together. Beloved, we might feel sometimes like we're running on empty, that our pain is pointless, but I tell you today that in this Christ, our pain is not without purpose. We are filled with the fullness of God so that we can witness to others from our weakness so that we can pour out ourselves for others. As Jeremiah found out, you cannot out pour out God. The pessimist thinks my cup is half empty. The optimist thinks my cup is half full. We believe with the Psalmist, my cup overflows because there is nowhere that the God who fills heaven and earth is not.
There is no life that is not encircled by God. There is no person in whom God is not invested. There are no unsupervised processes in the universe. Life is no game of spiritual hide and seek. God's love has already found you. And as John 1:16 assures us, all who believe will receive grace upon grace upon grace. "Do I not fill the whole heaven and the whole earth?" Says the Lord. Not just the place and the time that we occupy. God is not just our God or the God of just our people, or just our nation or our congregation or our denomination or our demographic category, or our tribe, or our ethnicity or our language. There is no justice if it's just about just us. No, God is the God of all time and all space and all people. In Christ, all things hang together. Step into your new year with this fresh recognition that the Holy Spirit wants to fill every nook and cranny of your life until you overflow with God's everlasting love for everybody. In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Reflections for December 29, 2019
Michael Zeigler: I really appreciated the word from Dr. Nunes that as Christians we're not really pessimists; we're not optimists; we don't see the cup half full or half empty. But, as the psalmist says, we expect the cup to overflow. We expect God to do good things, even if it's not in the way we expect it. Thank you, Dr. Nunes, for that message.
I have today joining me in the studio, Rev. Dr Tony Cook. He's the vice president of Global Ministries here at Lutheran Hour Ministries, and he brings us over 25 years of experience as a pastor, as an educator, my educator, by the way. I was in one of your classes.
Tony Cook: I apologize for that.
Michael Zeigler: Pastor as educator, in fact. Tony, you've been at the forefront of building on a longstanding partnership between Lutheran Hour Ministries and the Barna Group, and it's a partnership that goes back, as I understand it, 25 years when we did our first survey with Barna.
Tony Cook: Correct.
Michael Zeigler: Barna has conducted more than a million in-depth interviews with individuals, and they've become a go-to source for insights about faith and culture. Doing these interviews is a good way for us to understand people who are different than us, us as Christians, to get outside of our bubble.
Tony Cook: The way that I look at research is that research isn't necessarily about showing me the cause of an issue or giving me the exact answer, but really for me it's just a collection of insights about the people that I want to talk to. So, that when we put together our programming, we know that we are communicating in a way that makes sense to them from their perspective and their experience.
Michael Zeigler: It makes me think of when a teacher gives a pre-test at the beginning of the semester.
Tony Cook: Yeah, yeah.
Michael Zeigler: You see where the students are at, so you know what do you need to focus on in the coming class.
Tony Cook: It's amazing. I mean, a lot of the work that I do here and that I've done here over the past three and a half years is a lot like what I did as a teacher. It's amazing how that skillset of finding out where people are, finding out what their needs are, figuring out where you want them to go, and then doing that research to develop a plan is the same skillset you can use time and time again in all kinds of different situations.
Michael Zeigler: Makes me think of what Paul says in Colossians, that we seize the opportunity to speak to each person as the opportunity presents, as the need presents. Let's talk specifically about this research that we did, most recently, with Barna. It was a survey that involved interviews with 1,714 adults.
Tony Cook: Yes.
Michael Zeigler: That's a lot of people.
Tony Cook: That is. I didn't do all those personally.
Michael Zeigler: You didn't call up everybody? Okay.
Tony Cook: No.
Michael Zeigler: People living in the U.S. Across the spectrum of all the demographic factors, age, ethnicity, region, and in the whole group, about 40 percent of them were what they described as practicing Christians. The survey focused on how people have conversations about God, faith, lack of faith, and how often they have these conversations and how they feel about them.
Tony Cook: That's correct.
Michael Zeigler: What were some hunches that you had going in that this research confirmed or clarified?
Tony Cook: I had assumed that spiritual conversations would be much fewer than conversations about everyday life. I also figured that they would be more focused around perhaps religious events like church and ...
Michael Zeigler: Yeah. You want to come to this friendship Sunday.
Tony Cook: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So more about our worship and our congregation.
Michael Zeigler: Now another insight that I remember along the way was the impact of the conversation on the Christian who is speaking. If they were sharing their faith with say someone who wasn't a practicing Christian, the Christian reported they experienced benefits.
Tony Cook: Yeah. When you think about what it is to have a spiritual conversation, I think many times people would imagine that it is a really kind of negative thing or maybe a confrontational thing.
Michael Zeigler: Right.
Tony Cook: And what we found is that the majority of people say that they were actually glad that they had their most recent spiritual conversation. 76 percent of Christians report that they were glad they had that conversation, and 55 percent, and this is the surprising part, 55 percent of the non-Christians say that they were glad.
Michael Zeigler: Of the non-Christians?
Tony Cook: Yeah, that's right. We also realized that the emotions that people experienced were a little bit different than what we expected. I thought that nail-biting fear, kind of thing was there, but ...
Michael Zeigler: Of taking offense or something.
Tony Cook: Right. Or just being uncomfortable. But what we found is that one of the biggest emotions that people experienced was peace. That 71 percent of Christians reported that they experienced a feeling of peace when having the spiritual conversation. Whereas 40 percent of non-Christians said they experienced that. Laughter, you also think of these conversations are tense and maybe not joyful or humorous, but 59 percent of Christians reported they experienced laughter and 53 percent of non-Christians reported that they experienced laughter in their spiritual conversations. Joy, 55 percent of Christians experienced joy through the sharing of their faith. One of the things that I've found is that when we share our faith, our faith can be deepened because of it. My faith has been particularly strengthened by using it. It's almost like muscles, I guess. Like when you work out and you use your muscles, and they get better because of it. When I articulate my faith in Jesus Christ, not only does the person hear it that I'm speaking to, but actually I hear it and I overall ...
Michael Zeigler: I really believe this stuff.
Tony Cook: Exactly. I overhear myself and I think, no, that's right. And so for me, it's like a spiritual workout. It's a faith-building workout. And once I realized that the majority of these emotions that can be experienced would be that people are happy they had it, or they experienced peace, or they experienced joy, or they experience laughter—the fear is reduced. And I think, you know, this is a healthy thing to talk about.
When you're building that relationship with someone, and you're getting to know them, and you're listening to them and their perspective, what I've found is that when you're talking about the big issues in daily life that all people struggle with, that in order to have the right to share your perspective and your beliefs, that it's helpful to actually care about the beliefs and perspectives of other people. To gain a hearing for me is really about the basics of human polite communication and recognizing that what the person is bringing to the table, what they believe, what they feel, their opinions, that you're interested in them because you want to know more about that person. And what I've found is that when you actually take time to listen to someone and to listen to their perspective and to get to know them, that they are more receptive to hearing your perspective.
Michael Zeigler: Well, what you're doing, I hear is you're communicating to them that you care for them and you're doing the Gospel in advance. That you would take time to listen, that you value them even as God values them enough to give up His Son for them already, before they even knew it. And so I think it's a way to show the Gospel as well, as you walked with them towards speaking it.
Tony Cook: I don't view people as like targets for the Gospel necessarily. It's not like I'm trying to close a sale or something like that. But the way I look at other people is I try to acknowledge the fact that we're all creatures of God. We're all part of humanity. God has created every single person prior to any of their beliefs. He's created them, right? He knit them together in their mother's womb and to see each person as this miraculous gift from God to the rest of humanity. When I have a relationship with someone or I meet someone new, the way I tried to begin that relationship is just to embrace and acknowledge that they're a creation and a gift from God, and they have probably gifts to share with me, insights to share with me, and to start that relationship there, instead of seeing them as a target or a number or me fulfilling my duty on the evangelism committee or whatever that might be. Yeah.
Michael Zeigler: I think it's a good place to start.
Tony Cook: Loving people is a great way to start.
Michael Zeigler: Right.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"O God, Our Help in Ages Past" arranged and performed by Nathan Drake (www.reawakenhymns.com) Used by permission.
"Let All Together Praise Our God" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)