As we emerge from yet another pandemic lockdown, I fear that some of us are becoming numb and don’t really know what life is going to look like in the days ahead. We are hoping this will be the last time we are issued with a ‘stay at home’ order from the Government, but we know that every day we are precariously close to the possibility of this virus raring its head in our community which may bring another lockdown upon us. I recall my first service here in March 2020 and the sense of expectation I felt as we all embarked upon a new chapter in our shared faith journey. Little did we know what was coming only three weeks later when we were forced to lock up our buildings and isolate at home for the next seven months. That lockdown was really tough on some of our people and we were delighted to be set free later in the year to worship together again. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, nobody could foresee a mutant strain of the virus emerging only a few months later which spread like a bushfire in so many parts of the world. We soon found ourselves back where we had been a year before. It has certainly been a difficult time.
Human beings have faced adversity many, many times since those wonderful days in the Garden of Eden when everything was perfect. When we rebelled against God – everything changed. The world was broken; we were broken; God’s best for us was overshadowed by our sin and unwillingness to do things His way. Despair, discouragement and disaster entered our world and brought with it tremendous pain, loss, a crushing burden of guilt and shame and a spiritual death from which we were powerless to escape. This was never God’s will for us. He only wanted the best for us and so in spite of our rebellion and desire to go our own way, our God, Who is love, continued to reach out to His children and promise us the best – even when were going through the worst of circumstances.
In chapter 43 of the Old Testament Book of Isaiah we see the people of God facing their worst-case scenario. They have completely missed the mark with God – they are blind and deaf to His Word and His guidance and God seems to have turned His back on them in anger. But even in the midst of that devastating reality, God still provides a way out and the opening words of Isaiah 43 tell us how we too can survive the toughest of circumstances.
“But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.” (Isaiah 43:1-3a)
When life seems to turn against us, there are times when all we have left is faith and the most important thing faith can do for us in the middle of a crisis is to teach us to listen. Those verses from Isaiah 43 tell us what to listen for. Specifically, they tell us to listen for six really important words from God whenever we are overwhelmed by any of the circumstances which come our way
The first two words to listen for from God are the opening words in Isaiah 43; “But now.” Never forget that with God there is always a “But now …. ” The worst has happened … but now God wants to do a new thing in your life. The thing you feared most has overtaken you …but now God gives you a new perspective and a new promise. When life deals us a bad hand and we feel we have no hope, no options, faith listens for those words from God, “But now …. “
You may be connected to a ventilator in an ICU ward because someone else didn’t think they needed to comply with a health order. You may have experienced the gut-wrenching agony of watching a loved one succumb to cancer or a stroke and die in your arms. You may have experienced the inexplicable pain of losing a child or grandchild before they could even begin to enjoy their life. Regardless of your situation, whenever you are facing such insurmountable odds, if you pause for a moment and really listen for God, you will always hear, “But now ..”
In Matthew chapter 8 we encounter a man who has leprosy. His facial features are slowly rotting away. His hands and feet end, not with fingers and toes, but useless stubs. His community has expelled him. His religion has condemned him. His family has abandoned him. But now he meets Jesus … and with just two words, Jesus changes everything for this leper, God’s “But now,” comes from Jesus when He says, “Be clean.”
In Mark chapter 4 we read of the time the disciples cast off from the pier and begin to row across the familiar Galilean waters. Very soon the calm sea has begun to churn. The wind now lashes their faces with salt and spray. Then the storm descends upon them with a vengeance. They are ankle deep in sea water and taking on more than they can bail. In minutes – perhaps seconds – they will capsize and sink. Their worst fears have become a reality. God’s “But now,” for the disciples comes again in two words from Jesus: “Be still.” And everything was still.
For every sickness, for every storm, for every defeat, every loss, every failure, every betrayal, for every disastrous flood, fire or tragedy – God has an answer. When the worst happens, faith always waits and listens for God to say, “But now” and then the new day dawns.
The next two words faith listens for when the worst happens are in the middle part of verse 1 in Isaiah 43. “Fear not.” Judging from the response of people in the Bible who actually saw real angels, they were fearsome to behold. When they appeared, people usually fainted, fell face down on the ground or ran away. So the first words angels usually spoke were, “Fear not.” When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water that time they thought He was a ghost, the disembodied spirit of some lost sailor stalking them across the waves. So Jesus had to tell them, “Fear not.”
In fact if you do a word study of the Bible from cover to cover you will see that God says to us directly and through His prophets hundreds of times not to fear, not to be anxious. Why should we fear not? The answer follows those two words in vs. 1. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.”God can say, “Fear not,”because God knows that He’s going to be with us no matter what. That’s what vs. 2 is about. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.”
God never tells us there won’t rough waters, raging rivers or blazing fires in our lives. He just says, “When you are in the middle of those worst-case scenarios, fear not. I’m with you.” No matter what happens, no matter what we do, God is going to be with us in the flood; with us in the fire; with us in our pain; with us in our suffering, with us in our grief and loss; with us when the worst happens. So we can fear not, but our faith listens for two more words. “I am.”
“For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.” (v.3)
In the very next sentence God reminds us of Egypt. You may remember what God told Moses when he asked, “Whom shall I say sent me?” God told Moses, “You tell Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, that I Am sent you.” A number of times in Scripture God calls himself I Am. What does that mean? Well if you look at the way the phrase “I am” is used throughout the Bible, you find that it’s almost always connected not just to God’s existence, but to God’s action. In other words, when God says, “I am,” He really means, “I am here, I am active, I am what’s happening.”
So how can hearing God say, “I am,” help us in our time of need? Here’s how: When the worst happens we don’t just lose our health or a loved one or a job or a home; we lose our identity. The tragedy is so overwhelming, the grief so all consuming, that it redefines us. Whether the worst comes crashing down on you through no fault of your own, or comes bursting out from within because of your own bad choices, the worst is overwhelming because you lose yourself and you lose your way.
That’s when you need to listen with ears of faith for the voice of God to say,“I am. You may have lost everything, even who you are, but I am. I am here. I am what’s happening. I am with you. I am your saviour – now and always!” In Psalm 46 God told his people, “Be still, and know that I am God.”That same God, in the person of Jesus, told the winds and waves,“Quiet! Be still.”He still has that power over the storms we face. No matter how big they are, no matter how often they come. Our worst days do not diminish God’s power – not one bit. Listen with faith and you will hear God speak those important six words:
But now …
Fear not …
I am …
When God speaks, worlds are formed; new life is given; the old becomes new again! But why? For what purpose? Trusting God to save us and rescue us from the floods and traumas of life is important but what are we saved for? Is it just so we wait around for the next crisis? Or are we saved for a purpose? Have we renovated this Worship Centre for its own sake? Was creating this new, flexible space an end in itself or was this building, like us, saved and renewed for a purpose which is far greater than itself? I will let the Apostle Paul answer that question through his words to the Church at Philippi many years ago. The reason God saves us from the floods and the fires of life; the reason our God says, “but now … fear not … I am…”is so He can lead us to embrace the same reality which gripped the heart of Paul when he wrote:
“…. whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Philippians 3:7-9)
Nothing else compares. Nothing else competes with that one goal. We are saved for a purpose and that purpose is to know Christ and to be found in Him. Everything else took second place for Paul. My purpose and calling as a Minister of the gospel is to lead people into a personal, life-transforming relationship with the living Christ. I have no other calling. Everything else I do points to or flows from that one purpose. The same is true for the whole Christian Church. Everything which happens under the banner of the Church needs to point to or flow from the mission of Christ to reconcile all God’s children to Himself. All the other great stuff which has crept on to the Church’s agenda and re-defined its purpose needs to stand behind our primary calling: which is to know Christ and to be found in Him. People wonder why buildings like this are not full every week like they once were. People ask why the Church is declining and congregations are closing every week across our nation. I think the answer is simple: we have lost sight of our primary purpose.
We have become distracted by countless other worthy causes. We have lost our first love and neglected our primary calling. We are called to know Christ and to be found in Him and the purpose of the Church is to lead people to Christ so they may know Him also and be found in Him. Everything else we do, preach or say must flow from that purpose and point people to Christ or we are not the Church Jesus birthed and promised to build.
So in the name of Jesus Christ, the author and perfector of our faith, I want to declare that this new Worship and Ministry Centrewill be a place where the risen, living Christ will be found. He will be present in our worship, present in our ministry and present in our fellowship. Everything which happens here will happen in Christ, through Christ and for Christ. Then, and only then, will God once again fill this place to overflowing as people are drawn to Jesus from across this region. That’s what I signed up for. That’s the only reason I am here. I am proud of what God has enabled us to do in giving this place a facelift but I need to be brutally honest with you and say that if the mission of Christ is not front and centre in this building from this day forward then I have just presided over the greatest waste of money and time in my life, because this building could be empty in ten years if something doesn’t happen to alter our current trajectory.
When the Church of Jesus Christ once again embraces its calling and purpose in the world, when the sleeping giant awakens and hears God’s call to mission once again – before long all our buildings will be full to overflowing. Religion and the institutional church is repelling and repulsing people more now than ever before. But Jesus Christ always draws people because deep down in the God-created soul of every person on this earth there is a desire to know Christ and to be found in Him.
The past couple of years have been really hard for many people and in that time some of us have experienced sickness and loss and grief on top of the pandemic … but the voice of God is very clear to those who are listening: “But now, fear not – you are not alone – I am with you – and I will now provide everything you need to transform this into a place where My Word is preached, My presence is sought and experienced, My Lordship is proclaimed, My gospel is celebrated and My mission is accomplished.”
That journey begins afresh today. In fact, every day is a new day for each one of us. Every morning as the sun rises and the light shines across our world, God calls us to leave the past behind us, set our minds and hearts on things above – make sure our primary focus and prayer is always ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
This week I have been thinking about a day 24 years ago. It was early January in 1997. My family and I were on holidays. We were looking after Kia Ridge, the Baptist Campsite at Tahmoor, south west of Sydney. It was our home away from home as we relaxed once again on over 700 acres of secluded bushland in a five bedroom house with a wonderful in ground pool. It was quite a contrast from our normal life living on a very busy street in Orange and working 80-90 hours a week in front-line ministry whilst raising five young children.
As usual I rose well before the sun did and I recall sitting at the dining room table watching the fog slowly burn away across the grassy paddocks as the first light of day pierced the darkness of the night. I was in a reflective mood as I often was in January each year as I looked back and forward, seeking the Lord’s guidance for the road ahead. I picked up my pen and began to write and what transpired was a song which became very special to me at various points in my spiritual journey and in the journey of the Congregations I have had the privilege of leading over many years. Let me share the words God gave me that day in the hope that they might resonate with you at some point in your journey. I pray and hope that God will use the words He gave me so long ago to bring you into the new day He has prepared for you.
THE NEW DAY DAWNS
by Robert Griffith
The sun begins to rise, a new day dawns
the morning dew is sparkling on the ground
the darkness of the night is quickly put to flight
as golden beams of light shine all around
As the new day dawns, I leave the past behind
all the disappointments and the pain
the joys I will cherish, from the tears I will grow
as by faith I journey on in Jesus’ name
A sense of expectation fills the air
my heart responds as birds begin to sing
just like the potter’s clay, we are given each new day
a precious gift to mould and shape for Him
Your mercies are new every morning
Your grace will supply all my needs
yesterday has gone – Lord, help me now press on
to run the race that You prepared for me
© 1997 Robert Griffith