First, I want to tell you what my goal is in the minutes we have together; then tell you how I hope to pursue it, and then pursue it, and finally bring things to a close with a chance for all of you to respond with some kind of next step by filling out the cards in the worship folder and passing them in. I want to be crystal clear about my intentions so that you can be alert and clearheaded and make a good assessment of what I say. I have no desire to be subtle or play games or to sneak up on you with surprises. On top of our building is a big banner: "Truth Matters." I really believe it. It matters in Florida right now. It matters in your life. And it matters right now not only in what I say, but how I say it. Jesus said, "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).
First, then, my goal is to persuade you that the Biblical, Christian diagnosis of our condition as humans is true and deeply relevant to your life, and that the remedy that God has given in the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ is perfect for our condition and is found nowhere else but in him.
Second, the way I hope to pursue this is to read a passage of Scripture and comment on it; connect it with an experience I had in South Carolina on Thursday and Friday; show how this raises the issue of God and sin and salvation and faith; and finally, to outline the Christian message of hope in Jesus Christ from the Bible itself.
"Life Is Hard, and God is Good"
So let's pursue it. The text I want to read with you is Lamentations 3:21-25. Many of you will not be very familiar with this little book in the Old Testament. It was written by the prophet Jeremiah in response to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in about 587 BC. It tells us of the horrible destruction and loss of life and starvation through siege. But in the middle of the book (Lamentations 3:21-25) there are some of the sweetest words that God has given to us about himself. Jeremiah says,
21 This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
22 The LORD'S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions [mercies] never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"Therefore I have hope in Him."
25 The LORD is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
Then, in a partial explanation of how this can be, in the midst of great suffering, Jeremiah says in verses 32-33,
32 For if He [God] causes grief,
Then He will have compassion
According to His abundant lovingkindness.
33 For He does not afflict willingly
Or grieve the sons of men.
This means that the mercies of God are often hidden and hard to recognize when they are happening. He does "cause grief" (verse 32). He does "afflict" (verse 33). But all this serves another purpose – a merciful purpose – if we trust him.
It's the same as the lesson in the book of Job, who lost everything. James, the brother of the Jesus, wrote in James 5:11, "You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord's dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful." In all his afflictions, the aim was mercy. So it was in the destruction of Jerusalem for all who would turn to God and trust him.
You could sum it up the way Susan Shelley did when her son was born at 8:20 PM November 22, 1991 (just before Thanksgiving), and died at 8:22 PM – two minutes later. The nurse asked, "Do you have a name for the baby?" And Susan said, "Toby. It's short for a Biblical name, Tobaiah, which means, 'God is good.'" (See Marshall Shelley, "Two Minutes to Eternity" in Christian Reader, Sept/Oct, 1995). And when her husband Marshall told the story at a Wheaton College Alumni meeting, he summed up his talk, "Life is hard, and God is good." That's Lamentations.
O that we had eyes to see the mercies of God in our lives! How we would thank him, and trust him with our future. Especially if we knew the price he paid in the death of Jesus to take away our guilt and make it just for him to give everlasting mercies to sinners who trust him.
The Mercies of God in Childhood
I felt this very powerfully on Friday morning. I had flown to Greenville, South Carolina, to visit my stepmother and to help my father make some adjustments to living alone after she had moved into a nursing home. When my visit was over I left his house with enough time to drive by some of the places where I grew up. Everywhere I looked I saw the mercies of Christ.
Just beyond the old Coca-Cola bottling plant, boarded up now, was the office where my mother sent me to a dermatologist because I had acne so bad in high school. He would burn me with a lamp, then rub dry ice on my skin and then poke me until I looked like a boxer when I drove home. And I thought as I drove by: It was a mercy. It cut me off the fast track of popularity and girls, and made me look to God for help and hope. It was hard and it was good.
I drove through what was once called the "black section" and I remembered with shame my own participation in racist attitudes and behaviors. I felt shame again. But then I thought about the path where God has led me until today, and all I see is mercy. I have sinned and God has had mercy.
I drove by Billy Shaughnessy's house and looked at that front yard where we used to play tackle football (never touch or flag, always tackle). And I recalled that Saturday morning when we tackled Billy and broke his neck, but after weeks in a brace there was no paralysis. And I thanked God for his mercies, not mainly that I have not been killed or seriously injured, but that I have never killed anyone else or injured them permanently. That too is a great mercy from God.
Two blocks later I parked in front of the house where I grew up, 122 Bradley Boulevard. I got out so the smells would mingle with the sights. My mother and father designed and built the house in 1951. I was six when we moved in. I grew up there. All my childhood and teenage memories are there. I don't know who lives there now. I didn't have time to ask. I just looked. The blue spruce is gone. The crabapple tree is gone. The shrubs are all different. But the dogwood tree is still there forty-eight years later – about twelve inches thick now instead of four inches. And I thought of all the lonely and happy days sitting out on the grass under it, looking over Dellwood Valley to Piney Mountain and composing poems, because that seemed to give some shape and meaning to my feelings. O what a mercy from God that he met me there again and again, and gave me hope.
Finally, I drove to the cemetery where my mother was buried in 1974 after being killed in a bus accident. I was a little ashamed that it took me five minutes to find the brass headstone. But shame gave way to the sweetest gratitude as I stood there alone and let myself have a good fifty-four-year-old cry – as I poured out my heart in thanks to God for his mercies to me in twenty-eight years of faithful mothering. Yes, the loss at twenty-eight was hard. But God was good.
O how many are the mercies of God in our lives – even in the hardest experiences!
But Those Mercies Are All Over and Past
Now here is what gives all this a relevance for what I am trying to do in this message: it raised with tremendous force the issue of God and sin and salvation and faith – and whether a sinner like me can hope for anything that is permanently satisfying. It happened like this. All those experiences – and I only gave you a fraction of them – all those remembered mercies of God were overshadowed by a moment that had happened earlier that morning. My father had left to go to a meeting, and I was about to leave on the drive I just described to you. I stood there on the sun porch looking out over the backyard of a house that I have visited now almost yearly for twenty-five years – my father will celebrate his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary December 6. That's twenty-five more years after thirty-six years of marriage to my mother.
I thought to myself: LaVonne (my stepmother) has left this house and will probably never live here again. Daddy is alone, and who knows when he will move out, or go to be with Jesus. Soon, I will stand here for the last time, clear out the things that are his, and this twenty-five-year chapter of life will be over. And I will never enter this house again.
And the question rose in my heart – almost like a cry of rebellion – Lord, is this all that life is – the accumulation of memories? The closing of one chapter after another? And as we move to the end of our lives, more and more life lies behind and less and less lies before, so that the closing of every chapter becomes more and more painful?
Or does this very ache in our heart – this reflex of rebellion against the closing of chapters – signify that we are made for something more? Something future? Something permanent? Has God, as Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, "set eternity in [our] heart"? Is this immense longing in my heart to experience something precious and deep and true and beautiful and personal and satisfying that is permanent and not passing away – is that longing just an evolutionary, chemical development with no more personal significance than an upset stomach?
And at that moment, standing on that porch, I rejoiced that God has made known to us in his Word, the Bible, that we can belong to a kingdom, and a family that is permanent, and that not even death will separate us from him and from all those who trust him, and that his mercies will be new every morning forever and ever, and there will be no more sense of loss. No painful endings anymore.
No More Painful Endings
So let me take the closing minutes to summarize the Christian message of hope in Jesus Christ, that answers this tremendous longing in the heart of every person.
First, the Bible teaches that you and I are created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27, "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." This is why we are so different from the animals. All that makes your life personal, rather than mechanistic – all your love and all your sense of justice and duty and right and wrong and all your regrets and dreams – are the echo of the image of God in you and prove to your own conscience that you are a person in the presence of a living Creator, and not a accidental accumulation of chemical reactions. The Bible answers this huge question of why and how we are different from the animals, and have such struggles in our souls between the passing of time and the presence of eternity. We are in God's image and were made for God.
Second, the Bible teaches that we have sinned against God, and so it gives us an explanation of what is going on inside of us when we look back over our lives and feel so much regret – that it could have been so different, we could have done so much more, we could have loved so much better – and when we look forward into the future and feel so much dread (in our really honest, far-seeing moments). What are these deep feelings of failure and fear? They are the merciful gift of God telling us that we are sinners in need of a Savior. We have sinned. And we will sin again. And God is holy and just and pure and cannot look on sin. And therefore we are estranged and alienated from the very One for whom we were made. This is the explanation of the great turmoil of the human soul. This is what makes the Bible ring so true. Its identification of who we are and its diagnosis of our condition are so accurate!
Third, the Bible shows us what God has done, in his great mercy and love, to save us from our sin and reconcile us to himself, and give us freedom from the curse of remorse and fear, and give us hope for everlasting joy. Permanent joy. Permanent personal relationships that will never end – because they will all be rooted in him. And what he has done is send his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to die for our sins and rise again so that we might be forgiven and rise with him someday into the unshakable permanence of the children of God.
O how many texts there are to teach this truth. This is the heart of the Christian gospel – that Christ came into the world to save sinners, as Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:15, "It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all." John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." 1 Peter 3:18, "Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God."
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:6-10)
There is no other religion whose diagnosis of our condition is more penetrating and true to life than Biblical Christianity. And there is no other religion that offers a remedy for real guilt and real remorse and real rebellion and real, deserved alienation from God, and real, deserved fear of the future. Only Christianity shows us that God has made a way for himself to be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. When Christ died for our sins and rose again, God's honor and God's righteousness were vindicated. And in the very same act, Christ became my substitute: he bore the punishment of my sin, and he completed the demand for my righteousness. He has done what I never could do: bear my sins and be my righteousness.
Which leaves one last point. To experience this gift of God, through Jesus Christ, you must receive it as the treasure of your life. And that is what I am praying you will do. Jesus' apostle, John, said, "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name" (John 1:12). And the apostle Paul said, "By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
So here we are standing on the sun porch alone. The house is empty. The chapter is closing – perhaps ten years, or twenty-five, or fifty – and God has brought you here today to hear his Word, his diagnosis of your soul and his remedy for your condition, and mine. You were made in God's image, to know him and trust him and love him and enjoy him and follow him and to live with him permanently forever. All of us have strayed from this destiny. Christ came to bring us back. I pray that you will come.