Endurance + Encouragement = Unity
Isaiah 11:2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD–
A long time ago, in a place far away, a whole community was taken from its land and transplanted into a foreign nation. In those days, traveling ten miles away was considered to be a great trek, so to find themselves thousands of miles from home was considered to be the beginning of the end for the people of that tragic Jewish community.
For generations they had lived in a Promised Land, serving a God who protected them. For centuries, this faithful community had believed itself to be invincible, just like their god, so when they were finally defeated and led into away into the bitterness of exile, they were absolutely devastated.
How could this happen to God’s chosen people? How could God allow our enemies to defeat us? How will we ever be able to survive? And how can we sing our songs of faith in a strange and hostile land?
In the midst of all of their confusion, anxiety, and despair, God did not abandon them. Instead, He came with them and inspired one of his faithful prophets, a man called Isaiah, whose name means “Liberator.”
In order to endure as a faithful community, Isaiah would have to preach and teach a new message from God – a message of encouragement and hope, of deliverance and dedication, of freedom and faith.
If the people paid attention to what Isaiah prophesied, then their hope of salvation would one day be accomplished. God would raise up someone from among them who would be full of wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. Each of these divine gifts would be essential for the community to survive and continue throughout the generations.
This Chosen One would be given wisdom and understanding, which is often called the gift of discernment in the Bible. He would know the right thing to say and do, as well as being aware of the right time to take action on behalf of God’s people. In other words, he would have a gift of true leadership – of favoring God’s intentions and encouraging the people to build up their faith to overcome their fears.
This Chosen Servant would also be given the gifts of counsel and power, which is often interpreted as authority. As he encouraged the people to remain faithful to God, he would also exercise his sovereign and divine right to rule over the hearts and minds of the people. His authority came directly from God, and so to oppose or diminish the Chosen One’s teaching or commands, would be to directly oppose God.
And this Anointed Servant would also have complete knowledge and fear of God: in other words, he would revere God and submit fully to His commands and demands. He would not sway to the right or the left of God’s truth. He would set his face like flint and keep a true and absolutely straight course for the sake of honoring God and the saving of His people.
When Isaiah prophesied these things to the captive Jewish community, he was inspiring them to hold on to the promises of God. If they persevered in believing God’s Word to be true, if they kept hold of their faith, if they endured and maintained their reliability of their God, then they would encourage one another with their faithfulness and worship, devotion and dedication. In other words, so long as they let their faith define their community, and not their geographical location, they would remain united; they would stay inspired; they would survive.
Thankfully, the people held on dearly to everything that Isaiah the Liberator preached. And even after they returned to their homeland, they still believed that this Chosen Servant, this Anointed One, this Messiah was yet to come. Their belief became our salvation. Their hope became our faith. Their Messiah became our Christ…and all because those Jews endured in the midst of hard times, encouraged one another in faith, and became the united people of God. As Christians, we owe everything to Christ, but we should also hallow and remember the enduring faith of those Jewish exiles from more than 2500 years ago. Without their devotion, we would not be here.
Now let’s fast forward seven hundred years. God’s people are once again scattered all over the place and so He raises up another Jewish prophet called Paul. Paul’s mission is to establish the Christian faith all over the Mediterranean, beginning in the small Jewish communities and then expanding the ministry to people from all over the world.
Paul’s people face the same dilemma as Isaiah’s – they are small fish in a humongous pond. They believe in One God and in Jesus Christ, His Holy Son. They are energized by the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit; but they are also surrounded by thousands of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods and goddesses. How can they compete with centuries of idolatry? How can they survive against the mighty Roman Empire?
Paul’s response is similar to that of Isaiah, only this time, it is directed to the people of God. The Chosen One has already appeared and ascended into heaven. Christ’s faithful followers are now going to become the messengers of His ministry and the servants of His mission. They need to be empowered and encouraged, inspired and united in order to endure. And so Paul writes this special prayer for the Christians in Rome:
Romans 15:5-6 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul first of all states that it is God who gives endurance and encouragement to the faith community. In other words, the source, the sustenance and the sustainability of this Christian community rests upon the favor and will of the Lord alone. Charismatic preachers like Paul and powerful teachers like Timothy may come and go; it is the presence of the Lord that decides if a faith community shall endure.
Secondly, Paul asks God to shower the church in Rome with a blessing of unity as they follow Jesus. In other words, Paul’s not just asking for everyone to get along and be happy together. He’s asking the Lord to encourage, enable, and empower the church in Rome to be truly united in Christ, so that their mission and purpose may be effective. The Mormons say that a family that prays together stays together. Paul beat them to it: he is stating in this blessing that a church family united in Christ, endures for everlasting life.
Thirdly, the whole purpose of being united in the Lord, of being a faithful community and a devoted church family is to bring glory to God and to worship Him forever.
Sixty six years ago, just two days after Pearl Harbor, when this nation thought that things could not get any worse, Adolph Hitler declared war on the United States and ordered that all US ships crossing the Atlantic be torpedoed. He wanted to keep US supplies, ammunition, and troops from reaching Britain. He knew that if America and Britain managed to strengthen their alliance, then the Nazis would lose the war in Europe. During the first six months of the war, Nazi U-boats destroyed 348 Allied ships. In response, the Allies only managed to destroy two submarines. Allied commanders were reluctant to take so many losses, but they endured for the sake of the mission. Even although it took three years to win the Battle of the Atlantic, the unified front of the British, American and Canadian forces brought salvation and liberation to Europe.
But how does all of this affect us here in the 21st century? What has this to do with our salvation and deliverance, liberty and faith? Why is it so important that our folk in this wee church hear and receive this message?
Well, first of all, we’re a small fish in a large pond. We could get swallowed alive by all the big, successful churches around us. We could very easily say that we can’t compete against the Baptists, or football fans, or the way in which society is headed. We could just give up the ghost and put the lights out before we close the doors. But that’s not what God wants…and remember, it’s His presence that keeps us in existence.
Secondly, we’re a really diverse church. We’ve people from all over the United States and from all over the world in our congregation. We come from different backgrounds and cultures, different generations and families – and that has always been a part of our calling as a church, ever since we were established in 1877. God brings people here to be united in Christ, not because we are the same, but because we each have been called to serve the same Savior, the same mission, the same ministry.
And thirdly, this message of endurance and encouragement needs to be taken up by our church, by our presbytery, and by our denomination. We’re letting Satan divide us, instead of allowing Christ to unite us.
Today in 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was first shown on TV. It’s become an seasonal classic that has stood the test of time. I watched it once again a couple of nights ago, and once again its message tugged my heart. Charlie Brown tries his best to get a great Christmas tree for his school friends and neighbors, but his efforts, although sincere, end up in failure. He presents a miserable tree to his peers and they castigate him for it. He tries to do the right thing, and the world just picks on him.
And then, a remarkable thing happens. The children decorate the tree with all the stuff that Snoopy has used to decorate his kennel and the tree is transformed. Instead of being divided, all the children are united. Instead of being dejected and rejected, Charlie Brown is lauded and applauded.
Folks, we are the Charlie Brown of Christendom in this community. I would love for us all to be Snoopy, but he belongs to the Pentecostalists. We are trying our best and beginning to make the right moves in our ministries and missions, so that we will make an impact in this community for years to come. We all come here because we’re looking for God in our lives. But we’re also here because we’re looking for God to give us something to do with our lives.
And this is where Paul’s final words of this passage become our blessing for today: he writes
Romans 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If ever there was a verse that we could adopt as our motto for 2008, it should be this one. So let’s claim it for our church today and use it as a church benediction throughout the coming year:
May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in Him, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.