How to survive the holiday blues

12 Dec

surviving-the-holiday-bluesAre you feeling low this Christmas?  Though there are Christmas lights everywhere, does your life feel like a dark place?

In the sermon intro blog post, I introduced a story in the history of the Israelite nation of Judea.  At the time, Hezekiah was King, and he was trapped inside the Judean capital city, Jerusalem.  Outside the walls of the city, the powerful Assyrian juggernaut, 185,000 soldiers strong, was knocking on the door saying “Surrender or die.”  If you want, you can read that post before continuing here.  And look up Isaiah 36-37 to catch up with the story.

When we left off, we were on the battlefield just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  The Assyrian field commander had just mocked the Jews.  In fact, take a look at verse 20 and notice the very last thing he said: “How can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”  He had just pointed out that so far no one else’s god has saved them.  If you look back just a few verses farther to 18, he says to the scared Jewish soldiers on the city walls, “Don’t let your king Hezekiah mislead you when he says the Lord will deliver you.  We’ve been bulldozing our way through every town, and they all have gods too, and no one is stopping us.  You think your God is any different?”

What a challenge!  He even uses God’s personal name.  YHWH.  Notice in verse 20 how the word LORD is in all capital letters?  That means the Hebrew here is actually using the personal name of God, YHWH.  That’s a real slap in the face of God. This Assyrian field commander thinks YHWH is a joke, just like the other so-called gods that had put up no fight.

Hezekiah’s envoy returns to the palace and tells him the dire news.  It’s not looking good for Jerusalem.  The choices are awful: either try to hold out on a siege and slowly starve, or surrender and lose everything.  What would you do?

Hezekiah’s response is amazing.  Look at chapter 37:1.

He tears his clothes and put on sackcloth.  Instead of calling his response “amazing”, I could have said that it is strange.  If you didn’t know this was in a Bible story, you’d think it was a Hulk Hogan move, tearing off his t-shirt.  In our culture, tearing your clothes is not what you normally do when you are sad, afraid, scared or nervous!  What do you do you when you’re upset?

Lay in bed.  Get a huge bowl of ice cream.  Shop online.  You probably wouldn’t tear your clothes and put on a canvas bag.  That would be seen as odd. And no one would understand you.

In the Ancient Near East, however, when you were really worked up, you tore your clothes and put on sackcloth.  It was how you showed everyone that what was going on was a big deal to you.

What Hezekiah does next, though is awesome, and it will seem a lot more familiar to you.  He goes to church.  In Jerusalem, the church was the temple.  Hezekiah is deeply distressed, and so often when we are distressed like that, we do what Hezekiah did.  We seek God.  Then he sends for the prophet Isaiah.  He wants to hear from God.  He is seeking out counsel.  This is just like you and I might seek out wisdom from a trusted spiritual advisor, a pastor, a counselor, and we might go to the Bible and pray.

Hezekiah tells his envoy to pass a message to Isaiah the prophet telling Isaiah all that has been going on.

Isaiah hears and responds.  In fact, he has a message from YHWH.  Now this is getting good.  YHWH, who has just been defamed by the field commander of Sennacherib, is now speaking back.  What does God say?

“Do not be afraid of that underling!”  Isn’t that awesome?  God calls the field commander an underling.  And what’s more, God says that field commander is not going to last long.

“Do not be afraid.”  Maybe you’re are one of those people who likes to count things.  How many times in the Bible do think God says “Do not be afraid”?  There are people who have counted it.  And they found that God says “do not be afraid” 365 times in the Bible.  One for each day.  That would be a cool study to do throughout a year!

Will Hezekiah give in to his fear?  Or will he trust in God?  And what will his men do?  Will they be faithful to their king, or will they mutiny?  We’re about to find out.

Briefly the setting of the story moves away from Jerusalem.  We read that the Assyrians are winning still more battles, and Sennacherib continues to taunt Jerusalem in a new letter to Hezekiah saying that there is no stopping them.  Not Jerusalem’s God, no one, can match the power of his Assyrian army.

Now what does Hezekiah do?  Things have gotten worse.  Any help that Judea might have gotten from surrounding cities and nations isn’t coming.  Assyria controls it all. What’s worse, YHWH hasn’t shown up yet.

Sometimes when life is low, the hardest part is the waiting.  When you pray, how long should you have to wait for God to show up?  We want him to respond immediately.  He might, but he might not.  The fear, the uncertainty, can start to eat away at our already-thin faith.

Was Hezekiah starting to lose faith?  We’ve been learning a thing or two about Hezekiah.  He was a good dude.  He does what he did before.

He takes this new letter to the temple. He spreads the letter out before God and starts praying and says “All this stuff Sennacherib is saying, Lord?  It’s true!  Nothing has been stopping him.  But you, Lord, deliver us, so that all may know that you are the one true God.”

And just like last time, after Hezekiah went to the temple and Isaiah had a word from the Lord, now Hezekiah has gone to the temple again, and Isaiah has another word from the Lord.  This time the Lord rips into Sennacherib’s arrogance and says to him “I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth and make you return.”  That’s YHWH saying “I will totally dominate you Sennacherib.”

Then YHWH speaks directly to Hezekiah in 37:30: He talks about the future, planting vineyards, and a remnant of people that will take root and bear fruit, a picture of growth and health and vitality.  This is a new vision of hope, and he says “the zeal of the Lord will accomplish it!”

Zeal is not a word we use all that much.  Here the word in the original Hebrew is often translated “jealousy” or “envy.”  God is saying that he has strong feelings for Israel, and he will achieve his goal.

What about this massive Assyrian army?  YHWH says in verses 33-35, “Don’t worry about the Assyrians.  I have got this.”

What happens next is absolutely mind-boggling.  That Assyrian camp of soldiers that was laying waste to everyone and everything?  An angel of God goes out and puts 185,000 of them to death.  It is total decimation.  The men on wall of Jerusalem wake up the next morning to get a look at their enemy, and to their shock, they see nothing but dead bodies.

Sennacherib?  He doesn’t make it either.  By the end of chapter 37, the war machine of Sennacherib is gone.  YHWH did what he said he would do.  And why?  Look back at 37:21!  One little phrase tells us why.  “Because Hezekiah prayed to YHWH.”  Hezekiah trusted in God. God said “Do not be afraid,” and Hezekiah believed and trusted.  Therefore the prophecy was fulfilled.

There are generally three kinds of fulfillment we normally see in prophecy: the conditional, the immediate, and the future kinds of fulfillment.

The story of Hezekiah and the Assyrian attackers is so helpful for understanding the prophecy one chapter earlier in Isaiah 35.  Notice that for the one who listens to the prophecy and trusts in it, the promises come true!  Most prophecy is like that.  So often we think of prophecy as just telling the future no matter what.  But most biblical prophecy is conditional. When I say “conditional”, I mean that most prophecy says “I will tell you what the future will be like, IF YOU TRUST IN ME.”  Fulfillment of the future vision was contingent on the people trusting in and obeying God.

As we walk through the prophecy in Isaiah 35, we see these elements of prophetic fulfillment.

First, in verses 1-2, this prophecy with its images of a desert wasteland blooming into a garden reminds us of a future peaceable kingdom similar to the one we talked about the previous two weeks.

Second, in verses 3-4 we see the admonition to the people, such as those in Hezekiah’s day who were possibly the first ones to receive this prophecy, to stand firm, and wait for God to come and save them.  That is a conditional prophecy.

Third, verses 5-6 sure seem like they are describing the ministry of Jesus don’t they?  The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk.  That is future fulfillment.

Next, the second half of verse 6 and into verse 7 we find an image very reminiscent of Moses’ ministry, through whom God provided water for the children of Israel during their Exodus from Egypt.   Some people have talked about how modern-day Israel has done a lot with irrigation, and thus how this passages shows us that we are in the end times.  Or is this image just a symbolic of the Messianic peaceable Kingdom?  We don’t know.  Again, what the prophecy is suggesting is future fulfillment.

The final section of the prophecy is in verses 8-10, and there we see the future ministry of the Messiah to make redemption possible.

While there are five parts to the prophecy with various levels of fulfillment, two of these I would like to look at further for the practical way they relate to our lives.

In verses 3-4 the prophecy says “Be strong, do not fear, your God will come.”  We might not get to be the ones who see this part of the prophecy fulfilled.  When this same thing was happening in Hezekiah’s day, not all people in Jerusalem got to see it.   People still were born, lived and died.  Generations of them did not see it.  But it did happen.

Yes, there was an immediate fulfillment of deliverance in the story of Hezekiah that they did see.  But there was also a future fulfillment 700 years later in the birth of Christ they did not see.  The same goes for us.  We might not live to see the second coming of Christ.  That is hard to take because we look around our world and there is much to fear.  But we have the same words spoken over us: be strong, do not fear, your God will come.

No matter how low you feel this Christmas, be encouraged.  God will keep his promises.  It doesn’t mean that we go hide in our houses and just let wickedness and injustice rule.  No we work for the flourishing of God’s mission now.  We don’t sit on our hands and wait for God to come.  We do what Hezekiah did.  We pray for deliverance, we seek godly counsel (meaning that we avoid individualism, we avoid going it alone), and we faithfully obey God.  We obey even when we don’t feel like it, when it seems ridiculous.  Imagine how tempting the thoughts of surrender would have been for Hezekiah.  As he is waiting for God to keep his promise, maybe Hezekiah feared the Assyrians were right, and the Judeans would have a better life in Assyria?  I can see how Hezekiah would be wrestling with this.  Yet he obeyed the Lord.

The next practical application in the prophecy is found in verses 8-10, and there we have a problem.  The vision describes a highway, the Way of Holiness it is called.  This is the Way to God.  The problem is that the unclean, the wicked will not be able to walk on the Way of Holiness.  Aren’t all of humans unclean and wicked?  Surely there are many of us who aren’t that bad as to be called wicked, when you consider how deeply evil some people can be.  But none of us are holy.  This Way of Holiness requires perfection.  That’s a huge problem.  Who can walk on that way to God?  Who are the clean, the righteous ones that are able to walk in that way?

Look at verse 9-10.  The ones who can walk on that highway are the redeemed, the ransomed of the Lord.  So what does it mean to be redeemed, ransomed of the Lord?  1 Timothy 2:5-6 tells us that there is someone who can ransom us.  Jesus.

We need to remember the story of the Good News of Jesus, starting with Christmas and carrying through Jesus’ perfect life, death and resurrection.  When we trust in him by believing and obeying him, we can be redeemed.  Have you been redeemed?  Have the chains of sin been broken in your life?  If you’re not sure, I’d love to talk with you about that.

Hezekiah is a great example for us.  We show that we trust not just by believing something in our mind, but by staking our life on God’s promises.  Hezekiah’s decision to go to the temple, to pray, to not give in to the powerful Assyrians, was an amazing act of faith.  It was risky.  It was literally putting his life on the line.  God had to show up, or Hezekiah and Jerusalem were finished.  There was no human way of stopping the Assyrians from destroying Jerusalem.  And God did show up.

The same thing goes for us.  When we look around our world and we don’t have hope, when there doesn’t seem to be a human solution, we can feel hopeless.  In those moments, when we still obey God, when we still walk in his way, we show that our faith is real.

So put these two applications together.  Combine them in the middle of your life situations.  I know that there are many situations in life that can bring us down. Scary situations.  Hardships.  God says to us “Be not afraid.”  He is a faithful God that we can trust in!  I’m not saying that he is promising to make all the bad stuff of life go away.  Instead I am saying that when we trust in him, we can know that we will always have his promises in our lives.

First there is the promise of a future in his peaceable Kingdom.  Even if life is hell on earth on for us now, we can hold on to the hope we read about in verses 9-10, the hope of gladness and joy, everlasting joy, and our sorrows and sighing fleeing away one day in his Kingdom.

But second, there is also the abundant life of Christ that we can experience now.  And I would love to talk with you about that.  If you feel like the word “abundant” is not describing your life now, and you have little hope that you will experience the abundant life of Christ, please don’t be forlorn or upset.  You’re not alone.  Many people don’t experience it.  And many wonder why.  What should you do?  The first step is to talk about it. Follow Hezekiah’s example.  Reach out to the Lord and to the people who know him.  Please feel free to comment here to talk further!  There is hope!

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