Sunday, January 09, 2011

God Does Not Help Those Who Help Themselves

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Today, if you remember nothing else from this sermon, I beg you to remember this: God does not help those who help themselves.

God does NOT help those who help themselves. That’s the message this morning. And while I’m going to delve into all of our Bible lessons for today, our theme verse for this morning could well be Proverbs, chapter 3, verses 5 to 7, which I hope you’ll read aloud with me now. You can find it on page 360 of the pew Bibles. Read aloud with me, please:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and depart from evil. 
God does not help those who help themselves.

  • God helps those who surrender to God. 
  • God helps those who place their past sins, their present lives, and their future destinies in His hands. 
  • God helps those who fear, respect, and honor God. 
  • God helps those who strive through daily repentance and renewal to live according to God’s will. 
  • God helps those who believe in Jesus Christ. 
  • God helps those who trust in the Bible as God’s perfect word for us. 
  • God helps those who acknowledge their helplessness and turn to God for help. 
  • God helps those who see living as a sacred privilege and an undeserved pleasure, even when racked by pain or trouble, and so seek to live lives of tenacious effort and strenuous service. 
  • God helps those who draw life, fulfillment, direction, and hope from Him alone.
God does not help those who help themselves. Ancient Israel should have known that. For four hundred thirty years God’s people were slaves in Egypt, generation upon generation under the master’s whip. Yet God heard the cries of His people and against all odds, God delivered them from Egypt and then, despite their constant faithlessness and whining during a forty-year journey that should have taken just eleven days, God gave them a promised land.*

God helped this people not because there was anything special about Abraham and his descendants. One of ancient Israel’s greatest leaders was Moses, who told the people in a sermon delivered shortly before God took them from the desert into that promised land:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…[Deuteronomy 7:7-8]
God loved Israel, the Bible basically says, because God loved Israel. It doesn't make sense; but love doesn't have to make sense!

God chose Israel so that somewhere on Planet Earth, there would be a people who knew Him intimately and could be, in a phrase found in today’s first lesson, “a light to the nations” and, as attested in many places in the Old Testament, the incubator, the birthing room, of the Messiah, God's anointed King of kings. This Messiah would bring God’s kingdom to people around the world who will trust in Him. God delivered Israel because He had big plans for them. God delivered Israel because He had big plans for the world. God delivered Israel because He had big plans for you and me.

Now, when a people have been delivered by God, there are several ways they can react. As you know—and I don’t mean for this to be a hobby horse, after my heart attack last June, my cardiologist and nurses told me two things. One is that they couldn’t explain why I’d had a heart attack. The other is that couldn’t explain why I survived my heart attack. Forty percent of my heart had been damaged. Heart function was well below the danger level. Today, I can be faulted for being fanatical about my diet, daily exercise, and getting down time. But I honestly feel that God has delivered me and I want desperately to respond to that deliverance through a life of faithfulness, gratitude, witnessing, and prayer. There is nothing about me—an imperfect sinning human being—that deserves God’s help. And only time will tell if I will lean on God to sustain this grateful life style. But this is one way to respond to deliverance and grace.

The more common way for us all to react to God’s deliverance—and the one of which I have been guilty most of my life—is to take it and God for granted. Or to forget about it and move on as though God weren’t there.

Despite all of the incredible blessings God had showered on His undeserving people, this path—the path of self-will and self-reliance—was the one that Israel took.

It was the path against which the prophets were sent to warn God’s people. The prophets called them to repent of their reliance on wealth, power, alliances with foreign nations, and the worship of false gods and to instead turn again in utter dependence on God.

Jesus, God in the flesh, later gave the same message to all of us. He says that to gain life, we must enter the kingdom of God by the narrowest gates—by faith in Him alone—for “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

With prosperity and power, God’s ancient people wandered from their focus on God. The prophets told them that to continue their wandering would lead to destruction. As we mentioned last week, it did. Repeatedly, Israel was conquered, enslaved, and exiled by foreign nations.

When we rely on anything or anyone but God, it means that the world can do its worst to us.

When we rely on God, even when the world still does its worst to us, we live in the constant confidence that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We know that through Jesus Christ, we belong to God forever!

Our first lesson for today comes from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Most scholars agree that the the section of Isaiah from which our lesson is drawn was not written by the original Isaiah. In ancient times, it was acceptable for a student or follower of a great teacher to write in that teacher’s name. It’s thought that the author of at least chapters 40 through 53 of this 66-chapter book were written by someone the scholars call Deutero- or Second-Isaiah. (You might think of him as Isaiah, Junior.)

Deutero-Isaiah began recording his prophecies not long before the fall of the Babylonian Empire on October 29, 539BC. Sometime before, God’s people had been conquered by Babylon. When Cyrus, the king of Persia, a nation located in what is today Iran, conquered Babylon, it spelled freedom for God’s people from their slavemasters. This is precisely what Deutero-Isaiah had earlier reported that God had revealed to him. He even went so far as to say that Cyrus, an aggressive warrior king whose life was totally contrary to the life of faith in God, had been anointed by God to set Israel free.

But mingled with Deutero-Isaiah’s prophecies about Israel’s immediate future are what modern scholars call the Servant Songs. There are four of them. A portion of one of them makes up our first lesson, Isaiah 42:1-9.

In the Servant Songs, Isaiah records what God had taught him about the Anointed One—Messiah in his language of Hebrew, Christos or Christ in the New Testament’s language of Greek.

Would you pull out the Celebrate insert and look at the lesson? This is what God told Isaiah to tell us about the Savior He would send to be the narrow way by which we all can be forgiven our sins, reconciled with God, and have new, eternal lives free of sin and death and futility. Read along with me silently, please:
  • “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights..." [On this Sunday when we remember the baptism of our Lord, when a voice from heaven spoke words like these of Jesus, we should have no doubt of Who the promised servant was and is: God enfleshed, Jesus the Anointed One.];
  • "I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations..." [He will free repentant sinners who believe in Him not only in Israel, but all over the world, including Logan, Ohio.].
  • "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street..." [Unlike warriors who bark as they conquer, Jesus will conquer through servanthood and love.]
  • "a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench..." [One scholar has said that the reed and the burning wick represent those who may seem strong on the outside, but are weak on the inside. A reed may be standing, but a bruise may threaten its life. A wick may be burning, but nearly burned out. This past week, many of us have watched the story of Ted Williams, the homeless recovering addict with a golden voice, who flew to New York to be given a second chance in life. I hope that Williams, surely a reed bruised by his life and by his own actions, will have the strength to resist the temptations of fame and all that goes with it. He can have that strength if he turns to the Servant-Messiah. To all of we bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, God promises that unlike warriors such as Cyrus or demanding bosses or an unforgiving world, the Servant Jesus will not come to destroy us, but to restore us. That’s a wonderful promise!] ;
  • "...he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching." [Jesus, the Savior Who would set His face toward Jerusalem and His cross, Second Isaiah says, would not give up until He had gone to the cross and to His resurrection so that, as our lesson from Acts tells us, “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins [and with that God gives new life] through His Name.”]
Deutero-Isaiah, nearly six centuries before Jesus’ birth, pointed to a time when people weary with trying to face life by helping themselves would be helped, saved, delivered, and made new by God.

He doesn’t mention Jesus’ Name. As one contemporary scholar has said, the Servant’s Name isn’t given, but “his activity and character” are. And it’s more than just coincidence that the One Who came to be baptized by John the Baptist at the River Jordan, Who insisted despite His own sinlessness, on turning to the Father in the same way He one day would command that all we sinful people must in order to be saved, this Jesus, engaged in all the activities and exhibited all the character that our lesson from Isaiah associates with the Servant Messiah.

God doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who take God’s help. And His help is named Jesus.

How many of you need God’s help this morning?

Trust only in Jesus and never lean on your own understanding. Fear him, trust in Him, depend on Him, and you will have all the help you’ll ever need for all eternity. Amen! 

*You can learn more about this by reading the Old Testament books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.

1 comment:

Tim said...

This is a great post. You are absolutely right. I always make a point to let people know what the Bible says about it when I hear someone say this: "God helps those who help themselves." In fact, God helped me by offering Jesus to pay my ransom because I was not able to help myself. I won't go into it any further since you did an excellent job with it in this post.
Thanks for speaking the Biblical truth.

God bless.