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Know bulls from bears

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:4, Isaiah 61.1-2

The Pledge of Allegiance has been much in the news, as you know.

To clarify things, the Ninth Circuit judges in San Francisco did not remove one nation “under God” from the Pledge. They don’t have the power to do that. They did rule that using the Pledge in a public school is an unconstitutional violation of separation of church and state.

But the lawyers I’ve consulted believe that the rest of the Ninth Circuit judges will likely overturn this preliminary ruling, and if they don’t, the Supreme Court undoubtedly will.

In a nation which places “In God We Trust” on our money as our national motto, where Congress begins each day with prayer and the Supreme Court with the words, “God save the United States and this honorable court,” “one nation under God” is not likely to be changed.

During this Fourth of July week, after the events of the past year, we need to pledge our allegiance to God more than ever before.

This morning let’s consider the reverse: how God pledges his allegiance to us. Each of Jesus’ Beatitudes shows us a different way God is ready to bless those who will let him. Today let’s learn how God comforts us when we mourn. When you’re in a bear market with your investments or your marriage or your health or your soul, what do you do? Jesus will show us.

Comfort for every pain

In Isaiah 61, God makes four promises about the Christ who would come to comfort us: he would preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners. In this way he would “comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2). Let’s explore the causes of mourning, and find the personal comfort of Jesus for each one.

First, many of us mourn because of our sins, our immoralities. We feel deep sorrow for our immoral thoughts, words, and actions, realizing that they nailed Jesus to his cross and grieve the very heart of God. Do you mourn for sin today?

Then claim the prophet’s first promise: Jesus has come “to preach good news to the poor.” Here is the “good news,” the “gospel:” Your Comforter died to pay for every sin you have ever committed, to purchase your forgiveness, to offer you God’s pardon. He died in your place, taking your punishment. Now he promises: if you will confess your sin, he is faithful and just to forgive you for your sin and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). “All” unrighteousness.

Augustine was one of the most unrighteous men of his generation. He drifted from mistress to mistress, satisfying every lust and desire he felt. Here’s how he later described his condition:

“I was held fast, not in fetters clamped upon me by another, but by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains. The enemy held my will in his power and from it he had made a chain and shackled me. For my will was perverse and lust had grown from it, and when I gave in to lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity. These were the links which together formed what I have called my chain, and it held me fast in the duress of servitude” (Confessions 8:5).

Until the day he took up the Scriptures, and read of God’s salvation in Christ, and confessed his sins and gave his heart to Jesus. And Jesus made him the greatest theologian after Paul in all of Christian history.

Now the comfort to be forgiven, the comfort in mourning which our Lord gave to him, he offers to you.

Second, some of us mourn for personal failures in our lives. Failures in business, school, or relationships. Failures in marriage or family. Do you mourn for failure today?

Then, give your failure to God in faith. Admit it specifically and honestly to him. Mourn for your part in it, in genuine repentance. And claim the prophet’s second promise: Jesus has come to “bind up the brokenhearted.” He has come to restore your heart and your life to service and ministry.

Gordon MacDonald was a successful pastor when he engaged in an extramarital sexual act. Immediately he confessed this sin to his wife and congregation, and resigned from his pulpit and the ministry. He entered into a long process of counseling and accountability, with no plans ever to reenter the pulpit ministry. Then a church called him to consider its pastorate. He said that he was too broken to come. They said, “We’re broken people, too.” And through them, God restored the repentant, broken, mourning preacher to his ministry.

Now the comfort to be restored, the comfort in mourning which Jesus gave to him, he offers to you.

Third, some of us mourn over deep disappointments with others. Family, friends, those close to us who have hurt us. Personal betrayals and injury. Do you mourn for such pain?

Then, give your pain to God in faith. Ask him to help you pardon those who have hurt you, choosing not to punish even when you could. Ask for his grace to forgive as you have been forgiven. And claim the prophet’s third promise: Jesus has come “to proclaim freedom for the captives.” To free you from your chains of bitterness and injustice and hurt.

Corrie ten Boom’s story is familiar to you, I hope. She and her family harbored Jews in their home in Holland. For this the Nazis arrested their family. All but Corrie died during the Holocaust. Years later, she returned to Germany. In her best-seller, The Hiding Place, Corrie describes what came next:

“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S. S. man who had stood guard at the shower door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, [my sister] Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

“He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,’ he said. ‘To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!’

“His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often … the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

“Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

“I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

“And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself” (p. 233).

Now the comfort to forgive your pain, the comfort in mourning which Jesus gave to Corrie, he offers to you.

Last, many of us mourn over tragedies in our lives and world. The illness or death of people we love. Atrocities such as September 11. Do you mourn over grief?

Then give your grief to God in faith. Know that he walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death, that he feels all that you feel and hurts as you hurt. Know that those you love who died with their faith in Jesus are with him now in paradise, and that it will be only a moment as they reckon time before they see you again. Know that one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth, with no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). Claim the last promise: Jesus has come to proclaim “release from darkness for the prisoners.” Welcome his comfort for your grief and separation and hurt, no matter how deep or dark your prison.

Arthur John Gossip was one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century. I first encountered his most famous sermon, “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” more than 20 years ago. It is still the most moving statement of God’s hope in the face of death I’ve ever heard. Here is what he said in his first message after his wife’s dramatically sudden death:

“In the New Testament … you hear a great deal about the saints in glory, and the sunshine, and the singing, and the splendour [sic] yonder. And, surely, that is where our thoughts should dwell. I for one want no melancholious tunes, no grey and sobbing words, but brave hymns telling of their victory. … Think out your brooding. What exactly does it mean? Would you pluck the diadem from their brows again? Would you snatch the palms of victory out of their hands? Dare you compare the clumsy nothings our poor blundering love can give them here with what they must have yonder where Christ Himself has met them, and was heaped on them who can think out what happiness and glory?

“I love to picture it. How, shyly, amazed, half protesting, she who never thought of self was led into the splendour [sic] of her glory. … To us it will be long and lonesome: but they won’t even have looked round them before we burst in. In any case, are we to let our dearest be wrenched out of our hands by force? Or, seeing that it has to be, will we not give them willingly and proudly, looking God in the eyes, and telling Him that we prefer our loneliness rather than that they should miss one tittle of their rights. … When we are young, heaven is a vague and nebulous and shadowy place. But as our friends gather there, more and more it gains body and vividness and homeliness. And when our dearest have passed yonder, how real and evident it grows, how near it is, how often we steal yonder. For as the Master put it: Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also” (quoted in Yandall Woodfin, With All Your Mind, 231).

Dr. Gossip was right. Now comfort in grief, the comfort in mourning which Jesus gave to him, he offers to you.

Conclusion

The prophet promised that Jesus would “comfort all who mourn.” And he will. He will “bless” you with happiness beyond all your circumstances: sin, failure, pain, grief. He will comfort every mourner here today.

But you must receive this gift. You must confess your sin, or admit your failure, or release your pain, or share your grief with him. You must open your hand to receive the joy he longs to give. If you will pledge your allegiance to him in such faith, you will receive his allegiance, his comfort. This is his promise to you today.

When we take together our Lord’s Supper, we receive concrete proof of God’s forgiving, comforting love. The bread and cup which are his gifts to our bodies symbolize the body and blood of Jesus, gifts to our souls. His death for our life. His suffering for our salvation.

I invite you to his table of grace. Bring whatever causes you to mourn. Lay it here. And receive his grace in its place.

Will you be “blessed” today? The next step is yours.