Episode 1. Open Your Eyes
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As we set off on yet another new year, it’s amazing how many people can’t see the new beginnings that God has ready and waiting for them. So for some of us, it’s time to open our eyes … …
As we set off into yet another new year, it’s amazing how many people can’t see the new beginnings that God has ready and waiting for them. So for some of us, it’s time to open our eyes … it’s either that, or miss out.
Have you ever been at a New Year’s eve party, and everybody’s celebrating and yahooing and carrying on, and then there’s the countdown: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, Happy New Year! And there’s lots of kissing and hugging and all that stuff, and yet the last thing you feel like doing is celebrating. What is there to celebrate? Last year was somewhere between a real shocker and nothing out of the ordinary. This year, well … It looks a bit … well, you know … and so you look around at all these other people smiling and laughing and slapping each other on the back, and inside you feel just a bit empty.
If that’s a bit how the beginning of this year feels for you, well, you wouldn’t be alone, seriously. So many people have nothing much to celebrate really, or so it seems, and for many, there’s a sense that the business of last year isn’t finished yet. A lot of that has to do with the regrets of the past; the hurts of the past; the losses or the abuse or the rejection of the past, and the biggest one of all, the failures of the past.
So many people feel as though they’ve failed at their job, at their marriage, at bringing up their kids, at loving God, and the problem with those failures is that it’s often somewhere between very difficult and absolutely impossible to set things right. I suspect each one of us, if we’re a bit honest with ourselves today, we have some regrets from last year that are still hanging over us, and often, those regrets have a lot to do with our failures.
So we set off into this New Year with a sense of failure, and the sense that we’re a failure. I am a failure, and if we’re not careful, that sense of failure, that sense of doom and gloom, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The next year turns out just the same as the last one. If you’re anywhere near to being in that space at the moment (come on, be honest with yourself), then I have some great, great news for you today. Our God is a God of new beginnings and His mercies are new today, tomorrow, the next day – indeed every day and every morning.
As the writer of the book of Lamentations looked around at the terrible destruction of Jerusalem, after the Babylonians came as an instrument of God’s judgment and raised it to the ground, taking the Israelites captive as slaves into exile, he was devastated, but then somewhere inside, the Holy Spirit moved him to say and to write these words. Lamentations 3:19-26:
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall. My soul continuously thinks of it and is bowed down within me, but this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: For the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. The LORD is my portion, says my soul; therefore I will hope in Him. The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him, and it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
That is such an incredibly poignant passage of Scripture. This man who is devastated not just for himself, but for his homeland, for his people, for the destruction of God’s temple even and the loss of His presence, this guy is stirred and moved deep inside somewhere to declare that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases! His mercies never come to an end, for they are new every morning.
Let me take that and personalise it for you. God’s steadfast love towards you never ceases. His mercies for you are fresh and new for you each and every morning. Now if you’re at all human, you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh, Berni, that’s all fine, but if you knew how badly I blew things last year, how badly I behaved, how badly I failed other people and God, you’d know how hard it is for me to accept that.”
We often think we’re the only person thinking like that, when in fact this sense of guilt that flows out of failure is one of the most common things that people experience. It’s a natural response-mechanism that God’s put in each one of us to get us to realise that our only answer, our only refuge, our only future, our only hope, is in Him.
Do you remember the story of Moses going up to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God? And God writes those commandments on two tablets of stone, but whilst Moses and God are up there doing business on the mountain, God’s people have cast an idol for themselves. Led by Moses’ brother Aaron the high priest, they melt down all their gold and cast a golden calf that they bow down and worship.
Moses comes down the mountain; he’s so angry, so incensed at these faithless people that he smashes the stone tablets with the commandments on them. You’d think (wouldn’t you) at this point, it’d be over. It probably would have been, had you or I been God, but you see, God’s mercies are new every morning, so Exodus 34 starts off this way (verses 1 and 2):
The LORD said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on-top of the mountain”.
And so he did. He went up to the mountain again and God gave him the commandments again. Why? Well, God explains Himself a few verses later. Exodus 34:6:
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”.
That’s who God is. God is mercy; God is love, and that mercy and that love are for you, here and now, at the beginning of this year. If only you’ll turn your regrets and your failures over to God, what a fresh start this New Year could be for you.
Even the strongest among us find ourselves feeling tired and weak sometimes. It’s not that you’re a loser, and it’s certainly not that you’re the only person on the planet that feels that way, but the daily grind has a way of … well … grinding you down, doesn’t it? Add to that the stresses and strains that life brings, especially if last year wasn’t all you wanted it to be, especially if last year had some hurts or some failures or some losses that you weren’t anticipating and you’re struggling to get over them.
You see, it’s easy to start the new year off feeling drained; not ready to face the challenges that lie ahead. We’re kicking this year off with a series of messages that I’ve called ‘New Year, Fresh Start’ because God is a God of new beginnings, and one of the things that He wants to do for you is to renew your strength.
Now, renew is a word that I love. It’s an amazing word, two parts: Re and new. We all know what the new means. Something that’s new is brand-new: A new experience, a new mercy, a new love, a new hope, a new life … Newness is fresh! It’s exciting! It’s a new start! But that re part of renew is about doing something new again. Most of the time in the English language, when a word starts with the syllable re it means again: Repeat, review, re-enter, reactivate, reaffirm and on it goes, so humour me, and think about this word renew for just a moment.
It means to do that new thing again. It means to enter into newness a second time, a third time, a fourth time, a thousandth time, and that’s the sense with which I’m asking you to understand this amazing passage of Scripture. Isaiah 40:27-41:1:
Why do you say, o Jacob, and speak, o Israel, ‘|My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’? Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and He strengthens even the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted, but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Listen to me in silence, o coastlands. Let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak.
What’s God saying here to His people Israel through the prophet Isaiah? Well, this message comes at a time when they’re weak and exhausted. Almost seventy years earlier, the Babylonians as an instrument of God’s judgment came and destroyed Jerusalem and took God’s chosen people into captivity as slaves. They’ve been living out that slavery for almost three generations, as long as most of them can remember – a lifetime and then some, and they’re tired. They’ve had it, and they’ve lost sight of their God, so He speaks to them through Isaiah to remind them.
If you’re tired today, and if you’ve had it, and if you’ve perhaps lost sight of your God, He is also speaking today through His Word to remind you. Don’t you get what He’s saying? ‘I’m the God who created the whole universe. I haven’t run out of steam. I’m not tired or exhausted. In fact I have so much power, such a deep inexhaustible store of strength, that I’m going to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless’.
Now are you feeling faint and powerless? Well, by His Spirit and His Word, God is giving you today power and strength. That’s what He’s saying, and just in case you’re feeling inadequate or guilty for feeling the way you do at the moment, remember: Even youths will faint and be weary. Even the young and the fit will fall exhausted. That happens to all of us. The daily grind grinds us down, and it drains us of our strength, and there you have it: The reality of life on this earth, right? But, and here comes the turning-point in what God’s saying to us today, here comes the kicker: But those who wait on the LORD will renew their strength.
There it is: That amazing little word, renew. They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not grow faint. Why? How can that be? Because when we go to God and wait expectantly for Him to act, for Him to renew our strength, that’s exactly what He’ll do. And that’s the meaning, the sense of the original Hebrew word used here for wait: It is to wait expectantly; not grumbling, not losing your faith, not flapping around in despair … It’s a picture of going to God in prayer, of putting your trust in Him, of waiting at His feet with the expectation for good, the way a child does with its father.
What God’s saying here to you and to me today is that if we’ll do that, He will renew our strength, but not in the way that you and I might, should we take a break or have a rest, because in our own strength, time and time again, we will run out, just as the strong youth does. Now as Jesus said, He doesn’t give the way the world gives. When you and I wait expectantly (with a sense of anticipation) on God, He will renew our strength with His strength: A strength that takes us to heights we never thought possible. They shall mount up with wings like eagles! A strength that never, ever, ever runs out. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not grow faint.
Time and time again, I run out of my own strength, and it’s in my nature to be a strong person. It used to frustrate me that I’d hit a wall; that I’d run out of steam; that me, this naturally strong guy, would be left feeling drained and listless and ineffectual. And when you feel that way, you end up heading down a spiral. It’s easy to enter into depression. Look, I’m no shrink. I’m no physician. I have no expertise in dealing with clinical depression, except I know that a couple of times, I’ve been there in my life, and I know that when I took this passage of Scripture to heart, I started to experience a strength that I just can’t put into words.
Seriously, God’s taking me higher than I ever imagined in my walk with Him, and that’s despite the many low points that I’ve experienced. And each morning, as I take time to speak with Him, to hear from Him, to open His Word, to wait on Him, I end up receiving a strength from Him that I can’t put into words. It’s a strength that comes from His peace; from His joy. After all, His Word says that the joy of the LORD is our strength. It’s a strength that comes from experiencing God’s presence; from waiting silently with your heart and your mind open, your whole being focused on Him, and can I tell you? It’s absolutely true.
Those who wait expectantly on the LORD, those who wait quietly expecting Him to act, believing He will act, will renew their strength. They will rise up as on eagles’ wings. They will run and not grow weary and walk and not faint, and this is something that God wants to give you today, tomorrow, the next day, and for evermore: The renewing of your strength. Entering back into a new experience of freshness and strength, again and again, so that you can live your life in victory: The victory that Jesus died and rose again to give you.
When the nation of Israel faced the daunting task of heading into the promised land, knowing that they would have to take it battle after battle, God said to them through Moses (in Deuteronomy 31:6):
Be strong and bold and have no fear or dread of them, because it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.
When the apostle Paul was lying in a Roman dungeon on death row, chained to a guard, he wrote this to his friends at Philippi (Philippians 4:13):
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
God’s strength is for you. It’s ready and waiting, and He means for you to renew your strength; to drink deep from His well, as you wait quietly and expectantly on Him.
This week, we’re kicking off the new year with a series of messages that I’ve called ‘New Year, Fresh Start’. After all, as I mentioned earlier, that’s what celebrating the new year is all about. Right now, as we see people for the first time in this new year, we’re greeting them with, “Happy new year.” Aren’t we? That kind of runs out sometime in the second half of January, I guess, but right now, today, tomorrow, this week and next, you and I will welcome people, greet people with, ‘A Happy New Year’ quite a few more times. The sad truth however is that many of those people, by far the majority, aren’t in fact looking forward to a happy new year.
They’re carrying around heavy burdens: The regrets of the past, the worries of tomorrow. It’s not just other people. Each one of us to some extent has doubts, uncertainties, about whether we’re up to it. Whether we have what it takes to face this new year. A lot of it comes back to who we think we are, and how we see ourselves.
Years ago in my late twenties, I became involved in an IT consulting firm. I was one of the partners, the owners, but we had another guy (Graham is his name) – the managing director, the boss, by virtue of the fact that he was twenty years my senior and much smarter and much more mature than me. And when we would go in to a potential client/organisation to listen to their needs so we could bid for some new consulting work, he would always ask them a series of questions about their recent experiences with technology.
Any recent projects; recent implementations; recent experiences. “How did it go? How was the project perceived? Was it a success? Was it a failure? What did you learn from your experience?” Those are the sort of questions that he asked. When I asked him about it, why he was asking those questions, he answered with this incredibly illuminating idea. He said it’s because people’s recent experience shapes their perception and their outlook of the future, and do you know what? He was absolutely right!
In each consulting proposal, we would include our understanding of those recent experiences and the perceptions and therefore the client’s felt need, and as a result, time and time again, because of that one thing, because we demonstrated we understood where they were at and what their needs were, we would win the consulting work.
But let’s come back to that piece of insight: People’s recent experience shapes their perception and their outlook of the future. That is so relevant today, as we stand on the threshold of yet another new year, because the unpleasant experiences from last year and the year before and maybe the year before that, seem to accumulate in our hearts and minds, and what those experiences often seem to be telling us is that we failed. “I failed; therefore I’m a failure.” It makes us insecure. It makes us fearful. It makes us unable to lay hold of the amazing new things that God has planned for the year ahead.
People who have a low sense of their own worth can’t enjoy their lives. They can’t love other people. They can’t be loved by other people. They certainly can’t carry joy and peace, and hope around in their hearts.
So what if I told you that this is one of the main reasons that God sent Jesus, His Son, to this earth? To save you and me from slavery. Way back in the Old Testament, when the Israelites were indeed slaves in Egypt, God said this to Moses. Exodus 3:7-8:
I have observed the misery of My people, who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them.
And years later … years later … when Jesus commenced His public ministry, quoting the prophet Isaiah, this is what He had to say about the reason that He came to this earth. Luke 4:18-19, He said:
The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.
And the way He does that, the way He sets us free, the way He removes this distorted view that so many people have of themselves, is that He renews who they are. Jesus used the term born-again when He was talking to Nicodemus one night, and Nicodemus just didn’t get it, so later in the New Testament, the apostle Paul explains it this way. 2 Corinthians 5:17, he says:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; and see, everything has become new.
You and I, we’re not defined by our failures – the abuses, the sins, the regrets, the hurts and the losses of our past because the moment we believe in Jesus, we become a new creation. In God’s eyes, I am no longer the old sinner Berni; rebel Berni; failure Berni or hurt Berni, because I believe in Jesus. I’m a new creation, completely new, because God has made me so. And therefore everything … Did you get that word? Everything old has passed away; it’s gone; God has wiped it away. Psalm 103:12 says:
As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.
And so everything has become new. The past is no longer part of who I am; I’m not defined by the past anymore, but there’s a word in that verse (2 Corinthians 5:17) that I want you to notice; just three letters, so it’s easy to skip over … It’s the word see. See? Everything has become new. See? Because God wants you to see! That’s why He’s brought us together today. His Word has the power to set you free from your past. It’s a new year. It’s a fresh start, and that fresh start begins with a new you, so let me give it to you one more time – this powerful, life-changing Word of God. 2 Corinthians 5:17:
If any of you is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; and see, everything has become new.