Sermon audio here.
In one of the hymns, we pray that God would make us to see His great distress. It’s might seem like a funny thing that God would have distress, but He does. His distress comes from what He sees going on in the world and in your heart.
It’s been this way since almost the beginning. In the Garden, God looked for Adam, and instead of saying, “Here am I”, he hid. God saw Adam’s sin, and sin caused Adam to lose sight of God. There’s nothing that causes God greater distress than when His people lose sight of Him.
God not only sees our sin, He hears it. When Cain murdered his brother, Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground. If it weren’t bad enough that God has to constantly look upon our sin, He has to hear it, too. He sees the thoughts of your heart and hears the distressing things that come from your mouth. They do not hallow God’s name, and this causes God deep distress.
The more humanity began to populate, the more wickedness abounded, and so did God’s distress. It got to the point where Genesis 6 says,
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart,” (v. 5-6).
Thus the flood. God was so distressed that He just couldn’t take it any longer. But things didn’t improve. Noah’s line was no more righteous than Cain’s. Fast-forward to Genesis 11, and God once again comes down from heaven to see what His people are up to. What He saw wasn’t pretty.
His people had come together—not to give Him glory— but to build a tower to heaven, a tower that symbolized their ability to do anything they wanted, that there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish. Babel was a symbol of pride, a symbol that God’s people no longer needed God.
The tower may no longer be around, but it still remains standing in your heart, and represents every impressive thing you’ve ever done. The tower was a marvel. But the problem with your accomplishments—especially the really good ones—is they foster a sense of pride and self-righteousness. This is the opposite of being lowly, needy, and dependent- unable to do anything for yourself—considering yourself nothing and Christ everything. Your pride grieves God to His heart and causes Him great distress.
Still, God remained gracious. He delivered His people from slavery in Egypt, and how did they repay Him? By fashioning and idol out of gold in the likeness of a calf, and bowing down to it in worship. Even Aaron, the one responsible for maintaining the purity of Israel’s worship, was just as bad. He even dedicated the calf for worship. He said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex 32:4).
God looked upon Israel, and He didn’t like what He saw. So He tells Moses, “”I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people,” (Ex 32:9). How fitting: the people made a god in their own image, one that was just as stiff-necked and obstinate as they!
This is not as it should be. When God first saw everything that He made, it was very good. Everything He made was perfect. Humanity was made in His own image to reflect His love, His care, and His dominion over creation. Instead, we have exchanged God’s image for something we liked better. It could be anything: a golden calf, a golden car, some gold in your bank, or a golden time in your life. God looks for righteousness, but instead He finds sin (Isa 5:7). God looks to see if any seek Him, but no one does good, not even one (Psa 14:2f.).
None except for Christ, that is. Everything God wanted to see in Adam and to see in you, God saw in Him. God saw Him on the cross, bleeding and dying for your sin. Christ’s righteousness was reckoned to your account in Holy Baptism, through which you have been declared pure and holy. Because of this, God will never turn a blind eye to your distress.
This is entirely in keeping with God’s character. When He looks upon your misery, it is His great delight to show mercy. In the Epiphany/wedding hymn, “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright”, Philipp Nicolai writes, “Lord when you look on us in love, at once there falls from God above a ray of purest pleasure.” God desires above all to look upon you in love, not in wrath. And when He looks upon you in love, His grace always follows.
Consider the children of Israel while they were slaves in Egypt. Things were pretty miserable for them. The new Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph and was afraid of the Israelites. Exodus 1 says, “The Egyptians ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.” And just in case you missed it, Moses adds for good measure, “In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves,” (Ex 1:13-14).
But when the people cried out to God (Ex 3:9), it was His great delight to show compassion. God told Moses, “”I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,” (Exodus 3:7-8).
As it was with God in Egypt, so it is with God in the flesh. When He saw the crowds, He couldn’t but have compassion on them, for they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36).
As it is, sheep have a hard enough time with a shepherd! They constantly need to be fed, guided, and protected from threats. Even under the careful watch of a good shepherd, death is a constant threat to the sheep. Now take that shepherd away, and all that’s left is for the sheep to get lost or killed or starve to death.
Satan is a prowling lion who wants nothing more than to devour Christ’s flock. But Jesus continues to shepherd you. That’s why He calls under-shepherds, or pastors, into His Church. To guide, to feed, to warn, and to protect.
Christ is with you always. He is a refuge in every time of trouble. As we pray in Psalm 142:
With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
2 I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.
3 When my spirit faints within me, you know my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.
4 Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul.
5 I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
6 Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!
Indeed, He has promised to deliver you from evil, and He will.
Soli Deo Gloria