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Famines, Deserts And Other Hard Places

Developing A Support System

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | March 4, 2012

Selected highlights from this sermon

To endure times of hardship, we need to have a support system in place. We need to be in the Word of God. We need to spend time in the presence of God. And we need to be in fellowship with the people of God. With these in place, God can revive our souls even in the middle of a dry and dusty land.

So how are all of you doing? How’s your inner world coming along? As I mentioned, one of our members was looking on the floor after a meeting after a service and somebody had scribbled this prayer on the bulletin. I’ll summarize it.

“Abba Father, I thirst and I hunger for your holy love, grace and truth and mercy—grace to show your mercy, even to others who are my enemies. Come, perfect my heart in your love for me. Cast out all fear. My Father of love and mercy, grace and truth, may my cup run over with your love and mercy. Please (I love this) cause my innermost being to overflow with rivers of living water, even to my enemies.”

Clearly this person was dealing with some enemies. I won’t ask for a show of hands of anybody here dealing with some enemies who want grace, truth, purity, holiness, strength and power. “My Jesus, I hunger and thirst,” and then “I am so empty. Please fill me. Cast out all fear, impurity, lust, jealousy, envy, coveting, greed, malice, revenge,” and then the prayer goes on for a bit and ends, “Come and fill my empty cup.”
I wonder if that speaks to you today. If the truth were known your inner world is in great difficulty. Today we’re going to go back to some basics, and as you know, this is the conclusion really of a series of messages entitled Famines, Deserts and Other Hard Places. And we’ve talked about the famines, the deserts, the economic downturn, what people have had to experience in life when times get hard, but today we are going to concentrate on that inner life and enduring in the midst of it all.

But first of all, let me share some bad news before we get to the good news. I do believe that there is a time in the history of a nation where the nation seems to be at a tipping point and it goes the wrong direction and there is nothing that we can do to even stop it.

I think, for example, of Ezekiel 14 where God says, “Things are so bad that even if Noah, Daniel and Job prayed I would spare them but it would not reverse the direction of the country.” It’s terrible. When you look at the news today you may indicate that perhaps America is close to that, but in the midst of all that, God always has a remnant. There are always people who still are faithful, and they deserve His special attention and ours as well.

Would you take your Bibles and turn to Jeremiah 17? I preached from this passage of Scripture a couple of years ago but it fits in so beautifully with what we’ve been talking about—the drought, the famine, the desert—I really do feel that it needs to be reshaped as I tried to do it, and very applicable to us today.

Notice that Jeremiah begins in verse 1 of chapter 17 by saying, “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, with the point of a diamond. It is engraved on the tablets of their heart.” Wow! What is he saying? He’s saying that in those days, of course, if you wanted to carve a name into a stone, you used either a pointed piece of iron or you used a point of a diamond or a flint, and what he’s saying is, the sins of the people are just like stones. Their hearts are like stones and their sins are engraved on them and there is no way that they are going to give up their sin—no matter what. Hardheartedness! That’s really a separate topic sometime. I’ve been thinking about that and we’ll get to it at some future time. Hardheartedness!

And then God goes on to say, “You are going to lose your wealth because these people are going to come—the Babylonians are going to come—and they are going to destroy the temple. Just think about the gorgeous temple built by Solomon. You’d think that God would take an interest in a building and say, “After all this effort and all this beauty, surely this temple should stand,” but God doesn’t care much about temples actually. He’s always after the hearts of His people and that’s where this passage of Scripture now turns.

All right. Well that’s the negative part. That’s the context of the deserts and famines and hard places, but now notice that in the middle of this there is hope because we can have God change our inner world, and He can take empty cups and fill them. If you feel empty today, this is the place to be.

Notice that he goes on and he says in verse 5, “Thus says the Lord, cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness in an uninhabited salt land, but blessed is the man whose trust is in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” Wow!

You know, the Bible is really an interesting book for many reasons. Do you notice how it just sets these two off in contrast? And I say to you today that you are either a shrub in the desert, not bearing fruit, not being refreshed, or you are a tree planted by the rivers of water. To put it more clearly, according to the text, you are either cursed because you are trusting in yourself, or you are blessed because you are trusting in God, and you are finding that you are having inner resources to be able to cope with life and all that goes on in your inner world, despite the outer world. So he begins with this contrast. What I’d like to do is to give you some characteristics of that tree planted by water, and then apply them and ask God to change us because we’ve heard His Word.

First of all, he shall be like a tree planted by water. He’s planted in the right place. And of course, the place to be planted is trust in God as opposed to trust in man. Cursed is the man who trusts in man, but blessed is the person who trusts in God.

Now first of all, let me make a couple of comments about trusting in man. Trust in man will work as long as life is going well for you. If you have a job, if you are healthy, and you enjoy what you are doing, trust in man will get you where you want to go, perhaps. But it can’t take the heat of the desert. It can’t take the famines, the drought. It can’t take adversity. Therefore, it says, “Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord and the Lord is his strength, and he is like a tree planted by the water.”

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I am going through all of these difficulties, all of these trials, and God isn’t responding to them.” God usually doesn’t respond to them. He responds to our faith, and if we do not have faith we cannot access the resources that God has for us. That’s why the Scripture says in the book of Hebrews so clearly that, “without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of all those who diligently seek him out,” as one translation so accurately puts it. So you see, it is not simply a matter of saying the right things, and even singing the right things. It is a matter of trusting the promises of God and in this way we are actually planted in the right place regarding issues of famine, health and relationships—where the weight of our lives (and our lives are weighted down, aren’t they?) is actually transferred to the shoulders of Jesus Christ, because we believe that the governments of this world will be upon His shoulders and we actually trust Him. That’s being planted in the right place.

But there’s a second characteristic and that is, in addition to that, we must grow to the right depth. Look at the way the text puts it: “He is like a tree planted by water that sends out its roots by the stream and does not fear when heat comes.” You’ll notice the prayer that I began with of this person, and whoever it is, I hope that you are here today, and thank you so much for writing that, but you’ll notice that the prayer is also against fear, and who of us has not had to pray against fear? But there is such a thing as an inner resource: “He shall not fear when the heat comes, when the difficulties arise.” Now how do we extend our roots by the stream so that really we are growing to the right depth?

I wish I had some new thing to say to you. I wish I had some magic wand that I could just wave over this congregation and now suddenly all of you would be so filled with the Spirit, so filled with sanctification, that you might just even glow in the dark. Wouldn’t that be wonderful if I could do that, but I can’t? It is back to the basics.

It is, for example, the Word of God. “The entrance to thy word gives light.” You’re going through a time of depression. There’s hollowness and emptiness within. Why don’t you take out time to read Psalm 119, which happens to be, by the way, the longest chapter in the entire Bible? Why don’t you read Psalm 103? This morning I woke up at 4:36 and I was sort of ready to go—sort of—but my heart wasn’t hot for God. It should have been, I am sure, so what did I do? I had to take out time to clear my mind because I had kind of a very crazy dream last night. I don’t dream often but I’ll tell you when I do it really comes together in a weird way. I wouldn’t tell you what it was. You wouldn’t even want to know. If I told you, you would say, “I wish I hadn’t known.” (laughter) So what did I do? I read the 15th chapter of John because in John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” I wanted to read something about fruit bearing and about how all that we need to do is to relax and to rely in Him and we will be fruit bearers, because He will bear the fruit through us. I needed to hear that this morning. And then my spiritual tank began to revive. Why? It’s because faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. I knew I needed faith. I knew I needed to cleave to the promises.

First of all, the Word of God! Secondly, the presence of God! I’m speaking plainly to you today. You cannot walk with God without face time. I’m not talking about prayer per se and how important that is, but face time when you come face to face with God and you say to yourself, “I’m not going to bring any requests now except I want to delight in His presence.” It is in those moments that God shows me my sin, shows me my need, and God comes along and we connect in faith. Through the Word of God, through the presence of God, we soon discover that our souls are revived, but you can’t do it without that.

You can cry up to the Lord. You can ask. You can beg, but unless your inner man is renewed day by day, unless the inner man is renewed, and it can be only done through the Word of God, through the presence of God, and—this is big now—through the people of God. If you are going through a hard time and you withdraw, which is what many people do…. I’ve talked to people who have struggled with suicide and what do they want to do? They want to get away from all the people who are around them. Why? It’s because they feel uncomfortable, especially in the presence of those who are rejoicing. I remember one woman who tried to commit suicide and her pills for the deed were in her purse, and she came into a meeting and everybody was singing that old chorus that we used to sing as children or adults, “Oh say but I’m glad, I’m glad.” Do any of you remember that? How many of you remember that? Oh, about 14 of you. (laughter) That tells me what category I belong to. But anyway, “Oh say but I’m glad, I’m glad,” and she said she felt like shouting, “Oh say but I’m mad, I’m mad.” It’s hard to be around glad people when you are mad. The worst thing that you can do is to withdraw. The people of God!

Years ago I used this illustration and I checked it yesterday on the Internet. Those redwood trees in California that I visited once—some of them can grow up to 350 feet high, and so the question in the essay that I read about them was, how can they maintain that? How do they manage that with all that weight—tons and tons of weight? And they said two things. First of all, they grow closely together, and secondly, their roots are intermingled. So even though the roots aren’t very deep (they said 12 to 18 feet, which really is not very deep at all, considering other trees), they said it’s the intermingling of the roots. And then, of course, you can have one tree that is next to the stream, and that tree begins to draw nourishment, and pretty soon it is watering other trees as well and they are receiving their nourishment (even though they may be further up a hill on a desert) through others.

If you don’t belong to a TMC community or are not plugged into a small group and you live in isolation and don’t even want any close fellowship with anybody because it’s irritating and you have to deal with certain issues when you have friends, you are really harming yourself and you will tend to shrivel like a shrub. The Bible says that God says you should be like a tree planted by the river of water, and that only happens in relationship – relationship to God, and also relationship to others.

So, we should grow to the right depth as well, and we should bear the right fruit. Now notice what the text says. It sends its roots out by the stream. It’s dealt with sin issues, as I mentioned, in our face time with God, and yieldedness through the Word. The Word is built up within, and it does not fear when the heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and it is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit. Wow! In a year of drought, it just keeps bearing fruit. Why? It’s because it is a tree that is planted by a stream, and because it is planted by a stream, what’s happening around it—the drought that comes—does not cause it to shrivel up and blow away because its roots are deep and it is bearing the right fruit.

Fruit in Scripture is really the revealing or the expression of the inner nature. It’s fruit bearing. Not long ago Rebecca and I were actually in California and we noticed along the way that we were going with some friends that they had grapefruit trees. Now I don’t know much about trees. I can’t tell the difference. I’ve never really taken an interest in it though it may be something that is very interesting. But when I saw grapefruit growing on a tree I connected the dots and said, “This must be a grapefruit tree,” taking it in a very elementary way for me. It must be a grapefruit tree.

The fruit of the Spirit, the Bible says, is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and all of that is the expression of the inner nature of Christ that comes from our inner man when we are planted beside a stream, receiving the nourishment that we should receive. And it is supernatural fruit, because these things do not come naturally, do they? But they come even to those who are going through extreme situations. Let me ask you something: How do you react to a time of heat and drought? Anger, complaining, bitterness, blaming? Blessed is the person who trusts in the Lord. His roots go down into a stream and he bears the kind of fruit that God wants.

When I was reading John 15 this morning I was reading in a translation where it spoke about Jesus. Jesus said, “You shall bear much fruit and it shall bring much glory to God.” I love that—much glory to God! You abide in Him, the inner resources.

This past week I was listening to someone preach and he told the story that he said was true. It was about a woman in Paris, a Christian woman who was attending an exposition there, and suddenly she had a stroke. Boom, she was out of it and she was rushed to the hospital, and all that she could say was “Bring.” And over and over again she said, “Bring.” Bring what? Bring food? Bring flowers? Bring this? What does she want us to bring? But then when she was able to regain some consciousness and some strength she was able to blurt out, “Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all.” That’s the inner nature revealing itself, the fruit of the Spirit in which God delights and it bears the right fruit. But it can’t come apart from faith.

I wish I had some quick answer to the person who prayed that prayer that we referred to where we simply said, “We can solve your problems in a moment. It’s going to come through—the disciplines of the Christian life—disciplines not of themselves, not legalistically, but disciplines that connect us with God that enable us to deal with our issues, to deal with the bitterness and the anger and the resentment and the unbelief so that we can access the water that is beside the stream.”

Do you remember George Mueller? He began all of those orphanages in England and never asked for money. It’s not wrong at all to ask for money. I love to ask for money, especially if it is for other people, if it’s for missions, for children, or for the ministry of Moody Church, because it has really to do with God and His glory. But Mueller said that for him he wasn’t going to because he was just going to trust God and pray, but he said that he did it because there were businessmen who thought that God wouldn’t take care of them, and they thought that they had to cheat. He said that there were older people who didn’t think that God would take care of them in their old age. Now he was living at a time when there was no such thing as Social Security. And then he said there were those who were infirm, and they didn’t believe that God would take care of them, and he needed to give an example that faith in God actually brings God’s blessing. And that’s why he had so many different orphanages with so many different miracles because we need models today of people who have their roots deep beside a stream and who can cope when drought comes.

There are a few observations that should be life changing for us. First of all, drought clearly reveals what is in our inner man. Isn’t that true? Because it’s in the time of drought that either shows that you are a shrub or you are a tree. It reveals that which is within us. Our response to the circumstances of life is really determined by the pressure that is on us, and what comes out when we are under pressure.

There’s a second lesson and that is that drought gives us a wonderful opportunity to witness for Christ because just think of it: If you are going along a desert, as I have had the experience of doing, and then in the distance you see an oasis, you know right well that there must be water there. When drought comes, when the famines come, when the desert comes and the hard places, when people who know us see the way in which we react to the circumstances of life, the same debilitating circumstances that they experience, and we handle it differently because we are fruit bearing Christians, that’s when they begin to ask us what is within us that enables us to do that. Where do you find the inner strength to be able to accept and to be able to pray, and to be able to believe even when there is no evidence for why you should believe? What is the secret of the inner strength?

You’ve heard me talk about Cyprian who lived in North Africa in about the year 250. During the days of the plagues, Cyprian said, “The Plagues were the best thing that ever happened to North Africa. It was during the Plagues that Christianity spread in the early centuries all throughout North Africa.” Why? “It was because,” said Cyprian, “Christians died differently.” It was said of the Christians, “They carried their dead as if in triumph,” and the pagans looking at this said to themselves, “Where is all that hope coming from? Where is all that strength coming from? How come you have the inner resources to cope?” And you see, we witness when the drought comes, and when the deserts enclose upon us.

I conclude today with a simple question: Are you a shrub or are you a tree? Do you remember that story that I have used before that one of my staff members actually asked whether or not it was true? And it is true.

In Canada there was a group of people along a street that had a boulevard in the middle. And somebody came along and said, “If you pay me money I will plant trees all along the street here.” And so they pooled their money. They discovered how much it cost per household so that they could enjoy these beautiful trees. So the men came and they planted the trees and day after day, week after week, they were being watered, and all that they did was turn brown until somebody had the presence of mind to reach down and to just rip one of them out and discovered that none of them had roots. What the guys had done is they had cut off the branches of these evergreens and just stuck the branches in the dirt. And it looked for a while as if they were real trees but they weren’t.

Let me ask you. Jesus said these words: “Every tree that my heavenly father has not planted shall be uprooted.” That’s why I have to ask you today: Are you a shrub? Are you actually a tree? Have you been planted by God? And the way in which we become planted by God is to remember that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection was a substitute death and resurrection, and to believe in Him, and to trust Him, and remember that these resources of forgiveness and acceptance are free to those who come in faith and receive.

Sometimes we work so hard at these things. Well, we should work hard only to develop faith. That’s the whole purpose of the discipline of the Christian life—to develop the kind of faith by which we can believe God’s promises. But as far as the resources are concerned, they all are really a free gift. You can be planted by God. The stream of water is free. The nourishment is free. What we need to do is to receive it and take the time to receive it by faith. When Jesus said, “This is my body which was broken for you. This do in remembrance of me,” He was saying to us, “Remember this: My death was not simply an example. My death was a substitutionary death. This do in remembrance of me.” And He was saying that because of His death and resurrection we can have eternal life.

So there’s no easy fix for those who feel empty, but there is a place where you can fill up beside the stream. It’s there for you. It’s there for me, and God promises we’ll survive the drought.

Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that You’ll take these words, however simple, and use them to remind us that we can draw near to You, and Your Word says that if we draw near to You, You will draw near to us. Show us that, Father, and even as we remember Your death in this very wonderful way, may we indeed with hearts filled with gratitude, draw near to Your presence, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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