Victory Over Despair (April 26, 2020)
Victory Over Despair
Do you feel overwhelmed? Easy to understand if you do there’s a lot going on. Schedules have changed. Demands have changed. The demands on our time has changed. The demands on our emotions. The demands on our relationships all changed and it might overwhelm you.
In Exodus 18, Moses was feeling overwhelmed too. As the Israelites settled into their new reality, problems started happening and people went to Moses to fix them. He was a fixer. But more people came to Moses and more people and more people, and more than he expected. Until his father-in-law, Jethro, came and said “Moses, what are you doing? You are wearing yourself out. You can’t do all of this.” And Moses probably knew that. He probably knew that he was trying to do more than he had previously done successfully. So why didn’t he stop? Why didn’t he ask for help?
Maybe for the same reason we are hesitant, too, as new things keep coming into our lives. Because we are worried about what it will say about us. Like what does it mean if you can’t do your job well from home? And also keep and maintain a home? And also be there emotionally for everybody in your home? What does it say about you if you don’t work as well in this location as you did in the previous location? What does it say about you if your emotions are getting more stretched and if you can’t handle everyone else’s up and down emotions as well as you previously did? What does it mean if you can’t help your kid with their schoolwork as well as you should be able to – or teach them? What does it mean if you can’t handle being unemployed, or having less money? What does it say about you?
Same thing that it may have said about Moses. That he had a limit. That we have limits. There’s only so much we can do. And it’s unrealistic of ourselves to think otherwise. Sometimes we are trying to do too much. Sometimes we need outside help. Sometimes we need a different perspective on all that’s going on. A realistic perspective. A perspective that puts everything back into place.
It’s what the disciples were all going through as well. Quite suddenly everything was different. Just days ago they were traveling freely and talking with Jesus, their Lord and teacher. The next moment he’s dead, they are hiding behind locked doors, and nonsensical reports start coming in. Two of them just needed a moment to clear their heads. They got out of Jerusalem and all the chaos that’s been going on. They traveled to their home in Emmaus, not far away, and as they traveled they talked. They talked about their dear friend Jesus. They talked about his arrest and trial. They talked about his sudden death. They talked about his missing body and the nonsensical reports that he was alive again. They talked about everything. And because they felt so strongly about all of it, their talk must have been quite animate – with strong words and big gestures. They asked each other hard, even unanswerable questions as they tried to solve the mystery of what just happened. Trying to fill in the blanks and solve the puzzle. But they failed to find the answer.
A third traveler walking beside them asks what they were discussing – which gives us a nice recap of all that’s going on and the depth of their despair. “What are you discussing together” (Lk 24:17) the third traveler asked. (It was Jesus, but they were kept from recognizing him right away). “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Lk 24:18). Shows you how big this news had gotten already. And also their strong feelings about it. “About Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him… And what is more, it is the third day since all of this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us – put us beside ourselves, threw a wrench into all of this. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find the body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb… but they did not see Jesus” (Lk 24:19-24). “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). There are few sadder phrases than that. They had watched. They had waited. Peter went to go investigate. They lingered in Jerusalem for a time, but all this was too much. All this was just leading them to despair. “We had hoped” (Lk 24:21). “They stood still, their faces downcast” (Lk 24:17). Their eyes stared blankly at the ground – their sparkle gone. Their faces sullen, foreheads deeply wrinkled. Heads hung low and shoulders slumped. “We had hoped” (Lk 24:17).
And rather than offering a consoling word, Jesus surprisingly reprimands them! “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25). Reprimands them because they had all the answers right in front of them but did not understand. They were looking in the wrong place, believing the wrong things when they had the answers all along – when Jesus told them again and again what was going to happen. “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk 24:26). Cleopas – one of the two traveling disciples – touched on the answer when he said that Jesus was, “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people” (Lk 24:19), but he failed to understand what Jesus – the mightiest of all prophets, the true redeemer and Savior had to do. So, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27).
It’s a reprimand we all need to hear, even in our despair. Not because we are despairing, or overwhelmed. I’m not at all saying that it’s wrong to feel overwhelmed. Quite the opposite. It’s a very normal thing in life. But when you are feeling overwhelmed, when you are despairing, what do you do? Where do you go? If you are despairing and simply going to fumble through your own feelings, if you are overwhelmed and just going to find an escape until things calm down, then you are missing your greatest help. Then you need to hear these words: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25). As it did for the disciples on their way to Emmaus – turning sullen, confused, and despairing hearts into “hearts that burned within us” (Lk 24:32) – so turning to God and hearing his word will do for you in times when you are overwhelmed and despairing.
There was one particular year of my schooling that was difficult. I’m not typically one of those “Woe is me, this is terrible” kind of people, so this was actually surprising even to me. But one year was just really a struggle. I was often overwhelmed. I was faced with a number of new and tough decisions. Even struggled to continue down the path of ministry I had chosen, at times. And on those particularly difficult days when I just wanted to throw up my hands and leave town – get away from it all – there’s one phrase I would repeat that helped put everything into perspective. “One thing’s needful.” There’s only one thing that’s important in life. “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rm 4:25). Believing this, I’ve already gained everything I need in life!
The apostle builds on that simple truth and draws application for our lives today in the reading from 1 Peter we read earlier: “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt 1:18-21).
Your faith and hope are in God. How much heartache and paralyzing confusion this would have saved the disciples! How much heartache and confusion this would save us if in every moment of despair, every time we feel overwhelmed, we would turn to God and his Word to carry us through. When despairing under the weight of guilt, turn to the cross where your sins have all been paid for. When overwhelmed by all that’s going on so that you feel you don’t even know which way is up, focus on Christ raised from the dead and first center yourself in him – in your own resurrection on the Last Day through him. When your plans and future hopes are in shambles, understand that the most important thing your future holds cannot be shaken because your faith and hope are in God.
Anchoring yourself in Christ and centering yourself in his Word, then we can begin piecing together and making sense of everything else with a proper perspective in place. Feeling overwhelmed because your children’s school is now your home? So am I. But what a great opportunity to add prayer and Scripture back into the curriculum if it wasn’t already. Patience running thin at times because you don’t have your usual time to escape or decompress? A humbling opportunity for self-assessment and strengthening your character with godliness and grace – practicing forgiveness as we also ask for forgiveness. Despairing over what the future holds in all this uncertainty? Contrast that with the certainty of forgiveness, renewed life, and salvation you have through Christ!
The answer to our despair and feeling overwhelmed is not more – not being more busy to catch up. Often it’s less. Less busyness and more Jesus. “Stay with us” (Lk 24:29), was the plea of the Emmaus disciples. “Stay with us a little longer.”
There’s a hymn that reads like a prayer echoing this plea of “Stay with us, Lord.” And although it’s more of an evening prayer, I think it’s fitting any time of day, so I’ll close with that:
Stay with us, Lord, and share the weight Of sorrow, guilt, or pain
That robs our weary hearts of rest-Christ, make us whole again.
Stay with us, Lord, and be the light That shines when day departs,
Whose rays can pierce the starless night And reach the darkest heart.
Stay with us, Lord, till morning comes And, through the silent hours,
Renew in us the strength we need To serve with all our pow’rs. Amen