December 26, 1993

FOUR WORDS THAT CHANGE EVERYTHING

“I am with you,” declares the Lord. (Haggai 1:13)

A middle-aged man is having a tough time.  His father and mother are both dead now, and he misses them.  He’s got problems with his children, and the region where he lives is hit by economic problems and severe shortages.  To make matters worse, it seems like every time he accomplishes anything, someone else comes along and grabs what he’s worked for.  It’s enough to make anyone want to give up.  But four words change everything.

A young man runs away from home.  He knows that one of his own family is out to kill him.  He finds himself afraid, all alone in a place he’s never been before, and his future looks grim.  But four words change everything.

A person works hard, is honest and productive, and yet has to put up with constant sexual harassment.  After refusing these unwanted advances day after day, this person is accused of sexual misconduct by the very person who’s guilty of harassment and is thrown in jail.  The outlook is bleak.  But four words change everything.

An eighty-year-old man is prompted to confront the world’s most powerful leader and to demand freedom for his people.  He doesn’t want to do it.  He feels weak and afraid and completely inadequate.  But four words change everything.

Another man just lost his best friend and mentor, and now he’s called upon to take his place.  The man is full of grief, and he knows that his dead friend was the sort of man nobody can replace.  How can he possibly handle it?  Four words change everything.

A young man feels like a rabbit hiding from a fox.  Enemy troops occupy his country.  They’ve been seizing everybody’s food supplies, so he’s sneaking around trying to put away some food for himself and his family.  He feels worried and weak and worthless.  But four words change everything.

An entire nation is just bouncing back from the ravages of war and exile that it brought on itself, but already during the time of reconstruction, the people’s priorities are mixed up.  Their situation keeps going downhill, and they’re warned that if they don’t change, they’ll slip right back into disaster.  After this harsh warning, they feel guilty and discouraged, wondering if they have a future, hoping it’s not too late to turn around.  But four words change everything.

A young woman from a poor family is engaged to be married.  She’s got modest hopes, she’s in no position to have any grand dreams, she’s got no reason to think she’ll ever be prominent or exceptional in any way.  But four words change everything.

The four words are these:  I AM WITH YOU.  “I am with you”–four simple words, four words of just one syllable each, but four words that change everything, when the one who speaks them is God.

The Christmas season is a time that brings out many good feelings, but it also triggers feelings of another sort.  The Christmas season is when we feel most deeply the absence of loved ones who died, it’s when the pain of broken family relationships hits us hardest, it’s when we feel the guilt of past failures, and it’s when we feel economic troubles even more because of the Christmas shopping we couldn’t afford.

At the same time, we find ourselves approaching the end of another year, and we sense again how quickly the time is flying. The years are catching up with us, and we sometimes wonder what our lives really amount to.  As we look ahead, we’ve got our worries.  We sometimes feel weak and unable to deal with the challenges that await us in the coming year.  At times like this, what we need more than anything else is to hear and believe four simple words.

“I am with you.”  When God tells us that, it changes everything, even in the hardest situations.  Those four words changed everything for a middle-aged struggler named Isaac, for a frightened runaway named Jacob, and for a wrongfully imprisoned youngster named Joseph.  They changed everything for Moses the timid eighty-year-old, for Joshua the man who had to fill Moses’ shoes, for Gideon the scared rabbit.  “I am with you”–those four words changed everything for the confused and guilty nation of Israel, and they changed everything for an insignificant girl named Mary.

So no matter what your situation, when the living God says, “I am with you,” it changes everything.  Why?  Because ultimately, God is all you need.

God is all you and I need.  When he says, “I am with you,” it changes everything.

Consider Isaac.  He’s in his middle years.  His father Abraham and his mother Sarah are dead, and his heart still feels the emptiness.  He loves his wife Rebekah and his sons Esau and Jacob, but at the same time, there’s some tension in the family. Isaac tends to favor the brawny son Esau, while Rebekah prefers the brainy son, Jacob.  Meanwhile, a famine hits the land, causing serious shortages.  Isaac is forced to move to a different area, the land of the Philistines.

In many ways, Isaac is the typical middle-aged guy:  his parents are gone, his family is under stress, and economic conditions uproot him and force him to move in order to feed himself and his family.  A lot of you listening to me right now can identify.

It’s not an ideal situation, to say the least, but then the Lord speaks to Isaac.  He promises to be with Isaac and to bless him.  Soon Isaac and his family become very rich.  They make it big in their new home.  Eventually, though, the people around him resent his success and pressure him to move away from there.

So Isaac moves again.  He then digs a well, since he needs a good water supply.  But once the work is done and the well is ready to use, there’s a big quarrel over water rights, and he has to give the well up to others.  Isaac moves on and digs another well, but once again, he’s driven away and somebody else takes over the well he dug.  If you’ve ever worked to build up a business, and then watched someone else take over what you built, you can probably sympathize with Isaac.

Well, Isaac tries once more.  For the third time, he digs a well, and this time, nobody takes it away.  And then, once again, God speaks to Isaac:  “I am the God of your father Abraham.  Do not be afraid, for I am with you;  I will bless you …” (Genesis 26:24).  “I am with you”–when Isaac hears that, he knows he’s not alone.  In the middle of his muddle, God is present, and that puts everything in a different light.

For Isaac’s son Jacob, those same four words, “I am with you,” provide encouragement and a sense of destiny.  Jacob rips off his brother Esau, and then has to run away from home to escape Esau’s murderous rage.  On his journey, Jacob lies down to sleep one night, alone, afraid and exhausted.  But as he sleeps, he dreams of a stairway leading to heaven, and he sees a vision of angels and of the Lord standing above them.  He hears God’s voice promising to make him a great nation, and then the frightened runaway hears God say, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15).  For the rest of Jacob’s life, through all the ups and downs, through all his own sins and mistakes and sorrows, he knows one thing for sure:  God is with him.  If you’re alone and afraid and running from something, what you need more than anything else is just to hear God say, “I am with you.”

When we look at Jacob’s son Joseph, we find once again that God’s presence changes everything.  Joseph’s jealous brothers sell him into slavery, but, says the Bible, “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered” (Genesis 39:2), even as a slave.  Before long he was promoted to the top position in the household of his master Potiphar.  However, Joseph was young and good-looking, and Mrs. Potiphar started coming on to Joseph and pressuring him to go to bed with her.  Joseph resisted her sexual harassment, and when she didn’t get her way, Mrs. Potiphar turned bitter and accused Joseph of trying to rape her.  That landed Joseph in jail.  “But,” says the Bible, “while Joseph was there in prison, the Lord was with him…  the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (Genesis 39:20-23).

When you’re treated unjustly and you’re in a situation that seems hopeless, it’s easy to become bitter and to simply give up.  But Joseph never caved in.  He refused to declare himself a helpless victim, he refused to waste all his energy hating his brothers and Mrs. Potiphar for what they had done to him, and you know why?  Because through all the twists and turns, in all the triumphs and disappointments, God was with him.

Eventually, Joseph rose to become prime minister of Egypt, and he ended up saving his wicked brothers from starvation.  He spared the very men who had earlier sold him into slavery.  You see, when God is with you, even prison can’t keep you from success, and even the unjust actions of others can’t keep you from forgiving them and getting on with your life.  “I am with you”–if you know those four words, it changes everything.  You’re not trapped in the victim mentality;  you’re free to succeed no matter what your circumstances because God is near and he has a plan for you.

“I am with you”–those four words carry us through disappointments and hardships, and they also help us to take on challenges that seem insurmountable.

Take Moses.  He was an eighty-year-old sheepherder when God told him to go confront Pharoah and demand the release of the Israelite slaves.  Moses answered, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharoah and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  It sounded crazy, a wandering shepherd challenging the world’s most powerful man. But what did God say?  “I will be with you”  (Exodus 3:11,12).  And with God at his side, Moses was indeed able to lead the people out of Pharoah’s bondage.

When you think you’re small and insignificant, when a task seems impossible, you’re tempted to ask with Moses, “Who am I?”  But you need to stop asking “Who am I?” and start asking, “Who is with me?”  If the almighty God is with you, it’s irrelevant how strong or weak you happen to be.  If God is with you, you can do anything.

Consider Joshua.  After the death of Moses, the Israelites were poised on the border of the promised land.  For Joshua, it was an enormous challenge.  How could he go on without his friend and mentor?  How could he possibly fill Moses’ shoes?  And how could he conquer all those well-armed and fortified cities?  At that point, the Lord spoke to Joshua and told him, “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life.  As I was with Moses, so I will be with you;  I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).  Joshua didn’t have Moses anymore, but he had God.  He faced great challenges and fierce enemies, but God was with him, and that insured victory.

Maybe you can identify with Joshua.  Someone you loved and depended on a great deal is dead.  You feel the loss, and the challenges ahead seem too big to face on you’re own.  Well, it may be too much for your to face on your own, but you’re not on your own if God is with you.  With God, all things are possible.

Are you finding it hard to believe this?  If too many things go wrong, it’s easy to wonder how God can possibly be with you.  That’s how Gideon felt.  In Judges 6, the Bible says that Israel abandoned the Lord, and so God gave the people into the hands of a foreign power for seven miserable years.  The occupying armies were seizing everybody’s food supplies, and so young Gideon found himself one day, threshing grain in a secret place so the soldiers wouldn’t grab it.  That’s when an angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

Gideon answered the way a lot of us would.  “But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?  Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about…  the Lord has abandoned us” (6:13).  Have you ever wondered the same thing:  If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?  Where are all great wonders our parents told us about, or that we read about in the Bible?  It seems God has abandoned us.

Listen to what God told Gideon, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel…  Am I not sending you?”  “But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel?  My clan is the weakest there is, and I’m the weakest one in my clan.”  The Lord replied, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.”  Gideon still wasn’t quite convinced, so the Lord helped him work through his doubts, and eventually, with just 300 men and the help of God, Gideon drove out the enemy’s huge army.  Like Gideon, you may have your doubts and questions, but when God says he’s with you, he means it, and he’ll give you the power to do what he calls you to do.

“I am with you”–those four words change everything.  They mean vitality for the weary, courage for the fearful, hope for those at a dead end, comfort for the grieving, and strength for the weak.  In addition, these four words mean pardon for the guilty.

The people of Israel once fell so far into sin that God allowed them to be conquered by Babylon and carried off into exile.  You’d think they’d have learned to take God seriously after such a painful lesson, but when God returned them to their own land, what did they do?  They set about building fancy houses for themselves while God’s temple remained in ruins.  But for some reason, no matter how hard they worked, they never seemed to get ahead.  Something always went wrong.

God sent the prophet Haggai to tell them why.  The Lord condemned their selfishness and their mixed-up priorities.  He told them to start working on God’s house and worshiping him again, or else everything they tried would continue to fail.  When the people and their leaders heard this, they realized their sin, they obeyed Haggai’s message, and the people feared the Lord.  But was it too late?  Would God forgive them and give them another chance?

At that point, God prompted Haggai to preach the shortest sermon recorded in the Bible.  “I am with you,” declares the Lord.  That’s it.  “I am with you.”  But that’s all they needed to know.  It meant God had forgiven them and that he would help them in the work of rebuilding the temple and the country and their own homes as well.  “I am with you,” declares the Lord, and that means forgiveness.  It means everything is going to be all right.

All the examples I’ve mentioned come from the Old Testament part of the Bible, and they lead up to the supreme revelation of God with us described in the New Testament.  There we read that the angel Gabriel appeared to a humble peasant girl named Mary, and what was the first thing he said to her?  “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”  He then told her that through a miracle of the Holy Spirit, she would give birth to the son of God.  The first chapter of Matthew says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ is God’s supreme way of saying, “I am with you.”  Those four words change everything because Jesus changes everything.  So if you want to hear God telling you, “I am with you,” believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Believe that he is indeed Immanuel, God with us.  He took on flesh and blood to live among us, and he sends his Spirit to not only be with us but to live in us.  When we put our faith in Christ, God is with us, and nothing can separate us from his love.

Immanuel–God with us–that’s how the first chapter of Matthew describes Jesus.  And the final chapter of Matthew reports that the last words the resurrected Jesus told his disciples before he returned to heaven were these:  “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

If you don’t know Jesus, if you don’t have the assurance that God is with you, I don’t know how you’re able to deal with the disappointments and challenges in your life, not to mention the guilt and mistakes.  But, if you’ll listen to the four words that change everything, “I am with you,” and if you’ll believe those words, then you can face 1994 with a new sense of calm and confidence, and you can face eternity itself with joy and eagerness.  Once you accept that Jesus came to be God with us, that he died to take away your sins, that he rose from the dead to give you eternal life, and that his Spirit lives in you and directs your life, then you’ll be standing on the firm foundation of four simple words:  “I am with you.”

And when you have that as your foundation, nothing can shake you.  “So do not fear,” says God in the book of Isaiah, “for I am with you;  do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you;  I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10)

PRAYER

Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you have promised to be with us always.  We now claim that promise.  Be with us in discouragement and lift us up.  Be with us when we’re frightened and give us courage.  Be with us when we suffer injustice and help us trust our destiny to you.  Be with us when we feel weak in the face of great challenges and fill us with your strength.  Be with us in doubt and despair, and give us faith and hope.  Be with us when we’re guilty and ashamed, and give us your pardon and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Help each person listening right now, whatever the situation, to hear your Spirit saying, “I am with you.”  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.