Pretty Tough (click to view/download originally published pdf document)
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
I’m not the biggest fan of that last hymn, On Eagles’ Wings. People are usually surprised to hear me say that, so I don’t bother mentioning it very often. Most people seem to like it so much that they immediately start defending the hymn, and the last thing I want is a shouting match. I really don’t feel that strongly about it, so it’s usually not worth bringing up.
“But, Pastor, it’s such a pretty hymn!” I know. I know. It is. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t even want to bring it up. It’s pretty, very pretty. I absolutely agree. Although, at the same time, I guess you could say that’s one of the reasons I don’t especially like it.
“What? You’ve got a problem with pretty hymns?” No. That’s not it. I listen to pretty hymns all the time. But let me tell you something about being a pastor that’s going to make more sense today than it does on pretty much any other day you might choose. To be faithful to the God who called me, I can’t see my job as making things look pretty when they really aren’t. The job of a pastor is to tell the truth, pretty or otherwise, because, when we all stand before the Almighty and All-Knowing God at the end of time, there will be no hiding. You won’t be able to hide yourself. You won’t be able to make things you did look better than they really were. God will not be ignorant nor will he be fooled about anything in your life or in your heart. And if the pastors in your life did their jobs, then, in that moment of absolute truth, you will be able to say of them, “They were right. They told me it would be just like this, and it is, just like they said. They were right.”
So I hope you’ll excuse me if I sigh a bit when people choose this hymn just because it’s pretty. I’ve met too many people whose lives are full of pretty music but who have gotten nothing more out of it than the realization that they really like pretty music and, when they finally leave this world, they want people to sing pretty songs at their funerals.
Besides, do you think “pretty” when you think of Bud? I don’t. I think “tough.” Am I the only one? Big guy. Football player. Survived an explosion or two. Independent. Stubborn. I’m pretty close, right?
Nevertheless, I picked this hymn. I want to be clear on that. I told Jason and Jessica that if they wanted me to handle picking all the readings and hymns for today, I would do that. And, considering everything else they had to do, they were more than happy to let me do that. So I picked this hymn. Nobody had to talk me into it. I didn’t reluctantly cave in. I chose it.
Do you want to know why? It’s because, much like the truth that I have to share with you today, Bud wasn’t just tough. He was, thanks to Jesus, “pretty tough.” That doesn’t mean, “close to tough” or “fairly tough.” It means totally tough and, along with that, pretty.
Look at this hymn. Then look at this text from Isaiah. It’s about some ugly stuff—ugly stuff that, somehow or another, you’ve got to get through. The people of Israel were going through some stuff so ugly that they questioned whether or not God even cared for them. “Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘my way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God?’”
And God didn’t sing a pretty song for them to make them feel better. He’s more like, “Are you serious? You’re so deluded and faithless that you think that the Almighty God, limitless in power and sight, somehow doesn’t know what’s happening to you? Come on! You dig a ditch in the prime of your youth for ten hours and you’re exhausted. I worked six days straight building the entire universe out of quite literally nothing, and I still had the strength and brain power to govern every last atom and particle on my ‘day off.’ Believe me. I know what’s happening in your life, and I have it well under control.”
This hymn isn’t about eagles because they’re pretty, although they are. Eagles are tough, and this is about God being strong enough to lift you up. The “breath of dawn” is the wind off the bay in the morning (pretty strong today, wasn’t it?). And don’t think that the sun provides enough energy to feed every single plant on this planet from the one tiny slice of its rays simply because it’s pretty. It is a devastatingly powerful nuclear furnace thousands of times bigger than our entire planet!
And if none of that were enough to demonstrate that God is much more than just a pretty thought to distract you from the ugly things in your life, let me remind you that when the Lord shows you the palms of his hands, he is showing you the pierced hands of Jesus—Jesus, who is so much more than just a Hallmark card to the world. Jesus is God in human flesh, here to provide righteousness as your pinch hitter under the law, and here to die as your substitute under the punishment God’s law promises to all the wicked.
Pretty. Tough. God is both—in the highest degree—so that we might be given eternal life as a free gift, earned through Jesus’ blood, sweat and tears.
Bud was weak when we last saw him. Weaker than we ever would have wanted to see him. It wasn’t pretty. And I’d be a foolish, weak deceiver if all I did was bring you here to distract you from that truth with pretty songs. But, praise God, I have more for you today. I tell you that Jesus was strong enough to pay for our sins and beat our death in glorious resurrection. And, for his sake, I can proclaim this truth today: One more ugly sinner who didn’t deserve a Savior so beautiful understands first hand that God is tough enough to keep his Word, pay for our sins, and get us home. Amen.