Steven Furtick - Learning Hope The Hard Way
You are sitting in one of 56 Christmas Eve worship experiences that we're hosting in physical locations, and what a privilege to minister the Word of God to you today. I decided just to use one verse. It's completely coincidental that this is my eleventh Christmas sermon as the pastor of Elevation Church and my text happens to be Isaiah 11. This is the coolest Christmas Scripture you've never heard. You've probably never heard this little verse of Scripture, and I know you've never heard it in a Christmas sermon. I had not either, so I decided to preach it. The Lord has really been using it. I want to read you this verse. Don't worry if you don't see what it has to do with Christmas right when I read it, but you will in a minute.
Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit". It is a very promising prophecy that Isaiah delivers to a people who have been cut down and reduced to almost nothing. One of my favorite country preachers used to have a saying. He would say, "When you're down to nothing, God is up to something". Elbow your neighbor and tell them, "God is up to something in your life". Even if you can't feel it, even if you can't see it, even if you can't discern it with your natural senses, I want you to know that God is up to something in your life. If you've had a banner year or a barren year, God is up to something in your life. He was up to something in the nation of Israel. They had placed their hope in other gods, and yet the promise of redemption echoes over 700 years before the birth of Christ through the prophet Isaiah. He says, "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit".
Let me back up and read that one more time, because I think I see Jesus in this text. "From his roots a Branch will bear fruit". Could it be that the branch Isaiah speaks of is the baby that was born in the town of Bethlehem? Could it be that the eagle-eyed prophet is seeing through seven centuries into our present hope? Peter calls it a "living hope". The author of Hebrews calls it an "anchor for our souls". We celebrate this season that hope has come. Somebody shout, "I have a hope"! Let the Devil hear you say it, because he's been messing with you and you've had a hard year, but let him know you're still standing by the grace of God and you have a hope.
Somebody shout, "I have a hope"! It's a certain kind of hope. It's not a floating hope. I saw Holly watch a movie a few years ago. It's been quite a few years. They called the movie Hope Floats. I didn't watch the movie. Holly had it on. I don't know anything about the movie, but I know the title isn't accurate, because real hope is like an anchor. It doesn't float on the surface of your situation, but it gets down to the bottom and holds on tight while you're going through hell. When you get Paul involved... Paul is the New Testament apostle who took the gospel to the Gentiles. He says something instructive in Romans, chapter 8. He wants to talk about the nature of hope. When he goes to talk about it, he says in Romans 8:24, "For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have..."
If we can hold on and hold out and hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently, and patience is the proof of hope. My subject for this Christmas is Learning Hope the Hard Way. What Isaiah's stump that has been cut down and Paul's theology, Christology, and pneumatology of the Spirit of God that lives on the inside of you all have in common is they describe a certain kind of hope. Not the kind of hope that you might have as a Panthers fan. I hope the Clemson Tigers beat the Ohio State Buckeyes, as do all Christians. I toss it around like that. The word hope means very little, because the fact of the matter is it won't bother me much if they don't. A bunch of boys in some Spandex aren't going to keep me up at night. I am not so worried as to really say, "I hope". All I really mean is it would be nice.
My mom went to Clemson. It would be nice if they got a win. I don't care. I don't really hope for that. I didn't come to talk to you on Christmas Eve, when you could be doing a lot of other things, about that kind of hope. I'm talking about a certain kind of hope, a hope that has to be learned the hard way. How many have ever had to learn something the hard way? If your husband isn't raising his hand, maybe you could raise it for him, if he doesn't want to be honest. Some things you have to learn the hard way. Some things can only be developed the hard way.
I was talking to a campus pastor, and they asked me about my preparation, and I told them a story. I said, "I prepare a lot before I preach. I over-prepare". The reason I over-prepare is because one time 13 years ago I went to speak at an event. I got lost on the way, so I started getting angry. I was a little flustered when I got there, and I got up in front of the event, and it was a mother/daughter banquet. I've never been more unprepared for anything in my life. I didn't know it was a mother/daughter banquet. I had prepared for something different. I thought it was a youth service. I didn't have anything to say to the mothers and daughters. I learned the hard way that day. I hated how that felt so much, being up in front of people with a microphone and a Bible unprepared, I resolved in my heart, "I will never stand in front of people behind a pulpit unprepared again".
It took the experience of embarrassment... You know, my mouth is going dry and my face is turning red. I stood there and promised myself, "I will never be in that situation again". It doesn't mean all of my sermons are going to be great, and it doesn't mean all of my sermons are going to be funny or equally inspiring, but they will always be my best. I decided that day, but I had to learn it the hard way. Those of you who come to the church know we have three kids. The only reason I keep them around is for sermon material. The oldest one is 11. His name is Elijah. He gave me a good line the other day. I was taking him to school, and I said, "Who is your favorite teacher you've ever had"? He's in sixth grade now. (That's not a prayer request, but if you want to throw us in on your list, that's okay.)
He said, "It depends what you mean by favorite. Do you mean the one I had the most fun with or the one I learned the most from? Because those answers would be different depending on what you mean by favorite". How did he understand that about school as an 11-year-old and we don't get it in our Christian life, in our spiritual life? The seasons of our lives that are the most fun aren't necessarily the most fruitful, and the seasons of our lives that we get the most out of aren't necessarily the ones we would choose to go through. There are some seasons of your life that will cut you down and take off your branches. We call them pruning seasons. Even in the pruning is a promise.
Isaiah said, "I see a stump cut down to nothing, but I see a shoot coming forth from the stump". God is up to something in your life this Christmas. We celebrate this season that hope has come into the world, but we have to remember not only that it has come or who it came through but how it came. It had to be hard. That's kind of left out by the time you see our modern interpretation of the nativity. It had to be hard for Joseph to really believe that his wife, who had not had sex with him because they were not husband and wife yet, but they were what the Bible calls betrothed... That his wife, being a virgin, was pregnant. It had to be hard for him to really take that at God's word. It had to be hard for Mary to have to look people in the eye and convince them that what she was carrying was from the Holy Spirit.
Forget about even that part, because it had to be hard for them to believe. I know that, but just physically. The way God chose to come into the world shows us something about the nature of the way he works, and I think we should look at it. If you sanitize the Christmas story, you strip it of its significance. To miss the struggle of the Christmas story is to miss a window into the way God works. When God wanted to come into the world, not only did he pick a virgin, not only did he pick a womb that represented impossibility so that he could bring forth infinite potential, not only did he pick the hardest situation to bring forth his Son, but he didn't even make hotel reservations. When it came time for them to stay in Bethlehem, they didn't even have a room at the Ritz.
Wouldn't you think if God was coming into the world he would Airbnb or something to make sure this couple had a place to stay? We miss it, because we think when God says he's going to do something in our lives it's going to be easy, but it's not. It has to be hard. A quick look at the history of the Bible shows you that God likes to do things the hard way. It is his preferred method of carrying out his purpose. Don't think you're weird if your life has been hard, and don't assume that you're doing something wrong, because God will often allow life to cut you down to the stump. He did it to Moses. Moses was called to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. I won't take you through the whole Bible, but I do want to go to Exodus, because there's this interesting Christmas verse that says, "Out of Egypt I have called my Son".
Jesus had to go with his parents to Egypt when he was very little, because Herod wanted to kill him. God doesn't birth his Son into the world into ideal circumstances but into a very chaotic environment where Roman oppression was so common to the people they feared for their very lives under the madman named Herod. We think we have bad presidential candidates. I mean, this guy was killing babies in Bethlehem when he heard Jesus was born because it represented a threat to the throne. So Isaiah is prophesying to a people who are under Assyrian oppression, and Jesus comes into the world under Roman oppression, because God likes to come into hard situations. He's not scared of that. When he picks Moses he says, "Go to Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, and tell him to let my people go, and when you tell him to let my people go, he's going to say, 'No.'"
Why would God tell me to do something and in the next breath inform me that it won't work? Because it had to be hard. If it was easy for Moses, if he just walked up into Pharaoh's court and said, "Let my people go" and Pharaoh said, "All right," Moses would dab on Pharaoh, walk out, and think he was convincing. Pharaoh had to say, "No," so that God could... This is God's own wording. I didn't make this up. He said, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart so that I can gain glory". In other words, if it wasn't hard, you would think it was you. If it wasn't hard, you would trust in yourself. You are not an adequate support system for the glory of God, so he has to allow some things into your life that are impossible for you so you can know what Mary knew, that nothing shall be impossible with God. It had to be hard.
By the time the Israelites came out of Egypt... They come up to the Red Sea, and instead of taking them around the body of water, watch what God does. God is kind of crazy. God says, "I'm not going to take you around it. That would be the normal way. That would be the human way. Let's do it the hard way. I'm not going to take you around it. I'm going to take you through it. Stretch out your staff, and the waters will part. About the time you get through, look back over your shoulder, and the Egyptians who were ruling over you, you will see them no more. I'm about to drown what's chasing you down, but I have to take you the hard way".
God likes to do it the hard way. I don't have time to tell you about David and his slingshot. God could have used an armed soldier to kill Goliath, but how would they have known that he was the Lord if God didn't do it through something so silly as one rock? God likes to do things the hard way, Gideon. So if you have 32,000 men, he's not going to let you fight with 32,000 men. He's going to get you down to 300. Maybe that's why you've been cut down to a stump. Maybe you were relying on the fruit too much, but this is a season where God wants to prove your root system and show you real hope.
Sometimes you have to learn it the hard way. He couldn't come into the world floating on a cloud looking like some superhero. He couldn't have come with an S on his chest for "Savior of the world". He had to come in weakness so that you would know that in your weakness he is strong. I don't know if it's because I spend so much time speaking to young people that I think in such simplistic terms, or maybe I'm just a simple man, but I started thinking about... I texted Jess and said, "Give me a bouncy ball". I didn't tell her why I wanted it. Maybe she thought I was losing my mind or I hadn't bought Christmas for Holly yet. That would be bad, wouldn't it? I was thinking that it has the ability to bounce back. That's exactly what it was designed to do. That's exactly what it's meant for. That's why it's called a bouncy ball. They named it appropriately for the function it is intended to serve, for the potential it has within its composite structure.
Now look. Same ball, different surface. It didn't work. In order for this to do what it's meant to do, the surface it bounces on has to be hard. Maybe that's why in this season of your life things have been hard. Maybe God isn't punishing you. Maybe he's preparing you. Maybe you've been cut down for a comeback. As a believer in Jesus Christ, you have the ability within you to bounce back. Maybe that's why they laid Jesus in a borrowed grave: because God had to show the world that you can put me down at rock bottom, but you can't keep me from bouncing back. Does anybody have a bounce-back in your spirit this Christmas? Touch three people and say, "I can bounce back". I have a hope that bounces back. I can bounce back from rock bottom. As a matter of fact, the harder the bottom, the higher the bounce. God let me be cut down for a little while, but I see a shoot coming from the stump. It had to be hard.
Mary had to wonder. The Bible says she pondered these things in her heart. What was happening inside of her wasn't obvious to the people around her, because it had to be hard, and it had to be hidden. When God really likes something, he hides it. We get sent a lot of delicious Christmas treats this time of year. Praise the Lord. When I like it okay, I put it out for the kids. When I really like it, I have some places around the house that I can put stuff where Graham can't find it, where the Devil can't find it. I have some secret compartments for certain carbohydrates Holly doesn't even know that I have. I'm not stashing anything illegal, baby, but sometimes peanut butter... Some stuff is too good for me to just leave out. Don't you find it the least bit intriguing?
I just love the Bible. Here's Isaiah, 700 years out from the birth of Christ. We have what Isaiah was hoping for. I wonder. Do we take it for granted because we have it? Paul said it's harder to hope the more you have. When you have it, you lose your ability to hope, because you start to hope in what you have and forget how to hope when you don't have it. Hope for reconciliation when it's not going well, hope for provision when you're down to nothing. God is up to something, and Isaiah said you can see it in the roots. The roots are the part of the tree you can't see, but that's where the action is. As long as that tree stays rooted, it has the promise of new beginnings.
Isaiah said, "God is doing a hidden work in your life". Shh, he's up to something. Christmas came in a whisper. Jesus spent the first couple of years of his life hiding from Herod, because when God brings a promise into the earth it alerts the Enemy. Maybe you've been in a season of hiding. Maybe God is trying to show you the nature of true hope. Not the kind that floats, but the kind that gets down deep enough in your heart where people can't get it. Some of you keep giving your hope away easily. You haven't learned how to hide it. You're not rooted yet. You have hope when good things happen, but how is your hope when God seems silent? How is your hope when there's no fruit on the tree? How is your hope? It's in those seasons.
Elijah said, "It depends. Do you mean the teacher who taught me the most or the teacher I had the most fun with"? Some of God's greatest work in my life was when I couldn't feel him. That's where he built my faith: when I couldn't feel him. He had to hide my faith beneath my feelings. That's where hope lies: beneath the surface. That's where hope lies: when you get a bad report from the doctor, but somehow, someway you still have hope. Not just hope when you're healthy, not just hope when it's a clean bill, not just hope when there is a bonus; hope when you don't know how you're going to make it through. My hope doesn't have to know how; I know who. I don't know how, but I know who. I don't know when, but I know who. I don't even know what, but I know who. I have a hope! It's an anchor for my soul.
What does an anchor do? It goes all the way down to the bottom. From a stump, a shoot is coming forth. Think about it. The stump of Jesse. That was David's father. That represented the kingdom of Israel. When that kingdom was cut down, God chose Isaiah's word to say, "There's a shoot coming forth from the stump". God said this Christmas some of you have been going through things, and you thought God was gone. He's not gone. He is preparing you for growth, and he is rooting your hope in a deeper place. I used to think disappointment was the enemy of hope. I don't think so anymore. I think disappointment is the doorway to deeper hope. You have to learn it the hard way. You have to put your hope in a person and find out that people can't hold your hope. They're not meant to.
You have to put your hope in your bank balance to realize your bank account can't hold your hope. God help you if you're looking to a governmental agency to hold your hope right now. Maybe God even allows nations, sometimes, to get down to a stump so a shoot can come forth. The Lord said there would be somebody here today who has allowed their hope to be in things and people and success and status and "one day when" and "if I ever". He brought you here, and there's a shoot coming forth from the stump. This little Christmas message is just the thing. You came just for Grandma, you came just to check it off, but God had something different, something deeper, something lasting in mind. God wants to give you hope, but, my brother, my sister, you have to take hold of it.
Hope is here, but it is not yours until you take hold of it. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," and from its roots a branch will bring forth fruit. You cannot have the fruit of fulfillment without the branch of Jesus Christ. That's why he was born. He is the Branch. You don't have to leave this place disconnected from God. You don't have to leave this place disconnected from hope. You don't have to leave this place down to nothing. A shoot is coming forth from the stump, and hope is being born as the Word of God goes forth. This is your day. "Today is born to you in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord". He is the Branch. This is the hope. Now is the time. This is the hope, he is the Branch, and now is the time. This day.
I want to ask you to stand at all of our locations. I'm praying for people right now who need to take hold of hope. I had a special sense of what God wanted to do in this worship experience. This will be the greatest response of people giving their lives to Christ that we will see all Christmas. In this worship experience right now, there are many of you who have never truly placed your hope in Christ. The story is familiar to you, but you are not rooted in it. You know if we were just talking... I wish we could just talk. I wish we didn't have to be in this crowd like this, where you want to act like you have your fake fruit on your tree, but if we could just talk, you would say, "Man, I'm far away from God".
You may feel like the shepherds who were the last ones who ever thought God would appear to them, but they got the first noel. Maybe that's you. Maybe you've become disconnected. Maybe you had a connection with God at one point in your life, but you've been cut down to a stump. The good news is that from that stump a shoot, a small thing, something that seems so insignificant, so little you'll miss it if you walk by it... I think these are the moments God speaks to us in, and if you're not careful, you'll walk right by it and go right back into your next year disconnected from hope, putting your hope in people, putting your hope in achievements. In this moment, if you'll reach out to God, he has already come near to you. We live on this side of hope. Our hope has come.
Today, if you are far away from God and you know it in your heart, I want to pray for you. Would you bow your head and close your eyes? We do this as a church family. It's something we do every time we gather, but this Christmas it has special significance. What a perfect time to have your slate wiped clean, your sins washed away, your heart made new, and your new life begin. In this moment if you say, "That's me you're preaching to, Pastor Steven, and right now I want to pray with you, and I want you to pray for me, and I want to call on God..." The Bible says that if anyone calls on the name of the Lord he or she will be saved. All you have to do is reach, and a shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse. From its roots a branch will bear fruit. He is the Branch. Take hold of him in this moment. I want you to pray out loud with me. We'll pray all together now as a church family for the benefit of those who are coming to God or back to God. Would you repeat this simple prayer after me?
Heavenly Father, today is my day of new beginnings. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, and right now I give him my life. From this day forward, I will follow you. I receive your love, and this is my new beginning. I turn from my sin. I trust in you. Make me a new creation.
Heads still bowed, eyes still closed, if you just prayed that, on the count of three shoot your hand up in the air and make it official. One, two, three. This is the day. Now is the time. Keep your hand up for a moment. We have a gift we want to give you. God bless you. Hands shot up everywhere. I wish you could have seen it. There's a party going on in heaven. I think we ought to join in on the earth. People saying, "This is the time". A shoot will come up from the stump. I see new life coming up all around you. I see new beginnings in your family, in your heart, in your situation. Let's lift our hands to heaven right now. Let's join the angels and sing.