Sermon delivered at Grace Presbyterian Church, August 8, 1999

That Which Never Changes
by Pastor Bob Burridge 1999

Hebrews 13:8

Remembering when things were different
I remember when I used to go for my mom to PeeWee's grocery store in South Buffalo, New York, along Seneca Street. She would give me a list which I'd hand to the grocer at a counter. Then I'd wait while he went in the back and got the items I wanted and filled the bag.

There were no aisles, shopping carts or self-service. And the bill was written on the side of the paper bag and added up in the grocer's head. There were no price scanners, calculators or plastic bags.

When the first "supermarket" opened in Buffalo it was quite a novelty to push a cart up the aisles and get what you wanted off the shelf by yourself.

Prices were different too. My mom remembers when a quarter bought both a fresh loaf of bread, a quart of fresh milk and you got change back!

I often think of the time my best friend Roger and I got a quarter from his mother, probably to get us out of her way for a while. We headed off for the corner candy store. We were pretty young and didn't know for sure what we could buy so we held out the quarter and asked if we could both get a creamsicle for what we had. The store clerk handed us each a creamsicle and some change!

We left, ate what we bought, then went back and asked if we could get to more. He handed us two more and some change! Then, after eating what was certainly too much anyway, we thought we would try again. This time we had only a nickel left and we asked if we could get more. But he handed us just one creamsicle. I remember that our mom's had to drag us apart when we failed in peaceful negotiations about who got the one final creamsicle. But money bought a lot more back then.

Though we lived in a city, everyone in the neighborhood knew us and looked out for the kids. We all knew Ken the butcher, Jimmy the cop, and of course the real celebrities of the neighborhood, the people who owned the candy store. And there was Buncey's barbershop where I had the distinction of having carried on so badly that I was the only customer ever to leave without actually getting a haircut. I hear that today kids can't walk safely down that same street alone anymore.

Technology was beginning to move things a little faster too. I remember when they installed the first automatic door! People would stand there and go in and out just to watch the "electric eye" open it for them. What would they think of next?

When we got our first television set I was only about 3 years old and I called it our telephonepigeon. There was only one channel, channel 4. During the off hours you could watch the test pattern and hear an annoying tone. Then the news came on, no one speaking, just typed copy scrolling in front of the camera. By 4pm they scrolled lists of what would be on that night. Then came some kids shows and a few sports events, local music and entertainment which lasted until bed time -- then back to the test pattern until the next afternoon.

Change was picking up the pace. There was talk then of "atomic energy", the possibility of rockets going into space, of a cure for polio, and someday color television! There were a few computers in the world back then. But in the early days experts didn't think the world would need more than a few dozen of them at the most.

With improved technology, communications, computers, transportation, building materials, and almost everything else you can think of, we live in a world today that is changing faster than at any time in all of previous history.

When Paul wrote his epistles the entire world population was about 200 million. The population of the USA alone right now is over 270 million. According to the US Bureau of Census within this past month the world population has exceeded 6 billion. Around 700 years ago the population doubled every 425 years. Now it doubles about every 51 years leaving us with a much more crowded planet. By the time my grandson is my age, if the rate doesn't change, there will be 12 billion people.

Computers are now a common household item and the internet puts the user in touch with millions of volumes of books instantly, thousands of articles and news stories are posted every day, most of the great works of art can be viewed, radio stations from all over the world can be listened to, and e-mail can be delivered complete with photographs in less than a minute to any computer any where in the world at no cost per item. You can even settle down with coffee in the afternoon and have a chat with a group of like minded friends who are doing the same at their homes or places of work perhaps in London, Sydney, Toronto, Tokyo, Paris and San Francisco. But with that speed of improvements a computer is calculated to become outdated every 18 months and will no longer be able to run most of the software being produced.

The real problem of change
But the problem of change is not just in keeping up with the latest technology. Its not a great tragedy if you don't know how to program your VCR, load the latest plugin for your internet browser, navigate the complexities of voice mail when you just want to talk to a human, or if you totally give up trying to record one show while watching another one.

The great concern has to do with moral judgments and spiritual issues. When we are flooded with so much information, surrounded by entertainment choices, alarmed by the ease with which perversions, violence and disrespect is spreading, and isolated from human contact by the barrier of technology and culture ... how can we keep the priorities God puts into our lives? And how can we avoid serious moral catastrophes from things that we hardly understand since they are changing so fast?

The shifting sands under our feet will sometimes catch us off balance. The confusing changes in the landmarks may leave us to go down a road we didn't expect to be on.

Changes come faster all the time. They require fast assessments, decisions, and adjustments. So we need a solid footing, a reference point that does not change. There will always be new and uncharted territory, totally unexpected areas of choice.

The ancient navigators at sea couldn't possibly know every island, every coastline, and couldn't know the changing winds and currents everywhere. But they could fix on a star at night or measure the position of the sun during the day and from that calculate where they were and which way they needed to go.

Our changing culture and the landmarks in the world around us are not much to rely on for setting a confident course through the uncharted seas. We need a fixed point that will not fail us, that will not change.

The Bible points us to just such a standard
Hebrews 13:8 "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever." (KJV)
But God, in his word, gives us far more to explain that amazing statement!

God's unchangeableness is contrasted with grass 1 Peter 1:23-25
23 for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God.
24 For, "All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off,
25 But the word of the Lord abides forever." And this is the word which was reached to you.

The Apostle Peter took his symbolism directly from Isaiah 40:6-8. There the prophet was warning that the wicked nation of Babylon was not as stable as she seemed. That's who Isaiah was referring to when he wrote ...
6 ... All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades, When the breath of the LORD blows upon it; Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever.

Even the power of great nations is nothing if they stand against God. The Lord blows upon it by his Spirit -- the same word is used for breath or wind (ruakh). Babylon is like grass which dies off at the mere desire of God and is destroyed. In time, the power of that great empire and enemy of Israel was no more.

Plants make a good illustration: they can die off very suddenly. I can attest to that personally from my failed attempts to have live plants in my study. I buy them when they are green and healthy, then this Bible verse is fulfilled, they wither and the flower falls off.

About every 10 years certain states cycle into a season of intense heat that ruins our crops. Some are predicting that this will be the result of this year's heat wave. Anyone who tries to maintain a lawn in Florida knows how fragile it can be. It can be destroyed by lack of water, insects, weeds, or a need for fertilizer in our sandy soil.

Peter's point was even more clear to those who lived in his very agricultural world. Earthly things, things of the flesh, don't last. They are poor things in which to put our trust.

This is a common symbol God often used in Scripture:
Job 14:1 Man, who is born of woman, Is short-lived and full of turmoil.
2 Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.
Psalm 37:1 Do not fret because of evildoers, Be not envious toward wrongdoers.
2 For they will wither quickly like the grass, And fade like the green herb.
Psalm 103 is contrasting with the unending mercies of God when the Psalmist writes ...
15 As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 When the wind has passed over it, it is no more; And its place acknowledges it no longer.
James 1:10 let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away.
11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind, and withers the grass; and its flower falls off, and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.

The transitory offerings of this word tempt people and give them a false sense of security.

The latest and greatest theories, gadgets, customs and entertainment may capture the moment, but are like the grass. They provide no lasting anchor for our souls.

Change is part of the world in its present form. Ever fluctuating opinion polls show how the masses are pulled one way and another by carefully chosen words of astute leaders who know what to say and how to say it. Many movies and songs that are number one this week will be forgotten in another generation. Styles become vogue, then old -- Nations rise and fall -- Empires rule and crumble. Like the grass they grow then fade away.

Thomas Manton called this our "garden meditation." When we walk through the rows of flowers showing the beauty of God's handiwork we should keep in mind that he made them to have seasons and a short life.

By contrast the Creator's word and his mercies are forever! God is an unchangeable absolute, a firm foundation that is never shaken. His word is a flower that never withers and has a fragrance that never fades. As Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever." (KJV)

God's unchangeableness is also contrasted with the universe itself!
In Matthew 24:35 Jesus said "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away."

The stars, the sun, the moon, and the planets are pretty stable things during our little life-spans. I remember as a little boy sitting upstairs in a cold attic in the brutal Buffalo winters with a long 7' telescope tube poking out the back window. I spent hours looking at the shapes of the seas on the moon. Those same shapes fascinated ancient shepherds and sailors as they watched the same moon.

And I remember sleeping under the stars at camp on a hillside in Western New York trying to identify the constellations ... Orion was always my favorite. Its unmistakable shape goes back to the earliest primitive drawings of lights in the night skies.

But even those fixed points, which make reliable guides for those who navigate the seas, and for steering space probes to the far reaches of our solar system, are not forever.

Orion is made up of countless billions of stars, most of them too dim for us to see. But the bright points of light that make the familiar shape are stars, giant suns burning even brighter than our own but many trillions of miles away. The two brightest and best known are Betelgeuse and Rigel. Betelgeuse is a red giant star that shines with an irregular brightness. It is 150 parsecs away -- that's 2,934 trillion miles. The light you see tonight from Betelgeuse left it 489 years ago, 7 years before Luther posted his thesis to begin the Protestant reformation.

Rigel is a blue white supergiant 250 parsecs away -- or 4,890 trillion miles. The light coming to us tonight from Rigel left 815 years ago, around 1184 AD. That's the time of the early Crusades and Genghis Khan.

But even those stars will not last forever. God, who made them, said they will be re-formed some day. But if he left them alone, just as they are, they would still not last. As stars burn up their fuel they go through different stages depending on their mass. Different size stars will end up in different final conditions. But nothing in all of physical creation is forever, like the Creator. Hebrews 1:12 And as a mantle Thou wilt roll them up; As a garment they will also be changed. But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end."

Right now we live in the age of humans on earth. Ever since Adam sinned way back in Eden guilt and corruption has gripped the human soul. But even that will end one day for those redeemed by the grace of God.

Each of us got a soul the moment we were conceived by our parents! But that soul will have no end. It will live forever -- somewhere -- in some condition -- some in horrors unimaginable, others in glory and blessing beyond our comprehension.

So as we navigate the changing waters, facing the changes life brings every day, as we prepare for which ever eternity we will experience, we need a fixed point to guide us, a light that never fades. That light is the word of God, his gospel message that redeems us and his gracious law by which the redeemed show their gratitude to their Heavenly Father.

The Psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:105 "Thy word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path."

The text that anchors our study today says, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

God, his word and ways never change. He does not whither like the grass, or fade like the stars. He is eternal and immutable -- always the same -- always perfection. James 1:17 says, Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.

Shadows move during the day and the shape of shadows change seasonally as the angle of the sun moves up and down in the sky. The moon goes through its phases as it orbits the earth. But with God there is no moving shadow, no variation. People change -- but he changes never!

Jeremiah wrote of the hope we have as we remember the promises of an unchanging God. In Lamentations 3:21-23 he said ...
21 This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope.
22 The LORD's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning; Great is Thy faithfulness.
24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "Therefore I have hope in Him."

Divine reliability
Our text in Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever." He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginner and finisher of our faith. Before today -- today -- and on into the unending tomorrow, Jesus Christ our Lord is unchangeably and reliably the same.

He is the same ...
as when he made and placed Adam on earth,
as when he led Moses and Israel across the Red Sea,
as when David slew the powerful Goliath,
as when Jesus stood in the Temple in Jerusalem announcing a new era,
as when Saul the persecuting Pharisee was struck down on his way to Damascus, and became God's Apostle to the Gentiles,
as when Luther shook the world with his 95 theses,
as when Calvin organized the city of Geneva to be run by the Bible as its main constitution,
as when Jesus took hold of your life for the first time, perhaps when you were too young to remember, or maybe not that long ago, and he changed you and gave your dead soul new life!

Though we may weary in our walk, and our memory may fade like the grass, the same Lord, who redeemed us, and who moves all things to the advancement of his Kingdom, remains unchanged!

Cultures, philosophies, styles and advancements will come and go. But the deliverance we have in Christ, the life he implants in us, his word and assurances, will never fail. His mercies -- they change not. As the Apostle John wrote so long ago in 1 John 2:17 "And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever."

Thomas Obadiah Chisholm
A man named Thomas Obadiah Chisholm was born in Franklin Kentucky in 1866. He didn't have the opportunity to study beyond elementary school, but when he was 16 he started helping at the county school house as a teacher. He was a hard and faithful worker who at age 21 became associate editor of the town's weekly newspaper, The Franklin Favorite. A few years later, when he was 27, he heard the gospel and was transformed by grace. He then moved to Louisville to take an editing and management position.

After a short while he served a brief term as a pastor. But after only a few years his health forced him to resign. At age 43 he became a life insurance salesman in New Jersey; first at Winona Lake, then at Vineland. In 1953, at age 84, he retired to a home for the aged in Ocean Grove. He died there in 1960.

Not a remarkable life as an historian might view it. But he had learned to view his life, even the simple day by day matters, and his ill health, as being held firmly in the hands of God, resting in his unchanging and unfailing care.

In a letter Thomas wrote in 1941 he recalls, "My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that he has given me many wonderful displays of his providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness."

While serving as an insurance man he also wrote over a thousand poems. In 1923 he sent some to Rev. William Runyan, a musical associate at the Moody Bible Institute and editor with Hope Publishing Company. When he read one particular poem Rev. Runyan was moved specially to pray that God would enable him to write music for it in a way that might "carry over its message in a worthy way."

We sing that hymn a few times every year, and it continues to be a favorite: The first verse captures today's theme eloquently; Thomas Obadiah Chisholm wrote ...

Great Is Thy Faithfulness, O God my Father,
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not;
as thou hast been thou for ever wilt be.
Great is thy faithfulness, Great is thy faithfulness,
morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided,
great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.


NOTE: All quotations of Scripture are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.

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