Like most kids, my three girls have always enjoyed hide and seek. Even my youngest has fun with a classic game of peek-a-boo. If you have ever played hide and seek with a child, you know they aren’t exactly the greatest at the game, but you have to pretend like they are. Like, even if they manage to actually be hiding behind something and not just standing in the middle of the room, they’re never quiet about it. Even when they manage to actually hide themselves, they talk in full volume and giggle uncontrollably. But, you can’t just go, “Yeah, you’re there. I see you,” right? You have to walk around the room and pretend like you have no idea where they are.
You can feel awfully foolish, but you still say things like, “Hmmm, I wonder where Gwen is? Has anyone seen where Lydia has gone?” After a little while, you might pretend you’ve been stumped and call out their names, “Gwen! Lydia! Where are you?” And, they’ll come running out from their obvious hiding places, thinking they are far craftier than they really are and that they belong in some sort of hide and seek Olympics.
But, there is another seeking that is done without any feigned interest. There is another calling out that is not mere playacting or pretending. It’s a seeking done out of necessity; it’s a calling out of deep desperation. It’s in these moments where we might cry out, “O God, help me!,” or, “God, if You are really there, would you please just show me?,” or, “God, I need You. Show me the way to go here.” We call out to God to rescue us so that we might not be left in our unbelief. We call out to Him for His guidance and His blessing. And, when we do call out to God regularly acknowledging our dependence upon Him, something marvelous begins to occur in our lives:
 “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;  let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”Isaiah 55:6-13, ESV
Autumn in Janesville has been off to a rather rainy start. Actually, as I’m writing this, it’s snowing outside. Snowing. And, winter is still over 50 days away. (But, I’ve noticed the weather always seems to be nice whenever I am out of town; correlation doesn’t prove causation, though, right?) For some odd reason, grass doesn’t get any shorter during the vacations and retreats. So, as a result, I had been taking any break in the clouds as an opportunity to get out and do some yard work at our house.
The new place doesn’t necessarily have much landscaping, but I noticed we were growing quite the patch of thistles. Maybe it was because I was in a hurry, or maybe it was because I still didn’t know in which box to find them, or maybe it is because I am a stubborn man, but I decided I could pull the thistle patch without any gloves.
Did you know during medieval times it was believed thistles could return hair to bald heads? Even in the early modern period, it was believed to be a remedy for headaches, canker sores, and vertigo. But, as I reached my exposed hand into the thistle patch, I found those prickly weeds to be everything but a remedy to life’s problems. They caused me to pull my hair out; they made me dizzy with frustration; and, they were a source of head pain. I decided I had better find the gloves.
Still, the thistles needed to be uprooted. With all the rain, the only outcome was going to be bigger, healthier, thorny weeds. Interesting how that works, isn’t it? Giving a bad weed even good things doesn’t make it any less of a weed. If you give a weed oxygen, sunlight, and water, it doesn’t turn into a daisy or tulip or rose bush. It just grows to be even weedier.
And, as I began to uproot these weeds with my now covered-in-gloves hands, I began to feel a sense of our own deep, pervasive, and spiritual weedy problem. One we are powerless to overcome—even with gloves. I am a thorn of a man. The prophet Isaiah encourages us to seek the Lord and call out to Him because this problem resides in all of us: my thoughts and my ways and God’s thoughts and God’s ways are as far apart as heaven and earth.
 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV
We often quote this verse as a way to accentuate that God has understanding where we do not have understanding. We quote this verse to give peace in what might otherwise be perplexing situations. And, these are true things: we can trust in God because He is wiser and more able than we are. But, these verses also pinpoint a major problem: there exists between me and God an insurmountable chasm. And, it is only when we seek out God that we can overcome the Grand Canyon of separation that stands between us and Him—between our ways and His ways. But how does that happen?
Isaiah tells us that the Word of God is like a fresh rain or like a snow that has melted and the waters begin to run down the mountain to bring forth and grow green vegetation. Just as that rain that falls to the earth will accomplish its purpose, so it is with the Word of God. And, chances are you have heard this before—that the Word of God never returns void and that it will accomplish its purpose. But, that sort of begs an important question. What is that purpose? What does the Word of God desire to do in and through you? And, for that answer, let’s look finally at Isaiah 55:13 again.
 “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”Isaiah 55:13, ESV
What rain can make a cypress grow from a thorn bush? What snow can produce myrtle from a brier? The answer is only the Word of God. Here’s what I know from my experience with thorns. They hurt. They can be painful. They are there to remind you to stay away from it. The brier, too, is a plant of the desert. It symbolizes dryness and drought. It is not lush or green or fruitful.
The cypress on the other hand is a plant of healing and life. It’s a plant that endured many years. The myrtle represented vitality and was always green. It’s a resilient plant that grows back even when it is cut down. Friends, you are the thorn and the brier. I am the thorn and the brier. When I really began to meditate on this passage, the Lord began to reveal areas in my own life where I am a thorn. I cause pain. I say and do hurtful things. My actions and words push people away and keep them at a distance. Even more devastatingly, they have pushed God away. My thorniness has created a chasm between me and God. As a result, I’m like that dry brier and because my soul is parched, I might try to drink in anything and everything of this world to try to satisfy my soul.
And, try as I may, in my own strength, I will never, ever be able to take this thorny, brier of a man and make him into a cypress or myrtle. In my own strength, I only get more of the same me. But the power of God is that He is able to uproot the me-ness that is such a problem and create a Christlikeness in me.
See, what so often happens when we come to these realizations is that we immediately just want to be better. We want to adjust and tweak and learn so that we can become better people. Try harder; be better. But, listen to this today: the gospel’s purpose is not just to make you better. It makes you different. What is the purpose of the gospel message, you might ask? It’s not to tweak; it’s to transform. It’s to make us utterly different and to accomplish what we could never do for ourselves.
The gospel’s purpose is not just to make you better. It makes you different. It’s purpose is not to tweak; it’s to transform.
There are a lot of people today who are convinced that a Christian is just one who follows the teaching and example of Christ, but as pastor and author Timothy Keller reminds us, “Jesus is not primarily a teacher. He’s a rescuer.” He uproots the thorn bush and the brier, and His Word is a seed that is planted which will germinate into something else entirely. So that when it grows in our lives, we begin to produce fruit where there was only drought—fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Jesus is not primarily a teacher. He’s a rescuer.Timothy Keller
But, hear me out: the Spirit’s desire is not that we would just lay hold of the fruit, but that we would lay hold of Him. You ever notice how weeds still like to grow flowers. I know my girls love to pick dandelions, believing they’re a pretty flower rather than an invasive weed. Weeds try to trick us into thinking they are something they’re not. They give off some resemblance of beauty, but they’re really just still thorn bushes. When we seek out love or joy or peace or patience without seeking out the Lord first, we’re just thorn bushes with pretty flowers. I don’t want to become better. I don’t want to dress up the thorns. I want to uproot them. I want transformation. I want to be different.
I don’t just want to be a loving man; I want to be a Christlike man.
I don’t just want to be a joyful man; I want to be a Christlike man.
I don’t just want to be a peaceful man; I want to be a Christlike man.
I don’t just want to be a patient man; I want to be a Christlike man.
I don’t just want to be a kind man; I want to be a Christlike man.
I don’t just want to be a good man; I want to be a Christlike man.
I don’t just want to be a faithful man; I want to be a Christlike man.
I don’t just want to be a gentle man; I want to be a Christlike man.
I don’t just want to be a self-controlled man; I want to be a Christlike man.
The Spirit’s desire is not that we would just lay hold of the fruit, but that we would lay hold of Him.
And, the beautiful thing is that when I lay hold of Christ, I don’t need to cherry-pick which flower I’m going to dress myself up as today. I get the whole lot. The goal, though, isn’t just to be better; it’s to be something different entirely. It’s to be like Jesus. Friends, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that Christ accomplishes this in us through His Word—not just at salvation, but progressively through the life of the believer. So, what are the thorn bushes in your own heart? What areas of our life have you been pursuing better rather than different? Are there areas where we have settled on tweaking instead of transforming? Are there areas where you might be chasing after good things before the Giver of the good things?
Remember, we didn’t just need a teacher to fix the chasm between our ways and thoughts and God’s ways and thoughts. One who is just a teacher could show us the difference in our ways but could never get us across the chasm. No, we needed a Rescuer. We needed a Savior. We needed Jesus, and praise God He has come.