“An Honest Look into the Mirror”

For the first two weeks of this series, I introduced the major idea of “reflections on the Christian life” by the illustration of going on a long hike or adventure, noting that it would be particularly helpful to have someone who has already done it to give advice and perspectives. I turn this week to another illustration.

A prime influence in my choosing to attend what was then known as Philadelphia College of Bible (now called Cairn University) was a son of my church pastor – a guy who was two years older and who was going to that college. He had prepped me in many ways about what to expect, how to navigate some of the practical matters about dorm life, what professors to seek out or avoid … that sort of thing.

And a unique thing happened when I arrived to begin studies at the college in downtown Philadelphia. The student who was to be my roommate did not show up, and I found out before long that he had sadly been killed back in New York State in a car accident about a week earlier. So, while everyone else had a roommate to go through orientation week, I was alone in a double room.

And then, when the upperclassmen returned a few days later, I ran into my older friend from home – who told me that he did not know where he was going to stay because the school had not remembered to assign him a dorm room (since he had been in Israel for the spring semester of the previous year and had been overlooked). I was able to tell him of my situation, and before long, he was my roommate.

It was then especially helpful to have someone I knew who was with me who could help me through the maze of the early weeks of college, having previously done it himself.

I am hoping that this current sermon series of this Fall season will serve many of you in a similar fashion. Having been a veteran – essentially an “upperclassman” student now of learning about following Christ for nearly six decades – perhaps I can pass along to you some study tips about my educational experience. Frankly, my Christian life report card is a mixed bag of grades, though hopefully my GPA (grade point average) is rising through the process that you know from our theological discussions of the past summer could be called “progressive sanctification.”

With each week of this series we have a theme and a statement. So, for this third week and this third of eleven topics …

Theme – An honest self-appraisal leads to an appreciation of grace and a sincere humility.

Statement – If I had not become so aware of the extent of my sin, as well as God’s grace and forgiveness, I might be inclined toward an excess of self-righteousness.

Again, our title this week is: “An Honest Look into the Mirror.”  And that honest look will give back a truthful reflection that we are very broken and damaged people as we navigate our way through this sin-riddled and evil-infested world. We hark back a bit this week to the byline of our Spring series in the Corinthian letters: “I’m a mess, you’re a mess.”

So, you might be thinking, “Randy, what’s up with all the self-loathing? Like, for beginners, what are you talking there about yourself? You don’t have a police record, you never fathered an illegitimate child, the amount of alcohol you’ve drunk in your life would fit inside a 12-ounce soda can, you never smoked a cigarette or reefer, and you were known as a good church boy. And you follow God by rooting for the Orioles and Cowboys.”

But if you knew me as God knows me, you wouldn’t listen to anything I have to say, and TSF would have never hired me in the first place. I deserve nothing. And recalling some of my worst and most stupid life events for which I’ve been forgiven (and surely did not deserve to be) has had – I do believe – the benefit of having taken a big chunk of the self-righteous edge off my life.

None of us are perfect, that is for sure. As the Scriptures say in Romans 3:11,12,23 … None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …

So, there is no news here to any of you that none of us are perfect. We get that; we know that grace is a pretty big deal. But even so, I’m afraid too many of God’s people in the church of Christ don’t truly get just how massive is this forgiveness through the work of Christ. It would be like a person who was severely injured in a crash, was unconscious for weeks, went through multiple surgeries, only to come back to consciousness with the internal sense that he was only asleep for a few hours. And then, beyond that, he was insufficiently grateful for the doctors and nurses and family members who went through so many ordeals for his restoration. He was like … “So what’s the big deal?”

Therefore, when the true nature of forgiveness for any of us is not fully understood, there can be an insufficient appreciation that even goes beyond to some attitudes of self-righteousness and critical judgment upon others who are perhaps often earlier in the sanctification process. It has sometimes even crossed my mind that some folks might have been better served and in a currently humbler position if they actually had sinned more and been forgiven more!

We are going to look today at what Jesus taught about this through two different parables:  A) the unforgiving servant, and B) the Pharisee and the tax collector. And along the way I would like to highlight eight perspectives on sin and forgiveness.

To begin with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, let’s go to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 18, beginning in verse 21 … Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Peter was going here with what was a pretty big number as to times of forgiveness. The current teachings of the rabbis of that era was that you needed to forgive three times, and after that you could take a different stance or lower the boom on someone. But Jesus takes the number and magnifies it higher, the meaning being that it was unlimited. That was radical; and Jesus gives them a picture to help their understanding …

Matthew 18:23 … “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.

So let’s get something of a handle on the size of this debt. One source I researched spoke of a talent in terms of wages, whereas another presented it relative to the weight of gold. The math on these work out to a range of $8-billion by today’s standards, to as high as $18-billion. In any event, it is an absolutely huge debt – big enough to even pay to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, for example.

Perspectives on Sin and Forgiveness …

  1. The debt of our sin before God is a whole lot larger than we tend to remember or imagine.

It is easy to have financial debts pile up on us faster than we realize. But when talking about sin, the problem is even worse than anything we can imagine in the financial world. We were born into it; we inherited the debt from our family heritage – from Adam. Though that may seem unfair, the Bible pictures us as in him, right there in the garden. It was more than just representation; we are seen as guilty participants. And our lifetime of sin demonstrates and proves who we are, adding to a debt that is insurmountable and as incalculable as 10,000 talents.

Matthew 18:25 … And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.

There was no possibility of paying, so the consequences were leveled against him – the loss of family and all that he owned.

  1. We tend to forget the consequences of our outstanding sin debt.

It truly is the loss of everything, yes, the death of everything. The warning to Adam about the tree involved the consequence of a death principle that would result in the loss of life and all that went with it. And worse than anything else was a total separation from God – whose justice and righteousness could not allow sin in His presence without judgment.

Our sin – the debt that we inherited and that we add to by our failures – is a big deal. It is not some sort of cute toddler disobedience that can be solved by shoving a pacifier in our mouth, being sent to our room until it passes, or having our Heavenly Father take a view toward us of … “well, kids will be kids.”  No, it is total rebellion.

Matthew 18:26 … So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

So, the servant has this idea that he is somehow going to pay off the massive debt – the equivalent of billions of dollars.

  1. We tend to forget our total inability to pay off our sin debt.

It is the natural view of mankind that their goodness can outweigh their wrongdoing to the extent that God will have mercy, just because He’s so nice. The fact is that we cannot pay it. The Bible says that the currency we would use – good deeds and works – is not accepted by God as valid. Beyond that, it says that we are DEAD in our trespasses and sins, and we know that dead things don’t give themselves life.

But the master – obviously a picture of God – has had mercy. Jesus in this story, which is of course prior to his work on the cross, does not give the detail of what made the forgiveness of debt possible. But we know that it was the substitutionary payment of Christ on the cross, bearing the consequences of our sin debt, exchanging and imputing back to our account his positive righteousness.

  1. We tend to forget that we had nothing at all to do with the cancellation of our debt.

Ain’t that the truth! It is our tendency to believe that we have some measure of credit to be given to us that we were smart enough to hear and receive the gospel. We were smart consumers to reach out to God and receive the gift – that gospel being presented to us as a present to reach out and receive. And indeed, we speak in those terms to people, praying though that God is in reality doing a work inside them that gives them life so as to reach out and take hold of the gift of eternal life. We didn’t pay the debt or even look for the payment. It found us and we received it; we had nothing to do with making it happen.

Matthew 18:28 … But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.

Here is a different term for currency of that time – the denarii. One of these was equal to about an average day’s wage. So to put that into modern dollars, 100 of these would probably come out to maybe about $15,000. That is a lot less than many billions of dollars when previously talking about the talents.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. The debtor says all the same things as the man did previously before the king. You want reach into the pages of Scripture and slap this fool. That is, until you realize that you might well be that fool by application …

  1. We tend to grossly overestimate the offenses taken against us relative to the outrage of our offenses against a holy God.

It is easy to be angry with people who sin against us in some fashion. We may become quickly outraged. How could this person be this stupid and evil?  Why did they not understand what they did that was so wrong and was such a violation against us?  All the while, we forget that our sin before God was of a far greater magnitude.

Matthew 18:31… When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.

When we fail to forgive and demonstrate rather a high-minded and self-righteous attitude, it is seen by others …

  1. Others are able to see our lack of grace and mercy, making us ineffective.

We are not in isolation. Our ability to effectively serve God and others is ruined by a lack of forgiveness of others and a high-minded attitude about self and our own position. I have seen this over the years when I observe people who look around at the rest of the Christian community, communicating in varied ways, “I’ve really got it together. I’m living life right. I’ve got this thing figured out and the rest of the Christian community around me is just frankly not measuring up to where I am and the efforts that I’m making!”

Matthew 18:32 … Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

This sure sounds like forgiveness is a rather important value to God.

Understand that with the interpretation of parables, it is not that every element of the story has a one-to-one correspondence. If so, some of the parables would make God look terribly vindictive in ways that He is not. But we are to take from them the major ideas and principles – the big picture of the story illustration.

The big picture from this parable is to understand the immensity of what we have received, in order that we may be gracious people to our fellow sinners on planet earth … and so …

  1. An honest look into the mirror should bring us to a position of true humility.

It is all about understanding things correctly. And that brings us quickly to our second parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

In the Roman world, tax collectors were more than mere accountants. They could set the rates to some extent and were well-known to extort, overcharge, and keep a portion for themselves. All of this carried Roman authority. The Romans didn’t care what a collector skimmed off for himself, so long as they got their portion.

So tax collectors could be rich fellows, but also hated fellows for taking advantage of their fellow citizens and countrymen. If you wanted to pick out the most odious character in the land at the time, the local tax collector was about as low as you could go.

And you see that this parable was directed to those who had a high view of themselves – the Pharisees and their brethren …

Luke 18:9 … He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

So what is the essential difference between these two men? It is that the Pharisee compared himself to other men, whereas the tax collector compared himself to the righteous character of God. There’s a big application in that!

And that brings us to a final point …

  1. We must extend grace and mercy to others in the manner such as we have received it.

So how exactly is this?  How and when did we receive grace and mercy?  It says exactly how in Romans 5:8 … but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

That’s great, but what do we do with it? We extend it to others – those people in the body of Christ who, like us, are forgiven sinners who are trying to grow as a disciple. And this too is also in Romans … 15:7 … Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Yes, we need to graciously extend to others what was immensely given to us.

OK, so the big idea is this: you’ve got to give what you’ve gotten. And having been the recipient of a tremendous amount of grace beyond all that we could ever imagine, we need to be quick to give it away to others in serving them.

Knowing that we would tend to be forgetful and to minimize this gift of grace, beginning in the upper room with the disciples, Jesus Christ shared a last supper – instituting the tradition of taking the bread and the cup as a memorial. Memorials are made so that people do not forget an event that happened – most often an event of great sacrifice. The early church gathered for this purpose above all others … above worship, preaching, fellowship, service – the main reason of gathering on a Sunday was to remember the immense sacrifice made to cover an immense amount of sin.

So when we observe the Lord’s Table, we need to be especially cognizant of why we take these elements together. And that awareness begins with an honest look in the mirror.

Week Three Items for Discussion

Have you found it to be your experience that the longer you have lived as a believer and the more you have grown to understand the work of God through Christ, the more you have marveled at the extent of grace?

How do unbelievers underestimate the debt of sin?

Even in the case of born-again Christians, how might such underestimate the extent of their sin and the extent of grace?

Discuss one of the great quotes of our time (by Timothy Keller – pastor in NYC) … “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

Why is it so difficult to forgive other people?  And does the time come when we must forgive people who do not care about seeking our forgiveness or who do not understand the wrong they have done?

Do you think most Christians understand the nature of communion?  Is there confusion about that, even in a strongly evangelical church like our own where we know that the observation is not that which GIVES salvation by participation. Is the observance undervalued?

Just God is Enough

As we head out again today on our spiritual life hike together, let me remind you of that one particular overarching truth that we’ll come back to, over and over – What God wants from me more than anything else is my total trust, confidence, and rest in Him. People have asked me over the years, “What is it that God really, really wants from me.”  And the simple answer is in this statement. He wants us to lean back on Him. He doesn’t want us to follow our natural, earthly inclinations to constantly be running off the path and into the woods, or following side trails that look more interesting or easier to traverse.

Again, each week of this series has a theme and a statement. And for this second week and this second topic …

  • Theme – The reality of a relationship with God grants greater soul sufficiency than great successes or material gains.
  • Statement – I never get anything I really desire until I come to decide that my life in God without that thing is sufficient.

And that leads to today’s title: “Just God is Enough” … and we’ll will be talking today a lot about “desire” and “satisfaction.”

We all have desires, hopes and dreams in life. We strive for them and work to make them a reality. We anticipate these desires to be the root source for our happiness, satisfaction and contentment … our sense of well-being and fulfillment of purpose. Though we may at times possess hopes to achieve things that are not fully honorable, or are the stuff merely of this temporal world, probably most of our aspirations are worthy goals and desires.

But what I am saying with this topic is that, in my experience, God has not tended to quickly or easily and immediately fulfill my hopes in the manner and scope that I would have at first expected or appreciated. Rather, my experience is that God has more often tended to delay the fulfillments, often morphing them and changing them into something a bit different than my brilliant blueprints.

And here again is the big idea: I have learned that God most often brings me to a place where – seeing that the fulfillment of my aspiration is at least delayed if not denied – I need to yield to the viewpoint that even if my dream does not come true, I am deciding that my relationship with God without that fulfillment is enough for my personal satisfaction and contentment. It is often only then – at that point of yielded submission – that the aspiration finds some measure of fulfillment.

Sometimes, it has come true above and beyond all that I could ask or think. Other times, it has been exactly as I hoped (though on His schedule). A few times, I’ve had to learn contentment with a fraction of what I thought I would have wanted. Many times, the dream comes true in a morphed way that I would never have designed; but, when looking back, I can see that God made it better in every way. And, sometimes it does not happen at all, and that is fine.

I will hesitate to fill these weekly messages and writings with a host of personal stories about myself. But most of my desires are in the rather mundane category of those shared by a majority of people…

  • There is that time as we become adults where we wonder about singleness or marriage, and the nature of what family may follow in our lives.
  • We all wonder about what we are to invest our lives into in terms of careers and professions, stepping that back into educational choices toward preparations for such.
  • Many have aspirations about their physical health and well-being, hoping to be able to accomplish activities and bring joy and a sense of accomplishment and vitality. (For me, that has been measured in thousands of miles of activity!)
  • We have hopes about the success of what we do professionally and domestically, both in terms of reward and satisfaction, as well as how it facilitates the provision and accumulation of material assets such as houses, vehicles and other accoutrements of life that bring pleasure and serve our household needs.

I can relate to the big ideas of each of these categories. I will share (today and throughout the series) some stories of my ventures that led into doing local church ministry now for the past 42 years.

In high school, I was thinking about going into either the fields of investments/wealth management or into journalism. But then this music thing happened in my life, especially in my church world … where people encouraged me greatly, along with my family knowing of my biological father’s professional singing career. And the next thing I knew, I was in college in a five-year music program. It went well enough, I guess (though I’ll later in another week share a dramatic story about a fight I had with God over this!); but the further I went into music ministry, the more God was pulling me to be more expansive than just the music part of the church.

He sent me, quite to my surprise, to Dallas to go to seminary to prepare for more of an eventual pastoral calling. And while there, He gave me an incredible opportunity to lead a great music program and be blessed by that. And though I’ve dabbled in the music area over the years, it decreased from 50% of my first job description after the Dallas years, to now only doing the fun kids’ program at TSF each Spring.

But here’s my point: if God had made it clear in my last two years of high school that I was going to end up being a pastor/preacher dude, I would have run screaming in some bizarre direction!  But day to day, experience to experience, He directed the whole way to get me where He wanted me to be.

And honestly, once I got deeply into it, I thought it would be a bigger deal than it has turned out to be. But even so, God has been so good to give me so much – more than most of my peers to be honest. And there is a sufficient contentment in that as I’m kicking now down the homestretch. We’re not the whole race, we’re relay runners; and my great pleasure is to have seen some of the kids through my churches become more talented communicators, musicians, and servants than I could ever be. We need to be faithful where God places us in the vineyard.

More than a few biblical characters went through experiences that were confusing to them as they sought to apply their energies to the tasks that seemed obvious to them relative to what God should have had them do. And many of them had to learn to be faithful in lesser ways than they might have originally imagined, as God had plans for the larger fulfillment to be accomplished through others who were to come after them.

And today, I’d like us to look quickly at how David was such a fellow, as we turn to 1 Chronicles to see him wrestle through what would be a personally unfulfilled desire to build the temple of the Lord – a permanent place for God’s worship to be centered.

1 Chronicles 28:1David assembled at Jerusalem all the officials of Israel, the officials of the tribes, the officers of the divisions that served the king, the commanders of thousands, the commanders of hundreds, the stewards of all the property and livestock of the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty men and all the seasoned warriors. 2 Then King David rose to his feet and said: “Hear me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God, and I made preparations for building. 3 But God said to me, ‘You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood.’ 4 Yet the Lord God of Israel chose me from all my father’s house to be king over Israel forever. For he chose Judah as leader, and in the house of Judah my father’s house, and among my father’s sons he took pleasure in me to make me king over all Israel. 5 And of all my sons (for the Lord has given me many sons) he has chosen Solomon my son to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel. 6 He said to me, ‘It is Solomon your son who shall build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father. 7 I will establish his kingdom forever if he continues strong in keeping my commandments and my rules, as he is today.’ 8 Now therefore in the sight of all Israel, the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God, observe and seek out all the commandments of the Lord your God, that you may possess this good land and leave it for an inheritance to your children after you forever.

David’s Charge to Solomon …

1 Chron. 28:9 – “And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will cast you off forever. 10 Be careful now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a house for the sanctuary; be strong and do it.”

11 Then David gave Solomon his son the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat; 12 and the plan of all that he had in mind for the courts of the house of the Lord, all the surrounding chambers, the treasuries of the house of God, and the treasuries for dedicated gifts; 13 for the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, and all the work of the service in the house of the Lord; for all the vessels for the service in the house of the Lord …………

1 Chron. 28:20-21 – Then David said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous and do it. Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed, for the Lord God, even my God, is with you. He will not leave you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished. 21 And behold the divisions of the priests and the Levites for all the service of the house of God; and with you in all the work will be every willing man who has skill for any kind of service; also the officers and all the people will be wholly at your command.”

David’s Charge to the people of Israel …

1 Chron. 29:1-2 … And David the king said to all the assembly, “Solomon my son, whom alone God has chosen, is young and inexperienced, and the work is great, for the palace will not be for man but for the Lord God. So I have provided for the house of my God, so far as I was able, the gold for the things of gold, … silver … bronze … iron … wood … quantities of all sorts of stones and marble …

Then we read a few verses later that tremendous amounts of gold and valuables were given by many people from the varied families and houses of Israel. And David finishes with a prayer …  

1 Chron. 29:18-19 … O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our fathers, keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts toward you. 19 Grant to Solomon my son a whole heart that he may keep your commandments, your testimonies, and your statutes, performing all, and that he may build the palace for which I have made provision.”

This chapter finishes with Solomon being named king, the text speaking of God blessing him with prosperity and greatness beyond any others. And finally, the chapter concludes by speaking of David being blessed to have been king for 40 years and dying of an old age in great honor, and dare we say the satisfaction of having done his job well, even with his imperfections. In fact, in Acts 13:36 it says of David that … David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers …

Is that not what we all should most want: that it would be said of us that we served God’s purpose for us in our generation?

As we think about this passage today, let’s summarize it with four statements about the attitude of David toward God’s different plan

  • David learned that God’s plan was different than his personal ambition.
  • Though God’s plan was less glorious personally than David’s desire, he accepted it.
  • David used the passing years of his life to make preparations for Solomon and others to accomplish God’s plan successfully.
  • David experienced pleasure and satisfaction that carried him through his final years and to the very end.

Concerning this issue of “desire,” I think we can state three biblical truths …

  1. God truly does desire to fulfill our desires.

God is not in the business of frustrating His people or ignoring them. His nature is to be gracious, yet to be so in wise fashion, just as we would do so for our own children.

Psalm 145:19 … He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.

Psalm 103:2,5 … Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits … who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Proverbs 11:23 … The desire of the righteous ends only in good, the expectation of the wicked in wrath.

  1. God desires to guide and inform our desires.

God is not simply going to give us things we want, merely because we want them. He wants to have a part in the formulation of our desires. So God should be in it from creation, and all the way through to final fulfillment.

Galatians 5:16-17 … But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

Philippians 2:13 … for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

  1. God desires to be our desire.

It is not about us and the mere stuff of this world; God wants our values to make Him to be our ultimate desire. This is our resource from beginning to end.

Psalm 37:3-4 … Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

So there is a key passage for sure. But how do we delight in the Lord and know and follow His desires?

How do we make God our desire?  

  1. Get to know Him. This is accomplished through the Word, through studies, and through spiritual disciplines.
  2. Do what you know to be the next right thing to do. This is much of what was discussed last week … to sit in the saddle and be faithful in the small things of life, day to day, moment to moment.
  3. Trust Him fully to supply your desires and your needs. Don’t be running ahead of God and trying to make everything happen right now. Yes, be faithful and diligent. But don’t be in a panic mode.
  4. Be content with His supply as truly sufficient for your every need today. We don’t need next year’s security today. The contentment you exhibit today has the ability to accumulate along with God’s sufficient supply in your life as the days go by. And after an extended time, you are able to look back with amazed gratitude at the multitudes of ways that God led and provided for what were, in reality (but not always what you thought) all of your daily needs. You find great pleasure in this faithfulness, and it is an amazing thing to see.

It’s actually not that complicated. Knowing God and having Him as our faithful, eternal Father is truly enough; everything else is gravy!

Week Two Items for Discussion

Have you had experiences in your Christian life where it feels like God is delaying the fulfillment of what you are confident are legitimate dreams and aspirations?

Can you relate to today’s theme and big idea that your dreams have never really been fulfilled until you came to a point of acceptance and submission that God may not want to fulfill them, and that is now OK with you?

Have you had certain dreams and aspirations altered by God, and now you are able to testify from the other side that it really is better they did not transpire as you originally hoped?

Can you name some rather entirely unfulfilled hopes? How might God use an unfulfilled dream to position you to help others accomplish that same worthy goal?

Are you able to testify as to how God’s morphing of your plans – making them either bigger or smaller – has resulted in your greater personal satisfaction and contentment?

How does this entire discussion affect the way you are making plans and sorting out aspirations for the remaining years of your life?

“Just Sittin’ in the Saddle”

(This is the first of nine weeks of devotionals on Mondays. Each will be an edited manuscript of the sermon content, with discussion questions at the end.)

Imagine you were going to go on a long hike – a multi-week adventure of even hundreds of miles. And, of course, living where we do, our minds would immediately go to the longest hike in the world – that of the Appalachian Trail.

This is not something you would just decide to do one day, and then head out for a couple of months on the 2160-mile path through 14 states. No, you would want to research such a venture; you would look for a guidebook – particularly one that was written by someone who has already done the distance and is familiar with the terrain and all its challenges.

A quick research online found that there is a vast array of guidebooks to help people traverse the Appalachian Trail successfully.  It was a very simple online search to find a plethora of such resources that are available. Taking on a monstrous endeavor like this, you just know that there are going to be some difficult challenges – ups and downs, rugged terrain, the complications of where to camp or find shelters along the way, and the reality of needing to replenish supplies.  And then there is the issue of adverse weather, as not every day is going to be ideal. So you would want advice from a trail veteran about what do you do when it rains or snows.

The Christian life is not dissimilar to such a high-mileage, multi-state hike like the AT.  Many speakers and writers have picked up on this “hiking” illustration, one of them being the well-known Christian writer Eugene Peterson who wrote a book entitled “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”

And over a period of nine weeks, I would like to address with you a total of 11 topics that have settled in my mind as categorical truths from my decades of experiences on this long walk in the same direction of following Christ. Perhaps these observations and perspectives might help you as you traverse similar terrain upon your Christian life venture.

As we head out on our hike together, let me draw your attention to one particular overarching truth that we’ll come back to, over and over – What God wants from me more than anything else is my total trust, confidence, and rest in Him. He wants us to lean back on Him. He doesn’t want us to follow our natural, earthly (dare I say “sinful”) inclinations to constantly be running off the path and into the woods … or following side trails that look more interesting or easier to traverse.

Each week will also include a theme and a statement. For this first week and this first topic …

  • Theme – Endurance and routine faithfulness, though not dramatic, is honored by God over the long haul.
  • Statement – 95% of faithfulness is just sitting in the saddle and continuing to ride the horse.

I’m not a Pentecostal, not close!  But even I would wish to experience big, bold, miraculous appearances of God all over the place, but it doesn’t happen most of the time. We think Bible characters had God hanging out and talking to them every day. But, in fact, there were often long stretches of time between divine appearances.

So I believe that most days, even for the great characters of the Scriptures, were rather mundane – days where it was necessary to recall previous promises of God and to live in faith and obedience, even when not everything in life was going perfectly well.

Likewise then for us, we should not expect that, simply because we know Christ and are in an eternal relationship with God through our sin debt being paid, that God should make all the circumstances of our lives to be happy. The place where that happens is called “heaven.”  And though we live in another “H”-town – this place called Hagerstown – you might have noticed that it is a bit short on pearly gates and streets of gold (though Potomac Street there in the “arts district” of downtown does sparkle!).

Yes, we may have some incredible life experiences where we see God show up in some amazing, even miraculous, sort of way. For many people, that was their experience in coming to Christ in salvation; there was an amazing intervention of God that changed everything. And even for those of us who had a conversion experience that is less dramatic, we can look back and see the multi-faceted, gracious hand of God in varied circumstances and coincidences that positioned us to hear the gospel and respond in trust.

Along the road of the Christian life, there are occasional times where God’s divine intervention is clearly evident – some moment, some encounter, some close call, some fortuitous circumstance, some person who spoke to us a powerful word that was as if God sent them (because, actually, He did!).  And you glory in those moments; you never forget them.

But still, those moments – so awesome, amazing and miraculous – are not often weekly experiences … or monthly … or even yearly. Those events can be separated by years of rather mundane living. It is kind of like investing. Sometimes you might buy shares of a particular company, and soon thereafter is a rapid rise in value and a great increase in your investment. But that is rare. More often, portfolio growth of investments comes from a distribution of resources that realize gains, almost imperceptibly, over a very long period of time.

And that is how our “faith investments” should be seen. It is not so often about the miracle of the moment, but rather the day to day trust and obedience of doing the next thing – doing the right thing, avoiding the wrong thing … and doing it over and over, day after day.

And so, my title for this first theme is “Just Sittin’ in the Saddle” … yep, again, 95% of faithfulness is just sittin’ in the saddle and riding the horse.

So Randy, you might ask, are there any Bible examples of this that you can point to?  Well, let’s go for the grand slam on the issue of faith, the veritable “father of faith”, and look at the life of that fellow named Abram … actually, Abraham.

We really don’t need to go much farther than his name! It means, “father of many” … like the father of a multitude of people. But he would go for many years without seeing a child born. Imagine when he went to the bank and the teller would see his name and ask him, “So, how many children do you have?”  And he had to stammer … “Well, actually I don’t have any children.”

Surely there were more than a few awkward times and unusual events in the life of Abraham. Let’s take a few moments to quickly review the big events of his life. His calling from God is recorded for us in Genesis 12:1-5 …

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.

It had said in verse 30 of the previous chapter about his wife … Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

So, quickly, let us rehearse the major movements and events of Abraham’s life over the next several decades …

Abraham journeys on toward ultimately coming into the land of Canaan. He was very wealthy, with large herds. Conflict arises between the shepherds of Abraham and those of his nephew Lot, and Abraham proposes that they separate. Lot chooses the better and more fertile areas. And after they depart, God says again to Abraham in Gen. 13:14-17 …

“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”

God says essentially… “Abraham, sit in the saddle, ride the horse, trust me.”

The situation of Lot living near pagan cities turns out poorly for he and his family, especially his salty wife. He is taken captive by some people from the East, and Abraham has to go and rescue him … being blessed by Melchizedek on the way home.

Abraham continues to wait. He sees no offspring, fearing his household will have to pass on to his primary servant. But God again repeats the promise, again telling him to sit in the saddle.

Now 11 years go by. Sarah is impatient and has a plan with her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.  A son is born, named Ishmael, but this is not to be the fulfillment of the promise. Between the end of Genesis 16 and the beginning of chapter 17, anther 13 years have passed, and Abraham is now 99 years old. God again comes to Abraham with the promise of a son to be born the next year. Abraham laughs, Sarah (age 90) laughs … but God’s word comes true.  Isaac is born.

Even so, there are multiple troubles and conflicts with varied people groups in the land. There is more difficulty with Lot, relative to Sodom and Gomorrah. But Abraham does what is right in varied steps large and small, trusting God in all things. He is sitting in the saddle.

And then the greatest challenge comes with the calling to go and offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. This will be the major theme of a later piece of this series. But again, Abraham obeys, believing that even if he is to be sacrificed, God will raise him up and thus fulfill His promise of a great nation through this offspring. Abraham stays on the horse.

After another couple decades, Sarah dies. Where is she to be buried?  Abraham has no ground over which he has ownership. He has been living all these years in the Promised Land of Canaan as a nomad. He then buys a piece of ground – a cave – for burial, and this will be the only ground he ever owns in the vast land promised to him and his descendants.

He next makes arrangements through servants to secure a wife for his son Isaac, and Rebekah becomes his bride … later bearing a set of twins, Jacob and Esau. More years pass, and Abraham dies at the recorded age of 175. His family was growing, though he himself did not see it that much personally. The story goes on to speak of the expanse of the nation of Israel, ultimately with the family moving to Egypt at the time of Joseph’s ascendancy there. The size of the family at that time totaled 70 people … 400 years later, at the time of the Exodus back to the Promised Land, it numbered about 2 million.  None of that would have happened if Abraham had not been faithful to “sit in the saddle and ride the horse.”

So let’s summarize with some evaluations about the life of Abraham …

  1. The big “God events” in his life did not begin until he was already an older man.

OK, so it is true that people are recorded in the Scriptures as living longer lifespans than we know. But even so, since Abraham lived especially long, he was at least what we would know as middle-aged to late middle-aged at the time God called him.

Why did God choose him?  We don’t know … why does God choose any of us?  He was from an idol-worshipping family, most of whom he left behind. He departed one of the most prosperous cities of the ancient world, doing so at the peak of his life and business prosperity. God said essentially to “get on the horse and ride.”

  1. He was called out of a pagan culture and lived his life surrounded by the same.

This was a total life change. And it was not like there were other people on similar journeys with whom he could associate. There was no church/synagogue/small group Bible study. Yes, we can feel isolated at times in our faith, but imagine how it was for Abram.

  1. Abraham didn’t really know where he was going when he departed his homeland, and he didn’t really get all that was promised when he got there.

There are times when I’d like to just get up and go somewhere for a while, but I have a place to come back to. Abraham had immediate family, servants, herds upon herds … and surely to hundreds of local acquaintances he had said, “I’m going somewhere; I don’t know where; I’ll just know when I get there and God tells me.”  Yep, riding the horse.

  1. God did not “show up” every day … every month … nor even every year.

We talked about this a good bit already … like the 13 years where apparently nothing really happened. Don’t you imagine Abraham really wondered during that time if he was doing the right things and had truly heard the voice of God. But he remained in the saddle.

  1. He was far from perfect and had numerous failures requiring a “faith recovery.”

We know how imperfect we are, and it is a great encouragement to us to see that some of the best characters of Scripture also had their failures. But we should see from Abraham that it never deterred him from ultimate and final faith in the word of God in his life. If you fall out of the saddle, the right thing to do is to get back into it and ride on.

  1. He lived in a suspended state of “dream fulfillment.”

Imagine the thousands of days of being in the fields with the herds, of seeing the mountains and valleys all around him, all of them promised to be his possession and that of his descendants … a family he did not really have, as he stood upon dirt he did not own. The dreams, the promises – they were awesome!  But there was no reality to support them. But, he endured … in the saddle.

  1. He endured through many “it doesn’t make sense” circumstances that crossed his path.

This too will be its own theme later in this series. But Abraham had many experiences that didn’t make sense, especially that command to sacrifice his only son. And he wondered also why Ishmael could not just be the heir … that boy he loved so much. And why did God make him wait, year after year after year?

  1. The reason Abraham never completely crashed was because he had his eyes on bigger and better stuff.

If Abraham only had in mind what he could see, he might well have been overcome by doubts and difficulties. But he ultimately remained in the saddle of faithfulness because he had a bigger picture in mind. How do we know this?  Because this aspect of his life and character is written about in Hebrews 11. Here is essentially God’s summary evaluation of Abraham’s life (11:8-16 …

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Abraham could stay in the saddle because he had the bigger of picture of eternity informing his entire values system. The lands promised to his family descendants … cool stuff!  But it was all merely temporal and non-eternal. He was not just a nomad physically; he also was spiritually. And that is an attitude that makes all the difference!

And then one final evaluative point to make about him …

  1. Because he never succumbed to becoming a quitter, he earned the biblical names of “servant of God” (Gen. 26:24), “friend of God,” (James 2:23), “father of Israel” (Matthew 3:9) and “father of all who believe” (Romans 4).

Notice the increase in value of these names … Servant of God (that’s nice) / friend of God (that’s more intimate) / father of Israel (therefore of God’s redemptive plan) / father of all who believe (he really is, as the old kids song says, “Father Abraham”).

He is all these things because, even with his imperfections and mistakes, and all the crazy experiences of life, he rode the horse of faithfulness.

This is the point for us to take away: Getting to where we want to go … completing the long, long trail of the Christian life that we are upon … is not about the accumulation of many fabulously great moments, but rather is about the routine faithfulness in the small things of daily life. And these small things of obedience and eternal values add up and reproduce, even when it does not appear that much is happening, and even when we are discouraged and downhearted.

Keep doing the right things as you learn what are the right things from the right discipline of learning them from the Word of God. I would encourage you to regularly be thinking about how to tie even the mundane things of life into the stuff of eternal values, especially through the relationships of family.

We are like seeds, like trunks of trees.  We may not see the fruits or experience all the harvest. But we can live rightly and look to invest in others. They will shoot out branches from us, with stems and leaves and blossoms … and ultimately flowers and fruits. We can only mess it up by getting discouraged and getting off the horse. Stay in the saddle. Stay planted.

I’ve gotten discouraged so many times. I’ve tried to quit many times. I’ve tried to change ministries, go to secular careers, whatever. But God has never let me do it. He regularly has made it clear in those darkest hours that I’m to shut up, sit in the saddle and keep riding the horse.

So keep a focus on eternity and building the kingdom of God. And though sometimes it feels like the cinches of the saddle have loosened and I’m 180 degrees off from where I should be – meaning I’m under the horse and riding belly to belly – I’ve found that God is faithful. And looking back, He has always had me in the right place; and though I thought I wanted to be somewhere else, I rejoice that He met my every need all along the way. And there is fulfillment and soul satisfaction in that.

No, God has never failed me. My role is this: to remember (the theme) … Endurance and routine faithfulness, though not dramatic, is honored by God over the long haul.

Week One Items for Discussion

What do you find in the story of Abraham that particularly gives you encouragement in walking the Christian life?

Share some experiences in your life where you find yourself somewhat lost in the routine and the mundane, perhaps wondering where God is at.

How might you turn these times of waiting and wondering into that which has eternal value and merit?

How does having an eternal perspective help you to have a healthier current perspective about the things and the events of this world?

Have you had Christian life experiences in the past where you felt that God was not appearing to be doing much to help you, but that you are now able to see His ultimate timing and direction proving His faithfulness to you?

How might you encourage others to sit in the saddle and ride the horse?