(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 …
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 …
- 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?