“No Pain, No Gain” and “No Way to Avoid Getting Shot”

I think that most of you know that, for many years now, I have served at the Antietam National Battlefield as a certified guide. There I will occasionally meet with guests of all sorts – from families to a busload of college history majors – and provide for them a tour experience of seeing and learning about the bloodiest day in American history.

The Antietam Battlefield Guides was the vision of a friend of mine, and I was part of the original group of a handful of guys who worked with the National Park Service to establish the program. Years later, there are about 20 people who have this certification. It is very, very rigorous, with extensive reading lists, a very long written test, and beyond that the necessity to put together and present a sample tour with the park historian.

When a new person is in the pipeline to gain the accreditation, they are matched up with several of the veteran guides to sort of help shepherd them through the process. At the beginning of the program some years ago, a couple of the other founding members had more experience with guiding people unofficially, and they shared observations with me that were so helpful – including many tips that I still use to this day.

And now, having gone around that Battlefield about 800 times with groups of people, though some folks still surprise me once in a while with what they’re thinking or asking, I pretty much know what folks are going to say or ponder at every point. For example, I know that many people are going to comment on the unique wooden fences at the one point where we drive between them just beyond the observation tower. I know that at the Burnside Bridge, people are going to look down from the hillside at the shallow waters of the Antietam and wonder why the Union Army’s 9th Corps troops didn’t just wade across the stream (not as easy as it looks – steep, muddy banks). I have now accumulated dozens of these experiences I am able to share with a fledgling guide as to what to expect, and where.

This is an illustration of what it is that I am attempting to do with our fall sermon series. My purpose, as a veteran guide who has been wandering around for years now through the battlefield of life, is to share with you a series of major observations about seeking to live productively for God in a world that does not often honor that endeavor. There are very predictable experiences you are guaranteed to encounter, yet at the same time also many moments and times that are terribly confusing … so I’m saying that the confusion is predictable as well!

This week and next week are a bit different among the nine Sundays of this series. We are presenting 11 total topics in nine weeks, so this week and next week are the two times we need to double-up on subjects.

And so that leads to a title for “part A” for today: “No Pain, No Gain”.

Theme – difficult times become the seed bed for best spiritual growth

Statement – My greatest times of growth tend to follow my greatest times of pain.

Let’s begin with this big idea: That thing in your life – that pain, that persistent problem, that unending frustration, the thing you most want to be gotten rid of – is actually the most useful thing you actually should most want to value and cling to. You want to hold onto this because it is the thing that makes God most dear to you and that will make you most useful to Him.

The truth of this idea comes from a well-known passage in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul uses a phrase that has become commonplace in the English language (though few likely know it is from the Scriptures) … “a thorn in the flesh.”  Paul has one of these, saying in 12:7 – “… a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”

As is so often true, to understand this comment, we need to go to the broader context, beginning in 2 Corinthians 12:1.  This is in the midst of an extended section where Paul is defending himself against a host of accusers who say that he is not truly to be trusted or followed as God’s unique messenger of the gospel. And so, Paul is relating a list of his most significant spiritual experiences that could not be denied. And in doing this, Paul uses here a unique literary technique to step back from speaking about himself in the first person, to using the third person. It would be like me saying, “TSF has this awesome lead pastor. He is this super likeable and handsome guy with boundless energy and youthful enthusiasm!”  And all of that is, of course, OBVIOUS; but I might not like to boldly declare “I am so awesome, likeable, handsome and athletic” … though of course it is all very true!

2 Corinthians 12:1 … I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.  Paul had some amazing experiences that he could talk about – stuff not seen and known by others, especially his critics.

And here comes his drop into the 3rd person …

2 Corinthians 12:2 … I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

What Paul is surely referring to here is an event that happened on a missionary journey with Barnabas in the town of Lystra. They had performed a healing, and the crowds deemed them to be Gods. And the missionary duo had to stop them from offering sacrifices to them as such. And then, in the next verse it says … Acts 14:19 … But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city…

Was Paul dead and resurrected, or just unconscious from fastballs to the head-bone?  We don’t know, Paul wasn’t sure; but in any event, it was a miracle. During those moments, Paul had a profound spiritual experience about which he could not relate the details.

2 Corinthians 12:5 … On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.

Paul could have boasted in a big way about this experience. It would have been amazing beyond imagination and slain the credentials of his accusers. I think here of infamous line of the great baseball player, Dizzy Dean, who justified his braggadocio by saying, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up; you’re just telling the truth!”  But Paul was hesitant to do so, as it would be so amazing as to have people think of him more highly than would be proper.

But to guarantee that he would not be arrogant, to remind him of the source of his authority and capabilities, something else was given to Paul …

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 … So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

So, what was this “thorn” given to Paul?  Over the years, commentators have had endless guesses. The word in Greek – skolops – speaks of a stake, or a pointed object. One view is that Paul had an eye condition that made him a bit hideous to look at (supported by a time where Paul talked about writing with large letters). Another view is that he had a speech impediment (supported by the statements of critics that he was not impressive in appearance or speech). Others have seen it in more immaterial or spiritual ways – like a psychological condition such as depression or a dark spiritual presence that was constantly nearby.

Whatever it was, Paul would wish to see it removed and prayed intensely for such. But it remained. John Calvin put some words into Paul’s mouth to describe this, “To me there has been given a goad to jab at my flesh for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptations according to the flesh … The Lord has provided me with the best remedy against undue elation, for while I am taken up with seeing that Satan does not take advantage of me, I am kept safe from pride.”  And then Calvin gives this illustration … “If anyone’s face is beaten black and blue, shame prevents him from showing himself to others, and so when we labor under any kind of infirmity we should remember that we are, as it were, being buffeted by the Lord … so that we may seek humility … therefore let all godly men take note of what a dreadful poison is pride … the first cause of man’s ruin.”

But whatever this was in Paul’s life, it required him to be constantly dependent upon the Lord. God’s grace in it made him sufficient, the inference being that he would be insufficient without God’s grace. Hence, what seems like a pain, is actually a great gain … all because of our need to stay tethered to God. And again, remember the overarching truth of this series?… that what God wants from us more than anything else is our dependence upon Him.

So I would suspect that many of you have already identified something in your life that is your thorn/goad (KJV). How do you deal with it? Let’s summarize with four statements:

1)    Your first reaction will be to desire to have the thorn situation removed.

2)    You will next learn something you did not previously know and could not have learned without the thorn.

3)    Your perspective upon the thorn will change as you discern the divine, higher-purpose purpose for it.

4)    You will eventually be thankful for your thorn gift, seeing that God’s power through you is best displayed upon a backdrop of your weakness.

 

Topic #2 for today … “No Way to Avoid Getting Shot” (Now isn’t that cheerful!?)

Theme – the inevitability of conflict, criticism and hardships – even from fellow Christians

Statement – When I am engaged in an active life of obedience and service, I am sure to be criticized, condemned and run over by some number of other people.

Many of you who will remember or have seen the famous picture of “Tank Man.”  This fellow stood in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests by force. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank’s attempted path around him. He was eventually led away from the scene. The incident was filmed and smuggled out to a worldwide audience. Time Magazine in 2016 listed the photograph as among “The Top 100 Most Influential Images of All Time.”

Living for Christ in a world that hates the objective truth of the gospel (and even sometimes when serving God in the Christian community when you must take a stand that is unpopular with some people) can be a lot like standing in front of a tank. And sometimes the tank will seek to go around you, but sometimes the thing is going to roll right over top of you!  But taking the stand is the right thing to do, and getting run over is something that WILL happen … and it hurts … but you’ve got to fix up your wounds and move on.

Actually, this topic is less about action than it is about perspective and calibration – understanding what is normal. Like when you have a new-to-you car, and you hear a particular tick-tick sound in the motor and you wonder about it. But when checking it out with a mechanic you find that it is simply the normal sound this model of engine makes.

Opposition is rather normal. It happened to Jesus, so it will surely happen to us. And it happens especially in a world where down is up, and up is down; yet it also happens even within the community of faith at times.

One of our best study series in recent years was one that we did on 1 Peter, called “Chosen Strangers” … that we are indeed divinely chosen by God’s love, yet living in this world as aliens and strangers. And that leads to the first of five quick statements to make about the inevitabilities of difficulties and conflicts …

1)         Remember that you’re an alien in this world.

1 Peter 2:11-12 … Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Both words – sojourners and exiles – speak of the idea of being an alien or foreigner who is only temporarily in residence in a strange place.

I do enjoy travelling in different places, especially Europe. You see so many unique and different things, but the whole time you are there, you never really feel completely “at home.” So many things are different that there is a sort of constant reminder that you are an alien to that culture, a stranger. And that is what we are in this world; we’re never really completely at home. And that is because our true citizenship is in another place.

And in that verse 12 we can see a second point to be made on suffering and opposition …

2)         Remember that you’re a witness of the gospel.

The word for “Gentiles” is ethnos, speaking of the varied people groups (in context) who don’t know Jesus as Savior, but who might be influenced to see a completely different life principle that is dynamic within those who name Christ as Lord. The natural reaction when falsely accused is to fight back just as hard. But when someone answers with kindness and grace – as Christ did – it displays a categorical difference that is attractive and life-giving. And perhaps some may be influenced toward life, even to be numbered among God’s people at the end of time.

3)         Remember that you have an example of endurance in Jesus Christ.

Notice here in verses 19ff. that the term endure/endurance is mentioned three times, using two different original language words – the one means to continue to carry a heavy burden, while the other means to linger/remain/not flee …

1 Peter 2:19 … For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

And again, this is what Jesus did. And to be able to do what he did is said here to be a grace – a gift – in our lives … to be so identified with him that such events would happen to us.

And this is for us an example – a Greek word used only here in the New Testament. It was a written copy of all the letters of an alphabet, given to beginners as an aid in learning to draw them. And that is what Jesus has given to us relative to endurance through times of opposition!  An example that we may copy.

4)         Remember that your suffering is a normal experience.

1 Peter 4:12 … Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

The fiery trial – Peter could have meant this very, very literally. About this time was the persecution under Nero … with Christians being covered with tar and burned – as Nero used this despised element of society to blame for the big fire that burned Rome. Possibly this practice might go empire-wide?  Maybe that is reading too much into a mere metaphor, but the persecution was real and pervasive. So yes, it’s normal, always has been, always will be.

“Rejoice” … this shows identification with Christ. You really are part of the family, the fellowship … which is what the word “share” means – is the Greek term “koinonia.”

“Rejoice and be glad” – at the coming of Christ, as it gives more reason to look forward to the “apocalypse”… the word used here.

“insulted” … “glory rests” … Those with a Jewish background would particularly read these verses and think of the Old Testament accounts of God’s presence descending and being around them as a cloud. The idea is to know of the presence of the Lord around you, even when the worst things are happening, and you are in the target zone of the enemy.

5)         Remember that you are blessed.  (That is not natural, but it is the prescribed perspective to maintain.)

1 Peter 4:15 … But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.

This means to be blessed and pleased to be called a “Christian.”  This is one of only three times the word is used in the Bible. Likely, the early first-century usage of the term was completely derisive.  Rather, God’s people should hear that name used of them as something that led them to praising God.

As I said about this second topic today, it is less about action than it is about perspective and calibration – understanding what is normal.

I’ve allowed myself to have been too wounded over the years by those who oppose, be they from the outside or the inside. After all, I’m completely positive that my heart is filled with good intents and my best efforts … so why the hostility and opposition?  If I’m as bad as some of these folks have said that I am, I should be afraid to ride alone in the car with myself!  But it truly helps to know that it is really very normal. Compared to Paul and Peter and the NT writers, I don’t have many problems. And as I’ve spent time with other pastors – such as in the Team 500 gatherings of EFree pastors of churches our size – I hear their war stories, and mine are rather bland and mundane by comparison. I’ve actually had a rather charmed ministry life.

So know that difficult times – both the thorns in life and the opposition from those who don’t understand truth and our calling in Christ Jesus – are gifts of grace. They enable us to grow personally, and they enable us also to endure and live before others in the example of Christ. It is all very normal.

Week Six Items for Discussion

–       Can you look back over your life and identify something that you’ve had to live with and endure … something (like a thorn in the flesh) that you now understand has brought you closer to God and more effective in service?

–       Could you name some others (perhaps well-known people in the Christian world) who have expanded ministries and impacts they would never have had apart from a severe “thorn” issue?

–       Can you think of something in your life now that you really, really wish could be changed, removed, healed, etc.?  How might you see a way toward trusting God to allow you to serve Him better, even with or through that residual difficulty?

–       Do you feel like you are living in the world as an alien or stranger?  Does this seem to be increasingly your observation and experience as the systems of this world coarsen?

–       Does the perspective on suffering, persecution and conflict as a normal experience when being a person who takes a stand for Christ and for truth help you to be more at peace about it?

–       Have you had opposition and conflict from even within the Christian community?  Have you found that hurtful?  How might you successfully move on from that experience?

–       Are you encouraged toward “endurance” through these themes?

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“Torched Dreams and Empty Hands”

This year on December 26th – the day after Christmas – will mark the 15th anniversary of the great Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This ranks as the third-largest earthquake ever registered and the deadliest by far in human loss, due to tidal waves impacting high-density populations along coastlines – the death toll approaching 228,000 people. Over 1.5-million people were displaced.

Among the 14 countries affected was Thailand, where we have our missionary friends Dean and his wife. And as the news of this disaster was reaching the USA, we were gathering for church on a Sunday morning. I remember speaking of it to the congregation and praying about it, particularly remembering our friends there. Before long, we heard that they were safe, though their ministry lives were immediately changed.

Dean is from the Harrisburg area and was a great wrestler – going to Penn State University to compete, and it was during this time he came to know Christ. His father was involved with the leadership a community college in a big way; and from age 15, Dean was forced to work every summer and all holiday breaks on maintenance at this local school. He said …

We were paid less than minimum wage and I complained a lot. From age 15 to when I got married at 24 years old (with the exception of two years with Campus Crusade in Asia after college) I worked my butt off to please my dad.  I did learn a lot of cool stuff from the senior maintenance guys and my dad. They all liked me and tried to teach me stuff.  I learned a lot about small engine and car/truck engine maintenance. I learned to drive a Bobcat and operate a small dump truck.  I learned to weld, pull electric wires and hook them up.  I learned all about paint, both water-based and oil-based.  I learned all kinds of wood shop and carpentry skills.  I even learned how to mix and pour concrete with rebar.

But Dean totally hated everything about it. He was wanting to move on in life to his God-calling as a missionary, which at last happened at age 29. He and his wife served in both the Philippines and Thailand, planting churches and training local leadership.

But he often looked back and wondered why God delayed getting him started into that work and wasted all that time doing those irritating and menial tasks. It did not make sense; he was trying to get out, move on, and get to work doing the stuff that lasts for eternity!

But when the tsunami happened, everything changed. He helped form the Thai Christian Foundation and contracted with the Thai government to rebuild 92 houses in two villages. Dean was in charge of the whole thing – mixing cement with rebar columns, making wood forms, welding steel roofs together. And just as in his past, there was a Bobcat and dump truck involved! He supervised 50 Thai workers along with 800 volunteers who came from around the world.

Over those 18 months, the best thing was also to begin two churches in those two villages. How was he able to accomplish these huge tasks?  It was because of the many, varied skills he learned over those presumably wasted years with the community college maintenance department. God knew what He was doing – imagine that. Dean said, “God knew I needed all that and made sure I got it without me knowing how practical that seemingly wasted experience would prove to be in my 40s. At the time, I hated that job and considered it beneath me, especially the pay.”

Yes, God knows what He is doing. He has the bigger picture of our lives than we do. He is able to see what is, for us, the future; and He is faithful in light of that to superintend our present … all for our good and His glory. But on the flat and linear plain of this life, it may not look that way to us; in fact, it may look just the opposite.

The theme this week is: Theme – trusting God through disappointments and periods of waiting. And the summary statement is: God tends to burn my dreams in front of me before giving them back to me in the precise way He desires them to be expressed.

I told you a story about one of our missionaries – surely for him, it was the one time in particular where he has seen this happen in his life. And additionally, I know I am repeating a story I’ve told probably two other times in sermons, even as recently as two years ago, I think. But these are my reflections, and the following was a big teaching moment in my life.

I had mentioned in the first sermon of this series that it was not my idea or chief desire in life to go toward church ministry and the pastorate. The door most open to me as a high school senior was to pursue music education at a Christian college, so I committed that far only. And I can remember very clearly one day where it hit me that this could lead to a church ministry/pastoral profession. It was on the par 3, third hole at the Washington, NJ country club; and I remember thinking that there was little else I wouldn’t rather do – how that would be such an awful life!

And then there was the prescribed program at my college – it was a five-year, double major in Bible and music … not four years. Already my life was looking to be taking on an extra year in the start-up phase … ugh!  But I did get a wife at the end of the fourth year!

And I was surprised in college to find that I liked the Bible and theology departments more than the music major, but I knew that somehow the music thing was still going to be a part of my future. But I applied to the premier grad school that was respected by my college – Dallas Theological Seminary – and was actually surprised to get an acceptance to this selective institution. And a year later, we were living in Texas.

Our move to Dallas was quite an adventure!  We shipped some of our things by a freight company, but we were so broke that we moved a bunch of stuff ourselves. My father-in-law pulled a trailer behind his van, and we drove our packed-out 1968 Rambler Rebel station wagon. The trip was treacherous. The trailer broke loose at one point (in Winchester, VA) and actually passed dad’s van while sliding down the road. It also had multiple hitch and tire problems. So many things went wrong in transit that, when we at last arrived in Dallas at our destination (briefly living with some family who were already there), I completely broke down into tears from the stress of it all.

But God got us there … to begin ANOTHER four years of school! Clearly it was where we were supposed to be. The first year there involved some wild jobs at crazy hours. Diana was a Christian School first-grade teacher with a starting salary of $5,600 … whoohoo!  I worked for UPS and cleaned swimming pools. We were scraping by, just barely.

At the very fine Bible Church we were attending, a position suddenly opened for a part-time minister of music. It was perfect for me!  It paid more than I was making at other jobs, and it was in ministry – in an area that I had already given five years of education, including a one-year internship in such a position at a small New Jersey church. Clearly, this had to be God’s plan. It was awesome!  I interviewed in confidence.

A few weeks later, after a Sunday evening service, the Pastor pulled me aside to say that they had decided to hire someone else. I even knew the guy from a distance and could see that he was bad news – which he proved to be over the next year.

I was so angry as I drove home that night around the Dallas beltway (Diana was at home and not with me that evening). “Are you kidding me?” I screamed toward the heavens.  This made no sense at all!  I recall yelling at God, pounding my fist on the steering wheel and lamenting … “So what were all those years of music education about?  Why’d you put me through all of that … for nothing?  Here I am, ready to serve!  And you KNOW how much I needed this position to pay to live and get all this additional education!  And where is that going to lead?  There is NO JUSTIFICATION for this; there can be NO explanation!  This is totally wrong!”

I calmed down after a while and followed my advice from the first sermon – just sit in the saddle and do the next faithful thing. I finished the school year, and then for the summer went home to NJ to my home church for an internship. Yes, it was nice to be home, but I did it as much to fulfill another requirement on my seemingly dead-end educational career.

So, there at my home church, where I was known mostly as a music guy from their experiences with me, I spent the summer preaching and teaching instead. I did no music at all … the pastor had been killed the previous autumn in a car crash, and the church was in recovery. My role in that season was to bring the Scriptures to folks. And it was a good summer … without the music, surprisingly.

As September approached again, I returned to Dallas with the spiritual experience that it was OK if I never got to do music stuff again. I would be fine with however God wanted to use me; and apparently it was not going to involve worship ministries. That dream was burned.

I had barely been back in Big-D for more than a few days, preparing for yet another fall semester, when a Dallas church called me and asked me to come be their minister of music. It was a much larger church than the one that rejected me, and it was in every way a far better opportunity. Through it I was exposed to the most amazing people in Christian ministry, both in Dallas and from throughout the country and world. It turned out to be my richest experience in Texas – beyond the seminary education, as good as that was. And those next three years of amazing ministry with wonderful people totally set me up for all the good things that came afterward, step by step, including ultimately ending up here in Maryland for the last 25 years.

Yes, as our title today says, God burned MY dreams, until He gave them back to me the way that HE wanted them. The closed door that looked so wrong led rather to an open door that proved to be so right and so much better. God proved to be totally faithful, even when I couldn’t see it.

And these two stories today are illustrative especially of the overarching truth I’ve shared with you over this series … What God wants from me more than anything else is my total trust, confidence, and rest in Him. It’s not a trick. God wants us to learn to instinctively look quickly to Him in every circumstance, especially those that don’t make immediate sense.

Sorry about the two long, too-long stories, but I thought they might resonate with many of you and encourage you in whatever season of confusion you might have right now … times perhaps when it feels like God has you in an extended waiting period, an interminable holding pattern.

Let’s turn again today to another portion of the story of the man known as the father of faith, to that of Abraham & Isaac, picking up the account in the fabulous 15th chapter of Genesis.

Genesis 15:1-6After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

By the time we get here to chapter 15, recall that Abraham had uprooted his life and moved away from the accumulated successes of his world, and toward a place that God would later reveal to him. He was promised that he would be blessed personally, that he would have blessings extend to generations of family, and that all people would be blessed through him.

But now, none of this seemed to actually be coming true, especially in the area of family. He and Sarah were childless. And by the traditions of that day, the steward of his household – an Eliezer of Damascus – appeared to be his heir. But God again reiterated that his own son would be his heir, with family as vast as the visible stars of the sky.

And rather than be doubtful, it says that he believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness. This was the content of his saving faith.

But more time passed, and Sarah was getting impatient about this situation …

Genesis 16:1-2 … Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 

Sarah presumes here that God needs some help. And again, an earthly custom of the time was to have a surrogate womb bear a child. And her idea was to use a servant woman named Hagar. For some reason, Abram listened and complied, and then …  

Genesis 16:15-1615 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

So, catch the age … 86.  And now, turn the page to the next, immediately following text in Scripture in chapter 17, and you see that 13 years pass between these chapters.  

Genesis 17:1-2When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”

So what was Abram doing these 13 years?  Mostly playing with Ishmael! And God says AGAIN that Sarah will bear a son to Abram…  

Genesis 17:16-19 … I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

Abraham laughs. He looked in the mirror and wondered how such a young man got stuck in a body like that!  But the problems appeared even greater when he looked toward Sarah. And then Abraham displays his immense pleasure with his son through Hagar by asking that God bless him and work through that young man. But God has a different plan … and now Sarah does as well.

Genesis 18:11,12Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”

In every situation, God is the giver of life, and He does indeed bring a child through her …

Genesis 21:1-3The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.

Okay, cool. So now all the craziness was behind them. Now they could anticipate the normal stuff to happen – like that of a child growing up in their household to fulfill all the promises. Smooth waters ahead!  But in a few years God visits Abraham again …

Genesis 22:1-2 … After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

You know the story … of Abraham and Isaac traveling to this place of sacrifice. And you likely also know that this is believed to be at the very spot the true and better Isaac – Jesus – would give his life as an atonement for sin. At the moment when Abraham is to plunge the knife into the son of promise, a ram is heard to be caught in the bushes nearby, it becoming the substitute sacrifice instead.

And it is over in the New Testament that we get an explanation as to what Abraham was reasoning at this juncture …

Hebrews 11:17-19 … 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Yes, God had a plan. It took a while for it to be fulfilled with lots of twists and turns, but at last it did come true. Abraham’s dreams were often delayed extensively or burned in front of him. He was not perfect, but he did – bottom line – trust and believe God was going to make all of this to work out in some way.

Jesus spoke to this attitude of faith when sharing the following parable …

John 12:23-25 … And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This is essentially saying that our dreams and aspirations are like grains of wheat, useless unless they fall into the soil and die. But then they come to life, they grow and produce much fruit.

TRANS>> You can clearly see a number of the themes about which we’ve been speaking in this story. But let me list some for you as our major takeaway applications …

  1. God is the source of genuine dreams and aspirations, as well as the resource for their fulfillment.

We can have dreams and desires for things that are merely the fleshly stuff of this world. But the genuine aspirations for things tied to God’s divine purpose for us are sourced in Him. It says in Scripture that God is at work in us to will and to do of His good pleasure. And beyond that we have assurance that God is at work in all things for our good. I like those promises!!

  1. Our God-given dreams inevitably go through a variety of delays and revisions before fulfillment.

It might be more accurate to say that it “appears” that our dreams go through delays and revisions – because we just don’t know God’s timetable for us. Little in life works out just as we expect it will. We are simply not capable of successfully making all the right decisions at the right time. We will make foolish mistakes. For God to let us have the ultimate power in planning the details of life would be about like letting our elementary children manage the family budget. Wrong priorities are inevitable without the activity of divine guidance and management.

  1. The delays and revisions of our dreams are the loving gifts of God to make us better people.

Again, turning to another family illustration, we allow our children to have some tough times and experiences for their educational good. We don’t just solve their every problem and give what they want exactly when they want it. We have a bigger picture in mind for them, and we want to help them get there on a schedule that is appropriate and for their best good. And so it is that our heavenly Father superintends our life events, with wise delays and revisions.

  1. God is as interested (or more interested) in the process as in the result.

God does not need any of us to get anything accomplished. Again, what he wants from us more than anything else is not what we achieve, but rather that we display our faith and trust in Him by resting in Him completely.

  1. God is always faithful, and His way always proves to be the best way.

The individual is yet to be found who regrets trusting God, even when doing what was confusing and unclear, and sometimes even when it seems the opposite of what you would expect or immediately desire. Later in this series we will work our way through the 73rd Psalm, where the writer admits that he struggled to maintain faith when it appeared that the evil people of the world were the truly prospering ones. Hindsight is always 20/20 when looking at the good hand of God in our lives. He is indeed always faithful, and it is often totally amazing, even miraculous.

  1. Our sinful nature will draw us to desire to seize control at various times.

It is difficult to wait, especially over extended periods of time. There is an Evil One who wants to put doubts in our minds as to the genuine goodness of God. Remember, that’s what he did back in the garden of Eden … “Has God really said …?”  We need to be mindful of this dark influence – not just from outside of ourselves, but also of our own sinful propensity to want to take control and appease immediate appetites.

  1. The reward is always worth it all, even though it may be different than the original dream, or even less than complete.

God’s best for us is exactly that – BEST!  And it is never going to look exactly like you thought it would be at the beginning. It is going to morph and change and have unique surprises. But you’ll be satisfied in the end by trusting Him daily in the small things of faithful living – staying in the saddle and doing the next thing of obedience. It all adds up in the end, and you look back with amazement. It is better than if you just did it yourself. And even where it is less than complete or as awesome as you might have hoped, you discover a strange satisfaction and contentment with where it is at – because He gave that serenity to you as well.

Though there are applications in this theme today for every one of us at any age, I can imagine a number of categories of folks today where it might especially apply…

The single young adult – There you are, truly an adult for a while now, and on your own for sure. You’d like to find and know that person with whom you can walk through life. He or she doesn’t need to be a total hunk or the epitome of babe-dom, but you want them to love and serve God. But where are they? You’ve been praying about this … and waiting and waiting. There are opportunities to take matters into your own hands, and that is a temptation during the times of silence. Is God hearing? Is He engaged in this at all?

The childless young couple – This is just not working out. You’ve prayed; your parents have prayed; friends pray … but nothing happens. Doesn’t God love children, especially in the households of His own people and servants?  But the heavens are silent, and the years are passing.

The graduated college and grad student, looking to start a career – There have been so many false starts. You can’t seem to find a job with a long-term future that pays enough right now to get to that future. Why isn’t this working out?  You were told this is a lucrative field of endeavor, but where’s the start-line?

The person stuck in a difficult job situation – There you are, working overtime again, but will anyone notice?  And then you just can’t get away from working weekends, and it seems like whenever the kids are home, you’re at the job. It’s long past time for that mirage called a “promotion” to have happened. You’ve told God about this, over and over, especially when clocking in and out. But God doesn’t seem to care that you even end up missing church frequently because of this rat-race you’re stuck in.

And there are so many other applications …

  • The unbelieving spouse.
  • The wayward adult child.
  • The weirdness of living without a relationship with a parent – whom maybe you don’t even know.
  • The person with the chronic disease that constantly prevents living a normal life that would include serving God so much better.

To you all … God knows these things. And even in your weakness and waiting, He’s gotcha! There is a divine plan, and it is true that you can’t see it. But the day will come when you look back and see it clearly; and wow, it was His best for you and for living His life through you!

Trust Him today, as even the torched dreams and empty hands have a purpose!

Week Five Items for Discussion

Do you feel, looking back over your Christian experience to this point, that you have had torched dreams and the empty hands of unfulfilled expectations that you believed to be godly and wholesome?

Are you able to recall situations in your life where you faced delays and morphed plans that seemed wrong at the time, but you see now were God’s best for you?

Do you find encouragement in the story of Abraham?  He is a mixed back of incredible faith, along with several failures as well. But at the end of day, he trusted in God. Did Abraham live to see all the promises come true?  Can any of us expect to see everything come true of our aspirations?

How might this entire discussion affect your prayer life?  How might it affect the way you calibrate your expectations?

How can you encourage others who are facing some of the issues mentioned in the applications: singleness, delayed careers, childlessness, etc.?

 

“The Grand Scheme of Things”

I pretty much love all varieties of sports (even soccer, just a little bit).  But a sport I’ve never felt any measure of calling to get involved in is that of mountain climbing, though I have his son who lives now in Colorado and who loves all things with sheer elevations!  I really don’t mind heights, but are you kidding me? There is no way that hanging by your fingernails on the side of a mountain makes any sense at all! That truly is treacherous!

However, there are a lot of similarities between the venture of journeying through life and the venture of mountaineering. Listen to what this advertisement says, coming from a company marketing mountain climbing equipment…

Mountaineering can be fun, and relatively safe. Much depends on your level of expertise, partner, and choice of route. There are some potential objective hazards over which you have no control, such as weather, falling rock, and unseasonably late snow. What can stack the cards in your favor, however, is arming yourself with the right gear. It’s true, mountain climbing has become easier in the past decade, with sport-specific technology producing lighter, more efficient equipment. Lightweight helmets, mountaineering axes, and harnesses shave pounds off the weight of traditional gear, making it easier to feel like a climber rather than a pack mule.

Let me see if I can rewrite that advertisement in different words…

“The journey of life can be fun, and relatively safe. Much depends upon your level of experience in walking with your partner – Jesus Christ – and the route you take in terms of the priorities of your life. There are some potential objective hazards over which you have no control, such as diseases, natural disasters, and unexpected crises. What can stack the cards in your favor, however, is arming yourself with the Word of God. It is true, the journey of life has become potentially easier given the abundance of resources available in recent years. With lightweight podcasts, study Bibles, and audio and video resources that ease the burdens of understanding the weighty truths of Scripture, it is easier for the believer to feel like a real champion in this life instead of a mere survivor.”

And that is how I am hoping this current sermon series of this Fall season might serve many of you in a similar fashion. Having now been a veteran “mountain man” of learning about following Christ for nearly six decades – perhaps I can pass along to you some mountaineering tips about my high-altitude experiences, good and bad. And indeed, there are peaks and valleys; there are times when you face cliffs that seem insurmountable, even as there are occasions where the vistas are beautiful as you experience God’s goodness and grace.

As I seek to give you my fellow climbers some advice from having assaulted some rock faces ahead of many of you, let me again assert the 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. And that truth is especially relevant with today’s topic.

For this fourth week and this fourth of eleven topics …

  • Theme – God’s master plan of orchestrating the events of our lives
  • Statement – God has things happen to me, so that things can happen in me, so that things can happen eventually through me. (I did not originate this three-part statement, though I wish I could take credit for it. I’m pretty sure I heard it in a college chapel by a guest speaker … and I think it might have been Stuart Briscoe. But it has stuck with me through the years and given me comfort and perspective, especially in confusing times.)

God does indeed have a grand scheme for our lives, a master plan for us. And I’m telling you, that is a great comfort when you come to believe and understand that. You come to know that the things that are happening to you and around you are never as random as you might think that they are. It is all a part of the symphony of your life that God is composing. Indeed, all things work together for good.

The Apostle Paul, through many highs and lows of his own life, came to understand this truth. And a passage where this is particularly evident is from the beginning of his letter to the Philippians.

Something I have been profoundly impressed with over the years of ministry is the number of people whom I know well and who live with dreadful diseases – all sorts of cancers, ALS, chronic pain syndromes of varied sorts … that kind of thing. And so commonly, these people of faith are among the most joyful and vibrant Christian folks that I have known! One might say that they are “living above their circumstances.”

It was my old Dallas Seminary professor and renowned Bible teacher Howie Hendricks who used to often include in his messages a conversation with a certain Christian acquaintance, where Howie would ask, “How are you doing?” … to which the response would be some version of “Not bad under the circumstances.”  And Howie’s humorous retort would be to say, “Under the circumstances? What are you doing down there?”

The letter to the Philippians rings with a theme of joy. We can have joy in all circumstances, even if we don’t always have happiness. It depends upon our measuring stick. If our measuring device is only limited to the circumstance and events of our immediate physical world, well, we are going to come up short quite a bit. But if our measurement is calibrated in eternal numbers and true realities, we are in possession at ALL TIMES of God’s magnanimous grace and the promise of His eternal relationship with us.

Philippians is a prison epistle – written by Paul while chained to a Roman soldier. But you’d never know it by the joyful tone of his writing.

Yes, God is in control of the grand scheme of things! Even when it doesn’t look like it. And it sure didn’t look like this unjust imprisonment should be happening to Paul at this juncture. There was work to be done in spreading the gospel. He was called as God’s #1 dude to be an apostle to the Gentiles – God’s new and great work in the world. Life is short! And Paul had a bit of a late start. How in the world could this fit into God’s plans?  But it did.

So for this topic I want to talk about how to live above the circumstance, trusting they are also under the control of God. And let’s say three things about “Living Above the Circumstances” from Philippians 1:12-30 …

  1. Living above the circumstances of the persistent problems of life. (12-18)

Problems in this life are rather common, aren’t they?  It really is not a matter of “if” you will have occasional problems, but what perspective should you have “when” you realize that difficulties are a rather persistent hiking and climbing partner in this life.

12 I want you to know, brothers that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

The word used in this passage that speaks of the “advance” of the gospel is actually a military term – used to speak of the advance of an army through difficult or dense terrain.

Maybe Paul has this word come to mind especially at this moment because he is literally chained to a soldier, one of the elite imperial guard – a contingent of 9,000 of the best that Rome had to offer for the most unique situations and demands.

Everyone knew that Paul was not a prisoner because he was a criminal; rather, it was because of his outspoken witness for Christ. And so, it would be logical for the Philippians to have a concern that Paul would be very discouraged by this turn of events, sending Pastor Epaphroditis and a financial gift. After all, is it not terribly discouraging when you do something good and out of genuinely kind intention, only to be falsely accused in a public way – perhaps with others believing the errant story about you? Why wouldn’t Paul be downhearted?

But Paul was not discouraged, quite the contrary. He says that the circumstances had eventuated toward greater good in terms of the advance of the gospel – his primary life value.

At this time Paul is not specifically in a prison. Actually, he is in his own quarters, again, having a Roman Praetorian Guard fastened to him. We can surely imagine the conversations. It is rather clear from all we know of the life of the Apostle Paul that he did not lack for being anything but a chatty fellow!  So, who was really the prisoner?

The result was that conversations with these guards on their shifts resulted in many of them, along with those of their extended relationships, coming to a saving faith in Christ. Though Paul was unable to go out to the crowds, God was not limited in bringing the crowds to him!

An additional positive impact and effect was that this obvious work of God’s grace through him was encouraging the local believers in Rome to also be confident in God’s power to work through them in proclaiming the gospel. The church there was growing and expanding. There was a multiplication principle at work. This was amazing!

And the lesson for us is clear. Though it is natural to believe that bad circumstances thwart the larger purposes of our lives, God is able to use them bigger … because HE is bigger! He is ABOVE the circumstances.

But it’s true. As I referenced earlier, think along with me of the people – many of whom we’ve known in our TSF church family in recent years – who went through difficult circumstances, even the valley of the shadow of death. But it was in those times where their lives and their faith shone most brightly!  And through those times, God was most evident, and they were oddly most content and at peace.

We all need to think about living for something that is bigger than ourselves. And that something is the gospel message of the Kingdom of God, as Paul writes …

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Paul speaks here of the various factions of those who were preaching the gospel. He can’t be speaking here about the Judaizers who promoted the works salvation stuff of depending upon the Old Testament keeping of the Law – something that Paul called “another Gospel.”  Here, it appears that the message is not substantially different, though the motivations of those doing it were questionable. Some of them were likely able to gain more of a following by drawing people toward them and away from that jailbird named Paul.

This was annoying, at least. But Paul steps back from it by saying, But what does it matter?  … Christ is preached. Paul is maintaining here the bigger picture. So, this sort of thing happened then, and it happens today. I’ve lived to see it – the building of personal kingdoms around eternal truth. Yep, it’s annoying. But here now I’ve learned more in my 60s (easier than in my 30s) to just overlook the motivations more and more and have the bigger picture in mind.

And that is the takeaway point for all of us. There is something that is SO MUCH bigger than ourselves and our lives. The message of the gospel is more important than anything else. And when we are sold out to that, other things tend to fall into place, and we can depend upon God’s goodness to give us a sufficiency of living. Here the is a major takeaway point for us today …

Our contentment in life is inextricably tied to our commitment to gospel participation … to having our priorities aligned with God’s top priority.

But you might say, “Yeah, but… but… but… sometimes people are really committed to truth and yet it doesn’t work out so well for them personally. Like, people are daily martyred in places around the world because of their faith. And yes, some people are powerful testimonies in their dying days, but… but… they’re like very, very dead right now!”  Here’s the divine perspective on that …

  1. Living above the circumstances of the possibility of death. (19-26)

Yes… wrote the word “possibility” … though we like to deny this reality.

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Unlike Paul’s expectation expressed in 2 Timothy that his life was surely near an end, Paul truly does expect to be released on this occasion, though he did not have a specific certainty of that.

We often remark about Paul that he is truly unbeatable. He is happy to live, but if he dies, he’s even happier with that. This is the ultimate win-win scenario.

And the Scriptures often speak very positively about death. And that is a surprise. Being content about dying is what we might call “counterintuitive” by definition: counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way.

We want to cling to life in this world and grasp onto it for as long as possible, yet the better world and greater life is yet to come by being with the Lord.

This dying thing – I’m pretty sure this is something everyone thinks about a lot more than most anyone admits, particularly as one ages. But the Scriptures tell us to not fear this at all, rather it is something to anticipate positively. Yet, in the meantime, there is work to be done for the spread of the gospel through us and the gifts we’ve been given, as we work together to build the Kingdom.

 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Indeed, this is an attitude that is very different than what is the mindset of the person of this world who does not have the eternal comfort of a relationship with Christ. There is genuine, palpable hopelessness at its highest level. It is the ultimate end of the road for the human mind in a sinfully fallen and lost world. But even we who know Christ and have the intellectual certainty of eternal hope, we too – being human – have an aversion to death. And on one hand, rightly so – it is the great enemy. Yet there is a perspective we should have that is bigger … transcendent … totally beyond the natural way of thinking.

  1. Living above the circumstances of the probability of suffering. (27-30)

Suffering, be it in the category of the sorrows of this fallen world or be it at the hands of those who oppose the gospel and its adherents … this is totally normal, not unusual.

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents.

This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Suffering is something we all go through.  Most of our lives are spent trying to avoid it.  And for most people, that is what the pursuit of happiness comes down to: maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain.  Paul says there’s something more to live for, something we can’t buy with fashion, techno-devices, or sport utility vehicles.

See, the way we handle suffering says everything about where our hope truly lies.  It’s the reason C.S. Lewis would write that “crises reveal character.”

  • If I am merely a mechanically religious person, suffering will devastate me.  What have I done wrong?  What did I do to deserve this?  Suffering fills me with guilt and shame.  I want to hide from others, lest my suffering be evidence of my wrongdoing.
  • But if I am not a religious person, I’m also devastated by suffering.  Why?  Because it only reveals the arbitrary nature of the universe.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  What kind of God would allow this?  And for these folks who live without biblical enlightenment, there really are no good answers to these questions.
  • For Paul – for us – joy means looking into the face of suffering and recognizing that this world is not all there is.  Death cannot have the final word.  Our life’s purpose can only be fulfilled by enduring, by facing his hardships head-on.

It’s easy to check out when problems overwhelm us, and it can be harder to have an eternal perspective.  None of us can see the future in its detail, but through God’s Word, each of us can see the future as an unending spring of joy.  Joy is magnified in pain—because it points us away from the gifts of this world to the Giver of all gifts. And suffering is a gift – that is the meaning of it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. And, for each of us, suffering becomes a chance to abandon our trust in self and to live each day with a purpose that is eternal.

When we calibrate our earthly sorrows and challenges against the greater spiritual reality, well, we see the smallness of our problems, along the lines of the old hymn that says “and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Yes, God allows things to happen to us, so that things can happen in us, so that things can happen through us. It is God’s grand scheme of things. You can trust it, and you can even embrace it.

Week Four Items for Discussion

Can you imagine how the Apostle Paul might have been irritated by his circumstances of imprisonment? Have you felt this way at times where situations just seem unfair and contrary to what you would expect God to be doing and allowing in your life?

As years go by and difficult life experiences accumulate, are you able to also accumulate a sense of God’s sovereign control over those times?  And are you able to even see them as the gift of God to grow your trust and faith in Him?

Do you find that you think about death … perhaps increasingly as years advance?  Even as we inevitably dislike death in reference to those we would leave behind without our help, are you able to view it in any way with excited anticipation?

Have you found opposition to your faith from people in the world who oppose belief in God? Have you even been “persecuted” in some fraction?  Might we anticipate this to increase in the coming years?

Maybe you could put together a complete story of something that happened to you (that you did not like), but that taught you something within that was beneficial, that made it possible for you to serve or reach out to others in a way that would have been impossible without the original difficulty?

“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?