2015-08-16 message by Pastor Rich Doebler
This month our theme is: Life is a journey! It’s part several series of messages this summer intended to help us fulfill our call as a church and grow as individuals.
You see the banner in the foyer—We believe… God is alive! People are important! Life is a journey! and Better things are coming! These are several core values that motivate us and compel us to do what we do.
Over the last couple of weeks, our family attended a niece’s wedding in Hartford, CT and visited Sharon’s sister and her family in Bangor, ME. And we took in a number of sights along the way—Providence, RI (ocean); Plymouth, MA (Mayflower II); Boston, MA (Old North Church); Acadia National Park (ocean), Bar Harbor, ME (tourist shops), Rockport, ME (home of Andre, the seal).
Traveling across the country, driving over 3,500 miles round trip, we also saw a LOT of country: rolling farm fields, Allegheny Mountains, Catskills. We also saw cities, heavy traffic, toll booths, and road construction (!). To navigate all the turns (and sometimes even avoid slowdowns), we used an atlas and our Google Maps app.
So this is nothing new, but when you’re following a certain route, sometimes you find you’re on a road that has two or more identifying numbers. Two routes merge together. I’m traveling east on I-90 and it merges with I-80—so I’m traveling on two roads at the same time.
Life can be like that. You’re heading a certain direction, going your way, working your plans, living your life—when suddenly, unexpectedly, you discover your road connects with God’s road. All along you thought you had the way all mapped out. But then your I-90 merges with His-80. God was simply waiting for you—waiting for you to bring your journey into synch with his journey and plan. He has a map for your life and when you open yourself to it, you find that your journey has merged with his. You’re traveling his way now.
Last week Jeff recalled the biblical account in Acts of the Apostle Paul’s conversion. The story reminds us that turning from the wrong way (of selfishness and sin) to following God’s way (of righteousness and holy living) is a process.
Conversion is a process—a process of being changed, of living differently, of going in a new direction. And the intersection where your life merges with God’s is at the cross of Jesus Christ.
Conversion isn’t just a single moment in time. It’s not just a crisis moment on your knees, crying out to God for forgiveness—although that’s part of it. Conversion is not only about getting on the right road; it’s about traveling on the right road.
Conversion is an experience that is only completed as you continue traveling God’s way. It’s a process of moving from one place to another. It’s a change that occurs in stages. You begin at the cross, but you finish the journey when finally you see Jesus face to face.
Merging on to the right road begins the process. Staying on the right road continues the process.
On our vacation, whenever I would exit the route to get gas or take a break, my Android app would immediately start admonishing and exhorting me. In 1,000 feet turn back to the I-90/I-80 East ramp… Turn around. Make a U-turn.
Sometimes you’re going the right way, traveling with God, when a momentary lapse or a temporary distraction gets you off course. Something happens—a flat tire, a break-down, running on empty, you’re out of fuel.
In life there are times we will have to deal with spiritual “break-downs” or “running on empty” emotionally.
- Maybe a big disappointment robs us of hope or dashes our dreams.
- Maybe a personal loss saps our emotional fuel (losing a job, for instance, or a friend who betrays you, or a divorce that takes away your marriage, or a death in the family).
- Maybe a temptation or a spiritual attack caught us unawares, causing us to slip and fall spiritually.
Whatever it was, you can get off course, side-lined. After making a lot of progress, you suddenly find yourself slipping away, getting further from God’s plan.
When that happens, we need the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit to admonish and exhort us: Turn back! Make a U-turn. Get back on track.
Conversion, to be complete, must be consistent. Years ago Eugene Peterson wrote a book called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Our society has trained us to expect instant and immediate results. Twitter and Instagram share pictures of our lives instantly with our friends near and far. It wasn’t that long ago that you had to buy film for your camera and then (with advances in technology) take your film in for one-hour processing (remember that innovation?) so you could put your prints in an envelope and mail them to grandma in the Twin Cities. But now we want—demand—a quick solution, a quick fix.
Peterson says that the Christian life cannot be lived that way. Following God cannot be accomplished by a 5-minute crisis encounter with God at the altar. Christianity is way more than a saying a quick prayer and filling out a response card. Peterson says:
One aspect of the world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials…
It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim…. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.
Religion in our time has been captured by a tourist mindset…understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church; for others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so somehow expand our otherwise humdrum lives.
…Everyone is in a hurry. The persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach and teach, want shortcuts. They want me to to help them fill out the form that will get them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted a lifestyle as a tourist and only want the high points. But a pastor is not a tour guide. I have no interest in telling apocryphal religious stories at and around dubiously identified sacred sites. The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways. [IVP, 2000: pp 15-17]
Peterson uses the word “mature.” It’s another way of saying we, as Christians, need to grow up!
If you’re a baby Christian—a newborn believer just starting out on your new journey—we’d expect you to still be working on certain issues. Babies have to grow up so they can crawl, then walk, and then run…they babble before they talk… If you’ve only recently been converted, you’ll have behavior patterns that need to be adjusted, habits that need to be changed. You’ll have attitudes or wrong-headed opinions that will surface from time to time and need to be flushed out.
God doesn’t want us to remain infants in the faith. He wants us to grow up! The problem is there are too many “Peter Pan” Christians—they don’t want to grow up. They don’t want to take responsibility. They prefer the fun and adventure—chasing pirates and rescuing Indian maidens—rather than the work of growing up.
So what does God’s Word say? It says we are to grow up into Christ! It says we should go beyond the newborn stage and become mature in the faith. Some examples…
1 Pet 2:2-3. 2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Col 2:6-7a. 6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him,
7 rooted AND built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught…
2 Pet 3:18a. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…
Heb 5:13-14. 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
1 Cor 3:1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?
In this letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul (whose conversion we heard about last weekend) recognizes two kinds of believers:
(1) People who live by the Spirit and
(2) People who are “worldly” (what he calls “infants in Christ”—i.e. spiritual babies).
He told the Corinthian believers that he couldn’t give them solid spiritual food because they hadn’t grown up enough to receive it.
Paul saw symptoms of immaturity in them—characteristics of spiritual babies. There was jealousy and quarreling. He said they were acting like mere humans…and that wasn’t a good thing.
Have you ever said, “Well, what did you expect? I’m only human.” I have…but think about it. When we say that, Paul says we are settling for something less than what God intends for us. Being human—a “mere” human—means you’ve still got a ways to go.
It means you’ve begun, but you’re not yet spiritually mature. And God expects more of you than being “merely human.” He wants spiritual growth. God wants you to continue making progress on the journey.
I’ve begun to see that when I say that, I’m making an excuse for living on a level beneath the standard God has for me. Being a mere human means I’m living by the flesh instead of living by the Spirit. Being a mere human means I’m a mere infant in Christ. I still have ways to go.
That’s why we say that life is a journey. That’s why we say conversion is a process. God has this amazing process of growth and maturation that he wants to work in our lives. He wants us to grow up!
But how? Oh, there are so many things the Bible has to say in answer to that question! In Paul’s letter to the Philippian believers, we see that God wants to complete this process in us:
Phil 1:6 …being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
But he goes on to say that this process of growing happens when we join with God—when we cooperate with his plan. God is working in you, but you have a responsibility to respond to his work.
Let’s look at a few of the things you can DO to mature in Christ—if you want to. How can we grow up into Christ?
- By working hard. Phil 2:12-15a
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. 14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”
—κατεργάζομαι (katergazomai) means to bring out as a result… to realize in practice [Mounce]; it means to achieve, accomplish [or] do something… [Gingrich, Arndt, Bauer]
—Grace requires you to DO something. God does not drag you, kicking and screaming like a spoiled toddler, into line with his purposes. He invites you. He gives you an offer—a gift. But it’s up to you to DO something about it. YOU must respond to his grace. It’s a gift, not an ultimatum.
—Notice that Paul says that you must “continue to work out your salvation.” This reminds us that conversion is an ongoing work of grace that is not yet complete.
—But you may be asking why you must “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” What’s that about? Why should we be afraid?
—I think it’s not about being afraid as much as it is about being overwhelmed with awe and reverence for what God has done and is doing. Why do I say that? Because of the next phrase: “for it is GOD who works IN YOU.”
—Think of it! The Almighty God, the Creator of everything that is—the earth and everything in it from the highest mountains down to the smallest strand of DNA…the One who formed the universe and all the stars and far-flung galaxies, even an insignificant, small dwarf planet called Pluto—that God is at work in you!
—The Bible says God created the universe in six days. So how long has he been working in you? No wonder we should be in awe! No wonder we should respond to his grace with “fear and trembling”! It’s GOD working in US!
—So we should work on our spiritual growth because God is working in us! Maybe you were saved a week ago; maybe it was 20 years ago. Either way—whether recently or a long time ago—God continues to work in you.
—And we see from these verses that God works in two ways:
(1) He works on your attitude (that is, your will);
(2) He works on your ability (to do his good purpose).
—Watching my 3-year-old grandson last week in the motel swimming pool. His mother was a life-guard and used to give swimming lessons. So in the pool, she worked on his attitude first: don’t be afraid of the water, but be careful of it—no running around the pool. But she also gave him assignments to practice: blow bubbles in the water; jump in [so your head goes under]…and then finally hold her neck and kick your legs. He can’t swim yet. He doesn’t have the full ability…but he’s growing.
—That’s what God does with us. He works on our attitude—giving us a desire to please him. But he also gives us assignments so we can practice. He trains us (blow bubbles) to gain the ability and strength to do what pleases him.
—This is growing up spiritually. This is maturing in our Christian walk. This is making progress on our journey. But Paul doesn’t stop with just working hard; he also urges us to keep going—to never quit, to persevere…even when we struggle or when we don’t feel like it. How can we grow up into Christ?
- By persevering. Phil 3:12-14
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
—“Pressing on” speaks of perseverance—of having the determination and grit to see the matter through to the end. “Pressing on” is what you do when you’ve run as far as you can—and then you go a little bit further.
—The Christian life is not a sprint. It’s not a 100-yard dash. It’s a marathon. And God doesn’t care so much how fast you are…but he really cares about whether or not you finish the race.
—διώκω (diōkō) is about dogged determination; it’s about chasing down a goal; it’s about pursuing something, pressing hard. In fact, the word is often translated in the NT as “persecute”—like a dog tracking down a rabbit.
—“Pressing on” means you keep going. It’s like the Energizer Bunny: it keeps going and going and going…
—Some believers get side-tracked on the journey because they give up. They wear out. Maybe they’re working hard, but they need their batteries recharged and forget that they cannot keep going without God’s strength and power.
—Which takes us to the next admonition on How we can grow up into Christ:
- By tapping God’s power. Phil 3:20-21.
20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,
21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
—We are already citizens of heaven! But we’re not there yet. Instead, “we eagerly await a Savior from there.”
—But while we wait, we can take encouragement from his promise of power. His power, Paul says, will bring “everything under his control.”
—This tells me that one day he will change everything that is wrong with this world…
¤ One day he will finally fix all the problems we see in our society—all the abuse and injustice and hatred and prejudice and addictions and pain…
¤ One day Jesus will take final authority over it all—he will rule over all sin and evil and wrong!
—And when he finally brings “everything under his control,” he will also use his power to bring us under control and “transform our lowly bodies” to “be like his glorious [resurrected] body.”
—ἐνέργεια (energeia) The word is the root for our word “energy.”
—You see, on our own, we can’t do what we want to do. But God doesn’t give us an assignment without also providing us with the resources we need to accomplish the assignment.
If someone were to give you your dream car, what would it be? A Camero? A Porche? A Mercedes? Formula 1 race car? Whatever your choice, it would be shiny and new with all kinds of horsepower under the hood… So if someone gave you that dream car, would you drive it like Fred Flintstone? Feet pushed through the floor, running on your own strength? No! We would turn on the engine! We would let the car carry us; we wouldn’t push the car. So let the Holy Spirit work in your life!
—God gives us power by the Holy Spirit so we can grow and mature and see real change in our lives. We can’t overcome sin and addictions on our own, but with determination, commitment AND the power of God, we can!
Acts 1:8 …you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…
2 Pet 1:3-4 3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature…
Mother Teresa had a dream to build an orphanage in Calcutta and went to her superiors to ask for their blessing.
“What kind of funding do you have?” they asked. “What resources do you have?”
She said, “I have a dream and three pennies.”
They raised their eyebrows and chided her. “Mother Teresa, you cannot build an orphanage with three pennies. With three pennies, you can’t do anything.”
“I know,” she said, smiling. “But with God and three pennies, I can do anything!”