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Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the wise and godly use of all the good gifts that God has given us in our lives, which usually, in the Christian church, is called “stewardship”.
The jumping off point of our study was 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 where the Apostle Paul gave final instructions to gather up a collection to help out the needy Christians in Jerusalem. They had asked how they could help and Paul said,
“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”
On the first week of our study we talked about some of the ways that the Christian church has gotten a bad reputation for how we see, use and ask for money, explained the historical background of this passage and why churches gather weekly collections. A big part of that was understanding that our collection helps believers practice a lifestyle habit of generosity – of holding our wealth and possessions loosely and allowing God to dictate how they are to be used. The big question was to ask ourselves if we really understand God’s love for us and if that understanding is reflected in our generosity toward others.
This led to last week’s conversation about Stewardship where we expanded the definition to encompass not only our wealth and possessions but our entire lives – our time, talents, treasure and testimony. We asked some important questions last week and were challenge to clarify in our own hearts how we perceive ourselves, our stuff, and the world. I said the first question of Stewardship is, “Whose is it?”. When we look at the time we have been given in a day, the abilities and skills we possess, the wealth we have, and all the things that have happened to us that have created the story of our lives, we must ask ourselves, “Whose is it?” or “Whose am I?”. If the real answer is “It is God’s, I am God’s”, then that changes everything about how we use it.
The second question from last week was, “What am I supposed to do with it?” If we acknowledge that whatever we have is God’s, then the next, logical question is, “What does He want me to do with it?” That led to a study of the Parable of the Talents where we answered this question in the most basic way: God wants us to do “something” with it. The big lesson of the Parable of the Talents was that, for various reasons, the third steward did nothing and was therefore condemned.
We talked about how our perception of ourselves and our stuff is directly connected to how we see God. If we believe He is generous, then we will be generous. If we believe He is stingy, then we will be stingy. If we believe He will provide for us, then we will provide for others. If we believe God holds out on us, then we will hold out on others.
How Can I Use it Best
So, if you’re with me so far, and can agree with this statement, then we can move forward to the next question:
“Everything is God’s and I am a steward of His resources. I will use what He has given me, as best I can, His way, despite the risks involved.” Can you agree to that?
If so, we move on to the third question: “How can I use it best?” Whatever “it” is… the time we have in a day, the money in our pocket, the car we drive, the stuff on our shelves, the skills and abilities we have, or the story of our lives, the question isn’t just, “Will I use it for God’s glory and humanity’s good?”, but “How can I use it best for God’s glory and humanity’s good?”
So over the next bit, I want to go through these four gifts and get practical about how to use them best.
Stewardship of Time
First, let’s talk about how to steward our Time best.
I’ve been using The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis over the past little bit and it has been absolutely chopping me in half. It was written sometime in the 1400s but it reads like it could have been written today. Other than the Bible this may be the most published book of all time with thousands of editions over the past 500+ years.
The first section talks a lot about how we are to steward our thought life, which actually has a lot to do with how we steward our time, and is certainly something I’ve been struggling with lately. Most of you know that our family has been going through some difficulties over the past while and for me, when I get overwhelmed with it all, it’s very tempting to shut down my thoughts and shut out the world by distracting myself with Netflix or YouTube or the internet. I know it’s not healthy, but until recently I don’t think I realized how dangerous it is.
Thomas a Kempis says this,
“What good is much discussion of involved and obscure matters when our ignorance of them will not be held against us on Judgment day? Neglect of things which are profitable and necessary and undue concern with those which are irrelevant and harmful, are great folly.”
That hit me like a wall and I’ve been chewing on it for a while, but then, just this past week, I read this…
“How can a man who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?…. We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things. Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice. And we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence, we remain cold and indifferent. If we mortified our bodies perfectly and allowed no distractions to enter our minds, we could appreciate divine things and experience something of heavenly contemplation.
The greatest obstacle, indeed, the only obstacle, is that we are not free from passions and lusts, that we do not try to follow the perfect way of the saints. Thus, when we encounter some slight difficulty, we are too easily dejected and turn to human consolations. If we tried, however, to stand as brave men in battle, the help of the Lord from heaven would surely sustain us…. Let us, then, lay the axe to the root that we may be freed from our passions and thus have peace of mind…. If you do not overcome small, trifling things, how will you overcome the more difficult? Resist temptations in the beginning, and unlearn the evil habit lest perhaps, little by little, it lead to a more evil one.
If you buy consider what peace a good life will bring to yourself and what joy it will give to others, I think you will be more concerned about your spiritual progress.”
My spirit drank that in like a withered plant takes in water after a drought. How much time have I spent on things which were neither profitable nor necessary, seeking “strange distractions” in things that are irrelevant and even harmful? It’s no wonder I don’t have peace and joy in my heart and it’s wrong to blame others and circumstances for making me feel so miserable. This says, “Where did you turn when difficulties arise? Human consolations? Then is it any wonder you have no divine peace?” The challenge is to lay the axe to the root of the problem and finally be freed from all the garbage distractions I keep going to so I may finally have that heavenly sustenance.
And a lot of that is about wise time management. That requires making different choices with ow I use my time, right? So, how can we build the habit of using our time well?
Wasted and Anxious
Maybe you resonate with what I’ve been saying about wasting time, or perhaps you are one of those people that is worried that you haven’t done enough with your life, that you need to do more, that there is so much to accomplish, are always rushed, always busy, and forever feel like you are falling behind. The invisible list you keep in your mind of where you should be and what you should have done by now bring you nothing but guilt and shame and fear. You compare yourselves with others, with people your age, or with the aspirations you had when you were younger, and you feel guilty. Or perhaps you are younger and you’re looking at the future and it’s coming up fast – and you need to make decisions about school, career, marriage, where you’ll live, what you’ll do. Time seems like an enemy to you.
You think you should be making more money and have a better career by now Or you should have your life planned out by now. You should have your house paid off by now. You should have written that book by now – or at least read that book by now. You promised yourself that you would have achieved a certain dream a long time ago, but there’s never enough time. Or merely on a daily basis – you simply always feel behind, always feel lost, like you’re never in the right place, and whatever energy you expend is never enough to catch up.
And maybe you even impose this anxiety on others. You’re always rushing people, even when there’s no reason to rush. Every time you leave the house there’s a competition to see who can get out first and fastest so they don’t have to face your wrath. You buy groceries and stand there for a few moments worrying you’ll pick the wrong line and lose precious seconds of your day. You yell at anyone who is late, constantly tap your foot or pace when you are stuck somewhere, and there always seems to be too much traffic no matter where you go. Anyone resonate with this?
Whether you struggle with wasting time or with the fear of time, let me tell you that what’s at the root of the problem isn’t first a calendar issue but a gospel issue. What is the solution? We must first turn to God and His Word.
All Time is God’s Time
The first thing is to realize is that all time is God’s time. This goes back to our first question, “Whose is it?” Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Humanity has a concept of time and eternity, and most people seem to inherently live with a constant sense of urgency. Even atheists inherently know that their life is not lived in a temporal vacuum but live as though this present experience is not all there is. They may deny an afterlife, but the way they live shows that they want their lives to not only matter, but have lasting effect. They have “eternity in their hearts”. Unless you are utterly depressed or suicidal, almost everyone lives as though what they do has some sort of significance. Whether they are a stoner who sits around eating chips or an ultra-driven Fortune 500 CEO, if you ask them, they will give you some reason for what they are doing.
But, a Christian who believes that all time is God’s time, our reason for what we do is very different. We are not drive by fear or sloth. We know that God knows everything that has and will happen, that He has a plan from the beginning and the end, and that He has invited us to work within His plan and do things of eternal value. Therefore, we don’t see time as a trap, or that there’s not enough, or that it’s something to waste, but as a gracious gift from a loving God. One more good thing God has given us in order to accomplish His will for our lives.
And, not only is our time is a God-given gift and therefore good, but God Himself is good, gracious and forgiving. So when He sees we have wasted a day, or when we feel like we’ve fallen behind, or we’re anxious and harried, we can know that our Heavenly Father isn’t like your stressed out mom or dad – tapping His foot, checking His watch, rolling His eyes, grumbling and sighing, and saying, “When will you get going? Why haven’t you done more?! I’m running out of time! You’re ruining my plans!” He’s really not.
Why? Because neither you nor I are powerful enough to effect God’s plans. He will accomplish what He wills with or without us. What’s amazing is that He invites us to accomplish it with Him and then shares the reward with us. But He never feels like we’ve fallen behind, because He’s never behind!
Think of you asking a toddler to help you do a project. You need dinner buns baked by supper or need to change the oil in the car. Whether the toddler helps or not, the buns will be made and the oil changed, right? Our joy is inviting our child to do it with us – even though they do very little or nothing at all. Are we mad when they don’t roll their little bit of dough fast enough? Are we mad when they are standing next to us holding a tool? No. Why? Because we know it’ll get done because we’re in charge of the project. We’re in charge of the time. We know what we’re doing. We’re just glad they’re there. God’s relationship with us is a perfected version of that.
Yes, God holds us accountable for how we use our time, we see that throughout scripture, but sinning in our use of time is no worse than any other sin. God still forgives, still wipes the slate clean, still restores us, and still, as Ephesians 3:20 says, “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…”
As I said, neither you nor I is powerful enough to hurt God’s plans, and He loves us so much that at any moment He’s willing to get us back on track. Our sins in our use of time – whether wasting it through doing nothing or doing too much — is also covered under by blood of Christ. He will forgive and restore us if we ask for it.
All time is God’s time and He can grow it and stretch it, or shrink it and stop it whenever and however He wants. Once you’ve settled that in our heart it will go a long way to decreasing your guilt, anxiety and fear.
Track Your Time
Which leads us to the most practical thing you can do in order to use your time best. There are thousands of different methods, but the most important thing you can do is simply to keep track of your time, and I want to talk about that for a minute.
Once you have realized that God is not a harsh, clock-watching, foot-tapping taskmaster, and you have committed to simply living every day His way, the most important, practical thing you can do is to track how you use your time.
- The Bible often speaks of things happening at the “right time”, or the “appointed time” (Exodus 13:10; Psalm 75:2; John 7:6-8; Romans 5:6; 8:22; 1 Corinthians 4:5) and the tracking of time is all over the Bible.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”
- Ephesians 5:15-17 says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”
- Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
- Jesus says in John 9:4, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”
- The Parable of the Ten Virgins comes right before the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 and it’s all about how important it is to use our time on earth carefully.
The best way to do that is to keep track of what you are doing. Whether you use an online calendar or a paper daytimer, in order to be wise with your time you need to be writing down what you are doing. I use Google Calendar online and it syncs to my phone and my computer. My wife and I are even able to connect our calendars so we can see what the other one is doing. Tracking time allows you to block out how much time you’ll need – not just for the meeting or the event, but the car ride over and the hangout time after.
I’m not just talking about meetings and work though. Have you been wishing you can get in date night with your spouse and kids, wishing you could finally read that book, wishing you had more time to cook or clean or organize? Want to get a better job, find a school, finish your project, even watch a show you’ve been wanting to see? Block it in and then it’s there.
If you’re one of those people who are constantly letting others down because you are always late, this will help you. If you’re always tired, always frustrated, always on edge – tracking your time will help you get control of that. Block out time for sleep, time to eat, time to pray, time to go to church, time to play with your kids, time to visit your friends, time to nap and rest and exercise.
I’ve done this many times in my past, clocked everything down to 15 minute blocks, and it is amazing how the picture of your life shows up in your calendar. You are tired because you don’t sleep or eat. You are stressed because you don’t leave enough time to get places. You realize you haven’t connected to your family in forever and likely never will if you keep going this way. Tracking your time not only helps you fix your priorities but also lets you see how many hours you’ve wasted in your day. You don’t realize how many hours per week you spend online or whatever until you actually total it up. Tracking time is an awesome tool.
If you don’t track your time, it will get away from you, and you will be one of those people who cannot be trusted, let people down, are always feeling stressed out and guilty, and are forever wondering why you can’t get things done. Having no picture of your time makes you feel like you are always in in the wrong place. But you know what? The stress go way down when you block in what you want to do.
You can say, “It’s ok that I nap now, because I have my time under control. It’s ok to watch this show, because I’ve been planning this for a while. I don’t have to rush through this romantic date or board game or work project because I know that I’ve given myself enough time to do it.” Or even, “Sure I’d love to try that new thing. I’ve left some time for things like that.” The spiritual benefits of being consistently connected to God, because you have set aside time to be with Him are awesome too. Tracking time is amazingly freeing.
Two Final tips
Let me close with two final tips on this in order to get the most out of time management.
First, practice the phrase, “Nope, I can’t make it. I’ve already got something else planned then.” Here’s the trick: It doesn’t matter what that “something else” is and it’s none of their business. Maybe it’s work, but maybe it’s a nap. Maybe it’s your bible reading. Maybe it’s date night. Maybe it’s watching a TV show. Once you’ve mapped things out in your life, blocked out your priorities in advance, you’re going to find that a world of opportunities to ruin your schedule will open up to you – and some of you will feel very guilty in keeping your schedule. Suddenly a bunch of seemingly super-urgent, vitally important things will try to wreck your calendar. Someone will plan a meeting during a time you’ve set aside to be with your family, or someone will start something early in the morning that you kind of want to go to.
Normally, you’d tell your family to take the back seat, or give up your sleep or devotional time, or try to accelerate everything in order to please everyone – don’t. It’s not worth it. You’ll just let people down, stress yourself out, and feel guilty about being in the wrong place. If you’ve prayed about this schedule, agreed on it with your family, and have set your priorities straight, there’s no reason to feel guilty when you say “Nope, I can’t make it. I’ve already got something else planned then.”
And my second tip is this: If you find yourself overwhelmed in your planning, surrounded by chaos, stressed by the needs of the day, and utterly confused about what is going on: Do what an old mentor of mine once told me: “Just do the next, right thing.” First, remember that all time is God’s time and if you’ve gotten yourself in a pickle, He will forgive you. So ask forgiveness of God for stressing out and whatever you’ve done to contribute to this situation – and then forgive yourself – and then just “do the next, right thing”.
Jesus says in Matthew 6:34, “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Implicit is that statement is that the past is done and can’t be changed, only God knows the future, and you and I are only responsible for the present. That brings a lot of peace. So, when life comes rushing at you, smashes into you like a wave, and then sucks you into the undertow, stop for a moment and say, “What is the next, right thing?”
Maybe it’s to eat some food because you haven’t done all day. Maybe it’s to sit down and pray. Maybe it’s to clean the kitchen. Maybe it’s doing your homework. Maybe it’s calling your mom or accountability partner. Maybe it’s buying the milk you’ve needed since this morning. Maybe it’s simply fixing your schedule so this doesn’t happen again.
If the past is done and can’t be changed, God is in control of the future, and you are only responsible for the present, what is one, right thing you can do in this moment? Not the “most perfect thing”! Don’t get sucked into that trap. Just one, right thing. Start there and every time Satan says, “That’s not right. That’s not the best thing! That’s not good enough. Do something else! You’re letting everyone down!” Realize it’s your enemy who is trying to crush your spirit and stress you out, and that God loves you no matter what you have done or are currently doing – and so does your family and so do your friends and so does your church. We don’t love you because of what you do and how perfectly you accomplish your lists – we love you for you. When you get overwhelmed, stop, give God that moment and say, “Lord, I’m just going to do this next, right thing and God, that’s all I can do right now.” And I promise it’s more than enough.
And then, when you’re done that next, right thing – do the next, right thing.
Don’t miss the current blessings that God has for you because you’re dwelling on the past or fanaticizing about the future.
We like doing things ourselves, right? I think almost everyone here today takes pride in the skill and abilities they have, what they can accomplish, and how, for the most part, they don’t really need anyone’s help to get by. Sure – as I said last week – some of us are willing to admit our weaknesses and need for God for spiritual things, but when it comes to practical things – like home repair, cooking a meal, fixing a car, building a shed, manipulating a computer, or making clothes – we’re still pretty fond of the fact that we don’t need anyone’s help to do it.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Being a do-it-yourselfer is good. Actually, in scripture, God praises the one who learns skills and then applies them with diligence. It’s not only those who know the Bible and practice spiritual disciplines that get kudos, but God also shows His pleasure with those who work hard at growing their business, playing music, build, manufacture, teach, explore, or make art. During the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus 35, God called on all people who knew to spin yarn and linen, work metal, grow plans and herbs, carve wood, and more.
There were a couple of men in particular that God blessed to be able to do all kinds of practical things. It says,
“Then Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.” (Exo 35:24-29)
Sometimes Christians look at men and women who know lots about the Bible, or write, or are able to preach, or teach Sunday school and assume that’s what God wants all believers to try to live up to – but it’s not true. God needed a lot of skilled workers to build His temple and serve His people, and Bezalel and Oholiab were specially gifted by God to be craftsmen. And it’s the same in today’s church. We need all kinds of people in this world, this community, and this church.
If they would have said, “Since I’m just good at doing artistic stuff and am not a priest or a lawyer or a holy man, then I can’t work for God.”, they would have been disobeying God. All the time that these men spent alone in their sheds, planning, carving, pounding, moulding, and polishing – and apprenticing others how to do the same – brought glory to God and helped the worship of the entire nation of Israel.
And the priests would be sinning if they were to look at them and say, “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time banging metal together and weaving strings! You shouldn’t be an artist or hunter or shepherd or politician or soldier – you should quit all that and start doing important things!”. That would go against what God built and asked them to do.
God has given skills to some people that others will never have – because He decided they should have them to use them for His glory and the good of humanity. Many of Jesus parables aren’t based in the spiritual realm but in the practical side of life. He tells stories about farming, banking, housekeeping, construction, wine-making, baking, fishing, management, and law – and we never get a hint of Jesus disparaging or minimizing any of these occupations. It is the priest and the religious expert who get blasted by Jesus, not the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.
Working in The Spirit’s Power
Why am I telling you this? Well, first, it’s important, but I also think it relates to our passage in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Let’s read it and then I’ll riddle it out for you:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
The simple message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He is required to do all by Himself.
If you remember Paul’s story you will recall that Paul was a skilled guy with some of the best training the ancient world had to offer. Before he ever knew Jesus, his name was Saul, and he was already a formidable intellect, an unmatched student, and a force to reckoned with. He spoke multiple languages, had memorized huge quantities of not only scripture but also secular teachings, and was one of the most skilled lawyers in the world. He was a powerful speaker and no one could match his devotion or his resolve. He had the ferocity of a shark, the skill of a fox, the wisdom of an owl, the memory of an elephant, and the determination of a pit-bull. People feared getting on the wrong side of Saul.
When Jesus turned Saul’s world upside down, he became Paul the missionary. And did Paul still use his great powers for the sake of spreading the gospel? Sometimes, yes. He gave unparalleled speeches before great worldly counsels, brought wisdom and insight to the apostles, and figured out more theology than almost anyone ever. Even the Apostle Peter said that some things in Paul’s writings are so complicated that they require a great deal of study and effort to understand (2 Peter 3:16). He was a true genius.
And yet, if you remember the story of Corinth, when Paul came into town the first time, he wasn’t he mighty man of God we might think he was. No, he was a man at the end of his rope. Saul the powerful persecutor had become Paul the broken and persecuted. He was alone, exhausted, rejected, afraid, and perhaps even ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But God had met him in a special way, had strengthened Him, encouraged him, and told him to keep preaching.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians wouldn’t be like his message to the Athenians or the Jews, or anyone else. Instead of turning all his mental and intellectual powers towards convincing people about the truths of Jesus’ claims to be Lord, God and Saviour, he decided to keep things very simple and leave the convincing up to God.
When Paul came into Corinth, he had only been an active, traveling missionary for about 4 years, but he had learned some valuable lessons during that time. One main thing he learned was that he needed to speak to people in a way they understood. He tells the Corinthians later that
“I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law… that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Cor 9:19-23)
Paul learned the importance of contextualizing his message to his audience. Which was one reason he made the decision not to “proclaim to [the Corinthians] the testimony of God with lofty speech and wisdom”. As we’ve said before, that would have been a distraction to them.
But he had learned another lesson too: that the success of his work wasn’t dependent on his intelligence or abilities but on God’s blessing. His missionary journey had broken him down, and as he taught the Corinthians, he didn’t sound like one of the greatest teachers in the world – instead, he was weak, fearful, and even trembling. He didn’t use a lot of arguments and illustrations and human wisdom (what he calls “plausible words of wisdom”), which would have impressed them, but instead, he abandoned all of that and “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.
He didn’t talk about the idols in town and draw illustrations from them. He didn’t give them history lessons or impress them with poetry and quotes from great philosophers – which he certainly could have, and that’s how the most popular teachers spoke. Instead, he kept it simple: Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, and the only way of salvation. He lived a perfect life, died at the hands of sinners, and rose again to conquer death, hell and sin, and offers forgiveness to anyone who would turn from their sins, and believe that He is their Lord, God and only Savior.
I’m sure there were many discussions and many challenges, but instead of trying to impress them with his great knowledge, win them with powerful arguments, twist them in circles with his intellect, he simply talked about Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save sinners.
He left the persuasion up to the Spirit of God. If God wanted the Corinthians to become Christians… if God wanted to plant a church in this pagan town… if God wanted to turn people in this crazily sinful city into disciples of Jesus… then God would have to do it.
Paul would be obedient and preach – but He wouldn’t try to do anything else. Not only was he was too tired and broken, but he had learned that if he tried to do it in his own strength, it would blow up in his face – especially in Corinth, the seedbed of Satanic influence. If he used his own strength, then maybe they would become disciples of Paul – but not Jesus. He wanted their “faith” to “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” And so he left the persuasion of souls up to God, by leaving any demonstration of power up to the Holy Spirit.
Working With God
And so, I say again: The message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He needs to do all by Himself.
God doesn’t need us to do anything. He is perfectly capable of doing whatever He wants, but sometimes He prefers to accomplish His will through His people, so He invites us to work with Him. He gives us skills, abilities, gifts, time, energy and opportunity – and then says, “Ok, go do the thing I just set up. I’ll go with you to make sure it works.”
It’s like when your three year old wants to help you build something. You buy the pieces, do the planning, make the measurements, organize the equipment, and figure out the best time to do it – and they hold the flashlight, pound in the final nail, or get to paint a little part of it. And then later, they can tell all their friends, “See that thing over there? I built that!” Are they right? Of course not. But what does mom or dad say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think God is like that sometimes. He does 99.99% of the work, and then says, “Ok, now, I’ll do this last part with you. Go build this thing. Finish this up. Talk to that person. Draw that picture. Make that meal. Give them that book. Fix that thing.” And it takes a bunch of our energy and effort and time, but we finally finish, and then, when something incredible happens as a result, we sit back and think, “Wow, see that over there? I did that!” Are we right? No, of course not. But what does God say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think it’s like that when we partner with God. Christians who walk with God a long time start to realize this and more and more turn the glory back to God. They realize that it wasn’t them that did anything, but God working through them. They may have partnered with God in obedience, but it was really God who gets the glory.
That’s similar to what Paul was doing. He knew that he was supposed to preach and teach. It was his job and he was using the skillset God gave him. Just like Bezalel and Oholiab were good at arts and crafts, so Paul was good at talking. He was called and built for that purpose, and would be disobeying God if He didn’t do his job.
But He knew that whatever happened, it was God’s show. He knew that the more he depended on his own abilities and strengths, the less God would shine through Him. The more they saw of Paul, the less they would see of Jesus. And so he resolved, especially in his weakened state, to show as little of Paul, and as much of Jesus, as possible.
Things Only God Can Do
We have to realize, as Paul did, that there is nothing of eternal we can do without God, and there are a lot of things that are completely outside of our control. And, if we want God to act (to demonstrate His Spirit and His power), then we need to stop trying to do it for Him.
It would be like the three year old taking the pencil out of the adult’s hands and saying, “I’ll plan out this project.” Or taking the skill-saw away and saying, “Stand back, dad, I’ll cut this wood.” Or saying, “Get out of the kitchen. I’ll figure out how to make Thanksgiving dinner myself! Last year you made something I didn’t like, so this year I’m going to do the whole thing on my own.”
That’d be crazy, right? A toddler can’t do that. They’d get hurt, hurt someone else, ruin the project, and likely burn down the whole house. “Here, let me wash that phone for you.
“Here, use this wrench to cut that wood.” “Here, let me decorate that car for you.” A child absolutely needs to depend on the adult to get the job done right and safely.
It’s the same with us. There are things that we simply cannot do, that require a demonstration of the Spirit, and a movement of the power of God. And if we try to do them, we just mess it up! There are a lot of things that I could list, but consider these for a moment:
As much as we want to argue and convince people that we are right, we cannot change people’s hearts – only God can do that. Faith is a gift from God, not a skill we can teach. The Gospel and all its implications can be defended and explained, but it takes God changing a heart before it will be embraced.
Or pride. We cannot kill the pride within us – only God can. We can pretend to be humble, but even then we start to get prideful about how humble we are! Only God can truly humble us.
We cannot remove fear from ourselves. We can do all manner of worldly things to try to control fear or even ignore it – but we cannot remove it. Only God’s perfect love can drive out fear.
We cannot stop worrying, and we cannot take away anyone else’s worry. We can give someone money, but we can’t remove worry from their hearts. We put someone in a safe place, assure them of their security, but nothing but a miracle from God can remove their worry.
We cannot generate love for someone, or make ourselves be able to truly forgive someone. We can chose to perform loving actions, and choose to forgive, but only God can ignite a love within us so strong that it overcomes our own hatred, bitterness or selfishness.
We cannot learn to hate our sin – that requires a miracle from God. We will make excuses for our sin, say how much we need it, explain it away, or bury it in a dark place so only we can see it. Even if it makes us sick, destroys our family, hurts our body, and destroys our minds, we can’t make ourselves hate it so much that we want to be free of it. Only God can do that. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can show us how hateful sin is. Unless God does that, we – and anyone we are praying for – will stay in their sin.
Let me give you two quick applications:
First, in all you do, partner with God. Sure, we can work with our hands, serve our family, fix something, and do a million other things without even thinking about God – and the unbelieving world does that all the time – but we can also do those things in partnership with God, which makes them an act worship and gives them everlasting value. That’s why scripture says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…” (Col 3:23), “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31) “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17) When you acknowledge the presence and the partnership of God in whatever task, it will bring a new meaning to all you do.
Second, and more importantly, realize that you are also utterly dependent on God for everything in your life. Don’t live as a “religious Christian” for spiritual things, but a “practical atheist” the rest of the time. You will not be able to see a demonstration of the Spirit’s power if you are trying to do everything yourself and fix all your own problems. You are designed to need God, therefore stop being too foolish or prideful to ask.
It’s not your job to hold it all together, to be strong for everyone, to fight the good fight alone, or pull up your own socks. The more you exercise your control, the less you are giving to God. The more you work in your own strength, the less you will get from God. The more you try to figure it out in your own wisdom, the less wisdom you will get from God. If you’re trying to calm the storm, then you’ll never turn to Jesus who can do it for you. If you’re trying to make everyone safe and secure, you’re refusing the help of the one who can actually protect you. If you’re trying to plan your future without talking to God, you are performing a hopeless task.
There’s a great line in a song from Casting Crowns that says, “I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held.” That’s a great line and an important truth. It’s not your job to hold on by your own power – what you need to do is acknowledge that in order to see God’s power at work in your life, you need remember that you just need to be held by Him.
I was given the opportunity to be a special speaker this week and as I was preparing my sermon, I ended up stopping and thinking: “You know what, the talk I just wrote for this other group really lines up to what we’re talking about in 1st Corinthians. Maybe I should just share this on Sunday.” So that’s what I’m doing today.
The next passage we are going to look at in our 1st Corinthians series is all about the importance of being united to each other because we are united in Christ. That phrase, “in Christ” is all over the New Testament, and used many times in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. It’s an important phrase which speaks to how we are saved, why we are kept as God’s people even after we sin again, and why God accepts us to be with Him forever. It’s because we are “in Christ”. The phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord” occurs 20 more times in this letter alone!
- If we are “in Christ”, then we are a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).
- If we are “in Christ” we are “sons of God” (Gal 3:26).
- The grace given to us was grace given “in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:9).
- My favourite passage of scripture says that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
- It is “in Christ” that we have forgiveness (Eph 1:7).
- And remember when we started studying this letter, Paul said, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:2).
When Jesus was talking to His disciples during the Last Supper before He would be arrested and crucified, he used this phrase over and over. Turn to John 15:1-7 and let’s look at it together. Jesus said:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
One big problem in the Corinthian church was that they had stepped away from being “in Jesus” and were seeking to live in their own wisdom, their own strength, their own ability, their own knowledge, and use the gifts God had given them for their own reasons. It’s not that they had lost their salvation, but had, by their disobedience, stopped abiding in Jesus. The rest of this letter is meant to call them back to living life as people who are in Jesus – to gain all they need from “the vine” and not separate themselves from the source of life.
Where’s the Fruit?
That concept, of choosing to remain, or abide, or live in Christ, holds an important key to understanding life as a busy Christian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them or referenced these verses in sermons, but more and more I’m finding that I have to explain them because a lot of folks don’t really grasp what it means.
At first glance, they seem to say that life with Jesus is a life where our worries are minimized, our joy is maximized, and where we are constantly “bearing much fruit”. They seem to say that life “in Christ” is always effective and joyful, overflowing with abundance.
But that’s not the way it seems to work out does it? And sometimes people grab onto these verses, and instead of them bringing peace, they actually bring guilt and shame. They look at their house, their kids, their marriage, their jobs, their failed plans, their church, and wonder why God’s promises aren’t coming true. The house is in disarray, the kids are in rebellion, the parents aren’t getting along, family life is distant, work is joyless, and worship is stagnant. The one word they would not use to describe their life is “fruitful”, and they wonder what’s wrong.
Maybe they misunderstood God’s calling on their life? Maybe their faith is too small. Maybe the married the wrong person. Maybe they’re just not strong enough to do what is necessary for God to bless them. They feel that either something is wrong with them or something is wrong with God… both of which are terrifying and depressing thoughts.
So, our question today is this: Why is it that so many feel that no matter how hard we try (whether it’s parenting, school, dieting, spiritual things, or whatever)… why do we still feel so ineffective and joyless? If we have the Holy Spirit inside of us, the God of the universe as our Father, and are saved by the amazing love of Jesus Christ, are surrounded by Christian brothers and sisters, and are trying to do what God has asked us to do, then why do we struggle with being content, happy, and at peace? Why is it so hard?
We love to quote the words of Jesus in John 10:10 to each other, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” “But, Really?”, some of us will say. “Sure, my life is full… but it’s full of problems, full of frustrating situations, difficult people, money issues, time crunches, failure and fatigue. I’m full — of problems.
Dealing with the Dichotomy
It’s times like those when it’s helpful to turn to the Bible and read it carefully.
Romans 8:31-37 helps us deal with this seeming contradiction between the promise of joy and the reality of how we feel. It begins,
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
That’s what we’re counting on, right? That’s a great verse to sew on a pillow and stick to the fridge. If God was so loving and gracious to send His Son to die for us, and is willing to forgive our sins, restore us as sons and daughters, and give us eternal life – all because of the shed blood of His Son – then He’s already proven that there is no limit to the good He will do for us out of His love!
Christians believe that is true… but how can it be when our life is full of problems? It still doesn’t answer the question as to why our life isn’t overflowing with fruit and joy? In fact, it can make it worse. If can cause us to question our faith, or even the goodness of God. If it’s true that we are overwhelmingly loved by a God who has infinite resources, then why is life so hard?
The Apostle Paul lived this dichotomy. Skip to verse 35,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
How did Paul reconcile these things? How could he hold the love of God in one hand, and difficult life he was living in the other and say he was being consistent?
First he says “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, and then lists some of the bad things that are happening to him… trouble, famine, nakedness, danger, swords, and death all day long. How can both be true?
The answer is in verse 37:
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
There’s a super critical word in there that you need to see.
That little word that we don’t want to hear, but is in there anyway; the word “in”.
“In all these things…”.
That’s the answer to the question: How can I go through hardship, while still experiencing joy? Because having joy is about being able to experience the presence of God in the circumstance, not trying to find our joy because of the circumstance. Do you see the difference? If your joy is found in God, then even as the world collapses around you, the source of your joy never changes – and therefore you will always have a source of abundant joy.
So, what I want to do for the remainder of our time is show you a picture of how I believe this works practically – at least from my perspective. I’m going to give you an illustration of why you need to keep your relationship with God as your source, remain “in Christ”, and not fall into the trap of seeking joy and fruitfulness in other areas. I’m not saying it’s a perfect illustration, but it helps me remember how life works and how to keep my priorities straight.
I call it “Mind Your Buckets” and it has everything to do with being filled by God… and not having your happiness dependant on circumstance. Ready?
So here’s the first picture. Let’s start with the source: God. God is the source of life. There is life in no other. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life…” Genesis 2:7 says that when God created humanity He breathed into him the breath of life that made him a living being. There is no life outside of that which God gives. If He withdraws His Spirit, we will cease to exist. So He goes at the top as the Source of Life.
Next comes “Me”. The bucket where I store my “life juice”, or the source of my strength, joy, peace, happiness, energy, etc. It comes from God, and goes to me.
Next comes “Priority Hill”. We all know that water runs downhill, and it’s the same with our life. There are things that need to go on top of the hill, and things that go on the bottom, and if your priorities out of order, then you won’t give enough “life juice” to the most important things in your life because it’ll be spent on other things.
So what are our priorities? They come next. Next comes the buckets that we fill up with the life-juice that comes out of us. The things that need our life, energy, emotions, physical health, time, money and skills…and they are labelled “Key Relationships”, “Life Purpose”, “Work” or “Things I Have To Do”, and then “Hobbies” or “Things I Want To Do”.
These are our priorities, in order. Our whole life, arranged as a series of 4 buckets. And this is their proper priority order. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time discussing why they are in this order, we can discuss that later, if you like.
After your relationship with God, your next most important priority are your Key Relationships – your spouse, your immediate family and those closest to you.
The next most important priority is your Life Purpose, or why you exist – God’s chosen purpose for you. Some people would put Work as their second most important priority, but that’s not the way God set the world up. God won’t judge you for how much work you did, but whether you lived out His will for your life. Everyone is designed with gifts, talents and a purpose. We know from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents that we are each given different amounts of skills, aptitude, and abilities, and we are expected to use them. Yes, we can use our gifts at work, and if we are very blessed, even get paid to work out of our life’s purpose, but our work and our purpose are not necessarily synonymous.
The gifts and abilities God gave us are not given to use only for ourselves, to make money, or just to take care of our family. God has given us each something that we are supposed to do to bless this world. Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That’s not talking about our work, but our life’s purpose. If you’ve done any reading about spiritual gifts then you know 1 Corinthians 12:7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” “The common good” means God expects us to use our gifts for not only our family but our church, our neighbourhood, and the world.
The third priority is Work, or Things I Have To Do. We have to work in order to eat. That’s life. We have to change the diapers, mow the grass, learn the multiplication tables, take our medicine, correct the grammar assignment, buy the groceries, make supper, fix the car, and brush our teeth. We don’t necessarily want to do these things, but we have to… and it certainly does cost us some of our “life juice”. And we know that when life becomes all about Work, or doing the Things I Have To Do… it literally sucks the life out of you.
Our Fourth priority is our Hobbies, or Things I Want to Do. Yes, unfortunately, Things I Want To Do comes after Things I Have To Do. When we switch those two around, that’s called procrastinating, and it gets us into trouble. Things like doing crafts, playing games, practicing guitar, taking a fun class, photography, computers, checking Facebook, shopping, baking, hunting, fishing, etc. They aren’t work, they aren’t our life’s purpose. They don’t really build our Key-Relationships, but they are good things we like to do, so they get a bucket too.
So now that we have our buckets… it’s time for the pipes. Out of the “Me” bucket comes the pipes that lead to each priority bucket, and one that goes nowhere… that’s the Waste pipe. Because not only does life flow from God to you, but also from you to others. And each pipe has a valve. And your life is all about constantly adjusting those little, yellow valves to make sure things are getting enough of your “life juice”.
Now, before I discuss that more, there are two more pipes I need to put in there… the return pipes. There are pipes that come back from your Key Relationships and your Life Purpose. Believe it or not, you gain some life back into your “Me” tank if you pour your life into those things. As you show love to those closest to you, and practice your gifts, you’ll feel more filled up. And as you serve others in the area that you are gifted in, that will fill you up with life too! But here’s the problem… those pipes leak!
Because people are imperfect and sinful, they can never give back to you in a perfect way. If you were to close off your relationship with God and only work on your relationships with those closest to you, and pour yourself into your life’s purpose… you would eventually run out of “life juice” because sin makes the pipes leaky. As much as you love them, people still drain you.
This is something that I think a lot of busy parents get wrong when they forget to take time to develop themselves spiritually. They think that if they keep pouring their life into their spouse, children and kids – and living out their purpose as a mom (or a dad) – then they should have all the joy and energy they need. They’re doing what God built them to do, and they’re doing it for people they love, so they should be able to do it forever, right?
But what happens? They get tired, grumpy, frustrated, sad, depressed, competitive, distracted, and resentful. They start to question whether they should have even had kids at all! They question their marriage! They fanaticize about quitting everything. Why? Because they’re life-juice is gone. They haven’t been going to God for a refilling of their tank. They’re not living in His sustaining power. They topped up a while back, and maybe got a bit during that hour at church, and maybe they do family devos, but they don’t spend time in private prayer and bible reading and aren’t connecting to God personally. – which means they run out of juice.
Why? Because they have put their family where God should be. They’re asking from their children and spouse, something that can only come from God.
The Overflow Pipes
Now take a look at the pipes that join the buckets together.… life also flows from one bucket to the next. If you do this right and get your priorities straight, then the placement of your buckets actually help you out… but if you get this wrong, they work against you. ** This is a big idea, so stay with me! **
As you keep the top priorities filled up, they actually pour into the other buckets. This is absolute truth. If you are pouring your life into your Key Relationships, then putting time and effort into your life’s purpose gets easier. If you’re using the life God gives you to work on your marriage, love your kids, make time for your friends and church, and doing the good works God has prepared for you to do, then your work – even when it’s no fun – is actually easier.
BUT if you stop pouring life into your Key Relationships by taking your spouse for granted, neglecting your kids, friends, and church… then doing what God wants you to do gets harder because you’re not with the ones you love, you’re not as encouraged or supported. Then your work gets harder because you feel lonely and distracted, and wonder why you have to do this stuff anyway since nobody cares about you…. Even your hobbies become less fun because you don’t have people to share them with, and you feel guilty because you know you haven’t been doing what you’re supposed to do. Do you see what I mean?
If you get your priorities straight, life works better. When you get your priorities out of whack, your life goes out of whack too. If you spend your time pouring your life into your hobby – you will lose your job, and probably your key relationships too. If you spend all your time at work, then you will not fulfil your Life’s Purpose, and you will harm your Key Relationships. And if you stop connecting to God’s unlimited resources, then you will be running off of a limited amount of life-juice that will eventually dry-up. I’ve been there – it’s not pretty.
The final pipe is the Waste pipe. The Waste My Time pipe – it’s red and doesn’t even get a bucket. Nothing is accomplished, no relationships are built, no ministry is done, no work is done, and nothing is created. This is where we are just being totally self-indulgent and pouring our life out onto the ground. We wasting time on the internet, or stare at another glowing box, or spend time at the mall, or some other pointless thing. Endlessly scrolling Facebook or newsfeeds or Pinterest, not even stopping to read. Shopping for nothing in particular. Binge-watching Netflix. Sleeping more than we need.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes what we call “me time” is just a waste of time. We’ve bought into believing that somehow, wasting our life is going to fill up our tank… but it’s not true. Now, I’m not talking about solitude and time with God, or taking a purposeful Sabbath rest – that’s different. I’m talking about where we turn off the valve to our Key Relationships and go away from everyone, turn off the valve to our Life Purpose and serve no one, turn off the valve at Work and do nothing… and just pour our life-juice on the ground. We’ve been sold this idea somehow wasting time will fill our buckets up… but it doesn’t really work, does it?
The Drain Gremlin & “Balance”
So here’s our buckets, our pipes and our valves. But there’s still two missing things. So let’s put that next one in. The final set of valves go right here at the bottom of the tanks. They are the release valves. The drains. And there’s a little gremlin out there that keeps messing with your levels. You’ve probably met him.
How many times have you heard, or even said, that all your life needs is “balance”? We think that if we finally get the right balance in our life that everything will run smoothly. We say it all the time… what we need is “balance”.
We are all seeking this perfected world where it’s possible to get our priorities perfectly straight, our valves set, our life on track, our calendar perfect, our budget exactly right… and then we’ll have no problems. We’ll have balance. Have you told yourself that? Have you believed it?
But the problem is that this world is out of balance because of sin and error. And our enemy, the Devil, is constantly trying to mess up our buckets! We will never be able to just set the valves at the right place and then walk away knowing the system is secure forever because there’s always something that will mess it up.
Something will happen in one of your Key Relationships… someone gets hurt, or dies, or needs help, or gets depressed, or moves out, or gets born… and it’s like someone took that drain and cranked it wide open! All our life juice is flowing straight into that Key Relationship, and it’s taking a lot more of our energy, time, emotions and life than before. Everything else starts to suffer because one of our Key Relationships is more of a draw than before. Perhaps it’s a sick spouse or a broken relationship with a family member or friend – it becomes a drain on us because we have to put more effort and energy into that relationship.
Or your life’s purpose gets hard. People won’t join in your group, the finances aren’t working out, it’s a lot harder than it used to be, there are too many things going on. Or Satan ramps up his attacks on you and even though you know you’re doing the right thing, and working in your area of giftedness, it’s a serious drain on you.
Or there’s a huge project at Work, or something goes crazy at the office, or the computer crashes, or the car blows up, or supper gets burned, or there’s more bills than usual, or there’s a huge snow-storm or cold snap, or there’s a giant fire that burns down a third of your city… totally beyond your control. Sometimes the Things I Have to Do gets harder and the drain is pulling more than usual. It’s not our fault, but it happens and it effects everything else.
Dealing with the Drain
So what do we do when that happens? Well, people generally have a few responses. Maybe you’ll see yourself here:
Some people’s response is to turn off the other valves and just pour our life into the one place that needs us most. If it’s a Key Relationship that needs more, then we shut off the valve going to our Life’s Purpose, Our Work, and Hobbies… and just concentrate on that one. If it’s Work that needs more, then we shut out our Key Relationships and stop doing what God put us on earth to do and spend our time at work fixing it. It makes sense to some people, right?
The problem with that is you can’t really do that. You can’t tell everyone you love to go away for an indefinite period of time. There will always be work that needs to get done. And you still have to keep your ministry commitments and do good deeds. And sometimes even your hobbies are such that you have to keep a drop or two going that way. So you can’t really just shut off the rest of your life. It’s not a good option or you’ll do more damage than what you’re trying to fix.
The next option is to shut off that problem valve and just let it run dry. If it’s a Key Relationship, just forget that person, or those people, even exist and pour your life in to our Work and Hobbies. Give your spouse the cold shoulder, stick the kids in school and programs, block that person’s posts and don’t take their calls… pretend that relationship doesn’t exist.
Or, if it’s another issue… then quit your ministry, leave the church, stop putting in effort at your job, burn your hobby. Just shut off everything in your life that needs attention.
I know many who have tried this method, and it also doesn’t really work. The people who deal with their problems by cutting off relationships and pulling the parachute become lonely, bitter, and sad people. We are built for relationships, for doing good works, for work and for enjoying this world, and shutting them off when these things get difficult doesn’t make us more joyful, but instead causes serious problems later. That’s where we lose our marriage, our kids, our friends, our parents, our jobs, and our joy. God didn’t build us to shut out our problems, but as our verse said – we are to exist and become conquers in them. We need to stay in.
The “Me” Level Check and Shut Off Valve
But, that bucket is still pouring out like crazy, right? What should we do? We can’t just let our Me tank run dry, can we? Let me introduce our two pieces…our level check and our shut off valve.
The Level Check is located on our “Me” tank and it’s linked to a valve right at the bottom — and this is an automatic valve. If your Me level gets too low, then it shuts down the flow to everywhere else, and we just shut down. This is our life-saver valve. It makes sure we don’t run out of life juice and die. It keeps a little in the tank, just for us to exist on. I know this valve exists, because I’ve tripped the Level Check before and I’ve felt this valve snap shut.
It’s kind of like one of those teapots that whistle when the water boils. It starts out quiet, but gets louder. You can hear this system, and also feel this system, and even see this system. Your body starts to ache. Your stomach is tied in knots. Your head hurts, your ears ring. Tears come easily. You hear yourself yelling more. It’s harder to get up in the morning, and you can’t go to sleep at night. You find yourself eating way too much and gaining weight, or not eating at all and losing it. You get canker sores, and get sick easier. This is your life-saver system sending signals that your “Me” bucket is really low and you’re about to shut down.
This all happened to me in December 2009. I had a bunch of these symptoms, and my whistle had been going off for the whole year, but I was stubborn, didn’t listen to my body or my spirit, and I was almost out of life-juice. And then one day, my valve snapped shut and I was gone. Zombified. Total protection mode. Nothing else in my life got anything. I couldn’t make any decisions. I pushed everyone away. I was constantly exhausted. I was just running on auto-pilot. I was there only in body, doing the bare minimum – but Al was gone. You could have done anything to me and I wouldn’t have cared. The whole of my conversational ability was down to one word: “Whatever.”
At the time, I was getting it on all ends. My Key Relationship valve was wide open. Anita was very sick and the kids had weird problems happening, I had issues with my parents, and a bunch of other stuff.
My Ministry was really draining too. While some in the church were verbally abusing me, the leadership boards felt they needed to vote a couple times about whether to fire me or not. This necessitated dozens of very difficult meetings, some lasting until midnight.
The Things I Have To Do valve was wide open too as life got more complicated.
And, of course, I had turned my Waste Valve open because I just wanted to get away from everything and escape. So I watched movies, surfed the net, read lots of books, and just wasted time.
And then, my system crashed. I ran out of juice and shut down. Since then, I’ve taken a lot of time to ask myself why that happened. What brought me to that point? What was I doing wrong, and what should I have been doing instead?
The answer is pretty obvious, actually. If this was a water system, and it’s running out of water, then what needs to be done? Add more water!
Pouring Sugar in the System
That’s what I wasn’t doing. But it’s is the only solution. When the buckets are draining and life is pouring out of you, you can’t just shut things down. You can adjust for a period of time… give a bit more to Work when it needs it, a bit more to the Family when it gets low… but that’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul – it doesn’t add to the system.
What I needed, and still need, and what we all need, is more life in the “Me” tank. I needed to go to God and ask for more water for the system. It’s not about turning off all of the tanks and running away. It’s not about Wasting it in an attempt to feel better. It’s not about just keeping one bucket going and hoping for the best. It’s about going to the Source of Life, connecting to the Vine, seeking first His Kingdom and His Righteousness… trusting and knowing that everything you need will be given as He fulfills His promise to pour more life into you.
It’s almost counter-intuitive to our sinful nature. We want to control the valves, and think we can handle it, and somehow don’t want to impose on God for more. Or, in a perverse thought, we start to think that it is God who is draining the life from us. We get bitter with Him, complaining that He’s not giving us enough to get by, so we try to find other sources, and other gods to get life from… like pornography and sex, or substances like food or alcohol, or doubling down on our willpower and trying to control the situation, or we throw money at the problem and hope that will solve it, or we try to boost our popularity and do things to make people look at us so we feel better, or we try religious moralism, or whatever… but they don’t provide life, they only mask the problem and harm the system. Doing those things is like pouring sugar in the tank. It feels like we’re filling it, but instead we are destroying ourselves and end up feeling emptier and emptier. Our system gets more and more messed up. Satan offers those quick fixes so that we will damage ourselves. God promises that He came to give life – and offers it freely to those who would come to Him.
Connecting to the Source of Life
Scripture says that the life God wants to give us is rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 8 reminds us that there is nothing that can disconnect us from our source – no amount of trouble, or distress, or famine, or danger, or death or demons, or time, or height or depth, or any other created thing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is only we who can choose to move further from our source. We can choose to disconnect from the vine, to seek things other than His Kingdom and His righteousness. He leaves that option open to us. Just like in the Garden of Eden, God leaves the option open for his children to seek other forms of knowledge and strength. But God promises that He will give more when we need it. Look at Philippians 4:19, “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” There it is again! Remaining in Jesus.
A Few Practical Suggestions
Let me close with a couple practical suggestions for how to connect to our source and meet God afresh. Maybe one reason you feel stagnant and drained is because your relationship with Him has become commonplace, more drudgery than refreshing.
Of course, you know by now that you need to read scripture, have time in prayer every day and go to church every week. Doing those things are like getting your regular meals. They’re not optional. But what about reading scripture and praying in a new place. Go to a coffee shop, sit on the patio, find a park bench, or just go to a different room in the house. The other day I changed the direction that I sit in my office and found a bit more energy in my devotional. Same thing with prayer. Pull a “War Room” and go sit in the closet. Put on a short tv episode for the kids and go to the backyard and sit in a lawn chair. Take a walk during lunch instead of going where you’d normally go.
Another way to meet God is to spend time with mature Christian friends. Make a point to have some strong believers over to your house and talk to them for a while. Not merely good friends you like to hang out with or new believers who share your struggles, but mature believers who will listen to you and speak Godly wisdom into your life.
Another way is to turn on worship music and have it playing in the house. Or, if you’re into it, find a sermon online and play it in your headphones after you go to bed.
Go for a walk and experience God’s presence in nature.
Write a list of things you are thankful for.
How about this: Tell your pastor or leadership team that you want to spend the next month connecting to God instead of serving in your church. Tell them that you are going to step away for the next four weeks and work hard to be proactive and present in the church service. Go to bed early Saturday night. Wake up on Sunday and prepare your heart. Pay attention to all the words of the songs you sing. Read and reread the bible passages used that week when you go home. Learn and sing the songs and hymns during the week. Choose to fully engage so you can meet God in a special way at church.
The whole idea is simply to connect with God in a way you never have before.
That’s what I have learned about myself and God. When things get hard, more and more I’m choosing not to shut people out or shut myself down, but instead to go to God and ask for more life.
More life to deal with what I have to deal with, minister to those He has given me to minister to, take care of my family, do the things that I have to do, forgive those I need to forgive, find joy in tough circumstances, and have my bucket overflow into others. He’s promised to be my source and make me a conqueror over all the difficult things that come at me in this life. He’s promised to give me what I need to do what I need to do. And I promise that He does each and every time I come to Him.
Parable of the Rich Fool
Let’s begin today by reading “The Parable of the Rich Fool”:
“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-34)
This section opens up with someone in the crowd yelling out to Jesus to tell his brother to give him his share of his father’s inheritance. Maybe he’s been ripped off, maybe he’s being greedy – we don’t know. But Jesus’ answer has nothing to do with the inheritance, but instead – as usual – gets to the real problem in verse 15. He says:“Take care, and be on your guard against all
“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
As usual, Jesus flies past the presenting problem and gets to the heart of the issue, which was covetousness. Covetousness is simply a desire to have something for yourself that is currently possessed by someone else – so they won’t have it anymore. It could be something they own, their social status, their financial position, their wife or husband, or anything else that they have and you don’t. You want it so badly that you wish you had it and they didn’t.
Jesus goes past the presenting problem – the issue with the inheritance – straight to the actual problem: this person is breaking the 10th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Covet”. His problem wasn’t the lack of inheritance. He had a sin problem which showed a heart problem: He wanted something that someone else had and it was causing trouble for him and everyone else around him. His family was fractured, his relationships were strained, and he was in a state of anger and jealously because he wanted what his brother had. Think of it this way: it had gotten so bad that he was willing to run up to Jesus, interrupt Him right in the middle of His talk, and shout out “TELL MY BROTHER TO DIVIDE THE INHERITANCE WITH ME!” There’s more going on there than a simple dispute over a will – there’s some massive personal, relational, and spiritual problems in that statement.
Tying Them Together
So let’s tie this together. First we have a man running up with the presenting problem of an inheritance squabble, which Jesus quickly diagnoses as a spiritual problem with covetousness. Then Jesus tells the story of a wealthy farmer who reaped a great crop and decided to use the proceeds to buy himself a comfortable, hedonistic life. In that story, Jesus has God Himself confront this man and call him a “Fool”! Why was he foolish?
Both the covetous man and the Rich Fool had the same spiritual problem: greed. Their priorities were out of whack and it was causing them to miss the big picture. They though that life consisted of “the abundance of possessions”, which was foolish. What good would that inheritance or bigger barn do them when they came face to face with God!
That abundance of possessions wouldn’t be a blessing to them, but would actually be used as a testimony against them because it was a symbol of their disconnect from God. The bigger their pile grew, the less they needed to trust God. The more they accumulated, the greedier they became. And finally, as greed took over their heart, they would declare, “Everything is mine and I can do with it as I wish! I choose not to share! I will use it all for my own pleasure!”
And so Jesus warns, through His teaching and His story, that everyone listening needs to be careful about how they view the things of this world. Jesus seems to say, “Don’t be like this fool who interrupted my teaching time, or the fool in the story. Instead of worrying so much about the things you can accumulate during your short time on this planet, make sure you are right with God, so that your eternity is secure!”
The Root of the Problem
If you’re following along in your Bible, there’s probably a chapter division after verse 20 – as though the next section is separate from the one we just read. In my Bible there’s a big space and then the next part is titled “Do Not Be Anxious” and seems to be starting a whole new thought. But I want you to notice the first word that Jesus says next. What is it?
“Therefore”! That means that whatever came before – the interruption by the person with the inheritance problem and the “Parable of the Rich Fool” – are directly tied to that which is going to come after. So let’s read that:
“And he said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!
And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:22-34)
Jesus says, “Therefore”, and digs deep into the root of the problem. Why was the covetous man so desirous of his inheritance? Why was the Rich Fool so focused on keeping all that wealth for himself and not using it to bless others as God intended? Jesus gives the answer over and over: Anxiety – another word for worry, or simply, fear.
He uses the word “anxious” over and over, then in vs. 29 He uses the word “worry”, and then in 32, he changes it to “fear”. Jesus ties anxiety, worry and fear, directly to the problems of greed and covetousness. Why did the man want his inheritance and the Rich Fool build bigger barns? They was worried they wouldn’t have enough.
The man’s anxiety over money, caused him to be covetous of his brother who had more, and that anxiety drove him to argue with his brother and make a public scene in front of Jesus and His followers.
Woe to the Self Secure
Now, turn with me to Habakkuk 2:9-11 and let’s get into the second of our Woes to the Chaldeans. Listen to how similar this woe sounds to what Jesus has just been talking about.
“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.”
The first woe, which we talked about last week, was against Chaldea’s greed. This second woe is against their sense of Self-Security.
Let’s take this apart a bit and see how it ties into what Jesus has been saying:
“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house…” That could be restated: Woe to him who gathers an “abundance of possessions” without regard toward being “rich towards God”. Evil gain is merely possessions that are gained in a way that God doesn’t authorize.
The next part is “to set his nest on high”. The word “to” tells us the reason that they went after their “evil gain” was to take their “nest” (or their home or nation) and “set it on high” where they would be “safe from the reach of harm.”
Do you want to learn something neat?
The Greek word for “worry” that Jesus uses in Luke 12 is the word METEORIZOMAI, the root of which is where we get our word “meteor”. It’s a compound word from META meaning “beyond” and AER which means… “air” – Meteor: “Beyond the air”. It simply means something “lifted high in the air” or simply “a thing high up”.
Jesus says, “do not worry”, and the word picture is that of a person who feels they are high up in the air, holding on to nothing, no ground to stand on, freefalling.
What phrase does Habakkuk use to describe what the Chaldeans are trying to do “set their nest on high”, which could be literally translated “place their nest in the heavens”.
In their pride they wanted to get their nest, their home, their nation, as high as possible – set it in the heavens, where it would be above everyone and safe forever. But the consequences were dire.
These people were driven by not only greed, but anxiety, worry and fear. They wanted to pile up their abundance of possessions so they could be safe. Their anxiety and desire for self-security drove them outside of their borders to take, by force, the wealth of other nations – so they could be safe, high up in the air, beyond anyone’s reach.
But remember what a woe is! It is a pronouncement of judgement and warning against a self-satisfied person who doesn’t realize their dangerous condition. They think they’re doing just fine, and yet their fate has been sealed. Habakkuk pronounces woe to them because “you have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life.”
In their worry and desperation for self-sufficiency and security, they – like the man who wanted his inheritance – have actually hurt themselves. Instead of gaining more security, they are in a free-fall of worry and are cutting themselves off from other people. Their covetous and greedy hearts told them not to trust God’s provision or be a good neighbour who builds security through friendship and cooperation. No instead, they told God to get lost and then coveted, pillaged, robbed and overthrew their neighbours, driving away anyone who would be their friends, because they felt they would be safer that way. They weren’t secure in the heavens above everyone – they were in a free-fall of anxiety: their life securely affixed to nothing but air.
The man that addressed Jesus had, almost without a doubt, ruined his relationship with his brother, family, and his friends and neighbours too. As covetousness and greed took over his heart, his relationship with God declined, and all he could think about was getting his money. Then, to seal the deal, Satan played the fear card: “What if you don’t get your fair share? What if you don’t have enough? What if something happens? Where’s your security, your nest egg? What’s going to keep you safe? You could starve! You could be out in the street, cold and naked! You need to get that inheritance!”
But, ironically, as Habakkuk’s woe says, all of their hoarding of the abundance of possessions at the cost of the people around them didn’t bring them safety. In fact, he says, in doing so, “You have forfeited your life”. That’s the woe. They thought they were safe – but they weren’t. All of their security was merely an illusion.
And worse, in the same way as we read in Jesus story, their possessions actually worked against them to become the very thing that God uses as a testimony against them because it was a symbol of their disconnect from God. “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.” It’s the same! The woe against the Chaldean’s self-security is the same message that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Luke: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions…. Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God…. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
So, what does this mean for us today? It occurred to me this week that this series of messages on the Woes to the Chaldeans come at a very appropriate time of the Christian calendar. These woes revolve around pride, greed, addiction and covetousness – which are all summed up in Jesus’ warning about getting our hearts right in regards to wealth and possession – is coming during the season of Lent, the historical season where Christians purposefully remove worldly things from their life so they can concentrate on spiritual ones.
This problem with being possessed by our possessions is a common one. The church fathers knew that, which is why they created the season of Lent – a time of forty days of fasting before Easter – so we could takes some time to evaluate the things in our life that are pulling us away from God. Jesus talked more about wealth, money and possessions than anything else, because He knew that it was going to be a problem for us.
We just sang Amazing Grace a couple days ago at Jennifer’s memorial, and in that song it says, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come…”. This world is full of “dangers, toils and snares” and it is so tempting for us to take our eyes off of God and start to believe that we need to build our own security. It’s easy to start to think that the best thing to do in this world is to accumulate an abundance of possessions, get what we can, and keep it to ourselves so that we will be secure. Sure, we’ll share a little of the extra – but not at the expense of our security. That’s just crazy talk! Lent forces us to re-evaluate our relationships with our wealth and possessions.
Go back to Jesus words in Luke 12 and see how he takes apart every single one of our anxieties over security.
Worried About “The Economy”
In verse 22 he addresses our anxiety about our basic needs, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.” Safety, food, and clothing. Jesus says, don’t spend so much effort worrying about this for two good reasons: First, because life is more than food and second, because God knows what you need.
We still get worried though right? And so we gather more money, more clothes, more retirement savings, seek more wage increases, more pension payments.
What’s the biggest concern when we’re voting in a new government? The economy: Let the government kill the babies, murder the sick, teach our kids to be sexual deviants, ignore the staggering suicide and addiction rates, kill the environment, attack marriage, and outlaw religion – All I care about is “How much money am I going to get and will I still have a job next year.”
Jesus implores us to realize that life is so much more than the economy!
Worried about “Death”
Next in 25 he addresses all the anxieties we give ourselves about trying to cheat death. “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” All of your fussing and complaining and fighting and worry – is that actually going to add an hour to your life? Do you know when and how you’re going to die? Nope! You could have an aneurysm right now and drop dead. You could be hit by a bus crossing the street. You have NO IDEA.
It doesn’t stop us from worrying though, does it? We need more vitamins, more diets, more fads, more trips to the doctor, the chiropractor, the naturopath, more locks on the doors, more security systems, more borders, more police, more military – anything so we can feel like we have taken control and can ward off the spectre of death for a little more time.
Anxiety destroys our soul! It drives us to do things that destroy our relationships with God and others. We turn into covetous people that want what others have because we think they are safer than us. Why should they have it and not us? Bitterness and jealousy set in. We become the Chaldeans who, instead of partnering with others in sacrificial friendships where we meet each other’s needs, we see others as competitors that need to be vanquished – or better, eliminated so we can take what they have. Have you ever hated someone simply because they had something you felt you needed or deserved? Have you ever wished someone to be gone, dead or fired so you can have what they possess? That’s anxiety and greed driving you to sin.
The Real Problem is Faithlessness
But Jesus goes even deeper. The man showed up with an inheritance problem and Jesus answered him by pointing out his covetousness – and then turns to the crowd and goes one step deeper. The real issue isn’t covetousness. It’s not even anxiety. The real issue is faith.
Coupled with His statements about anxiety is a question of faith. Jesus says, “Don’t be anxious about life, food or clothing” and then says, “Consider the ravens… consider the lilies… of how much more value are you than the birds… or grass?” That’s a question.
Do you believe that God finds you more valuable than a bird or a flower?
If the answer is “No, God cares more about birds and flowers than He does me.”, then you’d better get to work making your nest and getting it full of stuff. You’d better make big piles of fertilizer so you can have lots to eat, because God won’t do it for you!
But, if the answer is, “Yes, God cares way more about me than the birds.”, then I guess you’d better show it by living His way. The birds just do what they’re told and God arranges the world to care for them. The flowers simply open their leaves and accept God’s rain and sun as He deems fit to give it to them. Do you believe that God can do the same for you? Do you believe that God is caring enough to give you what you need, when you need it? That’s a faith question. Your anxiety dissipates as your faith in God’s care for you grows. If God doesn’t care about you, then you’re in trouble. If God does care, then you need not fear.
Jesus says in verse 32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That’s pretty great. Jesus calls them – and us – His “little flock” and then reminds us that God’s plan isn’t just to help us with living in this world, but plans to give us the entirety of His Kingdom to enjoy! Does that not remind you of Psalm 23?
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want… He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul…. [He] prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. [He] anoints my head with oil…” It’s His house in which I will dwell forever.
I guess the question is: Are you part of Jesus “little flock”, and if so, do you trust the Shepherd?
A Lot of Questions
Let me close with this: Woe to those who find their security in themselves, seeking evil gain for their house, trying to set their nest on high where they can be safe – because in doing so you have forfeited your life and your soul. If you believe that you can remove your anxiety through the abundance of your possessions, then you are in real trouble. God calls you a “fool”.
And so, my encouragement to you today, and the application for this sermon, is found in verse 33-34: “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
No, this doesn’t mean that you need to sell everything you have. Jesus isn’t asking you to sell everything you have and live in a cardboard box. He’s telling you to hold what you have in loose hands, not tied to earthly things. He’s saying that we need to evaluate what we have to see if we are being greedy or covetous, or if we have our security in our possessions rather than God. What this means is that you need to evaluate your heart for the things in your life that are separating you from God.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What do I have that is simply there to give me a false sense of security?
- What do I currently possess that I got using resources that God gave me to care for someone else? (Is someone hurting because I decided I wanted something else in my big barn?)
- Do I know someone who is legitimately needy, but chose not to help because I was afraid that God wouldn’t provide enough for me if I did?
- Does God have access to everything I have?
- Where is my treasure?
- Where is my heart?
- Would I choose Jesus if it meant living in poverty?
Christmas is a big deal. So much so that many feel quite pressured to have a “perfect Christmas”? The tree decorated just right, the right food and desserts, the proper music playing in the background, the vacation plans laid out, the cards sent, matching bow and wrapping on the gifts, the best plates for the turkey… if we miss just one thing, we feel, Christmas could be ruined!
What struck me as I re-read the Christmas story was that there seems to be a lot of imperfections in the first Christmas! When you think about it, almost everything, to our human way of thinking, was out of place. On the face of it, the first Christmas is quite a mess!
Consider this: We live in a world where we can call or text someone and get a response within seconds. If someone tells you there going to do something, you can usually bet it’s going to happen at least within their lifetime!
But what how does God do it? He sends the message of salvation through Jesus Christ through prophecies – over thousands of years. He hints about it to Eve as she and Adam are cast out of the Garden (Gen 3:15). He tells Abraham that through his descendants all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Later, He shares a bit more with Moses and the people of Israel, telling them about the coming of a great prophet (Deut 18:15-22). Then, almost 700 years later, God gives a little more information to the prophet Jeremiah saying that the Saviour would be a descendant of King David (Jer 23:5). Around this same time He tells a different prophet, Isaiah, that He would be born of a virgin (Isa 7:14). And then tells still a different prophet, Micah, that he would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). Hundreds of prophecies spanning thousands of years.
That kind of timeline certainly doesn’t make sense to us. It’d be like having one of my daughters send out invitations to their 100th birthday. It’s strange. God took hundreds and hundreds of years to reveal His plan.
God’s timing for when Jesus would come doesn’t make sense. God takes thousands of years to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, but then chooses a pre-scientific time, before humanity has even figured out how to take a picture or send messages a long distance without using a horse! Why come 2000 years ago? Why not now? We have digital cameras and the internet!
Then, right before Jesus is to be born, God decides to send a forerunner to go ahead of him, a man named John the Baptist. John will be Jesus’ cousin and given the job to announce the coming of the Messiah to the world. And how does God bring John into the world? By appearing to an old man named Zachariah, who doesn’t believe him because his wife is very old and can’t have babies, and is then struck dumb for the rest of the pregnancy. (Luke 1:5-25) Is that really the best guy God could have picked to be the father of the last prophet before Jesus?
Let’s keep going. God sends the angel Gabriel to Nazareth – not Bethlehem where Jesus is supposed to be born, but to Nazareth – to talk to a young virgin named Mary who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Here, God’s plan leads to all kinds of trouble! Mary is obviously confused about how this is going to happen, and has to tell Joseph. Then Joseph almost dumps Mary because he thinks she cheated on him. God actually has to intervene in a dream to keep Joseph from divorcing her! (Luke 1:26-38) Why would God do that? That seems like too much drama.
So far we have, by our human estimation, the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong people! But let’s keep going.
In order to get Mary to the right place, so Jesus can be born in Bethlehem like He’s supposed to, God has Caesar Augustus command a registry and taxation of the entire Roman world. 85 million people[i] are inconvenienced and have to pay extra taxes so God can get three people from Nazareth to Bethlehem. (Luke 2:1-5) That seems kind of poorly planned… or at least unnecessarily complicated.
And then, it seems, almost as soon as they get to Bethlehem, Mary goes into labour (Luke 2:6-7) Is this how God ordained His Son, Immanuel, the Messiah, the Christ, to be born? If we had planned this birth, we would have the best medical technology available, all the best doctors and midwives to make sure everything goes well. Prince George got the royal obstetrician, who was assisted by three other doctors including the Queen’s personal physician. I’ve got nothing against Baby Prince George, but this is Jesus! We would have sent for the royal trumpets, golden diapers and a scarlet onesie. This is the most important birth in the history of the world!
Nope… Jesus is born in a barn. The God of the universe, the one who invented stars, oceans, gravity, love, and joy, was born in a barn. The Creator lowered Himself to become one of His own creatures. The One whom Angels worship came not as a grown man, but as a helpless baby. Human infants are, perhaps, the most helpless creature on earth.[ii] And there was no fanfare. Jesus came in obscurity, wrapped in strips of used cloth and laid in an animal’s feeding trough, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the smell of cattle.
God has, literally, been prophesying about this forever! This would be the beginning of the culmination of the salvation of the world, the putting right of all sin and death, the greatest life to be lived. And he’s laid in a manger.
The one thing that seems to go right is when God pulls back the curtain separating heaven and earth, and has a host of radiant, shining angels shout “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-20) What a show that must have been! A multitude of glorious angels praising God!
And who gets that peak into heaven, to see that sight that almost no one has ever seen? Who gets to hear the great, heavenly declaration of “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”? A small group of socially rejected shepherds with reputations for being dishonest and perpetually unclean according to the law. Outcasts and sinners – not to be trusted as messengers of any kind.
And to top it off, the only people of influence who had actually figured out the importance of the birth of Jesus were a group of gentile, pagan, astrologers who came from hundreds of miles away, were two years late, went to the wrong city first, and left without telling hardly anyone.
Oh, but the person they did tell was crazy, king Herod who was so jealous of a contender to the throne that he had all the boys aged two years and under slaughtered in an attempt to kill Jesus. The three gifts they gave to Jesus were almost immediately pawned so that Joseph could afford to flee to Egypt.
The entire story of Christmas seems to be an absolute mess! It’s not the “perfect Christmas” at all! The way God orchestrates Christmas, when we look at it from a human perspective, is quite a mystery.
We Love a Good Mystery
I actually like mysteries. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I love Sherlock Holmes. I just finished reading a compendium of all the stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about him. I’m not the only one too – a lot of people enjoyed reading it. Everyone, it seems, except Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. He’s famously known for not wanting to write as many stories as he did. He killed Sherlock off once, and retired him a couple times after that.
He even tried to making his price so high that it would discourage the publishers from asking for any more – but they paid it and he became one of the best-paid authors of his time.
For me, one of the best things about reading Sherlock Holmes is the way that Sherlock solves the mystery in such a dramatic fashion. In most of the stories Sherlock admits that he solved the crime within the first few minutes of hearing about it, but just wanted to check out a few things to be sure. He keeps everyone in suspense – even, and maybe especially, Watson – so he can do a theatrical reveal, or even better, have the criminal reveal themselves.
But the story doesn’t end after the bad guy has been caught – and this is, I think, Conan Doyle’s genius – instead we turn the page and find Holmes and Watson sitting together as Sherlock explains every decision, every movement, and every clue to the smallest detail. I think that’s what I like best. The mystery was fun, but my favourite part is the explanation of the clues that I, and everyone else, missed along the way.
Another mystery novelist, PD James, once said,
“In turbulent times people turn to detective stories for reassurance as much as entertainment ‘because they do affirm the intelligibility of the universe, the moral norm, the sanctity of life. It seems to me that the more we live in a society in which we feel our problems — be they international problems of war and peace, racial problems, problems of drugs, problems of violence — to be literally beyond our ability to solve, the more reassuring it is to read a popular form of fiction which itself has a problem at the heart of it. One which the reader knows will be solved by the end of the book.’”[iii]
PD James was a Christian. She wrote mysteries because she believed in rational, ordered, moral universe. She used detective stories to “show human nature, human sinfulness, and the endurance of a moral code that wasn’t invented by humanity, but rather given to us.”[iv]
God is Mysterious and Rational
I couldn’t agree more – and I think that’s why people love a good mystery – because they remind us of God. We want to believe that the universe in which we live was intelligently designed, well organized, and that all the pieces fit together. We may not feel like it all the time, but knowing that no matter how bad things look, how unintelligible and messed up the clues that are before us, there is Someone that can look at them all, see them for what they are, and put them in order.
And I think that helps us understand the Christmas story. On the surface, it seems jumbled and messy – a pile of clues that even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t riddle out. But as we look deeper into God’s word, past the surface events, and God begins to explain to us what He what He’s been doing all along – we begin to see the intricate story being woven – with a perfection of detail, with clockwork precision, that astonishes us.
A Christian understands this. In fact, it’s our baseline for understanding everything. Yes, God is mysterious, but He is also moral, ordered, and reasonable. He is not like the pagan god’s that simply do things out of spite or boredom. He never experiments. He never guesses. He never does something and wonders what will happen next. He is absolutely in control and fully aware of every cause and effect in the universe.
He’s not just a very smart person who can react quickly to what is going on– no, He is orchestrating every action in this world, from the smallest detail to the largest – from the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons of atoms, to the governments that rule the largest nations on the planet – God orchestrates them all in an orderly, constant, rational, moral and precise way.
Mysterious to Us
That being said, though God knows everything, we certainly don’t – do we? No, for us, there are many mysteries in this world. I read a great quote from Deitrich Bonhoeffer this week where he said that for people, “mystery remains a mystery. It withdraws from our grasp.”
What does that mean? It means that for humans, everything we think we know only reveals more things that we don’t. Why? Bonhoeffer continues,
“[Because] mystery… does not mean simply not knowing something. The greatest mystery is not the most distant star; on the contrary, the closer something comes to us and the better we know it, then the more mysterious it becomes for us. The greatest mystery to us is not the most distant person, but the one next to us. The mystery of other people is not reduced by getting to know more and more about them. Rather, in their closeness they become more and more mysterious.” [vii]
That’s how it works on our side of the universe, doesn’t it? God understands the big things and the small, the causes and the effects, and for Him it all makes sense. We, however, as the more study anything, the more mysteries open up to us! It is only those who have a surface knowledge of something that believe they have it all figured out. The ones who really study something, for years and years, and really delve deeply into understanding it – astronomy, biology, physics, psychology, cooking, art, or even their own family and friends – as they peel back the onion layers, they discover more wonders and delights and questions than they had when they started. The more they learn the more they realize they don’t know.
God created this world that way on purpose. He designed a place where powerfully intricate, mysteries abound. There are forces in this world like love and fear that can be spoken in a single word, and understood by almost anyone, and yet are beyond explanation even by the greatest scientists and poets.
That makes up part of the beauty, complexity and frustration of living in this world. And it is perfectly illustrated in the beauty, complexity, and frustration, of the Christmas story and the Gospel of Jesus.
An Inside Out Onion
The gospel of Jesus is simple enough for even a small child to understand, but works like an inside-out onion – the more layers you peel back from the gospel and the person of Jesus Christ, the bigger the onion is on the inside. Once you think you understand a layer, you peel back the next, and there are more intricacies, more meaning, more depth, more substance, and more mysteries than you ever could have imagined.[v]
Paul describes the mystery of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
The religious Jews demanded that Jesus prove everything to them by signs and wonders, but even when He did they didn’t believe in Him. The intellectual Greeks wanted everything to be proven by facts, logic and coherent, human arguments. But the way that Jesus revealed Himself, the way He lived, God’s whole of salvation, was offensive to the religious people (who want to earn their way to heaven) and nonsensical to the intellectuals.
And their inability to grasp what God was doing – rather than trying meeting their expectations – was a “stumbling block” that kept them from being able to accept the truth.
This is why Christian theologians emphasize the need for God to open our hearts and minds before we can be saved. Because without His Spirit revealing Himself to us, the Gospel doesn’t make sense. We can’t think God’s thoughts unless God has opened our mind.
A few verses later in 1 Corinthians 2:7-16. Paul says:
“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”
Do you see that? We must be given the Spirit of God to understand what is going on with God’s plan. The religious experts didn’t accept what God was doing because they wanted to earn their way to heaven through things like good deeds and religious ceremony, the great intellectuals didn’t like it either because there were too many unexplained mysteries. No, it is only the ones to whom the Spirit of God is revealed who get this.
That’s why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom.[vi] That’s why we must turn to Him for understanding. That’s why we pray to God to reveal Himself to our lost friends and neighbours – because no matter what, they can’t understand it unless He opens their eyes. That’s why, when we are in crisis – suffering with pain, anxiety, or depression, we are told to cry out to God; because human answers are not good enough. We need to hear from the One who knows what’s going on behind the curtain, the Designer, who knows the beginning and the end, who holds it all together, in whom we can put our hope, faith and trust.
Things like love, fear, hate, joy, salvation, mercy, grace, peace – and the deep questions like “why am I here?”, “what is my purpose?”, “why does everything exist?”, “what is the meaning of my life?” are not discerned by human wisdom. Human wisdom falls utterly short to explain the things that really matter – and even when we get a taste of truth, we peal back the onion and it’s only bigger and more mysterious on the inside.
No, these things are only discerned by God – and so it is in Him that we must put our faith and trust.
So, as we celebrate the advent season, and tell the story of Christmas, let us embrace the paradox and the mystery of what is happening, and let it grow our faith and trust in God.
- Through prophecies God weaves the Gospel of Jesus into the very fabric of reality, over all millennia, from the first people to today.
- God moves the hand of Ceasar to show He is in coontrol of everything, even pagan rulers.
- Jesus shows us what it means to be meek by being born in humility.
- God opens the skies and has angels sing to outcasts and rebels because they needed the good news as much as anyone, and represent all of us outcasts and rebels who need Him too.
- God speaks to gentile foreigners, like us, in a way they can understand, inviting people who didn’t belong, who would never have gotten an invitation, to be a part of the greatest story ever told, and witness the salvation of the world.
And as we remember the mystery of Christmas, let us remember the mystery of why Jesus came – that great absurdity – the plan that we would never have come up with in a million years. God sent His one and only Son, the perfection of glory, to be humiliated and be declared guilty by a condemned world, and murdered by His own creation, exchanging His own body for ours, taking the wrath of God for us.
“God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon Himself our punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. God stands in for godlessness, love stands in for hate, the Holy One for the sinner.”[vii]
And He invites us to be forgiven, to believe in Him, to trust Him, and to be changed by Him.
[v] Borrowed illustration from “The Last Battle” by CS Lewis
[vi] Prov 1:7; 9:10
[vii] (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger, Pg 26)
Matthew 6:19-34, John 15:5-8 are key verses to read and know if we are to understand life as a Christian. They are encouraging, reassuring and powerful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them or referenced them in sermons. Life with Jesus is meant to be a life where our worries are minimized, our joy is maximized, and where we effective and joyful and “bear much fruit”. So how come most of us feel the exact opposite of that?
We love to quote the words of Jesus in John 10:10 to each other,
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Really? Some of us say “my life is full”… but it ain’t full of the things that Jesus was promising. It’s full of problems, frustrating situations, difficult people, money issues, time crunches and fatigue — full to the brim with problems.
Romans 8:31-32 says
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
If God was so loving and gracious to send His Son to die for us, and is willing to forgive our sins through His blood… then He’s already proven that there is no limit to what He will do for us out of His love.
So how come our life doesn’t look like that? Why does our existence, at times, seem so meagre?
The Apostle Paul had to deal with this paradox all the time. How did he reconcile his knowledge of the love of God and the painful life he was living? A few verses later, in Romans 8:35-36, he says,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.””
First he tells us of his unshakeable faith in the love and protection of God, and then proceeds to tell us about his life… trouble, famine, nakedness, danger, swords, and death all day long. Was he crazy? How can “if God is for us, who can be against us” be in the same breath as “we face death all day long”? Do those things really go together in this “abundant”, “fruitful” Christian life we’re supposed to have?
His answer to this conundrum comes in verse 37,
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
“Conquerers”? That doesn’t sound like the life of a conqueror! But there’s a very important word stuck in the middle there. A naughty little word that we don’t want to hear, but is in there anyway. The word “in”. “In all these things…”. Check out what John Piper says about this section:
“What I think “more than conquerors” means for your happiness is that a conqueror has his enemies lying subdued at his feet. You’ve got distress, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, persecution, and there they are, conquered at my feet. ‘More than conquerors’ means they’re not just at my feet. They are serving me. They’re not just in chained in prison. They are serving me. My persecution, my famine, my nakedness, my loss—as painful and as tearful as they are—are my servants. God works them all together for my good.
Now, that good that he works in and through them is the foundation of my happiness. It isn’t the circumstance. There’s plenty of tears. Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Paul says, “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”… So yes, God wants you happy. But he doesn’t do it with circumstance. He does it with himself. He does it with the gospel. And he does it in and through circumstances.”
That’s how to untie this knot. That’s the balance. Therein lies our hope and our perseverance.
Tomorrow I want to show you a picture of how I believe this works. It took me about 3 months to develop this picture, and I’m not saying it’s perfect (it’s more likely that I’m just slow), but it really helps me to remember how life works, and how to keep my priorities straight. I call it “Minding my buckets” and it has everything to do with being happy with God… not with circumstance, but being happy and filled with God himself. Seeking first His kingdom, and his righteousness, and having everything else come after. Connecting to the Vine who is Jesus, trusting the Gardener who is God, and living a life that abides in the source of our life.
Check it out tomorrow.