You all are familiar with the “Footprints in the Sand” poem, right? A man has a dream that he was walking along a beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashes scenes from his life, and most of the time there are two sets of footprints. But after the last scene ended, the man looked back on the beach and saw that sometimes there was only one set of footprints, and they happened to coincide with the very lowest and saddest times in his life. The man was understandably upset that it was at THESE dark times that the Lord seemed to abandon him.
The Lord replies to this man, “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During those times…. when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
For some of us, this poem is our reality. Some of us at times have been so overwhelmed with these lowest and saddest times that we cannot even take one more step forward, and the only way we make it through each day is to be carried by God.
But at other times, our walk with the Lord may leave behind a different kind of trail in the sand.
I once found an alternative take on the footprints poem in a funny comic on Facebook…. In the first panel, God has his arm around the dreamer and says the familiar words, “…where you see one set of footprints is where I carried you.” But there is an alternative ending, where God points off in the distance and says, “Now, THAT long groove is where I DRAGGED you, kicking and screaming.”
I feel like that a lot. LIke God is dragging me to places where I don't really want to go. I don't like hospitals, but I go to hospital visits a lot. I don't like funeral homes, but I do funerals a lot. I have to will myself to go, I often find myself in my car before I go in asking God to help me get out of the car, I don't want to, but I need to...so I ask "please God, send your Holy Spirit to drag me out of this car and to the place I need to be."
And you know what, that's ok. Jesus said, "the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41) and he understood that even when we want to (like the disciples probably wanted to stay awake that night with him and pray), we often fail or need help.
So I do believe that God sometimes bumps us into places and situations we would not choose to go, but that we must. Out of our comfort zones and into the fight. Moses didn't want to face Pharoah, but God told him to go. Gideon didn't want to lead the army, but God sent him anyway. God has a way of getting us off our rear ends and into the plan one way or another.
So let's go, not kicking or screaming, but willingly. Let's say, "I will go" and not need to be dragged. After all the Lord loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7) and he wasn't just talking about money; our time and energy can be given freely to the Lord...or dragged out. I choose to give it freely.
Jesus does speak on the end times a great deal. In various places throughout his ministry he talks about what those days will be like to his followers. We can get hung up trying to figure out the details, trying to pin down exact dates and places...but I try not to do this because he told us not to. He said several times that "no one knows" and clarified that "not even the angels...nor the son" (Matthew 24:36).
So, if we don't know when...what do we do?
Jesus says to "be ready!"
He tells us several parables about it to prove the point. The parable of the Thief in the Night, the good servant, the lamps burning...are all about being ready. And just like a good boy scout, we must be prepared because Jesus may return at any time.
So how do we stay ready?
1. Make sure you are good with God! Have you given your life to God fully? Are you living for Him fully still?
2. Are you living a life worthy of the calling? Is there unrepentant sin in your life?
3. Are you sharing his love with others? If he came today would there be people in your life who would not go to heaven who you might have shared his message with but did not?
Let's be ready. He may return today...or tomorrow...or in a hundred years. We don't know, but we do know we are called to be ready.
I hope you often notice our Core Values as you come into the church building and take time to read them. Those 5 values help our church leadership stay on focus as we seek to live as faithful followers of Jesus. There are many options of good things we could do as a church, but if we focus on those 5, we will stay focused on what God has called us to do.
But, that doesn't mean we always do those 5 things as well as we want to. For example, one of our 5 is passionate worship. And while Wesleyans are known for many wonderful things, being overly excited in worship isn't one of them. I noticed this especially during our mission trip this summer with the youth. We were with several other churches from around the country and in a very different worship setting than our normal Sunday morning experience...different style of music, lots of dancing, lots of clapping...and it took our kids a bit but eventually they really got into it and had fun. Soon they were dancing, laughing, clapping and crying during worship; really giving their whole hearts to God.
But when we came home, they were struggling to transition back into how our congregation is often more reserved.
There isn't a right or wrong way to worship, I am not saying there is, but I do love when people aren't afraid to show their emotions during worship. We should care only what God thinks and not what other people might think. If you want to clap, clap. if you want to raise your hands, raise them. If you can't sing well, so what? God doesn't care about quality but about the heart.
So we will keep aspiring toward passionate worship. It isn't fully realized yet, but we still value it. We still are seeking toward it becoming true in our church. Maybe someday we will be a church where we feel free to worship with our whole hearts...I hope so; because that's what heaven will be like; and why not get ready now?
Recently my family and I spent a week in Colorado. We don't vacation like many families. We like to be active. We like adventures. My boys like to climb, hike, explore and so do Nicole and I....no laying on the beach for us. The capstone to our trip was to summit Twin Sisters Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. It's a 7.5 mile round trip hike with more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain and you end up at the top of a mountain at over 11,000 feet above sea level with 360 views of the Rockies. It's amazing.
And yet, though we had hiked for about 3 hours to get to the top, we didn't stay long. You see clouds were rolling in and the top can be a dangerous place to be. There is no place to take cover. No trees to hide under, no buildings for safety...nothing but rock, so we took some pictures, ate a snack and got down.
In the Christian life we tend to use the phrase a "mountaintop experience" a lot. We all want to have these goose-bump moments with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And while I've had these moments and enjoyed them too, the reality is that the top of a mountain isn't a place we should try to stay. Life isn't lived at the top. Life is lived in between the top and the valley. We are constantly somewhere in between.
In Matthew 17 we read the incredible story of the transfiguration where Jesus takes 3 of his disciples to the top of a mountain and they meet with Moses and Elijah and Jesus is shown in his glory. Peter (of course it's Peter who speaks up) is so impressed he decides they should stay in that moment long term. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Peter is ready to camp out long term. He wants to stay in the mountain top moment for a long time. But, Jesus knows this is just a moment. Only a few verses later they head down the mountain together.
We can't stay on the mountain. We aren't meant to. We take the memory. We carry it with us. It helps us through the valley. But we have to live in our real life...not waiting for the next emotional high, not just hoping for another "transfiguration" type moment to come...but following Jesus in the boring day to day of the places and people of our jobs, schools and homes.
Walk on brothers and sisters, no matter where you roam.
Amos 5 is a good example of a part of the Old Testament that often gets ignored by us because we find it uncomfortable. In these sections, God tells us that he hates the worship of the Jewish people because they are just going through the motions or because they do their religious duties and yet still take advantage of their fellow people. Read this section below and get a sense of how God felt about their worship of Him,
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
That's harsh! That hurts.
Imagine if God watched our worship service (He does) and then told us something similar. I mean ouch!
And yet, if we sing our songs of praise, give our offerings, preach our sermons, take communion...and yet do not love our brothers and sisters or take advantage of them...would God not still feel the same? God doesn't change. If he felt that way in the Old Testament then he still would today. And yes, our sin can be forgiven by Jesus...but shouldn't we seek justice? Shouldn't we seek righteousness? Shouldn't we hate what God hates and love what God loves?
Worship can be very good, but empty worship is nothing. Worship can be very good, but if our hearts are cold toward those in need, how can we worship the God who made those people?
So let justice roll like a river in our homes, in our town, in our community...let it roll in our hearts and then let us worship with the love of God knowing that we love like God!
In John 5 we see an amazing story where Jesus is teaching in a crowded room. It is so crowded in fact, that nobody else can get in. The doors are full, the windows are full and so some men, who have brought their friend to Jesus to be healed take drastic action. They go up on the roof of the house and cut a hole and lower their friend down to Jesus. Imagine the shock on the faces of those inside when dust starts to fall on them and then a hole appears above them...and then a man is lowered by ropes to the ground! It's madness!
Jesus, it says, sees the faith of the friends and forgives the paralyzed man. A few of the religious leaders scoff at this and question Jesus' right to forgive; so in order to prove that he does have the power and right, he also tells the man to get up, take his mat and walk.
And this is the point of my little message today. So far the faith has all been from the friends. The taking to Jesus. The cutting the hole. The lowering down. All of this has been due to the faith of the friends who believed Jesus could heal. But now the man himself has to do something, he has to stand up. And though Jesus tells him he is able, he has to believe it. We don't know how long he has gone without standing, maybe years or maybe his whole life...but the act of standing up must be scary. What if he falls? What if they laugh at him? But he gathers his courage, uses muscles long forgotten and he stands, he walks, he picks up that mat that he used to lie on.
If Jesus tells you to do what you think you cannot do, would you try or would you worry about failing and so stay on the floor in fear?
The faith of others can only take you so far, eventually you will need to stand on your own faith in Jesus.
In college I applied for and was accepted as a D.C (discipleship coordinator) in on my floor in my dorm and the next year promoted for the whole dorm. This role involved planning floor prayer gatherings, being available for counseling or spiritual guidance and working with other D.C's to plan spiritual events.
Unfortunately we were labeled with a different nickname around campus using the same acronym, designated Christians. People jokingly assumed that because we took on this role, we were more spiritual or superior to them. We weren't, we were just trying to help.
The same is true with Sunday School teachers, Youth Leaders, Worship Leaders and even Pastors. We aren't spiritual superheros...just people trying our best to help others grow in faith.
And yet, we are seen as people you delegate your spiritual growth to. Send your kids to Sunday School and their spiritual development is taken care of. Send them to youth camp and they will stay on the straight and narrow. Listen to Pastor Scott's sermon (even if it is just online) and you will be a good Christian.
But we can't outsource our spiritual growth. Classes and groups and sermons are tools, but they can't replace our own ownership of our spiritual health. Just like a personal trainer is helpful in physical fitness but the person is still responsible; so you are still the person in charge of your own soul.
There are no designated Christians...just Christians. We help each other, of course, but we also must own our own faith growth. Are you caring for your soul regularly? Are you taking ownership of your own spiritual health through daily study, prayer and time with God? You can't outsource it...you got to own it.
Many of you have likely seen the hit movie "Finding Nemo" in which the forgetful character Dory has to repeat over and over to "just keep swimming" as her mantra to never give up.
It reminds me of Hebrews 12:1 where we are encouraged to "let us run with endurance the race marked out for us."
I am not a runner. Unless a big dog is chasing me I try not to run; but years ago my wife ran in the Mini Marathon and trained hard for the 13 mile race. She ran almost every day, helping to work her way up so that when race day came in May she would be ready. And she did great. I was there as moral support, of course, but she did all the hard work...pushing through to the finish line ahead of her goal time. It was hard, she was sore and tired but she didn't quit. She endured.
That's what the author of Hebrews tells us to do. Keep going. Life will be hard. You will be tested. Don't quit. Keep going. Just keep running. One step at a time. One day at a time. One moment at a time. Keep praying. Keep believing. Keep going. Just keep running.
One day this race will be over, and that will be a good day; but for now we run.
There is an old saying that bears repeating. "God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines." What does this mean?
Well, it means that God uses us (flawed people) to do his perfect will. There has only ever been one perfect person and that was Jesus. Every other person in history who has been used by God has been flawed and sinful. The people in the Bible were flawed. Abraham was flawed. Moses was flawed. David was flawed. Peter, Paul and James were flawed. And the people since the Bible have been flawed too. Martin Luther, John Welsley, Mother Teresa...all flawed. And yet each of these people has been used to do God's will in their own way....and God can take their efforts and use it for his perfect will.
My family recently took a trip to St Louis and went to the City Museum. It's not really a museum at all, but a playground of slides, tunnels and caves made of old stuff taken from around the city and put together by artists who want to reuse "junk" and make it new again. With great creativity and effort they took trash and made it amazing.
That's what God does. He takes our crooked sticks and makes straight lines. He takes our junk and makes treasure.
So what can God do with you today?
Have you ever had a car that pulls one direction or the other? Often it's subtle, so subtle that you barely notice or don't think much of it. Your car just slightly drifts one direction, so you turn the wheel back the other way just a bit to make up for it...to go straight. This is called being "out of alignment" and you can get it fixed at any repair shop or tire place. If you don't fix it, it wears your tires unevenly and can cause you to get a flat more quickly. But even more dangerous is the chance that you accidentally overcorrect while driving and crash...all because your tires aren't quite going in the same direction.
Churches can be the same. One person may love missions (and missions are good). Another might love Bible study (and Bible study is good). Yet another might love music (also good). More might love fellowship (still good)...and on and on it goes. Each person may have different preferences about what good thing they love most in church; and that's ok. But what causes problems is when they start to argue or fight or try to control the others over what is most important or should get the most funding or the most announcements or the most attention of the Pastor...this is where the danger lies. Each person, trying to go their own direction, causes the church to go flat or even worse to crash. A church must have a unified mission in order to work together or it will end up out of alignment. That church can still have music and fellowship and Bible study and all those other things, so long as they understand that each of those things only serves the larger mission; that keeps us aligned and moving together.
We have a mission "to make disciples." Not to make a better choir or to make more events...those are fine, but they are not the mission; so don't get confused. We make disciples or we die. The mission moves us. The mission is our destination and the Holy Spirit is our fuel. So let's get moving. We need the music people to work with the mission people and the Bible study people too...all working together to make disciples who make disciples till Jesus returns.