Symbols of a Working Faith

vets day

Three kinds of workers illustrate a working Christian faith.

Please read 2 Timothy 2:1-7 in your Bible.  I use the NIV (1984).

From a sermon by Jeff Strite, “Til Death Do Us Part” 2/15/2009: “Every year, hundreds of Civil war buffs get together and put on mock battles. They don uniforms that soldiers of the North and South would have worn back then.

“During one reenactment, it was a hot sweltering day. The civil war buffs are sweating as they maneuvered into position for their battle, facing the usual frustrations involved in setting up such a display. However, one of the ‘Rebels’ got so tired, hot, and frustrated he threw in the towel and headed for the refreshment tent. As he tugged off his wool uniform he was heard to grumble: ‘I quit. We’re not going to win anyway.’

And, of course — he was right! Here was this civil war buff — who knows HOW everything is going to turn out. He’s tired, hot, and discouraged. He KNOWS his side isn’t going to win anyway… so he quits.”

Christian, we are in a similar situation.  The Bible tells us (as we learned last Sunday) who will win the war of good versus evil.  God wins!  How can we consider giving up when we know we’re on the winning side? I know from our vantage point it may appear we’re losing this particular battle, but the outcome of the war is not in doubt.  God calls us to soldier on.  That was Paul’s message to Timothy, too.

The passage begins with Paul calling Timothy to be STRONG, but not in his own strength, in the strength that God’s GRACE provides.  In this way – only in this way – will Timothy be able to keep his calling as a pastor.  His task is to pass along the faith to those who are spiritually mature and share in his work of preaching the truth about Jesus.

Paul uses three illustrations to show Timothy that endurance, obedience, discipline, and perseverance are going to be required to accomplish this work.  If we will faithfully exhibit these marks of integrity God will faithfully make our work fruitful.

  1. Two things distinguish a soldier’s work: endurance and obedience (vs. 3+4).

The first virtue exemplified by a soldier is Endurance.  The phrase ENDURE HARDSHIP is a new word created by Paul, combining the Greek words for “suffer,” “bad,” and “together.”  Normally, we think of endurance as being something we do solo, gritting our teeth and getting through.  Enduring together is a better and more godly way of thinking about it.

The second virtue illustrated by a soldier’s life is Obedience.  A GOOD SOLDIER’s priority is pleasing his COMMANDING OFFICER.  All followers of Jesus have God the Father as our COMMANDING OFFICER. This Greek word literally meant “the one who enlisted us as a soldier.”

In Philippians 2:25 & Philemon 2 the word for GOOD SOLDIER is translated as FELLOW WORKER, referring to Paul’s associate ministers of the Gospel.

With that priority, a GOOD SOLDIER avoids getting INVOLVED IN CIVILIAN AFFAIRS, which are “business, occupations.”  A soldier temporarily sets aside interest in a career as it would distract him.  Instead, he focuses on being a soldier, fulfilling his CO’s orders.

  1. One thing distinguishes an athlete’s work: discipline (v. 5).

His priority is receiving the VICTOR’S CROWN.  This is stephanos, the crown made of laurel leaves that was given to the winner.  It was a kind of “key to the city,” as the one wearing it was treated like a hero all day.  The word for the kind of crown worn by royalty was diadema; headgear that gave the wearer a different kind of celebrity.

With that priority, an athlete COMPETES ACCORDING TO THE RULES – that is – he exercises discipline.  An athlete demonstrates discipline while preparing for competition, devoting time and effort in training.  When he competes, an athlete who truly wants to win competes within the rules of the game.  We’ve seen lots of notorious examples of people who cheated and ultimately lost the big prize.

Self-discipline is difficult, but it is always more satisfying and easier than discipline exerted on us by others.  Paul specified what self-discipline meant for pastors in vs. 23-24.

  1. One thing distinguishes a farmer’s work: perseverance (v. 6).

His priority is receiving a SHARE OF THE CROPS.  In fact, Paul wrote that the HARDWORKNG FARMER deserved FIRST SHARE OF THE CROPS he raised.  Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5:18, THE WORKER DESERVES HIS WAGES.  As a culture, we’ve gone from being farmers to being gardeners to ordering our food delivered to us.  In these transitions we’ve lost our personal connection to the land and the patience that working the soil demands.  We have to turn to the remaining farmers to learn perseverance.

With that priority, the farmer works hard; he demonstrates perseverance.  Seed does not grow overnight and it will not grow as productively if it is not tended.  The farmer plants the seed with the hope of a good harvest to follow.  While he waits, the farmer tries to reduce the effects of things he can’t control (weather) by doing things he can control (seed selection, weed control, irrigation).  In the field, there is no such thing as “fast food.”  It all takes time.

Three kinds of workers illustrate a working Christian faith.

At the end of our passage (v. 7), Paul did not over-interpret these figures of speech, but instead called on Timothy to REFLECT on them, certain that God would supply him with personal INSIGHT into their meaning.  Similarly, when any of us read the Bible, we need to take time to pray and think about what we’ve read to gain a personal application of the truth.

A chaplain was speaking to a soldier on a cot in a hospital. “You have lost an arm in the great cause,” he said. “No,” said the soldier with a smile. “I didn’t lose it–I gave it.” In that same way, Jesus did not lose His life. He gave it purposefully.

https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/10716/christian-disciplines-by-paul-fritz?ref=TextIllustrationSerps

RESOURCES:

Sermon #534

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

The Daily Study Bible Series

Zondervan Bible Commentary

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When Sleepers Wake

sleeper

Judgment follows this life, then eternity.

Please read Daniel 12:1-4 in your Bible.  I researched the NIV (1984) for this message.

In a poll taken in 2017, 69% of Americans said that death was a subject they generally avoided.  Not surprisingly, this means that the majority of Americans (72%) have no written plans.  Of the unprepared, the chief reason given for being unprepared is “Haven’t Got Around to It” (49%) with “Never Considered It” second at 27%.

(“Views and Experiences with End-of-Life Medical Care in the U.S.,”  https://www.kff.org/report-section/views-and-experiences-with-end-of-life-medical-care-in-the-us-findings/.)

The reality is that the mortality rate in America is 100%.  Everyone dies.  Death brings a lot of work for the survivors.  These are certainties.  So it certainly seems wise to be prepared and make surviving as easy as possible for our family members especially.

What is true in legal and social matters is also true in our spiritual life.  By faith we hope to be raised to eternal life after life in this world ends.  We take the first step of faith by accepting Jesus as our Savior and thereby gain heaven.  But our preparations for life after death do not stop there.  The way we live after that decision, the subsequent steps of faith (like baptism, for instance), and the life-long process of spiritual maturity also prepare us for eternal life.

Daniel received a vision of what lies beyond death and further, beyond the entire human race.  We’ll take a look at a small but essential part of that vision this morning.

Our passage begins with the words AT THAT TIME, referring back to 11:36-45, which describes a great war fought against the Kings of the North and South by an unnamed third king.  After a great conflict, this king will be defeated.  Our passage begins at the time following that conflict.

  1. What’s going to happen tomorrow? (1-2)

By “tomorrow” I refer to the end of time. In the Old Testament it is called the “Day of the Lord.”  In the New Testament it is called the “Second Coming of Jesus Christ.”  It will happen “tomorrow” in the sense that it is a future event, but the timing is uncertain.

Who is Michael?  Michael is also referred to as A GREAT PRINCE in 10:13+21 where an unidentified supernatural being (earlier visions – chapters 8+9 – name Gabriel as the messenger) said that Michael helped him resist THE PRINCE OF THE PERSIAN KINGDOM.  Daniel has two of four mentions of Michael in the entire Bible.  Here are the other two: in Jude 9 it is written that Michael was an ARCHANGEL who contended with the devil for the body of Moses.  In Revelation 12:7, Michael led angels in a heavenly battle against an ENORMOUS RED DRAGON.  In all four of these passages, Michael PROTECTS God’s people.  The word “protect” literally means “to stand beside.”  Picture a body guard or Secret Service agent who’s an angel!

After the great conflict of kings, the angel Michael WILL ARISE. ARISE is translated from the Hebrew word amad.  It meant to stand, be assigned, presented, or appointed.  It is almost exclusive to Daniel.

Michael’s appearance will be a signal event, beginning a time of greatest DISTRESS.  The word DISTRESS (Hebrew, sara) means “trouble, calamity, anguish, or hardship.”  The worst of times will precede the best of times.

This DISTRESS will be worse than anything experienced from THE BEGINNING OF NATIONS UNTIL THEN.  In terms of biblical history, the BEGINNING OF THE NATIONS can be traced back to Genesis 10, the accounting of nations composed of the three sons of Noah.  From that specific point in history until an undefined point in the future, Michael’s appearance will signal a stretch of unparalleled suffering.

Some interpreters want to harmonize this verse with the mention of a GREAT TRIBULATION in Revelation 7:14. Also; Jesus referred to a similar circumstance in MTW 24:21, using language very similar to Daniel’s.  These passages describe similar events but a linkage isn’t strictly necessary.  It’s enough for us at the moment to merely observe Daniel’s teaching.

The text doesn’t identify this DISTRESS as persecution.  Instead, it says only that Daniel’s PEOPLE will be DELIVERED from this time of DISTRESS.  It could be a world-wide problem.

This has been a lot of bad news, but here’s where the good news is found: in the promise of deliverance, made to EVERYONE WHOSE NAME IS FOUND WRITTEN IN THE BOOK.  This BOOK is linked to other Scriptures that mention a listing of persons who have eternal life (see EXS 32:33; PSS 69:28; MLI 3:16; LKE 10:20; PPS 4:3; HBS 12:22-23; RVN 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12+15; 21:27).  As you can see, the image of “The Book of Life” is one that enjoys solid biblical support.

The promise is that the enrolled WILL BE DELIVERED.  In this context, the deliverance is from the DISTRESS.  In Revelation 21:8, the promise goes further: those enlisted will be DELIVERED from the power of Satan and the “Second Death.”

As we have noted, the point of the passage is resurrection will precede judgment.  The angel said MULTITUDES will be involved.  In point of fact, all people will be resurrected to face God’s judgment; believers & unbelievers alike.

SLEEP is either a metaphor for death or for a period of unconsciousness between death and Judgment Day.  Take your pick of either interpretation; the biblical evidence is not as decisive as some want you to believe.  (In fact, in my experience, people who argue against an interim period of unconsciousness (aka “soul sleep”) do so with unnecessary vociferousness that makes me suspect their overreaction is based on their inner sense they are wrong.  Just saying.) Historically, we know Jews of this time believed in a period of unconsciousness between the moment of death and the Day of the Lord.

There will be a division of the sleepers when they awaken.  Jesus made this same prediction in John 5:28-29,

“DO NOT BE AMAZED AT THIS, FOR A TIME IS COMING WHEN ALL WHO ARE IN THEIR GRAVES WILL HEAR HIS VOICE AND COME OUT – THOSE WHO HAVE DONE GOOD WILL RISE TO LIVE, AND THOSE WHO HAVE DONE EVIL WILL RISE TO BE CONDEMNED.”

SOME of the sleepers will awaken to EVERLASTING LIFE.  This is a reference to heaven; living eternally with God and His people.

SOME will awaken to SHAME AND EVERLASTING CONTEMPT.  This is a reference to hell: final and complete separation from God.  In Revelation 20, the division is between those who are blessed with LIFE and those who suffer a SECOND DEATH.

The word EVERLASTING means exactly what you think it does – endless, even timeless.  God is forever in the present.  Those welcomed into His presence will join Him in that spiritual state.

  1. What do I need to do today? (3-4)

First, I need to BE WISE, because the reward for wisdom is shining LIKE THE BRIGHTNESS OF THE HEAVENS.  See Daniel 11:33-35, where this promise is described in more detail.  The word WISE meant to “observe carefully, instruct, act circumspectly.”

Second, I need to LEAD MANY TO RIGHTEOUSNESS, because the reward is to be LIKE THE STARS FOR EVER AND EVER.  The most important “fruit” or outcome or even proof a truly godly life is helping others to share our faith; making new disciples.  The angel even quantifies this fruit with the word MANY.  This word recommends ambition in our witness.  Counter to our unfortunate tendency to look after ourselves, Christianity is NOT a self-help group.  Like Jesus, we exist to serve, not to be served.

Note two important consistencies in these promises: They both elaborate on the eternal rewards given to those God judges to be true believers.  In both cases, the reward is to “shine brightly.”  This is a figure of speech for living praiseworthy lives.  We will shine with the reflected glory of God.

Daniel’s task was to CLOSE UP AND SEAL THE WORDS OF THE SCROLL.  (See also Daniel 8:26.)  What is on the SCROLL? Presumably, the words of this prophecy, even though at no time is Daniel commanded to write it down.  (This is contrary to Revelation 21:5 where John is told to write down God’s words and Revelation 22:10 where he is commanded to NOT seal up the words of the prophecy.)  It was to be closed and sealed UNTIL THE TIME OF THE END. Are we to connect this with the scroll in Revelation whose seven seals are broken open?

Why keep it closed and sealed?  We can make several observations here.

One,  in ancient times, the originals of all important documents were kept locked up.  Duplicates might be written out, but the originals were kept safely against the need to settle future disputes. The scribe who wrote out the record affixed his seal, as did the various witnesses.  These seals distinguished the original version from all copies.  Taking this into account, it seems most likely that the angel is commanding Daniel to keep the original version from all revision and corruption.  Only the revealed word of God in the words God inspired is sufficient information for our salvation.

Two, the cryptic phrase “MANY WILL GO HERE AND THERE TO INCREASE KNOWLEDGE” is offered as an explanation.  The phrase described repetitive motions, like a swimmer’s arms or harvesters gathering grain.  It is a figure of speech for people searching for knowledge of the future and spiritual things.  We might say, “They’re going to rush hither and yon to search for the truth.”  Closing and sealing the text prevents them from potentially misusing the message delivered to Daniel, as he holds the authorized copy safe.

Three, God’s purpose in closing and sealing may be found in vs. 9-10:

HE REPLIED, “GO YOUR WAY, DANIEL, BECAUSE THE WORDS ARE CLOSED UP AND SEALED UNTIL THE TIME OF THE END.  MANY WILL BE PURIFIED, SPOTLESS AND REFINED, BUT THE WICKED WILL CONTINUE TO BE WICKED.  NONE OF THE WICKED WILL UNDERSTAND, BUT THOSE WHO ARE WISE WILL UNDERSTAND.”

This is similar to Revelation 22:11, another angelic message;

“LET HIM WHO DOES WRONG CONTINUE TO DO WRONG; LET HIM WHO DOES RIGHT CONTINUE TO DO RIGHT; AND LET HIM WHO IS HOLY CONTINUE TO BE HOLY.”

Verses like these emphasize the rule of God over human free will and His foreknowledge of who will be saved.  It is a warning to continue to be faithful, even though there are people who will stubbornly deny God all the way to hell.  As 1 John 3:9 says, NO ONE WHO IS BORN OF GOD WILL CONTINUE TO SIN.  It is by faith and by the Holy Spirit that God’s word is understood.  This prophecy would be CLOSED to those who lack the faith to understand it, sealed against those who would deny its truthfulness.

Fourth, this statement is typical to apocalyptic literature.  A  reason for that may be to protect the identity of the writer until after his death.

Fifth, CLOSED and SEALED are figures of speech similar to Paul’s use of the word “mystery” to refer to something that was previously unknown.

Whatever CLOSED and SEALED is supposed to mean, we should not lose sight of the lesson made in this prophecy:

Judgment follows this life, then eternity.

Some Bible scholars over-simplify the Old Testament.  They say, for example, that the doctrines of resurrection and eternal life are not to be found in the OT or are dimmed.  (Other examples: JOB 14:11-14; 19:26; PSS 16:10-11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:23-24; ISH 25:8; 26:19: HSA 13:14.)  To be sure, the picture of the afterlife is not as clear in the OT as i/t NT.  For example, some Scriptures refer to the abode of the dead as Sheol, a place where ghostly versions of deceased folk (2SL 12:23; JOB 7:9; ECS 9:5+10) exist, but don’t really live, awaiting the Day of the Lord.  But this is one of many reasons we talk about the Bible being a “progressive revelation.”  That means that God revealed more and more of the truth as time progressed and as we read from Genesis to Revelation.

Perhaps you’d agree our passage today is as clear a reference to resurrection and eternal life as a person would hope to find anywhere in the Bible.  That’s why I felt lead to this passage, to affirm these two truths on All Saints Sunday.  Today of all days we need to have our hope for eternal life undergirded by what God’s messenger told Daniel.

 

A video version of this message may be seen on YouTube at “EBCSF.”

 

RESOURCES:

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Gleason L. Archer, Jr.

More Hard Sayings of the OT, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

The Daily Study Bible Series, D.S. Russell.

TruLuv

Please read Hosea 14 in your Bible.  Full disclosure: I used the NIV (1984) for this article.

REPENTANCE

God truly loves those who repent.

          I saw a video recently of a lady who entered a kennel to attempt to win the trust of a pup who had been abused all his life and consequently growled at and cowered before any people who came near.  This lady approached the dog cautiously, with a treat in one hand, reaching out with the other, open-palmed.  Somehow with a combination of her voice and touch, she got the dog to respond to her positively, taking the treat.  Very soon after that, the dog was able to be let out of the kennel.  Its demeanor was completely transformed; it played with other dogs and acted like a pup should.

The video was offered as a metaphor on human behavior; sometimes people, like this pup, have known little other than abuse.  They don’t know how to receive love because they have been shown so little love.  However, once they take a chance and experience true love, a switch is flipped and they are somehow enabled to be loved and can even learn how to love others.  True love is a redemptive force.

(You can see the video for yourself at https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:ugcPost:6450598322699927552.)

  1. TruLuv for God begins w/ repentance (1-3, 9)

In this passage, RETURN is the word for repentance.  In Hebrew, the word is sub.  It has a variety of meanings, all along the lines of turning back, returning, restoring.  We can visualize it as a turning away from sin, turning back to God.  Walking toward sin (giving into temptation) is walking away from God; there is a 180 degree difference.

We read two specific parts to repentance.  The first is that repentance is a change of direction. As verse one states, RETURN TO THE LORD YOUR GOD.

Second, realizing words DO count, repentance is asking God to forgive you. Verses two and three make this truth plain; TAKE WORDS WITH YOU…SAY TO HIM.  What are we to say to God?  Hosea reveals five statements we must sincerely make to God:

One: “I admit I am guilty of sin.  We are to plead, as Hosea did, FORGIVE ALL OUR SINS.  Redemption comes to those who admit to having a problem called sin, one we can’t fix it on our own.  Redemption is an act of God’s grace, not our merit.

Two: “Lord, please forgive me.”  As the prophet did, pray God will RECEIVE US GRACIOUSLY.  Through Jesus Christ, God has fixed the problem of sin; He can save you.

Three: “I reject worldly ways and self-reliance.”  This is what is meant by the phrase ASSYRIA CANNOT SAVE US; WE WILL NOT MOUNT WAR-HORSES.

Four: “I reject false gods.”  Idolatry takes on more subtle forms in our time; self-made religion is the more common form of our modern idolatry.  It is no less deadly, however, than fashioning a false god image and worshiping it.  We see the rejection of idols in verses three and eight; WE WILL NEVER AGAIN SAY ‘OUR GODS’ TO WHAT OUR OWN HANDS HAVE MADE and WHAT MORE HAS EPHRAIM TO DO WITH IDOLS?

Five: “God, I accept your forgiveness and offer praise to You.”  Verse two uses language of sacrifice, though in the NIV it reads, WE…OFFER THE FRUIT OF OUR LIPS.  This literally says, “we offer our lips (bulls) as sacrifice.”  The author of Hebrews would use similar language in 13:15; OFFER A SACRIFICE OF PRAISE.

Why should we repent?  To be forgiven, of course, but also because it is the right thing to do.  As verse nine says, THE WAYS OF THE LORD ARE RIGHT.

Verse nine also tells us about the repentant person.  These qualities are similar to what is written in Psalm 107:43; Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the LORD.

He is wise.  WHO IS WISE? HE WILL REALIZE THESE THINGS.

He has discernment (the ability to distinguish between good and evil).  WHO IS DISCERNING? HE WILL UNDERSTAND THEM.

He is headed in the right direction THE RIGHTEOUS WALK IN THE WAYS OF THE LORD.

Verse nine also tells us something about the unrepentant person: THE REBELLIOUS STUMBLE.  A refusal to obey God causes a person to STUMBLE; they reject the truth and refuse to repent.

  1. TruLuv from God restores His beloved (3-8).

God loves you too much to leave you an orphan.  As verse three declares; IN YOU THE FATHERLESS FIND COMPASSION. This is a recurring promise in the Bible (for example, see Exodus 22:22 and Deuteronomy 10:18).  God puts us in families and in church families so we can serve Him, serve each other, and serve our communities.

God’s love is expressed in three promises made in v. 4.

First, I WILL HEAL THEIR WAYWARDNESS.  Ironically, the word WAYWARDNESS has the same root as the word RETURN, but describes turning away from God, not to Him.

Second, I WILL…LOVE THEM FREELY.  This is the unconditional love of God.

Third, MY ANGER HAS TURNED AWAY FROM THEM.  Forgiveness turns away wrath.

God’s love will cause you to thrive, not just survive: I WILL BE LIKE DEW TO ISRAEL (5). This blessed state is expressed in ten promises made in verses five to eight.

HE WILL BLOSSOM LIKE A LILY (5).

HE WILL SEND DOWN HIS ROOTS (5).

HIS YOUNG SHOOTS WILL GROW (6).

HIS SPLENDOR WILL BE LIKE AN OLIVE TREE (6).

HIS FRAGRANCE LIKE A CEDAR OF LEBANON (6).

MEN WILL DWELL AGAIN IN HIS SHADE (7).

HE WILL FLOURISH LIKE THE GRAIN (7).

HE WILL BLOSSOM LIKE A VINE (7).

HIS FAME WILL BE LIKE THE WINE FROM LEBANON (7).

I WILL ANSWER HIM AND CARE FOR HIM (8).

Verse eight shows all good things come from God: I AM LIKE A GREEN PINE TREE; YOUR FRUITFULNESS COMES FROM ME.

God truly loves those who repent.

          Pastor Bledar Valca told this story: “Some years ago a murderer was sentenced to death. The murderer’s brother, to whom the State was deeply indebted for former services, besought the governor of the State for his brother’s pardon. The pardon was granted, and the man visited his brother with the pardon in his pocket. “What would you do,” he said to him, “if you received a pardon?” “The first thing I would do,” he answered, “is to track down the judge who sentenced me, and murder him; and the next thing I would do is to track down the chief witness, and murder him.” The brother rose, and left the prison with the pardon in his pocket.

https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/repentance-bledar-valca-sermon-on-repentance-104293?ref=SermonSerps

This tale is intended to teach us that if there is no repentance, there can be no pardon.  Sin cannot be forgiven without the offender asking for repentance.

The good news is God loves every sinner who repents.  His forgiveness is total, cleansing the worst sinner from every last bit of guilt and shame.  He fully restores those who He forgives, recreating their moral perfection with a perfectly clean slate.

God acted to save us from our sins, just as He acted in history to restore His people after their exile.  Much of the news the prophet Hosea delivered was bad news, condemning sin and warning them of God’s coming wrath.  However, the book ends with this stirring call to repentance in order to have God’s forgiveness, the blessing of His grace.

Make this your personal experience.  Admit your sin; confess it to God.  Ask His forgiveness and receive His love.

 

RESOURCES:

Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance (2nd Edition)

Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce, Ed.

The Answer is “No and Yes”

ambition

The question: “Is this as good as it gets?”

          Ambition can get you in a lot of trouble.  Too much is a problem, as is too little. If a person has ambitions that are selfish or materialistic, they’ll find the pursuit of God to be frustrating.  Ambition that creates competition can be divisive.

Pastors are not immune to this issue; there’s a surprising amount of literature on the subject.  For example, I read an article titled “The Ambition Engine” by Pastor Skye Jethani.  He wrote about how his seminary experience revealed a dark side to pastoral ambition. “On the first day in a small class, when asked to introduce ourselves and say why we had entered seminary, the first student said, ‘I’m here because I’m going to be the next Bill Hybels.’ Really, I thought. Hope that works out for you.

“The next said, ‘My grandfather was a pastor, my father was a pastor, and I’m supposed to be a pastor too.’ Daddy issues? The third student revealed his three-year plan to become senior pastor and then transform his congregation into a megachurch. ‘My denomination wants me to have an M.Div. degree,’ he said, ‘but once I’ve proven I can grow a big church, I don’t think they’ll make me finish the degree.’ Good grief, I thought.”

https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2010/fall/ambitionengine.html

Yes, ambition can cause some particularly stupid notions.  Achieving a balance requires deep knowledge of one’s self, obedience to the Holy Spirit, and a willingness to change to meet changing circumstances.

On way to promote a healthy balanced ambition is to keep asking yourself, “Is this as good as it gets?”  The answer will lead to maturing faith if your ambition sits squarely on God.  In Philippians, Paul evidences a good balance of ambition and contentment.  We’ll look at it this morning following the “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” method.

“Is this as good as it gets?”

  1. No way – God is not finished with you (Philippians 1:6).

CONFIDENT in the Greek meant “persuaded, convinced, trusting in the object.”  You might say this word refers to an earned trust.

Paul used this word five times in his letters, twice here in Philippians (see Galatians 5:10; Philippians 1:6; 2:24; Philemon 1:21; Hebrews 6:9).  Of these references, twice he was CONFIDENT IN THE LORD (Galatians 5:10 and Philippians 2:24).  The other three times his confidence was in the recipients of his letters.  Paul never expressed confidence based on himself, only on t LORD and His people.  The LORD had earned Paul’s trust and though church folk disappointed him, Paul knew t LORD would never abandon his people.

The phrase BEGAN…CARRY ON TO COMPLETION encompasses the scope of salvation.  God took the initiative with each of us; He BEGAN the process of salvation right after the sin of Adam and Eve.  God has not abandoned or forgotten any of His people; He will save everyone who calls on Him.  The beginning and the end are in God’s hands; let there be no doubt about that.  But we are all still in process; let there be no doubt about that either.

How long will the process last?  Paul’s answer here was UNTIL THE DAY OF CHRIST JESUS.  The DAY OF CHRIST JESUS occurs just six times in the New Testament; three of them here in Philippians.  This DAY is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the event that signals the completion of God’s work of salvation.

The life we know right now cannot be as good as it gets because we are in process, and the process is not complete.  The Bible calls this process “sanctification,” a word that means becoming increasingly holy.

If we are convinced that some day in the past or the present life is as good as it gets, we must be frozen at a point in our maturing.  All of us need to cultivate a little “godly discontent” in this regard.  We should always acknowledge that the biggest room in our home is “room for improvement.”

“Is this as good as it gets?”

  1. Yes – be content (Philippians 4:12).

Paul has seen it all: times of NEED and times of PLENTY.  He did not exaggerate in the least.  On the PLENTY side, he grew up in a family wealthy enough to purchase Roman citizenship.  On the “needy” side, he suffered a great deal because he faithfully preached the Gospel (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 for a lengthy list of all Paul suffered for the sake of the Gospel).  This fact proved that Paul’s joy did not depend on his circumstances.  Even in all his sufferings he was CONTENT will all God provided.

Having seen it all, Paul learned the SECRET OF BEING CONTENT IN EACH AND EVERY SITUATION.  It was a “SECRET” in the sense that contentment is something learned by experience and by individual commitment.  No one can be content for you or teach it to you.  It must come from within your heart.  Again, Paul’s contentment was not limited to moments of ease; EACH AND EVERY SITUATION includes all the normal and extraordinary situations he faced.

Isn’t contentment the opposite of ambition?  On the surface, contentment can feel like saying “I don’t need or want any more.  I am fine with what I have/what I am right now.”  On the surface, ambition can feel like a hunger that cannot be satisfied, a dissatisfaction that motivates movement.

To me, it’s more helpful to see these emotional conditions as two ends of a balancing pole.  Wire-walkers sometimes perform with a pole in their hands, using it to achieve balance on the wire.  Similarly, contentment and ambition are two virtues we hold in balance to keep us steady as we make our way through life.  There will be circumstances where we need to be more content and others where more ambition is needed.  God supplies wisdom so we know the difference. Our final note on this passage narrows the issue down for us.

“Is this as good as it gets?”

  1. Yes and no – be content with God’s material provision;

be ambitious for godliness instead (Philippians 3:13-14).

In humility, Paul admitted he hadn’t TAKEN HOLD of all Jesus had done for him.  The phrase TAKEN HOLD means to “seize, grasp the meaning, understand.”

He hadn’t yet been raised to heaven.

He hadn’t been MADE PERFECT (12).

Those things happen on the other side of this life.  And yet, at that moment, Paul had as his ambition to take hold of as much of it as possible on this side of life.

Paul noted two steps in achieving this ambition.

One: FORGETTING WHAT IS BEHIND.  God gave me a series of one-liners to understand and apply this truth:

– Resist the urge to gold-plate the past.  The days behind held their share of sorrows too.

– Resist the urge to hold grudges.

– Forgive and forget the offense, but hold tight to the lessons learned.

– Seek forgiveness from people and God wherever offense and sin is unresolved.

– Reject the devil’s false guilt.

– Love unconditionally, as God has loved you.

– Remember people in the most positive light.

– Sentiment clouds our judgment; best avoid it.

– Discard limitations your past places on you.

Two: STRAINING TOWARD WHAT IS AHEAD.  Imagine the victory, then pour yourself into achieving it under God’s direction.

No amount of effort will change the past.  Some of your efforts may immediately change the present.  Every effort will have an effect on the future.  That fact alone ought to dictate where we devote our attention.

For the believer, Jesus awaits us on the other side of the finish line.  We pour our heart and mind and strength into faithful obedience because we await His welcome on the other side of that line.  If our eyes are on anything other than the finish line, we tend to veer off course and/or slow down.

The Apostle Paul undertook one method in realizing his ambition: I PRESS ON.  The phrase PRESS ON pictures a runner stretching forward to cross the finish line.  The athlete is pouring every last bit of strength into finishing the race; his effort leaves everything on the field of competition.  Nothing needs to be reserved for after the race of life because there is nothing left to be done after this race.

For many of us, life is a marathon, not a sprint.  The effort required to be faithful does not relent until death comes to us.  Quitting is not even an option.  When weariness comes, we may have to change our pace, but we keep moving on toward our heavenly goal.

Paul had one goal in life: TO WIN THE PRIZE FOR WHICH GOD HAS CALLED ME HEAVENWARD IN CHRIST JESUS.  The PRIZE in this case is eternal life; a forever spent in God’s presence and in fellowship with the rest of His people.  We know that because verse eleven ends with a reference to THE RESURRECTION FROM THE DEAD.

There is nothing this world can offer that compares with heaven.   Our problem is not so much having trouble believing that, but our problem is more often remembering that.  We don’t always behave like people who are headed for heaven, do we?  The world can easily distract us and our human nature can easily betray us so we don’t act as heaven-bound folk.  That’s called SIN and we need to avoid it and repent of it when we fail to avoid it.

The parts of us that survive the death of the body are the good and godly things.  Nothing evil or worldly makes it into heaven.  It’s upon us to partner with the Holy Spirit in filling our days with godly words and deeds.

“Is this as good as it gets?”

          A man became envious of his friends because they had larger and more luxurious homes. So he listed his house with a real estate firm, planning to sell it and to purchase a more impressive home. Shortly afterward, as he was reading the classified section of the newspaper, he saw an ad for a house that seemed just right. He promptly called the realtor and said, “A house described in today’s paper is exactly what I’m looking for. I would like to go through it as soon as possible!” The agent asked him several questions about it and then replied, “But sir, that’s your house your describing.”

https://www.sermonsearch.com/sermon-illustrations/1126/house-for-sale/

God revealed to Paul that he should be continually ambitious for spiritual maturity but content with the material things God had already provided.  This allowed Paul to be undeterred by circumstances, numbers, or any other material signs of success or failure.  That is a worthy example for us to follow.

Here’s one way we can put this into practice.  The next time you feel compelled to upgrade to the bigger, faster, newer, or prettier version of something we already have, require yourself to make a matching contribution to church or charity.  Doubling the expense will cause you to think twice about buying the item at all and might just simplify your life.

The Good Old Ways

Take a moment to read Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

old-age-sticks-and-modernism-2-1-728

Image from: https://www.slideshare.net/Louendi/old-age-sticks-and-modernism-2

Classic One-Liners About Age

* Regular naps prevent old age, especially if you take them while driving. Author Unknown

* I’ve learned that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes. Andy Rooney

* When you are dissatisfied and would like to go back to youth, think of algebra. Will Rogers

* I’m at an age when my back goes out more than I do.

* Whatever you may look like, marry a man your own age — as your beauty fades, so will his eyesight. Phyllis Diller
* Bottom of Form

He’s so old that when he orders a three-minute egg, they ask for the money up front.

* When I was a boy the Dead Sea was only sick. George Burns

* You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.

* It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Woody Allen

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-blumenthal/aging-comedy_b_1128087.html

This morning I want to draw particular attention to our summary statement:

God gives joys and trials at every stage of life.

          The paradoxical thing about that statement is that while it true that joy is a gift, it is also a pursuit.  This is what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes wants us to understand.  It’s not enough to wait around for joy to fall on you, each of us is to pursue the things that are God-given sources of joy.  Effort and intention are necessary for experiences of joy.

We need to also acknowledge the other half of that sentence.  Trials are also gifts from God.  They hurt in varying degrees, but are also rich resources, deep wells of experience that train us much better than joyous experiences do.  Trials help us mature graciously.  We’re not to simply grow old, but our aim is to grow in our spiritual maturity as we age.  Age and maturity aren’t necessarily the same thing.

To help in that line, I want us to take a look at a passage from the OT book of Ecclesiastes.  The author of this book identifies himself only as “the Preacher,” so that is how we will refer to him.  Let’s look together at the Preacher’s comments on aging and see if our thesis holds true.

  1. Let all ages enjoy life (11:7-8).

Given the cloudy, wet weather we’ve endured lately, we can appreciate the statement in v. 7; LIGHT IS SWEET.  It is true of all people – to one degree or another – we need sunlight.  Extensive deprivation causes low energy, depression, etc.  The phrase IT PLEASES THE EYES TO SEE THE SUN is a description of human nature, as is the majority of this passage.

LIGHT is a metaphor of youth and the joys the young can enjoy more fully than the aged; it is SWEET.  LIGHT also stands in contrast with the DAYS OF DARKNESS in verse eight.

The LIGHT-DARKNESS contrast is also a symbol of how human life can progress.  The Preacher looks at youth (the LIGHT years) from a wistful perspective and here catalogs all that age has taken from him in the “dark” years.

The point/counterpoint of LIGHT and DARKNESS reminds us to be temperate; to not be too attached to either the joyous or sorrowful moments.  We need to avoid being defined by our best days or our worst ones.

Verse eight brings a mix of good and bad news, mostly bad.  That’s how Ecclesiastes often seems to us; a surplus of bad news.

The good news is that all ages are called to joy.  However long life lasts, make your days a pursuit of joy even as you overcome trials.

The bad news is that we experience DAYS OF DARKNESS.  To REMEMBER this fact is to keep our perspective in balance.  The pursuit of joy is not to consume every conscious thought, nor is it supposed to take us in the paths of evil.  The Preacher warns us there will be MANY DAYS OF DARKNESS.  This is realism, not pessimism, though the Preacher goes back and forth across that line throughout this book.

  1. Let the young be happy but mindful that life ends with JUDGMENT (11:9-10; 12:1).

The Preacher gave five reasons to go ahead and enjoy our youth.  These are not a license to do sinful or stupid things, but a recognition that it is wise to store up a trove of joy in your heart and memory, especially while you are young.  These memories will help you get through DARK days.

The first four reasons are quite obvious and need no commentary:

BE HAPPY.

LET YOUR HEART GIVE YOU JOY.

FOLLOW THE WAYS OF YOUR HEART.

BANISH ANXIETY FROM YOUR HEART.

The fifth, however, requires a little explanation.  CAST OFF THE TROUBLES OF YOUR BODY means to not allow any weakness of body to inhibit the flight of your spirit and mind.  Be ambitious in ways that go around your physical limitations.

The Preacher listed three things to keep in mind during good times.  The first is to remember GOD WILL BRING YOU TO JUDGMENT (3:17; 9:1; 11:9; 12:14). Choices always have consequences.

On one hand, consequences are one of the primary means for parents to train children and our heavenly Father to train all of us.  The person who remembers this will avoid sinful behavior.  On the other hand, it is a virtue to seek joy.  A 3rd century rabbi named Rab commented, “Man will have to give account for all that he saw and did not enjoy.”  It is a sin to ignore God’s blessings.  What’s called for here is a balanced perspective, one that tempers both joy and sorrow.

The second is to realize YOUTH & VIGOR ARE MEANINGLESS. Young people can feel “10’ tall & bulletproof,” but life has a habit of disabusing us of such illusions.  The optimism and vitality of youth do not, by themselves, create anything of eternal value.

The third is to REMEMBER YOUR CREATOR.  Be appropriately grateful for your life and don’t abuse it or give it up.

In this passage there are three times (11:8+10; 12:8) the Preacher reminds us the things of the world are MEANINGLESS.  We know how that word feels, we also need to know what it meant.  In Ecclesiastes, MEANINGLESS means “a fleeting breath.”  It is also translated as “vanity” because it is temporary, not eternal.  It is subject to frustration because it is worldly, not heavenly.

The Preacher used the word repeatedly.  It was his verdict on the things of this life; the sum of his experiences and the conclusion of his thinking.  In chapter twelve, the Preacher examines how the physical and mental limitations sometimes imposed by age can frustrate us.  Better to make all the progress in spirituality we can before the limitations of advanced age make it harder.

  1. Let the aged be remembered (12:1-8).

Old age is a serious subject, referred to here as THE DAYS OF TROUBLE.  Even so, the Preacher approaches it with a sense of humor that is expressed in eleven clever metaphors of troubles that are typical to the aged.  The preface to the word pictures is a statement that sums up our feelings about the DAYS OF DARKNESS: “I FIND NO PLEASURE IN THEM.”  There are a number of different ways to interpret these word pictures; what I offer are examples; they’re not being offered as exclusive definitions.  One other caveat: not all aged persons experience all these symptoms and modern medicine has invented several ways to relieve these typical limitations brought on by aging.

One = SUN, LIGHT, MOON, STARS GO DARK, CLOUDS RETURN AFTER THE RAIN (2) and LOOKING THROUGH THE WINDOWS GROWS DIM (3) refer to a gradual loss of vision.  Or they may refer to the passing of the seasons and how the weather becomes progressively more difficult to live with: spring is easy, winter hard.

Two = THE KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE (legs) TREMBLE and STRONG MEN (arms) STOOP (3) remind us of how weak limbs and stooping are stereotypes of aging.

Three = GRINDERS CEASE BECAUSE THEY ARE FEW (3) references loss of teeth.  Oy, am I there!  My dentist wants me to put all my money where my mouth is!

Four = DOORS TO THE STREET ARE CLOSED (4) notes how some old folks come to prefer solitude to socializing; the repeated loss of family and friends can have that effect on a person.  Also, diminished senses of sight and hearing can leave a person feeling left out of conversations and understandably less interested in being among people, especially large groups of them.

Five = THE SOUND OF GRINDING FADES AND SONGS GROW FAINT (4) describe a gradual loss of hearing.

Six = MEN RISE AT THE SOUND OF BIRDS (4) is akin to our phrase “up with t chickens,” which is a vestigial habit of rising early, being trained to rise at a certain hour all our working years.  This may also imply a problem with insomnia, more common among the aged than the young.

Seven = AFRAID OF HEIGHTS AND DANGERS IN THE STREETS (5) looks to the added intensity of fear among the aged.  Of course, people of all ages feel anxiety but it more often comes with advancing age because repeated experiences of trials can make us feel wary.  Worse, a symptom of dementia and other mental illness is unfounded fears.

Eight = THE ALMOND TREE BLOSSOMS (5) are white, like an aged person’s hair.  “Snow on the roof” is a modern expression observing the same phenomena in a polite expression.

Nine = THE GRASSHOPPER DRAGS HIMSELF ALONG (5).  We’ve all seen how bugs get sluggish when the weather turns cold.  We’ve also seen how arthritis and other illnesses typical to the aged can slow folks down.

Ten = DESIRE IS NO LONGER STIRRED (5) at varying ages, libido is trumped by the need/desire for a good night’s sleep.  More broadly, the passions of youth typically give way to a more deliberate and temperate emotional nature as we mature.

Eleven = MAN GOES TO HIS ETERNAL HOME AND MOURNERS GO ABOUT THE STREETS (5) refers to the end of life.  The culture of the day required wailing and expressions of grief most of us would consider extreme.  In fact, by Jesus’ time, people would earn a living as professional mourners, performing these dramatic acts of mourning so the busy family members could get on with their daily routines!

In light of the DAYS OF DARKNESS, the young are to REMEMBER the aged.  “Remembering” means to attend to the aged and honor them in their troubles.  The young are to REMEMBER HIM (the aged) BEFORE death occurs, for death is inevitable and irreversible. We are given six word pictures of death here.

One, THE SLIVER CORD IS SEVERED.  This CORD held up an oil lamp.  Once severed, the lamp would crash to the floor and break.

Two, THE GOLDEN BOWL IS SHATTERED; a broken lamp will no longer give light to the room.

Three, THE PITCHER IS SHATTERED.  A broken pitcher is of no use in carrying water.

Four, THE WHEEL IS BROKEN.  If the pulley used to draw water from the well breaks, getting water has become much more difficult.

Five, THE DUST RETURNS TO THE GROUND refers to the creation of Adam from dust and to the decomposition of a body when buried (3:18-21).

Six, THE SPIRIT RETURNS TO GOD reminds us that life itself is a gift from God.  God alone determines birth and death; all life is His to command.  This is more reason to keep our focus on Him.

As serious as they are, the trials of the aged are also MEANINGLESS.  That is, they are temporary.  The only parts of life that endure are the maturity created in the person and the good works we do.

When reading Ecclesiastes, we need to keep in mind that it belongs to a kind of revelation called “wisdom literature.”  The writer did not claim to be a prophet, but used reasoning to persuade his reader to a godly perspective.  He did not wield the authority of “thus says the LORD,” but instead asks, “What do you think about this?”

We should also remember that all parts of Scripture interpret one another.  No single verse or section stands alone to support doctrine.  Instead, our most central beliefs are woven together from the strands of many scriptures.

All that to say this: don’t neglect reading Ecclesiastes because it seems negative.  The Preacher’s observations are included in the Bible to help us form a rational basis for our faith and to weave together personal experience and divine revelation.

When you come down to it, this passage is a matter of time.  In the life span of a human being, we reach the height of our power when ability is at its peak, matched by the breadth of opportunity.

In this case, the Preacher’s observations lend support to our belief that God gives joys and trials at every stage of life.  If we believe God is in charge, then we must accept this essential truth.  The alternatives are to blame the devil for all trials (not true), or to blame randomness (not true).

With God in charge, every experience has some meaning that transcends the moment and offers us at least one lesson to be learned for the deepening of our maturity.  When we believe God is in charge, we understand that everything He does is motivated by love and that it will all work out for good.  If we believe anything else, then the situation is really more hopeless than anything the Preacher described in Ecclesiastes.  Faith in God is the only choice that offers hope for the future and gives meaning to our past and present.

As If in a Dream

Please read Psalm 126 in your preferred version of the Bible.  I prefer the NIV (1984) and used it to prepare these remarks.

Joy comes with God’s renewal of His people.

 Joy

       I hear concerns raised about how the Church in America is losing its influence on popular culture.  There are lots of reasons offered but I think it’s our impaired sense of humor that is a reason I don’t hear being discussed much.  We excel at “mourning with those who mourn,” but are morose about “laughing with those who laugh.”

          Realize two things: One, among all the beliefs on the face of the Earth, the Christian faith gives the greatest reasons for joy.  Two, the Bible is a book that is full of life and a great deal of what it has to say is couched in humor.

I could go on and on with examples and explanations, but it’s such a chore and time is limited, so let me offer just one example.  The humor of the Bible is situated in a time and culture that is very distant from our own.  Humor is something that is very dependent on the moment.  Have you ever related something funny that happened to you and got a deadpan reaction?  What do we say in response but, “I guess you had to be there?”

William Shakespeare wrote a number of comedies.  But to modern audiences, it’s hard to get the joke, especially when reading it.  Sir Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre and one of Britain’s most celebrated Shakespearean directors, said topical comedy dates “very quickly”, leaving the meaning lost to history.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/11694297/William-Shakespeares-jokes-are-just-not-funny-Sir-Richard-Eyre-admits.html

More recently, here are some 19th century American jokes, tell me what you think:
“If conceit were consumption, he’d be dead a long time ago!”
“They say that too many minors have enlisted in the army, however I think that some of the minors are doing better than some of the Majors.”

“What’s the difference between a drunkard and a condemned man? One takes a drop to live and the other takes a drop to die.”

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-old-jokes-that-were-considered-hilarious-in-their-time-but-would-fall-flat-before-most-modern-early-21st-century-audiences

Not exactly side splitting stuff, right?  So we need Bible scholars to tell us why Bible humor was humorous, how Jesus’ reference to a plank in your eye was probably LOL to His peeps.  After all, we don’t have a “laugh track” to tell us which are the funny parts.

But let there be no mistake that the Bible has a lot to say on the subject of JOY and its perfectly obvious.  Let’s start with today’s text.

  1. Praise God for a dream fulfilled. (126:1-3)

The text offers four very descriptive signs of joy.

Joy Sign #1: WE WERE LIKE MEN WHO DREAMED.  We think of “dreams” as visions we receive while sleeping and as visions we realize while awake.

Normally, dreams are simply ways our subconscious ways our minds try to work out waking problems while we sleep.  God created dreams as a psychological “safety valve.”  Biblically, God has used dreams to reveal His will.  There is no indication in the Bible that God has ceased to do this.

On the other hand, we express our aspirations in order to give inspiration to others.  We need to be cautious here to not mix up our will with God’s.  Self-deception comes so easily we must submit these aspirations to the scrutiny of the church for affirmation.  Especially when we envision ways to do God’s will, the fulfillment of our DREAMS brings a special and abiding kind of JOY.  What we have here is a JOY so intense it feels dream-like, “too good to be true.”

Joy Sign #2: OUR MOUTHS WERE FILLED WITH LAUGHTER.  This phrase describes people who were giddy with joy, a happiness that demanded expression, one that could not be denied.  Laughter is not a sign of immaturity nor is it unspiritual if it flows out of godly joy.  The morality depends on what inspires a person to laugh: what’s in their heart at that moment.

Joy Sign #3: OUR TONGUES WITH SONGS OF JOY.  Like laughter, singing is a way we spontaneously express our JOY.  Wouldn’t it be great if life were more like a musical comedy?  We could express our JOY with singing and dancing, backed by a full orchestra!

Joy Sign #4: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY.  They were FILLED, even to the point of overflowing, with JOY!  Anyone who doesn’t desire this level of JOY in their life is missing a vital part of a living, maturing faith.   To me there is a parallel between being FILLED WITH JOY and being Filled with the Spirit.

As verse two testifies even the pagan NATIONS noticed what God had done.  They offer the testimony of a “hostile witness” which carries extra weight because they have nothing to gain by misstatement or exaggeration.

We also need to understand the times.  People of this age were superstitious and tied their gods to their national identity.  For example, when your nation won a war, it was thought to be proof that your god was more powerful than your enemy’s.  In this instance, when the Babylonians conquered the people of Judah, the NATIONS concluded that the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the Jew’s God, Yahweh.

This means God allowed His name to be slandered among the nations in order to discipline His people.  On the other hand, later, when the people of Judah were allowed to come home, that was seen as their God’s triumph over the gods of Babylon.

Here’s what the NATIONS concluded: “THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR THEM.” (2)

Here’s the people of God agreeing with the pagan NATIONS; THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR US. (2)

Here’s the result: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY. (2)

This joy was not from the pampered and comfortable, but from those who were CAPTIVES in Babylon.  There is a spontaneous kind of JOY that comes like a clap of thunder.  It is often undeserved or at least unexpected, and it departs as suddenly as it disappears.  There is also the kind of JOY that abides with you.  It comes as a sense of satisfaction after a good work well done.  It settles on your heart and warms it.  It stays with you, to some degree, and recurs when you recall the circumstances.  The first kind is exciting, the second kind, encouraging.

Those persons who, after 70 years of captivity, endured and then returned to their homeland experienced the first kind of joy when the news was announced and the second kind when the returned home and rebuilt Jerusalem.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who remained faithful in spite of what it cost them.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who stood against the seemingly impossible odds, travelling hundreds of miles on foot to a set of ruins.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who persevered against the elements and their enemies to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.

This is how life works for all of us, folks.  The worldly culture around us offers flashes of happiness in return to submitting to the captivity of their “groupthink” and the slavery to sinful appetites that is called “consumerism.” Not content to only offer distractions, the world also actively opposes faith; it belittles and battles genuine devotion to God.

We will know divine JOY when we ignore the distractions and remain faithful when we face persecutions.  This is a depth of JOY as described in this passage that the world will NEVER be able to give.

  1. A prayer for dreamers. (126:4-6)

When dreams come true, there is still work to be done.  When the initial joy of hearing that they COULD return to Jerusalem, then the realization of what that would take set in.  That’s why the passage makes the sudden jump from JOY to pleading with God.

RESTORE OUR FORTUNES, O LORD, sounds to me like a plea, a heartbroken prayer spoken when the ruins of Jerusalem were finally in sight.  Imagine how those returning from exile must have felt when they saw all the work and struggle that lay before them.  As people of faith, they cried out to God to help them do what, to worldly eyes, must’ve looked impossible.  Don’t let the word FORTUNES throw you; this is not a plea for prosperity as much as it is a desperate prayer for survival!

Historically, we know the returning exiles had to overcome a great deal of adversity to rebuild their land: lack of shelter, opposition from neighboring nations; the insecurity of the lack of suitable defenses; raiders; locusts; bad harvests; an extended drought; mountainous problems inflicted by both man and nature.  They had no idea what they’d got themselves into when they arrived, but they knew enough to prompt this crying out to God.

LIKE THE STREAMS OF THE NEGEV refers to a common experience of the people.   In that climate, streams and rivers can dry up completely.  One might not even recognize a riverbed when walking on it.  However, when the rainy season arrived, flash floods were common and the streams would be restored, full of water.

This would have been a common experience in the NEGEV, a desert area in the southeast part of modern-day Israel.  The people felt like a desert-dry stream bed, so they prayed that God would RESTORE them and fill them with life, just as He did with the dry streams in the desert.

In spite of the intimidating task before them, the returnees had hope.  They trusted in God, and from that trust came this promise expressed twice in vs. 5+6.

THOSE WHO SOW IN TEARS WILL REAP WITH SONGS OF JOY.

HE WHO GOES OUT WEEPING, CARRYING SEED TO SOW, WILL RETURN WITH SONGS OF JOY, CARRYING SHEAVES WITH HIM.

The TEARS and WEEPING are the physical signs of great sorrow.  They are the trails of trials that track down our face when we have to face opposition and obstacles.

If we think of them as “seeds” we can be assured these sorrows are designed to ensure a fruitful future.  We’d prefer a gentler, kinder, experience, but that’s not the way the world works.

In ancient cultures, sowing a seed was a symbol of burial and came to be associated with grief over a death.  Both Jesus (John 12:24) and Paul (1CT 15:36) used this imagery to teach about life overcoming death.  Trust that the seed will grow; that with the harvest, there will be SONGS OF JOY.

I read a provocative statement in an article entitled “Three Absolute Truths that Determine the Harvest,” by Dr. George Bannister.  He wrote, “It has been said that the problem with Southern Baptists is that we are ‘A harvest oriented denomination in a unseeded generation.’”

His point was that there can be no harvest without sowing.  It is not enough for churches to keep their doors open and expect people to seek us out and step through them.

Ken Ham made a similar point in his new book Gospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant.  We are living in a culture that is ignorant of the basic truths of Scripture.  The culture has dismissed the Bible as irrelevant and disregarded sin as a relative to the situation.  The Church in America is stuck in a mode where we’re answering questions no one is asking, using language they don’t understand, referencing things that have largely disappeared from our culture, except as objects of ridicule.

We want the joy of salvation.  There is no joy in this life that is sweeter than helping someone find Jesus as their Savior.  If we are to know this joy, we must plant those seeds.  There is an unmistakable connection between joyful reaping and passionate seed-sowing.

God announced this principle in Galatians 6:7, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: a man reaps whatever he sows.”  We can resist this cultural trend in media and politics, but the forces allied against us have the advantage in those areas.  Our advantage is the power of God and the truth.  These advantages are most influential in personal relationships.  Rather than assault the culture directly, it makes more sense for us to put the majority of our effort into establishing relationships and making friends with those outside our faith.

 

RESOURCES:

The Daily Study Bible Series, George A.F. Knight

Bible Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown

The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Lawrence E. Toombs

Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce

https://sermons.faithlife.com/sermons/110191-three-absolute-truths-that-determine-the-harvest

Big Problem, Bigger God

david v goliath

With God, NO PROBLEM is insurmountable.

Please read 1 Samuel 15-17 as set-up to this message.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks, but it’s not required.

          Some of you will remember Art Linkletter’s TV show, “Kids say the Darndest Things.”  (The rest of you will Google it.)  On one of these shows, Linkletter asked what lesson we can learn from the story of David and Goliath.

From one of the kids, Linkletter received a one-word reply: “Duck!”

https://www.crosswalk.com/family/parenting/kids/what-is-the-lesson-of-david-and-goliath.html

Here’s a set of kid jokes based on David versus Goliath.

Q: Who is the greatest babysitter mentioned in the Bible?
A: David – he rocked Goliath to sleep.
Q: Why was Goliath so surprised when David hit him with a slingshot?
A: The thought had never entered his head before.
Q: If Goliath is resurrected, would you like to tell him that joke?
A: No, he already fell for it once.

http://www.bible-study-online.juliantrubin.com/biblejokes/davidgoliathjokes.html

In my personal devotions earlier this week I discovered that when you read the whole account in one sitting, you get a different perspective on the account of David squaring off against Goliath.  I later discovered that in all my years of ministry I have NEVER preached on this passage.  With all that background, let me start by setting the fighters in their corners & we’ll see what God develops.

  1. In this corner, at nine feet, nine inches, 668 pounds, the Philistine champion, the “Gath Giant,” GOLIATH!

What do we know about Goliath?

The text tells us he was from Gath (4), a city we are unable to precisely locate.  The phrase OUT OF THE PHILISTINE CAMP (4) leaves open the possibility that Goliath was no Philistine, only employed by their army.  The Bible talks about three different races of giants.  Goliath may have been one of these peoples who were among the original settlers of Canaan (see Joshua 11:22).

He was a great deal taller than average (anywhere from 6’1” to 9’9”, depending on a couple variables).  Average height of the time being a mere 5’ to 5’3”, that leaves a lot of room on the upper scale. Goliath’s size and his armaments were meant to be intimidating.  Verses three to seven tell us how big and shiny his battle dress was.

What hope did the Israelites have of defeating him?  No military hope.

The challenge Goliath issued was perfectly in order with the customs of the time.  It may sound crazy to have armies staring across a valley at each other at all, let alone for 40 days (that may’ve been an above-average wait time).  Obviously, with a giant like Goliath as their champion, the offer to avoid all-out war by means of a challenge looked like a safe bet for the Philistines to win.

If intimidation was the Philistines’ tactic (I think it was), it worked: the Israelites were thoroughly intimidated.  Over the course of FORTY DAYS none of the Israelite soldiers took up his challenge (16).  They may have seethed under his insults, but none of them dared to step into the valley.  Worse, the text says the soldiers were all DISMAYED AND TERRIFIED (11).  The Philistines must’ve been grinning from ear to ear when young David was finally set forth as the Israelite champion (37 + 41).

  1. In the other corner, at four feet, eleven and a quarter inches, 92 pounds, the “Slingin’ Shepherd,” DAVID!

What do we know about David?

Most importantly, we know David had already been crowned as king over Israel.  At the end of 1 Samuel 15, God announced to His man Samuel that he was GRIEVED that He’d made Saul king of Israel.  In chapter sixteen, after a lengthy selection process, God revealed to Samuel that David would be the next king of Israel.  Samuel anointed David with oil, but told no one else about it and did nothing more.

The important bit is in 16:13: After Samuel anointed David, FROM THAT DAY ON THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD CAME UPON DAVID IN POWER.

Contrast that with 16:14: NOW THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD HAD DEPARTED FROM SAUL, AND AN EVIL SPIRIT FROM THE LORD TORMENTED HIM.  The last half of 1 Samuel is the painful story of how God replaced Saul with David as king of Israel.  Our passage is one of the steps in that process.

David was the youngest son in Jesse’s family, a good-looking kid (33+42) who tended sheep in the field (16:12-13; 34-37).  God started with a young man of humble beginnings and raised him to the highest place of that time.

In this passage, David demonstrated some of his emerging character.  In verses 17-22, he shows his obedience. Because of his age and/or other reasons, Jesse kept David out of the conflict.  Here Jesse gives the future king a “grunt” job to do: deliver some food to his brothers & bring back a report; David obeyed.

Look at verses 23-26 where David is outraged that this pagan – no matter how big he was – should be allowed to blaspheme the name of God and slander the people of Israel.  This demonstrates righteous anger, a state – if genuine – is difficult to achieve.

In verses 34-37 David showed confidence before King Saul, describing how he’d survived lion and bear attacks.  This also demonstrates humility, as his point was that the LORD had delivered him (37) then and David was confident the LORD would deliver him from this mouthy pagan giant too.  Rebuking Goliath’s taunts (45-47), David again expressed this confidence in God.

How was he the solution to the problem of Goliath’s challenge?

One explanation is to look at Goliath’s disadvantages. Bill Murphy Jr. wrote an article for INC. magazine entitled “Three Things People get Wrong about David vs. Goliath.”

Disadvantage #1 = Goliath can’t see.  Scientists have speculated that Goliath might have had a disorder called acromegaly. This condition causes a person to grow extremely tall, but can lead to double-vision and severe nearsightedness.   This may be implied by the text.  In verse 41, Goliath and his shield bearer KEPT MOVING CLOSER TO DAVID.  It’s true that Goliath’s motive might’ve been to close range and attack with his sword, he didn’t need to: He could’ve thrown his spear to make an attack at range or thrust it at David at medium range.  However, when you consider the possibility of near-sightedness, he may have been edging closer to see David better.  In verse 45, Goliath taunted David, saying, “COME HERE.” Was that because he couldn’t see David?

Murphy concludes, “Big competitors’ perceived advantages can often mask their even bigger disadvantages.”

Disadvantage #2 = Goliath is powerless.  Psychologically, Goliath was designed to intimidate.  Every detail in his description is the epitome of someone you don’t want to mess with.  I think the Philistines were pulling a fast one – they wanted to intimidate them into giving up without a fight.  Look at verse one – who started this fight?  the Philistines.  It was a put-on from the first moment.

Tactically, David has the advantage of mobility.  The text makes a big deal of Goliath’s armor and David’s lack of armor.  We think this is meant to emphasize David’s disadvantage, but it actually explains how he won: he moved more swiftly and attacked first.

A second explanation is to look at David’s tactical assets.  This is Murphy’s third point: David was deadly.  The Bible never says David went into battle with “only a sling.” We might think of a sling as a child’s toy, but it was actually an effective weapon.  In skilled hands, it was on a par with a bow.  Armies of the time had division of slingers.

I’ve read a rock from a sling has the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun.  David pressed his advantages of mobility and deadliness: he used his deadly ranged weapon and attacked Goliath before he could get close enough to swing his sword.

  1. The outcome of the fight: a TKO (Totally Killed Off).

One outcome was peace for Israel.  Verse 51 tells us WHEN THE PHILISTINES SAW THAT THEIR HERO WAD DEAD, THEY TURNED AND RAN.  The Israelites pursued their retreating foes all the way to their home cities, leaving behind a trail of death and plunder.

The plunder here is important.  I read that there were no blacksmiths in Israel.  The Philistines kept the Israelites in a vassal-like state by withholding metalworking technology from them.  Therefore, the Israelites increased their stock of technologically superior weapons as the picked up what the Philistines dropped.

Another outcome is David taking another step toward kingship. As we’ve seen, David had already been anointed as the next king, so God empowered Him to win the fight and take a step toward establishing his kingship by making him popular and well-known.  For example, in 18:7, the people exalt David over King Saul as a greater soldier.

The Philistines offered a rigged fight, but it was not rigged in the way they expected.  Instead, God determined the outcome of the fight to advance His plan.

Bill Murphy Jr. concluded his article with the following observation: “The lesson isn’t simply that when a powerful competitor takes on a smaller one, the smaller one might nevertheless win. Instead, great leaders understand that the real keys to battle are sometimes obscured by our misconceptions. Perceiving them correctly can amount to a Goliath-sized advantage.”

You may not care about finding lessons for leadership in this passage, but here’s something we can all take to heart: With God, NO PROBLEM is insurmountable.

Rather than be intimidated by what appears to be a mountain, we need to rethink the situation. First, trust in God as David did.  He had faith and joined the battle.  Second, take another look at the obstacles in front of you.  There are bound to be things that seem like disadvantages that can, with a little forethought, be turned into advantages.

David did not win his battle with Goliath.  God won the battle.  In fact, it was won before it was fought, and that was reflected in David’s confidence.  We must trust God will do the same for us.

 

Resources:

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1982.

https://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/3-things-people-get-wrong-about-david-vs-goliath.html