Sermon: Rejoicing in Sufferings

READINGS:

  • Romans 5: 1-8
  • Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
  • Psalm 100

REJOICING IN SUFFERINGS

I invite you to think for a moment about that Olympian champion, the one that sat on the sofa every day watching TV, checking their internet, and reading books.  The one that slept in every morning, had a full cooked breakfast, eating anything they wanted, when they wanted, partying with their friends any time they liked, and taking it easy. On the day of the meet, the simply went out and effortlessly won gold because they were just the best.

What do you mean you never heard of that guy?  Apparently it’s not that easy to be an Olympian Gold Medalist! There may be suffering involved on the road to glory: it takes work, effort, consistency, perseverance, and faith to become perfect and complete, lacking nothing! Rapid success stories happen, true. But the reality is that most “overnight successes” come at the end of years of hard work and those witnessing the “success” part too readily assume the “overnight part.”

Joy comes in spite of our pain! To have joy in spite of difficulties and struggles  is not to deny pain; it is to recognize that they can co-exist. The same way a pregnant mother can go through the agony of childbirth and still have joy in thinking about what is to come. She knows that there is a beautiful light and life at the end of these painful hours.

This morning, Paul says that we are to “Rejoice” in Suffering!  And the reason that Paul gives for this is that suffering produces “endurance”: in other words

  • intestinal fortitude
  • grit
  • perseverance
  • stamina
  • tenacity
  • gutsiness
  • resilience

Paul  goes on to say that this endurance will produce character, and character produces hope, and out of hope comes an outpouring of love into our hearts.

James 1, verses 2 to 4 say something similar:

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

I want to talk  this morning about cultivating resilience, which enables us to remain positive and focused. Resilience is a quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever – they rise from the ashes, rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve: a basic ingredient for happiness. So, Paul tells us to “rejoice in our sufferings” – note: he doesn’t say you will only suffer once.  There will be sufferings – did you hear the S? And yet, we are to rejoice, because this is how we learn and grow!

Paul says suffering will lead to endurance, and this will, in turn, lead to having character (that is, who you really are, when all the layers are peeled away – when no one else is looking!).  Said another way:  suffering produces steadiness, steadiness produces reliability, and reliability produces hope.  If we prove ourselves to be reliable, even in the face of hardship – there is hope!

How many of you here today have survived every day of your life so far in spite of the ups and downs?

Amazing! You have survived everything that life has thrown at you so far!  Every one here today is a survivor.  But here’s the challenge: it is not enough just to be here – you should be better for it!  Better equipped, greater patience, more understanding, a higher level of emotional intelligence, empathy for your fellow man or woman.  How do you make this happen, faster and easier on yourself and those around you?

For starters, I would say that the first step is acknowledgement: recognizing that you are in a situation that is outside of your comfort zone and that makes you feel that you are under threat.  The reason I say this is that when you are in denial, “this isn’t happening to me”, it’s impossible to actually act!  You can’t make any decisions about something that isn’t happening to you!   So, step one is admitting that you have a situation.

But I invite you to be careful in your choice of words: transform “hardship” into “challenge”, giving yourself the possibility of seeing opportunity and to make this a productive situation. What do you want life to look like on the other side of this adversity? Remember: your success rate so far is 100%: how will you come out of this one?

Step two, is getting a handle on your emotions.  The signs of a resilient person is that when they are in a difficult situation, they keep calm, evaluate things rationally, and come up with a plan, and so they can act.  The biggest emotion we have to face is fear – fight or flight or lizard brain (paralyzed by fear, shutting down).  Imagine how many times the word “fear” is dealt with in the Bible!  John 14: 27 says

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  … Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Or Joshua 1:9

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged…

Or even Psalm 23: 4

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil

Our human response is we try to hide our fear – we mask it:

  • with anger (anger feels much more powerful than fear!);
  • with frustration (“I don’t know what to do” sounds better than “I know what to do, but I’m too scared to do it”);
  • with stoicism (I’m bearing this – rather than getting off my butt and doing something about it, because I would hate to make a decision and be wrong).

When you identify your fear or fears, you can then identify the possibilities that lie on the other side: opportunities. Managing  emotions requires that we grow deeply in emotional intelligence – so much to learn from difficult circumstances!

The third step in resilience is a little crazy: you need to be delusional! And by that I mean: you need to set the bar to recovery WAY HIGH! Crazy successful people and people who survive tough situations are all overconfident. And by overconfident I mean… a delusional sense of self-worth.  But wait!! – wasn’t step one and step two about acknowledging where you are and what you are feeling?  Yes. But now I am asking you to go all out in believing:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me…

Yes, you need to clearly understand and acknowledge the situation, but be overconfident about YOUR ability to get yourself through and out of the situation successfully.  Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments. Remember: so far your success rate at making it through difficult days and situations is 100%.What does successful look like this time?

Step 4 in the process is something continual: Preparation.  Whether you are in a difficult situation or not, you should always be in preparation.  Luke 12:35 reminds us:

Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit.

And likewise, 2 Timothy 4:2

… be prepared, in season and out of season…

It’s impossible to prepare for the unknown, but we can constantly improve ourselves, practicing good habits and overcoming our bad habits.  Habits are what will come through in times of difficulty.  Think of common habits you have: breathing, walking, putting on your seat belt…

When I was 22, I spent 7 hours preparing and training for the most important 10 seconds of that day.  I arrived at 8 a.m., with a group of about 20 other people, and we trained, over and over and over again, lying on the floor, standing up, hanging from harnesses in the air… and when they felt that we were actually ready, they put us all in an airplane, with parachutes on our backs.  And when we reached an altitude of over 3,000 feet, one by one, we jumped out of the plane.

I have complete amnesia about those first five seconds of the jump – no sense of falling, no sense of the wind rushing past my face, nothing!  All I remember is my security check: arms in position, knees bent, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, Check (over my right shoulder), check (over my left shoulder).  Parachute properly deployed!  We were static line jumping, in our first solo jumps from the plane.  I do remember the last 5 vital seconds of the experience – the landing.  There are really only 10 seconds in a jump that are the most important:  the first 5 and the last 5:  making sure your chute is open (otherwise releasing that chute and deploying the reserve – if that happens, go back to step one!), and landing on the ground.  You don’t want to collapse your chute 3 stories up in the air, otherwise you could break both femur’s as you plummet down straight onto your legs! But we spent 7 hours preparing for those 10 seconds – and hardly any time at all on how to actually control your parachute, turns and having fun.  Just pay attention to your headset and what the instructor is saying and you’ll be fine.

What does your preparation for the hard times in life look like? Does it bring you hope?  I had hope as I jumped out of the plane – not one, but two parachutes on my back, and knowing that I knew exactly what to do if there was a problem with the first one.  I was as ready as I could be.  There is an amazing adrenaline rush on the other side of fear!

Step five, is kind of obvious: hard work! Whatever the situation is that is bringing you suffering, there are things you will need to do! Whether it is the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, a drop in income, or the ending of a relationship, there is work to be done. After acknowledging the situation, and facing your fear or pain or loss, and getting delusional about your ability to survive this, relying on all the preparation that you have brought to this moment in your life: you have to actually stand up and do what needs to be done!

Proverbs 14:23 reminds us:

All hard work brings profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

It’s not enough to talk about what needs to be done and what you are going to do. You actually have to do it! I understand the desire just to stay in bed and pull the covers up over your head and give in to mind-numbing sleep!  I am sure that we have all been there – plagued by the depression.  Step one:  get up!   Take the first step!

Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. That is an important step in creating an ongoing feeling of motivation and preventing the descent into hopelessness.”

It is those small victories that carry you forward – one more step, one more challenge, one more day.

And finallyhelp: there’s a time to receive help and there’s a time to help others. Having caring, supportive people around you acts as a protective factor during times of crisis. It is important to have people you can confide in. And sometimes, in our most challenging moments, what our souls and spirits need is to reach out and help others. It is when we find a sense of purpose in our lives that we transform the most. For example:

After her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, Candace Lightner founded Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Upset by the driver’s light sentence, Lightner decided to focus her energy into creating awareness of the dangers of drunk driving.

I’m thankful for her impact – she reached me, as a teenager, teaching me two important lessons: never drive drunk and never, ever get in the car with a drunk driver.  So, I was usually the designated driver.  Candace Lightner will never know me, or the thousands of teenagers whose lives she saved: but she made a difference! Are you making a difference?

This is where we find hope and an outpouring of love in our hearts!

Sermon: Abundance of Grace

How many of you are awake this morning?  I’m looking for a show of hands here…

How many of you were awake while Betsy read the 7 verses from Romans 5: 12-17?  English Standard Version.  It seems amazing that the entire message of the Bible, from Genesis to the end,  is found here, all summed up neatly in seven verses.

If you all understood it, I don’t need to give you this sermon, and we can go straight to the offertory (we’ll skip the prayers) and then head downstairs to the coffee break.  How does that sound?

How many of you think you don’t need to hear this sermon?

How many of you think you can stay awake until I finish the sermon?

We’ll see how you all go with that, shall we?  …

This morning I’m going to take you on an intellectual (read: scientific journal mumbo jumbo), winding maze through one of the toughest texts that I’ve ever had to prepare for.

I am going to try to give you an explanation that you can hopefully understand…  although I am going to rely a bit on my high-school science as it relates to DNA sequencing in the human body and a very basic knowledge of NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming).

I want to start with the idea of the “Original Sin” and the effect of that “Original Sin” on mankind and how that is passed down from generation to generation.  Verse 12 of Romans 5 starts with

“just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men”

We’ve all been taught that Adam had everything he needed to live eternally, but that because of his sin in the garden of Eden, life becomes finite instead of infinite – death enters the world.

And I want to add to that mix the verse from Exodus 34:7 (ESV) that says:

Keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

And I’ve wondered to myself how that might be possible on a molecular and physical level – can science explain what the Bible says happened to Adam because of sin and to all mankind, through the passing of the sin from generation to generation?  How does Adam’s bad nature get down to me all these millennia later? Well, some say, it’s like pollution or poison poured into a river. If a company dumps hundreds of liters of mercury into a river, then no matter how far downstream you go, you still get mercury poisoning.

Now – today I’m not going to give you a definition of sin – or even discuss what Adam’s sin was – trying to become like God, transgressing the Commandment God gave him, or whether sin is simply missing the mark of the most perfect version of yourself that God created you to be (like the archer that fails to hit the target).

What I want to look at is the effect that sin has upon us, as a human race, and then briefly touch about the gift of Abundance of Grace that we are promised in Romans 5: 17.

Our bodies have 3 billion genetic building blocks, or base pairs, that make us who we are. And we are somewhere between 99.5 to 99.9% similar to the person next to us.  A printed version of your entire genetic code would occupy some 262,000 pages! Of those pages, only some 500 would be unique to you. So how much of that do you think you inherited from 20 generations back?  How similar does that make you to the person sitting behind you?

And it seems that in 2017, scientists are getting closer to having the answers as they study the effects of stress and life-styles on our DNA codes and sequencing.  And now it seems that there is a reason for this, on 2 levels: epigenetics and the shortening of our telomeres (the protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA).   The field of epigenetics refers to the science that studies how the development, functioning and evolution of biological systems are influenced by forces operating outside the DNA sequence, including intracellular, environmental and energetic influences (and by energetic, I also mean the emotional forces that affect our bodies organs, such as when we get angry, are upset, or stressed and tired, especially for long periods of time).

Since the 1970s, researchers had known that the tightly wound spools of DNA inside each cell’s nucleus require something extra to tell them exactly which genes to transcribe, whether for a heart cell, a liver cell or a brain cell.

One such extra element is the methyl group, a common structural component of organic molecules. The methyl group works like a placeholder in a cookbook, attaching to the DNA within each cell to select only those recipes —  genes — necessary for that particular cell’s proteins. Because methyl groups are attached to the genes, residing beside but separate from the double-helix DNA code.  Originally these changes were believed to occur only during fetal development. But it has already been shown that DNA can be added to in adulthood, setting off a cascade of cellular changes resulting in cancer, diabetes or other illnesses.  Not only that, but epigenetic change could be passed down from parent to child, one generation after the next (hence you find the reference in the Bible that the sins of the fathers are passed down to the son to the third and fourth generations). A study from Randy Jirtle of Duke University showed that when female mice are fed a diet rich in methyl groups, the fur pigment of subsequent offspring is permanently altered. Just by playing with the diet, they could alter the colour of the fur of the mice.  Now, what if emotions, such as guilt, could play a similar role?

The medical field has already shown that stress has this particular effect.  Telomeres are a protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA. Each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres. An enzyme called telomerase can replenish it, but chronic stress and cortisol exposure decrease your supply. When the telomere is too diminished, the cell often dies or becomes pro-inflammatory. This sets the aging process in motion, along with associated health risks.

Now we all know that old wives tale that tells a young pregnant woman not to cry during the pregnancy because her child will bear the effects of it through their entire life – but now science is beginning to understand that the negative effects of stress begin before conception.  A baby’s intrauterine environment is shaped by a mom’s pre-existing physical health. There have also been several studies looking at maternal health and telomeres in offspring: the higher a mom’s prenatal anxiety, the shorter the baby’s telomere length (i.e. the shorter the life span).

According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; a child whose grandparents lived through the ravages of a Revolution; young immigrants whose parents survived massacres; anyone who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.

So what on earth does any of all this scientific mumbo jumbo have to do with the “Original Sin”, and Paul’s discussion of the original Adam and the posterior Adam (Jesus)?

Well, for starters – it explains how our genetic make up is affected by our habits, our environment, our diet, our stress, and even the stress and anxiety of being ashamed, berating ourselves, or failing to accept God’s forgiveness of our sins.  It explains how any resentment, bitterness or anger that we carry towards another person, when we fail to forgive, affects us to the most innermost of our being as David describes in the Psalms.

1. Your beliefs influence your behavior.  

One of the most basic ways that beliefs can shape reality is through their influence on behavior—no quantum physics or molecular genetics knowledge required.  Beliefs about your basic character—who you are as a person on a fundamental level—can be especially powerful. Research suggests that while guilt (feeling that you did a bad thing) can motivate self-improvement, shame (such as that felt by Adam & Eve in the garden), tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, reducing hope and undermining efforts to change, leaving you stuck in the rut of the very behavior you are ashamed of.

And your behavior will directly impact you with respect to your habits, whether they are good habits, or bad habits.

2. Your feelings directly affect your DNA:   

“When we have negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and dislike or hate, or think negative thoughts such as ‘I hate my job,’ ‘I don’t like so and so’ or ‘Who does he think he is?’, we experience stress and our energy reserves are redirected,” and I’m not talking about a positive redirecting. Part of our energy reserves, which otherwise would be put to work maintaining, repairing and regenerating our complex biological systems, which you probably know as your “body”, are used to confront the stresses these negative thoughts and feelings create, leaving your body unattended.

On another level, science is now beginning to understand that humans have multiple brains: the one you know in your head, your heart brain (which generates much of your energy field), and your gut brain.  So, when you are feeling heavy-hearted, what effect is this physically having on your DNA and body – how is it affecting the helix structure of your DNA strands?  When you are in a gut-wrenching panic or suffering constant anxiety, what effect is this having on the nutrients that are getting to your cells and DNA on a molecular level?

3. You may choose, or not, to accept the abundance of God’s grace:   

The entire Bible is about the transformation of man… having been made perfect, having become imperfect, and having reached perfection once more in the person of Jesus Christ.  Having loved perfectly: God and others – fulfilling the 2 greatest laws of the Bible:  To Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself.  And how Jesus came to make the way for us to become perfect also in Him, breaking the curses so that they are no longer passed down to future generations, allowing us to re-write the code and become truly transformed, by the renewing of our mind (which will, of course, affect our bodies and even down to our DNA).

There is only one question:  are you willing to allow God’s grace to truly sweep through your life and transform you: To practice abiding in His presence on a daily basis until you reach a level of peace that transcends all human understanding, guarding your heart and mind in His love? 

Let’s pray.

 

Sources and further reading:

Sermon: Handling Failure

Last week’s sermon focused on Isaiah 49, verses 1 to 7 and in particular verse 4.

But my work seems so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose!

As part of that sermon, we looked at the warning that Jesus gave the disciples on the night of the betrayal, that on this night ALL of them would desert him.  Which they did after the was arrested, in spite of Peter’s assertion that while everyone else might desert Jesus, he would be faithful.  And we watched Peter fail.

I reminded  you that Jesus expected them to fail and wasn’t judging them for their weakness.  In fact, he knew it was a lesson that they needed to learn.  I ended that sermon asking the following 2 questions, that I would like to address this morning:

How do you handle failure? What do you do in the face of fear?

The first thing I would like to remind all of us is that we don’t grow through our successes:  we learn from our mistakes and failures.  Think of Peter, and his many mistakes and opportunities to learn:

  • This is the disciple that gets out of the boat and starts sinking when he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the storm
  • The one that rebuked Jesus for talking about his crucifixion and death
  • Was told “Get behind me Satan” by Jesus
  • Promised that he would never desert Jesus and yet denied him 3 times
  • Even doubted when he saw the empty tomb!

Failure… and yet this was the rock on which Christ chose to build the church!  Because he got back up and learnt from those mistakes.

John Maxwell wrote a book a good few years ago now titled “Failing Forward: how to make the most of your mistakes”.  If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to scrounge a copy and take time to learn how to make better mistakes!  Sorry – how to make the most of the mistakes you’ve made.

I would start with looking at 2 aspects of the mistakes and failures in our lives:

  1. How do you view your failure?
  2. How do you respond to your failure?

HOW DO YOU VIEW YOUR FAILURE?

There are 2 ways we can look at our mistakes and our failures.

We can react like Adam and Eve:  It was the serpent’s fault, it was the woman you gave me who caused this, and play the blame game.  Maybe it was your staff’s fault, the secretary, the economy, the supplier that failed to deliver on time. Many times, we try to hide or conceal our failures, living our lives covering up or becoming prisoners of pretense.  It’s hard to learn from something that you are hiding from!

Or we can look at it like David: “I have sinned”, with true repentance in his heart.

The second part of looking at and viewing your failure, is whether you can look at it as actions and decisions and not circumstances or part of who you are.  When David says “I have sinned”, he talking about his actions and his decisions – he doesn’t say “I am a failure, my life is a disaster”.  He takes responsibility for his his actions, but doesn’t automatically assume that this is his entire life.  He doesn’t take this on as a complete way of being:  believing that therefore he can succeed at nothing!

How do you talk about your failure and yourself?

  • I just can’t keep going
  • I’m ready to quit, walk away and not look back
  • Why are people always doing this to me?
  • Why does God allow this to happen to me?
  • I’m just such a failure, idiot, etc.
  • I’m so stressed, I just can’t handle this.
  • There’s just not enough time, there’s no way I could get this done.
  • How could I be so stupid?  Look at the mess I made!

If you heard someone else talk about you the way you talk about yourself, you would probably stand up for yourself!  But we often talk toxicly without even realizing what we’re doing.  When you beat yourself up, a blunder or a moment becomes a hurricane of failure!

How you handle setbacks in life will shape you: will you focus on the failure or on the change that you need to make?  Will you allow it to define who you are, or choose to become someone that will overcome? Like I mentioned last week, most of the so-called heroes in the Bible were ordinary people who accomplished extra-ordinary things!  They were humans who overcame their weaknesses and mistakes and went on to learn to do greater things.

It’s one thing to identify the behavior, actions, attitudes that are wrong and another thing entirely to self-deprecate ourselves.  It’s not the same to say “I’m an idiot that just ruined my career”, as saying “That was a really poor choice of words and I could have done better”.  Life is much more than just an event or a series of events:  no one is a total failure and no one falls all the time.

This season, this moment does not have to be final: if you throw in the towel, it’s final.  But a ball game isn’t over until the last man is out!

I’d like us all to try a little experiment this morning, to show you the power of your words.

 

HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO FAILURE OR MISTAKES?

If you have viewed your failure as “it was inevitable”, or “there was nothing I could do” or “it was someone else’s fault”, there’s a strong possibility that you could allow anger, bitterness or resentment to grow inside, and be destined to repeat the same mistake again.  If we live on the defensive, like King Saul in 1st Samuel, justifying ourselves and our actions, it’s hard to learn the lessons.

In particular, when we look at King Saul, we find someone who never takes responsibility for his mistakes – I didn’t keep the animals alive, the people did.  I only did it because the people pressured me to do it.  And more so, his “repentance”, if you can call it that, seems to have no interest in the cause (or why he really did it) and therefore no cure for it!  One of the beauties of poor decision making is that if you can identify the cause of your weakness, you can make better decisions in the future.

Remember this:

“A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.”

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Or you can choose to learn from this, growing wiser and making better decisions in the future.  We can look at why we failed and when we failed.  We may have to follow back a chain of events to get to that first decision that set us up on the wrong path.  The decision we put off when we should have made a choice.

But when we admit our failures, we conquer pride.  There’s possibilities of change.

We read in Isaiah 9, verse 2 earlier:

“ºThe people who walked in darkness have seen a a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.”

Now, it’s true that the process of learning, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and getting back into the game may be painful.  I never promised that it wouldn’t hurt a little!  But I’m saying it will be worth it!  The kid on the bike may have grazed his knees, those of you who are still working out and getting fit as part of your 2017 resolutions are still feeling the pain in your muscles as you train!

Hebrews 12, verses 11 to 13 remind us:

“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful;  yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.  Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight the paths for your feet…”

Become more like Christ will stretch you – and stretching will take you outside of your comfort zone.  It’s going to be uncomfortable and sometimes even painful.  God uses everything in our lives to transform us into the people He means for us to be – mistakes and failures should be responded to as learning experiences, rather than being considered character traits.  It’s not who you are – it’s what you did or what happened to you.

THERE IS ALWAYS A THIRD WAY – AVOIDANCE

Some people will do anything not to fail, even doing nothing.  The person who does nothing will certainly not fail… they risk nothing.  But there is no gain, no lesson, no wisdom to be gained in sitting on the sidelines!  They become just like the servant in Matthew 25 that hid his talents in the ground, well at least I’ll still have them!

They say that the only thing worse than a quitter is the man that is afraid to begin!  Achieving low aims, low goals, can be a greater failure than aiming for a higher target, and missing!   You will always miss 100% of the shots what you fail to take!

Have you ever heard anyone say:  “I achieved everything I have because I am a perfectionist.”?  Probably not!  That’s because it’s not until you are free to fail that you are free to succeed and do greater things!

 

I want to close this morning with the analogy of an acorn.  When an acorn looks at itself and the possibilities that life offers, it may see itself just as an acorn, or it may dream of one day becoming an oak tree.  So you take that acorn, and you throw it in the ground, maybe you put a little dirt over it.  It’s not very nice to have dirt thrown on you!

That acorn may choose that it’s not willing to change, and it’s not willing to let go of being an acorn.  But in order to become an oak tree, that acorn needs to die!  It has to die to its littleness and smallness and embrace the idea that God gave it the divine possibility of becoming a great oak.  But becoming a great oak means letting go of what it is right now.  Being willing to let God transform it into something completely new and different.

You can either choose to hold onto and embrace who you are today and your ideas of what you are, or you can embrace the vision that God has of who he would have you be, letting go of what you are today, risking failure in order to learn, moving outside of your comfort zone, and taking a chance of becoming that strong oak that God envisions you being.

Lets pray!

Sermon: Laboured in Vain

I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing…

Over one hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt gave what would become one of the most widely quoted speeches of his career.  In addition to touching on his own family history, war, human and property rights, Roosevelt railed against cynics who looked down at men who were trying to make the world a better place.  People like Isaiah, trying to turn the people of Israel back to God, and yet failing miserably at it.

Teddy Roosevelt in this speech said:

“A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not … of superiority but of weakness.”

Life is made up of challenges – for each one of us they are different!  And there is always going to be someone on the sidelines criticising your performance, as you struggle to be “wonder woman” or “super man”.  And that intimation of failure often causes us panic, even despair.

Failure is considered an unpardonable sin in a world where we sanctify the successful and worship winners.  Everybody wants to succeed – no one wants to be considered a failure!  How many people do you know whose life goal is to fail?  But this emphasis on success can put an enormous stress on us.  No one wants to be called a failure.  If I fail, what will happen to me? What will others think?  Will they reject me?  Are they going to think I’m worthless?   And yet, our responsibility is to rise from mediocrity to competence, from failure to achievement.

Simply put:  your task on earth is to become your best version of you.  You are unique.  God made you specially just like you – there is no one else exactly like you – and you have a special purpose on this earth, otherwise God would not have made you and put you here! And if you haven’t done it already, you need to take a day or two and sit and medidate (in silence – and for pity’s sake, stop talking and turn off the mobile devices!), and listen to hear what that purpose is.  The Bible of full of examples of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. We’ll talk more about that next week!

The world has a few examples of failures that went on to do some remarkable things:

  • I’m sure you’ve all heard of that guy Henry Ford, bankrupted 2 automobile industries and ruined all his chances of good investors.
  • Or maybe that guy Fred Astaire.  His first screen test didn’t go so well: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Slightly balding.  Can dance a little.”
  • Then there’s that guy that had trouble adjusting to the culture and classes at Yale, so he dropped out.  He went back again later, and it still wasn’t for him, so he dropped out again.  His name’s Dick Cheney.  Never going to amount to anything!
  • Or there’s that single mother on welfare who was trying to write.  I think her name was J.K. Rowling or something.
  • Or that kid whose teacher told his mother he was “too stupid to learn anything”.  He was unfortunate enough to be called Thomas Edison.
  • And there’s that guy who was so frustrated trying to write his first novel, that he threw away the entire first draft!  His wife found this manuscript for a book “Carrie”, and rescued it from the trash.  You might have heard of him – Stephen King.

There’s a reason you are in church this morning – maybe you are stuck in a place of despair, ready to give up, not sure how to keep up the good fight. But men and women can change: once again we have a Bible full of examples of people who stopped in their tracks and had a heart change, which became a totally new person.  To mention a few of the better know examples from the New Testament:  Saul who became Paul; Simon who became Peter; Jonah (in spite of his best efforts to the contrary); Levi the tax collector who became Matthew the disciple.

But on the road to that transformation, there are holes.  And if we’re not careful, that hole becomes a rut.  And before you know it, you’re stuck in that rut, and your following that rut instead of the path that you’re supposed to be on, because it’s much more comfortable to stay in the rut than to try to get out of it.  And let’s be honest, sometimes getting out of that rut looks impossible!  You tell yourself, it just can’t be done! This is is – the best I can do, the most I can be.

Isaiah is in a rut (and feeling sorry for himself), in verse 4 of our reading this morning:

“But my work seems so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.”

This is the same servant that said:

“Before I was born, the LORD called me:  from my birth he has made mention of my name.”

He knew what his calling was! He was predestined to do God’s work!  There’s an amazing amount of expectations upon him! And God gave him all the gifts and tools he needed for the task.  Remember verse 2:

“He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me:  he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in His quiver.”

I was MADE for this.

But his progress report in verse 4 is not very encouraging:

“My work  is so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.”

Probably a good time just to go back to bed! The task is too great!  I’m inadequate.  I can’t do it!

Now the whole book of Isaiah can be divided into 2 principle sections:

  1. Part one is chapters 1 to 39, which address Israel’s continuing sin and rebellion, where their hearts are so hardened that no matter the strength of Isaiah’s tone and words, nothing will turn them. They became self-centered and inward-looking; they forgot their covenant.  They forgot they were a people belonging to God. Finally, Isaiah brings a message of judgement and exile – the Old Jerusalem is condemned and will be no more.
  2. Part two, chapters 40 to 66, opens with words of consolation “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”.  It finishes with the emergence of the NEW Jerusalem.

So we see in Isaiah a transformation – from the old to the new:  the old Jerusalem is torn to the ground and then rebuilt as a new Jerusalem.  You see, when everything is stripped away, our spirit starts to show through, and then our relationship with God and the eternal comes clearly into focus.  Maybe right now you’re sweating and you can’t see the results of all your hard work: and instead of giving up, maybe it’s time to take a small rest and remember WHO you are and WHY you were put on this earth!

1 Peter (2:9-10) reminds us:

You are a chosen people… a people belonging to God… Once you were not a people, but now you are a people of God…”

 

And I have another little gem for you, God expects you to fail!  Yes, you heard that right: God doesn’t expect you to get it right the first time. In fact, he has an expectation that you are going to fall!

How many of you have children and have taught that child to ride a bicycle?

The first time you put them on the bike – did they get it right?  How many chances did they need to learn?  How many got it on the 2nd time? the 3rd? What do you mean it took 54 times before they learnt?

Well, why are you so hard on yourself?  Why do you expect to learn in just one go?  Let’s go back to the kid on the bike:  you have a little hill (without a main road down the bottom!), it’s a safe place to learn to ride.  So you have this kid who has finally mastered balance and steering (for the most part), and they riding down the hill now pretty well!  So you finally reach the moment when you think they are ready, and instead of pushing the bike back up to the top of the hill again for the kid, you tell, well, why don’t you ride UP the hill now?  And what’s the first thing that happens?  They fall off!  Because it’s easy to ride the bike down the hill and keep your balance when you have a little momentum!  But when you meet resistance and you have to keep your balance AND pedal hard, and you’re new at this, you fall over the moment you push too hard on the left side without adjusting your balance on the right side to counterbalance the force you’re using to get yourself up the hill!  Right?

And God knows this!  God’s been watching us since the Garden of Eden.  How many people has he seen fall off the proverbial bicycle since the world was created?

Matthew 26 reminds us that on the night of the betrayal, when Judas betrays Jesus and gets him arrested, that Jesus said to ALL the disciples (not just one of them, not just Judas):

Tonight, all of you will desert me.

We all remember Peter’s response to that, right? Oh no, not me!  I’m good.  Even if everyone else does.  I won’t.  I’ll be the man.  And in the garden, when Jesus is taken, Peter tries to live up to his word, taking out his sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers.  I’m sure he’s flabbergasted when Jesus heals the ear!

But there was one lesson that Jesus hadn’t taught his disciples yet, and they needed to learn it the hard way – enough with parables and teaching. They needed to experience this first hand.

How do you handle failure?  What do you do in the face of fear?  

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are going to talk about next Sunday.

 

I want to leave you with one parting thought today from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Let’s pray!