Sacrificing For The Mission?

SacrificeThere is a cost for freedom.

On November 11, we set aside time to remember that many gave their lives in order to preserve our national freedom.

Whenever Christians gather at the Lord’s Table we remember that Jesus gave up His life in order to obtain our eternal freedom.

There is a cost for freedom.

You could say that anything worth having, or keeping, comes at a price. There are times when the cost is so high that we term the payment as a sacrifice.

I recently delivered a message, based on Nehemiah 5:1-19, entitled “Sacrificing For The Vision” (audio below). In this message I identify the “sacrifices” made by those charged with rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. I note the sacrifices that Nehemiah makes, giving up certain allowances and privileges and sharing his resources with those in need.

The pattern we see throughout Scripture is that faithfulness to God takes work. We have to give up things. I think it is noteworthy that the Gospels don’t simply say that the first disciples followed Jesus, but we’re told that Simon Peter and Andrew “left their nets and followed (Jesus)” (Mt. 4:20). James and John are said to have “left the boat and their father and followed (Jesus)” (Mt. 4:22).

Indeed, there is a cost to discipleship.

Our role models in this regard are many—Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Nehemiah, the early apostles, are just the first that come to mind when I think of those who gave up much in their effort to honour the Lord.

My encouragement to the people of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk was to prepare themselves to similarly sacrifice for the kingdom of God. I urged them to give time, energy, and resources to help further the Gospel of Christ. In a word, there was a call to sacrifice for the mission.

And yet, part of me blushes to use the word sacrifice. Yes, discipleship is costly, but I think David Livingstone ‘s response to Cambridge University students in 1857 sheds appropriate light for us:

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.

It takes considerable commitment and effort to walk the narrow road and to promote the Gospel in the face of persecution, but perhaps we need to choose a word other than sacrifice.

What I can safely say is that we need to move beyond half-measures. Or to quote the great hymn writer, Isaac Watts:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

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“Sacrificing For The Vision”, based on Nehemiah 5:1-19, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 30, 2011.

How To Fight Discouragement

despair and depressionI know what it is like to be discouraged. I know what it is like to feel as if I’m being pushed to the brink. Thankfully, I also know what it is like to be rescued by a God who promises, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble and I will rescue you, and you will honour Me” (Ps. 50:15).

I delight in the reality that we worship a God who helps the helpless. I rejoice that when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, there also walks my God, an ever present help in times of trouble (Ps. 23:4; Ps. 46:1).

If you’ve ever battled the giant named Discouragement, I want you to know that this is a common war. As you survey the Scriptures you’ll see that many fought this same giant.

Discouragement emerges when certain conditions exist. Recently, I’ve been leading the worshippers at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk through the Book of Nehemiah. Here we discovered that discouragement emerges when we focus on what is lacking rather than on what has been accomplished.

Those attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem were singing a sorrowful song: “So much rubble for us to haul! Worn out and weary, will we ever finish the wall?” (Neh. 4:10).

At this point in the story the wall was already halfway built. But instead of celebrating their progress, the builders were focused on the work which remained. They began the work with a “glass half full” optimism, but it had been replaced with a “glass half empty” pessimism. The rubble which once inspired their efforts to rebuild had now become the thing which inspired their complaints.

The second condition which invites discouragement is when our strength fails.

Think about it. When your energy tank is full, discouragement struggles to take hold of us. “Rolling with the punches” is much easier to do at the beginning of the round than it is at the end of the round.

It was said of those rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall that they had become “worn out and weary“.

It’s not as if we like being discouraged. Most of us don’t mean to be pessimists, it’s just that when we’re exhausted—when our strength fails us—the natural drift is towards discouragement.

Along similar lines, the third condition which invites discouragement is when our confidence fails.

The lament being sounded by Nehemiah’s countrymen was, “Will we ever finish the wall?

Again, this is a shift from a former way of thinking. Surely the work would have never begun unless they believed the wall could be rebuilt. Having set out on what they once thought was an obtainable vision, they now found themselves doubting whether the job could even get done. Moreover, the builders were aware of the opposition—they were mindful of those who not only wanted to hinder the work, but wanted to also inflict harm on them. With a growing number of factors working against them, the builders began losing their confidence.

A focus on what is lacking, failed strength, and a loss of confidence—add those components together and you have a recipe for profound discouragement.

How do we fight this giant? What is the remedy?

Quite simply, the remedy is GOD.

I agree with John Calvin who has said, “Whatever we need, whatever we lack, is in God.”

Focusing on God changes our perspective, and calling upon God brings increased strength and confidence.

I think of David, the shepherd boy, who did not consider the size of the giant before him, but the size of the God behind him. Similarly, Nehemiah counters the discouragement of his workers with a call to “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome” (Neh. 4:14).

If God is the remedy, then prayer is the means to applying that remedy.

Consider the words of the prophet Isaiah, “(God) gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Even the young grow weary and tired and vigourous young men stumble badly, but those who wait upon the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:29-31).

If you are exhausted, if you are doubtful, if you are afraid, I want you to know that a sufficient remedy is within your reach.

The Lord, “who is great and awesome” stands ready to help you.

Fight discouragement with constant prayer. “Call upon the Lord in the day of trouble and He will rescue you, and you will honour Him.

Coping with Critics

Chuck Swindoll, in his fine commentary on Nehemiah, asserts that “you haven’t really led until you have become familiar with the stinging barbs of the critic. For the leader, opposition is inevitable.”

You probably know this to be true from experience. Most every leader will eventually be criticized—whether you are the Prime Minister of a nation, a business owner, a store manager, or a leader within a local church. Resistance to leadership is commonplace.

Accordingly, a good leader will be someone who possesses skill in problem-solving.

Nehemiah was such a leader. As Nehemiah led the people of Israel in the reconstruction of Jerusalem, he had to cope with persistent opposition. In Nehemiah, chapter 4, we read about Sanballat and Tobiah openly mocking those engaged in reconstruction. Moreover, Sanballat and Tobiah made a point of recruiting other critics and together they conspired to frustrate and interrupt the work of Nehemiah and his fellow countrymen.

I want to offer you something to consider. Nehemiah was someone who was experiencing God’s abundant blessing and ongoing favour. And yet, Nehemiah still has to deal with fierce opposition. Just as God cleared a path for Nehemiah to travel to Jerusalem, He could have also made smooth the path for Jerusalem’s reconstruction.

What we see here is that God’s favour upon Nehemiah does not preclude Nehemiah from having to face serious adversity.

This leads me to conclude that, while facing opposition is highly unpleasant, there must be something positive in it.

Could it be that God allows us to face opposition, purposing us to draw closer to Him?

As we read on, I am inspired by Nehemiah’s instinct to pray and to keep working. Nehemiah’s approach to leadership is a delightful balance between being highly spiritual and immensely practical.

The temptation, when we are criticized, is to give up the work. For the leader, this is not a viable option. Nehemiah shows us a better way. Nehemiah continues to move the mission forward through earnest prayer and resolute effort.

The balance between these two approaches will be the key to our success.

Prayer without pragmatics is presumption. Prayer without a security plan is going to get someone hurt.

On the other hand, pragmatics without prayer flows from pride. To attempt to engage our critics without Divine assistance is to court disaster.

If God has called us to a significant work, history teaches us that we will eventually face opposition. But this opposition has been designed by God to shape our character and to further His purposes (Rom. 8:28). For this reason, we do not run from adversity, but rather, we greet it with earnest prayer and a steady determination to stay with the work.

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“Implementing A Vision Amid Opposition”, based on Nehemiah 4:1-9, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 16, 2011.

God, Hurricane Irene, & Anxiety

Hurricane Irene approaches The BahamasI used to watch CNN’s coverage of hurricanes with great curiosity.

As I sit here writing this post, my curiosity remains—but from a much different vantage point. As a resident of The Bahamas, I’m about to experience, first-hand, the impact of a hurricane.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to feel. Panic? Terror? Anxiety? Calm?

At the moment, the weather outside is perfect (I can hear the sound of someone cutting their lawn). I plan to run some errands later today, and possibly even tomorrow. But Thursday…I’m told we should stay put—and I plan to!

We’ve procured all of our necessary supplies–ample food, water, gas for our vehicles, and batteries for our lanterns. The hurricane shutters are up and later today our propane tanks will be secured. We’re ready…even if we don’t know for sure what we are up against.

As I’ve interacted with people over the last few days, I’ve noticed two dominant themes have surfaced: God and anxiety.

Many people are praying—praying that the hurricane changes course, praying that the hurricane weakens, praying that the damage will be minimal.

I’ve also noticed an upswing in some people’s anxiety. Part of me gets this. We’re up against something we can’t control. And while experts can accurately predict a general trajectory for the hurricane, they cannot predict what the specific impact/damage will be for each family in the hurricane’s path. It’s conceivable (likely?) that some in Nassau will have no or little damage to property, while others experience substantial devastation. We just don’t know exactly how this is going to play out…and that makes some people very nervous.

I think I’m a little bit nervous. I think I’m a bit nervous, because this is a new experience for me.

I think the reason why I am only a little bit nervous has to do with my faith in God. Now, by that I don’t mean to suggest that nothing bad will happen. I don’t mean to suggest that my faith, or the collective faith of Bahamians guarantees our safety and the preservation of our property.

When I suggest that my faith in God helps to allay anxiety, I mean to say that I firmly believe that God has everything under control. My conviction is that He is sovereign. God has measured this out. His design will, no doubt, include much mercy. And, in suffering or in destruction, He has designs to teach and to correct as our loving Heavenly Father.

The passage I turned to this morning for this reminder was Job chapters 38 through 41. I encourage you to read these chapters. God answers Job’s objections to his current predicament and suffering. It is a rebuke to be sure, but I find comfort in the rebuke:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? (38:4)…Have you ever commanded the morning, or shown the dawn its place? (38:12)…Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm? (38:25)…Do you send lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’? (38:35)”

God is clearly in control.

Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean we will be spared hardship (Job wasn’t spared hardship!). What it does mean, however, is that whatever happens, there is great purpose behind it.

We’ve done all that we can. Every preparation has been made.

The words of Paul encourage me: “Be anxious for nothing [not even hurricanes!], but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present our requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6,7).

Our hope is in a God who is both sovereign and good.

An Exemplary Response To Suffering

Nehemiah - PraysNehemiah was cupbearer to the King of Persia, living 800 miles from Jerusalem, when he received the grim report that the most precious icons and monuments of his homeland had been destroyed. Undoubtedly, friends and family of Nehemiah were casualties of the attack that destroyed Jerusalem.

It is difficult to measure precisely what Nehemiah lost when the city of his homeland was destroyed, but we can safely conclude that the loss was profound, and his pain, acute.

Nehemiah handles this tragic news in a manner that is both balanced and inspiring. For this reason, I commend the example of Nehemiah to all who suffer today. Whether we face the challenge of a personal illness, the anguish of a strained or severed personal relationship, or whether we feel the burden of a loved one’s pain, Nehemiah’s example can help our response to suffering.

Looking to the book that bears his name, from 1:1 to 2:8, Nehemiah models a three-pronged response to suffering:

1) Grief

2) Prayer

3) Action

We read about Nehemiah’s initial response to the tragic news in 1:4, “I sat down and wept and mourned for days.

Nehemiah is not in denial about his pain. Friends are dead. Things that were important to him have been completely destroyed. Nehemiah hurts badly. I think it is normal, natural, and even helpful, that before doing anything else Nehemiah grieves.

Nehemiah did not unduly linger in his grief, but rather, he eventually transitions into a time of prayer and fasting (1:4-1:11). Chapter 2 begins, three months after receiving the report, and Nehemiah is still praying. But now, he’s back on duty, serving wine to the king who notices Nehemiah’s somber disposition and asks if he can be of any help.

What follows is inspiring: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king” (2:4).

Picture it: Nehemiah is standing before the King of the Persian Empire with cup in hand; he has already admitted to the reader in 2:2 that he “was very much afraid“, and yet he pauses to pray. It was probably not a long prayer; the king probably did not even notice the pause, but it was long enough for Nehemiah to call upon the God of the Universe for help.

Nehemiah demonstrates for us that God was often on his mind, and that no time was the wrong time; no time was too short a time, to pray to the Lord for help.

Nehemiah initially spent much of his time grieving, and then he spent a great deal of time praying, but his response to his suffering did not end here. Nehemiah was poised and prepared for action.

He asks the king for a leave of absence in order to return to Jerusalem and personally oversee the rebuilding of the city. The remainder of the book describes Nehemiah’s leadership in the reconstruction of Jerusalem. The improbable rebuild is successful. Suffering gives way to celebration.

We want that, don’t we?

We don’t want to linger in a season of suffering any longer than we need to. Nehemiah shows us the way–He shows us a balanced way. We grieve. We pray. And then we go out and do something about our situation. Having prayed, we act in anticipation of God acting on our behalf.

Are you presently suffering in some way? Are you facing a daunting challenge? I urge you then, let Nehemiah show the way–let Nehemiah serve as your exemplary response to suffering.

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“Nehemiah: Passion For Change”, based on Nehemiah 1:1-2:8, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 19, 2011.