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.

Work Together

Have you ever found yourself saying to a colleague, or partner, “Never mind, I will do it myself”?

Many of us have learned the hard way that delegation doesn’t always work. And working as a team isn’t always an easy alternative either. Many of us know, first hand, the “too many chefs in the kitchen” principle. Sometimes it’s just easier to “fly solo”.

I am well acquainted with the temptation to work alone (and often give into to it), but this temptation must be resisted. The kind of work that God has ordained for His people is designed to be completed by a group.

The apostle Paul declares that we “are the body of Christ, and each one of (us) is a part of it” (1Cor. 12:27). Some of us are the “eyes”, some the “ears”, some the “hands”, some the “feet” (1Cor. 12:14-26). Individually, none of us are the body. We are parts. Only together can we be “the body of Christ”.

I must resist every inclination to be “a lone ranger”. A do-it-yourself attitude may work with your home renovation, but it will not work with the church’s transformation of a community. Accordingly, we can do far more together than we can do on our own. God’s designed it this way.

Nearly, 2,500 years ago, Nehemiah came to a point where he had to enlist others in order to succeed with his vision to rebuild Jerusalem. He had done so much on his own. He prayed. He planned. He acquired all the necessary documents and permissions to travel and begin rebuilding. But, eventually, Nehemiah had to present his vision to others because what was required was beyond him.

In Nehemiah 2:17ff, we read about that presentation. The response of the people is so immediate and so positive that we risk missing the profundity of the response. It’s not as if Nehemiah was presenting to a bunch of people with nothing better to do. This was an agricultural society—if you weren’t working, you weren’t eating.

These folks were up to their eyeballs with things to do. Signing on to Nehemiah’s vision would require putting some very important things on hold. Furthermore, many of these people were no longer even living in Jerusalem. Signing on would mean significant time away from home.

In short, working together would require sacrifice. And yet, there is no sign of hesitation. The immediate response is “‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work” (Neh. 2:18).

There is a sense in which the things we are called to today are beyond us, just as rebuilding Jerusalem was beyond Nehemiah’s individual abilities. To maximize our growth in Christ-likeness, to most effectively spread the Gospel, to facilitate kingdom advancement and community transformation, we need one another.

We were never meant to do this Christianity thing on our own. The faith given to us it not reducible to a “Jesus and me” equation. We are called to be a part within a body. We are called to play a particular position on a team.

Nehemiah understood this and succeeded. Jerusalem was rebuilt on the back of a team whose members were committed to God and to one another.

My hope and prayer is that today’s Church will mirror that wisdom and resolve. Accordingly, I urge you: Go find your position. Do your part. Work together.

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“Implementing A Vision Together”, based on Nehemiah 2:11-20, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 9, 2011.

God’s Plan and Good Planning

Have you ever wished for the ability to change another person’s mind? Think of the implications if we possessed such a power. When applying for a new job, you could compel the employer to hire you on the spot. The mistreated child in the playground could tame the bully. The devoted baseball fan could force the manager to make a substitution for the struggling pitcher. The churchgoer could cause the the minister to select their favourite hymns to sing each Sunday.

Ah, but such a power will never rest with us.

And yet, the ability to compel behaviour is not beyond the God of this Universe. King Solomon writes in Proverbs 21, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).

The testimony of Scripture is that God possesses the ability to affect the way we think and act. Accordingly, we need to make some qualifications when we use the phrase “free will”.

There is no doubt that we possess a will. By our own volition we move about and do all sorts of things. We make real choices many times a day, every day of our lives. But to say that this will of ours is “free” of any overriding force does not line up with what the Bible says.

The Lord God of this Universe has the ability to trump our will and to even change our will. This is part of what it means for God to be all-powerful.

I’m not suggesting that we are robots operating according to a predefined program. Nor do I mean to suggest that we are like puppets who are being animated by a kind of cosmic puppet-master. I simply want us to be reminded that our will does not always carry the day (and this is a good thing!). We need to remember that “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.

In light of this, what do you do when trouble arises? What do you do when the land of your ancestors is in ruins? What do you do when the people you love are in great distress? What do you do when you are powerless to change your predicament?

You pray.

You petition the great Heart-Changer to take up your cause.

This is precisely what Nehemiah does when confronted by the devastation in Jerusalem. Nehemiah prays, “When I serve the king his wine today, make him pleased with me and have him do what I ask” (Neh. 1:11).

If we track with Nehemiah we see that he is convinced of God’s power to change King Artaxerxes’ heart, but Nehemiah also understands the need to participate in the plan of God.

In other words, God’s plan does not preclude good planning.

Many Christians make the mistake of emphasizing one of these aspects over the other. Some Christians are so convinced of God’s sovereignty over all things, that they mistakenly retreat to a position of total inactivity. By contrast, there are others who immerse themselves in planning and strategizing without giving much thought to how God might enter into the equation.

Nehemiah avoids both of these extremes. He understands that God has a plan, and that prayer helps us to get in step with that plan. Nehemiah also understands the value of good planning. Nehemiah waits 4 months before approaching the king and asking for a leave of absence and a series of letters to facilitate his travel and acquisition of resources.

We read on and see that the king gave Nehemiah more than what he asked for. Nehemiah got the leave of absence. He got the letters for safe travel. He got requisitions for lumber, and he also got a small army given to him!

Why was the king so gracious? Why did the king change his policy and help Nehemiah to such a degree?

Yes, indeed, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.

Nehemiah recognized this and so he writes for our edification, “God was good to me, and the king did everything I asked” (Neh. 2:8).

I don’t know your particular predicament, but God does. You may feel that you are powerless to change your predicament, but you belong to a God who is all-powerful.

Pray to the great Heart-Changer and seek to connect to His plan. And as you wait for His answer, I encourage you to engage in good planning.

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“God’s Plan and Good Planning”, based on Nehemiah 2:1-10, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 2, 2011.