The last four weeks we have talked about the importance and power of a good story. This idea is engrained in humanity and is seen as far back as history will take us—the ancients wrote their stories on walls, papyrus, animal skins, and eventually on bound paper in the form of books. In the telling of a story we interact with those we have never met, we participate in their victories, learn from their defeats, and we are given the opportunity to walk in the shadow of trailblazing heroes. It is no accident that mankind is enamored with story, we are hardwired for them. Last week’s blog mentioned the idea that being made in the image of God fine-tuned us for a good story—this week we see that God has actually commanded our telling and retelling of stories. As it is with everything that God has commanded, it would be wise for us to take Him seriously for both the causes of His kingdom and also for the unhindered blessings that follow the adherence to His Word.
The Apostle Peter, in his first letter to scattered Christians tells them “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The connection can be made to the Church as the new “temple” of God—and that’s a right connection to make. But there is a second connection to the Jewish culture that can and must be made. In the early days of the Jewish nation (and even earlier in the days of the Patriarchs) men and women set “stones” as boundary lines, places of remembrance, and as a witness to future generations. Joshua chapter 4 tells a “stone” story. The nation of Israel is poised to start taking over the Promised Land—in order to do that they will start by crossing over the Jordan River. About 40 years earlier God had parted a sea for the nation to cross safely, He would reestablish that precedent by parting the Jordan for this generation to cross. God would take a “story” they were very familiar with and then place them inside that story. He would make it real to them by walking them through the same scenario. Joshua 4: 1-3 states, “When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests' feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” The reason for such a request is seen in chapter 4 verse 6, “So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” These stones are a memorial posted in plain sight as a constant reminder of God’s provision and a conversation starter with the children to come about how awesome their God has been and will be to the nation.
Stones of remembrance, memorials to God’s awesomeness, and a piece of cultural history that connects past, present, and future together; God commanded these dead stones be placed as living reminders. With the nation’s history in mind, Peter would call the church “living stones”. We are reminders of God’s goodness—and not only are we reminders when looked at by the outside world but we can also “cry out” about God’s goodness, provision, and power. Jesus flips the concept in Luke 19:40 when the Pharisees demand that Jesus rebuke His disciples for worshiping Him as God, Christ responds, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Dead stones can cry out for God’s glory but why should they when the Church is here to sing His praises? Our lives are “living stones” crying out for God’s glory—we are placed here to be used to spread the message of Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and God’s Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. We are here to be a reminder and memorial to all of what God has done and a picture of what God can do in the future.
I spoke of George Mueller’s headstone as a magnificent reminder of his life. It is a beautiful example of the “living stone” that he was during his life. He loved God, honored God, relied on God and all those children that Mueller cared for were better off for it. They acknowledged his witness on Mueller’s dead headstone—they did so because he was a marvelous “living stone.” Many lives are lived well and leave indelible marks on those who are close enough to see and experience them. The praying and sturdy grandparent, the faithful pastor or teacher of a small congregation, a coach that taught more than just a sport—all these lives can be of utmost importance to the individuals they touch. Then there are other lives that God has seen fit to use throughout generations as examples of what He can and is willing to do through those that will yield. At times our Lord sees fit to expand someone’s platform beyond the realm of normal living—sometimes He sees fit to use individuals for centuries of Christian witness. Certain men and women provide generation after generation of positive reinforcement and help during our troubled times. Two weeks ago we covered four individuals that satisfy that criteria—I would refer the reader back a week to reengage those stories. This past Sunday we covered 6 more.
John the Baptist was the first we talked about—a man that Jesus stated in Matthew 11, “of all those born of women, there has been none greater than John.” What an example, what a compliment! Wow! Can you imagine the concept behind God Almighty calling you out as one of the greatest to ever live? The part of the story that sinks your heart is to understand that John never heard what Jesus had to say about him. Those statements are made after John’s disciples are told to leave and carry the message of the Messiah back to John, who is in prison and getting ready to be executed. At the lowest point of his life John is given the greatest compliment ever by the greatest man (if we call Jesus that without irreverence) who ever lived. The life of John is an example of a “living stone” that Jesus Christ wants us to be familiar with. Why else bring his story up in such a glowing manner? The story of John Newton was then recounted. A man whose past was so horrendous that the fruit to bloom from it would be many great hymns including Amazing Grace. His life as a slave trader and sailor was so full of times that displeased God that he would refer to himself in Amazing Grace as “a wretch like me.” A scoundrel, lost and blind was set free by the grace and love of God almighty. John Newton’s sin was deep—but God’s love is infinitely deeper. His life was bad but Jesus’ life was infinitely good. Because of that, Newton could be won back, loved, and set free from the things that destined him for Hell and an eternity separated from a holy and righteous God. Lyrics from another of Newton’s songs states, “Approach my soul the mercy seat, where holy One and helpless meet. There fall before my Judge’s feet; thy promise is my only plea, O God.” Yes, Newton knew the power of being laid bare before a Holy God that loved him and bled and died to redeem him.
Jim and Elisabeth Elliot were two that we spoke about on Sunday as well. A missionary couple to Ecuador that gave everything for the lives of those they did not know. Jim was murdered by the tribe they were sent to share the Gospel with within a week of arrival. He and four friends paid the ultimate price for their faith and their willingness to put that faith into action. Elisabeth regrouped, had the daughter she was pregnant with when Jim was killed, and moved back to start the mission again about two years after Jim’s death. She spent the rest of her life in service to King Jesus in whatever form it took at the time. According to Elisabeth’s testimony Jim had stated, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” What an amazing comment from a man that would give his earthly life at the age of 29 to be welcomed into an eternal one as a martyr and hero.
The story of martyr Thomas Haukes was the next to be relived. The story of his burning at the stake in 1555 is one of legend. This man that loved Jesus was willing to die for his faith—prior to that moment though, some friends asked for his help. Their faith was being shaken by the persecution of the brothers and sisters. His friends had come the night before his execution and asked for a sign if the flames were tolerable. To show God’s mercy in the midst of the flames, Thomas would lift his hands above his head during this time of intense trial. History notes that “a long while” had passed, the skin had swelled, and Thomas’ hands no longer had fingers due to the flames burning them off—then suddenly this man, long thought dead, lifted both hands in the air and clapped them together three times. A moment of celebration broke out immediately and revival was started by this “living stone” being faithful unto death.
Horatio Spafford was the last man we spoke of on Sunday morning. A modern day (if we can call the 1800’s “modern”) Job story. A wealthy businessman had his whole life stripped from him. He and his wife had their only son die very young, their wealth was destroyed by the Chicago fire of 1871, and their four daughters are tragically killed in the sinking of the Ville de Havre on their way to Europe to help with one of D.L. Moody’s evangelistic campaigns. This kind of pain cannot be accurately described in words—especially from someone who has not lived through it. But what we do know is that on the way to meet his wife (one of the few survivors of the ships sinking) in Europe after the catastrophe he penned these words;
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
These individuals were each giants of the faith. Their pasts were real and their lives not sinless, but each died leaving a testimony to behold! They are living stones for us to emulate and to draw strength from—if God can and has used flawed individuals in the past, will He not do the same in and through you and I? Can He not make us something that blesses generations to come? He is able and He is willing. Will we yield?
Questions to ponder:
Most of mankind is a sucker for a good story—we are drawn in and mesmerized by both the ability to tell a story (think Hollywood and the quality of a movie; set, actors, special effects, etc…) and the depth of the story being told (the individual’s loves, struggles, pains, and “hopefully” theireventual triumph). The heart pulls toward these things for several reasons. The foremost would be our need and love of community. The book of Genesis states that God created man “in His own image”—that concept of “image” has been debated for years by brilliant theologians, so I will not try to sort much of that in this post. I will say this, at a minimum, that “image”contains the idea and ability of “consciousness” and the element of a creature made for community—both of which fine-tune us for the recognition of a great story.
The power held within a “word” must also be brought to light in this time of reflection. God spoke and things happened, “and God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” Jesus Christ was noted in John 1 as the “Word of God.” The Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16 would also remind us that “All Scripture is breathed out by God...” Jesus Himself, following and preceding a long line of Jewish Rabbis, would be a masterful story teller. He is not only “the Word” but He is also the greatest story-teller to touch feet on earth.
It is with this backdrop that the last couple sermons have come to light. Hebrews 10-12 uses a mixture of the individual’s story (chapter 10), historical examples (chapter 11), and a gentle push toward a brighter future because of the power held within each example of faith and God’s power to work through it—especially in that of Jesus Christ Himself, the “author and finisher (perfecter) of our faith.” Can a story really carry that much power? Can a story propel us into new heights of personal devotion and commitment? Could it even be possible to anchor one’s life to a story? I believe the answer to all three questions to be yes. Think back and maybe you, like me, can think of some stories that move your soul. The Braveheart movie comes to my mind—love, devotion, freedom, and a character that could not be bought all strike me as characteristics worth emulating. Even being a fictitious representation of a historical figure, it still carries tremendous weight within the realm of reality. Amazingly, it is a story written in the midst of fallen humanity and all the repercussions of sin that come with it—death, war, betrayal, adultery--that’s the appeal. Not that the story and its characters are perfect but that the story and its characters are real in the sense that life is accurately represented in this story of fiction. Could God do the same things in “real” men and women? A better question would be “has God done the same things in men and women?” The answer is a beautiful, uplifting, broken, and pain-filled “YES!” It is in that thought that the last couple weeks I have asked us to look back at those that have come before us—faith filled trailblazers, temporary failures, “dusted off and set right” saints for us to consider, copy, and borrow faith from when it is needed.
Hebrews 11 would call out men and women like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, among others to draw us close to their great stories and push us past them for even greater work. In essence the passage would say, “You are surrounded by greatness (humanly speaking), so rise to the challenge and live like it.” God works through real men and women, the Church’s history also shows that message. Last Sunday we talked about 4...
Annie Johnson Flint wrote the poem, “He Gives More Grace.” It is one of the most beautiful and inspired earthly writings I have ever heard. The first and fourth verses are as follows:
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added affliction He addeth His mercy;
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
His love has no limit; His grace has no measure.
His pow’r has no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again!
Such an amazing piece of work would be expected to flow from some beautiful scenic spot, maybe a cabin or condo on the beach, from some life full of health, wealth, and unaccustomed to struggle. But those thoughts would be entirely false with regards to this masterpiece of the soul. Annie was twiceorphaned by the end of high school. She was crippled with arthritis during her junior year of high school. She spent most of her life incontinent and in constant need. That majestic poem was written from the bed of someone that could not care for their basic needs (food, shelter, cleanliness), penned with crippled hands, and forged with tears. This Christian woman knew something of God’s grace, mercy, and the power of His presence. She experienced God. Right in the middle of an earthly hell, trapped inside her own body, she knew peace, joy, and contentment like few will ever know it. God uses the broken, He molds in the pain, and then He leaves her as an example of what He can do. I am without excuse.
We experienced the story of Corrie ten Boom. This woman and her family were Nazi resisters and Jewish sympathizers in WWII. The ten Booms hid and funneled out as many Jewish people as possible through their jewelry and watch shop. The Gestapo eventually busted them, arresting 35 people in the same day, and threw them into prison. Corrie’s elderly father died quickly, her sister also died in Nazi custody, and her nephew died soon after release. She also found out that the reason for their capture was the betrayal by a Dutch citizen that had set a trap and stolen $600.00 from them in the process. Corrie ten Boom had every reason to hate, every reason to desire revenge, every reason to live the rest of her life hid in a corner somewhere, tightly wrapped in a spiritual “fetal position”, and distrusting every person to cross her path.
Instead, she chose to forgive. She chose to be used. She chose to love instead of hate and because of that God used her all over the world to share His message. One of her “earthly” rewards must have been the knowledge that the man that had betrayed her and her family was convicted with such intensity by her love and Godly reaction that he too became a Christian. Like the soldier at the cross turning to Jesus and calling Him “the Son of God”, this Dutch citizen was won to Jesus by the hands and heart of the person he had despised and betrayed in a most evil way. Corrie would state, “we never touch the ocean of God’s love as much as when we love our enemies. It is such a joy to accept forgiveness, but it is almost a greater joy to give forgiveness.” Those words were not written by some Joe Schmoaround the corner talking about someone that bumped your car or blew their leaves on your lawn—those words were etched by a woman that had walked through the fire of Nazi torture and come out the other side more like Jesus than many before and many after her. She would also state, “When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, He Himself will give us the love with which to do it…” She had been filled and supplied by the hand and heart of God almighty. I am without excuse.
We spoke of William Wilberforce.; a man frail in physical stature but as sturdy spiritually as one could be in the face of evil men in an evil time. He was one of few that stared down the slave trade in Britain during the late 1700 and early 1800’s. His Christian conviction shoved him into the realm of deep political disdain but he was not deterred. He understood the beauty and fleeting nature of human life, “This present scene, and all its cures and all its gaieties, will soon be rolled away, and ‘we must stand before the judgment seat of Christ.’” And again, I am without excuse.
Lastly on Sunday morning we spoke of George Mueller—a man so close to God he relied only his prayer life to supply all his needs. Never soliciting a dollar from any man, not only did God care for Mueller’s personal needs but God also made a way for over 10,000 orphans to be cared for by Mueller run orphanages. Mueller’s journals are amazing testimonies to God’s care and provision—many entries have preserved and published. They are a treasure trove of prayer, answers to prayer, and devotion to a good King. Mueller died like he lived; he had no money for a headstone and so a spontaneous collection of was taken by those orphans he loved and care for so much. God provided, yet again, what Mueller needed. The headstoneinscription is a magnificent testimony to a life well lived—“life” may actually be too loose a term. Mueller’s existence was more a work of art—he was a blank canvas that God painted a supernatural picture on. His prayer life was a picture of what God can and wills to do when we are entirely dependent on Him.
These men and women are more than headstones to marvel at—they are living stones meant to speak to our lives and be useful to us right now. More on that concept next week…
Questions for reflection:
1. What testimony is God creating in my life that will live on when I’m gone? A personal example is my own—I pray that God is creating in me an encourager that edifies and builds up everyone I come in contact with. I’m praying to be a “Barnabas” (son of encouragement).
2. What testimony above is one that you need to learn from right now? The idea of strength in adversity—like Annie? The idea of forgiveness beyond circumstance—like Corrie? The idea of strength in the face of adversity and evil—like Wilberforce? Or the steadfast conviction that God will come through for you—like Mueller?
3. Think of some personal greats that have lived with you in your past—name them and thank God for them. I remember the husband and wife that started bringing me to church. A Youth Pastor that was influential in my love of Scripture and the seriousness nature with which to handle it. I remember a former pastor that changed an entire state (and the world) by a vision for Christian education and the mentality that if it was God’s it should be “better.”
“Don’t I talk enough” was the first thought that ran through my head when asked to start a blog. Struggling with the thought of being heard too much or “wearing out one’s welcome” are heavy on my mind as I type but the push of proper Christian life must be one of communication, clarification, and interaction. So here I am, typing.
“God grant wisdom and proper use of my words in order to further Your kingdom and not my own. Remind me of my consistent need of You, Your strength, and the Holy Spirit’s divine wisdom. Place me close to Your heart and then use me to convey the message that You would say if You were here speaking. Make the name of Christ large in my heart and in my communications—both written and spoken. The desperate need of my soul is You and that’s the same for those that take the time to read what is written here. May that concept never change in my heart or mind--You are the potter and I am the clay. When I’m done serving you properly, make me done. Until then, use me for the glory of the great King and the expansion of His fame. Jesus Christ and His merits is the name with which I offer this prayer—Amen.” “Whom have I in Heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:25-26
The recent part of this sermon series (based solely on form and function of The Church) has been heavy on information and heavier on philosophical ideas that are the foundation for all our decisions. Philosophy is “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.” Defined in the realms of truth, being, knowledge, and conduct line this discipline of thought up closely with Biblical teaching that requires us to think deeply about the world around us and the God that put it there. Philosophy answers questions like; “Why I am here?” “What’s my purpose?” And “How should I live?” The starting point of my thinking has a direct effect on my living—actions follow decisions and decisions follow principles. It is my thought that one must be grounded securely in their principle forming arguments in order to be ready to handle the hundreds of decisions they are going to make in the day ahead. The formation of these thoughts into a logical and livable system is called one’s “worldview.” The statement that “an unexamined life is not worth living” has long been attributed to Socrates—with all due respect to such a fantastic thinker, I would probably give credit to the Holy Spirit (through the lips of Joshua) for this thought provoking idea:
 “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and myhouse, we will serve the LORD.”
Joshua’s commission is to take a look at life, “examine” if you will, all the knowledge you have before you and make a decision about who is worthy to be served. The choice in the above passage has always fascinated me; you can serve the gods that Jehovah destroyed in Egypt, the gods that Jehovah conquered bringing you into the Promised Land, or Jehovah Himself. Seems like a “no-brainer” but we must constantly fight this same battle—who will we serve? The choices; the gods of my past (money, fear, sex, peer-pressure, etc.), I could worship myself today (that evil and fragile tyrant that has a way of ruining my life and the lives of those around me), I could choose to worship some false god that looks suspiciously like a “mini-me”, or I can serve Jehovah of Heaven. The option to serve the God that has conquered all other gods and deemed them impotent and woefully inadequate seems to be the easy choice. But that choice requires constant examination of my spirit to make sure the choices made in the physical realm match what my Christian soul deems proper. When my choices and my Christian principles don’t match the church father James would warn me that the “double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.”
These ideas have driven this sermon series down a road of deep thought and reflection. We started with the idea of “why” we are here—the individual why and the church’s corporate why were covered. The reasons given in the creation account were three-fold; community, work, and to glorify God—we then used that as the template for the church as well (Matthew 28:18-20). Each individual memberand the corporate church are born and grown for the same reasons; community with God and others, to work in the creation God has made, and ultimately to glorify God forever more. These are lofty goals within the context of sinful mankind. The fallen nature within every man, woman, and child makes living in a manner worthy of our “why” reasons impossible.
How can fallen man glorify God? That is the second question we tried to answer. We explored the stories of God’s creation of Eve (Gen. 2) and God’s cutting of a covenant with Abram (Gen. 15) inorder to see if there was a way in which, through God’s past actions, we could see how He has made available the opportunity for us to fulfill our calling in life. Those ancient accounts showed the method by which God has made a way—He, through His love and care creates a bride for Adam and He also creates a “bride” for Christ. He then covenants with mankind through Abram to bless us, keep us, and show us mercy and favor. The connection we made with the Christ’s covenant is that of “cutting” a bride from the side of Christ on the cross, like that of Adam in the garden. As it is in Old Testament fashion,God covenants with Himself in order to bring about a people He can redeem, love, and dwell with. When the side of Jesus is pierced the precious blood of Christ and the purifying water of the Holy Spirit are poured out together in covenant for an eternal bride—the Church. The way to live as God originally intended has now been made—though we are not perfect in our daily actions, God’s plans and sealing of salvation are as sure as if our perfection was completed right now.
According to Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church we have been “blessed” with every spiritual blessing (1 vs. 3), we “have redemption” (1 vs. 7), we “have obtained an inheritance” (1 vs. 11), we were “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (1 vs 13), and He [God] has “raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (2 vs. 6). The past tense nature of all those promises are not to be taken lightly—these things are finished for the believer and meant to be enjoyed, passed along, and rested upon in the here and now.
We are loved and we are able to live according to the will of our awesome God. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in conjunction with the coming and sealing of the Holy Spirit have made it possible for us to live according to our calling. Why we are here is found only in a proper understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news that Jesus has come, died in our place, experienced the wrath God instead of us, resurrected from the grave as King and victor, and then sent the Holy Spirit to take up residence in us is more powerful than we could even dream. It is life changing, world changing, and eternity changing.
Here are some questions for further thought.
1. How does knowing why God has created me change the way I live my life daily?
2. Can my daily life be used for the glory of Jesus and the growth of His kingdom? (Think laundry, dishes, parties, sporting events, and time with family…)
3. Do outsiders see the Gospel in me and you? And if so how big does that Gospel look to them?