Reflecting on the scriptures appointed for today, I was taken back to a topic we examined last March, when we explored the basics of discipleship. You may remember that we looked at four aspects of that journey, that purposeful walk down the path of Christian learning.
1. Newness of life - In which every disciple experiences the passing of the old and the beginning of the new.
2. Brokenness of heart - Where every disciple is broken. Where their old nature is broken down, so that their new nature can take permanent hold of their life.
3. Struggling toward the goal - Which demonstrates that every disciple must labor, and labor diligently, for discipleship is hard work.
4. Praise - as disciples we enter into praise, since in all that we do we should offer our praises to God.
Today our readings focus on two aspects of what we covered in March, brokenness of heart and struggling toward the goal. This morning, between Scott Saulsbury, Keith Valentine, and myself, we hope to take you along the next step on the road of discipleship. As we deal with our brokenness and our struggles in the faith, we hope to show you that that all of this effort is necessary, that we have a truly wise God, a God who is not making a mistake.
Elizabeth Elliot, in her book Let Me Be a Woman, tells the story of Gladys Aylward. Now Gladys had a problem. She was disappointed with God, because she felt he had been unfair to her. She thought the looks God had given her were a major mistake. As she was growing up she felt God had given her two great sorrows to bear. The first was that while all her friends had beautiful golden hair, and hers was a dark raven black. The second was that while all her friends were still growing, she had stopped, and four feet ten inches was as tall as she would ever get. She was different and she stood out from everyone else. Despite these disappointments that clouded her view of God, Gladys went on to become a missionary to China. At last, after a long journey, she reached this far country to which God had called her to his service. When she got off the boat, she stood alone on the wharf in Shanghai and looked around at the people to whom God had called her. Suddenly, a revelation of understanding surged through Gladys. Every single one of the Chinese going about their business on the wharf had raven black hair. And, almost every one of them appeared to have stopped growing exactly when she did. With a new acceptance of God's providence, of his provision for her life, she was able to turn her heart's focus to her Lord and exclaim, "Lord God, You know what you're doing!"
We need to know, using Gladys as an example, that in order to accomplish what we discussed last week, keeping our focus on God, and to pursue the course of discipleship we will discuss today, we need to believe that God knows what he is doing. We need to believe that every rending that breaks our heart, every struggle that we labor through toward the goal that God has given us, in of our upward calling in Christ Jesus, is necessary, that God knows what he is doing.
Gladys Aylward spent too many years of her life believing God had made a mistake. It took her actually seeing the Chinese people standing in front of her to turn around her understanding of God's purpose, for her to see that God actually had a plan for her life, that he actually knew what he was doing.
Last week we defined faith as being sure of what we hope for in God and certain of what we do not see God doing. This morning I want to say to you that faith is integral to discipleship. Unless you can move forward through the brokenness and struggle trusting God, trusting in the sureness of hope and the certainty of sight in the darkness, your discipleship will lose its momentum. It will flounder and you will lose ground and slip back.
The world, and our enemy the devil, will gladly tell us that something is seriously wrong with us, if we believe that we have to go through all of this difficulty in order to grow in God's grace. They will challenge how Tracy Meyer's debilitating health can be part of the wisdom of God? How my wife's 3 months of unemployment and discouraging struggle to find work can be part of God's plan? The world and the devil will argue that maybe God doesn't know what he is doing, or maybe he just doesn't care about us any more. After all, where are the miracles?
During my research for this sermon I came across the entry for the Gospel of Mark in The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001. It says,
"…Mark teaches that true discipleship comes from an appreciation not so much of Christ’s miracles as of the service and suffering that characterize his ministry and messiahship. Jesus is presented as reluctant to disclose his true nature to those who lack the understanding that comes from insight into his suffering."
It is interesting to see a secular publication get it so right. Suffering and the appreciation of its purpose in our lives bring us to one of our two foci for this morning.
Brokenness of Heart
Let me start out by saying that it is natural for us to want to avoid brokenness of heart. Contrary to what the Columbia Encyclopedia says, most of us really do not want any "insight into his suffering". We ask, "Do we actually have to deal with all that unpleasantness?" These things are getting a little too close for comfort.
Our Hebrews reading this morning, chapter 12 addresses this concern. It says,
5-6. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."
Some of these words are difficult, to say the least. And it is normal to want to get away from this discipline. The first part of verse 11 says,
11. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.
So… it is not surprising that we attempt to escape God's efforts to bring brokenness into our life.
However, in Jeremiah 23 God says,
23-24. "Am I only a God nearby," declares Yahweh, "and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?" declares Yahweh. "Do not I fill heaven and earth?"
In the end, there is no place to hide. There is nowhere to get away to.
In addition, in the beginning of our reading from Hebrews 12 it says,
1. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…
Not only is it impossible to we hide from God, but there is also a vast audience, both heavenly and earthly, watching our every move. Scott Saulsbury has something to share with us about this insight.
Summary of Brokenness of Heart
True discipleship does not consist in mere imitation, which is outward and superficial, but in a fundamental change of our hearts, a breaking of the old, replacing our old direction with a new direction that encompasses new thoughts, new concerns, new actions, in effect a whole new life. The success or failure of our discipleship comes out when we think no one is looking. Scott gave evidence of the reality of his discipleship by how he acted when the moment of testing came. He isn't an imitation; he is the real thing.
Remember, when something happens that threatens to break us our natural inclination is to resist, to argue that we shouldn't have to go through this, we should be able to take a different path. However, Paul reminds us in Romans 9:20-21a "But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" Does not the potter have power over the clay…"
As I pointed out in our first look at discipleship in March, this type of argument is very difficult for us as 21st century Christians to submit to. We need to remember that we are citizens of heaven, not really of this 21st century culture in which we now find ourselves, and one of the tasks of our discipleship is to bring ourselves into submission to the will of God. That effort will require us to continue struggling toward the goal, as Paul describes it in Philippians 3:14, of our heavenward calling in Christ Jesus.
Struggling toward the goal
As we said in March, it would also be unfair not to admit that discipleship is a struggle, a real battle, both with the fallen world around us, as well as with our flesh, our fallen nature. However, one thing that makes this struggle so difficult is our inability to be sure of what lies ahead and how far we have left to go. So we often get weary and discouraged. Let me give you an example.
On July 4, 1952, on a fog-shrouded morning, one of the world's great swimmers, a young woman named Florence Chadwick, waded into the waters off Catalina Island. Her goal was to swim the across the 22 mile wide channel separating the island of Catalina from the California coast at Los Angeles. Long-distance swimming was nothing new to her; she had been the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. You would be right in saying that she was a very disciplined swimmer.
It was a very difficult swim. The water was numbing cold. The fog was so thick she could hardly even see the safety boats escorting her. Several times during the morning her supporters had to drive away sharks with rifle fire. She had been swimming for over 15 hours when, tired and discouraged, she asked to be taken out of the water. Her trainer encouraged her to continue swimming on, since he was sure that they were so close to the goal. However, when Florence looked ahead, all she could see…was fog. Instead, tired, exhausted, and allowing fear of failure to sap her hope, she quit. After a swim of over 21 miles, she quit less than one-mile from her goal.
Later, when interviewed, Florence said, "I'm not excusing myself, but if I could have seen the land I might have made it."
In the end, it wasn't the cold or fear or exhaustion that caused Florence Chadwick to fail. It was the fog, her inability see ahead and then to trust her trainer when he told her "only a little further."
Sometimes as Christians, the fog of the struggle makes it difficult for us to see the road ahead, to see how far we have left to go, to have the information that we so earnestly need so that we can make a sound decision, based on clearly understood alternatives.
As I said last week, we naturally want certainty. Instead, we are encouraged to trust God, to accept his discipline. Like Job, we are told we don't need to know; we just need to trust, to keep our focus on God.
We also talked last week about getting tired, about being bone weary, and losing heart. Sometimes it appears the struggle is just too much for us. The writer of Hebrews in chapter 12, verse 3, speaking of Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, says,
Yes, life is hard, and discipleship is harder still, but God, through the writer of Hebrews has encouraged us not give up.
In addition to the weariness of the journey, our Gospel reading this morning adds some additional complications to the mix. In Luke 12:52 Jesus says,
[Hold up your hands] Here we are, struggling along as best we can, probably hoping to be bolstered in our hard times by the solace of a supportive community. We look forward to family, friends, and neighbors helping us along, lifting us up. However, in verse 49 of the same scripture Jesus says,
He did bring fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire of truth and the cleansing fire of God. And in verses 52 and 53 he says what this fire will do,
Division. This does not mean that division will mean that we will be alone, remember "two against three," but it does mean that we cannot count on a large supportive group of family and friends, adding their support to our needs.
So… Here we are, weary from the struggle and now facing division and limited support.
Hold that thought while Keith Valentine talks to us about struggling through this discouragement and division, and how we are supposed to respond to it.
Summary of Struggling toward the goal
Thanks Keith. When times are tough, bitterness and anger at God is always temptingly close at hand. Remember what God said to Cain in Genesis 4,
After Cain failed to master sin and God punished him for killing his brother Able, he lamented in verse 13,
We often think that about our discipline, about God's corrective judgment on us. We often think, "This is more than I can bear."
So… Where does that leave us? Is there anything here that can give us a lift, buoy our spirits, give us something to encourage our hope? Yes there is. Let's look at the end of our passage in Hebrews 12,
It appears in the midst of all of this, God has given us a task. We are to strengthen and make level. We are able to do this by keeping our focus where it belongs, on God. Everything I said last week comes into play here and now. As we think about this section of Hebrews, we see it harkens back to Proverbs 4,
Keep your eyes straight ahead; keep your focus on God and where he wants you to go. We remember what Paul says in Philippians 3,
In joining with Paul and straining forward, focusing on God and what he has called us to do, we take heart in the last words from our reading this morning from Hebrews 12,
Remember the admonition and encouragement Keith gave us. Do not let a bitter root grow in the fertile soil of our tiredness and struggle. Be a good husbandman of your soul. Do not miss the grace of God, keep your focus on him and be prepared to receive all of the grace that he sends your way.
Let me give a closing story to illustrate the importance of who we are as disciplined children of God. Knowing who we really are should help us persevere through anything we encounter.
Dr. Fred Craddock, Professor of Preaching and New Testament, Emeritus, at Emory University, tells this story told to him by the former governor of Tennessee, Ben Hooper, who was an illegitimate child and had an extremely hard life growing up.
“When I was about 12 years old a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in church on me. Just about the time I got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking right at me.
“Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?’
I felt the old weight come on me. It was like a big black cloud. Even the preacher was putting me down.
But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition. “Wait a minute,” he said, “I know who you are. I see the family resemblance. You are a son of God.”
With that he slapped me across the rump and said, “Boy you’ve got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.”
Ben Hooper then said, “That was the most important single sentence ever said to me.”
As a Christian, we have a great inheritance and our efforts at discipleship are how we actively claim it.
Before we hear from Keith and Cathy Valentine, singing a beautiful song about what Jesus Christ did to save us, and enable us to be true disciples and adopted children of God, let me tell you that not long after her failure, Florence Chadwick again attempted to swim the Catalina channel.
Once more a foggy veil obscured the coastline and again she couldn't see the shore. But this time, she succeeded. She made it all the way because she kept reminding herself that land was there, even though she couldn't see it. With that faith in things not seen, she bravely swam on and achieved her goal. In fact, she broke the current men's record by 2 hours!
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us; who is able to keep us from falling and to present us before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy, may he grant us the grace of perseverance, so that we might work out our salvation in fear and trembling, allowing the discipline of God our father to finish its work within us, so that we may be mature and complete, lacking no good thing, to his honor and glory. Amen.[top]