One of the books of the Old Testament I used to avoid when I was a seminary student begins with the words: “Meaningless! Meaningless!...everything is meaningless.” You guessed it—Ecclesiastes, written 3,000 years ago by wise King Solomon. Since it began in such a cynical fashion I felt it couldn’t really provide much inspiration for me. Sometime later when I was forced to study the book in detail I discovered that Solomon was only stating his conclusions up front about the results of living a life without a secure tether to God. The real message Solomon had to give was in the last words, not the first. He concludes his book like this: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man…”
I saw these same words rephrased in modern dress by Leon Morris in “The Cross of Jesus“ when he stated, “the tragedy of much of modern life is that the abandonment of the knowledge of God means that futility has taken over.” Those are the two words that truly describe the condition of people who don't know God: “meaningless” and “futile.” It wouldn’t matter if you lived in an Eastern culture 3,000 years ago or in the western culture of today. You always arrive at the same dead end when you omit God from your everyday life. That is a description of what has taken over our entire nation. Of course, that problem has always been around, but never has it so absorbed the lives of so many of our people. The greatest mission field we face is not across the ocean in some third world country. It is barely across the street. The culture most lost to the gospel is our own. I believe they are not so much lost like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, but more like the lost sheep. They are just out there, a long way from where they should be. They can make no real sense out of their surroundings and they have no idea how to get home. That is why every Christian is a rescuer or, if you please, a shepherd. We should be the first to notice their location, their futility, their meaningless lives, and provide loving directions back to the “sheep pen” where the Good Shepherd waits to welcome them home where they belong.
This is the age of “image is everything!” Businesses spend millions for that “just right” look. And if you really watch the TV commercials you‘ve got to believe that individuals do too. In our craze to “market the church” Christian leaders also have been deeply influenced to create and maintain an image. From the color of the paint on the walls to the tone and content of our preaching we are constantly directed to present a consistent image. Of course, that image is to be one of warmth, compassion and acceptance in a user-friendly environment. It is not my intention here to belittle this practice because we have all experienced the barrenness of churches that have been totally indifferent to the question “How do others see us?”
But there is a built-in shallowness to this image question. If this becomes a dominant concern with us, what makes us think we will become any less vain than the man or woman who can’t resist endless primping each time he or she passes a mirror. We should first be asking an entirely different question: how does GOD see us? To deal honestly with this most important question we must put aside the “church marketing” books and read THE Book, especially the part where Jesus answers that question of the church at Ephesus. In His brutally frank way He lets them know the truth. Amidst all the good things they had going for them (of real substance, by the way) He lets them know that they have a potentially fatal flaw: they have lost their “first love.” No amount of tinkering with externals is going to make up for it either. In fact, Jesus says that if they don’t do something to restore it quickly He is going to put them out of business.
That got me thinking about which of these two questions we have decided is the most important to us. I think this whole idea of trying to become a friendly, accepting, compassionate church is going about it backwards. Our goal should be to allow the Spirit of God to work within us to produce what He promised to produce if we cooperate with Him; that is, real faith hope, love, and all those other things that people genuinely long for. To concentrate on acting friendly, without experiencing a genuine work of the Spirit within us is only to offer an empty shell. The substance that fills that shell can only come as we truly desire to live a life that is pleasing to Him. That is my prayer for all of us.
One thing all human beings have in common is failure. King David was no different. One day, from his balcony, he saw a woman named Bathsheba bathing. He saw, he looked, and he kept looking. Then he sent for her and committed adultery with her. Some time later, Bathsheba informed the king she was pregnant. At first, David tried to cover up his sin by bringing her husband home from battle so he would think he fathered the child. When that plan failed, he had Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle and took his wife as his own.
Yes, David failed big time but that wasn’t the end. It was a moment when all could have been lost, but it wasn’t. With God, failure never has to be final! No matter how bad, how wrong, or how ashamed you may rightly feel, God is there for you. Even though you knew better, God is willing to meet you. At times like these we need to turn to God like David did. Will there be consequences? Sure. Will there be pain? Of course. Does it have to ruin your life forever? No, absolutely not. It is interesting to note that it was God who referred to King David as “a man after my own heart.” And this was after the Bathsheba episode. David was also the measuring stick against which God compared all future kings. It’s not just that God forgives our past failures. He forgets them as well. It seems that He is more interested in where we are, at any given time, than where we have been.
But the difference between the old David and the new David was seen in the way he handled his sin. Although in denial for a long time until he was “outed” by God through the Prophet Nathan, David dared to come clean with God. His response was “I have sinned against the Lord.” He then threw himself upon the Lord’s mercy and compassion.
As a pastor, I frequently see people trying to cut deals with God. This will never work. God provides a way to be forgiven, but it’s not by trading a few good deeds or promising to make up for what you’ve done. Sin must be owned up to. It must be openly confessed. It must not be justified or blamed on people or circumstances. And then it must be followed by genuine repentance—a conscious turning away from its root causes and determination to not live that way again.
Some of your greatest experiences with God will come after you’ve let Him down big time. We forget that He is rooting for our improvement and recovery from sin and is more than willing to hasten it by His forgiveness and restoration. Don’t ever give up on yourself. God certainly won’t.
Following our recent trip to the Holy Land, Kathy and I took a few days to come back home through Switzerland and surrounding Alps countries. We both see that area as the “garden spot of the world”—so rugged and beautiful are its mountains, glaciers and green valleys. Late in the afternoon we pulled into Chamonix, in Eastern France. Our hope was to see Mount Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. The only problem was that it had been raining all day (as it regularly does in this part of the world) and the clouds hung very low over the valley at nearly tree top level. In spite of all we had anticipated the view was non-existent. There was nothing there to substantiate any of the stories we had heard or the pictures we had seen. So we went to bed disappointed. But the next morning we awoke to brilliant sunshine streaming into our room. Instinctively we peered out the window. It took a moment for our minds to cancel out last night’s memories of the place and adjust to the morning’s staggering vista. There in all its glory was the beautiful rounded peak of Mt. Blanc. It had also been there the night before, but only now could it be experienced.
I have often pondered that experience because it seems to provide an important metaphor for life. A casual traveler through that country who knew nothing of its world-renowned scenery would not have hesitated to keep moving had he encountered the heavy clouds. His goal would have been to find a dry and inviting spot to stay for the night. What brought us to that very spot was our belief that, despite the present situation, the glorious scenery we sought would eventually show itself to us.
Even so, our faith in Christ often leads us into dark valleys and dismal circumstances. Church work and Christian ministry can often appear dark and unrewarding and we are tempted to quickly move to brighter camping spots. Only our trust that we have not been misled and that we are indeed in the right location at the right time keeps us in place. We know that, when the unwelcome mists eventually lift, we will be rewarded with what we came for—a glorious revelation of God Himself. Hang in there with us, friends, as we move through another year of service. He who has called us will not send us away empty.
Senior Pastor of Cactus Christian Fellowship