A Life That Counts (John 12:26b; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Hebrews 6:10)

Several years ago, a survey was conducted in which people 95 years old or older were asked the following question: “What would you change if you could live your life over?” Here are their top three responses: (3) I would reflect more (i.e., slow down and think more deeply about things); (2) I would take more risks, more chances (i.e., try to be more adventurous); and (1) I would try to do more things that would outlive myself (i.e., do something of lasting significance). So said the 95-year-olds.

It’s interesting how the reality of impending death has a way of getting people in touch with the deeper issues of life. And, really, we don’t have to be 95 for that to sink in. A 30-year-old man who was dying of leukemia once said in the midst of his own pain and suffering, “I really don’t think people are afraid of death. What they’re afraid of is the incompleteness of their life.” Indeed, too many people are plagued by that gnawing sense of not having accomplished what they thought they would accomplish before leaving the planet.

Among believers, this dynamic is often the case regarding church work, too. Let’s face it, serious Christian service and church ministry is often hard, time-consuming, thankless, subject to criticism, and—most of the time—pro bono. It’s volunteer work that often goes unrecognized and therefore (we think) unappreciated.

If you’ve ever had that sense of, “What have I really accomplished in my service to Christ and his church?,” you might receive a tremendous amount of encouragement from the three passages highlighted in this message:

  • Jesus said in John 12:26, “My Father will honor the one who serves me.”
  • Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
  • The author said in Hebrews 6:10, “God…will not forget your work.”

Pastors might forget your work. Church staff might forget your work. Ministry leaders might forget your work. You might even forget your work, but God will not forget your work! 

This message looks at two instructions Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15:58 that help us live a life of significance as believers: (1) Make your life count by standing firm in Christ (15:58a); and (2) Make your life count by serving fully in Christ (15:58b). In other words, make your life count by trusting and serving Christ. Incredible gifts await those who trust and serve the Lord (cf. Revelation 2-3), so live a life of significance for him. Just don’t wait till you’re 95 to do it!

Sermon Resources:

Lord of the Rings Video Clip 1: “I Can Carry You”

Lord of the Rings Video Clip 2: “You Bow to No One”

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Concerning This Salvation (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Even the apostles came across passages of Scripture once in a while that confounded them. Peter wrote of Paul’s writings, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). That’s a comfort to those of us who have ever been perplexed by something we’ve read in the Bible!

Peter also wrote, “The prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). In other words, the Old Testament prophets also had difficulty understanding some aspects of Scripture—including their own prophecies! The good news is, they kept pursuing greater understanding despite their own confusion. They faithfully wrote down what God had led them to write, even when they couldn’t piece it all together.

To take a case in point, the prophets spoke of a glorious messiah to come. They also spoke of a suffering messiah to come. Consequently, they had trouble reconciling these two concepts, which seemed to stand in an irresolvable tension. “What kind of messiah will he be,” they wondered, “a glorious messiah or a suffering messiah? Or will he somehow be both?”

Looking at all the biblical evidence, some rabbis said there was not one messiah coming but two! They even gave them names. The first was called, “Messiah, son of David,” the one who would rule and reign in righteousness in the spirit of King David, the one who brought Israel to its zenith of power and glory in his day. The second was called, “Messiah, son of [Old Testament] Joseph,” the one who would be mistreated by his own people and suffer greatly at their hands, just like Joseph, the patriarch, who was betrayed by his brothers.

The two-messiah theory was a good theory. It sought to be comprehensive and make sense of the sum total of biblical data. It tried to leave no stone unturned and be faithful to what God had revealed in his Word. The only problem with the theory is that it was wrong! There were not two messiahs coming, but one messiah in two appearances. The first time he would come as “Messiah son of Joseph,” the suffering servant who would die for the sins of the world. The second time he would appear as “Messiah son of David,” the everlasting king whose throne would never end.

The lesson for us today is both practical and helpful: When Scripture is hard to understand, keep studying it as best you can, letting God unravel the mysteries in his own time. And, in the end, know that Jesus is the center of all of it. As the prophets learned, God’s unfolding plan requires patience and faith. Paul himself wrote, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We ought to be very careful, then, about how tightly we hold onto our pet theories—even when we can attach a bunch of Bible verses to them.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

God of the Impossible (1 Kings 17:17-24)

A Few Good Men is ranked as one of top 100 movies of all time. It’s a military courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon. One of the memorable lines of the movie comes from Lieutenant Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. He’s the lead defense attorney, and his case against the colonel isn’t going well. After a series of deep frustrations with his co-counsel, Lieutenant Galloway, played by Demi Moore, Kaffee blurts out, “And the hits just keep on coming!” It’s an expression that basically means, “Here we go again!” or “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”

By the time we meet up with Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24, it’s hard not to think of this line, “And the hist just keep on coming!” He’s already had a hard and adventuresome life as a prophet, but we’re just getting started. After several miracles and death-defying adventures, the son of the widow he just rescued becomes deathly ill. Elijah watches his little friend go through the dying process. A few months ago, he saw the brook dry up, and now he sees a young boy’s life dry up, too. Now what? Surprisingly, the widow blames the prophet for her son’s death. For Elijah, the hits just keep on coming.

How do we respond when we get a tongue lashing we don’t deserve? Step into lawyer mode? Defense mode? Return the verbal garbage with garbage of our own? Hurt people tend to hurt people, and Elijah gets wounded here. But he doesn’t seek to wound back. He offers no argument, no rebuke, and no explanation. He does speak, but not to the woman’s tortured logic and agonized questions. Rather, he offers her gentle service and simple burden sharing. Then he gets alone with God and cries out to him for help (1 Kings 17:20), offering up an impossible prayer: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (1 Kings 17:21b).

It’s one thing to pray for the weather, as Elijah has recently done. It’s another thing to pray for the restoration of life to a dead body. That’s something new. But not only does Elijah pray the impossible prayer, he’s willing to be ceremonially “unclean” in the process by stretching himself out on the boy three times (1 Kings 17:21a). It was a form of sacrificial intercession in the face of a desperate situation. Happily, the Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him (1 Kings 17:22). It’s the first resurrection of Scripture. Thankfully, it’s not the last.

How do we face an impossible situation today? Like Elijah, we can get alone with God. We can pour out our problems to the Lord. We can strive for patient endurance and calm assurance amid the hits. And we can wait for God to act, receiving his deliverance in due course. Like Elijah, we can be fully persuaded that hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives. Patient endurance, then, is well founded. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun who lived in the 1500s. She wrote a verse that John Michael Talbot made into a song in our day:

Let nothing trouble you.
Let nothing frighten you.
For everything passes but God will never change.
Patient endurance will obtain everything
Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.
God alone is enough. God alone is enough.
Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.

One day the hits will stop coming. Jesus made sure of that. On the cross, he was willing to become truly “unclean” for us, dying for our sin. But on the third day, he rose again from the dead, having told his followers, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Today he puts his infinite resources at the disposal of those who, like Elijah, pray in righteousness and faith. That’s how we hit back at the hits.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Digesting Life (Psalm 57:1-11)

Have you ever had a cow on your plate? Probably, but it was broken down into a hamburger first, which you then had to chew. Your body broke it down even further through digestion into proteins, amino acids, and other nutrients that could be absorbed into your bloodstream and used as fuel for life. Inside that cow, then, was energy for life—but it had to be broken down again and again to be of any value to you.

How do we handle the pressures of life in a fallen world—especially if we believe that God is for us not against us (Rom 8:31)? How do we reconcile the goodness of God and the aches and pains of this world he calls us to endure? David’s relationship with God as revealed in Psalm 57 gives us a clue. 

One day King Saul tried to shish kabob David to the wall with a spear while he was playing his harp. When that failed, Saul dispatched his soldiers to capture him, but that didn’t work, either. In fact, every attempt by Saul to lay a hand on him was frustrated. Eventually, David escaped to the cave of Adullam as a fugitive. According to Psalm 57:6, David’s spirit during those days was “bowed down in distress.”

Despite the pressure he was feeling, 1 Samuel 22:1 tells us that when David’s family found out where he was hiding, they met up with him there, including “all those who were in distress…and he became their leader.” That’s a noteworthy rendezvous. Four hundred people who are stressed out seek after David, who himself is stressed out. They want to be with him. They recognize that God is still with him in a unique way. Moreover, they want him to be their leader even though he’s on the run.

How many people do we know whom we can honestly say we want to be around when they’re stressed out? Most of us aren’t so sure we like being around ourselves when we’re stressed out! But David handled the pressures of life in such a way that people wanted to be around him even when he himself was under pressure. Why? David tells us he ultimately took refuge in God (Ps 57:1), not the cave. Indeed, he recognized that despite his many challenges in life, God was still fulfilling his purpose for him (Ps 57:2).

This sermon looks at the great “why” behind our distress, a word, incidentally, that means “to pull you apart slowly; to stretch you or draw you tight.” It’s an image that comes from the ancient rack torture. In other words, distress is when life is ripping you apart, tearing at your soul, and causing you grief or pain. The good news is that God’s people don’t go through distress only to come out the other side with nothing but a scar. No, for the child of God, every trial we face is Father-filtered. There’s a “divine why” behind it and a supreme good coming out of it, even if we don’t know at the time what that may be. 

We do know that the testing of our faith leads to spiritual growth (Jas 1:2-4; 1 Pet 1:6-7), and growth requires eating. Not only eating but digesting what we’ve eaten. Digestion, of course, is a process of breaking down the food we eat into a form our bodies can use. It’s a process that’ essential to life itself. Now, we can read a book about digestion, and even become a gastrointestinal doctor, but unless we actually eat, we will starve to death. 

Likewise, believers can read our Bibles until we’ve memorized them, but unless we “digest” life as it unfolds, activating our faith in the process, we will spiritually starve. David’s trust in God while under pressure is a reminder for all of us to digest life with faith in order to truly live. Anything less would be IN-digestion. So, by all means, have a cow. But eat it in faith. Energy for life awaits you.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Rest, the Lord Is Near: Combating the Stresses of Life (Psalm 23:1-6)

Psalm 23 is one of the most popular texts in the Old Testament. Charles Spurgeon called it “the pearl of Psalms.” James Montgomery Boice called it “the most beloved of the 150 Psalms in the Psalter.” And J. P. McBeth called it “the greatest poem ever written.” It’s often read at funerals, or during times of profound grief and sadness. That’s appropriate, but King David’s composition is a psalm for life, not just death. Indeed, we likely need this psalm now more than ever.

Stress is a prominent reality of modern life. Never before in history have people been more anxious and overloaded than they are today. Life has always been hard on a fallen planet, but it seems to be getting harder. We live in an age of exploding technology that’s hard to keep up with; information overload that threatens to overwhelm us; political polarization that breeds cynicism and disillusionment; media manipulation that makes it hard to trust anything we see on our screens; a cancel culture that keeps people captive to the fear of other people’s judgments; a global pandemic with widespread disagreement over how best to navigate it. And, as many people have discovered, stress takes its toll physically and emotionally. As one book title says, The Body Keeps the Score.

What is stress? It’s the pressure, strain, and tension we feel whenever a situation or event demands more from us than we think we can give. The tell-tale sign we’re stressed out is when we find ourselves saying, “I just can’t handle this right now!” A well-mannered, kind-hearted young woman can turn into a screeching bridezilla in the run-up to her wedding. A tender, warm-hearted young man can turn into a cauldron of bitterness when there are more deadlines than time to meet them. People routinely suffer chronic stress as a result of financial woes, work pressure, bullying, relationship troubles, or the challenges of parenting. All of it can cause anxiety, irritability, depression, headaches, insomnia, and other serious physical or psychological symptoms.

How do we cope? How do we survive? How do we overcome the taxing stresses of life? How did King David do it? How did he cope? How did he overcome? After all, the “sweet singer of Israel” spent several years of his life being pursued by his enemies. On more than one occasion did a spear whizz by his ear and twang into the boards where he was lodging. Most people have never been on the receiving end of that kind of incoming enemy fire (police and military personnel excepted). And most of us have never spent a great deal of time living as a fugitive, running for our lives. David did. And yet he had a way of rising above the stresses of life. 

Psalm 23 gives us a clue as to how he did it. The composition is a declaration of trust and confidence in God despite all that was going on around him. Two main metaphors drive the poem: (1) God as David’s Shepherd (vv. 1-4); and (2) God as David’s Gracious Host (vv. 5-6). Together these metaphors paint a stunning portrait for us: God is the ultimate Shepherd-King to his people. People are the sheep of God’s flock and the guests of God’s kingdom. Now, sheep are essentially helpless and not particularly bright. That’s not a good combination, as the following video clip indicates:

People and sheep have a lot in common! They both desperately need a good shepherd! Thankfully, believers have one in Yahweh, the God of Israel. If David were here today, he might say to us, “Rest in the Lord who is with you and good to you.” Specifically, he might tell us to rest in the PROVISIONS of the Lord (vv. 1-3), the PRESENCE of the Lord (vv. 4-5), and PROMISES of the Lord (6). God is the caretaker and protector of his people, and he will ensure that they do not lack in basic needs as they navigate the stresses of this life. Rather, he pursues them with goodness and covenant love all the days of their lives (v. 6).

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Blood Covenant, Part 4: The Battle Belongs to the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:1-30)

Sometimes the questions of life are so hard, we need divine guidance to answer them. Should I go to college or enter the work force right out of high school? Should I stay in my current job or look for another? Should I move to a new location? If so, where? Should I stay in this toxic relationship? Should I put my declining loved one in a care facility? Should I take my family member off of life support? Indeed, life can sometimes feel like one crisis decision after another, and our own wisdom is not always sufficient to make the call.

In 2 Chronicles 20, King Jehoshaphat faces a major crisis. He’s being attacked by a triple alliance of nations, and he’s not ready for it. In fact, he’s alarmed when he first gets the intelligence report. He doesn’t know what to do, but he knows he’s in covenant with Yahweh—the God of Israel. So, if he’s being attacked, God is being attacked, too. Consequently, the king calls on his covenant partner for help: “O Lord…we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:6, 12b). In response, God gives him strange instructions, reminding him that the battle belongs to the Lord. 

The same is true today. When you’re afraid and don’t know what to do, pray to the God who does. God knows all about the scary situations we face and and the difficult decisions in front of us, so he puts divine resources at our disposal. When we trust him fully, we may—like Jehoshaphat—find ourselves praising our way to victory.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Blood Covenant, Part 3: Open Your Mouth Wide (Psalm 81:1-10)

The descendants of Abraham found themselves enslaved down in Egypt building the treasure cities of Pharaoh. Because they were in covenant with God, however, it was as if God himself was enslaved, too. In fact, part of Psalm 81 gives us a portrait of God walking through Egypt, as if he were right there on the scene where his people were being mistreated. God says, in effect, “I was there, and I saw you with a burden on your back. I saw you with a basket of bricks in your hands. I heard you struggling with the language of the Egyptians.” And as Israel’s covenant partner, God obligated himself to act on their behalf. That’s why his message to the obstinate Pharaoh was, “Let my people go!” 

God’s message to his own people was, “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). That’s an illustration from the hedgerows—a picture of baby birds being fed by mother bird in the nest. A baby bird is nothing but a big open beak with a straggly bit of flesh attached to it. It’s the picture of absolute dependence and expectancy. God was reminding his people to trust him; to depend on him—to rely on him, even when life was difficult. Or, in the words of Jesus: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). This spiritual dynamic is still true today. God is the ultimate covenant partner on whom we can always depend. We just need to learn how to open our mouths wide.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

“Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” (Psalm 81:10)