Sermon: Don’t Miss the Horizon

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This is the text of a sermon I preached on July 27, 2014.

[Audio here]

Good morning, nice to be with you again.

Sorry I had to bail last week.

As most of you know by now, a really, really important person in my life died 2 weeks ago this coming Tuesday.

For eighteen years my dear friend Steve Nickles was a mentor, a teacher, a spiritual guide, sometimes a thorn in my flesh, an encourager, a status quo questioner, a spiritual pioneer and iconoclast, a God-chaser, God-displayer, and God-embodier, and my spiritual brother and one of the dearest and closest friends I have ever had. Steve went to the doctor in 2012 with stomach pain thinking maybe he just had reflux or something. He he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and told the end was near. He turned 50 in January. When he died, he left behind a beautiful wife Tracie, and three girls — Abby, Tessa, and Madeline, all 16 and under. Steve and I worked together at the Davison Free Methodist Church in the 90’s and that’s when I got to know him.

Steve was the guy at that church who built a connection with Dan and Michele Gilliam and brought them into one of his small groups and eventually led them to faith in Christ, and that’s why they are with us today.

In 1998, Steve purchased a book for me called The Divine Conspiracy, by a man named Dallas Willard, Steve’s favorite writer, and my favorite as well ever since. That book changed my heart, my life, and I think saved my faith. Were it not for that book, I don’t think I’d have remained a Christian. I’m nearly positive I wouldn’t have. It kicked off a revolution in my heart and my life that continues to this day, and that has permanently changed, for the better, the way I understand and teach about God. So you are all here today because of Steve’s direct influence in my life. If some of you are my spiritual children, you are Steve’s spiritual grandchildren.

Steve is not replaceable. I knew the day he died that there’s a good chance I will never have another friend like that again. They don’t come around often, many people never find them, and I am grateful for the 18 years we were soul-friends. Now why am I telling you all this?

First, because I wanted to introduce you to your spiritual grandfather. Second, obviously because I loved this man and want to pay tribute to him. But perhaps most important for our purposes, I wanted to share this today because in losing Steve Nickles I have had to remind myself over and over again of what I tell you guys all the time. We cannot allow ourselves — ever — to believe that our best days are behind us . Sure, I may not ever have another friend quite like Steve, another person who plays all those huge roles in my life the way he did — but I will not surrender to the lie that my best days with regard to friendship are behind me. I will not bemoan Steve’s loss by complaining that I may never again have what I had when he was here. Though the pain is great, though I will love and miss him forever, I will believe that somehow, in ways I often don’t understand, in ways I may never understand until one day Steve can explain it to me face to face, that it’s really true for me and for Steve and his family, and you, that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose. That means one thing — what’s on the horizon is your destiny, not what is in the rearview mirror. And what’s on the horizon is good!

I know that can be hard to believe sometimes. I’m struggling to believe it myself right now. I just want to pull the sheets up over my head and complain, “I’ll never have another friend like that again.” And that may be true. But I had that friend for a season, and every season in life must eventually end, often with a bitter winter. But a new spring always comes, and each spring brings its own beauty, its own sunshine, its own store of new life and energy. I can already feel myself reaching out to others like never before. I can already feel my heart giving deeper thanks for the friends that are still in my life. I can already feel that stirring that tells you redemption is at hand, even while the ache of Steve’s passing is still so fresh. Steve’s gone and he’s not coming back, but God has more in store. More life, more connections, more relationships, more sharing, more joy, more fun, more Cokes at Big Boy at 2 in the afternoon, or 2 in the morning. Yes there are bad things in life, tons of them. But I think now of a scripture text Steve selected to be read at his funeral, and how we can learn from that text today:

2 Corinthians 4:7-18 (NIV2011)

{7}  But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

{8}  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;

{9}  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

{10}  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

{11}  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

{12}  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

{16}  Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

{17}  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

{18}  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

What is this saying? Basically, it’s saying this:

Psalm 30:5 (NIV2011)

{5}  …weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

It’s saying, “What’s on the horizon will better than what’s in the rearview mirror.” Not because what’s in the rearview mirror wasn’t good and beautiful, but simply because it is past. If you keep looking into the rearview mirror, hoping to see again that place you passed a long time ago, you will not be able to steer yourself properly toward the horizon, and that’s where the good things are, that’s where Jesus is, that’s where all your next opportunities, and best moments, and strongest relationships are waiting for you.

And that’s the main reason I wanted to tell you about Steve today. Because this bit about continuing to expect good things in life is not just for me to stand up here and say to you when your small group has to split up because you’ve grown too big. It’s not just for me to tell you when you are having a hard time embracing some change that’s coming to the church. It’s not just something I get to pull out and use on you to get you in line when I want you to stop hassling me about something I’m doing. That’s never what this is about. This is truth at its deepest core — it’s spiritual truth,  it’s moral truth, and it’s gospel truth! It’s truth for life! It’s truth I always call you to stand in, because it’s truth that we ALL should stand in, truth that I’m having to constantly remind myself right now to stand in.

As Buddha said, life is impermanence. That’s a way of saying life is filled with pain. The good place you finally arrived at will eventually pass in some way — nothing stays the same. As the Apostle Paul said, this world is passing away. Life is impermanence. Life is change, and change usually brings pain. And when life brings pain, mourning is in season. Mourning is appropriate and good and necessary. Grieving our losses is hard, horrible work and it often comes out of nowhere, when we least expect it. It’s never comfortable or fun, but it is important. It is essential to bid a proper goodbye to the people and places and times we have lost. But this is not the best life will ever be. There are more great things for us on the way.

And frankly, we may not care right now. We may need to cry, or rage, or even feel sorry for ourselves for a while — after all — we have suffered great losses. But as I’m grieving, I’m keeping firmly in mind what I’ve always told you. The best is yet to come. It won’t be exactly like what we lost. It won’t replace people we have had to say goodbye to. But it will be more goodness, more grace seeping into our lives, more light coming through the cracks that are created by all that pain.

A few weeks ago I had been in Romans for a while, and the lectionary is keeping me right there in Romans, and here’s the text the lectionary suggests for today in Romans:

Romans 8:26-39 (NIV2011)

{26}  In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

{27}  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

{28}  And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

{29}  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

{30}  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

{31}  What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

{32}  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

{33}  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.

{34}  Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

{35}  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

{36}  As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

{37}  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

{38}  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,

{39}  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the gospel, my friends. The gospel is not ultimately about being able to weather any storm effortlessly. All through your life things will rock you, lay you low, cause you suffering and grief and pain. But the gospel comes down to this — knowing that after every cross comes resurrection. Maybe sometimes just in the world to come, like for Steve, but oftentimes in this life right here. In fact one of the reasons we can be so certain that life goes on after we die is because of the commonness, the ubiquity of this pattern of redemption we see in the world around us. Spring always follows winter. Birth always follows the pain of labor. Peace always comes after suffering. It’s the way of the universe and that is what the Apostle is telling us here.

It is precisely from the commonness of this observable fact of our present lives that we can count on the life to come. Despite the cruelties we experience in this life, redemption eventually comes — that is, to all who look for it, who expect it, who count on it, who do not give up and lose hope and end up spending the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder out the back window, or into the rearview mirror.

Psalm 121:1-8 (NIV)

{1}I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from?

{2}  My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

{3}  He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber;

{4}  indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

{5}  The LORD watches over you– the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

{6}  the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

{7}  The LORD will keep you from all harm– he will watch over your life;

{8}  the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

The gospel is coming to live in this certainty that, no matter what, you are covered. You are redeemed. It is already accomplished. That’s what the cross tells us. Your redemption has already been accomplished. So no matter what should befall you — lost lives, lost opportunities, lost loves, lost hopes — you will stand firm.

Psalm 16:8 (NIV)

{8}  I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

This is not something to believe. It STARTS with believing, but if you settle for just believing it, it will fail you when you need it most.

Tech — Play clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmBBE6AzolE all the way to the end. 

Of course it’s true that Luke needs to believe. But it can’t end there. He needs not to just believe he can do this, he needs to know it.

Tech — Play clip at http://youtu.be/Ol_1zK_D2fc?t=12s  Stop it after Morpehus says, “Don’t think you are, KNOW you are.”

Because God is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Don’t just believe it — KNOW IT. And as you come to know this more and more, you grow in power.

Don’t think it. Know it. When struggling and suffering come, do we sit around going, “I’m trying so hard to believe this,” or do we say, “I already know the reality of my life, and the life of everyone I love in this world — I know redemption is at hand, and therefore I live in that hope no matter how bad things appear. I have set the Lord always before me and I shall not be moved. That’s already done. I’m not going to keep reevaluating that decision every time something bad happens.” One is thinking, the other is knowing.

Now there is a growing process in there, right? A process where believing is meant to turn into knowing. You can’t will yourself to know what you currently do not know. But you can submit to a process in which knowing is the final outcome. That’s the training versus trying thing I have mentioned several times in the past few weeks.

If you have watched The Matrix, or Star Wars, you see how both Neo and Luke enter into a training process, a process where they both, over a period of time, become what they believe. They both wrestle with their belief, embracing belief and losing belief depending on circumstances. That is part of the journey, but they both eventually move beyond belief where they no longer disbelieve, and they no longer just believe — they KNOW. They have BECOME what they have believed.

Matthew 9:27-29 (MSG)

{27}  As Jesus left the house, he was followed by two blind men crying out, “Mercy, Son of David! Mercy on us!”

{28}  When Jesus got home, the blind men went in with him. Jesus said to them, “Do you really believe I can do this?” They said, “Why, yes, Master!”

{29}  He touched their eyes and said, “Become what you believe.”

That is the spiritual journey. And when most people think about the spiritual journey, what they want is to be able to pray and have God take their pain away, make it all better. Or they want to become such a spiritual giant that they are impervious to suffering and pain. Neither of those things will happen.

What will happen is that you will come to understand the reality you have been trying to live into, that it is immovable, that you have stepped into a world where the sting of death has been removed not because it doesn’t hurt, but because it’s not the end.
It’s not that life won’t happen. It’s not that you won’t suffer. It’s not that bad times won’t come. It’s not that you will pray and God will run in and fix everything in your life that’s broken. It’s that you have trained and trained and trained until you have eventually, like Neo, like Luke, come to see and understand yourself and the world and God in a different way, and you will no longer play by the rules you once played by. You will still suffer and grieve, but in a different way. You will encounter loss and pain and certainly not laugh in the face of them, but you will no longer fear permanent separation from anyone. You will no longer fear death. As that happens, you will increasingly be able to go through more and more difficult things and continue to know that better things are yet to come. In the sense of counting on your own redemption and the redemption of this world, you will quite frankly be unshakeable.

Paul understood this and it was from this place that he was able to say:

1 Thessalonians 4:13 (NIV2011)

{13}  Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

The best is yet to come, and I say this though I have shed many tears even in writing these words. The best is yet to come, though my friend and brother is gone. The best is yet to come though his wife and children face very dark days. The best is yet to come, though at times we feel lost and heartbroken and hopeless. What is over the horizon will always be as good as, or better than, what is now in your rearview mirror. Your next small group will bring beautiful potential for new relationships. Your loved one may be gone but life still has so much beauty for you. Your last child, as ours is, may be leaving the nest, but some of your very finest days are still ahead of you. You may be on the bottom financially, but through belief and prayer and hard work (and probably more than a little risk and fear), good things are ahead for you. You may be sick, but good things will come from it, even if — like my friend Steve — you don’t see them in this lifetime.

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  • Beth

    Yes, I enjoy following along with the script! It helps me stay on track and focus much better. I am more able to use my mental energy to make meaning of the words, not merely listen, or rather struggle to listen and follow. It’s so frustrating to have to use up so much mental energy to simply navigate through a teaching. This manuscript is kind of like a map or compass to treasure for my scattered mind! I feel like I have a little more freedom to wander and find footpaths or trails around the main path while simultaneously following along on the main message. My mind often needs a little freedom create meaning and find Truth. Having a visual AND audio to follow is brilliant! I feel like I’m able to learn and soak up more Truth this way, even in my absent-mindedness! Thank you!