Sermon series: The Measure of Our Maturity
- Getting Inside Your Defenses
- Faith that Puts You to Work
- Hope that Makes You Endure
- Love that Gets Its Hands Dirty
The most-revered symbol in Oklahoma City, sacred to many, is a tree: a sprawling, shade-bearing, 100-year-old American Elm. Tourists drive from miles around to see it. People pose for pictures beneath it. Arborists carefully protect it. This seemingly ordinary elm adorns posters and letterhead. Sure, there are other trees that are larger, fuller, greener, but no other tree is equally cherished or more lovingly cared for as is this one. You see, this tree endured the Oklahoma City bombing.
On the morning of April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked his death-laden truck just a few yards away from this tree. His twisted malice killed 168 people including 19 children under the age of 6, wounded 850, destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, damaged 324 other buildings within a 16-block radius, and buried this elm tree in rubble.
The force of the blast from the 4,000-pound bomb blew away one entire side of the tree and stripped the leaves and some of the limbs from what was left. Shards of glass and debris were shot deep into the trunk of this elm. Fire from the cars parked beneath it blackened and scorched it. No one expected the tree to survive. It was yet another casualty of despicable terrorism.
But then something unexpected happened. The elm began to bud. Sprouts pressed through damaged bark; green leaves pushed away gray soot. Life resurrected from an acre of death. People noticed. The tree modeled the resilience of the victims. So they began hanging signs of remembrance on it. They gathered under its branches when McVeigh's guilty verdict was read.
And they gave that elm a name: the Survivor Tree. It had taken the full brunt of the explosion, absorbed the fury of stark evil, yet it remained. Saplings from the Survivor Tree were sent Columbine High School after the massacre there, to New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani after the September 11, 2001 attacks, to Virginia Tech after the shooting in 2007 - each becoming a tangible symbol of hope that something good and beautiful lies beyond the unthinkable.
When Paul, along with fellow apostles, sought to measure the maturity of a church or a Christian, hope that makes you endure was one of three critical standards that was held forth. What gets repeated over and over throughout the NT is best captured in 1 Thess. 1:2-3 where we read these words: We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
These three qualities - faith, love, and hope - together form a comprehensive way to assess our Christian living. Noted as frequently as they are by the writers of the NT, it is clear that this trilogy was the criteria for assessing how a church is really doing. Gordon Fee stated that "these words embrace the whole of Christian existence as believers live out the life of the Spirit in the present age, awaiting the consummation." They are indispensable if you and I are to fight well in the spiritual warfare to which we are presently commissioned. So we are keeping our Bibles and our hearts open as we take THE MEASURE OF OUR MATURITY.
Last week, we asked the Holy Spirit to examine our lives by the first standard, what Paul called your work of faith. And the Spirit took the Word and assessed whether we are possess and exhibit a living faith that produces the works of Christ. When you compare what's gotten into you by faith in Christ Jesus with the works that the Bible says consistently come out of those who are true believers, you come away better understanding the reason a verse like 2 Cor. 13:5, which says, "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you fail to meet the test!"
Not only should you and I be growing as individuals, but we as a church should be growing in Christlike behavior, in humility, in servanthood, in grace toward one another. We should increasingly embody the words of John 3:30, where John the Baptist said of Jesus: He must increase, but I must decrease. As the years roll by, we should resemble Him more, not less. The latter is far too common, is disconnected from Scripture, and spiritually dangerous. May God whose name is Holy continue to shake us up as we consider this first standard.
Today, we are asking the Spirit of God to appraise our lives and our church in regard to what v. 3 calls steadfastness of hope. This is hope that makes you endure. And it raises questions that come from the hardest moments of our lives. What is the evidence, the proof of the reality of God's presence and work in your marriage, in your parenting, in your ministry, in your work, in the burden of your sickness or disability? What shows the world the reality of Christ in you, the hope of glory?
The answer is that God wills for you and me to endure, to persevere, to remain constant, to keep our vows, to maintain your testimony, to hold steady. The word hupomone means bearing up under a heavy load without giving in or giving up. This is staying power! It is the opposite of quitting, of letting doubt and discouragement and distractions steal away your heart when you're facing serious challenges.
But don't read the word endurance or steadfastness and picture someone gritting their teeth in the face of trouble and just gutting it out. No, this is about moving forward with deliberate purpose and unswerving loyalty when times are tough. This is a steady determination to keep going when everything in you and around you wants you to slow down or stop altogether!
The proof that you are truly a Christian is that you persevere, no matter what! Now, that sounds heroic and soldierly, and everyone in this room wants to be that way. We're all brave and battle-ready in the safety of this sanctuary. Like Peter just before he accompanies Jesus to Gethsemane, we say, "Lord, if everybody else abandons you, you can count on me. I am ready to die for you." But Jesus knew Peter better than Peter knew himself. Jesus knows you and me.
Truth be told, friends, church rolls are filled with people who once were vital parts of the Body of Christ, and now cannot be found. Say what you want about the reasons; they don't hold much water in the face of Jesus' call to die to self, take up the cross and follow Him.
It's a telling thing to have so many who are AWOL. Like the seed that fell on rocky ground in Jesus' parable, they once showed the leaves that suggested true Christianity but they had no root. So when the scorching heat of trials came, they withered away.
So how do you keep on going when your plans blow up in your face - when your dreams don't come true, when you get sick, when the unforeseen strong arms opportunity from your grasp?
How do you maintain a holy life month after month for years when you're facing emotional and relational and financial obstacles that don't let up, and when the normal human encouragements evaporate and you feel forgotten and alone?
What does it take to hang in there when the glamour is gone: when the new wears off and you're well past your "best foot forward," and no one seems to notice you anymore? Where does this endurance come from? Maybe you're sitting here this morning and you're teetering on raising the white flag. Temptation has taken hold of you. Trouble has besieged you. You had ideas that Christianity was going to be one way and now that bubble has been popped. You sorrows have clouded your vision and all your zeal is drained away.
So what can turn the tide? The resounding answer from Scripture is hope. I give thanks to God ... for your ... endurance produced by hope. Hope is the reservoir from which we draw the strength to keep going. Hope is what clears your head and keeps your eyes focused on the right things when trials weigh upon your soul. It is biblical hope that makes the difference.
When you see the word hope in the Bible, think strong confidence. Hope in the Bible is always the confident expectation that good things are on the way. Beyond the trial, beyond the tears, beyond the pain, something good is coming.
Heb. 11:1 teaches us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for ... Hope is faith in the future tense. In other words, when faith looks to the future, it's called hope. It's not here yet. I'm not healed. I'm disillusioned. We're not getting along. The pain isn't going away. But I will not let doubt take hold. I will not give in to temptation. I will stand and keep standing.
That's just blind idealism and wishful thinking unless it's fixed on something real. You're just crossing your fingers unless there's a solid basis for your hope. There are two bedrock realities upon which Christians build their hope.
1) The resurrection of Jesus Christ.
First Peter 1:3 practically shouts this truth: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." The Gaithers captured this in a song that we love. Sing it with me (Because He Lives).
2) The reliability of God's Word.
Referring to the OT, Rom. 15:4 declares, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." Hope looks with joyful certainty at what the Bible says about God and His purposes, about my trials and what they mean, and about what He has promised beyond my hurts and losses.
Since it is the Savior and His Word that strengthens faith, I direct you to 1 Peter 4:12-19, where I want to give your hope a shot of truth. And right off the bat, Peter will call us to the most unnatural, crazy reaction to troubles and pains. But this is how hope in God acts.
Hope-building truths that help you endure
1. Suffering is not a surprise, it's a plan, v. 12, 17.
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you." It isn't strange. It isn't absurd. It isn't meaningless. It is purposeful. Look at verse 19: "Let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator." Suffering is not outside the will of God; it is God's will for you and me to suffer.
But why? For what purpose? Verse 12 says it is for your testing, and v. 17 adds, "For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?" So God's judgment, His testing, is moving through the earth and His children don't get a pass. When the fire of judgment burns the church, it is a testing, proving, purifying fire. When it burns the world it either awakens or destroys. Let your confidence in God be strengthened in this: suffering is not surprising; it is planned. It is a testing. It is purifying fire. It proves and strengthens real faith, and it reveals and consumes fake faith.
2. Suffering as a Christian shows your union with Christ, v. 13a.
"But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing." You are not alone in your hardships. What you're going through Christ experiences with you. He is a High Priest who is touched with the feeling of our weaknesses and infirmities. You are an extension of Jesus Christ in your sufferings. It is evidence of your union with Christ that you suffer as a believer.
3. Hope-filled joy will strengthen your assurance of heaven, v. 13b
"[As you share the sufferings of Christ] keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation." First there is suffering, then there is glory. Paul said, "If we suffer with him we will be glorified with him." First the suffering, then the glory! It was that way for Jesus. It is that way for us, His followers.
If you become embittered at life and the pain it deals us, you show that you are disconnected from Christ. Joy against all odds points to the life of Christ within you, which cherishes the hope of seeing and sharing in the revelation of His glory.
4. In your trying times, the Spirit of glory and of God rest upon you, v. 14
"If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you." You may think that you will not be able to bear it. But if you are Christ's, the Bible says that in your hour of testing, the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
5. Holding on to hope when it's hard glorifies God, v. 16
"If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God." Glorifying God means showing by your actions and attitudes that God is great and strong and precious to you. And the greatest way to show how glorious He truly is, is to hold on, to endure, to stay strong, when other supports are falling away. When you hold fast and rejoice in the Lord in the midst of suffering it shows that God and not other things is your hope!
6. Finally, you can count on your Creator to care for your soul, v. 19
"Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right." When I believe Rom. 8:28 - that He takes even my losses and works for my good . . . When I hold onto confidence that my Maker will be there for me tomorrow, strength to do what is right will rise. I can fight temptation, I can make it, I have staying power in Christ! This is hope that makes you endure.
So here's the question in light of this standard: What is your quitting quotient? What would it take to sideline you in the cause of Christ? What words or actions from others, what pains or disappointments would tip the scale - "That's too heavy, too much, too wrong for me to hold onto hope?" The measure of your hope is the measure of your spiritual maturity.
Ruth Calkin wrote a poem about hope titled, In the Morning that goes like this: