A new year has begun. For many people this new year will be just like the past years, but for some this new year holds the promise of uncommon blessings, unparalleled growth, and unbelievable experiences that they never dreamed possible. They won’t do things this year simply because they have always done them. They won’t shrink back from challenges, but they will welcome them as opportunities to watch God work. They won’t automatically ask, “Why?” with doubt written across their face, but instead their eyes will dance in their head as they think, “Why not!”
What can be said of individuals can also be said of churches. For some churches the new year will be just like all of the other years that have passed them by. They will do the same things they have always done and get the same results. They will go through the same motions they have always gone through simply because that is the way you do things. They will rule out anything that is different than what they have experienced in the past. They will show up on Sunday for church, but they would never dream that would God would actually fill their sanctuary with worship. They will say their prayers, but they would never imagine that God might actually move into their mess and make a masterpiece. They will read their Bibles, but instead of reading it as a love letter written by Almighty God, they will read it like they read John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, or Sports Illustrated. They are hoping for new members who are respectable pillars of their communities, but they would never dream that God might visit them through broken, tattered lives that He desires to make pillars of their congregation one day.
For other churches this will be a new year of new beginnings, new levels of effectiveness, new heights of faith and trust in the Lord, new ministry opportunities, new faces that weren’t present when the year began, and new experiences that will only be explained by the power of Almighty God at work in their midst.
When we get to the end of the year 2002 and look back, what will it be that will separate those individuals and churches who experienced simply another year and those who truly lived, those who truly saw the hand of God at work, and those who will look with expectation toward the upcoming year because they have seen, not just heard about, God working in the past? What will separate these people and churches from the people sitting in the pews of First Church of the Rut? That is a great question!
If you listen to those in our society today then they will tell you that planning has everything to do with it. I’ve read dozens of articles on websites this past week that have to do with New Year’s resolutions and most all of them have to do with defining our goals and working our plan. At newyearsresolutions.com I found these helpful hints.
First, Don’t Try Everything at Once! You don’t need to list everything that you need to change about yourself and just begin. Find the one thing that needs the most attention and stick to it. Second, and this one causes me to smile, “Word it Carefully.” I just have to quote the folks on this one.
Let’s say your resolution is to relax more in the coming year. Word this carefully. Try not to think of it as “This year I am going to relax.” That’s a stress-inducer waiting to happen. It forces you into thinking of the resolution as something you must do, not something you want to do. Try to make it sound a little gentler: “This year I’m going to explore different ways of relaxing.” It also suggests more of a plan-you’ll fulfill the resolution by experimenting with relaxation techniques. The first resolution sounds as if you’re going to force yourself to relax by sheer willpower.
That, my friend, is called psychobabble. If wording things in more gentle tones made us more disciplined people then we would all be disciplined. Third, according to the folks at newyearsresolutions.com, “Make a Plan.” Last of all, you need to write it down.
That is just one website’s advice on how you can make the new year count. There is tons of advice on every topic that you can imagine, but I would like to suggest something altogether different for you and me this morning. I will tell you that the one thing that will separate individuals and churches that will simply experience another year of the same old same old from those who will walk in the wide-open spaces of God’s glory and presence is not found on any of these websites. Those who will live life to the full this coming year and see God move in powerful and persuasive ways will be those who seek the Lord with all of their heart, who lay aside what “was” so that they can see what “is,” and those who follow Him in absolute obedience. You won’t find that advice on any of your new year’s resolutions web pages or magazines this month, but you will find it all throughout God’s Word.
God’s desire for you, for me, and for Village Christian Church this year is to bless us with the abundance of His presence and power. Before you go and draw conclusions that may lead you astray let me assure that God’s blessings shouldn’t be confused with Santa’s blessings. Santa brings us what we want, but God gives us what we need so that He might shape us more and more into the image of His Son. God’s blessings come to us in a myriad of ways. Some of them are painful and drive us to our knees. Some of them are showers of grace that we couldn’t even imagine. All of God’s blessings are meant to draw us closer and closer to Himself and to fulfill His plan for each of our lives and for this church as well.
God does have a plan for you this morning. You are not just living by happenstance or being led by circumstances, God has a plan for your life and for this church as well. God spoke to His people Israel through the prophet Jeremiah and said,
11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:11-13 NIV)
Many people read this Scripture and automatically their minds jump to conclusions that are far off base. We envision God’s plan for our lives from our vantage point and miss the fullness of God’s blessings for our lives. God’s plan for your life and mine is not to make us happy, but to make us holy. If we were to get our way and unfold what we thought was best for our lives or our church, then I will assure you that it would destroy us. We act because we think in our hearts that we know what is best, but Jeremiah tells us,
9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV)
On New Year’s Eve I had the opportunity to talk to a friend of mine who found himself in a jam several months ago. He and his family were having some financial problems and he thought that he had come up with a solution that would get them back on their feet again. The only problem with his plan is that it violated the laws of our land. Instead of getting back on his feet he found himself on the wrong side of the law, he compromised his integrity, and he lost the respect of his family. My friends, we might think we know what is “best” for us, but I will assure you that we don’t. The sooner we confess that we don’t know what is best for us and cry out to God for help, the sooner we will find rest in God’s perfect plan for our lives.
Our main problem is that we dismiss anything that is not pleasurable for us. God uses the most painful experiences, the most uncomfortable situations, of our lives to draw us closest to Himself if we will see His hand at work. When trouble comes our way we shouldn’t shake our finger at the heavens and ask, “Where are You?” We should run into the arms of comfort, the One who will see us through and refine us through the Refiner’s fire.
Stop and think with me for a moment. Every indicator in our society points to the fact that we ought to be seeking success rather than failure. We should be seeking pleasure rather than pain. We should seek the luxurious life rather than to make our home with the lowly. We need to have people cower in our presence, gasp when we walk into the room, and stop and stare as we walk by, but Jesus says that we are to be servants, the least of the lot. Everything about our Savior calls us to stoop to serve while the world seeks to soar.
Ever wonder why the world can never get enough? Can you get enough pleasure? Can you gain enough money? Can your church grow big enough that you will finally be satisfied? Can you get enough…? You know you can’t and the reason you can’t is because God has wired things that way. The only way you will find fulfillment, the only way you will find satisfaction, is in seeking the Lord with all of your heart one day at a time. That, my friend, will fill you to overflowing!
Paul talked about all of his worldly accomplishments and how they lost their luster after he came to know the satisfaction and fulfillment of knowing Jesus. Paul says,
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. 7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philippians 3:4-9 NIV)
Did you notice? The things that Paul held onto as precious he counted as rubbish after he experienced the glory of knowing, truly knowing, Jesus. Coming to know Jesus in an intimate way not only caused Paul to view his past differently, but it totally revolutionized his perspective on each and every day. After Paul came to know Jesus he said,
10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14 NIV)
God’s desire for us this new year is that we would seek Him with all of our heart so that we might hunger for Him like never before, experience His presence like never before, and see His mighty power displayed before our eyes like never before. Over and over again in Scripture you find God calling His people to seek Him, to press on to greater heights of intimacy, to pursue Him with passion, with all of their heart just like Paul and those who have gone before us. As a matter of fact you can find the phrases relating to seeking God more than 100 times in God’s Word. In 2 Chronicles we read how the people of God sought the Lord.
12 They entered into a covenant to seek the LORD, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul. (2 Chronicles 15:12 NIV)
In the Psalms we find over and over again the call to seek the Lord, the benefits of seeking the Lord, and the yearning of the Psalmist to seek the Lord with all of his heart and soul. Psalm 9:10 says,
10 Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:10 NIV)
Listen to this passion that pours forth from the heart of the Psalmist as he writes in Psalm 63.
1 O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. 3 Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. 4 I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. 5 My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. 6 On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. (Psalm 63:1-6 NIV)
Today, we hear so much about how important it is make a five or ten year plan. To know what we want, make a plan, and go and get it. But, for those who have tasted the sweetness of seeking the Lord with all of our hearts and souls, those who have experienced the fellowship that can only come from wholeheartedly surrendering to the Savior, and those who have seen the Lord move in ways that only He can – the only relevant plan is to seek Him and follow wherever He leads.
I think we would all agree that Paul was a man on a mission. He was the greatest missionary the world has ever known. He traveled extensively in his missionary journeys, but his only map was the leading of the Spirit. There were places Paul wanted to go, but didn’t go there because the Lord closed the door. There were other places that I am sure he really didn’t want to visit, but he was compelled to go because of the Spirit’s leading. Paul says,
22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:22-24 NIV)
This is such an important lesson for us as a church because you have just lost your pastor. The typical “church” thing to do right now is to find out which preacher is available, find out what the people of Village Christian Church want in a pastor, and make your match. That is the typical “church” thing to do, but I would encourage you to seek the Lord with all of your heart, pour out your neediness before Him, plead with Him to send His shepherd for His flock, and not what you would want in a pastor. I will assure you that He will answer your prayers.
This type of worship and relationship with the Lord is altogether different than what is usually talked about in our churches today, but I will assure you that it is not unknown in Scripture. The men and women of God’s Word poured their hearts out before the Lord on a regular basis. They confessed their lack of ability, their ignorance, and their dependence upon the Lord and Him alone – He always heard those prayers!
You see, it is not enough to simply show up to church and go through the motions like Pavlov’s dog. Sitting in a pew doesn’t mean that you know the Lord anymore than me going to a movie means that I know Mel Gibson or Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington. Sitting in a pew is not equivalent to seeking the Lord with a passionate heart; it isn’t the same as yearning to share intimately with the Savior. Studying the Bible on Sunday morning is not the same as sharing daily in an intimate relationship with the Lord our God. Jesus chastised the Pharisees of His day for knowing every detail of Scripture and yet not recognizing Him for who He was. Listen to Jesus’ convicting words.
39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40 NIV)
God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and addressed a similar problem in his own day. The people were giving lip service to God. They were attending church on Sunday, but their hearts were far from Him. They showed up on time, but couldn’t wait for things to be over so that they could leave and go back to their own business. They passed right by hurting people on the way to church and never even stopped to see if they needed help or if they might want to go along. Listen to these powerful and convicting words found in Isaiah 58.
2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:2-10 NIV)
This Scripture is one of the greatest indicators of the health of a church. If you really want to know how healthy a church is then don’t look at their attendance or their budget, but look at those who the church is seeking to draw into their times of worship and fellowship. Are we seeking to bring into our church those who can help us or those that we can help? Are we praying for the Lord to fill our pews with those whose pockets are full or those whose lives are empty? Are we reaching out to the poor, to the broken, to those who have no place to worship or those who can worship at any church in Oklahoma City? You see the greatest signs of health for a congregation is this “Are we seeking God above all else and are we seeking the broken to join us?” How healthy are we this morning? Only the Lord can cure us of our sickness and break our hearts with what is breaking His.
I want to invite you this morning to seek the Lord with all of your heart. Maybe the Lord has convicted you this morning that you are not where you ought to be with Him and you know that you need to make things right this morning. Won’t you come forward and give Jesus your heart today?