Every living thing grows. That’s why we have to keep our grass mowed in the summertime, lest we lose small children in the backyard. God created the earth and started civilization in a garden, one that was already growing when man was created. You plant seeds in your garden, and you water them with the expectation of growth. Otherwise, what’s the point?
But, let’s be honest: you and I can’t make the tomato plant grow. Only God can. Jesus said it himself: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” Gardens grow, and so do people. We started life as a zygote, a fertilized ovum. After we were born, our parents took care of us as we grew from an infant in arms to a baby trying to turn over and to crawl. We learned to crawl, and then to walk. That is expected growth and maturity. If you walked by a church nursery and saw a few babies crawling around in diapers, you wouldn’t think twice about it. Babies do that sort of thing. But if you glanced in there and saw a couple of the adult leaders sitting on the floor and wearing onesies, pacifiers in place, playing with toys, you would have every right to be alarmed. Babies in the nursery are normal. Fully functioning adults in a nursery? That’s tragic.
There is an expectation of growth because God, the creator of all things, made us to grow up. We expect it. We also desire it. Though some of us might like to go back to our childhood and have the energy of a 10-year-old, none of us wants to go back and have the stature of a 10-year-old. Or the wisdom of a 5-year-old. It is natural and normal for a child to want to grow up to be a teenager, and it is normal for a teenager to want to grow into an adult. Yes, “adulting” is hard, but God created us for growth and maturity. We do not want, nor should we want, just to maintain the status quo. Even worse, we do not want to regress, to go backwards in our growth. Stephen Um writes, “Now the only thing more fearful than stasis (not growing) is regression, decline, and death. We go to great lengths to hide the ways in which we decline and regress. What is clearly known in the universe is that the principle of decay clearly exists. As it has been said, ‘Gravity isn’t just physical, it’s also historical.’”
Growth is part of God’s plan. So is regression and decay of all things physical. Every living thing has a growth cycle and then it begins to move towards death — quickly if it’s a fly, and very slowly if it’s an oak tree. You want to hear some really good news? Incredible news? That is not the case with our spiritual being. Paul wrote, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Continual spiritual growth for the Christian is as much the plan and purpose of God as the life cycle of an apple tree. Our bodies may break down, and they do, but our life with Christ grows stronger every day.
This is why Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. The church there was a spiritual nursery. Instead of growing to maturity, the church was filled with jealousy and strife and factions. The people were fighting like 3-year-olds, and Paul asked them, “Are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
God hard-wired us for growth, so we do not have to be “merely human.” In Christ, we can grow into spiritual men and women, fully equipped to do all that God has created us to do. So, let’s grow up, church!
By now everybody has heard the news: 12 soccer players from Thailand, and their coach, were rescued in heroic fashion from a cave. I heard one radio commentator say that this was one of those rare news stories, where the whole world rejoiced in the outcome. I think he’s right. There were no protests outside the cave. There was no one trying to convince the rescuers not to go in. There were no appeals courts deliberating whether in fact the soccer players had the right to be saved. And as far as I know, there was no one on the planet hoping the rescue efforts would fail, because there were 13 human lives at stake. I know there was a Babylon Bee story with the title, “Huffington Post Criticizes Thai Navy SEALs For Displaying ‘Toxic Masculinity’ During Daring Cave Rescue.” But that was satire. In fact, the whole world rejoiced that these 13 people were rescued, and saddened that one of the rescuers lost his life in the attempt.
Much has been written about this event, and I hope you will forgive me if I offer a perspective on it that you may not have heard. Think with me about this. These 13 were absolutely helpless to get out of that underwater cave by themselves. It was impossible. Hopeless. Their only hope was for someone to come from the outside, someone who had the strength to pull them to safety. They could do nothing to help their rescuer except to hold on, by faith, and allow the rescuer to do the work necessary to save their lives. The rescuers reached into the deepest part of a hopeless situation, and brought the dead back to life. As far as I know, not one of those people said to the rescuer, “I know you think I need being rescued, but that’s simply not true. I’m fine right where I am. I hear you say there’s a way out, but I don’t need it. Why can’t you just leave me alone and let me live my life the way I want to? I like it here in this cave!” No one said that, because they knew the desperation, the hopelessness, the inevitable end they faced without a rescuer. The rescuer. The one who came for them.
The fabric of the universe is woven around the most dramatic rescue operation ever. You know this verse, right? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Maybe the world was riveted by this story in Thailand, as we were by the rescue of 18-month-old Jessica McClure in 1987, because we were created by God, in his image. And God is a rescuer. Jessica fell into a well in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas, and it took rescuers 56 hours to free her from the eight-inch well casing, 22 feet below the ground. The whole world watched and prayed, and then rejoiced when she was saved. We love stories of daring rescues, and all the more when we come to understand the Gospel.
The Gospel was on display in those watery caves that were denied becoming watery graves. Thirteen people were rescued from certain death. The truth is, we all need to be rescued from eternal death, because of our sin, and there is only one rescuer. The old hymn describes Jesus’ rescue mission this way: “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood, sealed my pardon with his blood, Hallelujah, what a Savior!”
The cross? That was a heroic rescue for the ages. And for all who will believe. There is no other.
Many of you would agree with the late comedian. You are the same ones who respond when I talk about going for a run: “Was someone chasing you?”
The truth is, yes. I am being chased by an old man, by my geriatric future self who can’t walk to the mailbox without oxygen. I am being chased by the image of me, ten years from now, tired and out of shape, unable to take a walk with my grandsons, much less go for a run with them. I am being chased by obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Edward Stanley said, “Those who think they don’t have time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”
Do I like to run? The answer to that question really doesn’t matter; the bottom line is that I need to run. I need to “discipline my body and bring it into subjection,” as Paul said. He also said, “While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” There are three ways physical exercise profits. First, it helps me feel better and have more energy for the work God has called me to do for the days I have left. Second, it is one way I provide for my family. Think about it. If you die early because you were not a good steward of your physical health, are you being the best possible provider and protector for your family? Third, I run because discipline begets discipline. In other words, if I get self-indulgent with my physical appetites, I get lazy with my spiritual disciplines as well. Anybody who runs will understand this: the battle is not with your body but with your mind. Discipline your mind in physical exercise and you are strengthening your mind to follow the Lord and obey His commands as well.
And to answer the question, yes, I love to run. I didn’t at first, but the more you run, I promise, the more you will grow to love it.
General George S. Patton, U.S. Army General in World War II and Olympian (pentathlon) in 1912, said, “Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”
I run in town, and I run on the rural roads around my house. I always face the traffic, as runners should do. Here is what kills me, and thankfully, it hasn’t yet: drivers who seem to be playing chicken, seeing how close they can get without hitting me. Most of the time, there is no one coming in the other direction, so there is no reason why the driver barreling down on me could not move over into the other lane. I am hugging the white line, or moving onto the shoulder if there is one, but they pass by within a foot of me anyway. I always wonder why anyone would take such a risk: a sudden sneeze or a spasm or a bee in the car could mean death for one or both of us.
Go for a run or a walk this morning after you finish reading the paper. It will be good for you. And if you drive past me while I am running sometime, please wave as you motor by … in the other lane.
When Stakwell Yurenimo, a Samburu in northern Kenya, did well on his 8th grade exams, the Kenyan government informed him that he had qualified to go to a high school that they would choose. They also chose his roommate, a young man named Paul, who was a member of the enemy tribe, the Turkana. Stakwell determined in his mind that there was no way he would room with a Turkana. In fact, part of his culture demanded that in order to be respected as a man, he needed to kill a Turkana.
Stakwell poured water on Paul’s bed every night so that his roommate was forced to sleep somewhere else. Paul did not react in anger, but slept on the ground without complaint. This went on for several months. Meanwhile, there was friction on the soccer field as well. Stakwell was an excellent midfielder. Paul was the team’s star forward, a striker with considerable skill. But the team kept losing because Stakwell would not pass the ball to his roommate. The coach finally confronted Stakwell, who told the coach that there was nothing he could do. “You will just have to put one of us on another team,” he said.
That’s what the coach did, and the first time the two teams played each other, Stakwell threw himself into Paul, trying his best to kill him. He broke Paul’s leg and knocked out several teeth. Because it was an intentional penalty, Stakwell was expelled from school, and sent home a hero to his fellow Samburu tribesmen for injuring a hated Turkana. He did not care about being expelled, but then the school told Stakwell that he would have to repay Paul for all of his medical expenses. Stakwell, a Samburu shepherd, faced an insurmountable debt. That’s when his life changed.
Paul came to Stakwell offering forgiveness. He did not want to be paid back. Paul explained that he did not retaliate all the time his roommate was persecuting him, “not because I am weak, but because I am a Christian. When you were pouring water on my bed and forcing me to sleep on the ground, I was praying for you.” Stakwell’s heart was broken by this demonstration of the Gospel. He became a Christian, and after finishing high school and attending Bible School, he began working to bring reconciliation between the two warring tribes, the Samburu and the Turkana.
With the help of New Directions International (now, Feed the Hunger), Stakwell opened a Sports Camp in the Kurungu, Kenya region. He brings hundreds of young people together three times a year for friendly competition. More than a dozen tribes are represented at the camps, and the ministry is changing the climate of the region. Stakwell told the team from Antioch Church that visited several years ago, “There has not been one killing in the past two years between the Samburu and the Turkana.” There is even a Turkana village now in the Samburu region, something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.
Being at the camp with Stakwell and his family (including seven children they rescued from abandonment) gave our mission team a picture in living color of what is only possible through the power of the Gospel. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Stakwell Yurenimo, the Samburu warrior once committed to destroy the Turkana, was broken by the forgiveness shown to him by a Turkana follower of Jesus Christ. Now he lives to help others find that forgiveness as well.
I got some good advice from a spiritual mentor years ago, right after I became a pastor. JL Williams told me that he knew of several men who started the same way I did. These men believed the Gospel, and were determined to faithfully preach it. “But,” JL said, “now, ten years later, or 20 years later, they are presiding over a congregation that is not a church, and making converts who aren’t Christians. They have given up preaching the Word and replaced it with preaching what people want to hear. Don’t do that, Mark. Don’t ever do that.”
The man who told me that was faithful to preach the truth until the day he was called home, and by God’s grace, I will do the same. The question is, why do so many drift? Why would anyone replace the Gospel message, which the Bible tells us is “the power of God for salvation,” with a message that cannot save? Why would someone choose to tell people what they want to hear, instead of what they need to hear?
Part of the answer is clearly explained in the Bible. Paul wrote, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” Christ crucified. That is the message of the Gospel.
Alistair Begg says the drift happens because the preacher himself begins to doubt the message of the cross. Think of it. A Galilean carpenter, claiming to be the incarnate Son of God, nailed to a Roman cross, who died to take away your sins and mine? “That’s just too much,” some preachers say. “I can’t believe it.” Begg says the preacher wants to have intelligent people in his church, and he believes that no intelligent person would believe that stuff. “So in order to keep the intelligent, he lets go of the apparently foolish, and fills his church with a bunch of foolish people who are apparently intelligent.”
The message of salvation reveals the upside-down power of weakness. The Savior did not ride into Jerusalem on a horse, followed by an army, to overtake the Romans and bring political freedom to the Jews. He was beaten with a cat-o-nine tails, forced to wear a crown of thorns, stripped of his clothing and nailed to a tree outside of town, in order to bring forgiveness and eternal life and spiritual freedom now to all who will believe in Him. Stephen Um writes that at the cross, “The ultimately powerful one becomes the ultimately weak one. The ultimately wise one condescended to our level. By this great wisdom and power he has rewritten the storyline.”
The message of the cross, when believed, should produce great boasting in the believer. That’s what the Bible says. Christians should boast more than anybody else. In fact, I challenged the congregation last Sunday to try and become the biggest boasters in the tri-county area. Or, hey, if you aim at the stars, you might hit the moon, right? So, make it your goal, I told them, to become the biggest boasters in the whole state. Oh, one more thing I told them that is important. When we come to the cross, we can no longer boast about ourselves. But as Paul said, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” And as God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
Let the boasting begin. At the cross.