Have you ever started a project of some kind, and you have a clear picture in your mind of how you want it to be when it is complete, you have all the materials you need, and yet, for some reason, you fail to finish? This is a charcuterie board which I am making for my daughter-in-law, Divya, for Christmas, …2021. It is made from the wood of an 80 year-old apple tree. There is some interesting etching on the side made by some bugs that were burrowing under the bark. I stripped the bark, got rid of the bugs, trimmed the board into the shape I wanted, and did some preliminary sanding. There is only one problem with this charcuterie board. It is not complete. It needs some more sanding done on it and then I need to oil it with some food-safe oil to protect and preserve it. And Christmas was 2 and ½ months ago. Thankfully, Divya is very gracious to me whenever I mention to her that I still have not yet completed her Christmas present. I have all the materials I need, I have really good intentions and yet, I am still not able to finish.
I hope that most of you are better at finishing things than I am. But I think that each of us has some area of life we struggle to finish. Jon Acuff, in his book Finish, wrote that 92% of people who set goals or resolutions fail. And as I think about the Red Letter Challenge, I don’t want us to fail at a 92% rate. So today I am going to talk about how we can finish well. If you are engaging with the Red Letter Challenge, my prayer is that today would be an encouragement to you to finish well as we go through this forty day journey together. But even if you don’t complete all forty days of the Red Letter Challenge, and even if you have decided not to participate in the Red Letter Challenge, I still think that what I have to say will be important to you. Because there is a bigger question at play here, and it is a question that each and every human being must answer and that is, “How am I going to finish well at life?” I am going to talk to you with a specific focus on the Red Letter Challenge, but you can take what I tell you and apply, in general, to your life.
The importance of being with Jesus
As a follower of Jesus, I believe, based on what he tells us, that the key to living life well and finishing well is taking the words of Jesus and putting them into practice. That is the whole point of the Red Letter Challenge, to help us grow in following Jesus by practicing the words that he tells us. Last week we saw how we are missing the mark as Jesus followers, in terms of the impression that we are making on non-Christians, and we identified those five targets that Jesus has given us to aim at, which are Being, Forgiving, Serving, Giving and Going. And we started on this journey of focusing on Jesus’ words and putting them into practice, not because we have to, but because we want to in response to all that he has done for us. These five things are what faith-filled, big thinking followers of Jesus do.
Today we are focusing on Being. Why? Because everything starts with Being. Our doing flows from our being. Jesus doesn’t invite you into religion with a list of tasks that you need to complete in order to be saved. He invites you into a relationship (Jesus invites us into a relationship, not a religion). It is within the context of that relationship, as we rest in Jesus and his love, that we receive what we need from him to do and complete the tasks that he calls us to do. Here’s a truth that we all need to wrestle with: I can start strong in my own strength, but I can’t finish strong in my own strength. Being with Jesus gives us the strength and the endurance we need to finish well.
It’s kind of like rowing. In competitive mens and womens 8-person rowing, the goal is to cross the finish line first, but the rowers are not focused on the finish line. They are focused on the coxswain. The coxswain, or cox, is a small person who sits in the back of the boat, facing the rowers and calls out when and how to row. Only the cox is focused on the finish line and the key to winning is the relationship between the cox and the rowers. After a winning race, people celebrate the cox because they are the one who led their team across the finish line.
It is the same with Jesus and us. As we look to him and trust in him, he will lead us, guide us and equip us so that we can successfully complete this life and whatever tasks he gives to us. In Hebrews 12, we read, Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2a). Do you want to finish strong? Then keep your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.
The necessity of faith
Keeping our eyes on Jesus will look different for each one of us. That is because some of us are strong in the area of being, but doing is a struggle for us. Others of us are strong in the area of doing, but being is hard for us. So take a moment now and think about how God has wired you. Are you more motivated to do, or to be? Please keep in mind, as we think about these things, that I am speaking generally. I know that there are seasons, and I have experienced them myself, when what I need, and it is all I can do, is to be. I need to sit at the feet of Jesus and be comforted, nourished, fed, encouraged and strengthened by him because I am absolutely broken. I know what that is like. If that is where you are right now, please know that I understand, and that this next section of today’s message does not apply to you at this time. Maybe in the future, when you are feeling healthy and healed, you can come back to this part of this message and listen to it. But for now, you can rest and ignore what I am about to say.
For the rest of you, I first want to talk to those of you who are naturally inclined to be with Jesus. I thank God for you, because we really need people like you in our church because in this gathering of people which the Bible calls the Body of Christ, you are the lungs that breathe in the Holy Spirit and the eyes that see what is really going on within our Body and out in the world around us. Please remember that it is also important to do. If I ask my children to clean up the dishes after a meal and they hear what I say, study those words, memorize them and form a small group to gather and discuss them, are they really following through on what I asked of them? No, they are not. When we are strong in being, it is also important for us to do.
If you are someone who more naturally gravitates towards doing, I thank God for you too. You are the hands and feet of Jesus serving him, our church and people outside of this church with his love. I am amazed at all the gifted, talented people who serve in incredible ways among us. Please remember that it is also important to be. I understand what it is like to be wired toward doing, because that is the way that I am wired too. I am happiest when I am able to get things done and I get an immense sense of satisfaction from seeing something that I have accomplished. And being is hard for me because I often cannot see results. When we are strong in doing, it is also important for us to be.
Jesus is the vine, we are the branches
In John 15, Jesus uses the image of a grapevine to teach us the importance of being with him. This image resonates with me because we have a couple of grapevines in our backyard. Last spring, my wife, Susan, and I learned how to prune, or clean, a grapevine so that it could be more fruitful. What we did when we pruned our grapevines is identify which two branches coming out of the main stem, or vine, we wanted to keep, and then we trimmed all the other branches away. And it worked. Our vines produced a lot more grapes than they had previously and shortly before we were about to enjoy them, a bunch of raccoons moved in and harvested them all in the middle of the night. There is a reason they call those things Backyard Bandits.
This word picture, without the raccoons, is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:1-2) Here Jesus is talking about the importance of being fruitful, which usually involves doing something. And just like in pruning a grapevine, becoming fruitful often means cutting away some of what was there before to create open space for fruitfulness to happen. You can’t keep doing the same things again and again and expect a different result. That is the definition of insanity. The path to fruitful living begins with doing less, not doing more. Jesus will guide us in how to say “No” to good things so that we can say “Yes” to the great things that he will set before us in the future. Then Jesus says, You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (John 15:3) The word translated as “clean” here is the same word translated as “prunes” in verse 2. You clean a grapevine by pruning it. I know that, in the past, there have been times when I have heard or read this passage and thought to myself, “Am I one of those branches that is going to get cut off, thrown into the fire and burned?” Verse 3 is Jesus’ answer to that worry. He is saying, “You don’t need to worry about getting cut off from me. You have already been cleaned, or pruned, or forgiven, of everything that could ever separate me from you when I spoke my word of forgiveness to you.”
Forgiven and cleaned by Jesus, we are invited to remain in him as a grape branch remains in the vine. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. (John 15:4) Just as the branch needs the support and nourishment it receives through its connection to the vine, so also we need the support and nourishment we receive through our connection with Jesus.
This is an either/or situation, not a both/and. To live a life that our Creator knows is productive, we need to spend time being with him. Jesus makes that clear when he states, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
What it all comes down to in life, whether we are a be-er or a do-er, is whether or not we are able to trust God. If we are a be-er, can we trust in God to be with us as we do new things outside of our comfort zone? If we are a do-er, can we trust in God to manage the world without us for a while so we can stop and be with him? Here is why this is important: If we cannot trust God in the calm of his presence, we will never be able to trust him in the pursuit of his purpose. Your private battles will determine your public victories. If we avoid spending time being with the God who created the world, we will never be able to finish well, because we are operating in our own strength. And God never meant for us to live this life, or walk this walk, without him leading us and being inside of us.
Though it doesn’t seem to make logical sense to us, we can slow down and do more because God renews, restores and refocuses us during our time with him. That is why he tells us in Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God; (Psalm 46:10).
What does being with Jesus look like?
He tells us:
Coming and worshiping God with others regularly. – ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:8) We find further encouragement from God is Hebrews 10:25, which reads, And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:25) Because of the pandemic, our church family has been scattered for two years and many of us have formed new habits for Sunday mornings. My hope and my prayer is that we can reverse that trend and start gathering together in a greater way with our sisters and brothers in Christ so we can see each others’ faces and bless each other with our presence. I am a big supporter of having our worship services online, but there is no way that online worship is equivalent to in-person worship. That is because the Bible describes the church as the Body of Christ. In this body that we are all part of, each member of the Body is important and we all need each other. There is no way that online worship and in-person worship are the same. That is like me cutting off my arm and sending it away for storage in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I could manage, but there is no way that I would be whole. Those of us who are here worshiping in person need those of you who are worshiping online. And, whether you realize it or not, those of you worshiping online need those of us who are here worshiping in person. We needed each other.
Read the Bible. – “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, (John 8:31) Bible apps, such as YouVersion, have made it very easy for us to read the Bible. All we have to do is choose and follow one of the many Bible reading plans they have on the app.
Pray – therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:38) We can pray to God about anything, anywhere, anytime and he will hear us.
Having a regular quiet time with God “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (Mark 6:31) You can also go deeper with God by taking a 2-3 day retreat each year. Or make your vacations into a retreat.
Fast – But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, (Matthew 6:17) Jesus spoke as if fasting was a normal part of life for people who followed hium. He didn’t say, “If you fast,…” he said, “When you fast,…” Usually fasting means to abstain from all or certain foods for a certain time. Fasting helps us to switch our dependence from being on food, or incessantly scrolling on our phone, to becoming dependent on and resting in God.
Take a weekly Sabbath, that is, one day a week off as a day to rest and reflect on God – “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)
If you do these things, you will have spent time with Jesus well, you have prioritized him and he will give you rest. You will be able to not only start, but finish. God will help us. As we read in Isaiah 40,
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)
That is how you will get to the finish line, by spending time with Jesus. He will give you the strength, energy, endurance, and stamina you need to finish well. Our goal over the next several weeks is that we would not only start the Red Letter Challenge, but finish it and then have it become part of our everyday life. And that means aiming for those five main targets Jesus has given us: Being, Forgiving, Serving, Giving & Going. We want to finish well.
Finishing the race
In the 1968 Olympics, which were held in Mexico City, John Steven Aquari, from Tanzania competed in the men’s marathon. During the race, his leg muscles began cramping up because he had never trained at that high of an altitude. While jockeying for position during the race, he fell, dislocating his knee and injuring his shoulder. Everybody would have understood if he had withdrawn from the race at that point, but he kept running, finishing last more than an hour after the winner crossed the finish line. When asked why he persevered, he answered, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
God did not send Jesus into this world to save you and bring you into life with him just so you could start your new life with Jesus. God did all those things so that you could finish. And
whatever God starts, he finishes. God tells us that in Philippians 1:6, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)
God will finish what he has started
God will finish what he has started. That doesn’t mean that it will be easy. That’s why we need to rely on him. But we know that God will finish what he has started because of Jesus, who went all the way to the cross for you and did not stop until he could cry out, “It is finished!” The long and difficult journey that Jesus started to pay the full cost of forgiveness and healing for all the brokenness in the world is now complete. And that means that, regardless of the journey you find yourself on, no matter how hard and difficult it may be, you can know that Jesus is with you and he will give you everything that you need to see it all the way to the end. Whether it is your relationship with Jesus, your marriage, your family, your recovery, or this church as we seek to transform lives and transform churches throughout the Lower Mainland. Jesus will give us the strength that we need to finish, and finish well.
They tried to stop Jesus. They killed him on a cross and they buried him in the ground, and they said “You’re done.” But Jesus said, “I’m not done yet. You don’t get to tell me when I am finished.” And he rose from the dead, defeated sin, death and the devil and now welcomes us into redeeming and restoring the world with him. So let’s do this! Amen.
(This sermon is based on one written by Zach Zehnder which is available at redletterchallenge.com. It was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on March 13, 2022. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)