Friday, May 1, 2009

Losing Heart?

Scripture Introduction:

Even though I am pushing 30, I still somewhat remember what it felt like to be a teenager. And I will not pretend that you are just as I was at your age. I would hope that you would be far more mature. If you consider our culture in the late 90’s with the culture that you live in today I would have to say that my time as a teenager was relatively easy. You started hearing about school shootings. I remember the big deal with Columbine. I remember another school shooting I think in Jonesboro. But honestly I very seldom remember watching the news with despair. I have to be honest, now it is difficult to watch the evening news, to read a newspaper, or to get on without having an overwhelming feeling that the world is spinning out of control. You are a teenager in a very difficult time.

But to be honest with you as a teenager the world could have been spinning out of control and I would have had very little knowledge of it. The world I was concerned about was the one that I lived in every day. I was not concerned about stock prices; I was concerned about the price of CD’s. I was not concerned about the war on terrorism; I was concerned about my own personal war on singleness. Even if the world around me were not spinning out of control I remember at times my world was indeed spinning out of control.

I would venture to say that many of us here welcome the message of Ephesians. It is a very timely letter for our day. As we have been going through this we have entitled our series God redeems broken people and a broken world. As long as we are living in a broken world as a broken person surrounded by broken people the message to the Ephesians will be relevant.
Now as we consider God’s Word to us this evening (which will be found in Ephesians 3:1-13) we are going to look at the issue of losing heart. Let’s face it even if you know that redemption is coming, broken people can lose heart in a broken world surrounded by other broken people; life is tough—let’s not pretend that it is not. We are tempted to lose heart in our day and believers were tempted to lose heart in Paul’s day. This is why as we will see in a moment Paul urges his readers not to lose heart.

Before we read this text allow me to ask you a question. What if the man proclaiming this message is doing so from prison? Does that give him credibility or does it discredit his message? Does it make you want to believe him more or does it make you think that perhaps he is simply a delusional convict? I suppose you would want to know what he is in prison for. What if I told you that he is in prison for declaring this very message? Ephesians is Paul laying out the gospel. What has gotten Paul in prison? Simply put, Paul is in prison for preaching the gospel.

Let’s be really honest with ourselves here about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Following Jesus means that you go wherever Jesus goes. Sometimes that will be in a luxurious suite in a prosperous city. Sometimes that will be serving a loaf of bread to a homeless man in a third world country. Sometimes it means being a faithful student at Mark Twain High School as well as being a faithful son or daughter while living at home. Sometimes it means running a clothing drive in the inner city. Following Jesus might lead you to being a seminary professor teaching students that will become missionaries. Or it might lead you to be a missionary that will share the gospel with someone that will later become a professor. Following Jesus can lead you into prison as a missionary, and following Jesus can get you locked up in prison. It can lead you to comforting grieving widows and it can leave you a widow.

Following Jesus means following Jesus wherever he goes even if it means that you get beheaded. This is the case with many of those we read about in the Bible. Take the New Testament for instance. Consider some of our heroes. Paul: beheaded. Peter: crucified upside down. John: boiled in hot oil, survived, put on exile, died at an old age. Stephen: beaten to death with stones. James: beheaded. The list goes on and on. It is believed that John Mark, the man that wrote the gospel of Mark, was skinned alive and then dragged behind a horse until he died.
Hopefully we are not so desensitized that the horror of these things has no affect upon us. Following Jesus very often involves suffering. And wherever you see suffering you see the temptation to lose heart. This is the situation we have in our context for this passage. In verse 1, as we will read in a moment, Paul begins to pray, but before he gets to his prayer he has to tell his story. Perhaps the thought strikes him some of these believers may not know the wonderful thing that God is doing even though I am in prison. So, he tells his story. And as he tells his story he has this hope and gives this instruction—don’t lose heart. So, this is what we are going to read now in Ephesians 3:1-13; Paul describing what God is doing in the midst of this tough situation with the aim of encouraging the believers.


Sermon Illustration:

There have been numerous times in my walk with Christ that I needed to hear this message. And I am certain that there will be a fair amount more until either Jesus comes back or I go to be with Him. However, there is one time in particular that sticks out in my mind as a time of particular need: a time when I was “losing heart”.

This would have been a couple years ago. In fact some of you might even remember the Wednesday night when I broke. It was shortly after watching Indescribable, the Louie Giglio film about how big the universe is and how great God must be. I know that it was meant to be encouraging and it is, very much so. Yet, something about the bigness of God caused me to be stunned. Rather than feeling closer to him I felt so insignificant and that the universe was so huge I began thinking that perhaps the gospel was too simple. After all why would God create all of this? Why would God create things that we might never even see? Why go through so much trouble? I mean is it really all about Jesus? Is Neptune somehow about proclaiming the beauty of Jesus?

I knew the Bible. I knew the biblical answer to all of those questions. I could have given you all of the correct information and given a good theological argument. Yet, raging within my heart—yes as a youth pastor—was deep doubt. What is funny is that during this time our youth ministry here was actually growing. We were seeing a few students coming to know Jesus. I still believed the gospel, I still believed the Bible, it was not an outright turning away. But my heart was struggling. One night in particular I was in the bath tub and had almost a nervous breakdown. My wife had to come in and pray for me. I was so weak. I could not pray. It felt like a war for my soul and it was one that I was not equipped to fight. Words cannot describe the darkness of that time and the turbulence within. It was confusing, and I will finish the story in a moment.

And I guess the truth of the matter is that we all can be prone to confusion. It is a consequence of our humanity. It has not always been that way nor is that where God intends to take us. Originally man was created with intimate fellowship with God. Of course we did not have the answers to all of the questions—we were not all knowing—but we had an intimate relationship with the One who is all knowing. Confusion did not reign in the Garden of Eden. But outside of Eden, confusion runs rampant.

Confusion can happen from tough circumstances or it can simply be tough battles of the soul that are almost unexplainable like my experience a couple years ago. The question for us tonight is not so much what causes confusion but what you do when it does strikes. While we a fallen people in a fallen world we will be marred with confusion; therefore we must have an idea of what we will do to not lose heart when these difficulties strike.

Tonight we will look at three areas where we can be tempted to lose heart and we will see how this text provides something to consider during those times. Our first one is that…

I. When you lose heart because it seems like everything is spinning out of control consider the truth that God is still orchestrating all things for His glory.

If you put yourself in the shoes (or sandals rather) of either Paul or his audience it would not be hard to understand the temptation to lose heart. Certainly, it would have been easy for Paul to have felt like everything was spinning out of control. He was faithful at proclaiming the gospel. He was faithful to Jesus. When God called him to preach the gospel to foreign nations he went. He went places that he had probably never gone before. Paul is “doing everything right”. He also has been given a passion to go to Rome. I wonder how he envisioned this coming together. Did he envision going around churches to collect money for his mission trip? Was he saving up money as a tent maker?

Regardless, of what Paul’s plans were we know what God’s plan for Paul is; he will be going to Rome in shackles. While preaching the gospel Paul was arrested after a Jewish uproar. He appealed to Caesar (perhaps Paul knew what God was doing this whole time and he is not surprised by the shackles). This got Paul a trip to Rome. But let’s not minimize this. Can you imagine what it would be like to be chained to someone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Not the same person mind you, but you would always have somebody right there watching your every move with the authority to deliver painful lashes if he did not like the way you did things. It would be overly simplistic and bordering on idolatry to pretend that Paul did not ever struggle with losing heart with all of this persecution.

If you consider Paul’s audience they too could be losing heart by this. Paul is your leader. Now he is in prison. It seems like the enemy has won; the gospel is being hindered and one of the prime leaders seems to have lost the great part of his ability to influence. I mean how well can the gospel thrive under Roman containment. Furthermore, if they arrested Paul what is to say that you wouldn’t be next? Persecution can cause anyone to lose heart.

For you it might not be being thrown in prison for preaching the gospel or seeing some of your respected leaders in prison. And let’s not minimize the pain and horrible experience of persecution. Let’s not be overly simplistic here and compare the suffering of persecution to our minimal suffering for the gospel here in America. Some believers, even today, can relate all too well to the experience of first century persecution. But at the same time let’s not be unsympathetic to the difficulties that we do experience. There are times when it does feel like things are spinning out of control; you know those times when you feel as if the problems you face are insurmountable and you feel like you have absolutely no control in your life. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Is God really going to bring redemption?

As I was studying for this sermon I did a Google search on what to do when things seem to be spinning out of control. Here are some of the suggestions:

Change your thinking and behavior to remove unwanted feelings.
Find a medicine that can control the chemical imbalance in your brain
Count to 10
Go to your happy place
And this one is probably the closest to the biblical answer: focus on something bigger than yourself

All of these might indeed be helpful, but I think they fall short of creating lasting change. I think we really can learn something from Paul here. Consider the fact that this guy is in prison and only mentions it in passing. And when he does mention it more (like in his letter to the Philippians) he is so consumed with something else that even though what many would consider as a life “spinning out of control” Paul remains under control and joyful even. So, what gives Paul such joy and peace during such difficult persecution?

In our text here I think we catch a glimpse of Paul’s solution. You have to look at the big picture of what Paul is saying in this text, but it is right there. Even in verse 1 you see something strange when Paul writes, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus”. Not a prisoner of Rome. Not a prisoner of Caesar. Not a prisoner of the Jews, but a prisoner of Jesus. Even in this statement we understand that God is up to something. And this is where Paul’s solution is found. When your passion becomes God’s passion…when you begin to be passionate about living for God’s glory…things begin to fall into place. I like what C.S. Lewis said about this:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it but by it I see everything else.”

Coming to grips with the fact that God is passionate about His glory and the display of His glory and that this is for our great joy opens up our eyes when life is spinning out of control. It helps us to come to grips with the fact that even though everything appears to be radically out of control God is orchestrating everything to further His glory and this is our greatest good.

Please permit me to sum up these first nine verses. Essentially what Paul is saying in these first verses is that God is up to something. What has been hidden for ages is now being revealed: that God is creating a people for himself from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language. This mystery is essentially the gospel. You will see the word “mystery” a few times in this text. When you see it, do not think of it as the subject of an episode of Scooby Doo. Instead know that “mystery” in the Bible refers to something that was not know in past generations but is now clearly known. So, if you have to think of Scooby Doo think of it as the unmasking of the monster: what was unknown is now known—it’s Mr. Jenkins!!! And this is the “Mr. Jenkins” that is being revealed:
God is redeeming broken people from every nation and calling them to an enjoyment of Himself.

But, why: Why does God commission Paul? Why does God form this new community of believers called the church? Why is God on this mission? Verse 10 give us the answer, “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” In saying this Paul places himself in the long line of prophets and apostles before him. He is proclaiming that God is on a mission. A mission to be known among the nations—to spread His glory for all to see—and to redeem rebel sinners to enjoy His glory.

Oh this is beautiful. God is painting this absolutely wonderful cosmic picture. Why does God go through all of the trouble of creating beautiful stars and planets and moons and things that will take ages to see? Why create galaxies that we may never see? Because God is infinitely glorious and he is painting a picture to display this glory!

Why does God put so much detail and beauty into creatures of the ocean? Why does he do things that we cannot even see unless we pop out a microscope? Why create things that would not be discovered for thousands of years? Why create sub-atomic particles? Why does he go through such detail? Because God is infinitely glorious and he is painting a picture to display his glory! Do you see this yet?

Why does God bother putting together people of such diverse interests and taste into the church? Why not just have one people—like the Jews—and not redeem the others? He would have certainly been just to do that. Why? Why create the church? Why does he call together people that seem to have nothing in common except their shared humanity? He does all of this because God is infinitely glorious and He is in the business of displaying that for all to see. In our context here he has in mind specifically the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”. More than likely this is speaking of angels, both good and bad: beings that we do not see and, frankly, beings that we do not understand. What Paul has in mind here is a cosmic display of the glory of God.

So what does this mean for prisoner Paul? Here is the essential thing to catch even when everything seems like it is spinning out of control know that God is still orchestrating all things for his glory. You may not see this as clearly in Ephesians, but in Philippians this point is made plain. Paul wrote Philippians during the same prison stay that he wrote Ephesians. In Philippians this is what Paul had to say: “12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”

So, you see even though Paul is chained to a Roman guard what God has really done is he has chained the gospel to Rome. They cannot get away from Paul, and because of this they cannot get away from the gospel. This is Paul’s perspective and this is what keeps him under control when situations seem to be spinning out of control. He really believes that God works all things for our good and for His glory.

But I must confess if your passion is not God and His gospel this will not be all that comforting to you. In fact knowing that God does all things for His glory might have the opposite effect. It might be a terror to you. It confronts our selfishness. It confronts the depth of our fallen humanity—the desire to be at the center of the universe. But if you come to grips with the fact that it is about God and not primarily about you that is very freeing. A good understanding of the sovereignty of God will either cause you to be ripped in two or it will give you rock solid confidence. The only difference is whether you rejoice in God’s sovereignty or whether your rebel against it. Paul was God-focused, Christ-centered, and gospel-saturate and because of that he is able to remain joyous in the midst of a difficult time.

II. When you lose heart because you think that God can no longer use you, consider Paul’s testimony.

But Paul has not always had this gospel-centered perspective. We read in the book of Acts the story of Paul before Christ. Earlier I mentioned an early believer named Stephen that was beaten to death by stones. You will never believe who oversaw his execution. A young zealous Jew named Saul; one of the fiercest persecutors of Christians. You probably know him by a different name: Paul the apostle, the author of Ephesians. You see Paul once was a hater of Jesus and of all Christians. And I think this truth haunted him for most of his life. He never got over his fierce persecution of Christ and His Church.

I wonder if Paul ever lost heart because of this. I wonder if Paul ever wondered whether or not God could still use him. I mean can God really use someone that violently persecuted His children? Can God really use someone that hated Jesus and his followers with such a passion that he went to the ends of the earth to exterminate everything “Jesus”? Have you ever wondered this same thing? Can God still use me? Look what I have done? Worse yet, look at some of the stuff I still struggle with. Can God still use me? This is a very real temptation for believers. And when you are tempted to give up because of your struggle with sin, and when you feel like giving up and that God can no longer use you consider Paul’s story.

Look at verses 7 and 8. I wonder if on the original manuscript this particular passage is tear stained. If you really look at this verse you can see the astonishment and amazement that Paul has. This is not some arrogant minister talking to the folks at Ephesus. When Paul says here “I am the very least of all the saints” he means it. This is a broken man. A man that has met God and it has changed him. But notice that he does not say, “I was the very least of all the saints”, he says, “I am”. And Paul feels it. This is the same man who a few years later would put his name on another list—the chief of sinners. And we joke, and say, “ah, no I think my name should be at the top”. But Paul’s not joking here. He’s not being coy. He means it. He feels it.

Something interesting about this is that the word there for “least” should probably be translated “leaster” but it’s not because that’s not even a word. But this is what Paul does—he makes up a word to display how he really feels about his fitness for the ministry. Essentially what Paul is saying is this—pick the least saint you can think of. He’s the bottom guy on the list right. The guy you figure gets into heaven with singed undergarments. Well, look a little further down. You’ll see the name Paul. I am the least of the least of the saints. Not even the bottom rung. I am even below that.

Now do you feel it, when Paul says…”Of this gospel” this precious gospel, “I” was made a minister. Or again, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints”. But we don’t get this because we look up to Paul. You look at him and you say—oh, this is Paul…he’s not the least. He’s Paul. He wrote 13 books in the New Testament. He was the apostle to the Gentiles. This guy is a spiritual giant. This guy is probably the chief of saints and the least of sinners. But why do we think that? Because of this statement: “grace was given”.

That is what Paul wants us to catch about him and also about ourselves. Look at all of the grace in these verses. “Made”—that means brought into existence. How was Paul a minister? Because God made him one. Then he says the “gift of God’s grace”. Gift, grace. Something that is undeserving. And just to be certain we get it he says that it was “given to him”. So what makes Paul a minister to the apostles? If you think God cannot use you then listen to this. What could change Saul the persecutor, the blasphemer of Jesus and the church, into Paul the apostle to the Gentiles? Nothing but the powerful working of God. How does he carry out this ministry? It is but by the power of God. This is not speaking only of Paul’s initial salvation and commission but of his every day existence and fulfilling this ministry. How does he fulfill this mighty calling that God gave him? By the powerful working of God on his life. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead, is the same power that enables Paul’s ministry and your ministry and my ministry.

Do you see the contrast here? What astonishment that such a treasure as the gospel—the unsearchable riches of Christ would be entrusted to the least of the saints! You can’t tell me that you are unfit for doing the work of God. You are not outside the realm of God’s ability to make you fit. In your weakest moment you are still—in fact probably more so—able to be used by God. So do not lose heart because of your weakness. Do not lose heart because you do not have all of the answers. Do not lose heart because you struggle with sin. More than saying consider the story of Paul, consider God’s grace.

That’s all great and true you say. Yeah, I get God’s grace. Yeah, I’ve heard the story. I know that God can change people. But God feels like a million miles away. What do I do then? What happens when God feels like my biggest enemy? What happens when I feel like God and I are a million miles apart?

III. When you lose heart because God feels a million miles away consider that through Jesus we have bold access.

Sometimes God can feel like a million miles away. Early I shared of a dark time in my life. During that time I think I felt everyone of these things. I felt like everything was spinning out of control. I felt like such a hypocrite too. I was struggling with faith in God and here I am a youth pastor. How can God still use me? Why would he want to? Do I even want him to? I felt so vile and dirty and like such a traitor. I felt horrible. But worse than anything I felt like God was a million miles away. I felt as if I was being thrown into the hands of Satan and that God had said do whatever you want to him. And I felt this way for a considerable amount of time. I had up times. It was always amazing that on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s I would have pretty good days. God allowed me to continue preaching even in deep brokenness. But even that was being deeply affected.

So, what changed? What changed is that I realized the truth of what Paul says in our text: “[Christ Jesus] in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in him”. This is not like God just gave me new information. This was not a decision that I made. This was not something were I read something and I said well that sounds pretty good I think I will go for that. No, what happened is that God absolutely broke me. But at the same time that I was being broken the light of the gospel clicked. I understood the gospel like I never did before. I became giddy with the gospel.

It was not our text that did this it was Psalm 103. Some of you might remember me reading that and crying as I read it. There was a reason for that. Just a day before God used this great truth to show me the truth of the gospel. God knows that I am broken, God knows that I am but dust, God knows that I struggle and in spite of all of this he loves me. Why? Because of what Jesus Christ has done. This is what Paul means when he says that through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence. Through Jesus we have a constant hearing with God—no matter how broken, dirty, or vile that you feel. Because of Jesus you are accepted.

I want to close by reading Psalm 103 and encouraging you not to lose heart because of what Christ has done. Perhaps as we read this and talk about those that have their transgressions forgiven God pricks your heart and you realize that you do not have a relationship with Christ. You need to repent and come to Christ in faith. You need to believe what God says about you and you need to believe what God says about Jesus.

Read Psalm 103

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