Sunday, May 22, 2005

Forty Days of Purpose: Finishing What We've Started

Matthew 22:34-40
Matthew 28:16-20
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 22, 2005)

An elderly man of some achievement was once asked what the key to his success in life had been.

“That’s easy,” he said. “The key to being truly successful in any sphere of life is the same. First, you refrain from doing the things that don’t matter. Second, when it comes to the things that do matter, you finish what you start.”

I can’t tell you how many good things I’ve started in my life--from exercise regimens to learning to play a musical instrument--and failed to finish or failed to continuously pursue. We can’t achieve anything truly worthy unless we commit ourselves to finishing what we start.

Nowhere is this more true than in our spiritual lives. God gives the gift of new life to all with faith in Jesus Christ. It is free for all who turn from sin and turn to Christ. But in order to finish the life we live on earth with Christ successfully, we must refrain from doing things that don’t matter--the Bible calls these things vain--and we must do those things that allow us to remain close to Christ.

Several years ago, I met a retired business executive. He spent a good deal of his life pursuing what’s sometimes called “the American Dream.” The man told me too, that while he was no alcoholic, he liked to drink a bit too much as well.

Three years before I met him, a change came to his life. He realized that he had invested his whole life in things that won’t last...things like money and houses and perks. So, he quit drinking, got involved in a local church, and surrendered his life to Christ. Today, he’s also using the expertise and experience he gained as an executive to serve others in a variety of organizations. He’s got vital ministries and missions that he’s pursuing, even now in his mid-70s.

“I wish I had let God into my life years before,” this man tells me. “Living for God is giving me the most fulfilling years of my life!” The quiet passion with which that man tells me that also says that he is committed to finishing what he started.

This morning, we have two celebrations happening at Friendship. We’re celebrating the successful completion of our Forty Days of Purpose campaign for spiritual renewal. We’re also celebrating the successful completion on the parts of three young men--Ian Daniher, Tyler Feine, and Dalton Hart--of three years of Catechism. But this day is about much more than a completion or an ending. It can also be a beginning, a time when we commit ourselves to finishing what we’ve started. I hope that we’ll do just that!

Our two Bible lessons for today, both recounting words of Jesus and taken from the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, really give us the blueprint for finishing what every person of faith in Christ starts.

In Matthew 22, Jesus gives what’s called the Great Commandment. The person who has been loved unconditionally by God is called to love God completely and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

In Matthew 28, Jesus gives the Great Commission to His followers. In response to what God has done for us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we’re to share the saving good news that all who believe in Jesus are spared hell’s separation from God and live with God forever.

Over the past forty days, in our daily readings, our small groups, our worship celebrations, and the call we all received through last week’s Mission and Ministry Fair, we’ve been reminded of how desperately God loves us, of how we can be part of what God is doing in the world, and of a simple truth that Rick Warren summarizes in his book, The Purpose Driven Life: “A great commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission will make you a great Christian.”

Very quickly this morning, I want to review three truths I think we’ve learned over the past forty days and, Ian, Tyler, and Dalton, that I hope you’ve learned the past three years.

First: We learned that it’s not about us; life is about God. A few years ago, I shared with some of you the incident that happened when I chaired the planning committee for the assembly of the Northwest Ohio Synod of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It involved planning everything surrounding the annual get-together of about 200 churches and it turned out to be an extraordinary event.

People left the assembly excited. The feedback was almost universal as people told us, “That’s the best and most useful church convention we’ve ever attended.”

In spite of all the good feelings though, I was bummed. The bishop hadn’t taken the time to tell everybody what a wonderful job I had done, or how hard I had worked, or how it had been my vision that had been executed in that convention. (Can you imagine that?)

But one day, as I was sitting in my office, praying, a thought crossed my mind, a thought I’m certain came from God: “Who were you doing all of this for, hotshot, you or Me?”

The world is full of examples of people who live for themselves rather than God. It’s the source of all the misery we see in the world and in ourselves. The quicker we learn that life is about the God Who designed us and wants what is best for us, and not us, the quicker we can get down to living a purpose driven life.

Second: We’ve learned that no matter what our age, sex, income level, geographic location, career, or marital status, God’s will for us is the same.

God has placed us on this planet for five reasons:
  • We were planned for God’s pleasure. So our whole lives--24/7--are to be given to worshiping Him. We owe the God Who gave us Himself our first allegiance, our highest priority, our first consideration, and our best efforts.
  • We were formed for God’s family. So we’re to live in meaningful fellowship with other believers. That means not just attending worship regularly or having coffee and Danishes at 11 A.M.; it also means getting involved in a small group in which we can pray for one another, study God’s Word together, serve together, and be spiritually accountable to each other.
  • We were created to be like Christ. We’re called to what the Bible calls discipleship, the process by which we live with Christ, pray, study God’s Word, and serve in His Name to become more and more like Christ. Being like Christ, which will finally happen for believers in Jesus in heaven, is God’s goal for us all.
  • We’re shaped to serve God. God has given us talents and abilities When we became followers of Jesus, the Holy Spirit gave us spiritual gifts. God has allowed us to have certain experiences--good and bad, happy and sad. God has done all of this in order to shape us for service--what the Bible calls ministry--in Christ’s Church. In fact, God will most often use the adversity and pain we’ve experienced to give us our ministries. When someone I know has learned they have cancer, I always try to hook them up with someone who has fought that disease themselves. Our pain often gives us the heart we need to help others, which God wants us all to do.
  • We’re made for a mission. We’re to do the “e-word,” evangelism, sharing the Good News of Jesus with our spiritually-disconnected family members, friends, classmates, business associates, and neighbors. We want them to enjoy eternity with God along with us.
Third: We’ve learned, I hope, that Christian faith is not a specator sport!

Some of you may be frustrated with your spiritual life or your relationship with Christ. There can be many reasons for that.

Sometimes though, God allows us to be frustrated because it spurs us on to greater surrender to Him and to placing a higher priority on our relationship with Him. Spiritual frustration--or even indifference to living for Christ--is often God’s way of telling us, “Get real. Get faithful. Get down to the business of actually living for My purposes.”

Can you imagine, for example, a scientist growing in her knowledge of her field if she didn’t actually do research?

Or a football player improving without practice?

I must tell you that throughout these Forty Days of Purpose, although this is the fifth time I’ve read Rick Warren’s book, God confronted me with some unpleasant facts about myself. God has used this time to show me those areas of my life in which I have kept a deaf ear to Him and lived for my short-term desires rather than His long-term purposes for my life.

God has also used these forty days to show me how much He loves me and to show me how I can have a more vital relationship with Him. God has shown me both my need and how I can finish what I started nearly thirty years ago when I became a follower of Jesus Christ.

Ian, Tyler, Dalton, and everyone who has faithfully pursued Christ throughout our Forty Days of Purpose: I beg you to join with me in making it your life’s aim to fulfill God’s five purposes for your life.
Put God first in your life;

Get involved with a small group through the Church;

Pray and regularly consult God’s Word to let Him make you more like Jesus;

Take on a ministry within the congregation; and

Share the Good News of Jesus with at least one spiritually-disconnected person every month for the rest of your life.
With God’s help and guidance, let’s resolve that today will not just be the end of our forty days, but a day of commitment in which we promise God, each other, and ourselves, “We will finish what we’ve started. We will live for God’s purposes always!”

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