Sermon Transcript January 17, 2021
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Matthew 11:25-30
Do you know what is special about today? Today is Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day. That’s right, January 17 is also unofficially known as “Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day.” One website describes the purpose of this day: “You have done well for the past couple of weeks. You have stuck to your New Year’s resolutions. But are now ready to give them up. You are busy, you took on too much, that piece of cake just looks [too] good to ignore. Whatever your reason to break your New Year resolutions, you can do it guilt-free on Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day.”
We’re one week into the Red Letter Challenge. We are out of the gate, with one week under our belts in this effort to grow closer to Jesus and align our lives more closely with what he teaches. We’re calling this journey a challenge because we’re working on making changes, godly adjustments to our hearts, our minds, our lives. We’re off to a strong start. But with each passing day we’re likely to face increasing resistance. We’ve made it 7 days into this challenge, and that’s awesome! But Ditch New Year’s Resolution day comes at day 17 into the new year. In the Red Letter Challenge, the initial excitement may be starting to wear off. If you haven’t already, you’re likely soon to wrestle with whether to keep going. I’m guessing, though, that you took on this challenge to do more than just get off to a strong start. Your purpose was to accomplish the goal.
The goal of the Red Letter Challenge is an ongoing one. In other words, being a representative of Jesus is more than a project to complete. This isn’t like a science fair project: once you’ve finished your entry you never have to think about it again. The purpose of the Red Letter Challenge is to help us be better representatives of Jesus. Representing Jesus is what we do because we are Jesus people, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (366 in a leap year)! The goal is to represent him well with the whole of our lives. No matter who we’re with, no matter where we are, in every word we choose to speak, every activity we decide to participate in, in the priorities we center our lives on. This is a lifestyle goal that shapes and defines our living. And that truth reminds us all the more, we might be able start strong toward this goal on our own strength, but we need more than our own strength to live out this goal every single day, of every single month, of every single year!
How can hope to be able to do this? The key to actually accomplishing this is not to rely on your own strength. The secret is to draw on God’s strength. That insight lines up perfectly with our first principle, aiming us squarely at our first target in the Red Letter Challenge, that target of Being with Jesus. In order to live for Jesus well we need to be with Jesus first.
Hebrews 12:1:2 describes what that means this way: “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…” Jesus calls us into the Christian faith, and like a race we will accomplish what we’re setting out to do by keeping our eyes on the Author and the finisher of our faith!
Think of it like being a member of a rowing team. The aim of the sport is very simple. The first group of rowers that cross the finish line win. It’s just like any other race: the strongest and the quickest will always win. However, there is one key difference in rowing as compared to any other race. In most other sports the key to winning is keeping your eyes firmly fixed on the finish line. Rowing is different. None of the rowers are actually looking at the finish line. As a matter of fact, their backs are actually facing the finish line. The rowers are not focused on the finish line rather they are focused on a man sitting on the edge of the rowing boat called the coxswain. The coxswain is literally like the conductor of the rowing boat. He alone has his eyes fixed on the finish line and on the other competitors. The key to winning the race in rowing comes down to the relationship between the rowers and the coxswain. Typically, when rowing teams win a race it is the coxswain that people will celebrate because he led his team to the finish line. Our life with God is very much like being in a rowing boat. As we look to Christ and trust in him, he will equip us as he leads us and guides us where God would have us go.
That can feel counterintuitive though. We can be so eager to get doing things to represent Jesus that we skip over spending time with Jesus. Not that we’re opposed to whole idea of spending time with God, but it stops there, just as an idea.
Let me share an example from my own life, my own experience that illustrates this. A little over 10 years ago, I joined a professional coaching program designed for pastors. The program started with an introductory conference. Together with 14 other pastors, I attended this conference to launch us into habits and practices that are helpful to representing Jesus well. In the opening presentation for this conference, the leader did a quick poll of the group. He asked, “How many of you believe daily devotions, daily time in God’s Word is a good thing?” Without hesitation every pastor in the room raised their hands. Then the leader asked this follow up question: “How many of you are spending time daily in God’s Word? I’m not asking you about time in Scripture for the purpose of getting a sermon ready, or prepping for a bible class or catechism lesson. How many of you are spending time in God’s Word daily, just you and God?” Do you know how many of us were spending daily time in God’s Word for our spiritual health? None, zero, nada! Remember, the question is being asked of a group of pastors. “How many of you are in God’s Word 2-3 times a week?” A couple of hands went up. “Once a week?” A couple more hands went up. Even though every one of the pastors in that room said that daily time in God’s Word is important, most weren’t spending time personally in Scripture even once a week. I don’t say that with any judgment because I was one of those guys who wasn’t spending personal time in God’s Word even once a week.
Before he talked further about the value of developing daily devotional life, the leader asked each of us to share why he had decided to join this coaching program. The answers varied. “I’m stressed out all the time.” “No matter how much I do, I never feel like it’s enough.” “No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake feelings of guilt like I’m not enough.” “I’m feeling burned out.” “If I keep going like I’m going I don’t know how much longer I can handle being a pastor.” “I’m overwhelmed and I’m not seeing any light at the end of this tunnel.” While everyone’s answer was different, every answer had this in common: we all wanted to represent Jesus well, but the harder we were trying, the more we realized how far short we were falling. Like a hamster on an exercise wheel, no matter how hard we tried, we didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere good. What we were feeling was run down and worn out. Even worse, there was a kind of helpless sentiment that maybe the Christian life and Christian service would never be more than an ongoing reminder that no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you do, it will never be enough. A kind of hopeless feeling like we just needed to figure out how to grit our teeth, try our hardest, and hope to hold on through the daily grind until the day the Lord finally delivered us from this world into the sweet relief of the next. These feelings aren’t unique to pastors. Who among us hasn’t felt this way about living for Jesus? Maybe you’re feeling this way right now?
When it comes to the Christian life, though, Jesus wants you to hear something truly important, something really significant, something that will change the way you think about what it means to live for Jesus. Listen to what he is saying to you: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In this invitation Jesus isn’t talking about life after death. He’s inviting you to the rest that rejuvenates you to take on the challenges of life. He’s inviting you to come to him and find in him everything you need to represent him well to the world. Living for Christ isn’t something you achieve for Jesus. The desire, the will, the strength to live for Jesus is something you receive from Jesus! In other words, before you can do anything for Jesus, receive from him what he does for you, the life he’s secured for you, the strength has shares with you!
Many people think that if they are having a problem doing the things that Jesus asks, that they have a doing problem. That if they aren’t loving, they just try to grit their teeth together and say, “I need to be more loving.” Or if they are having a problem being generous, they pull up their bootstraps and say, “I’m just going to give more.” Listen carefully, though, to Jesus’ invitation: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). The secret to doing God’s will isn’t about summoning up more of your willpower. It comes from having more of Jesus’ power, a power he gives you as you seek him and soak in the rest he gives from feelings of guilt. The refreshment he provides as he reassures you that God already accepts you because your failures have been fully forgiven. The way he re-energizes you to live for him, not because you have to prove something about yourself to God, but because you want to share with the world what the Son of God has done for you, how he is now living and working in you and through you. When it comes to the Red Letter Challenge, this is the most important thing for us: everything we’re aiming to do, to accomplish, to become is motivated by all that Jesus has first done for us. How he has lived, died, and risen from the dead to forgive the sins of all, yours and mine included, assuring us of life forever in paradise, this is what renews us, refreshes us. The more we spend time being with him, soaking in the life, the renewal he gives us, the more we grow. The more life and strength we draw from Jesus, the clearer and better representation of him we are to the world. Representing Jesus well, truly flows out of the rest and renewal you receive in your quiet time with God.
While competing in the marathon in Mexico City, John Stephen Akhwari cramped up due to the high altitude of the city. He had not trained at such an altitude back in his country. At the 19 kilometer point during the 42 km race, there was jockeying for position between some runners and he was hit. He fell badly wounding his knee and dislocated that joint plus his shoulder hit hard against the pavement. He however continued running, finishing last among the 57 competitors who completed the race (75 had started). The winner of the marathon, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished in 3:25:27, when there were only a few thousand people left in the stadium, and the sun had set. A television crew was sent out from the medal ceremony when word was received that there was one more runner about to finish.
As he finally crossed the finish line a cheer came from the small crowd. When interviewed later and asked why he continued running, he said, "My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
Where can we find that kind of resolve, that kind of strength to run the race God has marked out for us? God makes an incredible promise to us through the Prophet Isaiah about running this race called the Christian life and finding the strength to follow through all the way to the finish line: “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” (40:30-31).
I want to share a follow up story on one of the pastors who has been part of the pastor’s coaching program together with me for the past 10+ years. I was talking with this pastor just a couple of weeks ago, and he was sharing about 2021 and how he’s feeling the pressure because he has several big initiatives the he’s started that he needs to bring to completion and he has several more things he’s working on developing from the ground up too. A decade ago, we were sitting together at the opening coaching conference in Daytona Beach, stressed out, worn out, wondering if we had what it takes, if we would be able to summon the strength to keep on carrying the responsibilities of pastoral ministry. As we talked just a couple of weeks ago, he shared, “2021 is a really big year for me in ministry. If I’m going to be able to do everything I have in front of me, I need to get even more serious about the time I’m spending with the Lord. If I’m going to accomplish everything the Lord is calling me to do, I need to rely on him and draw daily from him to get what I need to do what he wants me to do.” He’s learned the secret!
We’ve had a great start here in the Red Letter Challenge. It’s great to start strong! But the more important thing is that we learn how to finish strong. The secret to finishing strong is this: when we rest in Jesus we find the energy, the stamina, the endurance that we need to not just start, but finish the race Jesus has marked out for us! Friends, our first target and our greatest challenge is this: prioritize being with Jesus! It’s amazing what Jesus can do when you spend time daily being with him, resting, recharging, and renewing yourself in the forgiveness, the strength, the life that he gives! Amen.