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Gaining what you cannot lose

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Colossians 1:24-29

“The End of the Spear” is the current movie which retells the 20th century’s most powerful missionary story. Fifty years ago, on January 8, 1956, Nate Saint, Jim Elliott, and three other American missionaries were killed by spear-wielding tribesmen in the Ecuadorian jungle.

Nate Saint’s sister and Jim Elliott’s widow subsequently lived among the tribesmen, leading many to Christ. Nate Saint’s son Steve consulted on the movie; Steve’s son and his family presently live among the tribe. Then and now it is a stunning story: how five men would leave secure and prosperous careers, risking their lives to tell a tribe they had never met about God’s love in Christ.

We are a risk-averse culture. A recent Wall Street Journal reported on the growing cryogenics movement, where people arrange to have their bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen so they can be brought back to life in the future. The article profiled one man who has left $5 million to himself. Such “personal revival trusts” are becoming more and more common.

Most of us like to avoid risk and find security and comfort where we can. 2005 may have been the hottest year on record, but we have air-conditioned houses and cars, and even car seats. There may be a drought, but we have sprinkler systems; traffic may be a problem, but we have our car navigational systems; crime may be a threat, but we have our car and home security systems. No society in history has had it easier in terms of daily comfort and security than we do.

Today’s sermon in a sentence is therefore somewhat counter-cultural: we will experience God’s blessing and power to the precise degree that we sacrifice to obey him. No risk, no reward; great risk, great reward. When we’re done, I’ll ask you this one question: when last did it cost you something to serve Jesus? Why should you pay that price this week?

Paul’s choice

Saul of Tarsus had it made. The prize student of Gamaliel, he was a Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford valedictorian all in one. He was headed for a life of sheltered rabbinic study and prestige. Then he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and changed his loyalty to Christ.

But he could have kept his lifestyle. He could have been an unnamed and unknown scholar and scribe for the infant Christian movement, showing the Jewish authorities and scholars how Jesus fulfilled Scripture and warranted their faith. But that was not God’s call on his life. God wanted this former Pharisee and Gentile hater to be his “apostle to the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:7-8), to take his word to the Colossians and people like them around the world.

Now that’s a different story.

He would have to live in the pagan Gentile world, where his Jewish sensibilities had never allowed him to go before. Imagine a Civil War doctor in the KKK whose practice was now confined to African slaves.

He would have to take the gospel to the Roman Empire, confronting their emperor worship and military might. Imagine a call from God to evangelize the dictator and military leaders of the Communist party in North Korea.

He would have to take the gospel where it had never been before, speaking to people who had never heard of the Law or the name of “Jesus Christ,” planting churches where none existed. Imagine selling computers to a remote tribe which has never even known electricity.

The cost to Paul would be high: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

Which brings us to the Colossians.

Paul is continuing to share the afflictions of Christ on earth for the sake of his body, the church (v. 24). What Jesus had suffered, Paul now suffers.

He has been commissioned by God to present the word of God in its fullness, whatever the personal cost to Paul (v. 25). He has been instructed to explain to them “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (v. 27).

He would “proclaim” (teach) and “admonish” (correct and confront sin) “everyone” to present “everyone” fully mature in Christ when he returns. He would not stop until everyone was ready to meet Jesus. None would be outside his work or burden.

To this end he would “labor” (to work to exhaustion) and “struggle” (strive and exert, like a runner trying to cross the finish line or a football player struggling to cross the goal line).

But here would be the good news, and the point of our conversation today: “struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (v. 29). As we work, God works. Only when we work, does God work. God empowers us to the exact degree that we are serving his purpose with our lives, in his fear, and for his glory.

He cannot empower that which does not glorify him, extend his Kingdom, or love his people, if he is holy and righteous.

He cannot fail to empower all that obey his purpose, if he is faithful and Father.

For his purpose we have his power. Without his purpose, we have none of his power. Great risk, great reward. No risk, no reward. His purpose, his power.

Our choice

Now let’s make this personal. Do you know God’s purpose for your life? Paul knew he was to be God’s apostle to the Gentiles, and was willing to pay any price to fulfill that calling. As a result, he had God’s power, and the Father is still using his ministry today. Nate Saint and his friends knew they were called by God to the tribespeople of Ecuador. They had God’s courage, and he is still using them today.

Do you know God’s call on your life? Determine it today.

First, trust Christ as your Savior. Paul’s call began on the Damascus Road, when he gave himself to Jesus. Ask him to forgive your sins and become your Lord. Give your life to him.

Next, choose to walk in his word and will daily. Paul spent three years in isolation, seeking to understand God’s word and call on his life. Only then did he begin his public ministry. Surrender the day when it begins; connect with God through his word in prayer and worship; confess when you sin; stay in his will for today.

Now seek his overarching call on your life, his ministry for you. Learn your spiritual gifts. Pay attention to open doors and opportunities. Listen to the Spirit as he speaks to your heart. Attend to the ways he uses other people to encourage and guide you. Know that he wants you to know his call more than you want to know it.

Get with God until you can complete the sentence, “My ministry is ____________.” Give that crucial decision all the time it requires.

Know that God’s call will come at a price, and be rewarded with his power.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“Just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Corinthians 1:5).

“On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:18-20).

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:17-18).

“But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).

“If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).

“The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter5:10).

Determine to be faithful to his purpose, and expect his power. Do you experience his power? If not, you’re not in his purpose. If you’re in his purpose, count on his power. So, what is God asking you to do at a risk? Is there a call from God you have not been willing to obey? What is the risk/reward ratio for that opportunity to sacrifice for your Lord?

Are you standing strong for Jesus at school, or afraid of what your friends might think? What are you risking? People who do not follow Jesus and don’t want you to follow him may reject you. But they’ll see Christ in you, and perhaps be drawn closer to him. You’ll avoid everything they want you to do which God does not, and that’s all to your good. And you’ll have the power and joy of God for your soul.

Are you standing for Jesus at work or in the community? What are you risking? You may in fact lose money or your job, or status in your society. But God promises to meet your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). He’ll use your witness for eternity, and give you his power for your obedience now. He always pays his debts and more.

Are you obeying Jesus with your money and means, your time and abilities? What are you risking? What will it cost you to forfeit the blessing and power of God in your life? What will you gain if your money and time and life belong to the God who made the universe and loves you at the cost of his own Son?

Conclusion

The most famous statement to come from the 1956 missionary martyrdom was this sentence later found in Jim Elliott’s journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Last Monday we held Jarman Bass’s memorial service in Ellis Chapel. There I retold one of my favorite stories. It concerns an elderly man, a lifelong resident of the island of Crete. He was a fervent loyalist to his country, a nationalist to the core. When it came time for him to die, his sons carried him out of his stone cottage and laid him on the land of his beloved Crete. He scooped up a handful of its soil, and was gone.

He approached the gates of glory, but the attending angel asked what was in his hand. “Crete!” was the reply. “I go nowhere without it!” The angel told him he would have to leave his dirt outside to enter the perfect Paradise. He refused, and sat down beside the wall outside of glory.

A week went by, and one of his oldest friends, now a resident of heaven, came outside to urge his friend in. But he refused to give up his dirt, and stayed where he was. Another week passed; the soil drew dry and dusty, and began to trickle through his worn and calloused fingers.

Then his dear little granddaughter who had gone to heaven just the year before came out. “Grandpa,” she said, “the gates open only for those with open hands.” He thought about that for a while, then stood up and dropped the dirt in his hand. He took her hand in his. They walked through the gates into glory. And inside was all of Crete.

God’s power comes to those who fulfill God’s purpose. What’s in your hand today?