Finding Significance in Obscurity
Finding Significance in Obscurity
I would expect 99 percent of the people in our society feel very obscure; the kind of feeling that whatever I do doesn't really matter. Nobody notices. If I were gone it wouldn't make much difference in this society. It would be an interesting thing to take a poll and have you respond to me saying either "I feel very obscure" or "I think I'm very important to society." Well, we can't do that, but I expect the vast majority of us feel quite obscure.
If we add to the poll, "How many want your life to be significant and important?" just about everybody would say, "Of course I want my life to be significant and important." God wants that too. It's amazing how wrong are our perceptions of ourselves. That's why God said through the prophet Isaiah in his 55 chapter, "For your thoughts are not my thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." God is saying your misperception of yourself must be corrected by his perception of you.
How are we going to get hold of this, so that even though I feel obscure in life, I can feel that my life is significant? Maybe one of the ways to do it is to look at the life of an obscure person. We have lots of those in the Bible. I want you to look at one of them with me: Ananias. We know little about Ananias. The apostle Paul gives a brief synopsis of this event in Acts 22, but that's all. Oh, there are traditions about Ananias. Some say he is one of the 70 disciples Jesus chose. Some say he was the first one to preach the gospel in Damascus. Then he became a bishop of Damascus who was so zealous in his faith that the people seized him, scourged him, and stoned him to death. But we don't know that. All we know is that Ananias was a layman, a Hebrew. He was respected in his community, and he became a Christian. That's all.
Ah, but there's one other thing: This obscure person had an impact on the apostle Paul, the greatest person apart from Jesus Christ to live in all the history of the Christian church. This obscure one was chosen by God to begin the journey of the apostle Paul in his conversion, his development, and his understanding of the mission and direction for his life. Imagine an obscure person with that kind of significance.
Now, how can that help you and me? Let's look at the elements of Ananias's life, and maybe that will help us get a picture.
Living with significance requires a dream
First, there must be a dream. Nothing significant in our life ever happens without a dream, a vision, a sense that something bigger could happen to an Ananias. When God said, "Go to that house and see Saul of Tarsus, Ananias said, "Oh my, how could I do that? That man is after the Christians. And God said, "My thought is higher than your thought, and let my thought have something to do with your thought, so your vision is big. His perspective got bigger.
So often, in our feeling of obscurity, we get so little in our thinking. We focus on the little problems of life instead of getting that bigger picture of life. Ananias got a bigger picture.
When you drive down the highway, it's never good to focus your attention on the dirty spot on the windshield. It's always good to let the whole vision be in front of you. Life is so much that way. We focus on that little thing instead of getting the big picture.
A man came to a construction site, where stonemasons were working. The man said to one, "What are you doing?
The stonemason said, "You can see, I'm chipping a stone.
The man walked over to another mason and said, "What are you doing?
He answered, "I'm building a wall.
The man walked over to a third mason and said, "What are you doing?
This mason answered, "I am building a cathedral. All three were doing the same thing, but what a difference perspective makes!
I was pastor of a little church of 140 members in New Jersey at the foot of the Orange Mountains in Montclair. The church was nestled on a street. On the top of Eagle Rock, one of the Orange Mountains, there was a lookout. On a clear day, I could look east across the Hudson into Manhattan. And I could look south to Trenton, New Jersey. And I could look north into Connecticut. I would look out there and say, Gordon, 10 percent of the population of the United States is right there in your view. I was just that young preacher with 140 members in a little spot that you could hardly find, but it gave me a big feeling. It made a difference in Gordon Johnson.
Edward Kimball is probably not known to you. He lived over a hundred years ago. He was a Sunday school teacher in Boston, where a young teenager became part of his class. The young man was a country boy. He didn't know the ways of the city or of the church. But he came to Kimball's Sunday school class. When the teen first came to his class, Edward Kimball handed him a Bible. When Mr. Kimball said, "Turn to the Gospel of John, the country boy didn't know how to find the Gospel of John. Edward Kimball recognized what was happening, and while the other boys were snickering, he opened the Bible to the Gospel of John and handed it back. When he asked the boys to read, the country boy fumbled as he read.
But Edward Kimball had a big perspective, and he saw possibilities in the boy. Kimball worked with him, and after some months he went down to the store where the boy was working, went into the back room where he was stacking boxes, and led Dwight to Jesus Christ. That was the beginning of the ministry of Dwight L. Moody, this continent's greatest evangelist during the last century. You didn't know Edward Kimball, an obscure Sunday school teacher who had a vision. But his vision transformed a young man who became a significant person.
Living with significance requires courage
There's another factor in Ananias's story: courage. Anything worthwhile in life will take a risk. You can't accomplish anything unless there's a willingness to step out and say, "Okay, I'm not really sure about this, but somewhere I believe this is what I ought to do. You take the risk. That takes courage.
When Ananias heard from the Lord, "You go and see Saul of Tarsus, he said, "Wait a minute. I have heard that he has come to destroy the Christians. Your saints in Jerusalem have been harmed by him. God's idea countered the human idea, and God said, "My idea is for you to go. It took courage, but Ananias went.
After Moses died, Joshua was called of God to take over and lead the people of Israel. Joshua was without courage. He was frightened because there were more than two million people. That's twice the population of San Diego proper. I can't even imagine being out there in the wilderness with that kind of population. Lead them? Who wouldn't be frightened? What a risk to take! Joshua was listening to God when God said, "As I was with Moses, I will be with you. Three different times God said to Joshua, "Be strong and of good courage. Joshua did it. You see, anything that's worthwhile in life is going to take some risk. And God is going to give the courage to do it, if you're trusting him.
During World War I, a British commander was preparing to lead his soldiers back to battle. They'd been on furlough, and it was a cold, rainy, muddy day. Their shoulders sagged because they knew what lay ahead of them: mud, blood, possible death. Nobody talked, nobody sang. It was a heavy time.
As they marched along, the commander looked into a church. Back in the church he saw the figure of Christ on the cross. At that moment, something happened to the commander. He remembered the One who suffered, died, and rose again. There was victory, and there was triumph. As the troops marched along, he shouted out, "Eyes right, march! Every eye turned to the right, and as the soldiers marched by, they saw Christ on the cross. Something happened to that company of men. Suddenly they saw triumph after suffering, and they took courage. With shoulders straightened, they began to smile as they went. You see, anything worthwhile in life will be a risk that demands courage.
Let me say something to you who may not have come to a personal commitment of your life to Jesus Christ. You're seeing it as a struggle. You'll never discover significance in life until you've allowed our Lord to take over. But you don't know the risk involved in doing this. "It will change my lifestyle, you say. "It will change what I do at work. "It will change my relationships. "It will make a difference to me in the community. Nothing in life is going to be significant or worthwhile until you're willing to take the risk. Let me assure you the Lord who told Joshua to be strong and of good courage will say it to you. And I urge you to think this morning about the possibilities, if you commit your life to Jesus Christ.
Living with significance requires faith
But there's another element we see in Ananias: faith. You see, faith is facing the unknown with confidence in the One who knows the unknown. Faith is living on earth with an insight that leaps beyond what human eyes can see. Faith is discovering that God's idea is more significant than my idea. Faith is believing him who can overcome my human limitations. Too often we emphasize our limitations. Ananias could have done that. He could have said, "But this is an impossibility. There is no way that I can have dialogue and conversation with this great man, Saul of Tarsus. But God said, "You do it, and he believed God. You see, faith leaps beyond our human limitations.
A certain lady loved flowers and plants. She planted a rare vine against the stone wall near the back of her yard. She nurtured it, and it grew well. It was vigorous; it was beautiful. But it had no blossoms. She was disappointed. One day she stood there looking at that vine with the beautiful foliage but no blossoms. Her neighbor called across the wall, asking her to come over. The lady went over to the other yard. The neighbor said, "Thank you for planting that vine. Look at these beautiful blossoms. You see, the vine had crept through the stone wall, and the blossoms were on the other side. The owner hadn't seen them yet. And that's the way faith is. It leaps beyond our human limitations to the other side. If you feel obscure, don't forget the God of our faith will overcome your human limitations.
Many years ago in the city of Minneapolis at Bethlehem Baptist Church they needed a Sunday school teacher for the junior boys. This class wasn't bad, just energetic. No teacher had been able to control them. Ewald Chaldberg, a Swedish masseur, was asked to teach, and he took the junior boys class. Ewald still had his Swedish accent. Buzzing all over the church was the word, "He'll never make it. Three weeks, and that will be the end. But somehow Ewald Chaldberg believed God when he took the class, and he stayed with it through the years. He kept teaching boys.
Some years ago I was asked to come to that church and share in a service. It was the tenth anniversary of the death of Ewald Chaldberg. How do you like thata layman in the church, and they're celebrating the tenth anniversary of his death. During the service, they recounted that at least forty men were in Christian service someplace in the world because Ewald Chaldberg taught boys, loved them, and watched over them as they grew. Ewald Chaldberg had faith to believe that God could overcome his human limitations. On the morning of that anniversary celebration, lay persons stood up to say, "We're going to be like Ewald Chaldberg in a small way. The obscure immigrant with a Swedish accent found significance because he trusted the Lord who said, "My idea is bigger than your idea.
Living with significance requires action
But there's one other demand to consider from the life of Ananias: action. Action is so tied to the whole matter of faith that you can't separate them. For when we understand something by faith, and we act upon it, that gives conclusion to the faith. When God said to Ananias, "You go to the house of Saul and talk to him, his immediate response was no. But the divine command was "Go. The human idea was countered by the divine idea that said, "Don't miss it. This is going to work.
A conductor was rehearsing his great orchestra. The organ was rolling, giving beautiful melody. The drums were thundering. The trumpets were blaring out. The violins were singing beautifully. Suddenly something seemed wrong. Someone in the orchestra had thought, With all this going on, I can rest a while. This is a rehearsal anyway.
The conductor threw up his arms and said, "Where's the piccolo?
The piccolo player said, "I'm obscure. I don't amount to much. With all of this going on, I don't have to keep playing. But the one with the trained ear said, "Every one of us is necessary. When you and I feel obscure, we must remember God has something significant for our lives, and we need to respond.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, in the minds of some of us, was the greatest preacher since the apostle Paul. When he was 22 years of age, he preached sermons that some of us hope we may preach before we die. We won't, but we can dream. He preached to 5,000 peoplemorning and eveningin London.
When Spurgeon was 15 years of age, he had not come to a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. On a blustery, snowy Sunday morning, he decided to go to church. He couldn't get to his planned destination because the weather was so bad. So he turned into a side street, and went into a Methodist church. The preacher didn't even get there. Only fifteen people had come to the church. A layman decided worship ought to take place, so he got up to preach. He used Isaiah 45:22, "Look unto me and be saved, all you ends of the earth. In ten minutes he had exhausted all that he could think to say.
Then he noticed a boy in the back, under the balcony. He said, "Young man, you look like you're in trouble. Look unto Jesus and be saved. That's exactly what happened that morning. Charles Haddon Spurgeon gave his life to Christ. That troubled young man became the mightiest preacher of the last century. He was led to faith in Christ by a man nobody knowsan obscure layman.
What about you this morning? Do you feel obscure? An awful lot of us feel that way. But life can be significant and meaningful as it's turned over to our Lord. The transformation can happen.
Gordon Johnson is dean and professor of preaching emeritus at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota
(c) Gordon Johnson
Preaching Today Tape #82
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