Living on the Edge of Whatever Happens
Living on the Edge of Whatever Happens
From the editor
One of the great joys in preaching is when you know you have something special to offer. Perhaps it's a particularly well-crafted thesis statement, a stirring insight that unlocks a passage, or an especially creative outline. Smith's sermon has all of that and more. After I first heard "Living on the Edge of Whatever Happens," I could have repeated its major movements to you 24 hours later. More than that, I could have offered specifics: how one ought to "handle a Troas when you wanted Asia Minor and Bithynia;" how a prison can become a pulpit; how life is a dance, choreographed by God; how "life has to be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward;" how best I can carry myself "down here" in light of the hope of glory. This sermon is brilliantly memorable. May we all learn from Smith's example!
To live a "whatever happens" existence is not to resign to cynicism, disillusionment, nihilism, or skepticism; it is to embrace providence, the superintending hand of God that guides us even in the midst of mystery. When we can't figure out the "un-figure-out-able"—when we cannot walk through the maze of confusion and find clarity as we go—we know that the hand of God still leads us. Providence echoes the sentiment of one of our favorite hymns, Great Is Thy Faithfulness:
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with thee.
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not;
As thou hast been thou forever wilt be.
God can make something out of nothing.
All of us start out as zeroes. I know we don't like that. We've come to think we're more than a zero. Now don't get me wrong: I'm not a nihilist. Nihilism speaks of nothingness. I believe that you may start out a zero, but creation was brought into existence by God, who worked beyond nothingness. Nihilo means nothing. Creational ex nihilo means that God created the world out of nothing. It means God came from nowhere because there was nowhere to come from, and God stood on nothing because there was nothing to stand on, and God took nothing and flung it out into the world and told it to stay there. God took a sun, put it in the sky, put nine planets in a merry-go-round system, and they haven't collided since the day of creation. God made the floating, fluffy, fleecy-white clouds. God carpeted the earth with green grass. God has given us everything that we see, but it started as nothing.
If God can start with nothing in nature, he can do the same with our lives. Some of us were rejects. Some of us were voted the most likely to fail in high school. God has taken some of us from the basement of being discarded and made something beautiful out of our lives. Don't sit there like you've always dressed that way. Don't sit there like you've always been on top. God has taken your miserable existence. God has taken your wrecked marriage. God has taken your diseased body. God has taken your nothingness and made something out of it. Therefore, we are not nihilists. We believe in a God who can make the impossible possible.
Paul lived a "whatever happens" kind of life, because he understood where he had come from. We see it in the first chapter of the letter written to the Philippians. Seven hundred and fifty land miles away, the apostle Paul writes a letter from a prison. In Philippians 1:1 he writes: "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus." In several of his other letters, Paul begins with, "Paul, the apostle;" a title prefaces his letter, but because the church in Philippi is his favorite church, he drops the title and writes "servant." Paul knew that testimonies were greater than titles. Pharaoh had a title, but Moses had a testimony. Elijah had a testimony, while Ahab, the king of the Northern Kingdom, had a title. Mary Magdalene only had a testimony, but Herodias had a title. God is not interested in your titles. Titles don't preach. I teach in a divinity school, but degrees don't preach. You can put them on a wall and they'll get yellow. But God will take somebody who is sold out for him—somebody who has no recognition, refinement, or polish—and establish that person, making them a great voice for God.
Paul continues in Philippians 1:1, saying, "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi." Paul says your permanent address is in Christ Jesus. Your varying zip code is in Philippi, Corinth, Thessalonica, Rome, or wherever it may be. Your zip code changes, but your address in Christ is permanent. Paul found that out in Acts 16:6-7, while on his second missionary journey with Timothy and Silas. The Bible says Paul came to Asia Minor and the Spirit of God said, "No." Instead of the great commission, Paul receives the great prohibition. Paul could have established a church there. He could have strengthened disciples there. He could have ordained elders there. But the Spirit said, "No." In Acts 16:7 Paul decides he wants to go to Bithynia, and instead of giving him the great commission to go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature, the Spirit of God gives him the great prohibition once again, saying, "No." His zip code kept changing! Finally Paul winds up in Troas. How do you handle Troas when you wanted Asia Minor and Bithynia? Troas is that little place on the other side of the road. Troas is the place that doesn't even have a drugstore in it. You're out in the boondocks and nowhere near a main highway. Nobody's going to know you there! But if you're going to get to Philippi and hear the Macedonian man say, "Come over and help us," you have to spend some time at Troas. You have to go to the backside of the desert to hear God speak from a burning bush. You have to be called away from a booming revival in Samaria to go to the Gaza strip where there's only one black man who's come from the Pentecostal revival and wants to start a church when he gets back to Ethiopia.
Some of us want Philippi, but we don't want to spend any time in Troas. If you're too big for Troas, God can't use you in Philippi. The greatest challenge we will face is God's opening one door that we must go through while other doors are more appealing or tempting. We could do good works in Asia Minor and Bithynia, but there's one door we must go through. The struggle is not between the good door and the bad door, but between the good door and the best door. God will close some doors—Bithynia and Asia Minor—to get you to pay attention to the right door. We keep singing "Order my steps in your Word, dear Lord," but sometimes God orders our stops. If only we could just get in rhythm with God and step where he says, "Step," and stop when he says, "Stop."
Your zip code changes, but your address is permanent. You may build cathedrals, large or small. You may build skyscrapers grand and tall. You may conquer all the failures in your past, but only what you do for Christ will last. [As we sing in the old hymn]: My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus' name. On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
We must live a life of exclamation, not interrogation.
Paul is living on the edge of whatever happens. Hear what he says in verse 12: "What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel." Paul is the optimal optimist. He is the quintessential enthusiast. He knows how to take a minus and make a plus out of it. You can have a minus by itself, but you can't have a plus without a minus. Paul knows how to take a horizontal situation that is negative and cross it with a vertical situation that's hopeful. His prison experience has advanced the gospel. "I'm not here as a political prisoner," he is saying. "I'm in chains for Christ. I'm here to bear witness for Christ. The palace guards are being converted because I'm here." In Philippians 4:22, Paul goes on to say: All the saints in Caesar's household say, "Hi." Paul had a knack for taking a prison and turning it into a pulpit. When the prison guards would come to give him food, to inquire about him, to take him out into the yard for a walk, they got saved. God uses us to further his Word wherever we are. He turns prisons into pulpits.
There's just something about a prison; God has used them greatly in history. John Bunyon wrote The Pilgrim's Progress from the Bedfordshire jail. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote letters to his inmates at the Flossenbürg jail. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from the Birmingham jail. Paul and Silas were in jail in Philippi ten years before the writing of this text, and the Bible says that at midnight they prayed and sang. Two thousand years before Elvis Presley was ever thought of, the jailhouse rocked, and they were set free. While reflecting on Daniel's time in the lions' den, William Augustus Jones once wrote: "Daniel was not in a lions' den. The lions were in Daniel's den."
We think that we're the captives, but we are not. We must stop letting the Devil walk all over us. God has given us the authority of the Word of God, and the Word of God is supreme in our church.
Howard Thurman, a black preacher, once showed how the Negro did something marvelous with Jeremiah 8:22. Jeremiah asks, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician?" Thurman explains that the Negro took that question mark without adding anything, straightened it out, and made it an exclamation point so as to lift it up as a spiritual: "There is a balm in Gilead that can make the wounded whole! There is a balm in Gilead that can heal the sin-sick soul!"
I must not live an existence of interrogation; I must live an existence of exclamation:
- Like Job, I have to say: I know that my Redeemer lives and at the latter day, he shall stand upon the earth. After the skin worms have devoured my body, yet in my flesh I shall see God.
- Like the apostle Paul, I have to say: I am persuaded that neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things past nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any other creation shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
I've got to stop living an interrogative existence, and I've got to live in the exclamation point of God.
The Holy Spirit choreographs our lives.
In Philippians 1:19, Paul goes on to say: I know that I will continue with your help … with your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
That word "help" in Greek is the word from which we get our English word "choreography." A choreographer is a person who arranges the set, the designs, and the routine of the dance. Paul is saying that God, through the Holy Spirit, has choreographed my existence. I'm not here accidentally. I'm not here coincidentally. I'm not even here incidentally. I'm here providentially. The divine choreographer has established my place, and that's why I can handle everything that comes my way. The Spirit of God is my choreographer.
The Holy Spirit has become the stepchild of the Trinity. We don't mind talking about God the Father; we don't mind talking about God the Son; but we don't want to talk about God the Holy Spirit. We are afraid of making it sound like God is three gods. God is not three gods. God is not three nouns. God is one noun and three adverbial phrases. God the noun is God our Father without skin; God the noun is God the Son—Jesus—with skin; God the noun—the same noun—is God the Holy Spirit who gets in our skin. I don't know how you feel about it, but you are a Spirit-filled Christian. I must say to God the Spirit, "Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me. Break me. Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me."
Paul says he knows he's going to continue with the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ—that what has happened to him will turn out for his deliverance. Paul knows that he has to live out what he had written to the Romans several years ago. It's much easier to write Romans 8:28 when you're not in Rome: "For he causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose." When Paul wrote that, he wasn't in Rome. But now, while in a Roman prison, does he still believe that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God?
I love cake, but I don't like the individual ingredients of cake. I don't sit down and eat tablespoons of salt, frosting, and vanilla flavoring, and I don't drink egg yolks. But when all of those things are mixed together and put into an oven, it comes out a cake. God takes all of these individual things that may be distasteful for you, but when he gets finished working, he causes them to work together for good, because you love God and you're called according to his purpose.
Paul says: Things are going to work out for my deliverance. I'm not sure if I'm going to stay with you or if I'm going to take a quick exit, but whatever happens is going to work out for my deliverance.
How long can you wait for deliverance? In the first two chapters of the Book of Job, God chooses Job to be picked on by the Devil. In chapters 3-37, then, God says absolutely nothing. How long can you wait for God to speak? Can you wait 35 chapters? Some of you are in chapter 30 right now. You've got 7 more chapters before a breakthrough in your marriage. Some of you have several more chapters before God is going to transform your church or bring you to the place that he's been trying to bring you to. God will speak in chapter 38, and when he speaks, you and I will sit down and shut up. Finally, when we open our mouths, we will repent, saying, "I've heard you with my ear, but now I've seen you face to face."
Life is lived forward and understood backward.
Finally, in Philippians 1:27, Paul says, "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." In verse 25, Paul says: I know I will continue with all of you in order that you might be strengthened in the joy of your faith. In verse 26, he says he will continue so that their joy may overflow in Christ on his account. But by verse 27, he's not sure. He says: Whatever happens—whether I stay here or not—live a life that honors the gospel.
Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish theologian, is right when he says, "Life has to be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward." There are some things that happen in our ministries and our lives and our families in which we do not see the hand of God. But if we live long enough and look far enough, we can see why God has done some things. Paul lived a "whatever happens" life not because he believed in fate, but because he knew that God works in mysterious ways. He performs wonders. He plants his footsteps on the sea and rides on every storm. You cannot demystify the mystery of God. You have to trust him and know that your life is in his hand.
Just as Jesus Christ lived a life of "whatever happens," so must we.
The apostle Paul lived a "whatever happens" life because he knew that there was one who also lived on the edge of whatever happened—his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I can see Jesus in the upper room, praying and singing. The Bible says that they went out to the Mount of Olives, still singing a hymn. In Gethsemane—three prayers prepared Jesus for whatever would happen. Each time he prayed, "Father, if it's possible, let this cup pass from me." The third time he prayed, "Not my will but Thine be done." It takes prayer to go from "let this cup pass" to "let Thy will be done." Jesus was then arrested outside of the gates of Gethsemane. There on the cross it took three hours for him to go from "My God, why?" to "Father, into Thy hands."
Three days passed between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. When Jesus died on Friday, it looked like the Devil had won the battle. The disciples were scattered, and some of them resigned to go back to fishing. Friday was a bleak, dark day for the believers. But if you just hang around beyond Saturday, you'll see that Sunday morning is coming. On Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead with all power in his hand. Three days passed from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection, and if you can just hold out until tomorrow—if you can just keep faith through the night—everything will be all right.
For 40 days after the Resurrection, Jesus stayed on the earth. Then he caught a cloud and rode back to glory to sit down at the right hand of his Father. There he still sits as a High Priest to make intercession for us. I don't know when he'll return—I don't have it checked on my calendar—but one of these days he's going to split the eastern sky to come and get us in the air, and we shall forever be with the Lord.
When I get to glory, I'm going to Blessing Boulevard. When I get to glory, I'm going to Hallelujah Square. When I get to glory, I'm going to Shouting Lane to give him praise for what he's done for me.
Down here I've had to live with the hitherto, but I'm moving from the hitherto to the henceforth—for henceforth there's laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me on that day. Down here I've had to live with "some more" negatives and sticky situations, but I'm moving from the "some more" to the "no more." Down here I have to live with some more darkness, but I'm going to a place where there's no more darkness, for he is the light of the city. Down here I have to live with some more death, but I'm going to a place of no more death, because he's the Resurrection and the Life. Down here I have to live with some more pain, but I'm going to a place where there's no more pain, for the leaves of the trees are good for the healing of the nations. Down here I have to live with some more tears, but I'm going to a place where my tears shall be wiped away.
When I bow, I'm going to bless his name: All hail the power of Jesus' name! Let angels prostrate fall; bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all!
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For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarzie".)
Robert Smith, Jr. serves as professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.