Pastor Craig Carter
In our current sermon series we are looking at how we can rise above the mundane in our relationship with the Lord by refusing to settle for a mediocre brand of Christianity. In doing so, we move from simply being good Christians to becoming great in God’s eyes.
The reason we aspire to greatness is not so much for our own sake as it is for God’s. By becoming great (as God defines it), we bring great glory to Him and are enabled to accomplish great things for Him.
So, over the last several weeks, we have explored some practices that great Christians have in common. We’ve discussed that great Christians think great thoughts, dream great dreams, pursue great people, enjoy great moments, pray great prayers, and leave a great legacy.
I think most of us would agree that to be a great Christian requires great faith…and that’s partly true. As followers of Jesus we are to live by faith and not by sight (see 2 Corinthians 5:7). And, according to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, without faith we cannot please the Lord and it was faith that made the ancient people of God great.
The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd…It’s impossible to please God apart from faith. And why? Because anyone who wants to approach God must believe both that he exists and that he cares enough to respond to those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:1-2, 6 MSG)
However, to think that we must possess great faith in order to become great in God’s eyes is a misunderstanding of the nature of faith. According to the Bible, faith is not so much a noun as it is a verb: Real faith is not what you have, it is what you do.
That’s why in the remainder of Hebrews 11, the author describes faith through the acts of various Old Testament personalities. Noah built an ark, Abram took his family and moved to a new place, Moses led his people out of slavery, the Israelites marched around Jericho for seven days and caused the walls to “come a-tumblin’ down.”
In every case, real faith was required because they were putting their hope in unseen promises given by an invisible God. There was no rain in sight when Noah started building the ark, Abram’s wife was well past child-bearing age when promised a son, Moses faced the imposing figure of the Egyptian pharaoh, and how much sense did it make for an army to walk around a walled city?
But nowhere is it said they had “great” faith; they simply lived by faith. When it comes to faith, you either have it or you don’t. It’s an act of trust.
The amount of faith doesn’t matter; but what does matter is the object. Great Christians have faith in a great God and trust Him completely.
That being said, in the cases cited by the writer of Hebrews, God’s people were forced to take dramatic steps of faith that helped them fulfill God’s purposes for their lives. The same holds true for every one of us who seeks to follow Jesus. At critical junctures, we are all given unique windows of opportunity that require us to exercise radical faith in order to move toward greatness in God’s eyes.
And since faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, there will always be some element of risk involved. That’s why my friend and mentor, Mark Nysewander, likes to say that you spell faith, R-I-S-K. As a matter of fact, he contends real faith doesn’t even begin until you act in a manner that puts you in big trouble if God doesn’t show up.
Throughout our Christian lives, God calls us to take bold steps of faith. These key decision points force us to decide whether to leap in the direction the Lord is leading us or pull back to a position that seems safe to us. True believers are willing to take the chance because great Christians take great risks due to their faith, or trust, in a great and mighty God.
Let me say assuredly, where there is no risk, there is no faith. And remember, without faith, real faith, it is impossible to please God.
So, unless we’re living by faith and taking great risks, our lives will not be very pleasing to the Lord and, as a result, we will forfeit God’s blessings and rewards. Here’s how Chip Ingram describes it in his book, From Good to Great in God’s Eyes: “Where there’s no risk, there’s no faith; where there’s no faith, there’s no power or joy or intimacy with God. There are also no supernatural miracles, no reward, and, ultimately, no pleasing God.” (p. 122)
Most of us are averse to taking great risks and like the familiar. It’s why some of us are still eating the same breakfast cereal we ate in 1969. But avoiding risk is really not an option in the Christian life. Christ is constantly calling us to make difficult choices in order to follow Him. It may be God leading us to give more of our hard-earned income to support His kingdom’s work or to be willing to go to counseling in order to save our marriage. Or, the Lord may direct us to change careers to leave an office environment that is ungodly and call us to serve in an unfamiliar area that makes us uncomfortable or even fearful.
These kind of decisions are never easy because they pit our feelings against our obedience. We know what God wants us to do, but we’re afraid to risk our comfort, convenience, or reputation.
But faith is doing what God tells us to do whether we feel like it or not. Great Christians are willing to take the risk because they want to be found faithful and enjoy God’s favor.
Since bungee-jumping, sky-diving, or other risky behavior doesn’t come naturally for most of us, are there any ways in which can learn to break out of our comfort zones and just go for it when God calls us to do so? Of course there are! By looking at the example of some great men and women described in Scripture, we learn how to become great risk-takers for the Lord.
We have faith in God and take great risks when we…
1) Refocus our fear
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is found in Numbers 13-14. The Israelites have journeyed from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula and stand on the threshold of the Promised Land. But before going up to occupy the territory, they send twelve spies to check out their new home. When they return, two reports are given. The majority of the spies (10) admit that the land does indeed flow with milk and honey and other abundant blessings, but they also contend that giants live there who make them look like mere “grasshoppers.” They are so afraid of proceeding that they suggest going back to slavery in Egypt as a viable alternative. On the other hand, two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, claim that while their foes are indeed formidable, the Israelites should remember that God is with them. They argue that with God’s help they will defeat the enemy and devour them like “bread.” Besides, what choice do they have – God has commanded them to go forward.
Do you see what was happening? Most of the people were afraid of going on as God directed them to do while at least two of them were willing to take the risk. Caleb and Joshua focused their attention on the Lord, while others concentrated on the enemy.
Guess who God was pleased with? It was Caleb and Joshua, because of their risk-taking faith. As a result, they were allowed to enter the Promised Land while the others, an entire generation, were forced by God to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.
Every new adventure brings with it a degree of uncertainty. So the natural reaction is fear. That’s why the most common words spoken by God and His angels to human beings is always, “Fear not…Do not be afraid.”
The question is: Who or what are we going to fear most? Are we afraid of other people – what they might do or what they may think? Or, are we more afraid of disobeying God and displeasing Him?
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather fear God than others. Let me give a few examples of how this principle might be applied. Some of you may have felt God calling you to get involved in one of our school ministries, but you have resisted because you are afraid of giving up your valuable time or you’re not comfortable working with kids, especially teenaged ones. My suggestion: Refocus your fear. Be afraid of disobeying God or be afraid of what might happen if a student doesn’t have someone to tell him/her about Jesus.
Or perhaps you have thought about increasing your giving to the church and even begin tithing (10%), but you’re not sure you’ll have enough left to pay the bills or you’re fearful that your spouse won’t agree with your decision. Refocus your fear. You don’t want to disappoint the Lord who graciously has given you everything you possess or forfeit the blessings of obedience.
Maybe you’ve felt led to share your faith with a friend or family member, but you’re afraid of what they may think of you or that you won’t know how to answer their questions. Refocus your fear. Remember that the Lord has given you direct order to be His witness; imagine what will happen if those persons were to die without knowing Jesus.
2) Rejuvenate our faith
The gospels end with a less than favorable portrait of Peter. On the night before Jesus’ death, Peter denies His friend and teacher three times. Then, following Christ’s crucifixion, he and the other disciples are found behind locked doors fearing for their very lives.
But the next time we see Peter – in Acts 2 – he’s an entirely different man. On the Day of Pentecost, he takes the message of Jesus to the streets, boldly proclaiming the gospel and going so far as to accusing his hearers of murder.
What caused Peter to take such an enormous risk – the risk of his own life? He had encountered the living presence of Christ and been filled with the Holy Spirit. As a result, Peter had his faith renewed and it was expressed in risk-taking behavior.
Something happens when we our faith is rejuvenated. When we experience the power and the presence of Christ, our fearfulness becomes fearlessness. We are inspired and motivated to follow Jesus – no matter where He leads us.
Sometimes our faith is jolted through a divine encounter (for instance, Saul). Sometimes we are reinvigorated by the testimony of another person. And sometimes it’s a little of both.
One of the greatest risks I ever took as a Christian occurred 33 years ago. After a short, but illustrious Air Force career (that’s half-right!), I felt God leading me to change course, go to seminary and become a pastor. Needless to say, that was a scary proposition – for me and more so for my wife Lee.
About a month before I was scheduled to resign from the Air Force to begin my theological education, Lee and I went on a mission trip to Costa Rica. There I met a man named Marion Woods who had been a life-long missionary to that country. As a matter of fact, even after retirement and being twice widowed, Marion returned to lead the Methodist movement there and remained in active ministry until his death in 2016 at the age of 97. Through his example and through some genuine encounters with the Lord, my faith in Christ was taken to a new level in June 1986.
Consequently, when the time came to move from Alabama to Kentucky, I was able to overcome my fears and take a risk that has paid wonderful benefits for me, my family, and hopefully this and the other congregations I have served as pastor.
One of the reasons we meet every Sunday morning is so that we might be renewed and refreshed by God’s Holy Spirit. These divine-human encounters, where we experience God’s presence in the presence of other believers, rejuvenate our faith and enable to go forth to live as great Christians who take great risks for the Lord.
God-inspired faith helps us to overcome our human feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty.
3) Recall God’s faithfulness
Throughout the Bible, God’s people are encouraged to remember what the Lord has done. A major portion of the Psalms involve the re-telling of God’s deeds throughout history. There are numerous references to the “The God of our fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” along with a variety of songs that describe God’s miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea or how He has proved faithful again and again. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is a refresher course about how God has worked in dramatic and even miraculous ways through His faithful people over the course of time.
When we recall what God has done in the past, our faith in what He will continue to do soars. That, in turn, becomes a firm foundation upon which we can build our lives.
Over the years, this congregation has trusted God and taken some rather large risks. Those risks include launching a new church in Lynn Haven a century ago, moving from 9th Street to Transmitter Road, and purchasing Renegade and turning it in to the Fusion Campus. Those events inspire us to face our current situation with faith and courage.
Because of God’s great faithfulness in the past, we are empowered to trust Him for even greater things in the present and in the future. When we then take the risks the Lord is calling us to take, we become actors in the story of God’s faithfulness that will birth faith in future generations.
It’s why I’m “glad” to be a part of post-Hurricane Michael Lynn Haven UMC. One day stories will be told about folks who worshiped four days after a Cat 5 hurricane in the parking lot, gave more than $10K to other hurricane victims while still suffering themselves, and recorded 150+ professions of faith without a building.
You and I get to be a part of God’s faithfulness that will motivate others to take great risks for the cause of Christ (including ourselves as we move forward).
Great Christians reap great rewards because they are willing to take great risks. They are able to do so by refocusing their fears, rejuvenating their faith, and recalling God’s faithfulness. Where is God is calling you to go and what is He calling you to do?
Let me ask you to consider one final image. I must confess that I am enamored by the game of poker. I don’t play (or gamble), but I occasionally watch poker tournaments on TV. The most thrilling moment in any poker match occurs when one of the players finds himself at a critical juncture, surveys his hand, weighs the odds, and then pushes all of his chips into the center of the table. It’s make or break time and so he announces, “I’m all in.” Is he taking a tremendous risk? You betcha, but he has faith in the hand he’s been dealt and so he holds nothing back.
Great Christians realize that all the chips they hold – family, possessions, friendships, career, reputation, future – are on the line. But they push it all in to the center of the table and trust in God because they know He is the ultimate winning hand. Are you willing to say, “I’m all in, Lord, I’m willing to risk it all for you”?
Great Christians who take great risks don’t just sing the words, they mean it when they say: “All to Jesus, I surrender, all to Him I freely give; I will ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live.” What we mean is, “I’m all in…everything I am and everything I have is yours.”
You see, we don’t have to have great faith to live great Christian lives. We just have to have faith in a great and mighty God and then be willing to take the risks involved to trust and obey Him no matter what.