Sermon 05-05-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 4”

John's handwritten original lyrics for "In My Life."
John’s original handwritten lyrics for “In My Life.”

In this sermon, I talk about the importance of God’s “Plan B” for our lives: When life doesn’t go according to our plans, God always has a Plan B for us. We may not always like Plan B, but if we have the courage to follow it, we can be confident that it will be good. 

Sermon Text: Acts 20:17-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

After nine seasons, one of my favorite shows, The Office, is coming to an end. If you’ve been watching it this season, then you know that branch manager Andy Bernard has been asking to be fired for months. Not literally, but through his complete incompetence, his negligence, his mismanagement. Somehow he’s survived without being fired. But on last Thursday’s episode, Andy literally asked to be fired. Repeatedly. You see, the premise of the show for the past nine years has been that a film crew from the local PBS station has been filming the people in the office in order to make a documentary. They’ve now completed their task, and in a couple of weeks, they’re going to broadcast it. For some reason, Andy is convinced that the documentary will make him famous, that he’ll be a big star, that the viewers will love him. Andy is convinced that he’ll make it in show business if commits himself wholeheartedly to the task—which means hiring an agent, taking acting lessons, pounding the pavement day after day in pursuit of his dream.

What’s holding him back, he believes, is his day job. As long as he has the security of his well-paying and respectable branch manager job, he won’t be motivated enough—hungry enough, desperate enough—to pursue his dream. But he can’t just quit his job and pursue his dream. Because everyone at Dunder-Mifflin is so nice, so patient, so forgiving—including the company owner David Wallace—that if his dream doesn’t work out, they’d probably just rehire him when he comes crawling back to them.

So on last week’s episode, he wants to make sure that Dunder-Mifflin is never tempted to hire him back. So he attempts to do a series of outrageous things—which I can’t describe in a family-friendly sermon—to make sure that the company never hires him back. He’s burning his bridges, as they say.

Erin is worried about Andy becoming homeless and starving.

Look… Everyone in the office knows Andy is making a terrible mistake. He’s in his late-30s. He’s not particularly good looking. He hasn’t saved any money to live on while he pursues his dream. As Phyllis says, “Andy sings beautifully. He’s really good at dancing. He’s a good speaker. But there’s just something there you don’t want to look at.” No… Everyone knows that he’s not going to make it in showbiz. Everyone tells him that he’s not going to make it in showbiz—including Erin the receptionist, his former girlfriend, who says that she’s afraid he’ll end up homeless and starve. I think we can all agree that what Andy is doing is crazy.

Now, suppose—hypothetically—God were telling Andy that he needed to quit his day job and pursue this new career. Would it be crazy then?

I know… We can’t even entertain the possibility that God would be calling Andy to do this. There’s a difference between taking a bold step of faith and being reckless. Surely if God were calling him to do this, it wouldn’t be quite so messy. And I mostly agree!

But… consider for a moment what God called the apostle Paul to do and to endure. Paul describes some of these things in 2 Corinthians 11: He was beaten many times on many occasions. He was stoned and left for dead. He was imprisoned many times. He was shipwrecked. He was lost at sea. He was left hungry and thirsty without food. He was left cold and naked. His life was threatened many times by many different people. Even in today’s scripture, Paul says that he has no idea what’s going to happen to him when he gets to Jerusalem, except that prison and hardship await him. Ultimately, he was even executed in Rome. What Andy Bernard was doing may seem crazy, but—objectively speaking—does it seem as crazy as what Paul does for the sake of his calling?

Here’s an uncomfortable thought: While none of us is called to repeat what Paul did, all of us Christians are equally called by God to do something—not just those of us who get to stand up here and preach each week, but all of us. We all have an important role to play in bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. We are all supposed to live our lives on a mission from God.

Now, I grew up Southern Baptist, and that church tradition famously emphasizes the importance of “doing God’s will” for an individual believer’s life. I would often hear testimonies on church retreats and youth camps from people who talked about “being in God’s will” or being “out of God’s will.” Some would speak of missing God’s will altogether. Needless to say, if you were “out of God’s will,” bad things would happen until you got back into God’s will.

One theologian I admire, Roger Olson, grew up in a different-yet-similar Pentecostal tradition that spoke about God’s will in the same way. “God’s will,” he says, was a single, inflexible blueprint. You had to discern what it was for your life and follow it. If you didn’t, you would be in trouble.

He remembers hearing a testimonies from a “a sweet little older lady” at his church who often testified about how “cursed her life had been because she didn’t follow God’s will for her life.” Olson writes, “That struck terror in my heart… I formed the impression, as do many young Christians, that God has a blueprint plan for my life and that it’s my job to find out what it is and follow it—to construct my life according to it. Where to go to college was one big issue for me. Whom to marry—another major issue. What profession to pursue. What job to seek and which job offer to take.” Olson said that by all means, God led him in those areas, but, he said, “not according to an inflexible blueprint such that any deviation from it brought only misery and a cursed life.”

Is there a better, truer, more biblical alternative to understanding God’s will for our lives? Yes. Olson puts it like this: “God has a general will for every believer’s life and, when God does want a believer to do something, he tells them, they don’t have to struggle to find it out, and even if they disobey, God always has a ‘Plan B.’”

Even if they disobey, God always has a “Plan B.” I love that—because it leaves room for God’s all-sufficient grace.

I hinted at this in last week’s sermon on marriage. If your marriage isn’t working out the way you planned it, and you’re struggling, and you’re considering divorce. Please leave room God’s grace! God may show you a Plan B for your marriage that you never imagined. Or if you’ve been married for a while, and you’ve become convinced—based on good evidence—that the person you married is the “wrong” person, please leave room for God’s grace. God may yet be able to do something with your Plan B spouse. You never know! And I’m speaking as a Plan B husband, so I know what I’m talking about!

Listen: I hate divorce, and I believe the divorce rate among Christians, especially, is tragic. Divorce should only be a gracious option of last resort. But even if you’re divorced, please make no mistake: God has a Plan B for your life. Thank God that he always has a Plan B. God’s Plan B may not be what we planned, but it can still be great if only we’ll only follow it.

But you may ask, “If we unfaithful and sinful human beings keep changing plans on God—often working against his will, often disobeying him, often failing to go where he wants to lead us—how does God keep steering us back on course?” Well, maybe it’s like this: Imagine chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov playing a third-grade novice in chess. No matter what move the third-grader makes, Kasparov would be able to foresee each of the moves that he would have to make in order to counteract that move and win the game. The child is free to do whatever he wants, and Kasparov’s plan will still be successful.

deep_and_wide_coverIn Andy Stanley’s most recent book, Deep & Wide, he says that his Plan A wasn’t to become the pastor of one of the largest and most influential churches in the world—a church that would serve as a model for reaching unchurched people in our post-modern culture. In fact, he never planned on being a pastor at all. He planned on getting a Ph.D. in theology at Baylor University and becoming a professor. Only, to his surprise, Baylor turned down his application. When his Plan A fell through and he needed money for rent and gas, the youth ministry job opened up at his dad’s church. Plan B. Even then, he planned on doing it on an interim basis. But that soon became permanent. Plan C. Then he never planned on becoming a pastor. Then he never planned on leaving his dad’s church. Then he never planned on starting Northpoint… But you see, he kept following God’s Plan B—or maybe Plan C or D or E!

One lesson here is that our Plan A never works out. Do you think all the suffering that Paul endured in his ministry was what he planned—even after he became a Christian missionary? I’m sure he couldn’t have imagined all the trouble he would face. That’s Plan B!

I’ve heard plenty of testimonies from fellow Methodist clergy—second-career clergy like me who enter the ministry after working out in the “real world” for a while. They often say that they spent years resisting God’s call into professional ministry. They knew God was calling them to do it, but they kept saying “no.” Personally, I’m not aware of resisting God’s call. When I first began sensing the call around 2001, I immediately took steps to follow it.

But on this day in which our church celebrates high school seniors who will soon graduate and begin a new chapter in their lives, I want young people, especially, to hear me: When I was 17 or 18-years-old, I made a big mistake when I thought about my future and what I would do with it. See, although I was a Christian, I didn’t give enough thought and prayer to what God wanted me to do with my life. And I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do it anyway. On this most important decision about college and career, I caved into pressure from my parents who convinced me that what mattered most wasn’t seeking and then following God’s will for my life but pursuing a degree at a reputable school that would enable me to secure a well-paying job.

Looking back, I imagine that my parents were a little suspicious, even then, that I would want to go to seminary and become a minister. I was already very much into churchgoing and Bible study, and my enthusiasm made them uncomfortable.

But I don’t want to be too hard on my parents. They just didn’t want me to pull an Andy Bernard and do anything crazy! They just wanted me to be a financially secure, independent, and productive citizen—who wouldn’t end up moving into their basement some day! Who can blame them? Besides, they are hardly alone in their fears. For many years, United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon was a chaplain at Duke University. He said that every year he would receive calls from anxious parents who were fearful about decisions that their Methodist sons or daughters were making. They would never call and say things like, “‘I’m worried that Susan is sleeping with her boyfriend,’ or ‘I’m worried that Steve is drinking and partying too much.’” No, he said. They would call and say things like, “Here we are, paying good money to send our children to this prestigious university so they can get a good job, and we find out that they now want to go dig wells in Africa with the Catholics! What are you teaching them there?”

I hope that what he was teaching them was the same thing that the apostle Paul was teaching the elders in the Ephesian church in today’s scripture: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.”

Paul’s not saying that his life is worthless, as if he were suicidal and it doesn’t matter whether he lives or dies. On the contrary! As Paul goes on to say in verse 28, our lives are so valuable to God that he purchased them through the blood of his Son Jesus. No, what he’s saying is that our lives no longer belong to us to do with as we please. They belong to God. Our future no longer belongs to us; it belongs to God. To put it as bluntly as possible, God owns us, and God gets to say what we do and where we go. That’s the deal when we accept Jesus as both Savior and Lord.

What matters to Paul, therefore, is not his personal comfort or security or safety—not to mention his personal preferences: what matters to Paul is being faithful to the One who loved him enough to die on a cross in order to save him from death and hell.

Paul chooses to be faithful. Even if or when faithfulness to God means we don’t get what we want.

Speaking of which, I would be lying if I said that the prospect of leaving you on June 16 doesn’t break my heart. I know up here, intellectually, that I’m ready to lead a church on my own, that it’s good for my career, and that the Lord has some important work for me to do down in Hampton, Georgia, but I haven’t convinced my heart just yet.

I love Vinebranch, I love you, and I’ve loved ministering with you for these past six years. You must know that “I’ll never lose affection for people and things that went before…” “I know I’ll never lose affection” for you. “I’ll never lose affection” for the love that you’ve shown me, for the things that you’ve taught me, for the grace you’ve extended to me, for the opportunities you’ve given me, all of which God has graciously used to shape me into the pastor that I am. It’s funny: Wayne Ledbetter, our church administrator, stopped me in the parking lot last Thursday morning and congratulated me on what he knows will be a great opportunity. He said, “You’ve certainly given us six great years of ministry here.” I was thinking, “Well, maybe four great years… I had so much to learn when I got here. I still do.” So I’ll never lose affection for you—for your love, your prayers, your patience, and your forgiveness. I love you… and nothing changes that. But I love God more. And this move is the difficult sort of thing that I have to do because I love God more.

My goal is to finish the race and complete the task that the Lord Jesus has given me. My prayer is that that will be your goal, too. If it is, I believe—with all the faith that I can muster—that Jesus has something really good in store for you and me.

I do believe that if we’ll only be faithful to the Lord, no matter what it costs us, our lives will get better all the time.

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