This past Sunday we continued in our series, Being Useful. We’ve so far talked about faith and virtue and knowledge and self-control. Those are all great things, but living in a constant pursuit of those can eventually become exhausting. If we’re going to manage that tall order, there’s something else we’re going to need. Fortunately, this next thing is the next item on Peter’s list. Keep reading to find out what it is.
Keep at It
Have you ever wanted to give up? You pick the reason. Have you ever been at a point where you were seriously considering throwing up your hands and walking away from something? I think we all hit those places at one time or another in life. It could have been something as insignificant as a game. One of the lessons we are slowly teaching our boys is that you can’t quit just because you’re losing. Any other parents have to fight that particular battle before? Perhaps, though, your encounter with this particular wall was somewhat more significant. Maybe it was a class in school? It could have been a job when you didn’t already have another one lined up. Perhaps it was even a relationship.
Why do we do that? Why do we finally reach the place of giving up? Of throwing in the towel? Of flinging our hands in the air and walking away? While there are perhaps many surface reasons for it, at the root of the decision is always a feeling that our efforts aren’t going to make any difference. We become convinced somehow that we are throwing resources into a bottomless pit and it’s not worth our time, energy, or effort to continue down that particular path any further.
Okay, but why do we reach a place like that? Well, like with young children and board games, quitting when the odds seem longer than we’re willing to endure is a bit of a human trait. It’s natural. We don’t have to coach anyone in doing that. We are born with the ability to evaluate our circumstances and how favorable they are for us fairly quickly. And as a part of that ability, our fight or flight mechanism kicks over to flight pretty quickly if the odds seem very long. Sticking with something hard in spite of appearances takes a little more effort. The kick here, though, is that there are a whole lot of good things in this world that can only be experienced when we are willing to do just that. The sweet fruits of the life of Christ sit at the top of that particular list.
Well, this morning we are in the sixth part of our series, Being Useful. For the last six weeks we have been wrestling with this idea that we all want to live lives of significance. We all want to do something that matters. This goes for our lives generally, but it goes doubly for our relationship with Jesus. If you profess to be a follower of Jesus, you have a powerful motivation for making that profession more than just words. If it’s not more than that, the whole thing begins to look a bit suspect.
What has been our guide in understanding how we can achieve this mark of usefulness in our relationship with Jesus is something the apostle Peter wrote in his second letter to believers who were scattered all over what is now modern-day Turkey. He said right at the beginning of his letter that if we “possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep [us] from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What these words led us to conclude from the start is that if we are going to hit that mark of significance, it is going to come, not from the things we do, but from the person we are. In other words, with Jesus, significance comes from character, not achievement. What we have since spent our time unpacking is what exactly “these qualities” are that will allow us to be useful.
It all started with faith, which is simply a willingness to trust God so completely that we are willing to adjust our character in light of who He is. Doing this makes God happier than just about anything else. But, faith has to go beyond mere expression if it’s going to mean anything to God or in our lives. It has to be lived, and the way that happens is through our pursuit of virtue. Virtue is simply the sum total of the character of God reflected in our lives. But, we’re never going to be able to make the changes to our behavior a pursuit of virtue may require unless we first change our thinking. Virtuous living always comes out of virtuous thinking. Yet virtuous thinking itself requires us to have a certain base of knowledge, which was the third quality on Peter’s list. Knowing Jesus is a wholistic affair that impacts every single facet of our lives. If we are going to do it well, we are going to have to know some other stuff too. As we talked about last week, though, putting ourselves in the place knowing all of this other stuff is going to require will itself require us to say, “No,” to some things to which we might normally say, “yes,” given our druthers. That takes self-control. It takes staying on the right track in spite of a manifold of distractions to the contrary. This is rarely easy, but if we want to win the race of life, we have to stay on track.
This morning, as we keep building this picture of Christian usefulness, I want to focus in a bit on that last part. Self-control is tough. Growing in knowledge is tough. Pursuing a life of virtue can be really tough. Exercising faith on a daily basis is tough. None of these things are easy. They all require persistence over time if we are going to experience their fruits. There is a reason, in other words, that the next quality on Peter’s list is endurance.
Now, if we are going to talk about endurance, there are a couple of different angles from which we could approach it. We can talk about enduring through various trials as followers of Jesus, or we can talk about simply sticking with our faith over the long haul. Both ideas are important. But Peter’s not talking about trials here. He’s talking about being useful to Jesus through our endurance in following Him. The fact is, there are times the life of faith can feel a bit like a drag. We can begin to feel overwhelmed by it all and ready to throw in the towel. John the Baptist, the famous prophet and herald of Jesus Himself, while rotting in prison, waiting for Herod to end his life, sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask a very simple question: Are you the one, or should we look for another? John had committed his entire life to telling people that Jesus was the Messiah and look what it had gotten him. He was sitting in a Roman jail because a capricious ruler was upset that he criticized him for divorcing his first wife in order to marry his sister-in-law after his brother-in-law had been executed. Have you ever wanted to give up? John was ready to.
Or consider the story of Elijah. Elijah, though he occupies a fairly small place in terms of the narratives in the Bible, was on a prophetic pedestal shared only by Moses. He is most famous for calling down fire from heaven to demonstrate to the wayward people of Israel who the real God was. After this mountain-top experience of all mountain-top experiences, though, we find him on the run for his life and ready to quit all because the king’s wife had made clear her designs on his life. Have you ever wanted to give up? Elijah sure did.
We may have to endure through trials on occasion as followers of Jesus, but it’s the daily slog that can start to feel pretty long. And with this in mind, can I share some words from Paul with you? Like last week, these come from his first letter to the believers in ancient Corinth. These words, though, come right near the end of the letter. Let me just read these for you and then we’ll talk about them a little bit. You can find these in 1 Corinthians 15, where we will spend a lot of our time this morning. I’ll read just v. 58: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
Now, by itself, that’s a pretty good verse, isn’t it? That’s one that would make a good piece of framed art like you might find on a shelf at Hobby Lobby. I assure you, though, it is even better than that. Paul calls followers of Jesus to be steadfast and immovable. In other words, he wants us to hold our ground. When the tide of life rises against us, we are to stand firm. Jesus said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church. If we are standing fast as members of the church and not even the gates of Hell itself can beat us, what else on earth do we have to fear? The obvious answer is nothing.
But it’s not just to stand fast that Paul calls us. He calls us to do the Lord’s work. Actually, that’s not quite what he says, is it? He calls us to excel in the Lord’s work. We should do it to the absolute best of our ability. Everything we do for Him should be done with excellence of the highest order. We should make this our goal because we know that our labor in Him is not in vain. In other words, anything we do to advance His kingdom is worth the effort we put into it no matter how small it may seem. Amen, let’s pray and go home. Right?!? Again: That’s a great verse. It could be a life verse for someone.
Something Paul says there, though, gets me thinking. He says we know our labor in the Lord is not in vain. How do we know that? Do we just feel it? We know it’s not in vain because it feels good deep down in our feeler to do the Lord’s work. Is that it? I suspect some folks might try and argue that’s the case. If it was, though, I would say it’s time to do a pretty thorough reevaluation of Paul as the greatest intellectual giant of the church. Just like you know from being in a situation where you were sorely tempted to give up, if we’re going to press on in spite of pressure to the contrary, we’ve got to have more than mere feelings going for us. Feelings are powerful, to be sure, but they are also capricious. They change as quickly as shifting winds. One day we may feel one thing, but the next we may feel another. If we live at the mercy of our feelings, we’re setting ourselves up for a bumpy road.
No, there’s got to be more here. Fortunately, there is. If you noticed, there’s a little word right at the beginning of the verse that’s one of those easy-to-overlook words. It’s one we often skip over in order to get to the more important stuff. We do that, however, at our interpretive peril. The word Paul uses is “therefore.” Well, one of the basic rules of Biblical interpretation is that whenever we see the word “therefore” we need to go back and see what it’s there for. (Get it?) So then, what’s this therefore there for? In chapter 15 here, Paul pens what is perhaps the greatest and most important defense of the reality and theological importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is in light of this defense that Paul says we should endure.
Let’s look at this together for just a minute. Paul starts this out by offering some evidence for the resurrection. Given that Jesus was no longer on earth in bodily form by this time, Paul offered the strongest evidence he could: Eyewitness testimony. Jesus didn’t try to hide when He rose from the grave. He appeared to more than 500 people over the 40 days between the resurrection and the ascension, many of those all at the same time. What’s more, many of the eyewitnesses were still living when Paul was writing. He was basically inviting the Corinthian believers to go and check up on his story. They could ask any of these folks who they had seen the resurrected Christ and every single one of them, Paul was certain, would back up his claim. Jesus had indisputably risen from the grave.
Not only was this claim historically sound, but it was theologically crucial. Absent the resurrection of Jesus from the grave, the whole of the Christian faith falls apart. He ultimately concludes in v. 19: “If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.” In other words, if all we get out of a relationship with Jesus are some good outcomes in this life, the various challenges and frustrations of the Christian life are not worth it. Given that there were some folks in Paul’s day who were openly questioning the historical reliability and even importance of the resurrection, these words were intended to be a shot across their bow. It’s a pretty sobering observation. As clear as Paul’s point here seems to be, there are still even today some theologians who argue that a historical, bodily resurrection doesn’t really matter. It’s just the idea of Jesus rising from the dead that we need to inspire our lives. Paul says that’s total balderdash.
He goes on to explain a little further why Jesus’ resurrection matters so very much. You see, if Jesus rose from the dead, then that means there is life after death. That question which has haunted human minds and hearts since time immemorial has been answered. There is something that comes after this life. And for those who have committed themselves to following Jesus, they are going to receive the same something after this life that He did. In other words, we will be resurrected ourselves one day to a permanent body that we will enjoy with Jesus for all eternity. Or, as Paul puts it himself in v. 20: “But as it is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
This, friends, is why we endure. This is why we stick with the path of Christ even when the odds seem long and the load gets heavy. We endure because Jesus rose from the grave. We endure because we have been promised a reward of eternal life if we just keep going. We keep getting up day after day and loving the hard to love people in our lives because Jesus loved them and He defeated death. In fact, He died for them. We stay faithful to the life of Christ even when every fiber of our being is pushing us in another direction (along with every cultural voice around us) because on Sunday morning, the tomb was empty, and that same life will be ours if we will stay on track. We trust in God’s goodness and His good plans for us even in the face of death and disease in their most frightening forms because Jesus rose and defeated them once and for all. As long as that tomb stays empty, our hope is secure. As long as that tomb stays empty, we can press on in the faith with confidence because if Jesus rose, then we will too. If Jesus rose, then all our efforts to be like Him matter. They will ultimately be successful. As long as that tomb stays empty, we can pursue the Lord’s work—loving the least, last and lost; working for justice; serving those beleaguered by life; showing compassion to the wounded and hurting; bringing grace to the prisoners—with excellence because we are investing in a future that is secure. This is all the case because the tomb is empty. As long as it is, that’s not going to change. And, since Jesus is alive permanently with a new body that won’t ever wear out or break down, it’s never going to change. So keep at it, the tomb is still empty. Keep at it; the tomb is still empty.
Keep at it when sin threatens to throw you off course. Paul himself made clear this would be the case. I can’t read his reflections on the struggle with sin in Romans 7 without echoing a deep, “Amen,” in my soul. Do you know those powerful and powerfully true words? “For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate.” And a little later: “For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do. . .What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Do you know those woes as well?
Can we just be honest with each other for a minute: Sin is tough stuff to resist. Even under the best of circumstances it is a strain at times. There is that thing inside of us that yearns for what we know in our heads will bring death to our lives, often because we’ve experienced that death before because of it. This is that self-control thing we talked about last week. But even with good habits in place, self-control over time can wear on us. There are days when we quietly wonder what’s the point of resisting the same thing over and over and over again. Occasionally we don’t. Because the tomb is empty, though, we know that the path of righteousness is going to lead to life. So we stick with it. No matter how potent the Siren song of sin becomes, stick to the path of righteousness, endure in your faith played out through virtue, because the tomb is still empty. Keep at it; the tomb is still empty.
Keep at it when the consequences for following Jesus move from the realm of the hypothetical and boldly into reality. Our brothers and sisters around the world regularly face imprisonment, torture, “re-education,” and worse for publicly being identified as followers of Jesus. We haven’t faced much of that here, but there are a growing number in this nation who have experienced social and relational and economic consequences because of their willingness to stand firm on the life of Christ. These names don’t often make the evening news, but they are there: Jack Philips, Baronella Stutzman, Brendan Eich, Kelvin Cochrane, Aaron and Melissa Klein, Elaine Hugenin, and the list goes on from there. It was Peter who warned us about this kind of thing in his first letter. He said this: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed. If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”
In other words, keep at it. When the world rises up to slap you down because of your pursuit of the Christian life, keep at it. Jesus overcame death itself, what is a little economic or relational or social or even physical pressure compared with that? Jesus overcame death and is still alive to invite us to be a part of the same victory. So we keep at it. We keep standing up every time we get knocked down—and always with gentleness and humility—because Jesus did the same thing including from the grave. The still-empty tomb proclaims it to be true. Keep at it; the tomb is still empty.
Keep at it when the years are short, but the days are long. Keep at it when the alarm clock rings and you’re still tired. Keep at it when the kids never say, “Thank you,” for the work you do. Keep at it when she just won’t see the hard work you’re doing. Keep at it when he can’t ever quite manage to show his love in a way that really gets at your heart. Keep at it when the car is low on gas and the account is low on gas funds. Keep at it when classes are boring and there are plenty of digital distractions to flee the scene for a while. Keep at it when friends aren’t really friends and stab you in the back for the sake of advancing their own interests. Keep at it when the boss is breathing down your neck. Again. Keep at it when the projects seem to pile up faster than the hours on the clock do. Keep at it when your co-worker talks down to you. Again. Keep at it when it’s time to think of something to eat for dinner. Again. Keep at it when the kids are bouncing off the walls. Keep at it when you look around and realize you are missing out on time with people you may never seen again. Keep at it when your head hits the pillow and all the things you didn’t do during the day start coming to mind. Keep at it when you are desperate to make time for prayer and studying the Scriptures, but life seems to be finding ever more creative ways to keep you from it. Keep at it when you long for Jesus, but seem to always come up just a little bit short. Keep at it when the weight of righteousness wears heavier than usual. Keep at it. Keep at it. Keep at it; the tomb is still empty.
But still, some days are just hard, aren’t they? Some days we are so spiritually and emotionally and relationally and physically tired we can hardly lift our heads. We can barely stand in our faith; being steadfast is a thought we can hardly process. A feather would knock us down; being immovable is not something we can muster. The thought of doing the Lord’s work is almost repugnant to us because of the wounds we’ve received while pursuing it; excelling in it is not something in which we have any meaningful interest. We can say, “Keep at it; the tomb is still empty,” all we want, but all we can see is the stone that was blocking the entrance. What do we do on those days?
We do what Jesus told us to do: We go to Him. Do you know what He said? He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Aren’t there days when we just need rest? Our endurance is flagging, and we just need to be refreshed? Jesus will do that for us. And, when our burden gets too heavy to bear, He even offers to lighten our load. Look at what He said next: “Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” When you are exhausted from enduring, rest in Jesus. But—and this gets right at the heart of what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians—do you know why you can do that? Because the tomb is empty. Amen? So keep at it. Keep at it; the tomb is still empty. And when you do, the next item on Peter’s list will become possible—with His help—to accomplish. We’ll talk more about that next week.