Preparing for Vision (Nehemiah 1:5-11)

Take out your outlines. We're studying the book of Nehemiah. We're looking at how to live a life of vision...how to make sure that your life is significant and purposeful. Last week we talked about the importance of having a vision. Nobody wants to get to the end of life and realize, "I've wasted my life. I've missed God's purpose for my life." We also defined a vision as a divinely given picture of what could be and should be. Jonathan Swift says, "Vision is the art of seeing things invisible."

We also looked at how God gives a vision to us: vision begins as a concern. It begins as a concern that God gives you, and it grows to the point where you have to do something about it. I hope that you've spent some time this week thinking about vision. I hope that you've spent some time thinking about the concerns and the vision that God is developing in your heart.

One of the problems when we begin to look at vision is that reality takes over. We look at what could be and should be, and then we look at what is and shouldn't be. Many people have great vision, but their current situations seem hopeless. You don't have the flexibility to pursue your new business idea. Everybody says that you need more experience. Your family responsibilities don't leave you with any free time. You're in the wrong location. You've got debts to pay. There are all sorts of obstacles between your present situation and God's vision.

A vision from God can seem like an impossible dream. In fact, if it doesn't seem like an impossible dream, it may not be a vision from God. It may be a good idea, but it likely isn't a God idea.

The same can be true for the church. This fall, we're following this process called Refocusing. We all get to play a part in hearing God's voice in terms of our future direction as a church. One of the obstacles we're going to face is that the vision may seem out of reach.

Certainly it was that way for Nehemiah. Nehemiah was 800 miles away from Jerusalem when he developed a concern for the broken down walls. That's the distance between here and Tennessee - at about four miles per hour. He had a job. He had obligations to the king of the biggest world power at the time. He lacked the resources to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem.

What do you do when you have the vision but not much more? How do you move from what currently exists to what could be and should be? What steps can you take once you begin to sense God birthing a vision in your life? We're going to look at Nehemiah to discover how we can prepare for vision.

There are two verses that we probably skip over - these verses are the first verses in chapters 1 and 2. These two verses give two important dates. Nehemiah 1:1 gives the date that Nehemiah first heard about the walls in Jerusalem being broken down. Scholars have studied that verse and figured out that the date was probably about November or December of 446 BCE. Nehemiah 2:1 gives us the first date that Nehemiah did anything about the vision that God gave him. Scholars have studied that and determined that this took place around April or May 445 BCE. For four months, Nehemiah did nothing. Here's the point. This is the second building block that we need to learn about vision. The first building block, last week, was that vision begins as a concern. The second building block is this:

BUILDING BLOCK TWO: VISION TAKES TIME TO GROW

Another way to say this is: God's not in as big a rush as we are. The longer I live, the more I find out that God's a lot more patient than I am. When God wants to build a vision, God often takes time to plant and nurture that vision in a person's heart. A vision doesn't necessarily require immediate action. Vision takes time to grow.

I'm not a patient person. When I decided to become a pastor, I chose the shortest and most direct route to get through school. When my wife and I got engaged, we picked a wedding date that was just short of four months away. When I came to Richview three years ago, people would ask me how things were going. I would say things like, "Good, I think, but it's been two months and we're still not where I'd hoped we'd be." I can be a very impatient person.

I'm not alone. A lot of people in the Bible had the right vision but the wrong timing. Joseph had a vision, literally. He would be in a position of authority over his family. He told his family, and it almost killed him. Good vision; wrong timing.

Moses had a vision of rescuing Israel from Egypt. He took things into his own hands, and killed an Egyptian. This led to forty years of exile. His vision was good: his timing was off. The problem is that vision takes time to grow.

You can't run off and turn your vision into reality. You can't assume that all systems are go, that you can quit your job and step out on faith. A clear vision isn't necessarily a green light. A vision rarely requires immediate action. It always requires patience.

Dan Southerland writes, "The difference in a home run and a long foul ball is timing." Timing is everything. Dan Southerland goes on to define God's will like this: "doing the right thing, in the right way, for the motive, at the right time." You can have everything lined up - the right thing, the right way, and the right motive - but if you have the wrong timing, you'll be off. There's no shortcut to vision. Vision is usually given to those who patiently wait for it.

What was God doing while Nehemiah waited? Why did Nehemiah wait that four month period before he took any action? Because in the waiting period between vision and action, God is doing three important things:

1. GOD MATURES THE VISION IN US

Nehemiah 1:4 says, "When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven." God gave Nehemiah the concern. But Nehemiah wasn't ready to do anything about it yet. In fact, all he could do for days was to mourn, fast, and pray. Nehemiah would have been foolish to get on an animal and begin the long ride to Jerusalem right away. He wasn't ready yet. God had to mature the vision within Nehemiah's heart. The vision had to grow before he could do anything about it.

A vision is like a seed. It takes time to take root, and to grow. God determines the schedule for how that vision matures and grows. That schedule is going to be different for all of us.

When I was a kid, God put a vision on my heart to pastor and to write. I had this vision when I was six or seven. God began to mature that vision in my heart at a very early age. I talk to others who didn't have a clue what their vision was for years. That's okay too. God's schedule is different for all of us. The current president of World Vision was a successful businessman, was president of Lenox China until his fifties. It took that long for God to begin to plant a new dream in his heart. You could be six or seven, or you could be eighty. God has his own timetable for maturing the vision within your heart.

One example of that is Lois McMurray. She retired a couple years ago from the board of education. She's now teaching conversational English here at the church. Last Sunday night, Ed asked her to speak for five minutes on what she's doing in that ministry. Twenty minutes later she was still speaking. Do you think she was excited about something? God has matured a vision in her heart in her retirement. God's timetable is different for all of us.

Here's the thing about vision: vision is a very delicate thing in its infancy. If you move on the vision too soon, you end up killing the vision. Andy Stanley writes, "For vision to survive, it must be mature and healthy before being exposed to the cynical, critical, stubborn environment in which it is expected to survive. And maturity requires time."

Vision takes time to mature. In fact, one of the ways that we know that a vision is from God is if the vision persists long enough for it to come to maturity. You could be inspired one day. You could hear a speaker talk and paint a picture. You're ready to sign on and dedicate the rest of your life to something. But two days later you've forgotten about it. Time allows us to discern between our ideas and God's ideas. God uses time to mature the vision within us.

God is doing something else during the waiting period:

2. GOD MATURES US IN PREPARATION FOR THE VISION

God doesn't just mature the vision - God has to mature us in preparation for the vision. God has to grow us to be ready to carry out the vision. God is at work to make us ready for him to use us.

I told you that I was six or seven when I knew that I would pastor and write. I was the only one who thought I was ready at that age. It was obvious to everyone else that there would be a waiting period for me to mature first. Your case may not be as dramatic, but God will take time to mature you first. God is at work preparing you for what he wants to accomplish through you.

That's why Moses spent forty years being matured before he could lead Israel to the promised land. That must have seemed like wasted time, but it wasn't. God was busy preparing Moses for what he wanted to accomplish through him. That's why the apostle Paul spent three years in Arabia before he began his ministry. Waiting time isn't wasted time. God has to mature us in preparation for the vision.

Nehemiah got off easy. He only had to wait four months. If you fit into the biblical pattern, God will take anywhere between four months and forty years to mature you in preparation for that vision. Don't forget one thing while you wait. Paul says in Philippians 1:6: "And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again." God is at work maturing you, and God will continue that work in your soul.

God is doing a third work during the waiting period:

3. GOD PREPARES PEOPLE AND CIRCUMSTANCES FOR THE VISION

While we're waiting, God is behind the scenes preparing the way. When God wants to accomplish something, he has a way of putting the right people in the right circumstances. It may seem like nothing is happening, when in fact God is at work putting the right people in the right places to do what he wants them to do.

My favorite example of this is in the Bible book called Esther. The story of Esther took place about thirty years before Nehemiah became concerned about the walls of Jerusalem, and it took place in the same location. Somebody hatched a plot to kill all the Jews. At the same time, the king decided to search for a new wife. He sent out a decree to bring all the beautiful women of the country into his harem. The one that he liked the best would become his knew queen.

Esther became that queen. God put her in the right place at the right time so she could prevent a catastrophe from taking place. Esther's cousin said to her, "What's more, who can say but that you have been elevated to the palace for just such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14). Circumstances aren't a result of an accident, but of God's sovereign design. God is at work in history, and we're a part of it. He's arranging us and others to carry out his vision at his time. It's ultimately not about our vision. It's ultimately about God's vision - what God is doing. We get to be part of that.

Whenever I get impatient, I remind myself of Habakkuk 2:3: "But these things I plan won't happen right away. Slowly, steadily, surely, the time approaches when the vision will be fulfilled. If it seems slow, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed." Some of us need to write that down and tape it on our mirror so we see it every morning. It may seem slow, but God is at work. We have to wait for his timing.

Another verse that helps me when I'm impatient is Isaiah 40:31: "But those who wait on the LORD will find new strength. They will fly high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint." Waiting on God means that we patiently depend on him to fulfil his promises and strengthen us. We can wait on God to mature the vision that he's given us, to mature us, and to arrange circumstances and people to carry out the vision that he has. Waiting time isn't wasted time.

We're going to see in a few weeks that the time does come for us to act on vision. But you may be in a waiting period right now. God has given you a desire or a calling. You know what you should be doing, but you haven't yet found that next step. You may not be aware of what you should be doing next. Or maybe you do know the next step, but there's no green light. You're not ready. The circumstances aren't ready. What should you do while you wait? Nehemiah teaches us to do two things while we wait:

1. PRAY

I love it. That's the first action that Nehemiah took after God gave him the vision. He prayed. Prayer is crucial to living out God's vision. If you have a vision that hasn't been prayed over, at great length, then you don't have God's vision. Prayer is essential to living out God's vision for our lives.

When you become concerned about something, pray about it. Ask God to show you his heart about the situation. Ask God to give you his eyes. The Bible says that God's thoughts are better than my thoughts, and his ways are better than my ways. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be thinking God's thoughts than my thoughts on any situation. I'd rather be living out God's vision than my vision. I have no right to live out my own vision. One of the best ways to begin to live out God's vision is to talk to God in prayer.

Nehemiah's prayer is a great one to study. Nehemiah began by recognizing God's holiness. He asked God to hear him. He confessed his sin. And then he asked for help. Nehemiah prayed to God, "O LORD, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success now as I go to ask the king for a great favor. Put it into his heart to be kind to me" (Nehemiah 1:11). Nehemiah knew that if he was going to be successful, he would need God. Nehemiah prayed. I imagine that Nehemiah spent a lot of time during those four months praying that God would provide him with the right opportunity to talk to the king.

The relationship between vision and prayer is a crucial one. Jesus said in John 15, "Apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). If you're not depending on God, then your vision is dead on arrival. It's the same with the church. If we go through this Refocusing process, and we're not praying to God at every step of the path, then we may as well not bother. Prayer is an essential component of preparing for vision.

What are you trusting God to do? What is so big that if God doesn't show his power, it won't happen? Start to pray. Pray that God would use you. Pray that God would bring glory to himself. Pray that God would remove the obstacles, and that you would be able to play a part in helping God create what could be and should be.

Nehemiah took a second action while he waited:

2. PLAN

Nehemiah's second action was to plan. How do we know this? Because God eventually gave him a chance to speak to the king. In Nehemiah 2, which we'll look at in a couple of weeks, you see that Nehemiah was ready to tell the king exactly what he had in mind. He defined the problem and the solution. Nehemiah had spent the waiting time formulating a plan of action.

The praying and the planning went together. This wasn't Nehemiah acting and scheming on his own. While we're waiting, we can begin to ask God to show us what he wants to do. We can begin to do our homework. Without a plan, and without a lot of prayer, we won't be ready when the opportunity comes.

I don't know what God is doing in your life right now. I do know two things. I know first of all that you're here for a reason. You're here this morning for a purpose. You're here because God wants to accomplish something in your life for his glory. It's not about you. You benefit, but you're part of something much bigger. You're part of what God is doing in this world.

I also know that you and I have a choice. We can hear God's calling on our life. We can begin to sense that concern - what people used to call a burden. Others have called it a calling. We can begin to see through God's eyes what could and should be, in our lives, in our families, in our church, in our relationships. We can begin to sense what God wants to accomplish through us.

You may be in that waiting period right now. You may be growing impatient because it seems so long. Don't give up. Waiting time is never wasted time. Wait for God to mature the vision in your heart.

I want to give you three action items today. The first action item is this: if you haven't given your life to God, to live according to his agenda, then you're wasting your life. You could be living out God's vision for your life. Instead, you've got your own measly agenda. I'd like to ask you to trade up today. Start living for something that's better. Start living God's dreams for your life. You can come to God today and thank him for his Son Jesus, who died to give you a second chance. You can start living for him today, and live a much more purposeful life. That's the first action item I'd like you to take.

The second action I want you to take is to pray. If God has given you a vision, begin to ask God to work to make it come true. Pour out your heart to God. Include him in your plans. Ask God to give you success. Without God, your plans are useless.

The third action I'd like you to make is to plan. What steps could you prepare to take that would help you live out God's vision for your life? Because when the time comes for God to act through us, we can be ready. Pray for opportunities and plan as if you expect God to answer your prayers.

Let's pray right now.

Father, thank you for Nehemiah. Thank you that two thousand years after he lived, we're learning lessons on how we can be used to carry out your vision. Thank you that we can have a part in what you're doing in this world.

Father, we want to trade up our dreams for your dreams. We want to partner with you in accomplishing what you're up to in this world. I pray that somebody here would pray today, "Father, I'm giving my life to you. Forgive my sins. As I make you my boss, my CEO, I pray that you would use me and make my life count." I pray that somebody would give their life to you today.

I pray most of all that you would bring glory to yourself through our lives, and what you're calling us to accomplish through you. I pray this all in the name of the one who lived out the vision you gave him perfectly, the name of our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ. In his name I pray, Amen.

How to Live a Life of Vision (Nehemiah 1:1-4)

Good morning! Take out your outlines. We're starting a new series today called "Something Worth Living For." I'm excited about this series because we're going to learn some practical lessons on how we can live more purposeful and significant lives. Today we're going to look at how to live a life of vision.

Buried deep within our souls is a desire to live a life of vision and significance. I don't know anyone who doesn't feel a need to live for a higher purpose or calling. Welch poet David Whyte wrote: "I don't want to have written on my tombstone, when finally people struggle through the weeds, pull back the moss, and read the inscription there: 'He made his car payments.'" We were made for more than that. We were designed to live lives of purpose.

As I look around, I sense that a lot of us don't feel like we're living that life. I talk to people all the time who feel like they're in the wrong job. They feel trapped inside circumstances that they wouldn't have chosen. Their dreams have been crushed. I wonder how many times you have asked yourself the question "Is this all there is?" You were designed to live for a higher purpose. There's more to your life than the day to day.

A vision isn't something magical. It's not something for special people. It's for every one of us. What is a vision? A vision is a divinely given picture of what could be and should be. It's a picture. Vision is a preferred future. Vision always stands against what actually exists. It's something that both can be done and should be done.

There are two reasons why we need to learn how to live a life of vision:

1. VISION FULFILLS MY PURPOSE

It's God's design that you live a life of vision. This isn't some self-help pop-psychology. It's God's design. When God planned you, before you were ever born, it was God's intention that you would be you. You're unique. You were designed to live a life of vision.

Read with me Ephesians 2:10: "For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." You know what this verse teaches us? You are a product of God's vision. You are God's workmanship - his masterpiece. Long ago, before you were born, God envisioned you. He made you. You are a product of God's vision, and God has a vision and a purpose for your life.

In Jeremiah 1:5, God said to Jeremiah: "I knew you before I formed you in your mother's womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world." Before you were ever born, God knew you. God formed you to be exactly the way you are. You didn't choose your parents, but God did. Out of all the ages of time, God determined the day that you would be born. He custom-designed your DNA. God has a purpose for your life. You were designed to live a life of vision.

God has made you unique. There is nobody else like you. There never has been, and there never will be. It's ironic that we spend so much time trying to be like other people. God doesn't want you to be like anyone else. He's made you an original. There is nobody else with your set of strengths, nobody else with your personality. If you're not you, who will be you? Who else is going to make the contribution that only you can make? Whenever someone says that you're a character, you should thank them. You were designed to be a character. If you're not a real character, you're missing out. You're not living out the purpose that God intended for your life.

In fact, we have no right to live visionless lives. You have no right to go through life without asking, "Am I accomplishing the purpose for which God made me?" Missing out on God's plans for your life must be one of the greatest tragedies this side of eternity. Vision fulfills the purpose for which God has made me.

There's a second reason why we should learn how to live a life of vision:

2. VISION PROVIDES MOTIVATION

We're going to see this today. You're motivated by vision. Proverbs 13:12 says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true, there is life and joy." I love that verse. When dreams come true, there is life and joy. Show me somebody who's unmotivated, and who's heartsick and I'll show you a broken vision. Show me someone who's alive and joyful, and I'll show you someone who's living a life of vision.

A clear vision, and the courage to follow that vision, dramatically increases your chances of getting to the end of your life and saying, "I did it. I succeeded. I finished well. My life counted."

Without a clear vision, you'll probably get to the end of your life and wonder. You won't know whether you've really made a contribution or not. You'll wonder whether your life really mattered.

It's the difference between filling bags with dirt and building a dike in order to save a town. Both jobs involve dirt. But jobs are unglamorous. But vision takes your activities and elevates them. Vision brings your world into focus. A clear vision enables you to see everything differently.

Years ago, I got interested in this girl. I lived in Scarborough, and she lived in Newmarket. I would think nothing of finishing school, taking a bus, taking a subway, connecting with another bus, and then finally getting to a bus station, almost two hours away, and waiting another half an hour for someone to pick me up. You couldn't pay me to do that today. I don't have to - that girl now lives in my house. I'm married to her. But back then I willingly endured the drudgery of a long trip on public transit, because I had a vision of what I wanted that relationship to look like.

Think back to when you were really motivated to go to incredible lengths to realize a dream. You may have stayed up all night. Even the most lifeless, meaningless tasks become meaningful because of your vision. When you have a vision, even the mundane begins to matter.

One of the greatest tragedies of life is that so many people live without ever living out God's vision for their lives. They get discouraged, distracted. They start to live their lives driven by money, by convenience, by other people's opinions. They live their lives by default. They don't live their lives driven by God's vision of what could be and should be.

We're going to spend the next few weeks assembling some building blocks that we can use to make sure that we don't get to the end of our lives and say, "I missed it. I didn't discover God's vision for my life. I just existed. I just got by." Andy Stanley wrote, "Everybody ends up somewhere in life. A few people end up somewhere on purpose. Those are the ones with vision."

Yesterday, about 15 people took a course called Personal Refocusing. It's a process that helps you discover and live God's purpose for your life. Next month we're running another session of Personal Refocusing, and if you haven't taken it yet, I'd really encourage you to sign up.

We're going to be going through the same process as a church. We're calling this part of the process Church Refocusing. We're going to be asking, "What's God's vision for Richview? What does God want us to become?" The exciting part is that you will have a part in helping discern God's voice. You may be a teenager, you may be a senior. You may have been here two months; you may have been here forty years. We all get to play. We all get to participate. We all get to discern God's vision for our future.

People and churches with vision are able to accomplish a lot more. They're able to accomplish God's purpose. A good example of that is a man named Nehemiah. If you don't know the story of Nehemiah, it's one of the clearest examples of how vision can change history.

One of the things I love about Nehemiah's story is that there are no miracles involved. Nehemiah never parted the Red Sea or walked on water. Nehemiah was just an ordinary guy. The only difference is that Nehemiah had vision. He saw what could be and should be. And then he went after it with all of his heart.

Let me give you some background. Around 587 BCE, the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, along with Solomon's Temple. Thousands of people were taken from Judah and resettled in Babylon. You may know some of the stories of people that were exiled to Babylon - people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Songs were written with lyrics like this: "Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem" (Psalm 137:1).

About seventy years after the first Babylonian invasion, Cyrus, King of Persia - who had since conquered the Babylonians - gave the Jews permission to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. They were led by a man named Zerubbabel. These exiled Jews came back and rebuilt the Temple. It wasn't as nice as the first one, but it didn't matter. Things were looking up - but not for long.

Soon the old problems returned. The Temple wasn't being maintained. Sacrifices had ceased. The Jews adopted the religious practices of the surrounding nations. They weren't serving God. By the time Nehemiah comes along, the political, social, and spiritual conditions in Jerusalem are deplorable.

That's when we meet Nehemiah. Nehemiah was probably unaware of the impact that he would have. He never would have guessed that he was about to live out a vision that we would be reading about thousands of years later. He gives us a pattern, an example, of how a vision can grow from birth to reality.

How can I begin to live a life of vision? The thrust of what I want to tell you is that a vision will begin with a concern, a burden that God gives you. Here's the first building block of vision that I want to give you from the book of Nehemiah:

BUILDING BLOCK ONE: VISION BEGINS AS A CONCERN

Read with me Nehemiah 1:1-4:

In late autumn of the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes' reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had survived the captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem. They said to me, "Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been burned." When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.

Nehemiah's concern over Jerusalem consumed him. He couldn't get it out of his mind. For days, he mourned and fasted and prayed. It changed the way he looked. Later on, we find out that the king noticed that he was feeling down. This was bad news because the king had the power to kill you if he didn't like the way he looked. Something was bothering Nehemiah and others, frankly, couldn't care less. And it's from here that we learn the first building block of vision: vision begins as a concern.

God's purpose for you will always begin as a God-given concern. I'm not talking about a passing concern. I'm talking about something that sticks with you. God has a way of planting a desire, a concern, or a burden on our minds. When we pay attention to that concern, a picture begins to develop of what could be and should be. A vision starts to be born.

Andy Stanley writes:

You will hear or see something that gets your attention. A thought related to the future will generate an emotion. Something will bother you about the way things are or the way things are headed. Unlike many passing concerns, these will stick with you. You will find yourself thinking about them in your free time. You may lose sleep over them. You won't be able to let them go because they won't let you go. (Visioneering)

You may not have realized this, but God has been at work birthing a concern - a vision - in your heart. It's not an accident. God always works by giving someone a concern or a burden for a need. He gives them a picture of what could be and should be.

That's how anything great has ever happened. Somebody saw what was. They saw what God would like it to be. They saw a picture of what could and should be, and they got to work. They paid the price, and began to work to live out that vision.

A few observations about concerns or burdens:

1. NOT EVERYONE WILL SHARE YOUR CONCERN

Did you notice that nobody else seemed to be concerned about the wall? For years, the walls of Jerusalem had been broken down. But as I read Nehemiah, I get the impression that no one else was crying about the broken-down walls. Nehemiah's concern was Nehemiah's alone.

It's that way today. You look around and see what could be and should be, but other people see what is. God hasn't given them that concern. Don't let that stop you from listening to what God is telling you. If God has given you a concern, you had better act on it. Others might not even see the problem. They probably can't see what could be different. But it doesn't matter. Listen to God. Begin to birth that vision.

It's possible that God has given you a concern, but you haven't cultivated it because nobody else seems to share that concern. Stop waiting for other people! God has given you that concern for a reason. It's up to you to begin to cultivate and to pray about that concern.

A second observation:

2. SOME PEOPLE WILL SHARE YOUR CONCERN BUT DO NOTHING ABOUT IT

Question for you: do you think that anyone else had tried to rebuild the walls? Yes! Some had even tried, but had given up. But I imagine that many had the concern and had done nothing about it. Talking and doing are two different things. Even if others are concerned, they don't always do anything about it.

The city walls had been in ruins for 140 years. Others had tried to fix the walls before, but had given up. Maybe they lacked the leadership skills. Maybe they lacked resources. It's likely that they became discouraged by the opposition and criticism. Have you ever noticed every time you try to accomplish something, ten people can tell you why it can never happen? As a result, the walls had been lying in ruins for 140 years. Even those who had a concern were no longer taking any action.

Then Nehemiah came along. Listen to what Nehemiah was able to accomplish:

So on October 2 the wall was finally finished-just fifty-two days after we had begun. When our enemies and the surrounding nations heard about it, they were frightened and humiliated. They realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. (Nehemiah 6:15-16)

Nehemiah was able to accomplish in fifty-two days what others hadn't been able to accomplish in 140 years.

God may have given you a vision. You look around and think, "Why me? Why should I do anything about it? God's given this concern to others. They're not doing anything about it." It doesn't matter. Obey God. You may be the person that God has uniquely placed to do something about it. You may have been placed in your position, with this burden, "for such a time as this" (Esther 4:14).

Not everyone will share your concern. Some people will share your concern but do nothing about it. One more observation:

3. GOD OFTEN GIVES A CONCERN BEFORE HE GIVES A SOLUTION

A lot of you have God-given concerns, but you haven't done anything about it. Why not? Because you can't see yourself as the solution to the problem. You may think, "I have this concern, but I don't know what to do. I'm already busy. I already have a lot on my plate. What difference can one person make?" One thing I know: God often gives a concern before he gives a solution. It's not our job to worry about the solution. It's our job to follow that concern and to trust God to begin to provide the solution.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king. He was responsible for ensuring the safety of the king's food and drink. Nehemiah wasn't really in a position to do anything about the broken-down wall. He didn't have the authority to go and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Nehemiah could h ave thrown up his hands and said, "What can I do about it?" We'll begin to see next week that Nehemiah was perfectly situated to do something about it.

Many times God will give you a concern, and it won't be immediately obvious that you can do anything about it. But God has been preparing you, shaping you, working behind the scenes. God gives the vision. God also gives the means to carry out that vision.

In a few weeks we're looking at "The God of the How." We're going to see that whenever God gives a what, he also provides a how. When God calls us to do something, we never have to worry about how. God takes care of that how when we begin to follow in obedience.

You may not see the connection. You may not see how your concern connects with God's sovereign plan. But God may be birthing within your heart a vision - a burden, a concern, that will gradually grow to be a burning passion. It will seem like a moral imperative, something that God's calling you to do.

What's bothering you? What has God placed on your heart? What do you see that troubles you, and you know it could be different? Pay attention to those things. Vision often begins with the concern. I want you to identify this week that burden, that concern on your heart that you feel God is calling you to address. You don't have to do anything about it yet, but you do need to listen when God speaks to you.

A priest in tsarist Russia was walking along minding his own business when a royal guard stopped him at gun point. The guard demanded to know: "What is your name? Why are you here, and where are you going?"

The priest gazed quizzically at the soldier and then asked, "How much do they pay you to do this work?"

The solider, somewhat taken aback, replied, "Why, three kopeks a month."

"I'll pay you 30 kopeks a month if you will stop me every week and ask me these same questions," the priest said.

What is your name? Why are you here? And where are you going?

Let's pray.

You were designed to live a life of purpose. God has given us all a unique contribution to make. He's given you a burden, a concern, a passion. And he's calling you to invest your life for eternity, and to concentrate all your energies on that task.

The most important step that you can take is to give your life for eternity. If you've never given your life to Jesus Christ, would you pray this prayer in your heart:

"Jesus Christ, I want to get to know you. And I want you to come into my life and I want to follow your plan and purpose for my life for the rest of my life. I turn away from my sins and follow you, and ask you to take charge of my life, beginning today."

Father, I pray that as we begin to look at something to live for, as we read the story of Nehemiah - I pray that you would begin to birth a vision within us. Help us to see our contribution to what could be and should be. Help us to get to the end of our lives so that what was said of David would be true of us: "David...served his generation according to the will of God" (Acts 13:36). In Jesus' name, Amen.

How to Handle Tragedy

We've just been through one of the most devastating weeks in recent history. This past week, on September 11, 2001, the world changed forever. The terrorist attack on New York and Washington affected us all. It affected some of us directly - we have friends, family, and colleagues in that area. Some of us were made frantic phone calls, trying to make sure that our loved ones are safe. But it affected us all emotionally. You can't be a human being and remain untouched by the damage caused this past week.

We've prayed for those that have lost loved ones. We need to continue to pray for the families affected, as well as the government and the churches in the area. But today I want to speak to you - the Richview church family - on how to handle tragedy. Why? Because we've all been affected. We all need guidance on how to handle this disaster.

But there's another reason I want to look at this topic. Nobody is immune to disaster. I pray that nobody will experience events as horrific as what we saw this past week, but everyone here will experience tragedy. Many of you already have. It's inevitable. Everybody here will go through a period of crisis, a period of tragedy in their lives.

I don't think there's a person here who hasn't been moved by the stories coming out of the States this week. The first day or so you got the big picture. Then a few days later you began to hear individual stories. You began to see the people who have been affected. It's one thing to hear numbers in the thousands. It's another to begin to hear the individual stories - the families who have lost a brother, a wife, a parent.

As we've seen this week, this isn't a perfect world. The Bible is clear that bad things do happen, even to good people. You read of tragedies in the Bible - of towers falling over and people being killed, and of innocent people being slaughtered as they worshiped God (Luke 13:1-5). Jesus said that when we hear of a tragedy, instead of blaming others, we need to think of our own life and eternity. This past week has given us reason to begin to reflect on our own lives.

I don't know what you think about your own death. You may never think about the topic. Or maybe you think that you'll die in your sleep one day when you're old and happy. This week we've been reminded that death is often sudden and unanticipated. We all need to be ready. No matter how young or how healthy we might be, death is certain.

The Bible makes it clear that God didn't cause the evil that we saw this past week. God is never the author of evil. He grieves when atrocities are committed. You can be sure that God is even more offended than we are by what has taken place. God didn't cause this to happen. God is all-powerful, but he's given us the ability and freedom to take actions. Those actions can be offensive to him and damaging to others. We've seen an example of that this past week.

The Bible also makes it clear that God is still very much in control. There are no easy answers, but the Bible offers something that's far better than an easy answer. The Bible offers hope. The Bible provides the assurance that no matter what happens in this life, we can have a peace that transcends circumstances. We can have a living hope in the God who never lets us down, no matter what is going on around us.

We're all going to experience tragedy. What should we do when the roof caves in? How can we handle disaster? Four principles that have helped me get through this past week:

1. RELEASE MY EMOTIONS TO GOD

That's the first principle. Release my emotions to God. Let him know how you feel. Be honest with him. Tragedy always brings strong emotions, and if you're going to get through tragedy, you've got to be free to release your grief to God.

I grew up with the mistaken idea that God couldn't handle my feelings. Somewhere I picked up the idea that I had to sort of pretend that I was okay with things when bad things happened. It's almost like I expected God to say, "Chin up! Quit your complaining." Some of you may have that idea as well - that you can't share openly with God. That's a devastating belief, because that means that your relationship with God lacks honesty. You're holding back in opening yourself up to the very one who made you.

I began to read my Bible and to notice that God's people throughout history have been completely honest with God in sharing their struggles and their grief. In fact, one entire book of the Bible, called Habakkuk, is about a man's struggle with some honest questions that he had for God. Listen to one of his questions: "How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen! 'Violence!' I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see this sin and misery all around me? Wherever I look, I see destruction and violence" (Habakkuk 1:2-3). God didn't slam him for asking honest questions. God answered him.

What's the lesson? You can bring your complaints and questions to God. God is big enough to handle your questions. God answers. You can bring your questions, your doubts, your feelings to God. God can handle your honesty. That's why you can release your feelings to God.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:4, "God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted." You can write beside that verse, "It's okay to grieve. It's okay to mourn." God doesn't expect you to be happy all the time. You can face your feelings honestly. You can release your grief to God.

Psalm 62:8 says, "Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge." David, the man who wrote those words, is an example of someone who did this. If you read the psalms, you'll find David expressing his grief and his questions to God. He would ask questions like, "How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?" (Psalm 13:2). David was incredibly honest in expressing how he felt to God.

Others in the Bible were equally as honest. Jeremiah said, "LORD, you always give me justice when I bring a case before you. Now let me bring you this complaint: Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy?" (Jeremiah 12:1).

Rich Mullins wrote a song that expresses some of these feelings to God:

You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt...
Well I memorized every word you said
Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath
While you're up there just playing hard to get
You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin...
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the one who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow all I really need to know
Is if you who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time

Brutally honest. Completely authentic. God never once said, "Don't ask such questions." He never said, "You shouldn't feel that way." God is big. He can handle your doubts, your fears, your questions. God is big enough to handle how you feel. That's the first principle. Release your emotions to God.

There's a second principle that we can follow when a time of disaster comes:

2. REFUSE TO BE BITTER

When something happens that is so wicked, so evil, it's normal to want revenge. It's easy to become bitter and so begin to nurse hatred in our hearts. But that's never the way. Hatred and bitterness are diseases that are fatal to the soul. Hebrews 12:15 says, "Look after each other so that none of you will miss out on the special favor of God. Watch out that no bitter root of unbelief rises up among you, for whenever it springs up, many are corrupted by its poison." Bitterness is dangerous. Bitterness will poison your own soul. It will damage those around you. The minute you become bitter, they've won. They've not only inflicted physical damage. At that point they've done successfully poisoned your soul.

Jesus said something that seems impossibly hard at a time like this. Jesus said, "Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for the happiness of those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you" (Luke 6:27-28). I have to be honest and say that I don't really want to love those who perpetrated these acts. I want to hate them. But I'm praying to God, "God, give me a love for them. Give me forgiveness in my heart. Give me your love." It sounds impossible, but God can do it. He's already begun that work in my heart.

Is it wrong to want revenge? Yes. God says, "I will take vengeance. I will repay those who deserve it" (Hebrews 10:30). It's not our job to get revenge. It's God's job. God will hold every human being accountable for what they've done. It's his job to repay.

It's not okay to want revenge, but it's okay to want justice. There's a big difference between revenge and justice. Every single one of us should be praying that God would dispense justice on the evil that's been done. God has already begun to dispense his holy justice on those hijackers that died in the plane crash. We can pray that God would continue to show his justice.

God can use countries such as ours to help demonstrate that justice. Romans 13:4 says of the government, "The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong."

John Piper said this week:

We will magnify the mercy of God by praying for our enemies to be saved and reconciled to God. At the personal level we will be willing to suffer for their everlasting good, and we will give them food and drink. We will put away malicious hatred and private vengeance. But at the public level we will also magnify the justice of God by praying and working for justice to be done on the earth, if necessary through wise and measured force from God-ordained authority.

God says, "At the time I have planned, I will bring justice against the wicked" (Psalm 65:2). Pray that God will demonstrate his justice. Support government leaders as they take measures to dispense justice. Desire justice, but don't desire revenge.

What's the difference between justice and revenge? Justice is a reflection of one of God's character. Whenever we want justice, we're reflecting one of God's qualities. But whenever we show revenge, we're reflecting a character of the Evil One. We're letting Satan work in our souls.

This sounds impossible. You're right - it is humanly impossible. It's not natural to forgive those who perpetrate atrocities. It's not normal to want to keep bitterness out of your soul. It's humanly impossible - but God can help. You may have to pray, just like I'm praying - "God, help me with this. I don't want to be forgiving. I want to be bitter." Ask God to help you. Release my emotions to God. Refuse to be bitter. Ask for his help.

The third principle:

3. RUN TO GOD FOR SAFETY

There's no such thing as a safe place. It doesn't matter where you go - you're in danger. You hear tragic stories of people moving to where it's safe, only to find out that they're not safe after all. Where can you turn for safety?

Before this week, many people thought the Pentagon was impregnable. Nobody could guess that the defenses of the Pentagon could be overcome so brutally and efficiently. Any illusions we had of the Pentagon being safe have been erased this week.

As the Towers collapsed last week, you saw people running to safety. It's a reminder to us that there is a place of safety that's available to all of us. It's a place where we can never be attacked. That' place is in God's arms.

Psalm 46 says, "God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble" (Psalm 46:1). A fortress was an elevated, isolated place of safety. It's a place where you could go and be safe from the enemy. It's a place to go when you've got no where else to turn.

"So we will not fear, even if earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea" (Psalm 46:2). Images of destruction may haunt us - but we don't have to be afraid. Even if the world ends, even in the face of utter destruction, you can run to God. He's the only safe refuge in a very uncertain world.

People instinctively know that. The first words that many people said after hearing the disaster were "Oh God." That may have been reflexive, but it makes sense. Who else would you call on when something like that happens? Where else would you turn?

We read the verse earlier that said, "Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge" (Psalm 62:8). It's good to know that God's arms are a place where we can run, where we can be honest. It's a place where we can never be touched. It's a place where we're safe no matter what happens.

On Tuesday, I drove up to the church a few hours after the tragedy. Flights were being diverted to our airport. I began to think, "It could happen here." That's the reality. We don't know what's going to happen at any time. We're never really safe. We often have the illusion of safety, but there's only one way to be really safe. The only way to be really safe is if we run to God.

Jesus said, "Don't be afraid of those who want to kill you. They can only kill your body; they cannot touch your soul" (Matthew 10:28). We don't have to be afraid of terrorists. Physical attacks can never destroy our soul. When we run to God, we can have the knowledge that no matter what happens in this life - even in death - we're completely safe with him.

If you've given your life to Jesus Christ, you don't need to be afraid. You're safe. God is opening himself as a refuge to all of us. No matter who you are - no matter what you've done, you can run to God. You can be safe in his arms. You can receive peace today and security for your future - for all eternity.

The world seemed to become a more dangerous place this week. It reminds us that the world never really was safe. There's only one place that's safe. It's in the refuge that God offers. Run to God for safety. There's one more principle to follow in a time of tragedy:

4. RELY ON GOD'S CHARACTER

Release your feelings to God. Refuse to be bitter. Run to God for safety. The last principle that the Bible offers is this: rely on God's character. Count on him. His character is unchangeable. You can rely on God no matter what happens.

One thing you need to know about God. God will never change. Our events may change. The constants in our life may change. You may lose your job, your finances, your marriage. You may lose your health. But you will never lose the security of knowing that God never changes. In the worst circumstances imaginable, we can continue to rely on God's character.

There's a book in the Bible called Lamentations. It's a book that is exactly like it sounds - it's not a happy book. It's full of mourning and of weeping. The city of Jerusalem had been completely destroyed. But the man who wrote this book wasn't just upset by the destruction of the city. When the city was destroyed, the dreams of a nation were destroyed. They had expected the city to be a base from which God could rule. When the city was lost, people's hope and faith in God were destroyed as well. It wasn't a happy story.

In the middle of mourning for the city, the prophet wrote some amazing words. Lamentations 3 says, "Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, 'The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!'" (Lamentations 3:23-24) That's amazing. Even in the middle of great tragedy, the prophet could say, "God hasn't changed. He's remained faithful. Despite the circumstances, I will continue to trust in him.

The fact that the sun rises every day is a reminder that no matter how bad things were yesterday - and yesterday may have been unimaginable - God hasn't changed. You can depend on God. His promises will never fail. Every morning is a reminder - a renewal - of God's mercy to you and to me.

Psalm 11:3 reports how people felt thousands of years ago in a time of crisis. They said "The foundations of law and order have collapsed. What can the righteous do?" People at the time were saying that the foundations had collapsed. It seemed like the situation was hopeless, even for those that believed in God. Where do you turn when it looks like everything is falling apart?

The next verse answers this question. Psalm 11:4 says, "But the LORD is in his holy Temple; the LORD still rules from heaven. He watches everything closely, examining everyone on earth." When you look at circumstances, you can always give up. But don't look at circumstances. Look at God. God hasn't changed. God's still reigning from heaven. He's still faithful. You can rely on his character. He's still in control.

Three characteristics of God will never change. You can rely on these three things. They will never change. GOD'S LOVE FOR ME WILL NEVER CHANGE. You can count on it. Jeremiah 31:3 says, "I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself." God's love will never end. His love will never fail. You can count on God's love no matter what happens.

Another verse:

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can't, and life can't. The angels can't, and the demons can't. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can't keep God's love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

God's love for you will never change. You can always count on God's love, no matter what happens.

GOD'S WORD WILL NEVER CHANGE. No matter what happens, you can always rely on God's Word. Isaiah 40:8 says, "The grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever." Matthew 24:35 says, "Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will remain forever." No matter what changes in life, no matter even if the heavens and the earth disappear, you can count on God's Word. His promises will never fail. If you're building on any other foundation than God's Word, then you're building on shifting soil. When you build your life on God's Word, he will never let you down.

GOD'S PURPOSE NEVER CHANGES. Psalm 33:11 says, "But the LORD'S plans sta nd firm forever; his intentions can never be shaken." God has a plan for each of us. God's plan can never be thwarted. We don't understand how everything works into God's plan. But we do know that nothing can change God's plan. God is still in control.

Psalm 125:1 says, "Those who trust in the LORD are as secure as Mount Zion; they will not be defeated but will endure forever. Just as the mountains surround and protect Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds and protects his people, both now and forever" (Psalm 125:1-2). That's what I call stability. Unmoved by any circumstance. When everything around us is changing, when the world looks like it's falling apart, when it looks like there's nowhere to turn, you can count on God. You can relay on his character.

God cares about what's happened. Jesus said, "Not even a sparrow, worth only half a penny, can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it" (Matthew 10:29). God knows the story of every person, every family who experienced a loss this week. He cares. He's willing to extend his help to you.

Would you like to receive his care today? Do you want to release your feelings to him, to run to his safety? Let's claim some of God's unshakable promises that will sustain us - no matter what we go through.

Prayer:

Father, we can't understand what's happened this week. Our hearts are filled with questions. I want to thank you that we can share our feelings openly with you. Thank you that you care about us. We want to take a moment to express to you our thanks that you never reject us based on our fears, our doubts, and our questions.

We pray today for all the victims of this tragedy. We pray that your grace and comfort would sustain them. We pray for our government leaders, and government leaders throughout the world. Help them to do justice. Give them wisdom. Sustain them with your power.

We pray that you would keep our hearts from bitterness. We pray that you would draw every one of us to you, our refuge and our strength in times of trouble. We pray that your "rich and wonderful promises" (2 Peter 1:4) will sustain us. We pray all these things, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Running the Race (Hebrews 12:1-4)

In 1968, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. The last runner to finish the marathon was a guy from Tanzania. During the race, he had broken a leg. He'd stumbled, he'd been hurt badly, he was bruised, beaten up, and he was bloodied. Long after everybody else had finished the race, and in fact as the stadium quickly emptied - there were only 7,000 people left - around 7:00 in the evening, as it was getting dark, he entered to do his last lap and finish the marathon. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. Later on he was asked, "Why didn't you quit when you were hurt and bruised, bloody, discouraged Why didn't you quit?" He gave a classic answer. He said, "My country did not send me 7,000 miles around the world to start the race, but to finish it."

The Bible teaches very clearly that life is a race. Unfortunately, most people never finish it. Some people don't know it's a race. I meet people all the time that don't know that they have a purpose for living. They think they're alive so they can take a stroll.

I've met others that get waylaid, sidetracked, distracted. They get disqualified. For one reason or another, they die with unfulfilled dreams, with unrealized potential and without ever becoming what God intended their life to become. That is a tragedy.

Here's how one man put it. "Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: if you're alive, it isn't" (Richard Bach). If you are alive - and most of you look like you are - then God has a purpose for your life. You are in the race. We're going to look today at how to run the race well; how to finish the race so that God is pleased. We're going to look at how we can win the race. 1 Corinthians 9:24 says, "You also must run in such a way that you will win."

This fall, we'll be continuing a process called Refocusing that will help us as a church discern how we can win the race. But I've learned that we can't win the race collectively if we're not running the race individually. That's why today I want to look at some steps that each of us has to take individually.

The goal is that we can say what the apostle Paul said thousands of years ago: "I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace" (Acts 20:24). At the end of Paul's life, Paul could say, "The time of my death is near. I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful" (1 Timothy 4:7-8).

Are you going to be able to say that about your life? That you're running the race that God placed you here to run? Do you have the sense that you're winning the race right now?

Fortunately, the Bible doesn't just tell us to run the race. The Bible gives us rules of the race that we can follow if we want to win. If we're going to win the race, it's going to be because we live out the three rules for training that God has given. How can I win the race in life?

1. GET RID OF DISTRACTIONS

Hebrews 12:1 says, "Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress." That's the first rule for training. Get rid of distractions. Get rid of anything that will slow you down on the race that God has put before you.

What are we to get rid of? The writer mentions "the sin that so easily hinders our progress." That's different for all of us. All sorts of sins can keep us from winning the race. That's the deception of sin. We think that sin is harmless. We even think, "It's not hurting anyone. It's just a little problem that I have." But we don't realize that it's weighing us down. It's keeping us from winning the race that God intends.

I've found that focusing on the sin doesn't really help me to get rid of the sin. It's like when I go out to for a coffee and see an apple crumble calling my name. The more I think, "I don't want that apple crumble...I won't have that apple crumble," the more that I find myself thinking about that apple crumble. You don't win over sin by focusing on that sin. You win over sin by focusing on the race - by focusing on the finish line. The sin that keeps getting you down is keeping you from racing the way that God wants you to race. It's obvious that if we're going to win the race, we need to deal with the sins that are slowing us down on the race.

But it's not always sin that slows us down. It's easy to pick up a lot of extras in the race. A runner wears as little as possible. In the day that this was written, runners took this to an extreme - some of them wore absolutely nothing. And you thought that spandex is bad. I've never once seen a runner sprint down the track carrying an Adidas bag, or wearing a backpack. I've never seen one pulling a U-Haul down the track. If we're going to run the race, we need to get rid of the distractions that will slow us down while we're running the race.

All sorts of distractions can take us away from the race. Opportunities can distract us. Entertainment opportunities, hobby opportunities, career opportunities...all these are good, yet they can take us off course. They can take us from the race without us even knowing it.

Guilt can distract us. We can be so consumed by the past - by the mistakes that we've made - that we stop running. It's like somebody who's stumbled in a race. Some runners stop and think, "It's over. I've stumbled. I may as well give up." don't let the past distract you. It's a brand new day. You have stumbled. You have fallen. You've gotten knocked out of the race probably dozens of times, but winners get back up and they get in it and they keep on going. They don't give up and they don't allow distractions to bother them. They don't get distracted by the crowd whether they're cheering or booing. They're running for the finish line. They're focused.

The biggest reason that we go through life distracted can be summarized in one word: UNCERTAINTY. We're not clear why we're on this earth. We don't know what's a distraction and what is a necessity. It's like some people I've seen packing for a trip. Some people pack in a little carry-on bag. Others travel with about 15 suitcases for an overnight trip. They don't know what's necessary and what's just a distraction. It's like that in life. You and I may be carrying around all sorts of stuff that we think is central, but it's not. It's good, but it's keeping us from God's best.

Earlier this year, I had a little side business going. It wasn't a big deal - it made me a little money for very little work. I mean very little. One day the wheels came off. I had to spend hours getting things back on track. This side thing - no big deal, very easy to carry - became a distraction. Things that seem small can become huge and consume all of our time.

If you're not clear on your mission - why God has put you on this earth - and your priorities, then you're struggling with uncertainty. You're carrying around all kinds of extras, and you're not sure what's important and what isn't. If that's you, your timing is perfect, because we're running a course called Personal Refocusing. It's a process that's helped me and Pastor Ed and almost twenty people in the church to discover why they're here on earth; how God has already been at work in their lives; what God intends to do in their future. In fact, pull the yellow page out of your bulletin right now. You'll see that there are two dates that are listed there. I can't think of a reason why you wouldn't want to attend. You need to get clear on your priorities - why God has put you here on this earth.

Peter Drucker is the father of modern management. His life was shaped by a teacher who wants asked, "What do you want to be remembered for?" Drucker was only 13 when he heard this question, and he really didn't have an answer. "I didn't expect you to be able to respond," the teacher continued. "But if you still can't by the time you're 50, you will have wasted your life." I'll rephrase that question by asking you, "Why has God put you on this earth?" You ma y not be able to answer that question now, but if you don't figure it out, and begin living out your purpose, completely surrendered to God, then you're wasting your life.

Before you put that insert away, I want to encourage you to fill it out right now. Pick one of the two dates that we're offering, and make it a priority in your life. It will help you get rid of distractions, and focus on what's important. That's the first training rule to win the race. Get rid of distractions. The second rule is found in the next verse:

2. GET BACK TO THE CROSS

One of the keys to running the race is to stay focused on Jesus, and to follow his example. Hebrews 12:1-2 says, "Let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus." One translation says to run this race "with no eyes for any one or anything except Jesus." If we want to win the race, we have to keep Jesus and what he did central in our lives. We have to keep our eyes on him.

When you run a race, you keep your eyes on the finish line. I've never seen anyone win a race who's looking in the crowd, making peace signs to his family. A runner keeps his eyes on the finish line.

Hebrews 12:2 says, "We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish." That's one reason why we want to keep our eyes on Jesus. He's the one working on you and me. He's the one who started us on the path of faith, and he's the one that's going to see us through. He won't give up on us. He's going to support us every step of the way. Philippians 1:6 says, "And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again."

As a pastor, I've had to speak to some unfriendly crowds. You're looking out there, and you have the sense that almost no one's with you. They're thinking, "Who is this guy? What is this stuff that he's teaching?" I have a little trick that I use. I look for a friendly face. Sometimes the only friendly face there is my wife. Other times there's somebody else nodding, encouraging me. I keep my eyes on them if I'm going to make it through the talk.

I don't know if you ever feel like everyone's looking at you with their arms crossed and a scowl on their face. Sometimes it feels like that. That's why it's important to look to Jesus. He's with you. He's a friendly face. He won't give up on you until he completes the work that he's started in you.

Then we think about what Jesus did for us. Hebrews 12:2-3 continues:

He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God's throne in heaven. Think about all he endured when sinful people did such terrible things to him, so that you don't become weary and give up.

If you've never heard a medical description of what Jesus endured when he died, it would astound you. We have an English word excruciating. I've experienced pain, but I don't think I've ever experienced excruciating pain. The word excruciating has as its root "from the cross." Excruciating describes the sort of death that Jesus died.

It's amazing when you think that Jesus chose to die that kind of death for us. "He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward." His suffering was worth it because he knew what it would accomplish. What brought Jesus joy? That he was able to accomplish his mission. That he was able to bring healing and forgiveness to those he loves - to you and to me. Jesus endured the cross because of what it would accomplish in our lives.

If you want to win the race, you need to remember that Jesus loved you so much that he endured the cross for you and for me. You're worth it to him. You're worth so much that he willingly gave up all that he had, and died for you.

We're going to go back to the cross right now. I'm going to invite you to receive the bread and the cup right now, to celebrate the fact that Jesus died a shameful death for your sake, and for my sake.

[COMMUNION]

How do we win the race of life? How do we get to the end of our lives and say, "I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful" (2 Timothy 4:8)? Get rid of distractions. Get back to the cross. There's one more rule to follow:

3. GET ON WITH THE RACE

Hebrews 12:1 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us."

Throughout history, there have been countless examples of people who have run - and finished - the race. Hebrews 11 gives some examples. You may be able to think of some people that you've known who have finished the race. They may be in heaven now, but they finished well. They ran and won the race.

It's amazing how few people finish the race well. It's not very common. I don't know if it's true, but I've heard that only about 2 out of 10 finish well. I want to be someone that does.

The Bible says that all those who have finished the race are like a huge throng of witnesses. It's a vast number of people. They've finished, and now they're like the crowd watching us as we run the race. With this great gallery of witnesses around us, it's important for us to run well. It's important to run the race and to finish well.

It's almost like they've passed the baton to us. It's a relay race. They've finished, and they've passed the baton on to us. Now they're watching and encouraging their successors.

Last autumn I attended a meeting in which I heard a giant of a man, near the end of his life, speak to a group of young Christian leaders under 40. When he was finished the talk, he held up a baton and told us, "I'm done now. I've finished the race. I've run it well. And now I'm passing the baton on to you...and to you...and to you."

I don't know how you're running the race right now. But I do know it's not too late to finish well. I know it's not too late to get rid of the distractions - to discover and to live out your life's purpose. It's not too late to keep your eyes on Jesus. It's not too late to pick up the baton and get on with the race. Many have finished well, and they're passing the baton on now to you...and to you...and to you.

Prayer:

You may feel that you're distracted right now. You need to get rid of the uncertainty that's clouding your life. You need to discover your purpose, your mission, how God has been at work in your life. I would encourage you to pray now to God and ask him to show you. We have a process that can help you, and I'd like you to sign up. But most of all, I'd like you to say to God, "Yes, Lord. I want to run the race. I don't want to just run the race, I want to win. I want to get to the end and say, 'I've finished the race. I've been faithful. I'm finishing well.'"

Lord, help us to run the race. Help us to keep our eyes on Jesus. Help us never to drop the baton. In Jesus' name, Amen.