Nehemiah 1 (children)
3 John 1-8; 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 (read for the message)
Eki & orienteering
We want to know the will of God because we’d like to have some direction for our life, a map and compass, and we have this idea that God’s plan must be a good one, must include some sense of success. When we talk about success, it is important to define terms.
And, when we talk about direction for our life, it is important to understand what we said in our first week – the world God designed is open to possibility (among them, our choices) and all these options are somehow, mysteriously, enfolded into God’s promised destiny. In orienteering terms, there is more than one way to get from point A to point B. You may arrive late and face deduction to your score, but at least you can arrive – hopefully! It is a reminder that the journey itself is important, not just the destination.
And, here we return to success. We tend to define success in terms of destination – a certain point in life (married, kids); a certain point in our careers (education, salary, promotion). We miss out on the dimension of journey, on success as progress and process, rather than on success only as achievement and completion. What does the journey do to us? What do we learn along the way? Are we becoming better human beings, more reflective of the unique image of God in us – or are we only becoming better consumers, better employees, better soccer coaches? And for all who define success as destination, there is the big question of what do I do once I’ve succeeded? It is one root of what we know as “mid life crisis”: We’ve done everything we set out to do, so what’s next? . . . And am I really satisfied by all this? Define the terms of your success. The apostle Paul said it this way:
Philippians 3:12-14 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Keeping this in mind – a goal that is larger than life, a sense of progress that is intentional and focused, a devotion to Jesus Christ – what do we learn about success from the Scriptures before us today?
Prayer: God hears prayers for success, and answers them. We’re not guaranteed success on our terms, but this does invite us to pray success prayers:
“Give success to your servant today” (Nehemiah 1)
“Save us, we beseech you . . . grant us success” (Psalm 118)
“Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” (Jabez in 1 Chronicles 4)
“I pray that you may prosper and be in good health, even as your soul prospers” (3 John)
And, my favorite – though not in the readings for the day: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands-- O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17)
The concept/word frequently translated “success” overlaps with last week’s theme of abundance. It is also translated as rush, advance, and prosper. There is success in a mission or quest given by a master or lord, success as hunter, success that brings fame (including unwanted jealousy), success in battle. And there is a link to spirituality, particularly to Scripture and obedience to God:
Isaiah 48.18 – “O that you would have paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river, and your success like the waves of the sea”
Joshua 1:8 – This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.
Why don’t we pray for success? Maybe it feels too much about us, not at all spiritual. First, our day to day life is spiritual ... spirit MATTERS, “the Word became flesh.” Second, define your success. If it is all about us, maybe we need to reexamine who we are. Maybe we need to embrace a larger purpose, embark on Jesus’ mission, see with God’s vision.
No, not every prayer for success is answered the way we want it to be. Sometimes even the best and holiest plans don’t work out, careen out of control, or run head on into some serious evil. We’ll get to evil and God’s will in a couple weeks, on Feb 20.
But if we define success as knowing and loving God, and doing what God says, I guarantee God will make that happen for you.
Pain: Success is tied to hard work and to hardship. The adage has a lot of truth: “No pain, no gain”.
Nehemiah fasted – went without food – and mourned for DAYS before he spoke with the king. And, though he was given all he asked, the work ahead of him was full of struggle ... people who couldn’t see the vision, folks actively attempting to subvert the work, libel and slander, leaders who refused to lead. It was tough, and it was work.
“Save us ... grant us success” in Psalm 118 is a prayer that anticipates the salvation accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. It is a decided success, but let us not forget the cost – Jesus died, Jesus carried ALL our sins (and I have enough trouble bearing my own), Jesus was betrayed by one friend and denied by another.
And, Jabez? What about him? The Scripture tells us that “his mother named him Jabez, saying, ‘Because I bore him in pain.’” How would you like to have a name like that? No wonder he prays to be kept from hurt and harm.
And, Gaius, to whom 3 John is written? He was a regular church member who had to deal with an imposter leader and all-around troublemaker, Diotrephes. Diotrephes was excommunicating members of the church who welcomed guests sent by the apostle John.
Success is tied to hard work and to hardship. There is no shortcut to success that avoids either. Examples, even biblical examples, are too many to mention. So, I will offer my favorite quotes on success and failure and work, from Thomas Edison:
I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.Perspective: This goes back to the repeated them of defining success. Another Edison quote: I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.
Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
Or, to hear the apostle Paul again: Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
For a follower of Jesus, is success about us? Is it our story? Is it our future? No, it is God’s success, God’s story, God’s future . . . it is all about God. My old pastor, Dick Woodward, spoke of “spiritual secrets”:
I’m not but He is, and I’m in Him and He’s in me.That’s why the Scriptures – and even worship – show up in the success theme: This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful (Joshua 1:8). Eugene Peterson describes reading the Scripture this way: “When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s” (Eat This Book: A conversation in the art of spiritual reading, 2006, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p 44.) It is not about us, but about God.
I can’t, but He can, and I’m in Him and He’s in me.
I don’t want to, but He wants to, and I’m in Him and He’s in me.
I didn’t, but He did, because I was in Him and He was in me.
So, do we read the Bible to be successful, or to know and love God? Do we use it like a self-help guide or a source of inspiration, or are we formed by it? (See Eugene Peterson.) Do we pray for success? I hope so. Do we pray only for our own sake, only for our limited vision? Or do we pray as well for success in the life mission God has given us? In the experience of pain, are we fixated on the unpleasantness of our work or the troubles we encounter – or are we focused on the long-term, the promise of God’s future, the fulfillment we find in that greater destiny when God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28, Ephesians 1:23)?