Finish Strong - 1 Samuel 3
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As we get to know one another as pastor and congregation, you’re going to find that I am at a stage in life where my toddler children are a massive part of my world - and that means that most of my sermon illustrations are going to be baby stories or Disney movies. On that note, I want to talk a little bit about the movie Cars 3. Now, if you’re not familiar with the whole Cars universe - basically it’s a world where the main characters are all cars. The windshields are their eyes, and they kind of have a little smile on the grill. And the first movie is all about this rookie race-car - Lightning McQueen. He’s the best at his game, but he’s incredibly arrogant and self obsessed. He’s on the way to this big race, and he gets sidetracked into a small town off the beaten path. He gets to know these people, has a change of heart and he even meets a new mentor, Doc Hudson. Doc is this cranky old man car in the small town, and they find out that he was actually once a great racecar back in the day. He used to be called the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, and he was in a horrible accident - and the racing world moved on without him. So Lightning and Doc end up teaching each other and both grow because of their connection. Jump up to the third movie, and Doc Hudson has passed on, and Lightning McQueen is the old guy on the track. And there’s all these new young racers, and he’s getting beat - and he’s having a crisis of identity. Who am I if I’m not the greatest racecar on the track? And so he does a little soul searching, and he goes off to find Doc Hudson’s old friends. And he meets with them in some backwater saloon style country place and they’re all at the back table shooting the breeze and telling old stories about the glory days gone by.
And Lightning McQueen starts talking with Doc’s old buddy Smokey. And basically he says, “I don’t want what happened to Doc to happen to me.” And Smokey, an old red pick up truck, kinda squints at him, “what did happen to Doc?” Well, you know - racing was the best part of his life. After the accident, and he couldn’t do it anymore, he was never the same. And Smokey says, “Is that what you think? And this is the quote I wanted you to hear, “the crash broke Hud’s body, and the no more racing broke his heart… son of gun didn’t talk to me for 50 years, but then one day the letters started coming in. And every last one of them was about you. Hud loved racing, but coaching you - I’d never seen the old grump so happy. Racing wasn’t the best part of Hud’s life, you were.”
I gotta say, I don’t love everything Disney puts out, but Cars 1 and Cars 3 are strangely profound for a kid’s movie. Now as most of you know - we are diving in to our Chronological Bible study, where we are reading through the entire bible in a year. We are all the way up to the book of Samuel, and that seems as good a place as any to get started.
We open up in chapter 3, and Samuel is just a kid serving in the temple with a priest named Eli. [read v.2-5]. Now, as a parent of young children, who sometimes come and try to wake me up in the middle of the night - I want to say kudos to Eli for not yelling at him. No, I didn’t call you, go back to bed. [read v.6]. Now at this point, it almost feels like God is playing a practical joke on Samuel and Eli. Like this is right up there with the classic whipped cream-feather prank, right? You know what I’m talking about? You wait until someone is taking a nap in a chair, and you squirt whipped cream into their hand, and then you take a feather and tickle their nose - so when they go to itch their face they end up whip creaming themselves. That’s the vibe I’m getting from this moment where God is calling and causing confusion for people who are just trying to sleep. But here’s the beautiful part - it’s not a prank. It is the quiet persistence of a God who will make his voice known to his people. He calls again, [read v.8-9]. Speak Lord, your servant is listening - and that story is incredibly famous. They call it the Call Of Samuel, and most of the time people use it to illustrate God’s call in our lives. We read this passage, and I’m supposed to ask you, “what is God’s call on your life? Are you listening for God’s voice?” And we all go home and try to listen better while we’re sleeping or something.
But this past week I had a different question burning in my heart. I don’t want to know if God is calling you - I already know he is. Every single person in the room has a call from God on their heart. But I want to know what you do with it. When God speaks into your life, what do you do with that call? How do you respond? The call isn’t the big deal - your response is. For example, imagine if Samuel wakes up the next morning and is sitting at the breakfast table and Eli comes in and says, “well? How’d it go.” And Samuel says, “It was so fun, God really spoke to me. It made me feel really special.” And Eli takes a long slow sip of his coffee and leans forward, “and…” Do you see what I’m trying to say? The God speaking part isn’t the finish line! That’s just the beginning! It’s like when you’re yelling up the stairs at your teenager, “pick up your laundry off the floor.” And they yell back, “I heard you.” [exasperated motions] I don’t care if my voice went into your ears, I want to know if the clothes are off the floor!” Hearing someone speak is not the finish line - it’s just the beginning! Or let’s relate it to the church calendar. This is the Sunday after Easter, right? Let’s imagine, Jesus rises from the dead, appears to the disciples and then eventually goes back into heaven - and the disciples look at one another and say, “We know Jesus rose from the dead. How nice for us. Let’s go hang out in a room, just us who know about Jesus, let’s sing songs about how nice it is for us to know that Jesus rose from the dead. And I want a really comfy chair, and I think we should use really pretty windows, because that’s nice for us.” I know I’m being ridiculous, but what I’m trying to show you is that sometimes in our lives - we are the ones being ridiculous! We cross the halfway point and think we’ve scored a touchdown. The resurrection, that we celebrated last week, it’s not the end of the story - it is only the beginning. The disciples job was not to BE disciples, it was to MAKE disciples. Our job is not to just BE disciples, to sit together in this place and be just so happy that at least WE know that Jesus was raised - no, our job is to MAKE disciples. It’s an important mental shift - we don’t want just be disciples, we want to be disciple-making disciples. Samuel’s job was not just to hear God speaking, but to listen and obey.
You see, when we forget where the finish line is - and we stop at just hearing God’s voice, and we stop at just BEING disciples instead of making disciples, we make our life all about us. We make our faith all about our personal preferences. And I know it sounds weird, but if you’re going to be a Christian - your life is no longer about you. When you make your faith all about yourself, you will fail to finish strong. Most of us know this story of the Call of Samuel - sleeping kid, woken up multiple times, “speak Lord, your servant is listening.” But off the tip of your head, can you remember what God was calling Samuel to do? Most people don’t read the next verse! Verse 11, [read v.11-13]. I’m going to do a shocking thing, I’m going to punish Eli. I bet that made breakfast the next morning really awkward. Eli was a priest in the temple who settled on making his life about himself. He did not care about the next generation - and his sons were wicked men. When you make your life about yourself, when you neglect the next generation, you may start off incredible - with a great story, but you will fail to finish strong.
And this idea - that someone starts out strong, focuses on themselves too much, and then fails to successfully invest in the next generation - this is actually a rhythm in the book of Samuel. You actually will see it over and over in the text. The entire book is FULL of great starts, people who start out doing SO well - and then they trip before they get to the finish line. And there is perhaps no greater example than the one and only King Saul. For those who don’t know the story, Israel is coming out of the time of judges - and it was very chaotic with cycles of oppression, and so Israel wanted a King. You get to chapter 8 and it basically goes like this. We want a king! Samuel warns them, “eh, no - kings are terrible. They’ll go corrupt and take advantage of you Better for us to follow God.” And Israel responds, “No! Those people over there have a king, and so we want a King.” So God raises up a man named Saul - and Saul has such an epic beginning. Saul was this amazing warrior, head and shoulders taller than most men - and he led Israel to victory after victory. Chapter 11 he beats the Ammonites, chapter 13 he wars with Philistia. Chapter 14, verse 47 says [read v.47-48]. He was everything they dreamed he would be. Saul started strong - he started strong, like Eli, like Samuel - but then he made it about himself. When the time came for Saul to hand over the reigns - you might remember that little story of David and Goliath. David defeated Goliath, and was supposed to be given the kingdom. But rather than work for a smooth transition of power, Saul clung to his power. He made it all about himself, and he failed to finish strong. And we’ll talk more about Saul and David next week, but what we learn from that, what we see in the text is that if you want to finish strong, we have to pass on what we have to others. Finishing strong means an intentional focus on legacy. You see it with Eli and Samuel, you see it with Saul and David, and you see it in each of our lives.
Think about your faith journey - have you made your faith all about you? Have you settled for just BEING a disciple, instead of MAKING disciples? One of the greatest reasons the church in America is dying is that we have become inwardly focused. We ask the wrong questions. We ask the question - “what do the people who are already in here want” rather than asking “what do the people who are still out there need” We make our wants more important than their needs. I think about this church - one of the most impressive things I have seen is the way you blend worship music. This is a congregation that knows their hymns. You guys love traditional music, and that is evidenced in the volume of singing. And yet, in this place, rather than focusing on what I want personally, you are intentionally providing music that will reach people in the younger generation who don’t know Jesus yet. Finishing strong in our faith means an intentional focus on legacy, on passing on what we have to others.
The good news this morning is that God works through you, not just in you. In the beginning, when we first come to faith, and we are figuring out who Jesus is and how he affects our life - God starts working in us. When we give our lives to Jesus, there is a transformation that happens in our lives. The old self dies, and we are resurrected to new life in Christ. That is the incredible work that God works IN us, but what I hope you’re catching today is that that is not the finish line! God’s work IN us is just the beginning - what we see when we start talking about legacy and succession in the book of Samuel is that after he works in us, God works THROUGH us. There’s an old quote, that everybody loves to pull out of Philippians, let me read this for you. Philippians 1, verse 6 says, [read it]. God began a good work with you, and he will finish it. And every time someone reference that verse, they seem to be talking about themselves. God started this work in my heart, and he’s still working on me, and he won’t give up on me and he’s going to finish this work in me. And that’s all true - God WILL complete his work in you. But that’s not what it says. Let me read it again slowly, [read v.6] - we are talking about something much bigger than our individual lives. We are a part of something that will continue to change the world until Jesus comes back. This is not just a work IN our lives, but a good work THROUGH us into the world.
God works through you, not just in you - and the way we respond to that is to remember: your faith is not about you! To finish strong we need to intentionally focus on legacy, on reaching and sharing our faith with those who do not know Jesus. One of the things we’ve talked about in ministry at this church is how close this campus is to SVSU. They talk about how there’s so much potential for College ministry. And I hear some people talking and they’ll say things like, “well, if we can get some young people in here, we can get them to do this or this or this for us.” But that’s backwards - don’t you see? Rather than asking how can new people benefit our church, the question should be how can we pour into them? What can we offer them from the gifts that we have? Because God is working through us. See here’s the thing about college ministry - it’s transitional. A lot of those students move into town for 3, 4, maybe 5 years? The church is not a lake, gathering up as big a crowd as humanly possible. It’s a river of people flowing through our community, who we try to bless as they come through.
If God is going to work through us, that’s a call of hospitality for every ministry. For a lot of volunteers in the church, we have a mentality of “this is my ministry, and I will do it until I don’t feel like doing it anymore, and then I will pass it on.” But I want to shift that mentality. It’s a culture shift for the church. I want us to become more hospitable in our ministries - to always be welcoming new faces, and always be teaching what we do to those around us. If you’re ministry stops with you, you’ve got the finish line in the wrong spot. And let me take a moment to admit - this is something I struggle with myself. It is so much easier to just focus on ourselves. It is so much easier to just say, “I’ll just take care of it.” To include others in our work takes longer, and it’s usually more frustrating. But finishing strong means an intentional focus on legacy. It means moving beyond God’s work IN us, and getting into God’s work THROUGH us.
Okay, so as you may be noticing I usually finish up my sermons with a challenge for each of you. I always try to ask the question “so what?” How does all this stuff about legacy and Samuel and Saul affect us today? And so I have two challenges for you coming out of the text today. First, I want you to set your eyes on the real finish line, which is to say sharing God with OTHERS. Don’t stop with just YOUR personal faith journey. Your personal journey is so important! But that’s the 50 yard line. Baptism is not the end, it’s the beginning. Resurrection is not the end of the story, it’s the beginning. God working in you is not the end, it’s the beginning. Finish strong by focusing on sharing God with others. So set your eyes on the real finish line.
And I want to be very practical about this. This is something I’ve been learning - I want to encourage you to make a list. Make a list of people in your life who do not know Jesus, and then just start praying for each person every day. Pray for your list. Ask God to show you opportunities to share the gospel with them, to share the story of Jesus with the people around you. And I know - I know, some of you might be thinking, “Pastor JJ, I’m not an extrovert. I’m not good at sharing my faith. God’s not done working in me, so he can’t work through me.” So many of us assume we are not capable - so let me close with this story.
I actually never wanted to be a pastor. God put a call on my life, and I ran in the opposite direction. My dad’s a pastor, my mom’s dad is a pastor, my great grandfather was a missionary - it’s the family business, and I was NOT interested. But God’s call was relentless, so I ended up in seminary to be a professor - not a pastor. I don’t want to be a pastor, I want to be a professor. Professors are cool, pastors are lame. But part of seminary is field education, you have to go out and serve in a ministry somewhere. Some of us were counselors or chaplains, but most of us became interns at churches. Young guy, recently married in seminary, working in a big church in the suburbs of Chicago? Of course they put me in youth ministry. I became the youth intern. I don’t want to be a pastor, but I have to get the credit for school. Then one day I got a call from a mom of some of the youth. She said, “My son is on the basketball team. And he got in a fight with a boy in the locker room. Both boys are in the youth program - can you talk to them?” Now, remember - I don’t want to be a pastor. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I said, sure - I can at least talk to them. So I cleaned my office, I sat down - pulled a couple bible verses, and the boys arrived. Now I have to explain - when those kids arrived in my office, I had like an out of body experience. I don’t remember what I said, I probably wasn’t very elegant. Because in the back of my mind, the whole time I was talking to them - I’m on my knees praying for help. Like, I’m sitting at the table but in my mind I’m crying out to God, “God, you’ve got to help me. I don’t know what I’m doing. God, please give me the right words, or at least help me so I don’t screw things up too bad. Or if I do say something dumb, please send someone smarter than me to fix it when they leave my office.” I talked with the boys for 20 minutes, I think I prayed, and then we went to Steak and Shake. That was it, and I knew I failed. I knew whatever I said wasn’t good enough. But then a week later, I get a phone call, the mom’s on the other line in tears, and my first thought - “oh geez, what have I done? I’m never talking to another young person as long as I live.” But as she talked I figured out it was tears of happiness, she said, “I don’t know what you said, but my son just invited that other boy over to play basketball, and they’re out in my driveway right now. Thank you.” That moment was pivotal for me. It’s a big part of the reason I'm a pastor standing in front of you right now. And I want to make it very clear - it was not my elegance or bible knowledge. I was not perfect or ready. But God worked through me to create a transformation, and if he can do it through me - imagine what God can do THROUGH all of us, working together.
In the Disney classic Cars - Lightning McQueen thought his mentor was never the same after he couldn’t race anymore. He never realized that the happiest days were after he became a mentor and coach. Investing in the people around you, teaching and sharing Jesus Christ, moving beyond yourself, setting your eyes on the true finish line and letting God work THROUGH you - that’s how you finish strong. Let’s pray.