This month I am given the honor of preaching at the ordination and installation of a young man I once served as pastor. This ranks right up there with the privilege of serving as "ordinator" at my own son's ordination a little more than a decade ago. I am honored because I really had a very small role in Chris' journey to become a pastor — it is the Lord's work. I am quite fond of Chris and his wife and two daughters. I almost feel like they are my kids, all grown up, and their daughters feel like grandchildren to me, of whom I am very proud, although, again, I had so little to do with their upbringing. Chris' ordination brings me a great deal of joy and thanksgiving to God for His works and His ways.
It also provides one of those moments that cause one to look back in life, and remember, and evaluate. I remember approaching my ordination/ installation back in 1980. I had dreamed of being a pastor in a suburban congregation, just like those I had grown up in. I wanted to be in Minnesota, the state I call my home state, no matter where I may live. I had hoped for a mid-sized, single point parish. I expected my whole family would come for the occasion because it was such a landmark moment in my life. None of the dreams and imaginings I had came true. The parish was rural and multiple points, the state was Nebraska, and my father was critically ill in the week of my ordination and so, he and my mother were unable to come - and never did see my first parish.
But what I encountered was so much more than I had imagined or dreamed. I entered a world quite unlike anything I had encountered before, rural Pierce, Nebraska, and met wonderful people who invited me into their lives. I found a joy in teaching and preaching that I expected, but had not fully appreciated until I experienced it. Some of the things I had feared most brought me the greatest satisfaction, and some of the things I had dreamed about and desired proved to be less rewarding than I would have guessed. My dreams shrank and the welfare of the people I was called to serve became paramount. It was different from what I had expected and different than I would have chosen for it to be, but it turned out to be better than I had anticipated, and far more rewarding.
That is how God works. He gives us what we need, and calls us to do what He has planned. We often desire something else, and have bigger, or different, dreams and expectations, but the richest blessings lie in the path the Lord has chosen. It is not uncommon for those who serve God to find that what they dreaded or did not want in fact turns out to provide their greatest joys and rewards. He knows what He is doing, and He knows where He is leading us. We often do not. We have different thoughts, and we expect to find our place in different tasks. But He who created us knows what will prosper under our hands and what it is that will cause us to thrive.
I can think of things I would never have chosen for myself that I have discovered I really enjoy, or that I am able to do well at, much to my surprise. When I entered the ministry, the last thing I wanted to do was deal with "youth ministry". I substitute-taught during my vicarage year, and came away confirmed in the idea that the last place I wanted to be was "locked in" a room full of children. Now, decades later, I have found that I have worked quite well with the youth of my congregations, when there were some. I found working with them rewarding, and they seemed to respond quite well to me. I have discovered a great joy in working with kids, even when I substitute in schools.
One can wonder what life might have been like, if everything had worked as they had hoped, but it is a waste of time to dwell on it. It isn't real. One might just as well try to imagine what the world would have been like if mankind had not sinned, or what their own lives would have been if they had chosen different paths and made different decisions than they did. A world without sin would have undoubtedly been a better world, but it would have been so different that we simply cannot conceive of it, let alone fix our place in such a world. It is a fantasy, which may be entertaining to speculate upon, but not productive or useful in any way. The only practical course is to imagine where we might go from here, within the reality in which we find ourselves.
Looking back, I can see my mistakes, errors, sins. I can see the good things too, but it is my failures and sins that stand out to me most clearly. The questions of "what if" and "what might have been" are the easiest to conjure up. However, when I see my sins and mistakes, the gospel comes to mind. I then find comfort in forgiveness. Even though I have erred, even done things deliberately that I should not have - sin - God is with me, and blesses me, and guides me. He has taken decisions I have made and used them to open doors for ministry, and filled my path with blessings and good things that simply would not have existed if I had done otherwise. That is the comfort a pastor has, for example, as he considers a call. What is God's will? Who can be certain? But when I make the decision with prayer and careful consideration, I know that no matter which way I go, God is going to be with me to bless me and to advance His work. I trust that the decisions I make conform to His will, but even if God might have intended I do the other (if that is even possible), His love is with me, and He will bless my work in His field and among His people.
Look what He did with sin! Is there any good thing about human sin? Absolutely not! Yet, God took our sin and made of it the opportunity to do something glorious! He took on our nature and lived among us. Then He died in our place and redeemed us. Now the Bible says that when we see Him, we shall be like Him. We shall be something more, due to the grace of God in salvation, than we were in the state of pristine purity before the fall. Is sin good? Not at all, but God took our sin and made something wonderful beyond estimation!
Even on a mundane level, one might wonder if we personally would exist if it were not for sin. Our ancestors met and married under conditions of wars and disasters all of which arose due to sin. I have ancestors from at least seven nationalities that I can name with confidence. They met and mingled due to wars and plagues and famines, and economic crises. Those undesired conditions were the tools which God used to stir the pot of the nations and produce each of us. Without sin, would it have happened?
Of course, the question is silly. The Scriptures tell us that God knew us from eternity, and chose us to be His own. Each of us has our existence not simply in this world of sin, but also as a result of it working as it has. God knew, and He planned for each of us, and made us His own in this world. To ask the question of how it would have been without sin is like asking what we would breathe if there were no air? It is a fantasy condition that does not exist, and a question that cannot be answered, at least not by man.
On the other hand, when I see the many things that have gone well, my successes and the things I have been able to accomplish by the grace of God, thanksgiving comes to mind. I must thank God for all that has gone well, because I know it has been His aid and guidance on each step that has given me whatever success I have known, and I thank God for His grace and forgiveness that allowed me to know joys and successes in spite of my sins. I also thank God that He did what was right in His eyes, and gave me the blessings I have, the life I live, rather than the ones I would have chosen. I have blessings today that I could not have if I had made different choices, or life had gone in a different direction, in the past. I know that with certainty, and I am unable to wish away the good things for an unknown alternative, simply because the path leading to today has been challenging at times.
Now, tomorrow looks spooky at times. The political and economic possibilities have a distinctly darker tinge to them as a result of what is going in the world around us. Time also goes by and we all age, and there are possibilities that loom in the future that can make even the brave flinch. But they are merely possibilities. The same heavenly Father who has brought me so far stands next to me, promising to walk with me and open the future before me, that I may do His will and serve Him in this life He has given me, and in my vocation. Looking forward can be exhilarating or terrifying, depending on how one chooses to view the future. I have to look at it from the perspective of faith. I also find that looking forward is always best done in concert with looking back.
When I look back I see that God has always been with me. He has brought me through many dark places, but always with blessings and joy. I also note, when I look back, that so much that seemed so intimidating and frightening was without any real substance. I was once told that fear is a False Expectation About Reality, meaning that so much of what we fear never happens or produces the horror we anticipate. While that appears to be generically true, I know that it is specifically so for the child of God because God is with him or her. So, when I look forward and see the scarey shadows of possibility before me, I remember the grace and love of God and I know that most of what I fear is mere shadow, and the realities that I encounter I will encounter with God at my side, helping and guiding me. I also remember His promise: No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.
I am the child of God, as are most of you who are reading this, I assume. We have wonderful promises about this life and especially about the life to come, when this world of sin and sorrow is no more. I look forward to doing good things in this world, and helping others find God's promises and encouragement as they make their way through this world. I also look forward to that life in the world to come. That is one of the great reasons for patience in this world. It is worth the work and the wait - or so I am told. Paul wrote: For I am persuaded that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Looking forward, I am excited by the future, both here and in the world to come. I am excited here because I see the will of God that things continue, that His Word be proclaimed, that life in His kingdom here on earth go forward. One of the signs for me is that ordination coming up this month. It is not because I am preaching. That is just a personal joy. It is because faithful and gifted young men continue to be called into the service of our Lord. I am personally excited about this one because I know Him and I feel some connection with Him and I think of my journey in the ministry and how it sort-of begins again in the life of another young man. Just when I am feeling a little old and can see the end of my time coming (or so my imagination says), I see the whole thing being renewed by someone younger and better equipped for the days in which he will serve. It just brims with excitement and hope, and the certainty that God is taking it forward another generation!
Knowing God makes life. It makes it exciting at times. It makes life a challenge to be confronted. Sometimes faith is what makes life endurable. How faith in the gospel and knowing God changes life depends on what life is handing you at the time, but it always makes it better, fuller, something to rejoice in and savor and give thanks for. Solomon said it something like this: Go then, eat your bread in happiness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life, and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. (Eccl. 9:7-9 & 12:13)
Yours in the Lord,
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