My Sunday sermons given at Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR, for those who missed church or just want to see what we're up to. You can also listen to these sermons if you prefer. Just go to our church website and click the "Online Church" tab. Here's the link:

Monday, December 28, 2009

“Looking Back, Looking Ahead” - (12/27/09)

"Looking Back, Looking Ahead" - New Years Message

There are certain groups of people for whom periodic evaluation and/or retesting has been deemed to be very important:
  • Commercial airline pilots – drug testing, med. exams, check flights, etc.
  • Public school teachers – continuing education, yearly evaluations, etc.
  • Police officers – weapons requalifying, yearly evaluations, etc.
  • Fire fighters – regular testing, drug screenings, etc.
It is important too for Christians, as well as churches, to periodically pause to evaluate their spiritual health, their progress in maturity, and their effectiveness in the Lord’s service. The last week of December is a good time to do this, to stop and reflect back over the events of the year and make the necessary course adjustments in our personal lives and ministries. Like hikers on a mountain trail who not only look ahead but also stop and look back once in a while just to see where they have been, we too need to maintain a panoramic perspective. It is always good to keep checking your tracks to make sure you are covering fresh ground, not merely going in circles. We are constantly leaving footprints in the sands of time. A good tracker can tell a lot about an animal by the tracks it leaves – burdened, injured, its gender, age, size, weight, etc. Our tracks tell a story too.

The average American almost never pauses in his hectic schedule long enough to do any kind of personal inventory or self-evaluation. It is a fact that lots of people feel very threatened by introspective evaluation. We don’t want to look too closely at our lives because we are afraid we won’t like what we discover.

This is true of pastors and church leaders as well. All too often leaders are afraid of evaluation because we don’t want to face up to the fact that serious changes may be needed in the way we are going about things. Evaluation always implies that we will take necessary steps to correct the problems so that we can do better in the future. That involves risk and leaves us open to scrutiny and possible criticism, things that nobody likes.

Then, as if these roadblocks weren’t enough, there are always a few “Super-saint” types who claim that evaluation is the antithesis [the opposite] of grace. Their argument goes something like this: “We live under grace after all, not under the Law. The kind of personal evaluation you are proposing sounds like “bootstraps theology” to me, a doctrine of works. We just need to do our best and leave the results to God. He does not call us to be successful, only faithful. We are only responsible to plant seed and water it. The Lord is the One who brings in the harvest, after all. And Jesus Himself said that the wheat and tares would grow up together until the very end. I think we should leave the examining, evaluating, and judging to God.”

Now this kind of rhetoric sounds spiritual but, in fact, it doesn’t square with the teaching of Scripture. Evaluation does not stand in opposition to the grace of God. God’s Word clearly reveals that personal evaluation of our lives and ministries is both right and mandatory. In fact, even the great Socrates, though not a believer in the true God, saw the need for regular self-evaluation and mid-course corrections. He is reported to have stated: "The unexamined life is not worth living." I think he was correct.

In II Corinthians 13:5 Paul writes, Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” The implication is that it is better for us to test ourselves than to wait for someone else to do it. He goes on to say there should be no fear in doing this unless we indeed find that we are not in the faith. But in respect to eternity it is better that we find that out now while we can still do something about it rather than later.

In I Corinthians 11:26-28, in teaching about the importance of the Lord’s Supper, the apostle Paul makes it clear that we are to examine ourselves before we partake. Listen to his words: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” What does he mean by that? I believe he means that we are to make note of our attitudes, our overt sins and our sins of omission and then confess them to the Lord and receive forgiveness. This same examination or evaluation should lead us to make changes so that the problems do not continue or reoccur.

Brutal honesty in our self-evaluation is necessitated by the perversity of our natural state. We are sinners by nature as well as by choice, and the Bible says that we are rotten-to-the-core.
  • Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick. Who can understand it?”
  • An old familiar hymn puts it this way: “Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die. Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” Worm Theology is not popular these days. By far and away modern people prefer “I’m OK, you’re OK Theology.”
Understanding this fact, Paul gives a warning in Galatians 6:1-4 in the context of talking about us helping another brother to escape from the entanglements of sin. He writes: “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work…” Paul is saying that each Christian is to carefully examine his own work in order not to be deceived about himself.

The OT has many passages that challenge us to put our own hearts to the test, to carefully weigh our motives.
  • Lamentations 3:40, “Let us examine and probe our ways, and let us return to the Lord.”
  • Proverbs 14:15, “The naïve person [lit. simple] believes everything, but the prudent man [i.e. wise] considers his steps.”  
  • Revelation 2:4-5, "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first."  
Self-evaluation is always to be done under God’s supervision. We are not capable of being totally objective, so we need His help.
  • Psalm 26:2, “Examine me, O Lord, and try me. Test my mind [seat of our thoughts/intellect] and my heart [seat of our feelings/emotions].”
  • Psalm 139:23-24, Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts and see if there be any hurtful way in me; and lead me in the everlasting way" [i.e. the way of eternal, not temporal things].
The idea of all this is that a wise person will not only see the problems but do something about them (cf. James 1:21-27).
  • Psalm 119:59, “I considered (= scrutinized) my ways, and turned my feet to Thy testimonies.” 
Today, like Joshua and the Children of Israel, we stand on the edge of the Jordan of 2009 looking across to the Promised Land of 2010. We have come through many things in this past year. We can look back and, by our footprints, see where we have been.

For some of you this year has been the most difficult wilderness experience of your whole life. For others it has been a year of blessings and wonderful things. But hopefully, for all of us it has been a learning experience and an opportunity to sink our roots deeper into the grace and goodness of God and to grow in Christ.

If we insist on going blindly through life, bumping into things, and yet never stop long enough to examine what we keep bashing our shins on, then we are as ignorant as beasts and, moreover, doomed to continue being wounded time after time. This morning, on this the trailing edge of the year AD 2009, before moving into 2010, I am challenging all of us to invest the necessary time and energy to take a perhaps painful look at our lives and our relationship with the Lord to see whether or not things are truly in order. If we find that course adjustments are needed, then let’s covenant with God to claim His divine power to make the needed changes and get our spiritual, personal, family, and even financial life back on the right track headed in the right direction.

[Note: Following is a self-evaluation tool that we used yesterday, allowing 10-12 minutes for people to work on it just before the close of the service with a plea to complete it later at home. I hope that you, too, find it helpful.]

Personal Spiritual Inventory

Take a few moments to pray before you write anything.  Ask God to clearly show you areas of your life where changes are needed.  Then please respond honestly to the following questions.  I highly suggest that you write out your answers because it will help you organize your thoughts.

1. Why do we always feel so reluctant to evaluate our personal and spiritual lives?

2. Are there certain sins in your life that you commit regularly or habitually, sins that perhaps you have tried to excuse or shrug off saying, “That’s just the way I am”? [Name them one by one]
  • _________________________________________________________________
  • _________________________________________________________________
  • _________________________________________________________________
  • _________________________________________________________________
3. Has the Holy Spirit been convicting you about these things?  Do you know for a fact that God wants you to repent of them and to turn them over to Him to receive His forgiveness and cleansing?
Yes    No    I’m not sure  (Circle one)

4. What are the factors that have been holding you back from being fully surrendered to God in these areas of weakness and defeat?  [Be specific] _______________________________________________________________________

5. Are you now ready to turn these areas completely over to the Lord and ask Him to give you complete victory over the sins which have been robbing you of joy and side-tracking you in your service for Him?  If so, then write out your prayer to the Lord, confessing these things as sin, committing them to Him once and for all, claiming His promises of complete forgiveness and of His divine enabling, so that you can finally begin to walk in victory rather than in defeat.

“Dear Lord Jesus…

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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