David Jeremiah - Stay Constructive
Atheism, you see, finds its voice because our culture has become totally secularized, and secularization is not neutral. It's inherently antichristian, and there's nothing constructive about secularization or atheism. Look at what happened in the 20th century through the influence of the most famous atheist in the world. Who were they? They were Lenin, and Stalin, and Hitler, and Mao Zedong. And without God, all they did was tear down. And that's all you can ever do without God. With Christ, we're in the business of building up. So, as Christians, and we're trying to figure out how to live with confidence in these chaotic days, as we face these perilous times, our message should be fresh, and positive, and exciting, and energetic, and imminently constructive.
Let's go back and see if we can get a balance on this. Back in the Old Testament, there's a beautiful passage about the shifting seasons of life. One of its statements is this, Ecclesiastes chapter 3. "There is a time to tear down, and there's a time to build up". Within living memory, we've seen both. Half a century ago, there was a time to build up. I remember reading not long ago an author by the name of Stephen Ambrose, who wrote extensively about the Second World War and the generation of young men who returned from that war. Ambrose's father came home from the war, put up a backboard, and a whole squad of ex-GIs from the neighborhood came over regularly to play basketball. Ambrose never remembered their last names, but he did remember the scars on their arms and on their chests. And as he reflected on their accomplishments, he wrote these words. Listen.
"But, in fact, these were the men who built modern America. They had learned to work together in the Armed Services in World War II. They had seen enough destruction. They wanted to construct, so they built the interstate highway system and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the suburbs so scorned by the socialists, so successful with the people. They had seen enough killing, and they wanted to save lives. They licked polio. They made other revolutionary advances in medicine. They had learned in the Armed Forces the virtues of solid organization and team work, and the value of individual initiative, inventiveness, and responsibility. They developed the modern corporation, while inaugurating revolutionary advances in science and technology, education, and public policy. These men," said Ambrose, "labored. They filled their station wagons and their ranch style homes with children, and they retired. Perhaps they really are, The Greatest Generation".
That was a time to build up. But then, of course, came the time to tear down. You've lived through that time and so have I, decades of national division. Future generations are going to look back at us, and they're going to see a season of want destruction. From top leadership all the way down to the man on the street, we've been about the business of demolition, rather than construction. We've become adept at poisoning the wells of culture, of politics, and of business, and spirituality. For reasons unknown, we've begun tearing down everything between ourselves and the horizon.
We've torn down integrity. We've torn down purity. We've torn down honesty and respect and national pride. We've torn down ideals and dreams, and we've torn down our sense of shame. We've torn down political aspiration. We've torn down everything we began to build at the birth of our nation. We began the new millennium with terrorism on our own soil, with high school shootings and with dramatic rollbacks of traditional and moral boundaries. We shouldn't be surprised. If we read our Bibles, we know this has been the prophecy that was delivered. In fact, it was Paul who tells us not to be surprised at what we're currently experiencing.
Eugene Peterson's paraphrase puts it this way, 2 Timothy 3:1-5, listen. "Don't be naïve. There are difficult times ahead. As the end approaches, people are going to be self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. They'll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they're animals. So stay clear of these people". I didn't write it. I didn't make it up. It's the paraphrase of 2 Timothy chapter 3, and it speaks poignantly of the days in which you and I are living. I realize it's easy to let this all discourage us. We could throw up our hands, and some people are doing that today. They're simply quitting. But that is not a godly attitude.
And according to the Scriptures, in a time of tearing down, we are to be about the work of building up. In a destructive world, we are to maintain constructive attitudes. It won't surprise you, I'm sure, if you know anything about the Bible, to learn that a lot of tearing down and building up have occurred in almost every generation, including the days of the Bible. For instance, there had been a time of tearing down in the life of the Apostle Peter. He had watched his Lord arrested and taken for execution. That one almost tore his life apart. But to make things worse, he himself had failed the most basic test of love, and that is loyalty. Even with a prediction from Jesus that should have served as a warning, Peter had denied his affiliation with his wonderful master, not one time, but three times.
In spite of our Lord's patient preparation of his impetuous disciple, Peter was constantly demonstrating the frayed fabric of his life. Time and time again, Peter proved that without Jesus, he was nothing. And now, at this particular moment in his life, it looked like he would once again be a fisherman. No more teachers, no more dreams. Peter's life had been so torn down that there was nothing left. In the comforting simplicity of the net and the sea spray, Peter thought back to the last time he had been a serious fisherman. The Master had come along, way back then, as you remember, recorded in the gospels, and had come to Peter and others and said to them, "Follow me". And Peter had seen, as the result of that, an incredible catch of fish, and he knelt before his teacher, and he said, Luke chapter 5, verse 8, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord"!
That experience had been a tearing down, as well, time of his humbling and a confrontation with his own unworthiness. Even so, Jesus had wanted him, and he had followed. And Jesus had said to Peter, "Do not be afraid, Peter. From now on you will catch men. Follow me". That's what Jesus had said. That's what Peter had done. And now having failed the Lord, he was just a fisher of fish again. I often think what it must've been like for Peter during those days, knowing in his mind that he had failed the one who had loved him the most and who he had loved the most. He must have wondered in his following days if there would ever be any more. The final chapter of John's gospel, however, gives us the postscript to that story. This man who had failed, who had failed so miserably, well, the Lord wasn't finished with him yet.
Again, Jesus is going to say to Peter, "Follow me". This will be the final time. And again, Peter will drop his nets and go, and this time to the ascension, to Pentecost, to the building of the Jerusalem church, and all the way to Rome, where he will die, according to tradition as a martyr. No more a coward, but now the courageous man that Jesus had intended him to be. I don't know what there is about Peter, but we all love him, don't we? And why not? I mean, there is so much reality and so much humanity in this one soul that comes through the ancient pages of the Scripture to make him so real. There is Peter who was the first to recognize Jesus as the Christ, and then there's Peter who denied he was even a friend, and there's Peter who stepped out of the boat, and Peter who almost drowned when his faith short-circuited. Jesus called him the rock one time. Another time he called him Satan.
Peter was so much like us; sometimes one step forward and two steps back. He was a man of highs and lows, of mountains and valleys, and that's why he makes such a perfect study for times like these. And that's why John 21, the final chapter in the gospels is considered a kind of epilog, and it contains the last words of the Savior before he ascended to heaven. Jesus is completing a conversation with Peter. And once again, he is going to foretell what lies ahead of this man, just as he had done back in the gospels. Read with me from John chapter 21 and verse 18. Jesus says to Peter, "...when you were younger you dressed yourself and you went wherever you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go".
On the night of his arrest, Jesus had correctly predicted an act of cowardice. Now he predicts an act of courage. He is saying that Peter will reach his older years, but that he will die with his hands outstretched, a euphemism for what Jesus had been through, a picture, if you will, of crucifixion. And if you study history, you know that's exactly what happened to Peter. He was crucified, by his own request, upside-down, because he did not feel himself worthy to be crucified in the same way as his master had been. But now that Peter is a fallen disciple, now he's about to hear the last words of our Lord once again. He will hear these words from Jesus: "Follow me". As this exchange occurs, Peter notices that someone else is already following.
According to John 21:20, Peter turns and he sees the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this is John, of course, because John is the one who is described in the gospels as the disciple that Jesus loved. But Peter still hasn't learned his lesson, and so he turns to the Lord, and he points to John, and he says, he says, "But Lord, what shall this man do"? And the Lord, even in the quietness of this moment and while he is trying to minister to his apostle, turns stern for just a moment and he says, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you, Peter? You must follow me". Jesus' final words to Peter were these: "You must follow me".
I wanted to begin right there today framing the story for this message, but I want to go back and examine, if I might, that fascinating conversation that led up to this moment in Peter's life. Back in John 18, we find the disciples in crisis and Jesus has been arrested, and two disciples have followed at a distance. One loving and loyal John will follow all the way to the cross, and the other, Peter, he's going to experience another relapse of doubt. Peter is always near and yet so far. He's followed Jesus to the point at which his courage fails. And beside a fire, where peasants warm their hands, a stranger voices the very question which Peter is really asking of himself.
The stranger says, "Aren't you one of Jesus' disciples"? And Peter hears himself say, "I am not". And worst of all, the growing suspicion in his heart is that he is telling the truth. He is not a disciple. He's given two more chances to correct it, and he does not. I'm sure, if you're honest, you've been there, as I have, doing or saying something wrong, feeling the sting of conviction, hearing the voice inside of us asking, "You are one of his disciples, are you not"? We also know that our first act of disobedience can become a slippery slope that sometimes turns into an avalanche, and that's what happened to Peter. And now at the end of his life, there's another fire, and there's another time where Peter is soul-searching.
And finally, in desperation he says to his friends, "I'm going fishing". And their fishing trip in John 21 ends up almost exactly like the one did in Luke chapter 5. Soon, they're catching so many fish, and they're spilling over the nets, and actually in this occasion, John actually counted them. So, there's a campfire, a breakfast, a reunion. There's laughter, probably a lot of questions. And three times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me"? And Peter answers in the affirmative. But watch carefully what's in the text. He uses the word "love" in our Bibles, as we read them, all three times. But in the first two questions the word "love" is the word "agape," the most powerful word for unconditional love, the supreme, sacrificial love word. Peter, do you really love me with the love of God?
And each time that Jesus asks Peter that question, he answers with a different word. He says, "Lord, you know I'm fond of you". Jesus asks Peter again, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me"? And Peter once again says, "Lord God, you know I'm fond of you". We've all been there, haven't we? Searching our own souls and asking ourselves, "Do we really love God, or are we just fond of him"? Finally, the last question, the Lord God accommodates himself to Peter's level of discipleship, and he says to Peter, "Peter, are you really even fond of me"? That all had happened back there in Luke, back in the early experience. Now it's happening again.
And now, once again, Peter is being asked about his relationship with God. Interesting in this passage of Scripture, we often stop here. This is the core message of John 21, but there's so much more, because after Peter responds to our Lord's three questions, the Lord Jesus gives him some instruction. And the instruction that he gives to Peter is at the very core of what it means to be constructive. Three times, Jesus speaks to the spirit of Peter and says to him, "Peter, if you really do love me, let me tell you what to do". He said, "Peter, if you're my disciple, here's my command to you. I want you to feed my lambs". And the second time, He says to Peter, "Not only do I want you to feed my lambs. I want you to tend my sheep". And then finally he says, "Feed my sheep". And sort of combines the two of them together.
What is Jesus saying to Peter? He's saying, "Peter, it's not about some abstract love that you claim to have and how that love might be measured on some scale. Peter, what I want to know is, do you love me enough to do what I've called you to do? Do you love me enough to minister to my people, to build my people"? And Jesus adds the final commandment at the end of this, and he says, "Follow me". As I read this chapter, and I've read it many times. In fact, people who come to Shadow Mountain know that John 21 is one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament. It's so filled with realism. And yet, at the core of this chapter is the message that I believe God has for us in this day in which we live. God has not called us to the empty admonitions, the empty assumptions of life. He's not saying to you, "Do you love me"? Sure, we love him. But what do we do when we love him?
We do what he tells us to do. What he told Peter to do is what he is telling us to do. We're to build our lives in a constructive way and make a difference in the world in which we live. This is no time for us to be tearing down, as we seem to be doing so incredibly well in the church. This is the time for us to grab hold of the initiative and build up. Before we close our Bibles today, I want to just take a moment and extrapolate from this passage of Scripture, some principles about what it means to be constructive. Principle number one in the application of this to all of our hearts is this. This whole building up business, this edification, this construction, it's not about us. It's about others. The Bible tells us that we're to build up one another.
I only know one passage in all the Bible that has anything to say about self-building or self-edification. In fact, if you study the New Testament, you know that the New Testament is a book of "we" passages, passages about community. I've made the comment many times that the word saint in the New Testament is never in the singular. It's always in the plural. So we need to be thinking lovingly and sensitively about the best way to lift people up. And Paul gives us a solid tip in 1 Corinthians 10. He says, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other's well-being". In other words, we're to be concerned about others.
If we're going to do as the Lord instructed Peter, if we're going to follow his admonition to Peter and to us, our role is no longer to be among those who tear down, but to join the ranks of those who build up. I remember not long ago reading a little section from a book by Erwin McManus, and he wrote these words. He said, "Unfortunately, for too many people, when the conversation is no longer about them, there's not much left to be said". To that assessment, he adds that "since we are each the center of the universe, everything is evaluated on whether or not it meets our own specific and special needs". I don't know how many times I've heard this, but people who come and go from churches always want to know the same thing: "Does the church meet my needs"?
And sometimes we need to just stop and ask this question: "Is that really the purpose of being a Christian, that your needs be met"? Or is it rather that we should be involved in the kingdom's work in meeting the needs of others? Especially those who are poor, especially those who do not have anything like what we have. This whole concept of building up men and women is not about just getting our needs met. It's about reaching out to those around us and strengthening them through the power of the Holy Spirit that flows through us. Rather than just being obedient to be a Christian, we need to be obedient in living like a Christian. The implication is that what serves the body takes precedence over what serves the individual.
I'd read about a group of women who were having dinner together shortly after one of the women had returned from Europe. And one of the women, a stay-at-home mom, was particularly low in spirit that day. She hadn't been to Europe or anywhere else exciting, and her life felt so drab, and she sort of felt like she was invisible. She surprised when her returning friend, the one who had come back from Europe, presented her with a gift, and it was a book about the great cathedrals in Europe. Inside the cover, her friend had inscribed these words, quote, "With admiration for the greatness of what you are building when only God can see".
And inside the book, she read the account of how one of the cathedrals was built. A visitor saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. And he watched the craftsman's concentrated movements for a few moments and looked up at the entire massive structure under constant construction for over a whole century, and he asked the carver, "Why are you spending so much time chiseling a tiny bird into the beam, and it's not even going to be seen? It's going to be covered by the roof. It's going to be hidden from everyone". And without looking away from his work, the craftsman simply replied, "I'm doing it because God sees".
As the woman read the story, she thought of the things in her life that were hidden from view: baking for church receptions, sewing patches on children's jeans, cleaning the house, and then cleaning it again when it was left messy. And she remembered now that God saw, and she felt better. Most of all, she realized that her friend had done a little carving on the weary beams of her soul. It was uplifting, edifying encouragement from a friend just at the right time. That's the way God uses us when we are committed to others. We must try to be ready for those moments, as Christians, especially during these times. Watching for the lagging moods of our friends and ready to take the Word and build into their life the message of encouragement. Sometimes even our most casual words, men and women, are to be spoken with regard to the ripple effect that issues. It's not about us; it's about others.
Let me give you the second principle. Edification is not about you; it's about others. And edification is not about what you profess; it's about what you pursue. Building is long and deliberate work, but destruction is the work of a thoughtless moment. You don't have to think before you tear someone down, but you have to think carefully to build someone up. Romans 14:19 puts it this way: "Therefore let us pursue the things that make for peace and the things by which we may edify" or build up "one another". Paul said to the Romans, "This is something you have to be proactive about. You have to pursue this. This isn't just gonna happen".
So many things keep us from pursuing the good of others. And it's so much easier for us to just take a moment and in a careless word to tear down instead of to build up. I don't know who wrote this little poem. In fact, I've looked around and can't find it. It's always with the word "Anonymous" at the bottom of it. So, we'll give credit to "Anonymous" here for this bit of poetry. But it speaks volumes.
Listen carefully. "I saw them tearing a building down, a group of men in a busy town. With hefty blow and lusty yell, they swung with zest and a side wall fell. Asked of the foreman, 'Are these men skilled, the kind you would hire if you had to build?' And he looked at me and laughed, 'No, indeed, unskilled labor is all I need. Why, they can wreck in a day or two what it's taken builders years to do.' I asked myself as I went my way, 'Which of these roles have I tried to play? Am I a builder with rule and square, measuring and constructing with skill and care? Or am I the wrecker who walks the town, content with the business of tearing down?'"
Good question, one we should ask ourselves often. Are you known for building up, or are you known for tearing down? Here's the third principle. Edification is not about how much you know. It's about how much you care. 1 Corinthians 8:1 says, "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up". Have you ever been hurting over something, when someone wanted to give you a detailed advice list, when all you wanted was somebody to listen to you? I've been there many times. We men, in particular, we live our whole lives without figuring out that often what our wives want from us is just to listen. What they want is to know that we care, that we empathize, and that we hurt with them.
We need to realize that everything we do at church, whether it's doctrine and information, or teaching, or small groups, or whatever, it all comes down to looking around on occasion and seeing that we can have a ministry to those who need a word from us. But we have to work at it, don't we? It doesn't come easy. It's not a natural thing. Let me give you the last principle before we close our Bibles today. It's really not about your wisdom. It's about his Word. And here's the passage, Acts 20:32. "So now, brethren, I command you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified".
The Word of God, according to Acts chapter 20, is a book that builds. And because of that, if we're going to make it through thee perilous days, these chaotic days, we need to be committed to the Word of God. It's the Word of God that will build. It's the Word God that will lift up. It is the Word of God that will get us through these times. It's not what we think; it's about what the Word of God says. So, yes, let's be honest. The real work is done in fellowship. We must never forget the deep private work of building that only the Holy Spirit can do through us in the body of Christ.
Many people stop during the autumn to take in the spectacle of geese migrating in flocks, and they've noticed that the geese fly in a formation, kind of a V formation, if you will. And it's more than just efficient. It's beautiful to watch, but it is efficient. And when they flap their wings, they create an uplift of air, an effect that is increased as you get to the back of the formation. Now, if you could watch this, and you could put it on time delay on your camera, you would notice that there is one goose at the point of the V; and after a certain time He drops off and flies to the back, and someone else takes the point. In this way, the geese take care of one another, and they don't allow any of their flock to get too tired. The strongest of the gees will lead until others rotate to the front and take their place. By cooperating and uplifting one another, the geese achieve long migrations that would be otherwise impossible.
They're a great example of how we're to get through life. Yes, we're to be constructive. I cannot predict what the condition of the world will be in the last days. I don't know anything of the circumstances of your life. But of certain truths, I can be extremely sure, and one is that Christ's return is closer than it was when we began this message today, and another is that his church will still endure, because it is eternal. And finally, I know that you have a place in that church, a place where you can heal and be healed, a place where you can take the lead and fall back on occasion for a rest, a place where you can build up others, and be built up yourself.
The world outside can only grow so dark. It can never be blacker than black. But inside the church, we have yet to see the ultimate brightness of pure light. We've yet to see the perfection of genuine love. We've yet to become these people that we're destined to become through the strengthening of the body of believers and through the work of Christ himself. When Christ returns, that will be the brightest, the most intense, the most beautiful light in all of creation. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world". I hope you are drawn to that light like a moth to a flame. What on earth should we be doing now? How can we live with confidence in a chaotic world? We can get together, we can serve the Lord, we can build one another up, and await his return.