12 – Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,
13 – for it is God Who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.
14 – Do everything without complaining or arguing,
15 – so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.”
My daughter Sarah loves to read the Guinness Book of World Records. In fact she has two copies on the book case in her room. And I must admit….it IS a fun book to read. For, by leafing through it’s pages you can gather all kinds of interesting trivia like: Who sent out the most Christmas cards ever? By the way, this record is held by San Francisco’s Werner Ernhard who in December of 1975 mailed 62,824. I wonder if the US Postal service sent him a “thank you” note?! The book is packed full of trivial but amazing facts….everything from the size of the world’s largest lasagna to how many gas pumps are in the world’s largest filling station.
Well, I was leafing through Sarah’s copy of this fascinating book this week when I came across data concerning the world record for domino toppling. I discovered that this particular record was set on January 3, 1988 when students from three Dutch universities set up 1,382,101 dominoes and by knocking over one, toppled them all.
NOW, That is a lot of dominos! In fact, it took thirty days of 12 hour shifts with as many as thirty-five students working at the same time to set them all up. This is an interesting use of college tuition! Now understand — these dominoes were not just the standard black and white variety but were multi-colored and in fact were very carefully arranged to illustrate pictures when they fell such as a drawing of the Ariane Space Project and paintings like Rembrandt’s Night Watch. And, by my estimate, once the first domino was toppled, it took nearly an hour for them to all finally fall. Guinness didn’t say how long it took them to clean up!
Now, I wasn’t fortunate enough to actually see this record breaking domino-toppling back in 1988 but I have seen other smaller versions. And no doubt you have as well. They seem to be especially popular around this time of year with red, white, and blue dominoes set up to illustrate our nation’s flag and in the process of falling they’re even rigged to launch rockets and light fire works.
But seeing these domino toppling displays shows that it really is amazing what can happen when you knock one little piece of wood over so that when it falls — another falls and another and another and another. It is a great way to illustrate that basic law of physics which says, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
And you know, this law doesn’t just apply to dominos…it’s principle is seen in the Kingdom of God as well. Jesus frequently referred to the impact — the equal and opposite reaction – that one Christian can have on the entire world. In the Sermon on the Mount He taught that Christians can be as influential as salt on a flavorless meal or light in a dark room. Then a few chapters later, in Matthew 13, He alluded to this again when He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
So Christians CAN have an incredible impact on society. As Paul put it in today’s text….we can shine “like stars in the universe.” And what is so amazing is that this influence can begin with just one person! When even one individual is changed by the power of God…then his peers are influenced by his change and they too hunger to be changed by God and so on and so on. This means that the most efficient way to change our nation and make it more godly is really as simple as dominos. We can positively impact our entire country by changing one individual…one heart at a time.
You see, nations as a whole do not trust in God. But nations are made up of individuals and individuals can trust in God. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of this principle in chapter 8. First in verse 5 he refers to the nation of Israel and asks, “Why then have these people turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away?” Then in verse 6 he answers his own question when he says, Here is why the nation has turned away: “No ONE repents of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle.” So nations turn from God when individuals do. It follows that if you want America to turn back to God and become a more Godly nation, then the best way to do this is to lead individuals to become more Godly. Tony Evans describes this “domino principle of Godliness” in this way: “If you want a better world, composed of better nations, inhabited by better states, filled with better counties, made up of better cities, comprised of better neighborhoods, illuminated by better churches, populated with better families, then you have to start by becoming a better person.”
So the biblical way to change our nation…to sanctify it and make it’s laws and policies more pleasing to God…..is to change people one at a time…..to make individuals truly sanctified and more Christlike. And this morning as we thank God for our nation and the freedom we enjoy I want us to remind ourselves of our responsibility to be a positive, powerful influence on society.
I want us to “topple a domino” today by looking at four principles of sanctification suggested by John Ortberg…..four things we need to know if we, as individuals, want to be more godly….more Christlike. Follow along in the outline printed in your bulletin….The first principle is this…
1. … SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION — IS NOT OPTIONAL. IT IS NORMATIVE.
Some Christians tend to believe that being transformed spiritually is something they can take or leave like extra frills on a new car they are purchasing. But the truth is everybody is in the process of being transformed spiritually whether they want to be or not. In Romans 12:1-2 Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Implied in this admonition is the fact that if you’re not being transformed by God’s renewing power, then you’re being conformed by the forces opposed to God.
So the question is not IF you’re going to be influenced and formed spiritually; the question is BY WHOM will you be influenced and transformed?
Now, God does want us to become sanctified. He wants us to be like Him. In I Thessalonians 4:3 it says, “It is God’s will that you should become sanctified.” And Hebrews 12:14 says, “Pursue peace with everyone and holiness because without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
God wants us to grow spiritually-but God will not force His influence upon us…it is our choice.
And if you don’t make this choice…if you don’t seek to be formed by God, then you have a spiritual adversary-the Evil One-who will be more than happy to do the task. You see, we live in a fallen world….an environment that deforms people spiritually and pulls them away from God.
It’s like a white blouse being washed with a load full of brand-new red T-shirts. Unless something is done, that white blouse is going to be changed! And it is the same with us — for we are so impressionable. If we don’t choose to be influenced by God….if we don’t “set our minds on things that are above,” then we will be influenced by the world.
When I was in seminary I served on staff in a church located in a northern state-INDIANA. And one summer we took our youth on a mission trip in a southern state-ALABAMA. We were in the south for a week putting on concerts, and leading Backyard Bible Clubs….it was a great trip!
But you know I quickly discovered that, my “yankee youth” were being influenced by their southern environment. A few days after we arrived they were talking just like natives….saying things like “Ah” instead of “I”…. “Mark, Ah think ah’ve got something in my ah.” They began using words like “ahmoan” … “Ahmoan have a co-cola. You want one?” One-syllable words like “YES” became two-syllabled-“Ye-yes”. And two syllable words like “Be-lieve” were reduced to one… “Blieve”…. “Ahm tard, I blieve ahm goin’ to bed.” Now no real harm was done…in fact we had a lot of fun with this when we returned home. Jokes about how people talked in the south spread like falling dominos all over Indiana for quite some time. And I’m sure that similar jokes concerning the odd way those youth from the north talked spread all over Alabama that summer.
But being spiritually influenced by the sinful world in which we live is no laughing matter. We must realize that we will be “conformed” to the world around us, just as easily as my youth were, unless we choose otherwise. We live in an ungodly society and unless we choose to be influenced by God, we will become ungodly ourselves. For spiritual transformation is not optional…it is normative. And then….another thing we should know about spiritual growth is that …..
2. IT IS A PROCESS-NOT AN EVENT.
In Philippians 3:12 Paul wrote, “I have not already obtained all this or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” In other words he said, “I haven’t arrived yet. I’m still on the road.” Spiritual growth takes time and this may be the hardest thing for us to grasp when it comes to the subject of sanctification. For, we live in such an instant gratification society. We impatiently want everything right away. We have 10-items or less check out aisles at our grocery stores and nearly blow a gasket if we end up in one of these lines behind someone who is mathematically challenged. We want elevators to respond to our needs instantly. Have you ever seen anyone impatiently waiting for the elevator and watched them as they respond by pressing the button repeatedly. Somehow they seem to believe that the elevator is going to say to itself, “That guy on the fourth floor is in a big hurry. I better skip all the other floors and head right down there for him.” And we tend to be just as impatient when it comes to spiritual growth. But sanctification just does not happen that way.
Spiritual growth is life-time task that we never finish. And, in your life-long pursuit of godliness, you will often fail. When this happens the Apostle Paul has a strategy…look at verse 13….he says, “this one thing I do: forgetting what is behind…I press on.” We tend to think that forgetting is a bad thing….something we shouldn’t do…but forgetting is indispensable to spiritual growth and maturity. There was once and elderly couple sitting on a park bench. The husband looked at his wife and said, “I’m going over to that ice cream store. Do you want anything?” And she said, “Yes, I want a sundae. Strawberry ice cream with hot fudge, whipped cream, nuts, and no cherries. In fact, you better write it down….you’re liable to forget.” But he said, “No I won’t. I have a mind like a steel trap.” She said, “No….I know what your memory is like. You will forget. Write it down.” He insisted, “No I will not forget.” Well, he leaves and is gone for an hour. When he comes back he hands his wife a brown paper bag. She opens it up and pulls out a ham sandwich. She looks at her husband and says, “You forgot the mustard.”
Now this is a silly story but we DO tend to think of forgetting as something that gets us into trouble or something we shouldn’t do….but the truth is you can’t make any progress on the road to spiritual maturity unless you follow Paul’s advice and “forget what lies behind.” Forgetting is a key tool that we must learn to use, if the process of spiritual transformation is to continue in our lives.
Now we DO need to confess our sinful mistakes and learn from them but then we need to move on. We can’t be shackled by the past. You will slip and mess up…that is guaranteed…but we must avoid the danger of becoming discouraged and quitting when this happens for spiritual transformation is a process…not an event. It is more of a marathon than a 100-yard dash.
One of the most important lessons to learn about the Christian life is that God isn’t so much into speed as He is into distance. I believe it was Oswald Chambers who said, “Discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction.” You see, the biblical picture of spiritual growth is one of forward motion: a pilgrimage, a journey — not an arrival. In actuality we never “arrive” on this side of eternity-for the Christian life is not just a one time commitment. It is an ongoing walk.
In Colossians 2:6-7, Paul writes, As you received Jesus Christ as Lord…so WALK in Him rooted and built up in Him. We must be determined to move forward….to not let anything slow our forward motion as we strain to be more and more like Jesus day by day.
So,Spiritual growth is not optional; it is normative….spiritual growth not an event….it is a process….and then thirdly, spiritual growth…
3. IS A TEAM EFFORT BETWEEN US AND GOD.
You know psychologists say that one of the primary causes of conflict in homes these days has to do with disputes over whose job it is to do what….the “division of labor” so to speak. Family members argue over who is supposed to take out the garbage and who’s supposed to wash the dishes, etc. I remember my parents having disagreements over this issue. Dad was raised on the farm and to him the division of labor was simple: whatever had to be done outside the walls of the house was man’s work and whatever had to be done within the walls of a house was woman’s work. This is how it worked on the farm and he just felt it should work the same way in the suburbs of Dover, Delaware.
Well, my mom wasn’t raised on a farm. Her dad was an engineer, so they had no fields to plow or cows to milk. In her home everyone-male and female alike — helped out…both within the house and outside of it as well.
So in the early years of their marriage mom and dad had some heated “discussions” over this and as usual….mom won. She allowed dad to teach my brothers and me to mow the lawn and do basic yard work but she also taught us to iron clothes and wash dishes. We did both! And you know for many Christians there is confusion about the “division of labor” when it comes to spiritual growth or sanctification. They ask, “Is it God’s job to mature me or is it mine?”
Some Christians think that our becoming Godly is totally God’s job. They say, “If I do anything at all….if I make any effort to be holy, then I am living by works and not by grace.
So sanctification is SOLEY God’s job!” They support their position by quoting verses like I Thessalonians 5:23-24 which says, “May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you entirely…the One Who calls you is faithful and He will do this.” Citing verses like this they say that human effort at Godliness is futile. It’s doomed from the start. They feel that spiritual growth is simply not their responsibility and that to teach that it is — is to be opposed to the doctrine of grace.
Then, on the other hand some Christians believe just the opposite and say that spiritual growth or sanctification is all our job.They may cite verses like Leviticus 11:44 which says, “I am the Lord your God. Sanctify yourselves, therefore. Be holy for I am holy.”In effect, they believe God’s job is to make sure He is holy; our job is to make sure we are holy. Perhaps you’ve met some of these “Rambo” Christians who are determined to make themselves into godly people. They see Christianity as a contest to see who is the most holy, who has memorized the most Bible verses, witnessed to the most people, has the most regular quiet time, etc.
But you know….neither of these viewpoints is really wrong. In fact they are both right for spiritual maturity is a joint effort between God AND us. In our text for today Paul wrote, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” But then he continued and said, “…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to both will and to work for His good pleasure.” So Paul pulls this all together and says that both God and believers have a part in their spiritual maturity. To understand this further, look again at Romans 12:2 where it says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” In this verse Paul uses a certain grammatical form which is a combination of the imperative and the passive.
Now, an imperative is of course a command like when you tell someone to do something like, “Stop!” or “Go!” But a passive is when something happens to you like when you get hit BY a truck..
Well, in this text Paul uses a combination of these two grammatical forms known as a… “passive imperative.” He says, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” So, Paul doesn’t say spiritually transform yourself….nor does he say sit around and do nothing. He says actively pursue the transforming power of God….Do all you can to make yourself changeable by God. You see, we DO have a role to play in spiritual growth but we don’t control it…our spiritual maturity is a “both/and” thing…a joint effort between us and God.
You know, in life there are some things we can control. We can make phone calls, drive a car, run an errand. But some things we can do nothing about like the weather…only God can change the weather or the Orioles only God can help them.
So in life there are some things we can control and things we can’t but there is also a third category. For example think about going to sleep. You can’t make yourself go to sleep the way you can make a phone call or drive a car.
But you can get in a dark room, lay down on a soft mattress, turn out the lights, play one of my sermon tapes, and eventually sleep will come. You can’t control it but you can make yourself more open to it. You can make yourself better able to go to sleep.
Think of the differences between a motor boat and a sail boat. In a motor boat I’m in control. I start the engine, control the speed, and go wherever I want. But John Forrer would tell you that sailing is different. You don’t control the speed.
Now when I’m sailing, I’m not totally passive, I have a role to play-I hoist the sails and steer with the rudder-but I am still utterly dependent on the wind. There is no room for believing I’m in control, because if the wind doesn’t blow, I’m dead in the water. When the wind blows, on the other hand, amazing things happen.
The third chapter of John’s gospel records a time that Jesus was talking about life in the spirit. He said, “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Jesus is reminding us that the wind is free and powerful — way beyond our control. And He compares the sanctifying, maturing work of the Holy Spirit to the wind. It is powerful and mysterious. We can’t control or manufacture it. We can’t come up with a program with predictable results we control. Spiritual growth is empowered by God. He is the One Who supplies the “wind.” But on the other hand, we’re not passive. There are several things we can do that enable us to catch the maturing, transforming wind of God’s Spirit. Things like developing a growing prayer life…..or devoting ourselves to the study of God’s written word….or becoming active in a local church. We can “spread our sails” in these ways and be empowered by God to grow and mature as His followers.
If we don’t do this….if we don’t make ourselves open and available to God, then we are dead in the water spiritually. We don’t progress in our journey toward godliness.
So,Spiritual growth is not optional. It is normative. It is a process, not an event. It is a team effort between us and God and then one more thing…
4. IT IS NOT SELF-CENTERED.
You know there is a danger in pursuing spiritual growth for many times in our desire to become more and more like God we get off track and get individualistic and even narcissistic. The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day are a great example of this, for they thought of themselves as very holy….very godly…but they were so absorbed with themselves that they lost their desire to love anyone else. You see, if we’re not careful, the pursuit of spiritual growth can get distorted. We can get preoccupied with how we are performing spiritually and how spiritually fulfilled we feel, and we forget to live a life of servant hood and love. We warp spiritual growth until it becomes all about ME. Then instead of becoming freed to serve others we become spiritually proud and self-absorbed. But, the real goal of spiritual growth…in one word is LOVE….love of others more than self.
You see, there is a huge difference between being sanctified and being sanctimonious.
The New Testament never defines spirituality or sanctification in solely individualistic terms. It is always defined in terms of community. We are not called to Christlikeness for our own benefit but for the benefit of others. I Corinthians 12:7 says, “To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given-FOR THE COMMON GOOD.” In other words our spiritual growth, our knowledge of God, is not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of all.
In today’s text Paul writes, “Do all things without murmuring or arguing.” I think Paul is saying here that, in a community of maturing Christians, you won’t find self-focused grumbling and arguing — instead you’ll find the grateful hearts of people who are oriented toward the needs of others. Bitterness and resentment will be replaced by a community of servant hood.
So true spiritual growth is seen when we are not pre-occupied with self but instead are focused on lovingly meeting the needs of other people. As Paul wrote in the love chapter, “love is not SELF-seeking…” When a Christian matures….he or she becomes like God, “Who loved so much that He gave…” John Ortberg tells of a member of his church whose mother was a very “difficult,” unloving, selfish person. This woman had married five different men in her life and none of the marriages lasted very long. She had several daughters and one son but gave them little of her time and no encouragement in life at all. Many years later, when her son had grown into manhood, this woman developed a degenerative muscular disease and gradually lost almost every physical capacity. None of her children would have anything to do with her, and not one of the men to whom she had been married even acknowledged what she was going through. But this young man took his mother into his home and cared for her, feeding her by hand, combing her hair, and cleaning up after her messes. Toward the end all she did was moan and cry incessantly. When she finally died none of her children came….other than her son who had cared for her. This man could have responded like his siblings and ignored his mother….anyone who knew her would have understood completely. But he showed Godliness in his actions for he responded with love…..in fact he loved her when loving was hardest. He loved her when no one else would love her…and that is what spiritual maturity looks like. For this is the way God loves us. I John 3:16-17 says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”
You know…the impact one domino can have on millions of other dominos IS captivating….you watch to see what will happen next and “ooh” and “ah” as the dominos fall…and fall and fall. It’s amazing that one domino can have such a widespread effect. And….as we have said this morning….the impact of the life of one godly individual on a community is also amazing….as God uses one person to influence another and another and another. But imagine the impact of hundreds of Godly people?! Think of it! Think of the incredible effect we who are gathered in this room this morning would have on Derwood, Montgomery County, the State of Maryland…our nation…the world — if we made a commitment right now…today…to do all we can to grow spiritually? How would our nation and world change if we committed to let God change us? You know…this 4th of July people all over our country will do things to celebrate their freedom. There’ll be fireworks and cookouts and a lot of flag waving. But the most patriotic thing you can do as a Christian….the best way for you to celebrate the birth of this nation is to commit to grow in your walk with God. The most effective way to help our country to change for the better, is to topple a “domino” by allowing God to change us so that we see the issues through His eyes and feel the needs of our fellow citizens with His heart. We close our time of worship by giving you an opportunity to make this kind of commitment. You may need to topple the domino that is your life by recommitting yourself to God…saying, “God I am allowing the world to change me but I want You to be Lord….I want You to be the sole influence in my life. You may need to ask God to forgive you of some sin in your life and help you put it behind you so you can continue on your journey as Jesus’ follower. You may need to pledge to doing all you can to make yourself open to the winds of God’s spirit in your life or to focusing on loving people as much as God does. If you have any other decision to make public….we invite you to do so as we stand and sing.