Episode 1. Getting to the Starting Line
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Have you ever been impatient with God? I mean you’re ready to get on with it! You’re ready to go and do what God made you to do. And yet He, for some unknown reason, doesn’t appear to be in any …
Have you ever been impatient with God? I mean, you’re ready to get on with it. You’re ready to go and do what God made you to do, and yet He for some unknown reason doesn’t appear to be in any hurry. It’s enough to drive you crazy.
A Heart to Serve
I think anyone who’s ever lived life, anyone who has ever wanted to get out there and do something, achieve something, fulfil their destiny, knows the frustration of meeting stubborn resistance and delays. I think in particular, when we’re young and idealistic and ready to take on the world, the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to want to revolve around our plans and our hopes and our dreams is incredibly frustrating, and as we get older the realisation that perhaps things aren’t quite going to pan out the way we’d envisaged, at some point for many, leads to the classic midlife crisis. The whole thing between our expectations of life and the reality, the mismatch, the yawning gap between the two is a bigger deal than we might realise. Many people are living lives of frustration and disappointment because things aren’t panning out the way they’d hoped: Their careers, their finances, their dreams for marriage and family and where they’d live, and what impact they were going to have in this world, and so what many end up doing is settling for second-best; always dissatisfied, quietly, with their lot in life.
I wonder if any of that sounds just a little bit too familiar. I wonder if you’re sitting there thinking: ‘That’s just a bit close to the bone’. Well today, we’re kicking off a new series of messages called ‘Becoming an Overnight Success’, to see what God has to say into this whole situation, and I’m believing that just a few people are going to have one or two of those aha moments as you discover what God’s really up to in your life.
Overnight success seems to have such a great ring to it. The whole get rich quick and then retire in luxury is a secret, seductive thought that many of us harbour. The truth is that really, there’s no such thing as an overnight success, or at the very least, they’re very rare. Yeah, there seem to be these Internet sensations that rocket to stardom seemingly overnight. I remember when this guy called PSY first burst on the scene with his Gangnam-style dance and music video. Remember that? This slightly chubby Korean guy in a white suit, dancing round the stage in that old, somehow intoxicating Gangnam style, and for some reason, that just took off. In fact, he became the very first YouTube video in all of history to reach a billion views. Imagine something as crazy as that! That doesn’t happen very often, and even when it does, the overnight thing is usually an illusion. I have no doubt that even PSY put in an enormous amount of work and effort to do what he did, and yet so many people harbour this secret dream of overnight success.
The problem begins in our hearts because invariably, God has made us to be a certain person; to do certain things, and naturally we have a heart to be that person; to do those things, and to become who God made us to be. The problem is, we approach this central issue of life with a McDonald’s super all-you-can-eat special (sauce, burgers, cheese, pickles, onions in a sesame seed bun) kind of mentality – a fast-food mentality; instant success when in reality, often our first few attempts at becoming the person God made us to be can end up being something of a disaster. In truth, this series of messages is really about learning to play the long game because life is a marathon, not a sprint, and I don’t know anyone who is better-equipped to teach us about the long game than Moses in the Old Testament. Now the reason that I choose Moses is that after Jesus, he is the next-most talked-about character in the Bible. Certainly, he’s the most talked-about Old Testament character in the New Testament, and when you read some of the pithy summaries of his life and successes in the New Testament, you could get the impression that Moses was somehow an overnight success. That’s always the way. The further we are from the reality of someone’s life, the more it seems to us that their success happened overnight somehow, but it just wasn’t like that.
Moses lived for a hundred and twenty years. Now that’s a very long game, and he had three very distinct phases in his life. We’re going to look at each one of those in this series to see what we can learn for our own lives – our own long game, kicking off with his first phase, living effectively as Pharaoh’s son in Egypt, so here’s how it happened. The Israelites had been exiled as slaves in Egypt for over four hundred years. Pharaoh makes a decree about when Moses is born that all Israelite male children are to be killed, but Moses’ parents in faith instead put him in a floating basket on the Nile, and Pharaoh’s daughter finds him. As a result, Moses ends up growing up as the prince of Egypt in Pharaoh’s house, always knowing though that he was a Hebrew. He lives this life of amazing power and privilege and luxury, but here’s the problem. It’s a problem, if I can call it that, that each one of us faces at some point. God had put something in Moses’ heart: Call it a dream; call it a deep motivation; perhaps it was a calling. Whatever it was, Moses was given a heart for his people (the Hebrews), and just as well because God’s plan (unbeknown to anyone at that point) was that Moses would become the man who would lead God’s chosen people out of Egypt, out of slavery to freedom, and towards the land and the life that God has promised their ancestor Abraham all those centuries before.
As Moses grew up, more and more, he saw the oppression and the brutality that Pharaoh inflicted over his people; his kinsmen; the Israelites, until one day it boiled over. Things came to a head. Exodus 2:11-15:
“One day after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
“When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting, and he said to the one who was in the wrong, ‘Why do you strike your fellow-Hebrew?’
“He answered, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’
“Then Moses was afraid and thought, ‘Surely the thing is known!’
“When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.”
So the heart that God had put into Moses, a heart for God’s chosen people, ends up completely disrupting the life of privilege that Moses had lived for the first forty years. The heart that God had put in him ended up turning everything on its head.
After the break, we’ll see how Moses ended up out in the wilderness tending sheep. What a spectacular disruption! But right now, can I say this is exactly what I see happening in people’s lives over and over again, and they don’t realise it. God’s given them a heart, a dream, a motivation, a calling to become who He’s made them to be and to do what He’s set out for them to do, and when you don’t quite know yet what that is, that heart that God’s put inside you disrupts your life.
I wish that God would set it out nice and neatly in front of us, so that we can see the bigger picture, so that we can see where our lives are headed, so that we know what’s coming next and why and what it all means and where it’s headed. Wouldn’t that be nice? Sure, but that’s not how God works because He wants you and me living by faith, not by sight. He wants you and me trusting in Him.
We expect to live lives that are always on the up: Onwards; upwards; every post a winner, but sometimes, life is one step forward and three steps back, as it was here for Moses, who was ultimately seen as one of the most successful leaders of all-time, but when you’re down in the trenches, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, so my point is this: Sometimes who you are, how God made you, what He made you to do, is going to seem to work against you and bring failure on your head, but don’t lose heart; God has a plan. It’s just that His plan rarely involves overnight success.
The Long Exile
The idea of becoming an overnight success is incredibly alluring. It’s seductive. As an American colleague of mine once said, it has cerebral kerb appeal. You just want to pull up next to it and stay there for a while. In this success-driven, success-focused success-oriented world in which we live, man, it would be so nice to dispense with all the hard work of getting there and just get there! Arrive! Success! Woohoo! If only.
I’m now on the other side of fifty, well and truly, and whilst yes I’ve had some successes in my life (nothing spectacular, mind you; just the odd success here and there), I have never, not once had an overnight success. They’ve always involved twists and turns and surprises and setbacks and hard work and sheer grind over the long haul. Now, that can mean one of two things: Either I’m not very smart, or overnight successes are as rare as hens’ teeth. I’m going to go out on a limb here and go for the second of those two options, hopefully.
I’m not a gambling man, but lots of people put money on Lotto or the pools or they buy a lottery ticket or worse still they go to a casino, all with a dream of winning the big one; striking the mother lode. How many of them ever do? Answer … almost none. As a percentage, the big winners are close to zero percent of all the players. After all, they don’t build casinos on winners, do they?
But as we journey through life with a dream or a calling or whatever it is in our hearts, sometimes instead of getting closer to that success we’re hoping for, things go (as I said at the top of the programme) from bad to worse, and that’s what I want to look at right now – from bad to worse on your rope, chasing after your dream, following your calling, ‘cos it happens. It happens way more often than we’d like to think, and if we don’t know what’s going on, if we don’t realise what God’s up to here, it’s actually rather devastating.
Moses was a man who had a dream – a calling – to help his fellow-Hebrews, even though through God’s mighty hand he ended up not as a slave (like all his fellow-Israelites) but as an adopted son of Pharaoh, living in privilege and comfort, with wealth and power. Deep in his heart, he ached to see how his people were being mistreated and abused until one day, he comes across an Egyptian guard beating one of the slaves, so he rises up and kills the guard. Whoops. Bad move. Now the heart that he’d had for his people completely disrupts his life. His first forty years he spends in privilege, and then this one event means that the next forty years, he’s going to spend in poverty. Let’s pick up the story. Exodus 2:15-3:1:
When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian and sat down by a well. The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock, but some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defence and watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?”
They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him here to break bread.” Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. She bore a son and he named him Gershom, for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”
After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery, their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
Now, I want to stop there and think about this. Put yourself in Moses’ shoes for a minute. For the first forty years of your life, you live in a palace, as Pharaoh’s adopted son. Pharaoh in Egypt has all wealth and all power and all privilege and all comfort. Life just doesn’t get any better than this, but God puts this heart in you – a heart for your own people; a heart for God’s chosen people, and through this one act of taking out a guard who was beating a defenceless slave, now you’re not only booted out of home, you have to flee for your life and go and live in the wilderness. In fact, we’re told in the last verse there (Exodus 3:1) that when God finally came to find Moses (another forty years later), He found him out beyond the wilderness; out the back of nowhere.
The contrast between the first forty years and the next forty years couldn’t be more stark: From privilege to poverty; from significance to insignificance. We’re told not a lot about his forty years in the wilderness, but you can imagine what Moses was thinking. Right? Can you imagine how he felt? Can you just imagine?
So by age eighty, Moses is a burnt-out old wreck; a has-been; a nobody, out in the back of the wilderness, tending sheep. Dream over, right? Regret filling your heart. He would have been through all the stages: Denial, anger, fear, regret, bitterness, finally just giving up and tending these wretched sheep, and then, then God comes to him with a crazy plan. We’ll talk about that another time, but for forty years in the wilderness, beyond the wilderness, he had no idea that God even had a plan; that God even cared about him; that God even remembered him.
I’m guessing you’ve been in that place too. Dream over. Calling dead. Can’t possibly resurrect this mess from the ashes, right? Yet mark this: God had Moses cooling his heels for forty years, in the very same wilderness through which he would later lead the nation of Israel on the exodus, so by the time God comes back to him in the burning bush, Moses knows this land like the back of his hand! And what was he doing? Shepherding a flock of sheep, so in fact, God was getting Moses ready in this forty years of lonely wilderness experience to take on the mantle of leadership of Israel, and guide them for another forty years (a million or so people); shepherd them through the very same wilderness that he already knew.
Now listen. When setbacks come in your life, in my life, that’s exactly what God’s doing for us – getting us ready; preparing us; teaching us; moulding us; shaping our characters for the next thing that He already has planned, already has prepared for us to do.
I remember the exact moment, on the exact day, when God called me to preach the gospel to the nations. It was so clear, even a dummy like me couldn’t miss it. I’d been a Christian for … ooh, I don’t know … five minutes? But I was raring to go! Problem was that first, God had an eight-year wilderness experience for me to travel through. He needed to prepare me, to shape my character, to get me ready. The call came in 1996, but God didn’t release me until 2004 to do what I’m doing right now.
Fortunately, right at the beginning, a guy called Mark Brent (I’ll never forget this; it was during a worship-time at a theological college where I was studying) … Mark slides up to me after one song in the worship-time, and he says, “Berni, look. I don’t know if this means anything to you, but I think God wants you to know that He’s not in a hurry”. You know, that word from God gave me the patience to wait on God in the wilderness, while He did the things that He needed to do.
And can I give you that same word today? If you’re in a wilderness, if you’re wondering where the dream went, wondering what happened to the calling, wondering where the passion in your heart’s disappeared to, don’t worry. God is still in control. He hasn’t forgotten about you. He hasn’t lost sight of His plans; He’s just getting you ready for the next thing.
The Next Step
I remember when I first received the call to proclaim the good news of Jesus from God. It was as clear as a bell, and then (as I’ve already mentioned this series) God let me stew in my juices, a bit like Moses, but thankfully only for eight years (not for forty). I wanted to go; I wanted to follow the call from day one, but when eight years later God was ready, I got scared. I had a great, well-paying career as an IT consultant. I worked hard, but it was a comfortable life, and then God called me into this ministry that was all but dead. It had been going, ChristianityWorks, for over half a century, but had been so run down into the ground, it almost had no supporters; wasn’t producing any radio-messages (which was and remains our core business), and it was at the point of the-last-one-out-turn-out-the-lights that God clearly called me to leave my IT consulting career and its income behind, and step into this leaky boat that was steadily sinking.
See, that step is never easy. It wasn’t for Moses and it certainly wasn’t for me, and if you’ve been in that place, I know it wasn’t for you either, but I also know that there are some people tuned in today who are at that very point in their lives. It’s that big decision to step out of our comfort-zones, because God’s purposes for you always lie outside your comfort-zone, and get on with it.
So I’ll ask you again: Are you ready to go when God calls? Are you ready to step out of your comfort-zone? Are you ready to place your life and your future completely in God’s hands? Well? Are you? Because so often the call on our lives, the passion to fulfil God’s plans and purposes that He wove into our DNA before time began, God’s good plans for us are subverted by our own selfish dreams: Dreams of wealth and comfort and success and recognition, or dreams just to blend in and not make one iota of difference in this world.
So what does that mean for you and me as we set aside our dreams of ‘Becoming an Overnight Success’, and step out, and start to follow God? What does that actually mean? Well, simply this: Our part, the part that God has given us to play, is going to be challenging. It’s going to have setbacks. There will be times when we have failures. There will be times when we experience trials. We’ll see more about that over the coming weeks on the programme, but no matter how well-suited you are to the part that God has given you to play, the point is that we’re big players, you and I, with our bit to play and that’s it. And when you think about it, that’s exciting. The ripple effect of what Moses did … well, it’s reaching several thousand years down through history and across the globe, into your life and my life. It’s that ripple effect. That’s the exciting bit.
I had someone ask me once: “How do you know what impact your radio-programmes are having? What quantitative measure do you have to tell me that what you’re doing is worthwhile?” And the answer is, there’s no quantitative measure. Do I know that millions of people are listening to this programme this week? Yes I do, and I hear the odd story: The terrorist who stopped killing people; the woman who was pulled back from the brink of suicide; the eleven-year-old boy whose parents were going through a painful divorce and who met Jesus through these programmes, and I thank God for giving me some small part to play in people’s lives, and I pray for the ripple effect through them in the lives of others. I pray that, that former terrorist will lead many more people to Christ; that, that woman pulled back from suicide will bless her daughter with her love, and that, that young boy will be given a powerful part to play in God’s plan. The ripple effect.
God is playing the long game, and if you’re on team Jesus then the joy, the delight, is to play your part in the long game for His glory. Amen.