Sermon

IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (Rev. 2:10)

            Australians love their rugby.  An exception to the success of the league for many years was the Sydney Swans. Until recently, the Swans had the worst record of any team in the league. They also had the worst attendance. Most of their home games were played in front of empty seats.

            But a strange thing happened. The team got a new coach and a few new players — and started winning. Before long, the team that had been the laughingstock of the league was a powerhouse. And since everybody likes a winning team, you can imagine what happened next. The stands began to fill. Thousands of people who had no interest in the team before began to attend games religiously. Soon it became almost impossible to get a ticket to a Swans game.

            One Sunday afternoon, the Swans were playing a rival team in front of a capacity crowd. As the TV cameras zoomed in on the revelry and joy in the stands, one camera focused on a single man who was cheering and waving a sign that he had obviously made himself. Grinning proudly, he held up his sign for all the world to see. The sign said: I WAS HERE WHEN NOBODY ELSE WAS!

            I love that story. It reflects the story of fair-weather fans who are with their team only when the team is winning. But here was this one fan who wanted the world to know that he was there when nobody else was.

            Jesus knew what it was to deal with fair-weather fans. As he began to share the difficult details of his ministry, many of his followers started getting disenchanted. Just a short time before they wanted to crown him king.  They wanted him to establish his kingdom in this world and they wanted it to happen now! So, one by one, as they sensed that he was not going to give them what they wanted, they drifted away.

            Kyle Idelman would have called them “Fans of Jesus,” not followers of Jesus.

            Even some of Jesus closest followers seemed to be losing their need to be followers. John writes, “From this time, many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him . . .John 6:66”

            “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the twelve disciples who had been with him from the beginning.

             Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  John 6:68

            Who could have given such an answer except Peter? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Don’t you love Peter? Impetuous. Excitable. Sometimes speaking before his mind is fully in gear. But Peter was in it for the long haul. His commitment was no momentary experience — good only when things were going his way.  He was like the Sydney Swans fan who was there when no one else was.

            Certainly, Peter got discouraged from time to time. After the crucifixion, he was ready to go back to his fishing nets. We can understand that. After all, he felt terribly let down. He had invested all of his dreams in this man, Jesus. Now Christ lay in a borrowed tomb. Still, Peter’s commitment to Christ never faltered. He might show a little weakness on occasion, but he was in there for the long haul.  Peter was a follower of Jesus, not merely a fan.

            The reaction of the crowds to some of Jesus’ harder teachings reminds me of many reactions to people who first learned that I was about to become a missionary.  “Love to become a missionary.” Said some.  “I’ve thought of becoming a missionary many times.” Said others.  But then came the buts… “but my career is just starting.”  But I’m too old.”  “But my husband wouldn’t think of it.”  But we’ve just started a family”,….

             It’s a common sentiment among all who start off with good intentions.

             Over the course of my 30 years in ministry, I’ve had large numbers of children registered for Sunday school programs …. Only to never become part of youth programs. I watched members of various youth programs who graduate from high school and then disappeared from the church.  I watched people bring their children to Sunday school and church, but then drift away as their children do. I have seen people who have spent 20 or 30 years in the church, who have a disagreement with another member or with the pastor, (over something as silly and mundane as the colour of the sanctuary carpet), and are never seen again.

              But what a blessing it has been in my ministry to have people like Louis and Elna Saur, and many of you –  who are in for the long haul, here most Sunday mornings when you can. You have a very special kind of faith — a faith that will be rewarded. Indeed, it is really the only kind of faith that counts.

             Life is like a marathon. Life is hard, and the obstacles are many.  Just because we are Christians does not mean that the way will be made smooth for us. We get cancer, have heart attacks, strokes, diabetes just like everybody else. We watch family members suffer, and die. We lose our jobs. We grieve the loss of loved ones. At such times, we need faith for the long haul. Life is not easy.

            You may know the story of comedian, Jim Carrey, who was born in 1962 near Toronto. The youngest of four children, Jim’s father was an accountant, his mother stayed in the home raising her 4 children. From an early age, Jim expressed an interest in comedy. By junior high school, he performed often in front of his classmates. At age 14, Jim attempted stand-up at a Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s comedy club, but was booed offstage.

            But then something happened that made a lasting effect on Carrey. His father lost his accounting job, and the family was forced out of their home. His father could only find work as a security guard.  Fortunately, the family could live on the grounds of the factory Jim’s dad guarded. Jim and his siblings cleaned the plant at night.

            When his mother became ill and bedridden, Jim stayed home from school to care for her. Now Jim had an audience of one — his mother. Since she was sick, he worked extra hard to keep her entertained. Then his father lost this job, too, and the family was forced out of their home on the grounds of the factory.

            Eventually, the family’s financial problems were resolved and with more stability, Carrey returned to the stage with a more polished act. Carrey was soon noticed by Rodney Dangerfield, who signed the young comic to open his tours.  Carrey soon decided to move to Hollywood, where within 10 months, he made his first TV appearance on The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson.

            That year, 1985, he wrote himself a check for ten million dollars, dating it Thanksgiving 1995. He kept that check in his wallet, determined he would be able to cash it one day. And true to his dream, at his father’s funeral in 1994, Jim placed the check into his father’s casket. He had already earned more than ten million dollars with his comedy.

            We like success stories like Carries (especially when they are Canadian) because they remind us that it is possible to take a bad situation and turn it around. Others have done it and so can we. But we need to remember that life is not a sprint, but a marathon.

             Success comes to those who are willing to hang in there when the going gets rough.

             One of the worst things that can happen to some people is to have too many successes early in life. We think all of life will be that way. But it will not. Life is hard. It is a marathon. And the great secret in life is not how we begin, but how we finish.

            Many of us are good starters. We have talent, we have enthusiasm, we start off with a burst of promise. But sustaining that good beginning . . . that is the problem. That’s true in our commitment to Christ, to our marriage partner, in our work and in a host of other endeavors. How are we at finishing?

            Until recently, I had assumed that Pastor Bill Hybles would be the next Billy Graham, a Christian example to the world.   After all, Hybles authored over 50 great books about his walk with Christ, telling his readers they can do the same, visiting with many of the world’s great leaders.  Annually, Hybles  hosted The Global Leadership Summit with top speakers from around the world. His church in Chicago boasts a membership of 24,000. But, sadly, I learned on Friday that Hybles has been charged with sexual misconduct with several female staff members.  How the mighty fall, and because of his conduct, the whole Christian world has been shaken, and all the good work for the Kingdom of God that Hybles has built up over three decades has come into question.

            Finishing well is what faith is all about. I said I am grateful to those of you who are here for the long haul. Some of you have been disciples of Jesus Christ all your lives. You’ve seen pastors come and go. You’ve been here when there were several hundred here on Sunday mornings, … and more recently, when the numbers are closer to half a hundred .. and less.  And yet you have never left, never given up hope.  (picture of congregation from We are part of the family)

            Some of you, too, have shared your personal stumbles. You’ve gone through times of grief and disappointment. Perhaps somewhere along the way you’ve given in to sin. For a while you have doubted that God could possibly forgive you and accept you after you have let Him down. But still you have hung in there. And some of you have become disenchanted with the meaningless life you’ve been living and you’re beginning to realize that you want to draw closer to God.

             That’s why you’re hanging in there now. You’re hoping to have a fresh experience of God’s grace. I believe that if you will endure long enough it will happen.

              Faith is hanging in there when the day looks dark and the options are limited, because you know that somehow God is at work in your life. So, you have decided that by the grace of God you are here for the long haul. You have placed yourself in God’s hands and you say, along with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

            That is what faith is all about. Life is a marathon. It’s not how you start, but how you finish. Faith has to do with both having a great race and an even greater finish. The writer of the Revelation put God’s promise to us about finishing the race like this: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (Rev. 2:10). That is faith for the long haul.  It’s being a follower of Christ, not merely a fan

              –the only kind of faith that really counts.

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