Two months ago, Yuri and I left you and went on our sabbatical. When we left we didn’t know what to expect. We hoped we’d return safely, but we didn’t ‘know’ if we would get back. We also didn’t know if there would be anyone to return to. But here you are, and here we are. And we’re very glad to see you.
We planned our two months carefully, and then threw the plans away. We did this several times. At one time I really wanted to be able to come back and tell you that I’d had an unusual experience on top of a mountain and met with God. I imagined how amazing it would be to have an extraordinary vision like John or one of the prophets.
Let me share with you this morning a little of the rather ordinary things that actually happened, and what God taught me through them.
By the time we left at the beginning of July, my only firm plan was to read two books. One is a book on prayer written 10 years ago by American theologian Dr. Larry Crabb and lent to me by sister June. The other is a classic on the Christian life written in 1964 by the famous Welsh preacher Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones.
I had no idea why I needed to read two books by theologians who are also medical doctors.
Yuri and I went to Thailand, and I took my books. We went up the mountains in Korea, and I took my books. Wherever we went, I took my books. I read them both. In fact I read the book on prayer twice. It wasn’t until an interesting experience with air travel just a couple of weeks ago that I felt I knew what God was teaching me.
I have titled this sermon ‘the tyranny of circumstances’. Let me explain briefly what I mean by that expression. Circumstances are simply what’s around you. It can refer to all sorts of things such as how much money you have in the bank, or where you live. The tyranny is referring to the control of your circumstances over you. It’s a tyranny because there is nothing you can do about it. You cannot change the fact of your parents, year of your birth, colour of your eyes and many other things in life.
This is a sinful world. We are all sinners. God has an enemy called Satan.
These are the circumstances in which we live. These circumstances tyrannise us. They oppress us and are beyond our control. Things happen to us. We have learned to turn to God for our salvation. Jesus is the only one who can save us from this tyranny.
What kind of God do we turn to for help in our distress?
Some people turn to the slot machine God. We have heard that to love God is to obey God. With the slot machine God, people think this means that if they follow all the rules, and they tithe and attend every service, and read their Bible every day that God will automatically do what they ask of him. Prayer is one of the coins that you feed into the slot machine to get what you want. If you pray for something and don’t get it, it must be because you didn’t pray enough or in the correct manner. Or are at fault in some matter of devotion or obedience.
There is no relationship with the slot machine God. There is no love. There may be awe, but no idea of closeness.
Then there is the Santa God. The Santa God brings good things to the little boys and girls. The Santa God is distant but you can send messages to the Santa God and tell him what you want. If you are good he will give what you ask for. But you don’t really have a relationship with Santa. How many children on seeing Santa ask him how he feels? How many stop to show concern for Santa or take time to get to know him? Mostly we tell him what we want, and complain if we don’t get exactly what we demand.
As Dr. Larry Crabb explains, as Christians we have a father God. We have a God we can have a deep relationship with. We can talk to him. The greatest command is to love God with all of our being. We should care deeply how God feels. We should share with him how we feel. When we come to God in prayer it is to develop this relationship. This is not news to us, but the book on prayer was able to clarify the idea for me.
My second book, by the famous Welsh preacher, seemed at first to be about a different topic but I found as I read further that Martin Lloyd-Jones was saying the same things as Larry Crabb.
For almost two months, God has been talking to me about what should be most important in my life. He has been encouraging me into a deep personal relationship with him.
It was interesting. I marked passages in both books that seemed particularly important. But it wasn’t real.
To be real it had to be lived.
So let me tell you a little about the worst journey ever, because it was only in the tyranny of circumstances that I learned anything.
It began simply enough. Get on an airplane and fly to destination. But at the destination there was a problem with a connection. And then there was just one problem after another, so that a two-day journey took almost one week. It was the tyranny of circumstances at work. What was worse from my point of view, and maybe from Yuri’s point of view as well, is that my wife and I were separated by several thousand miles. She was inside the circumstances and I was an observer. There was nothing I could do, except pray.
How should I pray? Should I cry out to God to make a Jumbo jet miraculously be in one place rather than where it actually was? Was there a particular number of coins of a particular value to be fed into the slot machine to change the circumstances? If I wrote a really nice letter, would Santa God poke his finger from out of the sky and move things around to my liking?
I decided to apply the lessons of these two books.
The lesson is in fact not a new one. Let’s look at what our Bible reading this morning has to say about it. In Philippians 4:6 the apostle Pauls says – “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.”
This isn’t one instruction. I think it is actually four instructions to be carried out in the order they are given.
First, stop worrying. That could be taken to mean, stop thinking about your circumstances. Don’t pay attention to the tyranny, it doesn’t do any good. Instead, pray.
This is really important. And because I had read these two books, I had an idea of how to do this. The essence of prayer is coming to God to build up your relationship with him. It’s not even a new idea in the New Testament, but sometimes we just miss things.
When we pray, we are not feeding coins into a slot machine. Prayer is coming to God, the creator of the universe and our father, and talking to him. It is telling him how we are and talking about how he is. So I told my daddy how frustrated I felt and how I was worried because of the circumstances. I talked with him about how more than anything else I wanted to be in a close relationship with him. How I wanted this more than getting what I wanted, more than fixing the problems with airplanes. More even than being with my wife.
It put God first. Then what I found was that when I started talking to God about the circumstances I did it from a very different point of view. I wasn’t asking God to make planes be in different places than they were to please me. I was asking for a better relationship with him through the trials for myself and Yuri.
That was step three. It was supplication, pleading for help, but firmly on the basis of relationship. I told God what I needed after relating with him. God said he would do what he could, but some things depend on other people having a relationship with him. He would ask flight attendants and check-in people to help, but if they didn’t have a relationship with him and didn’t listen to him then it might not happen.
It lead me to pray for those other people to know God (their salvation) and grow in the knowledge of him (sanctification). And that led me to pour out thanks to God. To thank him for his love, not to thank him for doing what I want.
In the end, some people didn’t listen to God and it was the flight from hell. But Yuri and I got closer to God through difficulty and we were blessed.
Verse 7 of Philippians 4 suggests that this is the way of peace. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And the teaching of this verse is that God will guard our hearts. When we are in trouble and surrounded by enemies, our hearts will be guarded if we have come close to God. Never, never must we allow our circumstances to control our hearts. The apostle Paul has instructed us that we have to come into a state where our misery or joy are not determined by the tyranny of circumstances but by our relationship with God. We are people who are controlled by God, not the events that surround us.
Not even death is able to separate us from the love of God.
I have found peace in difficulty these last two months, and I urge you to approach father God and tend your relationship with him above all things. Then you too will know this peace that passes all understanding. Bless you.