When I was a boy, I used to daydream about what I would do if I had a million dollars. So when our younger son Scott became a teenager, it didn’t surprise me when he started asking me, “Dad, what would you do if you had a million dollars?” But I always disappointed him, because by the time he was old enough to ask the question, I was old enough to stop caring about having a million dollars. So each time he asked, I would say, “You know Scott, I don’t want a million dollars. I’m very happy with what God has provided us.” “Come on, Dad,” he would say, “just tell me.” I knew what he really wanted was for me to ask HIM what HE would do if he had a million dollars, so we’d eventually get around to that. “What would YOU do if you had a million dollars, Scott?” “Well first I’d give money to God. And then I’d buy a Lamborghini…” And it went on from there…
This morning we’re going to explore a question whose answer is far more important than whatever we might imagine about being a millionaire. Besides, some of us in this room may already be millionaires!
The question we want to consider is this: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
Why is that a relevant question for us this morning? Because the most common response Karla and I hear when we share about what we do as cross-cultural ambassadors is this: “I could never do what you’re doing.” Why are we so certain that we are not cut out for cross-cultural ministry, especially when it might involve doing it halfway around the world? It almost never has to do with our abilities or experience. It almost always has to do with our fears.
So what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
The right answer to that question is not that if everyone here wasn’t afraid, you would all become cross-cultural ambassadors like we are. Many of us this morning are already living in the right location and working in the right vocation. But what I am going to ask you to do is to consider whether your fears are preventing you from drawing close to God or giving Him an opportunity to demonstrate His trustworthiness to you, wherever and however He might lead you.
Three times in the OT and once in the gospels we find someone saying, “I was afraid”:
Adam, in his second recorded conversation with God in Gen 3.10 says: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
Jacob the deceiver says these words later in Gen 31.31, after fleeing from his father-in-law without telling him: “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force.”
Saul speaks these words to the prophet Samuel in 1 Sam 15.24 after disobeying the prophet’s instructions to destroy the Amalekites: “I have sinned. I violated the LORD’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them.”
Finally, the servant who received one talent of money in the parable Jesus tells about the talents. When his master returns and asks him to account for what he has done with his money, he tells his master: “I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.”
Adam hid. Jacob fled. Saul gave in. The servant buried his treasure. In each case, their fears narrowed their world and hindered them from believing and following God.
In a recent sermon on Proverbs, Andy Drake gave a wonderfully clear explanation of one of the most quoted statements in the Bible: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. He said, “The fear of the Lord is not about being scared of God but about taking God seriously”.
And if I can expand on Andy’s description, the fear of the Lord is about taking God and His revelations about life and truth far more seriously than we take ourselves – and our notions about what is true and what is best for us.
Karla and I have collected a long list of the fears people express about becoming ambassadors in cross-cultural ministry: fears related to our faith, our family and friends, our physical well-being, our finances, our future, about failure, and finally about our freedom and fulfillment. Most of them stem from two fundamental fears:
“What if God doesn’t have our best interests at heart, after all?”
And “What if we do follow God with all our heart – and He doesn’t come through for us?”
So this morning I want to do three things:
1. Explore together with you the most common fears many of us have about following Jesus, and in particular, about becoming cross-cultural ambassadors.
2. Share some ways in which God has dealt with those issues in our lives.
3. Invite you to imagine what your life might be like if you weren’t afraid – and what difference your life could make for the blessing of others and the good of the Kingdom.
We’ll turn to Ps 84 as we consider these questions. We can’t do justice to the richness of this Psalm in the time we have today. So we’ll be more like a stone skipping across the surface of deep waters, just touching on some of the highlights.
We’ll go through this Psalm one section at a time, and note the characteristic theme of each one:
Section one, the blessing of God’s Presence
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young–
a place near your altar,
O LORD Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.
Selah (Ps 84.1-4)
There may be some of us this morning that would love to enter into the psalmist’s experience of seeking out and enjoying God’s presence. But we are unable to because our greatest fear is exactly the fear Andy described – being scared of God Himself, being afraid that God can’t wait to punish us.
For my first 15 years following Jesus, this was my fear. Whenever I would close my eyes and imagine being in God’s presence, I saw a very powerful and angry God holding me in His hand and shaking me like a helpless doll – because I had not lived up to His expectations, and never would. My constant fear was: “If I get close, I’ll get clobbered.” Intimacy with God was not an attractive prospect. I was determined to follow Him, but at a safe distance, because I was sure God was always angry, and he was especially angry at me.
And this was happening despite the fact that I was often spending 2 or 3 hours each morning studying the Bible. Somehow, I was unable to allow the Word of God to penetrate deeply enough to address my fears.
How did God deal with my fears? First, a wise counselor challenged me by saying, “What makes you think that your picture of God is a Biblical one?” So I embarked on a research project as I read through the Bible. Every time I came across an attribute of God I wrote it down. Later, when I begin organizing my notes, I was astounded: the references to God’s majesty, beauty, lovingkindness, and graciousness vastly outnumbered the accounts of his anger and revenge. I had it all backwards.
That’s when I started getting to know the Father and discovering the blessing of His friendship. Where are you this morning? Are you still wondering if God is good, and if He’s good for you?
Section two, the blessing of being on Pilgrimage with God
Knowing God is good, and He is good to us and good for us, starts us on the road to freedom in following Him:
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion. (Ps.84:5-7)
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you…” This is echoed in the Living Bible’s rendition of Prov 14.26: “Reverence for the Lord gives a man deep strength; his children have a place of refuge and security.”
“Blessed are those… who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” This is a picture of people on a journey, people who have their hearts set on God as they go, people who are changed along the way as they walk with Him, facing their fears and the challenges that come their way.
One of our earliest challenges in ministry came after 3 years in Ghana, when we were heading home for our first furlough. We went into the office of our Ghanaian director Salifu and told him: “We have nothing to show for our time here. What can we tell our supporters?” His response set the course for the rest of our ministry: “It’s not what you do that matters, but what you help others do.” His perspective helped us discover our personal calling as pilgrims in the years since then – to help others be successful.
“As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs.” No one is quite sure whether the valley of Baca, literally the valley of weeping, is a real place or not. I’ve always thought of it in its metaphorical sense. As God’s pilgrims, we have the privilege of being a blessing to others as they and we pass through valleys of sorrow.
In recent years, we have walked with two different families in our chosen city where the husband was dying of cancer. One of them was our pastor. The other was our next-door neighbor. Our desire was to make their valleys of suffering, sorrow, and ultimately death a place of springs.
“They go from strength to strength.” This is not about simply going from one victorious encounter to another, but rather about being sustained by God all along the way on our journey.
What fears arise as we imagine starting on this pilgrimage or continuing on it, especially if it looks like it might lead us outside our comfort zone – literally and figuratively?
We have fears about ministry:
We’re not spiritually mature enough for ministry. Our first priority has to be attending to our own spiritual needs.
It’s instructive to read the Gospels and ask ourselves, “What was Jesus’ method of developing His disciples? “How spiritual were they when He first sent them out 2 x 2 to prepare the way for him?”
And many of us wonder: Who do we think we are getting involved in ministry? There are so many others more qualified than we are.
This is one of the few things I’ve repeatedly told the Lord over the years that I have sensed He never pays any attention to. Instead, I have been left with the distinct impression that if He had wanted someone else to do what He’s asked me to do, He would have asked them. But He didn’t. He asked me.
We have fears about our Family and Friends:
How could we ever explain to our parents that we want to be a cross-cultural ambassadors? Or launch out on some other faith venture?
And What if we have to leave our family and friends behind and go somewhere far away?
And what about our kids – would it be fair to them to take them away from America?
These are huge issues, especially if you are like Karla and me, and your parents are not followers of Jesus. Or if you are Asian, with the expectations that your parents have about how you will follow their wishes and take care of them.
This morning I’ll just touch briefly on just one of the impacts on one of our children.
Our younger son Scott loves to tell people he was born in Kenya. And he considers our chosen city home. But it took a while for him to get to that point. We wanted Scott to have one more overseas experience while he was still living with us, so we began discussing the possibility when he was in middle school. His initial reaction when we asked how he’d feel about us moving to Asia was this: “You can go to Asia if you want, but I’m staying here.” So we knew what wasn’t exactly a sign of readiness. So we waited and prayed. A couple of years later he had completely turned around and offered to go in and confront my boss if he didn’t want to let us go to Asia… One of his personal faith milestones was the opportunity to go to Aceh in Indonesia a few years ago with others from his school in our chosen city to help out after the tsunami. And as a result of that trip, when he was a senior, he organized a soccer camp for an Indonesian village, and we just sat back and watched.
Today, John and Scott have aunts and uncles with names like Kiptiness and Ongoma and Cheng and Lee and Bradshaw and Cahill on three different continents, in whose homes they are always welcome.
Fears about our Physical well-being:
What if there are insects, bugs, and creatures? I’ll save our stories here for another time, and simply say Bugs happen, and creatures show up in strange places. Go anyway.
What if we get sick with some exotic tropical disease? You might. We have. But you also might stay in America and get sick with something that isn’t at all exotic, but is just as life threatening.
What if we end up somewhere where there isn’t adequate medical care? Six months after I arrived in Ghana, I set the kitchen on fire in the Guest House where I was staying. It wasn’t exactly my fault… But it was quite an explosion. I keep a melted plastic clock from that fire as a reminder of that event. I was badly burned, and while we did have a local hospital, it had no electricity, no water, and no medicine. So I didn’t go to the hospital. Today, the only sign that anything ever happened are three tiny dots of wrinkled skin on several toes on my right foot.
Then there was the 80’ tree that fell on Karla a few weeks after we got engaged…
What about Finances?
Fears related to finance are probably the most common ones we hear. “You mean you’re going to make all those sacrifices to do Bible translation and the organization you’ll be working for isn’t even going to pay you?” And another question: “Are you comfortable being a beggar for the rest of your life?”
How many of us in this room have always had all the money we thought we needed?
Psalm 84 says: “He sustains us all along the way.” It’s easy to imagine the uncertainties of living like this year after year, never knowing how much money will be deposited in your bank account each month.
But there’s another side to this. How would it feel if you knew your paycheck was coming from 90 different people who care enough about what you’re doing that they want to make sure you have the opportunity to do it – and are also praying for you?
Many times it’s been people who are financially strapped themselves who have given most generously, and even beyond their means – like Betty Freeman, an elderly widow in N. Dakota who has given faithfully to us ever since we stayed in her home on one of our trips years ago. Paul describe such people in speaking about the ministry of the Philippians to him in 2 Cor. 8.3-4: They gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service.
Section three, the blessing of experiencing God’s Provision
Let’s consider the last of our fears, about our freedom and fulfillment, as we read the final verses of Ps 84:
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
the LORD bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
O LORD Almighty,
blessed is the man who trusts in you. (Ps.84:10-12)
“Better is one day in Your presence”, walking with you and following You wherever Your lead, “than a thousand elsewhere.” Do the math. One day in fellowship with the Father is worth almost three years doing anything else. One month in God’s presence is worth 99 years doing something else. That sounds like a pretty good investment.
“No good thing does He withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” The sense of this passage is that the Father doesn’t withhold any good thing from those who are on a pilgrimage with Him – to know Him and follow Him and learn how to bless others along the way.
The Father doesn’t withhold any good thing. So why is it that we are so sure that the opposite is true – if we follow God with our whole heart, we’ll miss out on the best things in life?
I would love to sit down over a cup of coffee and recount the many good things that God has NOT withheld from us over our years of ministry as cross-cultural ambassadors, sometimes in the midst of challenges that we thought would overwhelm us. But this morning I’ll just share one small but symbolic event that happened this last May.
We had flown to the city of Guangzhou in SE China to spend a long weekend with a young family engaged in ministry there. It happened to be Mother’s Day weekend in the U.S., but not in China. Karla and I went out for a walk that Sunday afternoon. We noticed a young woman with a bouquet of red roses. So we went up to her, hoping she spoke a little English, and asked where she’d gotten the flowers. She smiled and indicated apologetically that the shop was far away. So we just said thank you and walked on. Half an hour later we’d forgotten all about the flowers, and were watching an outdoor basketball game when someone came up behind us. Here was this same young woman holding out two beautiful red roses to Karla. “Please take these,” she said. “This is something special for you.” Wouldn’t you love to know what God whispered to that young woman that afternoon to deliver those two red roses to Karla on Mother’s Day?!
Let’s return to the final line of Psalm 84: “O Lord Almighty, blessed are those who trust in You.” What does it look like to trust in God? Let me propose several questions we could ask ourselves:
How deeply have we allowed the Word of God to penetrate our own lives?
What do we do when the Word of God tells us something different from what our fears are telling us? Which one do we listen to? Which one do we obey?
Some years ago two young men in their 20s crossed Papua New Guinea. It was a grueling, gruesome trip. Along the way they passed through a number of remote villages where many of had become Christians. But they began to notice a pattern: These villagers were very happy to profess Christianity and receive many of the blessings of knowing God. But when it came to their deepest fears, they didn’t believe God had the power to deal with them. For answers to their deepest needs and greatest fears, they looked to their traditional soothsayers and medicine men. The simple observation of these two young men was this: It’s far easier for people to change their religion than it is for them to change their fears.
How different are we here in Silicon Valley from these remote Papua New Guinea villagers?
In a message he preached here some years ago, Gary Vanderet said: “Our mission is not to improve the world, or even to save the world. It is to penetrate the world so that people may see that Jesus Christ is the authentic voice of God to mankind, and that He alone has the power to transform lives.” How can we penetrate the world if our own lives have not been deeply penetrated by the Word?
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Let’s just imagine what it would be like if we weren’t afraid – whether our fears are related to ourselves and our own needs, our family, our future, our work, or our ministry. “If we weren’t afraid, what would be different in our lives?”
What if we weren’t afraid to…
Have a baby? Talk to a neighbor? Start a business? To bring up a controversial subject that God has put on our heart that may be difficult for others to hear? To learn a new language? To get up in front of a group and speak about something that’s important to us? To lead a home group? To apologize? To forgive someone? To tell God that you are open to considering cross-cultural ministry if that’s what He has for you?
What new areas of our life would that open up? What new opportunities would we have to discover how good and trustworthy God really is?
Many of us know the name Elizabeth Elliott Leitch, who was married to one of the men martyred by the Auca Indians in Ecuador. She is widely recognized as a person of great faith and courage. But she spent many years controlled by fear. Every time she was ready to step out in faith, her fears held her back. “I’m afraid,” she confided to a friend. “Don’t let your fears stop you from doing what you know God is inviting you to do,” her friend told her. And if you have to, “Do it afraid”.
If you have to, do it afraid…
© Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino