Part III: Avoiding Derailment

  • Part III: Avoiding Derailment
  • Deuteronomy 7:6-8a
  • Bill Couch
  • April 24, 2016
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4-25-16 Sermon from LakeRidge UMC on Vimeo.

This morning we continue with our series of messages entitled “Momentum: Boldly Venturing into the Future”. As this is my last sermon series, I felt lead to the Book of Deuteronomy because it contains the last sermon series Moses preached to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land. Old Testament Professor Dr. Sandy Richter points out that they are in “liminal space—that awkward spot between who they have been and who they are about to be”. The Israelites have completed the time of wandering in the wilderness for forty years. They are preparing to cross the Jordan River to occupy the land flowing with milk and honey that God has promised them. Moses has been their leader for forty years and his successor, Joshua has been appointed. Moses is still with them; Joshua is not yet in charge. It is the land between. In my first message I talked about how we experience liminal space frequently in our lives when we are going through times of transition: moving to a new city, starting a new job, graduating from school, awaiting test results on a health problem. We know what it is like to wait. It is a time of uncertainty and questioning.  It is in the land between when we are open to God and he does some of his best work in us. We learn to trust him while we wait.

As a church we are in the land between. I’m retiring at the end of May but I’m still here. Lyndol Loyd has been appointed as the next senior pastor but he is still in Florida. What will happen in this next chapter of our church’s history? It is a time for us to remember that God has always provided for us and he will continue to do so—it is a time to grow in our trust of God.

Last week we looked at how Moses helped the Israelites remember the key events in their history that revealed who God is and who they are. He urges them to not let these things slip from your hearts. I reviewed what I believe are the pivotal events in our history that has shaped our experience of God and who we are as a church. I encourage you to keep these things in your hearts as you move into the future. Don’t dwell on the past, but remember who you are no matter where you are. Take that with you.

If you were unable to hear either of those messages, I encourage you to go to our church website and watch, read or listen to them. Or order the CD or DVD at our welcome center in the sanctuary foyer. These are important messages and I don’t want you to miss out on any of them.

Dr. Richter points out that in chapters 7, 8, & 9, Moses warns the Israelites of dangers they might encounter in the Promised Land—things that could derail them from experiencing God’s purpose. Dr. Richter sums up this list: “When you get to the Promised Land and you are successful, don’t join the club (ch 7), don’t think your successes are because of how talented you are (ch 8), or how good you are (ch 9).”

As he launches into this part of his sermon, he reminds them who they are:

6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7 The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you. Deuteronomy 7:6-8a

Remember who you are. You are God’s chosen people, not because of how special you are, but solely because God loves you. Beware of the things in this land flowing with milk and honey that may cause you to forget the God who loves you and will derail you from his purpose.

Three weeks ago on a Sunday morning, an Amtrak Train traveling south of Philadelphia at over 100 miles an hour slammed into a back hoe that was on the same track. The engine of the train was derailed. Two operators of the back hoe were killed and 35 passengers were injured. They hit an unanticipated obstacle on the track that caused them to derail and resulted in a tragedy.

Moses warns the Israelites to anticipate things that could derail them from God’s purposes as they enter the Promised Land. The first warning is “Don’t join the club.” The Promised Land was filled with people who worshipped others gods than the Lord God of Israel. These religions could allure the Israelites into a trap. They were gods of Baal and the Asherah—commonly known as fertility cults.  Their religious rituals made sacrifices to idols of wood and stone that were intended to ensure bumper crops and abundant livestock every year. They appealed to selfish desires of wealth and comfort—to have their material needs met. These gods were not real—they were conjured up in the imaginations of men. Moses warns the Israelites not to get derailed by the false promises they offer. Remember instead the Lord your God who has demonstrated that he is real and powerful and loves you. He has provided for your needs, you don’t need these idols of wood and stone. He tells them what to do with these obstacles on the track into the Promised Land:

5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 25 The images of their gods you are to burn in the fire. Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves, or you will be ensnared by it, for it is detestable to the LORD your God. Deuteronomy 7:5, 25

Moses speaks very directly about this danger and encourages the Israelites to destroy these false gods lest they get derailed and disconnected from the true Creator God.

What are some of the dangers we might encounter as we move into the next chapter of our church’s history? We could get derailed by “consumer religion.” Many people today go church shopping frequently for a church that “meets their needs”. Much of the growth in churches in our city is from what is known as “sheep swapping”. People leave one church and go to another for a variety of reasons. If their primary reason for seeking a new church is because they want to be entertained or to leave feeling good every Sunday, they have settled for the false god of consumer religion. It is all about their selfish desire to have their needs met. The focus is upon “me.” John F. Kennedy in his inaugural speech as President said the immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Jesus said he came not to be served, but to serve. If you fold your arms and wait to see if you are going to like the new leaders of our church you are a religious consumer and it can have devastating consequences on your relationship with God. It is all about you. You will get derailed. Rather than waiting and watching to see if you approve, ask what you can do to help grow and strengthen the ministries of our church. Ask not what your church can do for you; ask what you can do for your church. By engaging in serving God through our church you will find greater fulfilment and stay on track in your spiritual growth.

Moses also warned the Israelites to remember the source of their blessings. When they prospered in the Promised Land they could get derailed by forgetting that God was the source of everything. They could begin to think that all of their success was due to their own talents, abilities and goodness.

Listen to his warnings:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you… When your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied…you may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth… Deuteronomy 8:10,13,17,18

After the LORD your God has driven [the inhabitants] out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. Deuteronomy 9:4,6

Isn’t this a danger we all face that can potentially derail our relationship with God? When we are in liminal space, we call out to God, we pray, we depend upon him. But when things settle down and start going smoothly we put God on a shelf and we go about life as usual. In fact we begin to think that perhaps we are responsible for all the good things that are happening in our lives. We think our success is due to our talent, abilities and goodness. We are doing everything right therefore the universe is rewarding us. We have escaped liminal space, we don’t need God any more. Major danger for derailment!

Burt Reynolds starred in a movie entitled “The End”. In the movie he decides to end his life by swimming into the ocean as far as he can until he is exhausted and then just go under. But after going under he decides not to go through with it. As he breaks the surface of the water he screams, “I want to live! I want to live!” He then begins to try to swim to shore, but it is a very long way off. As he begins to swim he talks to God. Let’s listen to his conversation:

VIDEO CLIP: BURT REYNOLDS NEGOTIATES WITH GOD

In liminal space he makes all kinds of promises to God: to obey the 10 commandments—at least the three he can remember; to tithe 50%, go see his father. But as he crawls up on the beach he says: “Well, Lord, let’s just forget about what I said before. I think I can make it from here on my own.”

That is when we are in danger of derailment: when we think we can make it from here on our own and we don’t need God. During a crisis we cry out to God. God provides; he lifts us out of a mess; we experience his healing—and then we promptly forget the source. The money would have come anyway. The medical treatments healed me. The crisis passes and we go back to living without a connection with God.

Last September our church entered into liminal space—the land between. Our founding pastor who led the church for 37 years announced his retirement. It was a time of uncertainty. Will we find a pastor that will be a good fit for our church? When he/she arrives will he/she change everything? Will I like him/her? What will happen when I have a crisis or a significant event in my life and the pastors I’m connected to are no longer here? As a church we began to pray. We knew we depended upon God’s leadership. We were also blessed to hire a search consultant. We established committees to help with the transition process. We have found a pastor that the majority of people are excited about—he is a West Texas native, a graduate of Texas Tech and Asbury Seminary. He has had experience starting two churches. The decision to invite Lyndol Loyd as the next Senior Pastor of LakeRidge UMC was unanimous by the SPRC, leadership of our church, Bishop and District Superintendents. Prayer has saturated this process for months—an indication of our dependence upon God.  When the new pastor arrives and we discover that he is a good preacher and leader, will we forget to pray and give thanks?

I was at a meeting recently of Pastors of Large Churches in Transition sponsored by the Texas Methodist Foundation. The other pastors in the group were fascinated and envious of the search process that our Bishop allowed us to do and how involved our church leaders were in the process. After I talked about the process, I said, “This process worked so well because it was saturated with prayer. God guided the process.” Will I remember that six months from now? Two years from now? Or will I just remember how well our process worked?

Remember that whatever successes LakeRidge United Methodist Church has in the years ahead are not because of how smart we are, how talented we are, how great we are. Everything good that happens is because of the blessing of God. He gives us the ability and resources and provides the guidance of his Spirit. Without him we can do nothing. Connected with him all things are possible. In the years ahead, remember that God is the source. Continue to depend upon him and continue to pray for his guidance and presence. Be aware of the potential dangers ahead and do not let them derail you from the purposes of God for this church. And all God’s people said: “AMEN.”