Monday, January 16, 2017

Sunday's Sermon – Spiritual Growth for Short People: Recognizing Our Limits

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 15, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


This morning we’re starting a sermon series entitled, “Spiritual Growth for Short People.” And I’ll tell you, when I posted it on line, I had a person write, “Boy am I ever short, hope the weather stays warm so I don't miss this.” Now that’s what she wrote, and I’ll tell you, I know that person, and she’s 100% right; she is short. But I won’t mention her name, because I don’t want to embarrass Bonnie.

But you know, when you’re talking about spiritual height, well, I’m short too. And so are you, and I’d even include our newest grandfather. Spiritually speaking, we’re all elevationally compressed. We’re all low is stature. We’re all height challenged. In a word, we’re all short. But you know, our spiritual lack of height is kind of like how children are small, because we all have room to grow. And that’s what we’re going to talk about over these next six weeks: how we might grow spiritually, how we might grow in our relationship with God, how we might grow in our understanding of his word and his will, and how we might grow in our ability to apply that understanding to our lives in the real world.  Now, that’s going to be our focus. 

And during that time we’ll talk about all kinds of stuff, you know, like how we can grow by trusting the Lord and by loving one another, by making an impact in the world around us and by sharing the message and then by bringing in the harvest. But this morning, we’re going to start with what I think is the first step. You see, if we’re serious about growing spiritually, I believe everything else is just window dressing until we make the decision to recognize our limits.

And to get us started, I want you to take a look at the passage there in your bulletin and up on the screen. Listen to the word of God as written in the First Letter of John: This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Image result for recognize limitsOf course, when you’re talking about recognizing your limits, well, that’s something folks do all the time. I mean, just think about the Pittsburgh-Kansas City game, which, as y’all probably know was moved from a 1:00 kick-off to 8:20 this evening which means I can preach and preach and preach. Well, I can guarantee that both Mike Tomlin and Andy Reid have been taking a careful look at all their strengths and weaknesses, all their limitations, something every coach has to do, except William Stephen Belichick, because as everyone knows, the Patriots have no weaknesses and his ability is unlimited. But other coaches, well, they need to recognize their own weaknesses and then design the best possible game plan. And I can remember my dad and my grandfather doing this same kind of thing before going into a big meeting. I mean, I can remember dad playing devil’s advocate, you know, bringing up arguments that would force my grandfather to explain or to justify some kind of limitation. And so this kind of stuff happens all the time. In fact, Jesus even recognized that people are constantly considering their limits when he gave this example: “...what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.” You see, this is just the kind of thing smart people do. 

And you know, just like it makes sense to do it in sports and business and war, I think it also makes a lot of sense to recognize our limitations as we think about our own spiritual growth. And I’ll tell you, in my opinion, the reason it makes sense is really simple: whether we want to admit it or not, we’re just plain limited. For example, we’re all limited physically, right? I mean, there’s not a person here this morning who’s omnipresent, you know, everywhere. And we’re sure not omnipotent, all powerful, or omniscient, all knowing, or eternal, timeless. That stuff applies to God, not us. As a matter of fact, I think you could even describe every aspect of lives as limited, which means, no matter what we do or what we may want to do, we can only go so far. And we can only know so much. And we can only live so long. And even if we get it in our heads that our perspectives or our opinions or our understanding can be perfect and complete, believing it just doesn’t make it so. We are creatures. We’ve been created. And only the creator is perfect and complete. That’s just the way it is. 

And I’ve just been talking about the physical limitations we share with our other creatures. I haven’t even mentioned the spiritual limitations we all face, and now I talking about that three letter word found around every home and in every life: S-I-N. You see, again whether we like it or not, sin affects us all. As we heard in the passage we read from First John, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” And I’ll tell you, it’s not just in this passage. Paul said the same thing to the Romans when he wrote, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” In other words, sin is just a fact of life. And even though, as both Paul and John wrote, through Christ, we can know both forgiveness and cleansing, that doesn’t mean the reality of sin goes away, even for believers. Just listen to the how the Apostle Paul, maybe the strongest Christian ever, just listen to how he described himself at least a decade after trusting in Christ. Now like I said, this is a self-description: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” You see, not only are we limited by our physical nature, spiritually sin distorts how we see both God and self. In fact, if we’re not aware of it, it can lead us to confuse the two and to assume that our thoughts are God’s thoughts. And our values are God’s values. And our plans are God’s plans. And trust me, that can really mess us up. 

And I’ll tell you, that’s why I’m saying that, if we want to grow spiritually, if we want to grow in our relationship with God, if we want to grow in our understanding of his word and will, we had better recognize that we are limited, and I’m talking about both physically and spiritually. But here’s some good news; when we do, when we make this recognition, this acknowledgment, the possibility for real growth balloons. In fact, I think it affects us in three really important ways, and I’m going to share them with you briefly. And trust me, this will be brief, because Maggie told me she wants Chinese for lunch today, and my daughter waits for no man.

You see, first, when we recognize our limits, I believe we immediately become more realistic in our expectations. I mean, if I convince myself that it’s possible for me to reach some kind of spiritual perfection, that it’s possible for me to become and remain everything that God has created me to be, that it’s possible for me to become so godly or maybe better, godlike that I’m living in a constant state of bliss and that there’s peace in every aspect of my life and that my only problem is not having enough time to thank God for all the health, wealth and happiness he’s showered into my existence.
if that’s what I assume will happen, how do you think I’m going to feel when it doesn’t? How I am going feel about myself when I’m just not “...in-right, out-right, up-right, down-right, happy all the time”? And how I am going to feel about God when both me and those I love end up facing the one thing that’s actually more certain than taxes? I don’t think disappointed is strong enough. But if I recognize my own limits, maybe I can appreciate improvement rather than just perfection. Maybe I can accept moving closer to God rather than becoming like God. And maybe I can enjoy the trip rather than being bummed because I can’t seem to reach the destination. You see, when we recognize our limits, we’re going to be more realistic in our expectations. That’s one.

And I’ll tell you something else, I think we’ll also become a lot more focused in our approach, and I’m talking about the kind of things we might do to grow. Now, I believe that’s the second thing that’ll happen. But it won’t if we assume that all the spiritual growth we need is just dumped inside our heads the minute we say, “I believe.” You know, I’m amazed by the number of Christians who seem to think that the minute they accept that Jesus really is Lord, they enter a perfect relationship with God, including knowing everything they need to know about his word and will. No fuss, no muss, and of course, no effort. Man, they know enough to speak with authority. In fact, they know enough to judge and condemn others. Now, that’s what they seem to think. But I guess that really shouldn’t be a surprise; I’ve helped plenty of couples plan their weddings who seem to believe the same thing about marriage, that after saying “I do,” the hardest thing they’ll face is finding a place for four “chip and dip” sets they got as gifts. And let’s face it, we all know that’s true, right? No, since we really are limited, it takes effort to grow spiritually. And it takes dedication to improve our relationship with God. And take it to the bank it takes work, and I’m talking about a lot of prayer to feel closer to God and a lot of study to understand both his will and his word. In other words, we need to be as focused as we can be as we approach God if we’re serious about growing spiritually. But I think that only happens when we recognize our limits. And that’s two.

And third, I believe Christians who have a healthy understanding of  their own limits become more patient in their faith. I mean, they aren’t constantly looking for the next mountaintop experience. And they aren’t chasing the next emotional high. And they sure aren’t sitting around waiting for everything to come together. Instead, they view their faith as sort of a journey. And even though there are plenty of really rough places and plenty of times they may get frustrated and discouraged, that journey has a destination already determined by God. And because they believe this, along the way, they’re able to notice all kinds of things that reminds them that the one who’s leading them into a glorious future, also loved them before he laid the foundation of the of the universe. And you know, some of what they see really is big and dramatic, maybe even life-changing. But most of the signs are pretty small and may seem, to the untrained eye, insignificant. But what’s really interesting is this: as their faith slowly grows, they see more and more indications of God’s love and concern. Those who recognize their limits are patient as their faith becomes deeper and more profound. And that’s three.

And like I said, acknowledging those limits, man, I think that’s the first step for those who are serious about spiritual growth. You see, just like a coach preparing for a game or a contractor preparing for a meeting or a king preparing for a battle, I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’re both physically and spiritually limited. Because when we recognize our limitations as we approach spiritual growth, we become more realistic in our expectations, more focused in our approach, and more patient in our faith. But even though that’s important, it really only has meaning if we’re willing to take that next step, and I’m talking about deciding to trust God, something we’ll talk about next week.

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