Many people are upset because they are living a PLAN B. They’re upset because what they really wanted in life was not what they got. They had certain expectations, but now they’re living with something different from the plan they thought they were living. Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas likes to ask the following question, “Who told you the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you have no story?” Now you might be thinking “What does that mean?” Let’s break it down. First, the great minds of our age say that your life is a blank slate. You can be whatever you want to be if you dream big. You get to write your own story. There is no grand narrative in life except the one that you write for yourself. Because there is no reference point, no grand narrative, any story you write with your life will have the most meaning to you. You are an individual (just like everyone else). Secondly, question anyone who would question your freedom as an individual. Your ability to choose is the most important ability you have. Don’t ask “to choose what?” just keep choosing.
Herein lies the problem, you and I didn’t ask to be born. We were born in interesting times. Is life a gift or a curse? And what if I don’t want to choose to answer that question? One alternative to this situation is to simply ignore it. Become a sheep and do what you see everyone else doing. Trust in society’s collective consciousness. Base your existence on the Consumer Confidence Index. Buy what everyone is buying. Start out in your youth. Find the kid every kid likes and listen to him. Do whatever he tells you and always be on the winning side. If you are a teenager, do anything to keep from being like your parents. They’re locked into one thing, go out and experiment with everything. Later as a young adult in prison. . . . promise your P.O. that you’ll do anything to stay out, but then go back to the same neighborhood to look up the kid everybody liked. I won’t tell you how that story ends, but I’ve met a lot of people who are living out stories like that today.
For many people PLAN A, aka, “I have no story except the story I choose when I have no story” has all but played out. Now they’re living with a PLAN B. They’re not sure exactly what PLAN B is, but they’re doing their best to make it up as they go along. Just last week a man came to me and asked to join our two year leadership training program. He signed all the paperwork and then had a change of heart. Maybe he’d never made up his mind to begin with, but he had no trouble with the paperwork. But all this week we’ve been discussing the next stage with him, the one where he travels to a new place where he’s never been before. He just wants the assurance that he’ll get to come back within a short time. He’s given no such assurance, so he sits stewing over it in his mind day after day. The decision gets no easier. Can he really trust us? His mind is focused on one thing, his situation. He doesn’t see the many people who are still here after many years, who trust this place and have dedicated themselves to their story here. All he knows is that he won’t be in control of his story as it is anymore if he goes out of town for an indefinite period of time.
I don’t mean to pick on this guy. I share his story because I believe we are all in the same boat in one way or another. Who or what can we trust in, really? I don’t know about you, but for myself, I regularly struggle with a crisis of confidence. Yes, I’m a minister, but I struggle too. I work at a job where I’m regularly encouraging people to do what seems impossible: serve people who will more often then not seem less than appreciative. I tell my fellow staff members to be encouraged and not lose confidence. But last week I was standing in the woods asking God, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I so anxious and irritated and tired? Why do I feel so used up?”
I could tell you about some of my problems. My family has had three cycles of some kind of flu in the house in the last month. At work here in downtown we have a passive-aggressive property owner in the area who wanders around outside our building with a camera taking video and photos of the homeless and their belongings to regularly send to city hall. Trying to reason with this person only seems to make it worse. I’m partly responsible for two old houses that take a lot of maintenance and some old cars that break down more times than I can remember. And my dog has fleas. Oh yes, it all comes down to that doesn’t it? The final straw. My dog loves me, won’t stay away from me, and she has fleas. Isn’t that reason enough to crack up? It’s always the small things that send us over the edge isn’t it?
So as I wandered out in the woods crying out to God, and then got quiet, I heard Him say, “Cast not away your confidence.” So I went and looked that phrase up in the Bible.
“Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Heb 10:35-11:1 KJV
So what was the Lord telling me? First, that I had a confidence that I can’t cast away, and that this confidence would be rewarded. Second, that I needed patience in doing the Will of God so that I will receive the promise. Third that Jesus is returning and is not late. Fourth, that I am just and must live by faith. I am, together with you who believe, not among those who draw back, but am of those who will be saved. Finally, that faith that I have bet my life on, and that you believers have bet your life on, is a substance, is an evidence of what we can’t see but know is coming.
What was that I said about betting your life? I bet my life on following Jesus Christ. I’m not living on a PLAN B because there really is no PLAN B. I have a different PLAN A. My story is not the story I chose because I learned there was no story. My story is that Jesus Christ has conquered death and hell and died on the cross to reconcile all things to God. He died for all my sins, he died for your sins. Jesus is returning and he’s not late. He will be right on time. My confidence is not in my abilities. I’m a jack of a lot of trades, but the one thing I can really do right is confide in Jesus. So if I’m getting frustrated and angry, you remind me of that will you? The ONE thing I’m really called to do is confide in Jesus.
I’m just getting started. We ARE having church today. Jesus is here today with power to save. That word for confidence in that verse is translated from a koine Greek word, parrhesia, that is loaded with history and meaning. The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote an entire book about the word. It is usually used in reference to speaking openly, holding nothing back. The Greeks loved their freedom of speech in the polis, and this word is not just a word, but it refers to the right of free citizens to speak their mind, especially when they were threatened by an intolerant ruler. That should stick in your mind because we find the word used throughout the New Testament in a way that says, “you will face opposition, but you better not back down”. Acts 4:13-14 gives an example:
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (NIV)
Here the word for parrhesia is translated as courage. In John 18:20, when the Pharisees asked Jesus about his teaching and doctrine, he replies using parrhesia, saying that he spoke openly to the world.
Jesus promised his disciples that they would be hauled in before the authorities in Matt 10:18-20:
“On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (NIV)
So what’s really different about this word courage in the New Testament is that it is a courage not based on a citizen’s position as free or slave, or on one’s great oratory skills. It is a courage given by the Spirit of the living God, specifically for doing the will of God. God knows my heart. He knows that I’m a coward when it comes down to it. I’ll run away before I’ll defend myself every time. But he took a coward like me and called me to tell sinners everywhere that if he can turn someone like me into a witness, he can save anyone.
I know a lot of you sitting in this room today. I saw some of you when you first joined this ministry last year. Confident is not a word I would use to describe you that day. Some of you were crying. Others were scared to trust anybody. But I’ve been here for a little over a year now and I see God doing in you what you could not have done for yourself. You never thought you’d be setting people back on a straight path. You never thought God would use you to save someone’s life—but he has, and he is. Not because of your great abilities, but because of Jesus’ power over sin and death that is real in you. I’m so grateful to be a witness to that.
Before I came back to this city I was on the run from doing anything like this. My secret fantasy as a young man was to stick out my thumb and hit the highway to anywhere else where no one would know me. Anyone here ever done that? Well I met a few folks who had done that and it didn’t play out for them well, so I thought better of it. Anyway, I was scared to death at first of doing what God wanted me to do. So for a while I wouldn’t tell my wife that God had put moving back to St. Louis on my heart. But God kept pushing me. Then I grew more and more dissatisfied with my work because I knew God was calling me elsewhere. Then I went to my pastors in Chicago, hoping they would tell me that God hadn’t really said that. But they did no such thing. Finally, I gave in and told my wife about it.
Now I’m sorry for running from God. I’m sorry because it is the supreme joy of my life to see what God is doing in all of you. God is doing miracles everyday here one person at a time. And I believe that for someone in this room today or listening to me at home, you want to know that there is a PLAN A. You want to know more than anything else that, sick as you are with sin, God has a life for you. I can say with all confidence that He does. Here is what you need to do:
Learn the Will of God. What is God’s will for you? Believe in the One he sent. (Jn. 6:29)Jesus Christ. What do I mean by believe? Place your trust in, cling to, forsake all else, and bet your life on the fact that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross sealed for all time your future. You can know for certain that God’s will is not for you to be selfish, but to love Him with all your heart, your soul, your mind and strength. God’s will is for you to love your neighbor (that person you notice because you despise them) as much as you love yourself. That’s a start.
Abide in the Word of God. “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” John 15:7 (KJV) Jesus Christ is the Logos of God. Your confidence in him is a confidence in the PLAN A he has given you. This Word is not for you alone but is also for all the other children of God he has surrounded you with. They may not be people you would choose. But abiding in Christ means loving them and being loved by them. It means living by the Scriptures together come what may. It means humbling yourself daily. (For me it meant getting up at 5:00AM to take a woman and her daughter to the train station so that my sister in Christ wouldn’t have to.)
Know the Truth, That Truth will set you free. John 8:31-35 says,
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. (NKJV)
You may or may not feel like a slave on any given day. You may feel quite comfortable, actually. You live in America, land of the free, home of the brave. But your social and political freedom can’t free you from your sins. Nothing you do can free you from sin. Pretending they’re not there doesn’t work. You need Jesus, the way the truth and the life. Knowing Jesus is true freedom.
Without Christ there is no way to stand against the powerful social, political, spiritual and personal forces that oppose us in this world. But just where we are weakest, God is determined to have His way in us. In the end our story is not about our ability or inability. It is about God’s plan.
Romans 8:31-39 says,
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?
It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NRSV)
Life is struggle. Martin Luther said, “To have no temptation is the worst temptation.” May God save us from imagining the spiritual life as a comfy bed of roses. As long as we desire God’s will rest assured we will need courage and holy boldness. The way of Jesus leads us into confrontation. We don’t have to pick fights, God’s eye for the poor ensures that the powers that be will come looking for us. God’s love is controversial because it insists that money and things are temporary and relative to time. God is patient. His love is eternal. He cares deeply and does not lie. This kind of truth exposes many persons for what they have become as paid liars. If you imitate God rest assured life will be an adventure and you’ll turn your body in well worn from intense grief as well as real joy.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice