One of my favorite college instructors was a history professor named Dr. Oakley. I loved his Western Civilization classes because of the unique perspective he brought to the subject. He was also one of my favorites because he empathized with his students. On the first day of class I was pleasantly shocked to read these words in his syllabus: “How to succeed in this class without really trying.” Beneath that heading were several simple guidelines that we could follow to make a good grade in the course without a lot of stress and sweat. I followed his advice and made As without really trying. No ingenuity or heroic efforts were needed to ace the class.
I’m borrowing Dr. Oakley’s phrase and using it a bit tongue and cheek this morning. I take it for granted that most of you want to serve God. I assume that you want to please him in the way you conduct your life. It is my educated guess that you desire to stand before Christ one day and hear Him evaluate your time on this earth by saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” If so, I want to let you know that you can do it without really trying. I don’t mean that it’ll take no effort. That’s certainly not what Dr. Oakley meant. What I mean is that you don’t have to have extraordinary talent or wisdom or undertake heroic efforts to please the Lord your God. All you have to do is learn to ride the wave that God raises up.
Let’s use surfing as our metaphor for serving God. The Christian life is a lot like surfing. Surfers can’t manufacture their own waves. All they can really do is wait on the perfect swell, get on it, and ride. Yes, human beings can create waves at water parks like Emerald Point, but you can’t surf on those waves. All you can do is bob up and down. Real surfers head to the ocean. They ride the waves built by wind and current.
Living the Christian life, serving God, pleasing the Lord is much life surfing. We can’t manufacture the waves of providence. History is moving in the direction that God has foreordained. If we try to direct it by making our own waves, we’re really just splashing around. Rather than make something happen we must learn to ride the wave that God raises up.
Riding God’s Waves
This concept is crystal clear in the life of Abraham. He served God, he pleased God, he accomplished God’s purposes for his life, but he did it without really trying. Abraham learned to ride the waves God raised up.
The first lesson involves wipeouts. In surfer lingo, a wipeout occurs when you lose control of the board and make an undignified splash into the water. I’m going to use wipeout as a descriptive term for sin.
1. When you wipeout, fail forward.
Abraham had this peculiar habit of lying about his wife to avoid being murdered. After God had called them out of their homeland, he convinced Sarah that when they entered a new town she should tell everyone that she was his sister. This was a partial truth because Sarah was his half sister, but also his wife. Abraham feared that any number of powerful and corrupt kings might kill him to take his wife. By using this little ruse perhaps he could stall for time and leave town or, at worst, Sarah would be taken from Abraham, but his life spared.
If you remember, they used this lie in Egypt many years before. Pharaoh took Sarah to be one of his wives and God sent a plague to show him the err of his ways. Pharaoh confronted Abraham about it, but Abraham remained guiltily silent. Not wanting to be destroyed, the Egyptian king enriched Abraham with livestock and slaves and then sent the old man packing.
History repeated itself two decades later. Abraham grazed his flocks around the city of Gerar and its king, Abimelech decided to take Sarah as a wife. He probably sought to make a political alliance with Abraham by marrying what he thought was only Abraham’s sister. God interrupted and informed Abimelech in a dream that he would die if he touched Sarah or failed to return her to her husband. Like Pharaoh, Abimelech confronted Abraham. This time Abraham actually admitted his sin.
Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” Genesis 20:11-13 (NIV)
What happened next is telling. Abimelech enriched Abraham just as Pharaoh had years earlier, but rather than cast him out of Gerar, he invited him to stay. Eventually Abimelech made a treaty of friendship with Abraham. Abimelech recognized God’s work in Abraham’s life and wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to live under the blessing of the same God. This means that Abraham influence Abimelech toward a life of faith in the true God. Here’s the kicker: the only difference between this episode and the incident with Pharaoh is that this time Abraham admitted his sin. Abraham’s humility combined with the blessings of God brought Abimelech to faith.
The lesson for us is simple. When we wipeout riding on God’s wave by sinning, we must fail forward. Rather than cover it up or deny it or justify our actions, we must admit our failure and turn from it. Failing forward means that we get honest and own up to our sins. We confess it to God and other people when appropriate. We make restitution if need be.
Here’s what you need to understand: Lost people are not turned off by your sin, but they hate your hypocrisy. Don’t revel in sin, but don’t deny it either. Strange as it sound to say, there is something comforting about the people of God owning up to their sin. If people see God’s grace and blessings on your life even though you fail to live up to God’s standard they understand that maybe God could forgive and accept them too.
Abraham’s admission of sin served God because it opened the door for Abimelech to come to faith. This is the first instance of Abraham directly blessing a nation unrelated to him. He fulfilled God’s promise without really trying. He was just honest about his sin. In his wipeout, Abraham failed forward.
2. When the way is uncertain, look to a legend.
In surfing lingo a legend is anyone over the age of 50 who is still riding the waves. They are looked upon as a source of inspiration to younger surfers. Their wisdom is highly prized. If you want to learn how to do it right, learn from a legend.
In the story, Abraham’s emotions made the way rather uncertain. On the one hand he had a child from his union with an Egyptian slave. On the other hand, he had received the child of God’s promise through his elderly wife Sarah. Abraham loved both of his sons dearly. One day Abraham threw a party for little Isaac to celebrate his graduation to solid food. Probably out of envy, Abraham’s teenage son Ishmael began taunting the little fellow. Abraham was silent, probably because of his attachment to both children. He didn’t know what to do, but Sarah saw clearly because she had no emotional attachment to Ishmael. Her advice to Abraham seem harsh to us, but Sarah recognized major problems to come as she contemplated Ishmael’s treatment of Isaac.
Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10 (NIV)
According to ancient law, a slave child born his of a master, could inherit a portion of the estate. If, however, the slave was set free they received no share of the inheritance. This is what Sarah was calling for. She wanted Abraham to set Hagar and her son free. She knew that Isaac was the promised child from God who would be the means by which God would bless all families of the earth. She could see something malicious in the character of Ishmael as well. By setting them free the family could avoid conflict and potential confusion about the true heir of Abraham.
Abraham didn’t immediately act on his wife’s advice, but he should have. God affirmed her words and then Abraham cut them loose from his household. It was difficult, but it was the right thing to do.
When the way is uncertain, look to a legend. In this case it was Sarah. She had become a spiritual powerhouse. That’ll happen when you miraculously give birth at the age of 90.
God has placed other Christians in your life for a reason. It’s not so that you can put on a happy face and lie and say “Everything’s alright.” When we come to faith, God calls us into community – genuine, deep fellowship where we can carry one another’s burdens and seek and obtain godly counsel. It takes humility to do this. We must be humble enough to admit that we don’t have all the answers, and humble enough to admit that sometimes our judgment gets clouded, and humble enough to reach out for help when the way is uncertain.
The book of proverbs tells us to make a practice of seeking the legends to help us in life.
He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm. Proverbs 13:20 (NIV)
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise. Proverbs 12:15
Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17
The book of Hebrews affirms that we can’t live a godly life or serve God’s purposes without a close connection to other Christians.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:23-25 (NIV)
I have a handful of good friends who I turn to when the way is unclear. I have my own Sarah as well. Laura provides me with better counsel than nearly anyone I know. She loves me enough that she’ll even tell me what I don’t want to hear when needed. Do you have legends in your life? They’re essential when the way is unclear.
3. When God raises a breaker, lean on what you’ve learned.
The wave that God raised in Abraham’s life was the miraculous birth of his son. When that event occurred, all Abraham needed to do was ride the wave. He leaned on what he’s already learned and took the appropriate steps:
When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Genesis 21:4 (NIV)
Abraham didn’t need to innovate. No heroic action was required. He simply leaned on what he’d already learned and responded with obedience. God raised the breaker, the miraculous birth of Isaac. Abraham responded by faith as he’d done so many times before. Abraham’s descendants later came to believe that the act of circumcision saved the, but it wasn’t. It was the faith that led to circumcision that saved Abraham. Listen to Paul’s description in Romans 4:
Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”
When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. …
The circumcision ceremony was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous …
For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing. Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.
Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God. Romans 4:1-5, 11, 16-25
That’s really a model for the Christian life. God raises a breaker and we ride the wave based on what we’ve learned from Him. We serve God without really trying. He initiates and we respond with faith and obedience.
This is what separates Christianity from all world religions. Our faith is not about human effort or initiative. It is a simple response to the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God raised the breaker in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our part, by faith, is to learn to ride the wave that God raised up.
Segue into the Lord’s Supper