Summary: God’s view of "failure" vs. the world’s view.
This morning, I’d like to offer some thoughts on where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we go from here. I don’t claim that this is a comprehensive summary of our history as a church; nor do I present this as the final, authoritative word on what we’ve suffered and accomplished. For one thing, I wasn’t anticipating ever giving this sermon, and so I haven’t spent a lot of time ruminating on the meaning of it all. And for another, I know that the ultimate judgment, the only one that really matters, is the one God will render on the last day. He is the one we are seeking to please and honor, and next to that the opinions of men have no significance whatsoever. As Paul wrote,
"Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ." – Galatians 1:10, NIV
". . . Our purpose is to please God, not people. He is the one who examines the motives of our hearts. . . As for praise, we have never asked for it from you or anyone else." – 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 5 NLT
So in a very real sense, it simply doesn’t matter what I think, or what you think, or what anyone else thinks. God knows the truth, he sees with absolute clarity, and his judgements are altogether wise and holy. Nevertheless, I would like to share with you my reflections on our life together as a body of believers in Jesus Christ. My hope is that this will help you, as you make your own evaluations and draw your own conclusions; and as you seek to use your experiences in this church as a source of insight and spiritual growth in the days to come. So here goes.
To begin, I want to address a fundamental question, which is: have we failed? Has this undertaking, this effort to plant a church been a failure? To some, it may seem obvious that the answer is "yes". After all, we intended to establish a church which would continue for many years. We hoped, when we began, that our numbers would continue to increase, to the point that we would become financially self-supporting. Those things didn’t happen. And so, a superficial evaluation would call this a failed church plant. But I would like to suggest the opposite: that, although we didn’t accomplish all that we set out to do, this work has been a glorious success, one that we can all be proud of and thankful for.
Why do I think that? Because I know that God doesn’t judge success and failure the way we do. The Bible is full of examples of men and women who appeared to fail, who appeared to fall short of the mark, but which God honored as great successes. Jesus Christ is the supreme example. He died a young man, in his early thirties. At the time of his death, he had only a few followers, and all of those deserted him. He was attacked, and slandered, and rejected by the religious establishment; regarded as a madman, a heretic, and worse. And in the end, he was executed in the most shameful way possible, as a common criminal. His closest friends considered him a failure; undoubtedly they regretted having wasted three years of their lives following him around. Even Peter disowned him; he swore that he’d never even met Jesus. They were all judging by human standards; judging according to appearances. But Jesus warns us not to do that, saying, "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgement." (John 7:24, NASB)
Certainly Stephen would have been judged a failure by many. In Acts chapters 6-7, we read that he was a powerful preacher who was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. There, he spoke eloquently and passionately about Christ. And what was the result? Did they repent, as thousands had repented and believed in Christ on the day of Pentecost in response to Peter’s preaching? No. They rejected his message. He was stoned to death. Does that mean he failed, where Peter had succeeded? Not at all. In God’s eyes, both were successful because both were faithful. The apostle Paul was repeatedly arrested and beaten; his message rejected again and again. But he was no failure. Many of the prophets in the Old Testament were killed, and their warnings went unheeded, bringing God’s judgement upon Israel. Yet in God’s eyes they were successful, because they obeyed him and did what he had called them to do. That’s God’s standard of success.
The question then is, have we obeyed God? Have we done what he called us to do? And in my view, the answer is yes. Not perfectly. Not flawlessly. No human work can ever be free from sin or errors of judgement. But on the whole, I believe that we have been faithful to follow God.