There are two problems with settling down: one of them is that you forget about where you came from. The other is that you lose sight of where you could be going.
Here is a young couple. They start out married life in just a small place, with room for themselves and maybe that first child. They know when they move there that it will only be temporary. It’s not the Kind of place someone lives in for a long time. The real estate agent called it a "starter house", or maybe it’s an apartment carved out of somebody else’s basement.
They live there two years, three years, until a better job comes along and a little more money. The second child is also on the way; more room is needed. Out they go to acquire a bigger place, and they go into debt for it, quite a bit of debt, maybe even get a second mortgage in order to get started. But now here is a place they can live in for a while. Here they can stay for a few years. Oh, maybe not forever, not the best of neighborhoods, not quite all that some of their yuppie friends have. But they’re proud of this house. This house will do very nicely for at least several years.
Well, the day comes when the children are older, and maybe there are one or two more; the job has matured, the income has improved. This couple, not quite young and yet not at all old either, makes the plunge to get THE house, their house. Maybe they even build it themselves, that ideal location, that perfectly beautiful spot, a house with all the amenities, all the space, all they want. Isn’t that expensive? Yes, but not impossible. With work and with the passage of the years, it is possible.
What happens after that? What do we call it? We call it settling down. They get settled. Very settled. So settled, in fact, that other opportunities become invisible. Other possibilities are not even seen. There is the offer of a job a hundred miles away; but he dismisses that notion, because they feel settled in this place. There was a moment when she felt it would be good to move back to the old home town to take care of her elderly, widowed mother; but no, moving looks like a huge chore. That would mean leaving this house, THE house, our house. No, we’re settled, thank you. Not interested in moving; not interested in changing.
But, I say, there are two problems with settling down: one of them is that you forget about where you came from. The other is that you lose sight of where you could be going in the future. For the Christian, that is spiritually dangerous. It is spiritually dangerous because you have left the will of God out of the equation. If in our eagerness to stay with and keep what we have, we lose sight of what we could do or where we could go, we have not thought enough about the will of God. And we have therefore made a great mistake.
Settling down, I say, creates two spiritual problems. Forgetting about where we came from. And, at the same time, losing sight of where we could be going, having no vision for what God wants us to do.
Ancient Israel had been a wandering people. From the days of their enslavement in Egypt they had been led into the wilderness for a generation of wandering. Forty years they had moved about, living in tents, herding their flocks, seeking their destiny. The hallmark of that wandering had been dependence on the will of God. They did it by obeying the leadership of the Lord. A great cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night had gone before them to show them where they should go. Materially they had very little; they possessed nothing. But they did possess their own souls, because they followed the leadership of God and made their way, slowly but surely, toward the land of promise. They had a vision of their destiny and they followed it.
You know the story. You know that under Moses they struggled to the edge of the land toward which God had led them. And then you remember that under the leadership of Joshua they fought their way through a thousand obstacles: through hostile tribes and bitter disappointments, against overwhelming odds, finally to win the battle and settle down in the land. From being nobody’s nothing, the people of Israel came to settle down and prosper, all from doing what God had led them to do. No other way to explain it. Seeing the leadership of the Lord and following it. Very simple.
But remember my premise. They settled down. And settling down is spiritually dangerous. Settling down brings with it some spiritual problems. There are two problems with settling down; what are they now?
One of them is that you forget about where you came from. The other is that you lose sight of where you could be going.
The Old Testament presents us with the story of Eli, priest of God, and with the pain of his older years. Eli has served the Lord in his own way for a long time. He has done what he knew to do. But we are told a couple of important things about Eli. What we are told about Eli adds up to this: that he and his family forgot where they came from and, at the same time, lost sight of where they could be going. They had succumbed to the disease of settling down.
Let’s hear the issue as God’s word presents it:
What does it mean to forget where you’ve come from? Why is that a spiritual danger?
Do you remember the TV show, "The Jeffersons"? The idea of “The Jeffersons” is that George Jefferson had started out with one little cleaning shop somewhere uptown, living in a cramped, crowded apartment building. But then George and his “Weezy” did well; the cleaning shop multiplied into a chain of shops, and the Jeffersons moved. They moved on up to the east side, movin’ on up, where beans don’t smell up the kitchen and fish don’t burn on the grill. And in their new, plush digs, the Jeffersons forgot all about where they came from. In fact, they worked hard at forgetting about where they came from.
In one episode for some reason they had to go back to that old apartment. They walked into that tiny, hot, dusty space, and “Weezy” began to cry. ·Oh, George, don’t you remember? We were so happy here. There’s where our little son Lionel used to play. Over there’s where I used to cook, making dinner out of practically nothing. Oh George, I kind of miss this place."
But you know George. Feisty, greedy George. He’s having none of that. He doesn’t remember it that way. He’s forgotten about any happy days, and thinks only about not having any money and about what it took to get out of that miserable place. George Jefferson wants to put the struggle behind and think about nothing except the luxury of his elegant high-rise. When George has to remember where he came from, even Ralph, the tips-hungry doorman looks good. George has forgotten where he came from.
That’s the way with a lot of us. We’d rather enjoy where we are now than to think about what kind of struggle it took to get here. We’d rather settle down into the comforts we’ve achieved than to look backward. It feels humiliating to look back. It feels threatening to look back.
But therein is the spiritual danger. The spiritual danger is that we forget that it is God who brought us out. It was by following the will of God that we moved forward at all. And once we forget how obedience to God’s will brought us out, then we begin to focus on what we can keep it for ourselves. A spiritual catastrophe is in the making.
God says to Eli the priest, “I chose your father out of all the families of Israel to be my priest, to go to my altar. I gave to your family all my offerings … Why then do you look with greedy eye at my sacrifices and my offerings ... fattening yourselves on the choicest parts?" How’s that for an indictment? “Why do you look with greedy eye at my sacrifices ... fattening yourselves?" Then listen to the consequences: "Those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.”
That is a spiritual disaster! When we get settled down and forget that it was God who gave us all that we have, then we focus on fattening ourselves. At some point in that process, God says, well then, it will be taken away. You can’t keep it. Use it or lose it. Share it or prepare to lose it. Jesus said it best, “Whoever would save his life will lose it.” What we try to hold on to we lose. When we settle down we forget that it was God who gave us what we have and that it was following God’s will that brought it to us. Then we are most in danger of losing everything.
I think there is much there for us as a church. We are blessed with a great deal. We have inherited from those who were here before us a sizeable physical plant, a collection of debt-free properties, a reserve fund, some investments – so much that I am told some members have even admitted that they give very little because they do not think the church needs much money. That is mistaken. But the fact that anyone feels that suggests how settled we’ve become.
Now I ask you, where did all this come from? If we have some possessions under our control, where did they come from, how did they get here? The answer is that it all came to be because faithful men and women listened to the will of God, saw the needs of this community, and obeyed. They followed God’s will. They did what the Lord wanted them to do, as they saw it, and they created what you and I appreciate today.
The issue now is whether we, having come to this place, having settled down, are going to get stuck, and worse, are going to be selfish. Remember, when we settle down and forget that all we have came to us because we obeyed God and received His gifts, we are on the verge of losing it all.
And so this morning I want to challenge you to see now. I want to call you today to a vision of the present and of the future. I want to ask you to see now for what it is: now there is an opportunity to go forward in a great way, obeying our Lord and using our resources for Him. Remember that the danger of settling down is not only that we forget whence we came and therefore could lose it; but also the issue is that we lose sight of a vision for the future. To get too settled is to be satisfied and comfortable with the way things are. To get settled is to fail to see how many things God is calling us to.
There is an undercurrent in this Biblical story that I wouldn’t want you to miss. The undercurrent is that we can be replaced. We can be replaced. This story shows us that God is not confined to the folks who have always been here; God is well able to raise up for Himself a whole new generation to do what needs to be done.
Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phineas. A sorrier pair one can scarcely find anywhere in the Bible. They fed at the public trough, they wildcatted among the women of the village, they generally made nuisances out of themselves. That plus Eli’s being so very settled made the whole family of Eli totally unworthy for God’s purposes.
And so the undercurrent in this Scripture is that the boy Samuel, apprenticed to Eli as a child, is coming along to take his place. Samuel is not Eli’s child. Samuel is not the son of a priestly family. Samuel is just a poor boy whose mother gave him for the service of the Lord. All through the story of Eli there are these hints about Samuel being groomed to take the place of the old priest and his unworthy offspring. The key verse is this one; listen to how Samuel’s rise and Eli’s fall are linked together:
"Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread."
"Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli." Somebody new is waiting in the wings for the old order to fall aside. "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." The old order, settled and satisfied, selfish and shortsighted, had neither moral courage nor spiritual vision. The word of the Lord was rare, there was no vision, and therefore someone else is coming along to take the place of the old order.
Folks, we can be replaced. I do not believe that God has to have us in this community. God does not have to have Takoma Park Baptist Church. He can and does raise up for Himself others to carry forward His will. How else do you interpret the rise of a whole bunch of storefront churches along Georgia Avenue? How else do you read the presence of a bumper crop of small neighborhood churches, tucked into the back streets of our community? Baptist churches, many of them. Growing churches, some of them. How do you interpret that?
Read it as you like, but consider this possibility: that the storefront church, the small corner church, is God’s judgment on us, the older, established, settled church. God’s judgment. Because maybe, just maybe, they are people who have heard the word of the Lord and who have a vision of serving this community. There are folks here we have missed. There are people in these homes and apartment buildings, walking these streets, whose needs we have not met and whose language we do net speak. And they’ve turned elsewhere.
All right. They have that right. I am not attacking the storefront or small church. By no means. Far from it. I am suggesting that they may be the Samuels of Takoma while we the Eli folk have settled down and not only forgotten where we came from, but have also lost sight for where we could be going. Our vision is dimmed, our imagination is limited, our creativity is low. And God turns elsewhere to find faithfulness. "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; and visions were not widespread."
I read the other day about a “Light Church.” You know, in today’s calorie conscious world, how we market everything as light. Light ice cream, light milk, light margarine, and so forth. Well, there was a church which marketed itself as a light church. "We have reduced everything; our sermons last ten minutes, our worship is done in thirty; the tithe is only 7 percent, we give you your choice of any six commandments instead of all ten, and when we baptize we only put one arm and one leg under the water!”
We’ve gotten settled and made it light and easy. The day has come to turn away from light church. The day has come to catch a larger vision of what we are about. I am asking you to see now. To see now.
See now as the time for us to move forward in new programs of education: discipleship training, a new young adult Sunday School class, another children’s class.
See now as the time for us to move forward in new programs of ministry for persons with special needs: the children of this community, young couples needing marriage enrichment, the elderly, the mentally ill, others.
See now, also, as the time for us to do some real, concentrated work in evangelism: home fellowships, an extension Bible study, visitation. Now, if ever, is the time to reach others for Christ.
And, though there are many other things I could point out in the vision, I believe with all my heart that now is the time for us to get on with the renovation of this church building. We’ve done well what we have done, but it’s time to get on with the next phases of that task. It’s time to translate vision into reality.
Obviously all of this will cost. None of this comes about without paying the price. You and I are going to be asked to give and share and sacrifice. I know that. And I know it won’t be easy.
But let me just tell you a little of my own spiritual struggle. I’ve been thinking a lot of late about who I am and what God has entrusted to me; about what I should do with the last decade or so of my career as well as about what kind of leadership this church will need. The easiest thing for me and the easiest thing for you would be that during the next ten years we just quietly agree to keep things the way they are, to settle down into our customary patterns, to keep on having church the way we’ve learned to have church. That would be easy.
But something haunts me about that. When I was called here seven years ago, one of our best leaders said to me, "Maybe the Lord is giving Takoma just one more chance." “One more chance.” That haunts me.
My wife and I used to talk about volunteering for missions. We inquired at the Foreign Mission Board. They said, “You have children in high school. It’s not a good time for you to go. Get back in touch once they have finished high school.”
Well, they graduated from high school, and they graduated from college, and they are out on their own. Guess who got settled down and did not contact the mission board again!
The easiest thing in the world would be for us all to agree to church, ho-hum, for ten or so more years. It would be easy. It would also be fatal. It would be death. For when we settle down, we encounter two spiritual problems. What are they? First we forget that we got what you have by following God’s will, and God will take it all away. And then we lose sight of any vision for ’where we could be going, and God will give the vision to someone else.
I’d rather my name be Samuel somewhere than Eli at Takoma Park.