A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on August 26, 2012.
We confess, our Father, that one of our greatest desires is to be useful to you and for your purposes on this earth. We want to serve you but we don’t always know how. Give us a renewed sense of forgiveness that we may no longer hide behind our sinfulness as an excuse. We see now that none of us are worthy so simply make us willing. If there is a skill we lack for service, bring someone into our lives that might teach us. Bring some experience to us from which we might learn so that we might be equipped. We open our lives to you and ask that you would prepare us for whatever it is that you would have us do. By your spirit, whisper to our hearts again the word. Bring to our mind the image, show to us, our Father, where it is and what it is you want us to do. Strip away our excuses and don’t let us rest until we acknowledge the vision of service and begin to walk the path of obedience for we know it is our obedience to you in which we will find our life’s joy. As a church, we thank you for our common purpose and common vision. Teach us together where your hands are most needed in our community and in our world. Grant us each hearts like Jesus so that when we see, we will understand what needs to be done, and in understanding that we might give our all. We pray this in the spirit of Christ, your son, who teaches us yet to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
What we do when we educate our kids to be happy and fulfilled is to absolutely ruin them. Parents should say to their kids, “What you want out of life is not happiness but to be a part of a worthy adventure. You want to have something worth dying for.” It’s awful when all we have to live for is ourselves.
—Stanley Hauerwas in “Christianity: It’s an Adventure”
The story from Acts 26 is a long one. In order to be able to read it in church, we have to cut it at some particular point. Let me fill you in on some of the main characters. First is Festus.
This is taking place about 30 years after Jesus ascended into heaven. Festus is in a long line of people who have held the same position as Pontius Pilate. He is the procurator. He is the Roman official in Palestine who, from Rome’s perspective, is in charge. He lives in this beautiful seaside resort called Caesarea Maritima. It has the beauty of the sea and all the amenities of Rome. Because it is such a beautiful place, people often go there. King Agrippa goes there with his entourage because it was such a lovely place to go. Agrippa was the great-grandson of Herod who tried to have Jesus killed after he was born and was the grandson of Herod who talked with Pilate about what to do with Jesus. Agrippa was in the long line of unappealing Herods.
Agrippa was married to his sister, Bernice. Bernice cut quite a swath when she came into a room. It is said she would probably have been married to a Caesar had she not been part Jewish. She knew how to turn a man’s head and she knew how to get what she wanted. Agrippa married his sister in one of those strange family allowances. When they showed up at Caesarea, Festus had a problem. He had a very troublesome prisoner named Paul. He did not really understand Paul so he thought, Who better to help me understand then to have the Jewish king come and maybe I can impress his wife. We will have a big night of entertainment talking to the prisoner.
The guests wore silk, and Paul wore chains. If you read the Book of Acts, I believe this is the third or fourth time that he recounts his testimony. We have heard the story many times about how he was persecuting the church and was headed to Damascus when he saw the light from heaven. He was blinded, knocked from his animal, and began to respond to the ministry that God gave him. He concluded by saying, “So then King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” Paul was saying that he was not disobedient to the purpose, to the call, and to the drive that God placed in his heart on that day.
Carlisle Marney who was a great Baptist preacher about 50 or 60 years ago, points out that this is a great understatement. Instead of coming out and saying, “And this has been the focus of my life and this is what I have given every breathing moment of every day to,” he gives an understatement: “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” If we read the story casually, this is a phrase that is very easy to skim past, but when we realize the importance of what this has meant in his life, and when we pause to reflect on our own lives, we realize that Paul is really giving us a moment to examine our own hearts and to think about what God has called us to do.
Of the people that I have known that have some upsettness in their lives—from a low-grade upsettness to a great wreckage of life—I would say that a high percentage of people had no vision of something higher than merely society’s expectations. If you have no vision, then you will find that your age and the expectations of the people around you will move you through life and you will basically do what everybody else does. You either find a vocation or you go to college and try to learn something that will get you a job when you get out. You consider marriage. If you get married, you consider children. If you have children, you try to determine how to be a good parent. Most of your time is spent doing wonderful things but really on autopilot. When I encounter many people who are struggling with certain things in their lives, a lot of times it comes down to the fact that there is no sense of higher call and no sense of purpose that is directly them. Another good percentage of people who fit in these categories are people who had a vision and lost it.
The expression baby boomer used to be such an appealing description of the generation when we were young and still had a baby face, but now that we are all older, it seems to lose its cachet to me. However, there was a time when a generation of us thought there were certain things that should happen in the world. There were certain values, virtues, and things that we thought we stood for. That lasted until about the first really good paying job. Then we forgot all those things and went on autopilot.
Our families are great. We have good jobs and lots of other good things in our lives, but what do we work toward? What is it that we are really trying to accomplish for God in this world? So much of the unhappiness in the world has come about because people have no purpose.
For those of you who read the meditation text, I included it today because so much of what we want to give our children is happiness, but if we want our children to have the best lives possible, what we should really be giving our children is purpose and a sense of calling. We should put our children’s lives in a position where they can hear God’s voice and know that there is something in this life that is divinely inspired for them and not simply the autopilot that so many of their peers will be engaged in. I believe this with all my heart: A significant percentage of people want to do something for God. They want to, in some way, be useful to the cause and kingdom of God in the world, and we just don’t know how to get there.
As a congregation, I believe one of the reasons that our expression of “being the hands of Christ” has been such a galvanizing force for the last 15 years is because it represents what people want to do. They want to be the hands of Christ. They want to do something. As a congregation, we have tried to lead people together, and also individually, in their different places in life to try to determine how my hands, your hands, and all of our hands might be used for the kingdom.
What is your heavenly vision? What purpose has God put in your life that you could stand in front of somebody and say, “I was not disobedient to the vision that God gave me”? Maybe it has something to do with children or grandchildren, instilling in them the opportunity to know Christ. That would be a significant vision. It could be something that is related to what you do for a living. There are probably as many ways for that to happen as there are different occupations within the congregation. It could be creating a quality work place where people could invest their lives. If you own a business, you can provide a place where people can do their best and work with other good people who support them. That is a wonderful vision. It could be something about a new chapter in retirement or it could be a nonprofit organization that works in an area that will not let your heart go.
I will have to tell you that every once in a while you find something expressed by someone else and you cannot say it any better. This is from my box of quotations that I keep. If I only had five quotations in my life that I wanted someone to remember, this would be one of them. Is there something you want to do but you are not sure what it is, then listen to Emmet Fox.
“Already in your past life from time to time, God has whispered into your heart just that very wonderful thing, whatever it is, that he is wishing you to be, and to do, and to have. And that wonderful thing is nothing less than what is called Your Heart’s Desire. Nothing less than that. The most secret, sacred wish that lies deep down at the bottom of your heart, the wonderful thing that you hardly dare to look at, or to think about—the thing that you would rather die than have anyone else know of, because it seems so far beyond anything that you are, or have at the present time, that you fear that you would be cruelly ridiculed if the mere thought of it were known—that is just the very thing that God is wishing you to do or to be for him. And the birth of that marvelous wish in your soul—the dawning of that secret dream—was the Voice of God himself telling you to arise and come up higher because he had need of you.
I believe that voice has been spoken to each of us, and the challenge is to listen, to trust, and to obey.
 Emmet Fox, Your Heart’s Desire
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.