Passing the Baton before Leadership Collapse

by Billy Strother 

Too often, the baton of eldership is foisted on younger, inexperienced elders through a church leadership collapse; beloved and wise serving elders have health crises, retire and move away, go on to be with the Lord.  With them disappears their experience and wisdom. 
 
Sometimes a leadership collapse comes by way of tragic church conflict; seasoned elders throw up their hands in surrender and leave leadership, or even the church.  In many churches, long-serving elders, faithfully giving of themselves year after year (or for decades), grow weary, and resign in fatigue.  I have seen groups of senior elders resign, collectively saying, “It is simply time for the younger men to start doing their leadership part; I’m tired and just want to go to Sunday school.” 
 
An unhealthy leadership collapse occurs. 
 
In a leadership collapse, often, younger men who love their church step up to serve as elders for the first time – but with no training, coaching, or mentoring.  “OJT” in eldering forestalls church health.  From the frying pan into the fire, or a baptism by fire, seldom produces exponential kingdom fruit.  Overwhelmed, burn out often happens fast in these situations.  Mission progress stops, or at least digresses.  The church declines.  The learning curve is steep.
 
For over four years, our long-serving senior-age eldership at the church I previously served was consciously, actively, and responsibly passing the spiritual leadership baton to the next generation of leaders.  Identifying, training, and mentoring younger leaders into eldership was a consistent priority.  And it bore great Kingdom fruit.
 
The faces around the eldership table began to demographically shift – on purpose and with a purpose.  The team grew healthier, love and pouring into one another, the honoring of one another, was all a great joy to experience.  The passing of the baton of leadership was well under way.  The younger elders and older elders were beloved, honored, and respected by the congregation.  The last of the older, faithfully serving, long-term elders were about to receive their first sabbatical in many years from eldership; the rest and refreshment had been well-earned.  And they are the biggest supporters and fans of the younger elders.
 
So, how do we avoid, or at least mitigate, an elder leadership collapse?  We begin passing the baton to the next generation of leaders well ahead of a leadership collapse, whether that collapse occurs by crisis or attrition.  What follows is just a suggestion and only one of many models of passing the baton of elder leadership.
 
Offer Rotational Church Leadership Training
 
On a rotating basis, the elders team teach with me; we engage purposefully in leadership training.  It is church-wide.  The invitation is open for anyone interested in leadership at any level.  We are not just investing in unearthing elder candidates through leadership training.  No promises are made.  We are looking for ministry team leaders, small group leaders, and key volunteers.  There is no one way to do the training.  It requires tailoring for your own congregational setting.  The calendar is important.  You might do one night a week, along with the school calendar, for one semester, for 10 to12 weeks.  Each meeting should be highly focused on a specific topic and conclude on time; for example, at 60 minutes.  You would be greatly surprised how much could be caught in just 12 hours of leadership training.  All of the more recent elders began leadership life in one of those training sessions.
 
Identify Potential Elders
 
These are men who are not ready now, but who could possibly, with the right mentoring and coaching, be ready in the future.  The active elder team keeps the list of future potential elders in strict confidence.  Over time, the current elders prioritize the list and identify a few who they believe have the greatest future potential.
 
Mentor Identified Potential Candidates
 
Elders are assigned as mentors and potential candidates are approached.  The approach is low key and relational.  No burdens are placed on the candidate.  They may be occasionally invited to sit in on an elders’ meeting as a part of their mentoring, or they might ask to be included because of their own desire to investigate what it looks like.  Basically, the mentoring elder is called upon to shepherd those with potential.  It may be a year, or two, or 3 of mentoring.  The candidate might find himself unwilling to ever serve.  There are no promises with mentoring, it is simply a time of personal spiritual investment.
 
Coach First-time Elders
 
Though dad has gone on to be with the Lord, my memories of fishing with him remain vivid.  I was six-years-old and was fishing with my dad in Little Walnut Creek.  I had a line was in the water with a worm or a Wheatie ball on the end.  Dad looked down at me and said, “Son, did they teach you to swim yet at school.”  I just shook my head “no.”  Dad said, “That is a shame.  Well, you are going to learn now.”  He literally picked me up and threw me in Little Walnut Creek in a hole so deep it was well over my head!  Well, I am writing this, so I made it!  No Michael Phelps natural stuff; just a choking dog paddle to shore.  If I had not have made it back, to this day I am unsure of dad’s rescue plan, if he had one.  I do not recommend teaching a child to swim like that!  I put my own kids in swimming lessons with a certified public instructor.  There was no panic and they learned to swim well.  Even now, when I fall out of a boat fishing, I still just dog paddle back to shore.
 
No new elder should be thrown in the deep.  An experienced elder must guide and coach.  And in time, we all coach each other.  Eldering is a team sport, and early coaching for new elders is a lifetime gift.
 
Is it required to go through those four processes to become an elder?  No.  Sometimes, the Lord calls a trained servant leader to partner with and do life with a congregation.  That person of great experience would be fast-tracked, but still receive personal investment.
 
But, if you are serious about hedging against a leadership collapse in your congregation, it may be time to start a purposeful process to begin passing the baton to the next generation of elders.

Sermon: Contagious Hope

by Gary Johnson, e2 Executive Director 

 

Text: 2 Chronicles 7:14 

Introduction

The numbers are staggering – and I’m not referring to the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or the number of people who have died from this virus.  The staggering numbers that have caught my attention are the number of coronavirus cures that are being developed.  An article appeared in Forbes indicating that there are “no less than 267” cures being developed across the country and around the world (Forbes.com; “Handicapping the Most Promising 267 Potential Coronavirus Cures” Nathan Vardi, 04/08/2020).  Of the 195 countries in the world, 185 nations have confirmed cases of COVID-19 (Aljazeera.com 04/12/2020).  Immunologists around the world are working around the clock to find both an effective treatment and vaccine for this highly contagious – and in some cases, lethal – virus.  Nations – including the United States – want to be healed.

In this third and final message in this mini-series called Contagious, we will explore an ever-familiar text to many Christians.  “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  What does the Lord mean when He said, “…and will heal their land?”  Can God heal this land and all others?  The people of planet earth want a cure from the coronavirus. We want the land to be healed.

More than the coronavirus is contagious.  Fear, panic, uncertainly, grief and more are all contagious.  But, there remains something that is far more contagious.  In the first of these three brief messages, Psalm 11 spoke to us of a contagious faith, and in the second of the three, Habakkuk 3 spoke to us of a contagious joy.  Finally, 2 Chronicles 7:14 speaks of a contagious hope.  This verse is familiar to many people.  From refrigerator magnets to plaques on walls, people often recognize this verse from the Old Testament. 

2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 

Context Before Content

This verse is often taken out of context, much like Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”  That statement of Jesus was not about a worship service or small group gathering.  It was about discipline when a believer sins against another believer.  Context is of vital importance in understanding the content of a verse or passage.  Similarly, it is very easy to twist the content of this verse and passage when we fail to establish the context.

In 2 Chronicles 3-5, King Solomon built and furnished the temple of God in Jerusalem.  Once finished, Solomon dedicated the temple as described in 2 Chronicles 6.  All of Israel attended the dedication.  It lasted fourteen days, and Solomon sacrificed 22,000 head of cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats.  That was the biggest bar-b-que on record!  This offering was to be eaten by the people, and at the end of the two week celebration, Solomon “sent the people to their homes, joyful and glad in heart for the good things the Lord had done…” (2 Chronicles 7:10).

During the temple’s dedication, Solomon offered an incredible prayer (see 2 Chronicles 6:14-42), and not long after that dedication, the Lord spoke to Solomon, and this ever-familiar verse was a part of God’s response to Solomon (see 2 Chronicles7:12-16).  God spoke first of the nation’s relationship with Him, and then God spoke to Solomon about his relationship with him (vv. 17-22).

To be clear, God spoke to King Solomon about the nation of Israel.  The “land” to which God referred was the land of Israel.  When the Israelites sinned against the Lord, there would be suffering (i.e., no rain, plagues of locust or disease).  But if they responded by humbling themselves, by praying, by seeking God’s face and turning from their wicked ways, God would hear from heaven, forgive their sin and heal their land.  Simply put, that is the context.

Does this, then, apply ONLY to Jews today, and specifically those who happen to reside in the nation of Israel?  Can it possible apply to Christians in America?  I believe that it can speak into our lives.  Before his execution, Paul said: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  Paul also wrote to believers throughout the region of Galatia: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  Paul went on to say in that passage, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-27, 29).

It is suitable and appropriate for any Christian – a child of God – to obey the spirit of this verse; trusting God to hear, forgive and heal when the believer becomes humble, prays, seeks God and turns away from wickedness.  This is timeless truth to be pursued by Christians the world over.

There’s one more insight from the context that we do not want to miss.  God spoke this as a warning to Solomon and the people of Israel.  That was nothing new to God.  From the beginning of measured time, God has spoken words of warning to those whom He loves.  He warned Adam and Eve not to touch the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but they did.  God spoke words of warning to people in the days of Noah before the flood, but people didn’t listen.  God warned His people before they entered the promised land to be faithful, but they didn’t.  Over and again, throughout Scripture, the one, true living God – who is slow to anger and abounding in love – has warned people before a calamity came.

A few nights before writing this, a tornado touched down on the west side of Indianapolis.   Though no lives were lost, several buildings were damaged, and thousands were left without power.  The storm front came late in the evening, soon after the sun had set.  We saw the storm approaching.  Even though it was dark outside, the storm front looked darker still.  It was a defined wall of darkness pushing over the city by ever-increasing winds – and it was then that the storm sirens began to sound.  Have you heard a blaring tornado siren, one that warns people of a coming calamity?  When the siren sounds, we are to take immediate and appropriate action!

Could COVID-19 be a warning to us?  How about H1N1 in 2010?  Could the terrorist attack of 9-11 in 2000 have been a warning sign?  How about Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, Andrew and Irma – and a host of tornados as well – could they have been warnings to us?  And what about famines and earthquakes and tsunamis?  Could they all be warnings?  Jesus spoke of these types of moments just days before He died on a cross.  

Matthew 24:6-8

You will hear of wars and rumors of war but see to it that you are not alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are the beginning of birth pains. 

When an expecting mother has birth pains, it’s a warning that something is going to happen.  Similarly, God allows, He permits suffering the world over to warn us that the end of this life is yet to come.  The return of Jesus Christ is going to happen and God wants no one to perish eternally, but for everyone to be saved (2 Peter 3:9)

Do we want to be healed of COVID-19?  Absolutely.  Yet, we need to understand that the ultimate healing we need across America, and around the world, is spiritual because the ultimate event that will eventually occur is the second coming of Jesus Christ!  The contagious disease sweeping across the country and around the world is not merely COVID-19.  It is the ravaging of sin – and there is already a cure!

There are certain steps to be taken to be cured of COVID-19; they could be taking acetaminophen for the fever, a z-pack or other medication for infection, receiving breathing help whether elevated oxygen or use of a ventilator, even receiving antibodies from a person who had and beat COVID-19.  If a person has cancer, there are steps to be taken to be cured of the disease.  A cancer patient may receive radiation or chemotherapy to shrink a tumor so that it can then be removed surgically.  In this verse, there are FOUR clear, easy-to-understand steps to be taken to be cured of our sin sickness.

2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  

The first treatment step is humility.  In Hebrew, the word humble means “to bow the knee” or “to submit with humility.”  It is an intentional decision and action to be humble.  And how we think determines how we act.  If we think with humility, we will act in humble ways.  In this passage, people were to bow the knee to the sovereignty of God – and nothing has changed.  The same must happen today if we are to be healed of our sins.  Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  Think of “nothing” here as a zero – and then erasing the rim!  That is how much we can do apart from Jesus.  Just how humble are you and I?

Here’s a quick quiz to determine if we think of “me, myself and I” too often.  Let’s ask ourselves: how often do I need to be first in line to check out at the store, or first in line at the stop light?  How often do I use the pronouns, “me, mine, my, myself, I,” etc.?  Can we pass the quiz?  Just remember that “God opposes the proud, but He gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), and I would not want God against me.

This is not only essential for individuals, but for a nation – like that of America. God requires a nation to be humble.  How can God lead a nation if that nation refuses to admit their need for God?  If COVID-19 is another wake-up call from God, we had better humble ourselves and admit that we need Him; that it is in God that we truly trust.

A leader in America once said, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven.  We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity.  We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.  But we have forgotten God.  We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.  Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!  It behooves us then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness” (Abraham Lincoln; March 30, 1863, Proclamation for a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer). 

His words back then are words perfectly applicable for today.  

2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  

The second treatment step is prayer.  The word “pray” in this verse is collective, meaning that the nation is to pray for the nation.  The people of Israel were to pray for their nation, and the same would benefit America today.  Would it not?  What IF tens of millions of Americans prayed for the healing of our nation, not only from COVID-19, but from our sins?  Moreover, the Hebrew grammar in this word and verse means that the praying continues!  It wasn’t just a “one and done” kind of prayer, but prayer that doesn’t cease; similar to what Paul commanded in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, when he said, “Pray without ceasing.”  What if a miracle drug was found to not only cure COVID-19, but even to prevent it, and it was required of every person to take this drug every morning – one pill, every morning of every day?  Without taking the miracle drug, a person would contract the virus and certainly die.  Would not every person take this one pill a day every day?  Certainly.  Unceasing, unending prayer is the same vital necessity.

We learn from good examples, like those of Jesus. Mark 1:35 states, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and left the house and went off to a solitary place where He prayed.”  Prayer was a vital part of the life of Jesus, and Jesus was God!  Even on the final night of His life, Jesus prayed with His disciples—and that prayer is the single longest prayer of His recorded in the Bible (John 17).  From that time of prayer with His disciples, Jesus went to Gethsemane, where He prayed so intensely that drops of blood came from His forehead.  Even from the cross, Jesus prayed (i.e., Father, forgive them…; My Go, My God,why…; Father, into your hands…”)!  And, we will never pray as individuals or even as a nation until we first humble ourselves and admit our need for God.  

2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  

The third treatment step is to seek His face.  The word “seek” means to “search out or to run hard after;” whereas the word “face” refers to the personal presence of God.  Putting those words together, to “seek my face” means to pursue an intimate, personal, authentic relationship with God, our Creator, Sustainer, our Father.  Does that describe us, whether individually or as a nation?  When we look at the impact of COVID-19 particularly on the American culture, it’s easy to see that this could be a birth-pain of something yet to happen, a warning sign of a coming calamity.

God warns His people in the Old Testament not to worship any idols, but to worship Him alone.  Being that God is immutable (i.e., unchanging), it is logical to believe that God wants us to be faithful to Him and not worship anything or anyone other than Him.  I like how Bob Russell describes this moment in time across America: “We worship money, and the booming economy comes grinding to a halt.  We worship sports, and the biggest games are canceled.  We worship entertainment and parades along with concerts are postponed, bars and restaurants closed, and the party life shut down.  We worship science, and the leading medical experts disagree as to the proper course of action to counter the pandemic.  We worship our impressive churches, and now even our church buildings sit empty on Sunday morning.  Is this mysterious period a mere freak of nature?  Or is Almighty God warning us – begging us to turn to Him for life that is truly life?” (Bob Russell Ministries; March 29, 2020; “Lord, We Need You!”)  When we individually – or even as a nation – seek God for a personal, authentic relationship with Him, we will be healed. 

2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  

The fourth and final treatment step is to turn from our wicked ways.  “Turn” means to turn back, to stop going in the wrong direction; whereas the word “wicked” is the strongest word in Hebrew for sin, and the word “ways” translates as “roads or journeys.”  But those three together and we are to turn away from the vile, vulgar way we walk day-to-day on the wrong road of life.

Famed psychologist Karl Menninger published a book in 1973 that became a bestseller, Whatever Became of Sin?  He noted: “The very word, sin, which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word.  It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word.  It described a central point in every civilized human being’s plan and lifestyle.  But the word went away.  It has almost disappeared – the word, along with the notion.  Why?  Doesn’t anyone sin anymore?  Doesn’t anyone believe in sin?”  Dr. Menninger observed that was redefined as a crime committed by individuals or a symptom of a disease to be treated psychologically.  Whatever became of sin?

Individually and as a nation, we need to come to grips with the fact that our sins are against God, and it is our sin that put Jesus Christ on a cross!  Jesus didn’t just have to be arrested, tried and mistreated. He had to be killed in the most brutal and humiliating way.  He had to experience – for the first and only time in His life – the complete rage and wrath of God on our behalf.  He HAD to die for your sin and mine.  COVID-19 is still rampant in the world and it is highly contagious, but so also is sin.  And everyone has it.

We will NEVER turn from our wicked ways, until we seek His face.  And to seek His face means that we will pray. But we will never turn from our wicked ways, seeking His face in prayer until we humble ourselves.  These four essential and necessary steps to healing are inseparable!  They are tightly woven together, fully and completely dependent on one another.  Moreover, 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not a one-and-done experience.  These four steps to real healing are a lifestyle.  Jesus Christ wants us to live in a constant state of humility, corporate prayer, spiritual growth and repentant, both individually and as a nation.  When we do, we position ourselves to experience God’s best for us, individually and as a nation.

When it comes to COVID-19, we continue to hear good news with the bad news.  We hear of people who test positive with the virus and then they are healed of the virus.  Now, there’s good news about the “sin” virus.  IF we pursue the four steps to cure our spiritual sickness, God responds in three specific ways.  What happens is conditional.

2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  

God didn’t say, “Perhaps I will hear from heaven,” He said, “I will.”  Remember, God is immutable.  The God of the Old Testament is still the same in nature in the New Testament.  God said, “Call to Me and I will answer you.  I will show you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).  God does not fail to answer.  He doesn’t put us through to His galactic voice mail.  He always answers; it’s just that we fail to recognize His answer as His answer is not THE answer for which we hope.  And keep in mind what the psalmist said: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened…” (Psalm 66:18).  When we seek His face, turning from our wicked ways, God hears our prayers.

2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  

And in that moment, God forgives us of our sins.  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  God’s forgiveness is beyond our comprehension!  He removes our sin from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), and buries them in the “depths of the seas” (Micah 7:19) where He “remembers them no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).

2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  

God still heals the land of nations.  After all, God causes nations to rise and to fall.  He is merciful to individuals and entire nations.  The prophet Jeremiah wept over the destruction of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom.  In his profound grief, Jeremiah declared: “Because of your compassion we are not consumed.  Your mercies never fail, they are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  The Hebrew in this text means that every morning comes with new mercies not experienced before, and that from a loving, compassionate God who allows and enables us to exist from day-to-day.

A Warning of a Coming Calamity

Tornado sirens warn of an approaching storm with lethal winds.  Likewise, throughout the centuries God has allowed hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, wars, disease and more to give us pause; to stop us in our tracks and to look to Him.

Whether COVID-19 takes our lives or not, we will someday die.  Whether we die of a disease or a disaster, we will leave this world and enter a realm beyond the door of death.  Hebrews 9:27 tells us that it is appointed for everyone to die and then face the judgment before God.  Those who are not followers of Jesus Christ face an eternity without God in a place of everlasting suffering – Jesus said so.  Yet, those who surrender their lives to Jesus Christ, live eternally with Him on a new earth (Revelation 21:1 and following)—and it is all because Jesus Christ died for our sins and we trust Him completely for the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal life.

In a harsh environment, we can live for three weeks without food, for three days without water, for three hours without shelter or clothing, and for three minutes without air.  In the harsh environment of COVID-19, we can’t live a second without hope, and such hope is contagious.

Peter wrote his letters to believers who were discouraged.  Because of the great persecution sweeping across the Roman Empire, many Christians were driven from their homes, separated from their loved ones, imprisoned for their Christian faith, and many lost their lives.  Peter wrote to them, saying… “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you…” (1 Peter 1:3-4).  Notice the phrase “living hope.”   People put their hope in money that runs out, cars that rust out and clothes that wear out.   But Christians put their hope in Jesus Christ.   Jesus provides us with a living hope based on the historical fact that He was raised from the dead, conquering sin and the grave.   Jesus Christ is alive forevermore and He alone is our Living Hope!  There’s a hymn that was written in the 1800s and that we have sung many times over the years, and the opening line declares, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”  Let’s build our hope on Jesus Christ – and when we do, that hope becomes contagious!

Hope has a name … “Jesus.”

 

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Copyright 2020 by e2: effective elders. All materials presented by Dr. Gary L. Johnson are copyrighted material. You may use this material for your teaching purposes. In doing so, please retain all copyright, trademark and propriety notices on this document, and do not make any modifications to the materials. For any uses other than this, written permission is required. (e2: effective elders; c/o Dr. Gary L. Johnson; 6430 S. Franklin Road; Suite A, Indianapolis, IN 46259).

The Kind of Elder every Minister Needs

by Mike Shannon 

Recently I received news that an elder I worked closely with for several years had passed way. As I thought about him I was reminded of how he was the kind of elder every minister needs. His name was Ben. I was in a small church and it was my first full time ministry. I was just out of school, lonely, and single. Ben would frequently take me to lunch and would always insist on paying the check. I tried to make him stop, but he would say, “I have seen your paycheck. Just think of it as a supplemental salary.”

His home was a place I could always visit if I was discouraged. We might have dinner or just watch a little television and talk. Ben would also go visiting with me to talk to prospective members. We even experienced a fender bender accident while we were calling. I was at fault. He would compliment my sermons, and even sometimes, my singing. Ben rarely got angry and rarely raised his voice.

But the biggest favor Ben did for me was to talk me out of leaving the ministry. The little church where I was serving was not shy about expressing their complaints and disfavor. Some of the issues were of my own making, but most of them were not. I began getting anonymous hate mail. The mail was cruel and undeserved. For instance, one letter said, “Why don’t you go back to Bible college. It obviously didn’t take the first time.”

I had decided that I just wasn’t cut out for ministry, and figured I was young enough to recover in some other kind of secular job. I wrote out a carefully worded resignation letter and delivered it to Ben, who was chairman of the board at that time. After opening the letter and carefully reading it, he ripped it in two and said, “I refuse to accept your resignation.” He continued, “This church will have a lot to answer for if we drive a good man out of the ministry. Stay with us as long as you can. Start looking for another church if you have to, but whatever you do, do not quit the ministry.” I stayed for a while longer–long to enough to meet the woman I would marry. Ben and his wife were among the matchmakers. I did begin to look for other opportunities and eventually left, but I am not sure I would be in the ministry today if it hadn’t been for Ben.

Don’t get the wrong idea here. There were a few times Ben had to gently tell me I was on the wrong track, or that I was overreacting. He never did this to me in public. He always did it calmly and with love, so I was able to accept his counsel and learn from my mistake.

One time I lost my temper in a board meeting. After the meeting Ben said, “You were in the right on this issue, but next time let me fight that battle for you.” Sometimes when I talk to younger ministers they interpret elder support as being the absolute and unequivocal approval of everything they do or want to do. That is not the kind of elder every minister needs. We need an elder who will look out for us, support us, and even love us. If an elder does that then he can even admonish us and edify us.

We could all use an elder like Ben.

Sermon: Contagious Joy

by Gary Johnson, e2 Executive Director 

 

Text: Habakkuk 3:16-19 

Introduction

Lamentations 5:15 states: “Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.” In America, our dancing has certainly turned into mourning, and it’s true not only across America, but of countries around the world. As COVID-19 spreads across our country, so also does increasing sadness. Grief is more than real.

Most of us have experienced grief, particularly when someone we loved passed away. Grief is triggered by loss, and most of America is grieving because of who—and what—we are losing. Our dancing has turned into mourning. Yes, thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19. We grieve their loss. As well, our grief has been triggered by the loss of jobs, the loss of a healthy economy, the loss of being with one another, the loss of a high school or college commencement, the loss of a wedding and reception, and more. The list of what we are losing only grows with each passing day, and a collective sadness spreads across the country and around the world as fast as the coronavirus. Our dancing has turned into mourning.

But what IF our mourning could be turned into dancing? Is it even possible? The answer is unequivocally, yes! From Psalm 30:11, we sing these words: “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” We will discover in the Scriptures HOW we can most certainly turn our mourning into dancing; our sobbing into singing.

This is the second of three brief sermons, “mini-messages” called CONTAGIOUS. Not only is COVID-19 highly contagious, but so also is fear, panic and uncertainty. This weekend, a couple in their early 50s in Illinois were victims of fear as they died in an apparent murder-suicide (link to local news story). When they thought they had contracted the virus, their fear and panic so overwhelmed them that they ended their lives abruptly. Their autopsies revealed they did not have the new coronavirus.  Remember, fear will always knock at your door, but just don’t invite it in to stay.

While we are in what is thought to be the worst of the pandemic, I feel lead of the Spirit to write three simple messages on three specific texts for a time such as this. Last week, Psalm 11 revealed how we can experience a Contagious Faith instead of a contagious fear, and this week, we discover that Contagious Joy can be more than real when the Lord turns our mourning into dancing.

Years ago, the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five stages of grief to us. As we grieve the impact of COVID-19, we experience denial when we think “this virus won’t impact me.” We then move to anger as we consider lost physical or financial health, graduations, weddings, family gatherings, and more. Next, we begin to bargain as we think if we social distance for a couple of weeks, everything will be fine—right? Then, as we move into depression we are convinced that this will never end, that life will never be normal again. Yet finally, we arrive at acceptance and we resolve to move on in life, to take the right and necessary next steps through this season of loss.

Someone in the Bible came to a place of acceptance, and his name was Habakkuk. His story is told in the Old Testament. Though Habakkuk came to a season in life of horrific suffering and his dancing was turned into mourning, he came to know real joy – and so can we when we make his story our story.

Habakkuk’s Story…

Let’s take a look at Habakkuk’s story first from the proverbial 36,000’ as we need to understand what was taking place. Though Habakkuk has a difficult writing style, we can quickly understand that something painful was about to happen. These three short chapters reveal that a storm is building on the horizon and it is not happening atmospherically, but spiritually. Not only has the Northern Kingdom (i.e., Israel) been carried off into exile by the Assyrians, but the same will soon happen with the Southern Kingdom (i.e., Judah). Why? The people of God have rebelled against Him and have rejected Him. They have turned to idols of all shapes and sizes and have become unfaithful in the most ungodly of ways.

Now, Judah is about to be invaded by Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar will marshal his vast army and will destroy the city of Jerusalem—including the temple of God—and take survivors into exile. Habakkuk’s dancing would be turned to mourning, and in roughly eight short years from the time of his writing his “oracle” (1:1). Life as they knew it to be would be radically changed. Not only would thousands of people lose their lives, but they would lose their homes, their crops and livestock and more, bringing wave after wave of grief. Yet, his mourning would be turned back into dancing.

Let’s now descend into the text from our 36,000’ perspective. As we look at some of the verses, we need to know that there is something very unique in this book of the Bible. This book is a conversation between God and Habakkuk! 

Habakkuk 1:2-3

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Habakkuk wasted no time in his conversation with God. Speaking TO God, Habakkuk began with the hard questions: “how long” and “why”. Habakkuk began with persistent, ever-familiar questions. He wanted to know WHY the “destruction, violence, strife and conflict” were plentiful in his nation had rejected and turned away from God. And Habakkuk wanted to know HOW LONG his suffering would continue. And check out God’s answer in verse 5.

Habakkuk 1:5-6

Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.

And then God continues in the following verses, saying how He—God—has ordained, set apart the Babylonians will destroy Jerusalem and the land of Judah for their rebellion. It was a harsh answer to the hard questions asked by Habakkuk. In verse 5, the word “you” is not singular. Over and again, it is plural, meaning that this was an answer for everyone to hear. It wasn’t only for Habakkuk, but it was for Habakkuk to share throughout the city of Jerusalem and beyond. One more thing, the word “oracle” in verse 1 (and elsewhere) means “burden.” First, the word “oracle” means burden. Habakkuk had the heavy burden of communicating this news to all of God’s people. It’s one thing to share good news, yet entirely different to be the bearer of bad news. The name Habakkuk means “embrace.” Habakkuk had some bad news that he had to embrace, and the only way he could do so was to embrace God as his refuge and strength—which is exactly what he did.

Descending yet deeper into the text, check out how the conversation between Habakkuk and God ends. Though the conversation begins with hard questions and harsh answers, it ends with real hope.

Habakkuk 3:16-19

I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer, he enables me to go on to the heights.

All of chapter 3 is Habakkuk’s prayer to God, remembering and acknowledging the indescribable power of God as in times past. And thinking of what lay ahead, not only for the Israelites but for the Babylonians as well, Habakkuk was shaken. He doesn’t like what he hears, the answer he has received to his questions. In response to God unleashing His power in times past, Habakkuk was physically shaken. His “heart pounded” in his chest and his “lips quivered” in fear, while he became so weak that his legs trembled, making it difficult stand and move (v. 16). Moreover, Habakkuk would wait for calamity to engulf the invading Babylonians, for suffering and hardship to sweep over them.

And there was more. In all the ways that Israel was strong, they were suddenly weak. The agricultural and economic health of Israel was unexpectedly gone. There were no figs on the trees, grapes on the vines, and a complete crop failure when it came to olives. And to make matters worse, there were no sheep or cattle to be found! The food chain and economic engine of Israel was abruptly gone. This was a harsh, hard reality for Habakkuk. Yet, Habakkuk was able to make decision; an intentional, a deliberate decision. Without the evidence of God’s material provision and protection, Habakkuk chose to rejoice in the Lord, to be joyful in God for the Lord was his strength. Despite how bleak life looked, Habakkuk chose to rejoice in God. He would be victorious and not a victim.

Push Pause

We need to pause briefly in the conversation between Habakkuk and God and see some similarities with life today. America and much of the world has been invaded by COVID-19. Massive losses are real; from the passing away of people, to the loss of jobs, and much more. As COVID-19 spreads across the country, so also does fear, panic AND grief. A tsunami of sadness drowns people in despair. Like Habakkuk, we ask “WHY” this is happening and “HOW LONG” until it is over. And after asking the hard questions, we don’t like the harsh answers and observations we see, such as the increasing numbers of people testing positive with COVID-19 and the rising number of people who have died of this virus. We do not like empty parking lots and idle businesses. We do not like canceled commencements and closed churches. As in the day of Habakkuk when the olive crop failed and sheep and cattle were nowhere to be found, we find ourselves shaken to the very core. Our dancing has turned into mourning.

Think with me. There’s a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is rooted in our circumstances. For example, people get a promotion and raise at work, a student wins a scholarship, a company has record sales, and more. People are of the mindset that winning the lottery brings immediate happiness. Yet, research proves time and again that winning the lottery makes misery a reality. According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, 7 out of ten people who suddenly receive a windfall of cash will lose it within a few years. It’s called the curse of the lottery. Easy come, easy go. Divorce, depression, tragedies are a part of winning the lottery. [Melissa Chan, “Here’s How Winning the Lottery Makes You Miserable,” Time (1-12-16)]

Not even money – and lots of it—can make us happy. Money, and the things that money can buy, do not bring us joy. There is a difference between happiness and joy. We learn from Habakkuk how to find joy. Like Habakkuk, we CAN turn our mourning into dancing. We CAN experience a contagious joy. How did Habakkuk’s sobbing turn into singing? Knowing that his city would be destroyed and his life forever changed, how was he able to rejoice in the Lord? And, how can we? The answer lies in chapter 2. Think…www.joy.

Habakkuk 2:1

I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.

Habakkuk mentioned an important, a vital practice in his day – and that being the city watchman. It was essential that men be stationed on the ramparts of the city wall to look for any threat advancing coming towards the city, as well as for anyone approaching with that which was good for the city. For example, in 2 Kings 7, enemies of Israel had surrounded the city of Samaria, laying siege to it. The resulting famine claimed many lives of people in that city, but four men left the city and walked into the enemy camp to turn themselves in—only to discover that the camp had been abandoned and mountains of food was left behind. These men returned to the city and called out to the watchmen on the walls and at the gates that they had good news.

W for Watch!

While in the midst of COVID-19, make certain to watch for God’s goodness, and we will be able to rejoice in the Lord. Our mourning will turn into dancing. The media continues to feed us a constant feast of bad news. Remember, we become what we eat – not only physically but also mentally. If all we hear is one piece of bad news after another, we will be crushed by the weight of hopelessness and worry.

Amazon keeps track of your highlights and mine. When we read e-books and we mark sentences, Amazon knows what we highlight, and they take note of it. Amazon released a list of the most popular passages in some of its bestselling books. Amazon even indicated the most highlighted passage in the Bible. It wasn’t John 3:16 or Psalm 23. It is a text that speaks powerfully into a worried world, and it is Philippians 4:6-7. [Robert J. Morgan, Worry Less, Live More (Thomas Nelson, 2017, p. xiii)]. When the Apostle Paul was imprisoned, he wrote a letter to a church in Philippi, and in that letter, Paul said…

Philippians 4:4-8

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or trustworthy—think about such things.

“Think” is a word in Greek from which we derive our word logarithm, which is a very difficult part of math demanding some prolonged thinking! Throughout this crisis, take time throughout the day to look for the “goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). Call it a “take 10” break…ten minutes to focus on specific good in life right now. Count them on your fingers – food to eat, a roof over the head, a car to drive, a phone in my hand, an internet to surf, a Bible to read, family and friends to love, the Spirit who never leaves me, Jesus who saves me and a Father who loves me, etc.

W for Word!

Did we notice that in addition to watching, Habakkuk said that he would “look to see what he will say to me.” He would look to hear a word from God. God has been speaking from the beginning of measured time when he said, “Let there be light,” and being that God does not change, He is still speaking today. The question is: are we listening? In our hands, we have the timeless Word of God and it is filled with words of strong promise and wise counsel. It is a “lamp to our feet and light to our path” (Ps. 119:105). Romans 15: 4 reminds us that “everything written in the past was written to teach us so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” Are we spending more time reading the news or the Word, more time playing video games and binging on Netflix or reading and thinking on the Word? When we turn to the Word of God, we hear from God and when we hear from God, we can rejoice in God – and our mourning will turn to dancing.

W for Worship!

Habakkuk 2:20

The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him.

God was then and will also be worthy of our worship. Even when Jerusalem was destroyed, God was still in His holy temple, sovereign and in control. And remember that silence before the Lord is not only for reverence, but also in acceptance of God’s judgment. Habakkuk was accepting the grim reality that God was about to punish the Israelites by the Babylonians. It left Habakkuk silent before God. We worship God not only with our songs, but with our silence.

Habakkuk asked God WHY suffering was happening in the land of Judah and HOW LONG it would last. Though it wasn’t the answer he was hoping to hear from God, Habakkuk accepted what God had to say and, in the end, Habakkuk chose to “rejoice in the Lord.” The joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). We can know this joy when we watch for the goodness of the Lord, hear the Lord speak to us in His Word, and we sincerely worship the Lord, know that He is in His holy temple, worthy of our worship. Happiness is rooted in circumstances, but joy is rooted in our relationship with God.

Friends, on the night before His crucifixion, Jesus said to His disciples: “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” Jesus has overcome the world.

We are beginning to hear in the news of people who tested positive for COVID-19, struggled with it, but in the end overcame it. Now, their blood is being drawn and antibodies from their blood are given to people struggling with the virus – hoping that it will help people conquer COVID-19. That news story reminded me of another story from years ago. When diphtheria raged throughout Europe, Dr. Felix Ruh, a friend and colleague of Louis Pasteur, infected twenty healthy horses with the bacteria and one by one, each horse died, that is, except one. That strong horse conquered diphtheria, it overcame the pandemic. Dr. Ruh then took blood from that horse and inoculated over 300 hundred babies in Paris nearing death from diphtheria, and they lived. They were saved by the blood of the overcomer. And so are we! The bad news is, yes—in this world, we will have trouble. If its not COVID-19, it will be something else. But the good news is this, Jesus is the Overcomer! He alone is the One who saves us.

Joy is real. We may watch a spectacular sunrise or sunset and we don’t want it to end. We may travel and see a spectacular site where we’ve never been; seeing and swimming in an ocean for the first time, looking and walking into the Grand Canyon for the first time, and we don’t want that moment to end—but it does. Whatever that joy filled moment is, we say or think: “I don’t want this ever to end,” but it does. When we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ and we trust in His death on a cross for the gift of eternal life, we will be with the Lord and one another forever. There will be unspeakable joy. We will say or think: “I don’t want this to end. I want this to go on forever,” and it will. This is the Gospel, the Good News from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That word – “Gospel” – also means “the joy news.”

My parents were kids during the Great Depression, and when they were in high school, World War II impacted them—and everyone in America. Then, it was the Korean War, and then the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the list goes on and on. Over 100 times, we read a phrase in the Bible that just simply says, “And it came to pass…” The Great Depression came to pass, as did World War 2, as did Korean War, and more. It came to pass, and this crisis will come to pass.

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

Let’s spread some contagious joy!

 

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