THE UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
As many of you know, my family and I were 36 hours away from boarding a plane to the French-speaking world. It was Thursday afternoon, December 17th, 2015, when we heard the news, the official diagnosis that I have cancer. Our flight was planned to leave early Saturday morning.
We spent the following 24 hours trying to be refunded for our tickets and to re-plan our Christmas break. In short, we spent the following 24 hours trying to catch and organize the shattered remains of whatever plans we may have had.
Our plans are shattered. What now? Are we still going to France? Quebec?
We speak French. We have lead French-speaking church plants in French-speaking Quebec, Canada, since 2003. We were able to pass the baton of leadership to local leaders in 2014. We have been seeking a new vision for the French-speaking world since then. I travelled to French-speaking North Africa and France, exploring the amazing things God is doing in that corner of the world. We thought that, perhaps, we had a plan that made sense.
I began chemotherapy last February and will finish the 6th cycle this month. I am two thirds of the way through my sixth chemo cycle right now, as I stand in front of you.
First of all, I want to thank South Fellowship, and so many others around the country and the world, for walking with us through this journey. Thank you for surrounding us. Loving us. Supporting us. Encouraging us.
This journey was unexpected. Many of you are also on unexpected journeys. I have met you. I have heard your stories.
You had a plan that made sense, and that plan was ripped out of your clenched fingers. Everything changed. It was a violent reminder that the world as we know it is not a gentle place.
Soon after my diagnosis, I was on the phone with one of my sisters, and she was crying. Between sobs, she explained that she never realized to what point sin had infiltrated every aspect of our physical existence. This is not simply a question of morality. Sin has marred even our very biology, down to the cellular level. The cells in our bodies are affected by decay and do not act the way they should.
Sickness. Cancer. Aging. Death.
Sin has infiltrated the physical biology of creation: “bondage of decay.” I can follow all the rules, work hard to have good relationships, eat right and exercise. Sooner or later, the effects of sin are going to get me. I cannot get away from it.
This reminds me of Romans 8:20-22:
“The creation was subjected to frustration”
“The bondage to decay.”
“The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth.”
“No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career—something will inevitably ruin it.”
Scripture is realistic. It gives us example after example of people going through a world distorted by sin. This morning, we are going to explore three truths that replace the fear of the unexpected with the confidence of the certain.
There are three truths that give us confidence as we explore our Unexpected Journeys this morning:
1) God moves in the unexpected: we are not abandoned.
2) God holds us through the unexpected: nothing can separate us from God’s love
3) God overcomes the unexpected: death does not win
I. GOD MOVES IN THE UNEXPECTED… (we are not abandonded)
Our plans have been ruined. Our journey has been diverted. But God is still working. He is accomplishing a greater plan. We see this all throughout Scripture, throughout the world around us, and even in our own lives.
The prophet Daniel, when he was young, probably 12-16 years old, was ripped from his family, home city, nation, marched for hundreds of miles as a POW from Jerusalem to Babylon… for what exactly? He proclaimed the Name of the one true God to the entire world.
I wonder what Daniel would have been like if he had grown up living a normal life with his family in Jerusalem. I wonder what Daniel would have been like if he had never felt terror as he looked out over the Jerusalem wall to see the most powerful army in the world trying to get in to rape, burn, and destroy. I wonder what Daniel would have been like if he had never seen the army breach the Jerusalem wall, then begin to murder, rape, torture, and kidnap his friends and family. I wonder what Daniel would have been like if he had never been chained and driven to Babylon, witnessing the whipping, torture, and death of so many on the journey. I wonder what Daniel would have been like if his character hadn’t been forged, if the fear of death hadn’t been replaced by the fear of God.
Ruth, the woman of excellence, had her dreams crushed when she was unable to have children. Then her husband died. Then her brother-in-law died. Then her father-in-law died. Then, grieving, she followed her mother-in-law to an unknown land.
After walking as an outcast during her lifetime, Ruth became the great-grandmother of the greatest king of Israel, David, and the ancestor of the King of Kings, Jesus. I wonder about the character that was forged in her soul as she walked through the valley of the shadow of death again and again. I wonder what kind of mother she was when she eventually gave Boaz a child. The joyous tears born through sweet sorrow must have been impossible prior to her journey through the valley of the shadow.
I wonder, following the crucible and the joy, how the legacy of her faith must have rolled like a Tsunami over her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I wonder which pieces of King David’s radical trust in God can be traced to the radical faith God forged into her character through the journey of grief.
Josh in Spain
What about something like ISIS? We just looked at the lives of Daniel and Ruth. God used the painful unexpected to forge in them perseverance, character, and hope. Is it possible that God is using ISIS to bring a multitude of people to Him in a way that would not have been possible otherwise?
Because of ISIS, millions of Muslims who were almost impossible to reach with the Gospel are fleeing from the Middle East to places that are easy to reach with the Gospel, places where we could even go on vacation with our families. Austria. Germany. Italy. Greece. Spain. This story is from Madrid.
This is the story of Josh, a guy who spent a year or two in Madrid, Spain working with Arab immigrants. (And as a parenthesis, everyone should spend 1-2 years overseas, then ask God what to do with your life. It will change the way you see the world.)
Josh worked at the Friendship House in Madrid. A number of World Venture missionaries work there, in conjunction with Spanish Christians. They give clothes and food to immigrants who need it. They teach English and Spanish classes. Josh worked there, and this is his story:
“MENTIRAS, THIS IS A LIE…”
“Mentiras, lies” the three of them shouted in unison. Up till this point it had been a very calm conversation so naturally this took me off guard! “How could God become a man?” asked the father. “And how could so much power be contained in human flesh!?” jibed the grandfather. “no no no, this is illogical” responded the mother, God could not become a human!”
Perhaps I should back up. Every week I teach English to two Iraqi boys in their family’s restaurant. It is a family event. The father, the mother, and even the grandfather sit in on the lessons most days. One very unique day the grandfather asked me if I knew who the prophets were. I responded that I did know who the prophets were. I had read about them in the Bible. He proceeded to tell me that Adam and John the Baptist were the greatest of all the prophets and that the others such as Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Muhammad were the lesser prophets. I inquisitively asked, “how can Jesus be lesser than Adam? Adam fell into sin yet Jesus never sinned.” This prompted one of those golden questions from the grandfather that a missionary prays to hear, “Well, who do you believe Jesus is?”
At that moment one of the boys stood up to go outside and play. The father scolded him, “sit down and listen to what the teacher has to say.” Well, I now had three generations of a precious Iraqi family listening intently for me to answer the most important question in human history.
I decided to start at the very beginning. “God is all powerful, perfect, holy, and creator of the universe,” I said. They all agreed. “God created man in his own image but man rebelled and fell into sin,” I continued. They all agreed. “Because God is perfectly just, he cannot allow sin to go unpunished nor allow a sinner to enter heaven,” I pushed on. They all agreed. “But God loves humanity and was not willing to leave man lost in his sin. God wanted to save humanity!” I drew ever closer to the climax. They still agreed. “So, God took on flesh and became a human named Jes…” “Mentiras, lies” the three adults shouted in unison, the grandfather even standing to his feet to emphasize the point. It was as if I had hit a spiritual wall. They were willing to accept the Gospel message until Jesus entered the scene. Jesus was the stumbling stone for them. They allowed me to explain myself but they could not overcome the audacity of the idea that God became a man. To them it was foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).
As the three adults were debating my claims amongst themselves the boy walked over and whispered in my ear, “Profe, do you believe that Jesus is God?” “Yes I do,” I quietly replied. “So do I,” he whispered in my ear, smiled, and then returned to his seat.
There is hope. There is grace. It will not be any fancy words I saw that convinces this family of the truth. Rather it will be the saving work of Jesus as affected through the calling of the Spirit on their hearts.
What will God do in and through this little boy? God displaced this Iraqi family, sent them on an unexpected journey of thousands of miles to Spain, and that is where they are hearing about Jesus, not in Iraq. And this is just one example of what God is doing with millions of people all over the Middle East. It is as if God is using ISIS to empty out the hard-to-reach places so that families like this can learn for the first time that God became a man, Jesus Christ.
My neighbor, Annette, began chemotherapy the day before I did. She is originally from French-speaking Canada, and she lives 20 feet away from us here in Colorado! How ironic is that? She and her husband Dan have been great neighbors.
We have spent time together talking, praying, and crying through this process. She told me that in a very strange sort of way, she is thankful for the cancer. She looked and me with tear-filled eyes and said: “I know why I have cancer, it is so that I can grow closer to God.” As a result of cancer and chemo, she is closer to God today than she has ever been in her entire life. She is full of joy.
Is cancer horrific? Absolutely. Is God using it in Annette’s life? Unequivocally.
Looking back, looking forward
So when we look back on these journeys, it gives us hope for our own journey. We can have the confidence that these times of painful preparation are not wasted. God has, can, and will use them, both for our good, for the good of those around us, and for the glory of the great God and Father who loves us.
Romans 5:3-5 says “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
We can be transformed through the crucible of suffering.
My friend Cathy talked about walking through her mother’s death. She said, “What I walked through was for the Kingdom. And now I can be used by these different experiences for the Kingdom.”
She also said, “God doesn’t waste our pain. It is used for His kingdom, if we allow it to be used.”
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
As for us and our family, do we know what is next? No. France? Quebec? Littleton? Congo? We have no idea.
But we do know that this is part of the journey of preparation, that which is next, that which we do not know.
We put our trust in Him. He is trustworthy. He is moving… even in the unexpected.
Faith and healing
There are people who say that if I just had enough faith, then my cancer would be healed, or I simply would not have had cancer in the first place. They would quote verses like Matthew 9:29, where Jesus says, “according to your faith will it be done to you.”
Yes, it is true that in one verse in Matthew 9, two blind men were healed according to their faith. And I will freely admit that many today may be healed according to their faith today, as well. But this relationship between faith and healing is much more complicated.
But what about…
¥ … people healed because of the faith of a third party (John 4:43-54)?
¥ … people healed because of the faith of the healer (Acts 8:4-8)?
¥ … people who are not healed because of the lack of faith of the healer (Matt. 17:14-21)?
¥ … people of faith who were not healed (1 Tim 5:23; 2 Cor. 12:7-10)?
¥ … people whose lack of faith caused them to not be healed (Matt. 13:53-58)?
¥ … people without faith in Jesus who healed others without faith in Jesus (Matt. 7:22-23)? God says to them “I never knew you.”
What about every single one of the twelve apostles who were persecuted, suffered, and all but one died horrific deaths? Are we to say that none of the apostles, who gave their lives for the Name of Christ, were men of faith? I think not.
Living by faith, rather, according to Scripture, may look very different than what we expected.
“They (American Evangelicals) too easily assume that the ordinary Christian life is one of prosperity, triumph and success, instead of marginality, poverty and worldly failure.” – Mark Noll
II. GOD HOLDS US THROUGH THE UNEXPECTED…
What does Paul mean when he says in Romans 8:37, that we are “more than conquerors?”
He most certainly does NOT mean that we will live lives of financial prosperity, physical peace, and emotional tranquility. He must mean something else, something that supersedes these things. Something that is unshakable even in the midst of cancer, poverty, conflict, and death. Turn in your Bibles with me to Romans 8:
35Who shall separate us (those who have put their faith in Christ) from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Being “more than a conqueror” does not mean that I am spared these things. Being “more than a conqueror” means in all these things I cannot be separated from the love of Christ!
Regardless of what happens, if I have put my faith in Jesus, I am living in the shadow of the effects of the Cross. These effects permeate every aspect of my reality. I am connected to the love of Christ. Nothing can separate me from Him!
Working as a pastor, I have sat and prayed with people who only had days to live. I have looked into the eyes of those facing death. I was amazed. As everything was slowly ripped away from them, even then, the love of Christ shone through their entire being.
Gilles was married to Nancy. They had a young son. His life had been full of anger and bitterness. Then one day he knelt down, bowed his head, and surrendered his life to Jesus. When he met Christ, his eyes softened, his spirit glowed, and he became known as a man of joy and peace. He became an outspoken witness for Jesus.
I can remember that Easter Sunday. Our church in St-Jerome rented a community center and Gilles was an energetic part of the setup team. During setup, people remarked how yellow his eyes and skin looked. Several others agreed that he should go to the hospital.
They found cancer. The medical establishment was helpless. All they could do was offer medication to make the process as painless as possible.
The process was brutal. Death is horrific. But he did not fear death. His eyes, though grieved, flooded with hope. He was connected to the love of Christ.
Nothing could separate him from the love of Christ. The love of Christ carried him through death.
Gilles died in peace, with hope.
Michel only had weeks to live. He was in the hospital. Terror overwhelmed every inch of his being. He often woke up screaming, digging his fingernails into his forearms as the horror of death consumed him. His arms were bloody and scarred. Confusion and fear reigned.
He knew I was a pastor and wanted to know what the Bible had to say about death.
You can imagine that meeting in the hospital. It was the moment of truth. For the first time in his life, Michel learned why God came to this earth in the person of Jesus. Jesus took the consequences on himself, on the cross, for evil men all throughout history. Michel, if he surrendered himself to Jesus, would no longer face judgment for the evil he had done. Jesus had already taken that judgment on himself on the cross.
That is why the cross was so horrific. The full breadth of God’s wrath against evil was poured out on Jesus on the cross… so that we, and Michel, would no longer have to take it on ourselves.
Jesus offered forgiveness to Michel. Jesus offered love in the place of judgment. I asked Michel if that is what he wanted. Did he desire to admit his guilt, turn it over to Jesus, and accept the gift of life offered to him?
“Yes, yes, yes!” Michel responded. We prayed together.
The transformation was immediate.
His eyes glowed. Tension melted away. Confusion became hope. Terror became peace. The nightmares stopped. Michel was now connected to the love of Christ. Nothing could separate him now.
He died two weeks later. He was no longer terrified. He was at peace.
Once we have been connected to the love of Christ, nothing can separate us.
We are living in the effects of the cross.
While these things are happening to me, Christ’s love is tied to me. Sealed to me. Paul goes on:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
• Death cannot separate me from the love of Christ.
• A difficult, suffering life of sickness and pain, cannot separate me from the love of Christ.
• Supernatural angelic beings cannot separate me from the love of Christ.
• No evil demonic presence can separate me from the love of Christ.
• Nothing in my present life can separate me from the love of Christ.
• No fears of what the future may bring can separate me from the love of Christ.
• Nothing great or small can separate me from the love of Christ.
• There is nothing in the universe that is powerful enough to separate me from the love of Christ.
III. GOD OVERCOMES THE UNEXPECTED…
These stories churned through my mind in January. I was diagnosed with “T-Cell/Histiocyte-Rich B-Cell non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.” But then I had to wait a few of weeks to find out the results of a CT Scan, Bone-Marrow Biopsy, and PET scan.
Waiting is so difficult. I had no idea how serious this was.
• The second biopsy confirmed that I was at least stage One.
• The CT scan confirmed that I was at least stage three.
• Then I had to wait for the Bone Marrow Biopsy and PET scan.
• Have my major organs been affected? Has my bone marrow been affected? Would I be given a few months to live, like others I’ve known?
The realization set in: this could kill me.
Death, is that all you’ve got?
I could picture Gilles as he faced death with peace and joy.
I could picture Michel as his terror was transformed into peace.
Now it was my turn. It is one thing to sit with someone who is facing death. It is one thing to stand up here and speak with confidence. It is quite another thing at 2am, laying wide awake wondering if I’ll live long enough to see my children graduate from high school.
All day every day my mind kept replaying my conversations with Gilles and Michel.
Yes, we face death now, but that is not the end. God will ultimately, finally, triumph over death.
2 Corinthians 4:14 says this:
“…the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus.” –v. 14
There is a resurrection day that is coming in the future. On the day of the resurrection, when we are physically brought back from the grave, this physical body will be clothed with a kind of physical existence that is not infected by sin. Sickness, cancer, and death will no longer hold the trump card. We will outlast all of these.
“the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” –v. 53
We know the knockout is coming. We know that death will be rendered completely powerless. That day is coming. So today, we can look death square in the face and say
“Is that all you’ve got?”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” –v. 55
“But resurrection is not just consolation — it is restoration. We get it all back — the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life — but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength.”
As many of you have heard, I have had positive test results regarding chemo. My last scan showed no sign of Lymphoma. This is very good news. For today, things are moving in a great direction.
But make no mistake, we are not out of the woods.
Over the next two years there will be a gradual deceleration of doctor’s appointments, blood tests, CT Scans & PET scans.
According to some studies, the 5-year survival rate for the kind of Lymphoma that I have is about 50%. Also according to some studies, there is about a 25% chance that this cancer will recur within six months.
What does this mean regarding next steps, possibly moving to France, or not? We would ask you to step into a very intentional time of prayer with us, over this summer, asking God to very clearly reveal what He desires our next steps to be.
What God has done for me through this process, is make me cognizant of death. This body may not last another six months, or five years. Or, it may last another 40 years.
Death is right in front of my face. But because of the resurrection, I do not need to fear it.
And you, on your unexpected journey, you need not fear either. Just as Gilles and Michel faced the ultimate test with confidence and peace, you can face the unexpected journey knowing God is moving, God is holding you, and the confidence that God will overcome.
Already and not yet.
Christ died on the cross. He died for our sins. He died to conquer sin, death, and our spiritual enemies. When we put our faith in Him, we receive His Spirit. We receive the promise of eternal life. We join His Kingdom, part of what He is doing here on this earth. Part of a greater story.
We are living in the effects of Christ’s death and resurrection and the shadow of our coming resurrection.
We look back.
But we also look forward.
We look forward to the day when death will no longer be a reality. We look forward to when Christ comes back. We look forward to the resurrection. It is, as David Bosch puts it:
Our future resurrection “not merely a future reality toward which we are on the way; it has invaded and permeated our earthy historical existence and is in the process of transforming it.”
Right now we are free to live in-between.
What does this mean? If God is moving; if God is holding me; if God will overcome in the resurrection. What does that mean?
• I can lift my eyes past today… and tomorrow.
• I can risk today, in the midst of the unexpected.
• I can love someone difficult.
• I can lift my eyes above my struggle with anxiety and depression. It will one day end.
• I do not have to hurry today. My time is unlimited.
• I can go overseas to a difficult people without fear, the cost is not as great as I thought.
• People are more important than anything.
• I am free.
Do you smell it? Can you taste it? The wind of the freedom of the resurrection is blowing through his place:
• Free of fear.
• Free of anxiety.
• Free to be radical.
• Free to love.
• Free to pursue.
• Free to hope.
• Free to live in the in-between.
• Free to dream.
• Free to follow Jesus, knowing I will be with Him forever, no matter what.
As John Donne so aptly put it in his poem: “Death… thou shalt die.”