I had an interesting conversation with someone following my sermon this past Sunday, and this conversation gave me pause to consider the position of the individual before posting the manuscript. The conversation dealt with whether God causes things to happen in our lives so that we can grow in faith, or whether because we live in a sinful and fallen world, things will happen and God will use those opportunities to teach us things so that we grow in faith.

While i agree that we live in a sinful and fallen world and that things happen to us as a result (whether through accidents or temptation from Satan), i also think that God causes things to happen in our lives. We grow in our faith as a result of both of these circumstances. For example, a man in our congregation had an accident 30+ years ago and has been in a wheelchair ever since. Did God cause that accident? No. Were people (including the gentleman in question) challenged in their faith and did they grow as a result? Yes.

But at the same time there is biblical example of God causing a situation in a person’s life so that their faith might grow. Look at the life of Abraham. God told Abraham that he was going to have a son, and that the nations would come through this son. Then he let Abraham wait. For a long time. God was testing Abraham.

Which brings us to the text of the sermon presented this past Sunday. As ever, there were some ad-libs and word changes in the moment, but the message delivered is the same as you will find here.

Mountains of Faith

Sermon for May 6, 2010

          “On May 10, 1996, reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion, Jon Krakauer reached the summit of Mt. Everest. He hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. As he turned to begin the perilous descent from 29, 028 feet, twenty other climbers were still pushing towards the top, unaware that the sky had begun to roil with clouds.” The owner of Adventure Consultants and the expedition leader and head guide, Rob Hall, had led many expeditions to the top of Mt. Everest prior to this one, and he had a strict rule: Everyone turns around at 2:00 in the afternoon and heads back to camp, regardless of where they are on their climb. On this particular afternoon for whatever reason, he did not follow his own rule. By the time Krakauer got back to base camp the next day, nine people from four different expeditions including four from his own expedition were dead, including Rob Hall, while two others were airlifted out by a brave helicopter pilot.

I want to invite you to go on a journey with me this morning. In fact, I’m going to say something that might sound somewhat controversial. I want you to think selfishly this morning. I want you to think with a “What about me” attitude.

You may have noticed that I titled this morning’s message Mountains of Faith. The journey we are going to go on this morning involves a bit of “mountain climbing” if you will. The ideas and thoughts behind this message originated because of one statement that people have asked me over the past five or six years. That statement is this: Why are you always happy? Every time I see you, you have a smile on your face. Don’t you ever go through difficult or hard times like the rest of us?

This question bothers me. Not because people ask it, but because as Christians, people think they have inherited some sort of right to not go through trials or times of testing. And if they do go through trials, God is supposed to somehow lift them right out of the muck and the mud and place them on the lush green grass where things are always great.

Let me ask you two questions as we get started. First, by a show of hands, how many of you have heard the illustration of peaks and valleys to describe the faith journey? Again by show of hands, how many would say that generally speaking, this illustration is usually described as the good times in life at the peak of the mountain, and the rougher times in life as the valleys?

I invite you to turn with me to Romans 5:1-5 as we begin this journey. Paul has a lot to say about being tested throughout a lot of his writings, but in Romans 5 he provides us with the reason for going through trials. Let’s read these verses then:

“1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Paul begins this passage with a few words about faith and so we must also if we are to understand the remaining verses.

Paul acknowledges that our peace comes because of our faith in Jesus Christ, and that it is through Him, and only Him, that we have access to the throne of God. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Elton Trueblood says it this way, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation,” and Commentator Joseph Fitzmyer notes, “In the second part of the doctrinal section of Romans, one encounters the consequences of faith in Christ Jesus”. Now if you’re like me, any time you hear the word ‘consequence’ you start to think of negative things. I once heard someone wrestle with the term consequence. It is usually associated with negative images, isn’t it? If you play with knives you’re going to get cut. But when we stop to pause and consider the word, we can truly say that there are many good consequences as well. The consequences of eating food or drinking water are that the body continues to live. In the same way, there are good consequences associated with faith in Jesus Christ.

It is this faith in Jesus, as our Savior, that moves us forward in life and takes us through the various trials that we encounter.

Let’s get back to the mountains and valleys illustration. About five or six years ago, my view on this illustration changed. I used to think of it in terms of high points and low points in life, where the mountains were the good times and the valleys were the not so good times. The change was brought on by having read stories of mountain climbing. Let me explain.

I am a fan of mountain climbing books. In fact, right now I get daily emails of updates about an expedition on Mt. Everest, and they are planning on pushing for the summit sometime next week. While reading these different stories, the authors describe how the mountain looks when they’re climbing and how grateful they were when they were able to get back to a lower altitude. Mountains are barren, cold, and full of rocky outcrops and often great amounts of snow and ice. The air is a lot thinner and it is often difficult to breathe normally on a mountain. In fact, the higher you get on a mountain, the more desolate it gets. Just a little fun fact for you: Did you know that if you were to transport yourself to the peak of Mt. Everest right now it would take about three minutes for you to die. The air is so thin that the body cannot handle that quick change, and your body would go into shock and shut down in about three minutes.

Valleys on the other hand, are, generally speaking, lush and full of life. Trees grow, grass is incredibly green, and there is often a river or small stream at the bottom. Valleys are relaxing and tranquil.

Again by a show of hands let me ask you: Have you ever gone through a rough season in life, only to find out right at the end the thing that God was trying to teach you? I remember a particularly rough season in my early twenty’s that lasted about three years. After those three years, something clicked in my brain and in my heart, and I said, “That’s what I was supposed to learn. If I would have known that, it would not have taken three years.” Friends, I believe God does not want his children to live like that.

Of course the problem is that no one wants to go through the difficult times in life. No one wants to climb those mountains, whatever they may be. It is sort of a catch twenty-two: to grow in faith, at least in part, one must go through some difficult times, but going through difficult times is just that, it is difficult, and let’s be honest, it sucks. Who wants to have to go through hard times?

Paul is clear in Romans 5 on the reason we go through difficult times. He says in verse three that, “We glory in tribulations.” Let’s stop right there. Let me ask you this: When is the last time you thanked God for the messy situation you find yourself in? Have you ever thanked God for messy situations? Paul says that we should be happy for the hard times in life.

That is why it is so important to have a proper climbing guide. That’s why we must continue to follow the leading of Jesus in our lives. Remember the quote from before by Elton Trueblood, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation.” You or I would not climb Mount Everest without a lot of training and an experienced guide to lead the way: someone to plan the trip, to set a schedule so that the body can acclimatize to the thin air, and adjust to life with minimal food. In order to climb Mount Everest, a person must train for about one year before hand, and then spend about a month and a half slowly climbing up and down the mountain so the body can adjust. Did you know that the average person who climbs Mt. Everest usually only spends about half-an-hour to forty-five minutes on the summit when they get there, taking their air mask and toque off long enough to feel their hair blowing in the wind? To have all of that training and done all of that work, for so short a moment of celebration. And it’s not really a celebration anyway because they still have to get down off the mountain.

How often is life like that? You find that you’ve gained a little victory in life and you celebrate, only to realize that God is calling you on to the next trial; the next mountain. That’s what happened to the Israelites. Remember they had just escaped the clutches of Pharaoh in Egypt. Exodus 15 tells of their journey immediately after getting out of Egypt, and verse twenty-seven says, “They came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees; so they camped there by the waters.” But the next verse says they moved away from there. After this they spent forty years walking through the desert. God knew that if the Israelites would have stayed at the oasis of Elim, they would not have learnt to grow closer to Him. He wanted more for them.

Listen to how Fitzmyer translates Romans 5:3-5,

Yet not only that, but let us also boast of our afflictions, since we know that affliction makes for endurance, endurance makes for character, and character for hope. Such hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

There are three important words that need to be understood in these verses.

The first is perseverance. In the Greek the word is “hupomone,” and means patience, or endurance, or perseverance. The problem with this word comes from the idea that people have of the word patience, or perseverance. Usually these words are associated with simply waiting a situation out and not doing anything. It’s not about being a passive object going through something though. No, the word itself has more to do with actively pursuing the end of the situation. It means getting into the foray and fighting through the situation we face.

You wouldn’t drive a four-wheeler into a mud-hole and just leave it there, waiting for the mud to dry before you get it out. The same can be said in our tough times. You don’t get stuck in the mud and just wait for Jesus to somehow automatically lift you out. He doesn’t do that. But he gives you the strength to fight through the mud-hole and get to the other side.

The second word we need to look at is character. The Greek word Paul used here is “dokime”. The English translation simply says ‘character,’ but the Greek implies something stronger. Paul is talking about an ‘approved character.’ William Barclay says that this word, “is used when we think of metal which has been passed through the fire so that everything impure has been purged out of it.” He goes on to say that, “When affliction is met with fortitude, out of the battle a person emerges stronger, and purer, and better, and nearer to God.”

What Paul is saying here is that when we are active in pursuit of the end of the trial, we become stronger, purer, and closer to God. But that’s not all. That leads us to our third word: Hope. The Greek word Paul uses is “elpis,” which means hope or expectation. This hope Paul talks about points us to the end of the age, when we will be with God in glory.

Having said all of this, we are brought back to the statement I made earlier about thinking selfishly. By now you might not want to be thinking so selfishly afterwards, because now we’re going to apply this idea of desiring trials and tribulations in our lives to grow nearer to God.

How to Apply This

There are a few simple keys to begin to live in this way:

  1. The first step in this process is to pray and ask God to reveal just where you are right now in life. It’s a simple prayer. “God, am I in a time of testing in my life right now or am I in a time of rest?”

There are two possible answers to this question. The first is that you find yourself in a season of resting.

Imagine that you find yourself in a season of resting in the valley under a great oak tree, free from any trials. This is the season of life, like the Israelites, where you find yourself between times of testing. It is the season in which everything seems great, and all the cares of life seem to be taken care of.

But, if you are in a season of resting in your life, remember that you can be sure that in time another season of testing will come. God is never content to let you stay the same for very long. He always wants you to grow. So if you rest too long, or maybe you are too scared to go through the next season of testing, you can be sure that, just like the Israelites in the desert, God will bring you to the next mountain. He wants us to grow, so he calls us to the next mountain, and brings us into the next time of testing or trials.

This same idea is described beautifully in Song of Solomon, when in chapter 2:8 it says, “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping on the hills.” Of course the Song of Solomon is written as a love story between the Shulamite woman and Solomon, but we can always use it to describe the relationship between Christians and God. Here Solomon is leaping on the mountains, and the Shulamite is too scared to go to the mountains to meet him. But later in the book, we see that the Shulamite woman is no longer scared, because the relationship has grown, and her faith in Solomon is sure, so she goes to meet him on the mountain. She trusts in his guidance and leadership, the same way Christians are to have faith in Jesus and his guidance.

  1. That leads us to the second step in the process, which is to pray to the Holy Spirit and ask Him what the next time of testing should be.

In Romans 8 Paul talks about how the Holy Spirit “groans” in us things that cannot be uttered. He says we don’t know what we should pray for so the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf. But if the Holy Spirit knows what to pray for, and John reminds us in chapter sixteen that what the Spirit has comes from Jesus, then we too, can know what those needs are. Listen to Jesus’ words, “The Holy Spirit will glorify Me, for He will take of what is mine and declare it to you.”

So if Jesus knows what we need, and the Holy Spirit takes what Jesus has and declares it to us, even when we first don’t know what we are praying, we can ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us those things we need. We can ask the Holy Spirit to explain to us the next trial or testing that we should go through to grow in our walk with God.

Jesus taught us in Matthew 7:7-8, in The Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” This isn’t just a verse about salvation, or even for daily needs. When Jesus says, “Ask,” He is saying, “If you ask for peace, I will give you peace. If you ask for joy, I will give you joy.” The question is: Are you asking things of Jesus? God knows what we are in need of, but he wants us to ask.

Let me give you an example, from Galatians 5:22-23, the Fruit of the Spirit. Let us suppose, for example, that you are in a season resting and you’ve been there for a while, and decide to ask for patience. Remember James’ encouragement from James 1:2 to, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials,” and Jesus’ encouragement in Matthew to ask, seek, and knock. Anyone who has ever prayed for patience knows that little things start to get real annoying, real quick. God does not simply give his child patience, but rather through a series of events, tests the individual’s patience so that it can grow, developing character. When someone prays for patience, they have just picked the mountain they want to climb; the trial they want to endure.

So then, if you are not in a time of resting right now, then the second answer to our question, “God, am I in a time of testing right now or a time of rest?” is that you find yourself in a time of testing. Do you know what season of testing you are in? If you are not sure about what you are experiencing in your current season, take a look back at your prayers, and see if there is any connection to what you are going through.

Last October I found myself in an interesting situation. For about two weeks I couldn’t sleep at all. The moment I fell asleep, I would have incredible visions of the enemies of darkness in the spiritual realm and I’d wake up right away. I would see the evil spirits, and behind me were certain people that the evil spirits were trying to attack. After the second night of this happening, I prayed to the Holy Spirit to reveal to me the prayers that I had prayed that would cause this to happen. He reminded me that about this time last year, I had prayed that I would be effective in battles in the spiritual realm. My basis for this prayer was the story in Acts 19 where the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out evil spirits because they had seen Paul doing it. Verse fifteen tells us that the evil spirit told them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” I had prayed, “Jesus, the evil spirits know you, and they know Paul, and may they know me and flee from me as well.” It had taken six months for God to answer my prayer.

The thing to remember here is that, as Christians, we can know the struggles we are going through when we go through them, not just after we’ve trudged through them. And possibly the greatest encouragement in all of this is Paul’s words found in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” Remember this encouragement is from a man who faced stonings, beatings, shipwrecks, starvation, and so much more. And he says that the things he’s going through are light afflictions; they’re momentary. But they produce a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.

Do you recognize that the struggles you go through in life are producing an eternal weight of glory? The great theologian Karl Barth writes, “Faith which presses onwards and leads to sight does not wait for sight in order that it may believe. It believes in the midst of tribulation and persecution”.

Of course this doesn’t just apply to you personally. This is something that can also be applied to our congregation. I believe that God has given us a time of healing and rest after our refocusing. He has given us a time of settling after the events of the past years. Are we going to stay in that rest? Or are we as a congregation going to discern together what the next stage of growth that God has for us?

You see when you begin to live your life this way you pay a lot more attention to the words of your prayers. You begin to see very quickly all of the answers to prayer that actually take place, whether big or small. When you realize the joy that comes from encountering God and growing nearer to God through the trials, you get invigorated. You begin to get excited about your prayer life. You begin to see the power of what prayer can do. Friends let me tell you, I am looking forward to what God has in store for us in the next year. Three weeks ago pastor Abe talked about throwing our nets on the other side of the boat. What that looks like we don’t know. But his prayer was that we would be people who wouldn’t ask questions and throw our nets on the other side of the boat. We’ve been fishing off the same side for so long without catching anything and his prayer was that we would trust Jesus’ leadership and try something completely different.

I want to encourage you this morning. You can understand exactly what trials you are facing, which mountain you are climbing up. Ask God to reveal exactly what it is that he wants you to learn during whatever trial you are facing, and rejoice in it. And if you are in a season of resting down in the valley by the river under the shade tree, recognize the mountain you just climbed, and take time to rest. Maybe you can say with confidence, “Things have changed, and I no longer fear the trials God wants me to face”.

Or maybe you’ve been resting for too long; perhaps it is time to ask God for the next challenge so your faith can grow. Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “Paul even says that we can, as a result of Christian hope, “boast in our afflictions”, because they make for endurance, which produces character, which in turn builds up the hope that does not disappoint. At the root of this conviction is Paul’s keen awareness of God’s grace that enables us to stand up against the storms, hardships, and afflictions of our earthly existence”.

Character cannot be built except through perseverance, which means going through various struggles beforehand, and character will then bring hope. This hope leads to joyful living, and an expectancy of growth during the next season, whether it is resting in the valley or climbing the mountain.

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