The Challenge We Face

This was the message that I gave at Grace UMC (St. Cloud, MN) for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 27 June 1993. This was the fifth message of my lay speaking career and I was using the format that my pastor, John Praetorius used. The Scriptures that I used were Hebrews 11: 33 – 35 and James 1: 5 – 8.    

In May of 1961, President John Kennedy presented to a joint session of Congress what some consider the greatest scientific challenge of this generation’s lifetime:

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space. And none will be more difficult or expensive to accomplish.” (We Reach The Moon, John Noble Wilford, Bantam Books, 1969)

This challenge was made as a response to the actions taken by the Soviet Union in successfully orbiting Yuri Gagarin. President Kennedy recognized that a quick and decisive response was needed, even in the face of the difficulties that our space program was undergoing at that time. As those who grew up in the late 50’s and early 60’s might remember, the United States space program seemed more a comedy of errors than a precisely run scientific effort. One cannot forget the number of launches that ended with the rocket exploding on the launch pad rather than sending a satellite into orbit. If we could not launch a relatively simple rocket, how were we going to be able to launch a rocket carrying men?

There were also skeptics who felt it was impossible to land a man on the moon because, as one theory suggested, the surface of the moon was covered by a thick layer of dust. As such, any landing craft attempting to land on the moon would be swallowed up. But nothing had been done to prove or disprove this theory. It was not until the Ranger series of satellites crash landed on the moon and the Surveyor series soft landed on the moon that this theory was shown incorrect. Had we chosen to accept the theory without obtaining the facts, we would have never landed on the moon.

Today this nation faces another challenge. It is a challenge which cannot be resolved through a nationwide commitment of resources, talent, and technology. It must be resolved in our hearts and in our souls. We have forgotten to put God first in our lives and, in doing so, have lost our spiritual direction.

Our society is split by race, creed, and economic status. We see the problems these differences cause but we want others to solve them. We willingly let others tell us how we should act, what we should wear, how we should think.

Because we have no commitment to God, because we receive so many conflicting directions, our lives are in constant turmoil. And this is because we do not have faith that God will provide us with the direction we should take and the protection we need, despite the fact that He has repeatedly promised to do so. If our faith in God is strong, our accomplishments will reflect the Glory of God. If our faith is weak, then we will struggle. As James wrote

“If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way, and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer.” (James 1: 5 – 8)

Peter Jenkins was a college student who questioned the direction his life was taking. His inner turmoil led him on a journey which has been chronicled in his books Walk Across America and The Walk West. His walk from New York to New Orleans was highlighted by his acceptance of Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. But what impact did this acceptance have on his life?

When he discussed the journey and the resulting story with the editors of National Geographic, they asked him what he felt was the major point of the whole journey. To their amazement, he said that it was his acceptance of Christ as his Savior. It was to the editors’ credit that this part of the story was kept in the article so that others could read about the power of the Lord. Later, during a train ride in China, far from his home and family, and unable to openly worship God, Jenkins became aware of just how dependent his life and the direction it took was upon his relationship with Jesus Christ. He wrote:

“And I wrote down that I really missed God. I didn’t expect Him to come and sit down beside me, but I missed what He was in my life. He was my ultimate security. He was my guide through life and my main source of discipline. He was my friend, more faithful than any person, the most faithful presence on earth. He was profound wisdom and pure love. I yearned for His arms of love to hold me. But He seemed so far away.

I knew He was here, but I felt so lonely just the same. And there was no one around to fellowship with. Lying on that bunk I realized more clearly than ever before how important my relationship with God was.”(The Road Unseen, Peter and Barbara Jenkins, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985, page 5)

How important is a strong relationship with God? All we have to do is look at the Israelites as they left Egypt for the Promised Land. Every time the Israelites faced a crisis, they sought a return to the seemingly secure life of slavery in Egypt. What did the Israelites do when they faced the Red Sea with the Egyptian army coming after them? Did they rejoice that God would protect them? In Exodus 14: 10 – 14 we read

“When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were in great fear. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord; and they said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” (Exodus 14: 10 – 14)

Yet, even as they watched God drown the Egyptians in the Red Sea, the Israelites still had a hard time accepting the idea that all they had to do was follow the Lord.

It must have been tough on the Israelites moving from the security of Egypt to the uncertainty of the Promised Land. How did they react as they crossed the wilderness without sufficient provisions? In Exodus 16: 2 – 8 we read

“And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness and said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.’ So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, ‘At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your murmurings against the Lord. For what are we, that you murmur against us?’ And Moses said, ‘When the Lord gives you evening flesh and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your murmurings which you murmur against him – what are we? Your murmurings are not against us but against the Lord.” (Exodus 16: 2 – 8)

Consider their actions while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 32 we read of the people going to Aaron and asking him to make them a false idol. Later, in Numbers 13 and 14, we read of the spies Moses sent into the Promised Land lying about what was there and how the people cried to return to Egypt where they were safe and secure. Time and time again during this journey, we hear the Israelites crying to return to Egypt and the security of their slavery; all because their faith in God was weak. How many times have we encountered this journey from the wilderness to the Promised Land? How many times have we doubted our own faith? Don’t we feel lost and without direction when we have ignored God’s presence in our lives?

Even our own John Wesley struggled with the idea of what God wanted him to do. Sent to Georgia as a missionary along with his brother Charles, he returned to England in 1738 feeling that he had failed. Prepared as he and his brother were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say they trusted the Lord.

Only after that moment in his life, which we call the Aldersgate moment, could Wesley write

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Only by accepting Christ as his personal Savior was John Wesley able to understand what direction his life was to take. It was only through trusting Christ that Wesley gained the confidence needed to make the Methodist revival possible. The writer of Hebrews 11: 33 – 35 also points out that every great leader of our Christian heritage also trusted in God completely and followed Him faithfully:

“These people all trusted God and as a result won battles, overthrew kingdoms, ruled their people well, and received what God had promised them; they were kept from harm in a den of lions, and in a fiery furnace. Some, through their faith, escaped death by the sword. Some were made strong again after they had been weak or sick. Others were given great power in battle; they made whole armies turn and run away. And some women, through faith, received their loved ones back again from death. But others trusted God and were beaten to death, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free – trusting that they would rise to a better life afterwards.” (Hebrews 11: 33 – 35)

Our challenge today is the single most difficult task we will ever face. Yet it is the easiest to accomplish. It is difficult because it forces us away from the comfort zone our life in sin has created. However, while we may feel free, a life in the slavery of sin is not freedom. The direction our life takes, the choices we make, the things we want to do, all are chosen by others. Had the Israelites chosen slavery in Egypt rather than to follow God, they would have never reached the Promised Land.

John Kennedy concluded his challenge to make the trip to the moon by saying that the mission would require a complete commitment of the nation’s resources and by us. He knew that was the only way the challenge would be met.

So it is for us. By making a complete and total acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior, we too can forsake a life in the slavery of sin and make that trip to the Promised Land.

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