We like to joke about it. I mean, you know all the old jokes about the fellow who worked hard, was financially successful and proud of all his achievements in life. He told his wife to put all of his money in the coffin when he died so that he could take it and enjoy it in heaven. When he died, at the end of the funeral, his wife walked up; she carefully placed a huge box in the casket right beside him.
Her best friend came up to her and said, "Sally, you didn't actually do what he told you to do, did you?"
"Well, yes," Sally said. "You know, it was his last request; and I needed to honor it."
"So you put all of his money in that box?"
"Yes," Sally said, "I wrote him a check."
We know all the jokes, and we like to joke about death. But being near to death sure has a way of making things come into focus, doesn't it?
That's what Craig and Denise learned. Being in the presence of death has a way of teaching you an awful lot about life. I'm not sure why we humans often only grasp this third promise of God when crisis hits. But here it is: God says multiple times in the Bible, I will never leave you nor forsake you.
That is the third promise. That third promise is the secret to life. I will never leave you nor forsake you.
As Craig lay in that bed for several weeks and the news seemed to be getting worse instead of better, no answers were coming from the tests or the doctors, he and I talked. And we both knew full well that death was in the lobby just waiting to come in. One morning Craig shared with me what he had discovered the night before. He said, "I've worked hard, I've done well, but right now, that success and all that money-they mean nothing. I've got a lot of good contacts and some close friends-a lot of good people in my life-but right now, people can't help me. I have a child on the way very soon, and it just became clear to me last night as I prayed to God: I have nothing but God right now. It's just me and him. He holds my life. He holds the future. I can trust only him. Just him."
Today Craig will tell you that that night in the hospital bed, he learned the third promise of God, Hebrews 13, verses 5 and 6. God's sweet voice: I will never leave you nor forsake you.
That's the secret to life: to trust God alone
When we really get that promise, when you know that promise way down deep in your knower, it'll revolutionize your life. When everything else is stripped away, when all the things we are attached to are gone, we discover that in the end, only God holds life. It's only God who matters. And his promise is certain. When all else is gone, there still is God. God's sweet voice saying, I will never leave you nor forsake you.
God is teaching us the only place for your trust is in him. Everything else will fade or let you down. He teaches us that over and over again in the Bible, because for some reason, we humans have a hard time getting it. Our tendency is to put our trust in things instead of Him.
Notice how this Hebrews passage plainly links this promise-I will never leave you nor forsake you-to our attachment to stuff. Right there in verse 5, it says, "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have because God has said, 'I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.'" We tend to attach ourselves to things rather than attaching ourselves to God.
That's just what the Israelites did. You remember the example of the manna (Exodus 16; Numbers 11). God instructed the Israelites that he would supply their needs each day in the wilderness. And yet the first day that He supplied the manna, there they were trying to gather more, more than they needed-hoarding for the next day-just in case God didn't deliver on his promise, just in case God didn't deliver each day just like he said he would. So they hedged their bets.
And to make his point, God allowed the unused manna to rot overnight, so that they had to learn to depend on him each and every day. I will never leave you, never forsake you. God provides. God is in control. He will never leave us or forsake us.
The Bible is full of people just like that, just like the Israelites: the fool who kept building bigger barns to store all of his stuff; Saul, who became Paul; the rich young ruler; Ananias and his wife Sapphira, just to name a few people who trusted stuff, trusted things, more than they trusted God. They were convinced that they had life by the horns only to discover, too late often, that they had trusted in things rather than in God.
And we do the very same thing. We accumulate stuff at an incredible rate. So fast, we can't keep up with all the stuff-no room for it all. Possessions mean so much to us. We can't let go. We build extra garages for our cars and houses continue to expand. There are now 32,000 storage facilities in the United States, with something like 1.3 billion square feet of extra storage because our houses and apartments can't contain it all. The more we have, the more we need, the more we have, the more we worry about it. And it's never enough.
When somebody asked John Rockefeller how much was enough, he said, "Just a little bit more."
Because the lesson is clear: Don't put your trust in what you have. Life is not what you have. Hear it again: Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have. 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' Trust God and him alone.
When we don't put our trust in things-sometimes we put our trust in people, in human beings, and institutions. We trust pastors, we trust leaders, we trust role models.
But it's not what you have, and it's not who you know. Trust in God-only in Him. Again, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." (Hb 13.5-6)
That's the one sure thing - God's promise of his presence.
When you really get that promise, it changes your life. So I invite you to do three things with that promise.
1) Detach from things and attach to God (Matthew 6:19-21, 24-34; Luke 12: 22-34).
How plain does God have to make it to us humans? Two thousand three hundred and fifty verses in the Bible are devoted to money and possessions-more than any other subject-because God knows that we are far more likely to trust stuff and things than we are him. Just pick one verse. I'll take Matthew 6:24 where Jesus says: No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Detach from things and attach to God.
2) Embrace simplicity, live with less than you can afford. In a credit card saturated culture that tells us everyday to buy more, God's wisdom flies straight into the face of that worldly wisdom. Simplicity-fewer cars, smaller houses, less spending, less debt, fewer gadgets, lower lifestyles actually lead to more joy, not less.
Embrace simplicity. Trust God.
3) Trust the promise (Ps 118.6; Mt 28.20). Notice how Hebrews 13:6 follows 13:5. Again, keep your lives free from the love of money. Be content with what you have. I will never leave you nor forsake you. Psalm 118:6 says, We can say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?'
When we really experience that promise, when we really know that God will never leave us nor forsake us, fear disappears and worry is no more. Life is never again measured by what we have or who we know, because we know the One, the One who holds life, the One who holds the future, the One who provides.
In his hospital bed, Craig learned that when everything else was stripped away, trust the promise and there you will find life.
A few years ago, I was finishing seminary, and I was planning to pastor United Methodist churches for the rest of my ministry. An opportunity presented itself because of some excellent faculty members that I had studied with. It became possible for me to go to Yale to do a Ph.D. in the New Testament. I had fallen in love with the Bible in seminary. I loved Greek. I loved reading the New Testament. I loved studying the scriptures. And only a few people a year were admitted to that doctoral program. And so we prayed about it, and we really believed that God was opening that door, so Anita and I walked through that door, and we moved our family to Connecticut. We weren't sure what lay on the other side. Teaching might be where we were headed-to teach at a seminary, perhaps in a college or maybe to return to the pulpit. We didn't know. We were a little nervous about the future because we didn't know what God had in store. We were nervous about how we were going to pay for this venture. A family of four, I was the only person in the program who was married with children.
We were moving to one of the most expensive parts of the nation. We were nervous about whether I could perform. I mean, we were going to be studying and working with some of the sharpest people and some of the sharpest minds in the world. We were nervous about living in New England. We were going to be a 1,000 miles away from our family and friends-no NASCAR, no college football, no barbecue -and worst of all, no sweet tea!
Within a week of arriving in New Haven, Connecticut, my health utterly collapsed; I didn't know it at the time. It took several weeks to diagnose, but I had a severe, acute case of ulcerative colitis. For the next two years, my doctors and I desperately tried anything and everything known, even experimental treatments. The Yale Health Plan felt more like the Yale Death Plan to me because my health got worse and worse. My weight went from 155 pounds down to a stooped, pale, hunched 128 pounds. One of my prescriptions was steroids, and the steroids were to strengthen my body and to give me energy and to help my body resist inflammation and to reduce the pain. But the steroids also transformed my personality, so that I had a much, much shorter temper, and I was not any fun to live with. Our fear increased. Why in the world have we moved? Why in the world have we done this? Why has God called us to this? What is the point? We're trying to be obedient here, God, and this is what we get? We've moved halfway across the country. We've taken this step in faith. We don't know how we're going to pay for this. We're away from our family and friends. And now I'm sick and can barely function through the day, and my wife's trying to raise a six-week old and a 2-year old by herself. This is what we get?
For two long years, two long years worrying every day, any time that I stepped out of our apartment, wondering where the next bathroom was because I had no control over my intestines, wondering and worrying every day whether I could make it through that whole day without the cramping and the bleeding. Two years. Every treatment imaginable. Until about two years later, I finally had surgery to have my entire colon, my entire large intestine removed.
I awoke in the hospital after the surgery, trying to wean my body off steroids and morphine for the pain at the same time. I had tubes coming out of every hole in my body plus a few new holes to boot; and I would wear a Ziploc bag, as I affectionately call it, in my midsection for the rest of my life. The fear was growing. I knew God had called us to this, but how could we possibly sustain it? Will I even live through this? What if I die? What will my wife do? What will my kids do?
At the same time, my wife, Anita, had two miscarriages, one shortly before my surgery and one several months afterward. The one she had right before my surgery led her to be in the doctor's office down the same hall from where I lay in the hospital bed, having the procedure to remove the baby from her body.
I tell you the fear was more than I needed. Would I live or die? Would I see my girls married or graduated? The fear that somehow I had disobeyed God, that I had misread his intentions. And have you ever noticed that when things go wrong in your life you have all those wonderful friends who tell you that you just don't have enough faith? Had I moved out of God's will in some way? How could being obedient to God be so awful and so difficult? The fear of the unknown was about more than I could take.
Ironically, it was in that hospital bed with tubes coming out of all kinds of places that I experienced most this promise of God. I will never leave you nor forsake you. Early one morning as I woke up, my closest friend, a Catholic priest who was in the program with me, sat in the room quietly reading the paper. He didn't say much. He was just there. And I didn't say much. I didn't have the energy, and, frankly, I was frustrated and fried. I sensed the presence of God in the most powerful way that I ever have. As he sat there and I sat there, somehow our eyes locked and our hearts were joined and as we prayed silently together, not knowing what the other was saying, but both of us lifting our hearts and our souls to God, for a moment, the veil between heaven and earth was gone and God was there. And the deep assurance came from above. I will never leave you nor forsake you.
Place your hope solely in God. When you do, you will thereby discover life, true life. Not from money, not from people but from him and no place else. When you grasp this one simple promise, your life truly will be different because hope and life can be found nowhere else.
Please pray with me.
Gracious and eternal God, our lives, our hope, our destiny, our future, and our world belong to you. Teach us to trust you rather than ourselves. Teach us to place our hope only in you. In the name of our risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.