Get Ready, Get Set... Back to all sermons

Date: August 29, 2014

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Category: Change

Scripture: Jeremiah 1:1–52:34

Tags: crossroads, New Year, choices, resolutions

Synopsis: On the threshold of a new school and church ministry year, Pastor Cam shares three word pictures from the Book of Jeremiah as we Get Ready, Get Set… for the challenges the new year will bring.

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It is good to be back with you today. Esther Ruth and I have had a full and eventful summer in the US. A quick review of our time revealed the following: driving over 8000 kilometers, sleeping in 25 different beds, one broken foot, one sprained wrist, a shared case of food poisoning, as well as great visits with family and friends, and some good opportunities to share in different churches some of what God is doing here in Abu Dhabi.

Adding it all up, we are thankful for a good summer, but it feels good to be back home and in our own bed. And now it is time to focus on the challenges of the year ahead.

The beginning of a new school and ministry year is always a good excuse to pause for a time of reflection, for taking stock. And I recognize that this may be new in a number of different ways. You may be new to Abu Dhabi, starting out in a new (and strange-feeling) place, in a new home, new job, new community, making new friends – everything new!

It may be new in the sense that you are starting a new year in school, with new classes, new teachers (or new students), new opportunities. I remember when I was in school that the start of a new school year was always a bit of a nervous time for me. But I also liked it, because it was like starting with clean slate.
Maybe you are a veteran of life in Abu Dhabi – even so, September still offers a chance to push the re-set button; to take on new challenges or do things differently, or even just to take the time to confirm that you are on the course you want to be on.

When I was a boy growing up with my brothers, we were always challenging each other to races of one kind or another. We always started with the well-known words: Get ready! Get set! And then, “Go!” I like that image at the beginning of another year of ministry. My message this morning is entitled: Get Ready, Get Set…
To help us do that, I want to offer you three word pictures from the book of Jeremiah. I tend to think in pictures, and these particular word pictures will help us focus our reflections and give us a clear perspective on the choices we face as we enter this new school and ministry year, as individuals, as families, and as a church and faith community.

The first word picture is found in Jeremiah 6:16:

Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.

The New International Version translates this verse: “Stand at the crossroads.” So I have titled this first word picture as Standing at the Crossroads.

This is a good image for what we need to do at the beginning of this new ministry year.

The word “crossroads” in Hebrew simply means “the ways”, or as the ESV translates, “the roads”. It is a place of multiple roads and paths, hence a place where paths converge. It is a place of choices and alternatives. We face choices and alternatives in this new year. How will we invest our time and energies? What will we focus on? Where will our priorities lie? What changes do we want to make from last year?
As we stand at the crossroads, the Lord speaks to us and he gives us four commands. Four things we are to do at the crossroads. First, He tells us to stand. The word “stand” can also be translated “stop.” Pause. Stand still. Take some time. Don’t just rush through this intersection thoughtlessly. Don’t be in such a rush and such a hurry that you miss the opportunities that the crossroads present. So many of us seem to live our lives at such a fast pace, rushing from one thing to the next, never pausing to take stock, to contemplate, to weigh our choices and the implications. I want to encourage all of us to take some time to stop and stand at the crossroads.

But that isn’t all the Lord tells us to do. He also tells us to look. Now, what should we look for at the crossroads? We look for signs, clues, markers that tell you about the destinations of the different roads. You look for information that will help you decide which way to go. “If I stay on this road I’m on, where will I end up? If I turn here, where will this road take me? If I turn that way, where will the path lead me?” There is a simple maxim of human behavior, all too often ignored. When we choose a path, we also choose a destination. So before choosing a path – we need to look and see where the path ends up.

If you cannot see far enough down any of the paths to make a good decision, what else can we do? The Lord tells us to ask. Ask! There is often a running battle between men and women on this one, isn’t there? Typically men don’t like to ask directions. Women are often quick to want to stop and ask for directions. Men would rather try to figure things out for themselves – even if it takes twice as long.

But here it is the Lord himself who tells us to ask. And he even tells us what we should ask for. Ask for the ancient paths. The word “ancient” here means more than old. It can also be translated “eternal.” That which will last. The timeless, time-tested paths that the saints of all ages have walked.

We live in a time and an age that always wants to try the newest thing, the latest fad, the most recent innovation and improvement. That may be OK when it comes to technology. But it is a disastrous strategy when it comes to moral and spiritual values. In the things that really matter, it is the ancient and eternal paths we need to find and follow. We sang it a little while ago, didn’t we? “Ancient Words!” These ancient and eternal paths are linked in parallelism of the passage in the next line with “the good way.” This implies both a good destination, as well as good traveling conditions.

So, on the threshold of this new year, let me encourage you to spend some time asking after the ancient paths. Then compare the pattern of your life, your choices, to those ancient, eternal, good paths. And when we have discerned those eternal paths, the Lord has one more command for us. He tell us to walk in it. This is not just a theoretical study. Sometimes, those of us who embrace evangelical doctrine can become really good at theory. We have Bibles studies coming out our ears! But we can be weak on application. It’s not enough to just know the truth. We have to live it! Walk in that good way. If you do that, God says, you will find rest for your souls.

So the first picture for this new year is standing at the crossroads, looking, asking after the ancient paths and the good way, with the intention of walking in that good way.

That brings us to the next word picture as you ponder your choices in this new school and ministry year. This one is found in Jeremiah 2:13:

for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.

This word picture is actually a contrast of images: A Spring of Living Water or a Broken Cistern. The contrast is stark, isn’t it? On the one hand there is a spring of water, flowing pure and clear from the ground: a perpetual source of cool, refreshing water to quench our deepest thirst. And we don’t have to do anything but stay close and drink deeply and often.

But now the contrast. To walk away from that spring. To take a shovel and begin to dig and build your own cistern. And then to painstakingly try to fill that cistern with water; bucket after bucket. Only to discover that no matter how many buckets you pour in, your cistern never fills up. As soon as you turn your back, the water drains out, because the cistern is cracked. It’s broken. It leaks. It can’t hold water!

That is the contrast that Jeremiah uses to describe Judah’s choice. He has just been describing their descent into idolatry in verses 9-11:

“Therefore I still contend with you,
declares the Lord,
and with your children's children I will contend.
10 For cross to the coasts of Cyprus and see,
or send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for that which does not profit.

Today, most of us don’t bow down to gods of wood and stone, gods we have crafted with our own hands. Or do we? An idol can be defined as anything that takes the place of God in our lives; any object of trust or allegiance or love that usurps the trust, allegiance or love that belongs to God and God alone. When we define idols this way, we quickly find that Abu Dhabi is full of them. It might be money, or business success, pleasure, hobbies, relationships. We use such things to fill our lives and give them meaning, meanwhile leaving God out or relegating him to an insignificant or irrelevant place.

Doing that is like trying to fill a broken cistern. Bucket after bucket of money, success, pleasure or popularity may go into our cistern, but the cistern never fills up. It’s broken, cracked. And we are always left with the same gnawing emptiness, always craving more. Only God can truly satisfy the deepest longing of our souls. He is the fountain of living water.

Let me tell you about a pattern that I have discerned during my years here in Abu Dhabi. This relates to all of us, but especially to those of you who are new to the UAE. Our biggest attendance numbers always occur in September and October – the beginning of a new school year. We get lots of visitors – people who are new to Abu Dhabi and are looking for a church, looking for a place to connect. There is lots of enthusiasm in the beginning. But then something happens. Sometimes, the people who were most enthusiastic at the beginning start disappearing. As they settle into life here, they find other things to occupy their time and attention. Later in the year, I meet them around town or bump into them in the mall. And they always act a bit embarrassed. “We’ve been really busy!” they say. “But we’ll be back in church soon!”

Life in Abu Dhabi offers lots of alluring choices. I hope you will enjoy your time here. But be very careful. Be careful that you are not forsaking the fountain of living water to dig your own cistern and to fill it with water that will never satisfy your soul’s real thirst.

The final word picture is another set of contrasting images. It is found in Jeremiah 17:5-8:

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8 He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

Here the choice is again a stark one: A Bush in the Desert or a Tree in the Oasis. This is another contrast for us to consider at the beginning of this new year. This is an image that makes good sense to those of us who live in Abu Dhabi. Drive out along any road out of town – toward Dubai, toward Al Ain, or even better yet, toward the Saudi border. As you get out beyond the irrigated areas, you come to the salt flats. These are not the picturesque desert dunes. These are just flat nothings, wastelands, blasted with sun and salt. Even here you will see the occasional bush. But you can’t even tell if it’s dead or alive. It is a picture of bare subsistence, of utter misery, just trying to hang on and survive until the next sparse rainfall which may come next year or the year after that.

This bleak picture is then contrasted to a tree in the oasis, planted by a falaj, with water carried daily to its roots by the careful farmer. It does not fear the heat of summer or even the years of drought. It does not depend on erratic rainfall. It has a perpetual stream from which to drink and then to flower and bear fruit.
What makes the difference in the two images and the two outcomes? The Lord spells it out very clearly. The bush in the desert is picture of the one who puts his trust in man and in human strength and ability, and turns away from the Lord. The tree in the oasis is a picture of the one who is trusting in the Lord and has put his confidence in him.

I want you to notice something important in these verses. It does not say that there will be no summer heat, no time of drought. In fact, it clearly says that the heat will come and the years of drought will come. But we don’t need to fear the heat or the drought, because our roots go deep into the soil beside this perennial stream. We will be able to bring forth green leaves and fruit in the hottest summer and in the midst of the severest drought. That is the man who puts his faith and confidence in God at all times.

What will this new school and ministry year? Will it be a hot year? Will it be a year of drought? If our hearts are fixed on God and our confidence is in him, it really doesn’t matter. We can thrive no matter what the year brings, because our confidence is not in our circumstance, or in our own strength, but in God who will give us his strength.

Where is your confidence and your trust this morning? Is it in yourself? Your own strength and ability? Your own resources? Or is it in the Lord?

I want to add this caution: Be careful before you answer too quickly. I would just point you to the following two verses in Jeremiah 17:9-10:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
10 “I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”

Let’s ask the Lord to search our hearts and minds, so that we can accurately answer this question. Where is our confidence and trust? Are we ready to withstand whatever conditions the year may bring forth? Will our faith bring us to the end of the year with leaves green and fruit flourishing?

So, on the brink of this new school and ministry year, I offer these three images for reflection as we “Get ready! Get set!”

STANDING AT THE CROSSROADS. Stop, take stock, weigh your direction of travel, ask for the ancient paths, choose the good way.

A SPRING OF LIVING WATER OR A BROKEN CISTERN. Which image do you want to characterize your life this year? Remember, only God can satisfy the longing of your soul. Only he can fill the emptiness inside. Don’t spend this year digging another cistern or trying to fill the broken ones you’ve dug before with more buckets of water. Drink deeply at the fountain of God’s love for you and the relationship he wants to have with you.

A BUSH IN THE DESERT OR A TREE IN THE OASIS. Not one of us knows what this year holds. Will it be difficult or easy? Will we prosper or struggle?

But if we place our trust and confidence in God and not in ourselves, we can be sure of this. We will be like a tree by the stream. Our leaves will remain green and we will bear fruit, no matter what the year may bring.
This summer, Esther Ruth and I kept up a pretty hectic pace. But we did set aside 5 days to go to a pastors’ retreat center in Northern California. It was an old restored house, set in a beautiful, isolated valley and surrounded by mountains. They only host 5 couples a week. There was no schedule, no demands. Just time to spend with each other and with the Lord.

One of the things I did that week was to memorize and meditate on Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my thoughts from afar.

Verse after verse, the psalmist reflects on the reality that God knows everything there is to know about him. Then he concludes the psalm with a prayer that goes like this:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me, and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Would you join me in praying that prayer?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Share highlights from your summer.
  2. Read Jeremiah 6:16. Reflect on the image of standing at a crossroads in light of a new school and ministry year. What paths/choices are facing in your life right now?
  3. As you think back to last year and then look ahead, what would you like to be different? What would you like to remain the same?
  4. Read Jeremiah 2:9-13. Reflect on the contrast between a spring of living waters and a broken cistern. Which one best describes your life? What are some of the buckets of water people use to try to fill their cisterns? What are some ways to stay close and drink from the fountain of living waters?
  5. Read Jeremiah 17:5-8. Reflect on the contrast between the bush in the desert and the tree by the stream. Which one do you want to describe your life in the coming year? What choices can you make to ensure that will happen?
  6. Pray together and for one another. Start with Psalm 139:23-24, and then use the language of each of the three images as you pray about the upcoming year.