Last Words: Only God Makes it Grow
Topic: Topical Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:1–3:23
First of all, this morning, I want to say a very deep and sincere thank you to all of you for the incredible outpouring of prayer support and love which we have received from you during these weeks. To hear of your prayers in the services during the last two Fridays, the special prayer service during what was supposed to be our farewell event, the prayer quilt, the 24 hour prayer chain, and those who have sent messages telling us that you have been fasting and praying for us. It has been deeply humbling and given us the strength we needed to face the challenges.
I am not going to pretend. These have been difficult and painful weeks. And the challenges are not over. I will give you just a brief overview of what has happened and what we are still facing. As we have told you, my disease is called Multiple Myeloma. It is a cancer of the blood marrow which attacks the bones by producing too many plasma cells. In my case it was identified at the base of my spine where it has weakened the bones and created a soft tissue mass which is pressing against the nerves which is causing the pain.
For the last 2 weeks I have been in the Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, receiving daily radiation treatments to destroy this tissue mass and thus relieve the pain and restore my mobility. My ability to be with you today is a testimony to answered prayer and the fact that the treatment is having the desired effect. I was discharged from the hospital yesterday, and I will go back for one last radiation treatment on Sunday. The doctors say I should continue to see improvement in the days ahead as the tissue mass continues to dissolve. That is step #1.
The second phase of treatment involves attacking the cancer itself. While the medical field does not claim the ability to cure the disease, there are several ways to put it into remission, slow it down or lessen the damage it does. The initial treatment involves four 3-week cycles of drugs and shots. I have already completed one cycle and the second cycle will begin next week after the radiation is complete. Lord willing, there won’t be too many side effects from these and I will be at home, resting, allowing the treatment to do its work.
Our plan is to remain in UAE until the end of January, when this initial cycle of treatments is complete and an assessment is reached as to the next step. That is when we will face some critical decisions. There are two basic paths to consider. One is a more drastic procedure call “stem cell transplant” to achieve remission for an indefinite period of time. The other is to simply continue to battle back the cancer with a varying combination of the cancer fighting drugs. Both alternatives have some significant pros and cons. The stem cell transplant treatment is not available in the UAE so we would be moving and transferring my care back to the US at that time.
So we would ask for you to continue to pray, for my soon to return to full mobility and normal functioning, for my body’s response to the chemo treatment, and then for wisdom about the next steps of treatment that we should take. Of course, through it all we pray for God’s intervention and for his will to be done in our lives, as I expressed in my sermon on October 30.
There is a portion of Scripture that the Lord has brought back to my mind during this time. It is found in the Book of Ecclesiastes; one of the wisdom books of the Old Testament.
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?
14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
When I sat across the desk from the doctor back in October and he told me I had cancer, my life got bent. It was hard to take it in, to absorb it. It was a life-altering moment. I was on one path, pursuing one plan, and suddenly, without warning, it had all changed and I was on another path, facing an uncertain and frightening set of challenges and circumstances.
It was what the writer of Ecclesiastes refers to as a “day of adversity.” We all have them; these days of adversity. They vary from the petty and temporary annoyances of life to the life-shattering, life-altering, “nothing will ever be the same again” days. A day when what is bent cannot be straightened.
In the day of adversity, the writer of Ecclesiastes invites us to consider and contemplate the sovereignty of God. Every day that comes into our lives, every circumstance we face, comes to us within the sovereign plan and purpose of God.
Consider the work of God… This is no accident or random circumstance I am facing. This is a work of God. He is sovereign over my cancer.
Who can make straight what he has made crooked. The life I had planned was bent and twisted when the doctor told me I had cancer. But the bending was not random or circumstantial or meaningless. It is part of the work of God. God is in it.
He spells it out even more clearly:
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
The first part of that is easy to obey, isn’t it? In the day of prosperity be joyful. By God’s grace, we do experience many days of prosperity. We should relish and enjoy those days and be joyful, receiving them as precious gifts from our heavenly Father. I have experienced many such days from the Lord. And I expect and look forward to many more.
The second part is where the challenge comes: in the day of adversity, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.
I am not going to try to resolve the ancient paradoxes of suffering and pain and whether God causes them or permits them and how this all relates to Satan and his attacks on God’s people, and the discipline of the Lord. The subject is too big and too complex.
But I do want to affirm the clear declaration of this Scripture – that “days of adversity” are part of the sovereign plan of God. God has made the one as well as the other.
That is a reality that I must come to grips with if I am to respond correctly to the “bending of my life.”
When we consider this reality, what do we discover?
so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
We discover that God is still God and we are not. That is the fundamental reality of the universe. God is God. We are not. God is sovereign. We are not. We can plan and work and arrange things as much as we want and at the end of the day, God is in control. We can only live one day at a time because we do not know what the next day will bring. If it brings prosperity, we will rejoice. If it brings adversity…we must acknowledge that God is still sovereign over all things.
It is in the facing of God’s sovereignty in the days of adversity that our faith will find its sternest test. I am reminded of the story of Job. I preached a short 3-part message on Job last year. God has been reminding me of those messages during this time. But the contrast that sets it up most clearly for me is the exchange between Job and his wife after they have lost virtually everything. In facing their losses in light of the sovereignty of God, they choose two different paths.
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
They both wrestled with the reality of God’s sovereignty in the day of adversity. One chose blasphemy in the midst of her pain. Job chose faith. It was the faith to accept loss and pain as part of the sovereign plan of God.
This is the struggle in which I am engaged. It is not a passive struggle, but an active one. It challenges me to the deepest core of my being. Is God sovereign? Can he be trusted? Can I maintain faith even in the middle of the night when the pain comes and there isn’t anyone else around?
In the midst of the struggle and the doubts and the questions and the pain, I have made a choice. It is a choice characterized by the theme of my message 4 weeks ago. Trust. “Hang confidently on Yahweh, Yahweh, Yahweh, the eternal Rock.”
In this struggle, God has added another word, also in the form of a command. It is a kind of corollary to “trust”. It is the word “wait”. Trust alone may sometimes seem to slip into almost a kind of passive resignation. But waiting (along with trust) keeps hope alive – that God has a good purpose in mind. And it is a good purpose in this life as well as in eternity.
The Psalms are full of the command to wait. Psalm 27:13-14
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living!
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
I do not know what my future holds. I know that it holds things that I did not expect. God is God. I am not. And that’s OK. Because I trust in God. My life will be different than I expected. And that’s OK, because I trust in God.
Many of you have written to say that you are praying for a miracle and for healing. My presence today is a testimony to the power of those prayers. I thank you for those prayers. But listen carefully when I say to you these words of testimony: “I believe in miracles. But I trust in God.”
I believe in miracles and in the sovereign power of God which is his to display whenever it suits his purposes. But much deeper than my belief in miracles is my trust in God, and in his wisdom and love and compassion and mercy and in his plan to display his glory.
And so I trust and so I wait. And I invite you to join me in the trusting and in the waiting – in my faith challenges, as well as the very real faith challenges that you are facing as well.
In the day of prosperity, be joyful. In the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other.
And until we have learned to accept them both as coming from the hand of our Sovereign and loving Father, we have not yet learned what it means to trust in the Lord.
Well, that is enough about me. To draw a line under this part of the message and the service, I want to ask Pastor Kevin to come and pray for me and for all of you in the congregation who facing your own personal day of adversity.
This is a significant shift in gears. November 22 (last Sunday) was the official date of retirement that I gave in my official notice of retirement to the Church Board. So I am now a retired pastor. Pastor Kevin is now your pastor, giving guidance to the church along with the Church Board during this interim period. But grace has been given in light of circumstances to give two more messages. I will give one of them today, and then, Lord willing, preach one more time nearer my actual date of departure sometime in January.
This was intended to be the second of three “last words” sermons here at ECC. My first “last word” I preached on November 6: The “last word” in that sermon was, “It is God who works in you.” Taken from Philippians 2:13, Paul urges the Philippian church to go on to maturity, not depending on him or waiting for him, but in his absence even more than in his presence to “work out your own salvation” because “it is God who works in you” and his divine enabling is all that they need to go on in the work to which God was calling them.
In this second “last word”, I have blended together two phrase taken from 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: Only God makes it grow.
By God’s sovereign timing and plan, I actually have a dual purpose in this message. Not only is it a challenge to ECC during this time of leadership transition. But during this service, we have also commissioned members of our ECC family who will be leaving ECC to join Pastor Steve in planting a new congregation in Musaffah/MBZ area of our city. These “last words” are for you as well as you undertake this new work for the kingdom of God.
The passage I have chosen is 1 Corinthians 3. I am not going to attempt a full exposition of the passage, but to do some cherry picking of some key ideas and themes. First of all, let me set the context for the passage I have chosen. Paul is addressing a problem of division or strife within the church, and this strife has arisen around leadership loyalty. People were picking sides and favorites. Some were saying, “I am of Paul,” and others, “I am of Apollos.”
That is the basic issue that Paul is addressing in this passage. But that’s not what I want to focus on this morning. As Paul tries to unravel this problem of jealousy and competition over his own and Apollos’ leadership, he gives us very valuable insight into Paul’s view of ministry and service to Christ. I want to highlight 3 word pictures Paul uses to capture his thoughts.
He pictures himself in the role of a servant, a farm worker and a builder.
That is how Paul saw himself. But in understanding his role, or roles, Paul had a firm grasp of a larger truth, a greater reality. Paul understood God’s role. Because at the end of the day, each of Paul’s roles, each of the roles of Christian ministry, are derived from or based on the reality of God and only God.
We are servants, because God is the Master. We are farm workers, but God is the farmer or the farm owner. We are builders, but God is the One who builds and then inhabits the building.
It is God and only God. The primacy and centrality of God in the church and in the work of the kingdom is expressed clearly in verse 9: For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.
Paul uses this reality to give perspective to the silly competition between human leaders back in verses 5-7:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
This is the fundamental truth that I want to communicate in this second “last words” sermon. It is God and only God who makes things grow. Growth, true growth in the kingdom of God has one and only one source. And that is God. Apart from him, all human effort is exactly that – just human effort. I am reminded of other Scriptures. Psalm 27:1-2 says it this way:
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
I am reminded of Jesus’ words as he expounded the relationship between the Vine and the branches in John 15:4-5:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
This we must always keep in the forefront of our minds. This is God’s kingdom. This is his field. His building. And only he can make it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
When I stand back and look at what God has done in Abu Dhabi, in ECC, in this Center from a time perspective of 25 years, I can only marvel and say, “Only God could have done this…” When I think of the challenges faced, the prayers uttered and answered, and the many times that God opened doors and made provision even before we asked, I say “Only God…”
I have a confession to make to you. I am not a person of great or grand vision. I am more of a plodder, take one step at a time, solve one problem at a time kind of person. I have a vivid memory of a conversation I had shortly after coming to Abu Dhabi. We were meeting at what we used to call the TEAM Center, a nondescript collection of 3 buildings. We had two chapels; the largest one seated 120 people, the other one upstairs another 100. We had around 90 people attending ECC at the time, and 9 other congregations sharing the building. And I was standing talking with Carl Sherbeck, the man who started ECC and the Arabic Church. We were discussing what to do if the congregation grew. Here was my grand strategy: I said, “Maybe we could knock out that wall, and extend the chapel into the courtyard – we would probably fit in another 50 chairs that way.” That was Cam Arensen, “thinking big”.
Within weeks of that conversation – God inaugurated a series of events that led us to the property where we are today. Only God…
I also remember the day we occupied the new building, the first building on this property, back in 1994. I thought we were thinking big when we planned a building with a chapel for 350 with additional overflow space. When we moved in, it seemed so spacious, so luxurious. This was above and beyond anything I had expected when we moved to Abu Dhabi. A congregation of 300 plus people, coming and going at this crossroads of the world, making disciples for Christ. That was the size of my vision.
Today, whenever I drive up to this building we occupy today, I can only look up at it in awe and say to myself, “Only God…”
And then to enter this building, to see this beautiful chapel filled twice on Friday mornings with people sitting in the overflow chapel during the second service – well over 1000 people a week with full children’s and youth classes going on at the same time – and compare it to the size of my original vision, I say to myself, “Only God…”
And then, drop by on a Friday afternoon, when it’s standing room only in the courtyard, with church congregations from multiple nationalities, fellowshipping together, waiting for their turn to worship – 65 congregations throughout the week. I say to myself, “Only God could do this. Only God can make it grow.”
Then I think of what God has done going out from this center and from ECC. I remember a man from India, working here in Abu Dhabi, cleaning houses to support his family back home. A man short in stature but with a big heart for God and his kingdom. To watch God use ECC to send him back to India for theological training and then encourage him in the ministry to his home area in Andra Pradesh – and then to visit Pastor Mohan and his son Pastor Moses today and see the network of churches planted, a school serving hundreds of students and an orphanage. I can only shake my head and marvel and say, “Only God…”
And another very similar story repeated with Pastor Kumar after long years in Abu Dhabi working at Modern Bakery for a minimum wage – but sensing God’s call to the ministry back home and now leading a thriving church planning ministry in unreached villages around Bellary, India. “Only God…”
Then a few years ago, the vision for a church “off the island” began to take root. And “the church at the zoo” had its first meetings and now is a thriving congregation of over 200 under the capable leadership of Pastor Matthew, a calling in his life that began with an almost coincidental visit to ECC during a vacation in Abu Dhabi. “Only God…”
Today we commission some of our members to begin a new work, a new church. What does God have in mind for Grace Church? I am excited to hear in days ahead of how God is using Grace Church to expand his kingdom and to bring people to Christ. And it will grow because God will make it grow. Only God…
And so we look to the future. What does God have in mind? What is his plan? What is he going to do next? What is he going to build? Human leaders come and go. Carl Sherbeck planted, I have watered, others will plant, water and build. But at the end of the day, it is “only God.” So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
This is the fundamental reality and perspective that I want to convey in this second “last words” message. But even as I say that, I cannot help but recognize the place of great privilege and great responsibility that lies upon us who would engage in God’s kingdom work. These privileges and responsibilities are conveyed in the word pictures Paul uses, and I want to unpack them in some more detail.
Covering them all is this summary in verse 9: For we are God's fellow workers. Yes, it is God’s field. It is his building. It is his kingdom. Only he can make it grow. But he invites us to join him in the work, to work alongside of him; to be his fellow workers. It is truly an awesome privilege. And with the privilege comes certain responsibilities as pictured in these three images.
As servants, we are to serve under the Master’s authority and according to his assignment.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered,
We are people under authority. We are to serve and to do what the Master asks of us: “as the Lord assigned to each.” Our responsibility is to carry out the task. Obedience, faithfulness and humility are the marks of the servant. Agents of the Master. It is his work. He assigns the tasks and we each must do our assigned part.
This is where the image of the servant and the image of the farm worker come together so beautifully.
As farm workers, there is a diversity of roles in kingdom work.
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. There is lots of work to do on a farm. Not everyone has the same job or even the same opportunities. Some are given the job of planting. Others are given the job of watering. If we wanted to expand the analogy, we might say that some are given the job of weeding, or pruning, or harvesting.
If we combine the analogy of the servant with the farm worker, the farm worker reports for duty and says: What do you want me to do today? As a servant on this farm, do you want me to prepare soil, to plant, to water, to weed, to prune, to harvest? Some of us may be better at some tasks than others. But we must all do our part.
Paul’s third picture is that of a builder.
Paul actually makes several applications from this picture, but I only have time to highlight one:
As builders, we must build on the right foundation.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 3:10-11)
Christ, the Gospel and the message of salvation in Christ is the only true foundation we can lay and upon which we can build. There are many good things that a church can get involved in doing. But the foundation must always be Jesus Christ crucified. My deepest heart cry for ECC in days ahead and for Grace Church in your beginnings; a foundation has been laid down. That foundation is Christ. Do not depart from that. Do not depart from him. Keep cross-centered, Gospel-centered, Christ-centered ministry as the foundation for every strategy, every decision and every ministry in which you engage.
A church like ours is made up of people coming from many different backgrounds and often with doctrinal differences on various points of theology. During my time as pastor, I have sought to foster an attitude of tolerance and openness and inclusiveness. But we cannot compromise on the foundation. There is only one foundation. His name is Jesus.
So, it is God’s work. It is his field. It is his building. Only God can make it grow. When we have the chance to step back on a sweep of ministry such as I have enjoyed over a period of 25 years, it becomes so very clear that it is “only God…” who could have done this. And only God who can take the work forward and make it grow.
But God graciously opens his workroom and invites us inside. He invites us to join him in the work and to be “fellow workers” with him. And it isn’t just “busy work” to make us feel useful. It is real work, with real consequences, real outcomes, real fruit. Only God can make it grow, but as servants, we can obey. We can do our part, whether that is planting or watering, or weeding, or harvesting. We must take great care to build on the right foundation, which is Christ.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
And yet, while we are not “anything” in significance compared to God who gives the growth, nonetheless we are something, and that something is of great value and significance in God’s sight:
Only God…And we are God’s fellow-workers.
As I close my message today, in my final official act as pastor of ECC I want to perform a symbolic act.
I am wearing my sandals today. Partly it’s because they are easy to take off and put on. But I also wanted to show them off. These are my favorite sandals. They are made in Africa, like me and they are made out of tire treads. You can’t really wear them out.
I want to say something clearly today. These are my sandals. I am taking them with me. I am not leaving them behind for anyone else to fill. I am going to need them. I think there may be some tread left on the old tires yet.
The other reason that I am not leaving my sandals behind is because Pastor Kevin and Pastor Jeramie and other leaders who will follow me – they have their own sandals, their own shoes, They don’t need mine. I have played my role, I have finished my part of the race. Now it is time for others to take the work forward in their own way with their own unique gifting and style of ministry.
But I do have something to pass on. I know some of you would call this a “baton” (Br. pronounciation) but since I am an American, I call it a “baton” (Am. pronounciation).
This baton has a simple command on it. PREACH THE WORD.
I only have one baton to pass on. I am going to pass it symbolically to Pastor Kevin, but I am also passing it on to Pastor Steve for Grace Church. In time, it will be passed to others. But even more than that, I am passing this baton on to every member of ECC, whether we preach from the pulpit or with our witness throughout the week, passing the true life of Christ on to a thirsty world.
I shared my idea of passing the baton with a former church member who visited recently. She responded to me in an email by saying, Cam you have been passing the baton for 25 years. You must know how many of us have sat at your feet and were taught Gods word in a way that carried torches around the world.
She concluded with these words: I have my baton and I will pass it on.
And so, in a real sense, this baton is for all of you, God’s fellow workers.