Making the Past into the Future
Dr. Jim Denison
In the United States, the standard distance between the rails of railroad tracks is 4 feet 8.5 inches, and has been since the first railroads were built in this country more than 170 years ago. Why such an odd distance?
These first tracks were made by railroad pioneers from England, and that’s the distance between their rails. Why? Because the people who made the first railway cars were carriage makers, and the wheels on their carriages were 4 ft. 8.5 inches apart, so their manufacturing equipment was set up to make railway cars that wide.
Why were their carriages that wide? Because the dirt roads in England at the time had ruts that were 4 ft. 8.5 in. wide. Why were their ruts this wide? The original roads in England were laid out by the Romans after they conquered the country in Julius Caesar’s day. The Roman war chariots were 4 ft. 8.5 inches wide, so two war horses could be hitched to them side-by-side.
Now the story gets even more involved. You’ll remember seeing the launch of a space shuttle, and the two large round rockets strapped to its side to help blast it into space. These are the Solid Rocket Boosters, or SRBs. They are made at a plant in Utah, then shipped by rail to Cape Canaveral, where they are strapped to the shuttle.
Their manufacturer would like to make the SRBs bigger than they are, but there’s a problem: a railroad tunnel along the only feasible route to Florida. The tunnel is just a little bigger than the width of the railroad rails, and the rails are the width of two war horses’ rear ends.
So the size of the major booster rockets on the world’s most advanced transportation system is the result of ruts made by Romans twenty centuries ago. And that’s how the past affects the present, and the present affects the future.
We all want our lives to matter. We want to know that what we do today will have a legacy tomorrow. But there’s only one way to be guaranteed that your legacy will matter. We’ll discover it today.
What can God do with a life?
Isaiah 55 calls us worship in response to the grace of God (v. 1), and to submit our lives to the revelation of God (v. 11). When we do, when God’s worship and word accomplish their life-transforming purpose in us, here are the results.
You will experience the presence and purpose of God (v. 12a).
“You will go out.” The people are enslaved in Babylon, but not forever. They are in captivity today, but not tomorrow. They will be set free. So will you, when you worship God in gratitude for his grace, and obey the revelation of his word. Whatever traps you in despair, in discouragement, in hopelessness, will be broken. You will mount up on wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint, in the victory of God.
You will go out “in joy.” God’s joy is not that happiness which depends on happenings or happenstance, but a deep sense of well-being which transcends our circumstances. Whatever frustrates or hurts you today, you can “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). When you worship God and obey his word, you have his joy.
You will be “led forth”—God will guide your steps and make straight your paths. Whatever decision you’re facing, or confusion you’re feeling, he will “lead you in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
And you will be led forth “in peace.” No matter what conflicts you may face in your family, friendships, or future, you can experience God’s inner serenity which nothing and no person can steal from your heart. When you walk in God’s worship and God’s word, you have his peace.
Do you know today the victory, joy, leadership, and peace of God?
Others will see a difference in your life.
“The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (v. 12b).
God’s presence and peace in your life will be so obvious that the mountains and hills and trees will see it. People will notice it, even more than you do. Moses’ face shone when he came down from the mountain with God, though he did not know it. When the Jewish Sanhedrin put the apostles on trial, they “took note that they had been with Jesus.” When last did someone say that about you?
Others will be changed by the God who works in you.
“Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow” (v. 13a).
The thornbush and briers were worthless nuisance plants. They produced no edible food, and made cultivation difficult. The pine tree and myrtle, on the other hand, gave shade and beauty to this arid land.
God will remove the bad and grow the good. And as God changes us, he will change others through us. They will want what we have. They will see the Christ who lives in us. And that Christ will touch their hearts through ours.
With this result: “This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign which will not be destroyed” (v. 13b).
The Lord’s “renown” or glory will be advanced through us.
This legacy will be “an everlasting sign,” a permanent mark left on the history of humankind “which will not be destroyed.”
Here is how to leave a legacy, to make your life matter. Put it in God’s hands. Worship him each week and each day, in gratitude for his grace. Yield each day in obedience to his word and will. And he will use your life to change the world.
As you know, Dr. E. K. Bailey died this week. I know of no human being who more proves the promise of this text. His visionary leadership, prophetic preaching, scholarly mind, and humble heart were the result of a soul placed in the hands of its Father and King. God gave him his victory, joy, guidance and peace. Others were changed by the Christ we saw in him. When his cancer was first diagnosed, E. K. told his congregation, “You have heard me preach. Now you will watch me preach.” And we have.
How do we join the commission of God?
Now, who of us can be used like this? There are some conditions. First, we must believe that God can use us to change the world.
A popular fish these days is the Japanese Carp or Koi. These fish will grow proportionately to accommodate the size of their surroundings. In a fish bowl they grow to two or three inches. In a pond they grow to three or four feet. Have you limited God’s use of your life by the size of your faith in him? How small is your fishbowl?
The next time you think God cannot use you, remember that Abraham was too old; Jacob was a liar; Joseph was abused; Moses stuttered; Aaron was an idolater; Gideon was afraid; Rahab was a prostitute; David was a murdering adulterer; Elijah was depressed; Job went bankrupt; Jonah ran from God; John the Baptist ate locusts; the Samaritan woman was divorced, more than once; Zaccheus was too small; Peter denied Christ; the disciples fell asleep while praying; Timothy had an ulcer; and Lazarus was dead. Now, what’s your excuse?
God uses those who believe he can. Can he use you?
Second, live for a legacy.
More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville said of Americans, “It is an arduous undertaking to excite the enthusiasm of a democratic nation for any theory which does not have a visible, direct, and immediate bearing on the occupations of their daily lives.”
Live for the line, not the dot. The Bible reminds us, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). A baby knows only its mother’s womb until the day of its birth, when it emerges into a world it could not see or know.
One day you will step from time into eternity. On that day, only what you did for Christ will last. Only what you did for eternity will matter. And it will matter forever. God uses those who live for a legacy. Can he use you?
Third, declare your faith.
Lesslie Newbigin, bishop of the Church of South India, asserts: “When I say ‘I Believe,’ I am not merely describing an inward feeling or experience. I am affirming what I believe to be true, and therefore what is true for everyone. The test of my commitment to this belief will be that I am ready to publish it, to share it with others, and to invite their judgment and—if necessary—correction. If I refrain from this exercise, if I try to keep my belief as a private matter, it is not belief in the truth.”
Martin Luther changed the world when he told the persecuting authorities, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
Jesus told his followers, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14). Not “you will be” but “you are.” Your private faith is already public. Is your witness effective or damaging to God’s Kingdom? Do people see that you are proud of your God, or ashamed of him?
God uses those who will declare their faith. Can he use you?
And last, refuse to quit.
Col. Laird Gunnert was a POW in Vietnam, beaten and tortured mercilessly. Between “interrogations,” he was forced to kneel for hours at a time. One day, Gunnert’s Vietcong captors took him to an interrogation room he had not seen before. This time his beating was especially severe. He crumpled to the floor in a broken heap, and lay there in excruciating pain, too exhausted and battered to lift his face from the dirt floor.
Opening his eyes, Col. Gunnert saw something on the wall, about four inches from the floor, right in front of his face. As his eyes focused, he saw that someone had scrawled in the dirt and mud, “Keep the faith, baby!” Then the Colonel knew he was not alone, and that the faith was enough. And it was.
It’s always too soon to quit. Who or what is tempting you to give up today? You may fail, but you’re not a failure. 366 times the Lord tells his people “Fear not.”
The Bible promises you: “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). God can use anyone who will not quit being used. Can he use you?
We worship a holy God who is also forgiving of our sins. He is powerful, but also loving and gracious. He reveals himself to us, and then invites us to share his revelation with his world. He is a commissioning God, calling us to share his mission, to join his cause, to serve his Kingdom.
And so each week we respond to worship with commitment and service. We make public our faith on Sunday through the invitation and offering, through our baptism and parental dedication, through our singing and our ministry to each other.
Then we measure Sunday by Monday. The measure of your authentic worship today is your authentic ministry tomorrow. A tree is measured by its fruit, a farm by its produce, a factory by its products.
Changed people must change the world. They must serve their King and his Kingdom. Worship must become work; salvation must become service. What will you do tomorrow, because you were here today? Where is the Lord commissioning you?
On May 29, 1939, a group of Baptists from the Park Cities met at the City Hall of University Park to discuss organizing a church in this area of the city. They left with this question burning in their hearts: “Are you willing to enter this open door of opportunity through which the Lord is leading? Go to your homes, think it over, pray it through, and with the courageous spirit of Caleb and Joshua say, ‘If the Lord delight in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us. Let us go up at once and possess it, for we are well able to overcome it.'”
They responded to the commission of God. That small group divided up the telephone directory and called every family in the Park Cities, an area which was home to 15,000 people. They worked through the summer. Then they came together on October 26, 1939, 64 years ago today, gathering in the City Hall of University Park. Without a pastor, without any founding churches or organizations, without any financial support except their own, they birthed Park Cities Baptist Church.
From the first, their new church would exist to serve the Savior and build his Kingdom. In their first worship service they received an offering for missions. In the last 25 years, our church has contributed more than $35 million to the cause of world missions; $2,302,920 was given just last year to advance the mission of our King around the world. And our people are found serving the Kingdom each day and each week across Dallas, and travel each year around the world with the good news of his love.
Why has God so blessed Park Cities Baptist Church? Because we have answered his commission. We have joined his mission. We have partnered with our King in his Kingdom. Now, will our past become our future?