It's a significant milestone at the Johnson house. Our oldest daughter graduated from high school last night. At the small Christian school she attends, there were just five in her graduating class...all girls. Needless to say, the programs for the service and the decorations for the party afterward leaned strongly toward the pink.
These are five amazing young women. Their commitment to Christ at age 18 far supersedes where I think I was at 30. So in praying about what to say to them, I felt strongly that God was leading me to affirm the radical faith they have thus far demonstrated...and to encourage them not to settle for the milquetoast Christianity of the generations before them (read: their parents). While I didn't come right out and say "don't listen to your parents," I came pretty close.
Anyway, if you have 10 minutes to kill, I invite you to read what was spoken over the class of 2010 at Johnson Ferry last night...
Independent Studies at Johnson Ferry Commencement Address
I want to start by saying congratulations to the five of you. On behalf of your teachers and parents and friends, I want to let you know how very proud we are of you.
God is an amazing storyteller. The Bible is, at its basic level, a wonderful series of stories. God tells a great story, concludes it, and then picks up and tells another story.
The thread that connects all the stories is Himself…working in and through the lives of those who love Him, all for His glory.
David and Goliath? Noah and the Ark? Moses and the Red Sea crossing? The story of Esther?
What makes these stories great is that they, like most of our favorite Bible stories, share some common elements:
1. A normal person who is given a clear calling by God; usually to something that is far beyond their skills and capabilities.
2. Some very risky and often overwhelming circumstances.
3. Our big God showing up in a big way (again, all for His own glory).
But here’s the deal about the stories that God is telling:
Some people believe that God told those kinds of stories in the Bible, but that somewhere along the way, He stopped being that kind of storyteller. The stories are inspirational. They can even encourage us in our journey. But God doesn’t work that way anymore.
But others believe that God, this master storyteller, still wants to tell those kinds of stories. And He wants to tell them through you. The last time I checked, He hasn’t changed. Hebrews 13:8 says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Sadly, what I think has changed is us, and our willingness to trust God to do something big with our lives.
So today, in honor of your graduation, I want to challenge you to live a life of great courage and great faith. And to tell a great story with your life. Because we have a great big God. But to do so may mean rejecting the bland faith of those who have come before you. Because, to be quite honest, your parent’s generation hasn’t done a very good job of taking risks in our pursuit of God.
I was talking to a young pastor just this week, and he articulated very clearly the differences in several generations of Christians who are in the church today.
Many of your grandparents grew up in a world where it was the cultural norm for people to go to church. It was simply what good people did.
Your parents’ generation (my generation) saw a polarization of culture where many chose to reject a Biblical world view. But those who stuck around saw a huge resurgence of sound Biblical teaching. We developed a renewed love and passion for the scriptures. But for many of us, it stopped there. We learned a lot, but we held onto our American right to pursue the American dream a bit too tightly, so it has been hard for us to truly follow Christ with abandon. In a nutshell, we’re afraid that if we completely yield our lives to Christ, the first thing He will do is send us to Africa. And that scares us to death.
But ladies, I’m so very encouraged by your generation. I sense that God is on the verge of doing something incredible through you. And it’s not because He has changed; it’s because you have offered Him a true sense of surrender; to do whatever He asks with your lives. Like your parents’ generation, you want to know His word. But you’re willing to take it a step farther: to truly do and be what it says. You want Him to tell a great story through you.
There’s a great story found in Daniel 3. It captures the spirit…the courage… the tenacity of what I want to challenge you in today.
During the Babylonian exile, God placed a few young Jews in a strategic position, close to King Nebuchadnezzar. There was Daniel, of course, but there was also Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
You all know the story. The king crafts a giant gold statue and demands that everybody bow down and worship it. And everybody did.
"Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up."
Note that everybody worshiped it. I’ve got to assume that in the midst of the crowd were some other Jews not named Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Which illustrates a key point, even for us today:
You can’t use the tendencies of the people around you as the standard for what it means to be devoted to God.
Because today, our tendency in the church is to rely on ourselves and not on God. We reason that, unlike the people of old, we have systems in place to manage our lives. We don’t need faith like they had.
*So, instead of “seeking first the kingdom of God” and trusting Him to provide for us day by day, we seek first to be fully vested in our retirement funds and hope that the Social Security system won’t be bankrupt by the time we get old.
*Instead of “denying ourselves and taking up our cross to follow Christ,” we deny ourselves of nothing and take up a mortgage on a nice house in the suburbs.
*Instead of having a life that is devoted to do whatever it takes to build the kingdom, we look first and foremost to build our own kingdom, all the while faithfully giving our 10% tip to God and hoarding the rest for ourselves.
I am ashamed to say that too many of us from the generations that have come before you would have been on our knees in front of Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. Not really worshiping it, but not courageous enough to stand up and say “NO.” They compromised then and we compromise now. But not our three young heroes.
You know how the story goes. They refuse to bow. Some guys tattle on them. They get brought before the king. And this is where the king makes it very clear: “If you do not bow down, I’m going to cook you in an enormous barbecue.” And here’s what they say:
"O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."
I love their boldness; their tenacity. They trusted God enough to do what was right, in spite of everything being stacked against them. And you know how the story ends. God rescues them, the King repents, and God gets the credit. This is the kind of life of courage that God is calling you ladies into. Don’t settle for anything less.
Based upon what we see in Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, I want to leave you with a few specific things to consider as you move into the next stage of your lives.
1. I think that these guys had confidence in God because they had encountered God. They didn’t just know about Him. They knew Him personally. Nothing will drive your faith and your devotion to Christ like experiencing Him personally. I know that you guys get that. And I pray that you make personal worship and prayer and study and daily encounters with God a regular part of your lives. It will make standing up for Him so much easier. Many of your peers will fall at college, mainly because they have grown dependant on a church and not on God. Don’t make that mistake.
2. The people around you may tell you that a part of growing up and being an adult is to settle down and stop dreaming. “Yes, you can take a mission trip for a few weeks in the summer, but moving to Asia to teach and share the gospel is not for you. You need to focus on a career where you can make a good living. You need to start being responsible.” Don’t listen to people who want to undermine the calling God has on your life. Remember the kind of stories He wants to tell. Believe that He wants to tell one through you.
3. Things may not always turn out the way you hope.Verse 18 in the story is one of my favorite passages of scripture. "...he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." They expressed their confidence in God, even if He didn't show up like they hoped. In your life, as you follow christ, things might not turn out just like you plan. If things don't, the people around you might say, "See...you were out of God's will. He didn't bless it." While that can sometimes be the case, many times our obedience to God is simply that: a test of our obedience. We must trust God with the results and then look for what He has next for us.
4. A final truth is that God will walk through the furnace with you. When things are difficult and challenging and your faith is waning, He promises to be there for you. A whole world of possibilities lies before you ladies, but there will probably be some discouraging times ahead. In those times, remember that you are never, ever alone.
He will be with you in the classroom at college.
He will walk with you as you care for the lonely and homeless in the inner city.
He will go before you as you minister to the hurt and broken in a distant land.
He will empower you to teach God’s hope to children who don’t have much else to hope in.
He will fill your homes with His presence, one day making your marriages and your families a resting place for His glory.
Ladies, let God tell an incredible story with your lives. Don’t settle for boring. Or typical. And most importantly don’t settle for safe. Our God is anything but safe. Don’t fill your lives with things that you can handle on your own. Choose some pursuits that, if God doesn’t show up, they will fail miserably. Live your lives with courage and faith that God can and will use you to do great things for Him and through Him.
And again, know that we are so very proud of you. We can’t wait to see all that the Father has in store for you!