Back when I was in high school, one popular evangelistic slogan was “God loves you and had a wonderful plan for your life.” There’s nothing wrong with this slogan - it’s true, and what it tells you you need to know. It helped me when I was a new believer to find courage when I was struggling with my faith. But, like all slogans, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t tell you all you need to know. Left to stand on its own, it’s subject to grotesque misinterpretation. So, as we come here today, I want to tell the graduates “God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life,” but I want to tell you some of what you need to know so that you won’t misinterpret this slogan and that you’ll get from it the benefit that you should.Let’s start by looking at the lives of some of the people God loved, and how His wonderful plan for their lives was worked out in practice. Take Abraham. God loved Abraham, so He told Abraham “Leave your family and go where I’ll show you.” Not a really explicit plan. No clear roadmap of where God was going to send Abraham, nor a timetable of when he was going to get there. God also told Abraham that He would make him a great nation. Decades later, Abraham came to God, still childless, to ask Him about this, so God said “Wait another decade and you’ll have a child of your own.” So this great nation that God was going to make of Abraham consisted of one child and the promise that His children would, after 400 years of slavery, finally become a large enough people to be called great. To put this in perspective, it would be like God telling Christopher Columbus that he had a wonderful plan for his life that he’d discover the continent that would one day be occupied by a great nation that would put a man on the moon. This is a wonderful plan, alright, but it’s on a much longer timetable than we are used to.
How about Joseph? God told Joseph in a series of dreams about His wonderful plan to put Joseph over his family so they would bow down to him. Subsequently, Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery, framed by his master’s wife with a charge of sexual harassment, put in prison, forgotten there by those he helped, then finally brought out of prison to interpret a dream of Pharoah’s after which Pharoah put Joseph in charge of Egypt and his family really did bow down to him. So Joseph’s plan worked out in the end as he dreamed, but getting there took him through some places he would never have wanted to go.Then there’s Moses. Raised in Pharoah’s court, provided the best education available in the most powerful country in that part of the world, Moses set out to rescue his people by killing a slave driver. When his step uncle (Pharoah) heard about it, Moses had to flee into the wilderness, and where he tended sheep, a job for which one would think he was somewhat overqualified. After forty years of watching the flocks of a Midianite priest, God shows up and tells Moses about His wonderful plan for his life. When Moses hears that God is sending him back to Egypt to liberate the Israelites, instead of saying “Finally! What took you so long?” Moses replies that he’s a stammering nobody and tells God to look for someone else. God gives Moses a staff that he can turn into a snake and Aaron as his spokesman and tells Moses to get moving, and Moses reluctantly sets out to be the greatest prophet and leader the nation of Israel would ever know.
God also had a wonderful plan for David, the man after His own heart. He started by telling Samuel to find David (who, like Moses, was tending sheep) and anoint him king. Samuel had some reservations about this, as there already was a king, namely Saul, and he thought that Saul might object. Sure enough, once David was anointed king, he rapidly became so popular that Saul became seriously paranoid and set out to try to kill David. David fled into the wilderness and lived in caves for the next several years, surrounded by a band of society’s outcasts. Narrowly evading several attempts by Saul to kill him, and refusing to return the favor and kill Saul when he had the chance, David finally was able to take the throne when both Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in battle. Even then, it took a few more years of civil war before Israel was united under David’s rule.Or how about Jesus, God’s beloved Son, with whom He was well pleased? God’s wonderful plan for Him was to be born into extreme poverty where He was pursued by another jealous king, namely Herod, grew up in obscurity, taught for three years, alienated almost all of the Jewish leadership, raised up a bunch of the most clueless disciples one could ever hope to find, was arrested, abandoned, tortured and brutally killed. Then He was raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father and rule forever.
And when Jesus appeared to Saul (later to be called Paul) on the road to Damascus, He had a wonderful plan for Saul’s life too. Jesus gave a hint of it to Ananias, a believer in Damascus whom He told “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Paul gives us an idea of just how much this was when he talks in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 about his
“imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”So if I came to you and told you “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” you might be excused if your response was “No! Anything but that!” And you’d be in good company too. Moses told God at one point that he was sick of leading the cantankerous, grumbling, ungrateful people God had given him. In one of the Psalms David told God essentially to get out of his life so he could know some peace. And even Jesus told God in Gethsemane that he really didn’t want to go through with the plan God had for Him.
But fortunately that’s not the whole story. Abraham did go through with God’s plan, and he had Isaac, and from him came the people Israel. Joseph went through with God’s plan, and rescued the Israelites when they were only a small clan from starvation and made a place where they could grow into a large nation. Moses went through with God’s plan and ldelivered Israel from slavery and led them through the wilderness right up to the entry to the Promised Land. David hung in there and became king of Israel and the progenitor of the line from whom Jesus would be born. Jesus went through with God’s plan, so we have a Savior. And Paul went through with God’s plan and brought the church into Europe and wrote a large chunk of the New Testament in the process. God’s plan for these people was wonderful; each one of them achieved milestones which prepared the way for those who followed and they set a foundation on which our faith is built today..So, as you look forward into a future that is at best fuzzy, what can we say with confidence about God’s plan for your lives? First,
- God’s plan will require courage. God’s plans for His people are not for the faint of heart. They will stretch us, perhaps hurt us, and will probably take us places we wouldn’t have gone had it been up to us. It’s one thing to read in the Bible that we should love our enemies, but something else to actually look at someone who has hurt us and wrestle through the challenge of forgiving them. It is one thing to read about the Macedonian church giving generously out of their poverty, another to find ourselves broke or unemployed and being asked by someone for financial help. Though the world may never see the struggle, walking faithfully on the road that God has called us to is going to ask more of us than we would ever have thought we could give, and there may well be times when we wish we dared to turn our back on the whole enterprise.
- God’s plan may take far longer to fulfill than we would expect. Abraham waited over thirty years for the son God promised. Joseph spent years in slavery and prison. Moses tended sheep for forty years, David was in the wilderness for years and it was fourteen years after Jesus appeared to Paul before Paul was appointed to ministry. Though you may be called to great things, it may be decades before you see that calling fulfilled, and the intervening time may difficult, boring or painful. God takes a long time to prepare some of His people for His service.
- This time is not wasted. Tending sheep prepared Moses to lead God's people. Leading a ragamuffin band in the wilderness prepared David to lead Israel. Though the time may appear to be desolate and unfruitful, in God's hands it will produce a rich harvest if you are patient.
- (added after the fact): Do the good you can do during the desolate times. Tend sheep if there is nothing better at hand. If you find yourself in prison, make the prison as good a place as you can. Make things better than they would have been had you done nothing. God will receive your service even if no one else does, and He knows how to reward those who serve Him.
- Following God’s plan may make you rich, or it may not. Abraham was a wealthy man, as were Joseph and David. We have no idea how much money Moses had, and Jesus and Paul had little or nothing. Anyone who tells you that following Jesus guarantees that you’ll be rich doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
- God’s plan for you includes your being a blessing to others. Abraham was told “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Joseph, Moses and David all blessed the nation of Israel and they set the stage for Jesus blessing the world with salvation, a blessing which Paul was instrumental in delivering to the world. God’s wonderful plan for you is not intended to bless you alone, but to work through you to bring His blessing to others.
- God’s plan for you will be worked out in your life with His help. Indeed that’s the only way it can be worked out. God repeatedly rescued Abraham from disaster along the way and He preserved Joseph and gave him the discernment of visions that won him his place in Pharoah’s court. Moses delivered Israel from Egypt with God’s power, David was protected by God in the wilderness and God’s mighty resurrection power raised Jesus from the dead and preserved Paul when he was attacked and stoned. Your miracles will probably not be as visible as these, but as you faithfully and attentively follow God’s plan for you, you will see His hand on your life, guiding, strengthening, protecting, providing and encouraging. You will not have to walk God’s path on your own strength, for He will be there to bring you to the end.
- And when you reach the end, you will find that it will have been worth it. This is the vocal testimony of the authors of Scripture. In the end we will find that our sufferings, however bitter and prolonged will be insignificant compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us. We run the race, however long and hard, for the sake of a prize worth having. We invest the little bit that God has given us so that when He returns He may reward us enormously. For the sake of the joy set before us, we follow Jesus’ example and endure the immediate suffering and pain. Eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God has prepared for His people, on that day when the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth, and God dwells among His people and wipes away every tear from their eyes. As all the years of study that you have been through find their meaning in this moment, as you receive your diploma, and in the time to come as you use the skills you have so laboriously acquired, so all the suffering and struggle that God may bring you through in this life will find their meaning in that magnificent moment when Jesus turns to you and says “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
So as you graduate and prepare for whatever God sends your way, I give you the following advice:
- Prepare yourself for the long haul. Anticipate that it may be a while before you get to where you really want to be, and that the road may be rocky at times. Don’t let the struggles discourage you; they’re part of the process, just as your studies were part of the process of getting your diploma, and they pay off in the end.
- Look for ways to bless people. Find ways to use what you have been given for the good of others. God is most likely to be leading you in that kind of direction.
- Read your Bible slowly and patiently. Learn from the example of the people you meet there. Get to know how God works, then start looking for Him to work that way in your life.
- Pray for yourself and for others. God works in us and in those we pray for, and we need what He does when we pray
- Cultivate your vision of heaven. If your vision of heaven is one of bored angels sitting on clouds strumming harps, you’ll never believe that it’s worth suffering to get there. Think of heaven as Super Bowl Sunday, a magnificent wedding, Victory Day after WWII, and the closing ceremonies for the Olympics, all bundled together and multiplied by a thousand and you’ll be getting a little closer. Heaven is so awesome that any suffering we endure to get there will be as insignificant in comparison as the cost of a lottery ticket would be compared to winning the MegaMillions lottery.
- If there’s something you can do to help someone find God’s wonderful plan for their life, do it. They’ll thank you for it in the end.