A Temporary Assignment

Psalm 39:4

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Early on in my ministry I remember visiting with an elderly pastor whose name was Ervin Meseke.  He was raised in the Augsburg area, just 4 miles east of Shobonier, where there is a congregation that bears that name and that I’ve had the privilege of serving at least 5 times when they’ve been without a pastor.  If my memory serves me correctly, Erv was one of eight sons in that family, several of whom became pastors and all of whom were very actively involved in their churches and the work of the Lord.  Well, on that day that I was visiting with Erv I asked him how many congregations he had served in his lengthy ministry.  He told me he had pastored 9 different churches.  And when he said that, I kind of envisioned myself doing the same, staying at each congregation 4-5 years and then moving on to another one.  In fact, that’s pretty well how I started out my ministry.  I was at my first congregation for 4 years, my second one for 5 years, my third one for about 2 ¼ years, and then in 1992 I came to Salem, never dreaming that I would be here for as long as I’ve been, which in October will be 24 years.

Having been through the call process a number of times myself and now with our congregation going through that process as we search for an associate pastor, it’s become obvious to me that sometimes, for reasons known only to him, God chooses to keep his pastors in one place for an extended period of time while there are other times when he chooses to move his pastors from place to place multiple times like he did with Pastor Meseke.  The Apostle Paul was a good example of the latter.  He would start a congregation in one place and then, once it was well established and had good leadership, he would move on to a different area and begin another congregation there.  The point I’m getting at here is that for a pastor a call to a congregation should always be looked upon as a temporary assignment by both the congregation and the pastor.  Sooner or later he will leave to go to another church or he will retire or he will die.

Now lest you think I’m going to make an announcement today that I’m going to be doing one of those things, I’m not, unless the Lord chooses to call me home.  But I want to use that idea of a call being a temporary assignment as a springboard for what I really want to talk to you about today.  And that is that life is a temporary assignment.  In my last 2 sermons we’ve been looking at what I’ve been calling “life metaphors” as we have been trying to answer the question that James asks in the 4th chapter of his New Testament epistle, the 14th verse when he says: “What is your life?”  And in our study, we have explored 2 life metaphors.  We have learned from God’s Word that life is a test and life is a trust.  Today I want to complete this trilogy of life metaphors by focusing upon the fact that life is also a temporary assignment.

Now the Bible is full of metaphors that teach us this truth.  In different places it describes life as a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes; a fast runner; a breath; and a wisp of smoke.  Elsewhere we are called aliens, pilgrims, foreigners, strangers, visitors, and travelers to describe our brief stay on this earth.  Of course, we have a tendency to think that our lives actually last pretty long.  Last year, for example, on my birthday I turned the big 6-0, which, when I was a child, seemed ancient to me.  Now it doesn’t seem that old at all, especially when I start looking at people in our congregation who are well into their 80’s and 90’s.

But when we start comparing our lives on this earth to the eternity that lies ahead of us, there really is no comparison and it’s no wonder that the Bible speaks of life as a brief, temporary assignment.  I’ve never forgotten an old legend my dad shared with us when I was in Confirmation years ago on how long eternity is.  He said there was this huge granite mountain.  And every thousand years this bird would come and whet or rub its beak on that mountain several times.  Then it would fly away only to return a thousand years later and do the same thing.  Whenever it finally rubbed that mountain down to nothing, my dad said according to this legend that would be the equivalent of one second of eternity.  Boy, that’ll make your head spin, won’t it?

The point being that our time on this earth is so brief, transitory, and momentary when compared to our life in eternity.  And yet we don’t always treat it that way, do we?  Instead, we often times live as though this life is all there is to life.  We’re kind of like the ambassador I recently read about who was asked by the king to represent his country to an enemy nation.  So he took up residence there.  He learned the language and tried to adapt to some of the customs and cultural differences in order to be polite and win the trust and confidence of those people.  But eventually he became so comfortable with this foreign country that he fell in love with it and preferred it to his homeland, thus compromising his role as ambassador.

And sometimes we do the same with this old world.  Did you know that in 2 Cor. 5:20 the Apostle Paul says that we are ambassadors – ambassadors for Christ?  That’s one of the highest titles the Bible ascribes to us.  For what that means is that we are to be representatives – spokesperson – for the King of kings and Lord of lords. Unfortunately, many Christians have abdicated and betrayed that responsibility as well as their King by allowing themselves to become so comfortable here that they’ve begun to look upon their lives on this earth as something permanent rather than temporary.  Consequently, all of their time and energy are spent building little kingdoms for themselves here and pursuing the material pleasures and stuff that this life has to offer.  I see this so often when I speak to members who have become infrequent or inactive in their church attendance.  One of the most common excuses I hear from them as to why they fell out of the habit of going to church is:  “I work hard all week long and Sunday is my only morning to sleep in.”  How sad that people would rather worship St. Mattress on Sunday morning than spend time in the presence of the King who has called them to be his ambassadors.  And yet that’s a reflection of how comfortable they’ve grown with this world and how indifferent and complacent they’ve become about eternity.  But listen to how the modern Bible paraphrase known as The Message renders I Peter 2:11: “Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it.  Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul.”

You know, life has changed a lot over the years.  Sometime ago I spoke with a woman from our congregation who had spent the weekend visiting her mom.  She said that they sat up till about 12:30 in the morning just talking.  She listened intently as her mom shared with her all kinds of fascinating stories about the days when farmers would get together to thrash their wheat and butcher cows and pigs.  She said they would can everything they could get their hands on because that was food that they needed to make it through the long cold winters.  During the summer they’d go out in the woods and pick dewberries, as many as 16 gallons a day, in spite of all the stickers that the dewberry bushes contained.  She said everyone was poor back then so no one was trying to outdo everyone else because they couldn’t afford to.  Put simply, life was really hard back then.  Many of you know that because you lived through it.  And yet God was the core, the foundation, the heart of each community and family.

Well, contrast those days with today where life has never been easier.  We’re constantly entertained, amused, and catered to.  We don’t even have to cook anymore because restaurants for all income brackets are constantly beckoning us to come into their doors and let them do the cooking for us.  Our homes, our churches, our businesses have central heat and air conditioning.  Single car garages have become a thing of the past.  In fact, most homes being built today have 3-car garages that are bigger than some of the homes you grew up in.  A trip to the mall or grocery store reveals an unbelievable variety of items to choose from.  I think my grandchildren can hardly believe it when I tell them that when I was a kid, I only had 2 brands of tennis shoes to choose from – Keds and PF Flyers – and only 2 colors, black and white.

And I firmly believe that because life is so much easier today and we’ve become so comfortable with this world, we have also grown complacent about our faith, less dependent upon God, and we’ve lost sight of eternity.  So you know what God often does when that happens?  He sends reminders to us that we were not made for this world in order to keep us from becoming too attached to it.  Difficulties, sorrow, sickness, discontent, dissatisfaction are all his way of saying that we’ll never be completely happy here because we’re not supposed to be.  Earth as we know it right now is not our final home.  Rather we were created for something much better.

Take a fish out of water and do you think it would enjoy living on land for very long?  Put an eagle in a cage and deprive it of the opportunity to spread its wings and soar heavenward and do you think it would be happy?  Of course not!  So whenever we find ourselves feeling less than satisfied here, please keep in mind that we were made for more.  We will have happy moments here – good moments – and for those we should be very grateful.  But even the best of moments here cannot begin to compare to what God has planned for us in eternity.

It is a costly mistake then to assume that God’s goal for your life is material prosperity or popularity or success, as the world defines those things.  When Jesus said, “I came that you may have life and have it abundantly,” he wasn’t talking about material abundance, but rather spiritual affluence, if you will – the abundance of God’s grace and love, his forgiveness and salvation, his peace and joy; things that money simply cannot buy.

Think of some of the chief characters who appear in the pages of Holy Scripture.  They had anything but materially abundant lives.  For example, the Apostle Paul was a faithful proclaimer of the Gospel, yet he spent a lot of time in prison.  John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah, yet he was beheaded.  Millions of Christians throughout the ages have been martyred, have lost everything, or have come to the end of life with nothing to show for it.  But from God’s perspective, what the world sees as the end of life is really only the beginning of life.

Therefore, in his eyes the greatest heroes of the faith are not those who achieve prosperity, success, and power in this life, but those who treat life as a temporary assignment, trusting Jesus as their Savior through the good times as well as the bad times, and faithfully serving him in all that they do.

Let me close then with a true story about a retiring missionary who was coming home to America on the same boat as the President of the U.S.  Cheering crowds, a military band, a red carpet, banners, and the media welcomed the president home, but the missionary slipped off the ship unnoticed.  And as he began to feel kind of sorry for himself and even a bit resentful, he turned to the Lord in prayer.  He said, “God, I understand why the crowd is so excited about the President, but what about me?  I served you faithfully on the mission field all these years.  I endured hardship and danger.  I deprived my family of all the fine things of life they could have had here.  Why can’t I be welcomed home like the President?”  Back came the gentle voice of the Lord who simply reminded him, “Because, my child, you’re not yet home.”

Listen, my friends, I guarantee you that you will not be in heaven more than 2 seconds before you feel like crying out, “Why did I place so much importance on things that were so temporary?”  So when life gets tough or when you wonder whether living for Christ is worth it, remember that you are not home yet.  And when you die, you won’t be leaving home – rather, you’ll be going home.