Alright, survey time this morning. How many of you like doing life by the seat of your pants? If things aren’t at least a little bit on the out-of-control side, you’re really not very happy. You live for the adventure of never quite knowing where you’re going and what’s going on. You’re the kind of person who has gone on a vacation with literally no agenda and stayed for a while at the first place that struck your fancy. Any takers here?
Okay, now for the other side. How many of you are planners? You always have a clear plan for how things need to go. In fact you probably have four or five different plans depending on any one of a number of factors. If plan A starts to lag you can jump right on over to plan B and it will continue leading you in the direction you really want to go. If B falters, there’s always C, but you’ll probably have to bring back in some aspects of A to make it work like it should. If all else fails, though, you can always resort to plan D which may be more direct, but it’s also more costly so you were saving that for a just-in-case situation. Does this sound familiar to anybody?
Now, for the planners in the room, but also for the adapters, have you ever wanted things to go a certain way and then they didn’t? I can say that while I’m not an over-the-top planner, I’m terrible at adapting. I guess I would fall somewhere right in the middle. I tend to not make very many plans, but once I do make one I generally try and stick to it like cement. Once I get up and running toward it slowing down in order to adapt to a new direction is a little like slowing down a battleship running at full tilt. I once heard that some of our fastest supersonic jets when they get to full speed can take as much as four whole states to turn around. I’m like that. Now maybe you adapt better than I do, but I still suspect that if you’ve been in a place where you had plans all nicely laid out and things suddenly went awry, you weren’t very happy about it. It’s not often that we make plans for something and truly hold them lightly. Now, we haven’t talked about those occasions when we make plans that aren’t very good…but we’ll come back to that in a little bit.
This morning we are kicking off a brand new series that will parallel our current Bible study series called Beauty from Ashes: Redeeming Your Broken Moments. If you’ve been around here very long you have often heard me make comments about the fact that we live in a broken world. Well, living in a broken world means that sometimes things don’t go very well. We’ve all experienced that. We’ve all been hurt as a consequence of the decision someone else has made. That’s a hard place to be in and is again one that we all find ourselves in from time to time. What’s sometimes even harder, though, is when our being in this hard place is not the result of someone else’s decision, but rather is a mess of our own making. At least when someone else has fouled up we can blame them for our troubles. But when all the fingers are turned around back on us things become a little thornier.
When we find ourselves in this last sort of place it is easy to get really discouraged. And the deeper the mess we’ve created the deeper our discouragement tends to get. We find ourselves sitting there looking up from the bottom of a hole and figure there’s just no way out of it. We forgot to stop digging and we didn’t bring a ladder. In fact this mess is probably so big that not even God can fix it. We’ve all been there, right? Here’s the kick, though: we serve a God who’s in the mess-fixing business. He’s been in the mess-fixing business ever since we got ourselves kicked out of the Garden. And here’s the thing: He’s really good at it. Like our series title suggests: you may have burned down the whole neighborhood with the mess you’ve made, but the God we serve can take those ashes and create something beautiful out of them. And for the next six weeks we are going to take a look at some of the messes we create for ourselves and how God is able to work beauty in them all the same.
Helping us on this journey will be a series of stories from the lives of some different folks in the Scriptures. You see, the thing we sometimes forget about the people who get featured in the Scriptures is that even the “good guys” were still a convoluted, sinful mess. Even in their best moments they still managed to mess everything up. They kept getting in their own way. They kept getting in God’s way. Sometimes it seems like they were consciously trying to do everything they could to interrupt and derail God’s plans for His people. And yet God kept right on going. He worked with them. He worked through them. He worked because of them. He sometimes worked in spite of them. He took the ashes of the buildings they kept burning to the ground and made beautiful things out of them again and again and again.
And the great hope we have is that His character has not changed since then. He still does that. He’ll still do that in our own lives…if we’ll let Him. The best thing we can do is to turn ourselves over to Him and stay out of His way. Over the next six weeks we’re going to talk about how to do just that. If you have ever found yourself in a place where you’ve burned the house down and you were sitting there in the ashes trying to figure out how anything was ever going to be made good out of this you’re going to want to be here to see just how complete God’s ashes-to-beauty making abilities really are.
This morning we are going to start with a place that perhaps more of us have found ourselves in than just about any of the other situations we’ll talk about over the next few weeks. This is the place where we have tried to take the reins of life into our own hands regardless of what God’s plans are and have made an absolute mess of things by it. You see we all have plans and we all make plans. Even if you are a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kinds of a person, you still make at least some plans. You plan to get to work in the morning. You plan for your life to go a certain way. You plan for your kids to turn out a certain way. Lots and lots of plans.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, though, God has a plan for us. Now, we can debate another time just how specific God’s plans are, but the word He spoke to Jeremiah and which I believe still holds true for us today was pretty clear: I know the plans I have for you says the Lord…plans for your good and not for evil…plans to give you a future and a hope. He was equally clear when He spoke through David and declared that all the days ordained for us were written in His book before any of them came to be. Well, assuming on the truth of that for a minute, we can put forward one more idea here: If God is who we say He is, then His plans are better than ours. Right? After all, He’s got all the wisdom. He’s got all the knowledge. He can see all the possible ways things could go and which is the best way for them to go. Now, He can still get us there even if we don’t take His first path, but doesn’t it just make more sense to go with His plan A rather than whatever triple z to the third power plan we often end up taking? Well, sure, but most of us still take the triple z to the third power path anyway. In fact, folks have always done this…even in times when God has been a whole lot more clear about the path He has in mind for us than we sometimes feel like He is.
One such time happened in the life of Abraham—well, his name was still Abram when all of this started—but you can find this story starting in Genesis 12. If you want to grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and look at this with me we are going to look at several different scenes from Abram’s life as we watch this particular part of his story unfold. You see, Abraham is pretty widely held out as a model of faith. He’s mentioned more times in the famous “Hall of Faith Heroes” in Hebrews 11 than anybody else. In seeking to prove to his audience that righteousness before God comes by faith and not by virtue of the things we do Paul points specifically on more than one occasion to Abraham and his faith in God obtaining him righteousness as the way God always intended for it to work. And in a sense, how could he not have become this kind of person? I mean, if you had God come to you like He did to Abraham—then Abram—in Genesis 12 when he was about 75 years old and say: “…I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” how could you not have incredible faith in God?
I mean, I feel like any of us who heard that would be able to be really dedicated to not only God, but to His plans whatever they happened to be. But Abram got even more than that. You see, being made into a great nation implies that you are going to have at least a kid or two. But when God called Abram at 75 to pack up his household and head for what would become known as the Promised Land he didn’t have any children. Even after living in the land God showed him for several years he still didn’t have any children with his wife Sarai. In fact, he had taken the step of making his most trusted servant, Eliezer, his legal heir figuring that this nation would have to come through him since Abram certainly wasn’t getting any younger.
Thus when God came to Abram after he had gotten settled in the land and had carved out his place in it, he was still restless to see this thing God had promised him. Look with me at Genesis 15 starting in v. 1: “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’ And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Abram bought it. He said, “Okay, Lord. I trust that you know what you’re talking about. I’m not getting any younger, but if you’ve led me this far, I trust that you’ll be able to do what you say you’ll do.” Things are looking good, right? Yeah, they were…for a while. But you see, there was another person involved in this adventure: Abram’s wife, Sarai. And between the two of them, as the years continued to pass without anything happening, their trust in God’s original promise began to…modify. He had made His plans pretty clear, but given that they were pushing 80 and 90 they were starting to wonder if perhaps there was another path they could take to go ahead and get things rolling with all this. So Sarai had an idea.
From Genesis 16:1: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’”
Now, let’s just be honest: this sounds really bizarre to us. I mean, wives, how many of you would be willing to consider essentially loaning your husband out to another woman in hopes that they would produce a child whom you could call your own? Nobody does that! It doesn’t take very long at all to come up with a pretty long list of all the things that could possibly go wrong with a plan like that. It’s a terrible idea. No question about that. But, before we go jumping all over Sarai for her faithlessness in proposing something like this in the first place (not to mention Abram’s faithlessness in being willing to go along with it), think about how hard this was for her. She had wanted little more than a child—in particular a male heir—her entire life. Culturally that’s about all women were considered good for and if they couldn’t even manage that they were worthless. Infertility is still a painful struggle for many, many couples today. It was exponentially worse back then. She and everybody else would have considered her cursed by God. Do you remember what she said there? The Lord has prevented me from bearing children. This is His fault. That’s how they thought. God’s promise to Abram that the two of them would have a child together was amazing to her…but where was he? Maybe God had said something to Abram, but as far as she could see He was the one preventing her from having the very child He had promised them. She didn’t want to travel this path any longer. She couldn’t. The emotional stress and turmoil was simply too much. She saw an off-ramp to a slightly different path, but one which was headed in the same direction—she thought—and so she took.
In the legal culture of the day, with its great emphasis on having a male heir to carry on the family name and, even more importantly, to preserve the family land, the husband of a woman who could not produce such a child (no one ever considered that the problem might lie with him, not her) could legally produce an heir with another woman (often a servant who didn’t have any say in the matter), and the first male child resulting from that union was considered the legal child of the original couple. Sarai had a maid named Hagar who had been acquired during their time in Egypt and who was of child-bearing years. After no doubt a great deal of thought and probably prayer, she made the agonizingly difficult decision to embrace what she understood to be her worthlessness and make Hagar available to Abram in order to produce the heir God had promised them.
And just so we’re clear, while lots of folks are quick to jump on Abraham and Sarah for their faithlessness—and after all God had done for them!—when you put yourself into the situation, assuming on the social and legal culture of the day, their decision makes sense. It was wrong. Again, there’s no question about that. This wasn’t God’s plan. But when we really think about it, we can at least understand why they did it. We can understand how they got to a place where this made sense to them. We can understand how they probably had friends and family members listen to their story and their anguish and their reasoning about what God must really be doing, and agreed that this was the decision that made the most sense. We can understand all this because we’ve been there too. We’ve felt God lead in a certain direction, waited way longer than we thought was reasonable, and then went ahead and made the best decision we could in light of everything we thought we knew. In other words, we opted for our plans instead of God’s. But here’s the thing: God’s plans are always better than our own.
This is the case now. It was definitely the case then. As soon as Abram and Sarai committed themselves to this alternate path things started to fall apart. Hagar conceived which immediately soured her relationship with Sarai. Sarai was jealous and started acting like it. But Hagar contributed to the problem by looking down with contempt on her mistress since she had just proven herself more valuable to Abram than his own wife. Perhaps they should exchange roles. Sarai had her beaten. She may have beaten her personally. Hagar understandably fled. God Himself told her to go back and promised to take care of her. He did and she bore Abram a son whom he named Ishmael. And for another almost 15 years nothing changed. For 15 more years Sarai had to watch this embodiment of her failure as a wife and what she thought was God’s failure to live up to the promise He had made to her husband grow and develop and prepare to receive all of the incredible wealth that should have been going to her son. Maybe God’s plan was going to be fulfilled now by their charting their own course, but this wasn’t what she wanted. It’s really no wonder because God’s plans are always better than our own.
Finally, when Abram was 100 and Sarai was 90 God came to him again and once again promised them a son. For 25 years He had been doing this now. They laughed at what would have sounded ridiculous to any rational observer. But God had the last laugh as within a year’s time Sarai—whose name was now changed to Sarah—bore Abram—now Abraham—a son whom they named Isaac which means “laughter.” But, the fruit of their trying to force things and go with their own plans continued to prove bitter. Ishmael bullied Isaac which again put a block between the husband and wife. He didn’t want to send his firstborn son away while she wanted their son protected from the angry young man she had no doubt grown to hate. God gave Abraham the clearance to send Ishmael and Hagar off, but their descendants would never again have peace. And who are their descendants? From Ishmael came the Arab people, the most famous of whom was named Mohammed. From Isaac came the people of Israel, or, the Jews. Just let that sit on you for a minute. Think about just how much turmoil in our world today could have been avoided if two people who lived 4,500 years ago had taken God’s path instead of their own. God’s plans are always better than our own.
Now, let’s talk for a minute about what this means for us. On the grand scale the implication is pretty obvious: God’s plans are always better than our own. Whatever plans we happen to have for our life, if those are not also God’s plans for our life they are necessarily not going to be as good as they could be. But if we focus on just the grand scale like that, we’ll miss some pretty important stuff. Most notably is perhaps this: there many times along the path of God’s plans for us when taking our own path not only looks a lot better, but may even actually look more like what we sincerely believe His path should look like. Think about Abraham and Sarah’s story again. God promised them a son and they waited 25 years for that promise to be fulfilled. We said this before, but in their minds, Abraham and Hagar’s union was just how God was going to accomplish His plans. The point here is that sometimes we confuse our plans for God’s plans…especially when His plans turn and remain hard. But, God’s plans are always better than our own.
A minute ago I said we can debate just how specific God’s plans for us are. From all the studying of Scripture I’ve done, what I at least see is a picture of a God who, though, aware of every single decision we will ever make no matter how small—after all, He has numbed the hairs on our heads—doesn’t necessarily have one single path for us to walk through this life such that if we get off of it we’re sunk. In other words, if He had planned for you to wear the green shirt today but you wore the red shirt instead, the sun is still going to come up tomorrow. We’re given an incredible amount of freedom to make meaningful, consequential choices. That being said, it’s still theologically correct to say that God has a plan for us. So then what does this plan entail? I mean, if God’s plans really are always better than our own, it makes perfect sense for us to want to know them in as much detail as possible. Well, again, from Scripture, we can say with confidence that God’s first plan is for you to become a follower of Jesus. From there His plan is for you to gradually grow to the point that you are a perfect reflection of the image of His Son. He wants for everything you do to be done after the pattern of Jesus. As for what this looks like on a daily basis, well, that’s something that will be between you and God. And as you learn to listen to Him you will be able to more and more easily see what these things are. The fact is, there are some specific conversations He’s going to want you to have, places He’s going to want you to go, things He’s going to want you to do. I can’t tell you want those are standing right here. Sometimes they’ll seem easy (especially the closer you are to Christ), but more often they’ll be a challenge. Sometimes they may even seem impossibly, illogically hard. But the ends they’ll lead to are always better than our own plans. God’s plans are always better than our own.
In spite of the sometimes unavoidable ambiguity here, though, I think there are at least a few more things we can say with confidence. First, God always wants us to love. If there are a couple of different choices in front of you, no matter how minor, God always wants you to go with the one that intentionally moves someone else in the direction of who He designed them to be. Second, God hates sin. This seems like it should be able to go without saying, but let’s say it anyway just in case: If there is some aspect of what lies before you that is going to be dishonoring to God, He doesn’t want you to choose that one. Here’s a third one: God wants us to put the needs and interests of others ahead of our own. If you have a choice on the paths you could take, go with the one that puts others first. Let’s look at the bigger picture, though. It’s possible that someone could take all of this and allow it to lead them to become paralyzingly indecisive about their everyday decisions. There are numerous decisions we face each day that could each one lead to hours of discussion as to whether it is in line with God’s plans or not. But at the end of the day, there’s an easier way. The closer you stick to God on a regular basis, the more likely it is that you’ll make the right decision naturally. This all points to one last thing we can say with confidence this morning: God wants you to be wholly His. Therefore, the path that will lend itself to that happening is always the right one to take. Always take the path that will result in real spiritual growth; the path that will end in living well the life you’ve been given in Christ. When you do that, you’ll be able to know and do God’s plans with much less pondering than you will otherwise. And God’s plans are always better than our own.
And here’s one more bit of good news for you: Even if you haven’t been doing that much either lately or even at all, as our series title proclaims: God can still bring beauty from the ashes of whatever lies in your past. All you have to do is turn yourself over to Him now. Place yourself fully in His hands. Seek His Spirit with all that lies inside of you. Make following Him wherever He leads your intentional aim. And then sit back and watch how God redeems your past and makes it into something beautiful for your future. God’s plans are always better than our own. Let those be your guide and experience the beauty they’ll bring.