"The Present Value of Past Help"
(Delivered Sunday, December 14, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
With your indulgence, I'm going to depart from my intended plan of preaching this morning. I had a different sermon planned; but this morning - as sometimes happens - I feel God's strong leading to set that sermon aside and share instead the burden that He has placed on my heart. I've learned to be sensitive to those times; because it may be that the very thing that He has been teaching me is something that He has intended to be the blessing of someone else. God's plan is always better than mine.
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I'd like to begin by reading from Psalm 63. This is a psalm by King David; and as the preface to this psalm indicates, it's a psalm he wrote during a deep trial of danger and uncertainty. In the translation I have chosen, it says, "A psalm of David when he was in the wilderness of Judah"; and this suggests a time when David was on the run. The last few verses, in fact, indicate that his life was in danger. The context of the psalm could have been the time when he had to flee from the murderous attempts of jealous King Saul to take his life (1 Samual 23); but since he calls himself "king" in verse 11, it was more likely during the time when he fled from his own son Absalom's attempts to overthrow him (2 Samual 15).
Whichever event stands in the background of this psalm, David writes from a "dry and thirsty land" - a time of trial during which God's hand seemed far away. And yet, even in such a time of trial, David expresses a great hope and confidence in God's present lovingkindness.
O GOD, You are my God; early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. So I have looked for You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory.
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Look particularly at verses 6-8. Look especially at the fact that, in this time of trial, David "remembered" God. He uses two words to describe this fact: he "remembered" God, and he "meditated" on God. To "remember" is to call something to the conscious mind from the past; and to "meditate" on it is to contemplate it deeply. And David is telling us that, at a time when he was able to devote his mind to serious reflection - that is, as he lay on his bed in the night watches during this time of particular trial - he "remembered" some particular truth about God or some lesson about God that he had learned in the past. It may have been a personal experience David once had of God's help and rescue in a former time; or it may have been a testimony of God's past faithfulness and help as recorded in the words of Scripture. But in any event, David "remembered" God, and then "meditated" on the truth about God that he remembered.
Let me pause at this point and suggest that sanctified "remembering" is something of a lost art to many of us. One of our greatest shortcomings as believers is that we so often fail to "remember" the the things about God that He Himself has already lovingly and tenderly taught us - either through the Holy Spirit's ministry of teaching us truths from the Scriptures, or through the insight He gives from our own experiences of those truths. And sadly, in a time of trial, what do we typically think about instead in "the night watches"? Don't we often allow fears and apprehensions and anxieties to fill the void left by our failure to "remember" these truths about Himself that God has taught us? Don't we toss and turn with worry? May God help us to learn to "remember" Him in such times - and even go beyond "remembering" and on to deeply "meditating" on the things we "remember" about Him!
Now back to our psalm. Look again at what David remembered about God. He remembers that, in the past, God had been his help. "Because You have been my help ...", he says. And note that he says, "have been" - that is, in the perfect past tense; and "My help" - that is, personally and experientially! He could point to definite times in the past in which God proved Himself to David in other times of trial. These times are what he remembered and meditated on in the night watches.
Once again, let me pause and suggest another art that is easily lost among us as believers - that of "journaling" or "recording" God's past acts in our lives. We forget God's faithfulness in the past because we fail to somehow "record" what He did for us!
Do you remember that, when God miraculously dried up the Jordan River so the people could cross over into the promised land, God commanded twelve of the men - one from each tribe - to carry twelve of the large stones out of the dry river bed to set up as a monument on the river bank? Those stones would not have been taken had not the Lord dried up the river; and so there they stood forever as a monument of God's faithful love and great power toward the people of Israel. Future generations would see it; and the story of God's faithful help would be told to them. The name for this in the Bible is a compound word - 'eben', which means "stone"; and '-ezer', which means "help". Thus, to raise an "Ebenezer" is to raise a monument of God's faithfulness - "a stone of help" (1 Sam. 7:12). Do you ever mark-down and record God's acts of faithfulness in your life? Do you ever purchase some little memento, or create a calligraphied plaque, to help you "remember" some outstanding demonstration of God's "help" in your life? Do you ever raise an "Ebenezer" - a "stone of help"? Having those monuments becomes a great blessing in a time of trial.
David remembered the past acts of God's faithfulness, and he carefully meditated on them. And "therefore", as he says - that is , because of his remembrance of God's help in times past - "in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice." He was able to rejoice, during his present time of trial, under the protective shadow of God's wings by faith. The God who had helped him in the past, and who had proven Himself over and over, was the same God who was with Him in the present trial. Nothing has changed except the circumstances - circumstances over which the same faithful God exercised perfect control.
And this leads us to David's testimony in verse 8 - a testimony he bore in the midst of his present trial: "My soul follows close behind You; Your right hand upholds me." In other words, he was able to say that his resolve in his present trial was to follow close behind God - in confident trust and obedience; and he was confident and at peace because of His assurance that God's strong right hand was upholding him in the present circumstances.
The key to all this is "remembering" and "meditating" on God's faithful help to him in the past. I like to call this "the present value of God's past help."
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My attention was drawn to this important subject because of something that happened to me last week; and I hope you'll pardon me if I relate a personal experience for a while.
A very kind offer of a few days in a beach house along the Oregon coast had been offered to me. It was a standing offer; and last Sunday, my wife encouraged me to take it. I was just then on the other side of a very difficult week; and so, I really didn't need much persuasion. By Sunday evening, I was off on my way to the beach house with my Bible and a few books - looking forward to a couple of days of rest and renewal.
The beach house was wonderful. I got to sleep in very late, walk on the beach, shop around, pray, and read. One of the books that I brought along was a book that I had read before on the ministry of the Holy Spirit; and I felt that it was a good time to reacquaint myself with that book, and to be encouraged once again by the ministry of the Holy Spirit in my life. It had rained most of the time that I was there, but that only encouraged me to fill up the coffee pot, stay inside, and read. Monday night was spent working through the book.
Tuesday was another sleep-in day; and after a relaxing morning and a leisurely lunch - even though I hated to leave - it was about time for me to clean things up, pack my bag and head for home. I closed up the beach house, got in my van, got filled up with gas, and made my way to Portland.
I drove through a small town on the way home - a town so small on this long country road that I wouldn't have even noticed it except for the fact that it was out in the middle of nowhere. And sometime after passing through that town, I felt my van run over something. I looked in the rear-view mirror just in time to see a couple of car parts rolling off into the ditch. I became very concerned, because I hadn't seen any car parts on the road ahead of me. I had the presence of mind to pull over and check to see if they belonged to my car! I found them, and wasn't sure that they were mine. But then, when I looked up the road at my van and saw the fan belts hanging down underneath the van, then I knew that they were indeed mine, and that I was in trouble - stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
It was beginning to get dark; so I walked around and gathered up the car parts that I thought were mine while I could still see them (I found out later that not all of the ones I collected had actually belonged to my car!); and I got into my van just in time to see that the engine temperature was rising fast. I remembered the sign that indicated that the next big town that might have a mechanic wasn't for another twenty-one miles; and I knew I wouldn't make it even a fraction of the way. I thought back on that very small town I just went through, and couldn't for the life of me even remember if there was anything in it that was open - let alone a mechanic on duty!
But that's when God caught my attention. I remembered that I had been in a similar situation before; and I remembered how God was very faithful then. And so, I thought carefully about that past experience, and I prayed confidently - trusting that God's good hand was on me, and asked that He give me His help. I remembered some of the things I had been reading about the Holy Spirit's constant presence and care for His people, and I felt at peace in this awkward situation. In fact - and this is something new! - I even found myself looking forward to seeing how my heavenly Father was going to get me out of this new situation.
Having "remembered" God's good help in the past, I felt led to turn around and take my chances in that small town - trusting that there would be a mechanic there that could help me. It was tough driving, because the power-steering was now out, the battery was quickly draining, and the engine was becoming very hot very fast. But it turned out to be a very short distance to this small town; and right on the edge of town was - can you guess? - a mechanic's shop. I'm certain that, if my van had broken down just five minutes later, I would have really been stuck!
I pulled off to the side of the road, and walked across the street to see if the shop was open. And saw that it was! And as soon as I got to the door, the owner of the shop walked out talking on his cordless phone, took one look at me, and spoke into the phone and said, "Yeah; it's okay. He just got here." He hung up, looked at me and said, "You the one with the busted van?"
I was amazed. "Yes, I am," I said. "How did you know about me?"
"One of my customers saw you on the side of the road and called me. What happened to your van?"
I quickly offered a prayer of thanks, and told him about my situation. We got the van into the shop; and after he looked things over, he gave me what he thought was the bad news. "We're going to have to send off to Lincoln City to get the parts for this. That means, unfortunately, that we aren't going to be able to get anything done on this until sometime tomorrow. Do you have a place to stay anywhere near here ?"
Well; it just so happened that I did. I said, "I've been staying at a friend's beach house for a few days. I can stay there until you can get it fixed."
"Great!" he said. "I'll call my father over; and he'll give you a ride out there." While waiting for my ride, I went to the small grocery store next to the shop, bought enough food to keep me for a day, and was taken back to the beach house. If you've got to be stuck somewhere, it's a great place to be "stuck".
It didn't take me too long to realize that, even though I thought I was finished with my time at the beach, God knew that I wasn't. There were still some things I needed to personally work through regarding some of the things I had been learning - particularly regarding the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I needed to finish what I was reading, and then have an extended time of prayer about it. God was doing some important business with me those few days; and the work was not yet finished. In retrospect, I'm so very grateful that my van broke down so I could have that extended time with Him.
The car took longer than expected to be fixed; which meant that - realistically - I had to call home and cancel an evening meeting that I had planned. But I literally couldn't go anywhere while at the beach house; and I had more time to think through and pray through the lessons God was teaching me about Himself. Finally, the mechanic's father came and got me. The car was fixed - at a surprisingly small cost; and I drove home feeling like I had spent a few days with God in a way that I hadn't anticipated. When I got home, I found out that the family that was hosting the meeting in their home was going to be unable to do so that night; and that others who were scheduled to be there had called earlier in the day to say they couldn't make it. The meeting I wasn't able to make it out to had already been cancelled! And a few days later, my wife and I received an unexpected check in the mail that almost completely covered the cost of the repairs. I still stand amazed at how God orchestrated all these event so that He could have my attention for an extra day and advance the work He was doing in me. Looking back on it all, I feel very, very blessed.
And the point that I wish to make is that it all started when, in a time of trial - by His grace - I was enabled to stop and remember God's faithfulness in the past, and see clearly the value of that past help in my present circumstance. I have no doubt that this most recent event will be a "past help" to remember at some future "present trial".
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I have grown to appreciate a principle of God's instruction to us in our trials. It's a principle that helps me appreciate the present value of God's past help. Because our trials are under God's sovereign control - and are never allowed to be more than we can endure in His strength - He permits them in our lives to teach us about Himself, and to train us to trust in Him. And I've grown to appreciate that every new trial He allows in my life calls upon me to go back and remember something about Himself that He has already taught me.
To put it another way, God never allows us to go through a trial without first equipping us with the truth about Himself that we need in order to trust Him in that trial. And we will bear up under that trial with confidence and joy, if we will only take the time to think back, "remember" what He has already taught us about Himself, and meditate on the truth of it in our present situation.
There are a couple of stories from the Scriptures that God brought to mind during my own situation last week; and I believe that they illustrate that principle very vividly.
One story involved the people of Israel just a few short days after they had been delivered by God from their bondage in the land of Egypt. They had just passed through the Red Sea; and after only three-days travel toward the Promised Land, they were complaining about water. The Bible tells us:
So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea; then they went out into the Wilderness of Shur. And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" So he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet. There He made a statute and an ordinance for them, and there He tested them, and said, "If you diligently heed the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the LORD who heals you."
Wouldn't you agree that God had already proven to the people of Israel that water presented no problems to Him? If He could part the Red Sea and lead His people out to follow Him on dry ground, then surely providing a source of water for them in the desert was not too hard for Him.
The Bible tells us, though, that God was very specifically "testing" them. He wanted them to remember how He had already proven Himself, learn from the lesson about Himself that He had already taught them, and then look to Him in confident trust in their present circumstance. And He proved that He was wonderfully able to provide for them, not only by making the bitter waters sweet for them then, but also by providing an oasis for them just a few short miles away once the test was over.
God was very gentle with them in this test, because they were still learning. But they were tested again later on; and it became sadly apparent that the people of Israel still hadn't learn the lesson God was seeking to teach them. They failed to remember what they had already been taught; and it wasn't too long after this that the people again searched in vain for water, and gathered in complaint against Moses (Exodus 17:1-7; see also Numbers 20:2ff). God was more severe with the people this second time, because they had so obviously refused to recall what God had already taught them about Himself.
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The fact that God was more stern with the people when they repeatedly ignored the lessons He taught them reminded me of a second story. This one involved Jesus and His disciples.
Do you remember how Jesus feed five thousand men with just five loaves and a few fish? It's a very familiar story to many of us. Matthew tells us:
... When Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food." But Jesus said to them, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat." And they said to Him, "We have here only five loaves and two fish." He said, "Bring them here to Me" (Matthew 14:14-18).
They had quite a problem. But I love how Jesus solves the problem of so much being asked from a few loaves and a few fish - "Bring them here to Me". Once we bring our circumstance to Jesus, the problem is solved. Matthew goes on to say;
Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children (vv. 19-21).
Wouldn't you agree that Jesus had proven to His disciples that a lack of bread was not a problem for Him? And did you know that, a short time after this, the same disciples were faced once again with the same sort of situation? Matthew writes,
Now Jesus called His disciples to Himself and said, "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way" (Matthew 15:32).
Now I note in these words that Jesus didn't ask the disciples to do anything. All He did was present them with a situation. Jesus was obviously testing them to see if they would now know what to do. And since He had already proven Himself to them, you would expect that the disciples would have learned the lesson and say, "Well, there's no real problem at all, Lord! We'll gather up whatever we have, bring it to You, and You can certainly multiply it to feed as many people as are here!"
But sadly, they forgot the lesson that they should have learned from the first feeding. They also forgot the lessons that God had taught their forefathers in the wilderness through Moses - that God is more than able to provide water in the desert and food from heaven in the wilderness. Matthew tells us;
Then His disciples said to Him, "Where could we get enough bread in the wilderness to fill such a great multitude?" Jesus said to them, "How many loaves do you have?" And they said, "Seven, and a few little fish" (vv. 33-34).
Doesn't it feel as if the Lord was dropping a hint on them? The question, "How many loaves do you have?" should have been enough to jog their memory.
So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves and the fish and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitude. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets full of the fragments that were left. Now those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children (vv. 36-38).
They had seen Jesus feed the five thousand; and by the time they were face with the four thousand, they should have known what Jesus could do. But they failed to remember the lessons they had been taught about Him. Later on, Jesus was in a boat with them and warned them to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees" (Matthew 16:6); and they still didn't get it. They discussed the meaning of Jesus' warning among themselves and said, "It is because we have taken no bread." And Jesus said,
O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up? (Matthew 16:8-10).
The disciples had sufficient experience with Jesus' power to multiply bread and fish, so that when faced with a similar situation, they should have known what He could do. I can't fault them too much, however; because when faced with a time of trial, I still often break into an immediate panic. I still fail to remember the things that God had already taught me about Himself that will sustain me through such times of testing.
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Dear brothers and sisters, we must never minimize the present value of God's past help. Think about the trial you may be going through right now. What is God trying to teach you in it? What has He already taught you about Himself prior to this trial? What do you need to "remember" about Him that is relevant to what you're now going through? If you think about it carefully, you'll realize that God is not introducing something entirely new to you in this trial. Consider the matter carefully, and you'll soon realize that He has already taught you - through personal experience and through the clear teaching of His word - what you need to know to endure this time of testing with confidence and joy. Each test is permitted by our sovereign God to force us back to a review of the lessons He has already taught us about Himself.
Let's learn, then, from the example of King David. Let's make it our practice to remember God's past help during our present times of trial. Let's make David's prayer our own habitual response in times of testing:
When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches. Because You have been my help, therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice. My soul follows close behind You; Your right hand upholds me (Psalm 63:6-8).
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