“11 Depart, depart, go out from there;
touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of her;
you who bear the vessels of the Lord.
12 For you shall not go out in haste,
you shall not go in flight,
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard."
Isaiah 52:11-12 ESV
Did you make any progress last year?
2016 is here! January is approaching its midpoint. Blink and Valentine's Day will be upon us. If we're not careful Easter will come like a thief in the night and summer will be here. My point? Just because it's the beginning of a new year doesn't mean that the pace of life automatically slows down so we can take a breath and take a look around. Quite the opposite is true. Life will not stop us, we must stop life. We must create space, like a rest area on the interstate of life. Then and only then will we be able to find the answer to the question: Did I make any progress last year?
On the surface the answer is always yes. Superficially we always make progress. If in no other way, we progress in age. We always move one year closer to our last. But that's not the only kind of progress we want to make right? Nobody wants to just occupy space and consume air for 3 score and 10 and then die. That's not true progress.
What is true progress?
I saw a really sad picture this morning on Facebook. It was the profile picture of the wife of a guy I used to know in Albuquerque. What was so sad about it was that she had clearly gotten some "work" done on her face and especially her lips. My heart was really saddened by what I saw because it struck me as a fruitless effort. Such an empty attempt at progress. One thing is for sure. These physical bodies we have been given won't ever progress in the preferred direction. "True progress" in the physical sense cannot be achieved forever. There do seem to be the almost exceptions. John Thomassian seems to have defied the laws of aging when on Saturday morning, while playing kickball with the rest of us guys, he slid into both 3rd base and home plate. In case you don't know John Thomassian, he's 84. I'm pretty sure that I was more sore than he was the next day too.
True progress physically will cease at some point
Not all of us will age like John. True progress physically will cease for us at some point. When that time comes we must embrace the reality and simply do the best we can to age gracefully. I don't mean to be a huge downer but decline is guaranteed in the physical realm. The good news, though, is that true progress will always and continually be possible in the spiritual realm. That may have been what Paul was thinking about when he wrote,
"for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." (1 Timothy 4:8)
True progress spiritually can continue until the day we die.
So what is true progress for the follower of Jesus Christ? If you were here at 43 Mill Street for worship this past weekend or you listened to my message online then you know that we looked at the answer to this question. Extracted right out of Isaiah's words in chapter 52 verses 11 and 12, we discovered that true progress involved 4 elements:
1. A Continual Departing (in the right direction)
2. A Constant Purifying
3. A Consistent Journey
4. A Confident Attitude
Here's how I believe we should approach both the looking back on 2015 and the looking forward to 2016. First of all, we should understand what I've already stated. True progress means we never stop moving in the same direction toward the right destination. That destination is Christ-likeness (see Romans 8:28-29). When we stop long enough to examine our previous year we should begin by asking the Lord whether or not we have become more like Jesus. Our part in this process is very simple but it has a profound effect. Jesus stated very clearly that love toward Him would be evidenced by obedience. So I ask myself, how have I loved Jesus this past year? And then I look forward and ask how I can love Jesus in the days, weeks and months that lie ahead. This is the first element of true progress.
Second, and closely tied to the first, is the facet of true progress that means keeping short accounts of our sin. In case you aren't clear about it, you will never be without sin in this life. Sinlessness is the stuff of the next life, not this one. To keep short accounts of sin means to repent and confess sin quickly and regularly.
Sinlessness is the stuff of the next life, not this one.
John, the apostle, wrote in 1 John 1:8 that only liars try to convince themselves that they are without sin. Followers of Jesus know that we sin but on our best days we confess quickly and are made pure once again. This is a critical part of true progress. Unconfessed sin in a believer is like a rotten crab apple in a bushel of Harry and David's Royal Riviera pears. I hope you get the picture. You don't think for a second that that rotten little crab apple will have no affect on those giant, juicy, perfectly tart pears. The same is true for unconfessed sin.
It's also the same for the things in our lives that God wants to change but we won't let Him. It may be something we need to give up or a tendency that He wants transformed. True progress means both confessing the sin that we've done and allowing the Holy Spirit access to change us by submitting our will to His.
Third, if we're going to correctly assess the past year and fruitfully proceed into the next we must journey intentionally and openly. Simply put, we must make a plan and that plan cannot be carried out in secret. I didn't talk about this too much in my message but I have come to see that one of the greatest reasons for failure in the Christian life is that we try to make the journey without others being alongside of us. Ashamed of our struggles, too proud to admit we need help, we flounder and our journey becomes anything but consistent.
True progress can never be made alone.
It's not enough to have a good plan. We must share that plan with others and find both encouragement and accountability in the brotherhood and sisterhood of Christ.
Finally, if we will do all that I have touched on previously, we can walk in the confidence of knowing that God will surround us with His presence, His strength, and His wisdom. I described the picture that Isaiah certainly had in mind as he described God as "going before you" and being our "rear guard." This idea comes from the procession that would lead Israel into battle. The ark of the covenant, where God's presence dwelt, would take the forward position with troops following in formation. With the ark, in addition to the priests who carried the ark and those who blew the trumpets, there were men who would "go before", protecting the ark from the front and men who were the "rear guard." Isaiah speaks of God as being this for us. What tremendous confidence comes from understanding this reality.
"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" -Romans 8:31
Take the time to look back on 2015. Make the time, then, to look forward into 2016. Be sure that when you proceed, you proceed with God before you and with God as your rear guard. This, and this only, is true progress.
For His Glory,