How Can I Be Over The Hill When I Haven’t Seen The Top Yet?
Yesterday was my 50th birthday. A lot of people I used to think were my friends sent me cards. They contain messages like these:
“Life not only begins at 50, that’s when it really begins to show. Wish I could be there to help you light your birthday candles but I’ll be watching the glow in the sky and thinking of you!”
“If you haven’t gotten your AARP card yet, it’s in the mail!”
“You can tell you’re getting older when you wake up with that awful morning after feeling, and you didn’t do anything the night before!”
“You’re not getting older, you already are!” And then as if that weren’t bad enough, there were these: “You know you’re 50…
- When your arms aren’t long enough to hold your reading material…
- When you don’t care where your wife goes when she goes out, as long as you don’t have to go with her…
- Instead of combing your hair, you start arranging it…
- When you’ve given up all your bad habits, and you still don’t feel good…
- When you’re warned to slow down by your doctor, instead of the police…
- When it takes longer to rest than it does to get tired…
- When your wife tells you to pull in your stomach, and you already have!”
Of course the message I was receiving from all these “former” friends of mine was: “Now you’re over the hill!”
Well, I’ve been thinking about that and I realized that I can’t be over the hill, because I haven’t seen the top yet. You see, I happen to believe, while we don’t have much choice about growing older, we do have something to say about getting old. When you study the scriptures, you begin to understand that God doesn’t expect His people to get old. He expects us to grow older, but He doesn’t expect us to grow old. The Biblical affirmation is “a white head is a crown of glory.” The prophet Isaiah spoke for God when he said: “I am your God even into your older years; even when your hair turns white, I will carry you and deliver you.”
If you need that spelled out further, then look at these verses in Psalm 92. Here you will see, clearly delineated, God’s vision for His people as they grow older. Look at what the Psalmist writes:
In verse 10, he writes: “Thou hast exalted my horn like that of the wild ox.” Understand please that the Bible uses the word “horn” in symbolic fashion. It means “power.” So, the message of the verse is that as we move into our older years, God will grant us a new power. He will bestow upon us an eternal vitality. He will exalt our horn, our power, like that of the wild ox. Do you know the expression “that person is as strong as an ox?” That’s where it comes from. God is going to give us power in our older years.
Then the psalmist writes: “Thou hast poured over me fresh oil.” That’s another way of saying He is going to anoint us again with His Holy Spirit. When we move along in years, we aren’t going to have to make do with some almost forgotten experience of God left over from our younger days. No. God will continue to anoint his people, to fulfill the prophecy of Joel that older people shall dream great dreams for God. We’ll be dreamers for the Lord, visionaries for the Kingdom, because of this spiritual force within us.
And then in Vs. 12 we read, “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree.” The palm tree is noted for its grace and beauty—and what’s more to the point, every part of the palm tree is useful. That is the antidote for the feeling of uselessness so many older people have—God’s people will grow like the palm tree. Of course, the genius of the palm tree is that it can stand in the face of a hurricane. It has learned to bend, and therefore can survive the storm.
Then we find these words, “The righteous shall flourish like a cedar in Lebanon.” How do they grow? With majesty and with strength. Sometimes they reach 120 feet in height and 40 feet in girth. Well, let’s not talk about the girth as we get older, but let’s do talk about the height. By alluding to the towering majesty of the Cedars of Lebanon, the Psalmist is reminding us that the greater our years, the greater the potential for a majestic witness to the Lord.
There’s more. In verse 14, these words: “They shall bring forth fruit in old age.” In other words, when you are bearing fruit in your life, you never get old; and in fact, the passing of the years can enhance the quality of the fruit. Jesus put it this way: “I have appointed you to bear fruit and your fruit will abide.” Your productivity in the kingdom doesn’t stop at age 40 or 50 or 65 or even 90. Don’t forget that!
Then the Psalmist adds this line: “God’s people are full of sap and green.” It may not sound too glamorous, but it really is. He is talking about being full of freshness and vitality even in advancing years. It’s like what the Bible says about Moses in Deuteronomy 34. “Though Moses was 120 years old, his eye was not dim nor had his natural force abated.” He was rich in memories. He was long on understanding. He was mature in wisdom. He was unstoppable in personal power. What a man! What God is able to do with people like that!
Now as I have submerged myself in the wondrous promises found in this Psalm, I have come to believe that God has given me a vision for my life, and He has given me a vision for this church.
At age 50 God has given me a vision for my life.
You may have heard the story about the small town which had a cemetery on a high hill right at the center of town. One day a hearse was pulling up into the cemetery. Suddenly, the back door of the hearse popped open…the casket rolled out on it’s wheeled bier…it proceeded to roll down the hill and onto the main street…it crashed through the window of the drug store…hurdled the length of the store…smashed against the prescription counter…whereupon the top of the casket flew open, the corpse sat up and said to the druggist: “Do you have anything to stop this coffin?”
Well, the fact is, nothing stops our coffin! Each one of us has a rendezvous with death—and you don’t have to turn 50 to know that! I want you to know that I don’t take death lightly, but I don’t take it seriously either. I take life seriously, but I don’t take death seriously, I take death faithfully. You see I’m in the grip of a God who is the conqueror of death, and therefore, I shall conquer it too. The Bible says that death is an enemy—a dreaded enemy— yes, but the Bible also says that Jesus Christ has ripped out it’s sting. So I don’t take death seriously; I take it faithfully. I’m ready whenever it comes.
And besides, to live eternally on this earth would be far worse than death. There is a place in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels where Gulliver comes to the Land of the Lugnagians. He learns there that occasionally a child in the land will be born with a red spot on his forehead and that any person so marked would never die. Gulliver was eager to meet some of these people because they were bound to feel happy and blessed. In fact, the opposite was true. They were of all people most miserable. All of their friends had long since died. The problems, pains, frustrations, and failures of this life were never lifted. It was a sad spectacle to see. My friends, endless life on this plundered planet would be like working hour after hour and never hearing the quitting whistle, like working in the fields day after day and never seeing the sun set or experiencing the cool relief of the evening.
So I don’t take death seriously—I take it faithfully. But I do take life seriously. And I believe that God has put me here to win people to Jesus Christ and to help Him build His kingdom and He is calling me to make the most of that for whatever time I have. It’s like the old Buddhist legend; the priest who was chased by a hungry bear. He came to the edge of a cliff. He had no choice but to jump. As he did he grabbed hold of a branch sticking out of the side of the cliff. He looked down to the valley below and there was a starving tiger waiting for him to fall. He had the bear above and the tiger below. At that point a beaver began to gnaw on the branch. Soon the branch would break and he would fall to certain death. Then he notices that out on the most distant twig of that branch there bangs a red ripe strawberry. He plucks it and eats it and says: “How delicious!”
That’s what I’ve decided to do. I’ve decided to live as long as I can and to live as powerfully as I can. I’ve decided to climb out to the end of the branch in life because that’s where the best fruit is. After death, there will be strawberries and whipped cream, (or for me, unending hot fudge sundaes!). But here in this life, I’m going to focus on the delicious fruit of the gospel. My beloved professor, James Stewart of Scotland, used to say: “Bring all that you have to the ministry and bring it without reserve.” I have done that and I will continue to bring all that I have and all that I can be to this great task which still summons me with strength. That’s the vision God has given me for my life.
And at age 50, God has given me a vision for this church.
Someone once gave me a card on which was printed this line—I don’t know that they necessarily meant it as a friendly gesture—but I have hung onto it and I read it frequently. The card said, “A mist in the pulpit produces fog in the pews.” I must tell you something, my beloved, I do not ask you to agree with me about anything that I stand for—I do hope you will love me in spite of that—I do not ask you to agree with me, but you can bet on the fact that from this pulpit, as long as I stand in it, there will never be a mist! You will know where I stand. You will know my interpretation of the Scripture. You will know my commitment to Christ. You will know where I believe God is leading us as a congregation. I will offer it to you as honestly and as faithfully as I know how. You don’t have to agree with it all, but you will have to react to it so that there won’t be a fog in the pews.
Please remember that. This past week the lay leaders of our church voting by secret ballot, voted 40 to 1 to adopt a plan to guide us into the 21st century. I can tell you this plan is astonishing in it’s potential. I can hardly wait for the members of this church to begin to learn about it. What does it mean for us? It means that right here on Church Street we shall continue to keep winning increasing numbers of people to the abundant life in Jesus Christ. A church that is not growing is dying. You have heard me say that before but it’s still true. The call to bring people to a saving encounter with Jesus Christ and to enable them to grow as His disciples remains as clear and compelling now as it was in New Testament times. Therefore, we shall grow. We count people in this church because people count. Everyone of those numbers is a priceless human soul. And it means that this church, which has been at this location for 116 years, will be here for all our lifetimes and beyond. We shall build facilities here which will enable us to take extraordinary care of our own and which will enable us to reach out with great spiritual power to meet the needs of people in the world around us. And it means that ultimately, I can fulfill and then finish my ministry here. Friends, I want to grow older with you, but I don’t want to get old. I have a vision for our church, a vision given to me by God. I do not believe that God has brought us to this moment to stand still. I believe our destiny together is still before us. It is a time for dreaming, a time for deep devotion, a time for summoning a new burst of the spirit, a time for venturing out in faith. I couldn’t be more excited about what’s ahead for our church—and I couldn’t be more ready. I may now be 50 years old, but I can’t possibly be over the hill because I haven’t seen the top yet. But I can tell you this: with the help of Jesus Christ, you and I together are going to see the top. And frankly, I can’t wait…
This past week, I had a conversation with one of our high school seniors—a bright young woman full of faith in Jesus Christ. Suddenly she said to me: “If I were to think of you 30 years from now, what would you like for me to remember?” The question took me by surprise, so I didn’t give much of an answer. But I’ve thought about it since, and I’d like to answer it this way:
If 30 years from now you stopped long enough to remember me, I would like for you to say: “He was not a great man, though he knew some men and women who were great. But he was a good man, who sought for all he was worth to bring good to others. In matters of the faith, he never arrived, but he never stopped climbing. He tried his best to walk every day with Jesus, and he was driven by an undying passion for human souls. But what I remember most about him is what he tried his hardest to teach us. 1 John 2:17. ‘The world passes away, and the lust of it, but he who does the will of God abides forever.'”