Relentless Pursuit
by Jack Wald | April 3rd, 2016

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Why is it that revivals do not seem to last very long?

The Great Awakening in 1740 swept through the American colonies bringing enthusiasm for Christian faith and transforming society. But this enthusiasm did not last. The children of those who came to faith in the Great Awakening were less enthusiastic and by the 1770s the influence of the church had become weak. At this point Voltaire, the French philosopher, confidently predicted that the church would become extinct in his generation.

But then came the Second Great Awakening in 1790 and there was another great movement to the church and another social transformation. In England William Wilberforce led the effort to eliminate the slave trade, worked to protect children who were abused as chimney sweeps and in textile mills, encouraged education for the poor, set up organizations to help orphans. But this revival, as with others, did not last and the church once again weakened and lost influence in society.

Revivals create new values that change the culture, but the church itself rises and falls much more quickly.

This is not a recent phenomenon. The book of Judges in the Old Testament shows the rise and fall of Israel’s obedience to God. In a time when Israel was oppressed, a leader arose who got rid of idols and led Israel to victory. But then Israel returned to worship of idols and was once again under the oppression of one of its neighbors until another leader arose, got rid of idols, and led Israel to victory. This is the cycle in the book of Judges.

Why is it that in countries where the gospel started, there are so few followers of Jesus? Why is it that Palestine and the Middle East where the church began now has so few followers? Why is it that the churches Paul started are now ancient ruins and there are few followers of Jesus in these areas?

When you put a product on the shelf of a supermarket, there is a limited time for that product to be sold. After a certain date that product is supposed to be removed from the shelf and discarded. The length of time the product is able to stay on the shelf and be sold is called the shelf-life of the product. Christianity has a very short shelf-life. It does not last long.

We look at the birthplace of Jesus and the churches started by Paul and we wish the church would rise up once again in these places. And when we receive word that there are movements to Jesus in this part of the world, we are excited. It disturbs us that the church in the ancient world is so weak, but it is when the short shelf-life of Christian faith becomes more intimate, when it becomes more personal, that we feel a deep pain. It is when our children move away from Christian faith that we grieve.

I talk with so many parents who are grieving the shifting faith or lack of faith of their children. The stories are different. The reasons their children have pulled away from Jesus are different. But the pain is the same.

On my last trip to the US, I talked with several friends whose children have drifted away from faith in Jesus. One night when I was in bed praying about the day and thinking about these conversations, it came to me that this is not the first time in history that this has happened.

My friends and I became followers of Jesus in the late 1960s and early 1970s when an estimated fourteen million Americans became followers of Jesus. Historians identify this as the Fourth Great Awakening. This was a time of great excitement. We did not know it was a revival at the time, but there were a large number of us in the church and we were transformed. What we experienced was so powerful it is painful for us to see our children turn away from what has been so rich and wonderful for us. We see very clearly the eternal significance of faith and desperately want those we love to share that eternal future with us.

I realized that our situation was similar to the experience of those who came to faith in the Great Awakening of 1740. Imagine a couple who came to faith in the Great Awakening, got married, and then had children. In 1770 their children were thirty years old and had children of their own. The culture had steadily drifted away from the values that had been put into the culture by the Great Awakening thirty years earlier. It was disturbing to see the cultural shift away from Christian values and painful to see their own children drifting away from the faith that had so richly blessed their lives. In 1780 their children were forty years old and then fifty years old in 1790 when the Second Great Awakening came and revived the stagnant church. This couple waited for thirty years to see the church once again revived – and hopefully to see their own children and grandchildren brought to a relationship with Jesus.

It helps to know that this is a historical pattern, that this is not the first time in history this has happened, that others have experienced what we are experiencing. Why is there this pattern in history? Why doesn’t the church move steadily onward and upward without ever losing any ground? Why does the church follow this discouraging pattern of rising and falling?

1. God has no grandchildren.

Corrie ten Boom wrote, “Does being born into a Christian family make one a Christian? No! God has no grandchildren.” Some of us had parents who were followers of Jesus and we grew up in a home where faith in Jesus was a part of the home. Others of us grew up in homes where this was not the case. But whether we grew up in a Christian home or not, we each had to come to a point of surrender and make Jesus our Savior and Lord. It is not automatic that Christian parents produce Christian children. Jesus has to rescue our children just as we were rescued.

2. We can create Christian culture but we cannot create Christian faith.

Imagine a man who gets paid for his work, stops off at a bar on the way home and spends his paycheck in the bar, comes home drunk, beats his wife and kids, gambles, cheats on his wife with women he meets in the bar. Then he meets Jesus and his life is transformed. He no longer drinks. He no longer beats his wife and kids. He no longer gambles. He no longer cheats on his wife. He brings his paycheck home and the family prospers. He begins to go to church. He reads his bible. He prays. His life and the life of his family improves because of this great change in his life.

Because he wants his kids to be Christians, he tells his kids what not to do. Don’t gamble, don’t get drunk, don’t cheat on your spouse. And then he tells his kids what to do. Read the bible, go to church, and pray. So the kids begin to do what their father is doing. They don’t do bad things and they do good things. Some will follow this pattern, but others will begin to wonder why they are not doing certain things and why they are doing other things. Some will continue on with their father’s new lifestyle but others will rebel.

The father changed because of his encounter with Jesus but now his children are living his new and improved lifestyle without that encounter. The problem is that when there is not an inner experience with Jesus that drives behavior, there is not a reason to behave in those ways. The behavior stands without a foundation. Even for those who continue on with the behavior, their faith becomes an institutional, cultural faith, not a living faith.

We can pass on the culture of Christian faith but we cannot pass on faith itself. Once again, only Jesus can do that.

3. Following Jesus is not easy and not natural. It is a miracle.

I have often said this, that the greatest miracle in the Bible is not Jesus healing a leper, making the blind see, the lame walk, or even raising someone from the dead. The greatest miracle in the Bible is people coming to faith in Jesus and then persevering even when it becomes difficult or inconvenient to do so.

Jesus forgave the paralytic whose friends lowered him down through the roof to Jesus, and then as an afterthought Jesus healed him and he was able to walk. The greatest miracle came first and a secondary miracle followed. One day the man’s legs failed him and he died, but he lives forever in the kingdom of God. The greater miracle carried him into eternity.

The Bible does not tell us and we do not know, but it would not surprise me if some of the half-brothers and half-sisters of Jesus were not part of the early church. We know James was a leader in the early church, the head of the church in Jerusalem, but we don’t know about the others. Perhaps some of them were not able to get over the difficulty of having seen Jesus grow through the years and then have him claim to be the divine Son of God.

But even if his half-brothers and half-sisters were part of the early church, it is probable that some of their children and grandchildren were not followers of Jesus.

It could be that a parent was abusive and the child dismissed faith in Jesus because of the parent’s behavior. It could be that the child did everything his or her parents did but then realized at some point that it was an empty experience because he or she did not have an experience with Jesus, whatever that meant to them. It could be that the child got caught up in a career and had to choose between Jesus and the career.

Jesus told the parable of the seeds with seed that landed on the path, among thorns, where weeds grew up, or on good soil. This is true with the seeds that are planted in children. Not all seed that is planted grows up on good soil.

It takes a miracle for the seed to fall on good soil. The miracle that happened when we began to follow Jesus needs to take place again in the lives of our children. When we pray for our children to come to faith in Jesus, we are praying for a great miracle.

4. Jesus is the one who pursues and the one who rescues, not us.

A major theme in the teaching of Jesus was the pursuit of God for those who are lost. One of these teachings was the parable of the lost sheep. (Luke 15:3–7)
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Jesus is not a businessman who evaluates the situation and says, “One sheep is just a 1% loss and I can handle that. It is better that I take care of 99% of my investment than risk all that for the sake of just one sheep.” Jesus cares for the 99 and because he is not limited as we are, he also pursues the one who is lost. Jesus loves every sheep. There is no end to which Jesus will not go to save his sheep. He gave up the privileges of his eternal existence, came to earth, and went to the cross to die for us. Jesus will make every effort to save us.

In a famous poem, The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson wrote:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him,

The poem talks about fleeing from God but no matter where he goes, he is followed by footsteps, the hound of heaven. He cannot escape the footsteps that follow until finally there is a sweet surrender and he discovers the joy and relief of being found. In all the twists and turns of his life, despite all his defiance and rebellion, the footsteps followed him.

This is the message of Psalm 23 that concludes with this verse
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This following is not a passive following. The word translated “follow” carries the meaning of pursuit and so we can read that verse this way:
Surely your goodness and love will pursue me relentlessly all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

We are relentlessly pursued by Jesus. We were pursued by Jesus. We will continue to be pursued by Jesus who does not want any of his little ones to be lost. And as he pursues us, so does he pursue those we love.

We put our faith in Jesus to save. We trust him to do for those we love what he did and does for us.

So, what can we do? If Jesus is the one who pursues, what can we do? What should we not do?

1. We cannot make our children followers of Jesus and so we should not pressure or manipulate them to be followers of Jesus.

I think it is entirely appropriate to tell our children that they need to come to church because we go to church. They need to abide by the rules of their parents. There are curfews. There are restrictions on what they are permitted to do and there are things they are not permitted to do. But we cannot force our children to read the bible or to pray. We cannot force them to sing when we sing. We can encourage our children to do these things, but we cannot force them.

We should never make our love for our children conditional on their behavior. If we show our children that we love them more because they are followers of Jesus, we are undermining the gospel that tells us we are loved unconditionally. Jesus does not love us more when we do what he wants. Jesus does not loves us less when we disobey him. The love of Jesus is total and complete. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We need to love our children in the same way.

Faith must be voluntary if it is to be eternally significant. Forced or manipulated faith is not faith.

In the movie, Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays a newscaster, Bruce Nolan, in Buffalo, New York who is given by God the temporary assignment to be God for the Buffalo area. Bruce starts out having fun exploring what it is like to have the powers of God. He makes his soup part like the Red Sea. He uses his powers to make his dog use the toilet to pee. But when he tries to make his girlfriend forgive him, he cannot. He cannot because this is the rule God gave to Bruce when he gave him his power. He said he could not violate free will. People are free to choose.

This is the limitation God works with because God wants a real relationship with us, a relationship we choose of our own free will. God does not force us to surrender to him. He pursues us. He pursued me for many years before I surrendered. But he waits for us to come to him. He waited until I came to my senses and surrendered to him.

The father in the parable of the prodigal son let his son leave and then stood at the door, looking out at the road, waiting, waiting, waiting, to see his son come home. And then he lifted up his robe and ran to greet his son and welcome him home.

We have to allow our children to do the same thing. We have to wait for them to surrender to Jesus of their own free will.

What can we do?

1. We can love our children. We can love our children unconditionally. We can love our children if they follow Jesus or if they choose not to follow Jesus. We can love our children so that they feel free to talk with us about what they are thinking and feeling. We can love them when they are angry with us. We can love them when they are critical of our faith. We can love them the way we are loved by Jesus.

2. We can model faith. We can continue to seek an intimate relationship with Jesus as we pray, read the Bible, journal, and reflect. We can continue to put our faith into action, caring for people God loves, caring for those without power.

We need to allow our children, as they come into adulthood, to see our struggles as well as our victories. We need to allow our children to see the depth of our faith. It is likely that when your children see the depth of your faith when you are weak, that will speak to them more powerfully than when everything is going well.

Our children will watch us. They may have set out on a new course but in the rearview mirror they see what we do and observe. If we are genuine in our faith, they will see that and what they see will be used by God.

I talked with one man whose son has no connection with the church, but whenever he has difficulties in his life, he asks his parents to pray for him. The son of another couple is in an academic setting where people are critical of Christian faith and missionaries, but he defends Christians because he knows the genuine faith of his parents and respects what they have done and what they are doing.

We can model faith even when our children are rebelling against our faith.

3. When our children are young, we need to teach them about what we believe. I talked a few weeks ago about discipleship and that Sunday School cannot be a substitute for our own teaching to our children.

Moses instructed Israel to teach their children. (Deuteronomy 6:4–9)
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

This is our responsibility as parents. But when our children come into adulthood, after the age of eighteen, they have to be treated as adults. We can advise them, but they have to choose what they will do and where they will go. If they come to us we can share with them about our faith, but we cannot pursue them with the things we believe. We should pursue with love but not bible tracts and sermon tapes.

We want our adult children to know they are loved, not just preached to.

4. We can pray for our children.

Dwight Moody, a 19th century evangelist in the US, wrote a book titled, Prevailing Prayer. In this book he tells the story of a mother in Connecticut, in the northeast of the US, who had a son in the army, fighting in the American Civil War. It broke her heart when he left because he was not a Christian. Day after day she lifted up her voice in prayer for her boy. She afterward learned that he had been taken to the hospital, and there died, but she could not find out anything about how he had died. Years passed, and one day a friend came to see some member of the family on business. There was a picture of the soldier on the wall. He looked at it and said, “Did you know that young man?” The mother said, “That young man was my son. He died in the late war.” The man said, “I knew him very well; he was in my company.” The mother then asked, “Do you know anything about his end?” The man said, “I was in the hospital, and he died a most peaceful death, triumphant in the faith.” The mother had given up hope of ever hearing of her boy; but before she died she had the satisfaction of knowing that her prayers had prevailed with God.

Monica was a Berber, born in the year 331 in what is present day Algeria. She was brought up in Christian faith but married a man who was not a Christian. Following the advice of I Peter 3, Monica realized her conduct more than her words would be the means of her husband Patricius’ conversion. By her persevering in patience and meekness, Monica won her mother-in-law to Christ. Patricius too became a Christian, though only towards the very end of his life.

She prayed and prayed for her whole family to come to Christ and put her hopes on Augustine, who was the most promising of her children. But Augustine pursued an academic life and a hedonistic lifestyle. He had a mistress who bore him a child. But still Monica prayed.

When I visited Carthage in Tunisia, there is a chapel where Monica prayed for her son and the rest of her family. After years of prayer and years of worry, Augustine surrendered and went on to write and preach. His was highly influential in the early years of the church and his influence continues to this day.

He wrote a book titled, Confessions, and spoke of his grief and weeping for the mother “now gone from my sight, who for years had wept over me, that I might live in your [God’s] sight.”

We look to Augustine with great admiration but it is the prayers of his mother Monica which God used to rescue him.

5. When our children wander, we must control our desire to make them come to faith. We have to bear the pain without inflicting pain. We have to put our trust in Jesus who saved us to save them.

The father in the parable of the prodigal son allowed his son to leave. Despite the shame of being asked to give his son his inheritance while the father was still living, he gave his son the money and allowed him to leave. And then he waited. He prayed. He waited. Every day he stood by the door looking so that when the son returned (Luke 15:20–24)
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

This is a painful waiting. When we read this parable we focus on the running to the son and celebrating, but there was the waiting. Months and perhaps years of waiting, painful waiting. It would be easier to cut off the relationship and get on with life, but where is the love in that? We absorb the pain and wait with hope. We know that Jesus loves more purely and more powerfully than we can love. We know that Jesus pursues the lost sheep and so we trust Jesus and wait with hope.

In this sermon I have been talking about parents and children, but what I have said applies to all our relationships with people we love. Our friends, siblings, parents, all those we love are loved by Jesus and we put our hope in Jesus because his love will pursue them. There is always hope for those we love because of the relentless pursuit of Jesus who loves them even more than we do.

Let me end by reading portions of a blog I came across. It is written by Reed Metcalf who works at Fuller Seminary in the US. He writes of a friend who has moved away from faith in Jesus.

The God we see in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is One who loves despite. Despite our sin, our waywardness, our piety, our efforts, our failures, despite everything. From the complaining under Moses to the rejection of God as King, from idolatry under the monarchs to the compromise under the Romans, God across thousands of years has pursued a stubborn people called Israel. When all else fails, He appears in the flesh to knock on their doors, to sleep in their gardens, to eat at their tables, to call them back to Him. God will not let them go.

It is here that we find our hope. God’s reckless devotion to his own people makes up the scraps we Gentiles hope to eat as they fall from Israel’s table. We hope to one day have the same devotion from the God of Israel: that even when it seems that we have crossed the final line, we see God, shepherd staff in hand, come rushing over the hill to bring us back. And how ecstatic are we when this becomes a reality, when God makes a way for us to become part of the chosen people through the death and resurrection of Christ? We are now part of the flock, part of the one hundred. Should even one of us—any one of us—go astray, the Shepherd will begin his searching again.

In this I take comfort. He is faithful even when we are not. When we walk away, the Shepherd follows us. Psalm 23:6 can be read, “Surely His goodness and steadfast love will pursue me relentlessly all the days of my life.”

God refuses to give up. Ever. On us, on those who leave the church, on those who have never been part of the community. He is the God-Who-Pursues-Us-Relentlessly. Until our last day, He will dog our steps with love.

I think of my friend, now living apart from the flock. I fight the temptation to stop the pain, to stop the feeling by writing her off, by saying that she has made her choice and that is that. Such thoughts are not from God. His thoughts are the ones I must grab. His thoughts are yet turned to her, despite the pain, despite the rebellion, despite the waywardness. He picks up his staff and begins his pursuit, over hill and across desert, until the one is brought back. I cry with joy at the thought that the Shepherd has still not given up on her. I wipe my tears and follow in his steps.