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In the Right Place—at the Right Time
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There’s a complaint we preachers have—and I might as well confess it to all of you right here . . . because none of you are the people we’re talking about. But every now and then, someone will complain: “You know, I just really don’t get anything out of church!” And the reality, at least as far as I can see, is that for the past three months they’ve either not come to church, or somehow ended up in the kitchen the entire morning. It’s hard to get blessed if we’re not here, just as it’s difficult to get wet if you never get into the pool.

Let me tell you this Sabbath morning about a fictional fellow we’ll call Enrico.

Now, Enrico was a 38-year-old young man who'd never been married. In fact, in the past six or seven years, he hadn't even had what you could ever call a real date.

Truthfully, he wasn't a bad-looking fellow. In fact, he dressed fairly well and made not-too-bad money at the factory, where he'd advanced to the position of supervisor of the three-to-eleven shift. But as the months and years kept creeping by, his social life was a crushing zero.

Of course, you know that friends gave him all kinds of advice. "Here's the phone number of my wife's cousin.” You know how that goes. "Enrico, why don't you go on a cruise?” "Enrico, I think you should send your name in to a computer dating service like eharmony.com or Adventist Contact.” "Buy a new BMW sports car and cruise up and down Main Street in your free time.” Et cetera et cetera. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of some of these suggestions too. 

Well, I want to say to each of you that our sermon study for today isn’t at all about dating or finding a good spouse . . . although we might get into that some other Sabbath. But I want to focus for just a few moments here on what Enrico could do—and then immediately translate that to our Christian search for salvation.

Several wise friends finally said to their pal Enrico: "The one thing you can do is to put yourself where you might meet somebody. You're working the three-to-eleven shift in a factory on the outskirts of town. Nobody's getting to know you! You need to find a way to put yourself where the right woman might come along. Spend some time each week at the library. Sign up to take a not-too-hard class at the local community college. How about getting to church each Sabbath morning?" I know of many, many happy couples who first saw that special someone right here in a pew one lucky Sabbath. But the point is that Enrico could make sure that at least he could be where something might take place.

Now—what's the spiritual point. Last Sabbath morning we began to discuss five vital steps that lead us to really know God. And you'll recall how I said that in all five steps, God is the One who takes the lead. He’s the moving Force throughout the whole process; the initiative is all with Him.

Here's a quick review. Step Number One: A Desire for Something Better. And it's God who gives us that desire; He leads us to that realization of our need; He points out the emptiness of our secular and self-centered life. He draws us to Himself.

Step Two: A Knowledge of What It Is That's Better. In other words, the plan of salvation. God's gift, His free gift, to us. He has a myriad of ways to help us come into contact with the story of Calvary. I know of grateful Adventists who came into this wonderful message through a tract they found at a laudromat; others got a brochure about a seminar in their mailbox. We have new Christians who heard a radio program or a TV broadcast. Sometimes a person stumbles onto a web site which leads them to seek Jesus. Maybe you’ve had a conversation across a backyard fence which led a new friend to know that Jesus died for their sins. 

Now again, Step Two is also God's doing. It's His gift. God the Father gave His Son, Jesus Christ. He designed the plan, He set it into motion, He made the gift, He's the One who has proclaimed it to the human race. Just as in Step Number One, it's God who does it all.

However I'd like to point out the lesson we can learn from our lonely friend Enrico. There's something we can do here as well. And here it is: we can put ourselves in a place where we can learn about this gift. 

You know, in my years in pastoring, I've counseled hundreds of people in my office who all said basically the same thing: "It just doesn't happen for me. I'm lost. I don't understand it. Why can't I grasp this? Other people get the hang of it, and I don’t. Please help me."

And I share with them the five steps we’ve been considering together. And how salvation is indeed God's free gift. They can't do a thing to deserve it.

But I do add this reminder: there's one thing they can do. They can put themselves in a place where they can continue to hear about this plan.

They can put themselves in a church pew on Sabbath morning. After all, that's where the sermon is being preached, isn't it?

They can put themselves in a quiet place every morning where they can pray and begin reading the Bible. God won't drag them there. He won't bring a cloud of blessing in your front door and drop spiritual rain down on your head. But you and I can put ourselves in a place where we can be exposed to the truth.

If your work schedule is tight, you face a decision each day when you climb into your car for that tough commute. You can either listen to the news reports on the radio, or you can pop in a CD or use your I-Pod docking station in order to feed your soul with ten or fifteen minutes of Bible truth. There are so many ways today where an earnest person can infuse their mind with godly new ideas. But there are always baseball games and rock-and-roll hits to distract us instead. The choice is up to us. Like our friend Enrico, we can hibernate with our stack of DVDs or we can place ourselves in the pathway of saving truth.

God won't force you to do it, but you can cooperate with Him by sitting yourself down and using the muscles in your hand to open up a book or spin the dial on your I-Pod and place yourself in the path of truth.

This, of course, brings in the idea of an enemy named Satan who will try to keep you from putting yourself in that place. Understanding the plan of salvation, that free gift, is what he wants more than anything to prevent. I like how C. S. Lewis describes it in his book, Mere Christianity, with a bit of World War Two flavor: "Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” Now listen to this: "When you go to church you are really listening in to the secret wireless of our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going."

My own experience tells me that if we make it a matter of decision week by week—shall I go and worship with God’s people or shall I not?—Lucifer will have a million suggestions for reasons we should stay away. It’s raining. We had a hard week. The freeways are clogged. The church is too hot (or cold). We’re mad at so-and-so. Keep in mind that Satan does not want for Enrico to have a happy marriage, and he doesn’t want for you to be faithfully exposed to the gospel story. He wants to prevent that any way he can. He wants to throw up blockades and keep us from coming to the cross.

So again, you and I can't save ourselves. We can't make ourselves repent. But we can put ourselves in a place where we can learn about what God has done for us. We can participate in developing a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Again as we review, here's Step #3: A Conviction That We’re Sinners

Now, this is vital. You'll remember that we mentioned this last Sabbath. We won't look for a plan of salvation until we're convinced that we need one.

I won't repeat all of the same verses we used earlier, but the Bible is abundantly clear that you're a sinner and that I'm a sinner. If you're part of the human race, then you're automatically a member of the Sinners' Club. The Bible tells us in Romans 3:23: All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

Let's return to our theme question: Whose job is it to "lay on us" a realization that we're sinners?

The answer's simple. Again, that's God's job. It's God who put that verse in the Bible: "All have sinned.” "There are none righteous, no, not one.” It's the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin. It's God who has posted the Ten Commandments on the wall so that we can discover what sin is . . . and how it's woven into our lives. It’s God who inspires the prophets and the preachers and the great authors in the Christian faith to write compelling books and magazine articles which hit us between the eyes. It’s God who inspires your neighbor to lovingly confront you in the spirit of Matthew 18 when you have stumbled and fallen. It’s God who graciously moves in your small group to take the discussion into an area where you might grow in your understanding of right and wrong.

Baseball player Brett Butler, a vibrant born-again Christian, tells an incredible story on himself. When he was still in the minor leagues, he fell into a tragic mistake of living with his girlfriend. They intended to get married; they did love God in their own immature way. In fact, they were regularly at Bible study groups and fellowship gatherings . . . and then after the final prayer they would go back to their little love shack which didn’t have a wedding license tacked up on the wall.

And one day one of their fellow ballplayers simply confronted Brett and his girlfriend. “You two are nice people, but the reality is that you’re a couple of hypocrites.” What? They felt terrible, but they knew in two seconds where this conversation was going. “You guys are living together and you’re not married. That’s a sin and in your hearts you both know it.” Oh man. But the good news is that Butler, convicted of his wrong, put his girlfriend on a plane and said to her: “Go home. Start planning a wedding.” And they were obedient to God from that day on.

The point, of course, is that Brett being in that Bible study group was how God was able to hit him between the eyes with a loving two-by-four and bring him to repentance. That was his “Enrico” decision, to be where God could get to him and reshape his life.

And I'd like to point out how God, in a loving way, has personalized His attentions toward me and toward you in regard to this principle. He doesn't just make one remote-control universal announcement and say, "Here are the rules. And you're all guilty.” No, He moves upon my heart and says, “NAME, you need Me. Right here. Look. Look at this area where your life is in desperate need of healing.”

In a way, God is like a doctor who very graciously provides a diagnosis. "Friend," He says, "there's a cancer in there. By yourself, you can't take it out. By yourself, you wouldn't even know it's there. But I want to take it out for you.” You can almost hear the tears in His voice as He sets down His stethoscope and your medical records and looks you in the eye.

But now let's move to the fourth step. And this is one of the most difficult things that human beings ever face. So brace yourselves. Step #4: Admitting That We Are Helpless.

Morris Venden, who pastured in our church for more than four decades, and who has thousand of people, especially college young people, through these steps toward a relationship with God, reminds us that it's almost always right here on Step Number Four where the train goes off the tracks. This is where we crash and burn.

Most people do come to realize that they want something better, he says. And many, many people soon are led to believe that God does have a better plan, a way of salvation. They accept that it's a free gift. And they certainly recognize that they are sinners.

But to admit that we're helpless . . . that is a crunching step, almost overwhelming to us. To finally throw up our hands and say, "I've tried everything! I've failed a hundred ways; I can't take care of this myself"—that is hard. In fact, it's almost inhumanly hard.

Ironically, this step of admitting helplessness is hard for people at all levels of the spiritual spectrum. Non-Christians who are stepping into this for the first time can't admit it. Strong-willed people who have always been used to self-improvement and the "climb the ladder" mentality and twelve-step programs can't admit it. So-called "good" people who really find it instinctively easy to obey and to worship can't admit it. And sometimes Christians who have been in the church for 60 years—even they can't admit that they are helpless to achieve the salvation process by themselves.

Let me confess to all of you, since we’re all family here, that I’ve often had to battle with self on this point. Pastor Venden writes in his many spiritual books about his own travails in coming to admit his helplessness, and this is our common struggle. Again I say, this is where we get stuck. We look at a bad habit and we say to ourselves, "I can get over this!” The Holy Spirit points out where our lives are out of harmony with God's will, and we say, "Yes! I see that! Thank you very much, Lord. Thank You, Holy Spirit. I’m going to work on that. Come January 1, Jesus, you are going to see a new me.”

Listen to the Lord right now. It's for our good that He tells us we're helpless. Here's John 15:5: "Without Me, you . . . can . . . do . . . NOTHING."

Now, with His help, we can accomplish plenty. But without Him, nothing! If salvation is a ladder to heaven, we can't get to the first rung on our own. We can’t even start.

The prophet Jeremiah asks in chapter 13: "Can the leopard change its spots?"

It can't, can it? The leopard is helpless to change; you and I are equally helpless to change. Every bit of self-improvement we can accomplish is basically just tinkering around the edges. Putting whitewash on a dirty sepulcher is how the Bible would probably phrase it.

There are religions that are built for strong people. There are whole faith systems created on the foundation belief that you can walk on coals or grit your teeth to obey or strive for obedience. Some of you have likely witnessed the infamous Thaipusam festival in Hindu lands where devotees pierce themselves with spears and then run three miles through hot city streets in order to earn some merit. But Christianity is a whole different kind of religion. There's no religion like the Christian religion. The Christian faith is built upon the idea of conceding helplessness. We sing the song, I Surrender All, and when we do, we’re not singing about surrendering our cigarettes and our temper and our lustful thoughts and our shady business practices. We’re singing about giving up on the idea or the hope or the plan that we can improve ourselves. We’re surrendering the war.

We’re going to hold the study of surrendering over until next Sabbath, but I want us to simply pause here and thank the Lord that He is a seeking God who takes the initiative in saving us. We see here that we are helpless but not hopeless. We cannot save ourselves—not in any degree and not by doing any part of the process. All we can do is to place ourselves where it can happen in our lives . . . and praise God, each of you is here today. Shall we pray?

Father, it is hard to realize that we cannot do this thing. We are here without power, without the ability to make ourselves good or to take ourselves to heaven. And yet we see here that You have already done all that needs to be done. Thank You for pursuing us, Father. Thank You for seeking the lost and for finding each of us in our moment of need. We want to respond today, and to ask You to help us to surrender. In Your Son’s saving name we pray, Amen.

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