Pressing On

Fifth in “New Life – Full and Free” Series on Colossians,
Delivered October 17, 2004 by Rev. Keith Wright.

Sermon Text:
Colossians 4:2-18

This morning we come to the end of our series in the Book of Colossians and I invite you now to turn in your Bibles to Colossians, Chapter 4. We will begin reading at verse 2 and continue on to the end of the chapter. We will also be projecting it to the screen on my left. Here the Word of God.

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here. My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends his greetings, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those who Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers of Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And after this letter has been read to you, see to it that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord”. I, Paul write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.”

Lord Jesus, we have come here this morning not to hear the words of a man, but to hear your words, and now Lord as we interact around this scripture, and as I speak words that you have given to me and as each one of us processes these words through our heads and through our hearts, I would ask God that you would encourage our faith, that you would focus our vision and that you would equip us to be the men and women that you want us to be as we endeavor to serve you, and to make an impact on the world in our time for Jesus Christ. And it is in His name that we pray. Amen.

Hi. My name is Keith and I am a time management junkie. A couple of people have been to 12-step groups every year. So we are going to try this again. So if you go to a 12-step program and somebody introduces themselves in that way, you shout back their name like “Hi, Keith.” So let’s try that again. Hi, I am Keith and I am a time management junkie. (Congregation responds back, “Hi, Keith”.) I need to confess to you this morning that I love time management tools and techniques. In fact, I can get lost for hours in the Franklin Covy store at the mall, looking for the latest insert for my planner or the latest log in order to chart whatever goal that I am working on at the current moment. I can also get lost at Borders, where I will order a cup of coffee and be found in the personal management section reading through books about how I might be able to maximize my time and energies to make the biggest difference in the days that God gives to me. And sometimes you will even find me on the Internet, while I go to my favorite bookmark called Palm.com, and I will download certain time management tools directly to my Palm Pilot where I can track my workouts and have photos of my children and all kinds of things that are enabled by the technology today. I love the time management stuff. And I have also read a few books on time management in my day and usually if I feel like I am not quite hitting the mark, I will buy a new book or dust an old one off the shelf and remind myself about the principles of how I can maximize my time.

Now, when you read these time management books, certain themes begin to emerge in all of them. They tell you to focus on the most important things in your life, and to not get sidetracked by all the urgent things that come along each and every day. These books tell you to have values and a higher purpose for living and to live out of that purpose and not to have your lifestyle dictated by the mundane tasks that you have to do each day. All of these books talk about doing the things that are important and doing the important things first. And I think that we know at a gut level if we want to be effective with our time and with our energy that we need to apply these principles to our lives.

Now, when we read the 4th chapter of Colossians we gain a sense that the Apostle Paul was concerned about maximizing his time. And that he and his fellow workers were conscienscious about the ways that they invested their time. And I think that we can learn a lot from them because when you look at the impact of the life of these individuals, it’s absolutely staggering. In just a few short years they were able to plant churches throughout the Roman Empire. They were able to author much of New Testament, and in the first generation of the church they were able to model for us what healthy group and community dynamics looked like as they endeavor to live together in community. As we look at this passage of scripture this morning, we will see that they held on to three major commitments throughout their lives in ministries and the commitments were these.

One, to communicate with God. They knew that they needed to communicate with God through prayer and that everything that they were going to accomplish was going to be dependent upon their prayer life. They realized that it was important as well that they communicated the gospel message to everybody that they encountered on a regular basis and they were concerned that they communicated well, and that they did not miss opportunities in order to let other people know that Jesus loved them. And they were very concerned that they communicated in positive ways with one another, that they kept the lines of communication open so that banding together as a team they could accomplish more by maximizing each others strengths and compensating for each others weaknesses. And so we see these three themes of prayer and of witnessing and of teamwork coming out in our passage this morning. Let’s take a little closer look at our passage and see what we can learn about these three vital priorities that we need to put at the top of our to do list if we are going to be effective followers of Christ.

First, of all Paul says to these believers for them to devote themselves to prayer. Paul was asking that they become nothing less than men and women of prayer, and that prayer would be what would typify their life, that they would live out their lives in an atmosphere of prayer. And Paul knew that it would take work for them to do this and so he calls them to devote themselves to that process of becoming men and women of prayer. You know prayer is hard work and if we going to become people of prayer, we need to put prayer at the top of our to do list. We need to see it as the most important activity that we do each and every day. And in fact, we need to have prayer as a part of every aspect of our to do list because each day we are forced to make choices and decisions that require the wisdom of God about how we are to proceed as we move forward. And so our to do list needs to be permeated with prayer as well. Notice here that Paul talks to these believers in Colossi about making prayer something that’s a part of every aspect of their life. He said that they are to be devoted to prayer in the present tense, but they are also to be prayerful in the past tense as well. They are to be thankful, which means to look back on God’s faithfulness in their lives and to give God praise and thanksgiving for his faithfulness, for the deeds that God has done in the past, and he also tells them that they need to be thinking about the future as well. That there are challenges and there are opportunities that face them in the future that they need to pray about before they get there, and as they commit their ways to the Lord and as the opportunities arrive that they will be prepared to seize this leading opportunity and to make the greatest difference when those opportunities come along. So part of being men and women of prayer is developing an all encompassing prayer life where we are praying in all three tenses as it were, as we go through our days.

Now, often times in our society we say, “well we are busy. I just don’t have enough time to pray.” Think about Jesus for a moment at the height of his ministry. I mean this man was busy. There were tens of thousands of people that were coming to him every day full of needs. They wanted Jesus to teach them. They wanted Jesus to feed them. They wanted Jesus to heal their sicknesses and diseases. They were very demanding upon Jesus and upon his time. And yet throughout the gospel we see that Jesus made time to pray. Now I don’t mean he created a few extra hours in a day because he could have done that in order for him to get his prayer time in. No, he set aside purposeful times for prayer, where he could get alone with his Father and his Lord in the garden to communicate with God. Or sometimes he would go on retreats for extended periods of time in order for him to have his batteries recharged and to really know the will of God in order that he might be able to live God’s will. You know, I don’t know about you but there are lots of reasons why I need to pray. I have sin in my life that I need to confess and I would imagine that some of you do as well. I have circumstances that I am facing in my life that I just don’t know how to proceed those circumstances, and so I need God’s wisdom about how I should respond and act in those various situations that God has placed in my life. There are people in my life that are full of needs that I want to meet those needs because I love them and I care for them. And yet, Jesus was perfectly perfect. He didn’t need to confess any sins. Jesus personified wisdom. He didn’t need to ask God for wisdom. Jesus had the capacity within himself to meet whatever needs came along and yet he still saw prayer as a vital aspect of his life. And I think that if Jesus made prayer such a priority that perhaps we need to look at why Jesus made prayer such a priority. I believe it’s because Jesus knew that the fundamental reason that we pray is to develop an intimacy with God. Jesus loves his Father and he knew that the only way that we could develop an intimate relationship with him was to spend adequate time with him in communication and prayer. And so, Jesus did that. Also Jesus knew that he was going to be tugged at and pulled out throughout each day and that in order for him to be effective he needed to be on the same wave length as God and that his prayer life enabled him to tune in to God’s wavelength.

Now I know I am looking around the room here and most of you are like me you have grown up with digital radio and you plug in the numbers when you want to listen to an FM channel, but in the old days, I am told, that there was a radio that had a dial that you would turn back and forth to dial in the frequency of a particular radio station that you wanted to listen to. And prayer serves the same function for us that we could know God’s will, we could read about it, but we need to spend time in prayer as well, that we can fine tune our lives and dial into God’s frequency that he could speak to us and through us and allow his power to flow through us as well as we spend that time in prayer.

I think another reason that we need to pray is that when we step out in faith to make a difference for Jesus Christ in our world, whether it is witnessing to another person or taking a stand for an issue that is prevalent in our society, that we are going into hostile territory. There is a spiritual battle that is taking place when we step out in faith. And we better not go out there unprepared. We need to have all the resources of heaven at our side as we engage the world around us. I ran across this quote from John Piper that talks about the necessity of prayer as we venture out into the world around us. He says this,

“I have often said that one of the reasons we feel so weak in our prayer lives is that we have tried to make a domestic intercom out of a war time walkie-talkie. Prayer is not designed as an intercom between God and us to serve the domestic comforts of the saints. It is designed as a walkie-talkie for spiritual battlefields. It’s the link between the active soldiers and their command headquarters with its unlimited firepower and air cover and strategic wisdom. We need to pray in order that we are equipped to go in the world and be God’s agents in the world in which he has placed us.”

We see a bit of this as Paul is in his prison cell praying for people who do not yet know Christ. He’s praying about opportunities that are ahead. He is praying that as many people as possible, by as many means as possible would come into a relationship with Christ and you get a sense that Paul is praying passionately about the people that he calls in this passage outsiders.

Now Paul is not trying to be exclusionary when he calls these people outsiders. His greatest passion in life is to make these outsiders insiders. He wants them to come into the body of Christ. He wants them to discover faith in Jesus Christ. He wants them to have all of the benefits of the relationship with God that he has discovered and so he prayed for these people and for the opportunities that are out there to witness in Jesus’ name. I find it fascinating in this passage that Paul is more interested that the gates to eternity would be flung open wide to people who do not know Jesus Christ, than he is concerned with the doors of his prison cell be opened and that he might gain his freedom.

Paul is able to accomplish so much even from his prison cell because he prayed and because he thought about the opportunities that were out there. And we too, need to embrace all the resources and freedoms that we have. Imagine what we can do with all that has been given to us if we would just pray fervently and look for the opportunities that are out there.

Paul and his compatriots were very interested in witnessing for Jesus Christ. And so they labored endlessly about ways that they might be able to proclaim Jesus in a clear manner. I think a lot of times that we are reluctant to share our faith in Christ with other people. Somehow in our minds we feel that we’ve got to anticipate all the questions that could possibly be asked of us if we were to begin to start witnessing to another person. And then once we have formulated all of these questions in our mind, then we need to try to discover theological and apologetic arguments in order to be able to give answers to all these possible scenarios that could take place. And what ends up happening is that we allow ourselves to become paralyzed where we never share our faith with another person.

I have discovered over the years that the two greatest barriers to witnessing for Jesus Christ to another person are pretty significant barriers. Are you ready for them? The first barrier is this, showing up. And the second barrier is opening your mouth. I have discovered that those are the two biggest barriers to witnessing for Jesus Christ. But when you show up and when you open your mouth and when you have an attitude such as described in the passage here where you want your words to be seasoned with salt, where you want your attitude and demeanor to be filled with grace, when you want to give an honest answer to an honest question that one might ask of you, if that’s your attitude and you show up and you open your mouth and you are dependent on God in prayer, God will do amazing things to guide the conversation to allow people to be moved further along in the process of making a commitment to Jesus Christ. And many of us miss out on the opportunity of being involved in that process, of helping another person discover a new life in Christ because we don’t show up and we don’t open our mouths and we don’t pray and we don’t make ourselves dependent upon God’s spirit. And so, my encouragement to each one of you is that you would allow God to use you, to speak words of grace and truth and of love and of acceptance and forgiveness to the people that God brings across your path.

Now, as I was reading through this passage in preparation for this morning I almost skipped over that lengthy section at the end. I said I don’t want to read all of those names. I can’t even pronounce half of them and the people are going to be bored out of their minds by the time I get through the list, and yet as I read through this list several times, it dawned on me what Paul was trying to do here. Paul was reflecting back on the previous couple of decades that he had been involved in ministry. And he was reminiscing a bit toward the end of his life in the prison cell about all the people that God had brought across his path as he endeavored to make a difference for Jesus Christ. And so these people came to mind and he was grateful to God that they labored along side of him, that they helped him to accomplish his mission in life, that they encouraged him when he was down, that they supported him when he needed support, that they prayed for him daily and in the process they accomplished great things together. And so Paul could not help but to think back fondly about all the good times and the amazing things that God had done with this band of believers. You know, as I reflected back on my life in ministry, I can write a list that is very similar to this one, of the people that God has brought across my path over the years. I think about people that I have grown to love and who have supported and encouraged me in the context of a small group, and by making a commitment to gather regularly around God’s word and to share what God is teaching us through particular passages of scripture and as we have shared our lives together, shared the joys and struggles and allow other people to come along side and meet our needs in practical ways and to love us and to encourage us, I look back and my life is richer for all the relationships that God has brought in my life because I have been intentional about developing Christ center deep community with other people.

You know the community that we are able to experience within the body of Christ is something that is not available anywhere else in the world. One Saturday a month my wife and I go down to our neighborhood bowling league and we have never opened any of the bowling league matches in a word of prayer and we have a great time hanging out and laughing with our neighbors, but there is something that is missing because we don’t share that common bond of Jesus Christ.

However, the people that have been intentional and allowed the process of the spiritual life, prayer and Bible study and sharing at a deep level, those people are ones that have enriched my life immensely. But there is another group of people who have enriched my life even more than people that have gathered together with in small groups and those have been the people that I have ministered along side of on one sort of ministry team or another. And thinking back over 20 years in ministry, I think of a group of fresh out of college students that all happened to be living in a suburban community where I happened to be ministering at a church and a group of about 30 of us made a commitment to minister to junior high and high school students and so a couple evenings a week we hung out with students and we had all kinds of fun times together, but we also invested in those kids lives and we loved them and we tried to share with them what Jesus had meant to us and wanted them to experience the same thing. But even more than being involved in that ministry together, this group of young adults we went skiing in the mountains or went on beach retreats together and there were times where we would just be hanging out in the kitchen or hanging around a fireplace and was sharing what God was doing in our lives and praying for one another. And the result of that is that we pretty much all stood up in one another’s weddings and this is a group of people that to this day I would consider among my closest group of friends.

I think about my first pastoral call where I came to a church and this 75-year-old woman by the name of Della walked into my office and Della said, “I have a passion for bringing communion to the shut-in members of our church.” And so once a month Della would show up at my office and she would hop on the back of my motorcycle, and we would go down and serve communion to the shut-ins of the church. And after we served communion to 2 or 3 of these people in a nursing home, we would go get a chocolate milkshake together and enjoy a rich time of just sharing our lives with one another and praying for one another. And over this course of time together I had the opportunity to develop a rich relationship across generational lines.

I think about short term mission trips where we went into the heat and the humidity of Mexico or South America and built sunny schools, wings on churches or conductive Vacation Bible School. And then in the afternoon we would lay around in our hammocks in a grass hut and we would talk about what God is teaching us through his people there and through his Word that we were studying together and we would worship God. The fact that we were ministering together and fellowshipping together at the same time allowed us to get to a deeper level and to have bonds that were deeper than any that I have experienced in my life. And that would be my hope for each of you as well, that you would not just be spectators in the Christian faith, that you would not only go so far in your involvement with other believers, but that you would go deep and that you would serve along side of people and that in the process, God would enable that team to accomplish his purpose and then you would be blessed in the process.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to fly out to California to attend my 25 year high school reunion and I love high school reunions because in a sense they are a microcosm of life, and the longer I hang out with my old high school friends the more life lessons God was imparting to me over the course of the weekend. There were several takeaways that I had and I think several of these applied directly to what I have been sharing this morning about prayer and witnessing and being bonded together with other believers.

My first takeaway is that for some people high school was as good as it got. You know, they live for the years from 14 to 18 and they are still reliving their glory years. You know the football players are still talking about the big plays. The same cliques that sort of form up around the hall. People are all trying to impress one another and to gain the approval of those that were there for the high school reunion. Now, I can just imagine what happened in the homes of many of my classmates 3 or 4 months ago when the invitations arrived. I am sure that many immediately went out and bought Dr. Atkins book. Many more went down to Nordstroms to revamp their wardrobe. Some of the people Botoxed their eyes and other Rogained their scalps, but I am sure that everybody prepared themselves in some way to come back to that gathering and to gain the approval of the people in the room. Now, as much as I love my high school friends and as much of a joy it was being with them again, because of the experiences that I had with the body of Christ in ministry over the last 25 years, my life is so much richer than those years. These are the best years now because of what God is doing in and through my life and in the relationships that God has brought across my path. And that’s what God wants for each one of us as well, that we would grow and that as we grow that things get better and better as time goes by and that we don’t need to harken back to the glory days.

A second takeaway that I had from my weekend is that people out there, outside of church circles have a very strange conception of what Christianity is all about. You know, they think we are a bunch of weirdos. Now, one of my best friends was our senior class president and he finds great joy every five years working into his comments as he is addressing our class the fact that Keith Wright, party animal, is now the Reverend Keith Wright or as he put it this time the Reverend Dr. Keith Wright, and you start hearing people on the fringes of the gathering saying Keith Wright the Reverend? And they say it in the same tone as Keith Wright, celibate, that’s weird. However, I had the opportunity over the course of the weekend just to be natural and to be myself. I couldn’t pull off any pretense with my old high school friends. They knew from where I came and they knew who I was. You know, I couldn’t put on any kind of airs, and so all I could do was be natural and to be me and to allow my demeanor to be one that was accepting and loving of them and to allow myself to listen to them and to speak truth and love in to their lives. Thank you.

Now maybe it’s because I am a Reverend or I think it’s more because of the attitude and the demeanor that I had with my former classmates that one by one over the course of the weekend many of these individuals came and began to share their life stories and things that were happening in their lives. You know it’s difficult to make it to 43 years-old without having life hit you below the belt a few times. And that has begun to happen to some of my classmates. You know all of these multimillionaires, I went to high school in the Silicon Valley okay, and all the multimillionaires at the 20-year reunion were just plain old folk now. Many had gone through divorce and some were struggling with their own addictions. Some had extreme disappointment over dreams that had not come to fruition and many were still looking for a meaning and purpose in their lives. One friend came to me and said, “Keith you wouldn’t believe it. I joined this study called the 40 Days of Purpose. It’s wonderful. I am doing it with my fiancee and we are getting on the right pace together.” I was thrilled to hear about that. And the thing is that I don’t think my friends in the Silicon Valley are any different than people here in Baltimore or the surrounding community. People have needs and if we just make ourselves open and we ask them what their needs are and we listen to them in a nonjudgmental spirit, they will tell us their needs, and we have the opportunity to tell them about the hope that we discovered in Jesus Christ. That’s what witnessing is all about. It’s not a formula. It’s not a program. It’s just being real and being ourselves and its being involved in people’s lives.

You know the last thing that really made a difference in my life or the last takeaway that I had from my time away, was that the things that we do for Jesus Christ are the things that pay off in the long run. You know, going into the weekend I felt like you know I might be the only Christian here. So, I prayed a lot about it going into the room and I asked God to use me in the conversation and it was amazing over the course of the weekend that I discovered that several of my classmates had made commitments to Christ and so they were there saying Amen, not literally that would be too churchy and all, but they were affirming the things that I was sharing with my friends. They were covering my back through prayer and I wasn’t in that situation alone, and there was great strength and power by being together with a group of friends in terms of being an active witness for Christ in those circumstances. And the greatest joy that I had over the course of the weekend was one woman who came up to me and said, “You know Keith, about three years ago my life came crashing down and I was at rock bottom and I remembered that Young Life club that you had invited me to as a high school sophomore, and I remembered the great feeling that I had there and the positive message. And I started to attend a church and I got involved in the community and I heard about who Jesus is and I made a commitment to him, and now I go to a Bible believing, Bible preaching church and you would be proud of me.” And I was, and it was exciting to say, “Wow something that I did 27 or 28 years ago made a difference for all eternity in somebody’s life.” The payoff of something like that means so much more than reminiscing about different places, where we drank beer over that four-year span.

Now time presses on. I can’t believe it has been 25 years since I graduated from high school. The biggest question that we heard over the course of the weekend was, who are all these old people in the room? And I am sure that Paul must have felt the same way as he was penning these words. Say, where has all the time gone? Twenty years has gone by. I am in prison. Has my life mattered? Has it accounted for anything? Have I maximized my days? Have I kept to my core commitment? And I think that Paul would say that he had and as a result he had a rich life. He had a full life. He had an impactful life and that’s the type of life that he wants the Colossian believers and every believer who has come along since to have. And so I leave you with the same challenge that Paul challenged the Colossians to, which is to pray more boldly, to witness with more courage, to bond more deeply and it will make all the difference in the lives of the people you touch and in your own life as well.

Let’s pray. God, we thank you that you are a God that leads us on an exciting adventure. And Lord I would pray that life would never become mundane, but that we would always strive to hit the big goals in life, to make a difference where it most counts and to be able to look back at the end of our lives and say, what I did really mattered. I am so pleased and so satisfied because those things give me meaning and purpose and gave me my very life. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.