Pastor Svea Merry January 13-14,2024
Think back to when you were a kid. Who did you want to be when you grew up? And I mean specifically, not generically like wanting to be a cowboy or dolphin trainer. Like, was there a person that you admired so much that you patterned yourself after him or her?
I had a few — some I knew in real life, some fictional. When I was in middle school, there was a character in a not-popular Sean Connery movie I liked who had an influence on me. Her character was a scientist who traveled to the South American rainforest to find a cure for cancer. I thought she was brave and smart and capable, and that inspired me. I styled my hair to look like hers, and at times wore a variation of what she did: khaki shorts, a white tank top with a denim shirt over it, as if that would make me brave or smart or capable. Side note: turns out dressing like a middle-aged scientist isn’t the path to popularity in middle school. It’s not that I truly wanted to be her, but I saw in this character some things I did want to be like, and copying whatever I could about her seemed like a good way to become like that.
How about you? Who are the key influences, real or fictional, in your backstory who have shaped you into who you’ve become?
We are all on a trajectory of becoming someone over the course of our life. And maybe we’re trying to become like someone we admire, or maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re intentional about the factors shaping us, or we’ve never given them much thought. But we’re all being shaped by something.
There are clear factors that influence who we become all throughout our life. These include:
- The people we hang around with
- The culture we live in
- The life experiences we’ve had
- The personal choices we make
The invite cards we handed out on Christmas Eve for this series asked if you think you’d want to hang out with the person you’ll be 10 years from now. For all of you who react to that thinking, “Sure,” high five! But if you feel any hesitation in that, if you’re thinking about the factors on that list and wonder if they’re taking you in a direction that you’re not sure you want to keep going for 10 more years, I got you today. Because, as I look around this room, I don’t see any old dogs, so we absolutely can all learn some new tricks that will keep or put us on a path we’re excited to head down.
You may not have thought about this before, but every one of us here is on a path of spiritual formation. And I’m not just saying that because I’m the spiritual formation pastor. Formation is happening to us whether we’re intentional about it or not.
Probably my favorite pastor, after the great guys I get to pastor with here at Autumn Ridge of course, is John Mark Comer. He is doing amazing work in spiritual formation, and if you’ve taken any of our spiritual practices classes yet, you get it. I had the opportunity to attend a conference for pastors he put on last fall and got an advance copy of his new book called Practicing the Way, which comes out this Tuesday. It is a game changer. The best book about what it means to follow Jesus that I’ve ever read, and I encourage you all to get your hands on it. You’ll see that I owe him a debt of gratitude for the clarity he brings to the pathway of discipleship, as well as the inspiration for this message series, of being with Jesus, becoming like him, and doing as he did.
He writes, “The question isn’t, “Are you being formed?”. It is, “Who or what are you being formed into?”. And who or what is doing the forming? Stasis is not on the menu—we’re either being transformed into the love and beauty of Jesus or malformed by the entropy of sin and death.”
Romans 12:2 warns us to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Today, would you describe yourself as conformed, or transformed?
This is week 3 of the series we’re calling Devoted, and the mission of our church is to lead people to be fully devoted followers of Jesus. We describe what that looks like in three aspects: what we acknowledge as our authority; where we find our identity, and what drives our activity. Last week, Pastor Rick focused on the first aspect: Authority, and this we say, “I find joy in being with Jesus, submitting to him and following his way.”
Today, we focus on the second aspect: I find joy in defining myself by what Jesus did and I want to become more like him.
And becoming like Jesus is a really good aim! Because he is a much better person for us to emulate than a fictional, khaki shorts-wearing lady-botanist in a b-movie.
But Jesus is more than just a good role model, becoming like him is God’s desired trajectory for us. If you ever wonder what God’s will is for your life, that’s it – to become like Jesus. Romans 8:29 says that “For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” This is saying that for all the people who will come to God, His desire from all time for us is Christlikeness. If you’re a notetaker, write this down: Becoming like Jesus is God’s eternal intent and purpose for our formation.
Now, some of us will make a lot of progress on that here in this life. These are the godly folks that you just love to be around because they radiate love and wisdom and patience and gentleness. And maybe they’re the believers you know, who despite living horribly difficult lives, just ooze love for Jesus, and you want to grow up to be like them no matter how old you are.
But let’s be real. There are also believers who aren’t so pleasant to be around. You know, the ones who will get a massive upgrade after they die and enter God’s presence because they didn’t make as much progress in becoming like Jesus as they could have.
Our series thesis is: Maturity is possible, but it’s not inevitable
There are no accidental saints. You won’t just wake up one day and think, Wow! Suddenly, I’m free of all worry, lust, anger, money has no hold on me, I never struggle with fear anymore like I did last week… Formation will happen to you, but formation into a person of love in Christ will not happen without intentionality. Now, we all absolutely have the potential to mature into people like Jesus in this life. Yet we don’t all do it. Why?
I’ll tell you why. Bad dirt.
In Mark chapter 4, Jesus told a parable, a story meant to communicate a point, about why some people become mature, fruitful people in the kingdom of God, and others don’t, and he used the analogy of how a seed grows in different kinds of soils. If you were with us for Love Is the Agenda last fall, you may remember Pastor Otis preaching a great message on how this parable informs our approach to reaching others with the gospel. If you missed that, I encourage you to go back and watch it online. Today, we’re going to revisit this parable to see how it informs our understanding of the work of the gospel in us.
Grab a Bible or use your phone to go to Mark 4. If you’re new to reading the Bible, Mark is the second book in the New Testament.
As you’re all turning there, before we read this, I want to say something to those of you who already know this parable really well. This story is often taught to try to explain why some people hear the gospel and believe and others don’t, but this overly simplistic reading leads to an exegetical problem: if it’s only about who believes the gospel and who doesn’t, then all Christians are automatically the good soil and yet, the point Jesus makes is that good soil people are also fruitful, and we’ve talked about the reality that some believers mature into beautiful, fruitful people like Jesus and others don’t really. So, let’s read with that in mind as we figure out what to do with that.
Mark chapter 4, starting in verse 1:
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
I spoke a moment ago to people who are really familiar with this parable, but if this was your first-time through it, and you’re not sure you got the point, it helps to know that in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’s day, sower was a stock symbol for a teacher, sowing for teaching, seed for the message they taught, and soil for students. The people hearing Jesus would have quickly understood that he was describing what happens when a teacher is teaching an important idea, and some students are able to grasp it and let that teaching take hold and flourish in their life. These are the students like good soil. But others don’t.
So why is it that not everyone goes on to be fruitful? We find out from the text that the disciples and other followers who were with them had some questions about this parable and so later, if we skip down to verse 15, we see Jesus explain,
15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
Pete Scazzero, in his book Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, talks about a problem we have in contemporary evangelicalism of misunderstanding the gospel and the Christian life as a kind of 2-tiered system in which the main emphasis is for people to believe in Jesus, which is of course essentially foundational, but that only certain people go on to the 2nd tier of a life of mature discipleship. This isn’t what is supposed to be. This is. The call of the gospel is to follow Jesus as his disciples in this life. The gospel isn’t intended to only be fire insurance for the next.
It’s clear to see that the good soil people that Jesus is talking about are those who don’t just believe in him, but who become like him and do as he did. It also helps us to understand why sometimes our progress in this can get choked by weeds of worries or chasing after other things, making us unfruitful. Remember, maturity is possible, but it isn’t inevitable.
Let me first encourage you with this: regardless of which of the four soils you feel like describes the conditions of your spiritual health today, weeds can get pulled, rocks removed, and fertilizer added. Every one of us here today can be amended into good soil.
I dare you to get honest with yourself. What’s the current state of your soil? Soft, ready to receive and apply the teachings of Jesus? To follow him, be with him, and become like him? Or are there some rocks to remove and weeds to pull?
When you think about these factors we know shape us, are these helping your soil to become healthier or just making you dirty?
God’s will is to help us become more and more like Jesus, and He’s willing to bring us through whatever is necessary to help us get there. But is your soil soft and workable, needing only a little trowel to work it, or is He gonna have to break out the jackhammer? Which would you prefer He use on you?
As we orient our lives towards following the way of Jesus, we will become more like those wonderful people who radiate love, joy, and grace. More importantly, we’ll become like him.
But how do we do that? This field is not going to produce this overnight. And we are not likely to get a miracle zap from heaven and suddenly wake up to discover that all the rocks and weeds in our life are magically gone and a flourishing spiritual life is suddenly ours. God absolutely can and does do a miraculous work of transformation in our lives through His grace (and we’ll talk about that in a minute), but we also have to apply some intentionality into being transformed.
Healthy spiritual formation is a process both of our work in the choices we make and practices we do, and also God’s work of transformation in our lives. I invite you to think of it this way: Reach for God and see God reach for you.
I have a picture in my mind that illustrates what I mean by this. Picture a sweet little kid and a loving parent. In their healthy relationship, either can reach out for each other. Sometimes the kid will take the active role in seeking comfort and security and closeness from the parent and reach out to be held. Other times, the parent might scoop him up even while he’s in the middle of something. And intuitively, you know that the relationship is healthy when both are reaching for each other, and neither is ignoring or refusing the other, nor is it a one-way relationship.
In your spiritual growth, there should be times that you reach out for God. These are ways you’re intentionally seeking to connect with Him. This might be through times of worship, in prayer, through studying the Bible to let it guide your life, maybe in doing other practices like spending time with Him in solitude, enjoying a day of rest with Him on the Sabbath, or exercising devotion through fasting. Maybe it’s simply going for a walk and talking to Him about anything and everything, being with Him like Pastor Rick talked about last week.
And then there are times that your growth will happen because God reaches for you. And this could be in any number of ways, but it might be that He brings you through a life experience that deeply impacts your faith, or sends key people into your life who help you see and understand your faith or who become important companions on your faith journey, or simply when He gives you what you need in a way that has His fingerprints all over it.
Healthy spiritual formation happens as you reach for God, and you see God reach for you.
Let’s think a little more deeply about how reaching for God will help us become more like Jesus.
When we reach, likely the first thing we do is to look at what we’re reaching for. When I first asked you if you had someone in mind that you wanted to be like when you grew up, long before you started patterning yourself after any aspect of that person, you likely spent many hours watching them, observing them, and noticing the things about them that inspired you. So it is with becoming like Jesus.
There’s a great passage in 2 Corinthians 3 that talks about how before we believe in Jesus, before we have the Spirit of God alive in us, it’s like we’re covered in a metaphorical veil. But that when we believe, the veil is taken away. This verse says, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
There are some great things I want to focus on here. First, do you notice our transformation is in the present tense? As we turn our face to contemplate our Lord, we “are being transformed into his image.” It affirms that we are all a work in process. Our salvation, or our justification, happens once for all time, but our sanctification, or our transformation into people like Christ, is a life-long process. Take encouragement from this if you don’t feel as far along as you wish you were. As we keep looking to our Lord, we’ll keep being transformed, and better yet, keep being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory. That’s exciting. I want to see more and more of the Lord and to discover ever-increasing glory! And I’m encouraged to see that this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. This process isn’t something that’s all on me. I’m reaching for him as I turn my face to him to contemplate him, but He’s meeting me in it to do His transformation work in me.
I also want to point out something that might be really encouraging if you’re not yet a believer in Jesus. If you’ve struggled to really see and feel the glory of Jesus in the same way that you’ve heard others experience, that might be because your view of him is still obscured by this metaphorical veil. It would make sense, then, that you haven’t yet seen him in the way you might want to. And the good news is that you can! Express your desire to God to know Him, to see Him as He really is. Tell Him you want to trust your life to Him and to know Jesus as your Lord and Savior. The veil can be taken away from you, too, so that you also can see the ever-increasing glory of our Lord.
But practically speaking, how do we see someone who isn’t physically here? That’s why the Bible is so important to us as believers. The best way to look upon Jesus is to read about him, particularly in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
But when you read the Bible, don’t just read it for information. Read it for transformation. Spiritual maturity doesn’t happen just because you know your Bible. It is possible to know this book inside and out and still be an atheist. There are scads of religion professors out there who know the Bible better than many pastors, but they don’t know Jesus.
Instead, read for what we call gospel fluency. Read it to see what Jesus did, to consider the implications of that in your life, and apply those motivations. And this isn’t just for those of you new to the Bible. This is at least as important for those of us who have been in the Word for decades because our familiarity with it can make us overlook what it is speaking into our lives. Read to internalize the ways of Jesus, to see how he related to people, what he wanted for his followers.
I got a really fun board game for Christmas. None of us had played it before, so we had to pour over the rules to learn the way the game is played. It was a little complex, so we had to read the instructions over and over to grasp the goal, and how to play, and the strategy for how to do it well. Without studying the instructions, we couldn’t possibly enjoy the game as it was meant to be played.
So it is with the Bible. These are God’s instructions to us about His goal for humanity, and what purpose there is in this life, and how to go about it.
But with my board game, how pointless would it be if all we ever did was read the instructions, and thought through the strategy, expressed awe for the game creator, maybe even got together with other people to study and talk about it, but we never actually played the game?
That’s why Bible study in itself won’t make you like Jesus. You can invest years into studying the wisdom and beauty here, but if you never put it into practice, it’s like becoming an expert in a game you don’t play.
Now, here’s the amazing thing that happens as you seek to be like Jesus. As you practice living his way, you’ll actually want to study your Bible even more. Each day brings new opportunities to look for, internalize and apply his ways, and you’ll want to keep going back the Bible to discover more of him.
Another primary way to reach out for God is as we connect with Him is through prayer. Pastor Rick brought up the importance of prayer last week and talked about the essential beauty of simply telling God what’s on our mind. He brought us to the Scripture from the Sermon on the Mount that reminds us not to worry about sounding fancy but to simply find space to go be alone with God and talk to Him.
As you do that, here’s a tool for how to let prayer shape you more like Jesus: Consider what Jesus pray for if he were in the same situation as you, or what would he ask his Father for if he were praying for the person on your mind? If you’re new to following Jesus and not sure what he would pray, this is another great thing to look for as you observe him in the Bible. Or if you’re still at a loss, you could always simply pray, “God, I want whatever Jesus would want in this situation.” Or if you can’t honestly say that, try, “God help me to want what Jesus would want.”
As you practice praying like Jesus would, you’re actually training yourself to think with the mind of Christ. None of us start there, but good soil people discover a lot of fruitfulness in practicing it.
Let me ask you, when your mind has a break—that time when nothing specific is occupying your thoughts, nothing is distracting you or holding your attention—where do your thoughts go? Do they naturally go to the things of God? Or to whatever is your current worry, or thing causing you stress or making you upset? The human mind is far more moldable than most of us realize. The more you focus on something, the more it becomes part of you. If you watch shows filled with crude language, those phrases will pop in your head. If you watch angry, political news, you’ll see the world in ways that make you oppositional and upset. If you spend hours scrolling social media, you’re likely to become discontent and fall into a comparison trap.
On the other hand, training ourselves to think like Jesus would think is a way to find freedom from those kinds of thoughts and to transform the resting thoughts of our brain. This is transformation that God wants for us. Romans 12:2 that I mentioned earlier tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.
If you feed your mind with Jesus and the wisdom and truth and grace of his way, and you renew your mind as you take every thought captive to see the world through his eyes, you can reset your baseline thoughts to truth, beauty, and goodness.
Admittedly, this will be easier for some than others. Some of you only need a little hand trowel to loosen up the hard packed ruts of ugly, anxious thoughts. Others of us might need that jackhammer. But the benefit of having a transformed mind like Christ that defaults to love, joy, and peace is worth the work it takes to train it into our thinking.
Now, it would thrill me to no end if we all left here eager today to pursue becoming like Jesus and the fruitfulness of that became so evident that our church became synonymous with the Christlike love of its people. But the parable of the soils reminds us that while some of us will do just that, others will hear the call of Christ and initially be really excited about it, even begin to make some progress, but then the realities and hardships of life will set in and make us vulnerable to losing ground. If you’re concerned about that, or if you’re feeling like hard-packed soil and not even really wanting to be like Jesus, I applaud your honesty. God may be reaching for you more than you realize.
If we’re going to make significant progress in our formation into people like Christ, regardless of our soil type, we’re all going to need a few things: some radical self-awareness, a willingness to be transformed by God, and supportive community cheering us on.
We need to acknowledge that there are a lot of forces on us trying to pull our focus off Jesus. This might take the form of other people working against us, it might be the temptations of destructive or just lesser things, it might simply be that our will power or desire runs out as it tends to do with all things eventually. The formation process is a journey with ups and downs and satisfying chapters and hard ones. And if you’re in a season of faith that is plagued by doubt or discouragement, take heart. There’s hope on the horizon. Darkness can give way to light that is even more brilliant because of where you’ve been.
To be good, fruitful soil, we need to be honest and authentic with ourselves and with God. If you’re struggling to want to be like Jesus, or even to want him right now, don’t fake it and pretend like you’ve got it all together when you don’t. Don’t white-knuckle your way through faith and feel like a hypocrite the whole time. You’re just exhausting yourself and not fooling God. He understands you better than you do.
But if you’ve done the work of looking at Jesus to observe Him for who He truly is, you know he’s looking back at you with love and compassion and hope and mercy and grace. His desire is for you to turn back to Him with your whole authentic self. He’s not going to scold you for coming back. He’s like the Father we all want at the end of the prodigal son story who is watching for us, waiting for us to return, and when he sees us, runs to reach out for us with arms to embrace us.
Like the prodigal, though, this is where we need to not let our pride get in the way, and to have humble hearts willing to let God transform us.
We’ve talked about reaching for God, but don’t let pride or doubt or discouragement rob you of the joy of God reaching for you. And don’t let any shame you feel over anything you have or haven’t done rob you of that either. Let’s get one thing straight. None of us are perfect. God and I are working on a number of things in my own life, and my authentic soul has only grace for you and the things you’re working on too. The devil would love to dump rocks and plant weeds into the soil of our heart and try to convince us that the sins we struggle with prove that we will never become like Jesus. But we mustn’t fall into that trap.
John Mark Comer writes in the great new book you all need to read “When you sin (and we all do), don’t hide it from God. Hold it before God, with no excuses, no blame shifting, no denial, just utter vulnerability, and let God love you as you are. And then let God love you into who you have the potential to become.”
I love that so much. Don’t hide anything from God. “Let Him love you into who you have the potential to become.”
Healthy transformation happens as we bring God into every bit of our lives, especially the places where we’re struggling. And as we sit there, letting God love us, we are transformed by His love and by His grace.
But this whole process isn’t something we’re supposed to do alone. We all need a supportive community of people to cheer us on. God designed us for this. We’re supposed to be connected to others who we encourage and who encourage us. We need our monkeys with us in it all (that makes sense if you were with us last month). We need people who can help us see our progress in this Christian life and cheer us on when we’re struggling.
This is why we make such a big deal around here about getting into a group. We have new small groups starting in 2 weeks for our next series through the book of 1 Timothy, and we’d love to help you find a group. And if joining a small group feels intimidating, we also have some wonderful classes on Spiritual Practices that can give you a short, small group-like experience while uniting you around a tool to help you grow in your faith.
Becoming like Jesus is a lifelong pursuit, and it’s God’s will for each of us. And for many of us, that is reason enough to make it our goal. But we may all benefit from remembering why we would want this for ourselves. Jesus is of course wonderful because he is our way to everlasting life with God. He is the one who died on our behalf to take away our sin. But the point of the gospel isn’t merely to tell us how to get to heaven when we die. It’s meant to transform our life here and now too as we become like him. And if we don’t want to be like him now, why would we want to spend eternity with him?
Here's why I want to be like him. Jesus was all about love—love for God and for people. He was compassionate, merciful, forgiving and gracious. He taught brilliantly and helped people think rightly about God, themselves, and others. He always conducted himself with wisdom and integrity, even with people trying to kill him, or trying to manipulate him and use him for their own purposes. He was a safe person for the most vulnerable, he was tender-hearted toward the broken, he wept with the grieving. Children wanted to play with him, soldiers turned to him for help, ordinary people became extraordinary as they followed him. He gave hope to the hopeless, peace to the tormented, and in the ultimate act of love, he gave his own life for you and me. Of all the people you could become like, is there anyone better?
But I’ll admit, those are ginormous shoes to fill, and I would collapse under the weight of that if I thought I had to make myself into everything he was. He was perfect and sinless. I am not.
I don’t want any of us to leave here overwhelmed. Instead, here’s the last thought I want to leave you with: What Jesus is watching for in our progress of transformation is actually radically simple: Love. The fruitfulness of our lives will be measured in loving like Jesus did. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Pastor Rick will talk more about this next week, so please do join us for that. But as you seek to become like Jesus, do everything through the power of Spirit with disposition of love. And if you want to chart your progress in how you’re doing, ask the people in your closest relationships, “Am I becoming more loving, joyful, peaceful? Kinder, gentler? Less frustrated? Faithful, especially in bad times? More patient and self-controlled? Am I growing in love, not just for my friends, but for my enemies?”
This is the best life trajectory we could possibly be on. How wonderful if 10 years from now, we’re all more of these things, more like our Jesus!