You may have heard the story about a kindergarten teacher who was helping one of her students put his boots on. He was having a hard time and even with her helping, the boots still didn’t want to go on. She pulled and tugged, and by the time the second boot was on, she was worn out. Then the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked down and, sure enough, they were on the wrong feet.
It was just as hard to pull the boots off as it was to put them on. But she managed to wrestle them off and then they worked together to get the boots back on again — this time on the right feet. That’s when the little boy said, “Teacher, these aren’t my boots.”
The teacher resisted the urge to scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” Once again, she struggled to help him pull the boots off. That’s when he said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My Mom made me wear them today.”
At this point, the teacher didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry. She mustered up the grace to wrestle the boots on his feet one more time. Then she said, “Now, where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed them in the toes of my boots…”
When I heard that story, I thought about how so many of us deal with frustrations like that in our lives on a regular basis. And frustration is one of the things that leads to discouragement. When we have to do the same thing over and over again, we get discouraged. When things pile up and we can’t seem to get on top of things, we get discouraged. As someone has said, “Just when I think I can make ends meet — somebody moves the ends!”
Or sometimes it’s fear that discourages us — The fear of criticism (What will they think?), or the fear of responsibility (What if I can’t handle this?).
We all go through moments like that. And so it’s not surprising that there are many times in the Bible that God had to say to leaders like Moses and Joshua, “Don’t be discouraged!” Don’t give up! Don’t quit now!”
The Christian life is long and sometimes difficult. There are times we feel we just can’t take it anymore and we want to give up, especially when we face the same problems over and over, or if we don’t see any progress, any results to show for our efforts.
And that’s why I thought it might be helpful to speak on the subject of discouragement this morning. I’ve heard a lot of people mention the word “discouraged” over the past week, and I can understand why. A lot of effort went into our Friends and Neighbors Day last Sunday. And it wasn’t just effort on the part of a few people. Every single one of you went over and beyond. You prepared enough food to feed an army. You worked diligently setting things up and cleaning up afterward. You got here early and lost some sleep in the process. We expected a large number of visitors and we had only 3 new visitors from the community.
Or maybe you’re feeling some discouragement because of where we are as a church after one year of being in existence. If you thought that we would double in size the first year, or that people would be knocking the door down trying to join us, you may be a bit discouraged that we’re not much different in size than we were when we first got started.
Obviously, anyone can get discouraged, but it seems that preachers are more prone to discouragement than anyone else, probably because we feel that any results that we may experience as a church, whether positive or negative, are a reflection of our own abilities. If the church is doing well, the preacher tends to feel like a success. If the church isn’t doing so well, then he feels like a failure.
I read an article this past week by Kent Hughes, a preacher who helped to plant a new church with 20 families, which is about the number that we started with. His friends told him that it bound to be successful, that it wouldn’t be long before this new church plant would be larger than the church they came from. Like us, their new church was filled with energetic, hard-working people. And they did everything “right”, everything that church growth experts said they should have done. They even had prime property is the middle of a fast-growing community.
But, to their astonishment, they didn’t grow. In fact, by the middle of their second year, they had about half the number of attendees they had when they started. And, as a result, Kent Hughes was discouraged. He felt like a failure.
His wife tried to cheer him up by saying that Noah preached for 120 years without a single convert, but his response was, “Yes, but there wasn’t another Noah across town with people flowing into his ark!”
Kent thought to himself, “How can I go on giving all I have without seeing any results, especially when other churches are?” He had been working day and night with no visible results. And everyone needs to see results. Farmers at least have the satisfaction of watching their crops grow over time, but sometimes it’s hard for a preacher to see anything.
Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand because I don’t think that we’ve gone the past year here at Cruciform without seeing any results. And I would not describe my attitude as one of discouragement. In fact, I am very much excited about some of the results we’ve seen, including the three visitors we had last week. But I know that, for all of us, there is at least the temptation to be discouraged, so I thought it would be helpful to take a look at the story of someone in the Bible who faced discouragement.
We could look at the life of Elijah, especially after his victory on Mt. Carmel because he really got discouraged after that (and incidentally, I think there’s an important lesson for us all that we tend to be most discouraged after big events….like we had last Sunday). We could look at the life of David or Moses or Jonah, who all got discouraged at one time or another. Even John the Baptist got discouraged when things weren’t turning out quite the way he imagined they would.
But this morning, I want us to look at a story from the life of Jeremiah, who may have been the most discouraged man in the whole Bible. There’s a reason he was known as the weeping prophet, and it had to do with the fact that after 40 years of preaching, there really wasn’t anything to show for it. No matter how hard he tried to convince the Israelites to turn back to God, the people simply would not listen. In fact, even his friends turned their backs on him and wanted to kill him.
Let me set the stage for you. Nebuchadnez¬zar, who was the king of the Babylonian Empire, was on a rampage, destroying all of the nations and cities between Babylon and Egypt. Eventually, that would include Judah and Jerusalem.
Jeremiah tried to warn the people of Judah. In Jeremiah 25:3, he said, “I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” In fact, four times in this chapter Jeremiah said, “You have not listened.”
And then, in verse 8, God said through Jeremiah, “Because you have not obeyed my words…Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant…will bring them against this land and its inhabitants… This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.” (Jeremiah 25:8-11)
Now, Jeremiah had preached much of this message before, but two ideas were new. One was that Judah’s captivity would last for 70 years. The other was naming Nebuchadnezzar as God’s servant. That was more than any good Jew could stand. It would be like calling Adolph Hitler God’s servant, or calling Saddam Hussein God’s servant.
And so, as a result of this sermon, Jeremiah was banned from the temple area. He was no longer allowed to go there and preach these words of heresy. Jeremiah knew, though, that if he couldn’t preach the message of God, he needed to get that message out some other way. And that’s where Baruch entered the picture.
Baruch was a scribe, someone whose job it was to make copies of scripture. He was from a noble family, had a good education, and probably had a good job working for one of the city officials. We know that his grandfather was the governor of Jerusalem in earlier years and that his brother later rose to prominence in political affairs. To put it in modern terms, Baruch was a “Kennedy” of his day.
And we’re not sure why Baruch gave up all of his political aspirations to help Jeremiah, but he did.
Jeremiah was told by God to put his message in writing. God said, “Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that everyone may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.” (Jeremiah 36:2-3).
So, Jeremiah summoned Baruch and he began dictating this message to him. It was a long message, and so it took weeks to write the message down because Jeremiah had been preaching and prophesying for over 20 years.
When Baruch finished the scroll, he probably rolled it up very carefully, tied it, sealed it neatly and then handed it to Jeremiah. But, much to his surprise, Jeremiah handed it back to him.
He said, “I am banned from going to the house of the Lord, so you are to go, and on a day of fasting in the hearing of all the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation.” (Jeremiah 36:5-6)
“Listen, Baruch, I can’t go to the temple, and even if I could preach, nobody’s going to listen to me. You know how they laugh at me. That’s why I want you to take my place. I want you to go to the temple. I want you to open up this scroll and read God’s Word to the people. After all, you are from a prominent Jewish family. Maybe they’ll listen to you. Maybe they’ll repent if they hear God’s Word from your lips.”
And you can imagine how Baruch must have felt when Jeremiah asked him to do that. He was a writer, not a preacher — a scribe, not a prophet. But something else must have bothered him. It was one thing to be associated with Jeremiah in the privacy of his own home; it was another thing to be Jeremiah’s spokesman in the temple courtyard. Baruch’s old friends would be there. His career would be ruined if he went to the temple and preached these words.
And so, in Jeremiah 45:3, Baruch said, “Woe is me! For the Lord has added sorrow to my pain.” Can you blame him? Baruch had already sacrificed a lot when he started working for Jeremiah. He was a godly man and so he sympathized with Jeremiah, and of course he was upset about the fact that Judah refused to repent of its sin. But Baruch, no doubt, still had some hopes and dreams for a personal future.
Now all his plans were in jeopardy. If he went out in that temple court¬yard with Jeremiah’s scroll, it would mean the end of everything for Baruch. He might be laughed at, as Jeremiah had been. He might be arrested, as Jere¬miah had been. He might also be beaten, as Jeremiah had been. And quite possibly, he might be mobbed and lynched and sentenced to death as a traitor, as Jeremiah had been.
Shortly thereafter, in December of 604 B.C., news reached the city of Jerusalem that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the city of Ashkelon, only 35 miles away. Naturally all the residents of Judah were terrified. Could it be that what Jeremiah had predicted would come to pass after all? Could it be that they were next on Nebuchadnezzar’s list of cities to destroy?
As everyone pondered these questions, Baruch went to read the scroll. First, he went to a friend’s apartment which was located in the upper courtyard of the temple. He may have been standing in the doorway or leaning out the window, and Baruch began to read¬ the lengthy scroll in a loud voice over the temple area. Being in that apartment not only gave him a measure of safety, but it also may have provided some amplification for his voice.
When the son of the apartment owner heard Baruch read the words, he ran to find his father, who was in a cabinet meeting in the king’s palace. Bursting in, the son reported to his father what he had heard. Very quickly, the cabinet meeting was adjourned. A messenger was sent to get Baruch and bring him and his scroll back to the palace as quickly as possible.
Baruch was treated kindly by the men. Apparently, he was one of their peers and he was certainly not a stranger to them. And when he got to the palace, he was asked to read the scroll, which he did, from beginning to end.
What must have impressed the officials was the accuracy of Jeremiah’s earlier prophecies. At the time it seemed so unlikely. But now it was all happening right before their very eyes. At the beginning of his ministry, about 22 years earlier, Jeremiah had warned about the power from the north at a time when there seemed to be no power in the north at all. Now Nebuchadnezzar’s forces were closing in on them.
Collecting their thoughts, these cabinet members realized this would all have to be reported to the king. Assuming that King Jehoiakim would not appreciate this message, they said to Baruch, “Go and hide, you and Jeremiah, and let no one know where you are.” (Jeremiah 36:19). They knew that the lives of Baruch and Jeremiah were in utmost danger.
While they were finding a safe hiding place, the officials went to the king and reported what they had heard. One of the cabinet mem¬bers, who was also a scribe, read the scroll to the king. As he read, the others watched to see what the king’s response would be. King Jehoiakim reacted just like the officials were afraid he would. Since it was December, the king kept a charcoal fire burning in the middle of his room.
“As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot.” (Jeremiah 36:23). Strip by strip, the precious manuscript was burned up.
Maybe it was a good thing that Baruch wasn’t there to see it happen. It probably would have been more than he could bear.
Jehoiakim ordered Jeremiah and Baruch arrested. We don’t know where those two went, bit it’s obvious they were in a safe place, because the Bible says that the Lord hid them (36:26).
Baruch and Jeremiah soon received a detailed report of what had taken place in the king’s palace. Although they knew what kind of a man Jehoiakim was, they still must have been appalled by the king’s blatant disre¬gard of God’s Word.
Besides that, Baruch must have been absolutely devastated. He had lost something very precious. Maybe you’ve experienced what I have and written out a lengthy paper on the computer only to have the hard drive crash and have to start all over from scratch. It’s devastating!
But Baruch didn’t get to start over with a computer or even a typewriter. A scroll was written out by hand, letter by letter, and it took weeks. A completed manus¬cript was treasured. Of course, Baruch thought his scroll should have been especially important because it contained the message of God. But now literally, it had gone up in smoke.
I was reading an article recently written by Roy Lester on “Discouragement in Ministry”. In that article, he mentions four things that cause us to be discouraged. One of them that especially made an impression on me was this one:
“The third factor is feelings of failure. Notice I didn’t say “failure” but “feelings of failure,” for I genuinely believe that in God’s will there is no failure….But the perception of failure can dog us relentlessly. We work our fingers to the bone, but when we sink into bed at night, we aren’t sure we’ve really accomplished anything of eternal significance….The greatest cause of…depression is the belief that our actions will be futile.”
And that’s exactly what Baruch was experiencing. Months and months of work – up in flames, gone in a moment. Baruch was a scribe. That was his training; that was his talent. If nothing good could come out of his efforts as a scribe, what good was he to God? What had he really accomplished? All of his efforts were for nothing. He was a failure.
Baruch couldn’t understand what God was doing. Jeremiah told him to read the scroll in the temple courtyard. That meant public humiliation. Then his scroll was ripped to shreds and burned by the king.
Hiding out, who knows where, with Jeremiah, Baruch must have felt like an absolute nobody. Only a year before, Baruch was a noble scribe, looked up to in Jerusalem’s finest circles, with a bright and promising future. Now he had been brought low, and the one talent which he thought he possessed had been rendered useless. What else did he have to give to God?
But he didn’t have much time to mope about it. Because God came to Jeremiah and said, “Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll.” (Jeremiah 36:28). It was time to get back to work – which is actually pretty good medicine for discouraged, depressed people.
Chapter 36 ends with the words, “Baruch….wrote on it at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them.” (Jeremiah 36:32).
I like that last part. You can’t get rid of God’s Word by throwing it into the fire. It keeps coming back from the ashes. And when it comes back, it comes back with reinforcements.
Maybe this morning you feel a little bit like Baruch and wonder at times if your work is worth the effort. You feel like your scroll that you’ve worked so hard on has been torn up and thrown into the fire. What’s the use? Why even bother?
It’s easy to get discouraged. Maybe you’re discouraged because you have been trying for years to get a family member, or a friend, to really commit to the Lord. You love and care about them and want them to come to Christ, and they just don’t seem to be listening, and they don’t seem to care.
Or maybe you’re discouraged because you’re teaching a Bible class and nobody seems to appreciate it, and half the time it doesn’t even seem like anybody’s paying any attention.
Or maybe you’re discouraged because, as a parent, you seem to have to try to teach the same lesson to your child over and over and over again. Will he ever listen? Will she ever learn?
Or maybe you’re discouraged because after a year in Spring Lake, things are not going as well as you thought they should be, and all the effort that went into Friends and Neighbors Day seems to have been for nothing
In I Corinthians 15:58, Paul wrote, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord .” Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.”
Whatever it may look like from our perspective, we have God’s promise that our work is not in vain in the Lord. There may be times when it looks like no progress is being made, there may be dozens of setbacks along the way, but God doesn’t count wins and losses like a baseball manager. He has his eye on the ultimate victory.
I heard about a preacher who finished speaking one Sunday evening. He asked, “Is there anyone else who would like to say something?” And a rather dignified visitor stood up and said, “Yes, sir, I’d like to say something. This is the first time I’ve been back in this church in 35 years. I attended Sunday School in my grade school days, and I see here tonight my old Sunday School teacher, Mr. Alton.”
He turned to face him, and said, “Mr. Alton, do you remember me? I’m Hurley.” After a moment or two, a smile came over Mr. Alton’s face.
The visitor continued and said, “Mr. Alton, I want to tell you something that I think will make you happy. I traveled a long way to talk to you and ask your forgiveness. We were the meanest boys that ever were in Sunday School, and we gave you all kinds of trouble. I guess I was the ringleader in the mischief and meanness that went on.
“On the Sunday before my family moved away, I was particularly obnoxious. After leaving class I remembered something I had left in the room and decided I’d better get it since it was my last day. So I went back, and as I looked in the door I saw you seated up front with your head bowed, and it sounded like you were crying. I heard you pray, ‘O Lord, please help me.’
“Mr. Alton, I stayed very still for a long time, and then slipped away. For five years, I hurt inside whenever I thought of you praying there. One day it suddenly occurred to me that I was on the opposite side of the Lord, and I’d been there ever since I was a boy. I’d upset the class and I’d upset the Sunday School and I’d upset everything. It made me pretty miserable.
“Finally I gave my heart to God. I’m an elder in my church now, thanks to the prayer you prayed that day. I’ve been thanking God for you for many years now, and tonight I’ve come to thank you and to let you know.”
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord .”
A reporter once asked Tom Landry, successful coach of the Dallas Cowboys, “What makes a champion?” His response was this — “A champion is simply someone who didn’t give up when he wanted to.”
As Paul writes in Galatians 6:9 (NIV), “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
This morning, it is my prayer and desire that you not lose heart. If you are doing God’s work – as a parent, as a teacher, as a friend – don’t give up. It may look like nothing is being accomplished, but if you are doing God’s will, “your labor is not in vain.” Please don’t forget that!