Remember How Far He’s Brought Us |01.28.24| Blessed Year Ever pt.3
Remember How Far He’s Brought Us
Pastor Drew Williams
Have you ever looked back at an old picture of someone else and been surprised by how much they have changed? Usually, when we see someone often, or when we look at ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t notice the changes, because they are so gradual.
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But when you see an older picture, the change is much more drastic. You can see how much someone has changed, how much they’ve grown, how much they’ve been through, how far they’ve come.
Megan and I have a setting on our TV where it will display family pictures as a screensaver when nothing else is playing. And my daughter, Emmy, loves to look at the pictures as they scroll.
She’ll see older pictures of Megan and I, of people we care about, of trips we’ve taken. But her favorite is to see older pictures of herself as a baby or as a toddler, because she loves to exclaim how much she’s grown since then.
Now, would it be okay if I showed you some of those pictures?
Here’s a picture that is a good example of the drastic change we notice. You can see the similarity of who she is now, but you can also see how much she’s grown.
Here’s another photo that has a drastic change. This was when I was 18 or 19, and had just started college. I don’t miss the hair. I definitely don’t miss the necklace. I do miss the waistline. And it’s crazy to see how far I’ve come since then.
This final picture is…oh whoops! That’s Gary Sandrock again. I don’t know how that got in there. So sorry about that. We don’t need to leave that up there!
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In all seriousness, Megan and I love to see those older pictures of our kids and family as well, because it reminds us of what our kids were like when they were much littler. We remember the ups and the downs of newborns, the excitement of first steps and first words with toddlers, and it really gives us an appreciation for how far our kids have come. How far we’ve come as parents.
And I think that it’s an important practice for us to look back at how far we’ve come, because it gives us a good perspective on where we are and what things are true as we go forward.
And this is a scriptural idea as well, as we’ll see in today’s Bible passage. So open your Bibles to Deuteronomy chapter 8, which can be found on page 128 of the OT in the black seat-back bibles in front of you.
The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Bible and the final book of the Torah, the Jewish law. After God saved his people from slavery in Egypt, Israel was at Mount Sinai for one year, entering into a covenant with their God, learning what it means to follow God, and learning what kind of God he is.
Then they had the disastrous road trip through the wilderness, and the Exodus generation disqualified themselves from entering into the land promised to Abraham. So, Deuteronomy begins with the leader, Moses, standing in front of this new generation, explaining their history, reminding them how far they’ve come, and calling the next generation of Israel to be faithful to the covenant with their God.
So let’s read together from Deuteronomy 8, starting in verse 2…
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Now, before we dig deeper into this passage, I want to give a pastoral word on how we read passages like this that have heavy warnings and promises. First, we cannot claim specific promises that God makes for certain people at certain times for ourselves and our time.
But they DO show us what the character of God is like, and as the wise quote says, “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” So, when we see how God interacts with humanity through Scripture and through the stories of other people, it helps us know what he is like and how he intends to connect with us.
So, let’s look closer at this passage.
Moses starts by saying “Remember the long way you’ve come…” He’s talking to a group that has been hearing about the Promised Land for years and years. They’ve lived most of their lives in search of the promised land, this place that God has prepared for them where they will have abundance and peace and prosperity. And now they’ve made it! They are right on the edge of the river, and just on the other side is the Promised Land! But before they go in, Moses wants to make sure they remember how far they’ve come.
He doesn’t want them to lose sight of the JOURNEY they took to get there, because the JOURNEY IS THE PROCESS of transformation. Remember how far you’ve come, remember how far God has brought you, so that you don’t forget how much has changed and how much you’ve learned.
Because the journey was something God did on purpose to HUMBLE you. God had a PURPOSE in the process for Israel.
He humbled you with hunger and then he fed you. God used the process to teach DEPENDANCE and to prove his own TRUSTWORTHINESS. Going through that journey helped the people learn to depend on God to provide for them, to learn how to trust him that he WOULD provide. And when God DID, it proved that he was worthy of their trust. He was not a god who would abandon them.
And if you need even more proof, there’s the miracle of how they faired through the 40-year journey through the wilderness. The people listening now are thinking back, remembering the things they’ve experienced. Seeing how God was with them through those things. Recognizing that he is trustworthy.
And God took them through this process because he’s a parent. Good parents don’t just do everything for their kids. Good parents know that kids need to experience some difficulty so that they can learn, so that they can grow.
The same way that a baby chick needs to break through the shell of the egg with their own beak to get the strength to survive. If you help open the shell too much, that chick will die, because it didn’t overcome the hardship, and therefore it didn’t get enough strength to handle the world.
God is a good parent, and when he disciples or challenges us, his kids, it’s for our growth and our good.
Therefore, it says in verse 6, trust him and follow him, because he’s working for your good! Why? Because there is more ahead! And it’s going to be GOOD.
But God doesn’t want you to FORGET how far he’s brought you. The trust and dependance you learned on the journey will keep you grounded, safe, and humble.
So when you experience the good ahead, don’t attribute it to yourself, because GOD has been the provider and protector up to now, and he isn’t leaving you. He still sustains you.
If you DO forget God, if you turn away from trusting him and instead trust in other things… if you trust in your own ability to provide, if you trust in your job to save you, if you trust in your spouse to save you, if you trust in your kids to take care of you, if you trust in your political party to do good for you… Those other things will lead you down the path of death, because they WILL let you down.
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We can see that God isn’t threatening to punish his people if they turn away from him, but he IS showing how trusting in anything other than him will lead to isolation, doubt, pain, and death. So he wants them to remember how far they’ve come, to remember how far HE’S brought them, so that they can step forward with the confidence that they can depend on God because he’s trustworthy.
And as we look at this passage, we can see the truths about God’s character: God provides for us, guides us, abides with us.
God is a parent, he’s a provider, he’s a protector, and he’s a promise-keeper.
And when we look back at our OWN journeys, when we remember how far we’ve come, how far God has brought us, we can see how he has been with us and sustained us.
But, if we’re honest, that’s not always a natural way to look back on the past. In fact, the two most common ways to look back are whining and pining.
Some people will look back with a lens of negativity. They look back on how far they’ve come, but instead they focus on complaining about the things they’ve been through.
We all know people like this, right? Talk to them for more than three minutes, and you’re going to hear the same story about the missed opportunity they had years ago, or how they were passed over for a job, or how they had to deal with that beater of a car for too long because of the rotten insurance company.
And when we constantly have a whining approach to the past, we actually engrain the belief that we were alone, or depressed, or forgotten, or downtrodden.
And that engrained belief gets carried into our future.
We start to see every current situation in the same way. The past was hard, and we had to get through it alone, so that must still be true.
No one is going to be there to help us now. We’ve got to take care of ourselves. Things have gone wrong before, and they probably will again, or so we convince ourselves, so we view everyone with a certain level of distrust, of suspicion, an unwillingness to have too much hope.
The other common way to look at the past is with pining. People who do this reminisce and wish for the “better days.” They look back with rose-colored glasses about the past, convinced that things were better then.
All of us have done this at some point. How many of you have said the phrase, “I liked it better when…”
Right? Looking back with pining happens when we think the better days are behind us. But that belief just moves us forward with cynicism. It causes us to critique, and it gives us a lack of hope and a lack of openness or even AWARENESS of any good up ahead.
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But what if we looked back and instead of PINING for the past, we gave PRAISE to God for how far he’s brought you? What if instead of WHINING about what you endured, we gave WITNESS to how God was with us through some difficult experiences and brought us through to the other side?
This reminds me of the famous and over-quoted poem, called “Footsteps in the Sand.” If you don’t remember it, it’s about a person who gets to heaven, and sees their life played out as a bunch of scenes as they walk along a sandy beach with God. And when they get to the end, they look back and notice all the hard times they experienced, and notice that there is only one pair of footprints.
And they turn to God, “Those were very difficult times! Why did you leave me during those times?”
And God says, “No, those were the times I carried you.”
And actually, my favorite version of that poem adds in, “And that long groove right there is where I had to drag you.”
See, when we look back to only see the negative, or when we create a fake happy version of the past, we miss the opportunity to see how God was at work in our lives. And that means we’ll miss the opportunity to see God with us STILL, calling us forward.
That’s what Moses wanted to keep the people of God from doing. They were in danger of heading forward and forgetting all the ways that God provided for them and proved himself trustworthy, so they would end up thinking that THEY were the ones who accomplished what they have, or they would go looking to other things to be their provider and protector.
And that leads to a life that feels more like death.
But, if we take time to regularly look back in order to praise God, in order to remember how far he’s brought us, that will increase our faith as we step forward.
Looking back to praise God for being with us through the ups and downs reinforces our awareness that God IS WITH US. And he has plans. Plans that are for our good and for our growth.
Taking time to remember how far we’ve come, remembering where God has been with us and sustained us helps us step forward with the EXPECTATION that he will continue to be with us and keep working with us through the ups and downs in the future.
So, for you personally, I want to encourage you to take time to praise God for bringing you to where you are. Write down some things. Share them with others.
If you want, you can use the halfsheet that was in the bulletin. It has two prompts: write down a time when you experienced something hard. What happened? How did you feel?
And then reflect on what God was doing at that time. Was he watching from a distance to let you grow? Was he holding you up? Was he bringing other people into your life to support you? What was he teaching you, and how does that increase your trust in him now?
When we remember in praise, it allows us to grow in dependence on God and give him glory in our lives.
And we want to practice sharing more stories as a church family. Because then we get to hear how God has been at work. And that helps our faith increase and enables us to more easily fall in step with Jesus as we join him in his work.
So what is one of your Jesus stories? All of us have many stories of things that God brought us through. Some are big, some are seemingly small, but all of them tell the story of how God is a provider and loving parent who takes care of us, walks with us on the journey, and invites us to keep following him and joining him in his work so that others can be transformed by him, too.
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Seriously, I really encourage you to write down some of the details of how far God has brought you. It might not seem like a big deal to you, but when others get to hear your story, it will increase THEIR faith and help them see God at work even more.
But we also get to do this as a whole church family as well. Last weekend, we celebrated 14 years of New Life, and I wanted to take a few minutes to look back at some of the highlights that stand out to me as I’ve heard the stories of how far God has brought us.
There are SO MANY stories, but these are just a few. Back when the church first started, it was a group of people who had made the hard decision to leave their previous church in order to stand firm on their convictions that the Bible is the authoritative word of God.
A few months later, there was another local church that also had a vote on whether to stay with their association, or leave. The first church’s vote didn’t pass by a slim margin, but the second church’s vote didn’t pass by ONE VOTE.
For those who felt convicted to leave, it was heartbreaking, but they knew that they needed to follow God’s leading.
But one of the details of that story is that there was one family that wasn’t allowed to vote because of some technicality in the by-laws. They were devastated and felt betrayed by their own church, but in looking back on it, they realize that perhaps God was at work in the midst of that, because that meant that the vote fell through (BY ONE VOTE), and the group from the second church joined in with New Life, which truly was the beginning of seeing God’s work, bringing two different groups together into one family.
And when God was leading the church leadership to join our current association, Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ, that was what brought Pastor Bill Sullivan into connection with New Life, our first senior pastor who served us for 8 years.
And when the church outgrew the remodeled restaurant, God led dozens of men and women to not only help raise funds to build our current campus, but many of them donated time, labor, and materials to get the job done. Did you know that the only part of the construction we hired out to a big architectural company was pouring the foundation?
The rest of the work was done by members of this family, working together, breaking for lunch together, designing, hammering, hanging drywall and painting…together.
And from the beginning of this campus being complete, God created opportunities for us to bless our community by hosting events, welcoming new guests, and being a blessing for the community that surrounds us.
And by January of 2020, God had worked through the leadership of Pastor Ben to get us online with our services, able to livestream in order to reach people near and far who aren’t with us in-person.
And that was JUST IN TIME before the pandemic shut everything down two months later, proving that God had plans bigger than we knew, because New Life was able to pivot very quickly and still connect together and worship together online.
We look back and we realize just how GOOD God is, how he brings us through difficult things, and how he brings us through good times. We remember how far he’s brought us, and we know that he’s still leading us forward.
And I want to just take a moment to highlight this past year, because God has been at work in some amazing ways.
Did you know that two years ago in 2022, our in-person average adult attendance was around 215 people every week? That includes both Sunday services together. But as we ended 2023, our average adult attendance was 274 people every week.
That’s almost a 30% increase! That’s God at work in our church to reach even more people so that we can help them be transformed by Jesus, together, for others.
And that doesn’t even count our kids and teens. Did you know that this past fall, we reached 74 unique kids on our Sundays, and 38 unique teenagers through our Wednesday night youth group. And that isn’t even counting our summer VBS that had over 100 kids registered and over 40 teens and adults working together that week!
These numbers matter because people matter, and each one of these numbers represents a person that God has brought into our extended family, so that we can learn together how to follow Jesus, how to care for each other, and how to serve those who don’t know him yet.
And I have another cool number to share with you: our Christmas Eve services a month ago saw 697 people in person worshiping Jesus. That’s the largest single day of worship in the history of New Life Lutheran Church. And that doesn’t even count our online church family! We don’t have exact numbers on that, because it’s too unreliable to track on the different platforms, but we know you are out there, and you matter to us because you matter to God!
And I’ve got to share some of these other things with you, because it is just more and more proof of how God has been at work, and how God is leading us forward.
In 2023 we celebrated 14 baptisms, including 8 babies, 5 adults, and 1 kid getting baptized at VBS, a first for us as well!
We had 12 life groups with over 100 New Life folks regularly growing and learning from Jesus together.
We had our first ever Bible Reading challenge, where over 130 people engaged in a daily spiritual habit of Bible reading, and our first ever 21 Days of Prayer not only had 100 people praying daily from our church, but directly led to the creation of the first-ever Sauk Valley Week of Prayer, where over a dozen local churches partnered together to pray for our area that totaled in over 8,000 minutes of prayer in a single week.
God has been at work in our church, and God is leading us forward!
In 2023, we partnered with many other organizations to further the work of God. We hosted a highschool leadership camp in August, with over 100 student leaders from 5 different schools. We started a new Fellowship of Christian Athletes group for Sterling HS students with the help of students from our youth group.
Our quilting group donated over 530 quilts, shawls, hats, and scarves to the hospital, local hospices, and the YWCA so that folks could be kept warm with the knowledge that God loves them and we are praying for them.
Our Joyous Java coffee bar, which donates all profits to different missions over the year, gave away over $2,000! So I’m not sure if that means we are a generous church, or a caffeine addicted one.
No, I’m kidding, I KNOW for a fact that when you come to New Life, you are sitting amongst some of the most generous people in our county, because thanks to your generosity in financially supporting God’s work at New Life, not only were we able to do all the ministry I’ve already mentioned here in our programs and groups, we were also able to give away over $18,000 to our local ministry partners like FCA, the Caring Center, and Hope Life Center. And we gave even more than that to support our global missions partners in Vietnam, Germany, and South America.
And we just recently reported that you raised over $39,000 for our Christmas Offering that helped us finish 2023 strong to reach our 2024 vision of helping strengthen families to become transformed by Jesus, together, for others.
I just wanted to share all this with you, NOT to bring attention or applause to us. This is all proof that GOD is at work in our church. See how far he’s brought us. See how he has proven himself to be faithful. See how he continues to teach us how to depend on him, so that we can join him in his work of helping people know and follow Jesus.
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Remember how far he’s brought us. Remember God is always near. Remember his promises and remember he will carry us.
And let’s head forward together with praise on our lips and worship in our hearts, knowing that God is leading us. Isn’t that good news?