As we meet tonight on this 29th of December, 2003, the body count of those killed in the earthquake in Bam, Iran, stands at about 25,000. That’s a lot of human beings snuffed out in one morning. You feel the personal magnitude of it when you read of a father digging for his family and passing out when he uncovers the hand of his dead teenage daughter, or when you read of an infant found alive in the arms of his dead mother.
What gives this year-end calamity an added apocalyptic feel is not just its magnitude — almost ten times the human loss as our own 9-11 disaster — but the other catastrophes that happened in the last several days in addition to this earthquake: thirteen people swept away in a mudslide in California, six buried in an avalanche in Utah, 111 killed in a plane crash in Benin, 198 poisoned by a gas leak in China. And those are just the ones that made the news. We would be stunned speechless if we watched the car accidents in which 50,000 people died in America this year.
One answer is given in Luke 13:1–5. People asked Jesus about a calamity in which Pilate had killed people while they were worshiping and mingled their blood with their sacrifices. Jesus answers:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Jesus could weep over people’s heartbreaking losses (Luke 19:41; John 11:35). And the Bible tells us plainly, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). But when the racking emotions are eased a bit, the questions come, and Jesus does not settle the issues with sentimentality. He deals with ultimate reality. He deals with God and sin and judgment and salvation.
He says in effect: “Are you astonished at the death of the Galileans? Are you astonished at the deaths of those who were crushed when the tower of Siloam fell? I will tell you what to be astonished at: be astonished that the tower did not fall on you.” If Jesus were here tonight, and we came to him with the death toll from the earthquake in Iran asking him to give an accounting for God, one of the things he would say is: “Be astonished that this hotel has not collapsed with you in it. For unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” This means all of us deserve to die right now and to perish forever.
This leads to this conclusion and sets the stage for my message tonight: Your life is in God’s hands and hangs by a thread of sovereign grace. God owns every soul. He made us and we belong to him by virtue of his being our Creator. He can give and take life as he pleases according to his infinite wisdom, and he never does anyone any wrong. He created human life, and he decides what human life is for.
When Job lost his ten children in an Iran-like calamity (the house collapsed), the Bible says: “he tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. . . . And said . . . ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’” (Job 1:20–21). The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away! Or, as Job says later, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10).
When Hannah was thanking God for her son Samuel after years of barrenness, she said, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6). And God himself said in Deuteronomy 32:39: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”
If any of us lives through this message tonight, it will be a sheer gift of grace. James, the brother of Jesus, put it like this:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13–16)
If the Lord wills, you and I will live through this message. And if he does not, we won’t. Our life is not our own. It belongs to God. I have no right to take your life. And you have no right to take mine. But that is not because our life is our own, but because our lives belong to God and he has the right to take both of us any time he chooses. Your life belongs to God, and he decides what life is for.
Oh how jealous Jesus was, therefore, that people not waste their lives. Most of you are students here, and your lives are very much in front of you. At least you feel that they are. They may not be. You may have already lived most of your life. But if God wills, many of you have several decades to live on the earth before you die and give an account of what you did with your life. And how jealous Jesus is that you not waste it.
If he were here, he might make this point with these words: A person’s “life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Accumulating things is not what life is for. And then he might tell this parable:
The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:16–21)
Oh how jealous Jesus is that none of you here tonight be called a fool by God because of the way you used the gift of life! Life is not for the accumulation of things. This night your life will be required of you, and then whose will these possessions be? No sane person on his deathbed ever was comforted by his possessions. Oh hear the words of Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? (Matthew 16:24–26)
It is possible to waste your life. Few things make me tremble more than the possibility of taking this onetime gift of life and wasting it. Every morning when I walked into the kitchen as a boy I saw hanging on the wall the plaque that now hangs in my living room: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”
And now I am almost 58, and the river of life is spilling over the falls of my days with tremendous speed. More and more I smell eternity. And oh, how I want to use my life well. It is so short and so fragile and so final. You get one chance to live your life. And then the judgment. I speak as a father who has children your age, and I am jealous with Jesus that they and you not waste your life.
One of the great tragedies of American culture is the way billions of dollars are invested to persuade people my age to waste the rest of their lives. It goes by the name of retirement, and the entire message is: you’ve worked for it, now enjoy it. And what is the “it”? Twenty years of play and leisure. While the world sinks under the weight of millions of healthy older people fishing, cruising, puttering, playing golf, bridge, bingo, shuffle board, and collecting shells. All of this in preparation for meeting Jesus Christ face to face with nail scars in his hands.
And that is exactly the way you will waste your life in fifty years if you do not make some radical decisions now, and set your face like flint to walk another way. Oh, that you might all come to age 65 with fire in your bones, and say, “Now! Now! With my simple pension and my remaining energy and my new freedom I will pour out my life for Christ and his kingdom, so that when I meet him — which I will do any day now — I will smile at his words, ‘well done, good and faithful servant,’ instead of those awful words, ‘Fool! How did all that pointless play put my glory on display?’”
So if you ask me tonight, All right, tell us then, what is the unwasted life? What does it look like? What is the essence of the unwasted life? I just mentioned it: a life that puts the infinite value of Christ on display for the world to see. The passion of the unwasted life is to joyfully display the supreme excellence of Christ by the way we live. Life is given to us so that we can use it to make much of Christ. Possessions are given to us so that by the way we use them, we can show that they are not our treasure, but Christ is our treasure. Money is given to us so that we will use it in a way that shows money is not treasure, but Christ is our treasure.
The great passion of the unwasted life is to magnify Christ. Here is the text that, perhaps more than any other, governs what life is really about: Philippians 1:20–21. Paul says, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Paul’s all-consuming passion was that in his life and in his death Jesus Christ be honored, that is, that Jesus Christ be made to look like the infinite treasure that he is. The reason you have life is to make Jesus Christ look great. There is one central criterion that should govern all the decisions you make in life and in death: Will this help make Jesus Christ look like the treasure he is?
You can see this in the way Paul talks about the two halves of his statement in verse 20. He says that his passion is that Christ be honored (or magnified, or made to look great) whether by life or by death. There is the life half of the verse, and the death half. How does Paul show that Christ is his treasure by life? The answer is given in Philippians 3:7–8:
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
In other words, Paul displays the worth of Christ by counting everything else as loss for Christ’s sake. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of Christ.” This means that the life that displays the worth of Christ — the unwasted life — is the life that uses everything to show that Christ is more valuable that it is. Money is used to show that Christ is more valuable than money. Food is used to show that Christ is more valuable than food is. Houses and lands and cars and computers are used to show that Christ is more valuable than they are. Family and friends and your own life are a place to show that Christ is more valuable than any of them.
The way we display the supreme worth of Jesus in our lives is by treasuring Christ above all things, and then making life choices that show that our joy is not finally in things or even in other people, but in Christ.
And the same is true in the second half of what Paul said in Philippians 1:20, namely, his honoring Christ by the way he dies. “It is my eager expectation and hope that . . . Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” How is Christ honored — how do we make much of Christ and display his worth — by our death? He gives the answer in the next verse: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Why is death gain? It’s gain because verse 23 says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Death is gain because death means more of Christ. It means to depart and be with him — with him! — and that is far better.
How do you show that Christ is a treasure in death? By experiencing death as gain. Christ will be most magnified in you, in your dying, when you are most satisfied in him, in your dying. When Christ is more precious to you than all that life can give, then being with him through death will be gain. And it will be plain to all that Christ is your treasure, and nothing on the earth. Here is the essential lesson for living the unwasted life and dying the unwasted death:
- Life and death are given to us as means of displaying the supreme value of Christ.
- The supreme value of Christ is displayed when you treasure him above all earthly things and all other earthly persons.
- This treasuring of him above all earthly things and persons is most clearly seen in what you are gladly willing to risk, or to sacrifice in order to enjoy more of him.
Here is the radical way Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 12:9–10, where Christ refused to remove Paul’s painful thorn in the flesh:
He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [There’s more of Christ!] Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Magnifying the surpassing power of Christ in his own weakness and pain was Paul’s supreme passion! I will rejoice in whatever makes Christ look magnificently satisfying — including all my pain.
So I ask all of you now, are you going to throw your life away with the rest of the world by striving to minimize your suffering and maximize your comforts in this life? Are you going to work for the bread that perishes? Build bigger barns? Lay up treasures on earth? Strive for the praise of man?
Or will you see in Christ crucified and risen, bearing the sins of his people — will you see in this God-Man the all-satisfying treasure of your life? Will you say with Paul, “To live is Christ and to die is gain . . . I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”?
I believe with all my heart that when God raises up a generation like this — and I pray that you are that generation — the completion of the Great Commission will come to pass. Because it will not come to pass unless a generation is joyfully willing to lay down their lives. The remaining unreached peoples of the world are almost all in dangerous places. If your generation buys into the American mindset of preserving comfort and safety and security and ease, you will be passed over, and God will get his work done another way. And over your generation — as over much of mine — will be written “Fool! Whose will these things be?” And the tragic word: “Wasted!”
But if your passion is to display the worth of Christ, and thus to treasure him above all things, and thus to risk and sacrifice for the display of his supreme value, then I do not doubt that God will use you mightily and that the commitments you make to the hard places of East Asia or the Middle East or North Africa or post-Christian Europe or urban America, will be fulfilled. And in those places the glory of Christ will shine through you and thousands of people will see and put their trust in the Lord.
And over their lives and over your life will be written the words: “This life was not wasted. This life gladly displayed the glory of Christ, both in life and in death.”