One of the most important lessons I ever learned happened when I was about six years old. I had been given the task of sweeping the floor and, since it was my bedroom, the floor was incredibly dirty. My dad checked in on me and I bragged to him, “Look at how much I got!” He took the broom and said, “Let me show you something.” Then my father started sweeping up the area I thought I had already done. It was amazing how much more dirt he was able sweep up from my already “clean” floor. He then gave me the wisest piece of advice my little mind could handle, and it is still great advice for all of us today. He said, “Don’t focus on everything you swept up. Instead look at what still remains to be done.”
In our lives today, that same advice still rings true. If you are anything like me, it is much easier to start something than it is to finish it. I know for many the summer is a time of transition. Some people are graduating, others moving, and a good many others in one form or another are starting a new chapter in their lives. In my church a lot of students will be returning to their homes after spending a year studying abroad. In fact, recently on a Wednesday night a group of us were sitting together when someone asked who was in a period of transition in their lives. Virtually all of the seventeen people in the room raised their hands. Many people are, but there will be some reading this who are halfway, or a third of the way through whatever their current chapter in life might be. Either way, the encouragement is the same. Whatever you find yourself doing, work hard at it while keeping the end goal in sight. Then don’t quit until it is finished.
Today I am writing about three negative examples of people or groups who started well but did not finish their tasks. The first of these was a man who quit his home but did not come into the Promised Land. The second was a nation who came into their land but did not conquer it. The third was a man who conquered the enemy but did not complete his assignment. By avoiding their mistakes we can learn to live in the victory that comes with finishing well the task God has given to us.
The first of these is a man named Terah. I know most of you are thinking, “Who is that?” Most people have never heard of him or, if they have, it is only because he is the father of Abraham. What most don’t realize was that it was originally Terah who set out to go to the Promised Land. One of the things Abraham is often praised for was actually a task his dad started, but we never hear about the father because he never arrived at his destination. In one of the only times Terah is mentioned in the Bible we read…
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter in law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.
Terah set out from Ur to go to Canaan… but when he came to Haran, he settled there. He settled. Terah quit his home but he did not come into his destiny.
What does arriving look like? In the dreams and visions that God has given you, what will it look like when you say, “I have arrived.” Do you even have any? If you don’t know where you are going, how can you know when you will get there? If you don’t have a sure destination in mind, how do you even know if you are headed in the right direction in your life? If you don’t have one, please stop reading this and get on your knees and correct that sin first. Everything I am writing assumes that those reading do have at least some idea or vision for their future.
Anyways, back to the matter at hand… I have never run a marathon. I never will. Growing up I did enjoy running and I have done my fair share of five and ten k races. Those are distances I cannot achieve today and have no intention of ever being able to again even though they might be far shorter than the 42 kilometers of torture I would have to put myself through to run a marathon. As I have grown and matured I have realized that running is a sport for people who have no patience. For those who do have that fruit of the Spirit, we have realized that there is no need to run when walking is perfectly fine.
With all of that said, I do have a friend who decided on a whim that he would run a marathon. He was a really good runner but he wasn’t ready or trained for that distance. Not even close. About 23 kilometers into the race, just over halfway, he was done. Now don’t get me wrong, 23k is good. That is really good especially for someone who was not ready. But he didn’t finish the marathon. He can brag as much as he wants about how far he came, but he didn’t finish the task.
In the time of Abraham and Terah, the average person did not travel more than fifty kilometers from the place of their birth. When he looked around at what everyone else was doing, Terah could have been very proud. When he looked at how far he had come and everything he had accomplished he could have said, “This is good enough. I have done so much better than everyone else I know.” The truth is he settled. My friend passed the fourteen mile marker in his race and said, “Good enough.” he settled. When sweeping up my floor I was proud of everything I got so I settled.
Terah’s son didn’t settle. He kept going when his dad stopped. Today nobody knows dad’s name, but his son Abraham? Almost four billion people today view him as their spiritual father. As we begin a new chapter or continue in the one God has called us to, let us not stop short of the finish line. Let us keep that goal in focus and not stop running until we have arrived.
Terah quit his home but did not com to Canaan. The Israelites made a different mistake. They came into the Promised Land but once there, they didn’t conquer it. In the beginning of Judges we read:
The Lord was with the people of Judah, and they took possession of the hill country. But they failed to drive out the people living in the plains who had iron chariots.
Moses had led the entire nation of Israel out of Egypt. In one day two million people packed their bags and skipped town with their Egyptian neighbors begging them to hurry up and go. They passed through the Red Sea and then God sustained them in a desert with one miracle after another. Moses and Aaron died but they passed the baton on to Joshua. He led the people through the Jordan River just like they had crossed the Red Sea. Then they marched around Jericho and the walls fell with a shout. For the next few years, Joshua led them on a whirlwind campaign toppling every powerful king in the area. But then he passes from the scene. They have made it to the land and they are safe there, but the battles have not all been fought. The war was not over. There was still more conquering to be done, but the Israelites were not willing to put in the effort or the sacrifice necessary to fight that battle.
This verse above is the beginning of a series of failures listed in the first chapter of Judges. Judah failed to drive them out. Ephraim failed to drive them out. benjamin failed to drive them out. One by one each tribe is listed in their failure to conquer the land. What does that look for us today? Even if we are faithful to be where God has called us to be and even if we are doing what God has called us to do, are we living in victory?
Back in college I became president of a group that was heading in the wrong direction. The first couple months of my senior year, it seemed like things were continuing to go downhill fast. I remember talking with the group’s faculty advisor about whether this would be the last year Delta Chi existed. I told him, “God has called me to be faithful, not necessarily successful.” He gave me a “Don’t be stupid” look and asked, “Has He called you to preside over a funeral?” It took a lot more time and effort than I initially wanted to spend. My grades suffered that year. My commitments in other areas had to be pulled back. Even still I was not nearly as victorious as I wanted to be, but the group was stronger when I left than when I came. More important, there were leaders in place who would make it even better after I was gone from the scene.
It was much easier for Israel to rest on their past accomplishments than to pick back up their sword. It was easier to say, “I have arrived” than to fight through to victory. Conquering the land is hard work. It will almost always take more from us than we are willing to invest. Even then, the outcome is in God’s hands not our own. But one thing is certain, if we are not willing to fight then mediocrity is the best we can ever hope for.
Terah quit his home but did not come into the land. The Israelites came into the land but they did not conquer it. Their first king made the third common mistake of those who will not finish the task. Saul conquered but he did not complete his task. Through the prophet Samuel, God told Saul to go in and conquer the Amalekites. He and his army were to destroy everything and keep nothing for themselves. They did go out and conquer, but then we read this:
1 Samuel 15:13-15
When Samuel finally found him, Saul greeted him cheerfully. “May the Lord bless you,” he said. “I have carried out the Lord’s command!”
“Then what is all the bleating of sheep and goats and the lowing of cattle I hear?” Samuel demanded.
“It’s true that the army spared the best of the sheep, goats, and cattle,” Saul admitted, “But they are going to sacrifice them to the Lord your God. We destroyed everything else.”
At the beginning I talked about the wise advice my dad gave me. He told me not to focus on all that I had accomplished but instead on what remains to be done. I’m now going to share what was always his favorite quote. “The miracle isn’t complete until the change takes place.” Coming into the land and conquering it… Those are external things. In whatever this next phase of life you are about to go through, the greatest miracle God does will not be external. The greatest miracle will not be all that you will accomplish. That might be what the world looks at but what God does in you has the potential to be a far greater miracle than what He does through you.
Thirteen years back I was a youth pastor at a church on Long Island, NY. By any measure I was doing well. The group was growing. They had record breaking giving to Speed the Light. Kids were getting saved. Inside I was a failure. I was messing with sin I had no business messing with and ultimately it caught up with me. Like Saul I thought I was really, truly conquering the land. The definition of integrity is “the state of being whole and undivided.” At that point in my life I had none. Neither did Saul and eventually it caught up with him.
After a later battle that cost Saul his life, a man came to David with this report:
2 Samuel 1:11
“So I killed him,” the Amalekite told David, “for I knew that he couldn’t live. Then I took his crown and armband, and I have brought them here to you, my lord.”
Who was it that Saul was supposed to completely destroy? Who was it who ended up killing Saul? The sin that we are unwilling to kill, will kill us.
No matter what the task ahead of us is, the greatest and most important thing God has called us to is a passionate pursuit of Him. No matter what else we do, no matter where else we go, this is our greatest task. So as you step forward into whatever this next phase of life might hold remember to always keep that finish line in sight. Don’t stop running until you have arrived. Don’t stop fighting until you have conquered. And most importantly, don’t forget that what God completes in you is far, far more important than what He does through you.