#2039 - Influence (29 March 2009)

The Message

Pastor Bill Hybels
Senior Pastor, Willow Creek Community Church

Special Guest

Dan Merchant

Special Music

Joyful, Joyful
Praise to the Lord/Great is Thy Faithfulness
How Glorious is Your Name
Jeannette Bayardelle – Try Again
Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow

The Message

Good morning everybody. I think you probably, those of you who at least have walked with Christ for a little while, understand how important the subject matter of influence is. Jesus talked about it a lot. He said that every one of My followers is a person of influence. Every man, woman, every boy and girl, and in one of His key passages, Jesus said think of yourselves as a light and there’s a dark world to ignite. There’s a dark world to light up. Don’t ever put anything over your flame, don’t do anything to curtail your influence, rather figure out what kind of lamp stand you can put your light on so that there can be light as far and as wide as you can possibly make it go.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject of influence in the past weeks and months. And one of the little spiritual disciplines that I have is each day when I get up I kneel next to my bed and I turn my hands over and I ask God to use me. I thank Him for another day of life, but I also say God if You want me to cross paths with someone this day, that I could influence, that I could say a word for You, if You would cause that to happen, I want my light to shine. I would like to make an impact, no matter how small, but I’m available if You want to use me in that regard.

A few years back, I said one of those prayers. I was on vacation and I had access to a boat and I decided that that day I was going to take it from the Michigan side of Lake Michigan, which is a very large body of water, all the way over to the Wisconsin side. It was about a hundred miles to take that boat. When I got over to the other side, it was about dinner time, I tidied up the boat, found a slip for it, organized everything and I got the charts out to see where I might go the next day. While I was looking at the charts, I noticed that the little harbor that I had gone into in Wisconsin was only about ten miles from the little Christian camp where I had become a Christian when I was 17 years old. And as I looked at that chart and looked at where that little camp was, I felt a prompting from God, kind of a whisper from the holy spirit and the whisper, as best I could understand it was find your way out to that camp and stand in the place where we met, God speaking. Stand in the place where I changed your life when you were 17 years old. After I prayed about it a few more moments, I thought I really do think this is God whispering. I think this is something He wants me to do. But I had arrived by boat so I had no form of transportation.
So I went to the little marina area there and I asked if I could use the phone. There’s one tiny little cab company in that town. I called them and to my dismay they said ten miles was too far for one of their cab drivers to take me. In Chicago, I mean, we take ten mile cab rides for recreation. But this was too far for them, so I pleaded with the dispatcher and I said really I reel like I must go to this camp for reasons I don’t need to explain to you but how might I get there? Could you help me? And the woman said well I do know of a guy in this town whose a little down on his luck, and I think he might do just about anything for money. Now that should have been a clue but I took down the number that she graciously gave me and then I made a second call. And by the way this young man answered the phone, I think it was the first phone call he had received that day and I think again it was 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I think I maybe awakened him out of a dead sleep. But I described that I just wanted to go ten miles outside of town for just a little while and that I would pay him handsomely if he would do it. And when he heard the word money, just as was suggested to me, he was interested and he said I’ll be there in 15 minutes.

Well I got ready and I stood in the parking lot by the marina and in drives a car that looked very unusual to me. No four rims or tires were alike, a couple of the windows were smashed, one of the doors was sprung; this car had been through a lot. And when the young man got out of the car to shake my hand, he was a very colorful looking young man. He had clothes that were torn where I don’t think it’s cool to be torn. New clothes sometimes you know you get them torn from the store, but this wasn’t like that. And I remember, I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone more committed to the art form of tattoo than this young man was. I could barely tell what skin color he was, not that it would have mattered to me. But this was a very unusual individual and I said now are you the one that’s going to take me out to this camp that I need to go to? And he said well if you’ll pay me. I said all right, well let’s go.

So I get in the car, we’re heading out of town and I look over and I see that the gas gauge is reading below empty. Now this is a little bit of a problem but there was a gas station coming up soon and I said you know in addition to the money that I’m going to pay you for taking me to this camp and back, I would like to offer you some gas for your car. And he said really? I said yeah, on me, if we can pull into this station here. So we pulled in, he ran around and he put two dollars in it and then stopped. And I said well listen, two dollars isn’t going to get us very far these days. Why don’t you just fill it up. I’ll pay for it. He said it’s never been full before. And I said well just fill it up then. Go crazy. And so he did and I ran in and paid the attendant and we got back in the car and we started driving down the road. He was smiling from ear to ear and driving and he said it handles different on a full tank of fuel. I said just hang onto it if you can, my friend, and so we eventually found our way out to the camp that I was looking for.

When we got to the parking lot I said if you wouldn’t mind, if you would just stay here for a little while, I just have something I need to do and I’ll be back shortly. So I walked which was only maybe 300 yards from the parking lot. I walked to the exact place where I became a Christian when I was 17. I grew up in a Christian church but I never heard the true message of the love of Jesus Christ in a way that made sense to me in the church of my youth. I’m not saying they didn’t preach it, I’m just saying I didn’t hear it in a way that made sense to me in my youth. And I had figured out or I had understood my whole life growing up being born into a family business and a hard working father and so my idea of how you become a Christian is that you straighten up your act, you fly straight, you live the best life you can possibly live, you strive to please a God that you know you’ve disappointed, but you give it your absolute best effort and someday you’ll find out if you made the grade. That was how it got all distilled into my mind. But when I was 17 years old and I was walking on a path from one side of a Christian camp to another side of the camp I stopped on the side of a hill and God brought to mind a bible verse that I had memorized as a kid. The verse is “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to God’s mercy He saved us.” Not by works of righteousness which we do; ceasing, striving, climbing, flying straighter, jumping through more hoops, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to God’s mercy through His death on the cross, He saved us. And I remember being 17 years old walking down the path on the side of that hill. When that verse gripped me and I stopped, it hit me that hard, and I’m the kind of guy who isn’t easily moved to emotion, but I was moved to enormous emotion that day. No one had preached to me, nobody had tried to talk me into anything, I was all alone on the side of a hill and God met me there with that verse, and He said Bill stop striving. What you needed most, which is forgiveness from your sins, I have provided on a cross through Christ. And salvation I’m making available to you as a gift because I love you and I want to make this redemption available for free. And as strange as it might sound to some of you, I felt that burst of the love of God this early. It felt like something shifted inside of me, like geological plates that shift, then earthquake and quite frankly the plates never shifted back from that day forward.

And so I was walking out to that place where that experience had occurred to me and I stood there, I found the exact piece of ground and I stood there and got emotional all over again. I was like God of all the places in the world this is where You met me. And then I thought of the life trajectory that I had been on in my late teens where it was absolutely certain that I would take over my father’s business and that I would get a degree in economics and business administration and go into the marketplace that was predestined for me, I think. And I thought of how my life has changed so much because of what happened on that little patch of real estate. So I stood there for almost 20 minutes and poured out my heart of thanksgiving to God. Some of you know exactly where you were when heaven touched earth, when Christ touched your life, when salvation was made clear to you. You remember the moment of time. Sometimes it’s an era and sometimes you don’t have that exact geography but many of you do remember where that was. And I would encourage you, if you ever have the opportunity to go to that place sometime, stand in that place, sit in that seat, go to that exact place where God touched you and do a little review, thank Him afresh for what He did. But that’s all I was doing that day was standing in the place where God saved me through Christ. And after about 20 minutes, then I thought oh my goodness, I wonder if I still have a driver, you know, I was a little nervous.

And so I ran across the parking lot and sure enough he was still there. And so I got in the car, I said I’m all done if you could take me back to the marina now, I would be very grateful. Part of the way back to the marina, this young man looks over at me and he said may I ask you what you were doing on the side of that hill? And I said well do you really want to know? And he said yeah I do. I said right there on the side of that hill, that’s where I met God. He went oh, oh. He said how does something like that happen? And I said well I can tell you how it happened for me. And I reviewed what I just told you, that I’d grown up in a church and knew about God, I’d just never been in a relationship with Him. I told Him about that verse that God had brought to my mind and how I had opened my heart to receive Christ that day and then I told him the difference that it made in my life. He said oh. That’s cool, he said, that’s cool. And he said does God still do that kind of thing today? I said well I know for a fact that He does. And then he said something I’ll never forget, he said, but would He still do it for a loser like me? Would He still do it for a loser like me? And my reflex reaction was here’s a young man who doesn’t understand the heart of our Father. He doesn’t understand heavenly father love. I can only imagine what his earthly father love was like.

And I said well first of all, my young friend, you are not a loser. Okay let me just tell you that. No matter what you call yourself, you’re not one. You’re made in the image of God, God’s love has flowed towards you since the moment you sucked breath. He is every bit as concerned about your life as He is my life and anyone else that you see. You must understand you are not a loser. You are made in the image of God and you’re someone that God would love to meet and redeem and adopt into His family. The guy goes well like how might that happen? And so I explained what had happened to me and what could happen to him. We had a fantastic discussion all the way down to the marina parking lot at which time I said well do you think you’re ready to be adopted into God’s family? He said well this is all come on pretty fast, he said, I really appreciate the conversation. He said a guy was knocking on doors around here recently and said he’s starting a new church and he thought it would be one that I could relate to. He said I will tell you this, I promise I’ll start going to that new church in town, that’s about all I can promise. And I said well good for you. Maybe that’s all we can do today. I said a brief prayer for him, paid him very handsomely and then he drove away. I’ve never seen him again.

I went back to the boat, I sat down in the boat and just started shaking my head going oh my gosh, what was that all about? This morning I had gotten up and turned my hands over and asked God to use me, asked God that maybe I could have influence on even one person to point him toward faith in Christ, did God really prompt me to go out to that camp site to stand where I had gotten saved because He wanted me to do that or was it because He was aware that in so doing I would need to pay a driver who had lost his way. I don’t know. But when I went to bed that night, I said God this is something I love about the Christian life. Every day when we surrender to You every day, as we’re going about our way, if You open certain doors, if we have our antenna sharp, You speak to us, You prompt us and sometimes You give us perfect opportunities to talk to people about faith in Christ. And if we go through those doors, you never know what might happen.

Jesus tells three stories to the religious officials and He doesn’t even go to great pains to explain them, He just thinks at a later point in time, lights are going to go on and you’re going to understand why I told these stories. You all know the stories. The stories are recorded in Luke 15, the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the wayward son. In each of those three stories, something wound up missing, and then maybe He was saying that these are like missing people from my father’s family and they really matter to the heart of my Father.

I have two children. I have a 31 year old daughter and I have a 29 year old son. This kid has loved water all his life and when he was about five years old, I took him out on a windsurfer. You all know what that is, a windsurfing board. Neither of us were wearing life jackets, I know, but I was out with him and he used to like to stand on my knees and then when I got the board all steady, he used to like to swing one of his legs around my neck and then he would sit on my shoulders as I would windsurf on Lake Michigan. We did this for hours and had great fun doing it. We were doing it one day and a downspout, kind of a sudden storm, a sudden blast of wind hit us and I saw it coming with just a few seconds left and I knew it was going to blow both of us off the sail and my major concern, because Todd didn’t have a life jacket on, my major concern is that he would get caught under the sail and he wasn’t a very good swimmer yet at that point. And so just as we were starting to go over, I physically threw him as far as I could to make sure he wouldn’t get caught under the sail. In the throwing of him as far as I did, when I went into the water, I got under the sail. It’s happened to me many times before; it’s not a cause for panic if you kind of know what you’re doing. So I pressed up on the sail and got some wind and then I tried to extricate myself from my harness and all this other rigging and when I finally did get myself out from underneath that sail, I looked around and there was no Todd. That’s his name, Todd, there was no Todd.
And the waves had started to build and so I thought well sure, he’s on the other side of the board, so I swam as fast as I could. He wasn’t on the other side of the board. And then I started screaming. And I screamed with such vocal intensity that I actually blew out my vocal chords, had a hard time talking for about a month. But I was screaming his name at the top of my lungs over and over and over again. And I can tell you this with great parental assuredness, when you feel like you’ve lost your only son, when you’re right there in that moment, and you think he’s gone forever, it’s an overwhelmingly narrowing kind of thought that comes into your mind. In other ways, there’s not ten other things in your brain at that time. And then I look on the other side of the sail and just then Todd popped up, I just saw his little blonde hair and I swam over to him like I was an outboard motor and wrapped my arms around him and he was sputtering. And I put him up on the board and I got the rig arranged and eventually hauled him and the rig all the way back to the beach. When I got him on the beach, man I hugged that kid and when I made sure that he was all okay, I said your mother does not have to know about this. This is between you and me. It’s a guy thing right here, okay?

But you know I have never had a moment like that before that time or after. I had never known what it was like to have a singular all powered up father love for a missing son. This might be hard for some of you to understand, that’s how God lives, that’s how God’s heart beats for every missing son and daughter with regard to those who are far from Him, those who are outside the family. He doesn’t care skin color, He doesn’t care what they’ve been through, He doesn’t care, He just cares that they’re missing, you see.
And what the Pharisees didn’t understand that day as Jesus was hanging around with irreligious people but they were people whose absence made the Father’s heart ache. You know anybody who’s far from God? Do you ever catch yourself, if you’re a Christ follower, do you ever catch yourself being annoyed by someone because they use profanity? Do you ever find yourself getting annoyed by somebody because you don’t agree with their lifestyle choices? And you don’t agree with the way they vote, then you don’t agree with this, then you don’t agree with that and pretty soon these people become an annoyance and you wish you could vote them off the island. That’s not a feeling familiar to the holy God. The person who annoys you most is still someone for whom the Father’s heart aches and breaks and if there was an ounce of willingness in that person to turn toward God, He would do toward that individual what He did to the thief on the cross who moments away from His last breath said would you remember me and Jesus said today you’ll be in My kingdom. That’s the nature of the Father’s heart.

So these religious leaders are like okay, Jesus told three stories and in each story something was missing and that which was missing really mattered. You know what, in two of the three stories; there was an all out search that went on. The shepherd went seeking for the lost sheep and the woman tidied up the whole house to find the lost coin. The father, well he waited, he searched the horizon for the coming home of the son. There’s a lot of searching going on. Maybe one of those religious leaders awakened and thought you know what, not only might I not have the right attitude if I’m annoyed by someone who’s far from the Father, if I have the right attitude, maybe I ought to actually figure out how I could search some wayward people out and see if I could put my arm around them and help them find their way back to God somehow.

I’m going to be very candid here. I don’t think you came to church to play church today. You self selected. You wanted to be here. You wanted to get reconnected to the God you love and you wanted some kind of encouragement and maybe some challenge. When is the last time that you’ve been in search mode for someone far from God? When’s the last time you’ve prayed by name for someone who you know has walked away. When’s the last time you’ve turned your hands over in the morning and said today God would You just help me cross paths with someone whose lost their way so that maybe You would give me the opportunity to say a word or give them encouragement of some sort or help them with a resource to help them toward God.

One thing I’ve loved about the Crystal Cathedral for as long as I’ve known it is that it has always had an eye and a heart for the outsider. It’s always had as one of its chief values that we exist to help people far from God understand the transforming love of Jesus Christ. One of the reasons I used to raise my own money and fly from Chicago to come out and sit in the old auditorium before this one was built, was because Bob Schuller would stand up and talk about a church as a mission. A church who isn’t just trying to rev up the already committed but a church that was trying to reach out to people who had lost their way. I love churches like that. I think God loves churches that always keep an arm outstretched. It’s always in seeking mode, you see, always seeking.

When the lost shepherd finds the sheep, you can read this in Luke 15, he brings it back joyfully and he calls his shepherd friends and he says you must come and rejoice with me, that which is lost is found. When the woman finds her coin, she calls her lady friends and she says you must rejoice with me. I found the coin. And you all know in the story of the prodigal son, when the son comes home, that father scoops him up and he calls for the largest celebration, the sacrificing of the fatted calf and the ring on the finger, the new clothing, the whole nine yards, and he says look lets just forget about the stupid things this kid did. He’s back and I love him. He’s back. Retrievals bring rejoicing.

When I was a much younger man, I read these stories and I was in the rental offices when our church was in a movie theater and I remember realizing that the scripture says in Luke 15 that there’s great joy all across heaven when a single far from God person repents and receives Christ. In the imagery that came to my mind, is there’s a cosmic celebration, there’s a party all across heaven so I’m thinking about it that day in this little rented office and I closed my eyes, I leaned back in my office chair and I imagined this you know raucous celebration in heaven, tens of thousands of people and then for some reason I thought about a head table, maybe Jesus was at the head table with disciples and great heroes of the faith and all that, and then for some reason the spirit of God made me think of the banner over the head table, the banner, and the name on it was mine, Bill Hybels. And something broke in me like a spiritual dam. I cannot even grasp the magnitude of a cosmic celebration happening all across heaven and the name on the banner being mine. I can’t be loved that much. Impossible. And that dam kept breaking, I don’t know how long I stayed in that office, but it was a long time just letting the love of God and that picture wash and wash and wash over me.

Now again I want you to try to do something and it’s hard for you to do. But just take a moment and try. Picture in your mind the most raucous celebration cosmic wide that you could ever imagine tens of thousands of people, music and dancing, wine and food, the whole thing going on, Jesus at the head table, you got it in your mind? This whole thing going on all across heaven and there’s a banner hanging over it and the name on it is yours. The name on it is your name. That’s how much your love, that’s how the Father’s heart ached for you before you opened it up to His love. And that’s how joyful the Father’s heart is for all of you who have received Christ and you have entered into the relationship that you can enjoy every day and throughout all eternity.

My closing comment to you is one of challenge. You have between this day and your last day to influence people who are far from God. To let them know what the Father’s heart is really like. You have from this day to your last day to live in that great love, to let it purge you from prejudice and purge you from evil and purge you from hate and purge you from greed, it’s the love of Christ that transformed people, that transforms people, you know that. As you live it in, it changes you and as you’re changed, you see things differently and you see people differently and you start to understand that the greatest privilege in life is to make an introduction for people who are far from God to the God who has that unique and unbelievable amount of Father love. I hope you live in that love today. I hope you let it change your mind and change your heart and change your marriage and change your relationship with friends and family. And I hope you get fired up to spread it. Shall we pray?

Father in heaven we sometimes lose all perspective on the magnitude and the beauty and the comprehensiveness of Your great love. And we need to be reminded from time to time that there’s no losers in this world, that every man, woman and child is made in the image of God and the Father’s heart aches until every single person is redeemed. Please Father, move in this church, move in this ministry, move in churches all around the world, move in the lives of Christ followers all over the world, to live in the power of Christ’ redeeming love, and to spread it as You give us opportunity and we pray this is the name of Jesus Christ, and everyone agreed and said, Amen.

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