I really did wrestle in prayer about this message tonight just because of the broad implications. What do you not say about passing the torch? It can be argued that from Genesis to Revelation, the practical, transferable theme of everything is “passing the torch.” The Bible is amazing how it speaks against the urgency of our times but warns us of the arrogance of our moment—that there’s something greater than we are and we’ll ever be.
You can’t look at yourself in the mirror and sing “How Great Thou Art.” You’re not the end-all and the be-all of everything, yet God is doing something tremendous in our times.
I want you to turn with me to your Bibles to Psalm 78.
Illustration and Introduction
Some years ago, I was traveling during the time that they were celebrating the memorial service of Sammy Davis Jr. As many of you know, he was a legendary entertainer that broke all kinds of barriers and stereotypes. As I recall, I was in Dallas, Texas, getting ready to speak at a conference. I checked into the hotel, got to my room, and as I tuned the TV to CNN while I was getting unpacked. A tape-delayed showing of the memorial service was playing. I was listening in the background to these various tributes. And then all of a sudden, Gregory Hines stepped to the microphone. And Hines told this story that just kind of grabbed me by the heart.
Hines told how when he was growing up in New York, he and his brother would sneak into the Apollo Theater just to watch Sammy Davis Jr. perform with his uncles. And he just admired him. Well, as time went on, somehow or another, Hines’s career began to grow. And Sammy Davis Jr. ran into Gregory Hines and leveraged his career. You may not know this, Sammy Davis Jr. was notoriously generous. In fact, he died just about broke. He spent a lot on partying, but he also spent a lot on helping other people.
Hines said a few weeks before Sammy Davis Jr. died, he went to go see him, just to say “thank you.” He knew it was just a matter of time. The legendary entertainer was already a slight man, but his body had become totally emaciated due to throat cancer. At this point, he could no longer speak. So Hines says he walked into the house and saw Sammy Davis Jr. sitting on the couch, and Hines walked over, sat next to him, put his arm around him, and began to give him a tribute.
Hines thanked him for all that he had done for him, for being such a great mentor in his life, realizing that he was really saying “goodbye” to Davis. Hines then leaned over and kissed Davis on the cheek and stood up to walk away. And as he was walking toward the door, he heard this shuffling. He turned around and there was Sammy Davis Jr. standing behind him making a motion as if he were pushing Hines along—pushing him forward and passing his torch to Hines.
What’s in your hands? What statement are we making for all time that we cannot see?
I want to speak from my heart just before I get into the text. One of the things that causes me to weep these days is the strategic arrogance that has gripped much of evangelicalism. We are so obsessed with reading the culture, looking at the culture, examining the culture, understanding the culture, and trying to figure out how the culture responds. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying go to the other extreme.) All of this effort suggests that our moment in history is the totality of what God will ever do. And we forget about the divine paradox in which we live. We’re making an impact now, and we’re making one later. My life and my faith are part of a grand continuum. I must be careful that I don’t prostitute what is really valuable and what the culture really needs for the sake of being affirmed by those during my pilgrimage. I cannot develop a ministry strategy that is so mired in the audience that I’m trying to reach that it makes assumptions about the truth that they need. Yet at the same time, in all fairness, I cannot be so far removed from the culture that I need to impact, that they cannot understand the truth that I need to give them.
I must be careful that I don’t prostitute what is really valuable and what the culture really needs for the sake of being affirmed by those during my pilgrimage.
So the question is, what lasts forever? What gives substance to what we do? What really is important?
Asaph picks up his pen, and he pens Psalm 78. This is a Psalm through which he outlines and recounts in summary fashion the marvelous history of God in the nation of Israel. It is a Psalm of perspective. It’s almost as if he’s reaching out and grabbing the readers by the lapels, and saying to them, “Hey, wait a minute! Don’t get cute. Don’t forget from whence you’ve come. Don’t forget what has been passed into your hands.”
Now, I want to rivet our attention to Psalm 78:5–7. Just three verses this evening. Asaph is asking, “How do you shape a time you cannot see? How do you make a difference? How do you make an imprint on the next generation? What is it that is constant? What is it that God always smiles on? What is it that’s a part of the core of everything that you’re about and everything that you need to be?”
Basically, Asaph gives us this process. First, he talks about the passion or the perspective that we need to maintain. Second, he identifies what’s in your hand. Third, he specifically talks about the process. Finally, he concludes by talking about the finished product.
1. A Passion for the Character of God and the Content of Scripture
He says, in verse 5, speaking of God,
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel.
It’s another way of saying, “Look, your whole history is about the character of God and the content of Scripture. This is the stuff that God has placed in your hands.” The implication is that I don’t care where you are in history—time will change, people will change, how you do things will change, the clothes will change, and the culture will change. But what is constant are these two things: the character of God and the content of Scripture.
Time will change, people will change, how you do things will change, the clothes will change, and the culture will change. But what is constant are these two things: the character of God and the content of Scripture.
Notice, he says God “established a testimony.” You know very well the track record of God in your own personal history, how he met you, how he dealt with you, how he answered your prayers, and how he interacted with your life. You know the character of God; he lived out his resume in your history. You know about him. It’s almost as if Asaph is saying, “Don’t be embarrassed about God’s track record in your life.”
Second, Asaph says that God appointed a law—that there’s a standard that is objective by and through which you must live your life. He’s talking about transcendent truth. You don’t do whatever you want to do. Following God is not a la carte. You don’t have a menu approach to Christianity or ministry. Rather, there is something outside of ourselves by and through which everything that we do must be judged and must be evaluated.
You don’t have a menu approach to Christianity or ministry.
Don’t ever adopt any strategy that is so cute that it can edit what God says. It pains me that even in our style and approach to preaching, we have lost transcendence. There’s a lot of confusion in our pulpits today because we don’t know who we want to be. We don’t know who sets the agenda. We feel as if affirmation is the same thing as uttering the prophetic word. You cannot nurture your audience into repentance. I don’t mean that jokingly. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t be creative; we do all kinds of creative things at our church. You need to be a creative communicator. But at the end of the day, God has appointed a law.
Don’t ever adopt any strategy that is so cute that it can edit what God says.
The classic illustration of this text is Joshua chapter 1, where God comes to Joshua after Moses has died. God gets up close and personal with Joshua and says, “Look, Moses, my servant, is dead. When a man of God dies, nothing of God dies.” He then reiterates the assignment to Joshua, reminding him of his divine character. He goes on to say, “By the way, Joshua. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. You know how I worked in Moses’s life. Don’t be afraid because I’m there, and I’ll be there with you. What you do bears the signature of the supernatural. It is the hand of God.”
Brothers, we do not primarily minister out of competency but out of surrender. Your life, and my life, and my ministry are all about the activity of God. It’s the arena for his activity. It’s his testimony. “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.”
We do not primarily minister out of competency but out of surrender.
Then he tells them in verse 8, “Before you leave here, buddy, let me give the key to success. Your success is not going to come by your ability to plan, lead, organize, and control. Your success is not going to come by your ability to read your audience. Here’s the key to your success: ‘This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. But you shall meditate therein day and night, that you may observe to do all that is written therein,’ and here’s an important pronoun, ‘and then you, will make yourself prosperous. And you will have good success.’ Joshua, these people cannot hear some disingenuous leader. You must lead with truth. You must lead with the Word. ‘And you will make your way prosperous and you’ll have good success.’”
Every time I read that text, I get a tad bit emotional because it’s the first words that my kids heard me speak when I held them. Brian was born on my birthday, February 11th, 1973. When I held my firstborn in my arms, I whispered in his ear, this book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. I did the same with Heather and Brendon and Holly. I rejoice to see these boys standing up, opening the Word, proclaiming the Word of God, preaching it, and living it. My grandsons are doing the same thing. All you have is truth at the end of the day. What is it that we pass on? Will we pass along a passion for the character of God and the content of truth?
2. The Process of Living for the Next Generation
Then he talks about a process here in the text back in Psalm 78:5. He says he “established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach their children that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children.”
The process is simply this. I minister with a split vision both for right now and for a time that I cannot see. I must keep an eye on the future generation. In a very real sense, the impact and full story of my life and ministry will never be realized while I’m alive.
Asaph says to the nation of Israel that God established a testimony and appointed a law and placed it in our hands so that we might be passionate about making it known in this generation.
Someone once said to me that if you want to leave footprints in the sands of time, then you have to wear work boots. Making a heavy imprint with your life is hard work. What is important about what you’re doing? What statement are you making by your ministry? What difference are we really making? We need to look at the next generation and answer the question, “How do we want them to turn out? What do we want them to look like?”
Somebody asked me earlier today about what motivates me. One of the strongest driving forces in my life is my background. My great-grandfather’s name was Peter. He was a slave. My dad was born in 1914, and he was the youngest boy of 14 kids. My dad remembered Peter. Peter lived to be an old man. And the stories about Peter are just absolutely incredible. Peter couldn’t read a lick, couldn’t read, couldn’t write. But Peter loved God. Now, check this out even though he couldn’t read or write, he had memorized huge portions of Scripture. My dad said he would make his children and grandchildren read familiar passages of Scripture to him over and over and over and over and over and over again. Peter never travelled much from Catawba County, North Carolina. But he had a son named Milton. Milton was my grandfather. And he took the character of God and the content of Scripture, and he poured it into his heart and life. My grandfather was a Sunday school superintendent. When the little church didn’t have a place to meet, he gave them part of the land there in Conover, North Carolina to build Thomas Road A.M.E. Zion Church. He loved Jesus. He took the character of God and the content of Scripture from a slave who couldn’t read a lick but believed the Book and poured it into my father. My father played baseball in the old Negro Leagues, worked in the coal mines, and lost his eye in a coal mining accident. Then my dad moved to Newark, New Jersey, where we were born. My mother and my father loved Jesus. And they took the character of God and the content of Scripture and poured it into our lives. My dad used to tell me that in Peter’s last days, Peter would just sit on the front porch of the old homestead and walk back and forth singing and praying most of the day. I don’t know what Peter prayed for. But maybe it was for a time he couldn’t see. Maybe it was for an unborn generation. Peter understood that there was something powerful about this book.
What motivates me? I have too many people in my heritage that paid too much of a price because they believed this Book for me to ever get cute and wander away from it. And I have a sneaking suspicion that’s why Asaph reminded them of their history. Take your godly heritage, and you pour it into their souls, so they leave a mark for God, no matter what. There’s a passion for the character of God, content of scripture. There is this process of looking to future generations and understanding that it isn’t all about you. But then he says that there is an end product.
What motivates me? I have too many people in my heritage that paid too much of a price because they believed this Book for me to ever get cute and wander away from it.
3. The End Product of Hope, History, and Obedience
In the last part of Psalm 78:6, he says,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
He says that there are three outcomes that every succeeding generation needs. It doesn’t make any difference whether you lived 2,000 years ago or whether you’ll live 500 years from now. Every generation needs these three things. The three underpinnings of our ministry are byproducts of passing on the character of God and the content of Scripture to succeeding generations.
First, it will give them a sense of confidence, so that they will set their hope in God. It’s all about him. It’s all about who he is. It’s all about what he wants to do during your time on this Earth. It’s all about what he’s doing in your life and through your ministry. They will have a rock-solid confidence in the God of the ages and not forget the works of God.
Second, they’ll have a sense of history. One of the great problems with this disconnected generation that we’re living in today is that we no longer have stories. We don’t have the legacy stories to tap into to give us a frame of reference. This is the stuff of endurance. One of the resulting problems that we’re having in the church today, then, is the absence of strong, godly leadership. People are caving in and not preaching from conviction any longer. They lack passion and certainty in ministry because the stories of the faithfulness and the power of God in my own pilgrimage are missing.
When you reach back, you can see that a slave—a slave who had no record of his mother or his father—could raise a stable family and then launch generations of men in my background who have stable marriages. Where did that come from? It came from the Word. And there were stories to be told.
Third, he says that it will produce in the next generation a will to obey (“not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments”).
I’ll never forget this, and our oldest son was in undergraduate school. He was a sophomore at a Christian college, and so I was up there speaking on campus and somehow or another, I found out that he had a financial need that he had never told us about. So later we went out for dinner, and I asked, “Brian, how come you didn’t ever call me? Couldn’t you tell me you had this need?” This is what he said to me, “Dad, I remember those times around the dinner table, when you and mom would share with us about needs that you had, and we raised support with Campus Crusade for Christ, and we would pray, and you would share promises from God’s Word. God would always come through. Dad, I didn’t share it with you because I started to call, but then I remembered those times. It is as if the Holy Spirit said to me, ‘Brian, it’s your turn. It’s your turn.’”
What’s at stake at this conference is not just some theological framework, although that’s the entry level. You get it. These kinds of conferences sometimes make me a little nervous because we can come in here and listen to the speakers, take, get the CDs, buy the books, interact with the papers, and everything else, and you can still miss the point. It is not just about theological accuracy. But it’s about biblical transformation. Do you understand? It is about the power of God—the authentic power of God—being released in your life and ministry so that you’re forging future generations who believe God. The reason why we’re accurate in our theology is to get an accurate picture of God so that we’re sending people forth with a sense of Holy Ghost confidence, with the ability to believe God and to stand on his Word. We want to be able to point back to pastors and leaders who took the character of God and the content of Scripture and poured into our souls.
The reason why we’re accurate in our theology is to get an accurate picture of God so that we’re sending people forth with a sense of Holy Ghost confidence, with the ability to believe God and to stand on his Word.
As I was working on this message, I thought of that song by Dan Fogelberg, The Leader of the Band. The refrain goes:
The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old,
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man;
I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.
So the question I want to leave with you tonight is this: What signature are you writing on the souls of future generations? What’s in your hands? Is there a clear pathway that can be seen through how you approach ministry back to the character of God and the content of Scripture? How are you thinking about what God has entrusted to you?
Is there a clear pathway that can be seen through how you approach ministry back to the character of God and the content of Scripture?
Would you pray with me?
Holy Father, we bow before you to thank you for your Word. Thank you, Lord Jesus that you have given to us through Asaph, a North Star, so to speak, telling us what you’re all about. We live in a grand procession of men and women who have laid down their lives because they believed God and lived by his Word. Father, we pray for a holy fire to be ignited in our hearts and minds. We ask that you renew passion in us. We need a sense of your divine presence and a renewed desire to honor you by everything that we say and everything that we do. Lord God, give us a simple approach. May you give us a heart to obey you, no matter what. There are those who are waiting, Father—waiting to see a picture of what it means to courageously stand for what God says and what he wants done. Father, we trust you to use us. Breathe fresh anointing, fresh strength, and give us great vision, we pray, in Jesus’s name. Amen.