The Blazing Center

Part 8

Bethlehem Baptist Church Youth Retreat | Minneapolis

I’ll give you some illustrations. I read this book a few summers ago, Flags of our Fathers. It’s about the battle of Iwo Jima in the Second World War. When I read this on vacation a few years ago, I said, “If I ever get a chance to talk to teenagers, I’m going to tell them some stories from this book.” Because frankly, I think I’m talking to a group of pretty unusual teenagers. I’m not blowing you guys off as though you don’t already know what I’m talking about. I think you’re a pretty unusual group because you’ve got pretty unusual parents, some of you anyway, and I praise God for that. Bethlehem is a wonderful place to grow up, I think. I was glad to have raised my kids there.

But kids — do you mind me calling you that? I was a kid once and I knew what it was like to be concerned about my looks, and I knew what it was like be concerned about music, or whether I knew the latest lingo and used the right words, or watched the right movies, or wore the right clothes, or went to the right parties. And as I’ve grown up, I’ve thought, “Oh my, what a waste! What an absolute waste of a period from say 13 to 18.” I think I wasted a lot of my teenage years because I just fit in with so much that wasn’t what I would today call cool.

The word cool is interesting. If you trace the lingo of teenagers over 40 years, a lot of words come and go. If I tried to rehearse some of them, you’d laugh at me because I don’t know what they are. I try to say things like rad or something like that, or things like bad when I mean good. They come and they go. They’re gone in two years. Everybody’s using them, and then poof, they’re gone. You know one word that never goes? Cool. Cool never goes. Everybody knows what cool means. It was there before I was born. It will be here when I’m gone. Everybody knows what cool means, and you all want to be cool. I want not to be viewed as uncool. It’s interesting that that word has just hung on.

So when I think about what some of these young teenage soldiers did, I say, “That’s cool. That’s cool.” Let me read you the story of Jack Lucas.

Jack Lucas

Now he didn’t do everything he should have done, and he probably was not a Christian. This is a symbol. Iwo Jima is an island about eight miles across, 600 miles south of Japan in the Pacific Ocean, and in World War II, it had two airstrips that America needed in order to end this grizzly Second World War. There were 21,000 Japanese who guarded this Island.

Our Marines decided we must take the island. On February 19, 1945, 800 ships for a little eight mile island, with tens of thousands of Marines converged on this island. They got in their amtracs, which were these little amphibious vehicles that took them from the boats to the coast, and they moved on Iwo Jima. And for one month — it took them one month to take the island — 6,800 teenagers died on those beaches. I say teenagers because most of them were 18, 19, or 20 year old Marines. They were just recruited a couple of years earlier. So they were just a couple of years older than most of you. That’s 6,800 graves. They didn’t even ship the bodies home to mom in those days. You can go there and see these crosses.

One battalion had 1,400 boys. He calls them boys because most of them were still teenagers, but they were carrying arms. Of the Second Battalion, 177 of them walked off and 91 of those were seriously wounded. That’s the kind of odds they were facing. So now picture yourself, “Here, we have no lasting city. We’re ready to lay down our lives for this eight mile rock with two airstrips so that bombers can land on their way to Tokyo. That’s what we’re giving our lives for.” I tell you, Christian, you are living for something 10,000 times more valuable than winning the Second World War. So what did Jack Lucas do?

Running into the Fight

Were teenagers in the 1940s running from World War II, wanting to just maximize their comforts, or were they running to sign up? Jack Lucas was an example. He had fast talked his way into the Marines at 14. You couldn’t get into the Marines before 18, but Jack Lucas was big and he lied. The book conveys the story:

At 14, fooling the recruiters with his muscled physique and martinet style, he’d attended a military academy before signing up. Assigned to drive a truck in Hawaii, he had grown frustrated. He wanted to fight. He stowed away.

I wish some of you would think, “I want to be in missions. I want to go. I don’t want to wait until I finish high school.” You should, you should wait. But I want you to think, “I want to be involved in the front lines. People are perishing a lot worse than they were perishing in the Second World War.” The story continues:

He stowed away on a transport out of Honolulu, surviving on food passed along to him by sympathetic leathernecks on board. He landed on D-Day (this is D-Day of Iwo Jima, the landing day) without a rifle.

He didn’t know he was there. He jumped into an amtrac with no gun. This kid has stowed away on a boat, no gun, and was about to go onto that beach. He sounds like Bruce Olson in Bruchko, right? If you ever read that biography of a missionary. It continues:

He landed on D-Day without a rifle. He grabbed one lying on the beach and fought his way inland. Now on D plus one (this is the next day) Jack and three comrades were crawling through a trench when eight Japanese sprang in front of them. Jack shot one of them through the head. Then his rifle jammed. As he struggled with it, a grenade landed at his feet. He yelled a warning to the others and rammed the grenade into the soft ash. Immediately, another rolled in. Jack Lucas, 17, fell on both grenades.

“Luke, you’re going to die,” he remembered thinking. Jack Lucas later told a reporter, “The force of the explosion blew me up into the air and onto my back. Blood poured out of my mouth. I couldn’t move. I knew I was dying.” His comrades wiped out the remaining Japanese, and returned to Jack to collect the dog tags from his body. To their amazement, they found him not only alive but conscious, aboard the hospital ship Samaritan the doctors could scarcely believe it. “Maybe he was too damn young and too damn tough to die,” one said. He endured 21 reconstructive surgeries, and became the nation’s youngest Medal of Honor winner, and the only high school freshmen to receive it (because he dropped out of school on his way to fight).

I have a word for this. Cool. That’s cool. You think your CD collection is cool? This is cool. You think dressing right is cool? This is cool. You think playing and being an ideal sports star is cool? This is cool. Teenagers, I think, are ready to hear a call to live like that. I really believe that.

Ray Dollins

Let me give you one other story. This one moved me even more. I don’t know how old this guy is, but his name is Ray Dollins. I’ll just tell you this. I know it by heart. Ray Dollins was flying a Corsair. It was a propeller plane in those days. He was charged with strafing the beach back and forth, strafing the beach as the amtracs were landing and the soldiers were getting onto the beaches. His job was to shoot and just clean out as much as he can of what was on the beach.

Well, they had plenty of anti-aircraft power there. So as he was flying, they were targeting him, and they shot him and his plane was shot and left unflyable. It was starting to lose its ability to stay level and he saw himself landing, crashing right into the amtracs coming to the beach. They could see him from the amtracs and from the boats, doing everything he could through the cockpit to try not to hit his own soldiers. At the last minute, he flipped his Corsair upside down and perfectly crashed it to his own death between two lines of amtracs.

What none of the amtrac soldiers knew, as they watched him crash, was what they could hear over the radio on the boats. He was singing, “Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day. I’ve got a horrible feeling, everything’s coming…” He was singing. He was singing as he tried not to kill his buddies, and he succeeded.

I got a name for that. That’s cool. So every time you think you’re doing something cool, some little mealy-mouth, silly teenage thing that everybody talks about, just think Ray Dollins and Jack Lucas, and think, “Let me be on the edge. Let me be on the cutting edge of reality. Let me be like that, Lord, for the cause of Christ, which is so much greater than the Second World War.” I’m thankful for our soldiers. I’m thankful that I’m a free man in America, that I can vote on Tuesday. I’ve already voted, but none of you are old enough to vote probably, but those of you who are, you better vote. That’s a sacred trust. These guys died for that.

But there is something greater, oh, so much greater. It’s called Jesus Christ and the gospel. We can rescue people, not for democracy and freedom, but we can rescue people for everlasting joy in the presence of the King of Kings.

Joy in Suffering, and Suffering for Joy

Let me draw things to a close like this. Suffering is not only the price that you will have to pay in the pathway of obedience, sustained by joy in God; suffering is also designed by God to intensify your joy in him. That sounds almost backwards, doesn’t it? It’s a circle. It’s like a spiral. Suffering must be sustained by joy, because if you don’t have the hope of joy, you can’t endure, and yet God often ordains that you come into suffering so that all the props that you’re leaning on in this world will be knocked out from under you, and you only will have one place to fall, and that’s Jesus, which intensifies your joy in him. I have never heard any Christian ever say in my life, “I have really gone deep with God on the bright, sunny, easy days of life.” What I hear all the time is, “I have really gone deep with God in the hardest days of my life.”

Now, the implication of that is this. Here at Bethlehem Baptist Church, we love the sovereignty of God. I admit it causes some problems for us, right? When suffering comes into your life, are you going to say God was sovereign over it and thus has a plan for it? Or will you only say, “He’ll use it, even though he didn’t want it to come and he didn’t know it was going to come. It just slipped up on him,” as if God is thinking, “Oh, I wish you didn’t have that disease,” or, “I wish you hadn’t had that car accident,” or, “I wish the Twin Towers had not fallen on 9/11. I just couldn’t do anything about it. But now I can make something of it.”

We don’t have that kind of God at Bethlehem. We have the kind of God who sees everything coming, has a plan for everything that’s coming, and ordains what comes to pass, and we just embrace the mystery of all the problems that creates for us, and we love all the blessings it brings us. Because even though saying that God is sovereign over my suffering creates problems, it brings greater blessings. like I’ve got to figure out how God can be loving if my mom has cancer, like Diane Knight right now with her four kids.

It was so good to pray for an hour with the elders and friends over John and Diane Knight. I don’t think they’d mind me mentioning their names. John has gone real public with a zeal for God these days. I think he’d want me to use him as an illustration here. He has a blind son. Do you know Paul Knight in the nursery? He’s eight years old now, I believe, and now his mom has cancer in her neck, in her hip, and in her back. It looks really serious. We’re asking God, “Heal her. Heal her. She’s got four kids. They need her really bad. Heal her.” In that hour, not a word of doubt came out of their mouths. They were saying, “God reigns over cancer,” which makes my job as a pastor much easier. It is painful and tearful, but at least I don’t have to encounter them saying, “Where is God?” They don’t say that and I don’t want you to say that, because God is sovereign and he does bring suffering and some of you are walking through it right now, and his purpose in it all is to refine you like gold.

Refining Fire

Gold has stuff in it, right? It has little pieces of straw, and that’s what you are as a Christian. You are gold with stuff that shouldn’t be there in your life. All Christians are like that. When you put a bar of gold in the fire it starts to melt down, the gold is going to scream, “This hurts.” But out come those little pieces of straw, those little defilements. They come out, and when the coolness comes, there you’ve got a refined bar of gold, and that’s what God is doing in our lives.

So I’m going to close with some illustrations of that, some of them more distant, and some of them get right down to where we’ve been in the last couple of weeks, and then we’ll be done.

Joni Eareckson Tada

These are illustrations of people who believe in the sovereignty of God over their suffering, using their suffering for holy, God-exalting purposes by refining joy and making it deeper in God. Let’s start with Joni Eareckson Tada. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Joni Eareckson Tada. Okay, most of you have. I’m thankful for that. She is one amazing, prophetic voice in our day. Her books are good. They’re worth reading. She loves the sovereignty of God. She has said yes to come to our fall conference next year on Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. We just had the conference on Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, and next year it’s going to be Suffering in the Sovereignty of God, and Joni said yes and I want her voice there really bad because this is what she says. I’ll read from her book called The God I love: A lifetime of walking with Jesus:

Lord Jesus, your “no” answer to physical healing for me meant yes to my deeper healing, a better healing. Your answer has bound me to other believers and taught me so much about myself. It has purged sin from my life, strengthened my commitment to you, forced me to depend on your grace. Your wise, deeper answer has stretched my hope, refined my faith, helped me to know you better, and you are good. You are so good. I let tears fall. I wouldn’t know you. I would not love you. I don’t think I’d trust you were it not for my paralyzed legs, Lord Jesus, were it not for this wheelchair…”

In other words, God loved her so much, he took her deep with him at age 17 with a broken neck and the inability to do anything for herself anymore. She just serves the world while a little band of people around her serve her. It’s a beautiful thing.

Steve Saint

Here’s my second illustration. When I read this article written by Steve Saint in Christianity Today, I couldn’t believe what I read. Steve Saint is the son of Nate Saint who was one of the five missionaries who were killed in Ecuador. They were speared. It was Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Peter Fleming. In 1956, they took a plane in, they landed on the beach there in Ecuador, and they tried to make contact with the Huaorani, and the next thing they knew, spears were through all five of their bodies.

Do you know what I found out later? All five of them had pistols. I didn’t know that in the early years. They could have taken them out easily, but they shot them into the air until they themselves were dead. So not only did you have a surprise attack, you had a volunteer martyrdom at the last minute.

Now the son of Nate Saint, whose dad was killed with a spear, has just made a documentary, and I’ve invited him to come to this conference. He hasn’t said yes yet, so pray that he’ll come because I want him to tell these stories at this conference next fall. This is what he wrote. I wonder if any of you guys could write this if your dad were speared to death when you were six and you found out how it happened. I could hardly believe this sentence. I wrote to him and said, “Was this a misprint? Or did you really say this?” He said, “That’s what I wrote. That’s what I believe.”

As they described their recollections, it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it was that the Palm Beach killing that took place was just an anomaly. I cannot explain it outside of divine intervention.

When I read that, I thought, “He meant to say the opposite, didn’t he? He meant to say, ‘My dad died because there was no divine intervention.’” That’s what he meant to say, isn’t it? No, that’s exactly the opposite of what he said. Again, he says, “I cannot explain it outside of divine intervention.”

My paraphrase of that is, “God planned my dad’s death when I was six.” That’s what he wrote. There are so many stories, and what he meant by that was that God unleashed on the next 50 years an impact on the world because of those five deaths and those five suffering families — an impact for his glory and the joy of his people and the reaching of the Huaorani and other tribes that could not have begun to happen had they lived and succeeded. And therefore, God does strange things in the world.

The Backstroms

One last illustration, and this is fresh off our front burner in Minneapolis, is it not? I’m referring to the accident where Matthew, Jacob, and Justin Backstrom were killed. This is all fresh in your minds. They were three teenagers, Christian homeschoolers, loving Jesus and going to a Lutheran church. They were involved in their youth group, just like you, basically. They were lovers of Jesus, and a kid from Augsburg, who had been drinking and was talking on his cell phone — I don’t want to be too hard on him, he’s recovering slowly — swerved into their lane and killed all three of them outright.

The folks are Christians and they have two other little kids, and these are their three boys. It would be like my sons, Karsten, Benjamin, and Abraham being taken out in one night. I mean, one would be hard. Two would be harder. Three would be overwhelming. Nathan Backstrom is their dad, and he was interviewed on his front porch. I copied the article out of the paper. He said:

God is in control. We don’t know all the answers but he does, and we know that someday we’ll know.

Then said something even more amazing at the end. He said:

Many have asked how we are doing. My answer is God is faithful. Justin, Jacob, and Matthew each had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They are now in the presence of their Lord, our Savior. Our prayer is that because of their lives, lives will be changed and God will be glorified.

I want you kids to grow up and be parents like that, don’t you? So that when your three teenagers are taken out in one night, you stand in front of a camera and say, “God reigns.” The tears are running down your face. Your heart is ready to break and you say, “I don’t have all the answers. I know one thing: God is sovereign. God reigns and nothing comes into my life by accident. There are no wasted paint strokes on the canvas. There is no wasted pain in this world. Oh, that people might see him and give him glory.” You will be sustained in those days if God comes and satisfies you in Christ above all things so that you can say, “For me to live as Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

It has been so good to be with you. I just thank you so much for listening to me, and I pray that God would strengthen you and help you and give you a satisfaction in Jesus, beyond all your dreams, and enable you to suffer for his name.