Looking in Three Directions

Bible Book: Genesis  16 : 8
Subject: Homecoming; Life, View of

One thing I do for recreation is to read western novels and short stories. By the way, you might have heard about the little boy and his mother who were visiting out west. They were out walking the afternoon of their arrival and a couple of cowboys passed by. The little boy pointed and said, "Gee whiz! Look at them there bow-legged cowboys." His mother rebuked him and said, "Son, what atrocious grammar! You should learn to speak properly." Then she remembered that their hotel had a small library for the use of guests, and she had noticed that it included a volume of Shakespeare. She said, "Son, I want you to read some Shakespeare tonight and see how beautifully the English language can be used." So he did. The next day they were out walking again, and again a couple of cowboys sauntered by. The little boy pointed and said, "Behold, what manner of men are these, whose legs are like parentheses!"

Those who write about the west tell us that whenever an old-time cowboy got on his horse and took a long trip, he would pause periodically and look in three directions. For one thing, he would look back and study his back-trail. Next, he would look around at his present situation. Then, he would look ahead at the trail before him.

It has occurred to me that we need to do the same thing in the journey of life. We need to do so individually, but we also need to do it collectively, as a church. That is, we need to pause now and then and look in those same three directions--and that's my subject this morning: "Looking in Three Directions."


The old-time cowboy studied his back-trail to be sure that no enemy was in pursuit. But he also looked back in order to appreciate the distance he had covered--and if he was a believer, he would thank the Lord for the progress made.

In Genesis 16:8 the angel of the Lord asked Hagar, "whence camest thou?" In other words, the angel of God was saying, "Hagar, look at your back-trail. What circumstances and events have brought to you to where you are now?" Of course, the angel of God already knew the answer, but he wanted Hagar to think about her past. Churches need to do the same thing periodically. We need to reflect on the circumstances and events that have brought us to where we are today.

A preacher friend of mine, Dr. Lynn Jones, was addressing his congregation in regard to homecoming at their church, and he made what I believe were some wise observations. He said that there are two extremes we need to avoid in thinking about the past. One extreme is to so idealize the past that we view all present efforts as small and unworthy by comparison. He said, "Nostalgia can become the mortal enemy of the church." However, he pointed out that the other extreme is that of not fully appreciating the past. Then he quoted G. K. Chesterton, who said that people who have no knowledge of history are like folks who walk in during the last act of a play. They don't really know what's going on, because they don't know what has happened previously.

So, we need a wholesome appreciation for that which has gone on before. Lynn Jones said to his congregation, "We stand on the shoulders of persons who have contributed so much....We can see farther and more clearly because of what they have done."

That's also true in the case of Hartland. It is a real blessing to look back at how this church started as a mission, how it grew, and how these buildings were erected--and to think of the people won to Christ, and the folks who have gone out from here to serve in other places. We praise God for his goodness, and for the many of you who have been God's instruments in bringing Hartland to where it is today. We are thankful for the impact this church has made for the Kingdom of God over these past 50 years.

But not only do we as a church need to look at our past, we need to do that same thing as individuals--we need to study our personal back-trail. Of course, some of us go back much farther than others. Do you ever read the comic strip, "Mother Goose and Grimm?" Mother Goose is a wizened old woman, and Grimm is her talking dog with whom she often converses. She was showing Grimm her high school yearbook, and she said, "Look, here is a picture of me in the History Club. When I was in high school I made straight A's in history." Grimm said, "Of course you did. When you were in high school nothing had happened yet."

Well, however far back we go, we need to appreciate the past. There are, of course, some things about the past that we ought not remember. We ought not focus on wrongs done to us, or unkind remarks made about us--for if we do, we are the losers. The Bible teaches that we are to forgive and forget. Neither are we to dwell on past sins which have been properly confessed and which God has forgiven. He doesn't intend that we sit around and berate ourselves because of those sins that have been covered by the blood of Jesus. Psalm 103:12 says, "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us." Corrie Ten Boom said that not only does God bury our sins in the depths of the sea, he puts up a sign that says, "No fishing allowed!"

However, we are to remember God's goodness to us. The author of Psalm 102:3 said, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits." Those of us who are Christians need to look back and thank God for saving us, for giving us eternal security, for forgiving us and loving us when we've faltered, and picking us up, cleansing us, and giving us a new start. We need to thank him for the joys he has poured into our lives, including the people he has used to bless us. We need to thank him for strengthening and sustaining us through life's trials and tribulations. The hymn writer said it so well:

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.

Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come;

'Tis grace hath bro't me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.

In the twelfth century B.C. the Israelites were empowered by the Lord to defeat the dreaded Philistines. In celebration of that victory, the prophet Samuel erected a monument. In 1 Samuel 7:12 we read: "Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us." About three thousand years later Robert Robinson wrote a hymn entitled, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," and one verse goes like this: "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; Hither by Thy help I'm come; And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home."

This morning, Hartland Baptist Church raises its Ebenezer! We thank God for his blessings over the past 50 years and for bringing us to where we are today.


As the old-time cowboy rode along on his faithful steed, not only would he pause to look back--he would also look around. For one thing, he looked around to see what benefits might be available in his immediate surroundings. He needed to stop occasionally to find a shady place for rest, grass for his horse, and water for his horse and himself.

In Genesis 3:9 the Lord said to Adam, "Where art thou?" Again, it was a rhetorical question. God wanted Adam to consider his present situation--and, again, that's a question that churches need to consider from time to time: "Where are we as a church?" We have a great heritage, but we can't live in the past, and we can't rest on past laurels--so let's take stock: Where are we now? Let's pause and look around.

God has blessed us with these nice facilities, and with a strategic location from which to reach out into the community. He has blessed us with a core of dedicated people willing to give and work, and even to go "the second mile"--and he has blessed us with a wonderful spirit of unity and friendliness--and how we thank him for all of these assets.

But we have to ask ourselves another question: How well are we utilizing what we have? Where are we, in terms of reaching our community for the Lord? We are thankful for those who have come to Christ through the years and in recent months, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that, as Joshua 13:1 says, "...there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed." There are multitudes all around us who don't go to church anywhere and don't make any claim to know the Lord--so our work is cut out for us.

But not only the church as a whole--you and I as individuals also need to face the question that God asked Adam: "Where art thou?" Where are you, personally in your life's journey? Are you saved? I talk to a lot of people who, when asked that question, answer so casually that it almost sends a chill up my spine. Even though they have no interest in the church and are living like the rest of the world, they answer with what appears to be an attitudinal yawn, "Oh, yes, I'm saved. Years ago when Brother So-and-So was preaching I made a profession of faith and he baptized me"--as if that settles it. But that doesn't settle it. If what happened back then was real, that's great--but the proof as to whether or not it was real is what you're doing about it now. Are you living for the Lord? Are you serving him? 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."

Oh, no, Christians certainly aren't perfect, but a genuinely born again person will earnestly endeavor to honor God in his life--and if you aren't living for the Lord, then it doesn't matter how many church rolls your name might be on or how many times you might have been dipped in the water, there is serious question as to whether or not you were ever really saved.

You might be saying, "Preacher, those are mighty strong assertions." Well, I didn't write the Book, I'm just telling you what it says. Jesus said, in John 14:21, "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me...." In Matthew 7:20 he said, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them."

If you are truly saved, are you--by God's grace--maintaining a right attitude? With sin and spiritual indifference running so rampant today, there is a real temptation to become cynical. But God wouldn't have it so. There is too much negativism in the world already.

An old cow-poke was riding one day out on the range, where the deer and the antelope play, when he came across a herd of buffalo. He rode up to one of those buffalo, looked him right in the eye, and said, "You are undoubtedly the ugliest, most beady-eyed, stinking, repulsive critter I've ever seen"--then he rode off. That buffalo turned to the buffalo next to him and said, "You know, I think I just heard a discouraging word!"

Well, the world hears enough negativism--they don't need to hear it from us. We need to reflect a positive outlook that is based on faith in the great Sovereign God for whom nothing is impossible! Yes, life has its down times--but, for the believer, the blessings outweigh the difficulties by a long shot. Here's how Herbert A. White expressed it in his poem entitled, "A Living Faith":

I've dreamed many dreams that never came true, I've seen them vanish at dawn,

But I've realized enough of my dreams, thank God, TO MAKE ME WANT TO DREAM ON.

I've prayed many prayers when no answer came Though I waited patient and long,

But answers have come to enough of my prayers TO MAKE ME KEEP PRAYING ON.

I've trusted many a friend that failed And left me to weep alone,

But I've found enough of my friends true blue TO MAKE ME KEEP TRUSTING ON.

I've sown many seed that fell by the way For the birds to feed upon,

But I've held enough golden sheaves in my hands TO MAKE ME KEEP SOWING ON.

I've drained the cup of disappointment and pain And gone many days without song,

But I've sipped enough nectar from the roses of life TO MAKE ME WANT TO LIVE ON.

1 Samuel 12:24 says, "...consider how great things he hath done for you." We're to thank him for the good times, and we're to thank him for his grace during the tough times. In John 16:33 Jesus said, "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

But, like the old-time westerner traveling by horseback, we not only need to look back and look around...


The cowboy would look ahead and search for the landmarks he had been told to follow, so as to be sure that he was headed in the right direction. He would also try to discern what obstacles might lie in his path, so that he could be prepared for them.

In Genesis 16:8 the angel of God asked the Egyptian woman, Hagar, another question. He asked, "whither wilt thou go?" The angel of God knew already, but he wanted Hagar to look ahead. We need to consider that same question: As a church, where do we go from here? Proverbs 29:18 says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish...."

A danger that many churches face is that of turning inward and focusing on maintaining the institution, rather than majoring on outreach. By all means, we should be concerned about the strength of the institution, but not as an end in itself. It's great to minister to one another, and we ought to do so--after all, we are a spiritual family. But first and foremost, we are to be concerned about reaching the lost and helping believers grow.

The vision of this church, and of every New Testament church, ought to be to do our part in carrying out the Great Commission set forth in Matthew 28:18-20:

"And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach [literally, "make disciples of"] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen."

We are to win people to Christ, and then teach them--and that command to teach covers a lot of territory. We're to teach them Christian responsibility, and we're to teach them what the Bible says about growing spiritually, confessing our sins when we stumble, and loving and forgiving other people. We're to teach them to claim the promises of God in times of heartache and disappointment.

How can we get that job done? How can we build upon the good work that has been done in the past, and become the strong, growing, evangelistic, teaching, ministering church that God wants us to be in the future? What are the essentials for being that kind of church?

First, get your own heart right with God. 2 Corinthians 13:5 says: "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves...." The author of Psalm 139:23-24 said: "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." If you're lost, get saved. If you're saved but out of God's will, confess your sins, ask the Lord's forgiveness, and make a new start in living for him and serving him.

Allen Moseley told about a revival service in which the preacher challenged the people to come to the altar and confess their sins. One lady came forward, but she looked up at the preacher and said, "I can't think of anything I need to confess." He said, "Well, just kneel down there at the altar...and guess at it." She got it right the first time, because he heard her pray, "Lord, forgive me of my pride." In 1 John 1:8-9 we read: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Get right with God, and then be personally active in the outreach efforts of the church. Don't just be a spectator. Not everyone can do everything, of course. Some, for health reasons, are limited. But there is a place for everyone in outreach. Many of us ought to be going out and visiting people in the community, inviting them to our church, and as God opens opportunities, witnessing to them. Some of you are doing that, thank the Lord--but others need to be involved. Some can write follow-up letters. Some can make phone calls. Everyone can do something by way of evangelism and discipleship--and all of us can pray. In fact, unless we pray, all the rest won't amount to much. Jesus told us in Luke 18:1 that "men ought always to pray, and not to faint." In the next few weeks I'm going to be making recommendations regarding getting our visitation efforts more organized. We need to have people going out every week knocking on doors.

The bottom line is this: we need to accept personally the challenge, and encourage others to accept the challenge, of Hebrews 12:1-2: "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith...." Our source of salvation is Jesus--and he is also our ultimate source of guidance, inspiration, and power. He will never let you down. He loves you--and he stands ready to minister to you and use you to bless others.


You may have heard the story of the multi-millionaire who died, and whose valuable art collection was auctioned off. A large crowd gathered, for this man's collection was worth a fortune. Surprisingly, the first item the auctioneer held up was not one of the masterpieces, but of all things, a portrait of the deceased man's son. At first there was only silence, but then a man offered a bid--and because there were no other bidders, the painting was sold to him. Then the auctioneer said, "Now, ladies and gentlemen, that ends the auction--it's over. My deceased client loved his son very much, and he set it up in his will that whoever bought the picture of his son would be given the entire art collection."

In like manner, if you--by repentance and faith--receive the Son of God into your heart, you then have access to all of God's spiritual wealth. Philippians 4:19 says: "But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus."

Whatever your past, the wisest prayer any of us can pray is, "Lord of the years that are left to me, I give them to thy hand; Take me, break me, and mold me to the pattern Thou hast planned."