TITLE: Two Steps Forward & One Step Back SCRIPTURE: Matthew 3:13-17
You have probably heard the phrase, "Two steps forward; one step back." The person who says that is usually in the process of taking one step back.
"Two steps forward; one step back" might sound cynical, but it can be the opposite -- a statement of faith. The person who says "Two steps forward; one step back" might be saying, "You can never win" -- or might be saying,
"I might be taking a step back right now,
but I am making progress --
perhaps not as fast as I might like,
but I am getting there.
I'm taking a step back right now,
but I just finished taking two steps forward."
Of course, there are times when we are tempted to turn that statement around -- to say, "One step forward; two steps back." We all have days like that --days when nothing goes right -- days when we lose and lose big. "One step forward; two steps back" is a way of acknowledging that kind of loss.
It isn't easy to keep the faith when we have to take a step back. It gets really difficult when we have to take two steps back. When that happens, it really helps to believe that we are in God's hands. It really helps to believe that when God closes a door on us, it is because he has an open door -- the right open door -- waiting around the corner. Sometimes it takes awhile to get to the open door. That is called "God's time." God's time is often slower than we would like. But real blessings await the person who can remember, even in difficult times, that God has a plan -- a wonderful plan for our lives.
"One step forward; two steps back." For Jesus, it was "Three steps down; two steps up." I don't mean that cynically -- it's just the way it was: "Three steps down; two steps up."
So what do I mean by three steps down? I am talking about what Jesus did to save us. He started by taking three steps down -- three big steps -- three giant steps.
THE FIRST BIG STEP DOWN was being born into this world as a helpless baby in a backwater place. He was accustomed to better things. The Gospel of John says:
"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being" (John 1:1-3).
So the Son didn't come into being for the first time in a manger in Bethlehem. He was present at the creation --pulled the levers to create the world. A prince! A king! Accustomed to life in the palace! But then John says:
"And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father's only son,
full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
So the prince came down to live among us. Athanasius, one of the great early Christians put it this way. He said:
"He became what we are
that he might make us what he is."
So that was his first step down -- coming to live among us.
HIS SECOND STEP DOWN was his baptism. John the Baptist was offering a baptism of repentance -- calling people to turn to God and to let God turn their lives around.
Jesus came to John, and said, "Baptize me!" John protested, "I need to be baptized by you!" But Jesus said:
"Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way
to fulfill all righteousness."
Scholars have debated for centuries about what Jesus meant by "to fulfill all righteousness." There are various theories, but I think it is pretty clear. Jesus had to take one step down to be born in our world -- and then he had to take another step down to join us in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That had nothing to do with his sins, because he was sinless. But it was one more step toward his goal of drawing us to God -- of bringing about our salvation. As one scholar put it:
"He who was to take the sinner's place
came to be baptized of John,
that he might thereby be identified with sinners
for whom he was to lay down his life."
(Harry Ironside, quoted in Boice, 51)
So Jesus took one step down by being born into our world -- and a second step down by joining us in baptism. Then he took A THIRD STEP DOWN. Can you guess where? On the cross, of course! That was the final step down. Whipped with a lash -- stripped of his clothing -- nailed to a cross -- Jesus bore the punishment for our sins.
Three steps down. But then he took two steps up. THE FIRST STEP UP was his resurrection. He lived our life and died our death, but then he rose from the dead as a way of breaking the power of death -- not only over himself, but also over us.
And HIS SECOND STEP UP was his ascension into heaven -- rejoining the Father in glory.
Three steps down and two steps up. That pretty well summarizes the work that Jesus came to do.
So what can we learn from that? I can't explore the answer in detail, because it would take all day -- all week! But let me make this observation. God very often saves us by causing us to take two steps forward and one step back -- or two steps back and one step forward -- or three steps down and two steps up.
Let me put it another way: God sometimes allows us to lose so that he can help us win.
That is very difficult for us to appreciate sometimes -- especially when we are losing. But the God who let his son suffer sometimes also allows us to suffer. But he is there with us in our suffering, and he can redeem our suffering.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that sometimes God humbles us in order to save us. What do I mean by that? Let me give you an example.
Terry Anderson was an Associated Press journalist assigned to Beirut when he was abducted by Hezbollah Shiite Muslims in 1985. He spent the better part of seven years in captivity. Seven years is a long time. Sometimes he was treated badly. His captors sometimes held a pistol to his head and told him that they intended to kill him. Not a very pleasant way to spend seven years.
But that experience changed his life. When he was finally freed, he talked about the change. He said:
"Before my capture,
I was a rough, arrogant, restless man.
Now I have changed."
Rough, arrogant and restless! Some people might count rough as a strength. They might even count arrogance as a strength. But the key to understanding Terry Anderson before his capture, I think, is that word restless. He was a rough, arrogant, and restless man, living only for himself. But he had been raised as a Christian. Even though he hadn't practiced his faith for many years, there was enough of God in his heart to make him restless. He sensed that there was something wrong with his life, and it made him restless.
But then he was abducted and crammed in the trunk of a car and imprisoned. He remained in captivity for nearly seven years. During those seven years, he changed. He requested a Bible, and his captors gave him one. He read that Bible over and over again. One of the other captives was a Catholic priest, so Anderson asked to talk to him. The priest, Father Lawrence Jenco, heard his confession. By the time he had finished, they were both in tears.
After his release, Anderson said, "Now I have changed." And he had. He had really changed. His life before captivity was devoted only to himself. His life after captivity has been devoted to others. He founded a charity to build schools in Vietnam. He started a foundation to honor his friend, Father Jenco.
Terry Anderson explains what happened to him this way. He says:
"We come closer to God at our lowest moments.
It's easiest to hear God
when you are stripped of pride and arrogance,
when you have nothing to rely on except God.
It's pretty painful to get to that point,
but when you do, God's there."
Two steps forward; one step back. One step forward; two steps back. Three steps down, and two steps up. Sometimes that's the way God works. Sometimes he has to let us hit bottom before he can lift us up.
When you experience a tough time in your life, remember that Jesus had to take three steps down before he could take two steps up.
-- He had to be born in a stable intended for sheep.
-- He had to be baptized in a baptism intended for sinners.
-- He had to die on a cross intended for criminals.
But he did those things to help us. As a result:
"God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians. 2:9-11).
Sometimes it works that way for us too. Sometimes God lets life humble us -- but we can be sure that God has not abandoned us. God might let us fall, but if we live in faith God will never let us fail.