Back to Normal? with John Burke

What is normal? Will we ever go back to normal?

In today’s message, senior pastor at Gateway Church in Austin, John Burke shares what should be normal for those who follow Jesus.

Message Video:

Message Notes:

Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle getting to where you want to go, doesn’t it?  Like life is coming against all of that great inner stuff. Especially this year, it’s felt like we’re just waiting until things get back to normal.

It was so great to start to have normal interactions—without masks, normal gatherings, normal church services, normal group meetings…and yet as that gets threatened again, or when life doesn’t go according to our “normal” how do we react?  I want us to think about that today.  Do we have to wait for things to get back to normal?  What is normal?

Normal Looks Different In Different Places

We all define “normal” pretty much by a standard that is very culturally relative—like when we say “I want life to be normal” I’m not thinking about “normal” like in 2/3rds of the world where a good “Normal” day is just being able to eat daily and have a shelter to sleep in at night.  I’ve visited homes around the world where normal looks very different.

  • Like in Guatemala where we were looking at partnerships with Compassion—a Christian non-profit that partners churches to provide education, nutrition, and spiritual development to children.  We went to visit one of the families. We walked into a corregated metal room the size of a “normal” bedroom in America, but this was the entire house—kitchen was a metal table, in the middle of the dirt floor was both stove and HVAC (the cooling part was not normal and it felt like a sweatbox)—and beds for the 5 people living there were just mattresses on the floor around room.  That’s “Normal” for more than ½ of humans.
  • What’s “normal” for another family I met in a village in India where we helped build a hospital, because having a hospital available was not normal.
  • I’ve been in homes just like this in Haiti, South Africa—it’s normal.

I’m not saying all this to make us feel bad for the blessings we have, but to get us to all rethink what is “normal” in our broken world, and why is it normal?

Normal for Those Who Follow Jesus

Because Normal for a follower of Jesus is not the way most of the world defines normal, whether rich or poor. 

So even as we are wanting to get “back to normal” I want us to reconsider what normal really should look like if you are truly wanting to follow Jesus.  Because Jesus defined what Normal should be for humans living in a broken, evil, chaotic world. Jesus was our perfect example of a “new normal.”  If we follow him, we have to be ready for a “new normal.”  It’s the best way to live, but it’s also not the same as the world’s normal.

When I was first making my way in the world, I wanted to be “successful” like the world normally defines success. When I started following Jesus, I started to ask the question “What’s success to you, God?”  I had the thought—read Hebrews 11.  I didn’t know what Hebrews 11 was about, but I turned and read a summary of many Old Testament people successful in God’s eyes because they had faith—they trusted in God and followed despite the circumstances. I read:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Hebrews 11:6  

I realized that success in God’s eyes is not proving ourselves to the world, or to God, it’s not trying to earn God’s love or favor with good deeds, it’s trusting that God exists and God is good—He rewards those who earnestly seek to follow Him—the successful in God’s eyes will be those who trust and follow God’s will and ways.  That’s the first redefinition of a new normal for Jesus-followers:

Normal is fully surrendered in trust. 

Jesus defined what normal should be for humans living in a broken, evil, chaotic world.  Jesus revealed God’s character 100%, but Jesus was also 100% human. Philippians 2 gives insight into this mystery of Jesus:

He already existed in the form of God, [yet] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped [held onto], but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant…. Philippians 2:6-7. 

This is a deep theological passage that tells us Jesus was the very character and nature of God, the perfect human representation of God’s heart and mind, but he didn’t hold onto or use that power—he emptied himself of using God’s power and became one of us fully, 100%.  So all the things he did, he did by the power of the same Holy Spirit he now gives to us—so we can live as Jesus lived.  He was the perfect human example of what happens when you live fully surrendered fully trusting God.

Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. John 5:19.

Jesus modeled for us a life of full surrender—not trying to control all your circumstances but trusting completely in God’s sovereign control and seeking to do what He sensed God wanted done in each situation, in each encounter.  That’s what “normal” can and should be for you and me as well.  And while that may feel un-nerving like you’re losing control, or losing something, in reality you lose nothing but gain many great rewards (God is a rewarder Heb 6 said). 

But that doesn’t mean things go your way. Jesus was the only perfect human, he challenged those set against him “show me where I’ve sinned” he hadn’t. But as the perfect human, it didn’t mean life went his way all the time. That’s important. When life doesn’t go your way, or comes against you, it doesn’t mean God hates you or you did something wrong. When circumstances out of our control don’t go our way—the question is does it rob you of peace, of hope, of joy—or do you lean into God and trust God to guide and reward you as you seek to follow Him by faith—believing He is guiding because He promised to?

So this has been a very disruptive 16 months for many people—new fears with Covid, new work patterns (or no work), new driving norms, new congregating norms—and for many it’s put new stresses on relationships, people struggles, isolation and loneliness, which often causes identity or value struggles.  We’ve dealt with a lot.  I’m not minimizing any of that, but I want to get us to think from a new normal.  Instead of seeking a “normal” as everything back the way it was, what if it can be better than that spiritually—what if your new normal is a new level of surrender and trust in God? What if we let the “out-of-control” disruption help us surrender and trust more the only One truly in control? That was what was normal for Jesus, as our perfect model, and that’s what was common to the people like Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Samuel, David, Rahab—all the people mentioned as the “Successful” in God’s eyes listed in Hebrews chapter 11—the ones who let go of playing God, and trusted by faith more and more, even when life felt chaotic.

Practically what does that mean—to be fully surrendered in Trust of God? 

In recovery there’s a pray called the Serenity Prayer—it was penned by Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian theologian of the last century. It’s a New Normal that has brought peace and power to overcome for many in recovery. And it perfectly depicts all we’re talking about today, and I’d encourage you use it as a prayerful practice to learn to live this New Normal of following Jesus.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.

-The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

I want to use the rest of our time to walk you through how this prayer can become our new normal, with the result being serenity and spiritual strength in the chaos of life, because this was Jesus’ normal way—and normal for every Jesus-follower.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

To live this as normal means when things come up which I can’t control—circumstances I don’t like, but can’t honestly change, or when people do things I don’t like, but I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to control them—trying to force change on another free-willed human is relationally destructive. Or maybe other things have happened that you can’t change–you lost a job which now causes financial fears of the future, or Covid is increasing and with it fears of what may or may not happen—you can’t control the future.  So A New Normal of fully surrendered in trust means you give up playing God. You admit “I’m not God, I’m not all powerful, not all knowing, and I do not control and can’t change most circumstances, decisions, or outcomes of life.  So I relinquish this expectation (I surrender this need to control or change things to go my way) to play God, and instead, I’m gonna trust You God.  I’m gonna trust that You are good and You will reward me for seeking to follow You through this—show me the next right thing I CAN do, and I’ll do that. 

See, some things you can change.  You’ve been given sovereign authority over your own will, emotions, your body, your time—you can make decisions and change what you do, how you react, where you go, or how you use this next moment.  So pray for wisdom to know what you have responsibility to do, what God wants you to do next, and Courage to do it—then surrender the outcome into God’s care.

Friends, fully surrendered in trust of God is the most sane, peaceful way to live.  It’s sane because it’s truthful.  All our worries about the future can’t change it.  All our irritation and stresses and fears about outside circumstances really does no good.  But letting go of playing God and trusting God instead—allows a new normal of peace in the place of worry, patience in the place of irritation, of a restful secure soul in place of a stressed and fearful soul.  So Back to Normal for a Christ follower should be fully surrendered in trust.  But also…

Normal is fully living each moment. 

The next line of the serenity prayer says:

…Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time….  

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time—Normal is living fully present to each moment of life, to each opportunity before you.  This is exactly how Jesus lived, and it’s how He taught those who would follow him what Normal should be.

You know one of the most freeing realizations I ever had? God REALLY does not want me or you to worry, or live with heavy burdens. Most of us don’t really believe this—just as I didn’t really believe it.  I’d say, “well yeah, but in this case I have to because…well look at the situation, look at what’s gonna happen if I don’t…”. Yet Jesus very clearly taught that worry and carrying heavy burdens is against his will, ie. Sin! 

Do not worry about your life… 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?… 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  Matthew 6:25-34.

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.  God’s heart toward you is SO good—he doesn’t want you worrying about all the “what ifs” of a future you can’t control.  He’s good, He cares, He will provide a way forward.  Each day is hard enough Jesus says—so trust me, seek first my will and ways, and watch me provide.  And that way, you can live in a New Normal—learning to have joy and gratitude in the moments of life.

Again, it’s the most sane way to live because it’s true.  You and I cannot live in the past—we can dwell on the past, but it’s called “the past” for a reason—it’s already passed, you can’t relive it.  And you and I can plan for the future, we can imagine the future, but we can’t live in the future—we can only live this moment, then the next moment, then the next.  God is so good, so kind, He doesn’t want his children missing the joys of the moments of life because we were trying in our minds to live in the past or future (which is insanity—because we can’t live in either in reality).  So a new normal for Jesus followers is Joy in the moments of life—Jesus will give you this Joy as you surrender and follow more and more:

When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! 12 This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. John 15:10-12.  

So here’s back to normal for the Jesus follower—if you’re not experiencing overflowing Joy—come back to this moment. Stop living in the regretful or abusive past, don’t go out into the chaotic, fearful future—live this moment by asking “God, how can I love you by doing what You want?” And the next thought may well have to do with how to love those around you better—do it, and see if a new Joy doesn’t start to emerge in the weeks to come. So Back to Normal is fully surrendered in trust, living each moment fully, and

Normal is enduring even when life is hard.

Let’s say this prayer together outloud, adding the next part:

…Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it….

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it.  Our world tells us “You deserve…” “You should be offended…” “Fight for your rights…” “Stand up for yourself—you have to take what you want or others will take it from you.”  Let me say first, there is a time and a place for assertiveness, not letting yourself be abused or harassed, having good boundaries (Jesus had all that—so if you’re in danger for instance, it doesn’t mean stay in a situation where you’re in danger).  But we also have to realize WHO it is we follow and what the new normal was for Jesus.  And that flies in the face of worldly wisdom:  Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace?  What does that mean?

Jesus’ last night on earth, he said this very thing:

33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.

            We don’t normally think of hardship or trials and sorrows going together with peace—we think of hardship as robbing our peace.  But that’s the old normal, the new normal if you follow Jesus fully is to find a peace that surpasses understanding—even while hardships, trials, sorrows come.  It’s a peace that the world can’t give, Jesus said.  It comes from God, but it’s the hardship that brings it out.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Hebrews 2:10.

Jesus was the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy—and this says He was made perfect (or whole and complete) by God through what he suffered.  In other words, suffering was normal for Jesus. And as Jesus said, on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. Why?  Not because God wants us humans (or Jesus) to suffer,

18 “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. 19 The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. John 15:18-19.

Jesus is talking about the world’s system that opposes God and his loving ways—it’s fueled by evil that opposes God and seeks to lead people to think God is evil and evil is good, and we can, and should, be our own gods (but we get tricked and trapped when we believe it).  It’s what so many who go through recovery discover—hence the serenity prayer:

…Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it….

Here’s the beauty of enduring hardship as normal.  It prepares us to grow whole through it. Hardships are like weights in God’s Gym of life.  Your physical muscles don’t grow unless they undergo hardship—tested with weights, resistance, your muscles break down only to build up stronger. The same is true when we face hardship as a pathway to peace and inner strength—our spirit grows strong. When we face hardships with a victim-mentality, or a blaming or resenting mentality, or when we medicate with alcohol or drugs to escape hardship—it doesn’t help the hardship, it compounds it, but it also robs us of the spiritual growth God will do through it if we let Him. 

This was normal for Jesus, so normal for us needs to be to take things as they come, not as we would have them, asking not “Why me God?” but rather “How do You want to use this for my good, Lord? Grow me stronger through this.” Jesus really is there to help you, that’s a promise

Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. Hebrews 2:18

When life gets hard, when you’re having to endure, hold up under struggle—keep looking to Jesus.  Normal is surrendered and trusting, normal is living each moment, normal is enduring hardship as growth, and

Normal is reasonably happy now, supremely happy forever.

The last part of the prayer is this.

…Trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next. 

This life is not Heaven, and if you think it’s supposed to make you supremely happy—you’re mistaking this earthly life for Heaven. 

For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame…. Hebrews 12:2. 

Jesus was able to endure a lot—because of the Joy He knew was coming.  This life is filled with some wonderful, beautiful gifts from God…but it’s also full of shame and pain and crosses to bear.  There’s a reasonable happiness we can expect as normal when we follow Jesus, but this life will never be Heaven.  Don’t set your sights on “back to normal” as getting from this earth life what only is promised in God’s Kingdom. It says this of the Successful from Hebrews 11:

But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:16

Our home is not here, but it is coming—for the Joy ahead, Jesus went through a lot.  And that’s the same Joy and happiness God promises you forever in His Kingdom.

So yes—let’s get back to normal.  But let’s redefine normal as following Jesus’ New Normal. 

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