The Tethers of our Lives

“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome [the world], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  (1Jn 4:4) [1]

firemenHow do you contain an elephant? How do you keep him in the spot you want him to stay? He’s bigger than you . . . and stronger. How do you keep him from wandering off in the night?

If you’re building a zoo and have a multi-million dollar budget to work with, you can build an enclosure with high walls and a deep moat.  You can ring the whole compound with fences.  You can electrify the fences.  That will keep an elephant in his place.

But what if you are a soldier in Hannibal’s army, driving elephants over the Italian Alps, camping out at a different spot each night?  What if you want an elephant to stay in one place and not step on you as you sleep?  No chain you forged would be strong enough to hold him.  No stake you drove into the ground would even make him pause if he wanted to go somewhere else.

How do you contain an elephant? 

I’m told that if you get an elephant when he is very young, it is an easy thing to teach him to “Stay.”  Drive a stake into the ground and tie a rope from the stake to the hind leg of the elephant.  Let him pull all he wants—at such a young age, the elephant is not strong enough to pull the stake from the ground or break the rope.  In time, the elephant learns how far he can move from the stake without straining his leg.  He understands his boundaries.  And, eventually, he stops testing them.  For the rest of the animal’s life, even when he is much older and infinitely stronger, a simple stake and a small rope are all you need to contain the mighty elephant.

The people of God are like elephants, broken early to the limits of living, moving within boundaries that exist only in our minds and attitudes.  We are mammoths controlled by strings. We are giants who live like midgets because we have not yet discovered our true strength.  We have not grasped that the power in us is greater than the power that is in the world.

“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome [the world], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  (1Jn 4:4)

Israel and Exodus

There was a time in the history of Israel when God’s people thought their lives were bounded by bricks and straw, the whip, and Pharaoh’s heavy hand. Israel looked around, and all she could see was endless labor and grinding poverty and brutish living.  She thought her life was a matter of rising early, trolling in the fields and mud pits, piling up brick on top of brick to build monuments to a godless king, stumbling home at night to fall exhausted into bed.

And then Moses stood up in the midst of Israel and said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”  He led them across the Red Sea.  He told them God had come to rescue them.

Even then, all Israel could see was desert.  Sand and heat and waterless waste.  “Give us water, Moses!  Give us food!  We’re gonna die in this wilderness!”  There came a time when they remembered Egypt with fondness: “If only we hadn’t slipped our tether and wandered away from the safety of what we knew!” When the Israelites got too far away from the stake and the rope and the narrow circumference of their former lives, they got nervous.

But all along, Moses was leading them to the Promised Land.  A land flowing with milk and honey.  A land of opportunity.  A land where God’s purposes could be worked out in the lives of God’s people.  A land not for slaves but for priests and kings, carpenters and Messiahs.

But Israel did not go easily to the Promised Land.  She had to be dragged, kicking and complaining.  She had eyes only to the limits of her tether.  She could not see beyond the boundaries to the better life that lay ahead.

The people of God are like elephants, broken early to the limits of living, moving within boundaries that exist only in our minds and attitudes.  We are mammoths controlled by strings. We are giants who live like midgets because we have not yet discovered our true strength.  We have not grasped that the power in us is greater than the power in the world.

“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome [the world], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  (1Jn 4:4)

The Disciples

There was a time in the lives of the first disciples when they thought their lives were bounded by nets and boats, tax tables and tent-making. They’d grown accustomed to the routines of domestic life, to work and wives and synagogue.  They thought life was a matter of rising early, fishing the dawn, cleaning their catches and mending their nets.

And then Jesus appeared on the shore and called out over the water. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Even then, the disciples did not see where Jesus was leading them.  Oh, he talked enough about ripe fields and ready hearts and taking the gospel to “Judea, Samaria, and all the world.”  But all they could see was the narrow circumference of their former lives:  the hills of Galilee, the hated Roman soldiers, the crowds who gathered to Jesus for bread. 

“Now will you establish your kingdom, Lord?” “We have swords!  We can fight!” “He is dead and buried.  I hoped he was the one.  Well . . . let’s go fishing.”

But because Jesus would not let them alone, because he kept leading them to places beyond their boundaries, Peter steps across the threshold of a gentile’s house and introduces the gospel to a waiting world.  An ex-Pharisee named Paul tells the story of the cross in Asia Minor, Greece, Italy and beyond.  James gets the chance to die for his faith.  John goes bravely into exile on Patmos.  Matthew the tax-collector writes a story of Jesus’ life that changes the world.  We know their names because the plans God had for their lives were greater than the plans they had for themselves.

Of course, the disciples did not turn a world upside down eagerly.  They had to be dragged to the task, kicking and screaming.  They had to be knocked off horses . . . given repeated and insistent visions . . . persecuted out of Jerusalem.  Even the disciples had eyes only to the limits of their tether.  They could not see beyond the boundaries to the better life that lay ahead.

The people of God are like elephants, broken early to the limits of living, moving within boundaries that exist only in our minds and attitudes.  We are mammoths controlled by strings. We are giants who live like midgets because we have not yet discovered our true strength.  We have not grasped that the power in us is greater than the power in the world.

“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome [the world], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  (1Jn 4:4)

What about us?

What bounds your life?  What compass circumscribes your living and defines the limits within which you must exist?  What stake have you driven into the ground?  What length of rope keeps you tied to that stake and sets the boundaries that contain your dreams and ambitions and hopes?

What bounds your life? Do you let the lives of those around you set those limits? The normal work-a-day habits of your neighbors?  The rhythms of family and hobbies and working and mowing the yard on Saturdays?  The sleepy patterns of the known and the comfortable?

So often, we let our own tendencies set the limits within which we live: the weaknesses and temptations we’ve learned to excuse; the spiritual laziness we rationalize by a lack of time; the hobbies and pursuits we find more interesting than the kingdom; the disappointments and frustrated ambitions that persuade us to settle for low-hanging fruit that is within easy reach.

But every once in a while, God pokes his disturbing finger between our ribs.  We hear that grating, persistent voice interrupting our spiritual slumber. God picks up our stake and sets it down square in the Promised Land.  He severs the rope that binds us to the known and the comfortable.  He drives us out of Jerusalem and into the “outermost parts of the world.”  He calls us to a nobler life, a worthier life, than we had planned for ourselves.

We live among people who are playing Trivial Pursuit and calling it “Life.”  We live among people who define themselves by their bank accounts, the part of town in which they live, where they are positioned on the corporate ladder, how straight their teeth, how thick their lawn. We are a nation in hot pursuit of the perfect abdominal machine. We spend more money in this country on our pets than we give to charity. We spend more time with TV than in conversation with family, friends, and God combined.

And, too often, the people of God take their primary cues for living from the world.  We define what is normal for us by measuring what is normal for them.  Their pursuits become our pursuits.  What they value, what they want, become the things we spend our lives chasing.

We have tethered ourselves by their stake.  We have tied ourselves with their short and unworthy rope.  Our horizons, our hopes, our ambitions are often no larger than theirs.

But God expects more of us than that.  He has commissioned us to be his people.  He has called us to be about his work.  He has gifted us to be a transformative influence on this dark world.  He has storied us with a narrative more powerful than dynamite.  He has placed all authority, all power, all wisdom into our hands through the person of Jesus Christ.

The only stake that can bind God’s people is the cross.  The only rope that can hold us is the unbounded grace of a loving God.  The whole world is within our reach . . . and the heavenly realms.  All the things of the flesh and all the things of the Spirit.

Today, I stand before you to say that, for too long, the people of God have lived like elephants, broken early to the limits of the world, moving within boundaries that exist only in our minds and attitudes.  We are mammoths controlled by strings. We are giants who live like midgets because we have not yet discovered our true strength.  We have not grasped that the power in us is greater than the power in the world.

So today, I beg you to hear afresh the words of the old hymn . . . to hear and rededicate yourself to the invitation it offers.

“Rise up, O men of God
Have done with lesser things
Give heart and mind and soul and voice
to serve the King of Kings.”

And I beg you, this week, to remember:

“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome [the world], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  (1Jn 4:4)




[1]     Preached at the Otter Creek Church on October 6, 2001.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.