A small fish in a big pond.
That’s how I felt when I started college. Like a very small fish in a very big pond. It didn’t start out that way, at least not for me. Walking on to the UCLA campus for my first class was exciting and thrilling. I was the master of my own destiny! If I wanted to skip class, I just skipped class (and with 8am Calculus my first quarter, that happened more often than I intended). Nobody cared! If I wanted to stay up until 4am to watch a Monty Python marathon, nobody cared! If I slept until noon because I stayed up all night to watch a Monty Python marathon, nobody cared! And maybe that was part of the problem. Nobody cared. At least sometimes it felt that way. I was a very small fish in a very big pond. Nearly every class I had that first year was in a lecture hall the size of a giant movie theater. And just like in that movie theater, I was pretty anonymous. Whether I wanted to be or not. It’s hard to make friends in a class of 500 people. And it’s not like you had assigned seats or anything. Nobody knew if you showed up or if you had missed three classes in a row. And nobody cared.
Compared to a lot of people, I had more friends than most going into college.
About nine kids from my high school honors class went with me to UCLA, but we didn’t hang out all that much especially in college. I had a couple of friends, like my buddy Lance, who I still hang out with but when you’re on your own like that for the first time, it can feel pretty lonely. Even when you’re surrounded by other people. My incoming freshman class had 4,000 students. I think the whole student body was something like 21,000 – undergrads and graduates alike. I’d head down Bruin Walk every morning to go to class and it would be filled with people going from one place to another and you could still feel alone. Thankfully, I did make friends with some pretty wonderful people – Lisa, Jen, Mark, Wendy, Orlando, Jack. I had my Disneyland buddies and of course friends I grew up with, but even then there were still times I felt alone. I’m sure you’ve felt like that at some point in your life, too. I wish in those times I had realized I was never really alone.
It’s amazing how the darkness can cover up the light.
When we are in those valleys of despair, when we’re feeling crushed by the weight of the world, it can seem like there is no hope, no way out. We can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it feels like the night will never end. But it will. The light is there even when we can’t see it. And that’s where faith comes in. We’re going to read this morning a passage from the letter to the Romans. You’ve probably heard this one before, but I hope today you’ll keep it close to your heart and remember it when things seem bleak. Faith is holding on to the light when the batteries in your flashlight go out. It’s fumbling in the dark, having the confidence eventually the sun will rise on a new day. As it says in Hebrews 11:1, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” That is faith. Hear now the Word of the Lord.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:35-39
I didn’t grow up knowing God was there for me.
I didn’t realize he loved me so much he was willing to die for me. Even when I run out of hope, God has enough for the both of us – and then some. All we need to do is have faith. I know that is far easier to say than to do, but I’ve found this one thing to be true, “I don’t know how things will work out, but they will.” I’ve said that too many times in my life and seen it happen too many times in my life to ignore it. “I don’t know how things will work out, but they will.” That doesn’t mean we should sit around and do nothing. But sometimes we need to take a step back. We need to give the Holy Spirit room to work. We need to pause so we can see the answer that’s been in front of us the whole time. We simply need to have faith. And when we don’t have enough on our own, ask for help. There are people in your life willing to share some of theirs with you. Just reach out and let others reach back.
I went through a period of doubt in my life.
A period where I wasn’t sure of my faith. Where I wasn’t sure if God even existed. It was a tough time. I lost a lot of sleep. I woke up in cold sweats. I didn’t know what to do. But I remember hearing something someone said once to turn to God in prayer in times like these. So I did. Honestly, I didn’t know if it would work. I prayed often and I even told God, “I don’t know if you’re there or if you’re listening, but if so I would really appreciate some sign of what I’m supposed to do.” And he didn’t answer right away. Kind of bummed, but I expected that. I wasn’t sure what form his answer would take, but I wasn’t expecting a phone call or some magic beam of light. I just didn’t know what to expect from an answered prayer. So I waited. And prayed. And waited some more. I forced myself to go to a Men’s Group meeting at church. I didn’t go often and certainly wasn’t in the mood, but I needed to be around people who were more sure of their faith than I was so I went. And that night I bumped into Steve. Out of nowhere I asked him how he could be sure of God’s presence in his life. Probably not expecting a question about the meaning of life, but this turned out to be one of those moments that will stick with me until I die. He said, “When I look back, I can see all the times God was there for me, even when I couldn’t see him and it gives me hope when I don’t feel his presence around me. I know he’s there.” Then he suggested a book to me – The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel. He said a lot of my questions would be answered and he was right. It led me down a path that strengthened my faith and fueled my hope and I came out the other side into the light. And it’s also the reason I’m a pastor today. If I could help even one person like Steve helped me, if I could inspire someone in their faith so they didn’t have to go through a trial of doubt like I did, it would all be worth it.
You are not alone.
No matter where you go and what you do, you are not alone. God is with you. Even when you can’t see him, God is with you. And if you let him, he’ll make himself known in some strange and wonderful ways. Some of you reading this are about to step into the next phase of your life. Maybe you’re graduating from school, about to get married, move away for a new job, and you might drift away from church and even from God, hopefully if you do only for a little while. It’s natural and it happens far more often than any of us would like. But it happens. And if that turns out to be you, just know there is always a place for you in God’s house. Know that wherever you go, that God is with you. And he doesn’t care if you turn your back on him. He’s waiting any time you realize you need him in your life. You will be found, because God will find you if you let him. And you will find him with open arms. So the next time you’re in the dark, the next time you feel alone or frightened or unsure, hold on to the hope God promised and eventually you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may not happen exactly like you might expect or hope, but it will be okay. As it says in the letter we read today nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. One of my favorite passages in the Bible comes from what God said to Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord…” Remember that always.