What Kind of an Old Man Do I Want to Become?

Joshua 14:6-14

This morning I am bringing to a conclusion the sermon series on The Life God Blesses. In that series we’ve been talking about those things below the waterline of our lives, where no one sees but God, a life lived out of the soul. To use those nautical terms: the keel and the weight distribution. Those are the things that keep our lives upright and stable in the storms of life, and they are the things of utmost importance. And I want to give credit one more time to the ideas and stories of Gordon MacDonald in his book, The Life God Blesses.

There is a brief but powerful story hidden in the OT book of Joshua. Its major character, Caleb, is an old man who makes infrequent appearances in a forty-year-plus slice of the history of the Hebrew people.

Caleb’s first appearance of significance came when he was a young man – one of the twelve men entrusted by Moses with the responsibility of exploring Canaan in anticipation of a Hebrew invasion to take the land God had promised to them. Caleb and Joshua – Moses’ successor – seem to have become closely connected. That much was apparent when the twelve returned from their mission. The reconnaissance report was in two parts: a majority report from ten of the men and the minority report from Joshua and Caleb.

The report of the ten was gloomy. The good news, the ten said, was that the land was abundant with wealth and resources – it would make a wonderful home for their people. But the bad news was that there were giants in the land, and by comparison, they seemed as grasshoppers.

Joshua and Caleb saw it differently. Yes, they admitted, there were people who seemed like giants, but the God of Israel had faced down “giants” before, and this was no time to think it would be any different. As far as the two-man minority was concerned, there was no time like the present to move ahead and draw on the promises and power of God.

But Israel sided with the majority, and as a consequence, the people spent the next forty years wandering about in the wilderness as an entire generation of faithless people died off. All, of course, except Joshua and Caleb.

In terms of scripture, we don’t hear much from Caleb over the next forty years. But apparently, the man never changed from the faith-driven fellow who’d been ready to lead the charge into the land of the giants. Now, four decades later, another generation of Hebrews – under Joshua’s leadership – massed at the Jordan River, not far from Jericho, and prepared for another invasion.

When they crossed over the river, they were successful in almost every one of their endeavors, and before long, a massive percentage of Canaan was under their control. Except the hill country.

The hill country was where the Anakites were said to live. The Anakites, a legendary tribe of people were reported to be formidable in height and fighting ability. Both the people and the terrain were enough to intimidate all but the bravest, and no one stepped forward to take on the challenge.

No one except Caleb – now in his mid-eighties. The biblical account of his conversation with Joshua gives us insight into the kind of man Caleb was:

[Caleb said to Joshua,] “You know what the LORD said to Moses the man of God at Kadesh Barnea about you and me. I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadesh Barnea to explore the land. And I brought him back a report according to my convictions, but my brothers who went up with me made the hearts of the people melt with fear. I, however, followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly. So on that day Moses swore to me, ‘The land on which your feet have walked will be your inheritance and that of your children forever, because you have followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly.’ Now then, just as the LORD promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the desert. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.” Then Joshua blessed Caleb son of Jephunneh and gave him Hebron as his inheritance. So Hebron has belonged to Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite ever since, because he followed the LORD, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly.” (Joshua 14:6-14)

Three times the word “wholeheartedly” is used to describe a man who spent his life living out of the soul. One gains a sense that Caleb organized his life about the promises of God. The result is seen in the kind of old man he became. His toughness, his enthusiasm, and his enormous faith are no accident. They flow from below his personal waterline, rooted deep in his relationship with God.

Listen to the qualities this story reveals in Caleb:

  • Whatever he has done, he has done wholeheartedly, nothing held back.
  • He was always a man who had strong convictions and lived by them.
  • He is a man who continues to love challenges and prefers the toughest of them all.
  • He is a man who has unlimited faith that the God of his youth is the God of his old age.
  • If others are fearful, he isn’t. His trust in God to give him the victory overwhelms whatever personal fears he might have.

And Caleb gets me thinking about what kind of an old man I want to be. And it has nothing to do with where I might live or whether we’ll have enough money to live on. This is a question of character – a below-the-waterline issue. And the truth is, you can’t wait until you’re an old man to decide what kind of an old man (or old woman) you want to be. To be a Caleb in your old age, you need to be a Caleb in your younger years. (Like I often say, you can’t wait until a man is 45 to talk to him about becoming an elder. You need to plant it in the heart of a 15 year old boy that one day he will be a great leader of God’s people and encourage him to make the kinds of choices and live the kind of life that will make him a man God can use to lead his people when he is older.)

On the other end, we encourage our younger men to be good husbands and fathers, to be strong spiritual leaders, to be active and involved in the church, but then when they get to a certain age – they’re empty nesters, they’re coming to the end of their careers, they’re thinking about retirement, and we put them out to pasture. We act like we no longer need them, their input isn’t sought, their ideas aren’t valuable, and we excuse them from serving. Instead, we need Calebs among us who are strong in their faith, faithful in their service, empowering in their example.

Instead of fading out and settling into inactivity, we need to finish strong, not abandoning our gifts but using them in new ways to bless God’s kingdom. Like Caleb, we need to look for new challenges and lead out where others are afraid to go.

Do you know some men (and women) who are like Caleb in their attitude toward life and toward God? There are some qualities that they share in common.

The first quality is in that word we noticed a few minutes ago in Joshua 14: wholehearted. Caleb lived his life all in. He lived fully and completely, nothing left in reserve. When he got to the end of his life there were no regrets for what he could have done or should have done. It reminded me of the story of Bill Borden:

William Borden was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents were both descended from British aristocracy and his father had made a fortune in real estate in Chicago and in silver mining in Colorado. William was already worth a million dollars by the age of 21, an amount equivalent in 1908 to more than 50 million dollars today. He was handsome, intelligent, well-educated and popular. But in 1912, at the age of 25, William did two things that made headlines. First, he gave away his entire fortune, half to God’s work in the U.S. and half to overseas missions. Second, he dedicated his life to go do mission work among the Muslims, first in Egypt, and then ultimately to northern China. To the public and media, and even to many of his Christian friends, his actions seemed incredibly wasteful, especially when after only a few weeks in Egypt he was stricken by spinal meningitis and died. It seemed like a tragic loss and waste of a life full of promise. But when his parent received his belongings and were looking through his Bible, they found written on the first page these six words: No reserve, no retreat, no regret. No reserve – he had held nothing back, he had surrendered everything to the lordship of Jesus. No retreat – though everyone thought he shouldn’t go, he pushed forward toward his goal to serve Christ. No regret – even as he faced death, he had no regrets about his decision to honor God and serve his Lord with his life.

The second quality is gratitude. There is that underlying sense as Caleb describes the blessings in his life that he recognizes that it is the Lord who has given them all to him. The quality of gratitude is at the center of a healthy soul.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans and described that generation of people who had rejected God from their lives, he said, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him… (Rom 1:21). The first mark of a decadent culture is its thanklessness. Whether talking about cultures or relationships, the first thing to go is that sense of gratitude, and it is replaced by a sense of entitlement and grudging demands. When you see a person with a grudging spirit, a stinginess and a callous disregard for others, there is an anemic soul underlying it.

But thankfulness fills the spirit of the one who sees those rich blessings of God, and that thankfulness overflows in generosity toward God and toward others. And it is a joy to be around them.

A third quality of these great men and women is that they are life-long learners. So many, when they grow older tend to quit reading, they stop thinking, their mind shifts into idle and they grow old mentally. They idealize the past and oppose change and become critical and judgmental. But men and women who chose to keep their minds sharp and agile never quit reading and learning and thinking. They have a broad perspective of life and are able to discuss new trends and emerging technologies as well as keeping in mind the sweeping flow of history. Change is not their enemy but their friend.

Along with that broad perspective, is the ability to draw on a life-long track record with God. They have seen God work in their lives over and over, and they are not rattled by current events and crises because they know from experience that God is in control and they have put their trust in him and he has never failed them.

In their list of priorities, relationships are their most important possessions. Family and friends become more dear and priority is given to nurturing and caring for those people with whom they share their lives most intimately. You see those couples who have fifty and sixty years of marriage behind them, but who still treat each other with gentleness and consideration, who still hold hands and whisper in each other’s ears and smile that special smile that only they share.

And finally, the quality that seems most important of all is that they are filled with grace.

I’ve known a lot of older folks who believed that old age had earned them the right to treat people badly and be critical and mean-spirited. They would proudly announce that they had quit caring what other people thought and were going to speak their minds – usually meaning they took that as a license to hurt people’s feelings without having to apologize. I don’t want to be that kind of old man.

I want to be an old man who brings joy to people when they are around them and are gracious and patient and kind in the way they treat others. Grace encompasses that ability to treat others as God would treat them, encouraging and upbuilding. Grace is that quality of Jesus as he willingly laid down his life for others, absorbing their hostility and reacting with love and forgiveness. Grace seeks the opportunity to serve, often behind the scenes and out of sight, willing to do even the most menial task to bless others.

That’s the kind of old man I want to be. Which brings me back to my earlier point. If that’s the kind of old man I want to be, that’s the kind of man I must start to be now. Making those an imbedded part of my character, becoming my second nature.

It reminds me of something Marilyn Landrum told me about her weekly visits with Nom Niemann. Long after Nom had lost her ability to remember names and events, she continued to be able to sit down at the piano and play music. It was so deeply imbedded in her brain that it was truly second-nature.

That’s the way to make these qualities a part of your life – practice them daily, use them frequently, embed them deep in your soul, so that they are, not just your second-nature, but your first nature.