June 4, 1995
Living in a Fragmented World
This story brings us to the place where God’s plan of redemption begins with the call of Abraham. It’s a beginning-again story. Genesis 1 and 2 tells of the beginning of everything. After the flood, we have a beginning-again of humankind. Now, we have a different kind of beginning, in the scattering.
On the surface, the story sounds as if it were an explanation of how we obtained languages. If you listen to it literally, it sounds as if God is the source of confusion in the world. But the truth is, the story attempts to deal with the theology of why the world is divided. Why are we so fragmented? Why is it so difficult for us to communicate with each other?
When you read the story like this where people can’t understand each other any more and they drift apart, we think how difficult it is to communicate in our world. When you are in another country, where English is not the language spoken, just getting along is difficult and frustrating. The truth is that even when everybody speaks English but cultures are different, communication is also hard.
In 1990 the New York Times bestseller list contained a book titled You Just Don’t Understand, written by Deborah Tannin. The basic tenet is that men and women communicate differently. Very often a man and a woman can be talking to each other but they come from such different perspectives that neither really understands the other. We didn’t need this book to tell us that often in the family, where there is the greatest amount of knowledge and love, communication is difficult between parents and children, children and children, between us and our parents, or between us and our spouses.
This story from Genesis seeks to answer what is the ultimate source of confusion and division in the world. On the surface it looks as though God caused the confusion but if you read chapter 10 there were already different languages. Obviously, the story wasn’t put there to say, “The reason we are so divided, and so fragmented, is God was jealous and He was afraid we would be God so He did this to us.” That’s not it. This is the story of what happens when a person or a people turn their backs on God and try in their own human efforts to achieve the building of a city, building of a life, or the building of a church. There are insights which could be helpful to you and me as we try to communicate and try to live in a fragmented world.
One of the interesting points is the fragmentation took place in the context of religion. We assume religion unifies or religion pulls us together. But this story is in a religious context.
We need some Babylonian background to understand the story. This event took place in what is today Iraq. Here were a people who wanted to make a name for themselves. They were interested in status, in security, and wanted an identity even if it didn’t relate to God. A lot of us are like that. They thought this could be accomplished by building a massive project. They were going to build a great city and a great tower that would go up to heaven.
The tower was a sacred building in the Mesopotamian religion — a huge multi-storied building which would dominate all other buildings. The missionaries who came up the Rio Grande Valley and evangelized the Pueblos did what the Mesopotamians did with their tower. They erected the church on the highest, most prominent place so as you came out the door you could look up and see the church. That’s the way the tower was. It was considered the foundation of heaven and earth. It was like Israel’s ark of the covenant — the place where God would reside.
What happened? The building was an enormous accomplishment which bred a spirit of pride, arrogance, and an independence from God. The results were disastrous. They had the attitude, “this shows what we can do.” But instead of finding status, they found separation. Instead of finding security, they found fear and anxiety. What they thought would unify them fragmented them. The Bible story plays an interesting word game — the Babylonian word sounds like a Hebrew word but the Babylonian word Babel means “the gate of heaven” and the Hebrew word means “place of confusion.”
Now the “gate of heaven” is the word used when Jacob ran away from home and dreamed of a ladder with people going up and down the ladder. He awoke and said, “This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” But the suggestion is: if your religion is self-centered, the Garden of Eden can become the tower of Babel. Religion that always seeks a name for itself, engenders materialistic pride, and has to be popular always creates barriers to communication — it fragments.
The language of disobedience always fragments. People who will not serve God will never know how to communicate with each other. The New Testament gives us the authentic model in our Lord Jesus Christ in Philippians in which Paul said, “He did not grasp equality with God but emptied himself and became a servant and God exalted him and gave him a name which is above every name.”
The story should remind us that our security and status are not found in self but in relationship with the living God through His son, Jesus Christ. Jacob’s scheming resulted in a fragmented family; and in a place where he didn’t even know God was, God came to the bottom of the ladder and brought him life. So faith creates a different security, a different status.
There is some confusion because in the story there’s a tension between the uses of the words scattering and unified. It seems as though the fear of being scattered was in conflict with God’s purpose at the beginning of the story — but God is a scattering God. His disciples were told to go out into the world, Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden to inhabit the earth, Noah and his family were to move into the ark away from others, and He sent the church out. We are a people whom God intends to scatter like salt or like yeast. So when He said, “Go ye into all the world, make disciples” … He’s talking about us being ambassadors. Interestingly enough, there is always something in us which resents the scattering. We want to stay in a safe place.
The Jerusalem church didn’t want to be scattered — there are Gentiles out there. We don’t want to move out and get scattered across cultural, racial, educational, and social lines. We want to build a self-serving institution and we want status. Christians are intended to be scattered — yeast, salt, and light in the world. It seems we try to find unity on a different basis than God creates unity. The harmony God seeks is learning to speak the language of obedience. The confession, “Jesus is Lord,” is the only thing which unites us. To try to unite ourselves on any other basis is to build a Babel. The results are paradoxical: God creates a unity that scatters.
The story must be seen against a New Testament insight: Authentic religion creates a new language community.
One of the reasons we find it so difficult to communicate in our society and with each other is we are so self-centered. When you take God out of the center of your life and put self in the center, and when you take spiritual values out of the center of your life and put material values in the center, you are laying the foundation for not being able to listen and to communicate. The New Testament teaches us that the language of love brings us together.
In the second chapter of Acts is a story that is the opposite of the Babylon story — actually it’s a counterpart. This is the story of people coming from all over the world to Pentecost with different backgrounds, customs and languages. Yet when the Holy Spirit came on the church and baptized the church, each of them heard in their own language. Interesting isn’t it? In the passage from Genesis we start with one language and end up with everybody talking a different language. In Acts, we begin with everyone speaking his or her own language and end up with a language that unifies.
When we turn to Christ, the Holy Spirit of God comes and creates in us a fresh capacity to listen to God. The Spirit makes it possible for us to respect and believe God, makes us willing to be impacted by God, and makes us open to newness in our lives.
So when God called Abraham, He was starting over with one person to make a whole new people. When He came in Jesus Christ that plan was culminated, and in Christ is the basis for unity, harmony, listening, learning, and communicating with each other.
The story ought to remind us there is in each of us a desire to communicate with each other, to join together in harmony and to make contact. We do not like isolation. This is a need, and there are those who feel that need very intensely. Also there is the need for identity, status and security. None of the needs operative in Babel are illegitimate needs but the story ought to remind us that our efforts to meet these needs on our own, apart from God in our lives, will always bring the opposite results.
This is the warning of the gospel: if you take your life into your own hands and live it as though there were no God, you will not find everything you need. We are afraid to lay aside our pride, our self-centeredness, and open our ears to God, listen to God’s healing word and listen to God’s loving word, but these are the words of forgiveness, reconciliation, and harmony. In this response to God comes status and identity and security.
These people built a place and told God to meet them there. God doesn’t do it that way. He picks His own place to meet us and He has chosen to meet us in His son, Jesus Christ. (KLC)
Trinity Sunday (C)
June 11, 1995
What the Bible Says
Romans 5:1-5 zeroes in on this topic of suffering, acknowledging the reality of it and what can happen through it. It is possible to experience God’s presence in the very midst of the greatest of difficulties.
The whole thrust of this passage is that the Christian is a person whose life should be marked by peace with God. If you have committed yourself by faith to Jesus Christ, you can have a new relationship with God. Yours can be a life of harmony and peace, even in the face of suffering.
This peace of which we talk is a conscience which is at rest and a confidence that God is in charge of your life. The opposite of this peace is a spiritual anxiety, a disturbed conscience, a mistrust of God. The peace of God is not just an optimistic principle. You may remember back to the day when there were many who claimed that mankind was rapidly improving. There was the popular chant: “Every day, in every way, we’re getting better and better.”
This optimism was the spirit of the day. People thought they could find peace and contentment by repeating to themselves these positive principles. Suddenly this line of thinking was crushed by two world wars and a depression, with all the gruesome side effects brought by both.
According to the Scriptures, real peace is available only to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1 reads: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
On the one hand, some search for peace without ever looking toward Jesus. They cry, “Peace, peace,” but there is no peace. On the other hand, I know some Christians who have the promise of peace with God, given to them through the Scriptures, who are anything but men and women living lives at peace with themselves and with God. We are to enjoy the peace which is promised to us through Jesus Christ.
You may say, “What do you mean about peace? I am a Christian, but I’m loaded with suffering and difficulty. I have no peace! You want me to be a phony and pretend I am experiencing something I am not?”
Pointing out that suffering and peace are not mutually exclusive, our text goes on to say, “… we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so but we also rejoice in our sufferings ….”
The Christian life is not some idealistic way of life in which we close our eyes to the difficulties around us. Suffering is a part of the Christian life. It stands side by side with peace as one of the qualities of the Christian’s experience.
Suffering need not defeat you when you confront it correctly. I have a friend who now is an elderly woman. She is the victim of innocent suffering. A few years into her marriage her husband, a professional man, became infatuated with a younger woman. At first she was unaware of this. He did a good job covering it up. Finally, his infatuation got the better of him. The situation became intolerable. Her husband walked off, irresponsibly leaving her with the young family for whom to care. A divorce followed.
Our heart goes out to this woman in these difficult circumstances, which we see repeated so often today. She was the innocent party. She was left to suffer. The tragedy of this friend of mine is that now, decades after the event which brought so much real suffering, she still has not allowed herself to be victorious over what happened. She has no sense of the peace of God which is offered to her in her situation. She is still a miserable, unhappy, peaceless person. Every time I have visited her, she gives me a catalog of her valid complaints — complaints which, when uttered, only more deeply ingrain the suffering which is hers.
In contrast to her is another woman I know who is going through a similar situation. She, too, was left by her husband for another woman. She has been left at an economic disadvantage to raise the children while he shows little interest in them. His attention is now directed toward his new wife, her children, and theirs by this second marriage. This woman has chosen, with God’s help, to be a sensitive, forgiving woman, living according to God’s Word. Certainly she had to process her anger, and occasionally circumstances get the better of her. But she has grown through this suffering and demonstrates a Christian grace and peace that singles her out as very special to all of us who know her.
The Christian’s life does have suffering. Some of it we create for ourselves. Some of it comes independent of our own action. God tells us that we are privileged to enjoy peace even in spite of the suffering. The peace of God has a way of undergirding us, even in the most difficult hours, giving a serenity, balance, and purpose for what is going on.
How do we deal with tragedies such as airline crashes, terminal illnesses, divorces, and economic reversals? Are these God’s will?
We can only answer this question as we understand that God has three kinds of will. Leslie D. Weatherhead writes about this in his book The Will of God. One is His intentional will. No, God never intended for there to be sickness, death, and broken relationships. These have come as His creation rebelled and followed Satan. Two is His circumstantial will. God works in the very midst of our sufferings and can help us develop in positive ways both through the sufferings we bring upon ourselves by our own sin and by the innocent suffering which is ours due to the broken nature of the world in which we live. Three is His ultimate will, which will be accomplished through Christ’s victory when all human history shall be set straight at His Second Coming.
You and I are able to have God’s strength in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. He wants to help us no matter how complicated our lives may be by matters going far beyond our control.
We are not to “make peace” with God. Because we have been justified by faith, that peace is already ours. We are not called to obtain access to this grace. We already have obtained this access. We stand in this grace. Because of what Christ has done for us, we have the privilege to rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Jesus Christ has made provisions for us. It is His peace which is ours. His inner wholeness, His completeness, is His gift to us. This peace functions independent of the external pressures, pains, hurts, rejections. It is a spiritual quality. It is because of Christ’s provision that Paul encourages you and me to actually “rejoice in our sufferings.” It is one thing to submit to or endure tribulation without complaint; it is another to find ground for glorifying in the midst of them, as we are here exhorted to do.
You and I can actually rejoice in our sufferings. The apostle Paul points out that suffering, in addition to being painful, has some very positive functions in the life of the believer. Suffering can lend an invaluable difference to the person who opens himself to God’s working in his life.
Paul mentions three valuable contributions which can be yours as a result of suffering. Suffering is a fact of life. All of us have some of it. Here is how you can make the most out of it. Here is what it will produce if you let it.
I. Suffering produces endurance.
The King James Version uses the word “patience.” Endurance, as used in the Revised Standard Version, is a better translation. The New International Version uses the word perseverance. Suffering builds into you the capacity to cope with difficulty. This does not merely mean the ability to put up with suffering; it means the ability to see through the suffering to a meaning in Jesus Christ.
James puts it in agricultural terms. He talks about the farmer who “waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain” (James 5:7). He urges the believer to be patient, realizing that all of history is going somewhere. Jesus Christ is coming again. The farmer doesn’t panic about his seed just planted. He knows the cycles of agricultural life.
You and I can learn from suffering. It tells me how my heart is constituted. Many of us venerate the cross of Jesus Christ. We pray to the crucified One. We sing hymns in His Name, but we flee the cross in our own lives. Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Dozens of great hymns were written by Fanny Crosby — blind, but out of her blindness learning a patience of life that could produce these words:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
II. Suffering produces character.
Paul puts it in these words: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.”
As you build in your endurance you mature. You are tested. You are proved. You are disciplined. Rugged times prove the mettle in a person. They knock the whine out of you. They toughen you.
Suffering brings about a maturing of character — an experience which equips one for life’s long haul.
III. Suffering produces hope.
You and I have hope through faith in Jesus Christ. It is amazing how people turn to God the most when they are going through difficult times. During my past twenty-eight years of ordained ministry, I have observed individuals going through good times. Their lives are relatively free of sickness and problems. There is no suffering at hand. I have noticed on the part of some of them an enormous self-confidence. They are in control. Life is going their way. Why should they need anyone else?
It is interesting to me to note the change that comes over them when they have a reversal of fortune. It may be a romantic reversal. It may be a business reversal. It may be the reversal of health. The reversals of life which we call suffering have a way of knocking the props out from under a person. It often tumbles him to the point where he sees that everything is in God’s hands. Nothing he had, or aspires to in the future, is purely the result of his own effort. It is at this point that the Christian hope comes into the picture. You and I realize that we can’t handle things on our own. Our confidence is directed to the Christ who loves us and who has real purpose for our lives.
Benjamin M. Weir, the hostage for sixteen months of Moslem extremists in Lebanon and since then a moderator of our Presbyterian Church (USA), drives home this note of hope as he tells his story of suffering.
He describes those months in capitivity, the first fourteen of which he was locked in a barren room, not able to see another human being. When alone he could take off his blindfold, in his suffering he was driven back to the promise of the Bible. An electric cord dangled from the ceiling. The bulb had been stripped out, leaving three fragile filament wires exposed. For him they became symbols of the life-giving fingers of God reaching down toward Adam in the Sistine Chapel. The 120 slats of the closed shutters became reminders that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Those months of suffering and aloneness were sustained by hope.
I could tell you story after story of men and women I know who live with suffering on a daily basis. I could endeavor to describe for you how that suffering has produced endurance, and that endurance has produced character, and that character has brought about a hope that is based on the love of God which they have experienced. I could tell you about men and women who have survived divorce, not somehow but triumphantly. I could tell you of financial crises which have been sustained and even fortunes lost. But life goes on with a greater quality in the lean times than it had in the times of greatest affluence. I could tell you stories of intense emotional suffering and of God’s presence even as they walked through the darkest hours.
God only knows how many times I have gone back to Romans 5 and read that passage in my own heartbreak, in my own pain, in my own suffering. Then, in quiet, lonely places, I too, have sung these words: “And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight. The clouds be rolled back as a scroll. The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, ‘Even so’ — it is well with my soul.”
You will never avoid suffering. The God of all creation can walk through it with you, enabling you to sing these words. (JAH)
2nd Sunday after Pentecost (C)
June 18, 1995
The Power of Forgiveness
The story is told that three blind men were allowed to grab hold of an elephant, then each was asked to describe the animal. The one who held the tail said, “An elephant is like a rope.” The second, who grabbed hold of a leg, exclaimed, “An elephant is like a great tree.” The third, who held tight to the trunk, asserted, “An elephant is like a giant snake.”
Perspectives vary, don’t they? Five people can see the same accident occur, yet you may have five different descriptions of the same event, each varying depending on the perspective of the viewer. But suppose that your life depended on accurately relating an event or situation. Then your perspective would be enormously important.
Jesus had been invited to dinner by a Pharisee, a member of the strict religious group which took such an interest in His ministry and teaching. Many Pharisees attacked Him as a dangerous maverick, but there were others who were fascinated by Him and wanted to know more. Could it be that Jesus’ host this evening was a member of the latter group? He invited Jesus to dinner, perhaps to learn more about this strange and compelling preacher. Perhaps his motives were not so innocent.
We don’t know how many others may have been in attendance, but at least one non-invited guest was present. She was a woman whose evil reputation was known to this Pharisee — we don’t know how he was aware of the reputation, but he clearly recognized her as a woman not normally invited to proper homes and social functions. Her lack of invitation, however, didn’t seem to deter her from attending this unique gathering.
Courtesy of Luke, we are able to look in on this dinner and sum up the various characters in attendance. The two main characters — the Pharisee and the woman — represent two very different perspectives, or ways of looking at Jesus. And as the Lord will point out, only one perspective results in salvation.
From which perspective do you see Jesus?
I. We Can See Jesus From the Perspective of Judgment
Simon the Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner, but we can immediately question his motives. It seems that the common courtesies expected of a host in that culture had not been observed. Perhaps Simon has invited Jesus to dinner less to get to know Him than as a matter of curiosity or even cynicism. Maybe he had invited some of his friends to join the dinner party, so they would take advantage of the opportunity to poke fun at this itinerant preacher.
The arrival of this woman of ill-repute is a surprise; such women are not invited to the homes of Pharisees. The greater shock is Jesus’ acceptance of this woman, who has begun anointing His feet with oil mixed with her own tears. He just sits there and lets this evil woman touch Him! If Jesus were a prophet, He would know what kind of woman she was and would condemn her — or at least insist she leave Him alone!
Whatever motive Simon had at the beginning of the dinner, he is now filled with indignation, with anger, with judgment. Doesn’t He know what kind of woman she is?
Jesus not only knows what kind of woman she is; He also knows what kind of man Simon is. Simon is self-righteous — the kind of person who insists on removing the speck from his brother’s eye while carrying a log in his own eye! Simon did not sense his own sinfulness, so he could not understand his own need for forgiveness.
When we view others through eyes of judgment, we place ourselves under judgment. How tragic that Simon had Jesus in his own home and, instead of seeking God’s love and forgiveness, concentrated on the unworthiness of another.
Could it be that you and I have done the same thing — neglecting God’s presence and will in our own lives while we concentrate on the sin and impurity of others? That is a perspective that leads to frustration and destruction, but not salvation.
II. We Can See Jesus From the Perspective of Thanksgiving
She is oblivious to Simon and everyone else in the room. For her, there is only Jesus there. Her acts of gratitude and adoration — anointing His feet with oil and her own tears, drying them with her own hair — reflect a transformed heart and life. Something had already happened in her life before that moment; she had heard Jesus teach and somehow God had broken through a heart made cold and hard by sin and brought the renewing warmth of divine love.
What do you do to someone who has saved your life? This woman, who had been so used and abused by other men, only knew that she had to express her thankfulness to the One whose love and truth had transformed her forever.
Jesus used a parable to help Simon understand the power of forgiveness. The one who has experienced God’s forgiveness in a powerful way will inevitably respond with overwhelming thankfulness. On the other hand, the one who has experienced little forgiveness — not because of little sin, but because of unwillingness to acknowledge sin — that person will not demonstrate a grateful heart.
Do we demonstrate grateful hearts? Are we allowing God to use our lives to show His love to others? Are we serving Christ by ministering to our brothers and sisters who are in need? As others observe our lives, do we appear overwhelmed with gratitude, or are we caught up in resentment and judgment?
Whatever our perspective on Jesus, one thing is certain:
III. Jesus Sees Us From the Perspective of Forgiveness
Jesus recognized that both Simon and the woman had something in common: both were sinners in need of God’s grace. She recognized that fact, while Simon apparently did not. Thus, Jesus was able to extend His forgiveness to her, while Simon’s attitude built a barrier through which forgiveness would not travel. But Jesus loved both of them, and wanted to forgive both.
From which perspective do you view Jesus today: the woman’s or Simon’s? No matter who you are or what you have done, the sin in your life can only be removed through the power of God’s forgiveness. Will you allow Jesus to enter your heart and life today? (JMD)
3rd Sunday after Pentecost (C)
June 25, 1995
Relighting the Fire
(1 Kings 19:1-15)
Do you find yourself busier than ever but accomplishing little? Have you had physical ailments that will not go away? Are you increasingly irritable and difficult to deal with? Have you been feeling detached even from the closest of friends? Has the joy of life given way to a disgruntled feeling? If the answer is “yes” or “perhaps” to some of these questions for you or someone you know, burnout may be in progress or just around the corner.
Burnout can happen to anyone because of the overwhelming demands of everyday living. There is too much work at the office, too many classes to study for, too many demands from parents and children who have activities ranging from Girl Scouts to 6:00 a.m. paper routes. To this list add family illnesses, financial demands, trips to the veterinarian, and weeds in the front lawn. Any of these, added to paying the bills and keeping the house, can absorb your energy.
The renowned preacher and chaplain of the United States Senate, Peter Marshall, pushed himself night and day until he suffered a major heart attack. After a time of recovery, he resumed the same pace until a second heart attack killed him. In Something More, his wife Catherine wrote: “In Peter’s case, I am certain it was not God’s ideal will that he die of a coronary occlusion at forty-six.” If great things were accomplished with burnout, how much greater could have been done without it?
Elijah — the Burned-Out Prophet
The Bible provides examples of people who for one reason or another overextended themselves. Elijah is one who in a Peter Marshall kind-of-way overdid it and began showing some of the distinct characteristics of burnout.
In traveling a day’s journey into the wilderness, Elijah shows the characteristic of detachment or distancing himself from others. You can’t blame him for getting out of Jezreel because Jezebel had vowed to kill him within twenty-four hours (v. 2). He even leaves his servant behind (vv. 3, 4). He not only wishes to run from the wicked queen but he wants to get away from everybody else. He says, “I want to be left alone, by myself, with me.”
As the prophet sits under a broom tree (v. 4), he evidences another characteristic of burnout: he is depressed. In his mind, there is no clear reason to keep living. He does not mince words about his feelings when he announces, “I want to die.”
In a subsequent dialogue with God on Mt. Horeb (v. 10), Elijah manifests a third characteristic of burnout in that he thinks he is the only one in the world who is doing anything worthwhile. He has the Messiah-complex. He is saying, “I am indispensible. If anything is going to get done, I’ll have to be the one to do it.” He is so convinced the work of God rests on his shoulders that he tells God the same thing once more in verse 14.
Fourth, there is paranoia. Elijah believes he is being hunted down by others. He claims in verse 10: “They are out to get me.” But who are “they?” He does not mean Jezebel because he does not say she. “They” are not the Israelites because Elijah has brought an end to the three and one-half year drought. Elijah doesn’t know who “they” are but he believes he isn’t safe any longer and he is suspicious of everyone.
Elijah is detached, depressed, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, and fearful. This is quite a turnaround! He did not feel this way at all only the day before. He had all kinds of bravado as he took on the priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel. But his resources are gone. He’s exhausted, drained. Elijah has fallen victim to burnout.
There are ever-increasing numbers of people in this condition, and many of them are in what has been popularly called mid-life. Having been brought up with plenty of idealism during post-World War II years, you have come face-to-face with the realism that some of your dreams will not come true. For example, you started your job years ago with plenty of enthusiasm. But little by little, that enthusiasm has gone up in smoke and you find yourself saying “a job is a job is a job.” You look forward to finding another occupation, living for weekends, or saying retirement can’t come soon enough.
Such feelings have a way of spilling over into other aspects of your life. There is apathy at home. There is distancing in relationships. You find yourself out of touch with old friends. You feel blah with God. There is an indifference toward ministry though you had been active. You avoid challenges. You pursue new diversions in the hope that they will bring you excitement. You find yourself saying, “Something isn’t quite right” but you are unable to identify anything in particular that should be done.
The good news is that burnout is not the last chapter. Out of the smoldering ashes, a fire can be re-lit as happened with Elijah. Let’s see how.
Lighting the Fire Again
Recognize the “time.” Begin with recognizing what “time” it is in your life. You can get in tune with your feelings. You can stop playing hide-and-seek and denying what is going on. You can become real honest with yourself. We see it in Elijah.
In verse 3, Elijah is running from Jezebel. Some interpreters understand his running away to mean he is scared to death of her. But why would the high-flying Elijah, fresh from a spectacular victory over the priests of Baal, suddenly become so absolutely terrified? It does not make sense that he is now running like a coward when he has experienced the awesome power of God in the destruction of 450 pagan priests on Mt. Carmel. It would seem more like a perfect opportunity for Elijah to take on Jezebel, to fight a new battle, and to be rid of that wicked woman once and for all. That’s how I would have responded after such a momentous encounter. “Next” would be my battle cry. That’s the way many of us have been conditioned. We naively believe we are invincible in every situation when we are actually very tired.
I don’t believe Elijah fled in fear of Jezebel’s threats. An alternate translation of verse 2 is “he rose and went for his soul.” Elijah recognized it was time to get away to recapture his soul which had begun to escape him in the midst of the pressure-packed circumstances he was living under.
Several years ago, burnout showed up at the University of Notre Dame in one of the most successful football coaches of all time, Ara Parseghian. In the course of one year, three close friends died, one daughter got married, and another was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Six players were dismissed from the college in a disciplinary action. What did Ara Parseghian do? He quit. Why? When asked, Parseghian reported: “I just need time to rejuvenate myself physically and emotionally. After twenty-five years as a head coach, I find myself physically and emotionally drained. This is certainly not an impulsive decision. I’ve been mulling this over in my head for some time now, and I finally decided at midseason that my health and the welfare of my family was more important than anything else.”
Parseghian recognized what time it was and he purposefully stepped away. So did Elijah. They both stepped away and went for their souls.
Rest. You and I too must recognize our time. When our body calendars tell us it is time to step away we must do it and then find rest.
In verses 5-8, we find Elijah resting. Exhausted and unable to go any further, Elijah sat down under a tree. Twice the bone-weary man fell asleep, only to be awakened by an angel. He desperately needed restoration and God demonstrated His love by providing food on two occasions. God never awakens you to disappoint you.
God said in Exodus 20:8-11 that we should work for six days and then take the seventh day off to rest. But do we? George Gallup did a poll and found it to be the most neglected and abused of the Ten Commandments. Someone said that Americans worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship. That collection of misplaced priorities can lead to the opposite of what is intended. Instead of restoration, the continued expenditure of energy creates an even greater weariness of spirit. The rhythms of life necessitate that we take the time to bring order to our inner worlds where God can speak and shape us.
This is one reason why worship is so valuable. The singing of hymns, the saying of prayers, the hearing of the Word, is what we need to rest our souls. God gave us the Sabbath primarily for rest, not for leisure, because it is only in Sabbath rest that our spirits are recalibrated with the Spirit of God.
But it is not enough for me to rest, to walk away from a busy schedule and the demands of others. Notice in verses 9-10 how Elijah rested and was able to travel for forty days to Horeb. However, he is still burned out. He is hiding in a cave when God confronts him with: “What are you doing here?” Elijah is feeling indispensible and paranoid. He is whining in self-pity. The rest God gave wasn’t enough to completely put this burned-out servant back on his feet. So what did God do? He spoke. But notice how.
Receive the Word. First God demonstrated His power through the wind, earthquakes and fires (vv. 11-12). You would think that these three outbreaks of power would be attention-grabbing enough ways for God to make sure He is being understood. But He doesn’t have to use these means. Rather, He may choose to speak quietly as He did with Elijah. Only as we are quiet long enough are we able to clearly hear what God is saying.
“Why bother?” you ask? Because I need to understand God’s purpose for my life. With so many conflicting voices calling for my attention, the voice of the one Elijah called “Lord God Almighty” needs to fall on my ears and enter into my heart. If I fail to hear that voice above all others, I will busy myself with many things and eventually wind up on the ash heap of life.
Early this morning I turned to the Psalms to hear the voice of the Lord Almighty. In Psalm 142, God spoke through King David:
I cry aloud to the Lord;
I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.
I pour out my complaint before him,
before him I tell my trouble.
When my spirit grows faint within me,
it is you who know my way.
There is such refreshment from the Word. Elijah received it as he stepped away from the action and he was revitalized. He was ready to go. But more than being ready, Elijah had been empowered to once again wage battle for Israel (vv. 15, 16).
This week, be attentive to the restorative, life-giving voice of heaven. May it give direction to your mind, provide warmth for your soul, and light for all who are traveling down life’s darker pathways. (JVT)
4th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 2, 1995
(Galatians 5:13-25, focus v. 22)
Billy Sunday used to tell his revival audiences, “If there’s not joy in your religion, there’s a leak in your Christianity somewhere.” Taken at face value, that statement would seem to indicate that if we were ships instead of Christians, many of us would sink!
Could any of us doubt that a shortage exists of this precious commodity: joy? But even if we admit that a shortage does exist, what can we do about it? I want to try to help us to realize what Christian joy is, and how to begin claiming it for our lives.
We need to remember that this Christian joy is not simple happiness or pleasure. Pleasure comes from things outside of ourselves, through our senses — from a cool drink on a hot afternoon to the sound of our favorite song. But there is nothing distinctively Christian about that. In fact, pleasures are often anything but Christian.
One of the marks of our own culture is that it’s made for pleasure. But how long do such pleasures last? I stood on my back porch last July 4th and watched the fireworks display downtown. Great colorful balloons of light etched the sky, but dwindled to nothing in seconds. The poet Robert Burns captured the fleeting nature of pleasures when he wrote:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white — then gone forever.
Is that the fruit of the Spirit of God? No, the fruit of the Spirit is joy, not mere pleasure. What, then, is joy?
I. Joy is an ever-deepening relationship with God.
Here is the crucial difference between pleasure and joy. The psalmist knew the difference when he wrote of God, “You have changed my sadness into joyful dance; you have taken away my sorrow and surrounded me with joy” (Ps. 30:11).
The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, “May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord. I say it again: rejoice!” (4:4).
Joseph Marmion said that “Joy is the echo of God’s life within us.” Sound is to an echo what our relationship to God is to our joy.
If we think of faith as unshakable trust in God, then we can easily see that faith is the foundation of joy. Paul wrote to the Roman Christians and said, “May God … fill you with all joy and peace by means of your faith in him …” (15:13). Really believing in God produces a wellspring of joy that cannot run dry.
II. Joy is related to other Christians.
The Greek word for joy comes from the same root as grace. They both carry the idea of generosity and love. For life to be joyful, it must be lived according to love. You see, this keeps joy from being just some pious concept or, worse, a grounds for spiritual conceit. Joy always results in an open relation to others.
Robert Browning said, “Desire joy, and thank God for it. Renounce it, if need be, for others’ sake. There’s joy beyond joy.” It’s the creative, celebrative element of life which gives itself away, in contagious thrusts. “All who joy would win, must share it — Happiness was born a twin.”
III. Joy is independent of outward circumstances.
I have always been perplexed by Paul’s statements that he rejoiced even though he was persecuted. Either he was crazy, or else there is some greater truth beyond our safe, rational way of looking at life. Paul says, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
The opposite of joy isn’t sorrow, because sorrow is one of the built-ins of our faith. Jesus Himself was called “Man of Sorrows.” The opposite of joy is sin, failing to live up to the high calling of life itself.
Joy rises above circumstances because it is the condition of the mind in which our powers are absorbed in some creative task. Paul was completely immersed in doing God’s will. That is why even in prison he could speak of joy.
This fruit of the Spirit is like a handful of sand. The tighter we try to hold to it, the more it slips away from us. The only way to get it is to do God’s work, and accept the joy as a by-product. That is why joy is more than mere pleasure. It is the inner security and assurance which can take you into and through any crisis, and still come out victorious. Can you find even one cheap thrill which can do that?
IV. Joy is linked to the future.
The New Testament speaks of joy as being a window into the future; it is but a glimpse of what we are destined to experience. “Ask and you will receive,” said Jesus, “that your joy may be full” (John 16:34b). He foreshadowed life as it is to be in the Kingdom of God.
“This is all fine and good,” you may be saying, “but I don’t feel very joyful. How can I receive it?”
You can’t get joy by working at being joyful. Working at it is like working at going to sleep — you wake up instead. Someone has said that “Joy is a fruit that Americans eat green.” That is, we pluck it too early, before it ripens. To go clutching after it is to lose it. You must exercise your faith over adverse and trying circumstances. You must honor your commitment to God and His work and His people. You must quit being a loner, and join in with God’s church in doing His will. Then joy will find you.
A wise pastor of the past century said, “The joy of heaven will begin as soon as we attain the character of heaven, and do its duties” (Theodore Parker). That is how you get joy.
“The Christian life that is joyless is a discredit to God and a disgrace to itself,” said an unknown poet.
Let us accept this by-product of faith as a gift from God. It is the real fruit of the Spirit. Throw away your wax substitutes. (DMA)
5th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 9, 1995
Finding God’s Restoring Touch
(2 Kings 5:1-14)
This is one of those great Old Testament stories that lends itself to imaginative retelling. I particularly remember the title of one sermon on this text: “Seven Ducks in a Dirty Pond.” That doesn’t have much to do with the biblical text, but I’m sure it got the attention of those who read it!
Even without a flashy title, it’s a remarkable story. Here is a prominent military leader of a great power of his day, who has been stricken with leprosy. One of his wife’s servants was an Israelite girl who had been taken captive, and she tells about Elisha, the prophet who could cure Naaman.
As Naaman sets off to seek a cure, he discovers there is only one way to find God’s restoring touch.
I. Status Does Not Bring God’s Restoring Touch
Naaman was the “General Colin Powell” of his day. The military leader of one of the region’s most powerful nations, he was a definite candidate for Who’s Who in the World. He was among the elite of his day — but that did not protect him from the devastating disease of leprosy.
How many in our own day worship at the altar of status — seeking position, prestige, influence at all costs? Yet status is a fleeting thing, bringing momentary pleasure and then it is gone, without providing eternal satisfaction.
II. Wealth Does Not Bring God’s Restoring Touch
The cartoon character says, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy lots of other neat things!” In a materialistic culture like ours, where affluence is considered virtually synonymous with satisfaction, it’s easy to think that money and possessions are the prime goals of life.
Naaman certainly didn’t lack for material wealth. As he departed for Israel, he carried along quite a treasure (v. 5) — an amount worth tens of thousands of dollars, apparently to pay for his cure. The reference to ten changes of clothes had a similar purpose; it was common to use beautiful clothing as a gift to honor a guest or someone you wished to impress. So Naaman was prepared to buy his cure.
But Naaman went home with his money, because he learned that God’s restoring touch cannot be purchased.
How many in our own day have learned the same thing? Kurt Cobain was a young man of great wealth and influence — due to his success as a recording and concert star — but instead of leading to satisfaction, it led to drugs and ultimately suicide. Wealth and status do not bring God’s restoring touch.
III. Expectations Do Not Bring God’s Restoring Touch
One of the most interesting things about this story is that Naaman had no question in his mind that Elisha was capable of healing his leprosy. Of course, what he expected was for the prophet to produce a great spectacle — maybe he thought there should be lightning and thunder, or at least some fire and smoke! In fact, when Elisha didn’t perform to Naaman’s expectations, the Syrian was furious (v. 11)!
Have you ever been disappointed because God didn’t act in a way that fit your expectations? You thought He should do something, stop something, produce something in a certain way — and it didn’t happen. That can be terribly frustrating.
Naaman had come all this way — important man that he was — prepared to pay big money for this healing, and he expected something to show for his trouble. And what did this foolish prophet ask him to do? Go to the filthy Jordan River and dip himself in it seven times! How absurd! It did not fit his expectations at all.
Then Naaman’s servant offers a subtle rebuke: “Master, if Elisha had asked you to build a bridge over the Jordan or a castle next to it, you wouldn’t have hestitated for a minute. Why do you refuse, then, this simple command?”
Naaman thought about that, realized it was true, and acted on Elisha’s counsel. That was when he discovered
IV. Faithful Obedience Brings God’s Restoring Touch
It was a simple act of obedience, but what a result! The destructive presence of leprosy was washed away, and Naaman’s skin was just like that of a little child — fresh, clean and whole. His faithful obedience had produced God’s restoring touch, and it transformed his life.
It’s often not the big things that give us trouble, but the little things — the day by day acts of faithful obedience to Christ — that make such a transforming difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Are you ready to be obedient to Christ in those little things today? (JMD)
6th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 16, 1995
Praise and Prayer for the Church
The apostle Paul ministered in the city of Ephesus for about three years. During that period, according to Acts 19:10, the good news of Jesus spread to all the cities and towns nearby. One of the cities near Ephesus was Colossae. Students of the New Testament usually surmise that it was during Paul’s Ephesian ministry that a man named Epaphras heard about Jesus and received Him as Lord and Savior. Then, so the story goes, he returned to his home town of Colossae. Paul lets us know that he had never been to Colossae (Col. 2:1). Later, perhaps around A.D. 60-65, Paul was put in prison in Rome, where the possibility of his execution was very real. While he was there his old friend from Colossae visited him in prison.
Epaphras brought Paul news of the progress of the churches in the area. When Epaphras gave Paul his report, he probably said something like, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the Christians in Colossae have experienced significant spiritual development since they first responded to the gospel of Jesus. The bad news is that some in the church are teaching false doctrine. They are telling people that in order to be enlightened spiritual people they should add the special knowledge of Greek philosophy, mystical and ascetical experiences, and legalism. Some people are believing them.”
When Paul heard words to that effect from Epaphras, he was both grateful and concerned — grateful for their progress in the faith, and concerned about the doctrinal deviations being taught by some. His response was to write a letter to the Christians in Colossae. Colossians is one of the letters in the New Testament that Paul wrote from jail.
Paul had never met these Christians to whom he wrote, but it is obvious from the letter that he loved them as brothers and sisters in Christ and he wanted to see them prosper. In this first section of the body of his letter he expressed praise and a prayer for them.
I. Paul praised the church (vv. 3-8).
Notice Paul’s choice of gratitude. By no means was the church at Colossae a perfect church; they had some serious problems. Yet Paul was grateful for these Christians. It was his practice to deal with the problems in the churches head-on and not to avoid them. On the other hand, he did not let what was wrong with something overshadow that which was right with it. His was a healthy, positive, realistic outlook. He found much for which he could express gratitude to God. He chose to be grateful.
In the church at Corinth, some were practicing immorality. Paul dealt with that, but it did not prevent him from giving thanks for the church in his letter to them. In Colossae there was the threat of heresy, and in Thessalonica some were not working, but just waiting for the Lord to return and letting others provide for them. Paul spoke out boldly on those issues, but still found some things for which he could thank God.
Paul’s practice of praise and gratitude to God provides a powerful and practical lesson for us. It is a lesson about attitude. Let me share two truths with you about developing the attitude of gratitude. First of all, you choose your attitude. If you put that idea to work consistently, it may just change your life. Some people live as if their attitude is determined by circumstances, not their own choice. If things are going well, their attitude is positive. If circumstances are bad, their attitude is negative. So whenever they have a bad attitude, they blame it on their circumstances or on something that someone else has done. But the truth is they have chosen their own attitude. Often we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our reaction to what happens.
The apostle Paul faced a lot of hardships, and a lot of people around him who should have known better did things that were wrong. Still, he chose to be grateful. If you have a critical, negative attitude, the only reason is that you have chosen it. Maybe you have a more melancholy personality; maybe you learned it from Momma or Daddy; but if you think that you cannot unchoose, or change, that negative attitude you are deluding yourself.
A woman was frantically trying to get her Christmas shopping finished. She had fought the crowds all day, and was exasperated. She bought something in one last store, had to wait in yet another long line, and was impatient with another desk clerk. As she and her little daughter were leaving the store, she said to her daughter, “Did you see the look that clerk gave me?” And the little girl innocently said, “Momma, he didn’t give you that look. You had it on your face when you went in.”
Another truth about developing this kind of attitude is that your attitude has the power to affect the quality of your relationships. Even though Paul had never met the Colossian Christians he was laying the foundation for a good relationship by telling them that he was grateful for them and regularly thanked God for them. No, they were not perfect and, yes, Paul was very concerned about the orthodoxy of their doctrine. But he did not overlook the fact that there were things for which he could be grateful, and he did not neglect to give thanks to God.
What a difference it makes in a marriage when husband and wife are grateful for one another in that way. It doesn’t mean that they are stupid, or that love has blinded them to the faults of the other person. It means that they have chosen gratitude as their attitude in spite of such faults. Furthermore, those faults will improve much more quickly in an atmosphere of thankfulness. If you don’t let your spouse know that you are grateful for his or her good qualities, you aren’t giving much incentive for him or her to develop more good qualities.
The same is true in churches. Sometimes the reason pastors and people don’t get along is that one of us has found out that the other is not perfect, and we neglect to be grateful for the things that are right. And how many employees today are frustrated with their jobs because it has been so long since the boss said “Thank you for a job well done”? Your attitude has the power to affect the quality of your relationships.
We have talked about Paul’s choice of gratitude. Let’s look at the cause of gratitude. Some good things were happening in the lives of the believers that caused Paul to be grateful. In verse 4 he mentions their “faith in Christ Jesus.” The church may have had its problems, but Epaphras told Paul that the Christians there had faith in Jesus. Paul was grateful for that. He recognized it as a gift from the Lord, so he told the Colossians, “I regularly thank the Lord for your faith in Christ Jesus.”
Faith is a wonderful thing but, when you think about it, faith is only as good as the object of our faith. In his letter to the Colossian Christians Paul argued that the only Person worthy of our complete faith and trust is Jesus the Messiah. This letter is Christocentric — Jesus is the focus. Today, people are putting their faith in all kinds of false ideas that offer no life or hope. That is all the more reason to be thankful when we see someone with faith in Jesus.
A second cause for Paul’s gratitude was “the love which you have for all the saints” (v. 4). Epaphras thought that the love he had observed among the Christians in Colossae was worthy of mention to Paul. Paul remembered what he heard about their love, and he thanked God for it. Notice also that this love was for all the saints. They were not only loving those who were continuing to grow in the faith, or those who were the most lovable. Apparently in that church the kind of fellowship existed in which every person was loved. In human organizations usually there are cliques that love some people, but not others. But in the church it is not to be so, and when in a church it can be accurately said that there is love “for all the saints,” it is a wonderful thing indeed. And, as Paul was, we ought to be grateful for it.
A third cause of Paul’s praise for this church is “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v. 5). In other words these Christians believed in the promises of Christ concerning heaven. That gave them hope for their future beyond the grave, and Paul expressed thanks to God for that.
II. Paul prayed for the church.
Not only did Paul give thanks in prayer for the Christians in Colossae, his prayer included thanksgiving to God for these believers and petition on their behalf. In fact, he told them, “Since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you” (v. 9).
It is remarkable how often Paul mentioned in his letters that he was praying for fellow Christians. He may have had a written prayer list with the names of individuals and churches for which he was praying. Considering the conditions in which he lived and traveled, however, he may have kept the list only in his memory. Whatever the case, obviously Paul spent a lot of time in prayer and a large proportion of that prayer time was devoted to praying for fellow-believers, some of whom he had never even met.
No wonder Paul’s life and ministry was so blessed by God. No wonder the first churches grew so rapidly in number and in spiritual maturity. God was at work in the lives of people in answer to prayer. Many Christians do not realize that prayer is the fuel that moves the church forward. They think it is money, or people, or the pastor, because that’s what they see. What they do not see is the invisible but powerful hand of the Lord God Almighty and all His angelic hosts working in lives in answer to prayer. If we want to move forward as a church, every one of us ought to get on our knees and stay there.
You and I had better wake up to the fact that there is an unseen spiritual realm that affects us. The Bible makes it plain that in that realm warfare is being waged. The power of our adversary is no match for the power of Christ, but when we do not pray we do not even show up for the battle. Many battles are lost because of the lack of prayer, because in the strength of the flesh we are no match for the forces of wickedness in high places. We must realize that prayer gives us access to God’s unlimited power. When we rely on the pastor we get what he can do. When we look to deacons we get what they can do. But when we pray we get what God can do.
As you pray for fellow believers it will help you to know what to pray for and how to pray. I don’t think we can improve on Paul’s prayer for the Colossians. Sometimes when I pray for someone I pray through one of these scriptural prayers for the saints. Look at what Paul prayed for: deeper spiritual knowledge and wisdom, a life that is pleasing to the Lord, a fruit-bearing life, growth in the knowledge of God, spiritual Strength, greater endurance and patience, and a joyful attitude. Let us not fail to seek such characteristics in our own lives, and let us not fail to pray that fellow believers would seek them also. (NAM)
7th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 23, 1995
Being Left Out of the Parade
Ever since the first Easter Day, every day can have its parade. Everyday hassles and hurts can be overcome by the knowledge that we are ultimately saved from them all.
Sadly, some folks never join the parade. Their lives are ho-hums. They owe; they owe; it’s off to work they go. They’ve never smelled a rose, stood to watch a sunset, or taken the time to invite the Son to rise in their lives. Though hungry for happiness, they don’t take the time for life in Him.
They’re miserable. You may know someone like them.
Earl and Pearl quickly come to mind. They remain among the most down-in-the-mouth, sour-pussed, serious, sober, humorless, church-going-without-figuring-out-that- it’s-supposed-to-be-good-news people who I’ve ever known. I’m not exaggerating. I know you know the kind.
Earl was one of those guys who just don’t make your day. Hearing that Earl was on the way to see me made me feel like the next feature on Inside Edition or 60 Minutes. Earl had nothing better to do than bug me. His only hobby was telling me and everybody else who would listen that he — unlike me and everybody else — knew the answers to all of the questions. Whatever anybody else said or did, he could say or do it better.
I’ll never forget one especially difficult moment when he asked why in a sermon I had referred to shepherds as ne’er-do-wells. “Because,” I said, “they were on the bottom of the socioeconomic class system of Israel.” I went on to say the shepherds were among the first to see the baby Jesus, to show God’s love for everybody regardless of who, what, where, or when. Earl kept arguing with me about it. Then I said, “I can’t change the fact of the shepherd’s status in the first century.” Finally he made his point: “You should spend more time talking about how noble shepherds were.” He told me that his last name was a Scottish word for shepherd.
Sometimes we miss the forest because of the trees.
Except for being a girl, Pearl was a lot like Earl. When we first met, she said, “I don’t like your beard.” God knows why some people assume they can say anything to a pastor. (I suppose we’re paid to be abused, but I still don’t like it. I’ve learned it comes with the turf.) Because I really believe we’re supposed to treat others as we’d like to be treated, I don’t go around saying things like, “Are you sure you’re not related to Charles Manson?”
After a little probing I discovered that Pearl’s son had a beard. I also discovered that she and her son didn’t get along. Seeing my beard, she thought of her son; and whenever she thought of her son, she felt bad. She said my beard got in the way of her enjoyment of worship because she was always thinking about her son.
Trying to endear myself to her, I said I’d shave off my beard if that would help her to worship God. “If that’s what you want,” I kept repeating in what I thought was an excellent bit of rhetoric, “I’ll do it.” Of course I didn’t mean it. She did. So I shaved off my beard.
When she approached me the following Sunday after worship, I anticipated a warm greeting with a few gushes of syrupy thanks for shaving off my beard. Instead, she took my hand, tilted her head, squinted, and said, “Now about your mustache.”
I learned some very valuable lessons from Earl the pearl and Pearl who was a lot like Earl. First, I don’t ask people what they think of my beard. Second, you can’t make everybody happy no matter how hard you try. Third and most important, the best I can do as a pastor is point people to Somebody who can make them happy. The best I can do is to point people to Jesus.
Though it’s hard to tell with some folks, people are hungry for happiness. People don’t want to be left out of the parade. They want to be happy, whole, joyful, and secure. That hunger can be satisfied through a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus.
That’s what our Lord was trying to explain to Martha and Mary of Bethany. Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus were our Lord’s friends. Living in Bethany, which was just east of Jerusalem beyond the Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives, it was not uncommon for Martha and Mary to host Jesus.
During this particular visit, Jesus came in and “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said.” Martha, on the other hand, “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” I guess that means she was doing the hostess bit — cleaning, cooking, and all the rest. But it wasn’t too long before Martha blurted out, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
It was a natural reaction. Martha was stuck in the rut of her routine and wanted her sister to stick around too. Instead of doing important things like the dishes, Mary was sitting with Jesus and soaking up everything He said.
Doesn’t that last sentence sound a little absurd? It is absurd because being with Jesus is more important than anything else.
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Paraphrasing the text, our Lord was saying, “Chill out and concentrate on what’s really important.”
I. Chill Out
Jesus used a double address — Martha, Martha — to emphasize his lave for Martha and sorrow for her obsession with a routine that got in the way of her relationship with Him. “Jesus did not condemn Martha’s work,” wrote J. C. Connell (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1975), “but her excessive attention to material provision, which disturbed her peace of mind.” Or as Matthew Henry noted in his commentary on this text back in 1721: “She was troubled about many things, when she should have applied herself to one…. The many things she was troubled about were needless, while the one thing she neglected was needful.”
Jesus was saying: “Be still. Relax. Smell the roses. Watch a sunset. Chill out.”
II. Concentrate on Your Relationship with Jesus
“Chill out,” our Lord essentially said, “because only one thing is needed.” That one thing is a personal relationship with God through Him. Being with Jesus satisfies our hunger for happiness.
I have two friends who are terribly frustrated by the demands of their ministries. They have told me there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done. So I told them to forget about it! “If you can’t do it all,” I said, “don’t worry about it.” I suggested more time with the Lord, their wives, family, and playing.
That’s exactly what Jesus told Martha. He told her that happiness isn’t found in routines but in relationships — beginning with a personal relationship with God through Him. “You are worried and upset about many things,” our Lord told Martha, “but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” The better way — the only thing that is needed — is to join Mary at the feet of Jesus. Being with Jesus satisfies our hunger for happiness, wholeness, joy, and security.
“My frustrated, confused friend,” wrote J. Vernon McGee (Luke, 1991), “are you at that corner of life where you do not know which way to turn? Then, for goodness’ sake, sit down. Sit at Jesus’ feet. Look in His Word and see what He has to say. It will help you with your housework. It will make you a better dishwasher. It will help you sweep the floors cleaner. You will dig a better ditch, mow a better lawn, study your lesson better. Your work at the office will be easier, and you will be able to drive your car safer. Just take time to sit at the feet of Jesus. Mary chose the best part.”
One more thing. Earl passed away a few years ago. Not long after he died. I had a dream about him, a dream about Earl in heaven. He looked at me and smiled.
Whether it’s Earl, Pearl, Martha, Mary, the people along the parade route two thousand years ago, you or me, only one thing is needed: Jesus! (RRK)
8th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 30, 1995
Complete in Christ
The religious heritage of Japan and some other Asian countries is not monotheistic. People may consider themselves Buddhists and attend Shinto temples to pray for their child, and many plan their weddings in accord with Christian traditions. Differing religions and conflicting gods are commingled as if one could be an adherent of several religions at the same time. In that setting, some people who are interested in becoming Christians also want to retain their allegiance to another god or religion.
That, of course, is impossible because of who Jesus is. He never claimed to be merely an outstanding teacher of morality or just an extraordinarily good man, or prophet. He claimed to be God Himself in human flesh, and that claim is reiterated throughout the New Testament, including the passage before us. The claim also has been verified by His resurrection from the dead and by the lives of millions of Christians who have received and had personal relationships with Him.
The fact that Jesus is God Himself calls for total allegiance to Him only, and it sets Christianity apart from the other religions of the world.
People in the twentieth century are not unique in not understanding the exclusivity of faith in Jesus Christ. From the words of Paul that we have read, it is clear that Colossian people in the first century had not fully come to terms with it either. Some people in Colossae wanted to have Christ in their lives but they felt He was not enough. They were trying to add some philosophies from the traditions of men to what God had done in Christ. They were attracted by these ideas, not realizing that they had all they needed in Christ. To these people Paul wrote, “In Him you have been made complete” (v. 10).
William Randolph Hearst, the famed newspaper publisher, was a very wealthy man. During his lifetime he invested a fortune in collecting great works of art. One day he read about some valuable pieces of art and decided he had to add them to his collection. He sent his agent abroad to locate and purchase them. Months went by before the agent returned and reported to Hearst that the items had at last been found — they were stored in Hearst’s own warehouse; he had purchased them years before.
A Christian on a search for spiritual fulfillment and spiritual resources is a person looking for something that he or she already has. When a person has Jesus Christ in his or her life, nothing of spiritual value is lacking — that is the message of these verses.
In his second letter, Peter wrote of Jesus, saying, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (1 Pet. 1:3). Paul wrote that Jesus has become in us “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). And in Ephesians Paul wrote that in Christ we are blessed “with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3).
In light of that, doesn’t it seem odd that 12 percent of churchgoers and 11 percent of those who read the Bible regularly say they believe in the accuracy of astrology forecasts? Doesn’t it seem unnecessary, and even bizarre, that so many who call themselves Christians are so attracted to the spiritual chicanery of the New Age movement? How ludicrous that someone who has everything in Christ Jesus could be tricked by the bogus claims of “channelers” or by the phony baloney of things like crystal power and astral projection. How sad and spiritually sick that someone who has abundance of life in Jesus would seek for the cheap thrills that materialistic greed can provide, or for the momentary rush of sexual sin.
Those who would do so simply have not taken inventory in their spiritual warehouse. If they have Christ, they have everything; to search for something more is to search for something they already have. In the words of verse 10: “In Him you have been made complete.”
What reasons did Paul give to support his claim that a person has everything when he or she has Christ?
I. Christianity offers the only way to be clean from past sin.
Look at verses 13 and 14 again. “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate o debt consisting of decrees against us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” The Bible says that if we have not received Christ and His forgiveness, then we are in a condition of spiritual death. Why? Because we are separated from God, and only He can make our spirits alive. Without Him we are empty, incomplete, and full of sin. But when Christ comes into our lives at our invitation, He gives us life — abundant life and eternal life — and this life is a free gift. In order to make us new He forgives our sin.
Most religions of the world have some kind of moral code: some things are said to be wrong and some things are said to be right. But what if we try to live by that moral code and fail? The truth is that all of us have failed morally in some way. The Bible says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). When we fail, does it really matter? Do we just shrug it off and try to do better next time? Do we merely accept our imperfections and mistakes as the will of Allah? Do we conclude that such failures do not matter much in this life, but they will affect the form of our next reincarnation?
The word of God teaches that there is a God who is personal and perfectly holy. Our sin is an offense to His holiness. He loves us, but He hates our sin. Because He desires a pesonal relationship with every person, He has provided the means whereby our sin may be taken away or forgiven. God cannot overlook it or pretend it is not there. He cannot change His code of right or wrong. But He has provided a sacrifice for our sin. Sin must be punished by the one true holy God, and it was punished when Christ died on the cross for our sins. My sin and your sin was placed on Jesus when He died. He took the penalty for our sin. He died our death so that we could experience a relationship with the heavenly Father that is unhindered by sin.
When we invite Christ into our lives, He comes in and forgives our sin. Verse 14 says that He cancels the debt of our sin, takes it away, and nails it to the cross. If you have Jesus you can be as clean as if you had not sinned, because He has taken your sin away. If it’s on the cross, it’s not on you anymore. He has taken it away and nailed it there.
Christianity offers the only way to be clean from past sin. Wouldn’t you like to be clean before God?
II. Christianity has to do with facts, not theory.
Paul wrote about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (v. 12). Jesus was killed on the cross. There were many witnesses to His death. His body was placed in a tomb and the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers. Yet, on a Sunday morning, He rose from the tomb alive and appeared before many witnesses. That is not merely a theory or a hope that Christians have; it is historical fact. The Jewish leaders of the first century would have loved to prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead. All they had to do was to present the dead body of Jesus as evidence. But they did not, and could not, because He had been resurrected.
Christianity is based on these facts. If Jesus really lived a sinless life, healed and taught miraculously, died for our sins on the cross, and rose from the dead, He is worthy to be worshiped and followed. There is no need to add another theory or philosophy. He is real, He is alive, He is personal, and He will fill our lives and guide us. What is keeping you from becoming a committed follower of Jesus today?
Christianity has to do with facts, not theory. Christianity offers the only way to be clean from past sin.
III. Christianity is Christ, who is Head over all things.
In verse 10 Paul wrote, “He is head over all rule and authority.” And in verse 9 he wrote that “In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” There is nothing of God that is missing in Jesus. When we have Jesus we have everything there is to have of God.
The central focus of Christianity is not an idea, not a list of rules, and not an organization. Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who is God the Son. No one can claim to be a Christian merely because they believe in or live by certain Christian ideals, or because they like Christians better than non-Christians, or even because they are members of a church. The only way to begin to be a Christian is to begin a relationship with the Person who is named Jesus.
Christianity is all about Him. Look at the number of times He is mentioned in this passage. “In Him you have been made complete” (v. 10). “In Him you were also circumcised” (p. 11). “Buried with Him in baptism (v. 12). “Raised up with Him” (v. 12). “He made you alive together with Him” (v. 13).
If you have studied the history of philosophy, you know that it is the history of one discarded theory after another. Every philosophy and every religion has been searching for that which can be found only in Jesus Christ. We must give up our independent search for something that is conjured up by the human mind, and submit to what Almighty God has revealed in Christ. If you have yet to do that for the first time, why not do it now? If you are a Christian, use this opportunity to renew your commitment to Christ above all, in whom you are complete. (NAM)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Kenneth L. Chafin, Retired Pastor, Walnut Street Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; John A. Huffman, Jr., Pastor, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA; John V. Tornfelt; Don M. Aycock, Editor, Special Projects, SBC Brotherhood Commission, Memphis, TN; N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC; Robert R. Kopp, Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.