9th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 1, 1993
Rejecting the Promise
The greatest pain is usually caused by those we love the most, particularly family. Nothing can be more hurtful and leave more lasting scars than a family conflict.
For Paul, one of the great pains of his life was the realization that his beloved nation of Israel — his own people, his family — was unwilling to respond to the Good News of God’s love in Christ Jesus. This so distressed Paul that he would have been willing to lose his own salvation — to be anathema, cut off from Christ — if doing so could somehow cause the salvation of Israel.
What a contrast to the experience of most of us in the church today. We seem unwilling to cross the street to share our faith, much less sacrifice everything so that others might come to know Christ. When was the last time you and I shed tears or lost a moment of sleep over the lost condition of a family member, friend, anyone?
For Paul, Israel’s rejection of Christ was particularly tragic because of all the advantages the nation had in its preparation for and ability to respond to God’s Messiah.
I. They Had the Advantage of Relationship
Israel was not like the other nations of the world. Centuries before God had established a special and unique relationship with them as His “chosen people.” Israel was to be the nation through which God would reveal Himself, share His Word through the prophets, and bring salvation through His Messiah. Israel was uniquely positioned to be at the center of God’s work through Christ.
Indeed, God had adopted Israel as His children; they were His family. They had every advantage of relationship, yet they refused to recognize Jesus as Messiah, and thus lost their central place in God’s drama of redemption.
The same thing can happen within Christ’s body, the church. There are those who grow up within the family; as children they are taught the truths of Scripture, and perhaps become members of the church. Yet for them, it never becomes a personal commitment; they depend on the faith of Mom and Dad, of family and friends, without ever making that faith their own through responding to the claims of Christ in their own lives. Like Israel, they have the advantage of relationship but fail to act on their own — with tragic consequences.
It isn’t enough to be connected to the family of faith; faith must become a personal issue through an act of your own will.
II. They Had the Advantage of Knowledge
Paul goes on to point out that his people were blessed by God with knowledge of His work among them in several ways: through the divine glory or presence; through the covenants God had made with Israel; through the law; and through the worship in the temple.
Israel had a history of God’s work in their midst. One of the evidences Paul mentions is the law, or the written revelation of God’s will for His people. The law gave the people unity and a sense of their unique place in God’s will and work. Through the law, they had far more knowledge of God than their Gentile neighbors — a point of great pride for many.
Yet their possession of the law became a point of pride rather than a step of preparation to receive the Messiah. The law was given to demonstrate our utter inability to satisfy God’s demands through our own efforts; the law showed how great is our need of a Savior. Yet the people of Israel could not see beyond the written law to God’s greater purpose in Christ.
We also have knowledge of God through His written Word, don’t we? We can study it, analyze it, exegete it, and claim to honor it — but it is all meaningless unless we act on it. The Bible is not given for its sake, but to draw us to the Savior who is revealed in its pages.
III. They had the Advantage of God’s Promise
God promised His people a great future if they would be faithful to Him. Beginning with Abraham, continuing through the patriarchs and then the prophets, God offered a vision of a new kingdom.
Those promises found their culmination in Jesus Christ, who willingly took on our sins and paid the price that we might experience that glorious new relationship with God. Yet most of Paul’s brothers and sisters refused to see what God was doing; they clung to the promises, and failed to recognize that those promises had been fulfilled in their very midst — perhaps they failed because God didn’t fulfill those promises in the way they expected.
It’s so easy to miss what God is doing among us because He’s not working in the way or through the people we expect.
Still, God has also offered a promise to you and me. He has promised us forgiveness of sin, new direction and purpose in life, and an eternity of fellowship with Him — if we are willing to place our trust and faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Like an unwrapped present remaining under the Christmas tree, the promise doesn’t truly become ours until we unwrap it and claim it for ourselves. The promise is there for you; are you willing to claim it? (JMD)
10th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 8, 1993
Why Did You Doubt?
This story from Matthew’s gospel is a part of a much larger story which includes the temptation of grasping for power and making a play for control. Jesus has just left His hometown where He was powerless to do anything because they could not see Him as anything but that “strange little kid from down the block.” They knew Him as Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph, but they could not see beyond that to recognize the nearness and presence of God. Surely there was the temptation to do something dramatic to show them — to display His power in some magnificent way.
Then comes the story of the death of John the Baptist and John’s disciples turning their eyes upon Jesus. They wonder what He is to do. And Jesus is tempted. He withdraws to the mountain but the crowd will not leave. They follow after Him. He is filled with compassion and feeds them with the loaves and fishes. And yet all they see is that He has powers they can use. They urge him to pick up the mantle of leadership. They start chanting “Jesus is King.” They want Him to grab political and military power. The crowd urges Jesus to exploit the emotional situation of anger and hatred provoked by the death of John the Baptist.
Jesus may have faced this same temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry, but it has now returned. His own village did not see Him as the servant of God; now He could grasp this power of leadership and show them and help those who were in need of a leader. The sheep needed a shepherd.
Temptations for most of us are never finished. They simply depart to return another day. So Jesus is face-to-face with the temptation to grab for the power on the basis of meeting physical needs and wishes. He withdraws to the mountain for prayer and devotion. He sends His disciples off and they get into the boat obediently and faithfully. They sail off, only to discover the waves and the storm and the darkness.
Both stories — Jesus’ own troubles and the troubles of His disciples — are evidence that pain, temptation, suffering, worry, fear, anxiety, storms, and crises of life do not always come because of lack of faith or as the result of doing evil. We need to be reminded of that time after time. It is so easy for us to assume that where storms and suffering and pain arise, there has been some violation or abuse of God’s will or purpose.
The temptations to grab power, the pains of obedience, the discouragements of the heart, the frustrations of accomplishment, the pains, and the storms are not always the result of our folly, our failures, or our lack of faith. Much that comes simply demands of us the ability to hold on as best we can.
We are not left without help in how to hang on. In the face of His own temptations, Jesus withdrew to the mountain to pray. It is fascinating to notice that in the Scriptures “mountain” is not so much a geographical location as it is a theologital location. The mountain is a place where God and man may talk; the mountain is the place where each of us can encounter the peace and power and hope of God; the mountain is our place of communion with God’s love.
There comes a time when each of us in our struggles — to hold on, to hang in there, to remain faithful — need to go to the mountain in prayer and commune with God. Bob Dylan has Frankie Lee say to Judas Priest, “Would you please not stare at me like that, it is just my foolish pride, but sometimes a man must be alone and this is no place to hide.” Sometimes a person has to be alone in prayer and communion.
For those of us in the boat there is this witness, that as we struggle to hang on we will be met by a miracle of God’s grace and power. When we are in the struggle to hold on, when we are without hope, then we are met by the power and presence of God. When that power and peace and purpose comes we may even be terrified by it, for the disciples saw Jesus as a ghost who comes only to make matters worse. Yet the power of God comes and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves and brings us through the troubled waters. Simon and Garfunkel may talk about love being the bridge over troubled waters, but the promise of God in the cross of Christ is that God will take us through the storm-tossed seas.
Down through the years the miracle has been the same. The dullness, the despair, the discouragement, and the fear has been lifted from our eyes by some event and, in the moment when our eyes are clear and our ears are open, we are made aware and convinced of the power and presence of God in our lives. And that power and presence of God has made us able to be better, stronger, braver, kinder, and more loving than we could ever have been if left to our own devices. The good news of the gospel story is that, like the disciples in the boat, Jesus knows we are fearful, frightened, and troubled people who cannot or will not find our way out of our struggles. So the Christ comes to us, not with the assertion that we are violent, fearful, frightened people, but with the invitation to come out of our boat and follow Christ. There is no judgment; only the invitation to be transformed into a people more significant, more powerful, more able to rise above the storms than we ever could have done on our own.
Storms come to all, even to those who are faithful and obedient, and our task is often to escape as best we can. We find strength for the struggle by withdrawing to the mountain, and we are sustained by the faith that where our boats are so little and the waves so great, we will encounter the presence and power of God and He will see us through the storm. (RB)
11th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 15, 1993
Crumbs of Love
At the conclusion of a very tense play-off round between the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons, Isaiah Thomas — a black star basketball guard of the Pistons — said in anger and disappointment that Larry Bird –the white star forward of the Celtics — was a good ball-player, but if he were black he would be just another ordinary journeyman player in the NBA.
As you can imagine, the media jumped on that statement and the controversy raged for several weeks. When Thomas saw that the controversy was not going to go away, he and Brent Musburger — a television broadcaster — talked at half-time of the Laker-Celtic championship game. Thomas spent the whole time saying what a kidder he was; that everybody knew he was a jokester; and that the remark about Bird was made tongue-in-cheek — it was a joke. Thus the harshness of Thomas’ words was being removed by explaining the statement as a joke.
Thomas is in great company, for the commentaries on this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman do the same thing. The scholars try to take the rudeness out of Jesus’ words by suggesting that Jesus is joking with her. William Barclay comments, “The tone and look with which a thing is said makes all the difference. A thing which seems hard can be said with a disarming smile. We can call a friend “an old villain” or “a rascal” with a smile and tone which takes all the sting out of it and fills it with affection. We can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in His eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness.” W. C. Allen, who wrote the International Critical Commentary on Matthew, writes: “We may be sure that a half-humorous tenderness of manner would deprive them of all their sting.”
Jesus’ harsh and biting words — “It is not good to take the children’s bread and to cast it to the dogs” — are watered-down by our scholarship — Jesus could not have meant what He said. The commentary writers all rush to rescue Jesus from negative publicity by saying these words were said in jest, that a smile and an “elbow in the ribs” must have lightened the weight of these words.
It is a shame that our scholars do not trust their Jesus. Perhaps Jesus knew exactly what He was doing when He said rough and hard things to this woman. Sometimes the truth is not gentle or kind. At the least we ought to attempt to understand the story as it is before we start trying to change its thrust. As it is, it is possible for this story to be good news.
For the only time in His ministry Jesus goes outside Jewish territory; he goes into the region of Tyre and Sidon, and there He is confronted with a plea for help: a woman’s daughter is dying. Jesus is there confronted with the terrible question of whether there is a limit to God’s power to help. Is God’s grace, love, and power available to everybody, or is there a limit to His love and mercy? Are some people excluded? Can pagans, Gentiles, Samaritans, and others receive and benefit from the mercy and grace of God for which they have not been preparing? The Jewish people had been waiting for God to come for ages; the Gentiles had not been longing or hoping for His coming. We have seen what happens to countries where democracy is installed and the people are not prepared by education and economic realities for democracy — it fails. Can the love of God be effective for those who have no history of living, worshipping, and waiting for the One Holy God?
This woman was likely a Gentile who worshipped a variety of gods rather than one sovereign God. In the pagan world were lots of gods who did not care about her and whom she did not have to love to obey. The pagan culture taught only how to appease, sacrifice, and manipulate the heavenly powers. It was a world of fertility gods, war gods, love goddesses, moon goddesses, and a host of minor goddesses and demons. It was a jungle of passions and loyalties. How could Jesus give anything that would be received correctly by that woman? Was there a limit to God’s grace?
We are fast discovering that it is only in those societies and cultures where there is One Creator Lord that there can be any absolute value to us as individuals. It is only when we have some vision of a new heaven and a new earth that we have some ethical standards. It is only when we are endowed by our Creator with rights that we may talk about equality of individuals. Apart from the dignity, worth, and value of individuals given by God, all other standards of evaluation are relative standards, conditional values, limited worths.
How could the bread that was given to those who had been following and worshipping God ever since Abraham be nourishing for one who had grown up on such a different religious diet? It is not right to take bread prepared for a salt-free diet and give it to one who needs salt. Jesus knew that this kingdom of God had been sent to the children of Israel, for those who had been hungering and thirsting for the Messiah for generations. The Kingdom of God, He knew, is for those who have been waiting, waiting, watching and hoping for years — like Simeon and Anna. It is the gift of God to those who from the days of King David have been waiting and hoping for the coming of David’s son. Is this bread of life really broken for all, or is it limited only to those who have been waiting for it?
Jesus says “Yes, there is a limit to this bread.” Jesus says I cannot take this bread out of the mouths of those who have been waiting for it and give it away carelessly to one who just shows up at the table. No matter how you try to say it, a limit always sounds harsh. When you say that the legal age for drinking is 21, those who are 20, 19 or 18 years of age will not be happy; they will think the limit is cruel and arbitrary. Every time a teacher says an A is for those who earn an average grade between 95 and 100, those who make an average grade of 94 and less think the limit is mean and legalistic. Where a stockbroker firm tries to tell us that there are no boundaries, for us to say there are limits seems to be pessimistic, defeatist, cruel, and not very loving.
Jesus’s response to this woman’s plea for help is, “I cannot take that which has been sent to those who have been hungering and thirsting after God’s righteousness and just give it to everybody.” There is a limit to God’s grace, and limits always sound cruel and callous. The limit is that God’s love can come only to those who are waiting for it.
I don’t really know what that woman felt when she heard Jesus’ choice of words. I do know that in the story Matthew does not report any signs of indignation. She does not walk away like the rich young ruler. She does not seem upset. She simply says to Jesus that there are others who, like the family dogs, have been sitting, begging, waiting under the table for whatever crumbs might fall. She is bold enough to say that she has been waiting, hoping, watching, longing for the coming of the grace of God — the way dogs circle the floor under the table looking for scraps and spills. If God’s love is coming to those who wait for it, do not think that only those in the family are waiting; there are others — yes, like the dogs under the table — who wait for a few crumbs.
Jesus is in awe of her faith. He says, “O woman, great is your faith, be it to you as you want. And her daughter was healed from that hour.”
Jesus suggests that there are limits to God’s grace and mercy. God cannot give forgiveness to those who have no sense of guilt and do not think they need redemption. God cannot give love to a person who does not want to be loved. God cannot give strength, comfort, encouragement, and peace to one who refuses to admit the need for strength, who will not admit a weakness. God cannot give hope to those who are satisfied with what they now have. God has no way to give faith to those who will trust no one but themselves.
There are limits to the power and love of God. God’s kingdom cannot be established in every heart and so it will not be built in all places. That will always sound unloving and ungracious to God. It will sound harsh and discriminatory, but we ought not to try to make it sound like a joke. Not even God can give bread to one who will not take it. Not even God will make a person drink of living water if she does not feel a thirst. Even God will not force reconciliation where no reconciliation is wanted. God will not make whole and better than new that which no one will confess is broken. A saviour is worthless to those who have no desire to be saved.
But there is also the good news that Christ has come in joy and gladness to all those who wait, long, know, watch and are ready to be made whole by the love and power of God. Those who wait at the table as guests and those who wait under the table as dogs — God comes to all who are watching and waiting the coming of God’s power to change and redeem us.
It always worries me when I see someone trying to rescue Jesus from an embarrassing moment, trying to make Him look better to our expectations, trying to take the sting out of His sayings, trying to make Him more comfortable with our vision of the world. We are not sent to make Jesus over to fit our ideas of niceness, politeness, and interpersonal relationships. God comes to those who wait for Him to make us over by grace into His likeness and into His glory. Love, even crumbs of love, come where love is awaited. (RB)
12th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 22, 1993
Offering Ourselves to God
I think most of us understand the idea of making an offering when we go to church. There are the plates, there are the envelopes, and we put our money or our check in an envelope and lay it in the plate. It represents an acknowledgement of God’s blessings in our lives; it represents our commitment to the ministry of the congregation; it is a part of our worship; it’s a way in which we open up the windows of heaven so God can bless us even further; it represents for many an antidote to materialism. While a few of you could use some encouragement, most of you understand what it means to you to make an offering to the church. But all of us without exception need some help with the idea of offering ourselves to God.
We can’t put ourselves in an envelope. Remember how literalistic Nicodemus was? When Jesus said, “You must be born again,” Nicodemus asked, “Can I enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born?” When the usher passes the plate, we cannot climb into the plate and say, “My offering to God today is myself”; the very idea takes preparation.
Most of us did not come into this sanctuary prepared to turn our whole selves over to God. We brought with us sins that need confessing and for which we need cleansing before we leave. We brought questions that need answers and problems that need solutions. We brought burdens that need to be lifted and anxieties and fears that need to be dispelled — and frustrations and depression and boredom and preoccupations, all kinds of distractions. The truth is, for most of us it would be easier to get out our checkbook and double our offering and put it in the plate than it would be to get ourselves ready to turn ourselves over to God.
The text is from one of the central books in the New Testament, the book of Romans, which was Paul’s summary of Christianity. The passage is one of those linking passages, where in the first eleven chapters he tells of God’s action on our behalf. In chapters 12 through 16 Paul tells us how we are to live as followers of Jesus Christ, and this is the “therefore” passage. It’s the affirmation that if you have a faith that is vital, it has to have deep roots, not just in your own needs but in God’s love and in God’s action in Jesus Christ. It’s an affirmation that authentic faith must find practical expression for the lives that we live, or it’s a totally irrelevant faith. These roots and this application have to be connected, and they are connected in Paul’s “therefore.” In this familiar text there may be clues by which you and I may prepare ourselves to offer ourselves to God.
A good place to begin is by reflecting upon God’s mercy in our lives. It is such an easy thing to take God for granted in our lives. In the hours of crisis we turn to Him, and we find that He never abandons us. During the last couple of weeks with illnesses and deaths in our church family, I’ve noticed a characteristic: you and I are just so busy. Most of us think there are things we’ve just got to do this afternoon or the world wouldn’t go on. We are trapped in our routines and sometimes managed by the trivia in our lives. Then tragedy strikes and clears the air. All those things we thought were so important, we forget. All those schedules that were in charge of us, we drop them. Suddenly we are aware that God — whom we just assumed would be there — is there, and He does not abandon us.
Paul presents God’s mercies as his strongest argument for the Christian life. “I implore you,” he said, “by the mercies of God …,” and he is reaching to the reminder that each of us is a sinner, that sin kills us, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, that in Christ there is no condemnation, that everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord can know salvation. This is what Paul says ought to be the motivation for turning our whole lives over to God.
If reflecting on God’s mercies doesn’t move you, then you are in bad trouble. Where would you be without God’s love and forgiveness? Where would you be without His presence in your life? What kind of hope would you have without Him? In your imagination, take from your mind and your character and your life every influence because of Christ — in your family, from your friends, from your church, from the Bible, from living in a culture that has the church and the Bible. Suddenly you begin to realize what wonderful things His mercies are.
Barbara and I saw a movie, Tender Mercies. It was about a country-western composer and performer who was an alcoholic, and had finally gotten to the place where he couldn’t function. His band members left him drunk in a motel in east Texas. He sobered up and got a job in the service station-motel where they had left him. He came to know the love of a Godly woman who introduced him to the God who revealed Himself through Jesus Christ. The movie shows him being baptized in this little east Texas Baptist church. Then you see the wholeness that comes to his life, and you see the recovery of trust in himself and others, and you see his reclaiming of the gifts. They named it right, Tender Mercies. While you and I don’t write songs, and while our band hasn’t gone off and left us drunk in some motel, the truth is that each of us could have a biography written about ourselves that could be called Tender Mercies.
We might be helped in preparing to offer ourselves to God by dealing more realistically with what this world does to us unless we have God’s help. Paul’s plea was very simple, “Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present age.” Another translation has it, “Don’t let this world put you in its mold.”
Paul had a slightly different angle than we do. Paul felt that when God came in Christ, He divided history into two periods: this age and the age to come. And that when sin railed Christ to the cross and God raised Him up, that meant God had already decided this age was going down the tube, it was under the judgment of God, it and its values were not going to make it in the world to come. So Paul’s plea basically is, “Why pattern yourself after something God had already said is limited to this world?”
Then he picks up the flip side and talks about what you need to do: instead of letting the world pour you into its mold, let God continue to transform your mind and your heart. When we come to worship we need help in seeing clearly the worth of things, the nature of relationships, the direction God wants us to go with our lives, what is good, what is acceptable, what is wise. This is why Paul wrote, “Keep on letting your minds be remade and your whole nature transformed.”
One other thought. We need to begin thinking of the whole of our lives as an act of worship. If we are going to turn our lives over to God, it’s not something that should be contained within a sixty minute worship. In contrast to the Old Testament sacrifice of animals, Paul talks about a living sacrifice, a sacrifice that’s alive and continuous in action. This means worship moves not just in the sanctuary but in our whole world, and some of you have rather large worlds in which you live. This means worship moves away from just this hour to all the hours of our lives, and it moves away from the one activity of coming to worship to all of our activities: each relationship, each task, each opportunity, each problem, each success, each failure. This is the context in which we begin to see God’s larger purpose for our lives. If somehow our minds could be flooded with thoughts of the mercies of God, if there could be a little clearer vision of what the world is doing to us, and a little greater desire to have God retool our inner being so we can see, then we could begin to understand what it means to give our lives as an offering to God.
When I was young I sang songs I don’t sing any more. Usually when I mention this, someone writes and tells me about a song. Someone may tell me about this one; the chorus is like this:
Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid.
Your heart does the Spirit control?
You can only be blessed and have peace and sweet rest,
As you yield Him your body and soul. (KC)
13th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 29, 1993
Hindrance or Wings
We find Jesus in Caesaria Philippi. He has just rejoiced in the affirmation by His disciples that He is the Messiah, and then immediately He is confronted with the temptation to be the kind of Messiah that Peter and the other disciples expect Him to be. Jesus has faced this temptation before in the wilderness, but it returns now in the form of Peter. Like so many of our temptations it comes not from our enemies but from those we love — from our friends, from our parents. The pressure and the temptation before Jesus is to be a military messiah, to be the conquering hero, to lead the rebels in their triumph over the forces of the Empire.
Our temptation is to allow the human agenda to dictate to God where and how He will act. The temptation is to have our own agenda for what we want God to do, and our practice is to pray that God will do it. There is still the notion that God will fulfill our purposes. Always there is the temptation for us: to try to get God to fulfill our agenda, to use God’s power for our purpose.
There are those who see God as being on the side of change, of liberation, of casting out the demons, and they would use His power to make those changes. But Jesus keeps rejecting that temptation because He knows that if God made His power and love subject to the whims and wishes of everybody, then there would never be any peace — and there are situations in life where power does not work. How can the power of God by might and force eliminate the self-destroying habits of a son or daughter who has fallen prey to drugs? How can force or winning ever make for peace? Has military force and armies made for peace and trust in the Middle East? Or Ireland? Or the African tribes?
Jesus knows that whatever conversion, whatever redemption, is to be brought by the Messiah must be undertaken to address the anxiety of the human heart which seeks the security of building “bigger and better barns.” The work of the Messiah has to deal with the false pride which sets race against race, gender against gender, generation against generation, and must find a solution to the economic greed which tries to find permanence, value, and meaning in the amassing of possession. But those can’t be touched by force, power or might. They have to be met with a grace which convicts from within and an alternative which invites from without through love and forgiveness. So Jesus told Peter to get behind Him. Peter’s temptation to use the power and force of God to fulfill expectations and desires would not bring about the kind of redemption God sought and humanity needed.
If there is a Peter who wants God to use His power in a certain way to bring about Peter’s own ideas of paradise, then there are also those who like things exactly as they have been; they do not want any changes. But we cannot keep life the way it is. There is one thing we cannot do with life: we cannot keep it. That is the limit placed upon us by God’s creation of us; we are finite. We do not last forever and we cannot preserve our lives. We either have it snatched away from us, or controlled and taken away by others; but we can decide to what and for whom we will give away our lives in love and joy.
So we come to discover that we have to decide to what we will give our lives. Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down for my friends.” But to what shall we give our lives? The Scriptures add that we may waste our lives by giving it away to the wrong things — what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?
In the play A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More has been convicted and sentenced to death on the false and bribed testimony of Sir Richard Southwell. More asks what is the office that Richard has newly acquired. He is answered, “Sir Richard is the newly appointed attorney general for Wales.” More shakes his head with pain and yet amusement. He says, “Richard, our Lord said it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, and all you got was Wales.”
Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. He did not come to be a hindrance, but to give our lives wings. He came to give us the grace and power to discover that we must decide to give our lives away rather than to allow them to be taken from us by the expectations of others, and to show us to what we might give our lives in order to discover our real joy and peace. (RB)
14th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 5, 1993
What are the sounds you hate most — a loud, obnoxious TV commercial; an off-key singer; a whining child? Those are all pretty bad, but for me the worst sound of all is the buzzer on my alarm clock sounding off every morning and telling me it’s time to get up! It’s not the sound itself that’s so bad; it’s what that sound represents. Snuggled under the covers and restfully sleeping, I find it hard to justify throwing off the covers and getting out of bed. Do you? But the reality is that I must wake up, throw off the covers, and get up if the days of my life are going to have any meaning — I have work to do, family and friends to be with, duties to perform, and things to do I enjoy doing but that I won’t be able to do unless I wake up.
Paul is speaking to some Christians in Rome, and he is afraid they have fallen into a spiritual sleep or lethargy; they’re just going through the motions, and they’ve lost some of their effectiveness for Christ because they aren’t alert and active in their faith.
Could he be talking to us as well? How easy it is for us to begin to take our faith for granted, to just go through the motions without any real vitality or power in our Christian lives. Paul’s message to us is the same: Wake up! Get back into action!
Why must we wake up? What is there for us to do? Paul offers three answers in this passage:
I. We Must Wake Up Because People Need Our Love
The song says “What the world needs now is love,” and that is no understatement. In a world that has grown cynical and alienated, there is a hunger to see authentic love in action. No wonder it’s time for us to wake up!
Paul says that we ought not get burdened down with financial obligations — there’s another sermon there — but that we have one debt we should be eager to pay: the debt to love one another.
Love is the primary obligation we have to one another because of what Christ has done for us. In fact, Paul says that if we act toward one another in a spirit of love, it will take care of all the other issues.
If we love, we won’t commit adultery because of the hurt we would cause to our mates. If we love, we won’t murder because we will be interested in encouraging and helping others, not destroying them. If we love, we won’t be tempted to steal or covet that which belongs to others because our love will rejoice with them in their blessings and we want only the best for them. That’s why Paul can say “love is the fulfillment of the law” — because if we act in love toward others, all the other responsibilities of the law are automatically fulfilled.
It is time to wake up and move out into a world that is hungry to see God’s love in action in our lives.
II. We Must Wake Up Because People Need Righteous Models
Can you imagine how much sin we see in one evening of television? Depending on the programs, we are likely to see multiple murders, sexual immorality, theft, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse — the list goes on. If we provide in-home training for evil, is it any wonder that society grows more dangerous with every passing year? Now, more than ever, it is time for those of us who love God to wake up out of our spiritual lethargy and model the power of our Christ-filled lives.
Our world desperately needs to see there is an alternative to the model that is demonstrated in the media and that seems so prevalent in our culture.
Of course, we may not be as innovative as we’d like to think. Paul talked to these Roman Christians about the kinds of practices common in Roman society: orgies and drunkenness, sexual immorality and debauchery, conflict and jealousy. Are you sure Paul didn’t beam up into our city in 1993 before writing this description?
That’s the way the world is, says Paul, but Christ has released us from slavery to dark deeds; now we can live in the light and freedom of God’s grace. Our world needs to see what God can do in the lives of His people — people like you and me.
III. We Must Wake Up Because the Time is Short
Why is it so urgent that we wake up right away and get on with the work of God’s kingdom? Because Christ is coming back to inaugurate His reign in history, and we must act as if it could happen any day — because it could happen any day!
Yet there is more. When Paul says “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed,” it may refer not only to Christ’s return but to the day when we will pass from this life into the next and meet God face to face. Christ’s return could be any day, and that should produce in us an urgency to live for Jesus and share His love with others.
Yet even if His return is delayed, the last day of your life and mine could happen at any time. We are not guaranteed another day, and that also should encourage us to wake up and get on with serving Christ and loving people!
Someone has observed that at the end of their lives, few people will look back and regret that they didn’t put in more days at the office or watch more TV. But they may well regret the things they didn’t do for Christ while there was yet day. It’s time to wake up! (JMD)
15th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 12, 1993
Can We Be friends Again?
Even the best friendships will likely weather some pretty serious misunderstandings and trying times. And since you know that difficult times will come, you can be prepared not to bail out when your friendship is yawing and pitching in the winds — even when one storm follows rapidly upon another.
As the story unfolds in Matthew 18, one of Jesus’ disciples was apparently troubled about a deeply-valued relationship. He wondered to what extent he should go in trying to salvage it. Insightfully, Peter framed his question in terms of forgiveness. “Lord,” he said, “how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me, up to seven times?”
At that time it was generally understood that if you had suffered with a friend through three challenges to a relationship, you had done all any friend could reasonably be expected to do. But Peter had outdone himself; the relationship with his particular friend had suffered at least seven setbacks. Now Peter was beginning to wonder about limits — “How far should I be willing to go with this friend of mine?” He posited, “When should I just give up on the relationship and realize that it’s probably never going to work?” Haven’t we all asked those same questions and struggled with the same painful issues?
Jesus’ response was not exactly what you might expect Him to say — and certainly not what you want to hear. As far as Jesus was concerned, Christians should never be concerned about stretching the limits of genuine forgiveness. He told Peter a story which vividly illustrated His point.
One day, a king decided to call in all the money owed him. The first debtor he contacted was obligated for an enormous sum: 10,000 talents. Let me give you some idea about the size of that debt. All the taxes collected annually by Herod the Great when he ruled over Israel amounted to only 800 talents. All the gold in the Ark of the Covenant was valued at only 30 talents. The amount of the debt, 10,000 talents, was probably close to the total amount of money held on deposit in the largest bank in the Roman Empire.
In today’s terms, the man owed the king roughly the equivalent of the wealth of Fort Knox: somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty to fifty million dollars. Since a day’s wage at that time was only about seventeen cents, the situation was not unlike one of us being responsible for the entire national debt of our country.
The biblical debtor threw himself upon the king’s mercy: “If you’ll just be patient with me, I’ll pay back everything!” It was a promise impossible to fulfill. At the daily wage of that time, it would take one hundred million years to pay off such a tremendous debt.
Nonetheless, the king took pity on the man. Moved only by the debtor’s passionate plea, the king cancelled the whole obligation and let him go utterly free. If you’ve ever gotten out from under some huge debt — finally sold a house that you were wondering whether it would ever sell, paid off lingering medical bills, or cleared your credit from a previous bankruptcy — you know how this man felt. You know what it’s like to be out from under an overwhelming burden!
The man should have had a fresh outlook on life — a new perspective, a new attitude. Instead, he went out and disgraced the grace he had been given. He went immediately to a friend who owed him roughly the equivalent of seventeen dollars and demanded to be paid in full, immediately. And when the friend asked for a little time to get the money together, the man brutalized him with physical force and even had him thrown into jail.
Do you see the point of the story? Jesus said that once we have experienced the grace and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ, that experience becomes the model for all our relationships with others. Which brings us back to Peter’s question: how far are we expected to go with this forgiveness thing? What are the limits to which we must be willing to go in order to salvage a friendship? When do we give up on a friend?
How absurd that we should even ask! A much better question is “how?” How do you go about salvaging a relationship that seems doomed to failure? How do I stretch the limits of my patience — and my forgiveness? Those are the real questions with which I want to help you. Let me suggest two steps.
1. You must recognize that something has happened that really deserves your forgiveness.
Hurts may lead to forgiveness, but not every hurt is serious enough to require forgiveness. Has anyone ever asked you to forgive them for something you never even considered needed forgiving? Maybe you were at a party and someone teased you about something. You can take teasing as well as anyone. You never gave what was said a second thought. But a day or two later you were called and asked for forgiveness. What had been said had been bothersome to the speaker — he or she wanted, and needed, your forgiveness.
We need to recognize that there are some things that happen to us — and between us — which we ought to have the grace and the grit just to forget. These things are not significant enough to rise to the level of requiring forgiveness. When you become bitter about things that don’t even deserve your time, you cheapen the grace and the forgiveness of God.
So, what does need forgiving? I think there are generally two kinds of things that require forgiveness: betrayal and disloyalty. These are two significant wounds to a relationship that need to be recognized and confronted.
After fifteen years of marriage, a husband is unfaithful to his wife; a businessman promises a loan to a friend at a favorable rate of interest and then reneges when he finds he can make more money by loaning it to someone else at a higher rate; a friend who was going to recommend you for a promotion backs out when he finds out the boss is favoring someone else; a neighbor requests a favor of you and a few months later refuses to do precisely the same thing for you; a sister refuses to help with the expenses or the personal care of invalid or aging parents but at the same is highly scathing in her criticism of what you are doing — those are acts of disloyalty which deserve confronting and forgiving.
Then, there is betrayal. A friend tells you in confidence the deepest secrets of her life and you thoughtlessly repeat them to the biggest gossip you both know; you hear an unfounded rumor about a friend and although it contradicts everything you personally know about that friend you accept it as truth; you take someone else’s frustration as your own and turn against a friend even though the friend has done nothing to offend you — those are acts of betrayal and they also deserve confronting and forgiving.
But what then? After you recognize the difference between things that need to be forgotten and those that need to be forgiven, there’s a second step.
2. Someone must seize the initiative to restore the broken relationship.
On some occasions, though not all, that responsibility will fall on the offending party. In 1755, in the midst of an election campaign for seats in the Virginia Assembly, 23-year-old Colonel George Washington said something insulting to a hot-tempered fellow named Payne. Payne responded by knocking Washington to the ground with a hickory stick which just happened to be handy. The next day, Washington wrote Payne a letter requesting that they meet again at the local tavern. When Payne arrived, he expected to be met with a demand for an apology and a challenge to a duel. Instead, Washington apologized for the insult that had provoked the blow, then said he hoped Payne was satisfied and graciously offered his hand in friendship.
People who apologize are not weak. It takes strength to admit you are wrong. “But that’s the way it should be,” most of us think. “People who hurt other people ought to be strong enough to apologize.”
“The people who have offended me owe me an apology. If they want to be my friend, then they’ll have to apologize.”
That’s really a tragic way to live our days. The truth is, if our feelings are that strong it’s unlikely that even an apology will satisfy us. Not long ago, I talked with a young mother who was bristling with bitterness. Her husband’s parents had said some thoughtless, unkind things to her; there had been a terrible scene. She said to me, “I’ll never feel the same toward my inlaws again. Even if they apologize, I’ll never forget the things they said to me.”
I felt sorry for that woman. She was the one suffering most from her hatred, not her in-laws. That’s the most dangerous thing about attitudes like that: they eat away at us like acid. They eventually eat away our very souls.
Though you and I agree that the offending party ought to always be the apologizing party, Jesus said that, among Christians, it should not be the exception when the offended party takes the initiative in restoring the relationship. “If your brother sins against you,” He said, “[you] go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (v. 15).
That’s not the way we usually handle situations like that, is it? Thomas Jefferson had many intense relationships during the course of his life. Particularly stormy was his relationship with John Adams, with whom he frequently exchanged very contentious letters. Another of his friends was James Madison, with whom he hardly ever quarreled — and yet their friendship suffered through almost eleven years of bitter silence. They both wanted to be reconciled to the other, but the hard freeze between them took that long to thaw. For years, they talked about each other with a mutual friend; they simply could not talk to each other.
That’s the way many of us choose to handle stormy periods with friends. But it’s not God’s way. Do you remember the verse from 1 Corinthians 13 which reads, “love does not keep a record of wrongs”? (v. 5). To love another person, we must be able to believe that their characters can be altered, the leopard can change its spots, conversions do occur, people do repent and, at times, they can change completely.
In other words, when it comes to relationships, God calls us to live in the present, not in the past. Sooner or later, in any friendship, someone will be hurt. In a weak moment, somebody will let down their guard, one will criticize or embarrass the other, or not be there when we counted on them to be there. If you allow yourself to dwell on those things, the relationship is doomed. Maybe you are too.
Do you recall the final scene of the story Jesus told (vv. 31-34)? The king discovered how the man whom he had forgiven had treated his own debtor. He was outraged! He reinstated the man’s original debt, had him tortured, and jailed him for life! There are some important lessons there for us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). That’s the biblical model for our dealings with those who have hurt us. But our ability — and willingness — to forgive those who have wounded us establishes the very standard by which we ourselves will be judged.
I suspect that with regard to some of your former friends — perhaps even some family members — you are feeling one of two things right now. You’re either feeling guilty over something unspeakable that you said or did, or failed to say or do. Or, you’re feeling bitter and wounded because they have not come to you.
Listen. The fact that you are feeling either way indicates you still value that relationship, that that person is still important to you. There’s no need to live like that any longer. Can you be friends again? Sure, you can! Indeed, you must become friends again!
Have you been hurt? If so, forget it if you can! And if you can’t, because of — and through — the grace of God, forgive them! Those are really the only two choices you have! (GCR)
16th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 19, 1993
To Live — To Die
The excitement flashed from John’s eyes as this energetic young stockbroker described his new money-making plan. “The great thing about it is, it’s working. Am I ever going to make a lot of money!”
The year was 1968. A few weeks before he had mailed out a letter to all residents of an exclusive community, offering to be their personal financial consultant. It’s the kind of letter you and I get with great frequency here in Newport Beach in the early 1990s, but then the idea was unique, and the rate of response was enormous. Night after night, he visited in the homes of those responding. In a number of cases, he was given the responsibility of taking over their stock portfolios. John broke sales records as his career spiraled upward. Within months he was made general manager of his regional office.
A year or two later, John told me, “My career is the most important element of my life. I am on my way to the top. I will sacrifice anything for it. Even my wife and daughter are incidental.” And that’s precisely the way John lived. His wife and daughter became incidental, for he was really saying, “For to me, to live is career — for to me, to live is money.”
Jane is still a beautiful young woman at age eighteen. Long blond hair falls neatly onto her shoulders. Nobody really knows how smart she is. Some would say she is quite intelligent but never took the time to study. Others would say that she just looks intelligent but didn’t have what it took to get through high school.
Whatever the case, the guys didn’t care. They found Jane’s body to be beautiful. They gradually discovered her weakness for alcohol. At age sixteen, on a balmy May night, she and her date set out for the junior-senior prom. Then they went to a late-night party at a friend’s house whose parents were out of town on business. The gang broke into the liquor closet, having a great time into the wee hours of the morning. Jane woke up at eight o’clock the next morning in a motel room, never remembering how she got there and not quite sure what she had done. Now, two years later, she is one of many teenage alcoholics. She has had one abortion. She is stuck in a lifestyle of bouncing from one man to another.
“For to me, to live is pleasure,” says Jane. But that pleasure is getting kind of hollow.
Peter is in his late fifties. He has taught philosophy in the state university systems for many years. Not only does he have one Ph.D., he is working on another, this time in theology. He loves ideas. Brilliant, sophisticated, he lives in his book-lined study caught up in the great ideas of human history.
“For to me, to live is knowledge,” says Peter.
Twenty-five years ago, Bill set his goal. “By age thirty-five I will be a millionaire,” he told me. “Then I will go into politics. Someday I will be in the Senate. My goal is the presidency. Money is no good. It is what money can buy that makes sense. To make it in politics you have to have money. I am going to get it as a means to help me make a major contribution to my country.”
Fifteen years later, he had pretty well accomplished stage one. He had made several million dollars. He then made his move into politics and was working hard at achieving his goals in stage two when he died in a plane crash while piloting himself and some friends on a routine holiday outing.
“For to me, to live is power,” said Bill.
Let me ask you today’s biggest question: What is your center for living? It had better be good. It had better be good enough to help you live. And it better be good enough to help you die.
Stop for a moment. Answer that question for yourself. What is your center of living? What is the ultimate drive of your life? If you, this moment, were to stand up and announce to the world, “For to me, to jive is …,” with what word would you fill in the blank?
Festo Kivengere of Uganda is now in heaven with Jesus Christ. I heard Festo tell about his life prior to becoming a Christian. He was a young African educator. He described his youthful existence in the Hollowing words: “I was going around in circles, circles of emptiness — with me at the center.”
Does that describe your existence? Do you find yourself juggling a variety of goals? Perhaps your life is not as clearly committed to live for money, for pleasure, for knowledge, or for fame. Perhaps you are juggling all of these unobjectionable goals, never quite certain on which one to put your focus. So, in the process, you find that you are going around in circles, circles of emptiness — with you at the center of your life. You place a shifting label on that internal, egotistical referent. You have this hobby, that diversion. It all centers around you. It’s a painfully frustrating treadmill, isn’t it?
There is an alternative to this lifestyle. It is stated so succinctly in the words of the apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ …” (v. 21). This declaration sets you and me free from this dizzying circular wandering. This affirmation gives you an external referent by which you can judge all you do, say and are.
I have been thinking about some of the ways in which Jesus Christ does make it possible for you and me to really live.
I. Jesus Christ is the Source of all life.
He said about Himself, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). God designed you for creative living. He knows how you function best. He has given you this whole world. Everything He created is good. The question is, what will you do with what He has given to you? You can exploit it. You can pollute it. You can twist and distort the good in a way which will destroy you as a person. Deep within you, God has placed the hunger which is fed only by His Word. Deep within you, He has placed a thirst which is quenched only by His living water.
He wants you to come to Him. He wants you to open your life to Him. He wants you to accept Him as your Lord. He wants you to live for Him so that you can find out what real living is all about. If you once were living for Him, He wants you to come back home so that He can once again realize in you all that potential which He sees.
II. Jesus Christ is your Model for living.
Imagine a surgeon going into his first open-heart surgery who had never observed a skillful surgeon at work. Imagine a lawyer standing up to defend her client who had never heard an outstanding trial lawyer present a legal defense. Imagine a mother trying to be a mother who had never seen a mother with her child.
You have models, ideals in your mind, as to how to be effective in your work and in your family relationships. Models are essential for living, aren’t they? Jesus Christ is your and my very highest Model for living.
III. Jesus Christ is the Sustainer of your life.
He is the power supply which never runs out. Through His Spirit you are energized to quality living. However, you will only be able to realize His sustaining and energizing influence if you stay plugged in. I am not implying that you can fall from grace and lose your salvation. I believe that once you are a committed Christian you have the assurance of eternal security.
However, the Bible does talk about “quenching the Holy Spirit,” minimizing that free flow of spiritual energy that God wants to channel into you. You and I can sort of unplug — by our attitudes of life, our rebellious lifestyles, our willful and selfish natures — that constantly available flow of energy which the Lord wants to supply.
Jesus promises to carry you right through this life if you let Him. The way will not necessarily be easy. You will have your ups and downs. There will be those moments of self-doubt. There will be those times when you will question if He is capable of following through on His promises. I know — because I have been there. At the same time, the Christian who is really living for Christ knows how to live life at its best. You learn what is important and what isn’t so important. With the Lord’s help, you learn more fully how to coordinate the social, intellectual, physical, and spiritual dimensions of your existence. You learn how to use your body in a healthy expression of God’s creation. You learn how to use your mind as you integrate His truth into your very being.
What is your center for living? Yes, it had better be good enough to help you live. And, in addition, it had better be good enough to help you die. Are you prepared to die?
Death for the nonbeliever in Jesus Christ is not too exciting a topic to think about. For those who do not have a life centered on Jesus Christ, to die involves psychic shattering mystery. To die involves speculation and uncertainty. To die is life’s most-desperate venture. There is always the possibility of annihilation. That’s why so many of us work so hard to be remembered — because we want immortality. So often we pursue our quest for it by accumulating money and fame in that sinking hope that we can make a permanent mark on history. If not on the bold pages of world history, at least we can make an impact on a generation or two of our own posterity.
The Bible teaches that there is eternity. You are an immortal person. Someday you will die and step into eternity. You will either spend it in the presence of Jesus Christ in an exhilarating, productive lifestyle, or you will spend it in isolation from Him and all that is of the utmost quality.
The apostle Paul didn’t just talk about life. He also talked about death. He wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Jesus Christ frees you to live or die. Through Him, you have a quality of perspective, releasing you from that uptightness which comes over life or death. What really happens is that you are provided with the privilege of a whole new perspective on both living and dying. You now have an eternal overview. You have the promises of Christ who gives assurance that He has gone to prepare a place for you. Since you know that you will have eternity in heaven with Him, you are released to a much freer lifestyle here on earth.
Paul talked about being hard-pressed between the two, wanting one moment to live and the next to die. (Phil. 1:22-24). This is not a melancholy, suicidal death wish. This is the buoyant statement of one who knows that Christ has covered all the bases, both in this life and the life beyond. It is an expression of God’s provision for the future which holds you steady in the present. When you spend eternity in heaven with Jesus Christ, you will be released from the pain, the agony, the hurts, the broken relationships of this life.
Jesus Christ frees you to be yourself, a person not tied to false centers of life. You are free to live or to die.
I mentioned earlier my friend Festo Kivengere. I once heard him tell that during a severe persecution in Burundi an African believer was confronted by a pistol in his face. The Christian’s response was this. He said to his would-be killer, “Before you shoot, please let me express three things. First, I love you because Jesus Christ loves you. Second, I love my country. Third, let me sing you this song.” Then, in a radiance of life, this African believer began singing these words:
Out of my bondage, sorrow and night,
Jesus I come, Jesus, I come:
Into Thy freedom, gladness and light,
Jesus, I come to Thee:
Out of my sickness into Thy health,
out of my want and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
That’s real freedom. No, his life was not spared. This is no clever gimmick. The trigger was pulled on the pistol. But this brother in Christ was free, free to live or to die.
There are basically two theories of life. One can be tersely stated, “For to me, to live is self and to die is loss and uncertainty.” The other is, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Which is it for you? (JAH)
17th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 26, 1993
Who Wants to Be a Servant?
We hear a lot of talk about Christian unity. That Christian folk song reminds us, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” The apostle Paul stresses the importance of unity to the church at Philippi. He writes from his prison cell, calling his fellow believers to a oneness which would defy the petty differences life throws at believers.
It is important to remember that there is a big difference between unity and uniformity. Many of our efforts toward Christian unity stumble at this point. The New Testament stresses a diversity of spiritual gifts. There is no sameness in abilities. God dresses His people not in drab uniforms but in complementary colorful array which brings glory to the Person of Jesus Christ. So when Paul calls the church at Philippi, or Newport Beach, to unity, he is quite aware that both are made up of a wide diversity of people.
Just a casual look at the church of Philippi shows the diversity of its first members. There was Lydia, the wealthy seller of purple goods. There was that poor slave girl out of whom demons had been cast. Then there was the jailer for whom it took an earthquake to bring salvation. Could you ask for three more different people? The Lord only knows how many other personality types complicated that church’s membership rolls. Can there be unity with such great diversity?
Unity in diversity comes when we understand that unity is not uniformity. Unity comes when those of us with extreme diversity of backgrounds rally around a common center. That center is our shared, personal trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Paul calls the church at Philippi to unity, sketching five reasons to put aside party differences and move forward in a oneness of common faith.
First, he appeals to the oneness of our experience in Jesus Christ as he writes, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ ….” When you share a common experience in which your life has been changed by the power of Christ, you have an automatic oneness.
Second, he appeals to the power of Christian love. Different? Yes. Yet love is present. Paul says, “… if any comfort from his love ….”
Third, he appeals to our common fellowship in the Holy Spirit. All believers have the Holy Spirit in their lives to a lesser or greater degree. He writes, “… if any fellowship with the Spirit ….”
Fourth, he appeals to the simple human emotions of pity and compassion, stating, “… if any tenderness and compassion ….”
Fifth and finally, he appeals to his own need. “Look, I am in prison. You love me. I have worked hard for you. Make me happy by showing your unity in the midst of your diversity.” He urges, “… make my joy complete ….”
Appealing to these common grounds which tend to pull the body of (Christ together, Paul describes what similar qualities we should have in the midst of our diversity.
We are to be “like-minded.” This is because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We are to think alike. God has revealed Himself to us. We have His Word. There is a common ground of knowledge. But more than this, I believe it means that we are to be of one purpose. In spite of all of our differences, we are to have a similar mind. Our thoughts are fixed on the person of Jesus Christ. We are indebted to Him. Therefore, we reflect the image of our Father in Heaven.
Did you ever stop to look at a child whose parents you know so well? Isn’t it uncanny how that child has the image of the parent stamped upon its features? Those deep-set eyes, that fairness of skin, that unmistakable pug nose. There is no mistaking who is the mother. Even husbands and wives seem to begin to resemble each other after years of life together.
Paul urges the church to be “… like-minded, having the same love, being one in Spirit and purpose.” What he describes in Philippians 2: 1-4 is the family of God at work. Linger over these verses. Apply them to your own life.
There is something that can destroy this unity. It’s called individualism.
Probably no topic receives more discussion today in intellectual circles by philosophers and ethicists than does the growing concern over what happens to a society when individualism runs rampant. Those of us who make a study of American history realize that one of our greatest strengths as a nation is the way in which we have encouraged individualism. At the same time, this individualism, unrestrained, can destroy us, causing a downward, ethical spiral into social anarchy.
Alexis de Tocqueville warned about this a century and a half ago in his magnificent work titled Democracy in America. He was fascinated at the lack of social hierarchies here in the United States, seeing that as one of our greatest strengths as compared to the European continent from which he came. But he warned that this rugged individualism was kept in check by stable political and social institutions. He warned what could happen if the then strong commitment to politics, church and the home would be lost. And philosophers and sociologists such as Robert Bellah, Alistaire McIntyre and others lead a national debate over how to handle that rugged individualism which has gone so selfish and has become so socially destructive in fulfillment of de Tocqueville’s prophetic concern.
We in the church of Jesus Christ face this same danger of individualism. God has created you and me as individuals. He places a premium on your uniqueness. However, He does not value your uniqueness at the expense of your brother or sister in Christ. I cannot go it alone in the Christian faith; nor can I allow another to stumble through life without my help.
It is so easy for our faith to be self-centered. The church at Philippi was a fine group of believers. Yet Paul felt it was his responsibility to remind them of their tendency to self-centeredness. He wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit ….” There is only one reason to give that kind of command. Apparently some believers were inclined toward selfish ambition and vain conceit. All of us have these tendencies. Some of us just hide them better than others. Underneath the surface lurks this ugly two-headed monster.
Religion can so quickly become self-centered. William Barclay describes the three biggest causes of discord among Christians as: (1) selfish ambition; (2) the desire for personal prestige, which for some is greater than the temptation of wealth; (3) the concentration on self. These three combine to eliminate the importance of others. In the process, they cause disunity.
Paul provides two antidotes to this selfishness:
I. “In humility, consider others better than yourself.”
Now that would be hard for some of us, wouldn’t it? We work so hard at being better than everybody else. We have mastered the game of competition. We know how to come out on top. We were scripted to be winners. Or were we? Do we really end up on top?
Henrietta Mears, who had such a dynamic ministry for several decades at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, put it this way: “I am willing to be third.” Are you? Am I? That’s the essence of humility, allowing God to be first and others to be second, and willing to be third myself. That doesn’t mean that you and I shouldn’t strive for excellence. It’s a question of how we view ourselves.
II. “Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.”
This admonition doesn’t depreciate your own importance. It only enhances how important you are. You are not an island. Your brother, your sister in Christ have interests just as important as yours. They need you. You need them. It’s time for you and me to get out of ourselves and invest ourselves in the lives of others.
I have noticed in marriage counseling how often one of the troubled partners comes with this lament: “He doesn’t meet my needs.” This common complaint is evident of self-interest being put above the interest of others. Seldom do you hear someone ask, “How can I better meet her needs?” This is what makes a prayer list so important. No, it’s not a list of all the things you need. Instead, list other people and their needs. I will guarantee that a half hour spent praying for others, sensitizing yourself to their needs, bringing their concerns before the Lord will bring you out of yourself as has nothing else.
Do you have a broken relationship with another person? Are you having trouble with discord, disharmony in the husband-wife or parent-child relationship? This week, why don’t you make a list of five things you can do that you know that other person would love to have you do? Make the list. Pray about it. Get to work doing them. Then write down what the response was. You will be amazed at what will happen. If you do this in a genuine spirit of Christian love, it will help you move beyond your own interest.
What it all boils down to is that you are called to be a servant.
Ouch! A servant? But who wants to be a servant?
Let me ask you a very frank question. Would you like to be like Jesus Christ? Is there anyone in all human history like whom you would rather be? I doubt it. What you and I would give to really be like Christ! Paul combines all of these suggestions for Christian unity into this following description of Jesus. Capsuled into these verses is some of the most explosive material which can revolutionize your life. Paul writes:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus; Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death — even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8).
What a description of Jesus! He was a servant. He gave Himself for others. Do you catch the rhythm? Here is this One identical with God. God Himself who humbled Himself and became a man. He emptied Himself. He took the form of a servant. See the contrast between the humble Christ, washing His disciples’ feet, and the power-oriented success syndrome of Rome? He even went to the cross. The result was His exultation for losing Himself. He rose triumphant in the ultimate service of others.
This lifestyle of servanthood involves a radical restructuring of your and my value systems and lifestyles. We are so used to seeing success as quantity, not quality. It’s so easy to get caught up in the numbers game. And, frankly, I don’t like to wash smelly feet.
Once again, we as Christians are turning over to the world the very principles that Christ has taught us. Peter Drucker may not fully understand what he is saying when he talks about upward and downward authority in his book titled The Effective Executive. He writes:
The man who focuses on efforts and who stresses his downward authority is a subordinate no matter how exalted his title and rank. But the man who focuses on contribution and who takes responsibility for results, no matter how junior, is in the most literal sense of the phrase, “Top Management.”
This is a management application of a spiritual principle.
Howard Butt, in his excellent book titled The Velvet Covered Brick, refers to this as the style of the “servant-king.” We all want to be kings. He writes: “Organizations demand leaders to serve. They serve by leading; they lead by serving.”
How quickly we forget our calling to be servant. How absorbed we are in our own self-interests. How insensitive we become to the needs of others. Yet what joy, what wholeness of life we bring to others and ourselves when we faithfully carry out this responsibility. What task would you do today? What service to others will be yours?
One of America’s great preachers was Clarence Edward Macartney of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh. He preached time and time again one particular sermon titled “Come Before Winter.” In it he reminded the thousands who heard it of their chores of servant-hood which needed tending while there was still time.
Once he preached the sermon in Philadelphia. Present was a student at the Jefferson Medical College. When the service was over he went back to his room on Arch Street where the text kept repeating itself in his mind, “Come before winter,” in which the apostle Paul had encouraged his young friend and colleague, Timothy, to come before winter and bring forth some things he needed and himself in friendship.
This young medical student thought to himself, “I had better write a letter to my mother. It’s been a while since I’ve done it. He sat down and wrote a letter such as a mother delights to receive from her son. He took the letter down the street and dropped it in a mailbox and returned to his room. The next day in the midst of his studies, a telegram was placed in his hand. Tearing it open, he read the words, “Come home at once. Your mother is dying.”
He took the train that night for Pittsburgh and then another train to the town near the farm where his home was. Arriving at the town, he was driven to the farm. Hurrying up the stairs, he found his mother still living with a smile of recognition and satisfaction on her face. Under her pillow was the letter he had written her after the Sunday night service. He was startled to see how much that letter meant to her and how much she cherished it as she faced her death. And to think he almost didn’t write it. That sermon, which had caught his attention, caused him to take time from his studies to think of someone else.
I challenge you to go out of this sanctuary a servant leader, looking for opportunities to help others after the humble model of your Savior, Jesus Christ. (JAH)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Rick Brand, Pastor, Bethel Presbyterian Church, Bethel Park, PA; Ken Chafin, Pastor Emeritus, Walnut Street Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; Gary C. Redding, Pastor, First Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC: John A. Huffman, jr., Pastor, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA: and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.
9th Sunday after Pentecost (A)