9th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
August 6, 1995
How Does God Feel About Me?
The honeymoon’s over. How many times have we heard that expression? What does it mean exactly? Does it refer to the time when you get back from that trip you take after you are married? No. It generally refers to a time when you begin to experience friction, difficulty, or reality in your marriage.
Sometimes the honeymoon ends very innocently. “Honey, you burned the eggs.” “Well,” she replies with tears in her eyes, “I guess the honeymoon’s over.” “Darling, will you please pick up your dirty underwear off the floor?” “Gee,” he snorts, “You didn’t care about such things when we first got married.”
Sometimes the honeymoon ends more tragically. “I thought I loved you when I married you, now I am not sure.” “What do you mean your old boyfriend is back in town?” “It was just a one night fling.”
Most of the time, you’re not quite sure when the honeymoon ends. Like most things in life it ends gradually. As you become more and more used to each other, you take each other for granted. “You don’t bring me flowers,” a popular song lamented a few years ago. “You don’t say you need me,” came the reply. The wife quits putting on makeup on Saturday, the husband quits shaving. The wife takes so long on her hair, the husband quits doing sit-ups. The kids demand more and more attention. One day, the man looks up from his newspaper and asks the woman sitting across the table, “Do I know you?”
“Do I know you?” Israel asks God. Long before the New Testament called the church “the bride of Christ,” the prophets likened the relationship of God and Israel to that of a marriage. Hosea himself married a prostitute, only to see her return to her trade, in order to visualize the troubled marriage between God and Israel.
“Do you know me!” replies God. Don’t you remember when I led you out of Egypt? Don’t you remember the intimate relationship we enjoyed in the desert of Sinai? Don’t you remember how I asked you to be my people and you said, “I do”? Can’t you open your eyes and see how I have faithfully loved you? No, I guess you can’t. You’re too busy lusting after your neighbor to notice that the one who really loves you has been with you all along.
When a marriage turns rocky, often the children act out their hurt and anger. They grow rebellious, belligerent, and more independent. They raise their defense shields so as to protect their vulnerable psyches. Hosea shifts from a marriage image to a parent-child one.
We know Hosea had two sons and a daughter. If the children were born at the earliest part of his prophetic work, and if this material comes from the middle years of Hosea’s ministry, this would mean that Hosea’s children were just beyond their teenage years. As Gomer went back to her life of prostitution for a while after the children were born, Hosea was a single parent for a time. Might the imagery of verse 11:3 arise from Hosea’s own experiences as a parent? He taught his children to walk, he helped them grow strong, now they are turning rebellious. Hosea uses images drawn from his own family life to describe the relationship of God and Israel. God freed Israel from slavery, He protected them, He loved them, He healed them; now they rebel against Him.
Now, just as a parent who watches his child go astray, God watches His child Israel run into the arms of destruction. Just as some modern teenagers run to drugs and alcohol to find acceptance, Israel looks to Baal, a pagan god of fertility, to make them “cool” in the eyes of the other nations. God faces the dilemma with His prodigal child Israel, “What do I do?”
God does something that seems so peculiar, except to parents of rebellious children. His compassion, not His anger, is aroused. In fact, God’s compassion is so aroused that He breaks the law. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 states that rebellious children are to be stoned to death. They are to be destroyed, wiped away from the memory of God’s people, treated like Admah and Zeboiim (two cities which were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah).
God declares that since He is God He does not have to allow His anger to control His love. That reminds me of the typical story of the parent whose child goes out on a date. “Be home at 11:00 sharp,” you remind your child. “Sure, dad, no problem.” Come 11:00, no child. Come 11:30, no child. Your anger reaches the boiling point, you can’t wait to get your hands around that child’s neck. Finally, at 11:35, you hear a car pull into the driveway. You sneak to the window, look out, and sure enough, there is your daughter. Suddenly, the anger drains away, and all you can feel is joy and relief that she is home and safe. Your love outweighs your anger. Of course, being the good parent you are, you must appear to be angry.
God loves you. When the prodigal son came home, the father did not lash out in anger, he reached out in love. God is the same way. You may have rebelled, you may have engaged in destructive behavior, but if you will come home, God will accept you.
“I will not come in wrath.” Have you reflected on that sentence? Why is it that we seem more comfortable with the anger of God than we do with His love? I suppose it is because we know we are sinners, we know we deserve punishment, and we expect God to be angry at us. Such an expectation sounds similar to a husband who prefers his wife to yell at him; when she acts too nice to him he thinks something is wrong. We just can’t believe that God can love someone like me. Yet, there it is in black and white, “I will not come in wrath.” God loved us before we loved Him. If, then, we know how God feels about us, doesn’t that give us the freedom to respond to Him in confidence and assurance?
As a chaplain in a hospital, I worked under an older, wiser chaplain. We would meet each week to discuss my personal development as a minister and as an individual. This occurred before my marriage. We talked about all types of subjects, from ball games to patients to dating. I particularly enjoyed talking about dating. I wasn’t having too much success in my dating life and needed all the advice I could get.
One day, Clarence asked me, “How do you ask a girl out on a date?”
I thought for a moment and then replied, “I ask, ‘Would you like to go out with me’?”
Clarence replied, “So you put all the burden on the girl?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you never tell her how you feel about her, you never say that you would like to go out with her. You safely hide your feelings away and make her declare whether or not she wants to go out.”
That hit me like a sledgehammer. I shielded myself from pain and rejection by refusing to state clearly my feelings up front. I would rather get her answer before I committed myself.
Clarence continued, “It seems that it would be better to say, ‘I would like to go out with you; would you like to go out with me?”
“You mean I should declare my personal feelings up front? What if she rejects me? I don’t know if I can stand being so vulnerable and open.”
Clarence chuckled and said, “That’s the risk we all take when we choose to love someone else.”
Hosea states that God took just such a risk. Today, we call that risk Jesus Christ. (RCP)
10th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
August 13, 1995
A Peace of the Rock
(Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16)
It was Abraham’s daddy, Terah, who started the whole thing, packing up the kids and dogs and all the furniture they could get on top of the Winnebago. It was Terah who drove them southwest from Ur in the Chaldees all the way to Haran, which was the ancient equivalent of moving to Phoenix from Philadelphia.
Abraham, who was still called Abram at that point, was right there beside Terah. Sarah too. They helped the old man hitch the trailer, put water in the radiator, changed a flat tire or two along the way.
The trip was long and hard. After all, Terah had the whole family in tow, including Lot who proved to be more than his name’s worth of trouble. And by the time they hit sunny Haran, Terah’s energy and the Winnebago’s transmission were all but gone.
So Terah settled in Haran for a spell, long enough at least to die there. Maybe Abram tried settling down too. Maybe he bought them a little two-story house, re-did the shrubbery, joined the Y. But not for long. Sarah would find him in the garage, tinkering with the Winnebago. She could see that look in his eye, the same look she would see in his eyes till her own eyes could see no more; a look that said no matter where they were, they weren’t there yet; a look that said he could see where they were headed, but only in the distance, just above the horizon; a look that said until they got there, no here was sufficient, and they would keep going, keep looking.
Now that part of it was God’s doing. Terah taught Abram how to pack, and track, how to change the oil every three thousand miles. Terah, Abram’s daddy, taught him the what of traveling. Yahweh, Abraham’s God, taught him the why of his traveling. God was the why, and the when too.
God’s claim is on Abram all along — on Abram who would become Abraham, Israel’s father. And this family’s plowing south and west is only the first furrow in that field where God will plant a new nation unto Himself — a new nation, its children like the stars of the sky, the sands of the sea.
But how? By the time Abraham again gets the Winnebago running, he and Sarah both are running down. They’re too old for such foolishness as the traveling promises to be. And yet, with their bones — like the brakes — squeaking with every bump, off they go.
The rest of the story is about how they keep going and how they keep waiting for God to show them where and when and how on earth they’ll fill the earth with their children; they have not even one child yet to play in the back of the Winnebago as they drive along.
The Lord alone seems to know where Abraham should go, but the Lord’s not really telling, at least not yet. So it’s Abraham and Sarah, and Lot too, who ride through the wilderness, heading to Sodom, waiting for God’s word to fall like a boulder into the road before them. But until it does, what do they do? Where do they go?
The whole story is almost too foolish to believe, much less live: these old folks careening through the countryside, flocks and herdsmen and distant kin left behind. They are rich, I guess, rich in things at least, but Sarah is as barren as the land Lot left them, and they have no real home. There is no permanence in their lives; they are always in between, always on the way, every now and then dropping in at the house of God.
It seems too foolish to believe, much less live; yet doesn’t it somehow ring absolutely true?
We keep on the move, don’t we? We are between places and on the way — questing after security or permanence, perhaps, but never really finding it.
Oh, along the way there may be a familiar house here or there; people we have known for a while; a job that we might hold long enough to retire from it — and yet ….
So much of what we consider of lasting value is not lasting at all. A phone call, a trip to the doctor, a note in the mail can irreparably change a life and the living of it.
So much of what we try to make permanent is not permanent at all. People grow and grow apart; they gray, move and die. Whether concrete or carnal, architectural or emotional, foundations crack. The roofs on all our shelters leak. The paint, the paper, the drapes all fade, until we too are draped at last.
So much of what we try to make home is not home at all. Somewhere along the line we feel this itch in our hearts; we find ourselves looking toward the horizon with a tire-wrench in our hand. Something in us calls us on, calls us to that place we know best because of our longing for it, points us to that home which, if we can see it at all, can Only be seen distantly.
What each of us looks for is not a place but a condition: a continuing sense of real purpose, of contentment, hope and joy, love that can in some measure heal the brokenness of the world and our living in it. What we seek is not an address but a promise: the promise that what we are doing makes sense, that it has meaning and value, and that it is not much ado about nothing, that it is not vanity heaped upon vanity.
What we are looking for is home, our real home, our real destination, that place above the horizon, that city not made with human hands — as Hebrews says — toward which God has pointed our hearts, towards which our journeys lead at last. God’s promise to His children is that they will get home eventually, and in that promise is the root of our hope.
So, our world being like it is, how do we live? And where do people like us look for guidance?
Not to the faithless, who sink their roots into the here and now, and find out too late that the present soil is so very thin. The faithless are scarcely planted, the scripture says, before they fade and die.
The faithless are idolaters. They put their trust in their beauty, their power, their wit, their pocketbooks, their seniority, their color, their places in the pecking order. But all grasses wither, and all flowers fade, the scripture says.
The faithless try to chase away their emptiness or run from it, drown it or alter it, fill it with pegs that don’t fit the holes — and never will; the call home is a hole that only God can fill.
“Thou hast made us for thyself,” Augustine confessed to God, “and our hearts find no rest till they rest in Thee.” The faithful understand, and so do they live. They move no less than the faithless, perhaps, but theirs is a graceful movement. The faithful may be prilgrims, but they are not ramblers. They may be strangers, but they are not orphans.
“A wandering Aramean was my father,” the faithful intone, joining with all of those across the centuries who have looked to Abraham as the forerunner of their own journeys.
Those who pursue deliverance, those who seek God must look to Abraham, the scripture says, and to Sarah — the rock from whence we are hewn. For they teach us that God is with us as we go, not just where we wind up; they teach us not just at the last but at the first, and in the middle. God is located in all our locations and dislocations, and we may find God’s value, God’s permanence, and God’s purpose, no matter the terrain nor how loud the brakes squeak.
And though we are traveling to God knows where, like Abraham, we should stop off at Bethel, at the house of God, at this house of God; we should come again to where we have clearly heard the voice of God.
That alone — God’s speaking to us — will last us through our journey, because God’s word alone lasts. Though heaven and earth pass away, as the scripture says, the word of the Lord will not pass away. It called to Abraham and it called to us, and it will call us on all the days of our life.
We, as the children of God, are a piece of Abraham’s rock, and we will have the peace of Abraham if we, like him, plant ourselves in the promises of God. We will have peace if we trust in the Lord, listen for the word of the Lord, visit the house of the Lord, and serve the children of the Lord until at last He brings us all to our real home where we and He shall forever be. We will have peace if we walk faithfully, keeping our eyes toward the horizon and the city that awaits us there.
Such is the life of faith. (TRS)
11th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
August 20, 1995
Running the Race to Win
Next summer the Olympic games return to the United States, to the host city of Atlanta. Among the most popular events at the games will be track and field, and particularly the sprinters. The remarkable speed of those gifted men and women is beautiful to behold.
Yet I have even greater respect for the long-distance runners. Though their events don’t have the same glamour as the sprints, I am impressed with the strength, discipline and endurance it takes for them to be successful at these long-distance events.
The writer of Hebrews wants us to understand that if we compare the life of faith to a race, it’s not a sprint — it’s a long-distance event. And with God’s help, we can successfully run the race of faith.
What will it take if we are to be successful “faith runners”?
I. We Will Learn From Those Who Came Before Us
Imagine the feeling of those Olympic marathon runners. They have been running for miles through the streets of the Olympic city. As they are running the final leg of the race, the lead runners re-enter the Olympic stadium to the shouts and acclamation of the crowd. Imagine their elation.
Our text wants us to understand that as believers running the race of faith, we also have a great crowd cheering us on — we have “so great a cloud of witnesses” cheering us on to victory (12:1)! And, even more amazing, the crowd is composed of those who have run this race before us. The 11th chapter of Hebrews offers a “hall of fame” of such faith-runners, who gave, endured, sacrificed and overcame in the power of God. Those who have gone before us offer worthy models for our emulation and encouragement.
II. We Will Lay Aside That Which Hinders Us
I’d like to be a world-class runner. Unfortunately, I have some encumbrances (several pounds of them!) that keep me from success as a runner. The great runners are those who have paid the price in diet, exercise and training; they have laid aside those things which would hurt their performances.
As we run the race of faith, we are also to “lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us” (12:1). What entangles us in the race of faith?
(1) Sin is an obstacle. Continuing, unconfessed sin in our lives is like an enormous weight we are carrying around. We will never know real success until we allow God to remove it from our lives.
(2) Misplaced priorities are obstacles. If we allow God’s will and work in our lives to be low priorities in our lives, we will not experience success in our race. We must keep the Lord uppermost in our priorities.
(3) Lost opportunities are obstacles. As we are sensitive to God’s will and purpose for us, He will reveal opportunities for growth and service. But if we ignore those God-given opportunities, we erect encumbrances that hinder our effectiveness.
III. We Will Lock Our Focus on the One Who Loves Us
Nothing is more vital to success in the race of faith than the counsel provided in 12:2: “fixing our eyes on Jesus.” The best way to find victory in life is to keep our focus on the One who loves us and gave His life for us.
It was a fiercely-contested race, and just before reaching the finish line the leading runner glanced to his right to see where his opposition was. As he looked to the side, he lost just a bit of the rhythm in his stride — just enough to allow the other runner to surge ahead and win the race. The winner had kept his eyes focused on the goal; the loser had allowed his attention to be distracted.
No matter what obstacles may come your way; no matter how long the race seems to last; no matter how difficult the environment in which you are running — keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. He is our goal, and He will bring us to ultimate victory. (JMD)
12th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
August 27, 1995
God’s Hand on Your Life
A young man had announced to his home church that God had called him to preach. Now he was called on to preach a three-service revival in a neighboring church. He prepared long and hard, carefully crafting three outstanding sermons that would be a worthy beginning to his preaching ministry.
The Sunday morning came when he was to begin the revival, and he was filled with terror as he anticipated that first sermon. The time came for him to step to the pulpit and he began to preach. After seven minutes of fast and furious proclamation he came to a long pause, then announced to the listeners: “I’ve just preached all three of my sermons. Does anybody have a testimony or something?”
It is easy to imagine that Jeremiah experienced the same kind of terror on the day when he encountered God’s call to be a divinely-appointed messenger to his people. Yet Jeremiah could rest in the confidence — as can we — that when God places His hand on us for a special task, He provides everything we will need.
I. We Are Called by God
Did you ever take an aptitude test when you were in school? Those are the tests that evaluate your skills and interests and tell you if you are best suited to be a brain surgeon, an accountant or a maintenance engineer. Human callings are often based on a combination of training, skills and interests, but God is not interested in human qualities. We do not choose His service as one option among many; God calls us. We serve at God’s initiative.
Jeremiah had good reasons not to respond to God’s call, from a human perspective. He was not a gifted speaker, and far too young to be taken seriously as a divine spokesman (v. 6). But God has no interest in our capabilities or talents — after all, any gifts we have are given by Him in the first place.
God is interested in our availability, not our ability. God wants you to respond to His call no matter what.
II. We Are Prepared by God
God does not call us to His service and then send us out empty-handed. If God calls you to a task, then He will equip you for that task.
Jeremiah lacked the gifts of a great speaker, and he thought that disqualified him from service as a prophet. But God touched his life and prepared Jeremiah for the work he was called to do.
Whatever God has called you to do, God will prepare and equip you for the task. Perhaps even now, as you participate in this fellowship of believers and share in the work of the church, God may be equipping you for a special opportunity you don’t even know is coming. Will you be faithful in responding to God’s preparation in your life?
III. We Are Empowered by God
It is easy to imagine Jeremiah’s fearful anticipation of such a call, to be God’s prophet. Yet it was made easier through the greatest gift of all: the gift of God’s presence in his life. Jeremiah was not only called and prepared by God; God promised to be with him, filling and empowering him for service, (vv. 8-9).
Jeremiah understood the importance of God’s presence. Eight different times in this chapter alone, the prophet will announce, “The word of the Lord came to me.” Jeremiah knew he had no authority of his own; the only authority he had to speak came from the presence and power of God working in his life.
If God has called you to serve Him, then He has promised you His presence and empowerment. God does not call you to go alone; He calls you to move forward in His service with His preparation and in His presence. Will you respond? (JMD)
13th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
September 3, 1995
When You’re Being Watched!
Visiting in East Germany, we had the sensation of being watched. When I spoke to some East Germans in the hallway of our hotel, they signalled to this naive American that we should whisper. “You don’t know who might be watching or listening,” they said. They, too, had the feeling of being surreptitiously observed. Later, it was obvious that our rooms had been entered and someone had neatly looked through our things — definitely, we were being watched. That occurred long before the Iron Curtain rusted through, however, and the Berlin Wall fell. It was when there were more police than civilians on the streets of Saxony, and more Germans wanting to leave than stay in their own country. It was the era of Communist paranoia.
When you’re being constantly watched, there is seldom a moment of ease. Ask Jose Canseco or Donald Trump or Woody Allen. So it was for Jesus.
It was not merely the eager eyes of well-wishers who focused on His every move with eyes longing to see another magnificent miracle. Nor were these the alert eyes of children wondering what kind of adventure this gregarious rabbi would lead them into, nor the eyes of young maidens attracted by the handsome carpenter-turned-religious leader. These were the eyes of the clerical mafia, the Pharisaic gestapo, the Jewish version of the KGB, the stassi of Galilee. “They were watching Him closely,” reveals Luke. The Greek word for watching is the very one Used for “interested and sinister espionage”1 The eyes belonged to religious, if unofficial, spies looking for evidence to put the spiritual screws to the Lord, and who would eventually nail Jesus to a cross.
How do you handle persistent scrutiny, the determination of some to find fault?
A newcomer on the job is often subjected to it, as is a new neighbor, People carefully eye someone who has developed a reputation for erratic behavior. People peek out from behind curtains to watch what is going on outside their rooms. Political candidates are certainly accustomed to such scrutiny. Many presidential candidates have been driven from the race because investigative reporters have come up with some smelly garbage to air in prime-time. Many congressmen dropped out of the selection process because the probe of House banking examiners pegged them as irresponsible with their checking accounts? Many young royals, from Princess Di to Fergie, the Duchess of York, have tasted the venom of the press. Yet there are others — innocent folk — such as those people in that East German hotel and Jesus as He ministered to the sick and the needful — who are being carefully observed for no reason but to find fault.
How do you handle that kind of problem, the malicious scrutiny of hostile people?
Jesus teaches us how.
But let’s bring it down to the personal, right in our homes. When tension grows thick at home, sometimes it seems spouses often watch their husband or wife with a wary, critical eye, just waiting for the right offense to call it quits. Maybe there’s been talk of divorce. Maybe there’s been a hint of infidelity. Perhaps one or the other is overly jealous. Those could lead to unscrupulous scrutiny, couldn’t they? Or what about some teenager who has gotten involved in breaking a law — maybe petty but a potentially dangerous act. Aren’t his or her parents apt to keep a closer eye on the kid for a long time afterwards? Watchfulness needs to be the business of not only the other party, but the one being watched.
Fortunately there are those who make someone else’s business their business. That’s why children are sometimes returned to their parents after being held by kidnappers. Watching can be good. Questioning can be helpful. Spying can be useful, just as it can also prove to be detrimental.
Jesus teaches us how to handle both kinds.
For those watching in hopes of a blessing, a healing, the Lord didn’t disappoint them. For those eager to find fault, Jesus cleverly involved them in consenting to the cure taking place despite the Sabbath law. If they didn’t agree directly, they certainly did not voice their opposition. When they didn’t answer His questions, He had their tacit approval.
A man with the dropsy sought a healing and Jesus obliged him — and the Pharisaic spies kept silent. This occurred on a Sabbath day. To a Jew then, it was more important to observe the commandment about not working on the Sabbath day than to heal someone who was tragically ill. Jesus thought otherwise. Laws were made to guide people, not to misguide them; they were meant to lead people to God, not to be idols themselves. The Commandments are not God, for “God is love,” as John says (1 John 4:8).
“So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away,” writes Luke about Jesus and the man with dropsy. Knowing, however, that these Pharisees were not convinced, Jesus took time to explain to them His reasoning: if it was all right to rescue an ox stuck in a pit on the Sabbath day, then certainly it is even better to care for sick people on the Lord’s Day. “They could not reply to this,” observes Dr. Luke. They said neither “yea” nor “nay” though Jesus had given them a chance to criticize His reasoning openly or to deny it before the people. They refused. They kept silent. Still they kept on watching, conniving!
When you’re being watched — whether by friend or foe — keep on doing what pleases God. That was Jesus’ method. What pleases Him most is that we not only love those who need us, but also those who don’t want us. By asking the “spies” twice for an answer to His overruling of the Sabbath law in favor of Divine compassion, Jesus was reaching out to them to enlarge their understanding of what it means to follow God. We need to try to make friends with our enemies just as the Lord did. Humility is the method rather than impudent arrogance.
Whether it is an alien government scrutinizing your life, or a disgruntled fellow employee eager to jeopardize your position, or a relative filled with anger and a desire for retribution for some perceived misdeed on your part, love them — and do so humbly. Try to engage them in a wholesome dialogue. Try to make them your friends. They may decline, as did those in our text, but do not give up. Keep on ministering with the humility of a servant. That was Jesus’ way. He loved even those who opposed Him. He humbly served even those who criticized Him.
We find it difficult to understand why the Pharisees got so upset with Jesus over doing something we feel to be so wonderful, so loving and so thoughtful. Three times already, Luke has told us in his Gospel about healings Jesus conducted on the Sabbath day. He had already roused the indignation of the keepers of the Law and was about to repeat it a fourth time. John tells us about two additional times Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and Mark adds another. All in all, there were seven such instances. Repeatedly, Jesus had offended the legalists, but repeatedly He tried to help them see that love works differently than Law. Love slices through the traditions and trappings of society to make good things happen. But the fussy legalists, the fault-finding, contemptuous, criticizing Pharisees and their crowd, were determined to prove Jesus was irreligious and dangerous, a transgressor of the Commandments, and a foe to their faith. Those who were healed on the Sabbath must have disagreed with the critics.
That’s why Peter’s mother-in-law could rejoice. Her fever was broken — on the Sabbath (Luke 4:38)! That’s why the man with the withered right hand could exclaim God’s praises. His arm was made whole — on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6 ff)! That’s why a crippled woman, bent with a debilitating back problem for eighteen years, could stand up straight and celebrate her new life; she was made straight — on the Sabbath! And now a man with dropsy is made well — on the Sabbath! Certainly they disagreed with the Pharisees insistence on such a strict interpretation of the Law that life was left to waddle in sickness and pain. That was not Jesus’ way; He healed them — all of them!
For Him, that was not work — but love! That was not offending God, but contending with evil and turning fragmented persons into whole beings. That was not playing into the hands of the critics, but humbly holding hands with the ailing and making them well.
I cannot tell you, in the short run, that if you follow Jesus in loving your antagonists in this humble way that all will turn out well for you. We know what happened to Jesus Himself. The spies who watched Him intently early on, later on watched His crucifixion. Though loved by Jesus, they were contemptuous of Him. I can tell you, in the long run, that love will never lose, for to love God so much that you refuse to yield to the hatefulness of the haughty and humbly to love the critics despite all their skullduggery, you will win. To continue to do what God calls you to do in the face of such banalities is not to flaunt the devil, but to praise God.
When you’re under the scrutiny of hostile folk, instead of reverting to hostility, resort to love. Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez of El Salvador tells about how he and other pastors and church leaders of various denominations were watched several years ago when the guerrillas were making great advances against the country’s military regime.
In 1990, he spoke in Minneapolis about the surveillance of the churchmen in his country by the military. “Out of desperation the military decided to assassinate all of the country’s leaders (including educators, church, trade union and political leaders). Most of these leaders had gone into hiding. Unfortunately, the Jesuit priests (at the Catholic University of Central America) decided not to hide. They were assassinated on the morning of November 16, 1989.” The police had kept watching until they found those they wanted to destroy, and destroy them they did.
Then they searched for other pastors and priests, ransacking churches, and taking church workers for prisoners. They kept them under careful scrutiny but somehow many of them disappeared into the safety of hideaways. At the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, the soldiers couldn’t find the bishop, so they took twelve foreign church workers and three Salvadorans captive. The captives were ministering in the compound of the church to the people seeking refuge from the bloody violence in the country. As did the Pharisees watching Jesus, so these soldiers took note of offenses against the “law.” They carried off as their chief prisoner — the church’s cross!2
Yes, that’s right! They imprisoned a cross, a wooden cross that had been used in a liturgical service. The six-foot handmade cross was standing alongside the altar in the church. In a special liturgy, the people of the congregation had gone forward to write the sins of the people on the cross. They wrote words such as “human rights violations, social injustice, bombardments, assassinations, refugees and displaced persons, discrimination against women and vices.”
One policeman said, as he jeered at the cross, “Now we’ve taken the prostitute prisoner.”
Well, the bishop, who had been so savagely threatened and so secretively watched, was never taken captive, and he even got the cross back. The president of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, personally delivered it to Bishop Gomez. He had found it in the very barracks where the guerrillas had tortured people. Gomez said, “They didn’t realize that the cross was there pointing out their sins. When they were interrogating prisoners, they told them that this cross was subversive material which the church used to indoctrinate the people.”
In this case, it was not only the army and the police who were watching, spying on the nation’s Christian leaders, God was also watching. Jesus knew His Father was watching Him from above as He made well the sick on the Sabbath day, and therefore He knew His Father approved such loving acts.
No matter who’s watching you — whether friend or foe — love them as Jesus loved His critics, but keep on serving God nevertheless, for such acts of humble kindness are not intended for the eyes of fault finders alone, but for Him who is our God. (RA)
1. William Barclay, The Gospel of love (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 188.
2. Medardo Gomez, “The Subversive Cross” in The Lutheran, Vol. 3, No. 11; August 8, 1990; p. 47.
14th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
September 10, 1995
Philemon Learns How to Love
Philemon is a little book, only 335 words in Greek, with a big message. It’s about relationships. It’s about loving God and being kind to others regardless of who, what, where, or when. Philemon learns how to love in this letter from Paul.
You may have heard the story about the salesman who was having a very bad sales month. He said to himself, “The next house I see, I’m going in and making a sale.” So as he approached the next house, he said to himself, “I’m going to make a sale.” He knocked on the door and heard a voice say, “Come on in! Come on in!” He went in and discovered the voice was coming from a parrot perched on its stand in the far corner of the room. “Come on in! Come on in!” repeated the parrot. But as the salesman moved toward the parrot, he noticed two big Dobermans in the corner of the room. “Come on in! Come on in!” the parrot continued. A little nervous because of the presence of the Dobermans, the salesman said, “Listen, you dumb parrot, is that all you can say?” “No,” said the parrot, “Sic ’em boys!”
Basically, that was the apostle’s letter-writing style: “Hello – blessings – thanks – I-love-you – you’re-great – why-can’t-you-get-your-act-together-and-stop-acting-like-a jerk – goodbye – and – blessings-on-you.” That was the tone of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul loved Philemon as a brother in Christ. But like everybody else, Philemon wasn’t perfect. Like everybody else, Jesus died for Philemon’s sins. And like everybody else, God wanted Philemon to grow in faith and obedience. So God inspired Paul to tell Philemon how he could improve his relationships with other people and, at the same time, improve his relationship with God.
Philemon was a wealthy Christian who had come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ through Paul’s ministry. He had a slave named Onesimus who had ripped him off and run away. Hence, the slave Onesimus placed himself in a terribly precarious position with the master Philemon. William Barclay described the predicament of Onesimus: “slaves were deliberately held down. There were in the Roman Empire 60,000,000 of them and the danger of revolt was constantly to be guarded against. A rebellious slave was promptly eliminated. And, if a slave ran away, at best he would be branded with a red-hot iron on the forehead … and at the worst he would be crucified.”
In this letter, Philemon learns that Christian love includes community, commands, and Christ-consciousness.
I. Christian love includes community.
Christian community includes all people in Christ regardless of who, what, where, or when. In His high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17). Or as one popular song puts it: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” We know that but Philemon didn’t. So Paul wrote to Philemon to tell him about it.
The plot thickens when we discover that both the master Philemon and the slave Onesimus had come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ through Paul’s ministry. “I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you,” wrote Paul. And then emphasizing the Christian community enabled by a common and inclusive unity through faith in Christ, Paul added, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” And then really laying it on, Paul said, “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Paul was saying that the common confession of Christ shared by the three of them can and must transcend and transform the temporal things that naturally separate people. Or as we sing so often, “In Christ there is no East or West … But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” Maybe that’s what E. E. Cummings was trying to say when he wrote, “I am blue. You are yellow. Together we make green. And green is my favorite color.” Obviously, that sounds rather silly for folks living in the world. But we’re not talking about folks living in the world. We’re talking about folks living in the Kingdom.
Simply, people who are right with God are right with each other because being right with each other testifies to being right with God. “Holiness is to be practiced by the Christian,” C. S. Lewis once said, and “if only ten percent of the world’s population had holiness the rest of the world would be converted quickly.” I guess that’s why the world’s greatest peacemakers are missionaries of the Gospel. That’s what Paul’s letter to Philemon was all about. It was about getting right with God and others regardless of who, what, where, or when. It was about the community enabled by Christian love.
II. Christian love includes commands.
If Jesus is the Lord of your life and eternity, then He gets to call the shots in your life and eternity. The only choice of being a disciple is whether you will be obedient or disobedient. The Ten Commandments are not ten suggestions. Jesus never asked, “Would you like to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless?” He never asked, “How do you feel about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile?” Jesus never entered into a dialogue with the money-changers in the Temple. Jesus never started an organization for gossipers and lying concerns. No, He said, in effect, “Do what pleases God.”
For two thousand years, the Church has said its highest goal, greatest ambition, and most fervent prayer is to say the things Jesus would say and do the things Jesus would do. That’s what prompted Paul to write to Philemon, “Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.” And then he concluded his letter, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” So much for Philemon’s choices. So much for our choices. That’s why Paul spoke for all of us when he identified himself in this letter as “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
When I taught in seminary, preaching students often asked me how they could capture the attention of a congregation accustomed to ten minutes of titillating television technology. After ruling out things like sassing the congregation, I’d say, “Talk about Jesus and the Bible. That’ll shock ’em!” It always does. “When Jesus had finished saying these things,” wrote Matthew after his recording of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), “the crowds were amazed at His teaching, because He taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”
Right after the sermon, folks went down to the coffee shop in Capernaum and said, “Did you hear that guy? Who does He think He is? God?” God can be so commanding because God can be so commanding. God is God. Paul told Philemon not to forget that essential truth of life and eternity. Christian love includes commands.
III. Christian love includes Christ-consciousness.
Christians always cast their eyes to Jesus as they look at and live in the world. Christians look at the world through the eyes of Jesus. Christians try to see the world through themselves as Jesus sees them and the world. Over and over again in this brief letter, Paul referred to being in Christ: “a prisoner of Christ Jesus … I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus … in Christ I could be bold … He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord … refresh my heart in Christ.” To be in Christ is to have a Christ-consciousness. Or as Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (2:20).
Be in Christ, as Paul told Philemon, and you’ll be amazed at how everything else begins to start taking care of itself. Take our Lord’s word for it. He said, “But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). (RRK)
15th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
September 17, 1995
He’s So Good Because
I Can Be So Bad
(1 Timothy 1:12-17)
I went to my twentieth high school reunion a few years ago. Everybody looked so old. And I continued to look through eighteen-year-old eyes until a friend said, “I see you’ve grown hair on your face to make up for the lack of it on your head.”
Actually, everybody looked pretty good. O.K., almost everybody looked pretty good. And it was good to see my old classmates and remember those naive times. Eleven classmates were dead. Vietnam. Drugs. Cancer. Cars. A few broken hearts. Mike told me his brother had snapped and was living with his parents again. Bobby fried his brain and was in and out of institutions. Richard didn’t come because his wife’s ex-husband had threatened his life. Michael greeted Kathy and asked, “So what’s your last name this month?” Dave still drank too much. Bob told me he was living in the bay area. I got jealous until he said he was thinking about growing up next year. And one guy — I didn’t remember him and didn’t catch his name — mentioned as he looked over the scene with Meatloaf blaring Paradise By the Dashboard Light in the background, “Life was so much simpler back then. Everything is so complicated now.”
It was a good class reunion. It really was. I got a plastic cup and a T-shirt. I couldn’t figure out why it cost thirty dollars. But then someone told me about the liquor bill. I guess you’re supposed to drink a lot at high school reunions. Maybe it’s supposed to bring to bring back bad memories or something. I don’t know. I’m not a drinker. I have enough problems with my state of consciousness. I don’t need to alter it.
But I did get my money’s worth. I saw Jackie and Richie and Marvie and Bobby and my other good buddies. And I felt I could go home. I felt a sense of forgiveness for the things we all want to forget from those days. Nobody forgot them. We talked about them all night. But we didn’t hold them against each other. It had been twenty years. And we loved each other.
I went because it was time to confront my past. I didn’t only want to look at my friends through eighteen-year-old eyes but I wanted to look at all of us through the eyes of faith. I went back to forgive and be forgiven. And I went back knowing He’s so good because we can be so bad.
That’s what happens when we look back, look now, and look ahead. Or as Paul said, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
This is the Gospel. God came into the world in Jesus to save sinners. The good news isn’t how good we are but how good He is in spite of how bad we are. The good news isn’t a list of some new rules for the neo-pharisaical in the church to paint on placards and parade around while yelling, “Hooray! Hooray! A new law!” The good news is we are loved by God through faith in Jesus even though we have broken evey law God gave to us.
And while God loves us too much to leave us just the way we are, the good news is He does love us just the way we are. We are His. We are His babies. And there are no fences around God’s dinner table. He says, “Let the little children come to me” (Matt. 19:13-15). And we are children. We’ve still got a long way to go until we are mature in Jesus. God knows that.
About this good news of God coming into the world to save sinners, Paul said it “is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.” Or as Clarence Jordan paraphrased this text in his The Cotton Patch Version (1968), “You can bet your last dollar on this.” The saving intention and ministry of Jesus is a sure thing in the lives of those who place their faith and trust and confidence in Him. The Greek is literally “Faithful is the Word” or “The Word is faithful.” It means God can be trusted to save us because God always comes through for the faithful. Or as the Psalmist sang, “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken” (Ps. 37:25).
In the end, those who have trusted in Jesus go to Heaven. Before the end comes, those who trust Jesus live with an uncommon calm because they know they will ultimately triumph through Jesus. As Tony Campolo likes to say, “I’ve been reading the Bible. And I’ve peeked to see how it ends. Jesus wins!”
Certainly, that doesn’t make us immune to the storms and floods and hurricanes and earthquakes of life. But it does mean we will live through them. We will know His love and presence and touch through faith and that knowledge alone will enable us, as some folks like to say, to “keep on keepin’ on.” This is the Gospel. Paul said it is “trustworthy” and “deserves full acceptance.”
“Take a closer look at what this really means for you and me and the rest of the world. How does this wonderful truth of God’s goodness play itself out in our lives?
I. We live in a crazy world.
If you don’t believe that we live in a crazy world, you’re crazy or drugged or playing too much Nintendo. You may have heard about the child who said to his buddy, “My dad says I’ve got to stop playing Nintendo video games and start reading to improve my mind.” His friend asked, “What are you reading?” And the boy replied, “I’m reading a Nintendo instruction manual.” By the way, do you know the object of those wonderful Nintendo games? The object is to kill animals and monsters and enemies and shoot down planes and aliens and tear down walls and basically beat the heaven out of someone or something. It’s just your typical game for children. Is it any wonder why more and more and more violent crimes are being committed by children?
And isn’t MTV an adorable expression of our most treasured values? Don’t we want our children to look and act just like the stars on MTV? Don’t we want our daughters to dress and offer themselves around just like Madonna? Don’t we want our sons to color their bodies like Red Hot Chili Peppers? And isn’t Michael Jackson a fine example of emotional stability? And the rappers! Maybe one of our children will take Ice T seriously and kill a cop or maybe even our President.
Do we really need to rent a shrink or read an essay or take a course on effective parenting to understand why children show so little regard not to mention respect for other persons or property? It’s simple logic: Garbage in, garbage out.
You’ve probably heard that the biggest problems in public schools in 1940 included running in hallways, chewing gum, throwing spitballs, improper grooming, making noise, and failing to put paper in the waste-basket. Improper grooming, by the way, usually meant shirttails out. Our little darlings have much different problems today: robbery, rape, assault, theft, burglary, drug distribution and abuse, arson, bombings, alcoholism, vandalism, murder, extortion. Darwin had it all wrong. God created humans. It’s becoming a planet of the apes.
Parents, of course, start getting a little uncomfortable at this point. And I must confess I used to make a big deal about quoting Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” That was before I became a parent. Now I know we don’t have to teach children bad stuff. It comes to them naturally. They pick it up without the help of adults. They instinctively know how to sin. That’s what all of this original sin and conceived in sin talk is about. It’s what Calvin meant by total depravity. It means we don’t have to be taught how to sin or hurt or batter or bruise or beat or be nasty and ugly. It comes to us naturally.
What is the first word out of a child’s mouth? “No!” Do we have to teach our babies how to hit or hide or hoard or hate? When is the last time you saw a child gladly or sacrificially or unselfishly yield that last Tootsie Roll? Certainly, teaching and exemplifying the good life will increase the chances of our children living the good life. But we cannot remove them from all of the negative influences of the world. We cannot isolate them from evil. We cannot control their minds which shape their behavior.
Everybody eventually makes up his or her own mind. And too often those choices expose our conception in sin. That has nothing to do with the process of birth. All it means is we are human and tend to act like animals: caring most for our needs and concerns and rights. It’s just natural. And that’s why a momentarily lucid Hamlet could look at his crazy world and mockingly lament, “What a piece of work is man.”
We live in a crazy world. We pollute the environment. We build big bombs to blow people away. We save preemies on the third floor and murder them in the basement. We build machines to extend or end lives. We hit. We hurt. We batter. We blame. We bruise. We slander. We sue. We gossip. We buy The National Enquirer. We say the dirt is bad but we read it and love it. We watch Oprah and Ricki and Geraldo and Sally Jesse.
God knows we live in a crazy world. But don’t worry! I’ve got an even more depressing and cynical thought.
II. We’re crazy too.
I’m crazy. O.K., you’re already figured that out. You’re crazy. It hasn’t taken me too long to figure that out either. It’s true. We know it’s true because we know what goes on in the privacy of our own minds. And we know some of the crazy things we say and do.
One of the greatest revelations in my life occurred back in fifth grade. It was during lunch. I looked over at Melvin and there was a puddle under his desk. On the other side of the room was Donna who offered penny candy for puppy love kisses in the cloakroom. Marilyn flunked a few times, but a lot of boys liked to hang around with her. Our homeroom teacher removed his false teeth so he could keep them clean while eating graham crackers. And I thought to myself: “Everyone in here is messed up.” And then it hit me. It was one of those blinding glimpses of the obvious. It was a simple deduction. “If everyone in here is messed up,” I reasoned, “I must be messed up.” And I was. And I am. And I will always be messed up. And that’s exactly why Jesus came! He came to save the messed up people of the world like you and me. As Paul said, everybody is messed up. Actually, he said, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Tony Campolo puts it this way, “If you knew all of the sins in my life, you wouldn’t be listening to me. And if I knew all of the sins in your life, I wouldn’t be talking to you.” Yet when Campolo confesses his sin and ours, Jesus pushes them aside in order to pull us close and warmly embrace us. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance,” wrote Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This is the Gospel.
III. The good news is God knows we’re crazy and loves us anyway.
In what Martin Luther called “The Gospel in a nutshell,” Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (John 3:16-17). Or as Campolo likes to say, “I’m not O.K., and you’re not O.K. but God says that’s O.K.” God still loves us. God has always loved us. God will always love us. It’s grace. It’s free. It’s unmerited. R. C. Sproul explains it like this to his students: “Pray for mercy. But don’t pray for justice because you may get it.”
There are two ways to look at grace. How to look at it depends upon how we feel at the time. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve. Grace is not getting what we deserve. Think about it. He’s so good because we can be so bad.
But how many of us in the church have ever said with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim. 1:75)? Now I’m sure Paul wasn’t the worst sinner of all time. There have been a lot of bad dudes who lived before and after him. Paul was just being confessional. He was acknowledging the fact of his sinfulness – the fact that he often rejected God’s will for his life.
Paul knew he was a sinner. He confessed it. And in that confession came the realization of his need for a Savior. And because Paul knew his personal sin and the personal salvation available to him from God through Jesus, he could say that anyone can be saved. Paul said anyone could be made well or restored or rescued or brought back through Jesus. “But for that very reason,” he wrote, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life.”
Jesus said it so concisely, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
How many of us in the church can say that with Paul? Can we confess He’s so good because we can be so bad? Or do we even object to the inclusion of the corporate prayer of confession in our liturgy? Are we the kind of people who want our preachers and teachers and politicians to tell us how good we are?
Haven’t we sinned against God and neighbor on occasion? Don’t we have something to confess? Don’t we need a Savior? John wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:5 ff.). Do we lack the humility to confess our need for a Savior?
He’s so good because we can be so bad. It’s like the fellow who went to heaven and Peter asked for the password to enter. The man said, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.” Peter said it was a good try but that it wasn’t the password. “God is love,” the man tried again. “No, that’s not it,” said Peter. “Wait, I’ve got it,” the man said, “Whoever believes in Him will be saved.” “Sorry,” said Peter. “Well, then,” the man sadly said, “I give up.” “That’s it!” exclaimed Peter. “Come in!” He’s so good because we can be so bad. (RRK)
16th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
September 24, 1995
Four Lessons to be Learned from a Crook
What a story is in our text! It is a story of rascals. What kind of a message was Jesus trying to tell?
The main character, the manager, was guilty of apparent embezzlement. If not that, at least he had been sloppy in his work. His carelessness got him into a jam.
There were the debtors. These men owed money to the landlord. They were stupid enough to get involved in the manager’s misdemeanor. This made them subject to blackmail.
Then there was the master himself. His money had been wasted by his crooked manager. Yet he compliments the cleverness with which he has been tricked out of his income.
Why did Christ tell about these rascals? Jesus knew that you and I can learn invaluable lessons from the wrong actions of bad people. Today we will look at four lessons to be learned from a crook. This dishonest manager, by his actions, speaks.
Lesson One: Be smart enough to size up your situation in life realistically and take proper action.
Jesus calls you to realism! You and I can float around in a sentimental fog, not seeing ourselves as we are. There is nothing more pathetic than self-delusion.
Have you ever met an eternal optimist? This person is convinced everything is going to work out well. Sure, he has problems. He is convinced he can handle those problems. How shocked he is when some aspect of his life falls apart. He loses his money. Things go bad at home. Optimism can be a good quality. When overdone, it can blind us to the realities of life, stripping us of any sense of realism.
You and I need to face the fact that we are, in our own strength, spiritually bankrupt and need to take drastic action. It makes no difference how big you are, how much money you have in the bank, how optimistic you are about the future. You need to see yourself as you really are. The Bible says, point-blank, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The Bible goes on to say, “The wages of sin is death.” This leaves no place for sentimental optimism, which claims that “everything’s all right.”
Jesus told about this crooked manager. In spite of all the negative aspects of this man’s life, Christ compliments him on his realism. This man knew the facts. He had mismanaged the funds. Inevitably he would be fired. He didn’t blind himself with naive optimism. He didn’t indulge himself in morose self-pity. He acted with prompt foresight. He dealt with the facts as they were, taking a clever course of action to remedy his precarious situation.
Knowing that the landlord would have no tolerance for his error, knowing that he didn’t want to dig ditches, knowing that he didn’t want to be a beggar, he schemed to make friends who would help him when he was out of work. Manipulating the accounts, he won such friends by decreasing their debts to the landlord.
Catch the lesson? God wants you to see yourself as you are, facing your situation head-on.
At times I am depressed by my own capacity toward self-delusion. Our society is doing it right now on the drug matter. I don’t know a parent who isn’t desperately concerned about the drug problem. It frightens us all. But in our fear we have lost our objectivity to the alcohol problem. Some parents have told me, “Well, I let my kids drink — just so long as they don’t get on drugs.” We set a pattern in our homes of addiction to alcohol. We forget that alcohol abuse has become one of our top national diseases. Over 50% of all automobile fatalities are alcohol caused. We accept alcohol as a social lubricant, while we strain our every effort to crush the drug menace. Do you have a problem in this area? Be honest with yourself. Deal with it now and get help.
Take the area of human sexuality. It’s about time that we quit kidding ourselves that we can rely on the condom to solve our sexual problems with unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Focus on the Family is running full-page ads in a number of newspapers, nationally, titled “In Defense of a Little Virginity.” It’s a little information page loaded with statistics that do not lie. It declares that condoms can fail at least 15.7% of the time annually in preventing pregnancy. They fail 36.3% of the time annually in preventing pregnancy among young unmarried minority women.
It goes on to say, “Remembering that a woman can conceive only one or two days per month, we know the failure rate for condoms must be much higher when it comes to preventing disease, which can be transmitted 365 days per year! If the devices are not used properly, or if they slip just once, viruses and bacteria are exchanged and the disease process begins. One mistake after 500 ‘protected’ episodes is all it takes to contract a sexually transmitted disease. The damage is done in a single moment when rational thought is overridden by passion.” This is realistic, factual talk. We need more of this.
Jesus calls you and me to be realists. We can learn from this crooked manager what it is to assess with candor ourselves and the environment in which we live. I don’t know you well enough to point out stuff in your life that needs to change. But hopefully I do know myself, and I am willing to make a personal inventory ever so often to see precisely where I am. Periodically I need to update myself and make some changes. It may involve my attitude toward other persons. It may mean forgiving someone against whom I am carrying a grudge. It may mean being willing to get to work on some project or cause I have neglected. It may mean confronting someone with “tough love” on an issue that I have avoided because I like to be liked. How about you?
God wants us to be objective — not top-sided — individuals. He wants us to see life as it is — good, bad, and indifferent. He wants you to be smart enough to size up your own situation in life objectively, and to take proper action of surrendering yourself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Don’t stumble on, naively thinking that you can save yourself.
Lesson Two: If those of us who call ourselves Christians would be as energetic about the Lord’s business as the person without Christ is about nonspiritual, futile things, our own lives and this world would be revolutionized.
Jesus calls you to shrewdness!
The rogue of whom Jesus told went to all ends to protect himself. He showed objectivity in analyzing his situation. He was a man of courage. He tackled his problem head-on. He showed creative imagination. His mind was fertile with resourceful ideas. He came up with a game plan to protect his future. And he carried out his plan promptly.
Jesus made this general statement: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (Luke 16:8).
It is a simple fact. If you want something bad enough, you will go after it with a vengeance. You will utilize every capacity you have to be successful. If you are serious enough about the Lord, you would apply the same kind of energy in seeking out His will for your life. Jesus said that if you and I, as believers in Him, were as resourceful in our pursuit of righteousness as a nonbeliever is in his own personal achievements, there would be no limit to what you could be spiritually or the impact your life could make on this world.
Seldom does the day go by without our reading about some burglary. Men and woman maximize all of their creative abilities in their criminal activities. The thief works at his business. He masters the business of picking locks. He studies the floor plan of the building. He watches the lifestyle of the occupants. He makes elaborate plans to conceal his identity and to cover his tracks. It takes work to be a thief. Jesus said that the people of this world are more shrewd in handling their affairs than the people who belong to Him.
The way we use our leisure time is an additional index. The golfer or the sailor spends twenty times the amount of time, money, and energy On his pleasure and sport than some of us spend on the church. A number of months ago a friend of mine made an interesting observation about his sailing activity. This quote came at the end of two long days of working on the engine, polishing metal, and scrubbing down the entire boat: “All week I work to make enough money to have the privilege of spending the weekend doing the kind of work that I wouldn’t consider doing for income.”
The words of Christ are sad but true. Men who hunt after trifles that perish end up setting an example for those of us who are pursuing eternal realities.
If those of us who call ourselves Christian would be as energetic about the Lord’s business as those who make no profession are about the things important to them, our lives and this world would be revolutionized.
Lesson Three: You are accountable for what you do with all you’ve been given.
Jesus calls you to accountability! Are you using everything you have for now and for the future? God has given you various material possessions — emotional, intellectual, and spiritual — which should be used to cement permanent values.
Commenting on this rogue’s action, Jesus said: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
Did Jesus mean that we are to buy our salvation? Not for a moment! Does Jesus mean that our lives are shaped by economic values? No. Jesus is simply saying that you and I have been given certain assets that are to be invested in things of an eternal nature. If we use wisely the finances He has given to us, investing them in leading men and women to saving faith in Jesus Christ, we will be met in Heaven by a host of individuals who are already there — because we have sent the missionary or the evangelist or the youth minister to share the Good News. You can’t carry your wealth beyond this life. You can invest it in eternal things.
Jesus builds on this idea, addressing the importance of little things. He said in Luke 16:10-11: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”
You may feel that God hasn’t given you very much. Don’t kid yourself. He has entrusted to you various precious commodities. These things may not seem much because you have them in abundance. Perhaps you will never fully appreciate the gift of your children until you stand on the threshold of losing one. Then you will be overwhelmed at how rich you are — with the wealth you took for granted.
Perhaps you will never appreciate the job that God has given to you until the day comes that you are threatened with the loss of that job — and then you will realize what rich provision is yours.
I am reminded of the way we take for granted the nice ice-cold glass of water which costs practically nothing. It has so little value. Come with me to the little restaurant at Petra in the southern part of Transjordan. The blast furnace heat of the desert has taken its toll. It is now 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon. The tables are spread with delicious food. But none of us are eating. What are we doing? We are buying bottled water and paying $5 per person for a couple of glassfuls. It is precious only when we don’t have it.
How are you handling the little things of life? Are you appreciative of what God has given you? Are you using these things in His service?
Christ goes on to say that how you handle things of others will influence what responsibilities God will give to you. In Luke 16:12 He says: And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?”
Take this matter of money. How are you handling it? The money you have is not your own. Any little fluctuation can take it away. God has given it.
Having possessions is not sinful. It is the way we exploit these God-given possessions for ourselves that becomes sin. If you are a believer in Christ, you are instructed to tithe — to give 10% before taxes, of all you have — to the work of Christ. Are you faithful in your stewardship? Some day you will be held accountable.
You can make a real investment in eternity right now. It is unlikely that I could be where I am at this moment if it weren’t for a couple who saw me struggling financially to make ends meet in seminary. I had worked my way through high school, college, and was holding down two jobs in New York City while attending Princeton. This meant I had to travel on a three-hour commute three days a week while I was carrying full-time classes. Ross and Esther Martin saw the need. Without any solicitation from myself, they arranged for a scholarship that eliminated two of those three days of work. This freed me to complete an education that would have been short-circuited without their help. That was thirty years ago. They are both now dead, but their faithful stewardship lives on. I was just one of many persons helped by them.
The same thing goes for the support you give to world missions, youth ministry, and ongoing work of this church. Many a person blessed of God financially has become a rich fool. Why? Because he measured his wealth in what he put away in bank vaults and investments.
True wealth is measured not in what we keep, but in what we have given away. A friend of mine has for sixty years carefully guarded his investments to provide for his children. In the process, he has grown rich and actually lost his children. Right now, he is trying to figure out a way to guarantee that his rebellious children will not be the beneficiaries of his fortune.
You are accountable for what you do with all you’ve been given. Be sure it is invested in a way that will bring eternal profit. Our manager-rogue looked to the future, preparing for the day when he no longer would have the income of his job. In a devious way, in a shrewd intelligence, he invested in his future.
Lesson Four: You have to decide who is your master.
Jesus calls you to decision!
Jesus concluded His analysis of the shrewd manager by saying this: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Luke 16:13).
This clever manager kept first things first. He had a shrewd insight into the facts of life. He didn’t play both sides of the fence. He switched his allegiance to win the friendships that would protect his future.
You can’t serve two masters. You are going to have to decide what is going to run your life. You have to decide between Jesus Christ and every other potential lord.
Perhaps you have a spiritual split personality. The Old Testament prophet, Elijah, talked about an individual who limped along between two opinions. One day he was on God’s side. The next day he was worshiping the pagan god, Baal. Are you in that position today? Are you religious for one hour on Sunday but live like hell the rest of the week? Do you serve God when it’s convenient and then serve the world the rest of the time? Is your ambition your lord? Is your money your lord? Is your family your lord?
All of these things are good. But there is only one Lord. He is God Almighty who has revealed Himself as the Creator, Father, the Savior, Son, the spiritual energizing force to help you today — the Holy Spirit. The psychiatrist calls the split personality schizophrenic. That’s a label of sickness that applies to you spiritually. You are sick. You need the healing touch, a single mindedness, which comes from simple trust in Jesus Christ.
Businessmen call this divided loyalty “moonlighting.” I did it in college during a Christmas vacation. I held down one job at the Chicago U.S. Post Office, working from 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. As soon as I got off work in the morning, I would take a catnap and then make my way over to the TWA office in downtown Chicago. I would work there from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Another brief nap, and I would head back to the post office. This moon-lighting didn’t last very long. I couldn’t serve two masters. My health almost broke. I had to drop one job.
Serving God can’t be part time. It is full time. It is a matter of priority. You have to decide who is your master.
Be objective, sizing up who you are and what you should do. Face the fact that you are accountable for everything you do in this world. Be as energetic about the Lord’s business as others are about temporary, transient things of this world. And make a decision who is your real master.
Right now you can settle, once and for all, these ultimate questions. You can allow Jesus Christ to come into your life and take over. I invite you to pray after me this simple prayer: “Dear God, my life is confused. I need direction. I am willing to admit that I am a sinner. I don’t understand everything about myself or everything about You, but I am willing, in simple trust, to repent of my sin and to place my life in Your hands. Thank You for forgiveness. Get me up and get me going. Help me to bend my every energy to Your service. Help me to see life realistically, acknowledge my accountability as a steward, reexamine my prioritization of energy input, and declare You have my unchallenged loyalty as Master. In the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” (JAH)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Richard C. Prassel, Pastor, Sterling Park Baptist Church, Sterling, VA; Thomas R. Steagald, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Marion, NC; Richard Anderson, Pastor, St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church, San Jose, CA; Robert R. Kopp, Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; John A. Huffman, Jr., Minister, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach. CA; and Michael Duduit, editor of Preaching.
9th Sunday after Pentecost (C)