17th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
October 1, 1995
Godliness With Contentment
(1 Timothy 6:6-10)
How many truly contented people do you suppose you know: people who are really satisfied with themselves, their marriage, their children, their health, the community in which they live, the house where they live, the job they hold, the degree of their success, the schools which their children attend, the church to which they belong? How many people do you know who would be content to live as they do and where they do from now on?
A farmer had lived on the same small farm all his life. He desperately craved for a change. He decided to sell the old home place and buy another farm — one larger and more to his liking. He listed the farm with a local realtor.
Several days later, the farmer read an ad in the local newspaper, describing the farm of his dreams. It read: “Beautiful farmhouse, ideal location, excellent barn, good pasture, fertile soil, up-to-date equipment, well-bred stock. Near town, church, and school. Good neighbors.”
The farmer called his realtor and said, “I’ve been looking for a place like that all my life. Could you arrange an appointment for me to see it?”
The realtor responded: “That’s the ad for your property. Are you sure you want to sell it?” The farmer was living in paradise and did not even realize it. He took the farm off the market and decided that’s exactly where he wanted to be — from now on.
Each of us can relate to that. We magnify the difficulties, exaggerate the shortcomings, overlook the advantages, and fail to see the good in what we have.
Perhaps that is why the words of the Apostle Paul intrigue us so much. He speaks forthrightly about contentment, as if it is within reach. For instance, in the text, he wrote: “godliness with contentment is great gain” (v.6).
The Greek word which is translated “contentment” in the text is also translated in other ways in other New Testament passages. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 9:8, the word is rendered, in some versions, “all sufficiency.” In the New International Version, it reads:
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all time, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
Also, when God said to Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9), he used the word translated elsewhere as “to be content.” (see Luke 3:14; 1 Timothy 6:8; Hebrews 13:5)
The contented person experiences the sufficiency of God’s provision for her needs and the sufficiency of God’s grace for her circumstances. A contented person believes that God will work in all her circumstances for her good.
Apparently contentment is one of the distinguishing traits of a godly person. Paul certainly believed that there is an advantage for the godly person who is contented and fulfilled. That is why he wrote, “godliness with contentment is great gain.”
But Paul stopped short of suggesting that all godly people will always be satisfied with everything about themselves, their circumstances, and condition. So if you are struggling to be more godly but are not yet contented and fulfilled, don’t give up! You can learn to be.
Apparently, Paul had not always been contented and satisfied with his life, even though he was reared in the lap of luxury. Until he became a Christian, he had never gone without anything he wanted. If you’ve ever lived that way, you know that merely having enough — or more — of everything you need and want does not necessarily satisfy you. It may only increase your appetite for more.
You also know that if you have been accustomed to providing for yourself, it’s not easy to depend upon someone else to provide for you, even when that someone else is God. To live entirely by God’s unmerited favor given through Jesus Christ, and to rely upon Him in any and every situation, does not come naturally for many of us.
We must be willing to learn how to be contented. And learning always takes time. There is no instant relief and there are no immediate victories, not even for God’s people, If you insist upon immediate satisfaction, you will simply set yourself up for disappointment and discouragement.
So let me help point you in the right direction toward learning how to be content — through relying upon God — in the midst of your personal limitation, circumstances and conditions of your life. Remember, however, that these are only beginning steps and that the way to godliness with contentment is a long journey.
The first step is this:
I. Learn to live in the here and now.
Much of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction is due to two primary factors: regrets about missed opportunities or past failures and the mistaken notion that tomorrow’s opportunities will be better than today’s.
Most of us have a difficult time letting go of our past failures. They are indelibly stored in the video and audio vaults of our memory. Envisioning the mistakes we have made, we tend to play them over and again on the video screens of our minds, like a favorite movie stored on a video tape.
Or if we have been personally devastated by some unkind or harsh remark, malicious lie or betrayal, we tend to play the tape over and again, refreshing our memories and reopening the wounds.
On the other hand, people are also prone to live in the future – looking forward to happiness and contentment, but being denied it here and now. In the meantime, their lives are filled only with anticipation and hope of “the things that might be.”
What we need to constantly emphasize is that life, God’s life within us, is happening here and now. We must practice His presence in the present; otherwise, He will elude us.
Several years ago, Leo Buscaglia assigned a paper in which his students were asked to respond to the question: “If you had only five days to live, how would you spend those five days? And with whom?”
The responses were interesting. Some indicated they would say “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” Others wrote that they would “walk on the beach and watch a sunrise.” They turned in their papers and when they got them back, written on each one of them was the note: “Why don’t you do these things today?”
The point is clear. Don’t wait. Do it now. If you have a word of love that needs to be expressed, say it now. If you have a broken relationship that ought to be mended, don’t let the sun go down tonight without setting it right. If you have something you need to be doing, seize the moment! Do it now!
The second step toward contentment is this:
II. Don’t be in such a hurry all the time.
I have a friend who has repeatedly expressed two fears to me. One is that if he does not slow down he might have a heart attack. The other fear is that if he doesn’t hurry up, he will not accomplish everything he needs to get done before he has his heart attack.
One of the most difficult disciplines of the godly life is to “be still.” Nothing is harder than to remain at the point of need, to stand persistently — if not stubbornly — where your restlessness and impatience are the most intense. Nothing is more demanding than to be determined to resist the temptation to be enticed or distracted away by easy, magical or instant solutions to our problems. That perhaps is the hardest lesson of all to learn.
A little boy was once in a frantic foot race with his older sister. When he realized that he was having a hard time keeping up, he shouted: “Second one there wins!” If there is a solid biblical concept, that is it.
It is our culture and not His Kingdom that promises the reward to the one who finishes first. God does not call us to cross the line ahead of anyone else. He only demands that we stay in the race until we cross the finish line.
So, don’t be in such a hurry. Relax! Everything does not depend upon you getting there — anywhere — before everyone else.
The third step toward contentment is this:
III. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
A tuba player in the orchestra got a night off because he had a tooth pulled. He decided to come to the concert and sit in the audience for a change. He took his seat in the front row of the balcony where he could see and hear everything.
He was thrilled with what he heard. Afterward, he ran backstage to the other orchestra members and conductor and shouted: “You know what? The symphony doesn’t go ‘oompah, oompah, oompah’ at all!” For the first time, he had seen himself in relation to the entire symphony, and it was freeing!
It’s easy to get obsessed with our indispensability. I’ve know some busy mothers who have had the liberating experience of having to go to the hospital for a few days and later discovering that the family got along just fine. In fact, this was an important discovery for every member of the family.
And I’ve known some others who have gone back to their job after having been away for a while. They discover that they really haven’t been missed at all. In fact, things ran quite smoothly in their absence. It’s helpful when we learn that, while we have a corner of it, the world does not rest entirely upon our shoulders.
When we begin to see our relationship to the people, institutions, and systems around us in its proper perspective, we are freed to live a more contented existence. When we realize that we are neither the center of the universe nor its foundation, others are not forced to conform to our standards, agree with our opinions, or defend our positions. What a blessing that would be!
The fourth step toward contentment is this:
IV. Learn how to express gratitude.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians: “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18).
The principle is basic: the essence of happiness and peace lies in our ability to express gratitude.
Gratitude is not an option for a Christian, and thanksgiving is the source of peace. There simply is no substitute for it. It’s the surest way I know to express godly contentment.
One man learned how to rely upon God’s sufficiency even in the face of very hard circumstances. He described his pilgrimage this way:
I asked God for strength that I might achieve. I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked God for health that I might do greater things. I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy. I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men. I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life. I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but everything I had hoped for….
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.
God’s plan is always best. God always knows what is best. Will you allow God’s grace to satisfy your hunger, fill your emptiness, and give you joy and peace beyond all measure, through Jesus Christ our Lord? (Gary C. Redding)
18th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
October 8, 1995
Only Done What Was Our Duty
“Only done what was our duty.” With that simple statement Jesus opens before us a whole host of problems. For there is always this tangled web of decisions that flood in upon us when we mention duty. Duty! What is our duty? When I was playing basketball in high school all the coach told me to give was 100%. Now there is all this talk about everyone giving 110%. What is my duty and to whom?
In 1805, when the British navy went to battle the forces of Napoleon, Lord Nelson of the British fleet sent the simple message to his troops, “England expects every man to do his duty.” And few soldiers have ever fought harder and produced a greater victory. When this country announced to its youth almost 30 years ago that it expected every man to do his duty in Vietnam, a great many of those youth responded by asking a question about a higher duty to humanity and refused to fight.
Only done what was our duty. What is our duty and to whom? We are more and more caught in a struggle of trying to sort our obligations and commitments and desires. In a paper he presented at the dedication of the new Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville, Walter Brueggeman addressed this problem of “doing our duty.” The more difficult part is the recognition that our faith duty as disciples of Jesus Christ is increasingly at odds with dominant American values. This is a new situation for us. It has come about not because the faith has grown more radical but because the antihuman dimensions of American self-discernment have grown more powerful and bold. Thus we have to recognize the new and true situation. We hold to an identity as Christian people and we have a vocation, a calling, a duty which is largely unwelcomed and unwanted in our society.
Is our duty to our country, to our culture, or to our Christ? And yet the discussion of the whole question of “Duty” is becoming more and more distant from the lives of people today. In a world that tells you to grab for all the gusto in life, duty is not a responsibility which will fit easily into that new lifestyle of gusto.
Even when we acknowledge that there is a duty and are willing to fulfill it, there is a further appreciation of the fact that duty is not all there is. Even in the teachings of Jesus there is this distinction between doing what was one’s duty and going beyond that duty and adding something extra. Duty is what you have to do; what you do above and beyond duty is the special and generous and gracious part.
Duty is the going with the soldier one mile as required by Roman law. Jesus says we as representatives of God’s grace go with them two miles. Duty is what you are required to give when they ask for your coat, but as my disciples, Jesus says, give them your shirt as well.
Those of you who have seen the play or movie “Driving Miss Daisy” know that part of what is being shown to us in that play is the contrast between what is the obligation and duty of an employer-employee relationship and how — in this case — the relationship grew way beyond what was their duty to each other. Miss Daisy and her chauffeur grew into a relationship of care and concern for each other – the chauffeur, a black man, who became outraged in the bombing of Miss Daisy’s temple, and Miss Daisy, a white woman in Atlanta, Ga, supporting the early movements of the NAACP. Miss Daisy in the retirement center and her chauffeur still coming every day to feed her and help her. The story is not about duty; it is about the extra that goes beyond duty.
That is why Jesus calls the servant in this parable “the unprofitable” servant. Jesus is talking to His disciples about our relationship with God and He says that when we try to apply this whole notion of duty and extra to our relationship with God, we encounter great confusion and distort our relationship with God. The servant is not “unprofitable” in terms of meaning worthless, no good, or lazy. The servant is simply “unprofitable” in the sense that the servant never makes extra, never generates a profit, never does enough to add more that he received.
When Mother Theresa visited Washington, D.C. she immediately went to the places of pain and suffering, went to the shelters for the homeless and the places where the hungry are fed. Reporters asked her what she ever hoped to accomplish with her work. She replied “The joy of loving and being loved.” Then one reporter asked “That takes a lot of money, doesn’t it?” She shook her head sadly at how we immediately put dollar figures on everything, and she said, “No, it just takes a lot of sacrifice.”
In our relationships with one another some people are more profitable than others. They do more than their duty. In human exchange of duty and sacrifice some people go beyond duty and are “profitable servants.”
But Jesus’ ministry was focused on showing us the Father. Jesus had one purpose on earth and that was to help us come to understand our relationship forever. His teaching, His parables, are always concerned to show us more about God. So when Jesus tells this story of servants who come in from the field and have done their days work and who now have to prepare supper for the master — and who, even at the end of the day are still called unprofitable servants — is not talking about relationships between human beings. This is not a labor-management seminar.
Jesus is talking about the relationship between us and God. We are the “unprofitable servants” because nothing we can ever do can put God in our debt. We never satisfy our duty to God and therefore, earn “a profit” of goodness or merit for ourselves by which we can make any claim upon God’s love. “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” and so even if we give our tithes and give beyond the tithe, we are only giving back to God what He has blessed us with. In this parable Jesus is pushing us to discover that the whole notion of duty and merit are absent from our relationship with God.
The parable suggests that even the most holy and righteous life, even a Mother Theresa, has done no more than was her duty. There is no ground on which special rewards can be expected or demanded. Always our best is no more than God is entitled and worthy to expect from those whom He has already blessed with life, love and redemption.
The whole notion of duty and merit, of extra and above and beyond, is abandoned when we come into the presence of God’s love and mercy. Jesus says that our joy is not in being profitable servants, but simply in being servants of the most High God. (Rick Brand)
19th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
October 15, 1995
What About the One?
It’s a favorite Thanksgiving sermon. You’ve probably heard it several times. “Where are the nine? Ten were healed, but only one comes back to thank the Lord. Where are the other nine, those ungrateful so and so’s? We should be like the one, and not the nine.” Then we go home and eat turkey and watch football.
But since Thanksgiving is still a month away, perhaps we can look at this passage with new eyes and recognize that it is not about nine ungrateful people; it is about one, a surprising one, who receives more than simply healing. And he reminds us that, too often, we settle for the superficial, when all along Jesus has something even greater in mind for us.
We preachers tend to be too tough on the nine. After all, they did exactly what Jesus told them to do, and even demonstrated faith in the act. Verse 14 reminds us that Jesus didn’t heal them on the spot and then send them to the priest for certification; the healing happened “on the way.” It wasn’t until they were on the way to the priest, to certify that they were healed, that the healing actually took place.
Suppose you told your wife or husband, “I’m going to Tom’s house to tell him about my new job.”
“What new job?”
“Well, I don’t have one yet, but I figure I’ll get a call offering me a job on the way over to Tom’s house.” That’s confidence! And as the ten lepers acted on Jesus’ command, they were healed.
It is true that often God’s work does not take place in our lives until we step out in obedience, doing what God has commanded even though we don’t yet see the results. All ten lepers did that, and all ten were healed.
But that’s where the story turns, for one leper goes back to find Jesus. The other nine were certainly grateful for physical healing, and after obeying Jesus’ command to go to the priest, they headed for families, friends, returned to their old lives.
All but one, who recognized that something remarkable had just happened in his life, and who had to get back to the source. He comes back and praises God and throws himself at Jesus’ feet.
That’s when Luke throws in the unexpected twist in the story: this one grateful ex-leper is a Samaritan. Member of a despised race and nation. Don’t you just hate it when Jesus reminds us that sometimes the folks we reject are the ones God uses? That’s the insight here, and it must have annoyed His listeners no end, for they utterly despised the Samaritans. And again and again– first in the story of the Good Samaritan, and now here — Jesus reminds them that God has no use for their petty hatreds and divisions, or ours. God is looking for people who want to be a part of His Kingdom.
And that’s what happens that day on the road. The Samaritan leper not only receives physical healing, like the other nine, but he also receives spiritual healing. In verse 19, the words “made you well” are literally “saved you.” Not only did the Samaritan lose a disease that day; he also found a new, transformed life. The other nine returned to old lives; the Samaritan found a new one.
We come to the Lord and ask for healing, ask Him to satisfy our material needs — then go right back to the same old lives we’ve always lived. And Jesus is still on the road, receiving the few who return for something more, and giving them far more than they could have ever expected. (Michael Duduit)
20th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
October 22, 1995
Nourishment for Life
(2 Timothy 3:16)
As the aged Sir Walter Scott lay dying, he asked to be wheeled into his library and placed before the window which commanded a beautiful view of the River Tweed. Here, his biographer writes, the famous author expressed the desire that his attendant read to him.
“From what book?” he asked, seeing there were thousands of volumes in his library.
“Need you ask?” he responded. “There is but one book.” Whereupon his servant took the Bible and began to read.
Without a doubt the Bible is the Book of books. It is the best seller of all published works. For many this book is cherished beyond compare. It is perhaps the most oft quoted, and I might add, misquoted book of all time.
The Bible is not only a great book but also the foundation upon which our faith rests. We cannot mature and become like God without it. God wants every believer to grow. One needs the nourishment of food in order to develop. The Bible is food for the believer. It becomes the source of spiritual nourishment and sustaining strength for the follower of Christ. How can we receive the full nourishment of its words?
I. Accept Its Authority
We all have authorities. Our authorities are the preconceptions that determine how we spend our time, invest our money, make our decisions, determine our beliefs.
Some people base their preconceptions on unreliable authorities, such as: People: “Well, so and so said…,” Culture: “Everybody is doing it,” Tradition: “We’ve always done it that way,” Reason: “Well I’ve always thought…”, or Feelings: “It just feels so right.”
But there is only one reliable and trustworthy authority — God’s Word. Recently I bought a new car for my wife. Before I drove off the lot with that new purchase the salesman gave me the handbook that went with the car and said, “Read it!” Inside the front cover of that manual were these words: “Read this book from cover to cover.” The authority was the manual. If I wanted the car to run well, if I wanted to drive it right and enjoy it for a lifetime, I had to acknowledge and use the authority of its manual.
When we receive Christ, we come under a new authority: the Bible. The Bible claims for itself the authority of God. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). When we yield to the authority of Scripture, we yield to God’s authority.
II. Incorporate Its Insights
I don’t know if you have noticed, but there is a battle going on for our minds. Our mind and how we think is the controlling factor in our behavior, in what we do. You have heard it said: “It’s not what you think you are that you are, but what you think, you are.” We are the things that fill our minds.
If our lives are to resemble Christ’s whom we follow, then we need to fill our minds with God’s Word. The Bible is where we learn what God thinks, where we discover how God sees things, where we find God’s will.
After Paul instructs Timothy that all Scripture is inspired by God, he then adds, “and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). Once we incorporate God’s Word into our lives it begins to affect how we think.
How do we incorporate these insights into our lives?
By listening to God’s Word. We must learn to listen with an open attitude.
By reading God’s Word. Some say I believe the Bible from cover to cover, but the question is do they read the Bible from cover to cover?
By studying God’s Word. The difference between reading and studying the Bible is that in studying one writes down thoughts and observations.
By memorizing God’s Word. Nothing sustains and impacts your Christian life like memorization of Scripture.
By meditating on God’s Word. Meditation is serious thinking about scripture. The fact is that if we can worry we can meditate. Worry is negative meditation.
III. Practice Its Principles
We submit our minds to the Word of God not only because we want to think right, but that we might do right. We move from accepting its authority to incorporating its insights to practicing its principles. Paul reminds Timothy, “So that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17, NIV). As believers, we do not want to settle for understanding alone; we want to apply the biblical principles to our daily living. All of our efforts in Bible study and reading are valueless if in the final analysis we do not change and become more like Jesus.
Two men living on the island of Okinawa came across a Bible which had been left in their community by a missionary. The men read the Book, and through it accepted the Lord Jesus as their Savior. One of them eventually became the leader of the town. The other started a school where the Bible was studied. Eventually, through their witness, the whole town was converted to Christ.
When the American Army entered their village during World War II, without any resistance, the military was astonished to find that in comparison with other Okinawan communities, this one was clean, orderly, and happy.
One hardboiled sergeant, walking through the community, telling this story to a reporter said, “I can’t figure it — this kind of people coming out of only a Bible and a couple of old guys who wanted to live like Jesus!”
This is the obvious transformation of people who take God’s Word to heart and apply it to their lives! (William Richard Ezell)
21st Sunday after Pentecost (C)
October 29, 1995
Perseverance in The Disciplines
(2 Timothy 4:1-8)
Let me be very frank with you. I have discovered that life is difficult. I have also discovered that life is wonderful.
And I have discovered that life is a mixture of that which is almost impossibly difficult with that which is exquisitely wonderful, so that most of my life is lived with a kind of strange mixture of both the negative and positive.
I have also discovered that life lived as a follower of Jesus Christ is quite complex. I am inclined to say that it is more complex than the life lived by one who is not a follower of Jesus. However, even brief reflection on that notion points out a fallacy in my logic. A life of egocentric “I am going to do things my way” seems to be the most basic and simplistic of lifestyles. However, one ends up weaving an intricate web that can ultimately entangle one in the complexity of shattered dreams, broken relationships, accompanied by moral, spiritual, physical and emotional melt-down.
Yet I would still contend that life lived as a follower of Jesus does have an element of complexity to it because you and I have our natural drives plus those drives that initiate with the Holy Spirit, opening us to a deepening of our spirituality as well as a maturing of our values.
Deepening spirituality does not happen in a vacuum. It involves intentional action on your part. It is what we have referred to as the vision factor. The youngster shooting baskets, practicing the piano, studying history will become all the more motivated if he or she has a vision in mind of playing on a championship team, performing before a live audience, or making an intellectual or political contribution. It helps to have a vision. I commend to you the vision of godliness, that powerful deepening of spirituality which comes through the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life, and your willingness to engage actively in those practices that make you more like Christ.
I. Remember that laziness never leads to godliness
You live a very busy life. We all do. By the time we are done doing everything we have to do in a given day, there is not much time for much else, is there? You add to that the unique pressures of being a single parent, coping with family conflict, dealing with a second job, illness, professional stress, or financial tension and you have all of the dynamics for overload. In a way, the last thing you need me telling you is that you should add some of these disciplines to your life.
Let me assure you that, in most cases, the godly person is a busy person. Jesus Himself lived a life marked by constant pressure to be available to people. He got up early, traveled, had people tugging and pulling at Him from all angles. There were nights in which He never slept. There were times He got so tired He could fall asleep in an open, storm-tossed ship. I doubt that any of us have experienced pressures greater than those He experienced.
How can we keep up the pace? How can we live realistically with such pressures?
It becomes a matter of priority. The older we get, the more attachments we have in our lives, both of material possessions and relational responsibilities.
Remember that without practicing these spiritual disciplines, we will gradually accommodate ourselves to a status-quo existence, robbing ourselves of that deepening spirituality, that godliness that can be ours. Perseverance, a steady and deliberate perseverance, in the spiritual disciplines will enable us to move beyond laziness to godliness.
II. Remember that the lack of discipline can cause you to get morally and spiritually lost.
When we neglect spiritual disciplines, our neglect of the Bible causes us to lose those specific instructions God gives to us as to how to live the smart way. Our neglect of prayer robs us of the privileged conversation we can have with God. What a privilege it is to worship, to be good stewards of our time, talent, and money, to share our faith with others, to serve their needs, to devote substantial time to fasting, silence, solitude, journaling, and learning. Without some of these objective and subjective disciplines we can lose our moorings and literally waste years of our life, headed blissfully in the wrong direction without knowing our mistake.
The disciplines help you grow spiritually, prepare you for the great moments of life, help you to endure, and enable you to be a whole person. Isn’t this the kind of life you would love to live? I have never yet met a good athlete who has sustained his or her giftedness without regular discipline.
III. Remember that the Holy Spirit is a key Person in all of this.
Years ago my dear friend, Robert Munger, wrote that practical little booklet titled My Heart, Christ’s Home. He describes Christ standing at the door of your life, knocking, wanting access to it. Some people never open the door. Others let Him into just the living room. If Jesus Christ is to truly be a guest in our lives, He need access to the kitchen, to the study, to the bedroom, to the closets, to the bathroom, to the garage. He really wants to come in and be part of our entire existence, through the presence of His Holy Spirit.
I’ve discovered, for my prayer life to be fresh and vital, I need to simply be honest with God and to tell Him that I haven’t been as frequent in my prayers as I know I need to be. That honest statement somehow primes the pump for a deepening of spirituality. Just taking out my journal and beginning to write seems to bring about a connection point with God in which I sense the Holy Spirit operative in my life. Missing that occasional meal and taking the time to be silent and in solitude brings a spiritual refreshment that evidences the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.
My problem is I tend to relegate Jesus Christ to the vestibule of my existence instead of opening myself, whole-souled, to the presence and power of His Holy Spirit.
IV. Remember your need for fellowship.
The Christian life is not a Lone Ranger existence. You and I need other believers with whom we stay in contact. That’s why we have public worship. That’s why we are involved in the service of other people. Community is crucial to spiritual deepening. I am talking about intentional sharing with other persons in Christian fellowship. The Bible refers to the mutual edification which happens when we see ourselves as part of the whole body of Jesus Christ.
V. Remember that none of this will happen without some struggle.
Christian living isn’t easy. Beware those who paint a picture that pretends all you have to do is come to Jesus and all your problems will go away. The life of the follower of Jesus Christ is one that is engaged in spiritual conflict. The Evil One desires to trip us up. He would love to turn us away from such disciplines. He would love to have us grow weary and lose heart. You and I never in this world are going to be able to live beyond conflict. Remember that we have a model. Jesus Christ is that model.
The author of Hebrews states: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:3-4).
As one who is saved by God’s grace and one who is honest and open to my need of the Lord and His help, we can– with the help of some of these disciplines and the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit — deepen in our spirituality.
You and I can say at the end of our lives: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only tome, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
It would be wonderful to think that we have allowed God to work in us that which would cause our children to rise up and call us “blessed.” But even if they don’t, Jesus will meet us on the other side and say, “well done, you good and faithful servant. Enter into your eternal rest.” (John A. Huffman, Jr.)
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 5, 1995
The Unending Vision
(Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4)
“But this is the end — This is the end of the innocence.” Such is the vision seen by Don Henley in a song that was on the charts a few years ago. Look around and you can see that the fragile flower of innocence and trust and goodness is being crushed all around.
The prophet Habakkuk has something of the same vision. The prophet of God sees something of the same kind of trouble. “The law is slacked and justice never goes forth, and the wicked surround the righteous so justice is perverted.” Barry McGuire claimed to have seen something of the same kind of darkness upon the horizon in another age when he belted forth his song about life being on the Eve of Destruction.
The prophet lifts up this complaint to God and the answer that comes back from God is almost more than the prophet can take. God says look and see that what I am doing is raising up and preparing to use the bitter and nasty nation of Chaldeans.
It is so easy to make up a list of gloom and doom. It is hard to hold fast to a vision of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave after you have listened to a CBS Special on the problem of drugs in this country. It is hard to hold fast to the vision of this country as a land of opportunity for all after you have seen a report on PBS on the quality of education for all and seen how we have treated the aliens in our community. It is hard to believe in justice for all after you have listened to a report on our criminal justice system — of the backlog of cases and the problem of overcrowding in jails and the number of blacks on death row compared to the number of other races.
It is easy to be the prophet of doom and cry out that God has abandoned us. How long will you see evil and violence around us, O God, and not stir Thyself to do something? There are in every age those who believe that they live at the end of innocence.
Habakkuk cries this song of complaint and woe for us, and the response of God to the first demand is to suggest that conditions may even get worse and more bizarre because God is about to raise up the Chaldeans, a wicked and evil people, as His instrument of providence. Habakkuk takes the complaint one step further: “Well, how long are you going to remain silent. Why do thou look on faithless men and art silent when the wicked swallow up the man of righteousness?”
And God speaks back His promise: “Write the vision large so that all who run may be able to see it as they run. For the vision awaits its time. It hastens to the end — it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
The Scriptural response to the cries of gloom and the predictions that we are on the eve of destruction is to simply call us back to the vision of God’s promised land — to hold before our eyes the vision of God’s paradise.
God tells Habakkuk to make every effort to keep the vision of the new world, of a world living in obedience to God’s love and goodness, before the eyes and hearts of the people around him. Do not forsake the dream. Hold fast to the vision. It is at work and it is changing the world. and dictate to people.
Hold fast to the vision when the dark days come. Hold it up high so you can see it when you run. Keep the vision of a new heaven and a new earth that will bring in the full measure of God’s love and grace, because keeping the vision before us empowers us to live out that vision.
We are creatures who have a way of living up to and living out our visions. We have so much that points us in that direction. Olympic divers from the spring board and platform are told to do the dive in their minds before they go out to dive because the body will respond to that image. Teachers and others have discovered that children will live out the vision others have of them or that they have of themselves. The teacher is told these are bright, creative and gifted children and they live out and score well on tests. The teacher is told another group is low, weak, poorly motivated, and behind and they will score poorly.
So God suggests to Habakkuk when things look bleak: plaster the vision of the Kingdom of God up high and large so that all may see it. The Church call its people to a study of Scripture constantly so that the vision of the new life in Christ, so the picture of a new community as God’s chosen people might be strong in our minds; so that we might — by the power of the vision and the grace of God — be able to grow into the kingdom.
We gather for worship to hold before ourselves and others the idea and the vision that we are God’s people. When we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism, there is the line at the end: “See what manner of love the Father has for us that we should be called the Children of God, for so indeed we are.” We hold up for ourselves the vision that we, sinners and strugglers and frail people of dust, are children of God, and by that vision we find ourselves empowered by the Holy Spirit to live as the children of God.
When we come to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we say “This is the joyful feast of the people of God. Men and women will come from north and south and east and west to feast at the table of our Lord.” That is the vision: we are the people of God, and we are the ones who feast at the table.
God tell us that when life gets discouraging, and the forces of evil begin to look like they have won, then put before your eyes the vision of the kingdom of God; lift up the vision of a new life in Christ. We hold before ourselves in worship and study and prayer the vision of the new life in Christ, so that by the grace of God we might be transformed by the Holy Spirit into that which we have been waiting and longing for. Hold fast to the vision for “the righteous shall live by his faith.” (Rick Brand)
23rd Sunday after Pentecost (C)
November 12, 1995
The God of the Living
As the story comes to us in the Gospel according to Luke it seems to be a part of a planned strategy. Jesus is in temple teaching His disciples. The chief priests and scribes come up and begin to question Him. The strategy used by the priests, scribes and elders has not really changed much over the centuries. Our newspaper reporters still follow the same basic approach in interviewing. They try to create distrust by confusion. They try to arouse indignation by catching the politician in a statement that is not popular. And they try to expose in order to ridicule.
The first question was constructed to try to discredit Jesus as a religious leader. “Was the baptism of John the Baptist from God or of men?” The second question was an attempt to make Jesus commit treason — to expose Him as a revolutionary. “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar of not?” The third question was an attempt to make him look foolish by answering an absurd question. “If a man dies and has no children, and his seven brothers all fulfill the law of Moses and marry his wife, and none have children by her, when she gets to heaven whose wife will she be?”
The question has all the marks of being one of those universal problems of religion. We have questions like “If God is able to do all things, can God make a rock so big He cannot move it?” “If Heaven is filled with all of the people who ever lived, how can anybody move?” This question of the woman with seven husbands in heaven is one of those artificial questions created to point out the supposed absurdity of belief in the Resurrection. The Sadducees limited themselves to believe only the things that Moses taught in the first five books of the Old Testament. The Sadducees did not believe anything that Moses had not said. They did not honor the Psalms, the Prophets, the Wisdom literature, the histories of the Old Testament. All they would accept was the Torah, the five books of Moses.
The Resurrection of the Dead was idle pious speculation, and in their minds this question exposed how silly this notion of resurrection was. Moses had commanded this law of successions of marriage for the protection of the family name and tribe. The logic of keeping the law of Moses showed the absurdity of the pious belief in the Resurrection. Now if Jesus tries to resolve this conflict He would open Himself to ridicule and would lose His position with the crowd.
The Sadducees understood that the belief in the Resurrection is always close to the heart of mankind. There is within us all the hope for the Resurrection. Life after death is a hope that is rooted deep inside each of us. And the hope of the resurrection as a reunion with our loved ones is an even more firmly held hope. Time Magazine ran a cover article on the question of Heaven, and most of the people surveyed affirmed that they looked forward to heaven as the place where they would be re-united with their loved ones. Heaven was not important to them as the place where the will and perfection of God was made real or where they looked forward to fellowship with God. Heaven had no appeal as the place of joy and rest. Heaven was important to most of the people in the survey as the place where they would see again the loved ones who have died before.
The Sadducees wanted to show how silly such a hope was by showing how absurd the situation would be if the laws of Moses were to apply in Heaven. Jesus responds to this question first by exposing the weakness of the argument at the beginning assumptions. To talk about “that age,” “the new reality,” “eternal life” in terms and in images of this age, this reality, this life, is to fail to understand that the resurrected life is a new and different existence. The Resurrection is a new reality. The institutions, the rules, the customs, the traditions which are appropriate here are not applicable there.
Jesus had only to show that in the new resurrected life there is no place for death, no need for birth, no need for inheritance. Marriage, which has been instituted for the welfare and happiness of mankind here on earth — to insure legal succession, to protect and promote the continuation of the species, to insure the health and freedom from disease of couples, and to provide for fellowship — will not be needed in the new age. What has been given to us for our protection in this transitory age of death will not be needed anymore in the new age where death is not real. So marriage as an institution will not be a part of our resurrected life.
Jesus forces the Sadducees and us to examine the assumptions upon which we talk about the resurrected life. Because we are forever intent on reducing to familiar and natural terms those things that we do not, and in fact cannot know very much about.
It is this temptation to define and discuss the new age in terms of the old reality that accounts for such idle speculation as to what age we shall all be in Heaven. Do we get to pick our own age? Do babies stay babies? If we get older in Heaven, how will we know or recognize our loved ones?
Jesus challenges the Sadducees and much of our own discussion about the new life in God on the recognition that if it is a new reality and a new creation, it is no more likely to be like this one than this life was like life in the womb.
Jesus reminds them they rest their whole lives on the words of Moses in the Torah. So Jesus goes back to the foundation of that tradition and says: Remember when Moses was spoken to, and Moses asks God who He is, and God said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” How could God say that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all dead?” God did not say He had been the God of Abraham, but I am the God of Abraham. Surely the dead cannot be said to have Gods. The dead do not worship anyone. God says He still has a relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
If God is still the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then they have existence and are still alive in the power and love and mercy of God. Jesus says to our hopes and dreams, our expectations to see our loved ones, our visions of the new creation which are shaped and colored by our experiences in this world, that we cannot expect that the new age will be like this one.
But Jesus also says that all who are truly alive in this world are alive through their fellowship and joy in God. All life here and hereafter consists in friendship and communion with God. Abraham was a friend of God, and it is incredible that such a friendship should be severed by death. Jesus, Himself, lived and trusted in God and that relationship could not be ended by death. Death may put an end to our physical existence, but death has no power to destroy our relationship with God that is by its very essence eternal. It may be that we lose our friends by death, but God never loses His friends to the power of death. Jesus assures us that where we are united and linked to God there is life. Where we are linked in that same friendship with God with other people, that friendship cannot be destroyed by death. It is God who gives life, and where our life is linked with His or linked with others in Him, we look forward to sharing that God given gift of new life with faith and joy.
God will not allow “the people of His pasture” to perish, the sheep of His hand to be swallowed up from off the face of the earth into bleak nothingness. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of the living, and all who are in Him by faith and by grace are made by Him always alive. (Rick Brand)
24th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
November 19, 1995
Staying Strong to the End
Several of Napoleon’s officers approached the great general one day to recommend a young captain for a promotion. When he asked them why, they answered that through courage and cleverness, his battalion had won a strong victory several days before. Napoleon responded: “Good. And what did he do the next day?” There was an awkward silence, and it was the last Napoleon heard of the young officer.
Celebrity is often obtained in a moment, but greatness is the work of a lifetime. In our age of instant results and immediate gratification, it can be hard to remember that perseverance is the key to much of life’s most meaningful achievements.
In our text, Jesus is preparing His disciples for events that will come in the future. First He describes the events that will surround the destruction of Jerusalem, just a few decades away; in later verses, he will shift to a discussion of the end times, as history comes to a climax in the return of Christ.
He tells them of great persecution that will come their way; Christian believers will be called to account for their faith. And that prediction came true with a vengeance — not just in Jerusalem but throughout the Roman Empire. In the years ahead Christians would be arrested, beaten, brutally executed. Authorities tried to exterminate Christianity at the point of a sword; instead, the name of Christ spread throughout the world.
Too often we think of persecution of Christians as a first-century occurrence, but that is a misperception. Even today, men and women of faith are sacrificing their lives for the cause of Christ. This fall in Birmingham, Alabama, Beeson Divinity School is dedicating a new chapel. One of the distinctive elements of this stunning new structure is a series of six busts, each representing a 20th-century Christian martyr from a different continent.
Even in the tolerant United States, persecution can take different forms. Maybe it involves persons whose career paths are stopped because their faith precludes going along with some company practices. Perhaps it involves communities that are using zoning regulations to prohibit churches from locating or providing ministries in their area.
Wherever and however persecution is encountered, there are three promises Jesus makes. When we face challenges in Christ’s name, we can know …
I. Christ Promises We Will Be Witnesses (v. 13)
Jesus tells His disciples that even as government authorities call them up on charges, God can use those moments in their lives by making them witnesses. Through those being persecuted, even kings and governors will hear the good news of God’s love being proclaimed.
God can take the challenges of your life and turn them into opportunities for witness. A Christian businessman refuses to go along with shoddy practices of his competitors; is that an opportunity for sharing his faith? A Christian schoolteacher goes beyond what is expected to reach out to problem students; is that a place where Christ’s love can be demonstrated? A Christian student draws the line at participating in some of the sexual misconduct going on in the dorm; is there an opportunity to express a Christian witness as the basis for such actions?
II. Christ Promises We Will Receive Wisdom (v. 15)
Even as these persecuted believers are hauled into court to answer for their faith, Jesus promises that they will be given wisdom in order to respond faithfully and effectively. How would that be possible? Because the Holy Spirit has come to reside in their lives, and the Spirit will provide the strength, direction and wisdom they will need to stand firm in the face of persecution.
That is a promise not limited to the first century. As we are willing to face challenges and difficulties because of our faith, God will provide the wisdom we need in order to stay strong to the end. The Holy Spirit who indwells you and me will empower us and help us to face whatever may come our way.
III. Christ Promises We Will Receive Life (v. 19)
Jesus says that by standing firm His followers “will gain life.” Literally, the words are “gain your soul.” The New International Version translates it: “you will save yourselves.” It is an indication that the one who stands firm to the end, faithful to Christ, will find eternal life, abundant life as a result. Whatever the outcome of the challenges they faced — and for some that meant death — they had the promise of God that eternal life was theirs.
I think that’s why verse 18 uses the proverbial phrase “not a hair of your head will perish.” That is not literally true, for some were killed for their faith. But the God who knows the number of hairs on each head will not allow His followers to face ultimate destruction. Even when physical life comes to an end, there is much more ahead. We have God’s word on it.
Jim Elliott was one of the missionaries who was attacked and killed by the Auca Indians of South America, as they were attempting to establish a mission there. It is more than coincidental that Jim Elliott once made the statement, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.”
This life is prelude; the body of the symphony is still ahead of us. Whatever the challenges we may face, we face them with God. And that is enough. (Michael Duduit)
Christ the King (C)
November 26, 1995
The King of Ifs
His throne room was the top of a small hill named Golgotha. His throne was not gilded and set with precious stones; it was a cross of rough-hewn timbers. Though He wore a crown, it was of thorns. Albeit He had been cloaked in a robe of royal color, it was but a discarded rag and even that was taken from Him. Once He held a scepter, but it was only a reed from a creek bed, stuffed derisively in His hand by jeering guards. Yet Jesus, upon Calvary’s cross, was more a King than any other sovereign; certainly more a King than a commoner, for He did the uncommon thing of atoning for our sins. This Christ, this monarch, this Jesus we know as the King of Ifs.
The religious leaders scoffed at the Crucified: “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Messiah of God, His Chosen One,” they railed.
The soldiers mocked Him. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself,” they bellowed.
A criminal hanging upon his cross saw in Jesus the King of Ifs in a way that none other did who stood there that Friday…not Mary His mother, nor even the disciple John. It was implied, if not worded as such, that the robber thought, If You are the Righteous One, and I am decidedly not righteous at all, You can save me. Thus he begged the Lord aloud, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And so He did, promising, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”
He is the King of Ifs, this Jesus. If you have any doubt, doubt no more, If you have any question about your deserving His salvation, question that no more. You don’t deserve it. Neither do I. But that is not what God demands of us. We cannot earn His mercy. He seeks only our faith. Doesn’t Paul write, “[The Father] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1: 13-14). It is not a question of what we have done to deserve it, but what God has done to make it possible.
Friend, let Jesus take if out of your life and make it a sure thing … as He did for that thief who saw Him as the King of Ifs answered.
The first if we encounter in the text s one stated by Christ’s tormentors, the religious authorities: “He saved others; let Him save Himself if he is the Messiah of God, His Chosen One!” was their comment. There was acid in their voices, ridicule upon their lips.
They had failed to read their Scriptures, these priestly guardians of God’s Word. They had failed to remember the prophets and their depiction of the Messiah, the Christ, for Jesus fit every qualification.
John the Baptist had earlier wondered about the very same question. “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” asked John’s disciples in his behalf. If you be the Messiah, they seemed to say, what are you waiting for?
“Go and tell John what you hear and see [answered the Nazarene]: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them,” explained Jesus. “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at Me,” He added. Here were fulfilled ancient understandings of Isaiah the Prophet about what the Messiah would be like (35:5-6; 61:1). The rabbis had taught that the Messiah’ would come, as Malachi foretold as “the Sun of righteousness…with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2). And so He did. The blind saw, the deaf heard, the lame walked, the lepers danced with delight over their miraculous cure.
The Messiah had no difficulty in saving Himself as the priests had scoffed. The difficulty lay in saving us. But that required the cross and His sacrifice; the Sinless giving Himself totally for the sinful! It is up to you and me to decide if we want the salvation He won upon that cross for us. There can be no ifs, ands or buts about it. Either He is your Messiah, or you’re not one of His … though He died for you, and lives for you so that He might conquer the ifs that frighten you and the doubts that assail you.
The soldiers mocked Him. In their defense, I suppose it is necessary to recognize that when you are detailed to execute human beings, you find a light-hearted way of doing so to steel yourself against the pain and the guilt. The guards could not face reality, thus they jeered at Jesus, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” It was the taunt of pitiable ignorance more than pompous arrogance as it had been for the priests!
Above His head was a placard that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” Pilate did not choose to say, “He says He is the King of the Jews,” as the religious leaders wanted substituted. Instead the Roman governor chose to be emphatic rather than subtle, specific instead of vague (Matt. 19:21). “This is the King of the Jews!” sang the words of the truthful sign.
Neither the priests nor the soldiers sought salvation for themselves in their taunts of Christ the King, for they only wanted to see Jesus rescue Himself from being riveted to the cross. They wanted Houdini or David Copperfield, a magic act rather than the actions of One “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
That was a puny but truthful sign nailed over Jesus’ head. Some of you have noticed the workman directing traffic for the big trucks as they build the freeway. He is a weight-lifter evidently with massive arms and great shoulders, but despite all his apparent strength he holds only a lightweight caution sign that a three-year old toddler could manage quite successfully. One thinks it’s a bit of overkill — such strength for such a picayune sign!
The might is not in the sign but in the person who holds it. One would not care to tangle with such a mass of muscles. As it is with that construction worker, so it was even more evident in Jesus, who mastered the agony of the cross with the might of a King despite the jeers of the priests and guards who crucified Him. If the placard seems inconsequential, its message is not. If the might of the Master seemed overwhelmed by the meanness of the cross, it is His power that turned that instrument of execution from a symbol of defeat to an emblem of triumph.
Even those soldiers now know the power of the Risen Christ and the foolishness of their jests. The small sign did not hide the gigantic vigor of God, for bleeding as His body may have been, there was the strength to redeem you and me.
Jesus is the King of Ifs, because He not only saved Himself, but us.
It is Dismas who implied an if, but not one derision as did the rest. It was one of decision! The penitent thief knew Jesus’ reputation as a worker of miracles and a proclaimer of a new Gospel. If Jesus was so righteous that corrupt priests were jealous enough to seek His crucifixion for it, wasn’t there a sanctity here that only Jesus Himself could reveal? If He could heal the sick and raise the dead, couldn’t He also open the door to eternity for him? If in this agonizing hour he was brought before the Messiah, should he not recognize Him?
“Jesus,” pleaded the dying thief, “remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
It is a magnificent story to which legend has added some fanciful curlicues. Since the Bible gives the thief no name, tradition has conjured up several. Some call him Dismas, while others name him Demas or Dumachus, all names that refer to his past as a criminal — a criminal redeemed.
The thief asked Jesus to remember him in His Kingdom. Jesus’ response was something more splendid than it appears at first glance. The Lord not only promised him that he would reside with Him; it is apparent his sins were absolved, forgiven and forgotten as well.
But there is more. Jesus also assured the dying man that he would be with Him in Paradise. The significance of this phrase is not apparent. One has to examine the word.
Paradise is not just another word for Heaven, but indicates a close relationship and a particular honor. The word is of Persian origin. It means a private but lavish garden, one enclosed behind a wall, a place where a Persian king would stroll with his closest friends. Such people were given a title: companion of the garden, just as some people are called “Knights of the Garter” or “Knights of the Bath” in English nobility. Our Lord awarded to the repentant thief more than forgiveness and heaven, but the assurance that he would be among His closest companions in the eternal realm. Here was the challenge of an if fulfilled.
Jesus proved Himself to be the King of Ifs, the Monarch of Mercy, the One who could resolve every question by a love so great that death could not end it, nor time destroy it, nor sin wear it out.
What are the ifs in your life? The scoffing of the priests and the jeering of the soldiers did not end His love for them. Nowhere do we read that Jesus condemned them. Instead, in the passage immediately preceding our text, we discover Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34). He offers us the same absolution.
If you feel abandoned — that the world around you and God Himself have given up on you — think again! Jesus lets if be part of life but not the whole of life. If you are crushed by debt or overwhelmed by unemployment, disappointed by your lack of success or dissatisfied with the emptiness of material gain, Jesus has something more for you. It is His renewing, invigorating love that enables you to be His companion in the garden of this world as well as the next. If you feel uneasy about life and your part in it; if cynicism over America’s dilemmas has arisen in your heart, and anger over a greedy, seemingly uncaring planet has engulfed you, take the if out of life and give it to Jesus. He is the King of Ifs, who masters them all with love that transforms impossible situations into possibilities for joy. (Richard Anderson)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by. Gary C. Redding, Pastor, First Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC; Rick Brand, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, NC; William Richard Ezell, Pastor, Naperville Baptist Church, Naperville, IL; John A. Huffman, Jr., Minister, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA; Richard Anderson, Senior Pastor, St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church, San Jose, CA; and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.
17th Sunday after Pentecost (C)