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I am now writing on my own site at http://joeiovino.com
Please change your bookmarks, feeds, etc. to the new site.
Sermon preached 03.20.2011 based on John 2:1-12.
This morning we continue with the second sermon of our worship series called We Would See Jesus where we are looking at some of the encounters people have with Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John. Last week Pastor Bob looked at Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus, as his friend Philip introduced him to the one he thought might be the messiah, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth. Today we turn from the first chapter of John to the second, and we hear the story of Jesus’ first miracle, or sign: Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana.
As we look at this story today, I want us to appreciate the masterful way in which John has crafted his story. Sometimes we want the Gospel writers to have been reporters today, as if we are watching this couple’s wedding video and seeing the event first hand.
When I was in grade school, I remember liking those You Are There movies they would show us from time to time. Walter Cronkite, the quintessential news anchor, told about historic events as if he were reporting on a current news story. He would appear at his news desk to introduce a story, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence or Washington crossing the Delaware River. He would then cut to a reporter “live on the scene.” We would see the event happening right there before us with an on the scene reporter describing the events. Inevitably, the reporter would find one of the prime actors in the scene to “interview.” For example the reporter might ask John Hancock why he signed his name so large, or something like that.
Sometimes I want the Gospel writers to be Walter Cronkite. I sometimes expect the text to function as a You Are There for Jesus and his disciples. I want to read the accounts as a textbook that is just giving me the facts – as if John were an unbiased reporter on the scene just recording the events. The more I study scripture I have learned how limited this way of reading the Bible is. When we read that way we miss so much.
I want to encourage you as we read the Gospel of John throughout this season of Lent, to try to appreciate the incredible storyteller that John is. When you read John, you are reading the work of a masterful writer and deep-thinking theologian. John is retelling the story with purpose – a purpose he states as “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31 NRSV).
To that end, John is deliberate in telling a story a certain way, he makes intentional word-choices, and he even tells us that his story choice, all add a depth to the Gospel story, layering it with meaning and texture.
For example, look at the his word choice for the opening of his Gospel, “In the beginning…” It is difficult to miss that he has intentionally used the same words that open the Bible in Genesis 1 – the Creation story. As we read the Gospel of John we would do well to stay closely connected to the creation story in Genesis, for one of John’s themes is that in Jesus we are experiencing a new creation, a new beginning. That theme pops up through out the book. On Easter Sunday we will read that John includes two details not in the resurrection stories of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mary meets Jesus in a GARDEN in John, possibly alluding to the Garden of Eden of Genesis; and Mary mistakes Jesus for the GARDENER, alluding to Jesus as the “new Adam” the gardener in Eden.
And did you notice the Creation reference in our text today? The story starts of with this subtle hint: “On the third day…” Now he may just be talking about it being 3 days after the last event, and he could have said “three days later.” Instead he uses language that sounds an awful lot like Genesis 1:13 that ends a day of creation by saying, “And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.” On the third day of Creation, God gathered the waters together to separate land from sea, and said, “‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so” (11). Water and grapes. Water and wine. Hmmm. I think John is saying something here about who Jesus is.
This story is ripe with symbols and great sermons that one could preach. Like the symbolism of wine used by the prophets of the Old Testament to talk about the presence of God, the abundance of God, the providence of God. Notice that Jesus doesn’t just make some wine – he makes a ridiculous amount of wine – an over-abundance of the presence of God is known as we walk with Jesus. That’d be a good sermon.
I could instead preach about the jars he uses to make the wine in. The jars for ritual purification were more than just convenient, they also serve as sign and symbol. He takes the vessels that were used to make things ritually clean and fills them with wine. Jesus is letting us know that we are now made pure not through ritual, but through walking with him, and some might say through the wine of communion, his blood.
I could also do a sermon about the fact that this not just any party, but it is a wedding banquet – one of Jesus’ favorite images for the Kingdom of God.
I think I’m up to four sermons already. Take just about any text in the hands of this master writer John, and you can pretty much do that. One commentator, talking about our text for today, writes this:
With this story we begin to see the subtlety of the art of the Fourth Evangelist, for the story works on two levels. There is the historical one, certainly, but the story has been told because it aptly displays the theological and social significance of Jesus – he is the one who brings the new wine of the Gospel, which eclipses and makes obsolete previous sources of life and health such as Jewish purification water. (Witherington 78).
The challenge this morning is that I have several divergent sermons I could preach, and it is tempting to try to get them the all in here (and maybe I just did). Instead, I will try to be disciplined and delve into only one aspect of the story that is in line with the theme of our series that recounts interactions with Jesus and the growth that happens in the characters as a result.
So this morning, our focal point is the conversation that happens between Jesus and Mary. Actually, did you notice that John does not use her name? He never does. He never refers to her as Mary. He simply calls her “his [Jesus’] mother.” That is her only identity for John.
Mom. We revere mom on Mother’s Day, but my experience is that when you ask most people about their relationship with their mothers you get a response like, “I love my Mom, but…” The same is true of Dads, but Dads seem to get off easier, maybe because the expectation is lower. Many of us though seem to have, shall we say, “complicated” relationships with their mothers.
Maybe the reason is that our moms never seem to forget the toddler we were, even well into adulthood. What is it that moms say, which is a blessing and a bit uncomfortable at the same time? “No matter how old you get, you’ll always be my little Johnny.” They say it when you get enter high school, when you get your drivers license, get married, and even at your retirement dinner.
I remember when I told my mom that I thought I was feeling called into ordained ministry she said something like, “But you are too normal to be a pastor.” While that may reflect on what my mom, the church secretary, had learned about her pastors, what I think she meant was that I was just “her kid,” and not someone who could be a pastor. I was her little boy, Joe. Not Pastor Joe. Just Joe. And I never will be my mom’s pastor.
It is good to be reminded that we are our parents’ children – just “normal.” But every once in a while, it seems we need to remind our moms (and dads) that we have grown up. Jesus seems to be having one of those moments this morning. He has been baptized, having the Spirit descend upon him like a dove. He has received his first disciples. He is establishing himself as a religious teacher, leader, and scholar. His ministry is starting to take off.
But there’s this thing he has to do. He has been invited to a wedding, maybe before all of his ministry stuff started to take off, and his mom is there. His mom doesn’t see the man standing before her. She sees the kid, the boy who used to run around the carpenter shop calling to Joseph, “abba, abba.” She remembers him getting lost, as she sees it, in the Temple when he was twelve. His mom doesn’t see Jesus, Son of God, the Messiah. Mary sees her “little Yeshua” (Jesus in Aramaic).
Yet we get the sense that Mary knows something no one else in the story knows at this point. Somewhere along the way she has seen his power. She knows what he is capable of. Maybe he has fixed a problem or two around the house, so she knows that he can fix this.
“Yeshua,” she says, “they’ve run out of wine.” Now a lot has been made about this wine thing, and what an embarrassment this would have been for the groom’s family, and all of that. But honestly, this is one of those miracles that just makes me shake my head. This is not a life-and-death situation. This is wine at a wedding. Weddings usually lasted about a week in Jesus’ day, and when the wine ran out it was a good sign the party was over. The wedding had probably already been going on for days, would it have been such a disaster for it to shut down? Probably not.
We expect Jesus to obediently say, “OK mom. I’ll see what I can do.” But he doesn’t. In fact, he is rather short with her. He responds, according to the NRSV translation, with these words, “Woman…”
I need to stop right there. I’m guessing that some of you hear that first word of his response, and it becomes the last word you hear. Maybe its because you heard that from a husband or boyfriend, and what followed was never good. Maybe it was by a man in your life to keep you down. Maybe you heard your mom addressed that way when you were a child, and that was a sign that the situation was deteriorating, and things were going to go badly. Still today when you hear that word used that way you feel a pit in your stomach and the anxiety rise within you.
Hear this clearly. Jesus is not saying it that way. This is not a pejorative term. The word used here is one used to address a female with respect, similar to the way we might use ma’am. In the Gospel of John Jesus uses the same word to address the woman at the well in chapter 4 and Mary Magdalene in the garden after the resurrection in chapter 20. Both polite interactions.
Having said that, we still need to recognize that this is not a term that one would expect Jesus to use to address his mother. One commentator tells us that while calling a woman “woman” was not disrespectful writes, “There are, however, no known examples of a son’s using such a term to address his mother” (Witherington 79). NONE. So while this is not disrespectful, it is still quite jarring. He could have said mother, mom, or even ma. That would have at least shown some warmth. Instead he calls her woman, or ma’am. A respectful but generic term he would use to address any other woman.
Jesus is disengaging (Witherington) from Mary at this point, putting her out at arms length. Remember when Philip is telling Nathanael about Jesus, he calls him “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.” There is a connection to Joseph that Nathanael gets beyond, as he begins to see Jesus as the Son of God, rather than Joseph. The same is happening here. Jesus is being distanced from his mom, so that we can see him as so much more than Mary’s little Yeshua.
Jesus’ response continues, “Woman what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (vs 4). In that short sentence Jesus is letting her and everyone else know that his authority to act comes not his earthly mother or anyone else, but from his Heavenly Father. “My hour has not yet come,” is a way of Jesus saying that he is waiting for God’s timing because he is not doing whatever he wants, but is carrying out the will of God. He is clarifying that he is not at the beck-and-call of anyone other than God, not even his mom.
In what some might say is typical mom-fashion, Mary completely discounts the response of her son. Reading the text you have to wonder if she even heard him. Unfazed, she recruits the help of the servants, telling them to “Do whatever he tells you.” Sure enough Jesus comes through, provides the wine, and keeps the wedding banquet going.
On the one hand, Mary is a mom, and we can relate somewhat on that level. On another level of reading though, she is every one of us at some point in our faith development. We know Jesus’ power. We know what he can do for us and others, and we can get stuck there, stop our faith development there. If we are willing to continue in our faith journey though, it gets so much better than this.
When I was a kid, I learned this through a bit of parable with my bicycle.
My family lived on a dead-end street in a quiet neighborhood (Beachwood, NJ). I had several friends about the same age, and we all hung out together. Our bicycles were an important part of our daily lives. We rode bikes for fun – having races, building ramps, and riding just to ride. Our bikes were also our primary means of transportation to our friends’ houses in the neighborhood, or to the bakery down the street for the best peanut butter cookies in the world.
I took good care of that old red Schwinn with the white banana seat. I washed and even waxed it from time to time. As I got older, I learned some basic maintenance like oiling the chain and I remember being pretty good at putting the chain back on when it fell off. But flats were hard.
I remember one flat in particular. I was at the age where I thought I should be able to fix it myself, but I hand’t been taught that one yet. Undeterred, I went into our “cold room” – a closed-in carport that functioned as storage of all of our outdoor stuff – turned by bike upside down and got to work. I couldn’t do it. So, I left my bike upside down in the room, knowing that when my dad got home from work he would go through that room as he always did, see my bike, and know what to do. I made sure it was right in his way so he would have to move it to get by. No way he could miss it. Then I went off to play something else with my friends.
When I got home that evening for dinner, my dad was already home, and I went into the cold-room to see if he was working on my bike. Nope. Maybe it was already done. Nope. Surely he would ask me about it at dinner. Nope. Maybe he would do it after I went to bed. I got up the next morning and found out. Nope.
So I went another day without a bike. The next day, I got smart and when my dad got home from work I asked if he would help me fix my tire. “Sure,” he said. And I learned where the “right tools” were to get the job done. While we were working, I remember asking my dad why he didn’t fix it the night before. He simply said, “You never asked.”
Several thoughts went through my head that I was smart enough not to say, like, “Why do I have to ask? You knew I had the flat; you knew what the bike meant to me; why didn’t you just fix it?”
Have you ever asked that question about God. He knows everything, so He knows my need. He knows I can’t fix it, and He knows that he can. Why doesn’t he just do it? Why do I have to ask?
I learned that day that my dad wanted to be more than my bicycle repair guy. He wanted to be my dad, to have a relationship with his son. The same is true of God. He wants us to realize that He is so much more than our “big fix in the sky.” He wants us to live in relationship with him.
When Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine,” I see an upside down bicycle in the middle of the cold room with a flat tire in the way of the one person who can fix it. So Jesus gives that odd response “Woman what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
Jesus doesn’t want to be just a genie in a bottle – rub him the right way, present the problem properly, and he will fix it. He wants more. He wants a relationship with each of us. The Gospel message is so much more than having a Jesus “good luck charm” to carry around in our back pocket to solve our problems.
It is a little unsettling to hear Jesus distancing himself from his earthly family, disengaging from Mary, as one author puts it. That is because we have only read half of the story.
The other half of the story happens much later in the Gospel of John, the only other time we read about Mary in the entire book. Mary appears here at the beginning of Jesus ministry, and then again, at the very end, at the foot of Jesus’ cross. John reports that Mary is one of the witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion. As in the wedding story John does not use her name, but simply refers to her as “his mother.” The whole episode of this second and final interaction between Jesus and his mom takes just 3 verses (25-27) to tell, but we hear so much in it.
25And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman [there’s that word again], here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (NRSV)
Again there are two levels at work here. One, in a physical and practical, earthly sense. Jesus is fulfilling his responsibility as the eldest son making sure his mother is well cared for after he is gone.
On another level, he is moving Mary from status as his mom, to a member of the “family of faith” as he introduces her to one of his disciples as “here is your son” and “here is your mother.” Notice that does not happen in the production of wine, in the miracle of abundance. Instead it happens in the brokenness of the cross.
So too it is for us. We too need to travel to the foot of the cross and move beyond just the abundance of wine to a relationship with the one who loves us so deeply that he went to the cross for each and every one of us.
Yet that is what is so often preached. Faith in Jesus in the abundance of wine, because of what he can do for us. “Believe in Jesus and you’ll have a great life, great kids, the house and car you want, the job that satisfies you, and more!” Believe in Jesus and the party will never stop.
I’m sure I am not the only one who is sometimes troubled by the way Christianity is celebrated in the media. I hear people thank God or “give all the glory to Jesus” when they win an award, and watch them kneel in the end zone after a touchdown. I hear Christian artists talk about how Jesus helped them get them in the recording business, which seems easy to say when you get to do what you love and make a bunch of money doing it. In other words, it seems to me that we often hold up faith during the wedding when it is pretty easy to be a follower of Jesus.
Relying on the wine, relying on the blessings, is so fleeting. Seeing Jesus as a simple miracle worker doesn’t go far enough. There is so much more to our faith than just what we get.
I hear John saying to us today that it gets so much better than this.
Contrast this “what Jesus does for me” attitude of faith, with a sense of call because of what we have. I don’t know Sandra Bullock’s faith-story, but it was reported this week that she is giving $1million to help with Japan’s recovery from the earthquake and tsunami. Again, I don’t know Angelina Jolie’s expression of faith, but I am impressed that with her celebrity and wealth she is helping the poor in other countries and bringing worldwide awareness to the issue of poverty. Bono, the lead singer of U2, who is a confessing Christian, is said to live a fairly modest lifestyle, and uses his money and celebrity to do much the same, raising awareness for the poorest of the poor all over the world.
On a different scale I think of a mom I heard of recently, who had a child die from cancer, and is now a volunteer in a cancer ward, grieving with parents. I know of Stephen’s Ministers who give their extra time to work with those in our congregation who are hurting. We have a crew leaving today to work at the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s (http://umcor.org) depot in Salt Lake City, and our youth going on their mission trips this summer – people giving up their vacation time to do something for others. Talk to those who give like that and you will hear that it gets so much better than an abundance of wine.
There is this little detail at the end of the story, almost a little tag, that always makes me smile when I read it. The wine steward tastes the wine and is impressed with the quality of Jesus’ work. He calls the bridegroom over, whom he assumes has provided the wine and says to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10).
On one level this is a comment about the quality of what Jesus does. But, as we often see in John, there is often another level at work.
Read symbolically we can hear John with a wink and a nudge, telling us that something better is still to come. If you think the “miracle working” Jesus is good – just wait, it gets so much better than this. This is just the appetizer – cheap wine masquerading as the good stuff. The best is still to come.
Urban Meyer, former head football coach at the University of Florida, surprisingly retired from coaching several months ago (December 2010). He had been an incredibly successful coach, leading Florida to two National Championships with a player you may have heard of named Tim Tebow.
Earlier this week Meyer was interviewed on Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN where he was asked what it was like to be retired. He said this:
[It’s the] first time in my life I get a chance to reflect. It’s been 25 years of college coaching and college coaching is one of those things… It’s 6am and you’re going straight through.
He continued by talking about his three kids: two daughters, college volleyball players who he has never seen play, and how much he is enjoying being the assistant coach of his 12-year-old son’s baseball team.
Then the interviewers asked him if he left because of burnout, because of the demands on his time as a college football coach. Mike Greenberg asked, “It has become increasingly apparent just how overwhelming the demands in coaching are on a college level and on the NFL level… Do you think it has to be that way? I feel like it has become such a keeping up with the Joneses thing – well he’s working eleven hours, I gotta work twelve hours. Do you think that is really necessary? Could you win without it completely consuming your life like that?”
Meyer begins his response by saying, “It’s the conflict. It’s the warfare that goes on between family time you know you’re missing your kids grow up.” Then he tells this story:
I’ll never forget my daughter sitting there, [when] she signed a Division 1A scholarship. I almost got in an argument with my assistant, Nancy. She said, “you have to go to your daughter’s signing.”… I go, “I can’t go spend 15 minutes to leave this office,” because I’m worried we are going to fall behind.
So I go to the signing and she stands up and she’s a beautiful girl, senior in high school, and she says, “I’d like to thank God for all of our blessings, and I’d like to thank my mom, you’re always there.” And both of them are crying their eyes out. I’m sitting there worrying about third-down-and-six against whoever. And she says, “And dad you weren’t there but thanks.” And that was like someone took a knife and jammed it in.
What happens is your mind starts playing games with you. You start thinking, “Is it worth it?” Is that worth missing that? And that’s the warfare, I think. And its not just a coach. There’s executives, there’s people, there’s firemen, across the country dealing with that same dilemma. And I was fortunate enough to…walk away and then reevaluate it as time goes.
(Mike & Mike, ESPN radio, March 4, 2011)
There are some of us this in this room this morning, including myself, who know exactly what he is talking about. What we have to do – in work, for our families, for our volunteer positions, whatever demands are put upon us by others or we put on ourselves – have become all-consuming. We can’t “leave this office” for 15 minutes, as Coach Meyer said, without feeling like we will fall irreparably behind. We are having trouble turning it off. We have trouble walking away.
We talked about this a couple of weeks ago when we were dealing with management of our time. We began to recognize that in order to get our private lives in order, we need to make conscious decisions about to what and to whom we are giving our time.
This morning, as we wrap up the series called Ordering Your Private World, I want to talk about one of those things we need to give our time to – REST. Real, holy, Sabbath rest.
Several years ago I found out that I have sleep apnea. Unknowingly I had not been getting the proper rest for years because my sleep was constantly interrupted when several times a night I would stop breathing. My snoring had been a bit of a family joke and even a source of some ribbing from fellow youth leaders who had been on mission trips and retreats with me. I never thought much of it. Lots of people snore. The doctor began to teach me what a lack of sleep can do to us.
This was a medical condition. But some of us are choosing to not sleep. An article in the Washington Post several years ago put it this way:
With a good night’s rest increasingly losing out to the Internet, e-mail, late-night cable and other distractions of modern life, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that too little or erratic sleep may be taking an unappreciated toll on Americans’ health.
Beyond leaving people bleary-eyed, clutching a Starbucks cup and dozing off at afternoon meetings, failing to get enough sleep or sleeping at odd hours heightens the risk for a variety of major illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, recent studies indicate (Stein, Rob. “Scientists Finding Out What Losing Sleep Does to a Body” The Washington Post. Sunday, October 9, 2005 as posted at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/08/AR2005100801405.html).
We are a sleep-deprived and rest-deprived people. We are so busy going, doing, achieving, creating, earning, learning, etc. that we seldom take time for rest. So much to our detriment that we are risking our health. You and I need to take some time for rest.
God built a day of rest into our routines. A day set aside for rest which he called the Sabbath.
Yesterday, I was catching up on some blogs I regularly read. Donald Miller, one of my favorite authors, opened a blog with this: “The classical violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book Free Play says that Perhaps the most radical sociopolitical invention of the past four thousand years was the sabbath” (Miller, Donald. “A Creator Makes Progress Through Rest” here: http://donmilleris.com/2011/02/23/a-creator-makes-progress-through-rest/).Funny that it was posted on February 23 and showed up in my Google Reader yesterday.
The day of rest is a “most radical sociopolitical invention.” Miller continues, “Walt Whitman spoke of the value of loafing. God rested. God told you to rest” (ibid).
You and I were designed to live in a rhythm of work and rest. Not to be on, going, moving at all times and in all places. We need periods of Sabbath rest.
When we read the creation story, back in Genesis 1 of the Bible, we can easily overlook this rhythm, but it is integral to the story. At the end of every day of creating, several things happen. First, God evaluates his work, he declares it “good.” Secondly the author writes, “there was evening and there was morning,” and then the day is complete.
Most of us know that God rested on Day 7, the Sabbath, but every day there was a period of rest as well. Rhythm. God created to a rhythm of work and rest, and he calls us to do the same.
Gordon MacDonald in Ordering Your Private World puts it this way:
“Does God indeed need to rest? Of course not! But did God choose to rest? Yes. Why? Because God subjected creation to a rhythm of rest and work that He revealed by observing the rhythm Himself, as a precedent for everyone else. In this way, He showed us a key to order in our private world” (location 1865).
MacDonald continues by telling us that taking time to rest allows us to (a) reflect what we have done, (b) re-focus our work toward God, and (c) redirect if necessary as we plan for what lies ahead.
First he says that taking time for Sabbath rest allow us to look back on completed work. Urban Meyer said that well when he said that after 25 years of coaching that in his retirement he was finally finding for the “first time in [his] life…a chance to reflect.” And you could hear the results of that reflection in the rest of his interview – time with his family and finding what he wants to do.
Gordon MacDonald says it this way, “the rest God instituted was meant first and foremost to cause us to interpret our work, to press meaning into it, and to make sure we know to who it is properly dedicated” (location 1881).
It is so easy to lose sight of what we are doing and simply keep moving from one thing to the next. We have many things to do. Many good thing that we are doing for the benefit of others. Much business to attend to that helps provide for our families. A mountain of work that keeps us ahead in business. A long list of tasks to do for the family, for the kids, for our church. But without a time of sabbath rest, we never get a chance to find out if what we are doing is the best use of our time, our talents, our abilities. We never take the time to see if what we are doing is the best use of our gifts and abilities to the glory of God.
Again, as we have throughout this series, we come back to week one and that sense of our God-given call. We need to decide if we are living out of a drive from demands that are put upon us by others, or ourselves; or if we are doing the things that God has called us to do and inviting God to be part of all of our work. A sabbath of reflection helps us do that.
Second, MacDonald says, sabbath rest gives us the ability to realign with that to which Christ has called us. Real rest gives us a chance to get re-focused on Jesus. Again, it is all to easy for us so caught up in what we are doing to get our priorities out of whack. We understand how we can get so wrongly focused that we begin to think winning that football game is really more important that your daughter receiving a scholarship to play volleyball in college. That we get so off-centered that we cannot leave this office for 15 minutes.
MacDonald tells a story about William Wilberforce, who worked to end slavery in England and is the subject of the movie from several years ago called Amazing Grace. Biographers credit Wilberforce’s dedication to sabbath for giving him the perseverance to continue the long battle against slavery. In his journal after a long week of busyness and anxiety, Wilberforce wrote, “Blessed be to God for the day of rest and religious occupation wherein earthly things assume their true size. Ambition is stunted” (location 1845).
Things assume their true size. Perspective is restored as we allow ourselves to rest.
Third, MacDonald says that sabbath rest helps us plan for what is ahead. He writes, “When we rest in the biblical sense, we affirm our intentions to pursue a Christ-centered tomorrow. We ponder where we are headed in the coming week, month, or year” (loc 1930).
We stop just doing the next thing and are able to actually set a plan, a path, a direction for where we feel led to go. We are no longer just following a trail of bread crumbs not knowing where it leads, but we are able to look up and see the goal that God has placed before us, and begin to set in motion our plans for getting there.
You and I need to make rest, real Sabbath rest, a priority in our lives. To take time away from our work to be with the ones we love and with the God who loves us. This is not a luxury. God gave us the example of doing it every night, and then for a whole day every week.
I had a friend in a band a lifetime ago who used to morbidly say, “I’ll rest when I’m dead, there’s too much to do now.” He never seemed to be able to find that time to rest because the work was never done. Again, MacDonald says it so well when he writes, “We do not rest because our work is done; we rest because God commanded it and created us to have a need for it” (loc 1999). The counterintuitive truth is that stopping to rest will in the end make us more productive.
Our rest needs to be a priority in our lives. We shouldn’t work on our day off. We should put the phone down and away for set periods of time. We don’t have to be checking email on our phones 24-7. You and I we need a break.
Now, having said all of that, let me say that clergy, including me, are notoriously bad at practicing sabbath rest. Much of that comes from our inflated idea that somehow we are doing God’s work, and so we should make all of the sacrifices necessary to continue that work tirelessly. If someone needs us, we need to be available. If we are to grow the church, to share the Good News of Jesus with the world, we need to keep going. We have trouble turning it off. And so many of us have boundary issues, and we allow people to interrupt our sabbath rest.
I remember years ago, before I had kids of my own, hearing a pastor tell about dealing with his son’s anger toward his church. His family used to stand at the door of the church after the service, shaking hands as everyone was leaving. The pastor’s young son who had once really enjoyed this ritual was suddenly hiding in and behind his Dad’s robe every Sunday, refusing to shake hands. When asked the boy would say that he didn’t like the church and didn’t like the people in the church anymore. One day the pastor finally asked his son, “Why don’t you like the church anymore?” His son replied, “Because those are the people that keep you away from me.”
I’m happy to say that the church has gotten much better at making sure their clergy are taking time apart. Our annual reports often ask us to evaluate how well we have practiced sabbath in the midst of our “performance reviews.”
But I would guess that there are still pastors’ kids who harbor anger at the church. I’m guessing Urban Meyer’s kids might hate football. Is there something in your life that your family might be angry with because it keeps you away from them? With what are you pre-occupied? Is there anything you can do about that?
I opened this series where we have been spending a great deal of time in Ecclesiastes by saying that in some ways Ecclesiastes is the most depressing book in the Bible. There are passages of it that I read and wonder whose idea it was to have this book about futility of life to be considered scripture. It is not one you are going to pull a lot of inspirational quotes from.
But there is a theme in the book that I think is important for us today. It’s about perspective. About how we can get so caught up in what we are doing that we lose track of what truly matters in our world.
To that end Qoheleth has some great advice for us today. He writes,
Seize life! Eat bread with gusto,
Drink wine with a robust heart.
Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
Dress festively every morning.
Don’t skimp on colors and scarves.
Relish life with the spouse you love
Each and every day of your precarious life.
Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange
For the hard work of staying alive.
Make the most of each one!
Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily!
This is your last and only chance at it,
For there’s neither work to do nor thoughts to think
In the company of the dead, where you’re most certainly headed.
He repeats this theme over and over again in the book
Ecclesiastes 2:24: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.”
Ecclesiastes 3:13: “That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”
Ecclesiastes 5:18: “This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot.
Ecclesiastes 8:15: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.”
Enjoy life, he writes. Take time to reflect, refocus, redirect, and enjoy.
May you and I make it a priority to get out from under our work from time to time, and enjoy what God has given.
MacDonald, Gordon. Ordering Your Private World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003. (Kindle edition)
“If it’s too loud, you’re too old.”
Many people are up in arms over the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Westboro Baptist Church’s “demonstrations” near military funerals. The Court ruled that their practice of standing across the street from a funeral and holding up offensive signs is a First Amendment, free speech, protected right. While I think what that “church” does is offensive and obscene, I agree with the Court’s decision.
I get nervous when anyone’s First Amendment rights are threatened. Once we start doing that we are just a heartbeat away from limiting the church’s free-expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As one who believes that part of the church’s role is to be a prophetic voice, we should value the right of even those who offend us to say what they will so that we can continue to speak as well.
Rather than limiting free speech, there is another, more effective, means of combatting these other voices who claim to represent our church and, more importantly, God as we know him through Jesus Christ.
More than 10 years ago I attended a seminar by Walt Mueller from the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (http://www.cpyu.org). Across the years I have found one of his teaching points to be very useful. Many parents stereotypically ask their kids to “turn it down.” It usually refers to their music or the television, but it could also apply to dress, language, gaming, internet usage, and so much more. Trying to get them to “turn it down” is an ineffective strategy that creates confrontation between parent and child. A better strategy, Mueller argued, is to turn up our volume – the volume of what we want our kids to hear.
I think the same is true in this situation. We should be far less concerned with “turning down” the voice of the Westboro Baptist’s of our world, who exist in far more subtle expressions as well, that we should with turning “up to 11” the message of Jesus. Jesus’ message is one of love, forgiveness, inclusion, reconciliation and resurrection. The problem is not the voices of people who distort the gospel so much as it the silence of those of us in the mainstream church who have chosen to be too quiet for far too long.
Rather than protesting the protesters, let’s turn up the Gospel message that “God so LOVED the WORLD that he gave his only Son, so that EVERYONE who believes in him [follows him, lives in the way he calls us to live] may not perish but may have eternal life [right now]. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17 NRSV, emphasis and commentary added).
Turn it up!
Wendy who runs our video production every Sunday, emailed me this week a letter from a college junior to an author who writes books for youth. This letter is circulating on Facebook, so I have no idea how true it is, but it matches some of my experience in working with youth. She writes:
I am a junior at a well-known Christian college. I grew up in highly respected “fundamental independent Baptist” churches, and went to excellent Christian schools. My father has been a Christian worker since before I was born…
Since I was 12 and now on into college I have struggled with “serious” issues. And I found out when I went to college that I am not the only “good kid” who is or has struggled with or is still struggling with serious stuff. We struggle with issues like eating disorders, depression and suicide, cutting, pornography, gender identity, homosexuality, drugs, drinking, immorality, and the list could go on…
My point is that the problems that are supposed to be bad kid’s problems belong to us too. Unfortunately, our parents and youth workers don’t know that we struggle with these things and they don’t know what to do with us when they find out…
Our parents did not spend time teaching us to love God. Our parents put us in Sunday Schools since K4. Our parents took us to church every time the doors opened, and sent us to every youth activity. They made sure we went to good Christian colleges. They had us sing in the choir, help in the nursery, be ushers, go soul-winning. We did teen devotionals, and prayed over every meal. We did everything right. And they made sure that we did.
But they forgot about our hearts… So to us, Christianity has become a religion of externals. Do all the right stuff, and you’re a good Christian. So, some of us walk away from church. Some of us stay in church and fill a pew. Many of us struggle with stuff that our parents have no idea about because they hardly know us (from a letter said to be addressed to Pastor Cary Schmidt of Lancaster Baptist Church circulating on Facebook).
Again, I have no idea as to the real authorship of this letter or how many redactions have been made along the way, but I understand the point of this letter. I see it every day. Young people who have been taught to be “good Christians” but never taught how to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. Adults in crisis who are wondering why their under-developed “religion of externals” is not sustaining them. To order our private worlds, we need to stop trying to be “good Christians” and start developing spiritual strength, which is a relationship with Jesus.
Today is the fourth Sunday in this series on Ordering Your Private World. We have talked in previous weeks about living from a place of call rather than a place of drive. We have talked about how we can live more in the moment when we choose to give our time rather than allow others to take or waste our time. Last week we talked about using our God-given mental abilities so that we can best use our gifts in fulfilling our call.
On this fourth week I will talk about developing spiritual strength that comes from a thriving relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
Many of us, like this college student, have been led to believe that our faith journey is all about praying enough, reading the Bible enough, going to church enough, evangelizing enough, memorizing enough and the like. We have been focused on the exteriors, and in the process, we have, in her words, forgotten about our hearts.
Several years ago the Willow Creek Church, one of the very first “megachurches,” did a study of regular attenders of their congregation and others across the country to learn about spiritual growth. One of the findings from that study is quite revealing:
“Church activities alone do not drive spiritual growth” (several resources quoting Reveal study by Willow Creek including Vernon Armitage sermon, emphasis added)
Church activities (i.e. coming to worship, attending Sunday School, being involved in men’s or women’s ministries, serving on a committee, teaching) alone do not drive us in our spiritual growth. You and I need something more than just activity. We need genuine, spiritual nutrition.
I recently heard about an experiment done by noted French naturalist, Jean Henri Fabre, in the late 19th century. Fabre was fascinated with the Processionary Caterpillar – an interesting species known for its instinct to follow the caterpillar in front of it. Apparently, one might see a line of processionary caterpillars single file on their way…somewhere.
Fabre demonstrated the strength of this instinct with a simple experiment. He took a flowerpot and placed a number of processionary caterpillars single-file around the circumference of the pot’s rim, making a complete circle. Each caterpillar’s head touched the caterpillar in front of it so that every caterpillar had another in front of it to follow, but none were actually leading. Fabre then placed the caterpillars’ favorite food in the middle of the circle just 6 inches away. Round and round they went for seven days, until they started to die from exhaustion and starvation. They were so busy following that they never saw the food right there beside them.
The preacher I heard tell about this experiment said that the caterpillars “had confused advancement with activity” (Vernon Armitage sermon “Be Fully Alive”).
In our spiritual journeys many of us can become processionary caterpillars, confusing advancement with activity. As if all of our Christian doing is the goal. I think that is what our college student is describing. The church can keep us busy doing “good Christian” activity without ever addressing the deep longings of our hearts, the advancement of our spiritual journeys. We’re in the circle, obediently following, but slowly dying of malnutrition, when the food we need is so close.
Our friend Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes has something to say about a life of following the “right” pattern. Listen again to the brief passage of Scripture read earlier:
Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13 Msg).
No matter how good we think we have it, without a relationship with God, we will be dissatisfied and will come to times of struggle. But with spiritual strength, even times of struggle are bearable.
Let’s look at some ways we can move beyond being processionary caterpillars, just going through the motions and begin to find the food that is right there beside us.
Gordon MacDonald in his book Ordering Your Private World offers what he calls “Four spiritual exercises of critical importance,” and I want to add a fifth.
We live in a noisy world. We get in the car and put on the radio. We listen to music while shopping. We are subjected to noise in our when we are put on hold. Some of us put on the television when cooking. Earbud headphones seem omnipresent in our society.
In the NOOMA video series there is a video on noise and our need for silence. About two-and-a-half minutes the screen goes black and the audio silent, after which the video continues. In the back of the DVD study guide the producers printed this: “Since releasing Noise, NOOMA customer service has received numerous calls from frustrated and perplexed customers wondering why this NOOMA is only 2 minutes and 34 seconds long.” Apparently many of those watching a video on noise and our need for silence, turned off the video assuming something was wrong with it in less than 18 seconds.
Many of us are quite uncomfortable with silence. Have you ever been to a “moment of silence” and caught yourself looking at your watch? Or have you ever experienced a quiet time in church and assumed I forgot what to do next? We are not used to silence and solitude, yet they are essential in our spiritual journeys. Gordon MacDonald quotes Mother Teresa:
“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…the more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within – words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness” (location 1450).
Throughout the Gospels we read about how Jesus would take time to go off to a quiet place by himself to pray. There is even a story in the Gospel of Mark (1:35-37) that tells of a time when the disciples wake up one morning and can’t find Jesus. He has gone off for one of his quite times. When they finally find him they sound like parents, “Everyone is looking for you.” Apparently, the disciples thought that Jesus should be available 24-7. Jesus knew better. He knew he needed those times of silence and solitude to be able to fulfill his difficult calling. Like Jesus, you and I need those moments also.
Some of us get excited by that. To others the thought of being along and quiet causes us to shudder. I’m not suggesting locking yourself in your basement for 20 minutes. I would suggest that you find other, more natural times. Are you alone in your office from time-to-time? Can you have lunch alone – without a book or music or the computer and just seek out some time with God? I like early mornings. I know others who stay up late to have time alone with God. Or one that I find helpful is to turn off the radio in the car. I’m alone anyway, and without the radio, I often find myself in a ready to listen to God.
Look for those times when you can get quiet and allow God to break through and speak to you. Move away from one-way communication with God and acting like that annoying friend who never listens because we never stop talking. Silence and solitude give God time and space to respond.
Which brings us to exercise 2, listening to God. There are many ways to do this. One of them is by keeping a journal. There is a long line of journalers in the Christian tradition, including John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley’s journals are an important part of our history.
Don’t complicate this. You don’t need a class on journaling. Those who find journaling a fruitful spiritual discipline simply write down what is going on in their life – the spiritual and the mundane – all part of the same journal. We can write in our journals about anything, they are only for us – church, prayer, the kids, our frustrations, work, whatever is on our minds.
How does this help us to listen? When we journal, we process our experiences differently. We begin to put pieces together. We are taking the time to evaluate what is happening in the light of our relationship to God.
I had this recently where it seemed to be just a set of circumstances, but then I began to realize that the circumstances were an answer to prayer, and God’s hand in the life of a friend of mine who needed some guidance and direction.
Socrates, and it is not often I quote Socrates in a sermon, as he was choosing to either stop philosophizing or subject to the penalty of death, famously said this: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we are going to move beyond the exterior faith that we find so shallow and will not sustain, we need to find time for reflection and meditation – time to examine life.
We need to be more than just computers who can spit out the right answers. We talked about this a little last week, and our college student is arguing against it this week. We need to be people who are internalizing the message of the Gospel and allowing it to affect the entirety of our lives.
I know this affliction. I was dragged to church from the time I was five. I had to be sick to miss a Sunday. My family had what we considered our “pew” at First United Methodist Church of Toms River, NJ. In fact,when the congregation sold our original building in the late 70’s, my family bought one of the pews which my mom and dad still have in their dining room. I’m not sure if that is the exact one that was ours, but it meant something to us.
I was always good in school. My identity centered on that ability. So I took to Sunday School with similar enthusiasm. Around junior high and on into high school, I was one of the youth that everyone wanted on their Bible Baseball team. Bible baseball was a trivia game we played from time to time where the harder questions were awarded more “bases.” I was the Babe Ruth of my youth group.
I don’t think I’m being hard on myself when I say that while I had plenty of knowledge in my head, but not a whole lot of it was affecting my heart. I knew many “right” answers, but found myself in a “religion of exteriors” until late into high school. It took years for the spirit to make that 18-inch journey from my head to my heart.
I was a fan of Jesus, like I am a fan of other things in my life. For example, I could know everything there is to know about my favorite music artist David Crowder. I follow him on Twitter and Facebook. I buy the albums, read his books, and even read his blog. Even with all of that, I don’t really know him. I know about him, but I have no relationship with him.
Good Christians are “fans.” Spiritually strong followers are in relationship with Jesus.
McDonald quotes CS Lewis:
“St. Augustine says, ‘God gives where He finds empty hands.’ A man whose hands are full of parcels can’t receive a gift. Perhaps these parcels are not always sins or earthly cares, but sometimes our own fussy attempts to worship Him in our way. Incidentally, what most often interrupts my own prayers is not great distractions but tiny ones – things one will have to do or avoid in the course of the next hour.”
Reflection and meditation are ways to put the packages down. We then allow God to give us the gifts that he has in store for us. We need to take a breath, from time to time, and reflect on the circumstances of our lives, and allow Jesus to work in us and through us. To begin to make that move from head to heart and allow the Good News of the Gospel to become an integral part of who we are.
An aside: There seems to be a lot of talk about the practices of meditation and yoga and all of that. Recently I talked to someone who considers part of the practices she uses to get in touch with Jesus to be outside of our Christian faith because they are commonly considered to have Eastern roots. Two things about this:
One, meditation is a lost Christian spiritual practice. For thousands of years Christians have used various forms of meditation to get in touch with God in special ways. Again, Jesus himself often went to a quiet place.
Two, there seems to be a common understanding that Christianity is disconnected from our bodies, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Again for thousands of years Christians have used body posture to help us get in touch with the spirit. MacDonald talks about a pastor who used to keep a pair of coveralls in his office so that he could lay down prostrate in his office to pray without messing up his suit.
If practices like meditation and yoga are a distraction, drawing you away from Christ, maybe you need to stop. But if they are helping you get in touch with Christ, remember that our faith is rooted in incarnation – God himself inhabiting a body. Being in touch with our bodies is an important part of who we are.
Now back to our exercises:
We need to be in prayer, in communication with God. My experience though tells me that most Christians when asked if there is one thing about their spiritual life that they would like to improve, they will quickly respond with prayer. When we offer courses on prayer, we typically fill them.
Many of us have preconceived notions of what a prayer should be. Maybe you have heard about different formulas for prayer like the ACTS prayer (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) or the JOY prayer (Jesus, others, yourself). Maybe your prayer life consists of a bunch of prayers you learned rote – the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, a table grace, or “Now I lay me down to sleep.”
I shared with the youth group recently about how my prayer life changed when I got really angry with God and “let him have it” one night. In that moment I stopped lying to God, stopped trying to impress God, and got real with Him. That changed everything.
Prayer can be quite simple. Our goal is simply to open our hearts up to God as we would to our closest friend. We don’t need to approach as we would a king. Jesus addressed God in his prayer life with the Aramaic equivalent of “Daddy,” not Father or Lord. Just Dad. We are talking to our dad.
I don’t normally pray long prayers. Now I know that some of you are saying, “Really? That’s not our experience here!” But in my everyday living, most of my prayers are short. A sentence or two of thanksgiving, help, awe, whatever I’m feeling at the moment. Sure, I do the longer ones from time to time, but I would rather have an ongoing conversation with God throughout the day rather than limit it to 10 minutes in the morning and/or 10 minutes at night. Plus, when I try to chat with God for a long period of time, I find that my mind often wanders around – with a checklist of what has to be done or whatever else is on my mind.
Find a way of communicating with God that means the most to you. Maybe you need to consider writing prayers as part of your journaling. Maybe you need to find a good place to pray so that you can lay down or kneel or stand. Maybe you need to set up a worship area in your house where you can light a candle to pray. It doesn’t matter how you do it. What matters is that you do it. Communicate with God openly and honestly.
Ok, that is Gordon MacDonald’s four in Ordering Your Private World. Now I need to add my number 5 – service.
A danger in all of this seeking to grow spiritually is the amount of navel-gazing that it can induce. All of this self-examination – in silence and solitude, journaling, reflecting, and praying – can make us so “heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.”
Part of our call as the people of God is to serve those around us. Ask any youth that has been on a mission trip and they will tell you that their time of service is when they have grown the most spiritually.
Consider going on that mission trip in the weeks to come. Tell Bob and I where you want to go and allow us to help you get there. Volunteer at Tri-Lakes Cares and meet with those in need on a regular basis and serve them. Get trained by Tessa to work with women who are surviving domestic violence. Ask the elementary school if they could use you as an aide to help kids who struggle in the traditional classroom. Go to your neighbor and spend an hour a week cleaning their house for free. Pursue that passion that allows you to serve someone else.
Our lives are meant to be lived. We grow in our relationship with Jesus so that we can live more fully, not to replace the living of our lives.
As I draw this sermon to a close, I am concerned that all I have offered is a new checklist of things you and I need to do to be good Christians. Please don’t hear these that way. That is not our goal. What we have offered are some ways that you can grown, that you can develop spiritual strength. But if they are just empty practices we go through to try to be “good Christians” they will be of little value.
I was recently on a walk with one who is going through a particularly tough time. She asked, “What did they teach you in seminary about how to get to the next level spiritually?” They didn’t teach me that in seminary. Like any institution of education, seminary was mostly about the head – which may be a sad statement about our pastoral education. That question continues to roll around in my head. I think our college junior in her letter is asking the same thing. I think the thoughtful processionary caterpillar would ask the same question.
The question behind the question is this: I have been a good Christian and I’m still struggling. It isn’t working for me anymore. What is the next level, and how do I get there?
The next level, going deeper, is all about your relationship with God. We need to get beyond the exteriors and into relationship. Silence and solitude, listening, reflection and meditation, prayer and service may help you on that journey. Take the first step, whatever that is for you.
And may you and I stop trying to be good Christians and start growing in our relationship with Jesus the Christ!
Armitage, Vernon. “Be Fully Alive” sermon podcast. The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, 19 February 2011.
MacDonald, Gordon. Ordering Your Private World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003. (Kindle edition)
I recently heard a pastor tell a story about a student who got in trouble in school. She was well-known by her church and considered a leader in her youth group. A member of the church saw the girl in detention and said, “I’m surprised to see you in trouble. I know how good you are in church.” To which the student responded, “I don’t let my church-life interfere with my life here at school.”
Maybe you know what it is like to have a church you and a rest-of-your-life you. That’s not just a student thing. That’s an everybody thing. Many of us struggle with this spiritual multiple personality disorder, but that’s not how we were intended to live.
I learned some time ago that there is no word in the Bible for “spiritual.” No one in the Old or New Testament, including Jesus, would have ever made a distinction between our spiritual and secular lives. You and I cannot be compartmentalized that way. Nor should we try.
I think the mistake we make is trying to give God the minimum. “Hey God,” we ask, “what do I have to do to be good in your eyes?” That’s not what God wants. Imagine asking your spouse about the minimum you need to do to keep him/her from breaking up with you. Or think of a friend saying, “I want to be your best friend, but I just want to be there for the good stuff. I don’t have to listen to your problems, do I?” Or think about your children asking what the minimum they need to do to keep you from sending them to military school. Ok, that one feels that way sometimes, but still…
None of those sound like very fulfilling relationships. Yet that is what we expect God to accept from us.
Jesus didn’t see it that way. He doesn’t just want the “spiritual” side of you (you don’t have one). He wants it all. He doesn’t want just to fill a “God-sized hole in your heart.” He wants all of you to be in relationship with all of Him.
Text of sermon from Sunday, February 20, 2011.
Last Sunday evening I got home from youth group later than usual. After chatting in the Great Room with some parents, I did not get home until a little before 9:00pm. It had been a really good night in youth group following a great morning of worship. My adrenaline was pumping and my energy level was high. I was exhausted, but I was finding it difficult to wind down. Too tired to comprehend anything I might read, I decided to watch a little television to help me relax.
Have you ever tried to watch television after 9:00 on a Sunday night? There is nothing on that I want to watch. So I wound up doing what most guys do, flipping channels – seeing lots but watching nothing. At one point I decided to rest the remote on a television preacher whose sermon was taking up space on one of the channels where I can usually find something fun to watch. He is a proclaimer of the prosperity gospel – my shorthand for preaching that promises money, power, and success if you have enough faith. I tuned in just in time to hear him say that with enough faith, God will provide you with everything you desire.
As the congregation began to applaud this idea, the director cut to a view from behind the preacher, showing the enormous crowd there to hear him and applaud this message. I muttered to myself asking how people could receive and applaud that which does not fit their experience. If only they were to think this through, I thought, they would know that this is not how the world works, not how God works. This is the logic of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar from the book of Job. This is not the message of the Bible.
The congregation seemed to be receiving without thinking. They were hearing what they wanted to hear and applauding it. If only those in the audience would stop and think, rather than allowing this preacher to think for them, they would see that this did not match their experience. But then again, stopping to think is not something we are encouraged to do. As mentioned in a quote I used in last Sunday’s sermon on time management, when we stop and think we are thought to be “wasting time.”
For those who haven’t been with us, the author of Ecclesiastes who calls himself Qoheleth in Hebrew, has come to his mid-life crisis. He has reached the pinnacle of success, the top of the corporate ladder. He has everything he ever wanted – money, power, security, family, all of it – but has come face-to-face with his own mortality and is questioning if it has all been worth it.
In the first sermon in this series we learned the Hebrew word habel, which is best translated as vapor or smoke. Throughout Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth evaluates all he has done, and he has done it all, and says it is all habel. It is all just a vapor. It is all like smoke – here for a moment then gone. We talked about how we can spend a large portion of our lives in “vapor management” – keeping the habel going. Instead we need to focus our energy on that which really matters, that place of call rather than working out of a drive to succeed – whatever that means to you. This idea of knowing your call, knowing your motivation, is central to ordering your private world.
Last week we picked up a theme from chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes where Qoheleth addresses our time – relentlessly moving forward. Through a well-crafted poem he reminds us that time marches on from “a time to be born and a time to die.” We talked about time management and about how when we choose to give time, rather than allowing time to be taken from us, we can be more fully present in each moment, and learn to enjoy life through all of its ups and downs.
Today we hear Qoheleth addressing another part of our life. He writes, “Watch your steps when you enter God’s house. Enter to learn. That’s far better than mindlessly offering a sacrifice, Doing more harm than good. Don’t shoot off your mouth, or speak before you think” (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2a MSG). Enter to learn. Do not just go through the motions because you are supposed to. And think before you speak.
Qoheleth is encouraging us to grow in knowledge and wisdom; to receive information, process it, and apply it. Qoheleth is advising us to take the time to stop and think.
While Qoheleth never reveals in this writing who he is – choosing instead to simply call himself the Quester, or preacher, or teacher, or wise one – many have assumed him to be King Solomon. The book of Ecclesiastes opens with these words, “These are the words of the Quester [Qoheleth], David’s son and king in Jerusalem” (1:1 Msg). Solomon is David’s son who immediately succeeded him on the throne. Sure sounds like it is him, although like much authorship in the Bible, there is some dispute. Few scholars would argue though that it is at least in Solomon’s tradition if not him.
If I were to ask you something you know about Solomon, what would you say? Many have heard and used the expression, “the wisdom of Solomon” or “the judgment of Solomon.” We may not know the source, but we know there was a guy named Solomon who must have been wise. The Bible tells us in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings that Solomon prayed for wisdom to rule, and God granted his prayer:
God gave Solomon wisdom—the deepest of understanding and the largest of hearts. There was nothing beyond him, nothing he couldn’t handle… He was wiser than anyone… He created 3,000 proverbs; his songs added up to 1,005. He knew all about plants, from the huge cedar that grows in Lebanon to the tiny hyssop that grows in the cracks of a wall. He understood everything about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. Sent by kings from all over the earth who had heard of his reputation, people came from far and near to listen to the wisdom of Solomon (4:29-34 MSG).
The most famous example of his wisdom given in the Bible is a dispute between two women about who was the real mother of a particular baby. The two women, wives of the same man, had children, and one was killed by accident in the middle of the night. The mom took her dead son and swapped him for the other woman’s son, creating the dispute. They bicker in front of Solomon, “He’s mine.” “No. He’s mine.” How do you know in the world before Maury Povich and DNA testing?
Solomon has the solution. He asks one of his servants for a sword and orders that the baby be cut in two so that each woman can have half. One of the women appears to accept this solution. The other is horrified by it and releases her claim on the child. She would rather the child live without her than be killed. Solomon then knows that this woman, willing to lose the dispute so that the child can live, is the real mom (1 Kings 3:16-28).
Even Seinfeld knows this story. Remember the episode where Kramer and Elaine are fighting over a bicycle and they allow Newman to decide who the rightful owner of the bike is? Newman says they should cut the bike in half. When Kramer gets upset with this solution, he is awarded the bicycle. A 1990’s reference to Solomon.
Qoheleth knows that of which he speaks. Back in chapter 1 he calls wisdom habel – vapor. Then here in this 5th chapter he is encouraging us to “enter [the house of God] to learn.”
For the first time in years I, like many of you, watched an entire episode of Jeopardy! this week. I could tell you it was because Kristi’s teacher suggested the class watch it, and I was just watching it with her, but that is not true. I was interested to see Watson – the IBM computer that competed against two of Jeopardy!’s all-time champions.
Watson was fascinating. As soon as a question was asked, Jeopardy! showed those of us at home a graphic at the bottom of the screen which showed Watson’s “thought process.” In a matter of seconds, Watson had interpreted the nuance of the question – all of those little hidden clues, puns, etc. that appear in the Jeopardy! answers. Then processed the best guess from among 3, and processed if the guess was worth the dollar amount that would be gained by a correct answer or lost by a wrong answer based on how certain Watson seemed. Amazing.
Watson was even wrong from time to time, making news by missing the Final Jeopardy! question on the first night. It was fascinating to watch for an amateur tech-junkie like me. The computer wasn’t just processing information, it was listening to nuance and, in essence, making decisions.
Watson won. His prize was $1 million which he divided between two charities. Half went to World Community Grid – an organization dedicated to making public computing networks across the globe. The other half-million was donated to World Vision – a Christian ministry that does child sponsorship much like Compassion International – prompting one blogger to declare that Watson is a Christian!
But in the long run, what good is all of that knowledge. Sure Watson was a show-off who made the programmers look great. But the knowledge was fairly useless. My fear is that the same is true for some of us. We are filled with facts, figures, and statistics but we are never taking the time to process that information so that we can use it in an ordered private world. Instead, like a computer, we are just spouting off information that has been programmed into us. We allow others to think for us.
This is the knowledge and wisdom that Qoheleth is calling vapor, habel. The reputation he had, the knowledge he had amassed was, in the long run, just smoke, temporary, passing. So he encourages us to find a new kind of knowledge here in the house of God. This is not just an amassing of bits of information, but a way of life. We need to become rather theologically astute so that our knowledge of God is not compartmentalized for Sunday morning, but is effecting the way we live every day. For example, what you believe about the human race matters. If you are one who believes that we are divided beings of body and soul and that the soul is our true-self and the body doesn’t really matter your idea of missions will be all about preaching to “save the soul.” On the other hand, if you see that God created us as integrated beings then your idea of missions will lean toward caring for physical needs. We talked about this a couple of weeks ago when we were addressing the problem of evil. What you think about evil will eventually affect the way you respond to it.
Unfortunately there are many who have a stunted Christian education, as our friend Tim Hawkins pointed out in the video clip. We have accepted the 1st grade Sunday School cuteness of the story of Noah and the flood, and have not allowed that story to challenge us. We think we know the stories, but we haven’t read them in a long time, and so we are living with a grade school theological education.
As you know, we value Christian education here at our church. We want to expose you to good theological insight that will help you wrestle with difficult questions. We are not going to give you answers though – neither Bob nor I see that as our role. Rather we want to give you tools that will help you seek, explore, and discover for yourself the ways in which God is guiding you. We want to stop the notion of compartmentalized theology, and instead have our theology impact our living.
As you shared around our discussion question this morning, I imagine a whole host of topics came up. Some of you are avid musicians. Brad is constantly sharing with me things he is learning about music theory and styles of guitar playing and all of that. Some of you are hungry to learn as much as you can about the animal world, or history, or computer science, or something else. Some of you like spending time learning about yourself – what makes you and others tick differently. Some of you are into the arts – painting, sculpting, writing, acting, photography. Oh, I’m guessing that when we went around the room many disciplines were mentioned that just turned you on. Those passions are our call.
I remember taking a class in college on John Milton – the 17th century poet that wrote those massive poems called Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Milton, who was blind, spoke often about how he felt called to glorify God through his poetry. He did such a good job with that call that much of our common imagery about Biblical stories sometimes are Milton and not scripture. Charles Wesley, John’s brother, felt similarly. He used his gifts for poetry to write many of the great hymns of the Methodist movement. He deserves quite a bit of credit for the popularity of John’s preaching. One can only wonder how many came to for the music. It was the church that commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and had Leonardo DaVinci paint a fresco of the Last Supper on a wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It was for the church that Handel wrote his materpiece Messiah and it was for the church that Bach did a great deal of his composing. So much great art produced for the church.
Today much of what Christians produce is copy-catting what is being done in the secular world. We are not innovating. We are not leading. We are following. And that, in my mind needs to stop. I get so tired of the church producing “B” versions of others work. The Christians YouTube, or the Christian author, or the Christian artist. The church needs to lead again – to innovate, create, adapt, write, sculpt, paint again. I long for the day when the church is once again a primary patrons of the arts and not just a critic – not just offering counters. The people of God need to begin again to be inspired (breathed into, spirit-filled) to think, create, solve, and teach. We, as individuals and corporately need to stop letting others think for us, and begin to think with our God-given ability to fulfill his will for our lives and for the world.
In the New Testament book of Romans, the Apostle Paul puts it so right for us when he writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2 NRSV). Or as our friend Qoheleth has so eloquently put it, “Watch your steps when you enter God’s house. Enter to learn” (Ecclesiastes 5:1 MSG).
Gordon MacDonald offers some helpful suggestions:
1. The mind must be disciplined to think Christianly – Ok, let me tell you when I read that sentence it really turned me off. I don’t like when the word Christian is used as anything but a noun. Here as an adverb, and when used as an adjective, I often bristle. Keep reading, and we discover what MacDonald means is that we need to allow our theology to influence our living. We need to stop making this artificial division between secular and sacred. It doesn’t exist. As I mentioned earlier our theology, our ethics, our understanding of the sacredness of human beings, the created world, etc. all needs to be integrated.
2. The mind must be taught to observe and appreciate the messages God has written in creation. I remember sitting in a biology in high school or middle school and seeing evidence of God in the cycle of the creation of oxygen. The very fact that animals – including human beings – inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, while the plant world uses the carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis and gives off oxygen, just astounded me. That interdependence. As I have grown theologically, I continue to see that interdependence in all kinds of relationships.
Are you receiving those lessons from God in the created world? What do you see that tells you about the nature of God?
I would like to expand MacDonald here to include, as I believe Wesley would, about our experience – remember that Wesley used a four-fold expression for learning about God – the Bible, the tradition, our reason and our experience. We should not sit in church and uncritically accept whatever is preached. We need to check it against our experience and our reason. Take the time to stop and think.
3. The mind must be trained to pursue information, ideas, and insights for the purpose of serving the people of the world. Whenever the Apostle Paul talks about gifts he always speaks in the plural. Our spiritual giftedness is not about doing things for our own good. It is not about benefitting ourselves – making money, reputation, amassing power, or anything like that. In the words of Qoheleth that is all habel, vapor. It is always, according to the Apostle Paul, about benefitting the greater good.
MacDonald then gives us three things to do to develop our minds.
Always remember that knowledge and wisdom matter. We are not seeking to be Watson in the flesh. Rather we are working to increase our knowledge that we may be wise in the ways of God for our lives, to benefit others, and to glorify God with the gifts with which he has gifted us.
Getting our private worlds in order should include growing in wisdom and knowledge. It is good use of our time that furthers our call.
May you and I be innovators. Using our knowledge to build up the kingdom of God.
MacDonald, Gordon. Ordering Your Private World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003. (Kindle edition)