Please open up to Luke 10:25–42, but before we read it I would like you to notice something as we read. I want you to notice that even though we are going to read two seemingly distinct stories, happening at different times and in different ways, they are actually very similar. Both are quite famous parts of scripture, but it’s sometimes forgotten that they give the same message. The first one is pretty easy to understand but the second one is more subtle. Let’s read it together.
“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.'”
So pause there a second. The beginning of this story makes it pretty easy to understand what’s going on, doesn’t it? Up comes a lawyer, who we already know is probably a bad guy because lawyers and Pharisees and Sadducees often came against Jesus to try to trap Him, trick Him, embarrass Him, or discredit Him – but they always end up losing to Jesus – until the end of the story where they break their own laws to crucify Him. So, by the fourth word we can have a pretty good idea that some shenanigans are about to go down.
What’s the context here? Everyone is sitting down somewhere and Jesus is in the middle of teaching when suddenly a Lawyer stands up to “test” Jesus. We don’t necessarily know his motivation is bad until we read the next verse, 29, which says,
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’”
This lawyer had come to hear Jesus teach, and had either been impressed by Him or was getting progressively more upset at Him, but at some point pops up out of the group to ask Jesus the most difficult, important question he can think of: “How can I inherit eternal life?” Or, how can someone be saved from sin and death?
Remember, this is a Lawyer and in his mind, and in the mind of many Jewish people at the time, because of the teachings of the Lawyers and Pharisees, the way to impress God, to make God happy, to gain favour with God, to get eternal life with Him, was to obey the Laws of Moses.
That’s why they had devised so many extra laws on top of them. God said, “Don’t use my name in vain.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees said, “Ok, no one is allowed to say the name of God at all, ever, or even write it down.” God said, “Rest on the Sabbath.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees devised lists and lists of rules about every part of life – how far to walk, how to eat, how to wash, how many knots you can tie in a rope. So many rules that God’s “day off to rest and worship” became a terrible burden and frustration to the people. But if God wanted obedience and eternal life was at stake, better safe than sorry, right?
So that’s the mindset that this man had when talking to Jesus. Rules and laws make people holy and win God’s favour. So Jesus’ answer to Him is perfectly tailored: “What do you think God’s Law say about Eternal Life?” And the Lawyer gives the right answer. “Love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.”
But here’s the thing, and this is something everyone here understands and struggles with – me included. Knowing the right answer and understanding what it means are two different things. And then, understanding what the right answer means and then living by that truth are two different things too!
I’m reading through Pilgrims Progress again and just finished the part where a character named Faithful has had a conversation with someone he meets on the road named Talkative. It’s a really interesting encounter and I highly recommend you read the whole book, but it essentially goes like this. The main character, Christian, is walking with his friend Faithful and they’ve been having a great conversation. As they walk, they catch up to a man named “Talkative” who Christian knows but Faithful doesn’t. Christian hangs back so as to not have to walk with Talkative, but Faithful trots on ahead to strike up a conversation. Things seem to go pretty well because Talkative is really good at talking – and doesn’t care what the subject is. Faithful is quite impressed with how godly and religious Talkative is and falls back see what’s up and invite Christian to join the conversation.
Christian grins at his friend and says, “This man whom you are so taken with is fooling you just as he’s fooled so many before.” Faithful is surprised because Talkative seems like he knows so much about God and religion and faith, but after a while Christian basically says, “If you want to see what Talkative is really like, go ask him to talk not only about religion but ask him plainly how his belief Jesus has changed His heart and life.”
Faithful does so and it doesn’t take long until Talkative gets so offended and angry that he takes off. It seems that even though Talkative loved chatting about religion and theology and faith – he had allowed none of it to penetrate his heart and change his life.
It’s the same with this Lawyer, and most of the other religious leaders Jesus bumps into. They knew a tonne of scriptures, had memorized the entire Old Testament and had been trained to be experts in debate and interpretation – but as much as they knew about God’s Law, they had completely missed having a relationship with the Lawgiver. As much as they worked hard to obey the Laws, they had forgotten Who had written them and why they had been written in the first place – not to burden God’s people but freedom, not to separate them from God but to show them how to grow closer to Him, not to be a hammer to pound on their fellow citizens but a guide to help them know how to love one another and get along.
Who Is My Neighbour?
Jesus responds saying essentially, “Yes, your words are exactly right. If you love God and everyone else you come in contact with perfectly, you will have eternal life.” Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Our sinful nature makes this impossible. We can’t love God or anyone else perfectly because our sin not only clouds our judgement but makes us selfish and lazy. We cannot live in perfect love with anyone.
Notice that in the next part we see that the Lawyer jumps right past the “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” part because he thinks he does that already. Like the Rich Young Ruler, he believes that he has obeyed the entire law perfectly. Therefore, he assumes, he must love God perfectly. But, then, maybe because his conscience has been tweaked by something he’s done, or because he wants to impress the crowd or trap Jesus, the Lawyer asks one more question. “…who is my neighbor?”
Why did he ask this? Because as a Lawyer, he wants to know the boundaries of the law. What’s the limit, the line, the border that can’t be crossed? How far can I go before I’ve broken the law? It’s the same with us, right? Just consider when we’re driving. The speed limit is 70, but how much can we get away with before we actually get in trouble? 75? 80? How much checking our cell phone is too much? How far do I have to go before I absolutely have to wear my seatbelt? How long does the red light have to be red before I’m in trouble? What if it turns red as I’m driving through? Our question isn’t “How can I obey this law perfectly?” but “How much can I get away with before I’m in trouble?” That shows the sin in our heart. That’s what the lawyer was doing here.
“Ok, so I know God says I’m supposed to love my neighbour, but who, technically, does that include? How big of a circle can I draw before the people outside of it don’t matter? Who can I offend without worrying about it? Who can I ignore without God caring? Who can I hate and despise while still being able to say I love my neighbour?” From verse 30 Jesus gives the very famous answer.
“Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”
Jesus tells the story of The Good Samaritan and gives a lot of details. Everyone would assume the victim was a Jew, and everyone knew that the trip between Jerusalem and Jericho was full places where people could get mugged and left for dead. Then come two good, law-abiding, religious, Jewish leaders, a priest and a Levite, who knew that God’s law said that if they touched a dead body they would be defiled and ceremonially unclean and therefore unable to perform their duties in the temple. So, better safe than sorry, they ignore the man so they can keep doing their jobs in the temple. Seems harsh, and the average person would have thought this wasn’t very nice, but the Lawyer, presumably, completely understood. But then the story takes a weird turn. Next comes a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans with pure, racist hatred. For a Samaritan to be the hero of a Jew would have been scandalous. But there it was.
If you’re having a tough time grasping the story, maybe think of the story this way: A man who had just finished working late at night in downtown Ottawa was walking up the stairs of a parking garage. It was Saturday at 2am, he was tired and already had his keys in his hands, when suddenly a group of men came through the door, mugged him, beat him, took his car, and kicked him down the cement stairs.
Not long after another man, a surgeon at CHEO who had been called in to do emergency surgery on a child came up the stairs and saw the unconscious bleeding man. He knew he couldn’t risk infection or contamination, and was in a hurry, so he stepped over the man’s body and headed to his car. Next came the pastor of a local mega-church. He had been doing some late night counselling and was headed home for some much-needed rest before he had to preach in the morning. He saw the beaten man, stepped over him, and walked away.
Next, up the stairs, came another man, a pimp. He had spent the evening collecting money from the women under his employ and shooting scenes for his porn website. He was a little drunk, a little high, and his knuckles still hurt from having to get a little rough while he was collecting his dues. But when he saw the man lying on the stairs, he had compassion. He lifted him up, brought him to the hospital, made sure he got a room and then went to the gift shop to buy some magazines for when the man woke up. He even told the nurse that if no one came for the man to give him a call on his cell phone so he could help out.
Now look at verse 36,
“’Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’”
Jesus forced the Lawyer to answer his own question. He was looking for the borders and loopholes in the law and Jesus closed them tight. Who is your neighbour? Who does God want you to show love, compassion, and care to? Everyone.
The priest and the Levite were encumbered by their interpretation of the Law. In no way was God’s Law meant to be frustrating, burdensome, and an excuse to prevent someone from showing compassion, and yet they somehow managed to make it that way. Jesus wiped all that nonsensical interpretive garbage clean and forced the lawyer to admit the truth. The way to love God is not to nit-pick laws so you can find loopholes and excuses, but to love God by loving everyone as your neighbour.
Mary and Martha
But now we turn to the next story in the passage. Let’s read it, starting in verse 38,
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’”
Do you see the echoes of the previous story? Jesus is teaching a group of people when someone stands up and asks Jesus a question that is very close to their heart. For the Lawyer, it was a question about the Law, but for Martha, it was a question about priorities. And both ended up the same way. What was the Lawyer trying to do when he asked, “Who is my neighbour?”? He was trying to justify himself. And what was Martha trying to do? To justify how busy and distracted she was.
But this story is much more subtle. In the first one, it’s a Lawyer – booo. He’s testing Jesus – booo. What’s Martha doing? She’s serving. And not just serving, she’s serving Jesus and the disciples! Martha welcomes Jesus, the famous Rabbi, and all of his disciples into her home. They would all need to have their feet washed, to be made comfortable, and to have a meal prepared for them. We don’t know how much help Martha had, but she clearly didn’t think it was enough. She was frazzled and distracted and anxious and getting angry.
But she wasn’t a bad guy like the Lawyer, was she? She was doing a good thing! Just like the Lawyer, she felt justified in her actions. He obeyed the law; she was a great and wonderful hostess, preparing extra special things for her guests. How could anyone look at Martha and criticize her? How could anyone compare her to the Lawyer? It’s easy to criticize the Lawyer, but super-servant, super-frazzled, Martha? Isn’t she just trying to do a good job for Jesus?
But what does Jesus say? Verse 41,
“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’”
This whole section is telling the same story. How does one gain eternal life? Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. How do we show that? We love our neighbour. Who is our neighbour? Everyone. How did the Jewish people mess this up? By believing that the way to love God is to work so hard to obey His Law that they actually offend, hurt, and ignore loving God and their neighbours. They became more concerned with how many knots they could tie, and how ceremonially pure they were, or how far walked – that they forgot to worship and enjoy God or show love and compassion for their fellow man.
Martha makes the same mistake. She has prioritized hosting, serving, and working, over loving Jesus and Mary. Was she doing something wrong? No. Was she breaking laws? No. But where was her heart? She was working so hard to serve her guests that she was no longer able to find joy in it. She wasn’t fuelled by love. She was fueled by frustration, anger, pride, and jealousy. She forgot that Jesus Christ, the miracle-working Son of God, the source of light and life, was sitting in her living room. She didn’t care what he was saying. She didn’t care that Mary had the privilege of listening. She only cared about her own plans and priorities to the point where this wonderful, gracious, generous host, who was so excited to have Jesus over – actually comes into the room and yells at her sister in front of Jesus, accuses Jesus of not caring, and then tries to tell Jesus what to do! “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” “C’mon Jesus. Chop chop! I clearly care more about these people than you do, Jesus. I clearly have a better grasp of what’s important. Tell my sister to stop listening to you.”
Her priorities were as messed up as the Lawyer’s. She wasn’t serving out of love. She wasn’t loving God – who was sitting in her living room – or loving her neighbour – who included her sister and Jesus. That’s why Jesus responds as he does. He says her name twice, probably to get her attention and to show dissatisfaction with her (He does this with Peter and Paul too (22:31, Acts 9:4)). And then He essentially says, “You think you’re priorities are right, but they’re not. You are so worked up, so upset, so troubled and anxious about all the serving you are doing that you have forgotten the most important things – to love God and your neighbour. All this serving is only driving you away from your guests, away from your sister, away from love, and away from Me.”
Martha was doing exactly what the Priest and the Levite did – using a good, legal excuse to be able to ignore loving someone. “I can’t love Mary right now, the sandwiches need to be made. I can’t listen to the teachings of Jesus right now, I have too much to do. I should walk in there and give Jesus and Mary a piece of my mind. I’m in the right here. Jesus is wrong.”
And not only were her priorities a mess, but she actually tried to suck Mary into her whirlwind. “Jesus, tell Mary to stop listening to you, stop learning from you, stop sitting in your presence, stop letting her sit in front of a Rabbi, doing something very few women were ever allowed to even do, and force her to be as distracted and upset as I am.”
Jesus says, “No Martha. You’re not right. Your heart isn’t right. Your priorities aren’t right. And you’re not going to cause Mary to stumble into your own sin.”
So what does that mean for us today? I think this is an appropriate message for the beginning of the year because the lesson here is something we all struggle with. Regardless of whether you make New Year’s resolutions or not, we all are trying to figure out what’s wrong with us and how to improve our lives – whether that be our spiritual lives, our health, our relationships, or our careers. And as we try to come up with the game plans what will fix everything, it’s really easy to get our priorities out of whack.
The lesson in what we’ve read today teaches that a godly life doesn’t start with a list of rules and regulations, more knowledge and willpower, or trying to cut out all the toxic things in our life. Those aren’t bad things – just like Martha wanting to serve people and the Lawyer obeying the Law weren’t bad things – but they aren’t things that lead to eternal life, that lead to grace and hope and joy and peace.
What did we learn today? That in order to live a life of love, of service, sacrifice, obedience, and holiness, doesn’t come from a list of laws – it comes from a changed heart.
So before you do anything, before you decide on a diet, exercise routine, schedule, life plan, bible reading plan, spiritual retreat, marriage counselling, personal counselling, killing a habit, battling an addiction, or anything else, remember that it will be meaningless, even cause your love to grow cold and become callous to the things of God if you are not connecting with Jesus as your first priority. If you don’t, it won’t be long until you are either looking for loopholes like the Lawyer, or trying to drag other people into your personal tornado like Martha.
What does that look like? Well, consider that the Samaritan was a man living outside the Law of Moses but still had a heart for the things of God. So, it’s not about white-knuckling through the Bible-In-a-Year, or forcing yourself to wake up at 6am, or fasting so many days per week, or promising to be more generous and forgiving. It’s about connecting your heart to God, trusting that He will guide you, lead you, and help you.
Once you’ve settled in your heart that you need Jesus’ presence in your life more than anything else, things fall into place. When you come to a moment when you need self-control, you won’t trust your own rules and laws and willpower but will lean on Him and ask for help. As you trust His guidance, you’ll learn that sometimes your personal rules and outlook actually prevent you from doing his will – like the priest not helping the man who was attacked. You’ll learn how to be flexible, kind, and generous because you’re living by God’s priorities and not your own. And when you inevitably mess up, you won’t see yourself as a failure or a victim who should just give up, but as a sinner in need of a Saviour, a work in progress that God is ever forgiving and always willing to help.
My hope for you in 2019 is that you will begin by cultivating this attitude and mindset of faith. That you will know that life comes from loving God and others, but that love is not simply a list of rules and anxiety driven service driven by your own willpower and personal agenda – but a heart that has experienced the love of God and is allowing it to flow into the rest of your life. First to yourself, your family, and then to the world.
I was given the opportunity to be a special speaker this week and as I was preparing my sermon, I ended up stopping and thinking: “You know what, the talk I just wrote for this other group really lines up to what we’re talking about in 1st Corinthians. Maybe I should just share this on Sunday.” So that’s what I’m doing today.
The next passage we are going to look at in our 1st Corinthians series is all about the importance of being united to each other because we are united in Christ. That phrase, “in Christ” is all over the New Testament, and used many times in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. It’s an important phrase which speaks to how we are saved, why we are kept as God’s people even after we sin again, and why God accepts us to be with Him forever. It’s because we are “in Christ”. The phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord” occurs 20 more times in this letter alone!
- If we are “in Christ”, then we are a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).
- If we are “in Christ” we are “sons of God” (Gal 3:26).
- The grace given to us was grace given “in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:9).
- My favourite passage of scripture says that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
- It is “in Christ” that we have forgiveness (Eph 1:7).
- And remember when we started studying this letter, Paul said, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:2).
When Jesus was talking to His disciples during the Last Supper before He would be arrested and crucified, he used this phrase over and over. Turn to John 15:1-7 and let’s look at it together. Jesus said:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
One big problem in the Corinthian church was that they had stepped away from being “in Jesus” and were seeking to live in their own wisdom, their own strength, their own ability, their own knowledge, and use the gifts God had given them for their own reasons. It’s not that they had lost their salvation, but had, by their disobedience, stopped abiding in Jesus. The rest of this letter is meant to call them back to living life as people who are in Jesus – to gain all they need from “the vine” and not separate themselves from the source of life.
Where’s the Fruit?
That concept, of choosing to remain, or abide, or live in Christ, holds an important key to understanding life as a busy Christian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them or referenced these verses in sermons, but more and more I’m finding that I have to explain them because a lot of folks don’t really grasp what it means.
At first glance, they seem to say that life with Jesus is a life where our worries are minimized, our joy is maximized, and where we are constantly “bearing much fruit”. They seem to say that life “in Christ” is always effective and joyful, overflowing with abundance.
But that’s not the way it seems to work out does it? And sometimes people grab onto these verses, and instead of them bringing peace, they actually bring guilt and shame. They look at their house, their kids, their marriage, their jobs, their failed plans, their church, and wonder why God’s promises aren’t coming true. The house is in disarray, the kids are in rebellion, the parents aren’t getting along, family life is distant, work is joyless, and worship is stagnant. The one word they would not use to describe their life is “fruitful”, and they wonder what’s wrong.
Maybe they misunderstood God’s calling on their life? Maybe their faith is too small. Maybe the married the wrong person. Maybe they’re just not strong enough to do what is necessary for God to bless them. They feel that either something is wrong with them or something is wrong with God… both of which are terrifying and depressing thoughts.
So, our question today is this: Why is it that so many feel that no matter how hard we try (whether it’s parenting, school, dieting, spiritual things, or whatever)… why do we still feel so ineffective and joyless? If we have the Holy Spirit inside of us, the God of the universe as our Father, and are saved by the amazing love of Jesus Christ, are surrounded by Christian brothers and sisters, and are trying to do what God has asked us to do, then why do we struggle with being content, happy, and at peace? Why is it so hard?
We love to quote the words of Jesus in John 10:10 to each other, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” “But, Really?”, some of us will say. “Sure, my life is full… but it’s full of problems, full of frustrating situations, difficult people, money issues, time crunches, failure and fatigue. I’m full — of problems.
Dealing with the Dichotomy
It’s times like those when it’s helpful to turn to the Bible and read it carefully.
Romans 8:31-37 helps us deal with this seeming contradiction between the promise of joy and the reality of how we feel. It begins,
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
That’s what we’re counting on, right? That’s a great verse to sew on a pillow and stick to the fridge. If God was so loving and gracious to send His Son to die for us, and is willing to forgive our sins, restore us as sons and daughters, and give us eternal life – all because of the shed blood of His Son – then He’s already proven that there is no limit to the good He will do for us out of His love!
Christians believe that is true… but how can it be when our life is full of problems? It still doesn’t answer the question as to why our life isn’t overflowing with fruit and joy? In fact, it can make it worse. If can cause us to question our faith, or even the goodness of God. If it’s true that we are overwhelmingly loved by a God who has infinite resources, then why is life so hard?
The Apostle Paul lived this dichotomy. Skip to verse 35,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
How did Paul reconcile these things? How could he hold the love of God in one hand, and difficult life he was living in the other and say he was being consistent?
First he says “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, and then lists some of the bad things that are happening to him… trouble, famine, nakedness, danger, swords, and death all day long. How can both be true?
The answer is in verse 37:
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
There’s a super critical word in there that you need to see.
That little word that we don’t want to hear, but is in there anyway; the word “in”.
“In all these things…”.
That’s the answer to the question: How can I go through hardship, while still experiencing joy? Because having joy is about being able to experience the presence of God in the circumstance, not trying to find our joy because of the circumstance. Do you see the difference? If your joy is found in God, then even as the world collapses around you, the source of your joy never changes – and therefore you will always have a source of abundant joy.
So, what I want to do for the remainder of our time is show you a picture of how I believe this works practically – at least from my perspective. I’m going to give you an illustration of why you need to keep your relationship with God as your source, remain “in Christ”, and not fall into the trap of seeking joy and fruitfulness in other areas. I’m not saying it’s a perfect illustration, but it helps me remember how life works and how to keep my priorities straight.
I call it “Mind Your Buckets” and it has everything to do with being filled by God… and not having your happiness dependant on circumstance. Ready?
So here’s the first picture. Let’s start with the source: God. God is the source of life. There is life in no other. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life…” Genesis 2:7 says that when God created humanity He breathed into him the breath of life that made him a living being. There is no life outside of that which God gives. If He withdraws His Spirit, we will cease to exist. So He goes at the top as the Source of Life.
Next comes “Me”. The bucket where I store my “life juice”, or the source of my strength, joy, peace, happiness, energy, etc. It comes from God, and goes to me.
Next comes “Priority Hill”. We all know that water runs downhill, and it’s the same with our life. There are things that need to go on top of the hill, and things that go on the bottom, and if your priorities out of order, then you won’t give enough “life juice” to the most important things in your life because it’ll be spent on other things.
So what are our priorities? They come next. Next comes the buckets that we fill up with the life-juice that comes out of us. The things that need our life, energy, emotions, physical health, time, money and skills…and they are labelled “Key Relationships”, “Life Purpose”, “Work” or “Things I Have To Do”, and then “Hobbies” or “Things I Want To Do”.
These are our priorities, in order. Our whole life, arranged as a series of 4 buckets. And this is their proper priority order. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time discussing why they are in this order, we can discuss that later, if you like.
After your relationship with God, your next most important priority are your Key Relationships – your spouse, your immediate family and those closest to you.
The next most important priority is your Life Purpose, or why you exist – God’s chosen purpose for you. Some people would put Work as their second most important priority, but that’s not the way God set the world up. God won’t judge you for how much work you did, but whether you lived out His will for your life. Everyone is designed with gifts, talents and a purpose. We know from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents that we are each given different amounts of skills, aptitude, and abilities, and we are expected to use them. Yes, we can use our gifts at work, and if we are very blessed, even get paid to work out of our life’s purpose, but our work and our purpose are not necessarily synonymous.
The gifts and abilities God gave us are not given to use only for ourselves, to make money, or just to take care of our family. God has given us each something that we are supposed to do to bless this world. Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That’s not talking about our work, but our life’s purpose. If you’ve done any reading about spiritual gifts then you know 1 Corinthians 12:7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” “The common good” means God expects us to use our gifts for not only our family but our church, our neighbourhood, and the world.
The third priority is Work, or Things I Have To Do. We have to work in order to eat. That’s life. We have to change the diapers, mow the grass, learn the multiplication tables, take our medicine, correct the grammar assignment, buy the groceries, make supper, fix the car, and brush our teeth. We don’t necessarily want to do these things, but we have to… and it certainly does cost us some of our “life juice”. And we know that when life becomes all about Work, or doing the Things I Have To Do… it literally sucks the life out of you.
Our Fourth priority is our Hobbies, or Things I Want to Do. Yes, unfortunately, Things I Want To Do comes after Things I Have To Do. When we switch those two around, that’s called procrastinating, and it gets us into trouble. Things like doing crafts, playing games, practicing guitar, taking a fun class, photography, computers, checking Facebook, shopping, baking, hunting, fishing, etc. They aren’t work, they aren’t our life’s purpose. They don’t really build our Key-Relationships, but they are good things we like to do, so they get a bucket too.
So now that we have our buckets… it’s time for the pipes. Out of the “Me” bucket comes the pipes that lead to each priority bucket, and one that goes nowhere… that’s the Waste pipe. Because not only does life flow from God to you, but also from you to others. And each pipe has a valve. And your life is all about constantly adjusting those little, yellow valves to make sure things are getting enough of your “life juice”.
Now, before I discuss that more, there are two more pipes I need to put in there… the return pipes. There are pipes that come back from your Key Relationships and your Life Purpose. Believe it or not, you gain some life back into your “Me” tank if you pour your life into those things. As you show love to those closest to you, and practice your gifts, you’ll feel more filled up. And as you serve others in the area that you are gifted in, that will fill you up with life too! But here’s the problem… those pipes leak!
Because people are imperfect and sinful, they can never give back to you in a perfect way. If you were to close off your relationship with God and only work on your relationships with those closest to you, and pour yourself into your life’s purpose… you would eventually run out of “life juice” because sin makes the pipes leaky. As much as you love them, people still drain you.
This is something that I think a lot of busy parents get wrong when they forget to take time to develop themselves spiritually. They think that if they keep pouring their life into their spouse, children and kids – and living out their purpose as a mom (or a dad) – then they should have all the joy and energy they need. They’re doing what God built them to do, and they’re doing it for people they love, so they should be able to do it forever, right?
But what happens? They get tired, grumpy, frustrated, sad, depressed, competitive, distracted, and resentful. They start to question whether they should have even had kids at all! They question their marriage! They fanaticize about quitting everything. Why? Because they’re life-juice is gone. They haven’t been going to God for a refilling of their tank. They’re not living in His sustaining power. They topped up a while back, and maybe got a bit during that hour at church, and maybe they do family devos, but they don’t spend time in private prayer and bible reading and aren’t connecting to God personally. – which means they run out of juice.
Why? Because they have put their family where God should be. They’re asking from their children and spouse, something that can only come from God.
The Overflow Pipes
Now take a look at the pipes that join the buckets together.… life also flows from one bucket to the next. If you do this right and get your priorities straight, then the placement of your buckets actually help you out… but if you get this wrong, they work against you. ** This is a big idea, so stay with me! **
As you keep the top priorities filled up, they actually pour into the other buckets. This is absolute truth. If you are pouring your life into your Key Relationships, then putting time and effort into your life’s purpose gets easier. If you’re using the life God gives you to work on your marriage, love your kids, make time for your friends and church, and doing the good works God has prepared for you to do, then your work – even when it’s no fun – is actually easier.
BUT if you stop pouring life into your Key Relationships by taking your spouse for granted, neglecting your kids, friends, and church… then doing what God wants you to do gets harder because you’re not with the ones you love, you’re not as encouraged or supported. Then your work gets harder because you feel lonely and distracted, and wonder why you have to do this stuff anyway since nobody cares about you…. Even your hobbies become less fun because you don’t have people to share them with, and you feel guilty because you know you haven’t been doing what you’re supposed to do. Do you see what I mean?
If you get your priorities straight, life works better. When you get your priorities out of whack, your life goes out of whack too. If you spend your time pouring your life into your hobby – you will lose your job, and probably your key relationships too. If you spend all your time at work, then you will not fulfil your Life’s Purpose, and you will harm your Key Relationships. And if you stop connecting to God’s unlimited resources, then you will be running off of a limited amount of life-juice that will eventually dry-up. I’ve been there – it’s not pretty.
The final pipe is the Waste pipe. The Waste My Time pipe – it’s red and doesn’t even get a bucket. Nothing is accomplished, no relationships are built, no ministry is done, no work is done, and nothing is created. This is where we are just being totally self-indulgent and pouring our life out onto the ground. We wasting time on the internet, or stare at another glowing box, or spend time at the mall, or some other pointless thing. Endlessly scrolling Facebook or newsfeeds or Pinterest, not even stopping to read. Shopping for nothing in particular. Binge-watching Netflix. Sleeping more than we need.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes what we call “me time” is just a waste of time. We’ve bought into believing that somehow, wasting our life is going to fill up our tank… but it’s not true. Now, I’m not talking about solitude and time with God, or taking a purposeful Sabbath rest – that’s different. I’m talking about where we turn off the valve to our Key Relationships and go away from everyone, turn off the valve to our Life Purpose and serve no one, turn off the valve at Work and do nothing… and just pour our life-juice on the ground. We’ve been sold this idea somehow wasting time will fill our buckets up… but it doesn’t really work, does it?
The Drain Gremlin & “Balance”
So here’s our buckets, our pipes and our valves. But there’s still two missing things. So let’s put that next one in. The final set of valves go right here at the bottom of the tanks. They are the release valves. The drains. And there’s a little gremlin out there that keeps messing with your levels. You’ve probably met him.
How many times have you heard, or even said, that all your life needs is “balance”? We think that if we finally get the right balance in our life that everything will run smoothly. We say it all the time… what we need is “balance”.
We are all seeking this perfected world where it’s possible to get our priorities perfectly straight, our valves set, our life on track, our calendar perfect, our budget exactly right… and then we’ll have no problems. We’ll have balance. Have you told yourself that? Have you believed it?
But the problem is that this world is out of balance because of sin and error. And our enemy, the Devil, is constantly trying to mess up our buckets! We will never be able to just set the valves at the right place and then walk away knowing the system is secure forever because there’s always something that will mess it up.
Something will happen in one of your Key Relationships… someone gets hurt, or dies, or needs help, or gets depressed, or moves out, or gets born… and it’s like someone took that drain and cranked it wide open! All our life juice is flowing straight into that Key Relationship, and it’s taking a lot more of our energy, time, emotions and life than before. Everything else starts to suffer because one of our Key Relationships is more of a draw than before. Perhaps it’s a sick spouse or a broken relationship with a family member or friend – it becomes a drain on us because we have to put more effort and energy into that relationship.
Or your life’s purpose gets hard. People won’t join in your group, the finances aren’t working out, it’s a lot harder than it used to be, there are too many things going on. Or Satan ramps up his attacks on you and even though you know you’re doing the right thing, and working in your area of giftedness, it’s a serious drain on you.
Or there’s a huge project at Work, or something goes crazy at the office, or the computer crashes, or the car blows up, or supper gets burned, or there’s more bills than usual, or there’s a huge snow-storm or cold snap, or there’s a giant fire that burns down a third of your city… totally beyond your control. Sometimes the Things I Have to Do gets harder and the drain is pulling more than usual. It’s not our fault, but it happens and it effects everything else.
Dealing with the Drain
So what do we do when that happens? Well, people generally have a few responses. Maybe you’ll see yourself here:
Some people’s response is to turn off the other valves and just pour our life into the one place that needs us most. If it’s a Key Relationship that needs more, then we shut off the valve going to our Life’s Purpose, Our Work, and Hobbies… and just concentrate on that one. If it’s Work that needs more, then we shut out our Key Relationships and stop doing what God put us on earth to do and spend our time at work fixing it. It makes sense to some people, right?
The problem with that is you can’t really do that. You can’t tell everyone you love to go away for an indefinite period of time. There will always be work that needs to get done. And you still have to keep your ministry commitments and do good deeds. And sometimes even your hobbies are such that you have to keep a drop or two going that way. So you can’t really just shut off the rest of your life. It’s not a good option or you’ll do more damage than what you’re trying to fix.
The next option is to shut off that problem valve and just let it run dry. If it’s a Key Relationship, just forget that person, or those people, even exist and pour your life in to our Work and Hobbies. Give your spouse the cold shoulder, stick the kids in school and programs, block that person’s posts and don’t take their calls… pretend that relationship doesn’t exist.
Or, if it’s another issue… then quit your ministry, leave the church, stop putting in effort at your job, burn your hobby. Just shut off everything in your life that needs attention.
I know many who have tried this method, and it also doesn’t really work. The people who deal with their problems by cutting off relationships and pulling the parachute become lonely, bitter, and sad people. We are built for relationships, for doing good works, for work and for enjoying this world, and shutting them off when these things get difficult doesn’t make us more joyful, but instead causes serious problems later. That’s where we lose our marriage, our kids, our friends, our parents, our jobs, and our joy. God didn’t build us to shut out our problems, but as our verse said – we are to exist and become conquers in them. We need to stay in.
The “Me” Level Check and Shut Off Valve
But, that bucket is still pouring out like crazy, right? What should we do? We can’t just let our Me tank run dry, can we? Let me introduce our two pieces…our level check and our shut off valve.
The Level Check is located on our “Me” tank and it’s linked to a valve right at the bottom — and this is an automatic valve. If your Me level gets too low, then it shuts down the flow to everywhere else, and we just shut down. This is our life-saver valve. It makes sure we don’t run out of life juice and die. It keeps a little in the tank, just for us to exist on. I know this valve exists, because I’ve tripped the Level Check before and I’ve felt this valve snap shut.
It’s kind of like one of those teapots that whistle when the water boils. It starts out quiet, but gets louder. You can hear this system, and also feel this system, and even see this system. Your body starts to ache. Your stomach is tied in knots. Your head hurts, your ears ring. Tears come easily. You hear yourself yelling more. It’s harder to get up in the morning, and you can’t go to sleep at night. You find yourself eating way too much and gaining weight, or not eating at all and losing it. You get canker sores, and get sick easier. This is your life-saver system sending signals that your “Me” bucket is really low and you’re about to shut down.
This all happened to me in December 2009. I had a bunch of these symptoms, and my whistle had been going off for the whole year, but I was stubborn, didn’t listen to my body or my spirit, and I was almost out of life-juice. And then one day, my valve snapped shut and I was gone. Zombified. Total protection mode. Nothing else in my life got anything. I couldn’t make any decisions. I pushed everyone away. I was constantly exhausted. I was just running on auto-pilot. I was there only in body, doing the bare minimum – but Al was gone. You could have done anything to me and I wouldn’t have cared. The whole of my conversational ability was down to one word: “Whatever.”
At the time, I was getting it on all ends. My Key Relationship valve was wide open. Anita was very sick and the kids had weird problems happening, I had issues with my parents, and a bunch of other stuff.
My Ministry was really draining too. While some in the church were verbally abusing me, the leadership boards felt they needed to vote a couple times about whether to fire me or not. This necessitated dozens of very difficult meetings, some lasting until midnight.
The Things I Have To Do valve was wide open too as life got more complicated.
And, of course, I had turned my Waste Valve open because I just wanted to get away from everything and escape. So I watched movies, surfed the net, read lots of books, and just wasted time.
And then, my system crashed. I ran out of juice and shut down. Since then, I’ve taken a lot of time to ask myself why that happened. What brought me to that point? What was I doing wrong, and what should I have been doing instead?
The answer is pretty obvious, actually. If this was a water system, and it’s running out of water, then what needs to be done? Add more water!
Pouring Sugar in the System
That’s what I wasn’t doing. But it’s is the only solution. When the buckets are draining and life is pouring out of you, you can’t just shut things down. You can adjust for a period of time… give a bit more to Work when it needs it, a bit more to the Family when it gets low… but that’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul – it doesn’t add to the system.
What I needed, and still need, and what we all need, is more life in the “Me” tank. I needed to go to God and ask for more water for the system. It’s not about turning off all of the tanks and running away. It’s not about Wasting it in an attempt to feel better. It’s not about just keeping one bucket going and hoping for the best. It’s about going to the Source of Life, connecting to the Vine, seeking first His Kingdom and His Righteousness… trusting and knowing that everything you need will be given as He fulfills His promise to pour more life into you.
It’s almost counter-intuitive to our sinful nature. We want to control the valves, and think we can handle it, and somehow don’t want to impose on God for more. Or, in a perverse thought, we start to think that it is God who is draining the life from us. We get bitter with Him, complaining that He’s not giving us enough to get by, so we try to find other sources, and other gods to get life from… like pornography and sex, or substances like food or alcohol, or doubling down on our willpower and trying to control the situation, or we throw money at the problem and hope that will solve it, or we try to boost our popularity and do things to make people look at us so we feel better, or we try religious moralism, or whatever… but they don’t provide life, they only mask the problem and harm the system. Doing those things is like pouring sugar in the tank. It feels like we’re filling it, but instead we are destroying ourselves and end up feeling emptier and emptier. Our system gets more and more messed up. Satan offers those quick fixes so that we will damage ourselves. God promises that He came to give life – and offers it freely to those who would come to Him.
Connecting to the Source of Life
Scripture says that the life God wants to give us is rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 8 reminds us that there is nothing that can disconnect us from our source – no amount of trouble, or distress, or famine, or danger, or death or demons, or time, or height or depth, or any other created thing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is only we who can choose to move further from our source. We can choose to disconnect from the vine, to seek things other than His Kingdom and His righteousness. He leaves that option open to us. Just like in the Garden of Eden, God leaves the option open for his children to seek other forms of knowledge and strength. But God promises that He will give more when we need it. Look at Philippians 4:19, “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” There it is again! Remaining in Jesus.
A Few Practical Suggestions
Let me close with a couple practical suggestions for how to connect to our source and meet God afresh. Maybe one reason you feel stagnant and drained is because your relationship with Him has become commonplace, more drudgery than refreshing.
Of course, you know by now that you need to read scripture, have time in prayer every day and go to church every week. Doing those things are like getting your regular meals. They’re not optional. But what about reading scripture and praying in a new place. Go to a coffee shop, sit on the patio, find a park bench, or just go to a different room in the house. The other day I changed the direction that I sit in my office and found a bit more energy in my devotional. Same thing with prayer. Pull a “War Room” and go sit in the closet. Put on a short tv episode for the kids and go to the backyard and sit in a lawn chair. Take a walk during lunch instead of going where you’d normally go.
Another way to meet God is to spend time with mature Christian friends. Make a point to have some strong believers over to your house and talk to them for a while. Not merely good friends you like to hang out with or new believers who share your struggles, but mature believers who will listen to you and speak Godly wisdom into your life.
Another way is to turn on worship music and have it playing in the house. Or, if you’re into it, find a sermon online and play it in your headphones after you go to bed.
Go for a walk and experience God’s presence in nature.
Write a list of things you are thankful for.
How about this: Tell your pastor or leadership team that you want to spend the next month connecting to God instead of serving in your church. Tell them that you are going to step away for the next four weeks and work hard to be proactive and present in the church service. Go to bed early Saturday night. Wake up on Sunday and prepare your heart. Pay attention to all the words of the songs you sing. Read and reread the bible passages used that week when you go home. Learn and sing the songs and hymns during the week. Choose to fully engage so you can meet God in a special way at church.
The whole idea is simply to connect with God in a way you never have before.
That’s what I have learned about myself and God. When things get hard, more and more I’m choosing not to shut people out or shut myself down, but instead to go to God and ask for more life.
More life to deal with what I have to deal with, minister to those He has given me to minister to, take care of my family, do the things that I have to do, forgive those I need to forgive, find joy in tough circumstances, and have my bucket overflow into others. He’s promised to be my source and make me a conqueror over all the difficult things that come at me in this life. He’s promised to give me what I need to do what I need to do. And I promise that He does each and every time I come to Him.
The Joy of Bible Study
When I do Bible study (and perhaps this happens to you), I often have one of three experiences –each flowing from one to the next.
I usually start out by feeling like a hunter, an archaeologist, or a prospector… wandering about, fairly sure that there’s something good there, but not exactly sure where yet. So I take a few samples, smell the air, set up a camera, do some digging around … in other words, I read over the passage a few times, talk to God about it, mull it over, find a study bible or two and read the notes.
Then, I suddenly strike something. Sometimes it comes quickly, other times it takes a little while, but it always happens. Suddenly there’s a moment when something jumps off the page. I scout for long enough and find that set of tracks, that artefact, that nugget… and I start to dig. And that’s when my experience switches, I now become a miner.
I get out my shovels and pickaxes – fire up my commentaries, bible translations, dictionaries, studies, fact books, etc. and start to dig and dig to get under what I’ve just found. I want to know where it comes from, how it got there, what it’s made of, what it’s worth, what I can do with it… and it gets very exciting. That’s my favourite part.
Now, just to clarify my illustration, when I’m preaching through a book of the bible, like I am now, it’s not like I approach the verses with a specific idea in mind. That would be like showing up with a my own bones, some gold nuggets, or a bag of my own scat, spreading it around and calling it a sign. No, when we come to Bible Study, our job isn’t to pull things out of scripture, or worse, put things into it, but to simply find what God is saying and then listen to and teach that.
But, that’s not the end of the Bible Study journey for me. Now, maybe I’m alone in this one, but I assume I’m not. There’s usually a third part to my experience where I go from blissfully mining out truths to feeling like I’m drinking from a fire-hose. All of a sudden I realize, once again, that no matter what the truth is, God has been saying it to generations of people, over and over, for millennia.
I start to realize that when the Bible speaks, it speaks consistently with a voice that agrees with itself, that the Holy Spirit has declared every word of the Bible. I see Jesus in every verse, the mercy of God in every chapter, as the few verses I’m reading point to more and more verses in scripture – in Genesis, Proverbs, Psalms, the Prophets. As I learn the historical context of the verse I realize how important it was at the time, but how universal it is for all times.
Suddenly, the truth God wants to tell me that day, comes clear and I realize a few of its implications. I come face to face with my own sin, and the sin of the world around me, and how woefully short I fall in God’s eyes. I get a glimpse of Jesus’ true nature and realize how high and deep His mind is compared to mine. I start to realize that His ways are so much more different than mine, and that His thoughts are so much better than mine. And it gets overwhelming. I dig in and find there’s too much gold, too many jewels in the mine for one person to ever study or carry himself. Too many tracks to follow for even a thousand hunters to track. And it brings me to both elation and despair. Elation as I experience the living and active Word of God, sharper than any double-edges sword, penetrating and dividing my soul and spirit… and despair as I realize that I will never, ever be able to fully explain, even that one verse, in my whole lifetime. There’s too much there.
I hope you’ve experienced that. I get to do it all the time, and it’s the greatest part of being able to do what I do. Perhaps you’ve even experience a little of that on these past Sundays as we’ve gone through the Gospel of Mark together and you’ve studied at home.
So Many Hot Topics
I say all that because I feel like we’ve covered a lot of big, “hot-topics” over the past while. In a short time we’ve covered gender identity, homosexuality, submission to leadership, stewardship, keeping our relationships together, suffering and martyrdom – that’s a lot! Last week we covered the questions of “What is most important to God?”, “How do I find my life’s purpose?” and “How can I love people who make it hard to love them?” That’s enough to chew on for a lifetime, and here we are again about to cover something else!
I don’t think anyone would blame us if we feel a little overwhelmed by all the amazing things that Jesus spoke in the final days of His life. The questions come fast and furious, and when He answers them He doesn’t use long sermons and explanations, but short, powerful, bullet like answers, piercing straight to the heart of the issue. And so, when we read these sections, and try to take them more slowly, we invariably find that they are incredibly condensed.
Jesus Fires Back
That’s true about today’s passage too, of course, so let’s give it a read and see what God has for us today. First, notice that today’s passage is different than our last bunch in that it’s not motivated by a question asked by someone else, but comes about because Jesus decides to point it out Himself.
Remember last week where, in verse 34, Jesus had answered the Scribe’s question and “no one dared ask him any more questions.” After the Pharisees and Scribes stopped talking, Jesus went on a bit of a walking tour of the Temple area. It says in verse 37 that a “great throng”, or a “large crowd”, followed Him around, listening to His teaching, captivated by His every word – much to the annoyance and vexation of the Sanhedrin.
In our passage today, Jesus takes a walk from steps on which He had been confronted by the Sanhedrin a little further into, perhaps the Court of the Gentiles, the place that He had made quite the scene the day before. As He walks, He begins to speak and teach.
Let’s read from Mark 12:38:
“And in his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ (Mark 12:38-40)
What we are reading here is a summary, a condensed version, of what Matthew 23 calls the “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees”, which is a much more lengthy and specific indictment of Israel’s teachers. There, the phrase he repeats over and over is the word “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”, and then calls them out for burdening people with extreme rules that go far beyond God’s law, for their belief that they are above others, for their two-facedness and total lack of understanding of their place before God, for their lack of care for the poor, for their narcissistic, shallow, superficial, conceited, vanity, and the hate they had in their hearts for God and His Christ. It’s an extremely powerful, entire chapter of scripture that Mark condenses into a few verses.
Here you see vain men who walk from place to place clothed in the garb of aristocrats, white, flowing robes symbolizing their religious purity. They were meant to be work during religious duties, but these leaders had taken to wearing them all the time, even in the marketplaces, to remind people how important they were. They would seek out crowds of people, in synagogues and feasts, and expect special treatment for who they were. They loved the perks that came with the job.
And they had a lot of power, which they would use to abuse people. A scribe was forbidden from being paid for their teachings, so they had to either support themselves with a secular job – like the Apostle Paul did as a tentmaker – or be dependent upon the gifts of others. This situation easily led them to start to expect gifts whenever they would teach, which led to finding out which were the most generous / gullible of those they were meant to be helping. Like the bad lawyers and religious shysters today, they would ingratiate themselves to some of the widows, hoping to get into their wills, or look for loop-holes in the law which would allow them to take over people’s possessions. This was especially effective against defenceless widows who had no one to advocate them – because they were the ones abusing them.
Picture lawyers, walking around the grocery stores, church groups, potlucks, restaurants – always clad in their best power-suit. Attending funerals and looking for grieving, trusting, people who are in mourning, passing out business cards, using their charisma and knowledge to steal their homes, take their money, and leaving them destitute.
Is it any wonder Jesus says, “They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The Widow’s Offering
As Jesus is walking and teaching, firing back at the Sanhedrin that had blocked His way to the Temple and tried to trap Him with questions, He’s making His way to the Court of the Women. There stood a series of boxes with trumpet shaped tops for people to place various offerings and their temple taxes. There He will sit down and make another, extremely important point.
“And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:38-44)
Jesus sits and turns his eyes towards the contribution chests, the trumpets, and for a time he says nothing. It’s the Passover and Jerusalem is at its busiest, and there are a lot of people paying their taxes, and making the required and voluntary offerings to God. The whole crowd with Him watches person after person come to the box and drop in their offering.
The trumpets are made of metal and each coin that goes in makes a clanging noise – and there are some people that make a lot of noise! I remember reading at one point that some people would have their offering turned into even more coins so they could be seen – and heard – pouring more and more into the noisy receptacle. Some even throwing their coins into the coffers from a distance – for maximum clang!
Notice the contrast between these two stories. In the first we have Jesus giving a warning and a description of the Scribe. “Beware the Scribes” — the hypocrites, the play actors, the religious pretenders, the ones who loved the show, but were just white-washed-tombs, dead looking good on the outside, but dead and disgusting on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28).
Then He points to the polar opposite: a poor widow, beneath anyone’s notice. She’s poor, which means she, likely, doesn’t have anyone taking care of her. No family, no help, n protector, no social services, no legal recourse. Was she a victim of one of the Scribe’s – we don’t know – but we do know that she is in extreme need.
She has come to the Temple humbly, without advertisement, in obedience to God’s call to give, in need, with an absolute trust in God. How do I know this? Because Jesus says she put in two small coins, two LEPTA, one 64th of a day’s wages, and it was all she had.
A little math and conversion says: If the minimum wage in Ontario is $11.25, and one works an 8 hour day, then they have $90. Divide that by 64 and you have $1.40. By today’s standards, this poor widow had less than a Twoonie to her name.
It was too small to be the Temple Tax, and must have been put in the box for the voluntary gifts. This was a gift given out of both obedience and love. She didn’t have to put both coins in. She could have kept one. She needed to bring an offering, and she looked at her coins, and knew that she needed God’s blessing a lot more than she needed that single coin.
Now we make the contrast. Jesus pronounced judgement and doom on the rich scribe, who looked amazing in the outside, had wealth, connections, a fancy degree, got the best seats to all the events, and was respected by all the elites in the city. And He commends the widow for giving to God, willingly.
But it’s not about the money, it’s about the heart! Jesus calls over His disciples and says, “this poor widow put in more than all those who are contributing…”. How was it more? Because everyone else had given out of their riches – and she gave out of her poverty, she gave it all.
It’s not about the amount we give. God couldn’t care less about the amount, because He doesn’t need any of it. God owns everything and wants for nothing. He can raise people out of mud. He invented gold and jewels. It’s not about God wanting our riches – He wants our heart. And the Widow’s very small gift proved that she loved God, needed God, thanked God, obeyed God, and trusted God more than she trusted anyone or anything else.
She gave beyond what was convenient, beyond what was safe, beyond what was expected, and gave it all. It was one of the few – perhaps the only – gift accepted by God that day. Sure, the contribution boxes were full, but there were only two little coins that God found value in – the Widow’s offering. She gave “all she had to live on”, literally translated, “her whole life”.
Those wealthy Scribes foolishly thought that riches were something to be accumulated on earth, and spent their life amassing them. The Widow knew that there was more to life than having a coin in her hands. The Scribes found security in their wealth and used their power to crush anyone who they could. The Widow found her security in God, knowing that He is the highest authority.
Let me draw a couple applications here:
The first is that we must get our priorities straight.
This is an old application, but it’s relevant to every age. We talked about “Loving God” and “Loving our Neighbour” last week, and we get a very similar reminder this week. We have to ask ourselves what our priorities are, because if they don’t line up with God’s, then we are in trouble: trouble in facing God’s judgement for disobedience, and trouble in not being able to flourish under His rule.
If we have the priorities of the Scribes: Pride, Position, Power, Prestige, Wealth, Worldly security, then we have it all wrong. And this is where it starts to feel like drinking from a fire-hose, because every book of the Bible condemns this life. It doesn’t condemn the wealthy, but the love of wealth.
- Jesus in Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
- The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
- The Apostle John in 1 John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
- The author of the Proverbs (30:8) begs God to give him enough, but no more saying, “…give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” and, in it’s wisdom, looks square at us and simply says, “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist.” (23:4)
- The Psalmist says, “For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire, And the greedy man curses and spurns the LORD.” (10:3)
Seeking wealth and worldly security is absolutely incompatible with loving God and others. A life committed to pursuing gain and comfort, dependant on appearances and applause, will always, always, always corrupt one’s soul, distract them from God, and cause them to use people rather than serve them.
The second is to answer the question: “What are you holding back?”
We see a picture of Jesus in the Widow. She trusts God, obeys at great cost, and gives her life for the sake of others. That’s Jesus.
The Widow put in two coins, though she could have kept one. Jesus gave His whole life to save us.
- What are you holding back?
- What have you not given God permission to have in your life?
- What has God asked you to do and you’ve said no?
- Is there something you are supposed to do, to give, to trust God with, that you are still holding in your hands, keeping control of, because you simply can’t trust him with it?
- Are you tithing? Are you giving generously to the work of God, first at church and then to other people who need it? Or are you refusing to obey God in that way?
- What about your daily obedience in bible reading and prayer? Are you holding back your time from God because you believe it’s yours? Do you give God a little time, when you find it, and have nothing better to do?
- Is there a sin or a habit that you know you’ve needed to give up, but won’t?
Jesus has terrible words to say to religious pretenders who look like they have it all put together, but are, in fact, corrupt on the inside. He calls them “Hypocrites!” Let us be free from hypocrisy and give God everything, no holding back.
What are you holding back from God?
Our current mini-series has been covering the questions that Jesus was asked as He entered the Temple the day after He cleared the Temple courts by driving people out, overturning tables and releasing the animals. As He came up the stairs he was confronted by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, who had some questions about his motives, and had hopes of publically embarrassing Him and trapping Him in His own worlds. They wanted Him gone, and if they could get him to publically admit that He believed Himself to be the Messiah – or better yet, God, and then accuse Him of blasphemy and arrest Him. Or, if they could get Him to say that He was doing these things by His own authority they could accuse Him of being the crazy leader of an insurgence, a megalomaniacal fanatic, who the Romans needed to arrest and kill as a rabble rouser and a traitor.
None of their plans worked, of course, and they end up walking away dejected and angry, bewildered as to what they will do about Jesus – until Judas comes to them offering to sell out Jesus so they can arrest Him in the middle of the night only a few days later.
The Final and Biggest Question
“And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.’” (Mark 12:28-34)
The last question Jesus is asked is an ironic one. It’s ironic because it comes from, what appears to be a good guy! After rafts of men came trying to embarrass and trap Jesus, one man comes up in the midst of the fray and asks Jesus a question that wasn’t manipulative or loaded – but genuine. It says that this scribe – who was basically a lawyer – was sitting on the periphery listening to the conversations and was very impressed with Jesus answers. He came to Jesus after “seeing that he answered them well”. By Jesus’ own admission this man was “not far from the kingdom of God” so perhaps that means His journey to find God’s will had finally led him to Jesus.
This last question is a great last question because it is the most important one of all. And, funnily enough, it comes on the heels of a really dumb question about a woman who was widowed seven times and who would be her husband in the afterlife. Even Jesus says that they ask a dumb question.
But after telling them how dopey their question was, Jesus turns around and sees a man standing there with a very important question: “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
This sounds like a no-brainer to us, but that’s only because we’ve heard the answer so many times. When this scribe asked Jesus, they had identified 613 separate commandments they believed God wanted them to obey, 365 of which were negative (do nots) and 248 of which were positive (do this). They had even divided them into “heavy” and “light,” commands, ranked by which ones were more important and less important. So, seeing that Jesus knew what He was talking about, the scribe brought this important, and relevant, question.
Jesus is more than happy to give the answer, but He does so in a special way. He takes two of the items on their list of 613 and joins them. They were normally separate, from different scriptures in different locations, but Jesus joined them together. Jesus’ view of the Law of God wasn’t about lists, but about lifestyle of love.
The first part of His answer is of no surprise to anyone. It is the first part of the “Shema”, a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the centrepiece prayer of Jewish life, said in the morning and evening every day:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
This was a reminder to all that the love of God is based on His oneness, His singularity, His exclusivity – He is the Only One. Since God is one, our love for Him must be undivided. This is repeated in the first commandment: “You shall have no other God’s before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
It piles up the terms “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” and “strength” reminding us that God doesn’t just want part of us, but our whole being. God wants to the be the greatest, all-consuming love of our life. Why? Because He is our Lord and our God – He alone.
The second of Jesus’ answers comes immediately after, without a pause: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Later 1 John 4:20-21 explains how these commandments are tied together:
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
These are not two commands, but one. God loves us, and in response we love God… and that love flows from Him to Us to Others. We don’t have one or the other. We cannot love God and hate people – that’s incompatible, even if we sometimes wish it wasn’t.
True Love Hurts Sometimes
We do, don’t we? Sometimes we really wish that we could just say, “I love God, love Jesus, love my family, and love my church… but the rest of everyone can go to heck.” We’ve all thought it. Why? Because loving people is hard. People make it hard to love them sometimes.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the one that loves our neighbour, is a sacrificial love. It requires sacrifice and commitment, a denial of self, a picking up of our cross and following Him, living as a disciple of Christ.
We sometimes think that “taking up our cross” (Matthew 16:24-26) means facing persecution and martyrdom, being killed for our faith and our love for Jesus. And sometimes it does, but we have to remember how Jesus said it. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” That means we stop living for ourselves and live the way that Jesus lived.
It means that we define love the way that Jesus does. It means we expand our love beyond ourselves, beyond those we love, beyond just us and God –deny ourselves and choose to love the people that God puts in our lives, even the ones that make it hard to do. That is a Christ like, sacrificial thing to do.
In books, movies and tv shows we are presented with only one kind of love – love that feels good and comes easily. And, thank God, that’s true sometimes. It’s usually pretty easy to love babies, our own children, our friends, our parents… people that are kind, generous, helpful, and nice. Those people are easy to love. But that’s only one side of love. Sometimes love hurts.
Many in our western world today have bought into this one side of love. If you feel love towards someone, and it’s easy, and you’re swept off your feet, and it gets all misty and gushy when the person is around – that’s love. But when that person becomes hard to love, when the feelings leave, when they hurt you, when they disappoint you, when they stop loving you – or when you start having gushy feelings for someone else – then you are no longer in love and it’s time to go somewhere else. That’s not love, that’s using people. Real love is different.
Loving Like Jesus
Real love sometimes involves suffering. Real love sometimes hurts really bad. Real love requires a decision, commitment, and fortitude. The Bible defines love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 saying:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
That is not emotional language – those are words of decision.
I choose to be patient when the one I love keeps messing up. I choose to be kind when the person is unkind. I choose to be love others that are better off than I am. I choose to not say rude things and place myself before the one I love. I choose to forgive and not hold resentment. I will bear with them. I will believe in them. I will hope for them. I will endure suffering with them. I will finish my life loving them. True love requires hard choices and sometimes feels like suffering.
Just as Jesus’ love for His Father and for us meant that He had to take up His cross so He could suffer and die – so sometimes it is required of us to pick up our cross, obey God, and suffer and die as we love our neighbours as ourselves.
Jesus blows the doors off of “one sided love” when He teaches that God’s version of love goes beyond our family and those who are easy to love, but extends to difficult people – even those who treat us badly! He says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)
Jesus injunction to “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” brings us full circle to the question that the scribe asked Jesus. The scribe asked, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” That’s another way of saying, “If God had only one thing to say, what would He say? What does God want from us most? What is the most fundamental, most central, most critical thing in the universe?” It could almost be restated, “How can we be perfect like God is perfect?” The answer Jesus gave was to love God with our whole being and to have that love spill over onto the people around us – even when it hurts.
“Eye for an eye” makes sense to us. “Turn the other cheek” doesn’t. Jesus says, if someone hurts you, do not answer hatred for hatred, but love instead. If someone has it out for you and wants to take revenge even after you’ve tried to work it out, answer their vengeance with generosity. Value your hard earned things less then people who you don’t even know! Pray for people that hurt you. The great reward of love, true love, comes as you love those who don’t love you back.
Finding Our Purpose
People are always worried about their purpose. Anyone who has been on the planet for more than 3 years is often asked “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and the question never seems to end. Just this week I heard of an older man, almost a hundred years old, who was asking about his purpose in life.
Everyone wants to know their purpose and they ask, “God what do you want me to do? Where do you want me to go? What is the plan for my life?”. The answer if far more clear than they want to believe – but they resist because it’s not specific enough.
Look at what happens in the passage we’re looking at today. Someone walks up to Jesus and basically asks, “What’s the most important thing God wants me to know?” That’s a big question! And then notice that Jesus’ answer is phrased as a command: “And You Shall…” Older translations will say “Thou Shalt!… love the Lord your God… ” “Thou shalt! Love your neighbour.”
God’s answer to “what should I do with myself” and “what is my purpose” is that we start there. If you want to know your purpose, ask yourself this question: Am I constantly showing love for God and others? Start with that, and I promise that the rest will flow naturally.
God says, “Love me with all your heart, soul mind and strength AND love your neighbours as much as you love yourself… and then the rest will come together.”
Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 6 when he shoots down all the people who want specific answers:
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ [or Where shall I go? What should my job be? What school should I attend? What about the future? What about this issue, or that problem, or that opportunity…] For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33)
We hear Jesus saying, “Hold on, hold on! Before you worry about all the detailed wither-tos and why-fors of your life, let’s get the first things first. Do you love God and the people around you?” Are you “seeking first the kingdom and His righteousness?”. That’s like asking, “As a citizen of the Kingdom of God, are you doing what is most important to the King?” Which, again, brings us back around to the same answer as before: Are you loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength and loving your neighbour as yourself?
Loving Our Neighbour
The priority of getting this right first is the consistent testimony of scripture. So let’s do a little application and see what this looks like practically, and we’ll work back to front: First, what does loving our neighbour look like? It’s actually pretty simple, when you think about it for a minute.
Jesus gave us the answer in Matthew 7:12 with what we call the Golden Rule:
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
“I don’t know how to love others! I’m not a very loving person! I don’t know where to start!” we say. Jesus’ answer to that is, “Start here: Can you look inside and ask yourself, ‘How would I want people to treat me?’” Of course, we all can! For example:
When you are depressed, what do you want people to do for you? Think about it. Do you want them to leave you alone in your dark room with your dark thoughts, sinking deeper and deeper? Or do you want them to keep calling you, keep caring about you, keep inviting you, keep showing up and reminding you that they love you and that God loves you? Do that to others.
When you are new to a place, what do you want people to do for you? Judge you by how you’re dressed, how you talk, your family situation, and ask you about all of your obvious problems? Probably not. You want them to love you for who you are, be kind, introduce you to the group, and cut you some slack. Do that to others.
When you are struggling with sin or addiction, what do you want people to do for you? Pretend it doesn’t exist, never ask you about it, leave you alone to wallow in your muck, falling into it over and over again? Or, come along side you, get involved in your mess, ask how they can help, love you in your failings and hold you accountable, forgiving you when you blow it again… but never giving up on you. Do that to others.
When you are blind to your own pride, greed, rudeness, argumentativeness, and are offending people and losing friends – but have no idea why, what do you want people to do for you? Make excuses for you, avoid confronting you, or just avoid you alotgether, and let you self-destruct all your relationships? No, you want them to take you aside, buy you a coffee, ask what’s wrong, why you’re lashing out, and then tell you gently, but truthfully, that you are hurting people – and say that no matter how bad it gets, they’ll still with you. Do that for others.
When your marriage is on the rocks, or your kids are a mess, what do you want people to do? Mock you behind your back, criticize you to others, spread gossip about you, and stand around hoping it’ll finally blow up in your face so they can watch the fireworks? No… you want them to come along side you, weep with you, put their arm around you, understand that you are struggling – that you’re not blind but you are at the end of your rope and have no idea what to do – to be a friend, trustworthy confidant, and prayer partner. Do that for others.
If you are struggling with your weight, what do you want people to do? Make jokes about you, leave clothing store coupons and Weight Watchers pamphlets around, suggest diet plans, and heap shame on you because you obviously don’t know that you have a problem? No. You want them to love you for who you are and care more about your insides than your outsides – and then, maybe, after becoming really, really good friends, and you’ve talked about lots and lots of topics… offer to walk with you in your struggle.
If you have a handicap, what do you want people to do? Exclude you because you’re too much trouble? No. You want them to help you become part of what’s going on.
It goes on and on and on. And it’s really not that hard to figure out if we just take a minute to think about it. And having God on our side, and the ability to pray and ask for direction, means that the Holy Spirit will speak to us and help us to do this even better!
It’s All About Jesus
So how do we grow in love for others – even our enemies? It comes back to Jesus’ first answer: We love God. Remember, it’s all about Jesus. You will love God when you understand the love that He has for you, even when you were His enemy. His love was shown in what He did in Jesus Christ.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Romans 8:31-39 [see also Romans 5:6-11])
Once you begin to understand the love of God for you found in Jesus Christ – how enormous, how sacrificial, how beautiful and perfect it is – then you will be able to love your neighbour sacrificially, beautifully, and with a greater depth than you ever thought you had in you.
Growing Our Love Muscles
That’s why the fathers of our faith have always emphasized consistent scripture reading, prayer, and worship as indispensable to the Christian life.
Reading scripture reminds our feeble and forgetful minds about the depth of God’s love and about how He wants us to live in this world. It tells us about how far He came to save us, what He saved us from, and the loving boundaries He set around us so we can flourish under His rule.
Prayer connects us to the very heart of God. That consistent, daily, hourly, relationship, allows us to go beyond a mere intellectual understanding of our faith and to realize we have a living, breathing, existential, relationship with a real person. As we pray, meditate and listen, we experience the presence of God, the love of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Daily worship, and faithful attendance to Sunday Worship, reminds us of our place in the universe – that He’s God and we’re not. And reminds us that though He is Holy God, He’s not a distant God. Our singing, giving, obedience, fellowship, evangelism, service, thanksgiving, and religious activity all remind us that God interacts with us as our Creator, Sustainer, Saviour, and Friend. Worship deepens our love for God.
If we are going to be people love others, then we must start by loving God.
A Reminder to Our Souls
Let me close by reading Psalm 103. In Psalm 103 David does something that we all need to do sometimes; He reminds himself why God is worthy of our love, and why he needs to keep worshipping God – and how that is the foundation for everything else. Let this be a reminder to our spirits as well:
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul!” (Psalm 103:1-5 ESV)
I’ve started a, sort of, impromptu series that I’m unofficially calling “Kick Off the New Year Right” or “How to Prepare for 2015”… or something like that. The series title doesn’t matter. What matters is that I want to spend a little while going over a few things that we need to make sure we have straight as we enter this new season of our lives.
I call it a “new season” because I’m talking about far more than merely the calendar rolling over from 2014 to 2015. As I’ve talked to people over the past months I’m sensing that there is a lot of transition going on. We see ever-increasing political tensions in Canada and around the world – the attacks in France remind us of our own, still recent, confrontation with terrorism here. There are people going through relationship transitions as the dynamics of their marriage, friendships, partnerships and even workplace change around them. Some are facing personal transitions as their body changes, their health changes, what they can do changes. Some have decisions to make that will bring a new season to their life and the lives around them.
There seems to be a feeling of flux right now in the hearts of people at this church, the community around us, our country, and our world. The ground beneath our feet is shifting, and there’s we can do nothing about it except to ensure that we are on solid ground.
Hearing and Doing
At the end of Jesus’ longest recorded sermon, where He described what life in the Kingdom of God is like –the laws, the attitudes, the character of His people, how to talk to God and live in this world – He ended it with a question and a story:
His question was: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46) and it is just as sharp today as it was the day He spoke it. He contrasts the difference between hearing and doing, confession and obedience.
He’s talking about “hypocrisy: saying one thing” (“Yes, Jesus is my Lord, I got saved, I’m a Christian, I go to church, blah, blah, blah…”) but not having a life that reflects it. A “disciple”, on the other hand, is someone that calls Jesus “Lord, Lord” and then does what He says!
Think of John 15 where God is presented as the Gardener, Jesus is the Bine, and we are the branches. He says in John 15:1-2:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
God doesn’t have much interest in fruitless branches. God doesn’t care about the amount of people that call Jesus “Lord, Lord”, but cares very much about those who are producing fruit. God isn’t planting a forest. He wants an orchard.
Things to Obey
And so, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, and then looks at the crowd – and to us – and says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
We all struggle with this, don’t we? We pray, “Dear Lord, God…” and then disobey Him. We read a scripture, hear a sermon, feel a conviction in our heart from God, and we absolutely know that our Lord God, Creator of the Universe, has told us to do something – and we don’t do it.
- Forgive that person.
- Be reconciled to your brother or sister.
- Stop pursuing worldly gain and start looking after your spirit, your family, and your church.
- Go be a peacemaker to that troubled situation.
- Go tell those people about me. Shine your light.
- Get rid of that unrighteous anger.
- Stop lusting after people that you’re not married to.
- Stay married to your spouse and do everything you can to love them.
- Quit lying and breaking promises.
- Stop seeking revenge and let it go.
- Show love to your enemies.
- Be generous with your possessions and give to the needy.
- Read your Bible and talk to me every day.
- Take time away to rest and to fast.
- Crush the idols you have in your life.
- Stop worrying about things and trust me.
- Show humility and stop putting yourselves above others.
- Ask for things from God and expect answers.
- “Whatever you wish that others would do for you, do it to them.”[i]
- Find good teachers and get rid of the bad ones.
That’s the Sermon on the Mount in a nutshell. And at the end of that incredible list, Jesus asks us to evaluate our hearing and our doing, our confession and our obedience, our talk and our walk. He wants us to check to see if they line up. Why?
- Because of the shifting ground under our feet.
- Because of the uncertainty of this life.
- Because of the liars and cheats that want to manipulate us.
- Because of the charlatans who pretend to love us but don’t.
- Because of the we are faced with huge decisions all the time and we need divine wisdom to know what to do.
- Because we are confronted with pain and sorrow that is beyond our ability to handle.
- Because the temptations of this world are immense.
- Because our enemy, the devil, is smarter than us and is prowling around like a lion seeking whom he may devour.[ii]
- Because without listening to Jesus and doing what He says, we are going to make terrible mistakes that hurt us and those around us.
Jesus asks the question and then tells this story:
“Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
I want to point out a couple of things about the builders.
First: Notice that both of them hear the message. One “hears… and does” while the other “hears and does not”. We’re not talking about people who have not heard the message of the Gospel and the teachings of scripture. Jesus is talking about people who have heard what God wants and expects from them, but doesn’t do it.
Now, that’s a bit of a misstatement. It’s not that this person does nothing, right? That’s the second thing: both of them build. In the story, the house represents the person’s life. Everyone builds a life. Both builders are placed in the world, both get contracts to build a house, and both are given all the materials they need to build a good house. Both builders use their skills and abilities to design their house with what they’ve been given. When they stand back and look at it, like any builder, there are things they like about it, and things they wished they had done differently. But it’s their house that they built.
We’re all given the materials to have a Godly life. Sure, each of us are given a little different pile. Some have more decorations than others, while some have stronger frames. Some have incredibly detailed blueprints, while others have more flexibility in the plans. There are differences, but the pile of materials from which we build our lives are remarkably similar. And, of course, we’re all given the same scriptures, the same Saviour, and have access equal access to God and all the good gifts He is willing to give.
But then we get to the third thing about the builders: They both build near the stream. Sometimes we think that one built next to a floodplain while the other built far away. No, in the story, these two people are neighbours. Just like we all are in this world. We are growing up together, in the same environment, facing similar issues.
Yes, we all have our own unique takes on them – some of us have physical advantages, others are smarter, some are wealthier, some are more prone to addiction or anger, while others had troubles growing up that they still carry with them. We all have our own things that make us us, and God has gifted each one of us with a special purpose and the equipment to carry out that mission, but we are all living next to the same stream.
We’re all in this world, and when it gets boiled down, we are all facing similar issues. We all live by the same stream. We all face temptation, loss, fear, grief, and pain. We all deal with the effects of sin inside and outside us. You might feel alone, like you’re the only one dealing with that particular issue, but that is a demonic lie meant to keep you feeling hopeless. I promise you that you are not alone and that there are people out there who are dealing with the same problems and challenges as you. That’s one of the beauties of being in the church.
And that leads us to the next similarity between the builders: both experienced a flood. In this story, the flood represents a couple things: first, the troubles of this world that come to us all the time, and second, our death and the final judgement before God. In other words, immediate consequences and eternal consequences.
The ones that listen to Jesus, and do what He says when He says it, have security and peace during the trials and troubles of this life. And then, when they die they have eternal security that they are ultimately saved forever.
But the ones that listen to Jesus, and don’t do what He says, have insecurity and lack of peace when the trials and troubles come into this life. And ultimately, at the end, they will not have eternal security because they never did give their lives to Jesus.
I’ve said before that scripture teaches – in fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s what Jesus says right before he tells the story of the two builders – that there will be many in the end that cry out “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”, and Jesus will turn to them and say, “I never knew you; depart from me.”[iii]
The story of the two builders is told as a warning to these people who act religious, act like Christians, use Christian language, claim to be believers, but don’t do what Jesus says, and who, in the end, will end up in hell. The do themselves a disservice in this life by not following Him, and a greater one in the afterlife.
We can put it off, ignore it, pretend it’s not going to happen, distract ourselves, and live in denial as much as we want, but Jesus says very clearly that “the flood” is not an “if” but a “when”. Temptations and pain will come to you in this life… it’s a foregone conclusion. And we are all going to die (if Jesus doesn’t come back first) and then we will all face the Judgement Seat of Christ.[iv]
Jesus’ question is, “What’s the point of calling me Lord Lord and pretending to be a Christian, if you’re not going to obey what I say you’re supposed to do? That won’t help you now and it won’t help you later. Call me Lord Lord, and then do what I say, and then you will get the benefits of what I’m trying to give you!”
There’s only one difference between the two builders. One dug deep and built on the rock. He did the work. He put it into practice. It took time and effort to dig a hole the size of a house in the sandy land by the stream, until he hit bedrock.
He had to put off building his house. He didn’t get to do the fun stuff first. He had to do the arduous task of digging down, and down, and down, until he found the solid bedrock near that stream that he would build on. And then he had to carry stone after stone, shovelful after shovel full of fill as he filled it up again so he could build the house.
We’re going to have the same problem. It’s not that getting saved and starting a relationship with Jesus is hard. It requires nothing more than admitting you are a sinner in need of a Saviour, asking forgiveness, and then saying that Jesus is now your “Lord, Lord”. But from that point on, when you’ve decided to build your life on Him, it’s going to take time and effort and work.
You may have to put things off for a time (or forever) – like career advancement, relationships, certain things you find pleasure in – so you can dig down to Christ, removing all the shifting sand beneath your feet that will cause problems for your house later.
It will mean emptying yourself of your favourite idols, believing you’re in charge of your life, submitting yourself to Jesus and other mature Christians, and getting rid of the stuff in your house that distracts you from Christ. I remember as a college student destroying over a hundred CD’s in my music collection because – at the time – they were a stumbling block between me and Jesus. And that was just one thing that had to go – there have been many more since.
Digging down and placing your whole life on the bedrock takes work. It means rearranging your schedule so you can pray, read scripture, attend church each week, and have a Sabbath rest. It means changing your priorities with your finances so you can give a portion of your finances back to God and live a generous lifestyle toward others in need. And it’s hard.
Each shovelful of sand that you remove hurts a little. There goes my pride. There goes my selfishness. There goes my Sundays. There goes my mornings. There goes my favourite addiction. There goes my internet privileges. There goes my favourite hatred and bitterness. There goes my movie collection. There goes my career plans. There goes my marriage plans. There goes my divorce plans. There goes my belief that I’m number one. There goes my belief that it’s all about me.
We empty the hole and dig down deeper and deeper to the bedrock of Jesus Christ. And then we start to fill it back up again, stone after stone, replacing our thoughts with His thoughts, our ways with His ways, our heart with His heart, our will with His will, our habits with His habits, our words with His words, our plans with His plans, until we have built a solid foundation on Him and how He wants us to live.
And it is on this foundation that we build out house. And then when the rains come down and the floods come up, and the stream grows into a river – our house will stand. Not because of anything we’ve done – but because of who we’ve chosen to build on. We don’t get the glory for a house that stands up to the flood, Jesus does!
He’s the foundation. He’s the one who gave us the stones. He’s the one who stays strong. That’s why we build on Him and His Word.
We wonder about all the uncertainty and shifting sand of this world. We are troubled by all the things we can’t control. We know the rains and the flood are coming, but are we willing to believe Jesus when He says that He is the only foundation to stand on when they do?
[i] Matt 7:12
[ii] 1 Peter 5:8
[iii] Matthew 7:21-23
[iv] 2 Corinthians 5:10