A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on April 3, 2011.
We confess, our Father, that sometimes we carry burdens and sometimes we are burdens to ourselves. We confess that our spiritual vision is short sighted and the stamina of our souls is untrained. Forgive us when the values of this world, values that we should lament, wrestle within us and we cannot let them go. We confess that the challenges in which we should rejoice seem like burdens to us and we want to avoid them. We confess that so many things that you would bring our way we would prefer to do without. O Lord, how can we grow strong if you don’t test our weakness? How shall we persevere or learn patience if you don’t offer opportunities to test our strength? How shall we learn love if, in all of our paths, only perfectly lovable people appear? How will we learn true obedience if you protect us from all that is difficult? We offer ourselves to the challenges of this week, to the moments that stretch our love, the moments that try our patience, the people we would prefer not to forgive, and the tasks that are not easy. We offer ourselves to each of these, to all of these, in every moment that catches us beyond our own wisdom, each moment that pushes us beyond our own strength, so that, once again, we learn to rely upon you. May our learning, may our obedience, may our trust be the means by which you bless us this week. We pray it in the name of the one who was obedient to death on the cross, even Christ our Lord. Amen.
‘Only those who believe obey,’ is what we say to that part of a believer’s soul which obeys, and ‘only those who obey believe,’ is what we say to that part of the soul of the obedient which believes. If the first half of the proposition stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of cheap grace…If the second half stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of salvation through works.”
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship
I think bless must be one of the most common words that we use when we pray. Many times when we pray before a meal, depending on family terminology, we say the blessing or we ask the blessing. When parents pray for their children or when children pray for their parents, we often say bless. We say whatever words we have to say and we always wind up at some point saying, Bless my parents. Bless my children. Grant them this love. Grant them this care. Whether it be parents, children, siblings in another state, or food for ourselves, we are looking for a blessing, particularly I think sometimes for ourselves. This would be our heart’s desire to have the sense that God’s richness, goodness, closeness, and approval would somehow fall on us, as if we could feel its touch in our lives to know that God’s hand had blessed us.
Esau says it for us in that sad scene in Genesis where his brother has stolen his blessing. Esau voices this word to Isaac: “Bless me, even me.” I think this is our desire above all things to have this sense that God would bless us. When we pray, we ask God’s blessings on everything that is important.
I have been asked to bless a job, a place of work. I have been asked to bless a new house. I have been asked to bless many marriages. I have even been asked to bless a grocery store which I thought was one of the more unusual. Blessing is our goal.
You have seen the candles being extinguished each week as we mark our way through the Lenten season, as we mark our way toward Maundy Thursday for us, and that extinguishing of the Christ candle as we recognize the path that Jesus is walking toward the cross.
Early in Lent, I mentioned the different things that Jesus commonly teaches that we find referenced often in scripture. I mentioned that one of the most common commands is “follow me.” Over 20 times, Jesus says, “Come, follow me.” That is an easy command to count. You just have to look it up on the computer some place and you can count them.
Another subject that Jesus addresses with tremendous regularity, one that is not as easy to count because he uses a variety of ways to say it, is the command to obedience. Obey. It is impossible to count, but there are all these different circumstances.
There are people who respond emotionally to Jesus, “O Jesus, I would follow you anywhere.” There are people like Nicodemus who agreed, “Master, we know you are a teacher sent from God.” There were people who would praise him like the woman in Luke 11:27-28. “You are such a good teacher, Jesus. I just love to hear you teach, Jesus. You have wonderful authority, Jesus.”
There are people who would say the right words, people who would agree and with all their hearts think, “This was a great day. I got to hear Jesus.” His word to them is often, “Don’t tell me I am great,” as he said to the woman who said, “Bless your mother for having birthed you and having cared for you as an infant.” Jesus said, “Blessed, rather are those who hear the word of God and obey.” It is a common, common theme.
In Luke, he has already said to the crowd, “Why do you say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and you do not obey what I tell you?” It is a parallel to another place in Matthew where he says to them, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
There is a parable where Jesus talks about someone who comes at night, knocks, and says, “Let me in.”
The owner of the house says, “I don’t know you.”
“O yeah, you know me. We did all these great things together. We played, laughed, danced, sang, and ate together.”
“I don’t recognize your voice. I don’t know who you are. Go away.”
There is the parable of two sons and the father says to one, “Go and do.”
The son says, “I will.”
And he goes, but he doesn’t do.
There is the other son who says, “No, I won’t,” and then in the end turns around and does it. Jesus said, “Which one was obedient?” Is there any difference between disobeying and saying you will obey and not doing it?
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about the wise man and the foolish man. The foolish man is like the one who builds his house on the sand, and the wise man is like the one who builds his house on the rock. We remember that part, but the reason one is wise and one is foolish is the foolish one hears the word of God and does nothing about it, and the wise man is the one who hears and builds his life upon it. In passage after passage, people will say that they believe in Christ but don’t do. In passage after passage, people will praise Jesus and then not live up to it. In passage after passage, people will claim Jesus Christ but whose lives are demonstrations in futility. Jesus says so much about obedience, but isn’t it amazing how casual we are about it?
I remember a little of my undergraduate degree in communications. In communication theory, we talked about selective attention. We pay attention to what we want to pay attention to. All you have to do is live with a roommate, live with a family, or be married to know that people only pay attention to what they want to pay attention to.
There is also a thing called selective recall. You can tell me and I can listen, but it just wasn’t important enough for me to remember. Have you ever experienced that with anybody? Have you ever been guilty of it yourself?
There is also selective obedience. We just pick and choose the things that Jesus says and it is kind of like, “O, that’s a good one. I like that one. That’s really good, but I am never going to pay attention to this other one.” We are casual and selective, and I believe sometimes we are in denial about what we really believe.
Part of this comes from the modern English translation of the word believe. We say, All you have to do is believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ. In modern English, that simply means to agree mentally. I think that Jesus is true. I think that Jesus is God’s son. That’s it. End of story. All I have to do is think it because that’s what it says. Believe. But if we look at the Greek in which the New Testament was written, really the verb is faith. We don’t have a verb that says to faith. It doesn’t say, I agree mentally all these things about Jesus. I faith Christ. The verb is always action and is always doing based upon what we believe in minds and what we are convicted in our hearts. It is what we do. It is not just something that takes place in our minds. Even the old English, from which we get the word belief, tells the story.
The way we get the word belief is that it is something that you live your life by. It is by life. Something that I believe is a principle. It is a conviction. It is something that I live my life by.
So that brings us to the meditation text. If you have already skipped ahead in the worship service today and looked at the meditation text that is printed there, you will see that it is by Dietrich Bonhoeffer from The Cost of Discipleship, one of the greatest books about discipleship ever written. He says, “Only those who obey believe . . . and only those who believe obey.” It sounds like a riddle. Why on earth would you obey Jesus Christ if you did not believe? Some of the things he asks of us are so difficult who would do that if you did not believe in Christ? But on the other side, can we really say that we believe if we never obey?
It is like one of those funerals you go to sometimes where somebody’s Uncle John died. Uncle John, boy he was a rough one, and they start telling all the stories about the way Uncle John lived. But you know when Uncle John was 14, he made his profession of faith in Jesus and I am just so glad that he was saved.
We don’t want to challenge that because we hope it is all going to be true for us, but you have to wonder what Uncle John really believed about Jesus. If you could say one time in your life, I think that’s true, and then all the principles, all the convictions that you lead your life by, are opposite of Christ, what are your real beliefs? Don’t tell me what is said. Show me with your life. This obedience thing is hard. It is hard to obey what Christ says. We would rather make it just a principle of the mind and say, I am convinced that Jesus is the Son of God. If it never has any affect on the ways that we live and the things that we do, it is OK because I believe.
I have a spiritual conviction. I have a conviction that has come from the years of observing people and being a pastor and that is one of the reasons why we don’t like the topic of obedience because most of us—I would say all of us—at some place have something in our life for which God has called us to obedience but we have not yet responded, and we would like to avoid it.
There is sin in each of our hearts that we know we should give up. There is something in a relationship in the way that I relate to my brother, my sister, a parent, a child or somebody who used to be my best friend. I really don’t know what happened there. God has called us to be a part of reconciliation in that, and we would rather die than be obedient.
Maybe it is something about our vocation. Maybe you are young enough that you have not settled on your vocation yet and there is something that you know in your heart of hearts that you want to do but everybody tells you, You will never make any money doing that. So you don’t want to think about it because you know if you think about, God is going to call you to obedience.
Maybe it is about our relationship to our money. We think, I hope the sermon today is not about money. If we go to a Bible study, we think, I hope the Bible study today is not about money because there is some obedience in every heart we are called to that we have resisted for months, for years, for decades—something that God has called us to. We selectively obey. We obey the kind, sweet parts of being a Christian, but for the demanding parts, we say, I am just going to rest on the fact that I believe. Only those who believe obey. . . and only those who obey believe.
We need to remember that the short passage from Luke 11:27-28 began with the word blessed. Blessed are. . . . Blessed is your mother. She sure raised a fine boy, Jesus. Blessed, rather are those who hear the word of God and obey.
These obediences that we would rather avoid, these obediences that we would rather die than submit to, these obediences could be the source of the greatest blessing in our lives. They could be if we would simply submit.
In Miss Prissy’s talk with the children, she said you will be a lot happier if you obey the first time. There would be a lot more blessing to enjoy if we obeyed early rather than late. I encounter people in so many different ways. Today, the illustrations that come to mind are mostly relational. People who let go of a grudge after years of bearing it who have said, “It was one of the greatest moments of my life when I let that go.”
About 25 years ago in another state and another church, a man was dying and his wife asked me to come over. At that stage in my life, I had never heard a deathbed confession before, not a real one. We sat there around the bed and the man held his wife’s hand and said, “I need to tell you when I was unfaithful.”
They looked at each other and the wife said, “I knew that, but I have always loved you.”
Within 24 hours, the man was dead. The sense of love, forgiveness, and grace that flowed in that room was a wonderful thing for 24 hours, but it could have been for 24 years if he had been obedient to what he knew in his heart he needed to do and that was to confess to his wife. Our obedience is the limit of our blessing. Those things that we would rather not do when we finally come to the place when we submit to Christ is the gift of God in our lives to sense God’s approval, to know God’s grace pouring out, to feel as if God actually touched us and said, “Well done, my child. I love you.”
We pray so many different ways. Lord, bless me in this. Bless me in that. Bless this thing that I love—this project, my job, my vocation. Bless my children, my family, my home, and my friends. So many times, the blessing that God wants to give us is just an obedience away.
Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.