A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 4, 2011.
Our Father on this Sunday of this holiday weekend, we pause to thank you for jobs that provide for the needs of our families and ourselves. We pray for our brothers and sisters whose lives are burdened in these particular years, whose futures are cloudy because their jobs have gone away or been diminished in some way. May the pressures and the problems of the world find a just solution so that all who would work might find work that satisfies needs, both of body and spirit. We pray today for those whose work is unpleasant, for those whose work is monotonous or without joy. We pray for those whose work is dangerous or even degrading. We pray that you would watch over each of these today and lift their hearts. O God, we have prayed many times for your kingdom to come on earth. Though we do not know how it might be possible, we pray for the day to come when work does lift all heads. Each one of us rejoices in the things that our hands have made and the things that our lives have been invested in when each of us finds a way to serve you in the way we make our living. We pray today that we would offer to you our labor. We offer to you the way that we work with employees. We offer to you the integrity of our lives, the power of our positions over products and over dealing with others, and ask that honesty, integrity, and justice would rule so that at this day’s end or at life’s end, we might have peace with how our life and energy has been spent in our labor. We pray in the name of the one who has promised us both daily bread and rest, Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Here is a key task for spiritual vitality: We must arrange life so that sin no longer looks good to us. One gets the sense that when Mother Teresa drives in congested traffic, she doesn’t have a hard time keeping herself from making rude gestures or calling other drivers bad names. Why? Such actions no longer look appealing to her. She has found a better way to live.
—John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted
If you have ever been a college student or if you have a college student in your home, this will come as no surprise to you: A lot of college students don’t go to church. Particularly at this time of year during football season, there has been a late Saturday night game. When Sunday morning comes, the students just don’t get up. There is also something in the clock of young adults that age that would make them prefer to stay up until 2:00 a.m. and sleep until 2:00 p.m. Church is less important.
After this young adult population has been out of church in general, there comes a particular time when they start to come back. That time is anywhere from the birth of a child until the child is about two years old. If having a baby placed in your arms and realizing the moral responsibility of raising this child isn’t enough, about the time the child hits the terrible two’s, you realize you are not capable—by yourself—to give this child the upbringing you want it to have so that it is not going to be a holy terror for the rest of its life. About this time you start thinking, I need help. I will take this child to church.
If you have done this, please understand that we have all felt this way. People will say, “We need a program for my child. We want to give our child a moral compass. We want our child to learn good moral values. Do you have a program for our child?”
In my mind, this is tremendously responsible, and I hope you think you can indeed come to the church for such a time as this. If it is the motivation in your life that brings you back to participating and worshipping in serving Christ, then I am all for it, but the mental image a lot of families are having when they are thinking about providing moral values and raising their children right is typically avoiding problems and avoiding temptations. It is a hope that is built on things like the Ten Commandments and other commandments in the Bible that the children will be raised not to steal and not to bear false witness. We hear the commandment on adultery and hope they will be raised with some sense of sexual purity. The whole image is to avoid being in trouble. A family’s image of this particular time is such that if we can get these two-year-olds to age eighteen and we have kept them out of trouble and out of jail and avoided any kind of run-in with the law, we have done our work. The main thing is to avoid temptation and problems and keep out of trouble.
The passage of scripture from Luke 11:24-26 helps us reflect on the fact that there is something more to this task. These verses come at the end of a longer story in which Jesus has cast a demon out of somebody. The people are arguing about whether this is good or bad. Some people are amazed and say, “It is the power of God. How else could he cast out a demon?” Other people look at it and think, If Jesus were a drill sergeant in Satan’s army, he has the power to command the privates. If Jesus says, “Drop and give me 50 push-ups,” the demons have to obey. The only reason he can cast out demons is because he is part of the chain of command of the Prince of Demons. In this argument, people are so blinded that they cannot see what is good and what is bad. Jesus begins with this parable where he says if you cast a demon out of somebody and it wanders through the waterless places (water is one of the ways that you can kill a demon), it comes back and finds the person’s house swept and in order but there is nothing that has come in to occupy the house. It is like a vacuum. It comes back and brings a gang of demons. It brings seven demons with it, they take up residence in the house, and the person’s life is worse than before.
What does this mean except that you just can’t take evil out and think there is going to be an empty shell of a life and that it is going to be enough. We have seen the moral examples in a number of places in life. Maybe you have known someone who grew up in a bad neighborhood with bad influence all around. They have been in trouble with the law since they were juveniles. They are arrested for something like armed robbery or carjacking and they go to jail. In jail, they have a jailhouse conversion, a fully intentionally, good, honest conversion. They really want their life to be right. So they empty themselves of the desire to do those things.
They get out of jail, no job is available, and they have to move back in with family in the same neighborhood. The same friends live there, and because there is nothing in their life to take the place of what has been taken out, it is as if seven demons come back in and take up residence and the situation is worse than before.
If you want to kid yourself and think this is only about people who have been in jail, let me correct that thinking right away. Anyone who has ever dealt with an addiction, either your own, someone in your family, or someone who is a neighbor or a good friend, know the number of times a person will go through an effort to try to take the addiction out of their lives. They say, “I am going to quit. I am going to stop.” But if something positive is not put back into the life to take the place of the activity or the influence of the friends, we know how easy it is to give in to the addiction again.
This happens in affairs. Someone is caught in an affair and promises, “That is it. I am done. I am not going to see that person again.” However, nothing in the marriage relationship is done to fix the communication problems. Nothing is done to revitalize the sense of communication. Everybody still knows how to push the hot buttons. You go right back into the relationship that is not good. The next thing we know we hear, “O how foolish can you be? That person is back over here.” You cannot take the bad out and leave a vacuum and think the problems are not going to return. Jesus tells us if we think that simply removing the evil is what we think that having a moral relationship with Christ is, we are sadly mistaken. Somehow we have to put back in the things that Christ wants for us.
Through this fall season, we are talking about the idea of getting serious about our relationship with God. In the month of August we talked about getting serious in loving God and, again, the idea is that we are drawn to a deeper, more mature and exclusive relationship.
We read throughout scripture that God is holy and that his people are called to be holy as well. We understand that God loves righteousness. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” In some way, our character is supposed to reflect the character of God. We are to be like God in the ability that we have to reflect goodness and righteousness. If we are going to be serious about this, then we have to recognize that goodness, as the simple absence of sin in our lives, will never be enough.
It does not matter whether we are raising children or whether we are talking about ourselves. It is not simply enough to say, “I never lie.” It is not simply enough to say, “I never do drugs. I never steal.” What we need are the positive attributes of Christ to come in, take up residence in our lives, and to be the way that we express our lives in all the world. If love and compassion come in and fill our lives, what room is there for hate? If love and compassion fill our lives, what room is there to want to steal from someone? If the understanding of the bond and commitment of fidelity were to become real in our lives as something that God holds up for us, where would the question about sexual impurity come from? If we recognize that what God wants for us is a world of trust where we can trust one another and count on one another, who would want to mess that up by telling a lie? It is not simply that we stop doing things that are bad, but it is that we start living like Christ lives and like Christ wants us to live. It is not simply that we want our children to have a life with a moral compass to make sure they avoid getting into trouble, but that we want our children to grow up to be people who contribute to the world in the name of Christ, doing the ministry of Christ, and living like Christ’s disciples in the world. That is when we know we have done the right and best job of parenting.
If we look at Bible stories and heroes in the Bible, we find that when people come into a relationship with Christ, they don’t simply stop what they were doing before but they start to take on the life that Christ wants them to have.
What do we know about Zacchaeus? We know he was a wee little man and a tax collector. When Christ came into his life, he said, “I am going to stop defrauding people, and if I have done it, I am going to return up to half of everything I have.” All of a sudden, it is not simply that he is going to stop his bad business practices, but he going to make amends and live a life of generosity where he gives back.
When Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth in the First Letter, they are going through a serious time of trying to understand sexual purity. Instead of just saying, “I can’t believe how bad you have been,” he says, “Don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” He gives them a positive recognition of God’s spirit in them. He said, “Do you really want to do this with the temple of the Holy Spirit?” All of a sudden, they recognize how they must live to reflect that nature in the world as opposed to just hearing, “Stop doing what you have been doing.”
Whether we are talking about children for whom we have responsibility and would like to raise with some sense of moral rightness or whether we are talking about ourselves, the morality of the Christian life is not only avoiding things that are wrong but also being filled with the goodness and spirit of Christ that overflows in us into all of the good things that make for a better life and world for a sense of a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
The fate of emptiness is simply to have to come back in and fight that battle with evil over and over and over again. But the fate of fullness—fullness of the spirit, fullness of Christ, Christ dwelling in us and working through us—fills us with life that is much more at peace, much more at rest in the goodness of God, a life that satisfies.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.