Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on August 30 2009.
John 5:19-20, 30
If I were to ask you the following question, and you were brutally honest in your response, what would your answer be? Whose agenda are you following in your life?
Let’s do a quick review of possible answers to that question.
Answer #1: Other people set the agenda for my life. Basically, I am a people-pleaser. The direction of my life is set by my parents, or my friends, or my spouse, and/or my boss. When it’s all said and done, other people set the agenda for my life.
Answer #2 (and the most popular in our culture): I set the agenda for my life. I decide what I want, I develop my game plan, and then I pursue my personal goals with all my might. When it’s all said and done, I set the agenda for my life.
Answer #3 (and the one very few would admit to): The Devil sets the agenda for my life. I care nothing for anybody but myself. I will lie, cheat, steal, and do whatever it takes to get what I want. I gave up on God and goodness a long time ago. When it’s all said and done, the Devil sets the agenda for my life.
At least one other response exists for this question. Answer #4 is this: God sets the agenda for my life. I didn’t come up with the plan for my life—God did. Others may try to dictate what I do, but I don’t let them. Everything I do is in obedience to God.
By the way, only one person who has ever lived could offer answer #4 with a straight face. Only one person can make the claim that God, and only God set the agenda for his life. His name is Jesus.
We get a glimpse of just how seriously Jesus takes God’s agenda in John 5. One day Jesus is walking near a healing pool named Bethesda in Jerusalem. Tradition said that when an angel stirred the water of the pool, the first person to enter the pool would be healed.
That day, lots of people with physical impairments lay around the pool waiting for their chance, including a man who has been an invalid for 38 years. For no apparent reason, Jesus picks this man among all the others, approaches him, and asks the oddest question: “Do you want to get well?” (verse 6). Why would Jesus ask such a question? Odder still, the invalid doesn’t offer an unequivocal “Yes!” but a rationalization that explains why he can’t get to the water first. Even so, Jesus orders him to pick up his mat and walk immediately, and he does!
Actually, just when I conclude that Jesus has just asked the most boneheaded question of all time, I realize people don’t always want to get well. Furthermore, I may not want to get well deep in my soul. I’d rather stay busy than get silent and still so God can meet me in the broken places of my soul. I’d rather play church than go deep into the kind of spiritual formation we discussed at our retreat this weekend. The fact is, all of us need to ponder the question, “Do you want to get well?”
Believe it or not, this miraculous healing does not sit well with the on-looking religious leaders because it happens on the Sabbath. Healing constitutes work on the Sabbath, and work on the Sabbath is a big “no-no”.
So the religious leaders demand that Jesus justify his actions. Jesus says, “My Father works on the Sabbath. He keeps the sun shining and the grass growing and the water flowing. My Father works on the Sabbath, and so do I.”
Now Jesus has really blown it. The religious leaders are ready to lynch him on the spot because he has not only violated the Sabbath. Now, he is guilty of blasphemy as well. He was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18)
Then Jesus elaborates with this fascinating explanation: Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does…By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.
In their book, Spiritual Leadership, Henry and Richard Blackaby identify this episode as a defining moment in Jesus’ life and ministry. In essence, Jesus is saying: “I am the Son of God. I am unique among all people who have lived. But guess what? I have nothing to offer this world on my own. Instead, I am utterly dependent upon God, my Father.
What is Jesus saying? He is saying that he depends on God for all his wonder-working strength. When he heals a man who’s been lame 38 years, when he calms an angry sea, when he feeds thousands of people with two fish and five loaves, he is not drawing from his own reservoir of power. He is drawing from the power of God.
What is Jesus saying? He is saying he depends upon God for guidance. For one thing, Jesus possesses this uncanny ability to see what God is doing, and then joins in with that activity. He picks up on visual clues others might miss. That day at the Bethesda pool when lots of people lay near the water, Jesus discerns that God wants to work in the body of the 38 yearlong invalid, and that’s whom he approaches.
But that’s not all. Jesus is also guided by direct words and promptings from God. When Jesus chooses his disciples, he does not review resumes and pick 12 men with the best credentials. He chooses the men God tells him to pick—how else do you wind up with a weasel like Judas Iscariot in the bunch? When Jesus stands to teach, he does not convey information he pulls out of his own ingenious mind. He passes on what he hears from God, and counts on God to help his listeners understand.
What is Jesus saying? He is saying he depends upon God for his mission. Jesus does not go on a retreat and develop his personal mission statement. He does not work with a consultant to produce a vision for himself or anyone else. Jesus knows he is here for one reason, and only one reason—to fulfill his Father’s plan for the salvation of the world. Jesus does not invent his own agenda. He invests himself in God’s agenda for his life 100% of the time.
Not that others didn’t try to set Jesus’ agenda for him. Sick people demand that Jesus heal them. Skeptical people demand that Jesus perform exotic miracles. Religious leaders demand that Jesus submit to their cumbersome rules. Peter demands that Jesus avoid the suffering and death of the cross. Judas Iscariot demands that Jesus overthrow the Romans. Satan demands that Jesus overcome the world by bowing down to him.
But Jesus will have none of it. Nobody can manipulate Jesus because he is very clear about whose agenda directs his life. It’s God’s agenda, and God’s alone.
How does Jesus do it? How does Jesus work “hand-in-glove” with God so flawlessly, day in and day out?
Good question. And there is a good answer. Jesus stays focused on God’s agenda by arranging his life so he can hear what God is saying, and see what God is showing.
This weekend in our spiritual formation retreat, many of us heard in greater depth about the spiritual disciplines of the faith. We learned that everything we see and do forms us, that we become what we most contemplate. We learned that our busyness keeps us from going deep with ourselves and God. We learned that our lives viewed in retrospect reveal the footprints of God all over the place, even when we think God is absent.
We learned that our hearts long for God even when we don’t know it, because God is all that can ultimately satisfy us. And we learned from spiritual masters that there are steps we can take to let God occupy more and more of our hearts and minds.
Henri Nouwen once wrote that most of us have highly volatile minds brimming with ideas and impulses that jump around like monkeys in a banana tree. But there are steps we can take to steady our minds—like focusing on a candle or an icon, or listening to music, or sitting out under the sacred canopy of nature. We can spend minutes or even hours listening to God speak in the sounds of silence, or marinate our minds in the wisdom of scripture in a practice called Lectio Divina.
Now where did these ideas come from? They may sound too Catholic or even too “New Agey” for evangelical Christians or Bible-believing Baptists. Would it surprise you to know ideas like these flow straight from the practices of Jesus?
One of the most helpful books I’ve read in this regard is Scot McKnight’s Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today. McKnight, who teaches Religious Studies at North Park University, confesses that he is a low-church Protestant who grew up very suspicious of practices and rituals that smacked of Catholicism or even high-church Protestantism. If he couldn’t locate an explicit reference to a practice in scripture, then he wouldn’t consider doing it.
So, for example, he was critical about how others prayed, particularly at set times during the day in what the church calls fixed hours of prayer. He was used to praying grace before meals, and occasionally praying spontaneously at church and other places. But then, he realized that when you read the gospels carefully, you see that Jesus didn’t just pray grace before meals. Rather, before every major event in the ministry of Jesus, he spends time in prayer and meditation. Sometimes, he spends all night on the side of a mountain in solitude and silence! Scripture is also clear Jesus is a faithful Jew. And being a faithful Jew, McKnight says, Jesus not only attends the temple, but surely prays fixed hour prayers at least three times a day like all good Jews.
Of course, Jesus knows the scriptures of his day—what we now call the Old Testament—inside and out. Again as a faithful Jew, Jesus not only read, but meditated at length on scriptures like the Psalms. McKnight says Jesus almost certainly recited his own version of the Shema,–Hear, O Israel, the Lord…our God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength… and your neighbor as yourself (see Mark 12:28-31)—two or three times a day. And more than likely, he prayed what we call the Lord’s Prayer when he prayed the Shema, at fixed times during the day.
Somehow it’s never occurred to most low-church Protestants (like myself) that even though the references are not always explicit, Jesus built the practices of spiritual formation into his lifestyle. Consequently, the key to Jesus’ ministry is not his brilliant strategy or methodology. The key to Jesus’ ministry is his intimate relationship with God (Abba, “Daddy”), developed through engaging in those practices.
Is Jesus so close to the heartbeat of God that he never struggles with God’s agenda?
Another good question. The answer is, “Yes, even Jesus struggles with God’s agenda.” If you don’t believe it, read again the story of Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as he asks God to relieve him of the burden of dying on the cross. Being hand-in-glove with God doesn’t mean we never struggle to know God’s will or do God’s will. Sometimes we will struggle mightily with both. But at the end of the day, we do the will of God the best we understand it, and leave the results to him. Friends, what separates mature disciples from casual fans of Jesus is this: casual fans of Jesus create their own agenda and ask God to bless it, while mature disciples follow Jesus’ lead and wholeheartedly serve God’s agenda.
What I am saying? In essence, I am claiming four things to be true about mature disciples of Jesus. Mature disciples:
1) Understand that apart from the Lord, they have nothing of ultimate use to offer anybody. When Jesus says in John 15:5, Apart from me, you can do nothing, they believe it.
2) Believe God has an agenda for their lives, and he will reveal it in time.
3) Arrange their lives in such a way that they can hear what God is saying, and see what God is showing.
4) Obey God’s agenda, once they are clear about it. Like the Nike commercial says, they “Just Do It!”
As we conclude our Spiritual Formation weekend, let’s be clear about one thing. The goal of spiritual formation is not to experiment with some neat, new practices for our own entertainment or edification. The goal is to get into a hand-in-glove relationship with God, and live out his agenda for our lives.
Let us pray…
“I am content, O Father, to leave my life in Thy hands, believing that the very hairs upon my head are numbered by Thee. I am content to give over my will to Thy control, believing that I can find in Thee a righteousness that I could never have won for myself. I am content to leave all my dear ones to Thy care, believing that Thy love for them is greater than my own…To thee, O God, be glory forever. Amen.”
John Baillie, Scottish theologian and professor