A sermon delivered by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on January 16, 2011.
There was a church board of a congregation in Atlanta that was pondering whether or not to invite a motivational speaker to their congregational meeting in October – you know, the big annual launch of their programs for new members, new money, new volunteers. You’ve got the picture. It is a big occasion. It was the annual congregational meeting.
Somebody asked, “Aren’t those motivational speakers kind of expensive?”
“Yes, they’re expensive, but he’s going to cut us a real deal because we’re a church.”
“What kind of deal?” someone asked.
“He’ll come for fifteen thousand.”
“One speech? I’ll make the speech for twelve thousand and feed you corn on the cob,” the inquirer replied.
“I know it’s expensive, but he’s really good,” the man said defensively.
“Why don’t you get a church-oriented inspirational speaker?” the inquirer countered. “Someone who loves the church, somebody who is in the church, somebody who could appeal to the ideals of the Christian life. Someone who could speak about the way of Jesus in this broken world.”
“Oh, we’ve tried that,” he said, “and some folk don’t think we ought to go that way again. We need something that has a little more success built into it. This guy’s really good. You know, not long ago in a big hall in Atlanta he filled the room at five hundred bucks a throw.”
“Yeah, filled it.”
“Are you going to charge five hundred bucks?”
“Oh no, no,” he said. “But we did think we could get away with a hundred per church member. We just need to get off dead center.”
“I thought your church was very successful,” the inquirer said. “I hear a lot about it. It’s growing. Nice building. Big staff. Lots of members.”
“I think that’s our problem,” he replied. “We have the disease of the successful.” (Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons, p. 89ff.)
There is such a disease, you know – a strange one at that. It’s been around ever since Plato, who observed that people of real ability and leadership, people who do extremely well in life, will sometimes go through a period in which they lose all appetite and interest for what they are doing.
I want us to look at some of the symptoms of the disease of the successful – the disease of s uccessful people and successful churches.
I. First of all, the successful can be very complacent.
Maybe we’d call it comfortable.
In this passage in Philippians, Paul is not calling the Philippians to be comfortable, to be complacent. Rather, they are to empty themselves, to give themselves as Christ gave Himself on the cross. In verse 8, he says Christ “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
He calls them to work on, to press forward. He tells them in verse 12 to work out their “salvation with fear and trembling.”
Paul Powell said the time to be absolutely worried is when you’re comfortable – absolutely comfortable.
There is one thing in life that we must never stop doing, and that is starting. Once we’ve reached a goal, we must set another. We must do this in our lives personally. We must do this as a church.
You know what Henry Ford said? He said (and think how right he is) that it isn’t the incompetent who destroy an organization. The incompetent never get into a position to destroy it. It is those who have achieved something and want to rest on their achievements who are forever clogging things up.
George Romney, famous auto magnate and one-time Presidential candidate, once told author David Halberstam, “There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success. You become a prisoner of what you have done in the past.”
Be careful. Comfort comes as a guest, lingers to become a host, and stays to enslave us. (Buckner Fanning’s column, The Trinity Trumpet, Trinity Baptist Church, San Antonio, TX, 8/28/98)
As individuals we can have the disease of the successful – the complacency and the comfortable position of the successful. But Paul is not only talking to individuals, he’s talking to the whole church. As a church, we can become complacent. We can become comfortable with who we are, where we have been.
Comfortable with our ministries. We can do things the same old way all the time because it’s risky to try something new. It’s risky to make a change. It’s daring to dream new dreams, to look forward instead of backward. Some have called it “the terror that flies at noon.”
Be careful. If you become successful then you can very quickly become complacent.
As individuals we have to dream new dreams. As a church, we have to see new visions – visions of people and ministry.
Verse 12 might be translated this way: “Keep up the good work.”
II. There is another symptom of the disease of the successful. It’s conceit.
Look at verse 3
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself.
The successful become awfully conceited.
The American businessman, George Gillett, Jr., spoke to the students at Ricks College and actually said to them that “failure is in and success is out in today’s world.”
You remember Gillett. He was a former owner of the Miami Dolphins, owned the Harlem Globetrotters and the largest television broadcasting company in the United States before he went bankrupt in 1992.
He said, “I’ve owned some of the greatest assets in the world, and I’ve lost everything.” He has since recovered most of his fortune. But he remembers the hard days.
Gillett says he made a huge, huge mistake. He joined a risky business scheme in the mid-eighties with the well known junk bond king, Micheal Milken. In two years his company assets went from $500 million to $2.3 billion in debt.
How did it happen to Gillett? He said, “It was my ego. Milken told me I was one of the six smartest businessmen in the country and I agreed with him. We lost everything: our house, dogs, cars, clothes. I was left with $1,500 in the bank and riding Greyhound buses rather than a private jet.” (The Scroll, BYU Idaho, 2/6/01, www.byui.edu/Scroll/020601/22.html)
The disease of the successful includes conceitedness. More times than not – let’s be honest – it’s not what you’ve done, it’s not how smart you are, it’s not how savvy you are. It may be that you inherited it. It may be that you were just in the right place at the right time. It may be that circumstances lined themselves up for you. It may be even by the hand of God.
But don’t think that you’ve done it yourself – that you’re smarter, swifter, savvier than any of the rest of us. Mr. Gillett fell the moment he believed he was one of the top six businessmen in the country.
Your conceit will destroy you.
Paul calls us not to do anything from empty conceit but, rather, to humble ourselves. “With humility,” he says, “regard other people as better than yourself.” And that’s a hard thing to do.
New Testament scholar Tom Wright remembers a time when he had a friend who invited 20 or 30 people to lunch. Some of them were quite well-known public figures. And right before he said grace, he said something with a firm voice. “Remember, the most interesting person in the room is the one you are sitting next to.”
What an insightful way to enjoy lunch. What if you multiplied that among the people of First Baptist Church. The most interesting person in the room is the one you’re sitting next two. That’s exactly what Paul is saying. Regard other people as better than yourself.
Paul gives a real kicker when he calls us to humble ourselves and then he points to Christ – Christ, who existed with God in the form of God, didn’t clutch on to greatness and Godness. Rather, He emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave (verse 7), being made just like humanity. Humbled Himself (verse 8), humbled Himself even to the point of death.
Richard John Neuhaus said, “If you were half as important as you think you are, you would be twice as important as you [really] are.” (quoted in Servant, Winter 2001, p. 9)
Earl Nightingale said that “Arrogance is God’s gift to shallow people.” (Executive Speechwriter Newsletter, Vol. 14, No. 3)
The story is told that one evening a man in a Dearborn, Michigan, restaurant bumped into no less than the former Chrysler chairman, Lee Iacocca. “Oh, Mr. Iacocca,” the man exclaimed, “what an honor to meet you! Say, my name is Jack and I’m having a business dinner with some colleagues over there at that corner table. It would really impress my friends if you could come over in a few minutes and say, ‘Hi, Jack,’ like you know me!” Iacocca good-naturedly agreed and so some minutes later went over to the table and said, “Hello, Jack! How are you?” Jack then looked up and said, “Not now, Lee. We’re busy!” (as told by Dr. Stephen Craig Brewer, First Presbyterian Church of Austin, “100% Interest,” 9/29/02, www.fpcaustin.org/sermons/2002-09-29.html)
Arrogance. An uppity attitude. Conceit. All signs of personal weakness.
Sometimes I feel sorry for those who are always successful. They learn very, very little. I was discussing with one of our church families, “What if our children won every contest they were in, always got first place, always took home the prize? What kind of child would that be? What kind of child would continued success produce?”
Not one that anyone would want to be around. Not one that loved. Not one that was humble. Not one that looked to others as greater than himself or herself. And certainly not one with the mind of Christ.
Be careful about conceit.
Be careful about conceit.
III. Another symptom you may come down with if you have the disease of the successful is self-centeredness.
Look at verse 4.
Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
Paul is not writing primarily to individuals. Paul is writing to community, Paul is writing to church. Paul is writing not to a person, but to people.
Be careful about self-centeredness. You see, the more we’re expressing Christ’s love, the less and less we will do anything from selfish ambition. Right away, the focus moves from you to others. It won’t be long until you lose your grip on the idea of ownership – the idea of controlling something or someone.
What do you own, really, that you will never have to let go of? You’ll have to let go of your possessions one day. You’ll have to let go of your children one day. As those of you who are aging will tell us, you have to let go of your body and your health one day. And even your life. Everything – no matter how precious to you – you borrow for only a short time.
Don’t be self-centered. It’s not about you. You are merely a steward, a borrower of the things that God has given to you.
Didn’t Frank Sinatra sing, “I did it my way.” That’s really what a lot of us want to say. That’s what a lot of us want to sing in life. “I came. I saw. I conquered. We did it my way.”
By the way, when Frank Sinatra would sing, these were his dressing room requirements, not including beverages:
•one color television, cable ready;
•one upright piano;
•one fruit platter, including watermelon;
•one cheese tray, including Brie and crackers, Dijon mustard;
•two egg salad sandwiches, two chicken salad sandwiches, two turkey sandwiches;
•twenty-four chilled jumbo shrimp;
•one platter of Nova Scotia salmon;
•three cans of Campbell’s chicken and rice soup, heated;
•twelve rolls of cherry Life Savers, twelve rolls of assorted Life Savers;
•twelve boxes of Luden’s cough drops;
•one bag of miniature Tootsie Rolls;
•one bowl of pretzels; and
•one bowl of potato chips. (Backstage Pass: Catering to Music’s Biggest Stars, quoted in Speechwriter’s Newsletter, Dec. 1998)
That’s doing it your way. That’s self-centeredness.
Do you think it was in Christ’s best interest to go to the cross? No, but He humbled Himself.
Paul regarded as inappropriate to the body of Christ the selfish eye, the pompous mind, the ear hungry for compliments and the mouth that spoke none, the heart that had little room for others, and the hand that served only the self.
Be careful. Be very careful, for self-centeredness will rise to the top the more quickly and higher you rise.
IV. Like unto it, the fourth symptom of the successful is a focus on the individual rather than the community.
Not only might we be self-centered, but we may be individually-centered.
Paul is not calling for individualism. Rather, he’s calling for unity, for oneness. “If there is any encouragement in Christ….” You might say “Since” – it’s another way to translate the Greek grammar here. “Since there is encouragement in Christ, since there is consolation of love, since there is a fellowship of the Spirit, since there is affection and compassion,” make Paul’s joy complete by – notice what makes Paul happy – “…being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose, doing nothing from selfishness or empty conceit.”
There is an old Jewish saying that where you have two rabbis you have at least three opinions. I think we can substitute the word Baptists for rabbis in this saying.
This doesn’t mean we’ll all agree on everything. But it does mean that at the end of the day, at the end of the committee meeting, at the end of the worship service, at the end of the business meeting – it does mean we walk out with one purpose, one mind, undivided, focused on the Kingdom of God.
Fighting for your way in church above and beyond the way of the body, the community, is wrong. No grumbling (2:14); no disputing (2:14) Paul says in this book. Rather, looking to the interests not of yourself, not of your way, but of the body.
A friend of mine went to pastor a large congregation. He had not had experience with a church of this size or means. And I said, “Hold on. The first two months you’re there every pet project and every parachurch group that the previous pastor said no to will come to you and try to push their ministry, their program, their agenda into the church’s vision and the church’s budget.” After sitting in that seat for about two months he said, “I can’t believe it. You’re absolutely right. My first two or three months everybody made an appointment to take me to lunch. About 15 minutes into the lunch they would bring out the pamphlet or the brochure. They were all good things, but it was amazing how everybody was pushing their own agenda, their own program, their own parachurch ministry rather than simply asking the question, ‘Does this ministry fit into, complement the ministry and vision of our church?’”
There you have it. Fever. Chills. A runny nose. Those are the symptoms – symptoms of a bad cold or the flu.
The symptoms of the disease of the successful are complacency, conceitedness, self-centeredness, and individual-focused.
Those things never describe our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus. If you want to be like Him, you have to be like this, like Paul has described:
Regarding others as more important than yourself.
Not looking out for your own interests, but the interests of others.
When we think about Jesus, we think about humility. We think about Jesus emptying Himself.
Christ comes to us in our brokenness, in our lostness, in our sin. He humbles Himself to become like us, to eventually bear our sin, to bear our burden that we could be free.
The disease of the successful is an awful disease. It will ruin your life and it will ruin the life of a church.