A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on June 17, 2012.
Consistency, madam, is the first of Christian duties.
Jesus very clearly tells us not to judge others, but we do. I don’t necessarily mean as in judging our neighbors because we heard that they got a messy divorce, but more along the lines of when we meet somebody for the first time. The first time we encounter someone, we are making assessments. We take the little bit of information that we know and couple it with things that we have heard and observed, and very quickly we begin to make an assessment. Don’t judge, but there is some judgment in it.
Our grandmothers said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We do. It is the same principle. It may be more homespun but essentially it is the same thing that Jesus had to say to us. We seem to not be able to help ourselves. We encounter someone. We get a look at a face or we remember what someone else has told us about this individual or a story we have heard, and we begin to associate those things from that person with them. We are making assessments and making judgments.
Sometimes it is related to the decal we saw on their car or where we hear they are from. There are all kinds of different things that will filter together when we make a judgment about them.
If you were on vacation in Amish country and your car broke down and a man who had a beard like old Father Abraham who was in a horse and buggy stopped and invited you to come to his home while someone went and got help to fix your car, would you feel safe? I guess it could be a renegade Amish person but, by and large, we would think, These people have a reputation. Yes, this would be good. So we have made a judgment.
Imagine we are in a neighborhood in New York City where people are a different ethnic group or skin color from ourselves. We need help with our car and someone who has tattoos that reminds us of gang things comes up and says, “You are perfectly safe; come with me.” He could be one of the most born-again Christians in the world, but we have made judgments.
This is not a sermon about prejudice, but it is something that we all have to admit. We make assessments.
It is a big SEC football Saturday and you are driving in Atlanta. Someone cuts you off on I-75 and they just happen to have an Auburn decal on the back of their car. You say, “That is just like my preacher. My preacher would cut me off if he were here. You just cannot trust those Auburn people.” We think we know what people are like. We have already put the things together and we have made a judgment.
What if the tables were turned and, as Christians, people judged us on the basis of things they had experienced from other Christians, other churches, and other ministers. All of a sudden as they were meeting us, they are immediately forming a judgment about you or me.
I made a list of things that, over the past 36 years, people have said to me about Christians, church or ministers in some kind of conversation that I was having with someone about it.
â— I would never go to that church because I went to that church and I was invited to a Sunday school party and the Sunday school teacher hit on me.
â— I would never do business with a Christian businessman again because I did business with a contractor who knew he was going bankrupt and he continued to bill people when he knew he was not going to be able to pay his own bills.
â— I would never trust a preacher again because a certain preacher had gotten a number of people to invest $50,000 each in a real estate deal and everybody lost money except the preacher.
I heard things about working for someone who is a deacon or Sunday school teacher that sexually harassed someone else or was seen being arrested for a DUI.
All of a sudden, people who are not in church and are not Christians, meet us and they have already made a judgment based on things that they know about some other Christian, some other church, or some other minister and we are stuck with their images and their experiences with other Christians. It doesn’t feel very good, does it?
This brings us to the passage from Matthew 5:33-37 where Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The context is in First Century Judaism. The Jews had a very complex and convoluted system whereby they could make pledges in oaths. If you had the code book, you would know that if a person said, “I pledge by heaven,” that was technically not a binding promise. If I pledged to you by “the throne of heaven,” that one was binding. I don’t understand the logic of all this but there really was a code. If you wanted to make a promise and somebody else was foolish enough not to know the code, you could make a promise that sounded really good and come back later and say, “It wasn’t binding. I didn’t pledge by anything that was binding.”
Jesus says, “Do not swear.” Growing up, my grandmother’s interpretation of this was you could not use the expression “I swear.” If she were watching her stories in the afternoon—which is what you call soap operas—and it was interrupted for a news broadcast, she would say, “I swan.” If she was really exasperated, she said, “I swannee.” You knew you were in big trouble then. Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with that.
Jesus says, “You have heard it said that if you use the proper way of swearing you can get out of just about anything, but I tell you let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and let your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything else is evil.” Jesus is teaching us that our words should be consistent. Our words should not be some sort of word game where we can perhaps say words that are literally true but know that we deceive someone. I am confident that none of us have ever done that.
Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and let your ‘no’ be ‘no.’” It is beyond that. It is an honesty that a person can trust what we say, and it is a plea for consistency so that our lives match our faith. If a person encounters us, whatever their prejudices may be from other Christians they have met, at least when they leave our presence, hopefully, we have lived in such a way that we have lived up to the Gospel, that we have been straightforward about it, and what you see is what you get. What I say is what I mean. Consistency. I ask you, would the world be a better place if you knew you could take people at their word?
A long time ago, I was a youth minister. There was a man who was really upset about something. A brand new pastor in the church said, “I am going to take care of this.”
I said, “Why? Why don’t you just leave it alone?”
He said, “If I don’t take care of it now, somebody is going to come after me and I would rather go after him while he is saying this to you.”
Whenever the pastor would speak to somebody about the situation, the person would say, “Ah, that’s just (what’s his name) and you know he doesn’t mean that.”
The pastor said, “So you mean that he doesn’t speak the truth.”
That got his friends all in a bother, and then the pastor said, “You are telling me that I can’t trust what he says and that he says things that he doesn’t really mean, so which is it?”
The plea is that we could have a better world if we all said what we meant, if we were all plain about it, if our “yes” was just “yes,” and our “no” was “no,” and if our lives matched our words. Life would be better. Would the witness of Christ on earth be better if Christians were known for meaning “yes” when they said “yes,” and “no” when they meant “no,” and their lives were the same each and every time.
Thus far, I have not said anything that refers to the title of this sermon so let me tell you how it refers to the title. Several years ago, I read that there are a number of ways that you can measure a billboard out by the highway. Obviously, it can be measured by size, but you can also measure it by time. How long does an individual have to read the billboard? A big billboard along the interstate is about a six-second billboard. In six seconds, you can get “Cracker Barrel, Exit 290, 3 Miles.” If there is much more information than that, it takes too long to read it. We all hope that the person in front of us or behind us is not taking ten seconds to read the billboard. In six seconds, all of the information that they are going to get has been communicated.
Do you know how long it takes to make a first impression? Psychology tells us that it takes about six seconds for people to decide what their impression of you or me would be. So I called this sermon, The Six-Second Christian, as a reminder to us that, in our lives, we never know when that six seconds might be. It might be right now. It might be in the restaurant after church. It might be at work on Monday morning. It might be any number of places where a person, in six seconds, just like with a billboard on the interstate, will catch a glimpse, see, watch, observe, and make an impression.
Jesus’ plea for integrity and consistency is because we never know when the six seconds will be. We all want to be prepared, comb our hair, and get everything right so we could make a good impression, but it is always in those moments when we least expect it that we encounter someone.
There is a great story of an old British man in colonial India. It came about that his servant came to him one day and announced that he was leaving and going to become a Muslim. The British man asked the servant, “Why?”
The servant answered, “I had so many different people offer me their religion so I decided I would do a study of the different people who offered me their religion. After observing, I decided that I would go with the person who seemed to be the most consistent with what they said. I have decided that the Muslim was the most consistent, so I am going to become a Muslim.”
The British man said, “If I had known you were paying that close attention, I would have been more careful.”
Wouldn’t we all? People observe. People watch. People make judgments. If we are not our own but live for Christ, then would we not want to live in a way that makes the world a better place and would we not want to live in a way that makes the witness for Christ more consistent with what we say?
Jesus says, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’” Be consistent in all things. Paul says, “Lead a life worthy of your calling.” Amen
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.