Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on May 3, 2009.
It is the time for graduations. One of the things people often want to talk about at graduation time is success. I am going to do that, but those of you who have known me for a while know that sometimes I like to come at things by starting backwards. If we want to think about success, maybe we should think for a minute about how people fail. Everybody fears failure. We all think we are going to be the first person not to get through something and everybody will remember our names and associate us with it.
When we think about failure, I think the No. 1 way that most people fail is because they think they cannot do something. They think they are not competent enough, not smart enough, not fast enough, whatever it may be, and they are going to fail because they just cannot do something that they are supposed to do, such as failing a class because they simply did not know enough information. That is a way that some people fail, but I think in the grand scheme of life, this is one of the smallest percentages of why people fail at something.
One of the ways that people fail more often is they fail to start something. You have probably seen people who have great dreams but they never do anything to get started. Chances are, in college, you are going to meet somebody who is going to write the great American novel but they never write the first page, somebody who is going to run a marathon but has yet to run a 5K. A lot of people fail because they just never start.
Then there are a lot of people who start but never finish. We had a group that met for three weeks on Wednesday nights trying to talk about writing out some things that are core and what we believe. One of the things that was agreed upon in the group that is so essential to life is perseverance. For every ten that start, I am not sure, but a lot of times it is a small percentage that don’t get to the end.
Did you know that the most common form of failure is getting preoccupied with something else? A year from now, those of you who are going off to college will already be able to name people who started college and they decided they were majoring in tailgating, fraternity, sorority or something like and they got preoccupied with it, and oops, the grades did not follow. There are so many options and so many different things to do that it is easy to get sidetracked. I am speaking more directly to the graduates today but this is something that all of us can overhear. We can think about things that we have done in business, family, relationships, neighborhood, and church where we started down a path and intended to do something, but the reason we failed was because we got sidetracked doing other things. How many projects are in garages or basements at home? We started them and we didn’t finish them because we got preoccupied.
I think it has been nearly 30 years since the board game Trivial Pursuit came out. I heard a newscaster use the phrase a few days ago in a way which is a cultural icon. We get sidetracked on things that are not the main focus of our lives and we wind up chasing rabbits. Compared to the things we know we need to accomplish, they are trivial pursuits.
Jesus has a parable in Luke 14 that is a parable for the preoccupied. We have to remember the way things worked in the ancient world. Nobody had clocks. I am not sure who kept up with the dates on the calendar, but most people did not have a calendar. If someone was going to have a banquet or feast, they would announce that it was going to happen, but not like us who are very dictated by our watches and calendars, they would go out and say to everybody, “It’s ready; come on.” People lost track or it may have taken longer than expected, so they sent out messengers and said, “OK, it’s ready; everybody come.” That’s the way the parable starts. We all know that Jesus used elsewhere in the Bible the idea of a great feast. This was used as a way of describing what heaven is going to be like. But if we think this through, we understand why this image is used. It is used because heaven is also the perfect presence of God. Where do we really feel connected and present with people except at a table?
My guess is that those of you who are graduating from high school have eaten lunch with the same people for a long time. You look for each other. You sit at the same table. If somebody new is sitting at your table, you think, “What are you doing at my table? Get out of here.” Isn’t that the way it works? We eat with the same people because we like them. They are our friends and we know them. Sitting at table and eating together is a sign of the closest relationships. Many families have great traditions of eating together and things that they do around meals and conversations they have had. When we think about holidays and extended family, somebody always brings the sweet potatoes and somebody else always brings the same thing. It’s family around the table.
I often hear a family express sadness because a teenager in another family is getting ready to leave. They will say, “He (or she) is just like one of ours. I bet he (she) ate with us two times a week.” Eating together is one of the clearest images that we have that we are really close and connected.
The reason for the great feast in chapter 14 as a symbol of heaven and being with God in eternity is because this is the way we most conceive of being close to somebody. God’s presence in its perfection is like sitting down at a table with God and being at God’s table always. It is not only a symbol of heaven, but it is also a symbol of being present with God.
In chapter 14, the invitation went out and we have heard the excuses before. Somebody bought a field, somebody bought five yoke of oxen, and somebody got married. These are not small things. A lot of times when this parable is taught or preached, we tend to think that these things don’t matter, but they do matter. Getting married in Israel gets you excused from military service. You need to stay home. If someone could buy five yoke of oxen, that is a major investment in either their own farming or helping other people farm. Maybe they were a land developer. If we were giving a party and somebody said, “I just got married and we are going on our honeymoon,” you would not say, “You need to be here.” All of these things are important. They are just not as important as being with God.
A lot of times we think the choices in life are between doing something good and doing something bad. Some of the most difficult choices in life are between doing some things that are pretty good or choosing the best. That is the point of Jesus’ parable. All of these people who were invited to participate in the presence of God had good excuses, but it just wasn’t as good as God. They let it get in the way and they were left out.
We really don’t like the way the parable ends. It is one thing to say, “Send the messengers back out and invite more people. Oops! There is still room. Go out and invite more people,” but to say, “I tell you those first people who were invited are not getting one bite. Everybody can come in except the first people who were invited.” We don’t like that. That sounds too harsh for us.
Let me explain the way this works. The invitation went to everybody to participate in the presence of God but the people who had other things to do had already taken themselves out of the equation. It was not that God would not have them come back, but they were not coming back. They had chosen another path. Instead of having the presence of God in its fullness, they had five yoke of oxen, a field, and marriage. All of these things are good things; they are just not the first thing.
Let me say this to those of you who are students. If you have not already gotten the point, let me make it. There are going to be a lot of things that will come your way. A lot of options, a lot of things you can choose to do. A lot of them will be really wonderful things. I hope you get to do as many of them as possible. But don’t forget that the most important thing is your relationship with God. There will be so many things that you will get to spend time doing, invest in, and do with other people, and when you look back on it 20 or 30 years from now, you will think, “That was OK. It seemed like the world at the time.” But don’t do those things to the point of ignoring God in your lives. We forget sometimes that eternity really is the determining factor in what is valuable, what is real, and what is true. Choose to focus on God. What is it that Jesus says elsewhere in the Bible, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added unto you as well”? Keep your heart and mind on God. I know everybody thinks they are going to be “the person” who can run off and do all these things and ignore God, and yet when they need God, God will still be a very real and powerful relationship in your life. Everybody thinks they are going to be the first one to do that, but we are still waiting for the first one.
Seek God first. God has extended to you the offer to a feast, to a table, to enjoy the presence of God in fullness and forever. Don’t go off on other things and make that last. Don’t do that. God’s great gift of his presence above all other things is the best. No matter how good anything else may seem, it is a trivial pursuit in comparison.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.