By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I want you to imagine for a few minutes this morning that you have become a fly on the wall of some good friends of yours, privileged to watch the interactions of their daily lives. Think of it as “reality TV” among friends. You see them when they eat breakfast in the morning, you watch their children play in the basement, you see the mom cooking dinner, and you see the dad doing the dishes. It’s all pretty normal stuff that happens in countless homes in America. But it is the conversation at the dinner table that catches you by surprise and will not let you go. For at this dinner dialogue, you are simply amazed by what you hear the parents saying to their children.
The mom speaks first; “Kids, we know that fruits and vegetables are probably good for you, but we have decided to let you eat dessert first, and if you don’t want to eat the broccoli, that’s fine with us.” And then the dad speaks; “And we’ve sold your bicycle helmets, and we have removed the life jackets from the boat, and you don’t have to wear your seatbelts in the car anymore.” Just when you think you’ve heard it all, mom speaks again, “When school starts this fall, homework will not be allowed in this home, and bedtime is whenever you choose.” The kids begin to cheer, but it’s not over yet. Dad says “And that thing about brushing your teeth, and changing your underwear, and going to Sunday School, and cleaning your rooms; it’s all overrated! You don’t have to do any of that stuff anymore.” And the last scene you see before turning off the television is these two little kids jumping up from their seats, grabbing their father’s power tools and running with scissors in their hands as they go outside to play in the street.
You turn to your spouse and you are speechless! You had no idea this was going on in the home of your best friends. You thought you knew them well, but all of this is so out of character for them. How could they say these things? Perhaps we misunderstood them. Maybe they were just having a bad day, or simply joking with their children. But what if it is all true? Then you’re not sure you want to be associated with them anymore. That’s how astonished you were when you saw your best friends on reality TV.
The story I just described for you is fiction. I made it all up. But what if it was true? That someone you knew very, very well, turned out to be a radical troublemaker, whose ideas were so out of the mainstream and so contrary to what you believed, that you he might even be dangerous? If you can wrap your brain around that unlikely possibility – that someone you know well could do and say things that sounded bizarre and counter-culture – then you begin to get a picture of Jesus in first century Israel. He was the one who was supposed to be the Messiah, the one who would show up and slay the enemy, and provide peace and prosperity for the Jews, and rule the Kingdom with an iron fist.
But then one day, this Messiah does come, and he is saying things that defy what every self-respecting Jew ever believed. This Jesus says things like:
— I did not come to bring peace, but a sword
— There is no difference between Jews and Greeks; slaves and their masters
— I have come to comfort the afflicted…and afflict the comfortable
— If you love me, you will hate your mother and father, sister and brother
— Love your enemies; don’t hate them, love them, and
— Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor
If you have ever wondered why Jesus was so unpopular with the Jewish mainstream of his day, this is why. He turned upside-down the values that they held, and replaced them with radical ideas. The first shall be last, the slave shall be free, the poor shall be rich. Twenty centuries later, we read what Jesus said and did, and we say “Right on, Jesus! You really gave it to those pious Jews. Good for you.” What we fail to realize is that the message of Jesus has not changed in 2000 years, except now he is speaking to us.
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Today, we are the wealthy and the proud. Today, we are the ones who are comfortable in our religion, and separated from those who are the sinners. Today, we are the ones who believe that Jesus is “for us” and therefore “against them.” We read the verses of scripture that say otherwise, and we assume that the words cannot be for us. There must be an error in translation from Greek to English. Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. Judge Howard Albertson said it best when he once told me that Christians in this century “grind the words of Jesus to fit our circumstances.” We’re not really supposed to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor. We’re not really supposed to visit the sick, the imprisoned and the poor. We’re not really supposed to choose to be last in line as servant leaders? But what if we are? What if we are?
These are known as “the hard sayings of Jesus” and for the next four weeks, we will consider them together. It might not be comfortable for us; it might not be easy to realize that many of Jesus’ expectations go largely unmet in our lives. But we must understand the values that Jesus holds before they can ever become our values. So bear with me over these four weeks, as we struggle to understand these hard sayings of our Lord.
Now, it doesn’t help that we begin with the first of these sayings, which has to do with our possessions. The text we read a moment ago starts out nicely enough, when Jesus said “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus calls us his flock, his little lambs, and he tells us that we don’t have to be afraid of God because God wants to give us a gift. We don’t earn our way into the Kingdom; we don’t get there by doing good works. It is his gift to us, free and unmerited. Sung: Have no fear, little flock, have no fear little flock, for your father has chosen to give you the Kingdom, have no fear little flock.
But in the very next verse, Jesus hammers us! “Sell you possessions, and give alms.” In another gospel, he says it this way; “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let them sell everything they own, give the money to the poor, take up their cross and come follow me.” What happened to “have no fear, little flock”? He could not possibly have meant for us to take that literally! Surely he did not mean that we should give away our homes, our bank accounts, our snowmobiles and our Vikings’ season tickets, and live in poverty. We begin to grind it to fit. We begin to think that Jesus meant that we are expected to share a little bit with those who have less than us. We may even give sacrificially so that the church can build a new Community Life Center, or so African children can attend school, or so that little ones in Stillwater can gather around a fake volcano and learn to say “mahalo” thank you, God!
But what if Jesus meant it literally? What if he truly meant that we cannot have two masters, and that if we worship money, we cannot worship him. And further, if we worship him, we will not worship money? What do we do with a command as radical as that?
I have entitled this sermon “Make God Happy; Give Your BMW to Me!” If you happen to own a BMW, you are probably feeling pretty picked on by now, and that was not my intent, so let me expand the target for a moment. “If you want to make God happy, give your silver Mustang convertible to me!” Or “If you want to make God happy, give away your white Volvo.” Or “If you want to make God happy, give all your toys to the children of Tanzania.” That’s what the verse means. Given the choice to make God happy, or make ourselves happy, we choose ourselves nearly every time.
This is one of those verses of scripture that we refuse to interpret literally. Other verses, we are more than happy to take exactly as they are written. If we’re not divorced, we take all the scripture verses about divorce literally. If we have never committed adultery, we agree with all the bible verses on adultery. If we are not homosexual, we have no problem being black-and-white on the issue of homosexuality. But when it comes to the verses where Jesus tells us to give away everything we own, we want to grind that verse to fit. And you think I don’t do that, too? I do. We all do.
What are the choices that we have? One is to play with the words of Jesus; to twist them and turn them, and make them palatable to our lives. You know, grind them to fit our circumstance. Another possibility would be to strictly and rigidly follow every command and every call of Jesus. It might be legalistic and nearly impossible to do, and no one in human history has ever been successful at it, but we could try….
There is a third possibility; in fact, it’s not just a possibility, I think it is the reality where most of us live. We could admit that Jesus meant everything he said in scripture, and he truly calls us to obey, but we are sinners and we’ve said “no.” And further, we confess this sinfulness to God, and ask that he forgive us…again and again, forgive us, and let us start over again tomorrow. And God, in his amazing grace says this: “Have no fear, little flock. Have no fear, little flock. For your Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom, have no fear, little flock.”
We are people on a journey. The rules are real. The hard sayings of Jesus in scripture are not figures of speech, but rather, calls to obedience. Jesus takes us just the way we are, but he is not content to leave us the way we are. So he challenges us over a lifetime to serve him, not out of legalism, but out of love. And one day, all of us will be rid of our possessions and safely in God’s Kingdom. Until that day, we seek to be honest with ourselves and honest with God about our sin…and trust that he is still gracious.
I must close with this; today we say farewell to a member of our staff whose ministry it has been to share ourselves. For two years, Sandie Ogren has drawn our attention to feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and healing the sick, and visiting the lonely and the imprisoned. You see, when people do obey God’s call, it makes a difference in this world. That’s what it means to be the Church; to give away – not our BMW’s – but ourselves, so that peoples’ lives are changed. We thank God for this servant, Sandie, and ask that her life would be blessed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2004, Steven Molin. Used by permission.