I would like for you to consider this one tidbit of thought this morning as I begin my sermon. Just about every major philosophy and religion in this world operates with the same basic premise. Do you know what that basic premise is? I will tell you. The basic premise is: if you do certain things, then you will receive the rewards. For instance, if you go to school and get good grades, then you will get a good education and have a better shot at getting a good paying job. If you adhere to the eight fold path in Buddhism, then you will experience enlightenment. If you follow the teachings of the Hindu Scriptures, then you will escape the endless cycle of reincarnation. If you follow the Laws of the Koran, Allah will bless you. If you work hard at your job, the company will reward you with adequate compensation and benefits. I could continue ad nauseam with these examples. They are very easy to come by because this is exactly the way the world works. It’s exactly the way the world operates. Do the right things, and you are rewarded. Do the wrong things, and you are toast.
We see this in operation day after day after day. I was particularly struck by the story this week which has hit the National Football League–the story surrounding Ray Rice’s physical assault of his then girlfriend Janay Rice. After the video of him punching her in the elevator became public, there was all sorts of uproar. To an extent, it is justified. The public disdains seeing someone who is physically superior to another bully and beat a smaller, weaker person. Ray Rice was actually prosecuted for this event; although many are quick to point out his legal punishment doesn’t seem to fit what happened in that elevator.
But now take a look at the extra-legal punishment doled out to Ray Rice. At first, he was suspended for two games. After the video, he was released from the team; he was barred indefinitely from being in the NFL; his family was dragged into the spotlight–even as he admitted wrongdoing and the fact that he and his wife have sought counseling. Ah, but for some justice still has not been satisfied. Keith Olberman went so far as to call for the resignation of Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, the assistant NFL Commissioner, the NFL’s legal counsel, the president of the Raven’s organization, and the Raven’s general manager. Olberman also condemned anyone who would watch the Ravens on television or attend a game until such time all of these guilty parties were forced into resignation.
There are a couple of things to note here: as long as Ray Rice toed the line and did what he was supposed to do, then he was rewarded and handsomely. He was making millions of dollars a year. However, make one mistake–even an egregious mistake, and your entire life and the lives of others are demanded as payment. This is the way the world works.
And we spend tons of time and energy living out our lives in this world. We spend tons of time and energy justifying ourselves in our jobs; in our families; in our schools; and in our private lives with friends. I used the term justifying ourselves purposely–for that is exactly what we are trying to do. We are trying to appease others over and over and over. We are trying to satisfy the wishes of others over and over and over. We are trying to satisfy their desires, and we believe by satisfying them, then we too will become satisfied. We too will reap the rewards and benefits. If I sacrifice myself enough, then I will earn my due. Does anyone here this morning disagree that this is the way the world works? Does anyone here this morning disagree that this is the game played out almost every day of our lives?
And because this is the way the world works, how do most of us live our lives? Wait a second, let me clarify that question a little bit. What do most of us feel deep down within ourselves as we head to the daily grind? What do most of us feel deep down inside when we consider the actions we are going to take at our job or in our families? What do most of us feel deep down inside when we think about how we relate to others?
I will submit to you this morning, we usually have two main feelings: fear and anger. We are fearful that we will not live up to others’ expectations. We are fearful we might slip up and cause damage to our lives and those we love. We are fearful that at any given time, those above us might not see our worth and our value and therefore decide we are unnecessary. We fear these things because we know retribution can be swift and merciless. Fear dominates. As does anger. Yes, anger. We get angry at those who do not work as hard as we do. We get angry when we put in hour after hour after hour and our work does not seem to be rewarded. We get angry when we try to live by the rules, and it doesn’t seem like the promises we were made get kept.
You may ask me why I say such things. I respond: because it is exactly what I felt to a great extent. Yes, even as a pastor who proclaims the Word of God–who taught and teaches that Jesus said, “Don’t worry;” who taught and teaches trusting the Lord brings peace. Yes, I taught and still teach these things, but deep down inside, I didn’t believe them. I didn’t truly get them. I still lived in fear. I still was angry. I did not have the peace that passes all understanding. Why? I was trying to justify myself. I was trying to live by the world’s rules–even as I worked out my calling to serve Jesus Christ.
How did this happen, you might ask? Well, I believed I had to make a congregation flourish–I bought into the notion that I needed to justify my ministry by racking in new members right and left. I believed I had to have a full and overflowing church. I believed the church had to have programs going on all over the place and people clamoring to be there every Sunday–full parking lots; full classrooms; overflow seating. I read all the books on growing a church and sought all the techniques I could implement which would make this happen. And I worried about what might happen should something go wrong. I worried about people becoming angry with what I said or did. I worried about how a particular statement would be taken. I worried a lot. Fear. And I would get angry. If people didn’t show up for worship, on the surface, I would say, “Fine,” while deep down inside, I would seethe. When people left the congregation, I would become depressed and angry. When programs failed and people didn’t show up to an event, I thought, “These people just don’t care.” And at the heart of it was not righteous anger; instead it was anger that you weren’t helping me achieve my justification. I was driven by fear and anger. Perhaps, some of you can relate. Perhaps some of you can’t. I understand. I never really knew I was driven by fear and anger until I burned out. I never really understood the depths of my own brokenness and my own sin until I was confronted by the reality that the world will eventually try to eat you up. I never really understood the depths of my own fear and anger until I realized I couldn’t justify myself and I was at the mercy of forces much greater than myself. I never really understood how sinful trying to justify one’s self really was and how it only led to more frustration; more anger; more brokenness.
But at some point, I realized my brokenness; I realized my sinfulness; I realized that trying to justify myself through my ministry and through the way the world worked was an exercise in futility. And when this happened, I was captured by something completely and utterly foolish–completely and utterly foolish according to the world’s standards.
Remember how I started this sermon? Remember how I said, just about every single philosophy and religion of the world had an underlying premise: do this and you will be rewarded? There is one religion–one philosophy which says the exact opposite. There is one religion–one philosophy which has at its heart the notion–you are already made right with God; you are already justified with the ultimate being in the universe; you are already accepted even though you are broken; fearful; angry; and sinful. You already have the greatest reward one could have, and because you have this, now live into that freedom with thanksgiving.
I want you to think about what I just said for just a moment. Every other philosophy and religion says, “Do this, and you are accepted.” Christianity says, “You are accepted, now do this.” Do you find Christianity foolish?
You might say, no, but really, I want you to think about what the world would be like if Christianity was the norm. I want you to think about what it would be like in raising your children. I want you to think about what it would be like to work in your job. I want you to think about what it would be like to live in your family. Want an example or two? Christianity is like giving your children their favorite dessert before the meal and then saying, “I’ve given you the dessert, now eat your broccoli.” Christianity is like an employer writing you a two million dollar check and then saying, “Work for me for the next 20 years.” Christianity is like getting the toy you wanted for Christmas and then having your parents tell you, now be good because you got the toy. Let me ask you again, do you see how foolish Christianity is?!!
Do you at least see why St. Paul writes what he does in our second lesson this morning? 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
No one operates this way. No one. Except God through Jesus Christ. On the cross the rewards were handed out. You were justified. You were accepted. Despite your brokenness and imperfection; despite your sinfulness; despite your unwillingness to follow the commands of God, Jesus died for you. Jesus endured the wrath of God meant for you. Jesus turned the way the world works upside down and said, “I will show you another way.” For many this is still complete and utter foolishness. It is complete and utter craziness. How in the world will someone ever be motivated to do what needs to be done without fear and anger to drive them?
What could ever replace those two emotions to lead us to work hard at our jobs; in our families; and in life? How about love?
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.” This is the Gospel. This is what God has done. You no longer need to strive to justify yourself. You no longer need to live in fear. You no longer have to be dominated by anger. You have acceptance, now love with the same love you have been given. Amen.