Sunday, August 09, 2009

Feeling a Tug?

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during worship this morning.]

John 6:35, 41-51
As you know, in Lutheran churches we follow a plan of Scripture readings called the lectionary. That usually ensures that you and I consider a regular and varied diet of Bible readings.

But sometimes, even the lectionary can get us stuck in ruts. For example, this is the second week in a row that finds us looking at a Gospel lesson from John in which Jesus is talking about Himself as “the bread of heaven” or “the bread of life.” We’ll have three more Sundays of the same thing.

Folks, that’s a lot of bread!

So, in the interest of presenting all of us with a more balanced spiritual diet, I’m not going to talk about Jesus as the bread of life, the One Whose body (and blood) we receive in the bread (and the wine) of Holy Communion.

Instead, I want to talk about something else that Jesus mentions in our Gospel lesson for today. It’s where He says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…”

That’s so important, I’ll say it again. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…”

I’m going to ask you to be patient with me while I give you a little Bible background, which, once it’s unpacked, I think may help us understand what Jesus is saying in these fourteen words. Jesus’ words here aren’t as simple or as inconsequential as they may seem at first.

In the original Greek of the New Testament, that word translated as drawn, is elkuo. Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen points out that the same word shows up in four other places in the Gospel of John:
  • At John 12:32, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw (elkuo) all people to myself."
  • At John 18:10, in the garden of Gethsemane, the site of Jesus’ arrest, the Gospel writer says, “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew (elkuo) it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear...
  • At John 21:6, where we read about the risen Jesus meeting His disciples—they on Peter’s fishing boat and Jesus on the shore broiling fish. It says, “[Jesus] said to them, 'Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul (elkuo) it in because there were so many fish.”
  • And, from the same incident, in John 21:11, we’re told, “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled (elkuo) the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.”
What we learn from these instances of the word elkuo is that coming into a relationship with Jesus Christ, coming to trust in Christ and following Christ into eternity with God, and continuing to trust Christ through the challenges of life isn’t some gentle drawing to Christ, like our translation has it.

It would be better to picture Jesus saying in today’s lesson, “No one can come to me unless dragged to me or hauled to me like a fish in a dragnet by the Father who sent me…”

If any of you were ever dragged to worship or Catechism or church camp or a mission trip or youth group or Sunday School class when you didn’t want to go, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Your parents or, as was true for me, your spouses, dragged you to some of these places, putting you in proximity to Jesus Christ. And the result is that many of the dragged or hauled come to faith in Christ.

Now, this business of God the Father hauling us, dragging us, or pulling us to faith in Christ really flies in the face of how we see ourselves as human beings. Ask the average person why they do or don’t believe in Jesus and they’ll say something like, “Everybody has free will.” But that isn’t true. You and I aren’t born with a free will!

That’s why most Sundays, you and I confess to God that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

We all arrive in this world with an inborn mistrust of anything we can’t see, control, or manipulate. Sin is our inborn separation from God and the life that only God can give us.

That's why one of the first words any baby learns to say is, "No!"

The Bible says, “I was born in sin.” Martin Luther wrote an essay called “the bondage of the will.”

And Erik Erikson, one of the most eminent psychological thinkers of the past century, noted that as babies fresh from the womb, we immediately deal with an internal conflict from which we can only be dragged out by those we encounter the most, usually our parents: whether to trust or distrust.

We aren’t born with a free will. And left to our own devices, we will never choose to do things God’s way. It’s only when God pulls us into a relationship with Christ that we’re set free to be the people God made us to be.

As many of you know, I have some personal experience of this. As a teenager and early twenty-something, the last thing I wanted was Christ or the Church.

But then I met and married Ann and she dragged me to church. Then, I got pulled onto church council at our home congregation. I got dragged into running the Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I hadn’t wanted to believe and I hadn’t wanted to do any of these things, but God kept tugging at me and with each tug, I found myself falling more deeply in love with Jesus Christ, more dependent on Him, more joyful about my discipleship.

And the tugging didn’t stop there. I remember a few days after someone at our home church told me, “You ought to think about going to seminary and becoming a pastor,” I was riding somewhere with my then-boss, the executive director of the United Way of Franklin County, where I had been a fundraiser and was by then, a kind of administrative troubleshooter. He mentioned that a noted author was coming to speak at his church. That got us off onto a discussion of pastors generally. As a result of one person telling me that I ought to consider going to seminary, I had been praying, “God, I don’t want to be a pastor. Don’t make me a pastor. I don’t want to do that!” I felt justified in those prayers as the executive director and I agreed, while driving around that day, that most pastors were impractical, lazy, shortsighted killjoys. I didn’t want to be one of them! I resisted and yet, within three years, I was in seminary.

It turned out to be one of the best things I ever did in my life. But that decision didn’t spring from my exercising my free will. It came from a struggling time, God dragging me to the life He had in mind for me, and me finally praying, “Not my will, Lord, but Your will be done.”

The God Who may have first tugged you to Christ at the baptismal font when you were just a baby wants to keep pulling you into a closer walk with Jesus, often against your will.

So, how might God be pulling at you this morning? Is there some ministry in the church to which you feel God has been tugging at you recently?
  • We need Sunday School teachers and worship-time nursery attendants.
  • We need people willing to help the property trustees in sprucing up our property, making Saint Matthew a more inviting place to first time visitors.
  • We need more choir members.
  • We need help with the Drive Through Baby Shower on August 22.
  • And as always, we need all of our members to be intentional and regular about reading the Scriptures daily and praying daily, inviting their nonchurchgoing friends to worship and other activities of the church daily.
Not everyone is called or gifted by God to be involved in everything that God commands the Christian family to do. I learned that, as some of you may know, at my former parish. I had energized the congregation to get involved with the building of a Habitat for Humanity home in New Richmond, down on the Ohio River in Clermont County. A good number of our folks volunteered and every Saturday for several weeks, I went with them to help with the building. One Saturday, as we were getting ready to pack up, one of our members approached me and said, "Mark, we all have our gifts. Construction isn't one of yours. Please stop coming here on Saturdays before you get yourself or somebody else killed." I decided I had a gift for publicizing Habitat homes, not building them!

On the other hand, I've also learned that we shouldn't poor-mouth ourselves. God may empower us to do things we know we can't do. All of my life, really, I have struggled with stage fright. The first four years or so of my ministry found me waking up every Sunday morning sick. I continue to battle this problem to some extent. And yet, for twenty-five years, God has answered my prayers and helped me to lead Sunday worship, weddings, funerals, meetings, and other public events.

So, how do you know when that tug you’re feeling is from God?

Let me suggest that you ask a few questions about the things you think God may be calling you to do in your life.
  • First: Will it draw you closer to Christ?
  • Second: Does it express love of God and love of neighbor?
  • Third: Is it something that needs to be done?
  • Fourth: Is it something you want to do?
If you answer yes to the first three questions and no to the last one, chances are God is tugging at you.

Then comes the point at which you must ask yourself, “Do I really believe it when I pray, ‘Thy will be done’?”

God wants to draw us closer to Jesus Christ as we grow in our faith. It’s by being drawn closer to Christ that we also grow closer to being the people we were made to be, people set free from our bondage to self-will, set free for joy for all eternity. Amen


Jeff Branch said...

So true. Thanks for the message.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you, Jeff. I hope that all is well with you. God bless.