(shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 22, 2004)
When is the right time to do the right thing?
And by the way, what exactly is the right thing?
If you’re a normal human being (and most of you are, I think), you’ve probably asked those questions a time or two in your life.
People asked them once in a village in remote, rural Holland. (In a story I’ve told you before and I'll probably tell again.) It seems that terrible flooding was happening. The village lay in the flood’s path. The village was so small that the local pastor was the closest thing there was to a public official there. So, the government contacted him and said that the village might be spared the flood if the people feverishily worked that day to build a temporary dam.
The pastor was caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, he wanted to lead the villagers in saving their community. That seemed like the right thing.
On the other, it was the sabbath day, a day set aside by God for His people to rest and hear God’s Word. Building the dam would be work. Resting seemed like the right thing.
So, the pastor called a meeting. He presented his dilemma to the people of the village. Lots of discussion followed.
At last, to make sure that all points of view were considered, the pastor said that while he was certainly in favor of observing the sabbath day, there were times when Jesus was confronted with what might be called “emergency” situations when He worked on the sabbath. Might this flood be such a situation?
An elderly man spoke up: “Pastor, I must say something that I have never ventured to bring up before. But sometimes, I think that our Lord was a bit of a liberal.”
That man might have thought that Jesus took an even more liberal view of things had he considered our Bible lesson for this morning. Jesus is in a synagogue on a sabbath day. (For a pious Jew like Jesus, the sabbath ran from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. For Jesus-Followers, remembering Jesus’ resurrection, the sabbath is Sunday.) Jesus sees a woman bent over, unable to stand straight, an affliction she’s had for eighteen years. She could obviously use Jesus' help, but this is no emergency situation. Jesus might just as well have waited twenty-four hours to do the work of healing her.
Underscoring the lack of urgency in this situation is the woman herself. She doesn’t ask Jesus to be healed. She’s shown up for worship that day with the same sorts of expectations you may have had when you came to worship here today---the expectations that nothing was going to happen, that she would sing the songs, listen to someone preach for awhile, make her offering, and then leave. She wasn’t looking for a miracle.
But Jesus decides to heal her. Did Jesus do the right thing? Did He do it at the right time?
Not according to a strict reading of the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” That was why the ruler of the synagogue and his supporters were horrified by Jesus’ “work.” They didn’t deny Jesus’ ability to bring God’s healing to this woman or to anybody else. Like everybody else, they’d heard the reports of all that Jesus was doing. But they didn’t think it was the right time for Jesus to do the right thing.
Jesus is furious with this response! He says:
“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie [the original Greek word here literally means loose or set free] his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? [In other words, you do work by taking care of your livestock on the sabbath.] And ought not this woman, a daughter [a descendant] of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free [same word used for the ox and donkey, loosed, set free] from this bondage on the sabbath day?”It turns out that the synagogue ruler and his supporters were more willing to do right for their livestock than they were for this woman.
When is the right time to do the right thing? Jesus says, Now is the right time. Now.
But sometimes we wonder, don’t we, what the right thing is?
I don’t know about you, but if I had to choose the one prayer I’ve brought to God more than any other in my life, it would probably be this one: “Lord, help me to know and do Your will.” I wonder sometimes if God doesn’t laugh at me when I pray like that because I act as though God’s will for my life is a mystery. And it isn’t.
Time and again, in the Old Testament and then ultimately, through Jesus in the New Testament, God has told us His will for our lives. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” Jesus says. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart. mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The will of God ---the right thing---is to give our lives to the God Who has given Himself to us on a cross and then to share the love of God with others in the everyday world we all inhabit.
That was what Jesus did when He freed the bent woman from her bondage in the synagogue on the sabbath.
That’s what you and I are called to do: to live for God and to help all the bent people we know be free by sharing with them the love Jesus has poured into our forgiven souls.
This is the will of God and we know it.
This past week, I read that a man named Red Davis died. He was the CEO of a large Texas corporation. When he retired in the late-1970s, he approached his pastor and said that with more time on his hands, he wanted to volunteer for more ministries in the church. The pastor thought that Red would be perfect to chair the finance committee or have some prominent public role. But Red said he’d heard the three-and-four-year old Sunday School class was without a teacher and he’d like that job. And so, for two-and-half decades, until the Sunday before his death, Red Davis, retired high-powered business executive, taught three and four year olds about Jesus.
At first, I read, he didn’t know much about teaching, but he was kind-hearted and sat on the floor to tell the little ones the stories of God’s love and power from the Bible. On Saturday nights, Red called the children of his class to ask how their weeks had gone and tell them how much he looked forward to seeing them the next day. And whenever he met the little ones the next day, each one got a hug from Red. The kids in his class never wanted to miss worship or Sunday School!
Eventually, in his church, almost every parent and grandparent had a child who’d been in his class and today, there are young adults active in the congregation, who are members of what came to be called “Red’s Army,” a group committed to Jesus partly because of Red.
Red Davis didn’t do what the rules said retired CEOs should do. Instead, he did the right thing at the right time, the thing that was needed when it was needed.
And so can you---whether as part of our church’s ministries or in all the other places you find yourself each day!
You may say, “But, Mark, what’s God’s will for my marriage? my career? my college major? my second mortgage?” These sorts of questions bring up a huge difference between God and us when it comes to our consideration of the will of God. We become interested in God’s will when we consider the future. But when God talks about His will, He almost always talks about today. Marry who you will. Work where you will. Live where you want. But put God’s priorities first today, right now, in this moment.
And we all know God’s priorities. In his fantastic book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren distills the teaching of the Bible about God’s will for our lives and says that no matter what our career, income, marital status, age, race, nationality, or sex, God’s will for us boils down to five simple things:
- to worship God every moment of every day
- to love others as God has loved us
- to invite others to follow Christ
- to fellowship with other believers
- to grow in our faith and dependence on Christ.
Those, folks are the right things for us to do right now, the appropriate responses for us to give to the God Who gave Himself to us on the cross.
The will of God for our lives is no mystery. Let’s put our hands to the wheel and get it done!
[The story of the village in Holland comes from Ernst Kasemann's book, Jesus Means Freedom.
[The story of Red Davis was told last week by Gordon Atkinson on his web log.
[Three sources have caused me to look at what the Bible says about the will of God and concluded that God is far more interested in our doing His will today in the supposedly mundane, pedestrian places of life than He is in the so-called "big" decisions we make about our futures: Gerald Sittser in his wonderful book, The Will of God As a Way of Life; Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life; and Martin Luther when he commented that if we want to discern the will of God for our lives, we should first ask what is our duty?]