Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Path We Can Choose in 2006

[This message was presented to the people of Friendship Church on January 1, 2006.]

Philippians 2:5-11

If you’ve ever seen the movie, Saving Private Ryan, you know that the climactic scene comes when Captain John Miller, a Ranger, is seen as he lays dying from battle wounds. His mission had been to save an Army private, played by Matt Damon. All of Private Ryan's brothers had earlier been killed in the war and because of that, he had to be found and sent home. As he lays dying on the ground, Miller looks at Private Ryan and says, “Earn this.”

Pastor Tom Allen, a fan of the Army Rangers, has said that he loves the movie, but absolutely hates that scene. He explains that, “The Rangers' motto for the past two hundred years has been [in Latin] Sua sponte, [meaning] 'I chose this.' [By that phrase, Rangers say:] I volunteered for this.'

"So [Allen explains], when Private Ryan bent down, if Tom Hanks was really a Ranger he would have said, ‘Sua sponte, I chose this. This is free. You don’t pay anything for this. I give up my life for you. That’s my job.’”

Our Bible lesson for this morning, on this first day of a brand new year, says that Captain Miller's job was like the job for which Jesus Christ volunteered. He chose to voluntarily give up the privileges and pleasures of deity in heaven in order to give His life for the whole human race, including you and me.

Look at how the writer of the lesson, the first-century preacher, Paul, describes the mission for which Jesus volunteered:
...though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.
Jesus volunteered to become a slave. The word is doulos in the Greek of the New Testament. A similar word, hebed, is found in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. To be a slave, quite simply, is to be owned by someone else, to be at somebody else's disposal.

Slavery is a hateful, despicable thing when one person imposes it upon another. That was why Christians in nineteenth century Britain and America were among the most insistent and passionate abolitionists.

These days, I'm reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's fantastic new book, Team of Rivals. It tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln, both wisely and shrewdly, brought into his administration the Republican leaders who had vied against him for their party's presidential nomination in 1860. Among those is a person whose name will be familiar to many of you, because the law school at Northern Kentucky University was named for him: Salmon P. Chase. The reason for that name is that Chase spent most of his adult life in Cincinnati, where he practiced law. Goodwin says that Chase was a deeply committed Christian and ardently opposed to slavery because of his faith.

Before the Civil War, owing to its location on the Ohio River across from Kentucky, Cincinnati reaped financial benefits from slavery. When a local publisher railed against enslaving human beings in his newspaper, an angry mob forced its way into the paper's office, trashing the place and ultimately, throwing the printing press into the river. They next headed for the publisher's house in order to tar and feather him. When Chase got wind of their intentions, he went to the man's house and stood in the doorway, telling the angry throng to go home. Some in the group threatened Chase. He boldly told them that he could be found at any time.

One year later, a slave-owner from Missouri came to Cincinnati, a young slave woman, who happened to be the slaver's father, took refuge among the free blacks in town and begged to be allowed to be free. Her father insisted that she needed to go back to Missouri with him. Chase took her case as the woman's lawyer.

Salmon Chase is just one of many examples of nineteenth century Christians who favored the abolition of slavery. Christians have been the fiercest foes of anyone who would enslave another against their will.

But when one chooses to be a slave or a servant, beautiful things happen. We see this repeatedly in the Bible.

A slave of Abraham, in the book of Genesis, secured a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac, and thereby insured that God’s promise of a nation and a land from which the Savior would eventually be born many multiple centuries later, would all come true.

Also in Genesis, Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph became a slave, willingly rendering service to the Egyptian king and so, saved thousands of people from a famine, along with God’s chosen people.

In the Bible, to be a slave or servant of God, doing God’s bidding, is an exalted position.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the book of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. There, portrayed in four different places, is a suffering servant who, some scholars identify as Israel itself, but which I firmly believe talked about Jesus seven-hundred years before His birth.

Moses, David, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce, and others, from Bible times right down to our times, are people who voluntarily chose the path of servanthood in following the Servant Savior Jesus.

We think highly of them all, don’t we? We study their lives, have holidays in their honor, give them prizes. We see that they risked their lives, their comfort, their possessions, and their reputations, among other things, in order to be slaves of God and we applaud them.

But then we think, "That’s all very fine for them, but maybe not for us." After all, we’ve got lives to live, bills to pay, kids to get through college, houses to maintain, and pleasures to seek. Servanthood might be the way for spiritual giants, but it's not our way, right?

Making servanthood the domain of the super-spiritual might get us all off the hook except for one little phrase that appears at the beginning of Paul’s words to us this morning: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...” In other words, Paull is saying: “Volunteer to be a slave of God like Jesus.” And those words are directed at all of us!

Even if we had the luxury of removing these particular words from God’s Word, the Bible, we would have other words in the Bible which say pretty much the same thing. Jesus Himself said, for example, that we should take up our crosses and follow Him. And on the night of His betrayal and arrest, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, work done by slaves, and said, “Do the same thing for others. True greatness resides in being a slave of God.”

But I have a confession to make this morning: I can’t say that I really want to be like them. I don’t want to be a slave of anybody. Do you feel the same way?

Maybe our revulsion at being slaves of God is rooted in a misunderstanding of what that means. Do you remember the great judgment scene described by Jesus in Matthew, chapter 25? There, Jesus judges the eternal destinies of two groups of people. He refers to them as the sheep and the goats. You’ve heard me talk about this passage before, but it’s so informative that it’s worth another mention. To the sheep, Jesus says, “Come into My everlasting kingdom. When I was naked, you gave me clothing. When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me water. When I was behind bars, you paid me a visit.” But, as Jesus tells it, the sheep scratch their heads from forgetfulness. “When did we ever do any of those acts of service?” they wonder.

They wonder because being a servant or slave of God doesn’t involve making a list of New Year’s Resolutions.

Christian servanthood isn’t fulfilling a set of grim and distasteful religious duties in order to impress a demanding God.

Christians don’t serve because the Savior peers at us from the cross and says, “Earn this.”

We can’t earn the love, forgiveness, and life that Jesus offers to all who turn from sin and receive Him. It’s a gift to those who lay aside the frenzied concern about themselves and the desire to impress others that can even motivate seemingly pious acts of service.

While waiting for our flight out of San Francisco the other day, Ann and I got to meet and have breakfast with two really neat people, both salespersons, friends who were traveling through Cincinnati and then, onto Paris.

One of them, we’ll call her Megan, told us that from her travels in Asia, she’d learned a valuable lesson and did things differently than she would have otherwise. Any time she asks for directions in that part of the world, she asks three different people. “People in Asian cultures so dislike the notion of not knowing something when asked,” she explained, “that rather than admitting they don’t know how to get somewhere, they’ll just make up directions. You have to ask several people in order to make sure you get the right directions.”

We talked about that for awhile when the other salesperson--we’ll call her Sarah--said that while she would never go so far as to give fake directions to a stranger, she sometimes shied away from offering help to others for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing.

We all admitted that we could be that way, too. And then someone said, “I guess that we need to get over ourselves.”

And this brings us to the truly central point of the Bible lesson and of today's message: To be authentic servants of God, we need to get over ourselves and, in Paul’s phrase, have the mind of Jesus Christ.

Christian servanthood is the lifestyle of the person who hears the Savior say to them, “I volunteered for this. I did this for you.” They know that they already have God's approval over their lives. They have nothing left to prove. Once Jesus has entered one's life, our motives for living and breathing each day are transformed. Now, we don't serve to be saved; we serve because we've already been saved.

In a few short weeks, we’ll begin the Lenten season that leads to Easter. During those forty days, we’ll be considering what it is to be a servant or a slave of God and how to become faithful servants or slaves of God. We’re calling it Forty Days to Servanthood.

This will be more than just Friendship’s version of Forty Days of Purpose. It will be designed to help us all become the people Jesus Christ died and rose to help us be.

Martin Luther once said that, “A the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” In other words, on the one hand, the follower of Jesus has been freed from the imposed slaveries of sin, or death, and chasing after the fleeting rewards of a world dying by the minute. On the other, followers of Jesus volunteer to enslave themselves in love to the only things that will outlast time or this dying universe: God and others.

The call to servanthood is a call to true joy, of unself-conscious living, the freedom in little everyday acts of sacrifice and love, to turn the world and ourselves toward the only source of life and renewal that exists, the God Who made us.

The call to servanthood is a call to get over ouselves in the confident assurance that no matter what, for all eternity, God has our backs!

As we move toward Forty Days of Servanthood, I ask three things of you:

(1) Ask Jesus to take control of your life and of the life of Friendship;

(2) Ask God to teach us all what it means to be slaves of God; and

(3) Ask God to use Forty Days of Servanthood to transform our church, our community, and ourselves.

Mother Teresa said that, “Small things done with great love will change the world.” As the mind of Jesus and the lifestyle of Jesus Christ takes hold of us, we will begin to serve not from a sense of duty or obligation, but because the mind and life of Christ have taken up residence in our minds and lives. Others will see Jesus in the thousands of little kindnesses we commit in His great Name and also hear His message from a cross and an empty tomb.

Through us, they’ll hear Jesus saying, not, “Earn this,” but, “I chose this. I volunteered for this so that you can be Mine forever.” We’ll be slaves of God, whose lives are a constant mission of mercy in our world. I can’t imagine anything being more exciting or rewarding!

[Pastor Tom Allen's take on the climactic scene in Saving Private Ryan is from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.

[The anecdotes on Salmon P. Chase are in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

[Also helpful as I prepared this week's message were: Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster and A Theological Word Book of the Bible by Alan Richardson.]


Charlie said...

I'm glad you used Saving Private Ryan as a comparison to Jesus. And your friend's perspective on the Rangers is very helpful. "Earn this" is the one thing about that movie that crushes me every time I hear it.

Ryan as an old man stands before Miller's grave and asks his wife, "Have I lived a good life?" And on his face you see the terrible burden of the guilt he has felt all of his life, the doubts about whether he has been worthy of Capt. Miller's sacrifice. He is bent over by the weight of what Miller has done for him.

How different it is for us. The love of Christ, the servant heart of Christ, makes it possible to accept his sacrifice with joy, because he came "that we might have life, and have it abundantly."

We are undeserving, and yet we recognize that Christ willingly chose to sacrifice himself for us because of love.

It makes all the difference. He gives us a gift, not a burden. He sets us free, he doesn't shackle us with a load of guilt.

Great message, Mark.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you for your typically gracious comments!

Just as a clarification: The pastor whose reactions to 'Saving Private Ryan' I cite isn't a friend of mine. I found his comments in a book.

God bless you and yours with a happy 2006, Charlie!