Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Looking Good vs. Being a Christian

[This message was shared during Ash Wednesday worship at Friendship Lutheran Church. Amelia, Ohio, on February 21, 2007.]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
True story: Years ago, a prominent B-List movie star was guest hosting a TV talk show. He introduced his first guest for the evening, an actor, and he asked, “How are you doing?” “Not so well,” the guest said. “You see, I’ve been very sick. It’s been a tough road.”

The B-List star’s response was a classic...of sorts. “Yes,” he said. “But you look marvelous and that’s the main thing.”

For many of us today, looking good is the main thing. Many women, in a desire to “look good,” spend thousands of dollars on cosmetics and facelifts. (I’m always baffled when I pass through the cosmetics section of Macy’s. I tell my wife that they ought to call it ‘The Big Girls’ Face Painting Department.’)

Many men, wanting to appear successful, will overextend themselves financially just to have the biggest houses, the newest cars, and luxury box seats at the football game.

Many teens feel that they simply must have the latest stuff from Hollister and AmISnobbyandRich...I mean, Abercrombie & Fitch, or they’ll lose face among their peers.

Does any of this strike you as shallow, vapid, and brainless as it does me?

We seem to have elevated shallowness to a place of high value in our society. Maybe the clearest indicator of this is that right now, the media and the public seem to be giving more attention to the death of Anna Nicole Smith than they did to the death of Gerald Ford this past December. I recognize that there are tragic dimensions to Smith’s death: She died at a young age and she left a baby of unknown paternity behind. On top of that, there’s a lot of money in her estate. But, at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I think that the life and death of a man who guided our country through one of the worst Constitutional crises in our history--Gerald Ford--is worth a bit more attention than a woman whose claim to fame was using her looks--and other attributes--to get an eighty-something billionaire to marry her.

Lest we get too far up on our high horses, though, Jesus reminds us tonight that we Christians can be shallow, too. We can become obsessed with “looking good” as Christians, appearing holy, or devoted, or repentant, or faithful. We can be so hung up on looking like Christians that we fail to actually be Christians.

In our Bible lesson, Jesus addresses the overarching issue of Christian piety. One dictionary defines piety as, “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations.” Piety is good. Genuine piety happens when imperfect human beings, like you and me, strive to follow Jesus Christ in our daily lives. But Jesus warns us: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

The rewards which every believer in Jesus Christ wants, the gifts that we can not earn, but only receive when we renounce our sin and trust in Jesus, are having God in our lives today and living with God for eternity.

Jesus tells us that we risk losing these rewards when, instead of living our lives to express gratitude and love for an audience of one--God Himself, we decide to make looking good in the eyes of others our greatest goal. Or at least one of our goals.

There may be more of this happening among we Christians than we realize, this play-acting as Christians, rather than being Christians. Last week, I attended the quarterly gathering of Hope Cincinnati. This brings together church leaders of all denominations for a time of common learning, conversation, and prayer for the spiritual well-being of our metropolitan area. At the end of each of these gatherings, we divide into groups of four and five to pray together. Just before my group did that this past week, one member of my small group talked about his ministry with men. He does retreats on sexual purity and pornography addiction all across the country. He said that at these gatherings of Christian men, he always conducts an anonymous paper survey. Over the years, he’s learned that anywhere between 20 to 50% of all these men describe themselves as having a problem with pornography that impacts their marriages or other relationships.

Whether those percentages hold up for all Christian men isn’t important. What is important is that it’s possible for Christians to experience a disconnect between the faith we confess and the lives we lead.

We may look good and have the accolades of our fellow Christians, even as we privately wallow in sins from which we can’t seem to extricate ourselves, sins for which we can’t even muster the strength to repent.

Lent is a time of spiritual renewal. It’s a season of the Church Year invented not by God, but by we Christians. Nonetheless, I think that Lent can be helpful to us. It’s a time when we remind one another to lay aside those sins and habits that keep us from having a joyful, fulfilling relationship with God and to instead live our lives for Jesus Christ alone.

That’s why at Lent, on Ash Wednesday, we always begin with this Bible lesson, words of Jesus taken from His Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. In each issue Jesus addresses in this lesson, He’s giving the same message: If your focus is on looking like a good person to others, you lose your relationship with God; you lose eternal life.

Instead, we’re to be transparent before God, admitting our sins and enlisting His power to help us overcome them.

Jesus says, “When you give alms--that is, charity to the poor, don’t call attention to yourself. Give without taking credit for it. When you pray, mostly do it in private; and when you pray in public, talk to God, not other people. Whenever you fast--giving up food or drink--don’t go around with a hangdog face so that everybody can see what a pious Christian you are; instead, clean yourself up and let the joy of God radiate from you. And don’t be stingy with your money. The stingy who stack up lots of cash only make themselves susceptible to thievery. Instead, be generous. Invest in people. Invest in what Christ calls all Christians to do, the work of God in the world: loving God and loving neighbor.”

Every year, I hear from people about the things they’re giving up for Lent, things like coffee, candy, cake, cigarettes, movies, text messaging, one night a week of no TV. Those things are fine, of course. But the thought often crosses my mind that if these things are worth giving up or cutting down on for the forty days of Lent, maybe they’re also worth giving up or cutting down on all through the year. Unless our Lenten disciplines--the stuff we give up or the habits we add on--help us to glorify God and to grow closer to Christ, they risk being meaningless.

Recently, a family in our congregation decided to help fix food for the people at a homeless shelter. And a man I know, who has a coworker going through a tough time, has made it his habit to anonymously send the coworker ten and twenty dollars every week or so. None of these people were broadcasting that information to me. I just happened to learn of their Christian acts in the course of talking with them about other things. But it seems to me that it’s these habits of discipleship that are the kinds of things that we should be doing in Lent and all through the year.

They’re done not to impress others. But they become ways for us to tell God...
  • Thank You for Jesus and His cross.
  • Thank You for loving me, as we sang a short time ago, just as I am.
  • Thank You for saving me from sin and death and eternal separation from You.
During this Lenten season, I invite you to militate against our common sinful impulse to look good to other people and to instead turn your focus onto Jesus Christ and His purpose for your life.

Embrace a new spiritual discipline, one that you’ll do not just during Lent, but all your life. It’s the discipline that the risen Jesus described to His first followers, on a Judean hillside, just before He ascended into heaven. It too, is described in Matthew’s Gospel. (I wish that I could have been there.) Here’s what Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...”

Jesus was telling His disciples, including us: Be intent not on looking like a Christian, but on being Christian enough...
  • to share Christ with others,
  • invite them to know the Savior, and
  • ask them to worship with you.
A person who was on that hillside with Jesus, the apostle Peter, says that when we take it on ourselves to invite others to follow Jesus, Who saves sinners like us, we are fulfilling our highest purpose. In the first of two Biblical books Peter wrote, he says to us: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Calling people out of the darkness of life without Jesus Christ is, I think, a worthy spiritual discipline for all of us to embrace this Lenten season. In fact, I think that it’s the perfect Lenten discipline. That’s because when we’re witnesses for Jesus, we take the focus off of ourselves and our selfish obsessions. Instead, our focus is simply to introduce our friends to our very best Friend, Jesus, our God and Savior.

People who live as witnesses for Jesus Christ may not “look good” in the eyes of the world. But in the eyes of God, being a witness for Christ is the very best way for us to tell God we love Him and the best way for us to love our neighbor!

[THANKS TO: Bruce Armstrong of Ordinary Everyday Christian for linking to this post! Bruce knows just what he's talking about when he describes this as a "Fernando Lamas sermon."]

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