Sermon 11-06-16: “Generosity, Part 4: Generosity and Ministry”

November 10, 2016

generosity-sermon-series-graphic

A few years ago, the newly crowned World Series MVP, Ben Zobrist, said that if you spend your life chasing championships, “there will always be a next thing.” In other words, we will never be satisfied. In today’s scripture, by contrast, Jesus challenges three would-be disciples to be satisfied… in him alone. And so he challenges us. Is Christ enough for us? Or do we want or need something else?

Sermon Text: Luke 9:49-10:2

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Well, he was only off by one year—I’m referring to the screenwriter of Back to the Future II. As you may have heard, he nearly predicted the World Series victory of the Chicago Cubs. The movie, if you recall, showed it happening in 2015 instead of 2016, but still… Pretty close. Of course, it makes me feel old either way. Because I saw Back to the Future II in the theater when it came out, and like everyone else of my generation, 2015 seemed like a long, long way off! Where did the time go?

But great win for the Cubs. Great win for World Series Most Valuable Player Ben Zobrist, whose one-out, opposite-field double down the third base line in the tenth inning helped put the Cubs ahead for good.

Ben Zobrist, 2016 World Series MVP

Ben Zobrist, 2016 World Series MVP

Aside from being an outstanding utility infielder who’s now won not one but two world championships, Zobrist is also an outspoken Christian. In 2013, he gave his testimony at Lipscomb University. He said that up until he got to the Major Leagues, his life was “all about sports. Even though he was a Christian, baseball was number one in his life, not Christ. “The bottom line,” he said, “was I needed to repent of this great need that I had to achieve and succeed at this earthly level.” Because, he said, if your goal is winning championships, “there’s always going to be a next thing. I don’t want to be like that. I want to rest and be at peace. That peace only comes from Christ.”

Did you hear that? Apart from Christ, we will always have a next thing—something else, out there—some new goal, some new award, some new achievement, some new recognition, some new relationship—that keeps us striving, keeps us worrying, keeps us restless, keeps us doubting ourselves… unless or until we attain that thing that our heart desires. At which point, we’ll find it’s not enough. We’ll find that there’s still something else that we need. “We will always have a next thing,” Ben Zobrist said. And he’s exactly right.

And yet… even as I hear him say those words, there is some small but persistent voice from the darkest recesses of my heart, which I can’t quiet down, and I can’t tune out. And it’s a voice that’s saying, “I’d gladly switch places with him!”

Don’t get me wrong: I want my family just the way it is… I want Jesus just the way I have him… But I want a world championship ring, too. I want an MVP award that says that for this period of time at least, I competed against the very best that the world had to offer, and I won! And no one can take that away from me. And I wouldn’t mind having the $56 million that Zobrist has as part of his latest contract—not because I need the money, but just because it would be another measure of how valuable I am! If only I had these things, I could say, “See! I’m worth this much. I have this ring to prove it. I have this award to prove it. I have this money to prove it.”

But who am I kidding? Even if I got all these things, it wouldn’t be enough to satisfy me. Like Ben Zobrist said, there would always be a “next thing.”

Yet Jesus is telling me and you in today’s scripture, “If only you’ll let me be your next thing, I will also be your last thing. If you’ll surrender your life to me, you won’t want or need anything else. It’s not that nothing else will matter in life; it’s just that everything else will be relatively far less important than loving and serving and glorifying me.”

What does Paul say in Philippians 3? “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”[1]

We need to hear this message today. Because right now some of us, brothers and sisters, are losing our minds on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram… in relation to this election. Honestly!

If only we Christians had as much faith in Jesus Christ as we seem to have in whichever presidential candidate we happen to be supporting! If only we Christians were as passionately committed to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others as we are to sharing our political opinions! If only we Christians were as committed to telling our friends, neighbors, and relatives the truth about sin and hell as we are to telling them the truth about the sins of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and how he or she will lead our nation to hell!

My point is this: nothing that happens in the United States of America this Tuesday will be nearly as important was what’s happening in God’s kingdom right now! If Hillary Clinton is elected president on Tuesday, Jesus Christ will still be our king, sitting on his throne at the right hand of our Father in heaven! If Donald Trump is elected president on Tuesday, Jesus Christ will still be our king, sitting on his throne at the right hand of our Father in heaven!

“I count everything as loss”—including my allegiance to a political party, or a politician, or even a country—“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

And this is the point Jesus is trying to get across to these three would-be disciples in verses 57 to 62: Are you willing to count everything else as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing me as your Lord and Savior? Are you willing to sacrifice every other treasure you can think of in life for the sake of the treasure that you find in me? Are you willing to make me and the things of God’s kingdom your top priority in life—so much so that there’s not even a distant second?”

The first would-be disciple, in verse 57, says the right words: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Sounds good! But we can tell by Jesus’ response that he doesn’t believe him. Because he says to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” What does that mean? It means that Jesus can see into the man’s heart, and he knows that this man isn’t willing to live without what? Comfort… security… wealth… possessions? Probably. Reminds me of the episode involving the Rich Young Ruler. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. And Jesus tells him he has to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. And the man walks away. Why? Because the treasure he had on earth was worth more to him than the treasure in heaven that Jesus was offering him.

And notice what happened just before this incident, in verses 51 to 56. The Son of Man didn’t have a place to lay his head literally because the people in that Samaritan village had refused him and his disciples hospitality. They wouldn’t let Jesus “lay his head” on any pillow in any bed in their town. So maybe Jesus knew that this man wouldn’t be willing to follow Jesus if it meant being rejected by others—sacrificing his good reputation or his popularity for the sake of following Jesus.

The next two would-be disciples, in verses 59 and 61, also say they want to follow Jesus but in each case they have to take care of their family first. “I want to follow you, Lord, but first let me go and bury my father.” “I want to follow you, Lord, but first let me go home and say goodbye to everyone.”

Notice in verses 59 and 61 the word “first.” Each would-be disciple is saying, in so many words, “I want to follow you, Lord, but first…” And Jesus is telling both of them, “There is no ‘but first’ when it comes to following me. I’m first. Either I’m first in your life, or I can’t be your Savior and Lord. Because make no mistake: I won’t be second or third or fourth!”

What about us? Are there ways in which we’ve been saying “but first” to Jesus? “Lord, I want to be faithful to you when it comes to my wallet or purse or bank account. Every stewardship season I know I should be tithing—and every year I feel guilty about not doing it. So this year I want to do it. But first I have to pay off these student loans, or buy that new car, or get the kids through school. If I were going to be as generous as you want me to be, I’d have to learn to live with less stuff. And I want to do that, Lord. But first…”

When we follow Jesus, there is no “but first.” Jesus is first. There’s a song by the late, great Keith Green, a pioneering Christian singer-songwriter from the ’70s. It’s called “Pledge My Head to Heaven.” And he talks about the temptation to value other people and other things more than he values Christ. In one verse, he sings,

I pledge my wife to heaven for the gospel,

Though our love each passing day just seems to grow.

As I told her when we wed, I’d surely rather be found dead,

Than to love her more than the one who saved my soul.

How romantic, huh? “Honey, I love you so much, but I’d rather God strike me down right now than to love you more than I love Jesus Christ!”

That sentiment may not make it on a Valentine’s card from Hallmark anytime soon, but it’s still true!

And getting back to Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs… Would the Ben Zobrist who just won MVP of the World Series still agree with the Ben Zobrist who gave that testimony in 2013 when he said, in effect, that championship rings and MVP awards and multimillion dollar contracts are nothing compared to knowing Jesus Christ? I hope so! If Jesus came to Zobrist before the World Series this year and said, “You can have me or you can have this ring and this award and this money… But not both. Which will it be?” How would Zobrist have responded? I hope—and I have no reason to doubt—that Zobrist would say, “I’ll take you, Jesus.”

But how would I respond if I were faced with an equivalent choice? How would you respond?

And let’s notice something else from today’s scripture…

Our Lord doesn’t expect us to become faithful, committed followers of his at some point in the distant future—as part of some long, slow process of spiritual growth over time. That’s what we tell ourselves. We like to cut ourselves a lot of slack. “It’s O.K.,” we tell ourselves, “that we don’t always or often put Jesus first in our lives. After all, we still have a lot of growing to do as disciples. So sure, we may not be faithful now, but we will be… eventually.”

But just because we cut ourselves a lot of slack doesn’t mean that Jesus does!

Jesus expects us to be faithful, committed disciples right away—from the start. Right now! How else do you explain his words to these three would-be disciples? After all, these people are just beginning their journey of Christian faith… They haven’t even taken baby steps yet as disciples. But they want to! Yet notice what Jesus says to them: “If you’re not willing to obey me right now; if you’re not willing to change your lifestyle and change your values right now; if you’re not willing to make these costly sacrifices right now simply because I’m the Lord and I’m telling you to do so, then don’t bother being my disciple at all!”

Harsh words, I know! But isn’t that what Jesus is saying?

And we may say, “Yes, but Jesus’ own disciples were far from perfect. We see them sin again and again.” And that’s true! Yet when Jesus first called them and said, “Follow me,” what did they do? They left their fishing nets and their fishing boats right away; they left their tax booths right away; they left their places of employment right away; they left their homes, and their families, and their friends right away; they left the comfort, security, and safety of home right away; and they stuck their necks out and risked their lives right away—all for the sake of their call to be followers of Jesus Christ!

And I’m not suggesting that Jesus is asking most of us modern-day disciples to sacrifice nearly as much when we answer Christ’s call. After all, he probably isn’t calling us to sacrifice our homes for him; or to sacrifice our families for him; or to sacrifice our safety for him; or to sacrifice our careers for him. Jesus probably isn’t calling us to sacrifice 100 percent of our wealth as in the case of the Rich Young Ruler—or even 50 percent, as in the case of Zacchaeus the tax collector.

Objectively speaking, you might even say that Jesus is asking us to sacrifice a lot less than he asked these original disciples or would-be disciples in the New Testament.

And yet… What does it say about us that we are so often unwilling to sacrifice even what he does ask?

For example, do we even sacrifice a tithe—ten percent of our income? No. Most of us don’t do that. Do we even sacrifice our desire to have sex outside of the bonds of marriage? The vast majority of couples whose weddings I’ve officiated over the years have lived together before marriage—and these were mostly good Methodists, so… no, most of us don’t do that. Do we even sacrifice sleeping in on Sunday so that we can worship with our brothers and sisters at church? Given that most churches’ membership rolls are much larger than their average attendance, well, we know the answer to that. Do we sacrifice that strong desire we have to gossip about one another, to judge one another, to put one another down?

I could go on…

My point, brothers and sisters, is that we can no longer be O.K. with our stubborn unwillingness to sacrifice what Jesus asks us to sacrifice! Not if we claim to be his followers.

Brothers and sisters, it’s time to repent!

As always, I’m not denying for a moment that God’s grace abounds! I’m not denying that we are, at Hampton UMC, as the tag line used to say, a “place of grace”! Absolutely we are a place of grace!

But we can’t just jump immediately to grace without first acknowledging why we need it in the first place! If we want grace, we have to confess our sins and repent!

In verses 51 to 56, when Jesus and the disciples were passing through a Samaritan village on their way to Jerusalem, the Samaritans reject them. They don’t want them staying in their town. And James and John have a brilliant idea: “Lord, do you want to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” This is not without precedent. There’s a story in 2 Kings where King Ahaziah sends some soldiers to arrest the prophet Elijah. Elijah is sitting on a hill, and the commanding officer says, O man of God, the king says to come down.” And Elijah says, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your men.” And that’s exactly what happens.

So James and John know that Jesus is much greater than Elijah. So why not have the fire of God’s judgment fall on these people who reject Jesus?

So we hear this story and we’re tempted to feel morally superior to James and John: after all, we would never want the fire of God’s judgment to come down and consume people who reject Jesus Christ.

But are we so sure? Because unless we as a church and as individuals make sharing the gospel with lost people our highest priority, what are we really saying? Aren’t we saying, through our benign neglect or indifference, that we’re O.K. with people facing the fire of God’s judgment—if not now then later, at least…

1. Philippians 3:8 ESV

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