Religious Couch Potatoes?
Our story from the Gospel of Matthew 21:28-32 is a simple one. Jesus says there was a father who had two sons. The father asked them to go out and work in the field. One of the sons impudently answers, "No! I won’t go!"
A little later, the father looks up from what he is doing and there is that same son working out in the field.
His other son, when asked to work politely said, "Father, nothing would please me more than to go out and work in the field for you." Two hours later, the polite docile, obedient son is still lying on the sofa watching TV.
Now think hard, says Jesus, which son do you think pleased the father more? The one who said no, but then went into action or the one who politely said yes but then did nothing?
You would agree with me that there are some things in life that you can’t really get to know unless you do them. You can’t learn how to dance, just by listening to a good speaker on the subject of "How to do the foxtrot", even if it is a very good talk on what steps to take and when to grasp you partner’s hand or waist. That’s all fine to know the theory but if you really want to know how to do the Foxtrot then you have to get up and do the dance, perform the moves, and let the rhythm of the music take over.
As a student one of the pieces of literature I studied was William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. I read the words in the book, but the words were difficult to understand. Through simply reading the book I was not encountering the real King Lear, the pain and anguish that the aging king felt as he realised that his two older daughters were plotting against him, the pain of discovering that the youngest daughter, Cordelia, whom he had banished for her honesty was the only one who truly loved him, his grief over her execution, his insanity and heart-brokenness that finally led to his own death.
It’s a powerful Shakespearean tragedy, but the power of the play didn’t really hit me until I saw it performed on stage. You see, Shakespeare didn’t write King Lear for it to be read. It’s a play. The words are meant to be acted, performed. When those words came alive in the performance and the actors filled them with the feeling and emotion that they play demanded, only then the full impact of the play hit home.
At theological college I learned all kinds of things from very learned and respected men and women. We sat around tables discussing, talking, being advised by our lecturers, and even outside of classes, we talked on into the night about deep and meaningful things. But it was only when I got out into a parish that I really learned what it means to be a priest. All those words came to life as they were performed.
The Bible is the most important book for every Christian. But the Christian faith is not just words in a book. We can hear those words day after day in our devotions, week after week in this church, but we only get to know what those words really mean when we put them into practice. You see it boils down to this. Being a Christian is not simply giving intellectual assent to the teachings of the church. It is not some sort of guiding philosophy for life to which you give your approval.
Jesus didn’t lay down a new system of beliefs and theology. Other people have written down in thick books what the Christian Church teaches and believes. Jesus didn’t write anything like this. He spoke God's message to all people but more than that he lived what he taught and preached. He not only spoke fine words about loving God and loving one another; he not only taught about forgiving, and caring for one another, or how to pray - he actually lived those words as he travelled from town to town healing, encouraging, forgiving. The teachings of Jesus came to life as he carried out his daily ministry to others, as he gave his life out of love, as he rose again victorious from the grave. Jesus didn’t ask us simply to agree with him but to follow him. He says to us, "I have given you the example. You should do for each other exactly what I have done for you. You have seen how I have not only spoken God's Word but also done the will of my Father. Go and do the same so that others may know that you are my followers."
That’s where the rubber hits the road. It is the doing that really matters. The Christian faith is only known in its performance.
As a preacher, I am in the business of words. I write words, as I did for this blog post. I speak words. I think words. But as a preacher I am also aware, painfully aware, all the things that words cannot do.
A pastor asked a group of parishioners what they thought made up a good sermon. One member said, "I want a sermon which helps me to think about things in a new way."
That sounded pretty good and so he began to mould his sermons in such a way that they challenged people to think about things in a new way. But after a while he began to reassess that comment. He said: "We love to think about things? We love to turn them over in our minds, then go home and have a good lunch? We think, or feel, but never act. A good sermon ought to help my listeners to act on things in a new way."
As a preacher, my task is to be interesting, informative, engaging, illustrative, and even humorous. (I hope that my sermons are some of those things some of the time.) But none of those characteristics, are important as the ultimate test of Christian preaching. The words spoken at church in worship need to be transformed into doing. Under the power of the Holy Spirit you, the hearer, receive those words as a message from God himself. But that’s not the end of the sermon yet. It is then that you act on what you have heard. Hearers must become doers. The faith in the church must be performed in the world. That is the final test of our worship and the hearing of my preaching.
A devotion book may be interesting with lots of stories and illustrations. The author may be very good with words and explain the Bible passage in an informative and entertaining way. But the final test of all those words and the brilliance of the author is whether those words are performed in the daily lives of the reader.
And that is where the difficulty rests. We are so much like that second son in Jesus’ parable. We are polite, obliging and co-operative. We hear the words and say: "Yes, Lord, I would be so pleased to do as you ask", but as you would have it, we do little or nothing about it.
I wonder how many times we have heard the text from Philippians 2:3. Too many to count I dare say. We hear it, we give our approval, but we go home and forget that we ever heard it.
Paul said, "Always consider the other person to be better than yourself so that nobody thinks of their own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people’s interest instead. In your minds you must be the same as Jesus..." Do you see what Paul is driving at? He wants his readers, and that includes us, to see that belonging to Jesus is not just a matter of agreeing with what Paul is saying but that faith is a busy active doing thing. Be like Christ - forgiving, caring, encouraging, loving in every action.
As God’s chosen and loved people, we have been given a new life, a new confidence, a new power to live as one of God's people. Jesus changes people. He changes our values. He changes the way we regard others. He changes our attitudes.
James in his letter is very down to earth. He says, "Obey God’s messages! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear a message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirror and forget what they look like as soon as they leave.... God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget (James 1:22 -24, 25b).
And John says in his First Letter 3:18: My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in actions.
You and I know all these texts well. We know that our faith consists of more than words and agreeing with them. We know that our faith is one of getting up and doing - but we find it easier to be religious couch potatoes. Be assured God will not let us be content with a couch potato kind of Christianity.
You see our faith is not just something in here (pointing to self) – it’s out there getting very practical. Whether we are talking about caring for someone in need, showing kindness to someone who is experiencing one of life's tragedies, supporting someone who needs encouragement or simply giving a friendly word, being a light that shines in the dark confusion of moral values, deciding to really make an effort not just to say it’s good to read the Bible and pray, but to actually set time aside and do it.
Over the years people have said to me, "You stop your sermons too soon. We want you to tell us how to put our faith into practice, give us more detail, make it easier for us." That’s precisely why I sometimes stop when I do in a sermon. You have received the message from God and now it’s up to you to turn the hearing into action. Wrestle with how to do it, argue with God about it, weep over it, be challenged by it, repent, and change or whatever it is that God is saying to you. And if you still don’t know what to do listen to God again (maybe you didn’t get all of his message the first time), ask others and especially pray about it.
A preacher tells how he decided to preach on the story about the rich young man who wanted to know what he had to do to get eternal life. Because Jesus told him to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor, the young man went away very depressed. The preacher simply walked the congregation through the story and ended it just as the gospel writer did.
Next Sunday over morning tea a balding man asked the preacher what had happened to the sermon last Sunday – did he forget to bring the last page of his sermon notes? A middle aged woman commented that the sermon dribbled off to nothing.
It was becoming obvious to the preacher that Jesus’ style of telling stories doesn’t work for modern hearers. Jesus often stopped a story short and didn’t offer all kinds of applications and interpretations. (Take the story of the Prodigal Son as an example – the last words of the older son are filled with bitterness and resentment – where is the happy ending and "they lived happily ever after".
It’s like a film that suddenly stops, and you aren’t told the ending. You are left to work that out for yourself. I don’t know how you react to that, but I find that annoying, but that’s the way Jesus often preached.
Anyway, this preacher had about enough criticism when a young man came to him and started, "About that sermon".
"Look," the preacher began. I know what you are going to say and I’m sorry."
The young man said quietly, "I just went home and wept".
"Wept?" I asked.
"Yeah, I just lay on my bed, looking up at the ceiling. I kept saying over and over again, ‘Jesus what do you want me to do?’
The preacher replied, "Would you mind going over to that balding man over there and to that middle aged woman and explain to them how you understood last week’s sermon. You response is the one Jesus was looking for when he told parables and did miracles. He wanted people to ask themselves that same question."
May God grant us his Holy Spirit that we may not only hear God’s Word but after the hearing ask, "Jesus, what is it that you want me to do?"
God on Mute – Pete Greig
Mere Christianity – C. S. Lewis
Vince Gerhardy Blog
God of All things – Andrew Wilson
Journey into God’s Hearts - Jennifer Rees Larcombe
God has a Plan for your Life – Charles F. Stanley